Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Ace Mystery, May 1936

I have a facsimile reprint of the first issue of ACE MYSTERY MAGAZINE from May 1936 and read it recently. (I don't own the original magazine.) It’s primarily a Weird Menace pulp but it has strong overtones of the mystery and detective pulps as well, and even some supernatural yarns.

It gets off to a strong start with the novella "The Singing Scourge" by Frederick C. Davis. This one involves a beautiful young heiress (is there any other kind?) who’s driven into a killing frenzy by a strange, high-pitched song that comes out of nowhere and that only she can hear. Her fiancĂ© takes on the role of two-fisted detective to find out what’s going on. Most of the action takes place in an isolated mansion and there are a number of sinister characters lurking around, so you’d expect the goings-on to be suitably creepy, and they are. Davis was an excellent writer no matter what the genre. He tells a pretty standard story here but does it very well.

Laurence Hammond’s story concerns an heiress as well. "Death's Heiress", in fact, as the title tells us. She’s a beautiful redhead from Boston who inherits a fortune from her crazy old uncle in New Orleans. But when she arrives she winds up being trapped in an old plantation house with her uncle’s lawyer, Edmond LaRue. (And if you think a lawyer named Edmond LaRue is going to turn out to be bad news...well, you’ve read a pulp story or two in your time, haven’t you?) Despite having a pretty good idea what’s going to happen, Hammond’s writing is atmospheric enough that I enjoyed this story. I haven’t encountered Hammond’s work before, but I’d read more by him.

I don't know anything about Ben George, either, but his story "Cat-Man" is more like something you'd find in WEIRD TALES, rather than a Weird Menace pulp. It's about an artist who has become rich and famous by painting portraits of cats that belong to wealthy members of high society. But when he crosses a Crazy Old Cat Lady (to borrow a term from THE SIMPSONS), he finds himself cursed and believes he's turning into a cat. This is an okay story for the most part, but it's cursed, too—with a really lame ending.

Maitland Scott is better remembered as R.T.M. Scott, the author of the first two novels about The Spider, which were packaged together and reprinted by Berkley Books in the Sixties. I remember buying those and reading them nearly fifty years ago. I recall that I liked them, but that’s about it. Unfortunately, Scott’s novelette in this issue, “Priestess of Pain”, isn’t very good. The protagonist is a would-be writer whose childhood sweetheart marries a friend of his, then apparently dies in a car wreck, then comes back to life as one of the minions of an evil occultist who practically twirls his mustache. The writing is too florid even for a Weird Menace pulp (and that’s saying a lot), and there are some continuity glitches that make me think this might have been rewritten from an earlier, unsold manuscript.

Steve Fisher is the author of some well-regarded hardboiled crime novels, one of which, NO HOUSE LIMIT, was reprinted by Hard Case Crime. His story "Satan's Faceless Henchmen" in this issue is also a crime yarn, although a much more lurid one. It's the tale of a resurrection racket in which a gang of evil monks steals freshly dead corpses and brings them back to life in return for a payment of a quarter of a million dollars. The explanation behind all this is less than convincing, but the pace is fast and the action scenes are good.

"Wolf Vengeance" by Rex Grahame is a backwoods tale about the rivalry between two half-brothers over the beautiful girl they both love. One of the brothers was practically raised by wolves and has a strange affinity with them, and when he disappears it sets a chain of violent events in motion. The twists in this yarn are pretty obvious, but it's well-written, with a nice sense of its swampy locale.

John H. Knox was one of the leading authors of Weird Menace stories, but his contribution to this issue, "The Corpse Queen's Lovers", is a supernatural yarn more like what you'd find in WEIRD TALES. It concerns an archeological expedition in search of artifacts from an ancient religion in the New Mexico hills, and that Southwestern setting gives this story a nice distinction. Naturally enough, what the expedition finds is dangerously evil, and Knox tells the story in smooth, well-written prose.

Paul Ernst is best remembered as the author of the pulp novels featuring The Avenger, but he also wrote a lot of weird fiction and straight mystery tales. "Nightmare House" mixes the two genres effectively. It has some Weird Menace trappings—an eccentric scientist and a gorilla—but it's basically a detective yarn with a beat cop (who would have been played by Ward Bond if this had ever been filmed) serving as the protagonist. A minor but entertaining story.

Hugh B. Cave was one of the pulps' best and most prolific writers, turning out top-notch work in numerous genres for many different magazines. His novelette in this issue, "The Horde of Silent Men", concerns a group of businessmen who are meeting mysterious deaths one by one, until only the son and daughter of two of the men (who had died earlier of natural causes) are left and are threatened by the same doom that claimed the others. Though it's plenty creepy in places, this is really more of a mystery yarn, and the solution is fairly interesting. It's not in the top rank of Cave's work, but it's certainly enjoyable.

As is this entire issue. There are a couple of weak stories, but the ones by Davis and Knox are excellent and the others are well-written. Plus it has a good cover by Howard Sherman. For a hybrid of Weird Menace and mystery pulp, ACE MYSTERY is pretty darned good, based on this issue, and I wouldn't hesitate to read another.


Walker Martin said...

ACE MYSTERY only lasted 3 issues so it failed to catch on with readers. I see The Fictionmags Index shows a title change for the 4th and 5th issues to DETECTIVE ROMANCES. Quite a change!

S. Craig Zahler said...

Thanks for posting. I wasn't even aware of this pulp, but I've read a lot of Hugh B Cave, Frederick Davis, and Paul Ernst and find them to be amongst the most consistent pulp writers who endeavored loads of different genres, especially Cave, who is batting 1000 for me. I also like a mix of supernatural with weird menace rather than all one type or the other, which it sounds like this pulp has.
Is the overall feeling/atmosphere of this magazine as dark as that of Weird Tales and Horror Stories/Terror Tales?

James Reasoner said...

I think the tone is very comparable to WEIRD TALES and HORROR STORIES/TERROR TALES. Some stories more than others, but overall yes. Have you read Milt Thomas's biography of Hugh B. Cave, CAVE OF A THOUSAND TALES? If not, I highly recommend it.

Walker pointed out that there are only two more issues of ACE MYSTERY. Frederick C. Davis and Maitland Scott have stories in all three. Charles Marquis Warren (creator of GUNSMOKE) has a story in each of the other two issues. I think they'd be worth looking for, even though I didn't care much for the Maitland Scott story in this issue.