Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Quantity is Quality

The writers I tend to enjoy most are those who have emitted a vast word hoard. Sure, Stephen King may crank out a doorstop-sized concrete block of a book every year, and the late Stieg Larsson reportedly dropped all three volumes of his "Millenium Trilogy" on his publisher in one big dump. But that's nothing compared to some of the greatest authors of pulp fiction, whose prodigious output seemed to defy the laws of physics.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance, left behind a staggering body of work, composed under the influence of brandy and Cubebs. Not just that humdrum Tarzan stuff, but engrossing science fiction-fantasy works like his Moon, Mars and Venus series. For decades I dismissed ERB as "that Tarzan guy" and not being worth my time, and now that I've wised up midlife, I fear I may not finish digesting the man's wondrous oeuvre before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

The collected works of Robert E. Howard would fill a room, ranging from well-known fantasy stories (Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn) to boxing series (check out the highly politically incorrect Steve Costigan series, about a sea-faring boxer - shades of Popeye), and western series like Breckinridge Elkins, Steve Allison the Sonora Kid, and El Borak.

I love Howard not for his sword-and-sorcery bits but for his Steve Harrison series (he evidently had a thing about the name "Steve"), all about a detective who encounters some rather weird cases in his journeys through tales like Graveyard Rats, Fangs of Gold, and Names in the Black Book.

And he did it all, perhaps, for the one and only love of his life, Novalyne Price.

And that there Lafayette R. Hubbard guy, aka "Kurt Von Rachen", aka "Winchester Remington Colt", aka "Legionnaire 14830", was probably the most prolific of them all, cranking out scores of books in serialized form via pulp magazines such as Argosy before he become known for, shall we say, other pursuits. Unlike most of his pulp-fiction peers, however, those early works were never reprinted in his lifetime and only recently have been made available again.

But is all this mass-quantity pulp stuff any good? I say emphatically yes. As a voracious consumer, I am thrilled to sit down to a good meal of a tall stack of books. I'm a fast reader and a quick study, and I like it when writers can keep those literary flapjacks a-comin' to match my appetite.

I was unfortunately born after the golden era of pulp magazines, however, so my point of introduction to the genre of epiphanous-text-overload (I think I'm going to have to coin a new term for this soon) was the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. As a child, I had probably three quarters of the Hardy Boys books, which was closer to having the whole set than anyone I knew. (Ralph Bowling, wherever you are out there, you still have my copy of The Twisted Claw I lent you in fourth grade and I still want it back.)

Theoretically, the Hardy Boys books were for boys and the Nancy Drew books were for girls, but I read them both. The styles of Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene seemed so similar, and of course that's because both were pseudonyms behind which stood the same bunch of hacks at the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Grosset & Dunlap.
After a couple bottles of Coca-cola and an entire MSG-laden bag of Doritos, it was hard to tell the difference between Keene's Secret of the Old Clock and Dixon's While the Clock Ticked anyway.

Will there ever be a popular series like the Hardy Boys again? I sincerely doubt it. Nowadays kids are so full of Nutrasweet and Prozac that they can't read the directions on a pack of microwave popcorn, let alone a novel, let alone a series of novels that takes up two shelves.

Of course, Drew and the Hardys were neither the first nor the best in youth-oriented book series. As a child I had a special fondness for the Danny Dunn series, which was aimed at science nerds. There were only fifteen books in the Dunn series, beginning with Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint in 1956 and ending with
Danny Dunn and the Universal Glue in 1977.

Although the Dunn books were very well written and meticulously crafted, I would have preferred they put a little less effort into the process and doubled their output.

And then there's the 33 volumes of the Tom Swift Jr. series, a dazzling science-fiction tour de force that ran from 1954-1971, and that's one small part of the over 100 volumes of Tom Swift adventures beginning in 1910, spanning five different series of books. These five Swift series, by themselves, could keep a happy seeker of the Crap of the Ages and the Dregs of Comicdom satisfied for years to come.

But probably the greatest "word hoard" author of them all, for my yankee dollar, would be Harry Stephen Keeler, who got his start in the Pulps but soon began generating a baffling array of novels infamous for their lack of internal logic. Most people who read Keeler for the first time, myself included, are convinced that they must be reading a surrealist parody of the pulp-mystery genre. This idea is seemingly bolstered by over-the-top titles like The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, The Case of the Lavender Gripsack, The Riddle of the Wooden Parakeet, and The Mysterious Ivory Ball of Wong Shing Li. It is cemented even further by run-on passages that reek of mental illness, such as:

"Now, local-colourist, we can eat up-town at an air-cooler place--rather half-way de luxe, too, for a town like this--or we can eat at a joint outside the gates where a hundred sweat-encrusted mill-workers, every one with a peeled garlic bean laid alongside his plate, will inhale soup like the roar of forty Niagras, and crunch victuals like a half-hundred concrete mixers all running at once. Which--for you?"

God bless him, Mr. Keeler - who hammered these pearls out of his typewriter by night while working in a steel mill by day - produced dozens of confused/confusing works in his lifespan. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr. and Franklin W. Dixon, Keeler's determination to tell his stories did not pause for consideration - or, it seems, second drafts.

Who will be the Harry Stephen Keeler of our age? I fear it must be me. A ghost butler told me so in the bathroom last night while he was wiping Advocaat off my coat. And he should know; he's always been here.

- - JSH


keeline said...

The first Tom Swift series (1910-1941) had 40 volumes, including the two Whitman Better Little Books. The second series, Tom Swift Jr., was 33 books. The last three series had 11, 15, and 6 books.

For the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, most people prefer the "original text" versions instead of the "revised text" versions. The OT versions have 25 chapters, about 214 pages, and copyrights before 1959 for the earlier volumes. The RT versions have 20 chapters, 180 pages and copyrights of 1959 or later. The first 34 Nancy Drew and first 37 Hardy Boys have OT and RT stories for a given title.

James Keeline

Transylvania Gentlemen said...

Yeah, I grew up with the revised versions so I have the best of both worlds - I got to enjoy the simplified versions at a formative age and subsequently got to re-experience them in their prior, more richly textured antiquated editions much later :)


Taranaich said...

Funnily enough, Steve Costigan and Popeye both first appeared in 1929, though Popeye appeared a few months before Costigan in print (January and July respectively).

Howard didn't just write for Price, though: he was an established and successful writer before he even met her.

Benson said...

Fun article. I share your love for all those wrters. H.P. Lovecraft is probably my favorite of all the old pulp guys. I know he wasnt prolific like the others but he was one of the greats.