Black Mask Library


Black Mask: An Introduction

By Keith Alan Deutsch


This 
essay originally appeared as the introduction to the essential anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Books, 2010). It serves as the finest overview of the history of Black Mask Magazine and of the writing it inspired and fostered.

Black Mask

This panoramic collection of stories and novels from Black Mask Magazine (1920 to 1951) is the most comprehensive presentation of the hard-boiled tradition of writing ever published from this great magazine. I believe this is a significant publishing event because Black Mask Magazine introduced the hard-boiled detective, and a new style of narration, to American literature.

          In many ways, Black Mask Magazine took the nineteenth century American Western tale of outlaws and vigilante justice from its home on the range in dime novels, and transplanted that mythic tale to the crooked streets of America’s emerging twentieth century cities. It introduced a new landscape for both American adventures of justice, and also a new kind of narration told with the vernacular language of the streets, and featuring new urban villains, and urban (if not always urbane) heroes for the mystery story.

          The first hard-boiled detectives were men of the city all: Carroll John Daly’s Three Gun Terry and Race Williams appeared primarily on the wild streets of New York, talking wise, and walking that eternal tough guy detective line between the law and the outlaw. The first great detective narrator of the new hard-boiled fiction, Dashiell Hammett’s professional lawman, the Continental Op (the first Op tale is included in this collection) operated famously in San Francisco, as did Hammett’s iconic detective, Sam Spade.

          Surprisingly, soon after the publication of The Maltese Falcon Gertrude Stein declared Hammett, not Hemingway, the originator of the modern American, declarative, narrative sentence.

          Arguably, the greatest stylist of the hard-boiled genre, Raymond Chandler, observed such a fully realized, and corrupting Los Angeles landscape in his poetic vision of the Black Mask detective tale, that his writing has become the literary standard for all of twentieth century narratives of that city, or of any other American city.

          All of this said, I do not mean to imply that the hard-boiled Black Mask detective always operated in a big city.

          Race Williams’ first appearance in the magazine in 1923, "Knights of the Open Palm," took place in a southern, rural setting, and featured the KKK for Black Mask’s all KKK issue! In 1925, Hammett’s San Francisco Op headed out to Arizona for what was billed by Black Mask editors as "A Western Detective Novelette" in the story, "Corkscrew." This tale, by the way, might be considered a warm up for what I consider to be the Op’s finest novel, Red Harvest, a kind of western town, gang showdown which inspired Akira Kurosawa’s film, Yojimbo, and the Sergio Leone "Man with No Name" series of western films.

          In this regard, it should be noted that through the 1920s and 1930s, Black Mask continued to feature western adventure tales, often mixed with hard-boiled detective elements, notably in Erle Stanley Gardener’s seven Black Barr bandit stories, Nels Leroy Jorgenson’s thirty-two (!) gambling Black Burton tales, and in Horace McCoy’s thirteen Jerry Frost of the Texas Air Ranger border mysteries.

Black Mask Westerns

          Also of note for his decidedly screwball southern gothic tales of logical detection is Merle Constiner’s Memphis-based Luther McGavock whose eleven oddball adventures all take place in the most rural of settings, and are often filled with local country vernacular, and regional folkways.

          The new urban mythology of the hard-boiled American hero, with his street-wise language, tough and often dark vision of a corrupt society, immediately influenced the popular American entertainments of radio and silent film. As early as the October 1922 issue of Black Mask the incipient playwright, Robert E. Sherwood began a movie review column, "Film Thrillers."

          After 1926, when Joseph Shaw took over editing chores, he regularly pitched and sold stories and plots from his favorite contributors for screen adaptation to the emerging Warner Brothers studio.

          Both the hard-boiled and the noir genres invented in Black Mask by writers who wrote for the magazine, and later wrote for radio and film in the 1930s and 1940s, and finally for television in the 1950s, still inform many of the genres that dominate our entertainments in all our modern, digital media from computer games to global film franchises.

          Every period from the magazine’s influential history is represented in this definitive anthology. All but a few historically significant stories of the more than fifty tales in the collection have never been reprinted before.

          One story, "Luck," by Lester Dent, is an unpublished discovery of some note: a completely rewritten version of Dent’s often anthologized, and much praised classic tale, "Sail" which is introduced for the first time in this volume thanks to the help of Will Murray, and Dent’s estate.

