Introduction On Racism Epigraphs A History of the Pulps A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Glossary
Breakdown by Character Type Breakdown by Country of Origin Bibliography Table of Contents
A Glossary for this Site and a Taxonomy of Character Types
As you've no doubt noticed, I use some specialized terminology (much of it coined by Yr. Humble Correspondent) in this website. This was not done to confuse, but rather to help shorten the text. (Which, at longer than three quarters of a million words, needed all the shortening it could get!) While researching and writing this book/website, I rather rapidly noticed that a lot of characters were duplicates of each other in all but name, and easily fit into one archetypal category. Wise-cracking hardboiled detectives, for example, were numerous, and to be honest fairly interchangeable with each other. So I slapped the label "Bellem" on this character type, as an homage to Robert Leslie Bellem, whose Dan Turner is the paradigmatic example of the type. I found that if I did this with all the interchangeable characters, it saved me a lot of typing.
Of course, doing that runs the risk of confusing the reader, which is why this page is here: so when I call someone an Afghani Fighter or speak of SCIENCE! you'll know what I mean.
Afghani Fighter. A certain kind of pulp story, always set in the North-West Frontier--the area of land between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan--features a recurring type of protagonist, what I’m calling the Afghani Fighter. These men are always agents of British Intelligence, and wander in disguise among the locals gathering intelligence. They are always outnumbered and outgunned and have only a loyal native sidekick and possibly a handful of British and Indian troops to pit against the enemies of Great Britain. And their enemies are always powerful threats to the stability of the British Empire: Russian spies or local Napoleons allying with hostile Pashtun tribes to invade and conquer India.
Africa Hand. Great Britain’s colonies in Africa were many and varied, and each colony was ruled by a Governor, with District Commissioners ruling individual sections. Each Commissioner’s district could be thousands or even tens of thousands of square miles in area, and the Commissioner was assisted by only a handful of white officials and a few squadrons of (non-white) soldiers. These officials were expected to enforce local and Imperial laws, collect taxes, prevent international crimes (like slave-trading), and above all prevent any conflict, between local peoples or between nations. In fiction, these officials were Africa Hands: experienced veterans of Foreign Service in Africa; intimately familiar not just with flora, fauna, and native cultures of Africa; deeply patriotic; and convinced that colonialism is the best thing for the natives—that British “civilization” can and will create a kind of moral uplift on the natives. To help this uplift and the peace and success of the Empire, the Africa Hands are willing to commit a wide range of acts, whipping natives for disrespecting a white man or hanging a corrupt native king without hesitation. Africa Hands have a great deal of respect for Africans, but in the same way that a hunter respects a lion—for its ferocity and power, but not as an equal. Curiously, most Africa Hands are Britons active in the jungles of West Africa, where Great Britain had no colonies.
Armchair Detective. The Armchair Detective is a man (rarely a woman) who is sufficiently brilliant that he can solve crimes from the comfort of his armchair, without doing any on-site research or depending only on an assistant to do the research for him.
Bellem. The hard-boiled, cynical private detective is a pervasive pulp archetype, beginning at least with Race Williams, although the archetype’s roots lie in the English casebooks of the mid-19th century. But the wise-cracking, two-fisted, hardboiled, hard-drinking, womanizing cynical character, usually but not always a private detective--the kind of character who is as quick with a quip as with his fists--is a character type that emerged in the pulps only in the 1930s, although it became a cliché within a few years. The greatest of these characters was Dan Turner, he of “a roscoe coughed Ka-Chow.” In honor of his creator, the prolific pulpster Robert Leslie Bellem, I’ve dubbed this character type the Bellem.
Big-Headed Dwarf Genius. A classic trope of popular literature, going back at least to the Gothics if not to the Egyptian and Olmec myths, is the evil dwarf—that is, a literal dwarf, rather than some fairy tale creature—whose wicked brilliance is so overwhelming that, in a prime example of the symbolic-made-literal, his head is enormous. Before the 19th century, the dwarf used magic or a more mundane form of evil to work his ends, but beginning in the mid-19th century the dwarf began to use technology, usually advanced or even forbidden technology, as a weapon against heroic men and women. In the 20th century, the dwarf became a form of mad scientist, usually the villain of a story but occasionally a protagonist in search of redemption.
