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An Alternate History of Horror V: Pulp Fiction

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

By Ryan Fleming

Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (March 1942, vol. 36, no. 4) featuring Hell on Earth by Robert Bloch and Herbert West: Reanimator by H. P. Lovecraft. Cover art by Hannes Bok.

In our look at Victorian vampires in an earlier article of this series, we discussed the penny dreadfuls. Those cheap, mass-produced periodicals targeted a working-class audience in the United Kingdom, spurred by an increase in literacy along with industrialisation. Their subject matter was more often than not sensational including crime and the supernatural. Their low cost, target audience, and subject matter gave rise to the pejorative name. The penny dreadfuls themselves were seen as a phenomenon of the mid-1800s United Kingdom, but the form continued during later eras and in other industrialised societies.

The first equivalent of the penny dreadfuls to emerge across the Atlantic in the United States were the dime novels. The relatively low cost, rapid publication schedule and lurid subject matter were all similar to their British cousins. However, they were also distinctly American in their subject matter with many being frontier tales. As their popularity increased the number of reprints in the dime novel strands went down and original stories increased. The first of them were published in 1860, and by the end of the American Civil War numerous companies were competing for the same marketplace. Their popularity did not decrease until the emergence of the American form of such literature most associated with horror.

The penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap wood pulp paper. This printing method would be duplicate by their successors across the Atlantic Ocean, it even gave them their name: pulp magazines. These stories within those magazines were similarly called pulp fiction, and their influence can still be seen in much of popular culture today from independent publishers to the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.

As far as horror is concerned, the American horror short story did not start with pulp fiction but continued a tradition that went back decades. One of the earliest practitioners of the short story in the United States can lay equal claim of influence on horror, science fiction, and especially detective fiction.

That the pulp magazines existed in the form they did owes a lot to the development of the short story during the 19th century. Demand for these shorter pieces rose hand-in-hand with the growth in print magazines. As to the development of the form in the United States, from the onset it became a vehicle for what we now call horror fiction.

Amongst the stories of Washington Irving, one of the earliest American short story writers, is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Though not on the level of vampires or werewolves, the Headless Horseman that torments schoolmaster Ichabod Crane has itself become an iconic horror stock character. Another early practitioner who did not shy away from Gothic fiction was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though not remembered as such his 1837 collection Twice-Told Tales has in its bindings several tales that can be described as horror. However, these, as with much of Hawthorne’s work, are presented mostly in an allegorical fashion. For instance, “The Minister’s Black Veil” has all the usual trappings of a stereotypical horror story in setup, but the point is not what lies behind the titular covering. More fantastical is “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, which involves a demonstration of the restorative properties of water from the Fountain of Youth. Like many later tales of both horror and science fiction, the promise of maybe eternal life is one that brings out the worst in people. One contemporary reviewer, whilst critical of Hawthorne’s reliance on allegory, enjoyed the short story format and its ability to hold his attention. Said reviewer being a practitioner of the format himself.

Although known better for his literary criticism than his own works during his lifetime, today Edgar Allan Poe is recognised for the lasting influence of those works. A common fear during Poe’s lifetime was that of being buried alive. So great was the hysteria that some coffins were even fitted with alarms for the exaggeratedly deceased to call for help. Premature burial abounds in Poe’s works including, appropriately enough, in “The Premature Burial” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Poe also took advantage of historical settings in countries other than his own. The Spanish Inquisition made for the backdrop of “The Pit and the Pendulum”, which emphasised the realism of its scenario as the major inspiration of fear in the reader. The ravaging of medieval Italy by a disease provides the setting of “The Masque of the Red Death”, though the eventual horror is a supernatural one. Italy also provided the setting for “The Cask of Amontillado”, which also combined the fear of living burial and the realism of its plot to inspire fear. “Amontillado” lets a murder play out before the reader, where as “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” both feature murders as their main characters tormented by guilt. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” deals with the aftermath of a murder and the investigation into it, becoming in the process the first modern detective story. Complete with its own brilliant detective, and direct inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin.