          Also newsworthy is the first book publication of three major Black Mask novels in their original serialized format with Arthur Rodman Bowker’s magnificent illustrated headings, and all the original editorial comments to each segment. The iconic The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, the legendary Fast One by Paul Cain, and the long lost Rainbow Murders by Raoul Whitfield are alone worth the price of admission to this generous collection.

          Included also are many of the most popular series characters that were featured over the years: Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Race Williams, Mike Shayne, Flashgun Casey, Bill Lennox (Hollywood Trouble-shooter), Oliver Quade (The Human Encyclopedia), Ed Jenkins (The Phantom Crook), Jo Gar (The Little Island Detective), Jerry Frost of the Texas Air Rangers, Kennedy and MacBride of Richmond City, and Raymond Chandler’s precursor to Philip Marlow.

          Also in the line-up, most for the first time in any book, are less well-known recurring characters who in their time were an important mainstay of the magazine’s identity, and who still retain their original charm: Black Mask’s first series character, Ray Cummings’ "honest" underworld rogue, Timothy McGuirk, who starred in fourteen tales from 1922 to 1926; the first of D. L. Champion’s twenty-six funny tales starring Rex Sackler; Dale Clark’s house dick O’Hanna appeared in twenty-eight stories; Baynard Kendrick’s first of fourteen Miles Standish Rice tales; the first of Julius Long’s seventeen Ben Corbett tales; one of seven Cellini Smith mysteries by Robert Reeves, (typically titled "Blood, Sweat, and Biers" by Ken S. White, Black Mask’s editor in the 1940s); one of nine "Special Squad" stories by Stewart Sterling that each feature an expert division of the New York Police Department; and one of Theodore A. Tinsley’s twenty-five tales starring the wise-cracking newspaper columnist, Jerry Tracy.

          These series characters provided continuity to the run of the magazine issues, and helped maintain readership interest. When featured on the cover, Race Williams, Ed Jenkins, or the Continental Op could increase newsstand sales by ten percent or more.

Black Mask

           Speaking of popularity, it should be noted that Black Mask Magazine quite early on developed a deserved reputation for attracting the most distinguished and respected thinkers and writers among its readership.

          As I have already said, Gertrude Stein loved hard-boiled detective fiction, "and how it moves along and Dashiell Hammett was all that and more." Other intellectuals living in France praised Hammett for his moral ambiguity and how all the characters try to deceive each other and those siren woman characters, but Gertrude Stein went further and called this Hammett kind of detective story "the only really modern novel form."

          Similarly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great twentieth century Cambridge University philosopher, loved hard-boiled detective stories, but unlike Gertrude Stein, he favored Black Mask’s inimitably wry Norbert Davis, with whom he tried to correspond unsuccessfully. Wittgenstein raved to friends about Davis’ first novel, Mouse in the Mountain (1943). He said hard-boiled detective stories were like "fresh air" compared to "stuffy" English mystery tales. When these hard-boiled detective stories became hard to get during World War II, he wrote: ‘If the United States won’t give us detective mags, we can’t give them philosophy, and America will be the loser in the end."

          No less a critic than Raymond Chandler also favored Norbert Davis’ Black Mask fiction. He even studied Davis’ early stories while practicing to write his own first detective tale. Despite Davis’ penchant for humor, Chandler considered Davis’ work to be "noteworthy and characteristic of the most vigorous days" of Black Mask.

          Even before Hammett’s first novels were published as books in 1929, and certainly by the time The Maltese Falcon ran in the magazine in 1929 and 1930, Black Mask Magazine was being read and discussed by notable readers around the world.

          In an interview with editor Joseph Shaw in Author & Composer Magazine in August 1932, Ed Bodin (a pulp fiction agent of the time) mentions that Black Mask is read in the White House.

          By February of 1934, in Writer’s Review, in an article called "Are Pulp Readers Kid-Minded?" Joseph Shaw is quoted as "receiving letters from the most intelligent people in the country," and reporting "President Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan and Herbert Hoover read Black Mask for relaxation."

          In Philadelphia, as a graduate student on tour of their late residence (now a museum), I discovered that Philip Rosenbach and his younger brother Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach the preeminent dealers of rare books, manuscripts and decorative arts during the first half of the twentieth century, were, from early in its run, Black Mask Magazine subscribers and collectors.

