As I’ve already established in the first two installments of “Famous Monsters & Me” (posted last year on May 17 and December 11), at an early age I developed an intense love of science fiction and horror in all its forms — films, books, magazines, comics, and television. I grew up on a farm two miles west of Nemaha, Iowa, where I attended grammar school and junior high. Nemaha was a very small town then (around 170 or so in the 1950s), and even smaller now (85 per the 2010 census). Oddly enough, or maybe not, this was where I had my first real exposure to science fiction pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s.
I can’t remember the exact year of this momentous encounter, though I’m guessing sometime from 1956 to 1958. I’d biked into town from the farm on a hot, sunny day, so it was either summer or a Saturday, or both. I met up with a friend of mine, Mike Breon, who was a year behind me in school. I’m not sure how we knew this, but we’d heard that Gene Mack, who ran the tavern in Nemaha back when it had one, had a collection of old science-fiction magazines, and we wanted to see them.
In a town that size, everybody pretty much knows everybody. I remember Gene as a really good guy, very friendly and easy going. A lot of people called him Lefty Mack, probably because he’d been a good baseball pitcher for the Storm Lake Whitecaps, a semi-pro team, when he was younger. Like my dad and most of my classmates’ fathers, Gene was a World War II veteran. I knew him as a big man who shuffled when he walked and spoke slowly. His hands shook, possibly from MS or Parkinson’s, or maybe shell shock from the war. A classmate of mine, Marlys Waters, recently communicated this about Gene: “(He) must have loved kids. He was very artistic and in a 5-minute session at the local coffee shop/beer joint, he showed me how to draw a fox using a pencil. I learned how the legs were bent rather than my childish drawings where the legs were always straight. I must have been in 1st or 2nd grade.” I love that story and what it says about Gene.
When Mike and I approached him about the magazines, he gladly took us around to his garage and showed us boxes of old pulps from the 1930s and 40s. Then he left us there to go through this treasure trove, which we did for several hours. When he came out later to see how we were doing, we asked if we could borrow some of the issues to read at home. I still remember what he said, which was, “You can have ’em, boys.” Not all that earthshaking, I know, but it was like we’d just been given bars of gold. Sounds like the setup for a Twilight Zone episode, doesn’t it?
I don’t remember the magazines we browsed through, or the ones I took with me, but I kept them for years. I regret getting rid of them, just as I regret not hanging on to several years worth of Famous Monsters of Filmland (including the first issue!) and a nearly complete run of Rolling Stone in the original tabloid format (I think I’m fairly intelligent, but sometimes not so smart). I may not remember the specific magazine issues from that hot, dusty day, but this is a good excuse to show some typical covers from that period.
These are juvenile, to be sure, but there was a kind of gee-whiz purity to the storytelling, and the covers alone still engage my imagination, even if mainly in a nostalgic way. There’s a fellow I see frequently on Broadway near Lincoln Center who has a table on the sidewalk loaded with vintage paperbacks and pulp magazines for sale. These publications have become pricey collectibles, along with a lot of other stuff that seemed disposable at the time. Click on this link to see more of these covers, probably more than you could possibly want.
Pulp magazines were published from 1896 through the 1950s. Per the Wikipedia entry on pulps, “the term pulp derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed.” The development of an inexpensive method to convert wood pulp into paper, and the increasing mechanization of the printing process, made it relatively easy to crank out thousands of these low-priced magazines. A distinctive feature of the pulps was their ragged, untrimmed edges.
The premiere issue of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction, was published in April 1926 by Hugo Gernsback, who has been called, along with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, the “Father of Science Fiction,” in recognition of his part in popularizing the genre and making it widely available. The first issue reprinted stories by Wells, Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Gernsback was born in Luxembourg in 1894 and came to the United States in 1905, where he became a writer, editor, magazine publisher and inventor. Interestingly enough, after founding radio station WRNY in 1925 in New York City, he became involved in the first experimental television broadcasts in the late 1920s. The cover of another of his magazines, Radio News, shows Gernsback on the cover of the November 1928 issue watching a television broadcast.
Gernsback initially called the genre “scientifiction,” which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. He switched to “science fiction,” the name we know today, around 1929. Forrest Ackerman later coined the even more commonly used term, “sci-fi.” When he was 9 years old in 1926, Ackerman bought one of the first issues of Amazing Stories and became immediately hooked. He started a group called the “Boy’s Scientifiction Club,” and science fiction fandom was born. The introduction of a letters column in Amazing Stories in 1927 is further credited as a key factor in the development of a widespread science fiction community.
Hugo Gernsback was a major influence on the growth and appreciation of science fiction in this country. In recognition of this, since 1953 the “Hugo Awards” have been presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention. I used to frequent a sci-fi bookstore called Uncle Hugo’s when I lived in Minneapolis. His name is immediately associated with the genre, but that doesn’t mean everybody loved him. Per one source, “Gernsback was noted for sharp (and sometimes shady) business practices, and for paying his writers extremely low fees or not paying them at all.” Writer Barry Malzberg refers to Gernsback’s “venality and corruption, his sleaziness and his utter disregard for the rights of authors…” So there’s that, but as Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Science fiction was but one of many pulp fiction genres flooding the newsstands in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Others include detective & gangster stories, Westerns, war, romance, and fantasy. Here are some typical covers from those genres. Note the Black Mask cover below at left, which features Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Writers who were either already established or became well-known appeared in pulps, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, H. P. Lovecraft, Jim Thompson, and many others.
The pulps had basically disappeared from newsstands in the 1950s when they evolved into digest formats (Astounding Science Fiction switched as early as 1943). The digests were what I started reading in the 50s. I remember having copies of the specific issues pictured here, so seeing them again has an added resonance for me. The content was also evolving, becoming less juvenile (though there was still plenty of that). Truth be told, though, the cover art of the pulps is probably of more interest and longer-lasting value today than the stories themselves.
I don’t read that much science fiction these days, and when I do, it’s usually the older stories. Science fiction just can’t keep up with reality anymore, let alone predict it. The pace of technology today is far beyond most of what was imagined in the past. Science fiction is right now; we don’t have to wait for it. Of course, we still don’t have colonies on the moon or Mars, and haven’t developed an interstellar drive yet. All of which feels kind of like a broken promise (except the interstellar drive part; I never really expected that). When the first Sputnik went up in 1957, I thought, “This is it! We’re on our way.” But space exploration today is largely done by drones and robots, which is a big disappointment to someone indoctrinated by countless books and magazines, as well as films and TV shows like Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Space Patrol, Star Trek, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Though maybe I should be thinking, “Hey! Robots!” But somehow it’s not the same.
I have a deep nostalgia for the science fiction of my youth. Though maybe I’m just nostalgic for when I was a kid. After all, time-travel stories are my favorites. But I’m glad that a part of being that kid was knowing someone like Gene Mack, and having a thrilling afternoon with moldy magazines. — Ted Hicks
(I want to acknowledge my former classmates Marlys Launspach Waters, Ron Platt, and Gary Davis for their memories of Gene Mack, who died in 1984 at the youthful age of 60.)