The Rise and Fall of the
Weird Menace Pulps
In 1933, editor Rogers Terill of Popular Publications was given the unenviable task of breathing new life into the nearly stillborn Dime Mystery Magazine. What had been intended to be a flagship for Popular’s mystery and detective line had instead turned into something of an embarrassment from both a critical and financial standpoint. The magazine had been launched with the idea that readers would cheerfully pay a dime for a reprint of a short novel by a recognized name such as Edgar Wallace backed up by a couple of short stories. Unfortunately, the lead novels that had been selected may have been page-turners a decade earlier; but in an age that saw The Shadow laughing maniacally as he mowed down rows of crooks with twin .45s and Operator 5 battling The Purple Invasion in the ruins of Washington D.C. stuffy mysteries where the characters spent much of their time sitting in the drawing and musing over clues simply didn’t cut it.
Rather than pull the plug, it was decided that a radical retooling of the magazine would be the most prudent course. What was needed was a wholesale change in format and direction that would do more than just getting readers to take notice; a format change so dramatic that it would get people talking. A format that might not appeal to all mystery fans, but that would be impossible to ignore; a format that would draw in new readers who were not necessarily mystery fans . . .
What Terrill did was brilliant in its simplicity; he adapted a format that had enjoyed its greatest success on the stage to prose. Popular since the turn of the century in France, the antithesis of the cozy drawing-room mystery was the conte cruel as performed on stage at the Grand Guignol Theatre, popularized in prose by author such as Maurice Level. In these works the element of mystery was present, but was distinctly secondary to the graphic depictions of man’s inhumanity to man. Heads rolled, eyeballs were gouged out, and torture and mayhem were the order of the day.
Terrill set up a formula that drew on the excesses of the French conte cruel and added the element of a seemingly supernatural menace as the culprit behind the carnage. Taking this premise as a jumping-off point, Terrill insisted that his writers would portray a seemingly supernatural menace that would be rationalized by the story’s end. To write this new type of fiction a special sort of author was required; from the rolls of active pulpsters Terrill chose wisely and well . . .
The October 1933 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine led off with the novella “Dance of the Skeletons” by the flamboyant Norvell Page. Page was well-known for his apocalyptic stories of The Spider, a series filled with grotesque villains armed with an array of what we now call “weapons of mass destruction”; in the case of Page these WMDs included armies of the deformed and deranged, hordes of plague-infested dogs, mad scientists, and murderous maniacs. Adapting to Terrill’s formula came quite naturally to Page, though his regular commitments elsewhere precluded him being more than an occasional contributor. Backing up Page in this first issue of what was to be called the “weird menace” genre were a remarkable supporting cast which included Hugh B. Cave, John H. Knox and Robert Blackmon. Within the next ninety days Wyatt Blassingame, Wayne Rogers, Arthur Leo Zagat, and Nat Schachner were all on board and the new genre was off to a great start with Dime Mystery Magazine now trumpeting “The Weirdest Stories Ever Told” on its cover.
With Dime Mystery doing so well, Popular launched a companion title, Terror Tales in September of 1934 with a great novella by Arthur Leo Zagat (“House of Living Death”) as the feature story, with Wyatt Blassingame, Hugh B. Cave, and G.T. Fleming-Roberts also getting billing on the cover. With an all-star line-up like that, editorial assistant Henry Treat Sperry and Belgian master of the macabre, Jean Ray (writing as “John Flanders”) didn’t even make the cover!
With the genre off to a roaring start like this, competitors soon sprang up, most notably Leo Margulies’ Thrilling Mystery from Better Publications, which debuted in October 1935. Popular augmented its line with Horror Stories in January 1935 and in 1937 added Strange Detective Mysteries. By the late 1930s there were numerous competitors, most lasting only a few issues. The genre itself was pretty much extinct by mid-1941, with Terror Tales and Horror Stories folding and Dime Mystery Magazine, Strange Detective Mysteries and Thrilling Mystery undergoing radical changes in format.
