Monsters in the Mountains

By Kelli Huggins

I like to describe myself as a scholar of the historically bizarre. If there’s a weird story out there, I want to know it. That’s why I could barely contain my nerdy glee when I discovered an unanalyzed literary legacy of the Catskills: pulp horror fiction.

 I’ve been delving deep into the archives of some of the early 20th century’s best-known pulp magazines for tales set in the Catskill Mountains. There are a bunch of them! [1]

It seems the Catskills are a great setting for a monster or horror story: Secluded locations? Check.
Dark woods? Check.
Wild and mysterious animals? Check.

It’s actually surprising more of these stories haven’t been set in the Catskills. In this post, I’ll take a look at a few stories published between 1909 and 1935. I’ve focused on “monsters” (think vampires and murderous humanoids), but if you get hooked, there are lots of other genres represented (aliens! disasters! detective stories!). [2] I’ll try not to give too much away in case you want to read them; links to all are in the notes.  

 “The Vampire Master” by Hugh Davidson [3]

Let’s start off with some classic monsters: vampires. The first of two stories I’ll mention with a blood-sucking bent is set in a fictional Catskills town — Maysville — with a doctor who specializes in “cases where tangible forces of evil were encountered against which medical science was powerless.” In Maysville, wealth and local ties going back to the colonial era can’t protect members of a family from an outbreak of vampirism. Oh, did I mention this is a four-parter? If you are into vampire fiction, Davidson isn’t really offering anything avant garde, but it’s a fun read. 

 The Spider’s Web by John Scott Douglas [4]

Douglas offers a twist on the vampire story, and spins a more horrifying tale than Davidson’s. As if vampires weren’t enough to creep a reader out, Douglas sprinkles in both medical and spider elements. Add to that a run-down mansion in the middle of the winter woods and you have a potent combination. It’s by no means high literature (there is some offensive language), but is pretty classic pulp silliness. Unlike some of the other stories, I’m not sure that the Catskills setting really adds anything in particular and it doesn’t seem essential to the storyline, other than provide a desolate location where unspeakable violence can occur. 

 “An Enticing Prospect” by Ralph England [5]

This is the earliest Catskills pulp story I found. It’s also my favorite. Here’s the setup: A young urbanite, Mortimer Collingwood, is run down by the stresses of his modern life. His doctor prescribes some nice wholesome time in the countryside and an escape from New York City as a balm for his nerves. Following the advice, the man picks the quaint sounding Shady Bower Farm in made-up town of Meritville, Greene County. If you’re up on your Catskills geography, you’ll know England takes some liberties with the setting, especially when he claims the farm in 6,000 feet above sea level. But let’s not get pesky facts get in the way of our fun! His country host is Farmer Hiram Snookins (seriously). Pretty quickly, things are not as advertised and Mortimer finds himself in a particular brand of rural peril. 

 “An Enticing Prospect” trades on some spectacular rural stereotypes: unclean, violent yokels terrorizing their more “civilized” counterparts with packs of blood-thirsty hounds, for example. Yet, somehow, it also manages to turn into a love story (again, seriously). England’s tale is pure fluff and you certainly won’t gain any greater enlightenment from reading it. However, as a Catskills native who often thinks about the urban/rural, upstate/downstate divide, this one speaks to me. 

[11] See below for info about the National Recovery Association (NRA) and their logo.

“The Lurking Fear” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by H.P. Lovecraft [6]

The last, and most offensive, kind of local monster fiction comes to us courtesy of the most famous of these writers of Catskills-set horror: H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s work has become so influential that it has even sparked its own genre, Lovecraftian fiction.[7] Two of Lovecraft’s short stories have Catskills connections: “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919) and “The Lurking Fear” (1923).  The first introduces a criminal character named Joe Slater, who Lovecraft describes as follows: 

“...his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy…”

Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that inbreed, monstrous Catskillians come into play in “The Lurking Fear,” too. Lovecraft’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” was supposedly inspired by a reference he saw to the Sloughters of Schoharie County, mountain people with colonial origins for whom people used terms like “inbred” and “degenerate.” [8] A similar news story about the “Rushers,” a community of people in Delaware County “only a small degree above the brute world,” was published in downstate newspapers in 1895.[9] As Lovecraft’s example shows, true or not, these stories of monstrous, secluded Catskills mountain people had a lot of appeal. It fed into stereotypes and made splashy headlines.

