Pulp Fiction (etc.)Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)
Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)
James Branch Cabell (1879-1958)
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936)
In the early twentieth century, the inchoate elements of ‘fantasy’ were discovering popularity not through the isolated, singular works of writers like Morris, but through a growing industry of magazine fiction, following Frank Munsey’s 1896 invention of the “pulp” – cheap dedicated fiction magazines mostly written by cheap authors (though a few elder statesmen contributed their share, particularly to the higher-class English pulps – Conrad and Kipling amongst others) published on cheap, ‘pulp’ paper, and typically filled with sensationalist, lurid, un-literary stories (and now and then outright erotica), topped off with an eye-catching colour cover, ideally of a barely-dressed damsel in dire need of rescue. The pulps covered many genres – detection, gangsters, cowboys, railroads – but they were also a willing market for stranger stories, of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (and oftentimes of the borderline between these still-nascent genres). The most important development came early on, when the upstart The Popular Magazine, seeking to take on the original pulp, Argosy, managed to sign H. Rider Haggard himself to contribute a serialised sequel to his bestselling She. Aspiring writers flocked to imitate Haggard’s “Lost World” genre in greater numbers than ever before – among their number, the young Edgar Rice Burroughs. Like Haggard, Burroughs became known for Lost World novels that, at least at first, he serialised through the pulp magazines, attaining enourmous popularity. His lost worlds, however, took on a more fantastical air – his hollow world setting, Pellucidar, for example, not only features surviving dinosaurs (old hat for Lost World!), but makes them a human-subjugating intelligent species of pterodactyls with mind-controlling psionic powers. Most important of all though were his Barsoom stories, which transplanted the Lost World genre, complete with Victorian gentleman explorer and decadent oriental despotism, onto Mars, throwing in a few magical and scientific ornaments for good measure, and in the process creating the Planetary Romance genre – taking the lost world genre and giving its authors far greater room to play, since almost any society, technology or even magic could be justified when your story was set on an alien world.
Another author, however, was taking the weirder part of fiction in a very different direction. Lord Dunsany is not strictly speaking a ‘pulp’ author – he wasn’t published in the pulps until late in his career (and indeed that of the pulps themselves) – yet he is, and was, often considered one by an unfortunate coincidence of timing: indeed, his reputation at the time probably suffered considerably by mistaken association with with the sensationalist, populist fiction of the pulps. Dunsany was indeed a writer of short stories of the fantastical kind, but he adopted a more literary and ‘artistic’ style; in content, he followed in the footsteps of Morris, and of MacDonald (vide infra), infused with an even more ancient aesthetic. Probably more than anybody, Dunsany popularised the pure fantasy tale that Morris had created, creating the world of Pegāna and populating it with deities, essentially creating a wholly new mythology; later he created the ‘club tales’ subgenre (in which unreliable narrators tale tall stories in gentleman’s clubs about the things they’ve seen on their travels), and explored a more fairytale-based aesthetic in The King of Elfland’s Daughter. In much of his writing, he followed Morris in creating an elaborate, ‘artistic’ prose style, though unlike most of those who imitated him he was not above mocking himself for it.
Burroughs and Dunsany were both, however, huge influences on the next pair of short fiction writers to shape fantasy in that era: two strange, unhappy and short-lived friends and pulp writers, Robert Howard and Howard Lovecraft. Lovecraft became notable sooner: his early stories, as he himself says, are divisible into those that try to copy Poe and those that try to copy Dunsany. Later, he was able to partially reconcile these two impulses – the unsettling macabre and the unearthly wonder – in an enduring mythos of a civilised humanity that sat upon centuries of superstition and barbarism and lost magic (so far so Gothic), on a tiny isolated rock in the middle of a terrifying universe, and even more terrifying further dimensions that man could never comprehend (drawing also heavily from Machen, with hints of Hodgson). Later still, at the peak of his career, he infused his ‘cosmic horror’ with a colder, more scientific aesthetic. His influence as a writer of madness and otherness goes beyond the mere memes of Cthulhu and his kindred; and he was also greatly significant for his social life. Lovecraft made a habit of introducing all his acquaintances to one another, and of corresponding voluminously, creating an influential circle of writers, which included Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, a young Fritz Leiber… and Robert E Howard. Howard, like Dunsany and Burroughs, wrote in many different genres, both inside and outside speculative fiction, but his greatest contribution was in leading the movement that transplanted the planetary romance of Burroughs into a historical or pseudohistorical – and often supernatural – domain, while ditching the victorian gentleman protagonists for dashing, toughguy barbarian types… the sort of heroes and antiheroes, in fact, that were already common in the cowboy, gangster and sailor genres that the pulps had popularised.
Finally, one Fantasy writer of the era, despite being prolific, can by no means be considered a pulp writer: James Branch Cabell. Perhaps the most famous Fantasy author of the 1920s, and certainly the most acclaimed by the literary establishment, he was once acquitted of obscenity on the grounds that while his book was ‘suggestive… of immorality’, it was so obscurely written that readers would not be able to understand it anyway. His work intentionally avoided all forms of realism (he once claimed that veracity was the one unpardonable sin), and was considered escapist and comic, but he often used that escape to give him a position from which to launch satires against reality. When society’s tastes turned darker in the thirties and forties, Cabell was largely forgotten by the general public, but he remained a notable influence on other writers – particularly those who sought a more literary and playfull mode (Vance and Leiber both admitted his influence on their work).