Most pulp magazines could be classified as one of the following genres:
The detective pulps can take credit for changing the style of this genre. Earlier detective works were modeled after Sherlock Holmes and were whodunit puzzles, with aristocratic characters. The new American style of "hard-boiled" detective started in 1922 with Carroll John Daly's short story "The False Burton Combs". It brought the bad guy down to a more realistic level and even the good guy is usually depicted as rough and fallible. Dime Detective was a big winner in the detective story area, showcasing the writers that would become the genre's early heroes: Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, and Erle Stanley Gardner.
Race Williams, Vee Brown, and Satan Hall were creations of Carroll John Daly, a writer with a biting, humorous writing style that never lacks in entertainment quality. Race Williams stories were written in a first-person style, with Race showing himself to be a wise-cracking, fast-shooting "man of action". Mr. Daly also introduced a strong female character, "the Flame", who herself was a complex character, seeming to step between law and lawlessness.
In the serial called The Cleansing of Poisonville, later published as Dashiell Hammett's novel, "Red Harvest", there are over 20 murders that occur while the nameless detective completes his mission to clean up a town. He followed no rules but his own, without regard for the law or his employer's wishes. However, Dashiell Hammett is most well-known for his detective story, "The Maltese Falcon".
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Horror and Weird Menace
Weird Tales was a publication devoted to horror and the supernatural, containing stories with fantastic titles and even more imaginative writing. It still published even today after a short interruption in the sixties. Terror Tales, Dime Mystery, and Horror Stories were in a category called weird menace, that featured some supernatural force, only to be logically explained at the end of the story. Usually, weird menace stories featured scantily-clad women being tortured in some form or another. The graphic details in the cover art for the magazine probably attracted more buyers than the stories themselves. Click here for more on the horror and weird menance genre
For those interested in traveling the world in their armchair, Argosy, Adventure and other magazines in this genre offered stories about strapping he-men caught in exciting situations spanning the globe. Heroes fought the bad guy in the South Seas, the Amazon and in the American west. Argosy, a magazine that actually started publication in the 1880s, settled mostly on the Adventure genre in the 1920s and thrilled readers with stories about voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, and battle excitement in the French foreign legion. The top adventure magazines always strived for as much realism as possible, which raised the quality of the stories and forced its writers to either be world-savvy travelers or research fanatics.
Love Stories and Sex Pulps
Love stories were not ignored in the pulps. Although most of the readers of the other genres were overwhelmingly male, there were a few magazines directly targeted towards women. In general, these magazines featured a women that falls in love, and in the end, usually gets her man. The editorial rules were strict, however, in that the women were usually not allowed to be portrayed as promiscuous and were only interested in one man.
A spin-off of the love story pulps that appealed to men were the sex pulps- those that sprinkled sexual innuendoes and lengthy descriptions of beautiful women into a story. These magazines were sometimes known as the "spicy's", fitting because the actual title of some of these magazines were Spicy Detective, Spicy Mystery, Spicy Western, and Spicy Adventure. Some of the more promiscuous magazines, such as Gay Parisienne, could loosely be compared to present-day Playboy magazines and had enough sex in them to be banned from some stores and placed behind the counter in others.
Some pulp magazines were created to showcase one particular hero character. The Spider told the tale of a masked crime fighter, working outside the law to battle evil forces that threatened civilization. The Spider is the disguise of Richard Wentworth, a wealthy real estate magnate and magazine publisher who has dedicated his life to the protection of the innocent and the avenger of victims. His main weapon of fear is the mark of the spider applied to his victims by a hidden seal of his ring. Most of the Spider stories are characterized by particularly nasty villains, torturing and slaying their victims in many creatively brutal ways.
Another more well-known character showcased in its own magazine, was The Shadow. Perhaps the best-known hero, possibly because of the popular radio show, the Shadow is still known today- enough to spark a movie about the character. Stories of the Shadow seem vaguely familiar to today's Batman readers, and some credit the Batman character as a spinoff of the earlier Shadow and Spider characters.
Another popular hero pulp was Doc Savage Magazine, which featured its namesake battling foes with scientific means. Raised by scientists to become the perfect human being, he was the stronger, smarter version of the average person. Doc Savage was a master in science, archaeology, medicine, and possessed super-human physical prowess. And the 200,000 subscribers loved it. The Doc Savage stories have survived the years well- the magazines have, for the most part, been reprinted. The Doc Savage following is still strong, even among adults that did not grow up during the nineteen-thirties and forties.
There were many other hero pulps- Operator 5 was in the secret service and battled foreign invaders. In one series called "The Purple Invasion", the U.S. is invaded and Operator 5 organized and led the resistance. G-8 was a master spy during World War I and fought strange, almost surreal foes in the air. In one of the early stories, "G-8 and the Bat Staffel", he fights strange bat-like creatures in the air, more reminiscent of the weird tales genre than the more traditional war stories.
Hero Pulps had some of the largest followings of all the magazines. Perhaps it was because of the flashy characters and the non-stop action. Or maybe it was a reading of the gloomy times- where the depression brought a need to escape between the pages of a story that offered a person that could rise above adversity.
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The Other Genres
Reader-hungry publishers looked for any interest of the pulp reader that could be exploited into another magazine. Magazines specializing in Westerns, defective detectives (guys that fought crime even though they had a physical limitation- blindness, deafness, etc.), science fiction stories, aviation stories, and sports magazines, all had a loyal following.
Another twist on the detective genre was the introduction of magazines such as Ace G-Man, that were dedicated to stories about agents for the FBI. These magazines swung the focus of the hero from the detective and other avengers outside the law, to the law itself.