REH Splashes the “Spicys” — Part I

In the last year of his life, money was a big issue in Howard’s life – his mother’s health was declining rapidly and the medical bills were piling up. Also, Weird Tales owned him over $1,000 and Editor Farnsworth Wright was not giving in to Howard’s urgent pleas for at least some money to be sent to him. Considering the team of Howard and Conan were one of the biggest draws for the magazine, it is perplexing that Wright could not come up with the money that was owed to Howard. Consequently, he was exploring new markets, looking for ways to increase his income. He had already hired fellow pulp writer Otis Adelbert Kline as his literary agent and a suggestion from another pulp writer and friend put him on the trail of a new market.

In this letter to  H. P. Lovecraft, dated December 5, 1935, Howard boasts of cracking that new market and suggests HPL give the market a try as well:

In my efforts to make new markets I’ve been “splashing the field” as Price calls it. One market I tried was Spicy Adventures, a sex magazine to which Ed is the star contributor. I sold the first yarn I tried, but doubt if I could make that market regularly, as it requires a deft, jaunty style foreign to my natural style. However, I’ll probably try it again. Why don’t you give it a whirl? You can use a pen name if you like; I did, and I think most of its contributors do. The maximum length is about 5000 words. That sort of yarn is easy to write, if not to sell. If they reject it, you’ve only wasted a day or so. If they accept it, you’re fifty bucks to the good, and they pay promptly. They like good strong plots, but the sex element is a cinch; any man can write that part of it. Just write up one of your own sex adventures, altered to fit the plot. That’s the way I did with the yarn I sold them.

No one knows if Lovecraft fainted when he read Howard’s suggestion that he try his hand at writing a story for a “sex magazine,” but for certain the Gentleman from Providence, with his Victorian morals, was not too keen on the idea.

As Howard notes, E. Hoffmann Price was a star contributor to Spicy-Adventure Stories and unlike most contributors, Price was bold enough to use his own name rather than a pseudonym for his “spicy” work. Indeed the spicys were Price’s single largest pulp market; over 150 of his yarns were published in them throughout the years.

The first “spicy” pulp appeared on newsstands in April 1934 with the publication of the first issue of Spicy Detective Stories. The publisher that released this first “spicy” was Modern Publications, based in Delaware, possibly for tax and censorship purposes, with main offices in New York. Soon the company’s name was changed to the unlikely name of Culture Publications. Spicy-Adventure Stories appeared in November 1934, with Spicy Mystery Stories’ first issue premiering in mid-1935. December 1936 saw the publication of Spicy Western Stories, which rounded out the “spicy” line.

The publishing staff was a shady bunch, to say the least, starting with Frank Armer, an editor and a publisher who had previously self-published the Ramer Review and Zeppelin Stories. The Donefeld family, led by Harry Donenfeld, was the printer and primary financial backer for Culture Publications. Back during Prohibition, it was suspected that some pulp publishers were used to launder money for the bootleggers. The Donenfelds and their Donny Press seemed to be high on this list.

This same publishing family helped usher in the golden age of comics when they acquired National Allied Publications, a company that owned them a great deal of money. That company later became DC Comics and soon Superman and Batman comics were rolling off their presses.

It’s tough to nail-down the start of the Armer/Donenfeld publishing empire, but it may have begin in 1932 with the acquisition the defunct  publisher of Spicy Stories, Pep and La Paree, straight sex magazines along the lines of Paris NightsGay Life and Venus. Shortly before the first issue of Spicy Detective Stories appeared, another detective magazine, Super-Detective Stories, edited by Armer, appeared with the promise of additional Super magazines to come. However, this venture was soon abandoned in favor of the Spicy line of magazines. Super-Detective Stories was discontinued after 15 issues, but resumed publication in 1940.

Due to censorship concerns and obscenity issues with the U.S. Post Office, Harry Donenfeld’s publishing empire used several names at during its history. In addition to Culture Publications, other names used included D. M. Publishing, Trojan Publishing and Arrow Publications. The location of business offices changed just as frequently. Indeed, the red hot spicys had as many detractors as they did fans. But, bottom-line, they were popular and flying off the newsstand racks. 

The recipe for the “spicy” pulps was to take fairly tried and true genre stories and mix in the ingredient of sex. This gave the spicy line a whole new slant on the pulps — spicys were racy and titillating, pushing the envelope of decency and providing the reader with a new experience by blending the spicy element with the standard pulp fare of adventures in faraway lands, hardboiled detectives, sinister and menacing manifestations and cowboy shoot-em’ ups.

A strict set of guidelines for writers was drawn up by editor Frank Armer. These included women could not be fully nude (unless they were a corpse!) and had to retain at least some article of clothing, even if it was some small piece of tattered lingerie. Descriptions of women’s nipples and areola were strictly forbidden – the same rule applied to the pubic area. The man had to remain fully clothed and no sexual descriptions were allowed of men’s bodies. Action in the sex scene between the man and woman had end at the point of consummation. Long-term relationships between the male and female characters were forbidden — these were strictly one-night stands, leaving the hero free to bed other women in subsequent adventures.

Overwhelmingly, the sex in the spicy magazines was very tame by today’s standards. The “spicy” element in the stories came from several sources: the heroines scanty undergarments, her willingness or unwillingness to give herself to the hero, her enticing bedchamber and her luscious “charms.” After a bit of foreplay and kissing, sexual contact was indicated by a sentence trailing off in ellipses (…). This was followed by a prudent line drop before the yarn resumed in the ensuing paragraph. This left any actual sexual activity the reader’s imagination.

