He was a writer, first and foremost, and he spent a lot of time thinking about writing. He was a good writer. He could turn a phrase. He could move a story along. Still, it was difficult to make any money at the thing. He spent some time in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, hanging out with the other writers and artists, thinking about what it means to spend a life with the written word, to pay the bills working as a writer. He found his answer in the pulp fiction scene of the ’30s and ’40s. Magazines and book publishers were looking for fast-paced writing that told fast-paced stories of adventure, mystery, and intrigue. He could do that. He could do that as well as anyone.
His name was L. Ron Hubbard. This year, 2011, happens to be the 100th anniversary of his birth (on March 13, to be exact). By the mid-1950s, Hubbard was a legend. He’d written in every field and form imaginable. The pulps were his bread and butter. He churned out stories and novels. He wrote adventures and mysteries and thrillers and sci-fi. In 1934 he published, among other things, a mystery story called “Calling Squad Cars!”; a sea adventure featuring black pearls called “Pearl Pirate”; a Western called “Maybe Because—!”; an adventure story called “Yellow Loot” that includes a race along China’s Great Wall; a detective story called “The Carnival of Death,” in which a U.S. Treasury agent solves murders at a carnival; and “Tooby,” a musical story about a tuba.
In 1940, Hubbard really seemed to hit his stride. He published a story called “Fear” in Unknown, one of the pulp magazines of the time. In the story, a professor publishes a paper debunking myths about the existence of devils and demons and is then hounded by said devils and demons. Ray Bradbury liked “Fear” a lot, calling it “a great scare.” Hubbard also wrote a sci-fi story called “Final Blackout.” It’s the story of a lieutenant who comes to rule England after years of atomic warfare. Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land) famously said the story was, “as perfect a piece of science fiction as has ever been written.”
Hubbard was one of the very best at this point. He was selling his stories for good money because people were eager to read everything he was churning out. He was a king of pulp. It is not easy to write good pulp, good popular fiction. Just try it if you think otherwise. Try to write a genuinely gripping sea yarn, for instance. Try to write a detective story that doesn’t end up as a string of tired clichés that may as well have been snatched from Raymond Chandler’s wastepaper basket in the Hollywood Hills. Hubbard was writing his ass off in those years. He estimates that he was churning out 100,000 words a month. Much of it was publishable material. Some of it was as good as pulp fiction gets.
Hubbard worked at his craft, without being precious about it. In an essay about creating suspense in your writing, he said:
To foreshadow anything is weak. It is like a boxer stalling for the bell. You have to be mighty sure that you’ve got something outstanding to foreshadow, or the reader will nail up your scalp. It is nice to start ominously like this: I knew that night as I sloshed through the driving rain that all was not well. I had a chilly sense of foreboding as though a monster dogged my steps. If I only had known then what awaited me when the big chimes in the tower should strike midnight, I would have collapsed with terror…
Very good openings. Very, very good. Proven goods, even though the nap is a bit worn. But how many times have writers lived up to those openings? Not very many. You get off in high, but after you finish you will probably tear out these opening paragraphs – even though Poe was able to get away with this device. Remember the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher”? You know, the one that goes something like this: “Through the whole of a dark and dismal afternoon.” That is foreshadowing. However, few besides Poe have been able to get away with suspense created by atmosphere alone.
You can see an interesting mind in those paragraphs, a pulp writing mind at its most honest. I like the way that Hubbard admires Poe at a distance but then concedes that Poe possessed a specific and unrepeatable genius. Best to be careful, concludes Hubbard, and promise the reader only what you can actually deliver.
In another essay called “Arts and Eats,” Hubbard tells us about a meal he had with a writer friend in the Village. The friend is upbraiding Hubbard for writing all of his pulpy garbage and ignoring the art. Hubbard laughs — he’s the one paying for the meal. But the question nags at him. He doesn’t want to think of himself as a hack and nothing more. With a reference to Voltaire and the idea that in a dispute one has to define the terms, Hubbard rejects the whole argument. There is no conflict between arts and eats, he says. There is, in fact, a greater synthesis. There is an art to telling great stories that are universally accessible. And that art is inherently lucrative, since everyone wants it.
You could call this the creed of the pulp writer. It is the place where art and accessibility merge. L. Ron Hubbard was pretty sure he had discovered that point of contact. He gained a powerful insight into human beings in doing so. He had discovered how to tell stories in a way that made them inherently compelling. It was an insight that kept him moving. His pulp-writing creed demanded breadth and scope. He didn’t want to get stuck on any one subject or any single idea. The pulp writer, he thought, has to range over the entirety of human endeavor. He said:
A man cannot write a story unless he is deeply interested in it. If he thinks he knows a subject then he instantly becomes careless with his technical details.
The only way I have found it possible to sidetrack these woes is by delving into new fields constantly, looking everywhere for one small fact which will lead me on into a story field I think I’ll like.
There is democracy in such an approach, a radical openness. Hubbard took seriously the wants and needs and fears and desires of people. He became a student of those things. He watched human beings interacting with one another and with the world at large. And he saw thousands upon thousands of stories as he watched. He was able to pull lessons and rules from those stories, to see why some were more interesting than others, why some grabbed the attention more profoundly and stuck in the mind a little longer. Hubbard’s stories transcended the normal pulpy fare for the simple reason that he looked harder than most other writers.
This knowledge made L. Ron Hubbard into a dangerous and powerful man. Perhaps no person should know that much about human desire. It does not surprise me that a writer of this kind, interested in everything, would turn his thoughts to religion. Why not tell the ultimate story, he must have thought, the story of all stories. I do not know anything about Scientology, the religion that Hubbard founded. I don’t pretend to pronounce upon its goodness or badness or to engage in the controversies that have surrounded the church since its beginnings in 1952. I remember, though, as a child growing up in Los Angeles, seeing a large billboard advertising Hubbard’s book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The billboard showed the cover of the book, which was dominated by a glossy picture of an exploding volcano. I remember being immediately curious, immediately drawn to that image. It is not the most expected thing, if you think about it, that a book about the modern science of mental health would feature such a dramatic image. But Hubbard, it turns out, once said, “Man responds to an exploding volcano.” He was right. I did. The pulp fiction writer who went on to found one of the most controversial religions of our time was always right about things like that. And that, if nothing else, is quite a remarkable story. • 15 February 2011