Western pulp fiction is the distilled spirits of the phenomenon known as “western fiction”. I would say that the older paperback books written after demise of the pulps follow a close second and the early hardback novels (those by Zane Grey, Brand, MacLeod Raine and Knibbs for example) comes in third. Westerns movies and television are great inspirations as well but are limited in what they can convey and so I think it is the literature that carries the essence and the soul of this genre. It’s the old pulp stories that contain ACTION and action is what you need for western role playing games or tabletop miniature “war games”. Indeed if it was not for the pulp fiction writers there would never have been so many western movies produced as so many were based on some short story or another that appeared earlier in print or from a later novel from an author who did well in the pulp market.
So, for those unfamiliar with pulp magazines, this post will try to describe the various parts and features of a typical western pulp. I recently scanned the December 1934 edition of Thrilling Western to use as an example.
Origins. Some folks say that the western pulps originated from the “Dime Westerns” or Dime Novels which were usually single sort stories with titles like Deadwood Dick, Buffalo Bill Stories, Beadle’s Dime Novels, and Frontier Fantasies. These highly fantastical tales of the Western frontier began to be published in 1860’s and lasted until the emergence of the larger pulp magazines in the early 1900’s (Note that the dime novels were published during the actual historical wild west period). However the experts say that the Dime Novels were not the progenitor of the western pulps. I guess you could call them the Neanderthals of western fiction–a separate linage that died out while something stronger and smarter rose in it’s place . The true western pulps evolved with the advent of publications like Munsey’s (which become the first true pulp in 1903 and would later become the Argosy All Story Weekly) and The Popular Magazine. These early pulps contained many western stories and it was only a matter of time before more specialized pulps hit the street that were 100% western fiction. NOTE: There was one Dime Novel that actually made the transition into a pulp and that is Wild West Weekly which shed it’s short “Penny Dreadful” format for the larger pulp version around 1927.
Frequency of Publication. In the heyday of the pulps it would not be inconceivable to have pulp magazines hit the news stands on a daily basis. There were so many publishers and titles that it was a constantly changing array of garish covers. A few western pulps published weekly, others were bi-monthly but the the majority published monthly issues. By the 1950’s, those publications that were still barely hanging on went to quarterly publication (or seasonal) before they were finally discontinued.
Covers. Eye catching action! These covers needed to stand out from the rest of the pulps displayed on the shelf so all manner of bright colors and lettering were used with the most dramatic illustrations. Along with the title lettering and background there was the inevitable single frame of action depicting a scene from the lead story in the magazine. Yellow with red lettering were standard colors for several pulps to include .44 Western, Ace High, Dime Western, and Real Western. Star Western used the inverse–a red background with yellow lettering. You can see the diversity of covers and titles with a quick image search on Google. The cover illustration was most often an oil painting made by one of the great names in pulp art–Norman Saunders, Walter Baumhofer, Arthur Arthur Mitchell, Ernest Chiriacka, Samuel Cherry, Rafael DeSoto, and Robert G. Harris among so many others. The artist would know the titling scheme for the magazine and ensure his subject was not interfering with the text. There is a growing market for the original paintings and pulp magazine collectors insist on the cleanest and least damaged covers.
Table of Contents. This page usually follows a couple of pages of advertisements. It is usually page 3/4, or 5 or even 7. It is usually the first page one looks at when upon purchasing a pulp magazine. It shows you in this case that the longest (or lead) story is a complete book-length novel, 38 pages long, by James W. Routh. Routh was a very prolific author who wrote mainly westerns for the western Ranch/Range/Romances pulps from 1924-1948. In this pulp you have eight short stories to choose from. Often pulps will run a couple of feature columns that might include a “letters to the editor” section, a couple of pages on firearms, and perhaps some short factoid pieces on real history of the American West. Here you have a short illustrated story and a series of pages for “The Hitching Rail” which covers letters submitted by readers. Toward the end you have some personal ads under the heading of “The Swap Column”.
