Fifteen cents. That was the price of admission to a garish world of purple prose and smoking guns. Of square-jawed cowboys, relentless Mounties and world-weary police detectives. Of time travel, eldritch horrors and far-flung planets. Of bawdy cartoons, tragic love, romantic lumberjacks and women both virtuous and vengeful. It was the world of the pulp magazines.
In this episode, we explore our unique and one of the very few known collections of Canadian pulp magazines that Library and Archives Canada started to acquire in 1996, and their rise and fall in the 1940s and into the early 1950s. Our guests today are Ian Driscoll, author and contributor of Library and Archives Canada’s website
Tales from the Vault!, and joining us by phone from Australia, Dr. Carolyn Strange, co-author of
True Crime, True North: The Golden Age of Canadian Pulp Magazines.
Hi Ian, thanks for joining us today.
ID: Well, I mean growing up on movies, and comic books, and Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, and sort of B movies on late-night television and Godzilla movies and that sort of thing. All of the cheap bad genre entertainment that the world could throw at me, I sort of loved it. Growing up and getting to high school or university and being curious about where these things came from, I sort of traced them back and did some reading and learned about the pulp magazines. I sort of knew characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage from comic books, which is where they ended up, then discovered after that they had originally come from pulp magazines.
Actually, my grandfather had a few pulp magazines kicking around in his basement; when I went to visit him I could pull them down off the shelf and flip through them. Some of them came apart in my hands, but you know they had that weird musty smell of sitting in a basement for 50 years or whatever. It was sort of a fascinating and direct connection with the past. They had those crazy garish covers that are really attractive to a kid as well. They were designed to be cheap to buy, even cheaper to produce and disposable. They’re called pulp magazines because of the cheap pulp paper that they were printed on, which had a very high acid content, so it tended to discolour and become brittle very quickly and break down, which is why there aren’t a lot of the magazines left around as they tended to decay and fall apart. It is another reason why the Library and Archives collection is so special and such an amazing resource because there are very few of these things still around. The idea was to spend your dime and get your entertainment for the week and then toss it out. Not a lot of people kept stacks of these things around, they weren’t lined up on the shelf like your National Geographic’s or anything like that.
BG: So Carolyn, can you tell us a little about how the Canadian pulp industry came to be?
Carolyn Strange: Prior to the 1940s there were all kinds of different ways in which publishers fed the appetite for spicy stories. They were in dime models, police procedurals, so again cheap publications, and most people in Canada would have read what would later become known as pulp magazines that were Canadian. Prior to the 1940s they would have read primarily American true crime magazines with garish covers, etc. … It feeds on what had already been an interest in both true crime and fiction, but it gets a Canadian stamp by the 1940s.
ID: The Canadian pulp publishing industry was really born because of the War Exchange Conservation Act that was passed around World War II, which banned the import of luxury items from the U.S. and among the things that were banned for importation were any periodicals. I’m just going to quote here, “Any periodicals featuring detective, sex, western and alleged true confession stories,” so basically all of the genres that the pulp magazines, the American pulp magazines, were dealing in. When they passed that legislation, William Lyon Mackenzie King sort of became the unwitting father of the Canadian pulp industry because with all of those things banned from importation from the States, a homegrown industry had to spring up to fill the demand. They tried for a while doing reprints and buying stories from American authors and publishing them here, but they just couldn’t keep up with the demand. They had to start sourcing homegrown talent and getting their stories from Canadian authors and getting their covers done by Canadian painters and that sort of thing.
CS: Yes, that’s something that was not in the legislators’ minds when they banned the importation of these American magazines. They didn’t think that a Canadian industry would mushroom overnight, actually.
BG: During the height and flourish of the Canadian pulp fiction industry, how did our identity differ, or did it differ from those stories that were being printed and produced in the United States?
ID: Yeah, I mean a lot of the magazines were very similar to what was being published in America. It was the same sort of genres, like I said they were crime and detective stories, and sort of sex, and true confession, and romance stories, horror, science fiction and all of those things that were very similar to the American pulp magazines. Then going through the collection I also found a few examples of times where the magazines were trying to establish a Canadian identity or looking for what set them apart from their American counterparts. In particular, in one of the science fiction pulps, which I don’t have the title in front of me here, anyway, you can find it easily if you go on to the collection website…
BG: That’s right.
