I’ve just purchased forty-eight battered and bruised SF magazines from a dotty old woman who spent twenty minutes looking for them before wheeling them out before me in an old M & S shopping trolley. She was soon joined by an equally barmy old man who declared that they where worth between $1 and $7.50 each – I don’t know where the odd latter price comes from but it always seems to be the kind of numbers that volunteers pull out of the hat in every charity shop I visit. I offer them £20 for the lot and confusion reins as they try to load the magazines along with the shopping trolley into my car. I try to tell them that I don’t want it and another forty minutes of bartering ensue and now I’m a proud owner of a shopping trolley and they own my car. I got $7.50 for it. So, now I’m sat in my lounge and the rain has returned to the world beyond my window and I am dancing as I have found a Napoleonic coin amongst the pages of Weird Tales.
Amazing Stories surfaces from the pile of old magazines, there amongst the musty pages that gleam with bright artwork is a name I’ve not seen in print for a long while, Poul Anderson. Then other names drift up, Burroughs, Bradbury, Asimov, Leigh and for a moment, my guilty secret threatens to erupt as the child inside me giggles. These are the names that kept me sane as a child, that gave me hope and taught me to dream and to make that impossible leap into the great void of SF. Back then I did not know or care about the fact that they were classed as Pulp. For God sakes, I watched A Team and Magnum PI on television, was forced to sit down on a Saturday evening and watch Metal Mickey with the family – the gayest robot ever to come out of the 80s – there was no surprise that I took great joy in staring at those brash SF covers that promised horror, danger and worlds of mystery. Metal Mickey merely gave us a man in a dustbin and ALF was surely an alcoholic by season two.
Many of the Amazing Stories and Weird Tales are adorned with gruesome aliens, buxom women fainting and men who stare wistfully at the horizon. Even in the magazines, men were escaping and so were women. They were a world away from the drab streets of my childhood, the cold winters, the wet days and the tiresome rehashing of Star Wars on TV and in film. These magazines were my escape, my guilty secret whilst my friends ran around playing army and football, I kept them in my duffel coat pocket, under the maths book in my desk and dreamt of a gateway to Mars, shining red and dangerous in the dark.
As I grew older, the cover art of many of these magazine where seen as inferior or sexist, and ultimately as a distraction to real Literature. A term I have never understood, writers do not write Literature, they tell stories and it is beyond me why anyone would want to use that term – Literature can kill a good book dead, I have seen many reviewers toss books into bins when they are told that it is the next great Literary work of the twenty-first century. I have seen writers paralysed with fear when they think they have to produce a tome to hold up the word ‘Literature’. An example is Margaret Atwood, is she (a) A Feminist Writer? (b) A Literary Writer? Or; (c) A Fiction writer who tells stories and doesn’t care what they are? I plump for the latter, The Handmaid’s Tale, is SF and so is Oryx and Crake and in some way all her work touches on Fantasy but I doubt she’d give a damn about the word ‘Literature’. Yet, Margaret is classed under the A’s in the Literary section and SF is tucked away and anything that resembles Pulp is shipped out to dusty areas around the shop. Poul Anderson should be in the A’s alongside Margaret but poor old Poul is relugated to a distant land called SF, Jeff Noon should be in the N’s but is also sent to the back of the class for not being Literary and poor old, misunderstood Mickey Spillane should be in S’s but he is somewhere in crime. In a shop in Cambridge I found poor old Mickey in the comedy section and the shop keeper just sneered at me and said, “Well, it’s not exactly great Literature”. ‘Literature’ a buzz word that is the kiss of death for any great story. Pulp is at the other end of the spectrum, it kills too.