          More than any other pulp fiction magazine, Black Mask was recognized for the quality, and for the cultural significance of its writing. With the growing literary reputations of Hammett and Chandler, now generally accepted as major American writers of the twentieth century, Black Mask’s cultural significance continues to grow.

Black Mask

II. A PERSONAL HISTORY OF BLACK MASK MAGAZINE


Over the years since I first edited and produced the last newsstand issue of Black Mask Magazine in 1974, I have been asked many times to tell how I acquired the rights to this famous magazine. Because the history of Black Mask is intimately entangled in the history of fiction magazines in America, I thought I would tell my own personal history of Black Mask against an idiosyncratic history of American magazine publishing.

          The first great magazine person I met was Adrian Lopez.   He was my publisher for Black Mask, and I remember with great fondness the hours I spent at his side listening to stories about magazine history.  Starting in the 1940’s, Adrian published magazines for over sixty years, including Sir, True, Laff, Real Crime, Surfing, and Lady’s Circle.  He had been a newspaper reporter, and a pulp fiction author in the 1930’s.  He told me he had written for Black Mask, Dime Detective, Argosy, and many other pulps.  But I have only been able to confirm that he wrote under his own name for Gangster Stories.

          One of the first lessons of pulp magazine publishing is that much information has been left off of the magazine’s masthead, and contents pages.  One of the most perplexing problems facing a pulp fiction historian is the endless and confusing array of pseudonyms, and house names, authors hide behind. 

          As a matter of fact, both Dashiell Hammett, and Erle Stanley Gardner, made their first appearances in Black Mask in the early 1920’s under pseudonyms, Peter Collinson, and Charles M. Green, respectively. In the early 1930’s, Raoul Whitfield often appeared twice in one issue of Black Mask, once under his own name, and once as Ramon DeColta under which all his famous Jo Gar stories appeared.  Many pulps had house names that were used by any writer as needed whenever he had already contributed a story to an issue.  But not Black Mask.  Very few writers appeared twice in one issue of Black Mask under any name.  An exception I discovered is the tale, “Long Live the Dead” by Allen Beck.  It was actually written by Hugh B. Cave, but “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which is included in this collection, also appeared in that same December 1938 issue of Black Mask, and the editors gave Hugh a pen name for that one issue.  Even E. R. Hagemann, who compiled the meticulous index of record, A Comprehensive Index to Black Mask, 1920-1951 (Bowling Green 1981) missed that pseudonym.

          Few writers kept records of all their pen names, and it makes setting the record straight difficult.  Prentice Winchell, who wrote famously for Black Mask as Stewart Sterling, was kind enough to send me a long list of his pen names in the early 1970’s.  Hugh B. Cave kept meticulous records, and I have published a partial bibliography of his writings and pseudonyms in Long Live the Dead (Crippen & Landru 2000).  But this kind of magazine detective work is always hit and miss.

          I was lucky exploring and detecting the past of magazine publishing, and especially the history of Black Mask Magazine.  When I suggested to Adrian Lopez that we bring back Black Mask in 1973, he was excited.  Not only did he like the idea, he knew the man who could help us.  His good friend, David Geller, had acquired Popular Publications, Inc., then the current owner of Black Mask, and forty or so other pulp magazines.  None were being published.  World War II and the rise of paperback books had killed them all.

          That David Geller, who was a magazine advertising man, and never a magazine editor or publisher, ended up proprietor of a treasure chest of famous pulp fiction titles, and hundreds of thousands of intellectual property rights in stories and art in which he had little interest, reveals something about the power and the vulnerability of advertising in the cultural history of twentieth century magazine publishing. 

          As Adrian Lopez explained it to me, people like Geller placed direct mail order advertisements in magazines, and these direct mail pitches were often more successful commercial enterprises than publishing the magazines themselves.  Geller was one of the best advertising placement men, representing himself, and other advertisers, and as magazines began to fail, he found it profitable to take them over from desperate publishers in order to maintain these publications just for the advertising revenue. Magazines that were losing money on subscriptions, and newsstand sales, could still be profitable. David Geller Associates is still a major player in direct response magazine advertising, and today represent a monthly marketplace of over 200 million readers.