Brain in a Jar. The Brain in a Jar—the living brain (usually disembodied), floating in a jar of fluid, still sentient and somehow communicating with the outside world—is a classic trope of science fiction and horror films and pulps. The version most readers are familiar with is 20th century version, but the predecessor of the Brain in a Jar can be said to have been the Cumaean Sibyl, who in Petronius’ Satyricon is a withered body, cursed with immortality but no youth, who is seen in a hanging jar.
Cape-and-Épée Hero. Cap et épée, or “cape and épée,” is the traditional term in French literary criticism for novels of the Three Musketeers sort, in which the swashbuckling heroes wear capes and fight with rapiers in Europe during the 17th century.
Circus Hero. Clowns fill all sensible people with horror and visceral revulsion, but there are good people to be found among carneys and circus workers.
Con Man. One of the more popular character types in the pulps, the Con Man or Swindler was usually (but not always) portrayed as having a sentimental side and as willing to help those who are being victimized, and to prey on other criminals. Those who were not were usually too incompetent to succeed at their chosen profession.
CONQUER THE WORLD! Just like monkeys, few things embody the pulps so much as the over-the-top Mad Scientist (see below) or (usually Germanic) tyrant who delivers a speech—to a monstrous henchmen, to fanatical troops, or to a bound and helpless enemy, usually the hero of the story—in which the villain finishes with “und zen ve vill CONQUER ZE VURLD!” Sadly, most of these characters failed, few had much success at all or, to be honest, were a great deal of fun to read about, and only a handful had the spark of gleeful, joyous wickedness that sets the immortal villains apart from the ordinary. But even the dullest of these characters has at least one moment which will reward the reader.
Costumed Avenger. This category includes any character who wears a recognizable and consistent costume while fighting crime or evil. For the purposes of this encyclopedia, “costume” does not necessarily have to be a colorful superhero-style “pervert suit,” to use Warren Ellis’ phrase, but can be simply the same mask or the same set of similarly-colored clothing. Because of this somewhat broad criteria, there are characters included in this list, like the cowboy characters, who are not ordinarily thought of as being Costumed Avengers. But in a book like this it is better to be overly inclusive than not enough so.
Cowboy. For the purposes of this category any character adventuring in the western half of the United States during the 19th century counts as a “cowboy.” A fair number of stories in the western pulps were set in the modern (i.e., 1920s or 1930s) era, and characters in those stories are not included here.
Defective Detective. Traditionally the phrase “defective detective” has been used to describe the disabled or maimed characters, like Seekay, who appeared for a brief period in the pulps. Being disabled (or “defective” in the insensitive and offensive parlance of the time) was what set them apart from other characters. For the purposes of this encyclopedia blind characters, like Max Carrados, are included in this category. Generally blind characters are treated differently than the “defective detectives,” (and are hardly “defective”), but in the interests of space-saving they are included here.
Evil Surgeon. Although the Evil Surgeon is often a Mad Scientist, this is not always the case. The Evil Surgeon is primarily a violator of the human body, whether a crazed vivisector like Dr. Quartz or someone who merely wants to experiment on a living body, like Professor Barter.
Femme Fatale. The femme fatale, the beautiful and deadly woman who uses her beauty and/or sexuality to increase her power, has been a constant in Western culture, although the modern version of the femme fatale began appearing only in the second half of the 19th century. In the pulp context the femme fatale is a different character than the femme fatale of films noir or mainstream mystery fiction. The pulp femme fatale is more often a protagonist than a film noir or mystery femme fatale. And the pulp femme fatale is substantively different than either of the latter two. The film noir or mystery femme fatale uses sexuality as a weapon in order to get what she wants. Sex, for the film noir or mystery femme fatale, is one tool of many in the femme fatale’s toolbox, and if sleeping with a hero, villain, or patsy is what is needed to achieve her aims, the noir/mystery femme fatale will do just that. This is not the case with the pulp femme fatale, who is far more rarely sexually active. The pulp femme fatale promises much but rarely delivers, and meanwhile uses male characters’ desire for her to manipulate them.
Fop. The classic detective Fop is Philo Vance, and most of the detective Fops were to a greater or lesser extent influenced by him. The vanity, the obsession with appearance, dress, and manners, the variety of affectations, the forced languor–they are all Vancean, but they arose from the pose of upper class British men of the 19th century. Of course, detective Fops aren’t really foppish, any more than Vance is. When there is danger to be confronted or a mystery to be solved, Vance et al. drop the foppish pose and become as capable as any Bellem.
