The pulps of the world were full of tough men. The iconic pulp characters — the Shadow, Doc Savage, Tarzan — are all men, and the common perception of the pulps is that they were written by male writers, about male characters, for male readers.
However, the pulps were more progressive than mainstream fiction (and film and comic strips, etc.) in a number of respects, including and especially the number of formidable female characters who appeared in them. Even excluding those characters whose writers forced them into marriage and respectability, the list of Women Badder Than You is long. Here are 14 of the most badass fictional women to appear during the pulp era. Excluded are the best-known female badasses: Isaac Asimov's Susan Calvin, C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, John Russell Fearn's Golden Amazon, and Lester Dent's Pat Savage. You already know them. Here are some you don't - but you should.
1902: Panchkori Dey (1873-1945) was a professional writer of detective fiction in India. He is best known for his consulting detective Arindam Bosu, who is a dhoti-wearing Sherlock Holmes active in both Europe and India. But Dey's greatest creation was Jumelia, who appeared in the novels Mayabi (1902) and Mayabini (1928). In Mayabi Jumelia is the crafty, vicious partner of Phulbabu, a criminal mastermind, and with him carries out a series of murders and dismemberments in Hugli-Chuchura and Kolkata. When Jumelia and Phulbabu tangle with Arindam Bosu, Phulbabu is killed — Bosu is much quicker to kill his enemies than Holmes — but Jumelia escapes.
In Mayabini Jumelia duels with another of Dey's series characters, the Indian police officer Debendra Bijoy Mitra. Jumelia is in love with Mitra, and she uses her yoga-given shapeshifting powers to commit a series of robberies in Kolkata and to try to win Mitra's love. Jumelia even goes as far as assuming the appearance of Mitra's wife and attempting to seduce him, but Mitra sees the deception and rejects her, leading Jumelia to kill herself.
1904: The most popular pulp science fiction writer in Europe in the first decade of the 20th century was the German Robert Kraft (1869-1916). One of his popular characters was Atalanta, who appeared in the pulp Atalanta #1-60 (1904-1905, reprinted in France in 1912 and 1913) and the novel Atalanta: Die Geheimnisse Des Sklavensees (1911). Atalanta is the last member of a tribe of the Mohawk people who had flourished in America centuries before Asians crossed the Bering Strait land bridge and settled the American continent. However, Atalanta initially does not know this. As a baby she was found on the shores of a large "slave lake" in South America, and she grew up in an orphanage ignorant of her background.
As an adult she goes in search of her birthright, aided by Graf Felsmark, a German millionaire adventurer who Atalanta eventually marries. Atalanta returns to the slave lake and frees the slaves. She carries out a prolonged duel with her arch-enemy, the vicious South American Professor Dodd, a brilliant inventor who plans to use his advanced weaponry to hold the world hostage. She discovers a Lost City of Maya in the jungles of Mexico. She even visits Lemuria in her plane but ends up fighting against the rulers of Lemuria, a group of evil, albino, big-headed dwarf geniuses, and their ogrish servants. Atalanta is physically and mentally superior to ordinary humans and is capable of a number of incredible athletic feats.
1905: John Russell Coryell (1848-1924) is best known as one of the co-creators of Nick Carter, the dominant dime novel hero of the late 19th and early 20th century, but Coryell wrote a great deal of journalism and dime novel stories, and one of them, "The Weird and Wonderful Story of Another World" (Physical Culture, 1905-1906), has a notable female badass. Physical Culture was a publication of Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955) and was a mouthpiece for Macfadden's views on exercise and diet-Macfadden was a major spokesman for the "physical culture" movement of the 19th century-and many of the stories and serials in Physical Culture were proponents of physical culture.
