Hugh B. Cave

Prolific writer of pulp ('pure' supernatural, 'Spicy', SF, romance, westerns, hard- and soft-boiled detective fiction, weird-menace and shudder-pulp) over eight decades

Hugh B. Cave was an immensely prolific, inventive and long-lived pulp writer whose professional working life lasted, almost literally, to the end of his days; he was still getting published (hard covers, softbacks, as well as on the internet) well into his nineties.



Hugh Barnett Cave, writer: born Chester 11 July 1910; twice married (one son, and one son deceased); died Sebastian, Florida 27 June 2004.



Hugh B. Cave was an immensely prolific, inventive and long-lived pulp writer whose professional working life lasted, almost literally, to the end of his days; he was still getting published (hard covers, softbacks, as well as on the internet) well into his nineties.

His astonishing career spanned all but the first couple of decades of the 20th century and into the 21st, his first published writing, as a 15-year old student at Brookline High School, Massachusetts, being a short story in The Boston Globe entitled "Retribution" (its title and theme, in retrospect a pretty good intimation of countless vengeance-crammed plots to come), which had gained an "Honourable Mention" in a competition run by high schools throughout the Boston area. He wasn't paid for it but, spurred on by the experience, he began selling stories to a large-circulation Sunday School paper, whose editor told him he could take as much as the young Cave could produce - but would he please get hold of a typewriter and double-space his submissions.

Cave went on to conquer most fields of popular fiction over the years, writing western yarns, horror and weird- menace tales, both hard- and soft-boiled detective stories, romance fiction, SF, mysteries, spy and sea stories, and a whole flock of other sub-genres. He wrote, from his first professional pulp-magazine sale in 1929 through to the mid-1940s, almost solely for the pulps - those gloriously OTT spellbinders of a bygone age printed, as the best-selling novelist Henry Morton Robinson (who, like many American writers in the mainstream, started his career in the pulps) once mused, "on paper made apparently from gray oatmeal [and] pressed between illustrated covers seven times too vivid to be called garish".

Unlike most pulpsters, who tended, over many years, to write themselves dry in a single genre - becoming (in the lingo) "plot-shot" - Cave was ambitious. He was always, even in his early twenties, when he was busy mastering the technicalities of his trade (a story's plot, structure, movement, background colour, characterisation), looking not merely for new markets and new magazines in the pulp field, but to crack the slick-paper, high-circulation weeklies and monthlies ( Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post and so on) at the quality end of the market, where the rewards were mouth-wateringly higher, apart from any kudos gained in seeing your name on a glossy front cover.

Cave's early pulp payments were often as little as half a cent a word, although he very soon reached the acceptable target, for a pulp writer, of two cents. An 8,000-word short story would thus bring in around $160. That same story, however, re-worked for a slick-paper audience and pitched successfully at, say, Cosmopolitan, might well garner (at 40 cents per) a cheque from the magazine's "bought ledger" department for well over $3,000, a staggering amount of money in an America gripped by post-Wall Street crash "depression". A novella of 30,000 words accepted by the prestigious American Magazine, a holy grail to most writers of the time, could fetch, at its even higher rates, as much as $15,000.

Such fabulous payments had to be worked hard for, and at. Although Cave reached these giddy heights in time, throughout most of the Depression years and into the 1940s he was pounding away at his manual typewriter for gaudy monthlies such as Terror Tales, Horror Stories, Dime Mystery, Spicy Adventure, Thrilling Mystery and the celebrated Weird Tales, selling them even gaudier-titled tales: "Death Calls from the Madhouse", e.g., "The Flame Fiend", "Madmen Laugh by Moonlight", "Brides for the Dead", "Hell's Darkest Halls", "The Brotherhood of Blood", "Daughters of Dark Desire".

He became in the process a writer to be relied on by harassed editors not only to deliver the goods in style - plenty action, plenty colour, plenty shocks, plenty plot - but on time and to fit the space required. That last was sometimes crucial. It was often the case that an editor might need a short-short story of a "bastard" length - 3,680 words, say, as opposed to 3,500 or 4,000 - to fill a gap precisely and at extremely short notice. A quick phone call to a trusted writer like Cave was all that was needed to bring in a colourful, gripping yarn with a beginning, middle and breakneck-paced end.

Nor was it that unusual for Cave to get a panicky call from an editor who had a front-cover painting with plenty of bizarre action in it, but no story. In 1943 the Dime Detective editor Ken White was offered a cover by one of his regular artists which featured a grim-faced villain about to shovel a baker's peel with a body on it into a fiery oven. Could Cave come up with a 30,000-word thriller to explain, reasonably satisfactorily, what on earth was going on? Two days and two sleepless nights later Cave turned in a punchy tale he called, mindful of White's love of punning, even absurd, titles, "This is the Way We Bake Our Dead".

Hugh Barnett Cave was born in England, in Chester, in 1910, the youngest son of adventurous parents, and named after the novelist Hugh Walpole, whose early novels were admired by his mother, a voracious reader. She had been born in India (her father, George Barnett, a former Mayor of Bombay, built the Great Indian Peninsular Railway and was appointed Companion of the Indian Empire by Queen Victoria), though later travelled to South Africa, becoming a nurse during the Boer War, where she met Cave's father.

The family emigrated to America, the eastern seaboard, when Hugh Cave was five and he grew up in and around Boston, Massachusetts. (He became a naturalised American citizen in 1935.) He attended Brookline High School, sang in Boston's Emmanuel Church choir for several years, and was as voracious a reader as his mother: Conrad, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Dickens, Maugham, Jack London, Kipling (whom his mother had known in India), Dumas père, and H.G. Wells.

