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The Best of Spicy Mystery, Volume 1
edited by Alfred Jan
Altus Press, 228 pages

The Best of Spicy Mystery, Volume 1
Alfred Jan
Alfred Jan is the author of A Gelett Burgess Sampler.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Richard A. Lupoff

Two of the most notorious chapters of the pulp fiction saga were the weird menace magazines and the "Spicies." The former bore a more than superficial resemblance to weird tales, but with a couple of crucial differences. A typical weird tale (as featured, of course, in the magazine of that name) dealt with a gothic or dark fantasy theme: vampires, werewolves, haunted houses or the like.

There was usually a fearless hero, a lovely heroine, and a real, supernatural threat. In due course the vampire was staked, the werewolf was struck down by a silver bullet, or the ghost in the haunted house was laid to rest. Boy and girl clinch, story ends. If there was any sex in the story is was deeply sublimated or barely hinted at.

In the weird menace story, the supernatural element was almost always explained away. The "vampire" was a grieving husband stealing blood for illicit transfusions for his sickly wife; the werewolf was a nasty hound kept chained by his master except when the moon was full; the ghost in the haunted house was a prankster in a bed-sheet. Okay, that was one difference between weird tale and weird menace.

Second difference: in weird menace stories there was always a heavy infusion of sexuality, all too often of a sadistic nature and described with a leering voyeurism.

Okay. As for "Spicies" -- specifically, a group of pulps variously titled Spicy Mystery Stories, Spicy Adventure Stories, Spicy Detective Stories, and Spicy Western Stories -- these first appeared between April, 1934, and November, 1936. The word "Spicy" meant sexy. The publisher was Culture Publications, owned by one Harry Donnenfeld, who would go on to become the chief executive of Detective Comics aka National Periodical Publications. The company still exists, reaping in fortunes from such franchise characters as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Of the four titles in the Spicy line, pulp scholar and bibliographer Alfred Jan has produced an anthology of stories from (by his own testimony) "the most unique and notorious" of these short-lived pulps, Spicy Mystery Stories.

The authors represented include at least two well-known science fiction writers, Henry Kuttner and Victor Rousseau (writing as "Lew Merrill.") Also present are Hugh B. Cave (writing as "Justin Case") and master parodist Robert Leslie Bellem, elsewhere known as the creator of private eye Dan Turner. Bellem is a favorite, by the way, of master detective novelist Bill Pronzini, who has been known to quote Bellem's classic line, "My Roscoe sneezed, 'Kachee!' "

Alfred Jan deserves credit for wading through countless weird menace and spicy (and spicy weird menace!) stories to select the eleven tales in this collection. The Kuttner hews closest to classic weird menace formula, although most of the others in the book are not far off the mark. And of near classic quality is a brilliant line by Bellem. Consider this:

  " love!" She entwined her arms about Burton's neck and pulled him close; parted her lips over his mouth. Sultry, scalding sensations ripped through him. His embrace crushed her, so that her swollen white breasts were squeezed into flat cushions upon his chest. His palms traversed the planes of her back; and his fingers dug into the smooth, resilient flesh. He kissed her again, and it seemed almost that her lips probed his very soul. Ripples danced through her flesh and her slim figure writhed in the fervent passion of his embrace.  

In case you're wondering, the young lady involved is recruiting Burton to murder her husband. I never had the pleasure of meeting Robert Leslie Bellem, but his friend, western writer Walker Tompkins, told me that Bellem had a great sense of humor. I can see him almost rolling on the floor as those words came pouring out of his typewriter.

The most hard-core of the weird menace magazines, Horror Stories, Terror Tales, and Dime Mystery, eventually evoked such revulsion that they either switched to a far more tame sort of story, or simply went out of business. The Spicy line followed the former course, replacing their prime adjective with the less controversial "Speed."

The stories in Alfred Jan's selection represent about as much variety as one might hope for in an amalgam of the Spicy and weird menace genres. They're hardly great reading but they offer a window onto an odd byway of pulp fiction. A second volume is promised for late 2014. I can hardly wait.

Copyright © 2014 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff reports that his long-delayed cop novel, Rookie Blues, is on the verge of publication and should actually be available in July, 2012. Publisher is Dark Sun Press. His two most recent short story collections, Visions and Dreams, previously published only in very limited hardcover editions, will shortly be reissued as trade paperbacks by Hippocampus Press. Each volume contains a new story that was omitted from the previous editions.

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