A compendium of 10 pulp tales culled from the 1930s, Spicy Mystery Stories is replete with sex and violence, which really have never gone out of style. Even during the repressive Victorian era, Man’s baser instincts were seething just below civilization’s thin veneer. But this paperback portfolio of sin and scandal -published in 1990 by Malibu Graphics, Inc.- would enjoy little popularity today, for two reasons: the stories are too scandalous, and the stories are not scandalous enough.
21st century entertainment far exceeds Spicy Mystery Stories in controversial content. Graphic language and imagery ooze from the tamest of television emissions. However, the female gender is afforded equal, nay, better, status in today’s programs. This is not the case in editor Tom Mason’s eldritch collection. As John Wooley opines in his introduction:
“The mystery pulps are not exactly enlightened when it comes to the treatment of women. . . Those planning to apply ’80s feminist sensibilities to these 50-year-old tales risk indignation, or worse.”
The ladies portrayed in the various offerings hail from a variety of eras and social strata, but consist of two basic sorts: the lost, helpless lass, waiting to be rescued by the stereotypical hero, or the cunning, conniving femme fatale, who attempts to either seduce the leading man, or lead him down the path to outright destruction. The felonious female foil appears in all but three of the stories: The Dark Tower, by Robert Leslie Bellem; Dungeon of the Blind, by Arthur Wallace; and The Door on the Stairs, by Charles A. Baker Jr. An argument could be made that the priestess L’Thala in The Dark Tower should be included with the gang of deadly gals, as she causes a schism between two very close twin brothers, Kryll and Zythac. However, such is not her intention.
Descriptions of the female form pepper the pages of Spicy Mystery Stories, but most of the focus is on the upper torso. The male protagonists seem instantly possessed of an urge to lock their distaff acquaintances in fierce embraces, “crushing” their lips to that of the lithesome ladies. Today such behavior would result in a slap in the face, at best, or serious legal consequences, at worst.
The gore is not excessive, although a few parts are likely to induce a wince, groan, or shudder. Heads are crushed or smashed, hearts are pierced or removed, eyes are gouged out, but the writers don’t linger on disturbing descriptions so much as gloss over them. The most gruesome killing occurs in the final tale -Princess of Dreams, by Robert Leslie Bellem- but many jaded modern readers would be unimpressed.
The supernatural is present in most of these tales, its absence replaced by dubious science fiction in the remaining three. Robert Leslie Bellem’s I am a Monster features a hapless, hideously-deformed protagonist attempting to save his oblivious brother and the brother’s fiancée from one of the aforementioned killer women. Torture, rape, and suicide are depicted in this piece. Dungeon of the Blind is about a stranded motorist who accidentally becomes involved with a Dr. Moreau-like antagonist. Synthetic Husband, by Lew Merrill, has an unscrupulous doctor as the narrator and villain. With the help of an equally-unscrupulous colleague, he undergoes brain surgery that transfers his spirit into the body of a deceased man whose wife he desires.
The 112-page book features illustrations and even advertisements from the original issues of Spicy Mystery Stories, circa 1936 through 1938. Including the commercial art, there are 44 black and white illustrations. The front and back cover pictures are in color. While the stories are decadent, bizarre, and frequently gruesome, they are nevertheless infused with a moral code. Through triumph and tragedy, the message is that “the wages of sin are death.”