A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Spicy Adventures from Robert E. Howard

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Spicy Adventures from Robert E. Howard

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Last week, we followed Robert E. Howard out of our usual mean streets, and into the Shudder Pulps. Well, Two-Gun Bob is our tour guide again this week, as we wander into Spicy Adventures territory. I’m kinda liking this REH theme, and I’ll see if I can’t follow up with a story from the boxing pulps, and maybe an Oriental adventure (which is not what we think of from that title, today).

In the early Pulp days, girlie magazines were known as ‘smooshes.’ The Great Depression hit them hard – just as with all the other pulps. And, they were under attack from civic and morality groups, as well.

In April of 1934, pulp publisher Harry Donenfeld, with editor Frank Armer (Donenfeld had previously bought out that struggling publisher, then hired him) created the Spicy Pulp formula with Spicy Detective Stories. Under the Culture Publications masthead, it took the type of hardboiled crime stories in popular pulps like Black Mask, and Dime Detective, and added in the racy elements of the smoosh mags. Picture Sam Spade leaving no doubt that he bedded a scantily-clad Brigid O’Shaughnessyy in his apartment.

The second issue came out bi-monthly, but the magazine was such a hit, it immediately went to monthly. Even at a quarter, it was popular.

Knowing others would quickly copy the formula, Donenfeld launched Spicy Mystery Stories in July, under the Trojan Publishing Corp brand. That same month, Spicy Adventure Stories debuted. All sold well throughout the decade.

Spicy Western Stories was launched in November of 1936, but never sold as well as the other three. Apparently the Western backdrop didn’t quite lend itself to the imagination in the same way.

In 1941 and 1942, all four magazines were re-titling previously published stories, and reprinting them under new, made-up names. That was sleazy – even for sleazy pulps.

The voices of reform finally pressured the Spicy Pulps into toning down their content. Also, beginning with the January, 1943 issues, Detective, Mystery, Adventure, and Western, all replaced ‘Spicy’ with ‘Speed’ in their titles.

Adventure, and Mystery, both folded in early 1946. Detective lasted until February of 1947, but it too shut down. Western made it until January of 1948.

Robert Leslie Bellem is the author most identified today with the Spicy Pulps. His Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, appeared in well over one hundred issues of Spicy Detective Stories, before anchoring his own pulp for over a decade.

Some authors, for various reasons, did not want their real names associated with the  Spicy line. Robert E. Howard’s yarns in Spicy Adventure Stories ran under Sam Walser. He didn’t use that byline anywhere else.

The Spicy Pulps flared brightly, briefly, during the thirties and into the forties. Let’s take a look at Howard, now.

Bill Clanton quickly became a Spicy Adventure Stories regular, appearing in the following 1936 issues: “The Girl on the Hell Ship” (April), “Desert Blood” (June), “The Dragon of Kao Tsu” (September), and “The Purple Heart of Erlik” (November). “Murder’s Grog,” would see print in January of 1937.

One additional story, would remain unpublished until a paperback release in 1983. Howard shot himself in June of 1936; I believe that is is generally agreed upon that money problems were one factor (Weird Tales owed him over $1,000 for already-published stories). Had he not killed himself; and continued increasing his popular Western output, while cranking out the Spicy Pulp stories, perhaps the obstacle of Weird Tales’ reluctance to pay him after printing his stories could have been overcome.

I re-read the “Purple Heart of Erlik” for this column. But in our hero’s first appearance, he tried to rape a woman. I know REH folks who like to argue that Conan didn’t try to do the same thing in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (they’re wrong. He does). But there is no arguing about it in “Erlik.” Clanton bumps into the woman in the street, telling her he has followed her across the globe. Then, when she tells him to get lost, he picks her up, carries her into a sordid back-alley den, tosses her on a sofa, and begins forcing her. She only escapes when she outsmarts him and breaks a mug over his head. That’s sexual assault. There’s no discussion of ‘acceptable at the time’ and other rubbish.

