Monday, April 28, 2014

Paul S. Powers, Riding the Pulp Trail (2011)

Review and interview 

This is a much overdue review for this enjoyable collection of Paul Powers’ western stories edited by Laurie Powers. Half of them were previously published during 1947-1953 in various pulp magazines. Six of them were published here for the first time.

They are a varied selection and show Powers at the height of what was a long career writing for the pulps. They are skillfully told stories, some artfully compact and others more leisurely and complex. You can sense in some the demands and constraints of the genre as defined by editors looking for certain kinds of copy for the pages of their magazines. In others, you can see him pushing against its limits, allowing story and character to unfold in unexpected directions.

Economy. The first two stories in the collection are short and streamlined and share the same narrative elements while seeming to be very different. In both of them, a pair of friends is menaced by several villains attempting to steal something from the two partners. The climax comes during a storm, and a device planted at mid-story (and conveniently forgotten) brings the law to the rescue.

Paul Powers, 1950s
The difference is that one story, “Death is Where You Find It,” is about gold miners whose gold is stolen during an early winter snowfall. The other, “To Steal a Ranch,” is about just that, the theft of a ranch, with its key scene played out in a fierce rainstorm. Each has a neatly embedded surprise.

Romance. Several of these tightly plotted stories include a pretty girl and the quick resolution includes an avowal of love, even a proposal of marriage. “Hangnoose for a Prodigal” manages to work in two romances, one old and one new. In “Judgment Day on Whisky Trail,” a man rescues a girl while revenging the death of a deputy U.S. marshal 15 years ago, and love blooms in the final paragraph.

“Dave,” whispered Libbie O’Day. “Will you take me with you, out of Devil’s Basin?”

“I’d decided about that,” Dana said, tightening his arm around her, “the very first time I set eyes on you.”

In “Buzzards Hate Bullets,” a man discovers that a nose flattened from a kick in the face doesn’t prevent a girl from falling in love with him. And where there’s not a girl in the story, two men provide a feel-good ending of their own by becoming fast friends.

Novelty. The best stories of the collection take you in surprising directions. I liked “By the Neck Until Dead,” a long story featuring Powers’ continuing character, Sonny Tabor. The ever likable and honorable Sonny has a big reward on his head in this story and gets arrested and jailed.

Exciting Western, cover, 1947
Suspense builds as he waits several days for his hanging and finally manages to escape—even as he’s being taken to the scaffold. A nasty gang has stolen a rancher’s money and left him dying. Sonny finds the gang in their hideout and after a shootout returns the money to the rancher’s son before eluding the posse that’s after him and disappearing into the desert.

I also liked “A Pard for Navajo Jack,” in which a deputy bitten by a rattlesnake is saved by the Indian he has been about to arrest. The two men become friends, and the deputy solves a mystery that saves the Indian from the gallows.

In a dark little story called “Yellow Glass,” a man finds his friend dying from a gunshot wound, and his friend’s young wife seems oddly unmoved by what’s happened. The two men had both been attracted to her, and she acts now like she married the wrong one. Did she try to kill her husband? The killer is found in an unexpected way and with a cleverly embedded piece of evidence.

Wrapping up. These stories, in their variety, offer a glimpse of the creative output of a writer who has made a living spinning out popular magazine fiction. They are especially revealing as they show him observing the conventions while pushing their limits.

A word also needs to be said about the handsome design of this book. The typography is elegant, and each story begins with a two-page illustration. Laurie Powers also provides an informative introduction about the process of researching and assembling the collection of stories.

Riding the Pulp Trail is currently available in paper and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Laurie Powers

Laurie Powers has generously agreed to spend some time at BITS today to talk about her books and her current research. I’m turning the rest of this page over to her.

How long was this project from the first idea of it to publication?
Well, to be accurate, the whole project took really almost ten years. My aunt and uncle had been continually looking for my grandfather’s stories since 1999. I had reunited with my aunt that summer after 35 years, during my research of my grandfather’s pulp fiction career. That summer they gave me my grandfather’s personal papers and that’s how I came across the manuscript for Pulp Writer, his memoir on being a pulp fiction writer.

But since then, we were discovering that, while my grandfather had been primarily known as a contributor to Wild West Weekly from 1928 to 1943, he had a whole other career writing for magazines such as Thrilling Western, Exciting Western, The Rio Kid Western, Texas Rangers. Almost all of these stories had been published after Wild West Weekly shut down in 1943.

As for the unpublished stories, I found them in the winter of 2009-2010. Several years before, my aunt had given me a small box of manuscripts, which she said were stories that had been rejected. I thought she meant they were rejected by Street & Smith, the publisher of Wild West Weekly. I assumed they were unpublished Sonny Tabor and Kid Wolf stories, and to be honest I didn’t think much of it. Reprinting them wasn’t even on my radar.

But in late 2009, David Cranmer of Beat to a Pulp, bless his heart, sent me an email saying, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could find some unpublished stories of your grandfather and get them published now”? Little bells went off and I pulled that box out of the closet. Lo and behold, there were over 30 unpublished short stories and novelettes. They were written in the later years, 1945-55, and were written while Grandpa was trying to break into the more mature Western market. And about half were not even Westerns, but crime, horror, noir, and other genres.

After I found the stories, it took about a year and a half for them to go from choosing the stories to having a published book. I found a publisher in the summer of 2010, Matt Moring of Altus Press, and we agreed that we would publish one book of Western Stories, and one of non-Westerns. Rising the Pulp Trail is the collection of Westerns.

