Monday, October 27, 2014

Terror on the Newsstands Part Two: The Shudder Pulps

Among the most popular entertainments of the early 20th Century were pulp magazines. Pulp magazines were inexpensive magazines printed on wood pulp paper and devoted primarily to fiction. Starting with Frank Munsey's redesign of Argosy (originally a children's magazine) in 1896, pulp magazines grew in popularity in the earliest years of the 20th Century. By the 1910s pulp magazines started appearing devoted entirely to a single genre. Eventually there would be pulp magazines devoted to Westerns, detective stories, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In the Thirties there would even arise a genre entirely peculiar to pulp magazines. Known as the "shudder pulps" or "weird menace" magazines, these pulps superficially resembled those devoted to supernatural horror and dark fantasy, but specialised in a sub-genre of horror that had its own idioms and formulas.

The very first shudder pulp was Dime Mystery Magazine, published by Popular Publications. Dime Mystery began its life as a pulp dedicated to fairly straight forward detective stories and crime fiction. In its early days it featured a full length novel as well as a few short stories. Its first issue was cover dated December 1932. Perhaps because there were already a number of detective pulps on the market (Detective Story Magazine, Clues, Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, and many others), Dime Mystery Magazine did not sell particularly well. It was after a trip to Paris and a visit to the Grand Guignol there that Popular Publications co-owner and co-founder Harry Steeger came up with the idea of doing a magazine on the lines of the Grand Guignol, with an emphasis on extreme violence. Since Dime Mystery Magazine was failing, Mr. Steeger decided to change it to the "Grand Guignol" format he had conceived.

With its issue cover dated October 1933, then, Dime Mystery ceased to be a straight forward detective magazine and became the world's first "shudder pulp". It was Harry Steeger who developed what would become the basic formula for what would become known as "shudder pulps" or "weird menace" pulp magazines. While the emphasis in weird menace stories would be on horror or terror, there would be no supernatural aspect to them. Everything in the stories would be explained rationally, even if those explanations could be a bit far fetched.The horrors in the stories (which often involved extreme violence and even torture and outright sadism) would also be described in graphic (and often minute) detail.

Heroes of the shudder pulps almost always tended to be clean cut, red blooded American males. The women were always beautiful and always tormented by the villains. As to the villains of the shudder pulps, they tended to be of a more varied sort than the heroes. Mad scientists were perhaps the most common, but villains could also be leaders of cults or simply outright psychopaths. Often the villains had some sort of deformity. The one thing the villains all had in common was a strong streak of sadism and a desire to torture beautiful, young women.

The covers to shudder pulps were often more sensational than the stories contained in them. In fact, Harry Steeger once said, "I devoted more time and attention to covers than to anything else because I figured they were our salesmen." The covers of the shudder pulps numbered among the most notorious of all pulp magazine covers. They tended to be sensationalised, with scantily clad, beautiful damsels in distress being menaced by sadistic villains.

With its new weird menace format Dime Mystery proved to be extremely successful, so much so that Harry Steeger launched two new shudder pulps. The first issue of Terror Tales was cover dated September 1934. It was followed by Horror Stories, its first issue was cover dated January 1935. Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories proved so successful that some of Popular Publications' other pulps would be influenced by the genre. Both the hero pulps The Spider and G-8 and His Battle Aces were influenced by some aspects of the weird menace pulps.

Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories also proved successful enough that other publishers followed Popular Publications' lead in launching their own shudder pulps. Martin Goodman (later the publisher of what would become Marvel Comics) launched Mystery Tales and Uncanny Tales. Magazine Publishers (AKA Ace Magazines) launched Ace Mystery, Eerie Stories, and Eerie Mysteries. While some of these titles lasted only a few months, others lasted well into the Forties. Ned Pines (whose company was known over the years by such names as Thrilling Publications, Better Publications, and Standard Magazines) launched one of the longer lived titles, Thrilling Mystery. It survived until 1947, although it underwent a format change to do so.

Another one of the longer lived weird menace titles would also be one of the most controversial. It was also one of the oldest. It was with a cover date of July 1934 that Culture Publications launched Spicy Mystery. Spicy Mystery was part of Culture Publications' "Spicy" line and belonged to a whole genre of pulp magazines that featured a greater amount of sexual content (the "spicy pulps"). Although mild by today's standards, at the time they were considered nearly pornographic. Hard as it might be to believe, the "spicy pulps" were one of the older genres of pulp magazines, having begun in 1912 with Snappy Stories. As a footnote it must be noted that Culture Publications was owned by Harry Donenfeld, who in only a few years would become co-owner of National Comics, one of the companies that would lead to the modern day DC Comics.

