The Men (and Women)

Behind the Mayhem


Tales of Terror And Torment #2


Assuming that you’ve purchased both books, then you’ve had an opportunity to sample the work of some two dozen authors, ranging from major forces in pulp fiction to relative unknowns, to writers who merely dabbled in the weird menace genre before going on to far more lucrative endeavors. The majority of the stories have not appeared elsewhere, though to be sure, a handful also appear in single-author collections from DTP. There’s actually a method to this seeming madness, the idea being that I wanted to show the diversity that was actually possible within the apparently narrow confines of the genre’s formula.

With that in mind I’ve gone in two very different directions with the tales selected. On one hand, we have a number of stories from our heavy hitters such as Wyatt Blassingame, Arthur J. Burks, Hugh B. Cave, Donald Dale, Russell Gray, John H. Knox, and Arthur Leo Zagat that also appear in individual collections. I think that you’ll agree that in a book the intent of which is to showcase the genre to a reader who (unlike me) will be quite content with a two or three volume sampling. These are all tales of considerable merit and I’d being doing a disservice to readers were I not to include them.

Then we have the work of authors who simply were not very prolific. On a story by story basis, I think that Ralston Shields was the best that the field had to offer. However, the man only wrote ten major stories (and one short piece, which does not come up to his usual very high standards). All told, his collection comes in at just a hair over 90,000 words (a perfectly respectable length), and there just isn’t anything else to choose from. The same situation exists for Mindret Lord and W. Wayne Robbins; there just isn’t enough material available to avoid duplication.

Finally, we have a handful of stories from those authors who only contributed a handful of pieces, such as the collaborative team of Chandler Whipple and Henry Treat Sperry. As solo artists, both men were quite prolific, although the bulk of Whipple’s weird menace work is a serialized novel (The Curse of the Harcourts, available from our friends at Altus Press.) Sperry, of course, had quite a prolific career in his own right, but there are some unique qualities to the combined authorial voice that I felt well worth highlighting. Then we have people such as Richard Race Williams, a fine writer who only appeared twice; and the we have John Dickson Carr, who went on to rather bigger and better things. (I thought about including one of Cornell Woolrich’s three entries in the genre, but considering that Centipede Press has recently released a volume in their Woolrich library containing all three pieces, it seemed rather superfluous.)

Lastly you’ll see a couple of left-overs, not left over due to lack of quality but more due to lack of room in their own volumes. As an example, our J.O. Quinliven volume weighs in at a very healthy 95,000 words before I add my introduction (usually around 1500-2000 words). Assume that we come in at 97,000 words; that’s really the upper end of where we want to be. More than that, we’re looking at doing things that I don’t like to do, such as reducing the font size, expanding the margins, and things of that nature. The same can be said of Norvell Page (you really didn’t think that we would skip Norvell Page, did you?).

Sadly, even with this strategizing to be as inclusive as possible, I find that I’m leaving out several authors and/or stories that really demand inclusion, again, across the board of situations that I’ve discussed above. So, the take-away is that there will be a third volume. In this one I’m really going to have some fun by exploring some of the competition to Popular Publications as well as several authors that even I don’t know anything about, save for their names (which are likely fictitious, anyway). But that’s another discussion for another day. For the present, let’s take a look at the two-dozen writers whose work comprised these volumes.

Ralston Shields, mentioned above. His specialty was the femme fatale; one could say that all of his horror fiction is thematically linked. You’ll see what I mean when Food for the Fungus Lady is published later this year.

Chandler Whipple and Henry Treat Sperry, while I did mention both men above, I didn’t explain why their combined authorial voice is so smooth and polished for two guys that didn’t collaborate all that frequently. The fact is that both men had dual careers as author/editor: Sperry handled a lot of the editorial chores at Popular Publications and Whipple headed up no less a publication than the justly-revered Argosy.

Norvell Page. To pulp fans he will always be the man that rescued The Spider from the rather less-talented hands of R.T.M. Scott. He should also be remembered as the author of the lead feature of the very first weird menace magazine. What with his commitments elsewhere, Page didn’t have a lot of free time to write novelettes for Dime Mystery, Terror Tales and Horror Stories, but what he did manage to do is very good indeed.

Mindret Lord. Slick, urbane, polished and with a nasty streak a mile wide (in his fiction). Lord could easily be called the American Charles Birkin as his forte was using elegant, stylish prose to describe some of the most awful examples of man’s inhumanity to man imaginable. We do hope to assemble a Lord collection at some point (there’s just barely enough material).