This was the case with Coryell's serial. In the story, Tyman Currio discovers anti-gravity "etheric waves" and builds a rocket to take advantage of his discovery. Currio flies to Jupiter and discovers that it is Earth-like in atmosphere and is inhabited by a race of humanoids who are physically and mentally superior to humans. Currio befriends one of them, Bel, and she tells him of their civilization. In the distant past they had mastered advanced technology, but they are believers in vegetarianism, nudity, physical exercise, returning to nature, and political anarchism. Currio, a meat-eating human, comes off rather badly in comparison to them, and when he falls in love with Bel and tries to impress her by shooting a bird, she is infuriated by his murder of the bird, knocks him out with a punch, and tears apart his rifle with her bare hands. She returns to Earth to act as a missionary and abandons Currio, telling him that she can do her work better without him.
1911: Hans Heinz Ewers (1871-1943) was a German actor and writer who is best known now for his horror fiction and his association with the Nazi party. His most famous creation was the Nietzschean übermensch Frank Braun, but Ewers also created the femme fatale Alraune, who appeared in Alraune: Die Geschichte eines lebenden Wesens (1911), and then later in films, starting with Alraune, die Henkerstochter (1918). In medieval German myth the semen of hanged men, collected from the dirt beneath their bodies, would produce the Mandrake root, which had various magical properties. In Ewers' novel the mad scientist Dr. Ten Brinken scrapes the ground beneath a freshly hanged man and uses the semen gathered thereby to impregnate a prostitute. The prostitute gives birth to a daughter, Alraune, who grows up to be "uncannily beautiful." However, when Alraune discovers her origin she turns to evil and becomes a heartless, depraved, "somnambulant vamp" who uses her occult and possibly vampiric powers of seduction on everyone, including her father. She becomes Frank Braun's lover and dies accidentally.
1918: John Charles Beecham was better known during the pulp era for his Fu Manchu-like Yellow Peril villains, including Ah Sing, "the boss Chinaman of the East Indies," but he also created the superwoman Koyala, who appeared in Argus Pheasant (1918) and Yellow Spider (1920). In the Netherlands East Indies, Koyala, a half-white, half-Indonesian (her mother was from Celebes), poses a problem for the Dutch colonists and other white visitors. She hates them, and wants them all to die: "When the last white man spills his heart on the coral shore and the wrongs done Chawatangi's daughter, my mother, have been avenged, then Koyala will join the Hanu Token that call her...." The Hanu Token are the spirits which sometimes possess Koyala, speak through her, and tell her hidden things. Various White Perils, especially corrupt Dutch administrators, are punished by Koyala, who foments numerous uprisings, but the good whites find that she can be kind as well as beautiful.
1919: Erle Cox (1873-1950) was one of the rare pre-WW2 Australian writers who made a profession out of science fiction. His best known work is "Out of the Silence" (as a serial, 1919, as a novel, 1925). In the novel, Alan Dundas, an Australian homesteader, is digging a pit when he uncovers a door into a technologically-advanced subterranean complex. In one chamber lies a woman's body in suspended animation, along with directions on how to revive her. She is Earani, the survivor of a race which twenty-five million years ago ruled the world with its advanced technology and superhuman mental abilities. Once Earani has acclimated herself to the present she finds it not at all to her liking-there are too many non-whites. One of her ancestors almost wiped out all the non-white races, and she intends to finish the job in the present. Her science is capable of doing so, and her abilities of teleportation and mind control mean that those who oppose her plan are mastered by her. But a jealous farmer surprises Earani and stabs her to death.
1919: The Thrill Book was the first pulp to be completely devoted to the fantastic. The Thrill Book was intended by its editor to be a full-bore Fantastica pulp, featuring stories of the "strange, bizarre, occult, mysterious," but it ended up being an abortive 16-issue pulp of mediocre adventure stories with science fictional, fantasy, and occult elements. The Thrill Book still functions as a precursor to Weird Tales, but it wasn't as influential or as good as it should have been.