          And so, with David Geller’s backing, I soon found myself at the editorial offices of Popular Publications, seeking magazine mysteries deep in the complete run of the original bound publisher’s volumes of Black Mask Magazine.  By 1973 when I visited, Popular had been reduced from one of the greatest pulp fiction houses of all time to primarily the publisher of Argosy, then a large circulation, general interest magazine that featured factual articles, and popular fiction starring famous characters like James Bond, Shane, and Captain Horatio Hornblower. 

          Actually, as I discuss later in detail, Argosy had been the very first pulp fiction magazine, started in the 1890’s by Frank A. Munsey whose company went on to produce myriad classic pulp fiction magazines. In 1942, Popular Publications, under the guidance of its founder Henry Steeger, acquired all of the Frank A. Munsey Co. pulp titles.  Two years earlier in 1940, Steeger had acquired Black Mask Magazine, which he considered the jewel of the pulps, from Black Mask’s original publisher, Pro-Distributors Publishing Company, Inc.

          The name of Black Mask Magazine’s original publisher is significant, and has been overlooked by many historians.  In the first decades of the twentieth century, as pulp fiction and slick magazines became designed commodities sold in the national marketplace as impulse items, the national distribution network grew in importance.  Like newspaper distribution on a local city scale, magazine distribution was a tough business on a regional and national scale, and winning good display space could be a battle.

          Much has been made of H. L. Mencken’s role as the originating publisher of Black Mask.  Despite Mencken’s own assertions of original ownership, nowhere on any masthead does Mr. Mencken’s name appear, nor does his alleged initiating partner, George Jean Nathan’s name appear.  Although Black Mask’s address in the first issue is given as 25 West 45th Street in New York, the same as Smart Set, which was edited by Mencken and Nathan, Smart Set was published and owned by Eltinge F. “Pop” Warner and Eugene F. Crowe.  “Pop” Warner also owned Pro-Distributors Publishing Company.

          I could never find a chain of title that indicated that ownership in Black Mask, or Pro-Distributors went back to Mencken.  That doesn’t mean I do not find his statements credible.  In fact, given his stated distaste for the early issues, and the rather lackluster editing done by F. M. Osborne, a woman also on the staff of Smart Set, I believe Mencken did help start up Black Mask.  What is certain is that Pro-Distributors Publishing Company, Inc. was publisher of record from 1920 until 1940 when Harry Steeger acquired Black Mask for Popular Publications.

          Eltinge “Pop” Warner, who is usually overlooked by commentators, must be given some credit for the success of Black Mask Magazine. Warner acquired Field & Stream Magazine from its founders in 1906, and ran that publication so successfully that it is now one of the oldest continuously published magazines in America, and still going strong with an estimated ten million circulation today!  Warner had a sure hand as a publisher.

          As an aspiring publisher myself, I took about three months to study Black Mask in preparation for assembling my first issue. The formative issues of the magazine, from 1922 to 1924, after George W. Sutton, Jr. takes over as editor with H. C. North as assistant editor, contain letters by Dashiell Hammett describing his life and professional experiences, or his struggles to improve his writing. There is a vibrant dialogue between editors, readers, and writers of the new fiction.  And once the original, illustrated headings and illustrated capital initials by that genius of dry brush, Arthur Rodman Bowker, are later added to the mix, the magazine soars.

          I was struck by the power of these illustrations, and also by the dynamic way in which these original, early editors introduced the stories in their headings, and in editorial comments, and in response to letters written by the contributors.  Sutton and North, and later Phil Cody, are interesting, and intelligent editors, setting trends before the advent of the more famous, Joseph Shaw.

           Popular Publications was an interesting place for me to study, filled with thousands of issues of perfectly maintained pulp magazine issues of every genre imaginable.  I became interested in the magazine publishing context in which Black Mask hit its stride in the late 1920’s and through the 1930’s.  I studied the bound volumes through the 1940’s when Popular Publications took Black Mask over.

          I discovered that Harry Steeger, late Popular’s creative publisher, now had a small office in the Graybar Building near Grand Central Station. When I told Mr. Steeger I was preparing to edit and produce a new newsstand issue of Black Mask, he invited me over to talk, and we became great magazine friends.

