This pulp cover was originally blogged in this 22 December 2013 post at Infernal Wonders contains the text “She rode the needle to depravity’s depths. Narco Nympho. By John Dexter. A Leisure Book.” It originally showed up at a still-extant tumblr called La La. Drugs are kinda Erotic Mad Science, right? Especially when there are tattooed naked women involved? Though probably this particular piece of pulp caught my eye because I’m currently reading — with no small pleasure — Paula Rabinowitz’s American Pulp.
Bacchus uncovers a historically-significant article, referenced in his research.
This 1934 primary source news article on censorship of pulp magazines (including the famous “Spicys”) in New York City makes several useful points:
- The many stories of Mayor La Guardia angrily discovering a “Spicy” title on a news stand 1942 are naive to whatever extent they are intended to suggest that he was actually surprised by the existence of salacious pulps in his city. By that point he had been fighting them for at least six years, so by 1942 he was probably play-acting his surprise if not his anger.
- The story estimates that “New York” (city or state not specified) is responsible for only 10% of the business in risque pulps in 1934, which undercuts the theory that New York City censorship could have directly or primarily have caused the demise of the shudder pulp trade.
- Smutty trends in the pulp business were supported, the story suggests, by hungry news stand operators post depression, raising the implication that the return of prosperity might have contributed to the decline of the smuttiest part of the trade.
March 12, 1934
Over New York City’s far-flung police teletype system one night last week clicked a strange order. Each & every New York policeman was directed to constitute himself a censor, see that 59 proscribed magazines were henceforth neither exhibited nor sold in the 2.000 licensed newsstands on the city streets.
Save for the conscientious Nudist, the forbidden publications were all smut sheets, compendiums of “art studies” bearing such titles as Wild Cherries, Cupid’s Capers, Hollywood Squawks. Heretofore the sale of questionable magazines in New York has been combated with the vague threat of criminal prosecution. But austere little Mayor La Guardiahas new ways of doing things. His commissioner of licenses simply announced that anyone in his jurisdiction who was caught selling dirty publications would be put out of business.
Promptly to the aid of the Nudist came the scrappy Civil Liberties Union. Well aware that the license comissioner’s powers to revoke were entirely discretionary, C.L.U. nevertheless wanted a test case on his powers to judge what was or was not obscene.
Merwil Publishing Co., Nuregal Publishing Co. and Culture Publications, proprietors of eleven of the barred magazines, went to court for a different reason. They asked an injunction against the commissioner’s order on the grounds that he was jeopardizing a thriving business. The smut business has boomed since the Depression because news dealers who once would not handle that sort of stuff will now sell anything which will put a few pennies in the till. it was revealed that of the average 30,000 circulation of the suspect magazines, 10% were sold in New York. Price: 25¢ a copy, of which the dealer gets 6¢, the publisher 11¢, the printer 8¢.
Indignantly declared Merwil’s Publisher Harry Donenfeld, whose line includes La Paree, Gay Parisienne, Spicy Stories, Pep: “Take books like God’s Little Acre and Ulysses. The courts have maintained that there’s nothing obscene in them. They really describe life.
“A girl just out of school — she’s the most easily ruined. But after she’s read our magazines she knows sex. She knows life. She’s better able to protect herself.”
Here Bacchus sheds some light on the existence of alternative Canadian editions of U.S. pulps, a issue which has the subject of speculation on this site before.
According to The Library and Archives of Canada, the War Exchange Conservation Act of 1941 banned the importation of US pulp magazines to preserve Canada’s balance of trade with the United States. A brief but vibrant Canadian pulp magazine industry was the result:
The year 1940 was one of great change in Canada. A constitutional amendment allowed the government to introduce and adopt the Unemployment Insurance Act. Parliament passed the controversial National Resources Mobilization Act authorizing home defense conscription for 30 days, a term that over time stretched to cover the duration of the Second World War. In Quebec, women won the right to vote.