Gentleman Bandit. This category is for all those historical characters who would steal anything from men but would only take a kiss from a woman, and whose sense of honor was more powerful than their greed. The archetype is Dick Turpin, who was as charming in fiction as he was reprehensible in fact.
Great Detective. To most fans of mysteries there is only one Great Detective: Sherlock Holmes. But the popularity of Sherlock Holmes was such that, like Arsène Lupin and the Lupin, Holmes was imitated around the world. The following is a list of characters modeled on Sherlock Holmes and other, similar characters. Holmes was the default model for the Great Detective, but the more action-oriented Sexton Blake and Nick Carter (I) gained their own set of imitations.
Gun Moll. The Gun Moll—the female shootist who acts as sidekick and occasionally lover to a fictional villain—can be traced to the historical bandits which plagued Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The bandits were almost usually male, but female members of their gangs were, while rare, not entirely unknown. As is usually the case with women in a traditionally male environment or profession, these women were forced to be tougher and more deadly than their male counterparts, purely to gain their respect. These women were duplicated in the popular fiction of various countries during these centuries, whether in ballads, broadsheets, or penny dreadfuls. More broadly, of course, these women were following in the path of previous historical women warriors, from the Amazons to Greek myth to the female armies of the Ashanti to the women samurai to the female revolutionaries of Russia and China in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor was there a shortage of female criminals in most countries during the 1800s and 1900s whose crimes were violent and who used weapons with all the seriousness and skill of their male counterparts. The pulp writers were probably not aware of the specifics of this history, and probably would not have cared if they’d known. For them, the Gun Moll was an alluring symbolic combination of sex and violence, as perfectly a symbol of the Bad Girl for the pulps as the Femme Fatale.
Hobo. There have always been homeless wanderers, from the Romany (Gypsies) to the Vagabonds to the more modern Gentlemen of the Road. But the 1920s and especially the 1930s saw an enormous increase in the number of men and women who roamed across various countries. In the 1920s the usual population of wanderers was added to by the “new poor,” the men and women left jobless by the post-World War One recession, by the deaths of wage-earners in the 1918 flu pandemic, and by the general destruction to infrastructures and economies caused by World War One. In the 1930s, the global depression sent millions from their homes in search of work or simply a new place to farm or even to just start over. In reality, the lives of men and women who were forced to abandon their homes in search of work were harsh, desperate, and dangerous. Work was hard to come by, food almost as difficult to find and rarely nutritious or even safe, townspeople suspicious, police inimical, travel life-threatening, and a greater-than-average percentage of fellow wanderers criminal, violent, or mentally ill. Yet, curiously, the pulps seemed to find the Hobo an attractive character to portray in a heroic and adventurous light.
Jungle Hero. Tarzan was not the first fictional Jungle Hero. But, while there were a number of characters in fiction who were abandoned as children and grew up as feral children, usually in jungles and usually acquiring the skills of animals–Kipling’s Mowgli is foremost among this group–Tarzan was in most cases the standard on which successive iterations of the Jungle Hero was modeled.
Killer Vigilante. Since the 18th century Western adventure fiction has always privileged heroes who do not kill and who show mercy to their victims by allowing the legal system to punish them. The Western genre has the best formulation for the philosophy behind this: a hero fights barbarians, but sometimes a hero must use lethal force to fight barbarians–but in using lethal force, the hero becomes a barbarian. However, there have always been characters who chose murderous vengeance over socially sanctioned justice. The following is a list of these characters in the pulps. (This category does not include characters who are fighting in a war, since by definition they are soldiers or spies rather than vigilantes).
Legionnaire. Characters in this category are members of the French Foreign Legion (rarely, the Spanish Foreign Legion), and their stories are about their actions fighting various evil North African (or, more unusually, Southeast Asian) peoples. The classic example of this sort of character is Beau Geste, from P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste. Characters who are members of the Legion but whose adventures are not primarily about fighting with the Legion against the natives, such as Ethan Drew, are not included here.
Lost Race. The following is not a list of Lost Races, but rather of characters who encounter Lost Races or belong to them or rule them. A Lost Race can be defined as a culture or people who continue to exist, usually in geographic isolation, long after their original contemporaries have died out, so that Aztecs, Cro-Magnons, and the Lost Tribes of Israel are encountered in the present day in Lost Race fiction.
