Friday, June 8, 2012

Introduction to Spicy Weird Stories

Introduction to Spicy Weird Stories
Bobby Derie

This remarkable collection presents the best of the short-lived Spicy Weird Stories magazine, published by Culture Publications from 1936 to 1942. During its heyday, Spicy Weird Stories attracted the greatest weird fictioneers of the day, including the three leading lights of Weird Tales: Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as other notable pulpsters including E. Hoffmann Price, Robert Leslie Bellem, Howard Wandrei, Manly Wade Wellman, Henry Kuttner, and Hugh B. Cave, though many of them were published under pseudonyms like Sam Walser, Hamlin Daly, and Wade Wells.

As detailed by Will Murray in “An Informal History of the Spicy Pulps,” the sizzling “spicies” line began with Spicy Detective Stories in April 1934, an endeavor funded by Harry Donenfield, some say, to launder money from his bootlegging operation. While there had been previous titillating magazines on the rack and under the counter, the Spicies were the first line to cater to the pulp genres, and soon Donenfield’s Culture Publications was also producing Spicy-Adventure Stories, Spicy Mystery Stories, Snappy Adventure Stories, Snappy Detective Stories, and Snappy Mystery Stories—and in 1936 rounded out the lot with Spicy Western Stories and Spicy Weird Stories.

The creation of Spicy Weird Stories is the result of a letter from E. Hoffmann Price to Spicy Stories editor Frank Armer in 1935, in response to Armer rejecting two of Price’s tales for containing science fiction and fantasy elements. While early issues of Spicy-Adventure Stories had included a few sci-fi tales, and Spicy Mystery Stories was willing to accept stories with a supernatural element provided it was resolved as mundane at the end, by 1935 Armer was cracking down on both of these sort of tales. Price’s suggestion was that rather than reject this sort of material outright, Armer should open up a new Spicy version of Weird Tales or Astounding.

Armer was doubtful, as he was unfamiliar with the horror, fantasy, and science-fiction market, but responded to Price’s letter by asking if he thought any other weird writers would be interested in submitting stories, particularly under their own names. Price had already been something of an evangelist for the spicies among his friend, convincing both Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith to submit stories for the spicies. Howard succeeded, landing several stories in Spicy-Adventure under the pen-name Sam Walser; Clark Ashton Smith had failed, his story “Mother of Toads” being rejected by Spicy Mystery as too fantastic and too hot for their magazine. Now with the possibility of a new market for weird fiction, Price put out the call to his friends and colleagues.

The first issue of Spicy Weird Stories in August 1936 featured a daring cover painting by house artist H. J. Ward of a nude woman in a sarcophagus, at the feet of which lay prostrate a man in modern garb, the leering faces of Egyptian gods in the background, for the story “Tarbis of the Lake” by E. Hoffmann Price; a version of Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads” published under his own name, lightly expurgated to comply with editorial guidelines; “Blades of Khartum” by Robert E. Howard, a rejected Spicy-Adventure tale re-written as a sword & sorcery tale; “The Ghost Gal” by Spicy regular Robert Leslie Bellem and starring his private detective Dan Turner; and finally a comic strip “The Adventures of Olga Mesmer,” continuing her adventures from Spicy Mystery. It was an excellent and ambitious start, and which completely sold out of its small first run.

For the entirety of its six-year run, Spicy Weird Stories received a flood of mail both praising and condemning it. Many fans were happy with the contents of the magazine; others decried the pollution of serious literature. Writers from Weird Tales quickly learned they could take stories rejected by the prudish Farnsworth Wright, and resubmit them to Spicy Weird. Established Spicy Stories authors had much less success producing weird spicies, but as all science-fiction and horror submissions were now funneled to Spicy Weird, they picked up the slack filling up the other Spicy titles. Wright quickly took note of this, and contacted Culture Publications in 1937 threatening legal action.

The case never went to trial; Wright and Armer secretly reached an agreement where Wright would forward likely rejected stories directly to Armer in exchange for a small finder’s fee if the story was accepted. Both magazines profited from the arrangement, as Weird Tales could retain its high standards and Spicy Weird would get a more literary crop of submissions than typical for a Spicy pulp. Weird artists got in on the act too—Margaret Brundage submitted black-and-white line drawings of nudes from Chicago under the house name W. Lovett; Virgil Finlay did seventeen covers for the magazine near the end of its run, taking over from H. J. Ward, but never signed them; Wayne Francis Woodard, known to WT fans as Hannes Bok, took over the Olga Mesmer comic strip in 1939, and continued to draw it for three years until Spicy Weird folded in 1942.