Edith and Ejler Jacobson. A husband and wife team who went on to greater success in the editorial chair of a major science fiction digest in the 1950s. Unlike fellow editors Whipple and Sperry, the Jacobsons are very uneven. I think that there may be just enough good material to comprise one collection, but at this point, I’m not at all sure that this is the case.

Wyatt Blassingame. One of our two flagship authors here at DTP (the other being Edmund Snell). When I was assembling The Century’s Best Horror he came in second for 1935 with “Song of the Dead”. There is certainly no shame in being edged by Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Dark Eidolon”. When all is said and done there will be six or seven Blassingame collections, and I will aver that there won’t be a weak story in any of them.

Francis James gets a lot of flak for frequently writing himself into a corner and having to resort to a “Scooby-Doo” ending. While there is some truth to that, I can’t think of anyone else who so appears to having an absolute blast writing this sort of material. The more Francis James I read the more I appreciate him.

Arthur Leo Zagat. Until recently remembered only for some particularly bad science fiction. A million words a year man until his tragic death at age fifty-one, Zagat’s work for the three Popular Publications’ magazines is a capsule study of the evolution of the genre. The story I’ve chosen to include here should be in every horror anthology ever published—it is just that damn good.

Hugh B. Cave wrote pretty much everything during his long career, however, he really had an affinity for the weird menace genre. When Robert M. Price revived the weird menace tale in the pages of his Shudder Stories several authors, most notably Cave, contributed new pieces. With stories such as “Brides for the Blood Fiends from Hell” and “Damsels for the Damned”, the great man ably demonstrated that he hadn’t lost a step in fifty years.

Nat Schachner is mostly remembered as the author of Space Lawyer and as a frequent collaborator with Arthur Leo Zagat. Unfortunately, this memory totally omits the fact that for at least 1935, the man was “Mr. Terror Tales”, with an appearance (usually novelette or longer) in every single issue. His last genre work featured in the pages of Strange Detective Mysteries in 1939.

Arthur J. Burks. It is quite simply impossible to discuss the pulps without at least mentioning the amazingly prolific Burks. There are over four-hundred tales by Burks listed on the venerable FictionMags Index, and the index is still missing a lot of data. We tend to think of gentlemen such as Lester Dent (Doc Savage) and Walter B. Gibson (The Shadow) as being the high-volume authors for the pulps. However, they had the advantage of working with the same characters and same formula week in and week out. Not only did Burks produce a higher volume of fiction, he did it in a variety of milieus and with only a few repeat characters.

Richard Race Wallace. One of those gentlemen that I mentioned who remains a complete mystery. Was he a writer who determined that the fiction business wasn’t for him or does a more well-known figure lurk behind a pseudonym? Near as I can tell, he only wrote four stories, two in our genre and two more traditional tales. I can’t really tell you anything more, save to say that both of his weird menace stories are excellent.

Russell Gray. Splatterpunk several decades before splatterpunk was cool. Behind the nom de plume was future star of the mystery scene, Bruno Fischer. Gray made a rather inauspicious debut with “The Cat Woman” in the December issue of Dime Mystery Magazine. The next year Gray was in the vanguard of new authors who would transform the genre from the gothic and conte cruel to the over-the-top sex and sadism that the magazines are remembered for today. After the genre died out, Bruno Fischer began writing more traditional detective tales under his own name and went on to considerable success as the author of paperback originals. However, he still had the Power and in 1950 produced House of Flesh, a throwback in every way to his weird menace days. The book isn’t nearly well-known enough and I see many readers passing it by because they think of it as a straight-forward mystery book. It isn’t, trust me on this.

John Dickson Carr. Yes, the master of the locked-room mystery and creator of Dr. Gideon Fell did indeed stop by long enough to submit three stories. Despite such a small output of this type of fiction it’s quite clear that Carr had a knack for it and it’s unfortunate that he didn’t write more.

J.O. Quinliven, under his real name of Kenneth Perkins, was a very prolific writer of adventure and western stories. Under the Quinliven by-line he only produced something on the order of two short pieces and just over a dozen novelettes or novellas. It is interesting to note that he was one of only two authors singled out for revival in the 1950s by Shroud Publishers (the other being the prolific Wayne Rogers). Quinliven’s work is long past-due for rediscovery, as “Bait for a Monster” so ably demonstrates.

