By Steven Paulsen
As appeared in Bloodsongs #4, 1995
Who remembers the horror classics from the Australian pulp fiction era? Can’t recall one? You’re not alone. In fact the majority of today’s readers can’t even recall the Australian pulp fiction era!
The American pulp fiction era, of course, is now regarded by many horror fiction fans with nostalgia. Some of its works are now “classics” and several of its writers household names. Magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown plus writers such as Bloch and Lovecraft spring to mind.
Here in Australia, however, there was no equivalent era — or so we are told. Indeed, most articles about Australian horror fiction (including my own) have denied the existence of such a time. But we were wrong.
Australian import licence restrictions applied in 1939, effectively banned US publications from our shores. The net result was a flourishing local “paperback” industry in Australia during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Belated, perhaps, but the closest Australia ever came to producing pulps.
Strictly speaking these paperbacks were not “pulps” in the classic sense. The original US pulps were digest sized magazines so named because of the cheap chemically treated wood-pulp paper on which they were printed (a process which gave them a distinctive sharp smell). The term “pulp fiction” however has today come to refer to the generic type of fiction exemplified by the magazines of that era. Crime, Sci-Fi, whatever, the stories were often trite or sensational, and frequently of little literary value.
In many ways these Australian paperbacks are the local equivalents of the US pulps. They too were cheap productions which published fiction of dubious literary quality, were sold at news-stands, were often digest sized and were meant to be read and discarded. And because they were never considered to be of lasting value very few seem to have survived.
So what does all this mean to the horror genre? For the most part these books were mystery, western, crime, detective or war fiction. They were published in huge numbers. At one time Horwitz for example published 24 paperbacks per month while Cleveland published 18 paperbacks per month. Not bad for Australian publishers. The good news is that hidden among this deluge of Australian “pulp” fiction were quite a few horror and horror related titles.
The hunt, however, is a difficult one. Because many of these books are now extremely rare, and some seem not to have survived at all, one has to rely on knowing which authors wrote horror related work or try to depend on titles and descriptions to determine which books belong to the horror genre.
It is probably true to say that there are many other works of horror still unidentified from this period as the names of authors and titles alone are often insufficient to categorise a work. Indeed, many of the crime and mystery publications sport titles garish and gruesome enough for any horror book.
In addition, local publishers sometimes reprinted books by American writers, including people such as Bloch and Matheson. So one has to sift carefully to find Australian work.
Even so there are still more traps. My initial investigations, for example, led me to believe that Charles Higham was an Australian writer of horror/weird fiction. Indeed, most bibliographic sources list him as such. It was not until I actually managed to track down copies of his books, however, that it became clear Higham was merely a compiler of such stories by overseas writers. Work by people such as Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, E. Nesbit and Ambrose Bierce to name but a few. Still worthy of attention, but not work by Australians.
Higham’s anthologies (all published by Horwitz under their Pocket Books imprint – first series 1959-1974) are as follows: Weird Stories (PB82, 1961), Tales Of Terror (PB93, 1961), Spine Tingling Tales (PB98, 1962), Tales of Horror (PB104, 1962), The Curse of Dracula and Other Stories (PB111, 1962) and Nightmare Stories (PB117, 1962). What is interesting to note is that all these books were published in Australia with covers by local artist Frank Benier. Indeed, Benier’s work appears on the covers of almost all of Horwitz’s horror publications.
Others, however, such as the James Dark series published by Horwitz between 1962 and 1966 are clearly horror work by Australian writers. All the “Dark” titles, except for the last, were written by James Workman. The sixth and final volume is by the prolific Richard Wilkes-Hunter.
The “James Dark” books were published as follows: 1. Impact (PB116, 1962), 2. Havoc (PB124, 1962), 3. Terrifying Stories (PB129, 1963), 4. Horror Tales (PB138, 1963), 5. Sweet Taste Of Venom (PB141, 1963), 6. Spy From The Grave (1964).
Again, at least two of the James Dark covers were by local artist, Frank Benier.
The front cover of original edition of Horror Tales carries the blurb: “Frightening stories of the weird, supernatural and the unknown” while the back cover carries the legend “not for the nervous!”. This seems, however, somewhat of an exaggeration. To my mind the six stories in this book are more psychological horror or simply unusual tales, some even with a touch of humour.