Loving Enemy. The “Loving Enemy” is the opponent of a story’s protagonist who also has romantic feelings for the protagonist, and who the protagonist is attracted to. But because the Loving Enemy is an enemy, the Loving Enemy and the protagonist cannot be together. In many (though not all) cases the pair are united in love by the end of the story, serial, or series. The quintessential Loving Enemy is Sexton Blake’s Mademoiselle Yvonne de Cartier, who would have been Blake’s wife if not for her criminal ways. (Irene Adler had respect for Sherlock Holmes, but not romantic affection).
Lupin. A Lupin is a man (usually) of Society, of good breeding and good manners, who enriches himself, or simply earns his daily wage, through crime, all while carrying himself in a high style and dressing in the most au courant fashion. What separates the Lupin from the ordinary master thief is the joie de vivre with which the Lupin carries himself, and the taunting relationship he maintains with police. (This is why Zenith the Albino is not a Lupin: Zenith is filled with weltschmertz, not joy). The Lupin, like the Bellem and the Great Detective, is named after the archetypal example of the character form: Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. Arsène Lupin was not the first Lupin. One can argue that the historical gentleman bandits of the 17th century were Lupins avant la lettre, and Lupin fiction began with Grant Allen’s Colonel Clay (1896-1897). Some partisans will continue to maintain that A.J. Raffles is the quintessential gentleman thief. But Arsène Lupin is a more memorable character, as well as being better written, and ultimately it was Lupin rather than Raffles who better embodied the character type and was more influential on other characters.
Mad Scientist. This category includes both the malicious and cruel and those who are merely insane and given to joyfully shouting “And they called me mad in school–MAD, I TELL YOU!”
Nautili. Technologically advanced submarines aren’t associated with the pulps in the way that monkeys and mad scientists are, but they appear in pulp stories with a surprising frequency. The grandfather of all of these is of course Captain Nemo’s grand craft, the Nautilus, from which is derived this entry’s name. Like the Nautilus, these supersubs are not the product of a nation’s military, but are created and piloted by one man or woman, usually to carry out a grudge against the rest of the world.
Nüxia/Wüxia. A wüxia is a wandering Chinese knight errant, with nüxia being the female version. There were historical wüxia, emerging during the chaos of the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.E.), and protecting the weak and oppressed against the powerful and unjust. Wüxia appear in the historical record through the centuries and dynasties, only disappearing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.). In Chinese fiction the nüxia and wüxia are as common, and symbolically potent, as the cowboy is in Western fiction. The nüxia/wüxia is a highly skilled warrior and martial artist. Often (though not always) their mastery of qi has allowed them to “fly over eaves and walk on walls,” hence the description of wüxia as “flying swordsmen.” Martial artists who lack these superhuman skills are not included in this category.
Occult Detective. Occult detectives are those investigators, usually gentlemen amateurs rather than professionals, who specialize in cases involving the supernatural. Although the occult detective first appeared in the 19th century–the character usually described as the first occult detective is J.S. Le Fanu’s Doctor Hesselius (1869-1872)–it was in the 20th century, and in pulp fiction, that the occult detective became a distinctive character type.
Planetary Romance Heroes. A planetary romance can be defined as a romance (in the traditional sense) in which a human in the modern day travels to another planet or moon and has an adventure there, in much the same way that wanderers in more traditional folktales went into Faerie, adventured there, and returned home. (In a sense Peter Pan can be seen as a kind of Planetary Romance Hero). As used in this encyclopedia, it refers specifically to characters who go from Earth to only one planet during the story, rather than touring the solar system, which is why Mr. Absurdity is not a Planetary Romance Hero, tempting though it was to include him here.
Rootless Veteran. The global economy underwent a recession following World War One. Such things usually happen after wars—wartime economies shift to peace economies, returning soldiers swell the ranks of the unemployed, and so on—but the war had badly damaged the industries and infrastructure of the European countries, caused countries to borrow money to pay for the war effort (which led to inflation), wiped out a significant percentage of the labor force, caused countries to incur large war debts, and removed the Russian market entirely. The post-WW1 recession lasted until the mid-1920s in Europe.
