Wednesday, March 13, 2013

L. Ron Hubbard’s Amazing Pulp Fiction

Thomas McNulty
             Readers of this blog are aware that I have been following the reprint series of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp fiction since 2008. I first discovered his fiction in the early 1970s when I read the DAW paperback of Ole Doc Methuselah and I’ve been a fan ever since. L. Ron Hubbard was born March 13, 1911. Since today is his birthday, I decided to post an article I wrote for Galaxy Press a few years ago. Watch this blog for additional classic pulp fiction reviews and essays!

            L. Ron Hubbard published his first story, The Green God, in 1934 in Thrilling Adventure magazine. So began one of the more remarkable writing careers in history. Once his imagination flared to life there was no turning back. And he was prolific. He could crank out thousands of words in a burst of creativity energy, producing numerous short stories and novels at an astounding pace. He did not simply participate in the pulp era, he helped define it. His stories were so popular that readers wrote to the editors demanding more from his typewriter. He also wrote under numerous pen-names: Rene Lafayette, Michael Keith, Ken Martin and many more. His talent flared like a meteor blazing across the sky and endured for over five decades.

            1940 was a watershed year for Hubbard. England was at war with Germany and the Nazi regime was intent on world domination. The United States had stayed out of the conflict, but there was growing support for England. Tensions with Japan were increasing and the subsequent attack on Pearl Harbor a year later would plunge the United States into a battle on two fronts in a concentrated effort to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese. The world was about to usher in the Atomic Age, an era that writers like Hubbard had already envisioned in their futuristic tales. It was against this backdrop that Hubbard wrote the first three of his better-known works. Before the year ended, he had published Final Blackout, Typewriter in the Sky and Fear.
             These stories are legendary among connoisseurs of the pulp era. Final Blackout was a militaristic science fiction tale, Typewriter in the Sky was a fantasy swashbuckler, and Fear was a suspense thriller with an ambiguous ending that is still hotly debated by fans. Was there a supernatural influence at work in the tribulations that plagued James Lowry, or were those grim events the product of a disturbed mind? Read it and you decide.

            So popular was Hubbard that in 1948 Final Blackout was re-published in hardcover by The Hadley Publishing Company. In 1951 Fear and Typewriter in the Sky were reprinted in one volume by Gnome Press. These editions are now highly prized by bibliophiles and fans. Signed copies are nearly impossible to find and very expensive when they hit the auction block. The good news is that all three books remain in print thanks to Galaxy Press.

            At a time when pulp writers were adept at using a “hook” (an opening narrative that “hooks” the reader and holds their attention) Hubbard had become such a skilled writer that he didn’t produce one classic opening line, but dozens of them. Hubbard’s reputation soared as a writer that could produce action-packed stories for virtually any genre. In addition, his opening lines kept his readers begging for more.
             He opened his 1935 story, Hostage to Death with this gem: “The severed hand lay open upon the scarred desk, its fingers lifted and curled, as though raising its palm in mute supplication.” The story, about legionnaire Bill Reilly, was but one of numerous far-flung adventures that showcased his knack for pacing, characterization, snappy dialogue, and hard-boiled adventure.

            The reason these stories remain popular so many decades after their initial publication is a testament to Hubbard’s talent. Hubbard wasn’t just good, he was great, cranking out stories that hooked the reader from its first line and propelling them into a two-fisted tale of adventure. The clatter of his rapid-fire typing was wonderment to friends like fellow science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt who witnessed Hubbard composing stories. The intensity of his concentration, his unerring typing skill, and his fertile imagination all combined to fashion a legacy unparalleled in literary history. 
             And there is something intrinsically patriotic about Hubbard’s stories. They are a slice of Americana, cut from the fabric of our lives, reaffirming the principles of hard work, and never losing sight of our basic humanity. Reading his Golden Age stories today is both a history lesson and a lesson in morality. Hubbard’s compassion for his fellow man manifests itself repeatedly.

            In If I Were You the midget Little Tom Little briefly laments: “Perhaps this was a last desperate effort to prove himself right, to prove that being a big person in size was quite enough, and that the soul mattered not at all.” Of course, Little Tom Little will soon discover that his soul is everything and size matters not at all.