And, with the passing of the War Exchange Conservation Act, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King became the unwitting father of the Canadian pulp magazine industry.
According to Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo, the War Exchange Conservation Act was designed to preserve Canada’s balance of trade with the United States. To preserve this balance, Canada banned the import of a broad range of nonessential items from the U.S., including such luxury items and diversions as cocoa paste, champagne and pictoral postcards. It also targeted what had become for many people not a luxury, but an essential distraction from the harsh realities of everyday life: the pulps. The language of the act specifically prohibited the import of any periodical publications featuring “detective, sex, western and alleged true or confession stories.”
Detectives. Sex. Westerns. Confession stories. These were topics that sold magazines, and Canadian publishers knew it. People would still want their weekly fix of grisly murder, winking pin-up girls, thundering hooves and vicarious heartbreak; if the Americans could no longer supply it, someone else would have to.
As the December 1940 issue of the industry magazine Canadian Printer and Publisher put it: “Certain branches of the printing industry stand to benefit as a result of the measures announced in the House of Commons on Dec. 2 by Hon. J. L. Ilsley, Minister of Finance. Included in the long list of prohibited imports from non-sterling countries, principally the United States, are certain kinds of periodical publications such as those classified as detective, sex, western and confession stories.”
There were those words again. Detectives. Sex. Westerns. Confession stories. Add a smattering of other genres (science fiction, horror and the “northerns” — adventures that transposed the action of the western to Canada’s far north and swapped cowboys for Mounties), and you had what would become the stock-in-trade for Canadian pulp publishers.
In the beginning, Canadian publishers relied on submissions from U.S. authors, or even pirated copies of stories published in U.S. magazines. After all, Canadian audiences would recognize these authors, many of whom had developed a loyal following during the period when American pulps were readily available. The readers knew which writers penned the goriest murders, the most risqué love affairs and the most bloodcurdling horror stories.
But the pace of publishing demanded more and more stories. In English Canada, most titles were published monthly or bimonthly, and could contain as many as ten stories apiece. To keep up with the need for content, pulp publishers increasingly solicited stories from Canadian writers and accepted stories set in Canada. Suddenly, in a medium once dominated by American stories, characters and settings, reader became enthralled by such tales as “The Strange Story of Vancouver Cult” or “Trapping Winnipeg’s Pock-Marked Frankenstein.”
In Quebec, where many titles were published weekly, a pattern of publishers relying almost entirely on homegrown talent emerged, in addition to reprints or serializations of older stories by European authors. Sources of French-language writing were limited. Few American writers would have had a sufficient command of either the French language or Quebec culture to create a story for Les exploits fantastiques de Monsieur Mystère, or Les exploits policiers du Domino Noir.
Canadians were writing. Canadians were publishing. Canadians were reading. The Canadian pulp publishing industry was in its golden age.
Bacchus here reproduces for our benefit a longish historical article, most of which I shall run “below the fold” because of its length.
In March of 1984 editor Robert M. Price announced the first issue of Risque Stories, explaining:
A special favorite among pulp magazine fans is the “spicy” magazine, a type of pulp that offered all the familiar varieties of pulp fiction (detective, horror, adventure, etc.) but with a special flare: a mildly titillating sexuality that seems naive and even corny by modern standards. Pulp fiction fanciers enjoy these stories with a kind of post-critical relish that half enters into the spirit of the thing, and half chuckles at it. It is in this spirit of pulp nostalgia that we invite you to re-live the good old days in the pages of this first issue of Risque Stories, a revival of and a tribute to the spicy magazines of yesteryear.
For those who’d like to know more about the sexy tradition in pulpdom, we present pulp scholar Will Murray’s informative “An Informal History of the Spicy Pulps.”
Here’s the Will Murray article:Continue reading
Bacchus casts some light on a side-question in the demise of the shudder pulps.