Chandler Whipple has been discussed previously and is the only author to appear twice (though I’ll argue that the authorial voice of Chandler/Sperry is a completely different thing than the authorial voice of Whipple as a solo writer).

G.T. Fleming-Roberts is, of course, best-known for his excellent series character The Green Ghost, but Fleming–Roberts truly excelled at all types of mysteries, the weird menace style being no exception. Recent years have seen a renewed interest in his work, but thus far his stories for the three Popular Publications’ magazines have yet to be reprinted. We plan on correcting this situation later in the year.

Wayne Rogers. If you have to point out one writer as being a mainstay for the shudder pulps, it would likely be Wayne Rogers that you would be pointing at. A reliable wordsmith who did important work on both Operator #5 and The Spider, Rogers was one of the first regular contributors to the genre, debuting under his H.M. Appel by-line in the February, 1934 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine. The genre itself had been birthed the previous October, making him among the earliest regularly featured writers. Rogers stayed the course and was on hand for the last issues of both Horror Stories and Terror Tales.

Ray Cummings was writing science fiction before there was science fiction. Indeed, when he began his career, Hugo Gernsback was still the most influential person in the field and “scientifiction” was the bold, new literature of ideas. Cummings’ long stint writing such material gave him the discipline necessary to become a major force as a fictioneer. Cummings wrote voluminously in all genres, but this elder statesman of the fiction business learned that he had a particular gift for the grotesque and horrific. Cummings didn’t begin writing weird menace until 1935, but he made up for lost time by jumping in with both feet and having stories appear in both Horror Stories and Terror Tales in February of that year. From that point on he was practically omnipresent until the magazines folded in 1941.

When we discuss fine writers with simply awful timing, the discussion pretty much has to begin and end with W. Wayne Robbins (Ormond Gregory). Well, actually both Gregory brothers fit this description: Dane came on board at the beginning of 1939, Ormond towards the end of the year with “Guide to the Horror House” in the October/November issue of Horror Stories. Therein lies the tale of terrible timing. Brother Dane was pretty much a minor figure, (though when he was on his game, he was more than capable of producing major works), however, Ormond (writing under the name “W. Wayne Robbins”) was not only the last major contributor to the genre, he was the last great writer to work in the field. Due to his late debut, his body of work is small, but important. His tales are filled with characters suffering from obsessions bordering on madness and (as the late Bob Jones put it), “an explosive chaos”; it was this latter factor that makes his work memorable.

“Donald Dale” (the nom de plume of Mary Dale Buckner) can lay a very legitimate claim as to being the “First Lady of Fear Fiction” in the first half of the 20th Century. To my way of thinking, only Greye La Spina comes at all close. Buckner’s work usually starts out slowly, building to a crescendo of carnage by the story’s end. The fact that there is a Ligottiesque feel of impending doom present in most of her tales only adds to the emotional impact of her work.

Has there ever been a horror writer with a better name than “Emerson Graves”? Sadly, it’s more than likely a house pseudonym—which would certainly explain the uneven quality of the work. What’s odd about that is that the pseudonym showed up from several different publishers, and not just Popular Publications. As we have no idea as to how many authors were involved, we can only provide the assessment that when he was good, he was excellent—and that when he was bad, he was terrible.

Lastly, we come to the man who was ultimately responsible for the revival of the weird menace genre at DTP. John H. Knox was originally selected to be our flagship author based on (a.) consistent high quality and (b.) providing a large body of work that pushes out the borders of the genre. As it turned out, both Edmund Snell and Wyatt Blassingame were equally good and more prolific than Knox, by a fairly wide margin.

What distinguishes Knox’s fiction is his meritorious use of places throughout the southwest, like Edmund Snell with his use of Borneo and Haiti, and Jack Williamson (who also used his native New Mexico). Using these milieus provides a sense of verisimilitude to his work that makes it all the more effective.

So, here we have twenty-four of the best authors that the field has to offer and over six-hundred pages of the very best fiction menace has to offer. However, as I look over the table of contents, I see some problems . . . Leon Byrne and Frances Bragg Middleton have been left out, as have several latecomers. Also there is the situation of those writers of high quality but minimal output: (we did get to Richard Race Williams, but thus far we haven’t dealt with either George Vandegrift or Hal Wells. Nor have we touched on any of the authors who wrote exclusively for the competition, so it appears that we shall require a third volume . . .

John Pelan

Gallup, NM