The first story, “The Creep” is the only real supernatural story in the collection. It begins when a horror writer starts getting telephone calls on a disconnected telephone and ends up as a science fictional horror tale. “The Flare” is a story of war time intrigue concerning spies and an unlikely set of heroes, an elderly couple who sacrifice themselves to save their country. Bizarre but not horror. “Perkins And The Pilot” is a strange little tale of a man in an aeroplane who can see the wing of the plane wobbling. Again, not so much horror as bizarre. “The Flashing Scar” is a psychological horror tale concerning a woman who is on her way home to England after an operation abroad who finds herself being stalked. It is a story with a number of twists. “Man On The Run” is another psychological horror tale of a little girl gone missing and a child killer/molester on the loose with a quirky twist. “Fattened Calf” is a story of native cannibals operating as vacuum cleaner salesmen and glue manufacturers who prey on unsuspecting and unlikeable young men. The horror here is more humorous than grotesque.
James Workman also wrote some horror related work under his own name around this time. Books such as Shock Stories (PB119, 1962) with Frank Benier as the cover artist again, and The Witch Hunters (PB149, 1963).
Other writers from the Horwitz stable who produced work possibly horror/weird related are The Monster of Rillington Place (PB145, 1963) by Bill Niland and Curse of the Nekhen (PB274, 1965) by Carl Ruhen. Although, once again, I am relying on titles here and might be wrong. Similarly, I have no doubt missed books which are horror related. The Horwitz list is significant and many of the titles suggestive of the supernatural.
Not to be outdone by Horwitz, Cleveland Publishing Company also had a house horror writer. Indeed, it would appear Cleveland were there first. The writer is Michael Waugh and his books are: The Mystery Of The Abominable Snowman (1954), Back From The Dead (1955) and The Living Dead (1955). Unfortunately I have not as yet been able to locate copies of any of Waugh’s books so I am unable to comment on his work.
Aside from straight horror titles there are numerous books which overlap the horror genre. The “scientific thriller” series published by Horwitz between 1948 and 1952 is an obvious example. These were digest sized publications of 32-50 pages which contained stories that mixed mystery and science fiction. As was common, they were all published under pseudonyms (at least one of the writers behind the pen names was Alan Yates, the famous Australian crime writer better known as Carter Brown). Many of the titles freely crossed into the horror genre, particularly the books by “Belli Luigi”. The “Luigi” books include titles such as: The Mummy Walks (1950), Toppling Terror (1950), The Glowing Globe (1950), Curse Of The Mummy (1950) and The Freezing Peril Strikes (1951) just to name a few.
Science Fiction writer Voltaire (Vol) Molesworth (1924 – 1964) also falls into this category. Some of Molesworth’s work was clearly influenced by Lovecraft and as such is horror related. Indeed, a couple of works such as Blinded They Fly (Futurian Press, 1951) and Let There be Monsters (Futurian Press, 1952) are decidedly Lovecraftian.
Molesworth was a journalist (like his father who was also a NSW State politician) and was active in science fiction fandom during WWII. He is best known for the short novels which he wrote prior to 1945, most of which he wrote while still in his teens. Three are straight science fiction, Spaceward Ho! (Transport, 1943), The Stratosphere Patrol (Transport, 1943), and The Three Rocketeers (Transport, 1943), while others from Currawong are SF-related mystery.
Ape of God (Currawong, 1943) and its sequel Monster at Large (Currawong, 1943) are probably of greatest interest to the horror/weird reader. “Ape” is a contemporary Australian retelling of Frankenstein. Indeed, the “doctor” of this tale lives in the Sydney suburb of Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s middle name) and the “monster” of this tale is given a copy of Shelley’s book to read. He also reads Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator” which disturbs him!
Molesworth wrote five of these books for Currawong, a popular publisher of the day, based around his character “The Wizard”, a kind of private detective. They were short books of 48 – 80 pages designed to provide a good cheap read. At least a few other books published by Currawong may be horror related. These are: Horror House (1942, 1943?)by Lee Marney and The Living Dead (1942) and The Weird House (1946) by J.W. Heming, but again, with only the titles to go by one cannot be certain.
After his Currawong work Molesworth’s interest in writing turned to the literary novel and he wrote two unpublished novels. But it was also during this time that two short chapbooks were published by Futurian Press in Sydney. These were his most overt horror work.
