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History

Weird Menaces: The Shudder Pulps

Terror Tales 39-11Not only will we be celebrating science fiction’s “Golden Year of 1939″ and “75 Years of Fantastic Fiction,” PulpFest 2014 intends to pay homage to “The Weird-Menace Magazines of 1934.” Called shudder pulps, these magazines experienced a brief period of popularity that began in late 1933 and ran until 1941, when a concerted reform movement brought an end to the genre.

Noted pulp authority Don Hutchison, author of The Great Pulp Heroes, has contributed a look at the weird-menace genre, “Pulp Horrors of the Dirty Thirties,” to this year’s issue of The Pulpster, our award-winning program book. Offered here are just a few of Don’s gory details concerning “The Shudder Pulps.”

Pulp Horrors of the Dirty Thirties: An Excerpt

Back in the days of bread lines and hobo jungles, millions of readers found escapist thrills in the pages of cheaply produced magazines printed on rough pulpwood paper. Pulp magazines catered to every imaginable reading taste from detective yarns to pirate stories, from jungle adventures to science fiction and even romance. But the wildest of them all were the notorious horror tomes known collectively as the shudder pulps.

The so-called “shudder” or “weird-menace” titles were a blood-red splash of color in the grey days of the Great Depression. They announced their monthly wares with circus-poster-style covers featuring voluptuous under-dressed beauties being pursued by hordes of leering lunatics as bent as boomerangs. Their promise: cheap thrills, and plenty of them.

Dime Mystery 33-10In their nightmare universe it was always a dark and stormy night. Tethered damsels suffered in the clutches of fiends such as hell-mad surgeons, warped scientists, and masked and cowled cultists, eagerly abetted by legions of demented dwarfs and horny hunchbacks. They stripped, whipped, and boiled their curvaceous victims with the enthusiasm of medieval inquisitors. Even the requisite rock-jawed heroes of these stories suffered a purgatory of horrors in order to rescue their brutally treated fair maidens.

The weird-menace magazines lasted for but a few brief years, roughly from 1933 to 1941, when the actions of blue-nosed watchdogs helped propel them from the market. In contrast to previous horror magazines with their literate but fusty eldritch mysteries, the new breed of terror pulps dared go where no newsstand magazines had gone before. These few magazines were largely responsible for the low opinion people held (and still hold) of the entire pulp fiction field. Many dealers sold them under the counter, and New York’s mayor Fiorello La Guardia singled them out when he warned the pulp publishers to clean up their act or get out of town.

With stories written to a strict formula by seasoned pros, shudder pulps featured some of the most unashamedly lurid fiction and art ever produced for the newsstands of middle America. Each month they announced their presence with covers illustrating in chromatic detail the titillating promise of stories like: “Flesh For the Goat Man,” “The Corpse Wants Your Widow,” “Food for the Fungus Lady,” “Mate For the Thing in the Box,” and “Summer Camp for Corpses.”

Horror Stories 35-01The first of the new breed of fiction mags, Dime Mystery, lurched onto the newsstands in October of 1933. It was the brainchild of Popular Publication’s resourceful young publisher Henry Steeger and took off like skyrockets. Popular Publications lost little time in producing not one, but two companion monthlies: Terror Tales, followed by Horror Stories.

Readers responded in large numbers to the lure of these purple prose set-ups and the inevitable pay-off in hell-spawned horrors. Soon, other publishers rushed into print with similar books of their own. Chief among them was publisher Ned Pines, whose Thrilling Mystery was a clone of Popular’s Dime Mystery. Believing that the public can never get too much of a bad thing, more newcomers tested the limits of sensationalism. There was Ace Mystery, Eerie Mysteries, Eerie Stories, Mystery Novels and Short Stories, Mystery Tales, Spicy Mystery Stories, Uncanny Tales, and others.

In the early 1940s there developed a public rejection of the permissiveness and thrill-seeking of the thirties. When New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia threatened to rid his city of sex-and-sadism magazines, publishers retrenched in fear of losing newsstand sales as well as their U. S. postal mailing privileges. As shudder pulp stalwart Bruno Fischer described it “Clean-up organizations started throwing their weight around and gave editors jitters, and artists and writers were instructed to put panties and brassieres on the girls.”

