Pulp Lives, Again (But For How Long?)

When Max Phillips and I sat down over sushi and plum wine in the winter of 2001 and came up with the idea for Hard Case Crime, it was not with the intention of becoming the new godfathers of pulp fiction—or the midwives of a pulp rebirth.

We’d just noticed that it had been a while since we’d seen any old-fashioned, pulp-styled paperback novels in bookstores and we missed them.

So we decided to create some our own. We figured maybe we’d find some publisher willing to bring out five or six of the things, and that would be the end of it. Sixty-three books later, Hard Case Crime is (to my amazement) still trundling along, turning out lurid editions of novels old and new. And in the years since we published our first titles we’ve seen any number of other publishers dip a toe in the pulp waters as well.

From time to time I wonder why—why pulp fiction keeps coming back, so many decades after its origin, and also why it keeps going away. It’s like the literary equivalent of cicadas, returning every handful of years to sing its siren song and then vanish once more.

Wouldn’t you think (he asked rhetorically) there’d be an endless appetite for punchy, short novels with gripping plot hooks, plenty of action, and gorgeous painted covers featuring attractive characters with not too many clothes on? I know I never grow tired of these things. But readers as a whole seem to have only a limited appetite for them. Actually, that’s not quite right—it seems to be an endlessly renewing appetite, but one that quickly gets sated. You see a new enterprise launch and flourish for a few years, and then the novelty wears off and readers move on to other things. Then, when they’ve gone without for too many years, they always seem glad to see pulp fiction return.

The last major rebirth (before we came along) was in the 1980s, when Barry Gifford launched the Black Lizard series in the crime fiction genre and, in sf, Tor came up with “Tor Doubles”, their tip of the hat to the great Ace Doubles of yore. Then there was nothing for about a cicada cycle. And now — there’s plenty, once again.

Does this mean we’re due for another pulp crash, like the collapse of the dot-com bubble? With pulp writers forced to hock their battered Underwoods to pay the rent on their SRO flats and painters reduced to copying Old Masters for hooch money? Hopefully not. But if like me you’re a lover of this particular strain of pop culture ephemera, I’d encourage you to grab it while it’s out there. Remember why they call it ‘ephemera.’ Before too much longer you might be paying collectors’ prices for it on eBay while, in the bookstores, shelves are bare.

(Full disclosure: I benefit if you do “grab it while it’s out there,” at least if any Hard Case Crime books wind up in your shopping cart.  But hell, I may also be the one selling the overpriced copies to you on eBay next year…)

Charles Ardai is the Edgar and Shamus Award winning author of novels such as Fifty-To-One, Little Girl Lost, and Songs of Innocence as well as founder and editor of Hard Case Crime and its companion series, The Adventures of Gabriel Hunt. In a previous life, he created the Internet service Juno.


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