 What I find particularly fascinating is that none of the authors of these stories were from the Catskills. [10] This is certainly not due to a lack of writers in the Catskills. These stories are silly fun, of course, but they do reveal subtle (and not so subtle) cultural tensions below the surface. Are the aspects of the Catskills that are most horrifying more so to those who are not as familiar with them? Scarier to those less likely to read truth into tales of craven, incestuous locals? Perhaps it’s these perceived differences and stereotypes that are actually the greatest terror in these stories. 

 -KH


 

NOTES

[1]   The Internet Archive has a huge selection of pulp magazines digitized and available for free: https://archive.org/details/pulpmagazinearchive

[2]   For example, see the following stories, all available via the Internet Archive: Arthur B. Reeve, “The Death Cry,” Weird Tales, vol. 25, no. 5 (May 1935); Isaac R. Nathanson, “The World Aflame,” Amazing Stories, vol. 9, no. 9 (1935); Fletcher Pratt, “The Onslaught from Rigel, Wonder Stories, vol. 3, no. 2 (1932).

[3]   Davidson was the pen name science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton used for his horror and mystery short stories. The story starts here: Weird Tales, vol. 22, no. 4 (October 1933) and vol. 23, no. 1 (January 1934). Part 1:

https://archive.org/details/Weird_Tales_v22n04_1933-10/page/n3?q=catskill;
Part 2: https://archive.org/details/Weird_Tales_v22n05_1933-11_ELPM-SliV/page/n91?q=%22the+vam pire+master%22
Part 3: https://archive.org/details/Weird_Tales_v22n06_1933-12_LPM-URF-AT-SAS/page/n87?q=%22t he+vampire+master%22;
Part 4: https://archive.org/details/WeirdTales193401ATLPM/page/n9         5;  

[4]   Weird Tales, vol. 25, no. 6 (June 1935) https://archive.org/details/Weird_Tales_v25n06_1935-06_sas/page/n69?q=catskills

[5]   Argosy, vol. 60, no. 2 (May 1909) https://archive.org/details/ArgosyV060N02190905/page/n171?q=catskill

[6]   “The Lurking Fear” by H.P. Lovecraft Weird Tales          , vol. 11, no. 6 (June 1928), originally published in Home Brew in 1923: https://archive.org/details/WeirdTalesV11N06192806/page/n71?q=catskills]

[7]   It bears saying that even though Lovecraft is an important literary figure, he held racist and bigoted views which are often represented in his work. Critics have written extensively on this legacy and it’s worth reading up on it if you’re interested.

[8]   The Sloughter story is bizarre and complicated and full of layers of lore, poverty, and discrimination. The term “sloughter” has been used as an insult regionally.

[9]   “Case of Degeneration,” The Courier-News, April 25, 1895, 6.] Delhi’s Delaware Gazette called the report “wholly false” and decried such slander: “Discreditable Journalism,” Delaware Gazette, May 1, 1895, 2.

[10]I say this confidently with one minor hesitation: Ralph England proves rather elusive to research. I can find no Ralph Englands of the right age who lived in or around this area. Perhaps the name is a pen name, but regardless, he didn’t seem to have much additional artistic output as England.

[11] The National Recovery Administration was founded in 1933 (the year that issue of Weird Tales was published) when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). It was one of many administrations created as part of his New Deal. As the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the government created the National Recovery Administration to develop and implement codes to set baseline industrial prices for products and minimum wages for workers. The goal of the National Recovery Administration was to improve working conditions for those employed (it effectively ended child labor in the textile industry) and to create better opportunities for the millions of Americans unemployed. Businesses across the country signed on to the National Recovery Administration and displayed the logo with the Blue Eagle to signal their support of the efforts. Weird Tales editors, by including the Blue Eagle on the cover, were making a statement about their commitment to fair prices and labor practices. As you can see from the attached images, local businesses also joined the National Recovery Administration efforts. For example, the ads show how the National Recovery Administration impacted local and regional automobile, lumber, and hat-making industries--nothing to do with firearms.

The National Recovery Administration was not without controversy, particularly from business owners who wanted profits guaranteed and workers who felt all of the rights promised to them had not yet been delivered, and was not renewed after its two year charter was up in 1935. For a longer overview on the history of the National Recovery Administration, I would recommend the following resources from the Library of Congress, the US National Archive, and the Social Welfare History Project at Virginia Commonwealth University:

https://www.loc.gov/rr/business/nra/introduction.html

https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=66

https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/u-s-national-recovery-administration/