This was one of the very first vintage paperbacks I ever bought. Only a teenager, with no knowledge at all of pulp magazines, barely a passing awareness of mid-twentieth century crime fiction and paperback originals, just starting to dig on retro hard-boiled and ‘noir-ish’ crime novels, I wouldn’t have known a Robert Maguire cover from a Robert McGinnis to save my life then. Cain vs. Kane? This MacDonald vs. that MacDonald or Chandler vs. Hammett? Only names that I was just beginning to digest. But I remember buying this book at a now long-shuttered strip mall used bookstore, the ancient (and kind of scary) proprietor eying me up suspiciously the entire time I browsed his cluttered aisles, probably a victim of too many smart-ass high school kids stuffing books down their pants. Looking back now, I’m surprised he didn’t shake his head no when I brought a handful of books to the register. I really expected him to, particularly once he eyed up the sorta-sleazy cover art on each one.
But he didn’t.
And though I could read things that were a hundred times more explicit than Bruno Fischer’s 1950 House Of Flesh and in countless books right from the library (even the school library) or any Walgreens or grocery store book display, this one resonated with me. The cover art played a part in that, I’m sure. There’s just enough evocative detail in the painting to get a vintage-noir newbie revved up: The wrinkled bedsheet yanked off the seedy striped mattress…no more than a blurred brushstroke or two suggesting one black shoe lying loose on the floor…the young blonde’s blouse half-on and half-off and revealing a shadowy hint of her black slip or brassiere…holding onto that bottle of something-or-other clenched between her stockinged legs. Her entire stance looks world-weary, frustrated, anxious, even. Not frightened, but apprehensive, perhaps?
The book wasn’t in great shape when purchased, and college and multiple moves consigned it and too many other treasures to the trash. I’ve kept my eye out for an affordable (and sturdier) replacement copy. I know there’ve been other editions from Dell (with different cover art) and even one more current reissue from Black Mask books. Not a collector, as I’ve often noted here, I still need that original Dell #123 edition with what I now know to be a C.C. Beall cover painting.
I’d no idea at the time what the “Shudder Pulps” were, and surely assumed the novel I bought was going to be a tasty bit of retro saucy stuff. Well, based on that cover, at least. But the so-called Shudder Pulps are precisely where author Bruno Fischer (1908 – 1992) got his start with fiction. Fischer, who came to the U.S. from Germany as a toddler, was actually a rabble-rouser, ardent socialist, reporter and editor who took to writing pulp stories on the advice of a friend to make some extra money. And what were the Shudder Pulps? Also called “Weird Menace” pulps, those were the pre-WWII pulp magazines that offered a bit of horror, a bit of mystery, some exotic foreign adventures and various demonic cults, their covers typically adorned with unclad damsels in distress, ready to be abducted, ravished, tortured or killed by sinister foreigners and mad doctors. Fischer churned out dark mysteries for those rags along with some conventional hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately penning over 300 pulp magazine stories through the 1950’s. But he began writing novels, including one private detective series, when he sensed the pulps’ heyday was waning. A referral from John D. MacDonald helped get House Of Flesh published by Dell’s new paperback original line.
This is a very weird but very good novel, chock full of pretty sinister and steamy stuff for its time. It’s not a straight crime novel, traditional mystery or even a horror novel. In fact, it’s been called “Male Gothic” by some, and I think that’s a pretty good label. Much like the gothic novels flooding the market throughout the 1960’s and 70’s – those ubiquitous ‘women running from houses’ paperbacks – House Of Flesh puts a relative innocent in a remote locale teeming with dark mystery, where forbidden love and hints of eerie goings-on abound. Only here the ‘innocent’ isn’t a young governess, the love interest isn’t a brooding Bronte-esque Heathcliff type, the forbidden love isn’t merely smoldering glances or fiery kisses, and all the dark mystery is pretty gritty stuff.
Still smarting from a bitter divorce and a humiliating championship defeat, pro athlete Harry Wilde escapes to the tiny town of North Set in upstate New York for the summer. But rural and remote don’t necessarily mean relaxing. An ominous mansion in the hills is home to a weird veterinarian who keeps a pack of vicious dogs. It’s also home to the vet’s second wife Lela, a classic noir femme fatale if ever you encountered one – brooding, demanding, manipulative and literally simmering with passion. The vet’s first wife? Rumor is the vet did her in and fed her remains to his dogs. When a local woman goes missing, and Harry discovers some human bones in the woods, suspicion falls on him, even while he and Lela flirt, spar and inevitably indulge in a passionate affair in smart banter and some splendid circa-1950 steamy prose. In their own way, Harry and Lela are as good a match as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers and Cora Smith in his The Postman Always Rings Twice. And 1950’s pocketbook purchasers must’ve agreed, since House Of Flesh sold just shy of 2 million copies.
No gunsels or mobsters, no gin joints or shadowy big city alleys here. This is noir, but a kind of horror-noir, dark rural noir, or even ‘Male Gothic’ if you prefer. This was one of the firsts for me, and I blame that striking piece of C.C. Beall cover art for luring me in. Heck, this book and a few others bought back then are responsible for my whole fixation. I’m grateful for that, and will keep up my search for a crisp, clean but affordable copy of that 1950 original, C.C. Beall cover art and all.