The Golden Era: Australian Pulp Fiction

Popular during the mid-20th century, pulp fiction novels and comics were produced in massive quantities by Australian publishers. Most were written by hacks and enthusiastic amateurs willing to sign contracts that demanded an incredibly high output of work. Pulp publications were cheaply made, formulaic and designed to be read quickly and disposed. Often noted for their lurid cover art and titillating titles, they satisfied an appetite for fast entertainment pre-television.

La Trobe Library is hosting an exhibition of popular and rare Australian titles from the personal collection of Stuart Kells, Adjunct Professor, La Trobe College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce. The exhibition encompasses the genres of Romance, Crime, Western and Science Fiction from key publishers including Phantom Books, Currawong Publishing and Transport Publishing. This Opinion piece is based on Professor Kells’s presentation at the exhibition launch.

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Our purpose today is to celebrate the golden era of Australian pulp fiction. My wife Fiona and I have been chasing pulp treasure for more than thirty years, at markets and auctions and in bookshops here and overseas.

The books in this exhibition are from my personal collection, and it is a pleasure to share with you some examples from this little known and sometimes under-regarded field of bibliography. Many of the items in the exhibition came from regional Victoria and regional Tasmania, where the books sat, unloved and under houses, just waiting to be rediscovered and celebrated in this way.

The books in the exhibition are rare now, but when they were first published, from the late 1930s into the 1950s, they were printed in enormous quantities. Readers gobbled them up – at home, on trains and even near battlefields in wartime.

The books appeared in a squarish format, bound cheaply in thin paper but with striking cover art. Though the books share similar styles and shapes, they cover a rich variety of genres: westerns, horror, sci-fi, crime, romance, ‘weird tales’, adventure, and some more or less non-fiction works such as ‘true adventure’ and ‘true crime’.

Publishers such as Horwitz, Invincible Press and the Transport Publishing Company planned each series and engaged studios of hard-living, hard-drinking writers. With the publishers issuing dozens of new titles each month, the writers’ workload was heavy.

The diary of pulp writer Gordon Bleeck is now in the National Library of Australia. His diary entry for 15 August 1950 shows how frenetic the pace could be: ‘Denny White rang for 12,000 word boxing, 10,000 racing and 6,000 other sport… In 3 or 4 weeks.’

Many authors churned out books at the rate of more than twenty a year. To meet this gruelling schedule, the authors relied on a variety of tricks. One was to write to a formula: one slangy sidekick, one love triangle, two sex scenes, one chase, two murders…

John Winton Heming, the author of some fifty novels, explained his formula this way: ‘I work to a system, so many pages to a chapter and when you get near the end of a chapter you slam in the biggest and most interesting fact you can think of. The first three pages of the following chapter are devoted to justifying the end of the last one.’ The authors also borrowed and stole liberally from each other, and especially from American and British authors.

In 2010, Fiona, and I found a revealing document inside a paperback we bought at auction. The book is Bill Williams’ copy of Brett Halliday’s Murder Is My Business (1957). Williams was a Melbourne-based author, journalist and editor of the Truth newspaper.

He scrawled notes throughout the book, and on a separate manuscript he mapped out his plan for another book that used Halliday’s slang, plot points and characterisation. The manuscript – now in the rare books library at Monash University – shows Williams extracting the sharpest dialogue, the most evocative jargon and the sexiest plot elements.

Another trick was to have multiple authors write under common pseudonyms. ‘Carter Brown’ was mostly Alan Yates, but C. J. McKenzie and other authors also wrote under that name. ‘Larry Kent’ was mostly Des Dunn and Don Haring.

The authors and their publishers often strayed close to the edge of what the censors would tolerate. They were also fast and loose in other ways, too: many of the so-called ‘original’ productions were actually reprints. And many of the lurid titles and cover images had very little to do with the actual texts inside.

The authors and publishers were on to a good thing – until around 1959, when the easing of import restrictions and the introduction of television spelled the end of the golden era for Australian pulps.

Seeing the books here and in this library context is important. When first published, the books were regarded as disreputable ‘low literature’. Most serious libraries didn’t keep them. Even private readers were reluctant to put them on display, or to have them on the coffee table when the vicar came round.

Australia’s national and state libraries have recently sought to fill big gaps in their collections, in recognition that the pulps tell important stories, apart from the pulpy contents.

They speak to Australia’s cultural connections to the US and the UK. They speak to censorship, and to early ideas about science and the future. They capture cultural moments and perhaps even a cultural subconscious, one that prefigures social movements such as feminism and civil rights, and changing ideas about heroism and masculinity.

And they do all this in packages that feature iconic branding and cover art, which is perfect for the modern era in which physical collections are engaged in a vibrant digital conversations via library twitter and rare-books Instagram.

When the books were first made, their authors and publishers were probably unaware that they were capturing an important cultural moment. That the moment was fleeting, and captured almost accidentally, makes the pulps even more intriguing, and even more important to study and to celebrate.

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