The following faint archival spoor survives to suggests that some of the Spicy titles existed in multiple versions as a presumed response to censorship pressure. This is one of those facts from which censorship can be inferred, just as the presence of an immune response to a specific virus is evidence of exposure to the virus. Here’s the email as found, followed by its heavily-degraded provenance:
From: “Phil Stephensen-Payne”
Date: 17 June 2006 13:08:39 GMT+04:00
Subject: [fictionmags] Variant Spicies – a new can of worms
Thanks to the intervention of chum Curt P., I have acquired a batch of PEAPS mailings from the early 1990s and will be indexing/describing these to the list in due course (i.e. some timein the next 20 years). Much of the material has been overtaken by events, but one article caught my eye as it related to my current main project (the Crime Fiction Index) and contained some information that was new to me. Sadly it also opens a whole can of worms so I was hoping the chums might be able to help me out.
The article is “Starred and Unstarred”, in three parts, by Glenn Lord, Dan Gobbett, Jerry Page & Jerry Burge. This article discusses the censorship that occurred in some issues of the SPICY pulps during the late 1930s. I’m sure most chums are aware of this but, just in case not, the basic story is that, for a while around 1935-1937, each of the Trojan SPICY titles (ADVENTURE, DETECTIVE, MYSTERY & WESTERN) appeared in “starred” and “unstarred” versions. The “starred” versions are toned down / censored both in terms of the illustrations and of the text. So far, so familiar, but Glenn Lord’s part of the article revealed something I had not heard of before – that in some of the starred issues, stories were not only censored but were also, at times, presented in a different order (not too exciting) or even dropped completely and replaced by other stories! There are therefore an indeterminate number of issues of these magazines which exist in two versions which actually have different contents (Glenn lists three issues of SPICY DETECTIVE and five of SPICY ADVENTURE with different contents and Page/Burge illustrate the ToCs from the two versions of one issue of SPICY DETECTIVE with the contents shuffled, but each suspects there are more issues as yet unrecorded). Needless to say I am extremely interested in trying to pin this down (for DETECTIVE and MYSTERY at least) for the Crime Fiction Index, not least to sort out whether the issue lists I have are for the starred or unstarred versions (or a mixture of both). I’ve e-mailed Glenn to see what information he can supply but, meanwhile, I’d love to hear from any chums who have copies of any of these pulps (or information on the variations).
Regards, Phil S-P.
This email was included as a file named “spciy note.txt” in an 80.5GB torrent of pulp-related material that has the unique torrent hash “ba32ca44c77c95c876272510ca8099e1fdda3408”. (Verbum sapienti sat est.) According to the same Phil S-P’s Fiction Mag Index, all three parts of the Starred And Unstarred article appeared in the April 1990 issue of Spicy Armadillo Stories, which sadly but unsurprisingly does not appear to be readily available on the web.
Hoping to quell some of the criticism coming from moral squads and local governments that were on the warpath to clean-up the sexual titillation prevalent in the spicys, other pulp titles and comic books, Donenfeld and his editors embarked in 1936 on a mission of self-censorship. The company began creating two versions of three of their four Spicy magazines (for some unknown reason, a censored version of Spicy Mystery was not done), each version was marked with a five point star on the cover near that issue’s month. A boxed star meant a cleaned-up version of the magazine, while no star or an un-boxed star indicated the spicy version. In the tamer version, the text was less spicy and the women’s “charms” more concealed. The self-censorship effort was stopped at the end of 1937.
But what determined where the censored, boxed star version was sold? Was it created for the Bible Belt and more conservative states? Was the censoring done to appease the Post Office? But were subscriptions actually sold? (The magazines had no subscription information in them.) Why were the dual issues only restricted to 1936 and 1937? Why was Spicy Mystery, the most notorious of the Spicy line, spared from being censored? Due to the passage of time and lack of surviving business records, we will likely never know the answers to these questions.
Bacchus researches a colorful anecdote in the history of the decline of the shudder pulps, one referenced in in this post from last Thursday.
