Friday, October 2, 2015

The forgotten pulp horror weirdness of Ramble House books

A few titles in our own Ramble House collection

 While you're likely to find me reading 19th- or early-20th century supernatural fiction at any time of the year, it is pretty inevitable that the ghost stories and menacing weirdness will hit their peak in early October.

The best setting in which to read them, in my experience, has always been in the autumn woods as the first wave of color sweeps across the landscape. Well, that magical autumn feeling is a little different where I'm living now, but even if the color palette is different, and long sleeves and scarves probably won't happen until Christmas, you can still tell by the angle of the setting sun that it is time to amp up the reading of ghost stories and weird fiction.

One of my favorite publishers to explore at this time of year is a glorious imprint called Ramble House. While forgotten/neglected and rare crime fiction is the main thrust of their publishing, there are also a fair number of titles that fall under the heading "weird menace" -- stories from the horror pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s. Some rare and unusual stand-alone novels also make an appearance at Ramble House, and I am guessing most people come across them for the same reasons I did... on a search for titles on the legendary Karl Edward Wagner book lists.

A number of titles on these lists -- famed for their inclusion of fairly obscure titles and authors -- were not available for decades, until reprinted in limited quantities by Ramble House's predecessor Midnight House in the early 2000s (Midnight publisher John Pelan heads RH's horror imprint, Dancing Tuatara Press). Take a look at this list of supernatural horror titles, for instance...four of them are available at RH (and several are still in print from other publishers as well).

 The Thirteen Best Supernatural Horror Novels:

1.            Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen
2.            The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr
3.            Alraune by Hanns Heinz Ewers
4.            Dark Sanctuary by H.B. Gregory
5.            Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
6.            Maker of Shadows by Jack Mann
7.            The Yellow Mistletoe by Walter S. Masterman
8.            Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
9.            Burn Witch Burn by A. Merritt
10.            Fingers of Fear by J.U. Nicolson
11.            Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven
12.            Echo of a Curse by R.R. Ryan
13.            Medusa by E.H. Visiak

I'm not going to attempt to give book reviews in this short space, or attempt to relate an unofficial history of the company cribbed from their website, but I am going to just give my wholehearted endorsement to weird old book lovers.

There are several different "presses" under the Ramble House umbrella, and you can also view by title, author, series and recent releases. If you have trouble choosing where to start, here are a few quick recommendations. Also, I always order straight from the source, as they offer free shipping, and often will discount titles if you email them your order. Most importantly though it directly supports this wonderful publisher.

All artwork below is copyright the artist, Gavin O'Keefe, and used with permission; the introductions are courtesy of the Ramble House website.

"The Shadow on the House" was one of the first titles I read from RH -- the Introduction is available online.  It would fall under the category of supernatural thriller or psychological horror most likely, but this moody piece from 1934 is full of gothic atmosphere, hints of madness and family curses/ghosts, and a series of strange deaths. The hints of an inheritance of evil and unexplained phenomena were very exciting to me while reading it, and it fits in perfectly with my early 20th century mystery and ghost reading.

This 1937 book is another excellent example of something that straddles the line between gothic mystery, suspense, psychological thriller and supernatural/weird horror. From the Ramble House site: "Very strange things are going on at Cold Stairs, the country manor home of the Harman family. BBC correspondent Jack Hartley has been there to report on the findings of the 'Committee of Three,' a delegation of researchers from Psychical Research Society. All signs point to a most bizarre haunting, and Sir John Harman is concerned for his household, comprising niece Sybil, governess Mrs. James and her disabled son Eric, and the servants." The cover gives enticing hints of some of the content of this book (as many of O'Keefe's wonderful cover illustrations do) -- as you read the book, the meaning of some of these images starts to unfold. A picture of a skeleton? A girl clutching a strange box? Sounds pretty exciting to me!

You can read the Introduction  here. I have not yet read all of these stories, but the titles should be enough to get you interested: in addition to the title story, we have "Satan Sends a Woman," "Song of the Dead," "Hours of the Vanished Boarder," "Satan's Thirsty Ones," "Village of the Dead," and Models for Madness." The title story is particularly lurid, and the themes are unapologetically supernatural, including grotesque imagery, generous use of evocative adjectives, and themes such as swamp-women luring men to their death (note the cover picture)...sound good? It is!

The opening line of this Introduction should whet the appetites of anyone whose taste in fiction runs along the same course as mine: "Among all the writers of weird fiction in the 1930s two authors shared the rather unique background of being accomplished poets with solid reputations established in the little magazines and limited editions of the time. The two men were Clark Ashton Smith and John H. Knox."

That, along with story titles like "The Thing That Dined on Death," should excite the adventurous reader. If you are already a fan of the "weirds," here's a whole new cavern for literary spelunking.

Here is the Introduction to this fine volume. "Dark Sanctuary" is one of those Wagner list books, and quite an excellent one indeed. I read this one in a Midnight House edition, so I am delighted that it is still available from Ramble House. Published in 1940, this novel is dripping with occult atmosphere. Family curses and madness, an abbey on an island, a ghastly crypt -- it's all here. The RH site gives a good summary of some points to look forward to in this one: "The story opens with Anthony Lovell, Sr., master of the ancient abbey of Kestrel and its like-named island off the Cornish coast, raving in madness and fear over the ancient family curse that 'dwells in the bowels of the abbey rock.' What has caused his madness is unclear, but it is obviously linked to something seen or experienced in Kestrel's ancient crypts." This book made the strongest impression on me of all of the Midnight/Ramble House books I have read.

There is quite a lot to say about R. R. Ryan so I suggest reading the Introduction for more information, but suffice to say here that Ryan wrote a small number of truly excellent books that were all but forgotten until the Wagner lists resurrected three of the titles in collector circles.  The identity of the writer has been up for debate for some time, and although I've read several definitive answers to who he/she is, I've honestly lost track of whether a final determination has been reached. Either's great stuff. Ramble House is working on making all of Ryan's titles available again. "Echo of a Curse" is up there with "Dark Sanctuary" as my two favorites from these lists that I have read so far, with an engaging and fast-moving plot, involving everyone's favorite gothic plot point: the family curse. We have possible lycanthropy, a sideshow attraction, occultism in the family, babies switched at birth, and some very brutal behavior from a character you really come to despise.

There are many more titles that I still need to explore that may prove excellent fodder for your Halloween season reading, particularly in the short story department. Here's a tiny sampling. But I strongly advise just getting anything that ignites your fancy. The rest of the titles in my picture at the top of the post are also of excellent quality.

Tales of Terror & Torment: Stories from the Pulps
The Corpse Factory and Other Weird Stories (the weird tales of Arthur Leo Zagat)
Hostesses in Hell and Other Stories (the selected stories of Russell Gray)
Food for the Fungus Lady (see below...I mean seriously, that title. I can't live without it).

Since these titles are printed on demand, chances are that you won't find a lot of them in secondhand shops. The people buying them know what they want and know what they like and probably won't ever let them go! Get your copies now and cherish them as we enter that time of the year that is best for reading spooky stuff. Order now and by Halloween you can be knee-deep in 1930s pulp weird fiction that relatively few people living today have explored in depth.


  1. What a great list and thank you for sharing that! I will definitely look into this so I can add to my library!