Pulp Fiction: Girl Gangs, Biker Boys on We Are Cult

By Paul Abbott
We are Cult
May 3rd, 2018

An exploration into worlds full of switchblades, drugs, beatnik and hippy slang, motorbikes and electric guitars.

Pulp fiction, in particular that which emerged in the latter half of the Twentieth century, played an intrinsic part in the development of much of the popular culture ideas and iconography that we’ve come to associate with various decades. Often reflecting and playing on the fears and moral-panics of these eras, the pulp publishers knew that the real exploitation wasn’t necessarily found in the stories themselves, but in their own exploitation of the technology of cheap, mass-scale printing for their own financial ends. The owners and editors-in-chief of these various imprints, Signet, Horwitz, Olympia and the New English Library, for example, knew that if they could find the right authors to tell the right tales (and get them to do it on a six-week turnaround!) they could make a killing, selling their paperbacks in places where ‘proper’ books weren’t found: on the magazine stands and in drugstores, rather than exclusively in libraries and bookshops.

In Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, And Real Cool Cats, the editors and their contributors take us on a journey into this intense, often brutal and sometimes psychedelic world, in a volume that explores the history of pulp publishing through its heyday between 1950 and 1980. With over 300 pages, the book has a chance to not only provide some compelling essays and interviews, but also to reproduce many of the lurid but appealing covers of the titles under discussion. As anyone who collects paperbacks, and particularly the low-production-cost pulp editions, they are increasingly hard-to-find. A shelf-life wasn’t the intention for these volumes and many of those, such as the early Ed McBain Permabook editions, are often little more than a collection of card and paper in zip-loc bags now, so the opportunity to see the artwork of so many different books reproduced here is a delight.

One of the great things about this volume is that the focus extends beyond American and British shores and encompasses the Pulp output of Australian crime-writers as well. Indeed, a good proportion of the writers contributing to the volume are Australian, as are the editors and writer of the foreword. For the British reader this is an interesting facet of the book – we’re so used to consuming American Pulp stories and imagery, as well as being self-obsessed with our own pop-culture of the sixties and seventies that it is easy to forget that Australia, whilst English speaking, had its own unique and specific social and cultural issues that differed from the US and the UK. Fertile ground for their own pulp novelists.

The book is divided into seven themed sections, starting with the 1950s Juvenile Delinquency (“JD”) pulps, and is arranged roughly chronologically. It contains a collection of reviews of specific novels, with plenty of thrilling quotes included and conveniently and clearly highlighted in bold text, as well as discussions about specific authors and in some cases interviews with writers. The interview with the author George Synder is an interesting read, where you suspect the lines between author and character are quite blurred (Synder wrote about the rich surfer/spy, Bill Cartwright), whilst the interview with Ann Bannon is a fascinating look at how a writer of lesbian fiction provided a lifeline for a generation of gay female readers looking to find a way to come out, or freely express their sexuality. All the while Bannon herself was in a heterosexual marriage and perhaps hadn’t fully realised that her literary work was a way of exploring her own genuine identity. The stories from the author Harlan Ellison are an astonishing illustration of how far some writers would go to gather material.

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Of special interest to me was Matthew Asprey Gear’s article about Evan Hunter and in particular his novel Blackboard Jungle. Hunter also went by the name Ed McBain, under which sobriquet he created the long-running and influential 87th Precinct crime fiction series which occupies so much of my brain space. The film of Blackboard Jungle was one of the most famous “incitement(s) to riot” of the period, yet in truth the book is a much more hard-hitting, tragic and violent depiction of JD behaviour than the story that appears on screen. Asprey Gear gives a good summing up of the stories that appeared from Hunter’s pen – many of which were later collected under the McBain name in ‘Learning to Kill’ and his article is a good demonstration of how a nascent author of the period could often find their way into a writing career via the pulp pathway.

If the book lacks anything, it is perhaps a feature on the artists who created the fascinating covers for the pulp novels. The early painted pictures of the ‘50s and ‘60s gave way to a photographic style in later years and I’m sure that there’s a few good tales to tell about the working style of artists who created these images “working from only a title, if any information at all”. That said, I imagine that could easily be a separate volume in itself and you certainly don’t want for copies of the covers in this book – in fact there are often several different covers shown for certain pulp books and it’s intriguing to see the different ways books were marketed by different publishers, or how they changed design in response to the prevailing attitudes of the times. Many of these covers still seem shocking now – you’ve never seen so many nude-shouldered dames in your life. Whilst the painted artwork has given a lot of pulp fiction a desirable nostalgic aesthetic, some of the photographic covers leave a bit more to be desired. The cover of “The Spungers” (1967), reproduced on page 135, looks like a screen-grab of an episode of Grange Hill.

All told Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, And Real Cool Cats is an excellent exploration of the world of pulp publishing. It remains readable throughout and the editors have done a fantastic job in keeping a consistent style across the various contributions. It’s fascinating to slip into these worlds full of switchblades, drugs, beatnik and hippy slang, motorbikes and electric guitars, and it’s fascinating also to marvel and shudder at the beatings, the gang warfare and the racism and sexism that the stories exploit and explore. The message behind this book is, if you’ve got any of these pulp paperbacks on your bookshelves, look after them – they’re windows onto worlds and lifestyles both real and imagined. And, after all, what’s a spot of ultra-violence amongst friends, eh?

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