The Pulp Stories Your Gramps Read Were Hardcore, And We Can Prove It
How Come No One Writes Pulp Anymore?
I’m just going to put this out there: Pulp fiction needs to make a comeback.
No, not the Tarantino flick. I’m talking about the genre. I’m talking about those old sci-fi/horror short stories printed in magazines like Weird Tales and True Detective filled with blood, guts, and mostly-naked women. The stuff the PC crowd would run crying for a safe space over today.
Stories With An Edge
Yeah, that’s the stuff. Too many books, comics/movies/whatever now are just racing to the middle. They take the easy way out. There’s just no grit; no teeth to storytelling anymore.
But pulp authors weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. The work is exploitative and sensational, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. When you read these old stories, they are absolutely thrilling. Refreshing. It’s hard to explain, so we’ll just show you.
There's Tons Of It
Pulp is where we got dark, violent antiheroes like The Shadow or Conan the Barbarian. These stories had edge. But those are just the famous examples. There are thousands of pulp stories that never got their day in the sun.
A lot of these stories are in the public domain now, and online libraries have been set up like hallowed museums of timeless classics you never heard of. And we wanted to do something about that.
Do These Stories Still Hold Up?
We’re starting a new series where we open up the pulp vault and dust off some of this great American literature. We’re looking at stories from classic pulp books like Argosy, Black Mask, Horror Stories, Spicy Detective, Weird Tales and more.
If it’s pulp, we’re gonna check it out and see if it holds up. Obviously we’ll keep only the greatest but so far we have enough for a few lifetimes so go ahead, grab a seat and get some hot chocolate because this will tasty.
We Got A Gem For Ya
We’re starting with this crazy story we found in Weird Tales called “Werewolf of the Sahara” written by G.G. Pendarves. G.G. was an absolutely prolific pulp writer. “Werewolf” was published in 1936, just two years before she kicked it at age 53.
The fun thing about reading these is trying to figure out if the writer was intoxicated in the creation process. Not sure yet about this one we’re border line thinking hallucinogenics were involved. Let’s key the story up and see what we’re getting ourselves into.
That's A Killer Setup
Here’s the story’s teaser:
“A tremendous tale, depicted against the background of the great desert, about the evil Arab sheykh El Shabur, and dreadful occult forces that were unleashed in a desperate struggle for the soul of a beautiful girl.”
Listen, Avengers: Endgame was cool, but this is the movie I want to see. Let’s continue.
Let's Meet The Cast
I’m gonna tl;dr the intro a little bit so we can get to the good stuff faster. The tale begins with three characters hanging out at a campsite in North Africa: Merle Anthony (that’s a girl, despite having your racist uncle’s first name), Dale Fleming, her wimpy, conservative cousin, and Gunnar Sven, an Icelandic tough guy who’s working Han Solo moves on Merle.
If you think you’ve seen “adult movies” with similar setups, you’re probably right. But as we all know, all great things come from the adult industry so we won’t judge a book by its cover
Get Ready To Cringe
They’re on their way to a place called the Siwa Oasis, but have been delayed. In that time, they’ve all gotten to know each other. Gunnar thinks Merle is hot, and has been flirting with her. Problem is, Dale also thinks Merle — his cousin — is hot, and is trying to warn her away from Gunnar.
“Ever since his parents had adopted her—an orphan of six—she had come first in Dale’s affections. His love was far from Platonic. Gunnar Sven was a fine creature, but there was something wrong. Some mystery shadowed his life. What it was, Dale was determined to discover.
‘Truth will out, my child! The natives are in terror of him. You know it as well as I do! They’re all against helping you and me because he’s our friend.’ “
What's Up With Gunnar?
Gunnar acts like Matthew McConaughey in a Lincoln commercial. Chubby, intellectual Dale knows he can’t compete with that finger-rubbing panty-dropper. Hard to say if he’s bullshitting about Gunnar or not, but Merle sure isn’t buying it.
“Stop being an idiot. No one could be afraid of Gunnar. And he’s particularly good with natives.” Dale insists something ain’t right.