          Harry Steeger had two brilliant ideas which contributed greatly to Popular’s success:  First, inspired by Grand Guignol theater which he had seen in France, Steeger created Dime Mystery, a new kind of pulp which along with its later companion titles Horror Stories, and Terror Tales, started the "Shudder Pulp" publishing phenomenon. Second, Steeger understood the essential marketing psychology that gave birth to the pulp fiction magazine, that readers wanted exciting entertainment reading value; and so Steeger decided to title most of his fiction genre magazines with a value reminder using “Dime”: Dime Detective, Dime Adventure, Dime Western, and so on.  He told me that his appeal to value was one of his great strategies, and led to his extraordinary publishing success.  In fact, Steeger’s Dime Detective became Black Mask’s only true rival in the hard-boiled detective field.

          Steeger was a brilliant editor.  He explained how he raised his rates to attract writers who had long been associated with Black Mask to his magazines, especially Dime Detective. After the firing of Joseph Shaw from Black Mask in 1936, Steeger was able to attract even more famous Black Mask writers to his magazines.  Raymond Chandler was probably his greatest catch.  But Steeger also started increasing the number of series characters in Dime Detective so writers would have a steady venue to place heroes who became familiar in the magazine.  And Steeger demanded that these new characters be exclusive to Dime Detective.  Once he acquired Black Mask in 1940, he could use all his techniques on both of his hard-boiled magazines.

          Like Munsey, Steeger was a magazine genius in his own right.  In 1943, one year after he acquired Argosy from Munsey, Steeger changed the publication to a slick magazine.  As an editor and a publisher Steeger had innovative vision.  He saw that the pulp market was fading in the 1940’s.  By the beginning of the 1950’s when Black Mask and most pulps had stopped publishing, Steeger had evolved Argosy into one of the largest circulation, general interest magazines in the country.  He was now making a fortune on advertising.  Something a slick could do more easily than a rough paper pulp.  By the early 1950’s, a single color page of advertising sold for over $5,000 in Argosy. And so when David Geller became interested in Argosy, as a major advertising medium for both direct response, and for display advertising, Steeger sold all of his interest in Popular.

          In the early 1970’s when I interviewed Steeger, I noted that general interest magazines were fading.  Under David Geller’s editors, Argosy was losing its luster, it seemed to me.  Steeger remained confident, and told me that if he was editing it he could attract a massive circulation again.

          At some point in my Black Mask preparations I remembered that I had seen Black Mask on the masthead of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, a publication started by the surviving member of the Ellery Queen writing team, Fred Dannay.  EQMM was started in the 1940’s as the pulps were fading, but it was carefully and beautifully edited, and it was a success, and continues to this day.  Dannay had been a friend of Dashiell Hammett’s during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and kept Hammett’s Black Mask stories in print in a series of Dell Paperback books, and in EQMM.  Always an excellent historian of mystery and detective fiction, Dannay saw a need to keep the hard-boiled tradition alive in the more sedate pages of his magazine, and decided to include Black Mask on his masthead, keeping alive in a modest way the title and the good will, and also giving him a department to feature tougher, darker stories by writers like Hammett and Cornell Woolrich.

          So I contacted Joel Davis, the publisher of EQMM, and also the son of the founder of the famous magazine publishing house, Ziff Davis.  Joel said I needed the permission of Fred Dannay, and Mr. Dannay and I had a number of pleasant conversations, and I negotiated the purchase of the name and good will of Black Mask Magazine, which Dannay had acquired from Steeger in the early 1950’s.

          During this time of preparation, I had been talking to the great literary agencies that had been around during the pulp days.  I spoke with Carl Brandt of Brandt and Brandt, and Lurton Blassingham, both of whom had represented Black Mask contributors in the 1930’s.  I spent a day in Rafael DeSoto’s studio interviewing a man I consider the greatest Black Mask cover artist of the late 1930’s and 1940’s.  He spoke widely about other pulp cover artists, interior illustrators, editors, and publishers at many of the great pulp magazine houses. I spoke to writers, too, like Curt Siodmak who serialized his novel Donovan’s Brain for Black Mask in 1942. Curt had also scripted noir and horror films like Val Lewton’s I Walk with a Zombie, and Universal’s Wolfman that made a lasting impact on popular entertainment.

