Today was my first opportunity to get my hands on a copy of Black Mask, the magazine that launched Chandler’s career in 1933. Like most readers I knew the magazine to be one of the Pulps that circulated in the first half of the twentieth century but until I got to look at an original edition I hadn’t quite appreciated what a pulp was. This is the cover of the edition that Chandler’s first story ‘Blackmailer’s Don’t Shoot’ in the December 1933 (Vol XVI, No. 10). Fans will have read the story and those that haven’t should.
Pulps were rough affairs. At around 1cm thick, the average edition contained four novellettes, one serialized novel and one very short story. The pages of the edition I saw were an orangey brown, faded with age, and were of uneven size, as if cut by an amateur. Their edges were rough and untidy. A pulp magazine was cheaply made, sold in large volumes and relied on subscription and advertising to get by.
Ad space was given up to the inside cover, the closing cover and its inside, as well as the first three pages and the final page too. The ads in the December 1933 edition range from a full page from a catalogue jewelry retailer (“All diamond wedding ring at our new low price – only $27.50. Rickly hand engraved 18-k solid white gold. 20 dazzling genuine diamonds. Exquisitely beautiful and very specially priced. Only $2.65 a month“) to small ads for self improvement (“Make me prove that it’s easy to learn at home to fill a good job in radio.”) The final page of the magazine is a full page ad for Charles Atlas’ body building system in which he claims that anyone can learn to have a body like his in just seven days. Later issues contain ads for books about sex and love, trying to capture the many men for whom sex was the great unmentionable mystery. The books talked you through the basics so that you would not be embarrassed on your wedding night.
Clearly this was a magazine for young men keen on self-improvement with the adverts suggesting that the readership’s main demographic was lower middle and working class men who lacked a college education but who were keen on advancement. It is a world away from the sort of literary paper Chandler wrote for in London and one wonders what he made of Black Mask when he first picked it up? Here is how he described the magazine coming to his attention in a letter to Hamish Hamilton written in 1950:
“Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast in an automobile, I began to read pulp magazines, because they were cheap enough to throw away and because I never had any taste for the kind of thing which is known as women’s magazines. This was in the great days of the Black Mask (if I may call them great days) and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over at 18,000 word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back…” (Letter to Hamish Hamilton, November 10th 1950)
Be under no illusion though, he did not think that the stories within the magazine were great literature but that the writing itself had a powerful quality that he felt he could emulate and, eventually, develop:
“…the average story story in the Black Mask was not too good, [but] there was a possibility of writing them very much better without hurting their chances of being read.” (Letter to Mrs Robert Hogan, March 8th 1947)
And of course this is exactly what Chandler went on to do.