I’ve often been asked, “Who was the best writer of the weird menace pulps?” My answer depends on how exactly the question is meant. If we’re looking at a peak period, it’s pretty tough to top Russell Gray or Mary Dale Buckner from 1937-1940, or Arthur J. Burks and Hugh B. Cave from 1935-1937. If we’re looking at sheer volume and remaining consistently good while rarely great, then Arthur Leo Zagat has to enter the discussion. For a sustained peak period of 1934-1940 it’s hard to find fault with either John H. Knox or Wyatt Blassingame. However, if we’re talking about a story by story basis, way ahead of the pack is a writer that most modern readers have never heard of: Ralston Shields. Sadly, his total output, as far as I can determine, is ten terrific stories, one fairly mediocre piece and one tale in a completely different genre.
The ten terrific stories are gathered here and they come with the following warning: do not sit down and read this book cover to cover. I repeat, do not sit down and read this book cover to cover! Not that they follow the same formula like Seabury Quinn’s tales of Dr. Trowbridge and Jules de Grandin, but rather like many of the stories of another great writer, Theodore Sturgeon; they all in some way deal with the same theme.
Now with Sturgeon, you can read a volume of his stories cover to cover as there are more than enough tales dealing with other matters, and Sturgeon’s main subject, that of love in as many ramifications as one could imagine, is well-nigh inexhaustible. In some way, almost all of Ralston Shields’ work deals with the archetype of the femme fatale. A lovely lady, often seeming to possess strange powers to whom men are drawn like so many moths to an open flame.
Shields grabs hold of this concept and like a jeweler examining a precious stone, turns it every which way to examine all its facets. Again, I don’t mean to imply that the stories are at all repetitious—they aren’t—but just as they appeared separated by months and packaged with a variety of other tales in the pages of Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories, they are best savored like a vintage wine, slowly and with something to refresh the palate between them.
Just as Mark Hansom explored the theme of the dead tormenting the living from beyond the grave in a progression of novels starting with The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey, progressing through The Ghost of Gaston Revere and culminating with Sorcerer’s Chessmen, Shields also has a trilogy that shows a deft handling of three superficially similar tales. “Daughter of the Devil” appeared in Horror Stories in 1937, a story of a man’s former lover plotting a macabre revenge by inducing the man to murder his wife. The second installment of this trilogy, “Priestess of the Pestilence” did not appear until a year and a half later in the pages of Terror Tales. This time there was seemingly no prior history between the hero and the lovely lady that appears to possess occult powers, but there is a murderous plot just the same. The final piece, “Food for the Fungus Lady” is nothing short of a masterpiece, combining the alluring and sultry with the horrifically grotesque!
From the ancient Greeks with the tales of Circe and Medea through the Arthurian cycle with the tales of Morgan Le Fay and the Lady Vivien up through our modern thrillers such as Sax Rohmer with his novels of Sumuru and Fah lo Suee (the daughter of Fu Manchu), writers have long had a fascination with the beautiful but deadly woman.
In the American weird menace pulps, and to a large measure, the British thrillers, women were usually portrayed as helpless victims. Often as not, they were simply two-dimensional props, hapless victims for the hero to rescue. Even such masters of the form as Arthur Leo Zagat seemed completely out of his depth when trying to write from the female perspective.
Things brightened up a little bit with the advent of Donald Dale’s first stories in 1937. Of course, “Donald Dale” was actually a woman, Mary Dale Buckner, so it’s hardly surprising that her female characters were much more believable than those of her contemporaries. Also in May of 1937, the debut story of another author, “The Blood Kiss” by Ralston Shields, appeared to considerable acclaim. Isavan Ling, or more properly, Dr. Isavan Ling was no hapless victim in need of rescue. Instead, she combines Eurasian beauty with the deadliness of a scorpion.
“The Blood Kiss” set the stage for what was to come. while Shields occasionally dealt with other themes, in stories such as “I Summoned Dr. Death”, his stock in trade was the story of the femme fatale. Like Theodore Sturgeon with his explorations of love in all of its possible forms, Shields took his central theme, turned it upside down, sideways and inside out to examine what was really the reverse of the usual weird menace fare. In fact, only Russell Gray in his sadistic tour de force “Fresh Fiancées for the Devil’s Daughter” (available in Hostesses in Hell, DTP Book #16); comes close to creating a female villain as lethal as the male fiends that stalked through the pages of Dime Mystery, Terror Tales and Horror Stories.
Most importantly, Shields’ stories are not the work of a misogynist. Ahead of their time, his tales portray strong female characters (both villains and victims), with believable motivations and if they are somewhat excessive in their plans for retribution, they are still fully-realized characters whom the reader will likely long remember.
So what do we know about this innovative author who went so far against the grain? Unfortunately, not a great deal. “Ralston Shields” was the pseudonym used by one John R. Baxter. With one exception, his work was confined to Popular Publications. With a total of twelve stories to his credit, he could hardly have been a full-time writer unless there are other pseudonyms that we don’t know about.
After his brilliant run in Popular’s three weird menace titles only one more story appeared, “Tropic Voodoo” in Thrilling Adventures in the May, 1942 issue. This opens up some key questions by virtue of this tale showing up in Thrilling Adventures. Obviously, Shields was easily able to transition to another market after Terror Tales and Horror Stories died and Dime Mystery Magazine changed direction to more detective-oriented tales. Considering the usual lag time between acceptance and publication usually ran between six months and a year, with the latter being the more usual, “Tropic Voodoo” (which will appear in Tales of Terror & Torment Volume #3), would have been written and accepted sometime in 1941.
So why no more stories from this author who was clearly in demand and seemingly had ready markets available to him both at Leo Margulies’ Thrilling group and to Dorothy McIllwraith at Weird Tales. Is it more likely that this part-time writer lost interest in the fiction trade, or that, like so many other young men of the time, he died serving his country in WWII?
Thus far, I’ve been unable to find any information whatsoever about John R. Baxter, though I do hope to have some definitive information by the time Tales of Terror & Torment Volume #3 appears. In the meantime, I think that this collection will certainly answer the question of “Who was the best of the weird menace authors on a story by story basis?” This book has been a labor of love from the get-go. Ever since I first learned of Ralston Shields in Robert Kenneth Jones’ The Shudder Pulps, I’ve been wanting to publish this book. Food for the Fungus Lady would have been a Midnight House title had things worked out differently. As it is, I am very proud to add this title to the DTP list. I’m sure that after you read it, you’ll see why I feel this way. Enjoy!