“There’s something queer about him. These Arabs know it. We know it.” Now, this next bit is important to the plot.
“He works for an Arab. A sheykh. A man notorious from Morocco to Cairo. His nickname’s Sheykh El Afrit. The Magician! His real name is Sheykh Zura El Shabur. He’s a very—bad—hat! Black Magic’s no joke in this country. This Sheykh El Shabur’s gone far. Too far.”
He's Sweet, But A Little Bit Psycho
They go to confront Gunnar about it, and he loses all of his McConaughey cool.
“The man looked as if he’d had a tremendous shock. He stood peering across the wastelands stretching eastward, frozen into an attitude of utmost horror.
Dale ran across to Merle. She broke from his detaining hand and rushed to Gunnar’s side.
‘What is it? What do you see? Gunnar! Answer me, Gunnar!’
His tense muscles relaxed. He sighed, and brushed a hand across his eyes and wet forehead.
‘He’s found me. He’s coming. I had hoped never——’
‘Who? What are you talking about?’
She shook his arm in terror at his wild look and words.
‘He said I was free! Free! I wouldn’t have come near you if I’d known he lied. Now I’ve brought him into your life. Merle! Forgive me!’
He took her hands, kissed them frantically, then turned to Dale with burning haste and fairly pushed him away.
‘Go! Go! Go! Now—before he comes. Leave everything! Ride for your lives. He’ll force me to… go! Go!’
It Hits The Fan
Suddenly the sheykh appears. Gunnar shrinks into a giant man-baby, Merle rushes to his side and Dale is mostly sat there thinking “wtf, how did he sneak up on us like the genie from Aladdin?”
“Dale leaned forward, peering into the Arab’s face as a connoisseur examines an etching of rare interest.
‘You speak very good English, my friend. Or is it enemy?’
The whole demeanor of the Arab changed. His white teeth flashed. He held out welcoming hands, clasped Dale’s in his own, and bowed low to the girl. He turned last to the Icelander.
‘Present me!’ he ordered.”
“GUNNAR performed the small ceremony with white lips. His voice sounded as if he’d been running hard.
‘Zura El Shabur. Zura of the Mist,’ translated the sheykh. ‘I am your friend. I have many friends of your Western world. The language! All languages are one to me!’ ”
Pretty weird entrance, but everyone rolls with it. The sheykh decides to join the caravan. Dale seems super excited and takes to the sheykh immediately.
Gunnar remains uneasy.
And Now It All Gets Really Weird
That night, the sheykh performs some kind of ritual that pulls Merle’s soul out of her body. Gunnar finds her pale and seemingly dead, and decides he ain’t having it. By now you’ve probably figured out that Gunnar and the sheykh have some kind of deal going, but it seems like cock-blocking is where Gunnar draws the line.
He confronts the sheykh and it doesn’t really go well.
“In the cold clear moonlight, El Shabur loomed tall, menacing. He stood glaring across the courtyard at the intruder. His black-clad figure overshadowed the Icelander’s by many inches, like a cloud, like a bird of prey. Malignant, implacable he towered.
Gunnar’s golden head sank. His strong, straight body seemed to shrink and crumple. Inch by inch he retreated, until he reached the wall. He tried to meet the Arab’s unblinking stare and failed. Again his bright head sank. His eyes sought the dusty earth. But his whole frame trembled with a wild, fanatical excitement. He had succeeded so far—had brought El Shabur back from that void where Merle’s spirit had so perilously wandered. She was free. Free to go back to that still white body lying in her tent.
‘So! You love this girl. You would save her from me. You—who cannot save yourself!’
‘You’re right.’ The young man’s voice shook. ‘Right as far as I’m concerned. But Miss Anthony’s on a different plane. You’re not going to play your filthy tricks on her.’ “
I've Made A Huge Mistake
Gunnar tries to save Merle, but the sheykh decides to teach him a lesson instead.
” ‘Ignorant and beast-like! Be what you are—slave to your own passion! You, yourself, create the devil that haunts you. Therefore are you mine—for all devils are subject to me. Be what you are! Out, beast! Howl and snarl with your own kind until the dawn.’