ID: …there is a whole section about this. They were very interested in, from an editorial stance, trying to find out what made Canadian science fiction or speculative fiction different from American speculative fiction. There was a whole editorial in one of the magazines that talked about, I’m going to quote again here, “Canada is different, Canadiana may appreciate the modern American science fiction story, but it is not exactly that which speaks for the Canadian, the situation is different.” Because the way the publishers of the magazines saw it, it was all about history, they thought America, the United States being very tied to its past, they thought all of its significant achievements were in the past, were completed. Canada was a nation of unrealized potential, one that would continue to evolve. They said, I’ll just quote again here, “Canada, as I have said, has no past, it has only a future. Canada has not been completely conquered and colonized as the United States has. Only her southern fringe is inhabited as befits a nation. Her vast resources to the northern regions are almost untouched. Where are the great cities of the North? Where are the railroads running to the very arctic regions? Where are the motor highways that make available the wealth of land around Great Slave Lake? They do not exist. They are in the future. Does any man doubt that they shall exist some day? Does any man believe that it is beyond the ability of man to develop these lands? That while we may fly to the moon and colonize Venus (which must be a thousand times more uninviting than Northern Canada) we shall never hold and use these territories.”
ID: Yeah, I think Venus might be a little rougher…
BG: I think so.
ID: to colonize than Northern Canada.
BG: I would say yes.
ID: I think the pulp magazines didn’t have a lot of time, they only had that 10-, maybe 12- or 15-year run where they really existed and flourished. So they didn’t have a lot of time to develop their own Canadian identity, but they were definitely striving towards it. Like I said, when they started developing their own stories. Telling true crime stories in Winnipeg or Vancouver or something like that, it was the beginning of that whole idea of telling our own stories rather than just repeating American stories or reading American stories second hand. It was Canadian characters in recognizable Canadian locations, dealing with Canadian laws and Canadian assumptions. There was also another genre that existed in the Canadian pulp magazines and didn’t really exist in the [sic American versions], which was the Northern. It was sort of the Canadian version of the Western except it replaces the cowboy or the sheriff with usually an RCMP officer up in the Yukon or the North West Territories or something like that. Sort of dealing with that dogged pursuit of justice much like you see in the Westerns, but in a recognizable Canadian setting.
BG: Definitely. There is one of the covers that comes to mind, too. [sic It] is the Mounty wearing his red jacket and I mean it’s that iconic Canadian symbol.
ID: Very much so. I mean it is interesting that not a lot of great characters came out of the Canadian pulp industry or at least not the English pulp industry. The pulp industry in Quebec was a little bit different, but there weren’t a lot of continuing stories or characters in English Canada. There were a lot of anthologies and one-off stories and that sort of thing. So you don’t get something like the Shadow or Doc Savage or anything on that level in Canadian, in English Canadian pulp fiction, which is interesting and curious.
BG: Yeah, in fact I wanted to ask you to talk about the differences between English and French Canadian pulp fiction. I guess you touched on one of them with the character and building that up and having a continuing storyline.
ID: Yeah definitely, a lot of the pulp magazines that were published in Quebec were about specific characters and their continuing adventures. There was Max Beaumont, the [Elusive] Adventurer, and I’m just translating from the French, and there was the Strange Adventures of Agent IXE-13, the Ace of Canadian Spies, those kinds of guys. They were very Québécois and they were investigating mysteries, intrigue and everything in Quebec and around the Eastern Townships and the east coast of Canada. In very recognizable French Canadian settings and again dealing with French Canadian intrigue and French Canadian laws and all those sorts of things. So they were very Québécois, but they had this kinship with American pulp heroes like the Shadow or the Spider or Doc Savage or you know, Operator Five, any one of those characters that is more well known. They also borrowed a lot from the European characters that came from say, France or Italy, characters like Fantômas or
Arsène Lupin, those sorts of things. Physically the Quebec pulp magazines were different: they were smaller in size, they were maybe half the size of an English Canadian pulp magazine and usually about half the length as well. They were almost always a single story and were often published weekly as well.
BG: That’s a lot of material to pump out every week. I didn’t realize they were published and produced that often.
ID: It is a lot of material. They called them fascicule, which is a pamphlet or booklet as opposed to a pulp magazine. They almost all had black and white covers, or it was black and white with one colour, so not the big garish covers you’d see on the English Canadian pulp magazines.
BG: Right, some of the covers are quite shocking and colourful. What was the reason behind this?
ID: Yeah, the covers were designed to help sell. Basically they were designed so when they were sitting on the shelf at the corner store or the magazine stand, they wanted to scream at people walking by and say if you buy this magazine you’re going to see sex and you’re going to see violence and you’re going to read about some shocking true crime, that sort of thing. They really were designed to appeal to your basic instincts and to see behind the curtain, see the stuff you’re not supposed to see.
BG: Carolyn, who were the readers of these magazines and books?
CS: Well, it’s very difficult to map the audience, but [sic there are] suggestive pieces of information that we found. When we looked at the NLA’s wonderful collection, it is not just the magazines themselves, but some of the industry files, so how are we doing with sales to certain sectors of our readership? We found some letters to the editor, which were quite revealing, so they came from men and women. Some of them were very well written, so it’s not like some poorly educated scrawl on a scrap of paper, they would be type written. That implies that there is a cross-class appeal, but we know they were distributed primarily to newsstands, so you wouldn’t go to a highbrow bookstore and find these for sale. But that does not mean that if you were at a train station and you’re a fancy businessman or you’re a lady going to a concert that evening that you might not have just spared a dime or 20 cents, or 15 cents and tucked it into your purse or briefcase. They had an appeal across class, but they were primarily oriented and associated with a working class and lower middle class audience.
ID: Yeah, from what we can tell they were sort of cheap enough that pretty much anyone could buy them and there was a genre to appeal to everyone. Whether you were interested in science fiction or Westerns, or there were entire pulp magazines about sport stories, or you wanted romance, or whatever you were interested in, you could buy a couple hundred pages a month or a week to read and entertain yourself with.
CS: Pulp is just the medium, anything could be printed on it and anything was. In the same way that we would now walk into a bookstore and we could go to a true crimes section, they’ll often be sections that are quite explicitly labelled that way. Fifty to seventy-five years ago, we would have gone to a newsstand and just seen a bunch of cheap magazines that conveyed the same kinds of stories, but in shorter form; however, today we would also go to a crime fiction section in the same bookstore. So both deal with themes that are quite similar, such as the love gone wrong theme, the heist that goes wrong, the detective who cracks a case, etc. … But there are some that actually happened and some that are works of fiction.
BG: So we talked about the covers, but I was wondering Ian, if you could touch on and perhaps comment on the advertisements these magazines were publishing, and how they differed from newspapers at the time?
ID: Yeah, because the pulp magazines were a little less for public consumption, they were a little more targeted at an adult audience, the advertisements were definitely aimed at a more adult audience as well. You still had innocuous ads in there for all sorts of home gadgets and that sort of thing. They also offered a lot of things that would be delivered in plain brown wrappers, if you know what I mean. There were also ads for art books about how to draw from the nude, so it would be photographs of nude models that you would ostensibly be using for artistic reference and the ads had in big type that these would only be sold to art students or adults. Books with information about contraception that was technically illegal at the time to provide that if you weren’t a doctor, so it was very risqué, and those would only be sold to adults or married couples. I don’t know how they established who was a married couple or not, but you could send away and get this delivered to you. There were ads for aphrodisiac perfumes and stories about lesbian love and all sorts of risqué things that you would never be caught dead buying in a store where one of your friends or neighbours might see you, but you could send away and get this delivered to you. I guess since they were advertising in the pulps, it was good in advertising terms. I guess it was good target marketing because you knew that the people who were buying these magazines were already interested in sex and violence and all these sorts of tawdry things. So why not sell them some more.
BG: Are you aware of any instances where any of the books might have been banned if they sort of crossed that line?
ID: I’m not sure of a specific instance, although, I know that Al Valentine who was one of the largest publishers of pulp magazines really started in the business because he was doing a favour for a couple of other publishers who were facing moral charges. They weren’t actually able to print their magazines because they were facing some sort of moral charge about the content of their magazine. He had just been a printer up to that point. As a favour to them he printed their magazine for them sort of on the sly and then saw how well it sold and how much money there was to be made in it, realized that he should just go into the business himself as a publisher since he already owned the printing presses. Over the next few years he bought up all the little publishers that he could get his hands on, all the content, all the magazine lines and in the future years he became the largest publisher of pulp magazines in Canada. A lot of the collection that is at Library and Archives comes from his company.
BG: And I understand that the collection is now referred to as the Valentine collection?
ID: Yeah, as the Valentine collection.
BG: Yeah, the unofficial Valentine collection.
ID: Yes, the Valentine collection for him Al Valentine and Alval publications.
BG: I’m wondering if you can comment on pulp’s lasting impact on today’s culture. Is there one?
ID: Yes, its spores are still out there. I mean one of the more interesting ones that I discovered was that Harlequin Romance really got its start by buying up huge swaths of romance pulps, particularly in Canada. They bought those collections of romance stories, those whole libraries of those things, and started republishing those as the basis for their stories before they were ever commissioning original work. You know Harlequin is still a huge industry today and has spawned who knows how many other romance lines and that sort of thing. That’s sort of one strain that has directly led into modern day life and I think it is still finding expression in things like
Fifty Shades of Grey or whatever, like that. I mean the true crime genre sort of started in the pulp magazine, I mean obviously there was crime reporting before that, but it sort of started there before Truman Capote got a hold of it with
In Cold Blood. That sort of strain still runs through a lot of popular culture, you still see movies of the week based on true crimes and sort of ripped from the headlines TV shows. Law and Order and any sort of police procedural will sooner or later get to the point where it is like pulling stories from the real world and fictionalizing them and exploiting them for entertainment value.
BG: Who were the writers of these pulp magazines and books?
ID: That’s a good question and it is really difficult to know in a lot of cases because a lot of them were using pseudonyms and writing under a bunch of different names. A lot of them frankly weren’t putting in a lot of care or effort into the work that they were doing because they just had to crank it out to make a living. The sense that I got is that a lot of them were newspaper reporters who were doing this on the side during slow news weeks, or at the end of the day they would go home and write a 50-page story overnight and send it off to the magazines the next day. They were magazine writers who were just doing this on the side. I don’t think it was ever a terribly respectable sort of profession, so there weren’t a lot of them who stood up and said…
BG: I’m the author of this.
ID: Yeah, exactly. Again in the Canadian industry it wasn’t like there was a specific author who was identified with a really popular character because we didn’t have a lot of those continuing stories. You wouldn’t have, this is the guy who created the Shadow or something like that.
BG: Yeah. So I guess it goes on both sides too. If you weren’t the author, you weren’t claiming that you were the author of a particular book, and at the same time, the readers might not be waving their novels up saying “Hey, I’m reading this pulp fiction book” either.
ID: Right. It wasn’t a terribly respected profession and reading the pulp magazines wasn’t necessarily something that polite people did, or I guess I should say it’s not something that polite people didn’t do, but maybe it was something that polite people didn’t admit to doing.
BG: You know after 1952 when this medium started to die out in Canada, what was the impact and why did that happen?
ID: Well, I mean there a couple of factors that really led to the decline of the pulps. The first was that after World War II, the War Exchange Conservation Act was repealed. It was briefly replaced by another act, but that was repealed as well. Once the Canadian economy was stable enough, all of the American pulp magazines started flowing back across the border and the Canadian pulps just couldn’t compete, they didn’t have the giant publishing companies behind them. They didn’t have the big popular characters that you would hear about, the Shadow on the radio and you want to read the Shadow magazine. So, they didn’t have the name recognition, the money, or the size behind them.
BG: I understand that you were heavily involved with the content development for Library and Archives Canada’s website
Tales from the Vault! I’m wondering if you could tell us about the website and more of what it was about.
ID: Yeah, the website was an opportunity to sort of peer inside Library and Archives’ pulp art and fiction collection. It is one of the very few pulp magazine collections in all of Canada especially that contains Canadian content and Canadian pulp magazines. It contains a lot of magazines, but there are also original manuscripts, which are fascinating, cover art, proofs of covers, and photos and newspapers and magazine clippings all about pulp fiction. There are also some pocket novels and serials, it’s all sort of content written between the 1940s and 1952, around there.
BG: Well, this has been very interesting and it’s been great talking to you.
ID: Thanks for having me. I’m happy to have had a chance to come back and revisit this. It was one of the more interesting projects that I’ve had the chance to work on.
BG: Well, thanks again.
ID: Thank you.
If you’d like to learn more about Library and Archives Canada’s pulp collection, please visit us online at
. On our home page, select Discover the Collection and then select Literature. On this page, you will find a link to our Web exhibition
Tales from the Vault!
Be sure to also consult the page for this episode on our podcast website to find our list of English and French pulp titles that you can use to search via our Library Search engine.
Thank you for joining us. I’m your guest host, Beth Greenhorn, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Ian Driscoll and Carolyn Strange.