We decided to have half of the stories be from the unpublished manuscripts and half would be from those that were published in those magazines that published his stories in the post-Wild West Weekly years of 1943-1949. It would be a good representation of what was published during those post-War years, before the pulp Westerns completely died out.

After we decided on what would go into the book, it took another year to choose which stories would go into the book, and doing the usual round of scanning, editing, and proofing. The book was released at PulpFest in August of 2011.

What parts of the project were the most enjoyable?
What can be more exciting than sitting down and, for the first time, reading a short story your grandfather wrote, maybe one that hasn’t seen the light of day in over 60 years? And how many people are lucky enough to read their grandfather’s stories and pick and choose the best ones for a book?

What part of it was more of a challenge than you expected?
Choosing the best 12 stories. I had to choose six stories out of roughly twenty unpublished Westerns, and six from the published stack. Reading all of them took a really long time. With having a full time job, it took a couple of months.

What is your favorite story of the collection?
I’d have to say “To Steal a Ranch,” and strictly for sentimental reasons. It was the first of the stories I read, and every time I think of it, I remember the excitement, the anticipation, of knowing that I had thirty more stories to read. Some of the stories had never been sent out to a publisher, so those had never been seen by another human until then. Besides, I really liked “To Steal a Ranch.”

What have been the most interesting reader reactions?
I can’t think of any that stand out. Most have been very complimentary, and very appreciative that the collection came out.

Talk a bit about what went into the design of the book (cover, illustrations, typography).
Oh wow, that’s simple. It’s all from the genius that is Matt Moring, designer and owner of Altus Press. The cover was from a Rang Riders Western and ironically, the Paul Powers cover story on that cover, “The Snow Ghost,” was held back and not put in the collection. It’s a dog story, so it’s in the next collection, Hidden Ghosts, which came out last summer.

In your research, what other writers did you find who deserve being rediscovered?
There were plenty who wrote for Wild West Weekly who were excellent Western writers. Lee Bond for one. Another was Samuel Nickles, who wrote the Hungry and Rusty stories. I was in touch with his granddaughter a few years ago, who was looking for issues in which Hungry and Rusty stories appeared.

Would you say there has been a revival of interest in early pulp fiction?
Absolutely. The reprinting renaissance that is happening right now has made these stories available to a much wider audience. It’s no longer limited to those who have the original magazines. And it appears to be a successful experiment, because reprinting is not showing any signs of slowing down.

How does today’s pulp fiction compare with the work of earlier writers?
I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer that. I’m so busy reading research for my next book and reading the old pulp fiction, and I still have a full time job, so I have virtually no time to read anything else. I will say that I thoroughly enjoy the new pulp that is of the hardboiled and crime persuasions that is posted over at places like Beat to a Pulp. If I ever have any spare time again, I’d like to pursue writing in those genres.

Since the publication of Riding the Pulp Trail, what other projects have you been working on?
Well, last year we published the last of my grandfather’s stories from that collection. Hidden Ghosts is the best of the non-Western stories, along with his Weird Tales stories that were published in 1925-26. It’s really quite an eclectic collection.

 What can your readers expect from you next?
I’m now currently working on a biography of Daisy Bacon, editor of Love Story Magazine, which was the biggest selling pulp magazine of its time. She was also a mentor to so many writers, a very progressive businesswoman who had a lot of provocative things to say. But she led a complex life and had a lot of secrets that eventually wore her down. For the first twelve years of editing Love Story, she was involved with a married man, and she suffered from severe depression.

Describe the research that has been involved.
It’s overwhelming sometimes. I have been blessed with having complete access to her personal papers, and there are now a plethora of good books on the history of pulp fiction.  But I think that Daisy destroyed some of her papers and journals, so I’ve been forced to look outward for information.

What are you reading now?
I usually have two or three books going at once. I’m trying to focus on history of the 20s and 30s – although I have had for a long time a good knowledge of the period, there’s always more to learn – and I’m reading a lot of biographies. It’s been interesting to see the angles with which some writers approach their subjects and how they approach the challenges of having limited information on certain topics. I do try to read something “non-Daisy” occasionally to give myself a break.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
Yes! After 10 years of researching and writing about my grandfather, my aunt and uncle and I decided that it was time to contribute his personal papers, and all the Wild West Weekly issues that we collected, to a higher learning institution, so others can use them for their research.

Enthusiasts and historians certainly need more access to information on the fiction magazines of the early 20th century. So much of it was lost. So last December, we donated the collection to the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library at Ohio State University. Eric Johnson, the curator there, is a big enthusiast of the fiction magazines and is planning to have a special exhibit of them this summer, and they will be available for viewing and study all year. We like to think that Paul Powers would have been pleased with this decision.

Thanks, Laurie. Every success.

Further reading:

Image credits:

Coming up: Glenn Ford, Jubal (1956)


  1. pretty nice blog, following :)

  2. Laurie has been a regular at the Pulpfest convention( and we all are looking forward to seeing her again. Most women do not collect the pulps but Laurie is one of the few exceptions. Her Daisy Bacon book will be of great interest to pulp readers and collectors.

  3. I think these short stories were so much a part of the social fabric of America of those times, it's wonderful they are being resurrected. They do add to the richness of 20th century America. America had become literate, with some time to read. And this is what it read.

  4. Thank you Ron for posting the review and for the interview. I am happy that you liked the stories in Riding the Pulp Trail, and I enjoyed the interview process. Most of all, I'm just happy that you're back in the cyber world and keeping in touch with all of us.