For a moment something dark scuffled in the dust at El Shabur’s feet. The courtyard rang with a long, desolate howl. A shadow, lean and swift, fled from the camp, far, far out across the empty wasteland.”
Basically he turned him into a werewolf, okay?
Enter Chekov's Gun
The next morning, Gunnar has mysteriously vanished. Merle panics, but the sheykh tells her and Dale that Gunnar has gone on ahead and will meet them later. They wonder whether the sheykh has killed their friend, but dismiss it as paranoia. I mean, if they went with that, the story would basically end here and we’d never find out who the Werewolf of the Sahara is * knowing stare *.
Still, better safe than sorry.
“He [Dale] put a small snub-nosed automatic in her [Merle’s] hand.
‘It’s loaded. And I’ve taught you to use it. Listen! There are wolves on this trail. Heard ’em last night about the camp.’
‘Wolves? In the desert? Jackals, you mean.’
‘Don’t speak out of turn. Wolves. You know—things that go off like this.’
He threw back his head and gave a blood-curdling howl that electrified the camp. El Shabur spun on his heel, long knife drawn. The servants groveled, then ran to pluck brands from the fire.
Dale gave a rich, infectious gurgle. ‘Splendid! Must have done that jolly well. Now perhaps you’ll recognize a wolf when you hear it. If you do—shoot!’ “
Guess Who It Is
Later that night, Dale and the sheykh get to know each other a little more. They talk about mythology and, ding ding ding, werewolves. Just as things start getting creepy, guess who shows up in camp?
“In half an hour, Gunnar rode into Camp. A sorry figure, disheveled, unshaven, he looked as if he’d been across Africa with a minimum of food and sleep. Merle had meant to be unrelenting at first, to await explanation, but her heart betrayed her at sight of this desperately weary man. She ran to meet him as he dismounted, and tried to lead him over to where Dale and the Arab sat smoking.
He stood swaying on his feet. ‘No. Not now.’ His cracked, parched lips could scarcely frame the words. ‘I must sleep. I—I could not help it. I was prevented—I was prevented,’ he croaked.
‘Gunnar—of course!’ She beckoned to a servant. ‘Take care of him. I’ll send Dale effendi to give him medicine. He is ill.’ “
Not Suspicious At All
Later on, Dale overhears Gunnar and the sheykh arguing. He starts getting a little suspicious.
“Gunnar’s relations with the Arab seemed dangerously explosive; a crisis might work up at any moment. Merle would then be implicated, for she would defend Gunnar with blind partizanship. All the odds were on El Shabur. It was his country; he could queer the expedition easily without any supernatural agency. And, if he were the deadly poisonous creature Dale began to suspect, then the lonely desert made a superb background for murder… he called it murder to himself, unwilling to give a far more terrible name to what he suspected EI Shabur might do.”
Now, Dale? Now is when you’re getting suspicious? You’re supposed to be the brain of the story!
It's Like We Finish Each Other's Sandwiches
Later on, Gunnar and Merle confess they’ve caught feelings for each other. Instead of breaking out in song, though, Merle ruins it by constantly asking about the sheykh.
” ‘Is your fear of El Shabur the biggest thing in your life? Is it bigger than—than your love for me?’
The grip of his hands tightened. His face bent to hers. His haunted red-rimmed eyes looked into her candid gray ones, that shone with love and kindness and a stedfast unwavering trust that made him want to kiss her dusty shoes. Instead, he dropped her hands, pulled his hat down over his face, walked on with quickened stride toward the distant encampment.
‘It’s no use… I can’t go on with it. I’m in a tangle that no one on earth can straighten out. It’s revolting to think of you being caught up in such a beastly mess. I went into this thing because I was a young inquisitive fool! I’d no idea what it involved, no idea at all that there was something behind it stronger… stronger than death! I was blind, I was credulous, I was utterly ignorant; I walked into El Shabur’s trap—and the door shut behind me!’