A later American author that, like Poe, wrote a little bit of everything as well as sharing military service and a mysterious death, was Ambrose Bierce. Amongst the tropes that Ambrose begat was the twist ending, which was common in his works even those that are not considered horror in the modern day such as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Responding to accusations of plagiarism over a similar invisible monster in his short “The Damned Thing” and the earlier “What Was It?” by Fitz James O’Brien, Bierce fiercely explained that the latter was explicitly a supernatural creature whereas he gave a scientific explanation. Arguably, this might make Bierce on of the earliest people to get heated when people confuse horror and science fiction. Bierce proved influential even within his own heyday, as Robert W. Chambers would borrow names from Bierce’s works such as “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in his 1895 horror collection The King in Yellow. Much of Bierce’s work was influence by his service in the American Civil War, and his war stories would prove just as influential to later writers as his horror and science fiction. Even already having such literary influence, Bierce is just as well remembered as a journalist and a satirist.

This was the tradition in horror, science fiction and mystery short stories into which the pulps appeared. One writer of horror and science fiction that would become synonymous with pulp magazines would cite all of Bierce, Hawthorne, and Poe as influences. His works would introduce a style of horror fiction so new it would become his namesake.

In the two centuries since Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori and the Shelley’s had their story writing contest at the Villa Diodati horror fiction has diverged and been enriched many times by the development of many subgenres. The names for these subgenres are normally drawn from a particular aspect of the subject matter, tone, or cultural origin for the work. Only one bares as its common name an eponym from its originator. From the themes of cosmic dread, dangerous knowledge, scientific risk, alien influences on humanity, religion, superstition, and madness that abound in his works, H. P. Lovecraft lends his name to Lovecraftian horror.

Lucius B. Truesdell's photo of H.P. lovecraft

Howard Philips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island to an affluent family whose wealth dwindled following the death of his grandfather. His entry into writing for pulp magazines was an atypical one. A series of critical letters to the editors led to a long running feud in the Argosy letters section between he and Fred Jackson. It eventually led to an invitation for Lovecraft and at least one of his opponents to join the United Amateur Press Association. These early letters gave little indication of what would come from Lovecraft in terms of fiction but do contain references to his white supremacist views that went largely unremarked upon by contemporaries.

In the horror fiction that followed, Lovecraft sought a new path different from what was already being done in gothic and supernatural fiction. A variation on nihilism, later called cosmicism, posited that the world humans live in is merely a façade and the wider universe so alien in conception that even thinking about it could drive a human to madness. These elements beyond human conception are merely indifferent to our existence and the realisation of how infinitesimal the entirety of all human civilisation and existence in the grand scheme of things is what drives the horror of the bulk of Lovecraft’s work and the Cthulhu Mythos in particular.

Shared fictional universes were not exactly new when August Derleth coined the term Cthulhu Mythos to refer to the shared settings and lore found in Lovecraft’s work. You can go back all the way to the earliest mythologies for that. Even in the literary world you had Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex appearing in the 19th century. In fact, Lovecraft’s Mythos was never formalised during his lifetime at all, though he did share the many elements with contemporary pulp writers. It would not be until after Lovecraft’s death that one of his proteges, the aforementioned Derleth, would attempt to apply reason to the universe already created.

Given the nature of horror in Lovecraft’s work, the application of reason to that fictional universe may have been missing the point.

Due to the less than clear copyright pertaining to stories published in pulp magazines, much of Lovecraft’s work found itself in the public domain very quickly. That meant many authors even outside of Lovecraft’s contemporaries could use the elements of the Mythos. This has stretched from the likes of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman using it in their short stories – from the latter an alternate history crossover with Sherlock Holmes – to the Virgin Publishing lines of Doctor Who spin-off novels tying the deities of the Mythos into alien entities featured in the British science fiction series – along the way also crossing over with Sherlock Holmes. On film directors such as Roger Corman, Martin Campbell, John Carpenter, and Stuart Gordon have either adapted or used elements of the mythos in their films. Even children’s animated television series such as The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, The Real Ghostbusters and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated have either featured Cthulhu himself or characters based off the Mythos. Then there was the time Cthulhu appeared in an adult animated series to meet an entity more evil than himself, South Park’s Eric Cartman.