There are so many accounts of New York City mayor La Guardia’s infamous explosion upon seeing a particular Spicy Mystery cover in 1942 — and so much impact on the shudder pulp industry attributed, probably falsely, to the incident — that it seems sensible to accumulate all of the anecdotes in one place for comparison and contrast of details. It’s worth pointing out that the the shudder pulps in general were well into their terminal decline at this point (see timeline) and that any fallout or follow-through from this incident would not have been La Guardia’s first attempt at censoring pulp magazines in NYC; those began at least as early as 1934 (see the Smut Suppression article from Time, forthcoming on this site.)
From The Village Voice in 2003:
In 1942, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spied a Spicy Mystery magazine on a New York City newsstand. H.G. Ward [sic; reference should be to H. J. Ward] (a pulp cover artist who never missed the chance to lovingly delineate a mons veneris under clingy fabrics) had portrayed a woman strung up in a meat locker and threatened by a hunchbacked butcher. Apparently missing the compositional nod to Caravaggio’s Abraham and Isaac, Hizzoner forced the publisher out of the pulp business.
(Spicy Mystery underwent a name change and a shuffle in corporate ownership, but in truth La Guardia’s famous fit of pique did not, at least by itself, force anybody out of business.)
Blogger Terrance Towles Canote wrote in a 2014 piece on the decline of shudder pulps:
The cover of the April 1942 issue of Spicy Mystery came to the attention of New York City mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. The cover featured a woman, her clothes in tatters, dangling from a meat hook in a freezer, while being menaced by a hoodlum with a large and sharp looking knife. Mayor La Guardia,who had cracked down on the spicy pulps and other “dirty magazines” in the Thirties, then cracked down on pulp magazines. Even more mainstream pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, would be affected by the mayor’s crackdown on the pulps; its covers by Margaret Brundage would be considerably tamer afterwards. As to the shudder pulps and the much racier spicy pulps, they more or less ceased to be.
Almost everything that follows the anecdote here is wrong, or at least hopelessly confused as to timeline. According to Wikipedia and other sources, Margaret Brundage stopped drawing sexy covers for Weird Tales in 1938, possibly in part because of La Guardia’s earlier pressure on pulp publishers. And the shudder pulps were pretty much finished already by 1942 when La Guardia blew his top. Finally, there’s very little documentation (as the rest of these collected anecdotes will show) of what, if anything, La Guardia did in a concrete way to burden pulp distribution in NYC after exploding in an indignant show for the reporters.
The Smithsonian Magazine goes so far as to put actual words in La Guardia’s mouth:
When New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia passed a newsstand in April 1942 and spotted a Spicy Mystery cover that featured a woman in a torn dress tied up in a meat locker and menaced by a butcher, he was incensed. La Guardia, who was a fan of comic strips, declared: “No more damn Spicy pulps in this city.” Thereafter, Spicies could be sold in New York only with their covers torn off. Even then, they were kept behind the counter.
Some version of the claims in those two final sentences is often repeated, but documenting them from original sources has proved elusive. Although the Spicies did not long exist after that (see main article and timeline) cause and effect are harder to put in proper order.
This next account tends to support La Guardia’s quoted words in the Smithsonian story, fairly closely anyway:
One day in April 1942 Mayor la Guardia spied an unusual Spicy mystery on the newsstand and exploded in instant rage. He ruled on the spot: “No more Spicy pulps in this city.”
That’s said to be from the book Pulp Art by Robert Lesser (Gramercy Books 1997).
Another account of La Guardia’s reaction comes from Damon C. Sasser, who tells it thusly:
When New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spotted the April 1942 issue of Spicy Mystery Stories magazine on a newsstand that sported a cover depicting a woman strung up in a meat locker being menaced by a homicidal butcher, he declared war on the Spicy line. The Mayor decreed that any magazine with a lurid cover had to be sold with the cover removed. Sadly, Margaret Brundage’s Weird Tales covers were among those singled out for destruction.
Again, no contemporary documentation of any such “decree” has been located.