Blinded They Fly is obviously a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos even though it is not identified as such. It is also based in part on the work of Charles Fort, being the story of Mundorf (an antiquarian, lover of old books, a collector of relics from ancient civilisations, and a student of the esoteric) who first finds mysterious cave paintings in the Mojave Desert which depict (among other things) “an imaginary bird-animal, equipped with wings, claws and octopoid tentacles, sucking the body of a child while in the background adult human figures looked on”. Deep down in these caves Mundorf hears “a peculiar slithering and gulping noise” which is accompanied by an overpowering stench and finally stumbles across the very creature from the rock painting. How Cthulhu is that? Ultimately Mundorf is led to Australia in his quest to rediscover this peculiar occurrence and explain the strange happenings. It could almost have been written by Lovecraft — indeed, the booklet is dedicated to the memory of H.P. Lovecraft and he is quoted at the beginning of the second chapter.
The second booklet, Let There be Monsters, is less of a Cthulhu tale though still decidedly Lovecraftian in flavour. It is suggestive of the vampire but offers more the feel of ancient bloodlines and mutation than fangs and black capes.
Gothic is another overlap genre with horror. Horwitz in particular published large numbers of these books. They are probably best described as “romantic menace and suspense”. Typically the titles and cover blurbs include words like “sinister, horror, evil, terror, dark, nightmare” which are strongly suggestive of horror. Their actual horror content however is minimal.
The Gothic novel often uses the trappings of horror tales such as remote, haunted houses and sinister characters. The protagonist is usually a young single female (typically American or English) from an ordinary walk of life who suddenly finds herself under threat in some foreign or remote location. Rarely are there any supernatural elements involved.
The most popular of the Horwitz Gothic authors was Caroline Farr. Farr was a pseudonym. The first Farr novel (The Intruder, 1962) was written by Lee Pattinson but all the subsequent Farr books up to 1977 were written by Richard Wilkes-Hunter. Books such as: Web of Horror (GM5, 1966), Mansion of Evil (GM7, 1966), The House of Tombs (GM8, 1966), Witch’s Hammer (GM11, 1967), The Possessed (GM12, 1973) and Castle of Terror (GM13, 1975) to name but a few.
Unfortunately the lifting of import bans in the late ‘50s contributed to the demise of locally published paperbacks. As will have already been noted some of these Australian publishers continued into the 1960s, but for the most part they have all disappeared.
Horror was never a boom genre for these publishers, but neither was the related genre of science fiction. Although a few of Australia’s big names in this field did see early work published before the “pulp” boom collapsed. Books such as A Man Returned (PB216, 1965) by Damien Broderick, The God Killers (PB345, 1967) by John Baxter and False Fatherland (PB374, 1968) by A Bertram Chandler.
The person responsible for bringing much of the information presented in this article to public attention is Graeme Flanagan, a Canberra book collector and bibliographer. Graeme recently compiled the Australian Vintage Paperback Guide (1994, Gryphon Books, New York), the only work of its kind about this era of Australian publishing and an invaluable source book.
Prior to Flanagan’s work much of this sort of bibliographic information was held by private collectors or in privately published works such as Modern Australian Fiction – A Bibliography, 1940-1965 compiled by G.V. Hubble in Perth in 1969. Still a valuable source book, by the way.
Two of the main publishers of the day Horwitz Books and Cleveland Publishing Company still operate today (albeit in a different form) and both these firms cooperated with Flanagan, making their archives available to him. This provided Flanagan with cover art and lists of authors and titles.
Any reader interested in tracking down books by Australian writers from 1930s to 1960s should seek out Flanagan’s book. Believe me, I have probably just scratched the surface here, there is still much serious work to be done.
Flanagan would be pleased to hear from anyone who has further information or corrections for inclusion in the next edition of his book. You can write to him at: GPO Box 2424, Canberra, ACT 2601.
I have found the best places to locate books from this Australian “pulp” era are opportunity and charity style shops as most booksellers tend to discard these old books as worthless. Some specialist booksellers might be able to help and one I would recommend is Graham Stone who is also a bibliographer and collector himself. Stone can be contacted by writing to: PO Box 4440, Sydney, NSW 2001.
Finally I wish to thank science fiction writer Sean McMullen for assistance in researching this article. McMullen himself is a closet collector and bibliographer and assisted by providing material from his private collection.
Australian pulp fiction? It’s out there. All you have to do is find it.