Spicy Weird Stories lasted until the end of the Spicy line, when New York City Mayor Fiorello Le Guardia’s crackdown on lurid covers; but unlike the other spicies was not revived when Culture Publications re-organized along slightly different lines and began putting out essentially the same magazines in 1943. Whatever deal Armer had with Farnsworth Wright was null when Dorothy McIlwraith became editor of Weird Tales in 1940, and the quality of the magazine notably declined, relying more heavily on regular authors quickly pumping out stories under pseudonyms, and even reprints of Robert E. Howard tales printed under his real name and original titles in an effort to drive up sales.

The stories in this collection represent the best that Spicy Weird had to offer, from their most talented and illustrious contributors, several of which have never before been reprinted. The success of these stories lies neither in being solely weird or spicy, but in how the two themes were wedded together and complement one another, in a way that was rarely achieved before, and would not be seen again until long after the post-war years when publishing let its hair down and science fiction openly addressed questions of gender and sexuality, among other social issues.

“Tarbis of the Lake” was an early story by E. Hoffmann Price, lost and then recreated in collaboration with H. P. Lovecraft during the legendary 25-hour visit to Price’s quarters in New Orleans. The story did not sell for years, despite Price submitting and resubmitting it to Weird Tales and a host of other magazines, but finally found placement in the premiere issue of Spicy Weird Stories. The published version lacks HPL’s byline, according to prior agreement. Price had further revised it to increase the spicy element, mainly involving the complete nudity of Tarbis in her sarcophagus, but according to a recently discovered 1936 postcard, Price did send along a percentage of the proceeds to HPL, along with a letter of thanks.

“Mother of Toads” by Clark Ashton Smith failed to land at either Weird Tales or Spicy Mystery when first submitted, being too erotic for either publisher to print, but with Price’s encouragement a slightly expurgated version appeared in the inaugural Spicy Weird as “Among the Lily-Pads.” Years later, after Arnem and Wright had forged their agreement, a more heavily edited version appeared in Weird Tales under Smith’s original title. The full, uncensored version would not be published until Necronomicon Press published it in 1987.

“The Witchcraft of Ulua” was another of Clark Ashton Smith’s tales that was censored when it first appeared in Weird Tales; Wright dug the unexpurgated version out of the archives and sent it on to Armer during a slow month for submissions in 1938, and the two later received permission from Smith to reprint it almost unaltered. This began a tradition of the same weird fiction appearing in both magazines; Wright would publish the “clean” version of a tale, and a month or two later Armer would publish the “spicy” version. There is some internal evidence that a few such tales were actually “spiced up” by house writers before seeing print, rather than having been edited clean by Farnsworth Wright.

“House of the Monoceros” and “Dawn of Discord” were both written by Clark Ashton Smith, but having failed to place them in other magazines Smith gave them to Price to revise and sell to the spicies, and they appeared under Price’s pseudonym “Hamlin Daly.” The original stories, reprinted in The Miscellaneous Writings of Clark Ashton Smith, are neither very spicy nor very weird, though they still contain some of CAS’ beautiful and evocative language. Price’s revised versions contain heavy doses of Egyptian and Theosophical mysticism, as well as plenty of heaving bosoms and pale naked flesh, and combine something of the best of both authors’ style.

“The Black Kiss” by “Michael Leigh” is actually a collaboration between Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner, and an early story of the Cthulhu Mythos. First featured in the June 1937 issue of Weird Tales, where it lost out the Brundage cover to “The Carnal God” by Speer and Schnitzer, the story yet managed to score several lavish black-and-white nudes by Mrs. Brundage in the August 1937 issue of Spicy Weird. Bloch never took to writing for the spicies, or at least if he has never admitted to it, but Kuttner continued to publish, mainly in Spicy Mystery.

“Blades of Khartoum” and “Ship in Mutiny” by Robert E. Howard writing as Sam Walser and were initially submitted to and rejected by Spicy-Adventure. Undeterred, Howard rewrote them as sword-and-sorcery fantasies starring a Conan-esque hero, and submitted them to Spicy Weird, and Armer snapped them up. They were the last of Howard’s stories to be bought by the magazine before he took his own life in July 1936, and did not appear in print until August and September of that year.