These two volumes are intended to provide a showcase of the best that the genre had to offer during its eight-year fun. First and foremost, we offer nearly two-dozen examples spanning the period from May 1934 to November of 1940. This isn’t to imply that there were no worthy selections from 1933 or 1941, but I was faced with the conflict of duplicating a selection available in an individual author’s collection, or opting for a piece previously unreprinted and uncollected. As I’m in the process of assembling some four-dozen single-author collections for Dancing Tuatara Press and additional books that will contain three novellas each for Altus Press under the “Terror Triplets” line, avoiding duplication has presented a challenge. In some cases avoiding overlap was impossible and in those cases I’ve tried to present the most representative sample of a given author’s work. In the cases of those writers who produced quality work in a quantity insufficient to merit a collection I’ve simply looked for their best story. There are actually only a few such cases, as, generally speaking, an author producing top-notch material would be invited to continue submitting stories. There are a few cases of poor timing, such as Mindret Lord, who while having his first stories published in 1934-1935, was absent for a few years and returned in 1939; just enough time to author a half-dozen notable pieces before the market collapsed.
A secondary motive with these two volumes is to debunk a number of myths about the genre that have been floating around for a number of years, repeated just often enough in fannish circles to stay alive, despite there being not one shred of evidence in their support. The first of these to shoot down is that the genre had collapsed by the end of the 1930s, with only junk being published after that time. As “exhibit A” I submit the three examples in these volumes from 1940 and another two-dozen pieces by such as Mindret Lord, Russell Gray, Wayne Rogers, Francis James, Donald Dale, Hugh B. Cave and Ray Cummings that were published 1940-1941. And this says nothing of those authors not represented here who came a bit late to the party and had the bulk of their work published from 1939-1941. While I do have carte blanche as to selecting material for Dancing Tuatara Press, there are certain practicalities that made including everything I wanted an impossibility. Suffice it to say, the exclusion of George Vandegrift, Richard Huzarski, Dane Gregory, Wyndham Brooks, Booth Canfield, and Donald Graham is not due to any lack of quality in their work but simply the limitations of space. Of all these talented authors that came on board after 1938 only Donald Graham has a body of work sufficient to comprise a collection.
As to the authors represented in these two volumes, I’ve made an effort to not only select the best stories, but also to showcase those writers who were major contributors to the three magazines. Since I’m sure that someone will comment on it, I might as well get this issue addressed and out of the way now even though the piece in question doesn’t appear until volume two . . . Yes, I know that two short stories does a major contributor make; however, I would be ignoring my fiduciary responsibility to the publisher were I to ignore a chance to include John Dickson Carr in the line-up. The fact that “The Man who was Dead” is also an excellent story helps justify the inclusion. Just as an aside, readers who have dismissed Carr as simply a writer of locked-room mysteries are missing out on an excellent horror novel in Fire, Burn and a couple of fine supernatural period pieces in The Burning Court and The Devil in Velvet.
Leading off Volume One is a story by a gentleman who on a story by story basis may well have been the best of all the authors working in the weird menace genre: Ralston Shields. Shields contributed only a dozen stories to the pulps, one an excellent jungle adventure yarn, one (his debut tale) a fairly undistinguished short story, and ten novelettes that are, for my money, as good as they get! Shields was fascinated with the motif of the succubus or femme fatale and while all ten of his novelettes are excellent, his very best work is a thematic trilogy comprised of “Daughter of the Devil”, “Priestess of the Pestilence” and “Food for the Fungus Lady”. While these three takes on the same motif stand out as exceptional, one could turn to any of his ten weird menace novelettes and come up with a winner. I opted for including “A Kiss for the Blood Lady” as it is as fine an introduction to both the work of Ralston Shields and the weird menace genre as one could ask for.
We follow up Mr. Shields’ contribution with a collaboration by two gentlemen who are likely better known for their work as editors, Chandler Whipple and Henry Treat Sperry. The fact is that when Whipple and Sperry took their career paths into the editorial offices we lost a pair of fine fiction mongers. Whipple should be remembered for his classic supernatural serial, The Curse of the Harcourts. The serial ran in Dime Mystery Magazine in 1935 and despite garnering raves from the readers editor Terrill never ran another serial and allowed supernatural tales only on a rare basis. Sperry was one of those quietly excellent writers who rarely got top billing, but from September 1934 to December of 1938 churned out three-dozen top-notch stories. Two collections of Sperry’s best work will appear soon.
If there hadn’t been a Norvell Page in the pulp era, it would have been necessary to invent him . . . Whereas due to penchant for always wearing black I sometimes get accused of “living the gimmick” as a horror writer, Norvell Page left no doubts as to what he was about with his appearances in art editorial offices, stalking about in an opera cape which could likely have concealed the weaponry that his most famous creation, Richard Wentworth aka The Spider was known for. Page’s personal flamboyance was reflected in his fiction; taking over the reins of The Spider with the third issue as “Grant Stockbridge” Page quickly transformed what had begun as a pale imitator of The Shadow into the most memorable of the pulp heroes. The Spider novels are noteworthy for their excesses, villains deal death to the innocent on a grand scale, Wentworth’s female companion is frequently captured and subject to horrible tortures and throughout the carnage the Spider strikes with guns blazing and sudden death being dealt to the malefactors. When a lead story was needed to set the tone for the re-born Dime Mystery Magazine and indeed to launch the new genre of weird menace, Rogers Terrill was fortunate to get a submission from Page that neatly filled the bill, “Dance of the Skeletons.” With major commitments elsewhere, Page was never more than an occasional contributor to the genre, however, those dozen plus tales include some memorable masterpieces of mayhem. In a way it’s a shame that Page’s regular writing gigs prevented him from doing more work in the weird menace genre as a reading of “Music for the Lusting Dead” more than adequately demonstrates his knack for working in the field.
With our fourth story, we reprint one of the longest stories authored by Mindret Lord, a writer who has the distinction of being the only Weird Tales author to be reprinted in Playboy! Of course he’s also the only Weird Tales author to have authored a tale with the rather descriptive title “Naked Lady”. Lord was a most intriguing author, his stories are usually short, sophisticated, and with a vicious bite. Lord’s urbane and polished tales include generous servings of sadism and twisted torture. It’s this level of sophistication that sets Lord well apart from his contemporaries, in fact, within the weird fiction realm his only British master of the macabre; Sir Charles Birkin was similar in his approach to weird fiction. Between his dozen appearances in the weird menace magazines and a handful of stories for Weird Tales, there’s just barely enough material for a single volume collection. When such a book finally appears, I predict that Mindret Lord will be a hot topic of discussion among horror aficionados.
Collaborations in the weird menace genre were a rarity, with only the husband and wife team of Edith and Ejler Jacobson appearing regularly. Remembered today more for his work as an editor of science fiction than anything else, Ejler Jacobson’s dozen or so stories written with his wife Edith all appeared in the brief span from April of 1938 through the end of 1939. Whether it was due to more lucrative opportunities surfacing, or other factors, the Jacobsons stopped as suddenly as they’d started with the publication of “Datan’s Toy Monsters” in the Dec 1939-Jan 1940 issue of Horror Stories. It’s a shame that they didn’t write more in the genre; from the very start the Jacobsons had a firm grasp on the elements that made for a successful weird menace yarn and their dozen novelettes can stand proudly alongside the works of the genre’s better-known authors.
Wyatt Blassingame needs no introduction to regular readers of Dancing Tuatara Press, being one of the mainstays of our imprint with three collections under his byline already published and at least two more planned. Blassingame was one of the earliest contributors to the genre and unlike many of his contemporaries, he was still around when the genre faded away and smoothly transitioned into less lurid detective stories before abandoning the pulps for the more lucrative field of juvenile non-fiction. Blassingame was one of the stars of the genre and with such popularity come some benefits, one of those benefits being the ability to bend (if not break) the rules when it came to following the prescribed formula that demanded rationalized explanations for each story’s seemingly supernatural events. Blassingame routinely utilized the supernatural in his stories to excellent effect. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s good reason to consider Wyatt Blassingame one of the great “forgotten masters of the weird tale” and as exhibit A, we offer “Passion Flower”!
Francis James was always one of the more popular authors with the readers, despite a tendency to write himself into a corner and end stories with a preposterous deux ex machina. However, despite this deficiency, his stories are everything one could want when it comes to breathtaking pacing and horror piled upon horror. It’s likely that the main reason that James hasn’t been anthologized more frequently is due to his tendency to write at the long novelette length of 17,000-25,000 words—an awkward size for editors to deal with when most of their submissions are coming in at 5,000-7,500 words. Fortunately, I located a short story that not only happens to fit well by size, but is also an excellent piece of work, making for a fine introduction to Francis James. After all, how can you not like a story entitled “Merry Christmas from the Dead”?
We finished off this first volume with four of best-known authors working in the field, the first three, Arthur Leo Zagat, Hugh B. Cave, and Nat Schachner were on board from the very start with Arthur J. Burks authoring his first weird menace tale in 1935. All four were noteworthy for both their arch-gothic atmosphere and Grand Guignol excesses. For our selection from Arthur Leo Zagat, we turn to a later piece, “Girls for the Spider Men” from late in 1938. This one novelette shows Zagat at the height of his prowess and the genre at its most lurid (and its most entertaining). We’ve just now began our program of collecting Zagat’s best weird tales and judging by the volume and overall quality of his work, I expect that the series will run to at least six volumes!
I can’t imagine that there exists an aficionado of horror fiction who hasn’t heard of Hugh B. Cave . . . In a career that spanned more than sixty years, Cave won every conceivable award and wrote every type of horror story from the classic ghost story to tales of vodun set in the wilds of Haiti. However, Cave always had a knack for the weird menace story and an ability to deftly meld the seemingly supernatural with the rationalized mysteries called for in the trio of magazines helmed by Rogers Terrill. While his detractors may say his prose is colored in shades of purple, to his legion of fans, Cave’s unique turns of phrase lent an air of mystery and the exotic to his stories. Like several of his colleagues Cave rarely fooled around with short stories, preferring to concentrate on longer works that allowed for full development of both plot and characters. “House of the Restless Dead” is a fine example of what Cave could do at his preferred length.
Nat Schachner, like his friend Arthur Leo Zagat, was around from the very start, in fact he was so prolific in 1935 that an argument could easily be made that he was (for that year at least) the biggest star for Terror Tales with a string of stories of at least 9,000 words in length starting in January and continuing through the July issue. When Horror Stories debuted, Schachner was drafted to help out the fledgling magazine and contributed three novelettes and a major novella, “Vault of the Damned” by the end of the year. By the time this volume’s tale appeared Schachner was slowing down in quantity and more than making up for it in quality. “Parade of Tiny Killers” is one of the best weird tales to appear in 1938 in any market.
Lastly, we close the book with a minor masterpiece by one of pulpdom’s most legendary masters, Arthur J. Burks. While Burks wrote stories in nearly every genre, it’s his work in horror and mystery fiction that has really stood the test of time. Rather than jumping in with both feet when the new genre launched in October of 1933, Burks waited until 1935 before submitting to Terrill. From then until the dawn of WWII Burks was almost frighteningly prolific with stories appearing in all three of Popular’s magazines and the competition’s Thrilling Mystery; sometimes appearing in all four within one month. Despite the almost manic energy displayed in churning out so much material, the level of quality is astonishingly high, with his work from 1935-1937 notable for its exceptional quality.
Long reviled by critics for catering to prurient interests and relying on sex and sadism over literary merit, the weird menace genre has gotten a bad rap over the years with most of the vitriol coming from people who never bothered to read a single issue. Was there a lot of substandard material published? Certainly there was, but as was true of the science fiction genre, rarely has a genre been defined so completely by its worst examples. In fact, if we try to apply Sturgeon’s Law, we find that the weird menace genre (at least in the three Popular Publications’ magazines) came out much better than the 10/90 ratio of good stuff to crap postulated by Sturgeon’s Law. It’s hoped that this volume and its companion (to be released early next year) will go a long ways to setting the record straight regarding the weird menace genre. If you enjoy what you find here, there’s a lot more to be had from Dancing Tuatara Press!
All Hallows 2013