Speed Mystery 43-01Dime Mystery was retooled as a straight mystery magazine. Spicy Mystery soldiered on for awhile, but was then re-titled Speed Mystery. Terror Tales and Horror Stories were shut down in 1941. Pulp fiction’s bloody reign of terror had ended, not with a bang but with a whimper. Unfortunately, in discarding key ingredients of their appeal, the magazines failed to develop new innovations, much less new readers. And, with the coming of World War II, the extent of human madness and misery could no longer be viewed–much less enjoyed–as mere fiction. In a more innocent time, it was thought that the brand of horror perpetrated by the fiends of the shudder pulps was purely imaginary. Now people knew that such things–and worse–were possible.

If you’d like to read the unabridged version of Don Hutchison’s article, it will be appearing in the PulpFest 2014 program book, The Pulpster. You’ll find ordering instructions at the bottom of our post entitled “To Infinity and Beyond.” It was featured on our home page on June 15th.

To learn more about the images used in this post, click on the illustrations. 


To Infinity and Beyond

Comet 1940-12A lengthy period of contraction followed the science-fiction and fantasy pulp boom of 1939. With the United States about to enter the Second World War and paper rationing limiting magazine production, the only new magazines to appear before the conflict’s end were the short-lived Comet, Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories, plus rebound copies of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures.

A British magazine entitled New Worlds was the first new science-fiction magazine to appear following World War II. Although it first appeared in 1946, it didn’t come into its glory until Michael Moorcock became editor in 1964. New Worlds would run for 222 issues and become the focus of science fiction’s “New Wave.” A companion magazine, Science Fantasy (later titled Impulse), premiered in 1950.

F&SF 49-FThe first U. S. magazine to appear after the war was Avon Fantasy Reader. Edited by Donald A. Wollheim, it was primarily a reprint magazine. The first new fantastic magazine would wait until 1949 when The Magazine of Fantasy–the “and Science Fiction” was added later–premiered in the fall. Originally edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas and published by Lawrence Spivak, its founders sought to move away from pulp concepts, asking its writers for stylish fiction “that was up to the literary standards of the slick magazines.” Still published today, F&SF–as it has become known–has greatly helped both science fiction and fantasy to mature as genres. It is still published today.

Ray Palmer, most remembered today for his trumpeting of the Shaver Mystery in Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, began publishing a couple of fantastic magazines around 1950. Although his first, Other Worlds, would publish a number of top-notch stories by Ray Bradbury, Gordon Dickson, Wilson Tucker, and others, Palmer would eventually convert it into a magazine about flying saucers. His other magazine was Imagination. It was sold to another publisher following its second number. Lasting for over sixty issues, Imagination published hurriedly written hack fiction by Randall Garrett, John Jakes, Frank M. Robinson and Robert Silverberg, all hiding behind pseudonyms.

Galaxy 50-10In the fall of 1950, World Editions introduced Galaxy Science Fiction, a digest magazine that paid its authors a minimum of three cents a word. Edited by H. L. Gold, the magazine serialized Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man” and Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Puppet Masters,” and published shorter works such as Ray Bradbury’s “The Fireman” (later expanded to become Fahrenheit 451), Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man,” and Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction,” all in its first year. In 1953, Galaxy shared the first Hugo for Best Magazine with Campbell’s Analog. Later edited by Frederik Pohl, Jim Baen, and others, Galaxy ran for a total of 254 issues with its final issue appearing in 1980. Like F&SF, Galaxy was a leader in the movement to bring a more human element to science fiction.

Given the success of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, other publishers tried to cash in on the growing market. Most of them quickly folded. Some of the more notable magazines introduced during the fifites included If—particularly when it was edited by Frederik Pohl; Nebula Science Fiction—a Scottish magazine; Fantastic—started by Howard Browne for Ziff-Davis; Fantastic Universe—nicknamed “the poor man’s” F&SFBeyond Fantasy Fiction—a short-lived fantasy companion to Galaxy Science Fiction; and Imaginative Tales—a companion to Imagination.

Inifinity 55-11At the dawn of the space race, ten new science-fiction magazines entered the market. The best was Infinity Science Fiction. Edited by Larry Shaw, it published some good stories by authors such as Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Damon Knight and C. M. Kornbluth. Other longer-lived magazines to premier during this time included Infinity Science Fiction, Satellite Science Fiction, and Super-Science Fiction. Although nearly fifty British and American science-fiction and fantasy magazines were introduced during the fifties, only four of the fifty–Galaxy Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, If, and Fantastic—lasted beyond 1960.

