The Great American Paperback

Dec 12, 2001 at 12:00 am

In a kitschy clash of chisel-cut gangsters, half-naked women and radioactive beasts from beyond, Peter Haining’s The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines offers a polemical history of the scandalous dime magazines that populated drugstore magazine racks between the world wars. Haining’s insightful commentary walks us through the rich American tradition of the pulp classics, with titles as scintillating as “French Frolics,” “Spicy Mystery Stories” and “Thrills Incorporated,” but the real story is told through the brilliantly enticing covers. Themes of gentle sexual sadism, ominous scientific horror and shockingly violent crime (almost all of which seem to require a voluptuous damsel being scared right out of her partially torn dress) dominate the ample eye candy of the book. But Haining’s collection explores much more than a charming history of soft porn; between its covers is a window to the era of popular culture that existed before television supplanted the need for imagination, and reading a racy 10-cent magazine by flashlight fueled the fantasies of entire generations.

Encompassing a much wider range of eye-catching smut, Richard A. Lupoff’s The Great American Paperback serves alternately as a collector’s guide and history lesson focused on the gems of a paperback explosion that began in the 1930s and dominated the publishing world for the following three decades. With more than 600 glossy reproductions of covers that include everything from dime-store editions of Hemingway and the Beats to fantastical pulp westerns, crime stories and sci-fi classics, Lupoff documents every aspect of the paperback revolution. With the inclusion of historically significant literary works and exclusion of the raciest pinups, Lupoff’s high-gloss guide is somewhat more sober than Haining’s juicy counterpart, but the stunning design and authoritative narrative are sure to appeal to paperback collectors and armchair enthusiasts alike.

Nate Cavalieri writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].