            In Tough Old Man George Moffat, finding himself doing rookie service on the desolate plains of Ooglach with a ranger called Old Keno Martin, learns something about life after assuming “That older men were used up and worn out.” Here, Hubbard so skillfully creates a sympathetic character that the twist ending is all the more surprising after charging him across a dangerous landscape. Hubbard never slaps his readers in the face with his themes; he paints them into the story as easily as he could dress a character in a technologically advanced space-suit. His themes are as natural to the story as the galloping horses in his westerns or the wind in a pilot’s face from one of his air adventure tales.
             Classic opening lines, strong characters, realistic dialogue, and breathless action are all trademarks of Hubbard’s style. Perhaps his more famous opening line is from To the Stars, a 1950 novel that first graced the pages of Astounding Science Fiction: “Space is deep, Man is small, and Time is his relentless enemy.” The omniscient narrator’s voice has rarely been put to such good effect as here, in a memorable novel that stands among the classics of the genre.

            The Chee-Chalker’s opening line is the envy of anyone that has attempted a suspense thriller: “The corpse was floating just at the bottom of the ladder where the dock lights reached thinly through the murky rain.” The cadence is perfect, the images stark and memorable.

            At times Hubbard achieved a style of hard-boiled poetry. He was ahead of his time, and it’s important to remember he was often given limits on his word count. Hubbard had to crank out memorable but technically correct stories while meeting the requirements of his editors. Although Hubbard’s intention wasn’t becoming a stylized poet of the pulps – he was simply working hard doing what he loved most – he is remembered because of his stories, their characters and the haiku-type simplicity of lines like this from Under the Diehard Brand: “The mutter of thunder growled across the sky. Bunched-up clouds shot nervously across the face of the moon.”

            Sentences like that are worth reading aloud. Writers read Hubbard today to learn how the Master did it, and educators are using Hubbard’s stories as tools to invest students in literacy and creative writing. In Spy Killer, a 1936 espionage thriller, readers will encounter this line involving the mysterious Russian woman Varinka Savischna: “The steam which rose from her cup of tea was not less elusive than the quality of her eyes.”
             One pauses over such lines, and then re-reads them. Hubbard’s creativity shines like a beacon here and one can almost imagine the furious clacking of his typewriter as he slammed home the keys. Lines like that are what writers live for. This is hard-boiled pulp writing at its best. Mere pages later in Spy Killer, when readers encounter the evil Lin Wang, Hubbard renders him thus: “Several great wrinkles lay like old scars against the cruel visage like ravines in a relief map.”

            His villains are vile and his heroes are the embodiment of American ingenuity, goodness and compassion. In his 1940 novel, Sabotage in the Sky, he introduces Bill Trevillian as “Good looking in a sleepy sort of way, very tall, very languid, always looking for something upon which to lean his obviously weary soul. Down in his eyes there lay a watchful spark of humor, and upon his lips there always lingered the ghost of his last smile and the beginning of the next.” There is an endearing charm to such characters which compliments the bare-knuckle action and spontaneous romance that kept readers turning the pages.

            Great stories are like good friends; they are always there for you, a consistent source of companionship that can lift your mood when you’re down. It is no wonder that Hubbard’s stories were coveted by his readers from the onset. These are quintessential American stories. They live in the framework of the era in which they were composed, but they are also timeless. Their gritty directness and polished, fast-paced sentences Entertain and often Enlighten - with a capital E. This is yet another element of Hubbard’s writing that endears him to both readers and writers today.
             When composition teachers talk about “technique” they might refer students to Hubbard’s Buckskin Brigades. In chapter five he introduces a character named Alexander McGlincy with a virtuoso piece of writing. You will never forget McGlincy once Hubbard introduces you to him. “There was a sort of a tyrannical majesty about him...” Hubbard wrote, and three paragraphs later you are hooked, yet again, because McGlincy is so compelling. “Altogether it was a wonderful sight, full of martial blare and monarchial color.”

            Hubbard’s westerns are especially popular and interested readers will seek out his air adventure, tales from the Orient, science fiction, mystery and sea adventure stories. Hubbard was a rare talent who mastered all of the genres that made the Pulp Era such an exciting time for readers hungry for fiction.
             All of this, of course, culminated in Battlefield Earth, an acknowledged masterpiece which Hubbard followed with the ten volume Mission Earth, his final work. There is renewed interest in Hubbard today, and a positive academic re-evaluation that finally places Hubbard’s literary contribution in its proper context. He is now viewed as a true maestro of any genre, which is all well and good, but his fans knew it from the beginning. The Galaxy Press editions of Hubbard’s Golden Age stories are an historical landmark in publishing. Each volume painstakingly recreates the pulp style with one (and sometimes several) Hubbard stories including a glossary of words that provides educators and their students a historical perspective. There are good writers and fine writers, and then there is L. Ron Hubbard, Master of all Genres. He stands alongside the American Masters from the glorious Golden Age.
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