Black Mask

          Word about my project got around.  Lillian Hellman, Hammett’s executrix, contacted me through Don Congdon, an influential agent.  Lillian Hellman allowed me to reprint a Hammett Continental Op story in return for certain research I had done in the Black Mask stacks.  Helga Green, Raymond Chandler’s executrix, asked me to share my Raymond Chandler letters and information with Frank MacShane, a professor at Columbia, who was writing an authorized, critical biography of Chandler.  Steven Marcus, another professor at Columbia, got in touch with me through Hellman.  He was writing an introduction and editing a new collection of Hammett stories from Black Mask.  It turned out that neither Marcus nor MacShane knew each other or their work on Black Mask fiction.  I introduced them and we all met for a talk at Columbia.

          I became friends with Prudence Whitfield, and bought a few stories for the magazine from her.  In time she told me wonderful stories about how Dashiell Hammett, evidently her lover, had written lines in Lillian Hellman’s plays.  Hammett and Raoul Whitfield had been friends since the early 1920;s, and when Prudence came along and married Raoul, she became one of the “hard drinking boys.”  She loaned me about ten unpublished Whitfield stories, but asked me not to copy them.  I am sorry to say that I returned them without making copies.

          In time Adrian decided not to continue publishing Black Mask, even though I had produced a second issue ready to go to press, and the first issue had done well on the stands, and even garnered a spread in The Philadelphia Inquirer under the headline: “Black Mask Returns to the Newsstand.” The reasons for abandoning the project are complex, and no longer important.  After my one issue came out, I received queries from many writers, and also Hollywood people.  I continued working on Black Mask.  I had a number of telephone conversations with James M. Cain who wanted me to make it clear that he was not a hard-boiled writer, and he did not want to be lumped in with Hammett and the Black Mask boys.  He considered his major theme one of sexual passion driving and corrupting behavior between a man and a woman in a doomed relationship.

          In the late 1970’s, when the Filipacchi Group (now Hachette Filipacchi Magazines) came to the United States from France to produce a fated, new edition of Look Magazine, they bought Popular Publications from David Geller in order to acquire Argosy.  Through mutual acquaintances in publishing, I met their international attorney, Didier Guerin, and after a number of talks, he made it clear that they wanted to sell a few of Popular’s publications like Camera 35, which was still making money; and also Railroad Magazine, which had been the first special interest pulp magazine started by Munsey in the 1880’s.  Amazingly it was still making money.  They did not know what to do with the pulps.  So we made a deal.  They agreed that despite my ownership of the name Black Mask through purchase from EQMM, they would transfer all interest, title, and good will in Black Mask, and all the copyrights to all the fiction, and all the art to me.  They also transferred certain intellectual property rights to all the original Popular Publications pulps Harry Steeger had originated, and all the Munsey pulps Steeger had purchased in the 1940’s.  This acquisition also included some Street and Smith pulps Popular acquired in 1949.  In exchange I gave service, and other consideration, to the Filipacchi Group, that had assumed the name Popular Publications International when it purchased David Geller’s holdings, and I also helped them sell Railroad Magazine in return for my Popular intellectual property rights.

           Since those days, I have licensed many stories from Black Mask for book publication.  I initiated a Black Mask Magazine web site, blackmaskmagazine.com in 2000.  In 2007, I licensed back to EQMM, now published by Dell, the right to run a Black Mask Department.  And coming out this Christmas 2008 will be the first CD issue of Black Mask Audio Magazine, full cast dramatizations with sound effects, and music of classic Black Mask tales produced with Blackstone Audio.  Included will be a full-length performance of The Maltese Falcon authorized by Dashiell Hammett’s estate.

 

Black Mask 1920

          For those readers who are interested in how the stage was set for the appearance of Black Mask Magazine in 1920, here are a number of observations and facts about fiction magazines in America that may put my more personal history, above, in perspective.

          Prior to the Civil War, magazines, like newspapers (which also published fiction), were local affairs primarily associated with cities.  For example, all of the magazines that published Edgar Allen Poe’s fiction during the 1830’s and 1840’s were sold through subscription lists, and published for readers near cities like Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia.  At most, such publications had no more than 3,000 subscribers.