Another Robert E. Howard spicy submitted before his death as “Daughters of Feud.” This tale, originally set in the American backwoods country, was far too explicit for the average spicy due to its heavy sadomasochistic scenes of bare-bottom spanking. However, rather than returning the manuscript immediately it lurked in the files, until Armer became aware of Howard’s death. Knowing no other Howard stories would be coming this way, Armer paid a house writer to turn it into an acceptable weird spicy, and mailed Howard’s father a check as if the story had been submitted and accepted normally. The deception was not discovered for some years, until the Robert E. Howard Foundation reprinted the unadulterated versions of REH’s spicy stories in the 2011 Spicy Adventures collection.

Robert Leslie Bellem was one of the stars of the Spicy line, and the prolific creator of private detective Dan Turner for Spicy Detective, who would one day get spun off in his own magazine. Among the hundreds of cases Bellem wrote for Turner over the years, it is easy to forget that in the first three issues of Spicy Weird Bellem attempted to combine his jaunty, hardboiled prose to making Turner a kind of occult detective. The resulting trilogy of tales produced were “The Ghost Gal,” “The Ghoul’s Girl,” and “Dead Damsels in Distress,” the latter of which was reprinted much later in Super Detective as “Girls Don’t Bite.” Bellem took particular advantage of one of Armer’s peculiar editorial rules, which allowed that “a nude female corpse is allowable”—as a consequence, Turner spends several pages over the three issues tripping over a veritable harem of dead and undead girl-flesh.

“I Wore the Brassiere of Doom” was a confessions-style story credited to “Sally Theobold,” a transparent penname for Weird Tales veteran Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though most bibliographies failed to credit HPL with this story until Robert M. Price reprinted it in Lurid Confessions #1 in 1986. While most readers and critics might express surprise that HPL might attempt a spicy story, citing L. Sprague de Camp’s biography and many memoirs regarding Lovecraft’s prudish attitudes towards sex, S. T. Joshi’s more recent biography I Am Providence and more recent research suggests that this proclivity was overstated, as anyone who has read HPL’s short story “Sweet Ermengarde” or the poem “Sir Wilful Wildrake” will attest, and recently horror author Edward Lee tracked down an erotic novella that Lovecraft had written under commission for a private gentleman’s magazine under a pseudonym, which was republished with a fictional framing device of Lee’s own creation in 2010 as Trolley No. 1852.

A hallmark of the Spicy line were the regular comic serials that ran in the pages, often featuring and starring women who entered into various states of undress. One of the strangest, as chronicled by Will Murray in “The Spicy Strips” (Risque Stories #5, 1987) was “The Adventures of Olga Mesmer,” which began in Spicy Mystery. Olga Mesmer’s strange origin and powers, which included super-strength and x-ray vision, took her to hidden civilizations beneath the earth and to the outer planets of the solar system before her serial was abruptly summed up and canceled—possibly to avoid conflict with the Superman comic book, under another of Harry Donenfeld’s companies. However, Armer revived the strip almost immediately for Spicy Weird, as the strange character and attitude seemed to fit the “almost-unique” magazine. Hannes Bok picked up the story from where it had let off and Olga Mesmer continued her planetary adventures on Mars, Yuggoth (Pluto), Cykranosh (Saturn), and SfanomoĆ« (Venus). There is much speculation that Bok merely drew the comics while another writer or writers, perhaps Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, actually scripted the adventures, but both writer and artist on the strip remained uncredited. I am pleased to present here the full run of Olga Mesmer strips from Spicy Weird, reprinted here for the first time anywhere.

This anthology would not have been possible without the tremendous assistance of Will Murray and Robert M. Price. As well I would like to thank, in no particular order, S. T. Joshi, Rusty Burke, Darrell Schweitzer, Edward Lee, the Robert E. Howard Foundation, the staff at Arkham House, the Estate of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and Daniel Harms for their help, scholarship, and guidance.



  1. Hi,
    Can you provide some more information about the anthology? I would love to see the whole run of Olga Mesmer. It's not clear from this blog post where the Spicy Weird Stories anthology is available (it's not on Amazon).

    1. This introduction is a work of fiction, a sort of "what if." There is no actual anthology. In real life, Olga Mesmer completed its entire run in Spicy Mystery Stories. I believe facsimile prints of the entire run can be purchased from - a little pricy, but I've ordered from them before and they're very reliable.