However, it did have J. Hampton Bishop's serial "The Shadow of Race" (The Thrill Book, Mar. 1-Apr 1, 1919). In the serial, two Virginians, Burton McLaughlin and Duncan Whiting, go to Africa to follow the path of McLaughlin's father, who believed that monkeys devolved from men. Deep inside Africa they hear about a white goddess, and after much travel and travail they find her: Iluko, the "Goddess of Fire," who rules a kingdom of intelligent gorillas and is served by a group of black slaves. Iluko is a beautiful, intelligent femme fatale with more than a few similarities to H. Rider Haggard's Ayesha, including being a member of an ancient Lost Race, and she decides that McLaughlin will make a suitable mate. Unfortunately, Iluko also decides that Whiting must be sacrificed, and Whiting and McLaughlin barely escape with their lives. Unlike many similar Lost Race stories, Iluko is still alive and still the queen at the end of the story.
1927: Frank Godwin (1889-1959) was an American book illustrator and comic book artist who is best known for his comic strip "Connie" (1927-1944). Constance Kurridge, known to her many friends as "Connie," is a blonde woman in her late teens or early twenties, but she is the opposite of the dumb blonde stereotype. She is independent, wily, clever, witty, and absolutely refuses to settle for anything less than what she wants to do. She flies to Mexico in search of buried treasure, she becomes a reporter for the Daily Buzz and reports on and helps solve various crimes and kidnapings, and she gets involved in squelching a Red revolt in the tiny Central American republic of Anchovy, whose El Presidente makes her a field marshal in gratitude for her help in stopping the rebellion.
With Jack Bird, her pilot friend, Connie discovers a Lost Race in the Andes. She finds another lost city, Lahkpor, in the Tibetan Himalayas, and when she discovers that Lahkpor's leaders are planning to use their atomic technology to conquer the world, Connie sees to it that their plot is foiled. She travels into the future a thousand years and finds a gynocentric society. She travels across the solar system with Dr. Alden, a female scientist and one of Connie's many friends, and finds alien races, ably defending herself and Dr. Alden when they are attacked. Connie fights invisible men, works as an agent of the United Nations, is capable of anything she put her mind to, and is damn near perfect.
1931: Weird Tales had a variety of women in its stories, some victims and some victimizers, but none were more memorable than Kirk Mashburn's Nita Duboin, who appeared in "Placide's Wife" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1931) and "The Last of Placide's Wife" (Weird Tales, Sept. 1932). Sometime during the 19th century, in New Orleans, there is an alluring olive-skinned, black-haired "wench from a street-fair" named Nita Duboin. She beguiles Placide Duboin, a local Cajun, into marrying her–perhaps for his money, perhaps for something else. He doesn't treat her well, and beats her, and she hates him. Her only companion in the marriage is her giant, yellow-eyed black cat, who also hates Placide. Placide shoots the cat, but it does not die. Placide then shoots and buries Nita, but she comes back. Placide dies, and then is found alive and well, and Nita reveals herself to be not just a femme fatale but also loup-garou and a vampire.
1931: Underworld Romances was one of the less-successful efforts by pulp publishers to create a hybrid pulp which would appeal to both male and female audiences. In some cases, like the cowboy romance pulps, the end result was staggeringly successful. But Underworld Romances was designed to merge the crime and romance genres into a single pulp, a task it which it failed. Underworld Romances lasted only three issues, but each issue had a story by Jane Littell in it about Pussy Fane.
Fane is a beautiful escort ("party girl") for the Pauline Whiting Entertainment Agency. But she's a little screwed up. She grew up in a circus, among the big cats, "and then, because someone said, within her hearing for the hundredth time that she wasn't human, that she was more than half cat herself, that she even reeked with that acrid, pungent odor of the cats, she had walked from the circus without a penny or shred of baggage." She continues to fear that "the strong jungle odor of the cats would cling to her for life," and regularly douses herself in the strongest perfume she knows. But the athleticism she learned in the circus, and the superhuman strength which she was born with–"any sudden need always found her possessed of the strength of twenty men"–help her in times of peril, and when in danger, from gangsters or would-be rapists, she is capable of literally tearing a man's arms from his body.
