Monday, January 9, 2017

Fiends and Murderers of the 1920s

I have started this year writing about the undead and the dead. The dark tone will continue for a while, beginning today with the first of a three-part series on fiends and murderers on the cover of Weird Tales. I'll try to find a way to brighten things up in the next few weeks, although I still want to find out and write about the origins of zombies in American popular culture.

When I was in South Korea, I was a member of the 36th Tactical Fighter Squadron. We were called the Flying Fiends. Our unit patch showed a creature wearing an old-fashioned aviator's helmet. Some of the guys called him "the slobberin' dog." I thought then that a fiend is simply a monster of some kind. Then my friend Joe told me that he looked it up and that a fiend is a sexual deviant. I just looked it up again. My dictionary says that a fiend is "a diabolically cruel or wicked person" or "an evil spirit." That doesn't get away from the depiction of fiends on the cover of pulp magazines, including the seven covers on display here. Each shows a man attacking, threatening, or abducting a woman. The sexual connotations are unavoidable. I tend to think that my friend Joe was right and that a fiend is sexual deviant or a sexual predator on women.

Showing or telling about women in peril is as old as storytelling, of course. It gives men and boys a chance to imagine themselves as rescuers of women. Pulp magazines, however, emphasized the sexual aspect of women in peril. (Maybe that gave men and boys a bit of a thrill or even a chance to imagine themselves as the tormenters of women.) They also emphasized sexual deviancy and sexual violence, including bondage, sadism, torture, and sexual mutilation. That was the hallmark of the weird menace pulps of the 1930s. But as the covers below show, there was fiendishness and murderousness in pulps before that. I count seven such covers of Weird Tales from the 1920s. Four are obviously in this category. Three are less certain. Unfortunately, I haven't read any of these cover stories, so I can't say for sure.

Weird Tales, April 1926. Cover story: "Wolfshead" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by E.M. Stevenson. You have seen this cover before--pretty recently in fact. Here it is again. Robert E. Howard was all of twenty years old when this cover was new.

Weird Tales, May 1926. Cover story: "The Ghosts of Steamboat Coulee" by Arthur J. Burke. Cover art by Andrew Bensen. Here the tables are turned and the fiend or murderer has the knife.

Weird Tales, September 1926. Cover story: "The Bird of Space" by Everil Worrell. Cover art by E.M. Stevenson. I included this cover with vampires and bats, but I don't know that the fiend here is a vampire. Maybe he just looks like one.

Weird Tales, July 1927. Cover story: "The Return of the Master" by H. Warner Munn. Cover art by C.C. Senf. I think that's a man scaring the woman. I'm not sure. And he may or may not be a fiend. I have included this cover here just to be sure.

Weird Tales, January 1929. Cover story: "The Black Master" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by C.C. Senf. Here again, I'm not sure that the man is an actual threat to the woman. He may be rescuing her. Here it is, though, just to be on the safe side.

Weird Tales, July 1929. Cover story: "The Corpse-Master" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by C.C. Senf. Where is the fiend? Sneaking into the picture on the left. I'll have to add this cover to my list of dwarf covers. And he's green. Note that there are three "masters" in a row.

Weird Tales, December 1929. Cover story: "The Mystery of the Four Husbands" by Gaston Leroux. Cover art by Hugh Rankin. This is the third ambiguous cover. I'm not sure that the man is a bad guy. The woman may just think that he is. Of course his bringing a knife to her bed might have something to do with it. Anyway, I just want to say that Hugh Rankin could really draw women. In their stature and allure, they remind me of Roy Crane's women in Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy.

To be continued . . . 

Text and captions copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Thanks for including the image of the unit patch from your days in the USAF. I love seeing these things. A few years ago I went to see a trio of WWII era bombers at the Oxford Airport -- B-24, B-17 and a B-25 -- and while there I had the good fortune to speak with a gentleman who had been a Liberator pilot in the 14th Air Force during the war. As we spoke he shared with me a large album that he had brought along containing dozens, if not hundreds, of photos from his military days. Tucked in amongst the pictures was a version of his Fighting Tigers patch that had been hand-sewn for him by one of the locals who were happy to have the American base near their home. He said this was common, and that most of the fliers in his unit wore these gifted patches instead of the Army issued ones.

    I had never before heard of the sexual deviant definition of the word fiend, but I suppose that such a use is plausible. You got me digging deeper, and the Online Etymological Dictionary says that "the word was originally the opposite of friend. Both are from the active participles of the Germanic verbs for "to love" and "to hate." This article goes on to say that fiend "began to be used in late Old English for "the Devil, Satan" as the "enemy of mankind," which shifted its sense to "diabolical person" (early 13c,)" Certainly over eight-plus centuries a sexual deviant usage could have occurred.

    Good call pointing out that Hugh Rankin's women looked much like those drawn by Roy Crane...who, perhaps not coincidentally, was drawing the Wash Tubbs comic strip at the same time this cover was created. What a great adventure strip that was!

    1. Mike,

      And just like Hugh Rankin, Roy Crane drew naked women (or at least topless women) in Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, right in the Sunday comics page. Yeah, they were National Geographic-type pictures, but still . . .