So, I set that story aside and re-read “The Girl on the Hell Ship,” also known as “She Devil.” In the captain’s cabin of The Saucy Wench, Bully Harrigan is in a bang-the-table screaming match with Raquel O’Shane. It is truly a case of beauty and the beast.

Harrigan, who has already beaten her with fists, belaying pins, and rope’s ends during the trip, takes a swing at her, which she dodges. ‘But she was still untamed.’ Howard paints a sultry picture of her:

‘She was slim and supple, with foamy black hair, dark eyes that blazed with deviltry, and an ivory-tinted skin, heritage of her mixed Celtic-Latin blood, that made men’s heads swim at first sight. Her figure agitated by her movements, was a vision of breath-taking grace.’

She had knifed a man where she danced in a Barbary Coast (San Francisco’s den of iniquity) joint, and escaped the police by sailing away with Harrigan. He’s fed up with her and wants to dump her at the next port.

She grabs a map from the table and he loses his mind, lunging at her. She falls, ‘…with a shriek and an involuntary abandon that tossed her bare ivory-tinted legs revealingly skyward…’

It’s these flashes of naughtiness that were the hallmark of the spicy pulps. Truly tame by our modern standards, you didn’t find this in Argosy, or Black Mask, or Western Story.

Of course, she loses the map and it floats out the porthole, and sinks into the sea. Harrigan completely loses it now. So much so, that the bosun, who had come down from the deck with important news, , turns tail and runs back up top; message undelivered. In their fight, neither Harrigan nor Raquel had noticed the unusual activity above.

He rips off her dress as she runs, and then punches through a door panel and hits her in the nose. There is violence against women in the Spicy Pulps. If you can’t stand that, even in a rather prosaic environment, these stories are not for you.

I mentioned it was a case of beauty and the beast. She is described as “…a startling figure in slippers and pink chemise.” In the next sentence, of him we hear

“…a bellowing, red-eyed, hairy monstrosity whose only passion was to sweep the deck from poop to forecastle with that supple, half-naked body.”

Yeah – there you go.

Buck Richardson, the (first) mate, is a bully, tough, and disliked by the crew. And a stranger, who appears to have just climbed aboard from the middle of the sea, is beating the holy crap out of him. It’s Wild Bill Clanton, who already smacked around a shark when his tiny boat sank near The Saucy Wench. He was greeted aggressively by Richardson, who Clanton had a prior beef with. And while Clanton did take a bit of a hammering in the fight, he is stomping a mud hole in the mate.

Distracted by his first sight of the underwear-clad Raquel, the distracted Clanton takes a belaying pin to the head, and Richardson tries to kill him with it. Clanton gets the advantage again, and “bounding up, observed some faint signs of life still, and sought to correct this oversight by leaping ardently with both feet on the mate’s bosom.”

Harrigan orders the crew to get Clanton before he kills Richardson. As they’d love to see exactly that occur, they ignore the command. Harrigan ends the fight by putting a revolver under Clanton’s nose.

N Wooten Page is actually Norvell Page of ‘The Spider’ fame

This story has been nonstop action from the opening paragraph. The reader doesn’t have time to take a breath. Clearly, this isn’t ‘literature.’ But Howard knew how to tell a story. He was a master at his craft when he took his own life, and while he seemed, due to financial exigencies, to have finished with Conan and moved primarily into Westerns (I like his Westerns, but I CANNOT abide Breckenridge Elkins. They’re godawful farce), there was much good writing ahead. And perhaps he would have transitioned into the post WWII paperback markets.

SPOILERS ALERT – I know this isn’t readily available, but the story is eighty-six years old. I think it’s fair game.

Harrigan had, apparently, killed a sailor for a map that led to the island of Aragoa, where a rare substance named Ambergris can be found. Ambergris is found in sperm whales. Said map was now in Davy Jones’ locker.

Clanton says he’s been to Aragoa several times and can take them there. It’s a bluff, he gets busy making time with Raquel, and then runs the ship aground through neglect.

