Their Wicked, Wicked Ways


Readers would have paid no more than 45c for these gems, but today I’m happy to pay more to have a pulp book with a great, trashy pulp fiction cover, the original price still on the cover. While we are told endlessly not to judge a book on its cover, it’s hard not to when forced to choose between a more commercial Vintage or Penguin paperback, and the old Bantam or Pocket Books which seemed to truly delight in making their covers works of art, rather than standardised images that you’d want to rip off (literally) anyway.

Rosemary Valadon thought of the same thing when she dedicated her latest collection to the art of pulp fiction book covers in her collection Wicked Women. The sultry covers with those femme fatals, originally illustrated to lure male readers, appeals also to women, as Valadon attempts to show. At Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum, an apt place to hold such collections, Valadon will show off her various interpretations of the crude cover art style.

Boasting only four vintage, ‘pulp’ covers myself, the love affair is a slow but bourgeoning one. I have a rather commercial pocket book version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and a less popular and rarer The Long Goodbye, with a mesmerising cover. Both are complete with blood-red edged pages. While not ‘pulp’ necessarily, I also have an old Bantam edition of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, featuring a scantily clad femme on the cover. It is an absolutely fantastic illustration. And the latest edition to my pulps is the Pulp Fiction collection, with the hallmark curvaceous woman with alluring eyes while smoking a cigarette.

Photo by Siobhan Lyons

Feminists would have a field day with these depictions of the ‘fairer’ sex. However as both a woman and avid pulp fiction lover (and cover art lover), I am forced to put aside rigid political correctedness and appreciate the lost art form of pulp and noir. As stated on the Justice and Police Museum site: ‘Valadon’s paintings both embrace and subvert the genre’s stereotypes—sexist becomes sexy.’

Interestingly, I found it difficult to come by the names of the cover artists of some of the pulp classics. Both Tender is the Night and The Long Goodbye list the cover artist (online) as uncredited. I did, however, manage to find the name of the artist for The Big Sleep, one Ernest Chiriaka, aka Darcy. That little credit goes to these artists is disappointing, since their work shows an imaginative streak today’s book covers lack. It almost makes one hesitant and reluctant to even publish anything commercially, after scouring commercial bookstores and seeing the repetitive, stylised work that authors must submit their ideas to. Perhaps in this respect, alternative publishing avenues such as Print on Demand offers writers more freedom with their expressive covers. While, as I’ve said, we are certainly told that we should not judge a book based on its cover, readers ultimately will anyway.

Perhaps the edge that pulp covers have is that rather than convey an abstract idea of the book, or simply have the standardised design of either the publishers or the author, many pulp covers actually manage to depict a scene from the book, a little leeway into the story. We can see this on the covers for both The Big Sleep (the scene where Marlowe finds a drugged Carmen Sternwood naked in bed with Geiger’s corpse at her feet), and the great Bantam unknown Ask the Dust (where a destitute Bandini meets waitress Camilla Lopez). These creative cover works effectively freeze moments of the story, thereby being more faithful to the story than more contemporary interpretations.

Coincidentally, this week Abebooks have posted a page dedicated to the sultry women of pulp:

‘Some can’t be tamed. Some can’t be trusted. In they stroll with a sob story as familiar as the day is long, and yet, we fall for it every time. Blondes, brunettes, redheads – it doesn’t matter. These voluptuous vixens, these dangerous dames, these buxom bombshells might seem a dime a dozen, but each ruby-lipped temptress is more tempting than the last.’

Blonde seems to win out for pulp covers, closely followed by redheads. Wicked Women is dedicated to such scandalous, sexy affairs. Valadon draws her inspiration not solely from the cover art of pulps but also from great Film Noir posters. The kitsch art form, while a product of its time, has an enduring quality. Equally tantalising is the gritty titles of some of these pulp greats, including Make Mine a Harlot (1952) [currently sold out at Abebooks], Murder of a Nymph (1950), Virgin Nurse (1960) [complete with great cover art of a naked redhead nurse], and The Hard-Boiled Blonde (1948).

In her comprehensive work, The Censor’s Library (2012), Nicole Moore catalogues extensively the periods in Australia that struggled to get around censorship in regards to publishing. Comic books were a favourite for censored material, and pulps followed suit. In a section called ‘Prohibiting Pulp’, Moore writes, ‘Pulp fiction and all kinds of magazines were banned under the provision designed specifically for them, through amendments to the regulation operating under the Customs Act.’ The works that were banned included: ‘Literature which, in the opinion of the Minister, and whether by words or by picture, or partly by words and partly by picture—unduly emphasises matters of sex or of crime; or is calculated to encourage depravity.’

While content was more a problem for the censor’s, it is likely that the ‘lewd’ covers attached to them also caused scandal and disrepute. Mickey Spillane (known for his Mike Hammer novels) and James Hadley Chase were two such authors whose works went under the censorship hammer and were banned for a substantial amount of time. While flawed in many respects, psychoanalytic theory can be brought in here to prove how instances of suppression and censorship have an adverse effect on society, provoking and heightening curiosity and desire for whatever is banned. As such, and quite unwittingly, censorship affirms the value in all things underground, scandalous and gritty.

The Justice and Police Museum continue to hold great exhibitions of the cult, noir variety, which stands to make it a more appealing museum than many of the more contemporary kinds. The exhibition opens on October 20 and goes until the 29th of April, 2013. Not a bad run.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Their Wicked, Wicked Ways

  1. Memory flash of opening the “PX Ration box on the front lines in Korea (1951-52) and diving in with both hands to latch onto those paperback books with their lurid covers, the Hershey bars and the Camel cigarettes. Thanks for the memory, as Hope used to say.

  2. Pardon me, Ms. Lyons, but “Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer were two such authors ” is an error. Spillane was the author and Mike Hammer his protagonist/ narrator of the stories, e.g. I The Jury and Kiss The Blood Off My Hands. And believe me those books did titillate a 17 year old Marine.

    • Thanks for picking that up, OldMack. Not sure why I put Hammer there, (although finishing up my uni work for the year probably isn’t helping) but I meant to write James Hadley Chase (or Rene Brabazon Raymond), whose ‘Lady, Here’s Your Wreath’ and ‘I’ll Bury My Dead’ were initially banned before eventually being passed. Glad you liked the post though.

      • I’m beginning to feel like a stalker with all of these comments on your fine blog. I felt a need to mention that Tender Is The Night was my favorite Fitzgerald novel. And btw, Woody Allan’s Midnight in Paris, while a nostalgic romp through Paris, and The Moveable Feast, caught the essence of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the Era.

  3. Oops. Automatic spell check misspelled “Allen.”

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