Where Lovecraft’s fictional universe has a surprising amount in common with those previously mentioned from Hardy and Trollope is their usage of a fictitious geography of a real part of the world to set many of their stories. The two Victorian English authors used fictitious counties found in that country, the American Lovecraft instead set many of his stories in a fictional county New England county. Despite himself being from Providence, Rhode Island it would be Massachusetts where Lovecraft would set many of his fictitious towns. In a letter to Texan Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft identified New England with a certain morbid streak associated with its Puritan founding that made it a perfect setting for his weird fiction.

The names of some of these fictitious towns with Lovecraft Country, such as Arkham, Dunwich and Innsmouth have themselves become very recognisable names in horror fiction and beyond. Today the name of Arkham is probably more associated with the fictional psychiatric hospital and prison of DC’s Gotham City than with Lovecraft’s work. A later New England author of horror fiction would take inspiration of Lovecraft’s fictional trio of Massachusetts town for a similar topography in his own native Maine. Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Derry and Jerusalem’s Lot owe a lot to both Lovecraft’s fictional towns as well as the ideas of shared universes. You are far more likely to see the same townsfolk appear in multiple works from King than you are Lovecraft.

The works of H. P. Lovecraft hang heavy over horror fiction from his lifetime onward across literature, film and television, radio, and even tabletop and video games. However, his was not the only output to appear frequently on the pages of pulp magazines, very far from it. In fact, modern audiences may actually be more familiar with the works of many of his contemporaries than from Lovecraft himself. And not necessarily in the horror genre.

Many authors wrote for pulp magazines during their heyday. Though some magazines did eventually specialise in fantasy, horror, or science fiction it was originally common for these to appear alongside each other in the same publication. One example was the magazine Weird Tales, which continued that policy under editor Farnsworth Wright even after genre specialised magazines became a normal occurrence. In addition to Lovecraft, prominent authors on the pages of Weird Tales included Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Though each of them would write tales featuring Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos they would also write their own impactful tales.

Robert E. Howard in 1934

There are parallels to be drawn in the lives of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Ervin Howard. Their being born into relative prosperity that dissipated during their formative years along with their relatively young deaths. However, where as Lovecraft is a name solely linked with horror, Howard’s name is instead linked with the fantasy genre. Specifically, as the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre, again much like Lovecraft pioneered his own brand of horror different to what had come before and exemplified by his most famous creation: Conan the Barbarian. The film adaptation of that character by John Milius in 1981 helped launch the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action star. In addition, for two decades it set the standard for fantasy adventure films and ushered in a number of immediate imitators.

Howard and Lovecraft were frequent correspondents, with their letters back-and-forth sometimes topping out at twelve pages. Howard did make contributions to the growing litany of Cthulhu Mythos stories during Lovecraft’s lifetime. He also wrote horror works outside of the Lovecraft style. Much as Lovecraft drew upon his New England upbringing so too did Howard draw upon the landscape of history of Texas, the vast state being both the South and the West. This included one of the earliest instances of what is now called Weird West in the shape of “The Horror from the Mound”; along with Southern Gothic horror tales like “Pigeons from Hell”. Howard wrote in stories in most genres, from fantasy and horror to westerns to comedies to adventure to boxing fiction, all of which could be found on the pages of pulp magazines. Sometimes in the same issue.

Clark Ashton Smith has been identified as one of the big three writers of Weird Tales, alongside Howard and Lovecraft. Of the three, the horror elements of his work were perhaps the closest to what Poe had pioneered a century before. Like the other two parts of the Weird Tales triumvirate, many of his works used fictional settings. Smith’s settings were closer to Howard’s in being speculative historic or future lands as opposed to fictitious representations of real, modern locations like Lovecraft’s New England. With the exception of Averoigne, a fictional historical province of France of Smith’s creation. Zothique, on the other hand, was a hypothetical future continent made up of a jigsaw of existing landmasses. Then there was Poseidonis, borrowed from Algernon Blackwood, the last remnant of Atlantis left on above the waves.