The trend towards shudder pulps reached its peak in the years 1935 to 1937. Not only did the general public take notice of the shudder pulps, but they were even the source of a good deal of controversy. In fact, it seems likely that they were referred to as "shudder" magazines even then. An attack on the magazines "Horror on the Newsstands" by Bruce Henry appeared in  the April 1938 issue of The American Mercury. Mr.Henry said of the magazines, "This month, as every month, the 1,508,000 copies of terror magazines, known to the trade as the shudder group, will be sold throughout the nation. Between the frankly lascivious front covers and their advertisements for masculine pep tablets in the rear, these contributions to Americans belles lettres will contain enough illustrated sex perversion to give Krafft-Ebing the unholy jitters. (the "Krafft-Ebing" to whom Mr. Henry referred was famed psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing--Terence)."

After  their peak in the years 1935-1937 the genre of shudder pulps went into a slow decline. With its September 1938 issue Dime Mystery changed its format from the "weird menace" genre to that of the "defective detective" genre. For those unfamiliar with the genre, defective detectives are detectives with some sort of physical or psychological affliction (Adrian Monk is a modern day example).  Instead of madmen intent on torturing young women, Dime Mystery now centred such detectives as Nat Perry (who was a haemophiliac) and Ben Bryn (who couldn't walk). After 1941 Dime Mystery became a more traditional detective magazine once again.

Popular Publications' other two shudder pulps, Terror Tales and Horror Stories, continued the weird menace tradition, although both were considerably toned down after 1937. Harry Steeger even launched two new shudder pulps in 1940, Sinister Stories and Startling Mystery. Both titles lasted only a few months. Other, older shudder pulps also met their demise in 1940. Martin Goodman's two weird menace titles, Mystery Tales and Uncanny Tales ended their runs that year as well. As to Popular Publications' Terror Tales and Horror Stories, both ceased being published in 1941. The final issue of Terror Tales was cover dated March 1941, while the final issue of Horror Stories was cover dated April 1941.

While many shudder pulps ceased publication in 1940 and 1941, yet others survived. One notable shudder pulp changed its format much as Dime Mystery had. Ned Pines's Thrilling Mystery shifted to a more traditional detective format early in 1941 and would last until 1947. While Dime Mystery and Thrilling Mystery moved away from the "weird menace" genre,  Spicy Mystery continued with very little change. This would ultimately be the undoing of the magazine. Indeed, even if the shudder pulps had not more or less run their course by the late Thirties,  their days would have been numbered given certain events in 1942.

Quite simply, the cover of the April 1942 issue of Spicy Mystery came to the attention of New York City mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.  The cover featured a woman, her clothes in tatters, dangling from a meat hook in a freezer, while being menaced by a hoodlum with a large and sharp looking knife. Mayor La Guardia,who had cracked down on the spicy pulps and other "dirty magazines" in the Thirties, then cracked down on pulp magazines. Even more mainstream pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, would be affected by the mayor's crackdown on the pulps; its covers by Margaret Brundage would be considerably tamer afterwards. As to the shudder pulps and the much racier spicy pulps, they more or less ceased to be.

In the wake of Mayor La Guardia's effort to clean up pulp magazines, Harry Donenfeld simply "sold" Culture Publications' "Spicy" line of publications to its sister company Trojan Publications (another company he owned). The "Spicy" magazines were then given much less titillating titles. Following its December 1942 issue Spicy Mystery became Speed Mystery, while Spicy Detective became Speed Detective and so on. Both the covers and the contents of the various magazines were also toned down considerably. The "Speed" titles would last only a few more years, with most of the line cancelled in 1946.

The shudder pulps represented one of the strangest cycles in any American medium. While they flourished only a short time (from about 1935 to 1937), there was a large number of them. In fact, it seems likely that their slow decline in 1938 was most likely due to a glut on the market. That is, there were simply too many of them. At the same time it seems likely that the "weird menace" formula was simply much too limiting. There were only so many times that seemingly supernatural menaces could be presented and then explained away in some rational fashion (however far-fetched) before the whole thing started seeming repetitive. Indeed, there have been those who have compared the plots of weird menace stories to the plots of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You with sex and violence added.

It is difficult to assess the influence of the shudder pulps or even if they had very much at all. It seems possible that they might have had an influence on the horror comic books of the late Forties and late Fifties (including those published by E. C. Comics). Like the shudder pulps, the horror comics often featured graphic portrayals of murder of mayhem.  Regardless of their influence, the shudder pulps were certainly remembered, at least by fans of pulp magazines. After all, they represented one of the more bizarre trends in pulp magazines--a time when a number of pulps portraying horrors that could be explained rationally (all the while emphasising torture and sadism) proved fairly popular.

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