Titles. There were over 165 western pulp titles/magazines produced–some with short runs of a couple issues and others with hundreds of issues over several decades. Western Story Magazine had 1,285 issues. West ran for 354 and Ranch Romances had a run of 860 issues. Every variation of several western associated words were organized into western pulp titles: Ranch Love Stories, Dime Western, 10 Story Western, All-Story Western, Big-Book Western, Cowboy Stories, Lariat Story Magazine, New Western Magazine, Popular Western, Rangeland Romances, Texas Rangers, Two-Gun Western,
Advertisements. Besides subscriptions and news stand sales the other source of revenue for pulp magazine publishers came from the ads placed on several pages of each issue–usually in the back and beginning. Needless to say, most of these ads are incredibly weird–here are a couple I’ve selected from this issue. I suspect many were directed toward young men who read westerns but there are plenty of ads pertaining to women’s needs (like the mysterious affliction of “delay”). NOTE: My father, who grew up in the 30’s and 40’s actually suggested that I cut out all the ads from my pulps and sell them framed as a form of “pop ad art”. Sorry, Dad.
Size. Western pulps were usually sold in the standard size of 9 3/4″ X 6 3/4″. When the decline of pulps began in the late 1940’s you begin to see smaller forms such as those of Western Story Magazine which were about
Authors. Hundreds of authors wrote western pulp stories but there were some who were incredibly more prolific than others. Here is a small sample of names of famous authors that can be found in the old western pulps: Max Brand, Walt Coburn, Louis L’Amour, Robert E. Howard, L. Ron Hubbard, Luke Short, W.C. Tuttle, Ernest Haycox, Johnston McCulley, Frank Gruber, Ryerson Johnson, Lee Florin, Gordon D. Shirreffs, Leslie Ernenwein, Harry F. Olmsted, Gunnison Steele, Cliff Farrell, William MacLeod Raine, Jackson Gregory, Bertrand W. Sinclair, Talmage Powell, Clifton Adams, and Elmore Leonard.
Interior Illustration. In addition to the bright colorful covers most pulps had a well done black and white illustration for each story. Some of the lead stories would be illustrated with a double page spread. Some pulps, such as Blue Book, were known for doubling down on the number and quality of their interior art. While some artists were known for their cover paintings other were specialists in pen and ink supplemental works such as Larry Bjorklund, Roderick Duff, and Nick Eggenhofer (even Edward Hopper provided work for Adventure and Everybody’s Magazine). Here are some examples:
Stories. The stories found in western pulps are incredibly varied and range from corny juvenile stories more suited to comic books to intensely dramatic and compelling fiction by the masters. In any given western pulp you are bound to find a leading serious short story with some shorter action pieces and a couple of humorous pieces. One might have a bit of love interest and another could be all about an animal such as a bear or wild stallion (written from their point of view). Texas Rangers would always have a couple of stories featuring those Texican lawmen. Many pulps had recurring heroes such as Sunny Tabor, Kid Wolf, and Shorty Masters. W.C. Tuttle had a long running series called The Hashknife Tales featuring Hashknife Hartley. You might even find a rare story set in the Yukon and featuring a Canadian Mountie or in old Spanish California. In fact certain pulps were known for the type of readers they were written for–young adults, young men, adult men, and adult men and women (i.e. Ranch Romance). By far the best book on the subject of pulp westerns is Word Slingers by Will Murray.
Where Can I Read Western Pulps? You can download several pulps from this great website. There are dozens of western stories (not full pulps) to be found here. Here is a scan that I did recently…the link below is to a fairly large .pdf. You can get the .rar file here.
This post is really just an introduction to my favorite reading material. I’ve only made a slight scratch in the depth of this topic. I’m going to continue to post full pulps and pulp stories as often as I can. I hope you can find inspiration in these old magazines for your tabletop adventures.
NOTE: It’s been a full year since I last posted to this blog. I’ve accumulated lots of ideas and drafts for more posts. The Western seems to be an inexhaustible topic so please stop back here often and add this blog to your favorites.