Monday, January 30, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams

Night BusThe Book of the Week is Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958), cover art by Sandor Klein. Night Bus was the basis for the 1934 Frank Capra film It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It Happened One Night was the first movie ever to sweep the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. (Only two other movies have done it since - can you name them?)

In addition to writing fiction such as Night Bus, Samuel Hopkins Adams was a muckraking journalist, whose series of articles exposing fraudulent medicines was instrumental in bringing about the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. (Which I discovered when I googled him to write this - even I am learning interesting things from these Book of the Week entries.)

Originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine (a "slick" magazine even then, not one of the pulps), Night Bus was reprinted as #3 in Dell Books' series of 10¢ books published in 1951. These books were undersized and contained a single short story, reproducing the "dime novel" format that was successful in the Nineteenth Century but had completely disappeared a generation before the Dell 10¢ books, or "Dell Dimers," came along. The Dell Dimers were not a commercial success and disappeared after just 36 titles. These unusual books are now quite hard to find, and a few are very rare. Among the most rare Dell Dimers is next week's Book of the Week, the only science fiction title in the series.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road by Edward L. Wheeler

Deadwood DickMost of you have heard the phrase, "You sound like a dime novel," but how many of you have ever seen a dime novel? The Book of the Week is an authentic dime novel printed in 1899, Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road by Edward L. Wheeler.

Dime novels (and their cousins the "story papers," formatted like a newspaper) were the predecessors to pulp magazines and paperback books. Between approximately the 1860's and 1920's, dime novels were an inexpensive alternative to hardback books. They were sometimes priced at ten cents, but more commonly at five cents - I guess "nickel novel" just didn't have the right ring to it. (Thanks to the exchange rate at the time, dime novels in England went by the even more colorful moniker "penny dreadfuls.") In most cases, dime novels were not really novels, but short stories. Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road is a typical example, comprised of a single 32-page story.

Dime novels were intended to be accessible to the masses, who were by then predominately literate. Dime novels were generally written in the vernacular and were commonly targeted at adolescent readers, which is why "You sound like a dime novel" is a disparaging remark. Many at the time worried that dime novels glorified low-brow discourse and would have a disastrous effect on American culture. You will not be surprised to learn that by our modern standards, dime novels seem quite innocent and even rather intellectual.

Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road is the first of a series of 64 Deadwood Dick adventures, originally published between 1878 and 1884 by Beadle & Adams, the very first dime novel publisher, then reprinted by the Arthur Westbrook Co., beginning in 1899 with the Book of the Week. Deadwood Dick was among the most popular heroes of the dime novels. Although Deadwood Dick has long been forgotten by everyone save a handful of collectors, he had a lasting cultural impact. As shown in the cover illustration of this book, Deadwood Dick was a masked crusader of the Old West. He almost certainly inspired the creators of the Lone Ranger and Zorro, who came along decades later. (If you thought Zorro was a centuries-old legend, or perhaps even an actual historical figure, you have been hoodwinked by Hollywood. Zorro was invented by pulp writer Johnston McCulley and first appeared in 1919 in the pages of the pulp magazine All-Story.)

Dime novels were squeezed out of the market by the growing popularity of pulp magazines in the 1910's and 20's. Dell Books attempted to resurrect the dime novel format in 1951. Next week's Book of the Week will be an example of the Dell series of dime novels.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The African Queen by C.S. Forester

The African QueenLast week's Magazine of the Week uncovered a C.S. Forester fan in our midst, so in his honor the Book of the Week is the first paperback printing of The African Queen by C.S. Forester. The unlikely love story of a boozing sailor and a religious Englishwoman forced to make their way together through central Africa, The African Queen is perhaps Forester's most famous novel, certainly his most famous outside of the Hornblower series. The African Queen was filmed by John Huston in 1951 and starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who won the only Oscar of his career for his performance.

In lieu of the first hardcover edition -- published in England in 1935 and currently selling in London's rare book shops for around $25,000 -- this is the original paperback edition, Bantam 712, first printed in 1949. As reflected in Ken Riley's suggestive cover art, the novel is a bit spicier than the film version. This American edition has a different ending than the original British edition, and the ending of the movie is different than either. As usual, the Hollywood ending is the happiest.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week - February 26, 1938 issue of Argosy

Argosy February 26, 1938Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the phrase "pulp fiction" has come back into use, but many have forgotten its origin. For the first half of the Twentieth Century, the popular market for fiction was dominated by "pulp" magazines. The Magazine of the Week is the February 26, 1938 issue of Argosy, arguably the most successful of the pulp magazines.

"Pulp magazines" are so named for the pressed wood pulp on which they were printed. Publishers used cheap wood pulp in lieu of ordinary paper both to keep costs down in a highly competitive market and due to paper shortages during the wars. Because they were printed on such poor quality wood pulp, most pulp magazines have disintegrated over time, and any copy that has survived in good condition is now a collector's item.

Pulp magazines tended to garish covers and sensationalistic stories -- the term "pulp fiction" refers to this exuberant but unpolished style -- but the pulps also printed a great deal of excellent fiction. Between the late 1890's and the early 1950's, many important American authors such as Jack London and Tennessee Williams got their starts in the pulps, and it is difficult to name a significant early writer of mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy, horror, or westerns who did not write for the pulps. Indeed, the very concept of dividing fiction into these different genres originated with the pulps.

The February 26, 1938 issue of Argosy is a typical example of pulp fiction. It contains some short fiction best left forgotten, but also the first appearance of Ship of the Line, a Horatio Hornblower novel by C.S. Forester, whose outstanding sea adventures remain widely read to this day, as well as the conclusion of a novel by Luke Short, a successful author of westerns. (Argosy and other pulps often printed novel-length works by serializing them over several issues.) Incidentally, the apparent holes in the cover of this magazine are with one exception a deliberate part of the cover art -- Hornblower's ship HMS Sutherland and her French adversary are giving each other a pounding.

Argosy was the first of the all-fiction pulps, switched to that format by publisher Frank Munsey in 1896. Before the pulps came along, however, there was yet an earlier option for fiction readers who did not wish to pay for hardcover books. You will see an example of that format next week.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Beresford

The Hampdenshire WonderThe Book of the Week is the first paperback edition (with dust jacket) of The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Beresford. First published in hardback in 1911, The Hampdenshire Wonder is the story of a super-intelligent child. This was an important early treatment of the question of what the next phase of human evolution will be, yet has been neglected over the years, as Beresford never realized the fame of his contemporaries H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon (whose 1935 classic Odd John was influenced by The Hampdenshire Wonder).

This first paperback edition of The Hampdenshire Wonder was published by Penguin Books in 1937. It was among the first one hundred mass-market paperback books ever printed, all released in England by Penguin between 1935 and 1937, all before Penguin's American counterpart Pocket Books got into the act in 1938. By my reckoning, The Hampdenshire Wonder was the first science fiction book ever published in mass-market paperback. Like all early Penguin paperbacks, The Hampdenshire Wonder lacks cover art, but makes up for that with its dust jacket. Dust jackets on paperback books are a rarity, and vintage paperbacks with intact dust jackets are always collectible.

Penguin and Pocket began to create the market for mass-market paperbacks in the late 1930's, and they took a few years to catch on. But that does not mean readers had to buy hardcover books before that. In fact, there was another inexpensive format available to readers, a format that dominated the fiction market for a half-century before being squeezed out in the 1940's and 50's by paperbacks (and comic books, for younger readers). You will see the first of many examples of that format next week.