A Peep at the Spicy Pulps

Saturday , 1, December 2018 1 Comment

Last week, we examined how Martin Goodman, future publisher of Marvel Comics, combined science fiction with the popular “Spicy” genre to bring renewed interest to science fiction, fueling the first science fiction boom in the late 1930s. This would not be the only time the Spicies would shape the future of the pulp market. What once were stories intended to feature sexual content without obscenity soon turned into the salacious tales of sin and sadism of weird menace, the loss of the children’s market to comics, and government censorship of the pulps.

Between 1929 and 1934, many publishers, from the pornographic to the mainstream, were experimenting with ways to bring the spice of sex to popular fiction. Everything from toned-down porn to bad girl romances was tried, with the actual act disappearing behind the editor’s ellipse, leaving details to the imagination. But none lasted for more than a handful of issues until 1934’s Spicy Detective Stories sold out. Soon, a number of copycats followed suit, including Spicy Adventure, Saucy, and Spicy Mystery Stories, the last of which birthed weird menace.

The Spicy tale charted a perilous course between mainstream respectability and the thrill of sex. Anatomical descriptions were out, as was complete nudity and any details of the act the heroine submitted to. The women could disrobe voluntarily or have their clothes torn from them, but some scrap of cloth had to remain. The idea was to have a strong sexual element without being obscene or vulgar. After all, government investigation would reveal just who bankrolled these magazines, and the Mob did not want the attention.

That said, many of today’s YA stories, light novels, and romance novels would be too explicit for the Spicies.

But with (the barest hint of) sex selling, the rest of the story not surprisingly fell by the wayside. Many of the spicies chose exotic settings as to offer more convincing opportunities for the ladies to be in undress. Unfortunately, the exotic settings and plots don’t compare to the descriptions found in the hero pulps and Weird Tales. Everything was a thin excuse to get to the ellipses, where the real action occurred in the readers’ minds.  As a result, the combination of thin story and muted thrills led The Blood ‘N’ Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction to declare of the Spicies, “Read one, you’ve read them all.” However, it took about five years for pulp fiction readers to agree.

The Spicies remained popular with authors is because they PAID. Not just on time, which was a novelty for many pulp magazines, but well–as in 5 cents a word at a time where 1 cent a word was professional rate. Many respectable pulpsters could not resist this lucrative market, including Norvell Page. Guess how many of those were Weird Tales authors. At least the Spicies paid, which wasn’t always the case with Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright. R.E. Howard appeared under the pseudonym Sam Walser, Jack Williamson, as Nils O. Sonderlund, and E. Hoffman Price and Henry Kuttner used their own names.

That said, the rest of the field wasn’t quite up to the Weird Tales quality. In a genre limited to innuendo and indirect description of undress, only a score of authors could write within the rules. The catch was being able to write suggestively without resorting to tab A into slot B depictions of the act, and few could deliver.

To no surprise, with the restrictions of the Spicies compare to outright girlie or “smoosh” magazines such as Stage and Screen Stories and Tattle Tales, which both featured far more revealing covers, writers made up for lack of titillation with a penchant for peril, which became impending torture, which became weird menace. Afterwards, the Spicies burned out as stronger thrills and more explicit images became easier to acquire. But for five years, the Spicy was queen.

Now, to tie this back into science fiction, and the main concern of the Castalia House blog, the Spicy tale did leave an imprint on the development of the genre. Even as early as the 1930s, science fiction strove for respectability. During the Campbelline Revolution, Jack Williamson recounts that”science fiction had to be pure as snow”. Isaac Asimov was scathing of Marvel Science Stories:

“For some half a dozen issues or so, a magazine I won’t name” published “spicy” stories about “the hot passion of alien monsters for Earthwomen. Clothes were always getting ripped off and breasts were described in a variety of elliptical phrases” for its “few readers” before “the magazine died a deserved death.”

And the censors in place after weird menace’s fall kept sexual content out of Amazing, Astounding, and their competitors. Or as much as possible, for:

It became a grim or frivolous game for some of the writers who were, of course, not fools, to see what they could slip by without editorial knowledge or consent. One famously was able to get through J. W. Campbell and Kay Tarrant a description of a tomcat as a “ball-bearing mousetrap” and Asimov’s 1951 “Hostess” in Galaxy reeked of the perversity of sexual attraction between an alien diplomat and a repressed academic’s wife but these triumphs were few and, more to the point, unnoticed. If they had attracted wide attention, the writers would have paid the price. (Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 523-528). Baen Books.)

Barry Malzberg further explains in Breakfast in the Ruins that “as late as 1965, science fiction was still a genre which in the main denied the existence, let alone the extent, of human sexuality” and that it wasn’t until “the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, [that] novels of great or relative explicitness (Silverberg’s Dying Inside, The Second Trip, and The World Inside, my own Beyond Apollo) bore the label of category science fiction.”

In short, fan backlash against the Spicies and government backlash against the daughter of the Spicies known as weird menace removed sex as a topic of science fiction for over thirty years, until the rise of the New Wave.

One Comment
  • Carrington Dixon says:

    Not until the 1970s? Philip Jose Farmer was putting sex in his science fiction for the very first — in the mid 1950s.

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