An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

The history of science fiction in America and Great Britain has been the subject of a number of popular and academic studies, and in general is well known, at least among science fiction fans. But the history of European science fiction, defined in this case as the countries of continental Europe, the Scandinavian countries, Russia, and Turkey, is less well-known. Less coverage still has been given to the science fiction pulps of Europe.

In Europe, pulps were called everything from "dime novels" to "story papers" to "gialli" to "heftromane." They can be distinguished from magazines by the quality of paper (poor), the level of pay for writers (worse), the number of articles or stories (fewer), and literary aspirations (none). Proto-pulps, in the form of pamphlets and chapbooks, were common by the 1550s, and the most popular printed matter in Britain, France, and Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries was pamphlet fiction, whether the penny novelettes of Britain, the Bibliothèque Bleue canards of France, or the Volksbüchlein of Germany. Long before magazines became common reading matter, proto-pulps were widespread and enjoyed.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

There were numerous European science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels published in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, but the fantastic was never as popular in the proto-pulps as adventure and romance stories were. This did not change until the 1860s and 1870s, when writers like Jules Verne, the Frenchman Camille Flammarion, and the Hungarian Mór Jókai wrote best-selling works of science fiction. During these decades European readers began to read science fiction in pamphlet form thanks to imports and translations of American dime novels and British story papers. This influx of science fiction slowly began to create, in the public's mind, the idea that science fiction was a discrete genre of fiction. Of course, this conception was still vague, as the idea of literary genres at all was still only nebulously understood.

The reading public also changed during the 1860s and 1870s. Educational reform created an enormous population of newly-literate people in the lower classes, and changes in printing and papermaking technology made it possible for large print runs of magazines to be sold cheaply. These changes created a new and very large market of readers. European publishers began selling pamphlet fiction, from serialized novels - colporteurs, named after the wandering peddlers who sold them - to booklets consisting of one 60-80 page story. In Germany and Eastern European countries the traditional guild-based requirements for entry into trades, including publishing, disappeared during these years, which led to an influx of new publishers catering to the lower classes.

And thus the pulps were born.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

The first European magazine to regularly run fantastic material–the British Adventurer (1752-1754), which published a number of Arabian Nights-like fantasies–appeared less than a century after the first European magazine, the French Journal des Savants, which began in Paris in 1665. The first European magazine to specialize in fantastic material was the Irish Marvellous Magazine (1822), which reprinted edited versions of popular Gothic novels. And the first European magazine to specialize in science fiction was the Swedish Stella (1886-1887), which featured mostly translated science fiction leavened with some Swedish science fiction.

At the beginning of the 20th century most of what was published in serial form in Europe remained non-fantastic, but pulps dedicated to the fantastic were beginning to appear. Some, like the 60 volume Bibliotheque Choisie de Paul d'Ivoi (1903-1904), were simply reprints of earlier work–d'Ivoi (1856-1915) was a very popular French writer of science fiction novels. But others were original work. The pulp from those years which has dated the least and remains the most readable is the German Oskar Hoffmann's proto-space opera Mac Milfords Reisen im Universum #1-10 (1902-1903), about a race to the moon and the discovery there of the alien Selenites.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

But the most popular science fiction pulps of these years were Robert Kraft's, another German. He wrote three best-sellers, none of which have aged well but all of which were quite popular during their time: Aus dem Reiche der Phantasie #1-10 (1901), about a paraplegic German boy who is taken by a fairy to visit various fantastic sights, including the last living caveman, the Atlantis of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, "the country of the living dead," and an island of invisible immortals; Detektiv Nobody's Erlebnisse und Reiseabenteuer #1-12 (1904-1906), about the titular detective's world-spanning duel with the Japanese Yellow Dragon organization, which has, among other things, a subterranean headquarters under the pyramids, a Nautilus-like submarine, and a hollow mountain full of dinosaurs; and Atalanta #1-60 (1904-1905), about the Mohawk woman Atalanta, who possesses superhuman abilities. While searching for her legacy Atalanta fights a mad scientist who wants to conquer the world, discovers a lost race of Mayans, and visits Lemuria, which is ruled by evil albino big-headed dwarf geniuses.