In reality, the spicy pulps were selling the sizzle with no steak to back it up. While the bright color cover paintings and the interior illustrations suggested that the magazine’s contents were filled with steamy sex, in reality the actual stories came up short in fulfilling that promise. Despite the tameness of the sexual element, they were widely condemned by straight-laced critics as an insult to decency and frequently sold from under newsstand counters.

The spicy pulps were just what the doctor ordered for Howard, providing him with a dependable stream of revenue that he urgently needed. Spicys were considerably more expensive than their non-spicy counterparts with, a cover price of 25 cents versus 10 cents for most of the regular pulps. No doubt this higher cover price pumped in a lot of cash and allowed the publisher to pay a good wage and pay it promptly. Plus, the spicy authors were paid upon editorial acceptance of their stories, rather than on publication as was the case with Weird Tales and many other pulps. The stories could be no longer than 5500 words, not leaving much room for character development, but that was not the spicys’ aim. After getting the hang of the formula and story length, Howard seemed comfortable writing spicy yarns – no doubt he planned to splash further into the market by branching out to Spicy Mystery and Spicy Detective.

To protect their names in other markets, many spicy authors used pen names for their walk on the wild side. E. Hoffmann Price usually used his own name, but also used “Hamlin Daly” in instances where he wanted to place two stories in the same issue. Ditto for Henry Kuttner, though I don’t what pseudonyms he used when he had two yarns in the same issue. Hugh B. Cave wrote as “Justin Case,” Victor Rousseau Emmanuel wrote as “Lew Merrill” and “Clive Trent,” while Howard Wandrei (the brother of Donald Wandrei, who co-founded the publishing company Arkham House with August Derleth) wrote as “W.R. Rainey.” The most prolific of the spicy authors was Robert Leslie Bellum, who wrote under his own name and at least six pseudonyms. So Howard picked the name “Sam Walser” – the name of someone he erroneously thought was his ancestor – for his spicy writing alter-ego. Howard now needed a hero for his spicy yarns.

Even though he did not realize it at the time, Wild Bill Clanton would be the last series character he would create. Clanton was certainly a different kind of cat for Howard. The reckless adventuer was not exactly the type of guy a girl would bring home to meet her parents. He was a pirate, gunrunner, pearl-poacher, blackbirder (aka slaver), brawler extraordinaire and general all around scoundrel, having a penchant for mistreating women.

This is how pulp expert Morgan Holmes describes Clanton in his article “The Saga of Wild Bill Clanton and Two-Gun Bob: The Spicy Robert E. Howard” (Windy City Pulp Stories #9, 2009):

Clanton is a cross between Howard’s earlier character Sailor Steve Costigan, who had appeared in Fiction House’s Fight Stories, and Conan of Cimmeria. Known for everything from pearl diving to piracy, Clanton is good with his fists like Costigan, but also crafty, much in the same way Conan would insert himself into a situation and manipulate events to his own benefit.

The first Wild Bill Clanton yarn was written in September 1935 and published as “She Devil,” the cover story for the April 1936 issue of Spicy-Adventure Stories. Originally titled “The Girl on the Hell-Ship,” the editor re-titled the yarn to match a stock cover painting he wanted to use. Rather than depicting a girl on a ship in the South Pacific, the cover shows a bar in Alaska or some other cold environ, with rough looking male customers wearing furs and other heavy clothing. A scantily clad, young brunette girl dances in their midst, coyly raising a shot glass.

The plot of “She Devil” is one that Howard had used previously in the Conan story, “The Pool of the Black One” (Weird Tales, October 1933). Here is a summary of the plot from Charles Hoffman’s “Blood Lust: Robert E. Howard’s Spicy Adventures” (The Cimmerian, V2N5):

Like Clanton, Conan appears after swimming to a ship, having abandoned a leaky boat. Both protagonists were in that situation as the result of earlier predicaments. Aboard ship, Conan meets the pirate captain, Zaporavo, who has abandoned his usual trade to sail into unknown waters. Zaporavo, like the tyrannical Bully Harrigan encountered by Clanton, broods over maps and charts as he searches for some mysterious treasure kept secret from the crew. In both stories, the captain meets his fate after landfall on an island. Conan and Clanton assume command of their respective ships, which must take flight from the island’s dangers. Conan also appropriates Zaporavo’s sultry mistress, Sancha. Sancha is from Zingara, Howard’s Hyborian Age counterpart of seventeenth-century Spain. Like Raquel O’Shane, she is possessed of fiery Latin blood.

In the above excerpt from the HPL letter, Howard groused that writing for the spicys “requires a deft, jaunty style foreign to my natural style.” Despite his misgivings, Howard was able to capture that jaunty style for his first effort. However, he stumbled somewhat with his follow-up story, “Ship in Mutiny,” a sequel to “The Girl on the Hell Ship.”

To be continued…

A Shameless Spicy Plug

Coming late next month from the REH Foundation Press is Spicy Adventures. This 211 page volume collects all of Howard’s “spicys” and is the first time many of these stories have appeared in hardback. In addition to all of the complete tales, this volume contains a large miscellanea section with drafts and synopsizes that allow readers to glimpse Howard’s creative process. A standout cover by Jim and Ruth Keegan completes the package. Pre-orders are now being accepted at the Foundation’s website.

Read: Part II / Part III / Part IV / Part V