Thursday, October 20, 2016

Weird Menace from the Pulps!

I'm not gone but but I'm probably forgotten by now. It's been over a month! Shame on my lazy ass! I could make an excuse that I've started my 3rd novel, and that would be true, but mostly it's just getting into that time of year when things get a little crazy for all of us. But I thought I'd come back to share some thoughts on some of my favorite pulp stuff that we love around here. That is the highly inappropriate (for their time!) Weird Menace yarn. Some time back I wrote a column for Dark Moon Digest about Weird Menace, and I thought that, given the season, it would be fun to share it.  

Haffner Press, October 2010

Weird Menace tales made their unsavory reputation in magazines like Thrilling Mysteries, Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, Horror Stories, and Spicy Mysteries to name just a few. Their popularity took place in the early to mid-thirties, always featuring a semi-clad, or totally nude, damsel facing torture at the hands of a maniacal beast of seemingly supernatural origins. The trick, however, almost always strictly followed by Weird Menace writers in the demands of editors, was to reveal that the supernatural trappings were invariably grounded in reality. The monsters were unmasked to be someone introduced early in the story; an uncle, a scientist, a supposed ally and always motivated by greed, lust and madness. The hero of the story endures pain and torture almost beyond endurance to find that last reserve of strength available within him to send an iron fist crashing into the demonic visage of the monster and his minions, thereby saving his sweetheart from a terrible death devised in the most imaginative torture traps invented. Death by boiling oil, buzzing saws, flaming knives, being skinned alive…if you can imagine it, it’s probably been written about in one of these stories. These lurid torture pieces had a pretty good run for a while, before getting pushed under the counter by an audience worried about impressionable minds lapping them up. And the covers alone are worth the price of admission.

Cover by H. J. Ward

Now, many horror fans are rediscovering these wet nuggets of the past. Fun as they are, most of these stories are pretty dreadful to read. By that I mean, not well written and often monotonous in their all too obvious conclusions. But that said, there are a number of writers who turned in some thrilling stories that show just how exciting such a seemingly trite premise can be.

Hugh B. Cave is one fine example. Cave spent a lifetime, well into his nineties, turning out exiting, well written stories of all genres. Some of his best Weird Menace tales from the thirties were collected by Karl Edward Wagner into an anthology entitled Death Stalks the Night, published in 1995 by Fedogan & Bremer books. Each story in this collection remains true to the Weird Menace formula, with its square-jawed, intrepid heroes and their comely, virginal girlfriends suffering hellish torments by villains who would give modern slashers like Freddy Krueger and Leatherface a run for their money. Cave’s stories hit the ground running and don’t stop for a second to give the hero, nor the reader, a moment to catch their breath. Another compilation of Cave’s horror tales from this era can be found in Murgunstrumm and Others, published way back in 1977 and, again, collected and edited by Karl Edward Wagner. The yarns in Murgunstrumm stray a bit from the Weird Menace formula in order to find homes in magazines like Weird Tales, and Strange Tales, which were the main stomping grounds of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. But with the exception of Howard’s tales, Hugh B. Cave’s stories are as different from those writers as wine is to beer. And for my money, much as I like Lovecraft and his acolytes, I’ll take the “hellzapoppin” pace of Cave’s stories any day.

Cover by Rudolph Zirm

Another cool writer of Weird Menace stories was Science Fiction’s own Henry Kuttner. Kuttner got his start producing stories for Thrilling Mysteries and Spicy Mysteries in addition to Weird Tales and could match Cave easily in devising gruesome hurdles of torture for his heroes and heroines.

Take for example Kuttner’s story “The Devil Rides” published in 1936 September issue of Thrilling Mysteries and reprinted in 2010 in Terror in the House – The Early Kuttner published by Haffner Press. “In her mouth, held tightly in place by a strap buckled about her neck, was a bit, and reins trailed from her torn lips, dragging on the ground as she inched herself painfully forward…As he saw that to the girl’s hands and feet had been nailed horseshoes, hammered until they were narrow enough to fit.” Pretty nasty, even for today’s hardened readers.

It’s hardly the kind of thing fans of Kuttner’s Fantasy and Science Fiction stories would imagine Kuttner would come up with, considering his often whimsical tales published in those genres.

Other writers who produced some pretty kick-ass Weird Menace stories include Arthur Leo Zagat, Wyatt Blasingame, and one of my current favorites of the genre, Wayne Rogers. These old pulp stories have been finding a new audience thanks to e-Readers. Their take on horror may have been tempered somewhat by would-be censors of the day, but their brand has never really gone away. It doesn’t take a scholar to recognize their descendents in the horror comics of the 1950’s, the slasher films of the 1980’s to the torture-porn horror of the 2000’s. 

To the modern horror fan interested in looking back there is two volumes of Weird Menace tales that I highly recommend. James Reasoner has put together two nifty volumes of Weird Menace tales featuring a variety of writers bringing their talents to the old tradition. Writers like Bill Crider, Keith West, John C. Hocking, and Mel Odom to name just a few. 

Have fun! Oh, and don’t forget to bring your own barfbag.