Omni 78-10Although science fiction continued to mature after 1960, the genre increasingly turned to low-priced and portable paperback books to extend its reach. Except for the reprint digests—Magazine of Horror and Startling Mystery Stories—little of note appeared in the form of a new magazine until Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine debuted in the spring of 1977. Still running today, it will soon publish its 463rd issue. Other notable magazines from the last quarter of the twentieth century are Omni—a slick companion to Penthouse that sometimes topped a million in circulation and published science articles alongside science-fiction stories; Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine—a companion to the men’s magazine Gallery, it sometimes sold more than 125,000 copies and featured a mix of traditional supernatural fiction and movie and television features; Interzone—a British magazine started in the spring of 1982 and originally modeled after Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, it continues to be published today; Aboriginal Science Fiction—a magazine that debuted in 1986 and published many new writers; and Absolute Magnitude (originally entitled Harsh Mistress)—a semiprofessional magazine that debuted in the spring of 1993 and published “hard science fiction with a strong human element.”

Asimov's Science Fiction 2014-08Today, science fiction and fantasy have, by and large, achieved the respectability they long sought. At the same time, competition from a range of media including paperback books, movies, television, video games, e-books, and the Internet, has vastly diminished the scope of magazine fantasy and science fiction. The major science-fiction and fantasy magazines in the print format–Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Interzone, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction–have seen their circulations shrink tremendously.  Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that contemporary science fiction and fantasy owe a great deal to the magazines of the past—The Strand, Pearson’s Magazine, Argosy, The All-Story, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Astounding Science-Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and countless others. Without them, where would science fiction and fantasy be today?

To learn more about the images used in this post, click on the illustrations. Click here for references consulted for this article.

The cover for Asimov’s Science Fiction is copyright © 2014 by Penny Publications LLC/Dell Magazines.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion of magazine science fiction. If you’d like to read the unabridged version of the article–entitled “Science Fiction and the Pulps: A Genre Evolves”–it will be appearing in the PulpFest 2014 program book, The Pulpster. All you have to do to get a copy of the book is to become a member of the convention. It will take place from August 7 – 10 in Columbus, Ohio.

For those who cannot get to Columbus in August–although we’d love to see you–a supporting membership will be available that will entitle you to a copy of The Pulpster. You can register to become a regular or supporting member of the convention by visiting our registration page.

If copies are still available after the conclusion of the convention–quantities are limited–they will be available for purchase from Mike Chomko, Books. Visit our program book page to learn how to place your order.


Frederik Pohl & Fictioneers, Inc.

Astonishing Stories 40-02In October 1939, acting on a tip that Popular Publications was starting a new pulp line, a young author and literary agent found himself trying to convince the company to hire him to start a pair of science-fiction pulps. Soon thereafter, the freshly hired editor was seated with publisher Harry Steeger, discussing the financial needs of the company’s brand new science-fiction magazines.

Frederik Pohl was a month shy of his twentieth birthday when he went to work for Fictioneers, Inc., the name given to Popular’s off-brand line of pulp magazines that paid its authors and artists cut-rate prices. Armed with six-hundred dollars to fill two magazines with science fiction stories, Pohl turned to the members of The Futurians, a science-fiction fan club he had helped to found. It included Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, Robert Lowndes, Donald Wollheim, and other fans who wanted to become professional science-fiction writers.

Published in alternating months, Astonishing Stories and its companion, Super Science Stories, also included stories cast-offs from John Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction, including work by Cleve Cartmill, L. Sprague DeCamp, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, Ross Rocklynne, and Clifford Simak. There were also tales from the Thursday Afternoon Luncheon Club, a group of writing professionals that included Malcolm Jameson, Henry Kuttner, and Manly Wade Wellman. Of course, there was Pohl himself, supplementing his ten-dollar weekly paycheck from Popular by writing stories using the pseudonym of James MacCreigh, as well as work from new writers such as Ray Bradbury and Bob Tucker. Finally, Pohl found it hard to reject Ray Cummings, the old-timer who penned “The Girl in the Golden Atom” ad infinitum.

Super Science Stories 40-03Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories continued for about three years. In 1943, Popular dropped a number of its pulps including its  two Fictioneer science-fiction magazines. The paper saved was used for their better-selling titles like Adventure, Argosy, Black Mask, Dime Detective, and the love and western magazines. After World War II, Super Science Stories was revived for fifteen more issues. It helped pave the way for the new approaches to science-fiction storytelling being developed in magazines such as Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

To learn more about the images used in this post, click on the illustrations. Click here for references consulted for this article.