The two end up jumping overboard and escaping into the jungle while the crew tries to get the ship afloat. Clanton goes off to find water and food, and a native sneaks up and begins molesting Raquel. Clanton to the rescue, and though the native nearly brains him with a big club, Clanton knocks him out with a fist.

Primitive cultures were not exactly depicted glowingly in the pulps. And not in Howard’s works. No exception here. Clanton had found a “whole village of the illegitimates” on the island. Playing on Harrigan’s greed, he totally outsmarts him (and Richardson) and the two walk into the native village. The closest thing we come to seeing to them again is their bloody weapons, wielded by the angry natives.

Meanwhile, Clanton had gotten aboard the now afloat ship (with Raquel) and declared himself captain. And also her the captain’s property.

Action and titillation: that’s the Spicy Pulps! As you can expect, the writing is over-the-top, and heavy-handed. That’s kinda the whole point. But within the constraints, Howard still proves a master of writing fight, and action, scenes.

Befitting a major contributor to the boxing pulps, he has two hand-to-hand fights in this short story. Clanton, Harrigan, Richardson, the native – all are huge, rough, ‘manly men.’ Raquel is, by contrast, practically a lithe goddess. In that regard, these are typical Howard stories.

This story isn’t going to make anyone’s ‘Best of Howard’ list. But it’s probably better-written than most of the contemporary stories in these pups. And Howard proved he could crank them out quickly, which was a key part of being a surviving – let alone thriving – pulpster. If you accept this story – and others like it – as fast paced, very soft-core, adventure tales, it provides the entertainment value the publisher was aiming for.

I have only read the two Howard spicy stories I mentioned above. They are all collected in the Robert E. Howard Foundation’s Spicy Adventures collection. That one is scheduled to be reprinted, which is a good thing.

BTW – This 1936 issue had two stories by Robert Leslie Bellem, one from Howard’s Weird Tales ‘sorta friend’ E. Hoffmann Price, Howard (writing as Sam Walser), and a Spicy Adventures regular, Victor Rosseau (who went by Lew Merrill). This is a pretty good issue.


Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2022 Series (3)

Asimov – Sci Fi Meets the Police Procedural
The Adventures of Christopher London
Weird Menace from Robert E. Howard

Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2021 Series (7)

Norbert Davis
A (Black) Gat in the Hand is Back!
Black Mask – March, 1932
Three Gun Terry Mack & Carroll John Daly
Bounty Hunters & Bail Bondsmen
Norbert Davis in Black Mask – Volume 1

Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (19)
Hardboiled May on TCM
Some Hardboiled streaming options
Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
Hardboiled June on TCM
Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
Cool and Lam
All Through the Night (Bogart)
Dick Powell as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
Hardboiled July on TCM
YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
Richard Diamond – The Betty Moran Case (Dick Powell)
Bold Venture (Bogart & Bacall)
Hardboiled August on TCM
Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
Talking About Philip Marlowe
Steven H Silver Asks you to Name This Movie
Cajun Hardboiled – Dave Robicheaux
More Cool & Lam from Hard Case Crime

A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
Will Murray on Doc Savage
Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A Man Called Spade
Hard Boiled Holmes
Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
William Patrick Murray on The Spider
John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake

A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (32)
George Harmon Coxe
Raoul Whitfield
Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
Thomas Walsh
Black Mask – January, 1935
Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
Dime Detective – August, 1939
Back Deck Pulp #1
W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
Day Keene
Black Mask – October, 1933
Back Deck Pulp #2
Black Mask – Spring, 2017
‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
Back Deck Pulp #3
Back Deck Pulp #4
Back Deck Pulp #5
Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
Back Deck Pulp #6
The Black Mask Dinner

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Bob_TieSmile150.jpgBob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.

He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.

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Aonghus Fallon

This really brought a smile to my face, Bob. ‘Foamy black hair’? ‘Tossed her bare ivory-tinted legs revealingly skyward…’ ‘Supple, half -naked body’?

I mean, what’s NOT to like?

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