“‘Gunnar, darling, can’t you explain? People don’t have to go on serving masters they hate unless—unless——’
‘Exactly! Unless they’re slaves. Well, I am his slave.’
‘I don’t understand you.’
‘Thank heaven for it, and don’t try! It’s because you must never, never understand such things that I wanted you and Dale to go away that night at Sollum.’
‘If you owe the sheykh your time, can’t you buy him off? Surely any contract can be broken.’
‘Not the one that binds me to him. Listen, Merle, my own! I can’t—I daren’t say more than this. Think of him as a poison—as something that blackens and burns like vitriol.’ “
BTW, Hail Satan
Gunnar then asks Merle to do a weird thing that ends up being kind of important, so remember it:
” ‘Will you do what may seem a very childish thing, will you do it to please me?’
‘What is it?’
‘Tie this across the entrance of your sleeping-tent at night.’ He held out a little colored plait, four threads of green, white, red, and black, from which a seal depended. ‘Once more, I daren’t explain, but use it. Promise me!’ ”
Meanwhile, Dale and the sheykh are just hanging out again like nothing is wrong. This time though, the sheykh just drops that he’s a Satanist. Dale’s response amounts to “cool story, bro” while screaming internally.
“El Shabur leaned forward and traced it in the sand. Dale regarded it with a smile that masked deep uneasiness. He recognized the ghastly little sign; he was one of the very few who had the peculiar knowledge to do so. A smoke-screen from his eternal pipe shielded his face from the watchful Arab. Was El Shabur trying to trick him into exposing his very special and intimate knowledge of the occult; or did he make that deadly mark feeling sure that only an initiate would recognize it?
El Shabur was a Yezidee, a Satanist, and worshipped Melek Taos. The symbol was unmistakably the outspread tail of the Angel-Peacock. Dale recoiled inwardly at having his darkest fears confirmed; he knew of no tribe on earth more vicious and powerful than the Yezidees, Their name and their fame went back into mists of time. Seldom did one of them leave his hills and rock-dwelling up beyond Damascus. Once in a century or so, throughout the ages, a priest of the Yezidees would stalk the earth like a black destroying god to acquaint himself with the world and its conditions. He would return to teach his tribe. So they remained, a nucleus of evil power that never seemed to die out.
‘Nice little design; looks like half a ray-fish,’ he commented. Impossible to fathom what was going on behind the sheykh’s carven, immobile features.”
Merle shows Dale the ropey thing Gunnar gave her which is, I don’t know, supposed to protect her against wolves or something, according to Dale.
Either way, the story starts coming together as Dale realizes they’re in danger.
” ‘It means that El Shabur’s a cabalist. And that Gunnar is an initiate and pretty far advanced too, to be in possession of this very significant thing. He’s gone a long, long way on the road—poor lad!’
‘He’s in danger?’
‘Extreme and imminent danger; there’s scarcely a chance to cut him free now. Better face the thing, dear. Gunnar’s not in a position to love or marry any woman; he’s tied body and soul to El Shabur. It’s a hideous, deplorable, ghastly mess, the whole affair.’ He sat down beside her on the little truckle bed and took her hand. ‘This is my fault. I knew well enough even at Solium that there was something abnormal about Gunnar.’ ”
Despite all of this evidence, Merle still wants to get it in with Gunnar. You can tell that kind of annoys Dale a little.
” ‘I love him,’ she answered very quietly, ‘and nothing can ever alter that. Whatever he’s done, or is—I love him.’
He stared at her a long minute. ‘And that’s the damndest part of the whole show,’ he remarked with immense gravity.
He turned back at the tent opening. ‘About that thing Gunnar gave you. Fasten the tent-flap with it if you value your soul; wear it under your dress by day, never let the sheykh catch a glimpse of it. We reach Siwa the day after tomorrow. Try not to let El Shabur know we suspect anything, meantime.’ “
Weird Begets Weirder
Dale decides to stay up late in case anything bad happens to Merle. During the night, he’s attacked by a random group of bandits. He seems to do okay at first, but is quickly overwhelmed when the goddamn Werewolf of the Sahara shows up to bail him out.
