SUMMER CAMP FOR CORPSES And Other Stories: The Weird Fiction of Arthur Leo Zagat (2013,Ramble House)
The name of Arthur Zagat has largely been forgotten, but this will be corrected with the publication of Summer Camp for Corpses. A very prominent fiction writer in the Depression era, he’s not remembered except by the most dedicated pulp fans. He died at the early age of 53 in 1949, right when his career was at its peak. Among his many creations was the spy hunter Red Finger, who dispatched his targets wearing a glove with one red finger.
The collection assembles nine of Zagat’s horror novellas published from 1934-38. These first saw publication in magazine titled Horror Stories, Terror Tales, Dime Mystery, etc. In other words, the “shudder pulps”. These were over-the-top publications for their day which sold their contents on the lurid cover art as much as the verbiage inside. Back when any display of torso flesh could get a publisher a visit from the vice squad, they had to be careful what saw the news stand. “Spicy” magazines sold a lot of sizzle.
So these tales were written for an audience which no longer exists. When you can download images for free to get your groove-on, it’s no longer necessary to wrap a vague approximation in cheap pulp for sale. Most of the stories in this collection are designed to offer a little titillation and mask it as horror. Zagat was a master of using violence to hide the goodies. Today you read these and wonder what all the fuss was about. There’s also some of the worst racial stereotypes imaginable in them, so be prepared to wince at the “Confucius Say” Chinese character.
Zagat’s writing from this time period redefines purple prose. The words are designed to get the motor running of the Depression era lonely male. Plenty of half-naked women running through the woods being pursued by monsters. It’s difficult to describe just how insane this can be so here’s a passage:
“Leila writhed, jerked free. Almost jerked free. The Monster’s knee came up, thrust excruciatingly into the softness of her abdomen, pinned her helpless against the rough tree-bark behind that cut through her flimsy dress and stabbed her with countless tiny points. Pinned her helpless, so that one of his bestial paws released its grip and flew to the neckline of her frock. It tore downward, as the seamed, hairless countenance mewed with insensate, obscene glee.” (From Priestess of Murder, 1936)
Girl of the Goat-God (1935) is atypical. A young woman finds she is heir to a family curse. It involves the Roman God Pan. Before long golden-horned goats are rampaging all over the ancestral grounds and Pan is running after the maidens. I’d love to know if anyone ever was paid just to come up with the story titles.
Special mention has to be made to Girls for the Spider Men (1938). Beautiful young women are disappearing from a northeastern town. The only clue are miniature spiders being left right before and after the disappearances The conclusion involves a crazed orgy involving nubiles and men dressed in spider costumes. And this was decades before cos-play. It just goes to show there is nothing new under the sun.
Summer Camp for Corpses may not be for everyone’s tastes, but it is a good example of the kind of weird fiction popular during the depression.