You can split fantasy fiction as finely as you like. The resulting list of genres and sub-genres might exhaust an ordinary reader. There is science fiction, space opera, planetary romance, science fantasy, weird fiction, supernatural horror, ghost stories, high fantasy, low fantasy, and on and on. Then there is weird menace, also called terror stories, which found a home in the so-called shudder pulps of the 1930s and '40s. Weird menace is distinct from weird fiction, so distinct in fact that the weird menace titles of the pulp era probably can't be called rivals of Weird Tales. But I'm making a catalogue here and I want to be thorough.
So how might one characterize weird menace? I can't say for sure. I have never read anything that I recognized as part of the genre. Maybe the best way to learn about weird menace is to look at the covers of the magazines in which weird menace stories appeared. It's not something you're likely to enjoy, not because the art is bad (it isn't), but because those covers show torture and cruelty, terror and torment, bondage and sadism, in short, every brand of violence and depravity an ordinary reader might want to avoid. In the minds of some, the word pulp means trash if not pornography. My guess is that a good deal of that reputation for pulp trashiness came about because of weird menace.
We can lay the blame for weird menace at the feet of Henry Steeger, president of Popular Publications (not to be confused with the Popular Fiction Company, publisher of Weird Tales). "I got the idea during a trip to Paris," Steeger explained. "They had the Grand Guignol Theatre there, with these violent situations, and the audience was very enthusiastic. I thought, 'We could do a magazine like that with the same sort of emphasis'." (1) One of Steeger's titles, Dime Mystery Magazine, was faltering at the time. The publisher decided to give it a jolt. To quote Lee Server, author of Danger Is My Business, "The October 1933 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine launched what would prove to be the most depraved and blood-soaked chapter in the annals of American publishing." (2) With that issue, the genre of weird menace was born. That was eighty years ago next month. Maybe we should say happy birthday.
According to Mr. Server, two aspects of weird menace distinguish it from stories of supernatural horror. First, there isn't anything supernatural: the events of the story are explained rationally--if not logically--by story's end. Second, the horrors in a weird menace story are recounted in great detail and with extreme intensity. If you detect a pornographic or fetishistic element upon looking at the covers, you're probably onto something. I don't believe it's pornography or fetishism of sex so much as of violence directed at one of the sexes. Weird menace may not be a sub-genre of fantasy per se, but it seems to contain an element of fantasy, perhaps of a different kind.
Because the horror in weird menace is natural rather than supernatural, the monster must be human: mad scientists, cult leaders, psychopaths, fiends, "gnarled dwarves, brainless mutants, [and] horny hunchbacks" abound. (3) Popular culture had placed women in peril before. (A look at the covers of the shudder pulps will show that those being tortured and tormented were mostly if not exclusively female.) The Perils of Pauline (1914) kind of story, from a generation before, comes to mind. The Snidely Whiplash character, who ties young women to railroad tracks or wants to run them through a sawmill, became a cliché early on. (4) I doubt, however, that anything before the weird menace stories was as explicit or depraved. That leads me to wonder: Why then? Why the early thirties? I won't hazard a guess just yet, but I'll listen to opinions. (If you would like to make a comment, please do so below.)
Violence, torment, and torture aimed at women are still with us of course. The hacker and slasher movies of the last half century have thrived on that formula. (5) I have written before about the demise of the supernatural monster in our scientific and technological age. There may not be any more room in the world for a werewolf or a vampire. An ax-wielding psychopath is another story. There's more to it than that, I think. It has something to do with women and sex, and maybe with emancipation. After writing six paragraphs, however, I guess I'll have to leave the theorizing for another day.
Dime Mystery Magazine
154 Issues (39 Volumes)
Published by: Popular Publications
Edited by: Rogers TerrillFormat: Presumably pulp size
Notes: According to the cover blurb, Dime Mystery Magazine was combined with 10 Story Magazine with the December 1944 issue. It became 15 Mystery Stories with the February 1950 issue.
(1) Quoted in Danger Is My Business by Lee Server (1993), p. 106.
(2) From Danger Is My Business, p. 105. The book was published in 1993. I wonder if the last twenty years' worth of depravity would cause Lee Server to reconsider his assessment.
(3) From Danger Is My Business, p. 109.
(4) Relentless Rudolph, from C.W. Kahles' comic strip Hairbreadth Harry, is one example. Dan Backslide in the cartoon "The Dover Boys" (1942) is another.
(5) Other anniversaries: Blood Feast, which was, according to Wikipedia, the first "splatter film," came out in 1963. That same year, the first Italian giallo, La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much), also arrived in movie theaters. Giallo, by the way, is Italian for yellow, the color of mystery/thrillers in the Italian magazine and book market since 1929. Gialli--"yellows" or "yellow books"--is actually the name of the genre. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is an exemplar (if that's the right word) of the hacker/slasher film. That anniversary is still a few months away.
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley