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Dime-Novel SF

Entry updated 18 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.

Dime-novel sf, which was almost wholly boys' fiction, appeared in two media: serially in such Boys' Papers as Golden Hours, Happy Days, The Boys of New York and Young Men of America, or as complete stories in series publications like The Wide Awake Weekly, The Boy's Star Library, New York Five Cent Library, the Frank Reade Library and The Nugget Library. The most important publishers were Frank Tousey, Publisher, Norman L Munro and Street & Smith.

Formats varied considerably, from crown-8vo-size books to 9 x 12½in (about 230 x 320mm) saddle-wired (saddle-stitched) pamphlets, but from the turn of the century most dime novels were either saddle-wired single-signature pamphlets of around 8½ x 11in (about 215 x 280mm) or 5 x 7in (about 125 x 180mm) side-stapled paperbound books of several signatures. (All of these formats are rendered here in the US style; i.e., width followed by height.) It is the 8½ x 11in pamphlet – similar in dimension to Bedsheet-format – that is usually, though not very logically, described as "dime-novel format"; but then the term "dime novel" itself is inaccurate, since most commonly they cost a nickel (five cents) or six cents, rather than a dime (10 cents). All dime novels were printed on cheap paper – sometimes very poor indeed – and it is therefore now difficult to locate examples in good condition.

Almost all dime-novel sf falls into three basic categories: the Invention story, the Lost-Race story and the marvel story. These types occasionally overlap in minor ways.

The invention story originated with Edward S Ellis's The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), in which Ellis, a prolific and popular writer, adapted the historical Newark Steam Man into a conventional Western story. This first publication seems to have been without influence, but one of the later reprintings (as The Huge Hunter, 1876) came to the attention of Frank Tousey, a rival publisher, who commissioned a similar work, Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains (28 February 1876 The Boys of New York as "The Steam Man of the Plains"; 1892 as by "Noname"), from Harry Enton. This initiated the important series about the Frank Reade family of inventors (see Frank Reade Library). Enton followed this with two sequels about Frank Reade, with steam engines shaped into horses.

These stories, together with Ellis's work, set the pattern for future invention stories. The initial model was the dime-novel Western. Stress was on iron technology, with little or no science; narratives contained random, thrilling incidents, often presented in a disjointed and puerile way. Typical social patterns were: a conscious attempt to capitalize on age conflict, with boy inventors outdoing their elders (see Edisonade); aggressive, exploitative capitalism, particularly at the expense of "primitive" peoples; the frontier mentality, with slaughter of "primitives" (in the first Frank Reade, Jr. story Frank kills about 250 Native Americans, to say nothing of destroying an inhabited village); strong elements of sadism; ethnic rancour focused on Native Americans, Blacks, Irish and, later, Mexicans and Jews.

After Enton's three stories and a fourth of unknown authorship, the invention dime novel was taken over by Luis Senarens, who (with anonymous associates) wrote a long series of Frank Reade, Jr. stories 1882-1898, culminating in the Frank Reade Library. In this series the type of invention shifted to electric air vessels, land rovers and submarines, all showing the strong influence of Jules Verne. The narrative more typically became one of (frequently inaccurate) geographical exploration and adventure, sometimes incorporating minor lost-race episodes.

The Frank Reade, Jr. stories were historically the most important invention stories, but other story chains existed, as did individual stories about other boy inventors with Airships (see also Airship Boys) or submarines. When the sales of the Frank Reade Library languished, Tousey issued a companion series, the Jack Wright stories, again by Senarens. Competing boy-inventor series from Street and Smith appeared: the doings of Tom Edison, Jr., written mostly by Philip Reade, and Electric Bob, written by Robert T Toombs. Both series are much superior to the Frank Reade, Jr. stories in content and writing, and both are morally less offensive, but neither of them had the cultural impact of Tousey's Frank Reade Library.

The dime-novel lost-race story did not necessarily follow the full pattern of its adult counterpart (colonial exploitation, mythic elements, sacred-vs-secular clashes, exotic sex partners, destruction of the land, etc.), but was often a frank chronicle of smugly justified looting. As Senarens said in Jack Wright and His Prairie Engine, Or, Among the Bushmen of Australia (27 February 1892 The Boys' Star Library; 1908), Jack having "liberated" an enormous diamond: "There was no crime in taking it. It was part of an idol, worshipped in lieu of heaven, and wresting such an object from infidels is no crime in the eyes of the Almighty." Typical lost-race dime novels are: Frank Reade, Jr., and His Electric Coach (25 October 1890-7 March 1891 The Boys of New York; 1893) by "Noname", with Ancient Hebrews; The Missing Island (1894) by "Noname", with Aztecs; A Trip to the Center of the Earth (8 June-5 August 1878 New York Boys' Weekly; 1894) by Howard de Vere (pseudonym of Howard Van Orden), which has acculturated early Americans with interesting speech changes; The Lost Captain; Or, Skipper Jabez Coffin's Cruise to the Open Polar Sea (10 January-6 March 1880 Saturday Journal; 1906) by Frederick Whittaker, with Old Norse at the North Pole; Lost at the South Pole (1888 The Boys of New York as by J G Bradley; 1899 as by Capt. Thomas H Wilson), with strange races; Among the Fire Worshipers; Or, Two New York Boys in Mexico (25 October-27 December 1880 The Boys of New York as by Berton Bertrew; 1902 as by Howard Austin), with Aztecs; "Underground" (May-July 1890 Golden Hours) by Thomas P Montfort, with Toltecs in Australia; and Across the Frozen Sea (1894) by "Noname", again with Old Norse at the North Pole. An unusual dime novel for adults is El Rubio Bravo, King of the Swordsmen (1881) by Col. Thomas Hoyer Monstery, about Aztecs.

Lost-race stories turned up unexpectedly elsewhere. The detective stories about Nick Carter written by Frederic Rensselaer Dey under the pseudonym Chickering Carter provide several examples. In The Index of Seven Stars (1907) and An Amazonian Queen (1907) Nick has adventures among a lost race of mixed Old Norse and Indian origin, ruled by women, and excels in the gladiatorial arena. A seven-volume series beginning with Facing an Unseen Terror (1907) and ending with The Seven-Headed Monster (1907) describes a supercivilization hidden in the foothills of the Himalayas, with flying machines lofted by a new radioactive element: the hidden race has also mastered electricity, vibration and the lifeforce. This time the mighty Nick meets his superior in the wicked scientist Zanabayah.

Lost-race incidents of a more marginal kind frequently occur in invention and geographical-adventure dime novels. In most cases they are concerned with Pre-Columbian American peoples, based loosely on popular American archaeology, and sometimes influenced by the work of H Rider Haggard. In "marvel" dime novels lost-race situations are also common, usually concerning themselves with imaginary peoples possessing high civilizations.

This third group of dime novels, stressing "marvel" elements, emerged in the late 1880s and reached its fullest development in the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century. The "marvel" tale was no longer a Vernean yarn of geographical adventure or one of Wild West thrills and high jinks, but frankly set its protagonist into extremely fantastic circumstances, often seemingly supernatural, which were almost always rationalized. Instead of savage Indians, Western badmen, malicious "Greasers", pirates, bears, giant snakes, sea serpents, frenzied whales and giant octopuses, it utilized dwarfs, giants, strangely teratological races, outlandish customs, mammoths, magical gems and crystals, bobbing and ducking islands, wonderful cavern worlds and mysterious appearances and disappearances. Inventions, when they appeared, were more likely to be the product of alien races than the brainchildren of boy inventors. Instead of operating steam or electric land rovers, flying ship-hulls and Nautilus-like submarines, heroes might encounter bizarre means of transportation: Antigravity Airships or vehicles powered by fantastic new energies, sometimes suggested by Bulwer Lytton's "vril". The purportedly realistic geography of the Vernean dime novel yielded to outlandish ambiences in Antarctica, inside the Hollow Earth or even on other planets.

The central theme of the "marvel" story was no longer mechanical exploitation or destruction of the environment (and weaker peoples), as in the Frank Reade, Jr. stories, but encounter with the strange, grotesque, magical and inexplicable. The note of sadism and ethnic rancour that permeated the earlier invention stories was usually lacking, or at least much toned down.

Some marvel elements appeared in the later Frank Reade, Jr. stories, but they were found in much finer form in the sometimes very imaginative work of Francis W Doughty, Fred Thorpe and Cornelius Shea. Other significant marvel stories included Six Weeks in the Moon (1896) by "Noname" (perhaps Senarens), Under the World (7 July-8 September 1894 Golden Hours as "Into the Maelstrom"; 1906) by John de Morgan and "Three Boys from the Moon" (August-September 1901 Happy Days) as by Gaston Garne (a Norman L Munro House Name).

Apart from the work of Verne and Haggard, contemporary adult sf had almost no influence on dime-novel sf. Imaginary-War stories are rare, the only significant one being "Holland, the Destroyer" (1900-1901 Golden Hours) by Hal Harkaway (House Name used here by Edward Stratemeyer), in which the USA, at war with almost the entire world, is saved by a supersubmarine. Interplanetary elements enter the last Frank Reade, Jr. stories and Doughty's pseudonymous Two Boys' Trip to an Unknown Planet (17 August-5 October 1889 The Boys of New York as by Albert J Booth; 1901) as by Richard R Montgomery, but they are fantastic and show no knowledge of contemporary adult work. Weldon J Cobb, a Chicago author, presumably read a US newspaper adaptation of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898): his At War with Mars (September-November 1897 Golden Hours; 1907) reads as near-plagiarism, with Martian cylinders striking in the USA – as an original element, the Martians have fitted out Phobos as an armed Space Station for the attack on Earth. Cobb's "To Mars with Tesla" (March-May 1901 New Golden Hours) contains an abortive space flight – the landing point proves to be the Southwest desert, not Mars as planned.

The sf dime novel has had a larger influence on later sf than has been generally recognized. The invention story of the Frank Reade, Jr. sort led directly, through the Stratemeyer Syndicate, to such boys' fiction as Tom Swift (see also Juvenile Series). Many early Pulp-magazine sf-adventure stories are simply dime novels translated for an older readership, while individual points of influence are common enough. The situations in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Opar and A Merritt's Muria in "The Conquest of the Moon Pool" (15 February-22 March 1919 All-Story Weekly) seem to be indebted to dime novels, while Rex Stout's Under the Andes (February 1914 All-Story; 1984) is simply a Cornelius Shea sort of story with modifications. Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912) was probably influenced by "Noname"'s The Island in the Air (1896), and David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) possibly by Doughty's Two Boys' Trip to an Unknown Planet. One can also link the episodic structure and strange races in L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) with "marvel" dime novels.

There were European equivalents and near-equivalents of Dime Novels, one of the most interesting being the German periodical Der Luftpirat und sein Lenkbares Luftschiff, featuring Captain Mors, which was a pure Space-Opera series, the earliest known. (For UK equivalents, see Boys' Papers.) [EFB]

see also: Ned Buntline; William Wallace Cook; W Bert Foster; George Gordon Hastings; Bracebridge Hemyng; Sam J Lundwall; K-H Scheer; Upton Sinclair.

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