Notable amongst Smith’s fictional settings for story content is Hyperborea. Like some of his other settings a speculative continent, unlike Zothique a historic setting, in the Arctic. What is notable is the Iron Age setting that plays host to the sort of cosmic horror stories as pioneered by Lovecraft. In that respect, it is almost akin to Lovecraft’s Mythos played out in Howard’s Hyborian Age. Though not as directly influential as Lovecraft or Howard, Smith still proved an influence on future writers in genre fiction such as Ray Bradbury.

By the late 1930s the triumvirate of Weird Tales had come to an end. Howard took his own life in 1936 upon learning his mother had fallen into a coma from which she would never wake; Lovecraft died of cancer in 1937, and Smith had lost both parents in 1935 and 1937, respectively. The loss of his friends and family in such a short space of time led to his withdrawal from writing regularly due to exhaustion. Despite their frequent correspondence and status, none of the three men ever met in person. Only one man, E. Hoffman Price, a fellow writer of weird fiction, is known to have met all three of them in the flesh.

Weird Tales would continue on until 1954 when it ceased publication. Despite the loss of some of their biggest names there was still plenty of continuity between the eras. Amongst the names that kept the fires burning was Robert Bloch. Another protégé of Lovecraft, Bloch would eventually make a name for himself in a far more mundane version of horror fiction. Inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, Bloch in 1959 would write the novel Psycho, which in 1960 would be adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in his seminal and influential film of the same name. Real life crimes proved just as influential on Bloch, so much so that an essay of his on Gein would be included in a retrospective of true crime, published in 1962 before such a label even existed.

More commonly than Ed Gein, Bloch would frequently make use of Jack the Ripper in his fiction. The earliest such work was “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” where, despite the plotline of the murders being human sacrifices used to grant the killer immortality, he drew upon much of the real details of the case in a way that had not been done before. Bloch could not even write for an unrelated, non-horror television program without including Jack the Ripper. One his contributions to the second season of Star Trek, “Wolf in the Fold” cast the Victorian killer as an alien entity just as dangerous in the 22nd century as the 19th.

Those are some of the authors whose names appeared in the pages of Weird Tales during his three-decade history and have proved influential in the horror genre. Given the open nature of the borders of genres during the period, horror fiction today is not the only genre to trace influence back to the pulp magazines. In fact, there are genres whose current proliferation can be traced directly back to those magazines.

The American pulp magazines that first appeared in the late 19th century and were published until the 1950s touched upon many genres. There was no concept that someone who wanted to read horror might not want to read science fiction; or that someone who read science fiction might not want to read fantasy. Even if you were drawn to one more than other chances were all you had to do would be to turn to the next story to find something you did like. As more specialised publications began appearing, so too did influences diverge and new subgenres begin to take form.

Though Robert E. Howard is regarded as the father of sword and sorcery, the term itself actually only appeared a quarter century after his death. In the richest tradition of pulp magazines, it was first coined in the letters page of a magazine, by Fritz Leiber in response to British author Michael Moorcock who wanted a term to distinguish the particular Howard style of fantasy fiction. Moorcock himself proposed epic fantasy, though how this would easily distinguish Howard’s works from, for instance, those of J. R. R. Tolkien is unclear. The term was also retroactively applied to works that first appeared in pulp magazines from Clark Ashton Smith (including his Hyperborean and Zothique set works) and C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, a very early female heroine of the genre who first appeared in 1934.