1935: Stanley Weinbaum (1902-1935) had a short career as a science fiction writer, but was influential far out of proportion to his output; his "A Martian Odyssey" was the first American science fiction story to portray a truly alien alien. In Weinbaum's "The Adaptive Ultimate" (Astounding Stories, Nov. 1935) Kyra Zelas is a plain, mousy woman who is dying of tuberculosis. Fortunately for her, Dr. Daniel Scott, a brilliant young biochemist, has an idea for her treatment. His thought is that since fruit flies are the "most adaptive of living organisms," he could concoct a serum from their bodies which would allow other living beings, like humans, to adapt to injury and old age. Since Zelas is dying, Scott's superior, Dr. Bach, has no objection to Scott trying out the serum on Zelas. It works-too well, in fact, because Zelas is not only cured of tuberculosis but becomes a paragon of health and beauty, her body automatically adjusting itself to whatever conditions it is in. Unfortunately, Zelas isn't a nice person and she schemes her way to power, killing children and adults on her way to the top. She's so adaptive, not just physically but in personality, that she makes Scott fall in love with her. Eventually Scott and Bach drug her and remove her pineal gland, robbing her of her powers.
1937: Arthur K. Barnes (1911-1969) wrote widely in the pulps, from sports to detective, but his best creation was Gerry Carlyle, who appeared in ten stories in Thrilling Wonder Stories from 1937 to 1946, beginning with "The Hothouse Planet" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Oct. 1937). Several of the stories were collected in Interplanetary Hunter (1956). Gerry Carlyle is a beautiful galactic big game hunter who works for the London Interplanetary Zoo. She captures dangerous alien beasts on far distant and often hazardous alien worlds, from the saw-tongued whiposaurs on Venus to the ten-foot-tall Saturnian Dermaphos, and brings them back to the Zoo. Carlyle is assisted by her bold and clever sidekick Tommy Strike, with whom Carlyle has a love/hate relationship; he is certain that no woman (especially Carlyle) is his superior, and consistently tries (and fails) to prove it.
1939: Wang Fuqing (?-?) was a professional movie actor, writer, and director in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1920s and 1930s. Wang made everything from musicals to comedies, but he was best known for his horror films. His two most successful were Nu Sheqinggui (1939) and Xu Nu Sheqinggui (1939), about the vigilante "Lady Ghost." In Nu Sheqinggui a man and his daughter are murdered, leaving the wife and mother to mourn. She vows vengeance, but knows that she cannot achieve it as she is, so she goes to a cemetery of unmarked graves and lies in a coffin for 49 days to achieve the powers of a ghost. This achieved, she becomes "Lady Ghost" and uses her new powers to find and kill the man who murdered her daughter and her husband. In Xu Nu Sheqinggui, an adulterous wife and her lover attempt to frighten the wife's husband to death. The wife's lover even attempts to rape the wife's stepdaughter. To save the stepdaughter, the husband's servant magically summons Lady Ghost, who promptly kills both the wife and her lover.
1944: Carl Jacobi (1908-1997) was a prolific pulp writer, but his best creation, Grannie Annie, appeared in just two stories: "Doctor Universe" (Planet Stories, Fall 1944) and "Double Trouble" (Planet Stories, Spring 1945). Annabella C. Flowers is the well-liked writer of a long line of very popular science fiction novels. She enjoys traveling around the solar system doing research for her books, but more than research she enjoys stirring up trouble, especially when she can stop criminals who try to use the plots of her books to commit crimes. She is "a little wisp of a woman clad in a voluminous black dress with one of those doily-like caps on her head," hence the name "Grannie Annie." She is spunky and fearless, and is helped by spacer layabout Billy-Boy.
Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.