|Christmas in Pulp Magazine Land!
|The Dime Novels blew Christmas off. Their heirs, the pulps, largely followed suit. Although it seems
inconceivable that anyone selling to the public would want to miss the marketing gravy train that is
Christmas, the pulps quite deliberately avoided attaching to the holidays throughout their long run. The
reasons behind this are as strange as the pulps themselves.
It seems silly on the face of it. Many stores do more than
half of their business during Christmas. Books, food,
movies, clothes and games are produced specifically for
Christmas. Is there a recording artist out there that doesn’t
eventually record a Christmas album? Magazines
themselves gear up for Christmas, with many of them
featuring special buyer’s guide sections. The newspapers
get fatter and fatter at Saint Nick’s approach. Even comic
books, the linear spawn of the pulps, have been known to
get into the Christmas act. What the ho ho ho happened?
It’s a curious case of missing the train at all stations. Every
idea you are about to have is wrong, which is what makes
the story so off the wall. Christmas has been a big
marketing deal for a very long time. If anything, the rise of
Christmas as a secular event parallels nearly exactly the
rise of the pulps. Both started pumping full throttle in the
1880s. Christmas got a bit of a head start, spreading in the
United States from the 1840s on. By the turn of the
century, everyone everywhere in the USA is celebrating
Christmas more or less as we know it. This is also the time
that pulp magazines are at their zenith. And yet, when it
came to Christmas participation, they were about as
popular as a kosher butcher. That’s a heck of a trick.
Some items are probably not good as gifts. Hold that thought. There is little difference between a pulp
magazine and some things which have had no problems palming themselves off as cheap stocking
stuffers. Your average paperback novel is a pulp magazine without the pictures. A comic book is a pulp
magazine eaten by the pictures. Crossword puzzle magazines, physically identical to the vanished pulps,
are stuffed into many a sock. A big little book is a pulp magazine done in another format. The run of the
mill children’s story book is a Dime Novel, which is a pulp magazine predecessor—and somewhat the start
of our story.
Pulp magazines are descended from three different
types of periodicals: the Dime Novel, the Scandal
Tabloid and the Story Paper. These undersized tabloid
style newspapers are physically identical to each other.
The contents vary somewhat, but they are all heavily
illustrated and quite bombastic. Dime Novels are
specifically targeted at children. They contained fictional
stories about real life outlaws who rob, stab, cheat and
shoot people—in very illustrated and bombastic ways.
The Brothers Grimm have nothing on us Americans.
These Dime Novels are very popular. There is
something of a golden age in very violent, amoral kiddie
lit going on. As a concerned parent, you do not buy your
children Dime Novels for Christmas. You buy your
children books and story books to get them away from
reading things like this.
Similarly, a Scandal Tabloid is not a thing your
husband would read, much less want for
Christmas. It contains tales of lewd sex crimes
and advertisements for pictures of nude ladies.
And then there’s all that boorish sports crap in it.
No man of your husband’s station would have
this in his home. Which is why he reads it at the
tavern, or club, or barbershop. The Story Paper,
which the lady of the house might occasionally
glance at, contains highly speculative accounts
of supernatural events as well as gossip. It’s
something she might pick up if she has spare
change and then dispose of quickly, but never
Starting at the end of the Civil War, these
magazines, which no one reads, start to multiply
like bunnies. The three forms start to meld,
converge and emerge as new things.
This is Argosy, an emerging converging thing. It is strictly fiction with a lot of sensation—a Dime Novel
for adults. Since it does not purposely try to exclude children, it has a wide young audience. But it is not
literature and it does not pretend to be literature. As opposed to James Joyce, it publishes Max Brand,
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and the like.
This publishing ‘things people actually like to read’ idea really works out. On the right we see an
advanced version of the product. On the cover is an acknowledgement of Christmas taking place, but no
real attempt to attach to the theme. Argosy is still somewhat disreputable. It is also the biggest hit in
publishing. Soon it has hundreds, then thousands of competitors.
Competition means specialization. In
the pulp world this means plumbing
the depths of bad taste. You might
stuff Flynn’s Detective under a pillow
at some time, but never in someone’s
stocking. I’m not sure if this is True
Crime Mystery or very clearly marked
Fiction, but I would like to know How
Sex Horror Haunts Nation’s Capital,
strictly from a grammatical point of
view. By theme, the majority of pulp
magazines excluded themselves as
yuletide present buys.
Sometimes they are just missing a beat. The westerns seem specifically suited to a little down home
Christmas nostalgia wallowing, but none of them ever succumbed. Dime Western here doesn’t even
Only the romance genre, which had the highest frequency of publication, made it a point to
deliberately highlight the holiday season.*1 It did however call for a change in cover themes away
from the usual pre tongue hockey couple pose. Christmas is a big get engaged or break up season
and chances are if you’re grabbing for the sob stories, you ain’t so lucky. Better to show the girls
skating, or shopping or hugging stuffed animals… or just put them in sweaters. No reason to rub it in.