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John Kessel

Five Offbeat Quasi-Fantastic Novels of the 1930s

The 1930s was a fascinating decade in U.S. and European history. The Great Depression and the rise of fascism dominate historical retrospectives of the period, but many other interesting things went on, including modernist art movements and the evolution of jazz and the entry of women into the workforce. The decade also saw the rise of the science fiction pulp magazines, with the origin of Astounding Tales of Super-Science to go along with Amazing Stories and a host of other fiction pulps and comic books.

Most of the “serious” literature of the decade was realism—this was the heyday of Hemingway and Steinbeck, Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Over the years I have noted a clutch of 1930s books by young writers who were never associated with the pulps yet that do not fit easily into the dominant paradigm. All of them have, if not a direct fantastic premise, some tangential connection with the strange. Though some, like Cold Comfort Farm, have devoted followings today, most of these writers never really got much attention from genre readers. If 1930s fiction in the U.S. and Britain were a large club, pulp writers were for the most part not let in the door—but I can imagine these writers having a separate room in the back. I suspect the conversation between them might be more interesting than that going on in the big room between Hemingway and Steinbeck.

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