Reminiscences of a pulp adventure fan

I had always been a reader. In the late ’20s when radio was just coming on the air and movies were moving from silents to sound, reading was the primary entertainment for me. Yes, Virginia, there was a time before television.

Buck Rogers was introduced in "Amazing Stories" (August 1928).

Buck Rogers was introduced in "Amazing Stories" (August 1928).

There is probably a whole generation of my age who grew up on the Saturday afternoon serials at the local movie theater. There were many of these, but that is for another time.

The very early days were spent with Buck Rogers. I owned a homemade jumping belt. I received a Rocket Pistol one birthday and I made the holster. An old fleece-lined helmet with goggles needed earphones, which I made out of the two halves of an old wooden yo-yo. But my homemade jumping belt did not work too well when I stepped out of the second floor window into my mother’s flower garden.

Everyone — and I mean everyone in my circle, which did not include professor Goddard and his rocket people — thought that I was a Grade A certified idiot for believing that space travel was possible and that it was nutty even to think of space travel. Some still do! Despite their criticism and outright scorn, I persevered and eventually I discovered science fiction. And space. And where are my critics now? About a year ago, I paid $60 for a Big Little Book, “Buck Rogers and the Moons of Saturn,” when the original cost a quarter at most.

I had three older brothers who bought books and I read them avidly from cover to cover, including the inevitable page of ads on the inside back cover. I think that many of those same ads are still appearing: guns, virility, magic tricks, Atlas equipment, hypnosis.

The first real books were the hardback Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. I followed the ape man through his wonderful, never-ending adventures from the first “Tarzan of the Apes” to his later efforts strewn with the blood spattered remnants of his enemies both animal and human.

The first John Carter on Mars series was originally printed in 1912. I was not born until 1922 so I came on them later when I started school. That was adventure. I have all of those books in paperback, plus a few others of that genre.

Then came other pulp stories. I can recall only bits and pieces of the early horror stories, such as a mysterious cave and death to all who would enter. This turned out to be some sinister character who had concocted a poison gas and packaged it in egg-like containers. I can no longer remember the end of that tale, or the beginning for that matter. These stores were thrilling and a little scary, but even at that early age I realized that they were just stories and not real life.

Then there one in which the wicked character had a silver arm, which turned out to be a silver-colored prosthesis. That leaves me completely blank as to any other part of the story.

Another featured a mad scientist — they were always mad! — who wanted to assemble the perfect woman so he was killing women with perfect body parts and making a perfect one. There was no mention of what he did with the surplus parts. But he kept the thing alive somehow by an electric field.

Another story concerned another “mad” scientist and his apostle, a woman named Margot. I remember one part in which the scientist was saying a Black Mass and at the end he dashed the contents of the chalice to the ground. But I do not recall what deviltry these two were concocting.

Two other tales stand out spottily. In one story, the evil people had a heat beam that they could project. I can still see the illustration of a man standing in a room with the heat beam coming through a hole in a window to pierce his body. This might have included a hero character whose brain had been damaged and who could no longer sleep.

Another featured an evil monster who could shrink human bodies until they would fit into a shoe box.

There were other horror stories, such as one in which an army of tramps — always diseased and vicious— invaded a town. They took up residence in the town sewers and preyed upon the young women of the area. Their leader (not a tramp type) apparently could kill from a distance, but it turned out that he was shooting poison darts from a spring loaded tube.

There was a brief interlude of Spicy Western and Spicy Detective. (Their hiding place was under the bathtub access.) I might mention that the word “spicy” in those days was really erotic. But now, the endless movies and TV plots revolve around almost raw sex. Spice is used for a condiment. Naturally these magazines were only read when I was alone. My parents never did find the cache. Actually the magazines were not mine, but my older brother’s. I used to read them at home with one ear turned to approaching footsteps. At school, there was little talk of sex. In those days it was something never mentioned. The stork still brought babies.

One story concerned a gangster. He had a voluptuous mistress who was also shacking with one of his henchmen. They had to hide out in a remote mountain village with the gangster’s relatives and a feud started up again. The gangster left the area and gave his former mistress to a mountain man with a hand growing out of his shoulder. And, appropriately, he turned her boyfriend over to a fat and toothless woman. My memory may have mixed up a couple of different stores for this one!

Doc Savage and The Shadow came along in the early ’30s and I followed the adventures of both characters in their original pulp format, with the beautifully drawn covers and interior illustrations. Now I have an almost complete collection of the Doc Savage stories in paperback and I am slowly filling it out from the eBay auctions. I have a few of the old Shadow pulps but nowhere near a complete collection.

Books were precious and they were never thrown out. Even though they were only 10 or 15 cents at the time, this was the Depression and money was not an easy item to earn. I still have a boxful of old Doc Savage pulps and a few of The Shadow. They have been well read.

Operator #5

Operator #5 battled the Purple Empire in an epic pulp series.

If you have never heard of Operator 5 and the invasion of America by the Purple Empire then you have missed raw drama. The continuing series of stories involved activities and locations on the North American continent that was being brutally invaded by the forces of the Empire. The impression I had was that this was a Nazi-type of empire. And oddly the enemy seemed to look alike. Black hair and cruel faces.

The stories included huge battleships off the New York coast, 20 miles out to sea, hurling projectiles into the city. In one episode, the Supreme Court members refused to accept the Empire and were being hanged in public. One featured submarines which could burrow beneath the ground. Another involved Pike’s Peak and the cog railway. And others that I can no longer recall, but memory being what it is, if I ever read those stories again, I will remember.

Scientific Fiction — read “space operas” — occupied a special niche in my reading. I never tired of Astounding, Amazing, Startling, Thrilling Wonder and other magazines with their never-ending adventures in space and on other planets. One series that always intrigued me was the Hollywood on the Moon stories. I have a long list of memory fragments of these stories stored as notes in my computer for another day.

In those idyllic days I never questioned the writing. I read the letters to the editors carping at inaccuracy and poor writing and wondered what they were complaining about. If they wanted real facts, they should have taken a course in physics at the university. Now, I am more critical.

If I ever had a real favorite, it has to be Doc Savage, with The Shadow close behind. G-8 and His Battle Aces also was high on my reading list. The others were just fillers between publications of the main magazines. I do not recall ever discussing the books with my brothers. They probably would have thought I was nutty anyway.

Now, I roam the offerings on eBay for stories from my memories. And often I bid, and sometimes I win. But I never tire of trying.

About the author: The pulps never contributed to the delinquency of Mr. Grothaus, who was 78 when he wrote this in 2001. Quite the contrary. A native of Cincinnati, Mr. Grothaus served three years in the Army in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines. Then he tried several vocations before rising to the post of assistant chief, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, in the Cincinnati Police Department. He held a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati and taught in the College Police Science Program for almost 15 years. Mr. Grothaus, who with his wife had two sons and three grandchildren, retired in 1984 to do a little writing, collecting and genealogy research and to learn to play the piano. Mr. Grothaus passed away in December 2004.