Pulp Fiction Reborn: Dime Crime on the Net

Pulp crime fiction covers
Pulp noir: dime a dozen!
Long gone are the days of writers tapping away at an Underwood, unfiltered Lucky Strike hanging from the lip and a tumbler of whiskey acting as inspiration as they cranked out sordid tales by the dozen to grace the pages of Black Mask, Top Detective, or a dozen other ten cent weeklies. 

 Make no mistake though, pulp fiction lives on. Ink ribbons and carbon paper have been replaced by the laptop. The one room flop house in the bowery has been replaced by the wifi enabled Starbucks and the pulp magazines of the past have given way to a slew of online magazines and outlets for a new breed of crime short story authors.

 All the tropes are still there from the lurid titles of the publications – Beat to A Pulp, Shotgun Honey, Darkest Before The Dawn, Thuglit, Plots With Guns – and the stories are still populated by losers, criminals, private eyes, crooked cops, weirdos, winos and tramps. The stories are also all written by pulp fiction aficionados who do it for the love of the story, not money.  That’s right, in the great democratization of the internet most of these new outlets don’t pay. It’s enough to make Raymond Chandler choke on his Chesterfield. Pulp fiction was always about being cheap and accessible, though. That’s why they used that cheap pulp paper in the first place. A dime for ten stories of murder and adultery?

The readers, writers, and publishers of these new outlets for crime fiction are a generation away from the pulps, young writers sometimes in their 20s and 30s, who weren’t born until after the Kennedy era, let alone the James M. Cain era. 

Certainly the endurance of film noir and the continuing love affair with neo-noir has kept crime fiction alive and well, but these new websites are offering the short pulp experience in practice for the first time since Black Mask went under. Even right here at Criminal Element you can find short stories and excerpts that would have been bound in flimsy paper and sold for a quarter sixty years ago. Browsing through the sites, it is apparent there is no shortage of writers willing to continue the traditions of crime writers past.

 “I really think we’re seeing a great renaissance of the crime writer. There’s just so many talented writers out there,” says Christopher Grant, publisher of the online crime site A Twist of Noir. “I think crime and noir fiction has probably been around since the cave drawings and the fireside story tellings. And I think the simple reason that it has survived all these years is because it’s all around us.  It happens daily, whether it happens to us directly or not.  It’s always there.”

 Aldo Calcagno is a publisher of two sites, Darkest Before The Dawn and Powder Burn Flash. He states, “I would like to think the ezines are a nod toward those old pulps and a chance for new writers as well as experienced writers to try their hand at writing and get a chance to build an audience. I would love to be able to pay authors for their work, but I don’t want to answer to advertisers or other forces. One thing that I can tell you is that I’m getting many submissions, and many of them are of very high quality.”

Most sites keep it short with word limits under 5000, perfect for lunch-break browsing at work. There is even the advent of flash fiction, stories under 1000 words, and even micro-flash stories under 500. These pages are great for a quick fix of crime in about the time it takes to update your Facebook status.

 Print anthologies too are on the rise. Needle magazine, for example. Publisher Steve Weddle stated his objective was to have, “a real hold-in-your-hands, swat-your-dog magazine.” Now four issues in—mission accomplished. Online sites like Beat To A Pulp and Thuglit have published print anthologies lifted from their pool of talent. And online zine Crime Factory has just issued a killer collection titled, appropriately enough, Crime Factory: The first shift. Want to know who are going to be the hot crime writers of the next five years? Pick up a copy. 

 Modern crime fiction has much more leeway with language, sex, and violence than contributors to Ten Cent Detective Yarns did in the past. Most of the stories on these sites are not for the timid. The same is true for all pop culture these days. If an audience in 1947 had been shown a print of Reservoir Dogs, they would have run for the doors to seek immediate psychiatric help. 

There is always the argument that a guy like Cornell Woolrich was a much better writer because of the restrictions placed on scribes at the time (without censors would the double entendre ever have been born?), but modern crime fiction, in novels and short stories, certainly gets more points for realism.

 These new pulps are a forum for new writers to get exposure, try out ideas, and develop characters and a voice, as well as a place where even a midwestern housewife can try her hand at writing a P.I. story with a chance at seeing it published. 

 “Publishing houses, and major player editors and agents are reading these e-zines,” says Calcagno. “There have been a few book deals based upon the stories published on these blogs. I couldn’t be more proud of assisting writers getting their break.”

The turnaround online is quick with no publishing dates, no printing press, and no distribution. The biggest omission is the lack of that great, old, lurid cover art. The web has even found a home for that on archives and web galleries like pulpgallery.com, or a simple search of Flickr turns up a wealth of vintage covers.

 Yes, indeed pulp fiction lives. So, browse around and get your dose of noir in short blasts. You may find the crime authors of tomorrow, or you may be transported back to a bygone day when stories of crime and punishment were only a thin dime away.

Image via Bob Kessel, Beat to a Pulp, A Twist of Noir, and Needle Magazine

Eric Beetner is an ex-musician, one time film director, and a working television editor and producer, as well as author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and one really great dog. His upcoming novella Dig Two Graves will be out later this summer, along with short stories in the anthologies Pulp Ink, D*cked, and Grimm Tales.


  1. Jake Hinkson

    Great post on this, Eric. Pulp fiction 2.0.

  2. Velma

    Diane Poier is in her second year of [url=http://www.pagesofstories.com/]Pages of Stories[/url], a digital magazine of professional writers featuring John Floyd, Fran Rizer, Leigh Lundin, and many others.

  3. Clare 2e

    Good tip, Velma! Tx!

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