A chill up the spine

September 1st, 2008 Features, Men's Style

Dime store novels are a cultural institution in the US and surviving examples make very charming curios. From the cheap newsprint interior to the huge starburst promising such thrills for mere pennies, they’re the crossroads of cheesy kitsch and literary history appreciation.

But few people know there was a thriving Australian pulp fiction industry that proliferated from the war years right through the 1950s. Newsagents and barbershops were once littered with thrilling tales of romance, sci-fi, western and intrigue by authoritative-sounding authors like Ace Carter, Marshall Grover and Johnnie Nelson — almost all of them pseudonyms.

Made to be read quickly and discarded, few still exist today. And if not for the work of the National Library and some dedicated academics and collectors, few would know the scene ever existed.

In 1939, American fiction magazine imports were undercutting local production. It prompted artists, writers and publishers to lobby for tariffs to stem the tide, and a thriving new market sprang up to slake the public’s voracious thirst for cheap, short fiction.

Up to a dozen Sydney-based small comic or magazine presses morphed into pulp fiction publishers. Many produced upwards of 20 titles a month, most of them written, printed and on sale within weeks.

Facing a shortage of writers, the industry roped amateurs into service in a hurry. One was Gordon Bleeck, a rail worker in Sydney’s eastern suburbs who supplemented his income meeting the incredible demands of publishers such as Cleveland and Horwitz.

Bleeck and his contemporaries were production line factory workers, a world away from today’s literary artistes who take ten years to perfect one book. An August 1950 extract from his diary (kept by the National Library along with his ledger covering a 21-year writing career) describes how an editor rang ‘for 12,000 word boxing, 10,000 racing and 6,000 other sport [stories]. In 3 or 4 weeks.’

A typical project of Bleeck’s (the 24,000 word Space Race) was commissioned on January 19, 1950, finished by January 24 and the typed copy submitted to his publisher the day after. For his efforts he’d receive anywhere between ¬£20-40 per story and over the course of his career, Bleeck wrote hundreds of them.

The briefs from publishers were extremely tight, a modus operandi that today exists only in the romance fiction industry. Commissions often included instructions to include one blonde, one brunette and one redhead, for example. The language was light and racy, the plots fast paced and because of the breakneck turnaround times, they were frequently riddled with errors of grammar and continuity.

After the protectionist stance stopped the flood of American imports, many of the stories that replaced them were indeed Australian, but they still unashamedly reflected the times. In the 1940s when the land was still our biggest concern, Aussie westerns about gold prospecting and bushrangers proliferated. In the post-war years they were about mad scientists and nuclear war.

Several publishers saw the burgeoning appeal of the American noir movement and asked their writers to create American stories. Few readers realised their favourite characters like intrepid traveller Carl Dekker and insurance investigator Johnny Buchanan were coming from the minds and manual typewriters of — among others — an Eastlakes rail worker.

One of the reasons pulp fiction novels of the era make such great collectibles is because of the distinctive cover art, most of it churned out with the pace and ferocity of the text. Think of the artistic style of 50s-era Chesty Bond — chisel-jawed, robustly built and with a smoking, scantily clad dame swooning near him.

Produced under similar conditions as the stories, the covers were turned around in record time and matched up with the book during production. Often commissioned only using the story’s title, the sometime result was a book like One Sided Romance, a novel about a British milliner that featured totally unrelated cover art of a pretty girl cavorting on the beach with surf lifesaver. At other times, the two processes fell out of step with each other and stories were commissioned based on a cover that had already been done.

Then, it all stopped virtually overnight. The import restrictions were lifted in 1959 and American pulp magazines and comics flooded the country again, falling out of fashion altogether soon after as TV conquered middle Australia. And with a dire shortage of company records, very little original artwork or text remains.


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