Because of this recession, many soldiers newly returned home were unable to find work and became the “New Poor.” Beyond their poverty and inability to get a job, they also suffered from a disconnection from society and a perceived lack of purpose or place. In reality many of these joined politically activist organizations, left-wing, right-wing, pacifist, or (in the United States in the early 1930s) the Bonus Army. In fiction, these soldiers, the Rootless Veterans, became adventurers, master thieves, and vigilantes. Unlike most of the other categories in this appendix, the Rootless Veteran is usually only the starting point for the character, rather than the eventual destination. (Demobbed veterans who return to the comfortable lifestyle they had before the war, like Colonel Cloudsdale and Victor Caryll, are not included here).
SCIENCE! In pulp fiction there is science, which is usually related however tangentially to ordinary physics, chemistry, and biology, and there is SCIENCE!, which involves fantastic inventions, creations, and conceits which are entirely impossible but which would be explained by the characters involved with their creation by a hand-wave and a triumphant “I created it using SCIENCE!”
Scientific Detective. A “scientific detective” is a detective who uses the most modern scientific devices–a point the stories emphasize, repeatedly and at often tedious length–to solve crimes, and whose solutions to mysteries comes as a result of his or her scientific theories and devices. The archetypal Scientific Detective is Craig Kennedy.
South Seas Adventurer. The “South Seas adventurer” is a wandering character, usually a sailor, who travels around the islands of the South Pacific and finds adventure there.
Spinster Detective. The “spinster detective” is an elderly female amateur detective whose crime-solving acumen is larger than the male police who fail to solve the crimes she succeeds at. The archetypal Spinster Detective is Jane Marple.
Superhuman. This category is broadly defined as including any human being who has abilities which are impossible in our world, from various psychic abilities to greater-than-human physical abilities to magic powers. This category does not include individuals who rely on tools or weapons to grant them superhuman abilities. (Which is why Kimball Kinnison is not here). Casual observers of the pulps have traditionally been under the impression that a large number of pulp characters were superhuman, while certain pulp aficionados have stridently denied that any pulp characters had superpowers. As can be seen from the following list, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Tall Tale Teller. As long as men have been interested in sex, fishing, and drinking, there have been tall tale tellers, whose stories are as rich in entertainment as they are poor in truthfulness. As far as pulp fiction is concerned, the archetypal Tall Tale Teller was Karl Friedrich Hieronymous, Baron von Münchhausen (1720-1797), immortalized in Rudolf Raspe’s Baron Münchhausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785) and imitated by characters in this book in various ways.
Unlucky Inventor. A recurring character type in science fiction of the pulp era is the brilliant inventor whose creations never quite work out as planned, with wacky zaniness resulting.
Wanted Man. A stand-by of pulp fiction (in any medium) is the Wanted Man, the innocent man (or woman) wrongly accused who has to forever wander, one step ahead of the police.
What’s All This, Then. The What’s All This, Then is a specific type of policeman usually seen in British detective fiction, although they are not unknown to American mysteries. The What’s All This Then is blundering, blithe, officious, not overly intelligent but cunning, cheerful, and close to (if not stepping over the line into) bullying–the type of policeman who will intrude into any situation with a loud “What’s all this, then?”
White Peril. It is perhaps unfair to make this a separate entity, as it implies some sort of equivalency with Yellow Perils, but there is a tendency in genre fiction produced by Asians (and occasionally Europeans—see Sandokan) to portray white people, either individually or as a group, as cartoonishly evil and filled with lust, spite, malice, and a desire to subjugate all the non-white races, in much the same way that the Yellow Peril stereotype portrays Asians individually and as a group. There is not the same distinct evolution in the White Peril stereotype as there is in the Yellow Peril stereotype, but it is a recurring trope. The White Peril character isn’t simply an evil white man or woman, but someone whose evil is so over-the-top, so ludicrously overdone, so full of evil plans for non-whites, that they are as ridiculous, unrealistic, and the product of bigotry as the Yellow Peril character.
Yellow Peril. The racist, anti-Asian stereotype of the Yellow Peril encompasses both Asians as an undifferentiated group and individual Asians (usually Chinese or Japanese but occasionally even Indian). The Yellow Peril stereotype has its roots in the anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic “Black Legend” of the 14th and 15th centuries, and in various fictional Asians in late 19th and early 20th century popular fiction. These individuals had four elements: military threat to the West, magical/sorcerous menace, revenge from wounded pride (either cultural or sexual/romantic), and crime lord living in the West. Fu Manchu (I) was the first Yellow Peril to combine all of these elements, and most (though not all) Yellow Perils following him were modeled on him more or less directly.
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