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Sunday 9 February 2014

Pulp Forteana

The current issue of Fortean Times (FT311, February 2014) has an article by Bob Rickard about the British science fiction writer Eric Frank Russell (actually it looks like it’s the first of several articles about him). I got quite interested in Russell in the 1990s, and read as many of his books as I could get hold of – as seen in the above photograph. I think all these books were bought second-hand, since they were pretty much out of print by that time.

More recently I bought John L. Ingham’s biography of EFR, “Into Your Tent”, which Bob Rickard mentions in his article. The book’s odd title is taken from one of Russell’s short stories, and I don’t think it was meant to refer to his preferred direction of urination. But it’s apt, anyhow. From the point of view of the mainstream SF community, EFR was always an outsider pissing in, not an insider pissing out.

On top of the biography in the photograph is the only non-fiction book of Russell’s that I own – a compendium of Forteana called Great World Mysteries. Amongst his fiction, the most explicitly Fortean novel is Sinister Barrier, which I wrote about on a previous occasion (The First Fortean Novel). As you can see, I own two copies of this – which I bought on the same day, in two different shops in London (both of which sadly no longer exist).

My first stop was the late lamented Fantasy Centre in Holloway Road. That’s where I bought the original issue of Unknown magazine (March 1939) in which Sinister Barrier first saw print. This cost me £25, which is more than I would normally pay for a book, but I didn’t think I was likely to see another copy for sale (this was in the days before internet shopping). I then proceeded to London’s other specialist SF shop, New Worlds in Charing Cross Road, where I saw a later edition of Sinister Barrier for a tenth of the price I’d just paid – £2.50! I bought that as well (after kicking myself a few times), because it was a significantly expanded version of the novel compared to the original.

The copy of Unknown in the top middle of the photograph is a typical pulp magazine. This term is often used loosely (by me as much as anyone else), but this really is one. It’s printed on thick, wood-pulp paper, and it measures approximately 7 inches by 10 inches (similar dimensions to an American comic book). Pulps were enormously popular in the 1930s, and hundreds of titles were published every month. Bob Rickard’s article describes how the young Russell’s “reading graduated from early British comics to all kinds of pulp fiction”.

Pulp fiction is a widely misunderstood term. Many people think it refers to a genre, when in fact it refers to a medium. Pulp fiction was churned out very quickly, for low rates of pay, and sold in huge quantities to a lowbrow audience that would have preferred to watch television or play video games if such things had existed in the 1930s and 40s. To confuse matters further, the majority of young people nowadays first encounter the term in the context of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, which deliberately inverts many of the traditional elements of pulp fiction (an easy-to-follow plot, a righteous hero, villains who get what’s coming to them and the careful avoidance of profanity). The confusion doesn’t stem from Tarantino, of course, but from the fact that so many people fail to recognize irony when they encounter it.

Science fiction started out as one of the genres of pulp fiction, and one of the least sophisticated. By and large, the SF of the 1930s is pretty juvenile, shoot-em-up stuff – and to be honest, Sinister Barrier (which was Russell’s first major work) falls into this category. In contrast, other genres of pulp fiction published at the same time were far more sophisticated in their plotting, writing style and characterization. Perhaps the most sophisticated genre of all was the “hard-boiled detective story”. The genius of Eric Frank Russell was to take the style, pace and language of hard-boiled fiction and apply it to SF. This can be seen in more or less any of his post Sinister Barrier writing.

My all-time favourite EFR novel – and one of my all-time favourite novels by any author, in any genre – is Dreadful Sanctuary. This masterpiece of paranoid fiction was serialized in three parts in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1948. I mentioned it quite recently in Precog Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself here.

My second favourite Russell novel is With a Strange Device – another work of paranoid fiction, featuring the implanting of false memories in people’s brains. Like all the best science fiction, it almost isn’t SF at all. Apart from the eponymous “strange device”, it’s a straight mystery novel. It originally appeared under the title “Run, Little Men!” in the June 1956 issue of a pulp magazine called Famous Detective Stories.

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