The October Country. The season of mists and melancholy. That time of year when graveyards yawn and things go bump in the night and we break out worn copies of Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser’s “Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural” or the collected ghost stories of Vernon Lee and M.R. James.

In 2023, we can also celebrate the 100th anniversary of Weird Tales. Since its first issue in March 1923, this most famous of the pulp magazines would eventually publish nearly all the greatest American writers of fantasy and horror, from H.P. Lovecraft (“The Call of Cthulhu”) to C.L. Moore (“Shambleau”) and Robert Bloch (“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”). Over the years, the “Unique Magazine” also featured the fantastic art of Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay and Lee Brown Coye, not to overlook – which would be impossible – the brazenly provocative cover paintings by Margaret Brundage.

Though Weird Tales continues to be published, albeit somewhat fitfully, most pulp magazines died out by the 1950s or adopted a smaller digest format (as in today’s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). To a limited degree, the “shudder pulps” were replaced by what we now call men’s adventure magazines (MAMs), such as True, Cavalier, Real Men, Stag and Man’s Life. When I was growing up, you’d always find stacks of these luridly macho periodicals at the barber shop or next to the car repair manuals in the back of any good mechanic’s garage.

Their contents emphasized first-person accounts, supposedly “true,” describing life-or-death battles with every sort of human or animal horror: sadistic Nazis, biker gangs, mad scientists, diabolical cults, ravenous monsters and nature run amok. “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” remains the genre’s frequently repurposed signature phrase: Frank Zappa used it to name a Mothers of Invention album.

In the illustrations for these stories, the muscular heroes are regularly shown bare-chested, while voluptuous damsels-in-distress – undress? – suffer attractively in bikinis or revealingly torn garments. Yes, much in these magazines would now be shunned as sexist or worse, yet their outrageous story titles remain a joy forever: “Kiss the Skull of Death, My Beautiful Muchacha,” “The Giant Shark That Guarded Rommel’s Treasure,” “I Fought Castro’s Cutthroat Guerrilla Squad” and “Terror of the All-Girl Posse and Their Necktie Parties.”

“Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants,” edited by Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle.  New Texture/Men’s Adventure Library

These days, examples of MAM fiction and art can be most readily found in the numerous volumes of the Men’s Adventure Library, a series of reprint books and magazines from the oddly named publisher New Texture. Its most recent title is the seasonally appropriate “Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants,” edited by Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, with fine supplementary essays by Weird Tales scholars Mike Chomko and Stefan Dziemianowicz. If you don’t expect too much, these stories provide considerable kitschy pleasure. Set in a dystopian future controlled by robots, writer Rick Rubin’s couple-on-the-run story, “The Hunted,” might easily have made an excellent “Twilight Zone” episode, while Peter Eldridge’s “Mad Doctor of No-Name Key” could be a gruesome campfire tale. In Gene Preen’s O.-Henryish “Killer of the Cave” something monstrous is inexorably murdering the few survivors of a nuclear war. But who – or what – could it be?


The same editors and publishers are also responsible for “Cryptozoology Anthology,” subtitled “Strange and Mysterious Creatures in Men’s Adventure Magazines.” Here one can happily suspend disbelief at Arthur A. Dunn’s “‘Fish’ with Human Hands Attacked Me,” as well as relish “factual” accounts of the Loch Ness monster, the Abominable Snowman and various half-man-half-ape combinations. Perfect reading, in short, for anyone drawn to B-movies like “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

“More Voices From the Radium Age,” edited by Joshua Glenn. MIT Press

This fall brings quite a variety of literary chills. The most recent reissues in MIT Press’s Radium Age series include William Hope Hodgson’s extravagantly baroque vision of a desolate future Earth, “The Night Land” (1912), and a period anthology called “More Voices From the Radium Age.” In the latter, series editor Joshua Glenn reprints, among other good things, A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” (1918), a story that could have served as the template for half of Lovecraft’s contributions to Weird Tales. It features an Athabaskan medicine man, rumors of a mysterious region in an isolated area of Alaska, bizarre whistling sounds, a sinister blue haze, beings made of light and nothingness, a loathsome ancient god, and lots of deliciously florid prose.

This year, the British Library’s Tales of the Weird imprint has again issued a clutch of highly imaginative anthologies: “The Lure of Atlantis: Strange Tales of the Sunken Continent,” edited by Michael Wheatley; Zara-Louise Stubbs’s exceptionally tasty “The Uncanny Gastronomic: Strange Tales of the Edible Weird”; and “Holy Ghosts: Classic Tales of the Ecclesiastical Uncanny,” edited by Fiona Snailham. Best of all, though, the series has also brought out “The Flaw in the Crystal: And Other Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair,” edited by Mike Ashley. A superb selection, it opens with the utterly banal yet unutterably horrific “Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched.” While Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” needed three characters to demonstrate that “hell is other people,” Sinclair’s story needs only two and a tawdry hotel room.

To many ghost-story readers, Robert Hichens is no more than the author of “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” in which an invisible entity grows creepily, physically affectionate. Yet Hichens, immensely prolific, wrote many fine tales of the uncanny. Take the title novella in “The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories,” a collection of his supernatural fiction edited by S.T. Joshi for Stark House Press. In this morally ambiguous conte cruel, death is no obstacle when a sensitive animal lover seeks to avenge the physical abuse of a pet dog.

Certainly, any devotee of horror, whether classic or contemporary, is already paying close attention to the moderately priced, intelligently chosen publications of Tartarus Press, Swan River Press and Valancourt Books. A recent offering from Valancourt is “The Secret Life of Insects,” a much-anticipated collection from the Mexican author Bernardo Esquinca, translated by James D. Jenkins. The title story opens with an irresistible hook: “Two items today: (1) I’m going to talk to my wife for the first time in two years. (2) My wife is dead. She passed away two years ago under strange circumstances.” Who could stop reading now?

While Tartarus Press may be best known for its multivolume edition of the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, it has also championed current practitioners of the British tradition of supernatural fiction. This fall’s “Time of Passing: Tales of Twilight and Borderlands,” a fifth – and apparently final – collection from John Gaskin, demonstrates this restrained style of storytelling: In “The New Member,” conceited Algernon Smythe learns that the exclusive club he has just joined isn’t quite what he supposed, while in “The Gathering,” Professor Nichol and the surviving octogenarians of the Torpids Club assemble at an isolated country house for a last, distinctly unnerving dinner together.

Of Swan River Press, can I just say it publishes the most elegantly beautiful books in the small-press world? Its two most recent offerings are a showcase anthology, “Uncertainties 6,” edited by Brian J. Showers, and Timothy J. Jarvis’s “Treatises on Dust.” The first story in the latter, “What the Bones Told Hecate Shrike,” reworks the familiar trope of an evil or magical book, in this case a volume of poetry called “The Bone Antenna” that can apparently open the way to an otherworld. But is that world a realm of ecstasy or horror? That getting there requires all those skulls and skeletal fragments from dead animals isn’t what you’d call reassuring. Not that anyone looks to tales of the supernatural for reassurance. Quite the contrary: We read them to be unsettled, to feel wonder, to experience, above all, a pleasing terror.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story