          Even Charles Dickens, whose novels were serialized in magazines, and who became the first popular fiction sensation in America in the 1840’s, only reached a small segment of the American population.

          It was not until the American Civil War that literacy in the United States blossomed to numbers that would support a true mass market for magazine fiction.  But it was the dime novel (five and ten cent weekly libraries of rough paper books), and not magazines, that first found a regional, and then a national audience for fiction during the last half of the nineteenth century.

          Although it is primarily the American West that provides the mythology for most dime novel fiction, the second favorite theme of these first mass market American fiction publications was crime and detection in the great cities, particularly New York.   These two major themes of nineteenth century dime novel fiction, those that feature the American cowboy hero of the bright plains, or those that feature the American detective hero of the dark cities, became the two great streams of popular fiction and popular culture in the twentieth century America.

Black Mask WesternsBlack Mask Cityscape

          The longest running American detective hero, Street and Smith’s Nick Carter, got his start in an 1886 dime novel that was so popular the character was featured in a weekly dime novel series, the Nick Carter Library.  In 1915 it became Street & Smith's first mystery pulp, Detective Story Magazine.  Similarly, in 1919, the dime novel series starring the iconic hero, Buffalo Bill, the New Buffalo Bill Weekly, became Street and Smith’s first western pulp, Western Story Magazine.

          But it was not Street and Smith that killed the dime novel.  It was a genius of American magazine publishing, Frank Andrew Munsey (1854-1925) who invented the American pulp fiction magazine, and ended the reign of the crudely designed dime novel.  In 1896 Munsey’s Argosy Magazine became the first true pulp, switching to an all-fiction format of 192 pages on seven-by-ten inch untrimmed paper.  With a cover price of less than half (10 cents) of more exclusive (twenty-five cent) slick paper magazines, circulation grew like a revelation, and by 1903 Argosy sold half a million copies per month.

          Munsey was first to take the new high-speed printing presses to print on inexpensive, pulp paper to produce large runs of genre fiction magazines at discounted cover prices that attracted a large, working class readership that could not afford and was not interested in the content of more expensive, slick paper magazines.  Munsey also saw that large circulation could attract advertising as a major source of publishing income.  The Argosy for December 1907 provides a wonderful history of the magazine, and of Munsey’s publishing struggles, “told” by Munsey.

          Modern magazines, both pulps and slicks, arose at the turn of the twentieth century as a handmaiden to technological advances in printing and marketing.  Magazines could be produced as designed objects with color covers, line drawings, and half tone images to create a graphic editorial environment to sell their content. They also became a powerful emotional and visual marketing environment to sell emerging brand name products.

          Along with other mass market, consumer products emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century, new national methods of distribution were developed for the widely popular pulp fiction magazines. Although subscriptions were still important, pulp magazines became impulse items, bargains of inexpensive entertainment with brightly painted, four-color covers beckoning readers at newsstands, drugstores, and other outlets all across America.

          Munsey’s innovation became an entire pulp magazine industry, and made many publishing fortunes.  Munsey established the practice of closing magazines, or changing their content, as soon as they became unprofitable. He would quickly start new ones in their place.   At first his pulp magazines like Argosy and All-Story Magazine featured all types of fiction. But in 1906 he began publishing Railroad Man’s Magazine, the first special genre pulp magazine that featured only railroad stories.  Eventually his company, and those that followed his example, produced detective, western, love, adventure, horror, and special interest fiction pulps of every stripe imaginable.  Whatever genre sold was imitated.  Pulp readers wanted escapist entertainment that was simple, fast reading, exciting, and graphically illustrated.  In time there were over three hundred different shifting pulp fiction titles of all genres.

          Of all the pulp fiction magazine titles collected by the Library of Congress from all issues on copyright deposit, only three titles were considered such "extremely rare and valuable" contributions to the history of American culture that they were transferred to special holding facilities in the Rare Book & Special Collection Division of the Library of Congress: Amazing Stories, Black Mask Magazine and Weird Tales.

          This distinguished collection of novels, novellas, and short fiction from Black Mask Magazine is the best book presentation of America’s most universally acclaimed pulp fiction magazine.  That means many, many hours of exceptional entertainment.  Enjoy!

Black Mask

Keith Alan Deutsch

Roxbury, Vermont

October 2008