Canada’s Wartime Science Fiction and Fantasy Pulp Magazines

January 4, 2021 | Myrna

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In the early 20th century, science fiction and fantasy fans were pulp magazine enthusiasts. "Pulps" were cheap, colourful and filled with exciting stories. Canadian fans eagerly purchased pulp magazines imported from America and the United Kingdom. That is until the outbreak of World War II produced a homegrown Canadian pulp magazine industry. 

Our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy has an extensive collection of pulp magazines. These fragile and rare magazines reveal the history of science fiction and fantasy in Canada and abroad.

Covers of Uncanny Tales (November 1940  May 1941 and December 1941 issues)
Uncanny Tales (left to right: November 1940 issue, May 1941 issue, December 1941 issue). Uncanny Tales is one of Canada's rare science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines.

 

What are pulp magazines?

Pulp magazines emerged in the late 19th century. Thanks to rising literacy rates and falling publishing costs, there was a growing market for cheap popular fiction. Pulp publishers were able to capitalize on this demand. The magazines were printed on cheap wood pulp paper and filled with genre fiction. Pulps helped define modern genre fiction. Their stories pioneered conventions of science fiction, mystery, westerns and other genres.

Cover of The Argosy (August 2  1919)
The Argosy (August 2, 1919 issue). The Argosy became the first pulp magazine when it began publishing monthly in 1896.

 

In 1923, Weird Tales was the first pulp to publish only supernatural, occult and science fiction stories. In the decade that followed, more speculative fiction pulps entered the market. Magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding rose to popularity.

 

Wartime restrictions

Before the Second World War, Canada had a small pulp magazine industry. Canadian pulp readers relied on American imports for their reading materials. But the passage of the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) in 1940 changed the Canadian periodical industry. WECA’s goal was to support the war effort and keep Canadian dollars in Canada. It banned importing “[p]eriodical publications, unbound or paper bound, consisting largely of fiction.” Pulps were not WECA’s only targets. Banned imports ranged from macaroni and squirrel cages to playing cards and champagne.

Photograph of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King speaking into a CBC microphone
MacKenzie King. 100th anniversary (1940). Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government passed the War Exchange Conservation Act in December 1940. From Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

 

Under the new law, pulp magazines needed to be printed in Canada on Canadian paper. Publishers responded to these Canadian restrictions on pulps in two ways. Some Canadian publishers produced homegrown pulps, featuring art and stories by Canadians. Other publishers reprinted American pulps making minor cover art and content alterations.

 

A Canadian original

Uncanny Tales was one of the homegrown pulps published during World War II. Adams Publishing Company released Uncanny Tales along with many other genre pulps. These pulps were a mix of original Canadian content and material purchased from British and American writers. Uncanny Tales was the only Adams’ pulp to focus on science fiction and fantasy stories.

Covers of Uncanny Tales (June 1941 and November 1941 issues)
Uncanny Tales (left to right: June 1941 issue and November 1941 issue).

 

Writer Thomas P. Kelly (books by Kelley at TPL) was Uncanny Tales' primary Canadian contributor. Kelley was a prolific writer under both his own name and several pen names. In Uncanny Tales, he published as Rex Hayes, Valentine Worth, Wellington Price and Gene Bannerman. Working with wife Ethel, the pair produced up to 100,000 words a week during Canada's World War II pulp zenith. Credited as "America’s foremost Weird Story Writer" in early issues of Uncanny Tales, Kelley actually lived and worked in Toronto. Before pulp writing, Kelley worked as a prizefighting boxer and a bouncer. Kelley came from a family of tall tale tellers. His father Doc Kelley sold "magical elixirs" for 45 years with a touring show.

Photograph of Thomas P. Kelley
Thomas P. Kelley. The fastest author in the east (1970). From Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

 

Uncanny Tales also published original stories and reprints by American pulp writers. Donald A. Wollheim, Sam Moskowitz and C. M. Kornbluth were among the science fiction writers who sold stories to Uncanny Tales. Uncanny Tales ran for 21 issues from 1940 to 1943. The wartime conditions that allowed Uncanny Tales to thrive also caused problems, though. In 1942, wartime paper shortages forced Uncanny Tales to reduce publication. Finally in 1943, the magazine stopped publication ending an era of Canadian science fiction and fantasy pulps. 

 

A Canadian reprint

Instead of publishing original Canadian content, some publishers reprinted American pulp magazines. One example is the Canadian edition of Science Fiction. Science Fiction magazine declared that it was "truly All-Canadian magazines, conceived, edited and written in Canada by Canadians." In fact, Science Fiction's stories were reprints from the American pulps. Publisher Columbia Publications reused stories from Science Fiction, Science Fiction Quarterly and Future Fiction. The pulp was only printed in Canada to avoid World War II import laws.

Cover of Science Fiction (June 1942)
Science Fiction (July 1942 issue). Science Fiction's Canadian edition consisted entirely of reprints.

 

Similarly, stories in Astonishing Stories' Canadian editions were all reprints from American pulps. Canadian editions would feature different art. But, generally the content mirrored American pulps Astonishing Stories (American edition) and Super Science Stories. During World War II, Canadian science fiction and fantasy fans relied on a combination of original and reprinted pulps.  

Cover of Astonishing Stories (January 1942 issue)
Astonishing Stories (January 1942 issue). Canadian editions of Astonishing Stories had different cover art than American editions.

 

What happened to Canadian pulps? 

After World War II, import restriction on pulp magazines were removed. This reduced demand for reprint editions or original Canadian pulps. Some Canadian pulps continued publication after World War II. But the remaining pulps focused on crime stories rather than science fiction and fantasy. 

Now Canadian wartime pulps are rare collectors' items. The magazines' cheap wood pulp paper makes them fragile. In the 1940s, pulps were disposable pop culture items with few surviving the decades. Libraries and collectors treasure remaining copies of Uncanny Tales, Astonishing Stories and other pulps printed in Canada. 

 

Further reading

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