In the annals of pulp fiction, the name Arthur Leo Zagat is not one that leaps to the top of the list. Yet the former lawyer turned fictioner was a prolific contributor to American fiction magazines of the thirties and forties, producing hundreds of yarns for mags like Argosy, Dime Mystery Magazine and Astounding Stories. Recently, Black Dog Books, a small press specializing in rescuing obscure works and writers from the glory days of the ten-cent story mags, released a collection of Zagat’s horror fiction entitled The Man from Hell. A definite curiosity, it won’t dislodged any of the big names from their place in the hierarchy, but it has its moments of cheesy fun.
Seven of the nine stories in this collection were written under the gender-switched pseudonym of “Morgan LaFay” for one of the more intriguing pulp titles of the thirties, Spicy Mystery Stories. Befitting its title, Spicy specialized in terror tales that had a dose of sexiness to ‘em: heroines pressing “the firm roundness” of their breasts against manly heroes, fully hipped “pagan” sirens luring our heroes to their doom, between-the-paragraphs sex scenes — nothing too explicit but hot stuff in its day to a young male readership. Because they were written for a mystery pulp rather than a straight-up horror title like Weird Tales, many of the LaFay stories have “logical” explanations for the seeming supernatural horrors that are described, though typically the writer’ll leave some room for the reader to ignore these killjoy rationalizations.
Thus, in “Cargo for Hell,” the rageaholic captain of a cargo schooner takes his new bride with him on the cargo delivery of a coffin that his superstitious South Sea crewmen believe contains a vampire. The explanation proves more mundane, of course, but not before we’re treated to the sight of a slain crewman with a “throat whose lacerated sinews, whose slashed windpipe, were blanched, grey-white, bloodless.” As a prose-stylist, Zagat clearly showed a predilection for the purple.
A few of the tales also display cultural attitudes a present day writer would have difficulty selling to most editors — unless they dialed the Irony Meter up to the eleven. In “Hell’s Anteroom” and “The Sharp Teeth of Satan,” Zagat builds his horror on the fear of miscegenation: in the first, the marriage between a stalwart artist and a gypsy girl produces an animalistic “beastlet” of an offspring; in the second, a woman is debased by a sadistic “Eurasian mixed breed, than which there is no more devilish combination on God’s footstool.” The result of this union is a monstrous cretinous infant reminiscent of the killer baby in Larry Cohen’s schlock drive-in classic, It’s Alive.
“Teeth” and other tale, “Her Demon Lover,” also contain elements of s-and-m for that extra dash of “spiciness.” In the second offering, a voluptuous country girl is whipped by her brutish moonshiner hubby for a page-and-a-half, tearing off her clothes and eliciting “exquisite agony” once it touches her breasts. You want lurid? We’ve got lurid.
As a sampler of pulpy cheap thrills, The Man from Hell isn’t for the easily offended or those admirers of the exquisitely worded tale of terror. Rather, it’s for readers ready to dash through some cheap and disposable entertainment from a bygone era. If you’re the type of reader who knows and prefers the Spider to Doc Savage or the Shadow, who thinks that Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin was every bit the equal to Sherlock Holmes — if you even recognize all the names in the first half of this sentence — than this book is for you.