“A high, piping wind blew clouds across the sky. A black mass obscured the moon. He halted once more, turned back to camp in a sudden certainty of peril. Too late. A rush. A scuffle. An arm of steel clasped him from behind, a hand like a vise was clamped across his lips before he could call out. His big body was enormously muscular and he fought like a tiger, threw off his assailant, shouted loudly. The strong wind shouted louder, tore his voice to shreds. It swept the black cloud from the moon too, and he saw a small band of natives, their faces veiled, knives glinting, burnooses bellying out like sails as they shouted and ran at him.
They were too close to take aim. He made for the rock. Unencumbered, and a good sprinter, he reached it safely, stood with his back to it and coolly picked out one after another of his enemies. It was only a momentary advantage; they were too many for him, and ran in again with savage yells.
To his amazement, a dark long swift body flung itself upon his attackers. A great wolf, huge, shaggy, thin and sudden as a torpedo. In vain the men plunged their knives into its rough pelt. Again and again Dale saw the wicked twisted blades drop as the brute caught the wrists of the raiders in its teeth.”
We're In The Endgame Now, Tony
Dale makes eye contact with the werewolf which seems to recognize him, but it leaves him be.
The next day, the group finally make it to Siwa, but Gunnar isn’t there. Merle demands to know where he is. Dale realizes by this point that Gunnar is the werewolf.
“And Gunnar? It was unnerving to think what might be happening to him. Dale knew that Gunnar had saved his life as surely as that El Shabur had plotted to kill him two nights ago. It was not nice to consider how the cabalist might punish this second interference of his young disciple.”
Merle demands to be reunited with Gunnar, so the sheykh takes her to see him. It doesn’t go well, to say the least.
“She followed her guide through a low entrance door, stumbled up a narrow dark stairway, caught glimpses of bare, untenanted, low-ceilinged rooms. El Shabur opened a door at the top of the house, drew back with a flash of white teeth. She stooped to enter the low doorway.
There was no answer in words, but from the shadows a figure limped, his face and head cut and bleeding, so gaunt, so shadow-like too, that she cried out again.
‘Oh! Oh, my dear!’
He took her in his arms. She clasped him, drew his head down to hers, kissed the gray tortured face with passionate love and pity.
‘Gunnar, I am here with you! Look at me! What is it?—tell me, darling, let me help you!’ “
So You Just Found Out Your Boyfriend Is A Werewolf
Why is Gunnar always so strung out, tired, and miserable, anyway? Merle finds out when he transforms in front of her.
“His eyes met hers in such bitter despair and longing that she clutched him to her again, pressing her face against his shoulder. With gentle touch he put her from him.
‘Listen to me, Merle, my darling. My beloved! Listen carefully. This is the last time I shall see you—touch you—for ever. I am lost—lost and damned. In a moment you will see for yourself. That is why he brought you here. Remember that I love you more than the soul I have lost—always—always, Merle!’
He pushed her from him, retreated to the shadows, stood there with head flung up and back pressed to the gray mud wall. Even as she would have gone to him, he changed, swiftly, dreadfully! Down—down in the dust—torn rough head and yellow wolf’s eyes at her feet.”
Cat’s out the bag now. Dale shows up and he and Merle try to convince the sheykh to let Gunnar go. Sheykh pretty much says no, with a dab of misogyny.
” ‘You think that you—a woman, can withstand me? A vain trifling woman, and one, moreover, who is overburdened by lust for my servant as a frail craft by heavy cargo. I will destroy you with your lover.’
‘I don’t take your gloomy view of the situation,’ Dale interrupted. He watched the other intently from under drooped eyelids, saw that Merle’s fearlessness and his own refusal to be serious were piercing the man’s colossal self-esteem, goading him to accept the challenge to his power. El Shabur felt himself a god on earth. In so far as he was master of himself, he was a god! Dale had never met so disciplined and powerful a will. Few could boast so controlled and obedient an intellect. But he was proud, as the fallen Lucifer was proud!”
an Indecent Proposal
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Merle isn’t really the thinking type. Blinded by her love or Gunnar, she offers the sheykh what he’s wanted all along — herself. She convinces the sheykh that she will participate in whatever pervy rituals he wants, as long as he lets Gunnar go.
