Always in the Spotlight:
The Weird Menace Yarns of
Frederick C. Davis
If you’re going to grind out stories for a low-paying market, it makes sense to shoot for the cover feature and whatever bonus payment may be attached. In the prime years of the weird menace pulps, no one did this with a more single-minded sense of purpose than did Frederick C. Davis. Born in 1902, Davis cut his teeth on the general fiction pulps in the early twenties like Top-Notch, Action Stories, Brief Stories, Short Stories and the like. Possessing a flair for excitement, by the end of the decade he was regularly churning out detective stories, war stories, sports stories and westerns for a variety of publications.
By the time the 1930s rolled around, Davis had established himself as a wordsmith capable of turning out any kind of story at any length on demand. With a reputation like that it’s no surprise that Davis was tapped to script the adventures of Jimmy Christopher, better known as Secret Service Operator #5. The scope of the Operator 5 stories started relatively prosaically before morphing into the apocalyptic chaos of “The Purple Invasion”. Davis found the constraints of a formulaic monthly novel to be too much of strain and bowed out after twenty issues. After all he had other irons in the fire, including chronicling the adventures of the most peculiar of all the pulp super-detectives. In the pages of Ten Detective Aces each issue would feature a new adventure of The Moon Man! The Moon Man sported the odd costume of a robe and a globe of argus glass over his head. While this get-up in the daylight might inspire more guffaws than cries of terror, by night he was no doubt an eerie figure.
Davis stayed with the Moon Man for the duration of the series, a four-year run of generally excellent novelettes. Almost simultaneously he started doing the work that concerns us here . . . Once Dime Mystery Magazine made the switch from dusty reprints to new stories in the genre that has come to be called “weird menace”, writers realized that here was a great new source of revenue! Davis was on board in January of 1934 with “The Vat of Doom”, a novelette that garnered plenty of positive notice. He followed this up with another novelette in the March issue and from that point on never wrote anything for the weird menace pulps under 9,000 words.
Frederick Davis stands alone among the stable of regular contributors as completely eschewing the short story. Even Norvell Page and Ralston Shields (both well-known for their long fiction) wrote a short story or two; not so Frederick Davis . . . His plots needed room to grow and breathe as he piled horror upon horror and nothing less than 10,000 or more often 15,000 words would suffice. While all of the weird menace genre followed a formula, that of the rationalized supernatural tale, Davis added his own twist to the form. The typical Davis story begins with a horrible murder and the implication that the hero or his lady friend is next. Then things get worse, much worse . . . Davis seemed to subscribe to the idea that to have sufficient tension in a story not only must the hero be at a general disadvantage (such as having no idea who or what is really behind the mayhem), no, that’s not enough at all. To really instil a sense of tension and growing dread, he might as well have him struck blind and set on fire . . . Well, that’s an exaggeration, but Davis’ protagonists generally have a pretty miserable time of it before finally solving the mystery and restoring order in the last two or three pages. What’s interesting is how successful Davis was at this length when most of his contemporaries were quite unable to maintain any degree of consistency at it.
As you’ll see in this volume, (and if you opt to pick it up, the fourth volume of Terror Trios from Altus Press), Davis maintained a consistently high quality from the very beginning and survived the passing of the weird menace genre to remain a sought-after mystery scribe for many years after Dime Mystery and its fellows were just a memory.
Sadly, the total of Davis’s weird menace output is less than two dozen pieces. Most are reprinted here and three outstanding novellas are collected in The Mole-men Want Your Eyes, volume #4 in the Terror Trios series from Altus Press. Sadly I wasn’t able to reprint everything in these two volumes, but from the looks of things, one more collection will provide the opportunity to reprint all of his weird menace fiction, making Frederick C. Davis the first author that I’ll be able to make that claim for. We certainly intend to be complete on a couple of others, such as John H. Knox and Wyatt Blassingame, but Davis is the first one that I can look at and say, “yes, the end is in sight.” Perhaps it’s just as well that Davis didn’t write more in the genre . . . His last story of this type, “Nameless Brides for the Forbidden City”, published in Uncanny Tales in 1939 is as fresh and compelling as was his work in 1935. So where some of his contemporaries like Arthur Burks or Hugh B. Cave burned themselves out on the genre, by restraining his output, Davis remained quite capable of turning out top-notch fiction in the genre long after many of his colleagues had moved on to other things.
The next decade saw Davis continue as a prolific pulpster, with numerous stories in Dime Mystery and Dime Detective. While smart money would have bet on the Moon Man to fade away after three or four appearances as just too bizarre to sustain a fanbase, the fact of the matter was that the Argus-headed avenger had a good run in Ten Detective Aces, lasting almost as long as the weird menace genre. There are numerous reasons for the genre failing, not the least of which was the rigid formula that insisted on rational explanations for the seemingly supernatural goings-on, which stifled the creativity of any number of writers and caused several to just walk away from the field. There was also the US entry into the war and resulting paper shortages that led accountants to ruthlessly cut titles that were not top earners. Then, too, was the threat of the magazines being pulled off the newsstands in New York City due to the lurid content. Today, the idea of a magazine being fatally impacted by being blacklisted in one city seems laughable, but the reality of the time was that these sales likely matched the combined sales of the rest of the country (perhaps exempting Chicago).
Some top-notch talent (like Paul Ernst) had walked away when asked to lay on the sadism and titillation with a heavy hand. Others, like Donald Dale had achieved their short-term goals of earnings and retreated to their “real” job. Some like Arthur J. Burks had burned themselves out on the genre—there are some great Burks tales after 1937, but one has to really look for them—others like Cave, Knox and Blassingame were exploring other venues and meeting with success. In short, many of the first two waves of authors that created and sustained the genre had drifted away and while there were new talents such as Donald Graham, Dane Gregory and Wayne Robbins simply were not prolific enough to fill the void. Dime Mystery survived by changing its focus, first to bizarre detectives combating impossible crimes and then to more routine hard-boiled mysteries. Davis, Blassingame, and Bruno Fischer (along with his aliases of Russell Gray and Harrison Storm) were instrumental in maintaining the quality of the magazine. Sadly, nothing could save Horror Stories, Terror Tales or their competitors from Red Circle. By 1942 they were all gone . . .
Frederick C. Davis had already laid the groundwork for a career after the pulps with sales to Doubleday’s Crime Club. The 1940s and 1950s saw him enjoy a very successful career, under both his own name and the pen-name of Stephen Ransome. As may be expected, the mystery novels of Frederick C. Davis are eminently readable, and solid examples of the genre, but to those of us that thrilled to his earlier works and shuddered at the fiendish doings of the Mole-men, the Smiling Killer, and the other imaginative menaces that stalked through the pages of the weird menace magazines his later work may seem just a bit tame . . .
Somewhere Near Area 51
St. Valentine’s Day 2013