The signal moment for European sf pulps came in 1905 when German publisher Adolf Eichler bought the translation rights to Street and Smith's popular dime novel series Buffalo Bill Stories and began publishing them in Germany as a weekly series. Germans had been enthusiastic about Westerns since Karl Postl's Tokeah (1829), and Eichler, who was familiar with Buffalo Bill Stories through the New York branch of his company, thought he could turn a profit with a German language Buffalo Bill. Eichler was right, and the German Buffalo Bill was an instant best-seller. In 1906 Eichler bought the rights to Street and Smith's Nick Carter character, and the German language edition of Nick Carter's adventures was even more popular than the German language Buffalo Bill. Other publishers, both in Germany and around Europe, were quick to imitate Eichler, and by 1907 Europe and Russia were enjoying an explosion of pulps.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

The great majority of these pulps were about a single character, following the model of Buffalo Bill and Nick Carter Weekly, and most of the pulps were in genres other than science fiction. But pulps whose fiction were mostly (if not all) science fictional appeared as early as 1906, with the German Bibliothek der Geheimnisse (20 issues, 1906). More importantly, a number of the non-science fiction pulps at least occasionally ran overtly fantastic stories, and several of the non-science fiction pulps made the fantastic a regular part of the series. Buffalo Bill fell into the former category; although most of his stories are ordinary frontier and western tales, roughly one in ten stories has some element of the fantastic, whether it is a colony of Lost Race Aztecs in Mexico or the haunted, magic skull of Moctezuma or ape-men in the jungles of the Yucatan. The Czech series Z Pamětí Amerického Detektiva Léona Cliftona (275 issues, 1906-1910) fell into the latter category; roughly one in four issues of Léona Cliftona had the fantastic in it, from the cursed belt buckle of Cagliostro to the appropriately-titled "Gorilla ex Machina."

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

It's arguable whether a story about a consulting detective who fights a death-ray wielding mad scientist is a science fiction story or a detective story, but when numerous stories in a series, over the course of years, have science fictional elements, it's fair to say that the series is science fiction as well as detective.

1908 was the year in which science fiction pulps (rather than detective pulps with had regular doses of science fiction) began appearing in Europe. France and Germany led the way, setting the pattern for the next two decades; of the 7 new science fiction pulps, 4 were German and 3 were French. In the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s, France and Germany would dominate the European pulp industry in general and the science fiction pulps industry in particular.

As noted, Germany had the first science fiction pulps, in 1902. France's first appeared in 1907, although a reprint series appeared in 1903. Of the other European countries to publish science fiction pulps, the debut years are as follows: Czechoslovakia/Bohemia, 1906; Sweden (only reprints) 1908; Denmark, 1909; Netherlands, 1909; Poland (only reprints) 1909; Russia (only reprints) 1909; Spain, reprints beginning in 1910, new material beginning in 1921; Italy, reprints beginning in 1911, new material beginning in 1931; Portugal, reprints beginning in 1912, new material beginning in 1932; Belgium (only reprints) 1918; Hungary, 1922; Austria, 1935.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

The total number of sf pulps for each country is as follows: Austria 1; Belgium 3 (all reprints); Czechoslovakia/Bohemia 5 (2 reprints); Denmark 11; France 37 (1 reprint); 43 (4 reprints); Hungary 3; Italy 10 (7 reprints); Netherlands 5 (1 reprint); Poland 4 (all reprints); Portugal 3 (1 reprint); Russia 1 (1 reprint); Spain 36 (4 reprints); Sweden 1 (1 reprint).

To put the 1908 pulp numbers into content, in that year 82 new pulps debuted in the countries of Europe: 7 adventure, 63 detective & mystery, 3 historical, 2 pirate, 7 science fiction, and 18 westerns. Overall, in 1908 162 pulp titles were issued in the countries of Europe: 13 adventure, 94 detective & mystery, 8 historical, 4 pirate, 10 science fiction, 1 war, 27 western, and 5 from minor genres like moral, fairy tales, and romance. (Romance pulps, one of the mainstays of the American pulp industry, were a minor concern in Europe and were popular only in Germany).

