Straightlaced Savages – Victorian Era roots of 20th century pulps, Part 1

Decades before the 10-cent extravaganzas that were the pulp magazines, the Victorians had Penny Dreadfuls, filled with intense and lurid tales. And it was also a uniquely rich time for novelists and short story tellers like Poe, Stevenson and Stoker, who explored crime and the dark side of human imagination. In real life, Jack the Ripper terrorized Whitechapel.

It was also a time when social mores were outwardly very straightlaced — but under that veneer, a seething underground flourished. Though never explored in the Doc Savage canon of pulps beyond vague and brief references, that would have been the world inhabited by Doc’s immediate forebears.

These are the opening paragraphs of Philip José Farmer’s Foreword to his novel A Feast Unknown:

I was conceived and born in 1888.

Jack the Ripper was my father.

I am certain of this, though I have no evidence that would stand up in court. I have only the diary of my legal father. He was, in fact, my uncle, though he was married to my mother.

My legal father kept a diary almost up to the moment of his death. Shortly after he had locked it inside a desk, he was killed. His last written words recorded his despair because his wife had just died and I, only a year old, was wailing for milk. And there were no human beings within hundreds of miles, as far as he knew.

The person making that statement is Lord Grandrith, Farmer’s pastiche of Tarzan. For the next eight pages of the book, he introduces the harrowing, nightmarish reality in his life that his real father (and, we are to learn, the father of Farmer’s Doc Savage pastiche, Doc Caliban) was the most hideous criminal of the 19th century.

Jack the Ripper, by Iason Ragnar Bellerophon

After that extraordinary beginning, Farmer (and Grandrith) move quickly forward in time, to what was then the present day, 1969. He would never return in depth again (making reference to it in his extensive fictional family trees, but not in any further narrative patches) to the place and time which, in such fascinating fashion, spawned a monster that would in turn spawn two heroes.

In extrapolating on that concept for the Talos stories, it wasn’t enough just to scratch that surface. Much of the era of pulps was shaped either in settings or by creators who were born in or greatly influenced by their historical closeness or immersion in the Victorian Era (1837-1901): Edgar Rice Burroughs (b. 1875); the luminaries of Weird Tales, H.P. Lovecraft (b. 1890), Clark Ashton Smith (b. 1893), Robert E. Howard (b. 1906), Arthur Machen (b. 1863), Arthur Conan Doyle (b. 1859), Walter Gibson (b. 1894), Lester Dent (b. 1904). To understand the concepts born in that time, it was an enthralling exercise to dig deep into those Victorian conceptual roots of 20th century pulp fiction.

Not just a passing glimpse, as Farmer had given with his powerful (and explicit) peek into that world. To go all the way down into what was, in many ways, a culture of order on its surface, underpinned by a hidden subculture that would, a generation after the passing of Queen Victoria, heavily influence the themes of “the bloody pulps”.

To be continued…

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