Fawcett’s Gold Medal line was one of the main sources for hardboiled crime fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Authors such as David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Gil Brewer, Peter Rabe, Dan Marlowe, and John D. MacDonald all plied their trade there, turning out dozens of novels that have become the foundation stones for modern crime fiction. One of the most able practitioners was Bruno Fischer, who left the legion of authors cranking out paperback originals for more lofty positions in the publishing business. However, Fischer is still fondly remembered for novels such as More Deaths than One, The Spider Lily, Fools Walk In, and Murder in the Raw, to say nothing of his large volume of short stories, many of which appeared in Dime Mystery and Dime Detective. Fischer’s novels generally featured ordinary people dropped into extraordinary situations and having to make choices that often compromised or tainted their pre-existing moral code. Nothing too unusual for the genre, and always superbly executed.
However, in 1950 readers must have received quite a shock when confronted with House of Flesh and (under Fischer’s pseudonym from the pulp era, Russell Gray) The Lustful Ape! Both were published as paperback originals from Gold Medal, but in tone, content, and style were a throwback to a genre that had vanished just over a decade previously, the weird-menace or “shudder pulp”. Readers with a long memory might well have remembered “Russell Gray” from the pages of Dime Mystery, Horror Stories, and Terror Tales; after all, once Fischer started having work appear under his real name, there was little effort made to conceal the fact that he had cut his teeth as “Russell Gray” and “Harrison Storm”. To say that these two novels were lurid is an understatement, however, while pretty brutal and over-the-top for Gold Medal, they would have been considered pretty low-key compared to the monthly mayhem that was served up under the Russell Gray byline from 1936-1941.
While the weird menace genre started in 1933, 1936 marked a sort of changing of the guard; several of the mainstays of the field began to curtail their output or walk away entirely as new endeavors beckoned. Authors who had appeared monthly in one of Popular Publications three titles devoted to the genre were now appearing only sporadically, and some, like Paul Ernst, moved on to other fields entirely. While an exodus of talent like this could have been disastrous, waiting in the wings were several authors who stepped up to the plate and produced excellent work from the very start. These authors included J.O. Quinliven, Mary Dale Buckner (Donald Dale), and of course, “Russell Gray”.
Fischer’s first story as “Russell Gray”, “The Cat Woman” caused little excitement; it was a competently written short story, but nothing exceptional. However, by the end of the next year with stories such as “Girls for the Pain Dance”, “Death Sends His Mannikins”, “Venus of Laughing Death”, and “Darlings of the Black Master” under his belt it was necessary to create another pseudonym, that of “Harrison Storm” in order to accommodate the volume of quality material that Fischer was churning out. In less than a year he’d gone from writing filler short stories to being one of the heavy hitters of the genre.
The period of 1936-1937 also saw a slight change of editorial direction on the part of Rogers Terrill. While the basic form of rationalized supernatural tales and lurid murders still held sway, there was an emphasis on ratcheting up the titillation and torture elements and downplaying the gothic atmosphere which had been prevalent in the first three years. The pace of the stories was picked up, the dialogue became crisper and more realistic and the heroine nearly always faced a “fate worse than death”. What’s more, with the violence cranked up to the end of the dial these changes in tone made for powerful fast-paced tales of mayhem, exactly the sort of thing that Bruno Fischer excelled at.
Of all the authors who contributed to the weird menace genre, Fischer stands alone as being without question the most brutal of them all. The previous collection featured “Fresh Fiancées for the Devil’s Daughter”, a tale which may well be the single most repellent piece of horror fiction published until the advent of Edward Lee’s “Stick Woman” or The Bighead . . . I would say that this piece displaces the previous title holder, Aleister Crowley’s “The Testament of Magdalen Blair”, written some twenty years earlier. Gray’s exercise in perverse revenge held the title with no contenders for over fifty years! Considering the wave of “splatterpunk” and the earlier work of Sir Charles Birkin, that this piece could maintain its place as the singularly most over-the-top piece of horror fiction for that length of time is truly remarkable.
While nothing quite equals that particular tale for sheer perversity, the only other author who came close to Fischer was Wayne Rogers, whose lurid visions not only enlivened the weird menace magazines, but also provided some of the most memorable moments in the long-running sagas of Operator #5 and The Spider. The stories in this volume range from several selections from 1937 (including two from the very same issue of Terror Tales!) to two late pieces from 1940, published in two of the lower-tier competing magazines, Sinister Stories and Real Mystery, to be precise. While neither of these magazines enjoyed the success or longevity of the three Popular Publications titles, they do demonstrate that Fischer was still at the top of his game even as the genre was dying out.
The weird menace genre was, by definition, too self-limiting to have survived a long time. Added to that the pressure from various self-appointed arbiters of the public good and the paper shortages caused by the looming war, the small timers like Real Mystery and Sinister Stories lasted only a few issues. Terror Tales and Horror Stories were both gone by the end of 1941 and the flagship, Dime Mystery Magazine changed its focus in 1939 to presenting detectives that were every bit as unusual as the crimes that they were confronted with. True to form, Bruno Fischer (still under the Gray by-line), created one of the most memorable of these “defective detectives”, Ben Bryn, three of whose adventures can be sampled in the collection More Tales of the Defective Detective in the Pulps (Popular Press 1985). While Bryn’s cases are certainly macabre, they are toned down considerably from his earlier material. However, we do have the evidence of those two Gold Medal thrillers from a decade later as proof positive that Bruno Fischer was still a master of the form.
Gallup, New Mexico
Winter Solstice — 2010