Meanwhile, Dale seems to be up to something.
” ‘Since you desire to sacrifice yourself,’ the Arab turned to Merle, ‘Ilbrahaim shall bring you just before sundown to the house.’
‘Any objections to my coming along?’ Dale spoke as if a supper-party were under discussion. ‘My interest in magic-ceremonial——’
EI Shabur cut in. ‘You think to save her from me? Ah, do I not know of your learning, your researches, your study of occult mysteries! It will avail you nothing. No other cabalist has dared what I have dared. I—the High Priest of Melek Taos! Power is mine. No man clothed in flesh can stand against me.’
He seemed, in the dim low-ceilinged room, to fill the place with wind and darkness and the sound of beating wings. Suddenly he was gone. Like a black cloud he was gone.
Dale looked after him for long tense minutes. ‘No man clothed in flesh,’ he quoted reflectively. ‘And there’s quite a lot of clothing in my case, too.’ “
That 'Good Girlfriend' Energy
Though for his part, Gunnar doesn’t just allow his girlfriend to throw her life away for him. He does at least try to intervene. But Merle’s mind is made up.
” ‘Yes, it is too late now to turn back,’ she affirmed. ‘For this last time you must endure your agony. The last time, Gunnar—my beloved. It shall swiftly pass to me. Can I not bear for a brief moment what you have borne so long? Through my soul and body this devil that possesses you shall pass to El Shabur, who created it. Endure for my sake, as I for yours.’ ”
Best girlfriend ever.
Not So Fast
Things get crazy pretty quick. Dale jumps in all Harry Potter and pulls his own magic tricks out to interrupt the ritual.
“Dale sprang forward at her gesture, and drew about them a circle with oil poured from a long-necked phial. Instantly the two were shut within a barrier of fire, blue as wood-hyacinths, that rose in curving, swaying, lovely pillars to the ceiling, transforming the gray salt mud to a night-sky lit with stars.”
The Final Battle
The sheykh gets sucked into some kind of interdimensional vortex while Gunnar and the wolf are physically separated from each other. The sheykh freaks out and calls on all sorts of demons to help him, but it doesn’t work.
“Within this second ring the Arab stood upright. His voice boomed out like a great metal gong.
‘Melek Taos! Melek Taos! Have I not served thee truly? Give aid—give aid! Ruler of Wind and Stars and Fire! I am held in chains!’
Dale breathed in suffocating gasps, He was cold to the marrow of his bones. He lost all sense of time—of space. He was hanging somewhere in the vast gulf of eternity. Hell battled for dominion in earth and sea and sky.
‘To me, Abeor! Aberer! Chavajoth! Aid—give aid!’ Again the great voice called upon his demon-gods.
A sudden shock made the room quiver. Dale saw that the fires grew pale. ‘Was I too soon? Too soon?’ he asked himself in agony. ‘If the oil burns out before sundown——’ “
Everything Pretty Much Worked Out For These White Folks
Hey, at this point it’s okay to be a little lost on what the magic rules are. The important thing is that the sheykh explodes like a marshmallow in the microwave, Gunnar is restored to humanity, and he gets the girl despite doing nothing but causing problems while Dale over here saved the day.
“Dale knew himself on earth again. Stillness was about him. In a dim and dusty room he saw Merle and Gunnar, handfast, looking into each other’s eyes. About their feet a little trail of fire ran—blue as a border of gentian.
Another circle showed, its fires dead, black ash upon the dusty ground. Across it sprawled a body, its burnoose charred and smoldering. Servant of Melek Taos. Victim of his own dark spells. El Shabur destroyed by the demon that had tormented Gunnar. Driven forth, homeless, it returned to him who had created it.”
Cool story, huh? You can read the whole thing on Wikipedia for free.