Captain Future, Man of Tomorrow

Captain Future 40-WIn addition to the explosive growth of the science-fiction pulp market, 1939 was also the year of the first World Science Fiction Convention. According to a story related by science-fiction scholar Sam Moskowitz, Standard Magazines’ editor-in-chief, Leo Margulies and Mort Weisinger came up with “a new idea in fantasy magazines” at the convention. It was Captain Future, a science-fiction hero pulp that premiered at year’s end.

In actuality, Standard’s editorial staff had been batting around ideas for a science-fictional single-character magazine for months, even asking long-time pulpster Edmond Hamilton to work up something involving a “Mr. Future, Wizard of Science.”  Eventually, the character evolved into Captain Future, a super-scientist headquartered on the Moon. In each issue of the pulp, Hamilton’s hero and his faithful assistants—known as the Futuremen—would save the solar system and, in later issues, the universe. Although action-packed and entertaining, the novels were juvenile space operas.

Startling Stories 50-01Captain Future ran until the spring of 1944, surviving for seventeen issues with Edmond Hamilton writing fifteen of the lead novels. In 1945-46, three more Captain Future adventures appeared in Startling Stories. Hamilton wrote two of them and Manly Wade Wellman one. Seven shorter works followed in 1950, all of them written by Hamilton for Startling Stories. In the late sixties, Popular Library reprinted thirteen of the Captain’s adventures in paperback. Specialty publisher Haffner Press is currently collecting the entire series in hardcover.

To learn more about the images used in this post, click on the illustrations. Click here for references consulted for this article.

Captain Future has proved very popular throughout the world with an animated television series being produced in Japan and exported to other nations. Additionally, there have been hundreds of comic books featuring the characters published in both French and German. Captain Future figurines, models, board games, drinking glasses, and other merchandise have also appeared.


Space Operas in the Sky

Planet Stories 39-WAlthough Fiction House had been around since the 1920s, it waited until 1939 to enter the science-fiction field. A year before, it had joined the comic book industry with Jumbo Comics, home to Sheena, “Queen of the Jungle.” Perhaps trying to hedge its bets, Fiction House launched a science-fiction pulp, Planet Stories, and a science-fiction comic book, Planet Comics, at the same time.

Over the years, Fiction House had developed a reputation for offering action-packed stories of adventure in its pulps. Planet Stories would prove to be no exception to this rule. Over its 71 issues, the rough-paper magazine would be home to countless science-fiction adventure stories called “space operas.”

In her introduction to The Best of Planet Stories #1, acclaimed author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett writes: “Planet, unashamedly, published “space opera” . . . . a story that has an element of adventure . . . . of great courage and daring, of battle against the forces of darkness and the unknown . . . The so-called space opera is the folk-tale, the hero-tale, of our particular niche in history . . . . These stories served to stretch our little minds, to draw us out beyond our narrow skies into the vast glooms of interstellar space, where the great suns ride in splendor and the bright nebulae fling their veils of fire parsecs-long across the universe; where the Coal-sack and the Horsehead make patterns of black mystery; where the Cepheid variables blink their evil eyes and a billion nameless planets may harbor life-forms infinitely numerous and strange.”

Running from 1939 – 1955, the early issues of Planet Stories featured writers such as Eando Binder, Nelson Bond, Ray Cummings, Ed Earl Repp, and Ross Rocklynne. By the middle-forties, Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury reigned supreme with the former offering seventeen “science fantasies,” while the latter introduced readers to The Martian Chronicles. They were joined by less-acclaimed authors such as Alfred Coppel, Gardner F. Fox, Henry Hasse, Emmett McDowell, and Basil Wells. The late forties and early fifties found the magazine publishing work by Poul Anderson, James Blish, Philip K. Dick, Chad Oliver, Mack Reynolds, and other greats who would go on to develop science fiction’s modern era.

Planet Stories 42-WPerhaps it was Planet Stories’ emphasis on cover art with a strong dose of sex—usually imagined by Allen Anderson or Frank Kelly Freas—that helped turn “space opera” into a pejorative term. Per Leigh Brackett, “It was fashionable for a while, among certain elements of science-fiction fandom, to hate Planet Stories. They hated the magazine, apparently, because it was not Astounding Stories.” For seventy-one issues, rather than aiming for the cerebrum, it aimed for the gut. Who is to say that one target is more valid than the other?

To learn more about the images used in this post, click on the illustrations. Click here for references consulted for this article.