Sword and sorcery has in turn generated the term sword and planet to refer to a fantasy rousing adventure that takes place on another planet as opposed to an imagined time of our own. That term too has seen retroactive application, to another pulp magazine piece – Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars. This again speaks to how much the genres would be intermingled on the pages of those magazines. Here is a work set on the planet Mars, which to a modern reader would automatically classify as science fiction. However, its themes of rousing adventure, swashbuckling and rescuing the fair princess seem more at home in fantasy. In a fantastic example of history rhyming, Burroughs’s Barsoom (his name for Mars) tales would prove influential in a particular strand of science fiction.

The hero Anthony Rogers first appeared in a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. The novella in question, Armageddon 2419 A.D. drew upon the invasion literature of the late Victorian United Kingdom to imagine a future where the European Empires joined forces against the United States, in turn creating a devastation into which the Soviet Union would invade both powers. When a newspaper syndication service picked up the tale for adaptation they changed a lot, emphasizing adventure and romance over military tactics, and also changing the characters forename form Anthony to Buck. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. comic strip became massively popularly and by 1934 was appearing in almost 300 newspapers nationally.

That same year, a competing newspaper syndicate wished for their own similar character to beat Rogers at his own game. They tried to licence John Carter, hero of Burrough’s Barsoom, but were unable to reach an agreement with the author. When this fell through, the syndicate turned to one of their artists to create their own equivalent hero. The result was Flash Gordon, who in some ways would prove even more influential than Buck Rogers. Amongst those that fell in love with the Flash Gordon comic strip and its film serial adaptations was a young boy in California. After growing up into a career as a filmmaker and coming off a successful teen comedy, he wanted his next project to be an adaptation of Flash Gordon. Like the newspaper syndicate forty years earlier, George Lucas was unable to secure the rights to the character, so created his own work instead: Star Wars.

At the same time as Flash Gordon began battling for newspaper readers attention with Buck Rogers, the producers of comic strips began reprinting their works in self contained periodicals not unlike the pulp magazines. These became known as comic books. Heroic characters were common on the pages of pulp magazines. In addition to Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, there was also the masked adventurer Zorro, the vigilantes the Shadow and the Spider, and the square-jawed supremely competent Doc Savage. Many of these characters crossed over into the comic strips of the day, alongside the likes of Burroughs’s Tarzan, and it was only a matter of time before they began being collected into their own periodicals.

By 1938, comic books were their own thing as much as pulp magazines and comic strips were, and like those other two formats there was a crossover of story elements. It should be unsurprising they started to create their own characters. The first of whom was Superman, and his costume was influenced by Flash Gordon’s original attire from 1934. Batman followed the next year, sharing many elements with Zorro as well as the Shadow. A direct line can be drawn from the pulp magazines to comic strips to comic books to the modern superhero movie. Many of the elements like shared universes that would become staples of the superhero comics also have their immediate antecedents in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Howard’s Hyborian Age.

The pulp magazine influence goes much further than just horror fiction, it also heavily influences fantasy, science fiction and, perhaps most of all, superhero fiction. Horror would have its place in comic book fiction too, despite the best efforts of some companies to kill it, but that is a tale for another day.

At a time of atomisation of pop culture and the borders between genres and even subgenres becoming impenetrable even at their most grassroots level it is interesting to consider a time when there were a plethora of publications having mass readership and touching upon as wide a variety of content as possible. Industries and societies have moved on a great deal since the heyday of those magazines, in ways that are unequivocally good but would have many of their major contributors aghast with their prejudices.

Take for example rabid white supremacist H. P. Lovecraft, whose name recently was invoked in the title of the HBO series Lovecraft Country. The series, developed by African American Misha Green, concerns a young Black man travelling the segregated United States during the 1950s but evokes many of the same themes as Lovecraft.

The influence of the pulp magazines can be seen in almost every aspect of genre fiction. From the multi-million-dollar superhero films that dominate cinemas, to prestige television like Lovecraft Country, to crowdfunded literary anthologies specialising in niche genres mashups such as combining the Cthulhu Mythos and film noir or evoking the planetary romances of the days before our planet was confirmed to be the only one with life in our solar system.

Without the pulp magazines and their antecedents, and especially without the horror element, modern popular culture would look very, very different.


Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP


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