The New York Times tells the same story, with a lot more color but omitting any mention of action on La Guardia’s part except for the angry noise all seem to agree that he made on the spot for reporters:
Mayor La Guardia was appalled. Out for a walk one day in Manhattan in 1942, he happened upon a store displaying a copy of a periodical called Spicy Mystery. In lurid hues and slashing graphic style, its cover pictured a curvaceous, terrified young woman in a partly shredded dress hanging by bound hands from a hook alongside slabs of meat. She was menaced by a demented, knife-wielding brute of a man who looked back over his shoulder at whoever was holding the gun that cast its shadow on him. Shocked and dismayed, the mayor vowed to ban all such scurrilous literature from his fair city.
All agree: this was a colorful moment of mayoral choler. The impact, if any, it had on the ongoing decline of the shudder pulps is rather more debatable, but the murky truth is a lot harder to nail down than this colorful anecdote is to tell.
Bacchus here fleshes out a bit more the activities of the National Organization for Decent Literature, the role of which in the demise of the shudder pulps he discussed in this post from last Wednesday.
This story from the United Feature Syndicate appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in 1943. It documents “unofficial censors of American magazines” in the form of the Catholic organization the National Organization For Decent Literature. Founded in 1938 (the height of the shudder pulp era), NODL was said to be working closely with the postmaster general (himself a Catholic) by examining “scores of American magazines” on his behalf, advising magazine editors on close edits they must make to satisfy “the code” and communicating with lawyers at the post office about magazines that should or should not have mailing privileges revoked. NODL’s own publication, called the “Acolyte”, cited with approval “a long list of magazines barred from the mails” — which is to say more precisely, denied the subsidized second-class mailing rate. These are pulps, but the era of the shudder pulp is already past, so titles are pulpy but more tame: “College Humor, Real Screen Fun, Squads Riot, Flynn’s Detective, Amazing Detective, Front Page Detective, Film Fun, Spotlight Detective, Argosy, Gripping Detective Cases, and Exclusive Detective.” Again, these are the titles excerpted for the article from a much longer list. To whatever extent that mail distribution was important to what remained of the pulp magazine business by 1943, the NODL campaign combined with postal revocation of mailing privileges seems to have been cutting a large swathe out of that business. The article therefore tends to lend credence to reports that various shudder pulps came under pressure to tone themselves down in the late 1930s to preserve their mailing privileges.
Bacchus provides a chronological summary of shudder pulp history.
A few of the most key events in the history of the shudder pulps, arranged chronologically:
- 1933 — Dime Detective Magazine begins (Popular Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Terror Tales (Popular Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Horror Stories (Popular Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Spicy Detective Stories (Modern Publications, later Culture Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Spicy Adventure Stories (Modern Publications, later Culture Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Spicy Mystery Stories (Modern Publications, later Culture Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Snappy Adventure Stories (Modern Publications, later Culture Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Snappy Detective Stories (Modern Publications, later Culture Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — Snappy Mystery Stories (Modern Publications, later Culture Publications) begins publication
- 1934 — March — 59 magazines temporarily banned from sale in NYC newsstands by Mayor La Guardia, according to Time. National circulation of 11 popular titles: 30,000.
- 1935 — Horror Stories (Popular Publications) begins publication
- 1937 — Detective Short Stories (Goodman, later Marvel) begins publication
- 1938 — Complete Detective (Goodman, later Marvel) begins publication
- 1938 — Mystery Tales (Goodman, later Marvel) begins publication
- 1938 — April — 1.58 million horror pulps sold in America, according to critic Bruce Henry, losing his shit in conservative magazine The American Mercury
- 1938 — Mayor La Guardia seems to have indulged one of his periodic impulses toward censorship, although details are unavailable; see “The Blue-Nosed Mayor”
- 1938 — Catholic pressure group National Organization For Decent Literature founded
- 1940 — Startling Mystery (Popular Publications) begins and ends publication
- 1940 — Sinister Stories (Popular Publications) begins and ends publication
- 1940 — May — Mystery Tales ends publication.