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

The years with the highest outputs look like this.

The science fiction pulps of 1908 are indicative of the fecundity of imagination of the pulp writers and of the types of science fiction preferred by European pulp readers. In France, Jules Hosch wrote Gil Dax, Empereur des Airs #1-20, about an inventor and aviator who creates a technologically-advanced airplane and uses it to fight German spies, an evil Malaysian Maharaja, and a mad scientist who creates a man-eating octopus with a human face. Arnould Galopin's 1906 novel Le Docteur Oméga was edited and reissued as Aventures Fantastiques d'un Jeune Parisien #1-12 (1908-1909), about a Parisian teenager and his two scientist friends who create a rocket, travel to Mars, and encounter a variety of hostile and civilized Martians. And Pierre Giffard and Albert Robida created La Guerre Infernale #1-30 (1908), about the horribly destructive world war of 1937, in which Yellow Peril Japanese wage war on the whites of Europe, Russia, and the United States with technologically advanced airships and biological weapons being used.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

In Germany, two anonymously-penned and one pseudonymously-penned series appeared: Thomas Alva Edison - Der Grosse Erfinder #1-5, about a heroic Thomas Edison using his wonderful new inventions—homunculi, advanced radio sets, and the like - to vanquish benighted natives and wicked men, from yacht pirates to Indian gold thieves to Chinese pirates to radium thieves; Minx der Geisterbeschwörer #1-10 and Minx der Geistersucher #1-10 (1908), about a tuxedo-clad ghostbreaker and exorcist who uses a "spirit camera" and scientific principles to defeat occult villains; and Der Luftpirat und sein Lenkbares Luftschiff #1-165 (1908-1911), a space opera about Captain Mors, a German inventor who uses a variety of armored, technologically-advanced airships and spaceships to fight evil men and then evil aliens.

Of those seven new pulps, 1 was aviation & travel, 1 was interplanetary romance, 1 was future war, 1 was heroic inventor, 2 were occult detective, and 1 was space opera.

The years leading up to World War One were dominated by France and Germany. Of the 24 new pulps to appear from 1909 to 1913, 11 were French. The country with the next largest number was Germany, with 3. However, of those 24 new pulps, 9 were reprints of material from other countries, and 6 of those were reprints of German pulps.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

The most popular pulp during these years was Der Luftpirat, which was reprinted in Poland (twice), Russia, and Italy. The second most popular pulp was Sâr Dubnotal, about a Rosicrucian occult detective known as the "Napoleon of the Immaterial." Sâr Dubnotal appeared in the German pulp Sâr Dubnotal, der Große Geisterbanner #1-9 in 1909. The series was translated and then expanded by the French author Norbert Sévestre in Sâr Dubnotal #1-20 (1909-1910), and the French version was reprinted in Portugal and Spain. The most popular pulp within any country was Marcel Priollet's Les Voyages Aeriens d'un Petit Parisien a Travers le Monde #1-111 (1911-1913), the story of boy adventurer Tintin and his fantastic adventures around the world, in the skies and beneath the surface of the earth. But the most popular writer of pulp science fiction during these years was the Comte Adolphe d'Espie (1878-1956), who under the pseudonym "Jean de la Hire" churned out a variety of successful pulps. D'Espie is best known for his series of science fiction superhero novels about the "Nyctalope," the first of which, L'Homme Qui Peut Vivre dans l'Eau, was published in 1908.

An introduction to pulp fiction in Europe before 1914

During the pre-WW1 years D'Espie wrote Le Corsaire Sous-Marin #1-79 (1912-1913), about a Captain Nemo-"inspired" misanthropic submarine pirate, and Les Trois Boy Scouts #1-43 (1913-1920), about three French Boy Scouts who pilot a technologically-advanced airplane around the world and discover Lost Race Inca, Sri Lankan Mad Scientists, giant octopi on Easter Island, and Dr. Moreau-wannabes in the New Hebrides.

Next time, I'll discuss the European science fiction pulps from 1914 to 1945.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.