- 1941 — April — Uncanny Stories (Goodman, later Marvel) begins and ends publication)
- 1941 — “Actions of blue-nosed watchdogs help propel weird menace magazines from market” per Don Hutchison essay; details not specified.
- 1941 — March — Terror Tales (Popular Publications) ends publication
- 1941 — April — Horror Stories (Popular Publications) ends publication
- 1942 — April — The infamous “Mayor La Guardia Sees Spicy Mystery” anecdote, resulting, depending on whose account you credit, in the final end of Spicy Mystery, or merely its sale in NYC under counters or without covers
- 1942 — Spicy Adventure, Spicy Detective, Spicy Mystery and Spicy Western Stories (all from Culture Publications) cease publication, to reappear in early 1943 as the toned-down Speed Adventure, Speed Detective, Speed Mystery and Speed Western Stories from Trojan Publishing Company
Bacchus draws his conclusions.
There seems to be little evidence that either the shudder pulps specifically, or the broader constellation of risque pulp magazines in which they were bright-if-ruddy stars, were ever much in the sights of serious, direct, formal government censorship pressure. If a shudder pulp title ever lost a postal mailing permit, or a shudder pulp publisher or editor ever got charged with or tried for or convicted of obscenity in any US jurisdiction, this research turned up no evidence of it. Even such occasional bans as may have happened appear to have been local and/or informal and/or temporary.
However, it does appear that as the shudder pulps exploded in 1938, a sort of popular backlash was also getting underway, exemplified but by no means limited to the rise of NODL and by New York Mayor La Guardia’s increasingly strident expression of his long-standing antipathy to smutty pulps of all kinds. There’s every indication that the entire risque portion of the pulp industry, published overwhelmingly by veterans both tired and wiley, were careful to stay ten steps ahead of that backlash at all times, making all necessary changes in plenty of time to prevent precisely the sort of formal censorship that we could look back on from 2017 and say with certainty “There! That’s when they were censored.” And yet, in the big picture, it seems clear that between 1938 and 1942 there was a marked decline in the freedom of the shudder pulps to publish their signature “weird menace” content and in the inclination of their publishers to risk it. Whether the disappearance of shudder pulp from the market by the time the US entered World War II is because the market lost its taste for the content or the publishers never had a taste for the amount of hassle and risk that began to build after 1938 remains an open question. And if the rise of comic books and paperbacks had not already mooted the question, they soon would.
That concludes the main line of Bacchus’s argument, but stay tuned for a while, as there is an intriguing line of supplementary material coming up.
Bacchus’s research continues.
Decline Of Interest In Horror/Weird
In his Pulp Horrors Of The Dirty Thirties essay previously cited, Don Hutchison took the view that World War II and its horrors affected the national mood in a way that began to drive nails into the shudder-pulp coffin:
“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.”
Of course there are timing issues to be considered; the worst horrors of WWII came to light long after shudder pulps were history. Still, blogger Terrence Hanley is in accord, explaining the demise of a particular title:
[The shudder pulp titles] Terror Tales and Horror Stories came to an end a year later, in spring 1941. By then, torture, blood, and violence were no longer mere abstractions, for World War II had begun. Fiends and madmen ruled not just the pages of pulp magazines but also half the planet.”
War-Related Resource Constraints
War-related resource constraints are often cited without much evidence in broad-ranging opinion pieces about the demise of pulps more generally. It is true that paper rationing, labor shortages, and possibly constraints on availability of printing equipment and supplies all constrained various parts of the print entertainment industries in the early 1940s. But as the timeline makes clear, the shudder pulps in particular were closing doors left and right by 1941. Thus, this research did not seriously consider war-related resource constraints on the shudder pulp trade. See, e.g., Blake Bell’s observation (above) that “pulps were dying” in early 1941 at a time when WWII was “about” to put a crunch on paper supplies and thus had not yet done so. The Secret History of Marvel Comics: Jack Kirby and the Moonlighting Artists at Martin Goodman’s Empire (Blake Bell, 2013)