At Brookline High he won a scholarship to Boston University, but he had to go to work and become a breadwinner when his father was knocked down and nearly killed by a streetcar whose brakes had failed. He took a job with a vanity publisher in Boston, at 17 designing book jackets and editing manuscripts.

Although cleaning up the generally hopeless manuscripts of non-writers ought to have put him off from pursuing the literary life, quite the opposite occurred. A month short of 19 he made his first real professional sale, a short adventure yarn called "Island Ordeal", to Brief Stories, following it up a month later with another sale to the same pulp, "The Pool of Death". From then on he was a slave to the typewriter, apart from a period during the 1950s when he bought a nearly moribund coffee plantation in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica and proceeded to transform it into a small gold-mine producing award-winning coffee - and even then a book came out of the experience ( Four Paths to Paradise, 1961).

Cave started with adventure and "pure" supernatural horror, selling to Weird Tales, Ghost Stories and, before its publisher went spectacularly bankrupt, Strange Tales - for which he penned his classic tale of New England vampires "Murgunstrumm", though only receiving a few cents in the dollar after the financial smash. (Half a century later he was to get back in cash and prestige a hundred-fold for this lost payment.)

He soon found that the downmarket "weird menace" or "shudder pulp" genre was more to his taste. Here a story's climax usually (though by no means always) revealed that the horrors endured by the heroine (all-out assault by whip-wielding Satanists, libidinous "mole"-men, or deranged dwarves) had no supernatural foundation whatever, but were usually merely a cunning scheme to wrest the girl's inheritance from her.

The essential absurdity of this kind of tale, coupled with the preposterously exaggerated horrors depicted on the magazines' front covers, was not lost on Cave, who nevertheless provided many highly effective and gripping narratives within the weird-menace frame, often under the jokey pseudonym "Justin Case". He used to say he had great fun dreaming up the most bizarre and outlandishly threatening situations, and then figuring out "how to get the girl out again, unblemished".

He had even more fun contributing to another, even lower-ranking, genre, the "Spicy" line, from the by no means appropriately named Culture Publications, Inc - Spicy Mystery, Spicy Adventure, Spicy Detective, Spicy Western, in fact the usual pulp fare but with a faint (and by today's standards, laughably faint) dusting of sex. In "Spicy" yarns the harried heroine, with all the inevitability of the sun going down, had at some early juncture in the story to lose her clothes. This, above all else, was crucial, though not necessarily to the plot.

"It meant," recalled Cave,

you could throw in lines like "she passionately pressed her ravishing, generously endowed body against me", although of course it was sometimes better to have the girl half-naked, and then you could spend some time describing her "gauzy fripperies". They'd call it exploitation now, and I guess it was, but it was still very innocent.

No one ever did anything! And you still had to have a plot - a lost opal mine, a venal sheriff, a tribe of hunger-maddened cannibals on a South Seas isle closing in. And someone always had to pull a gun. The other important thing . . . about the "Spicys" was their word-rate, which was higher than most other pulps. Quite often I would get cheques for as much as a nickel [five cents] a word. For a self-employed writer with a family to keep, that was important.

Whilst peppering his stories with phrases such as "alabaster thighs" and "quivering bosoms", and gleefully striving to invent ever more unlikely deaths worse than fate for his long-suffering heroines, Cave was also moving into the hard-boiled detective field. He was the last living author to get an acceptance from the legendary "Cap" Shaw - Captain Joseph T. Shaw, editor of the ground-breaking Black Mask magazine - who, by promoting writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly, virtually created the hard-boiled genre. Cave's own breakthrough story, "Too Many Women", was, for a 22-year-old, a startlingly tough and mature piece of writing, stylistically more indebted to another great Black Mask writer, a favourite of Cave's, Frederick Nebel.

The late 1930s and 1940s were the area of the two-fisted private eye: quantities of detective-fiction pulps were created by the likes of publishers such as Harry Steeger (of the "Popular" line) and Ned Pines (of the "Thrilling" line). The first three issues of any new pulp were crucial: by the fourth the publishers would know if they had a hit on their hands or not, and thus launch issues were invariably packed with tried and tested writing talent such as Cave, who appeared in either the premiere or second issues of Star Detective (1935), Ace Mystery (1936), Pocket Detective Magazine (1936), Public Enemy (1936), Detective Short Stories (1937), Double-Action Detective (1938), Complete Detective (1938), Red Star Detective (1940), Green Ghost Detective (1941) and many more.

Like all good fictioneers Cave knew precisely how to utilise from books and magazines (such as that invaluable working tool of the pulp writer's art the National Geographic) background colour to stories set in places he had never been (up to the Second World War the furthest he had travelled from America, as an adult, was across the Canadian border on fishing trips).

His adventure yarns in particular, set in backs of beyond all over the globe - even those hammered out for the "Spicys" (where one might have thought that foreground detail rather than background was needed, and the riper the better) - from prairie to pampas, wind-swept steppe to lush savanna, were invariably alive with cleverly dabbed-in bits of exuberant local colour, unusual and vivid terrain detail. He could, if necessary (to the plot), keep a howling typhoon going for paragraph after paragraph, page after page, without recourse to the thesaurus, always moving the plot along, and genuinely keeping the reader guessing as to how, out of a possible half-dozen or so hinted-at denouements, the hero's ordeal would end.

And he had plenty of nerve, even in his twenties producing 50,000-word novelettes such as "Rifles at Dawn" ( Double Detective, July 1938), a compelling spy story set in a convincingly drawn country, Russia, he had never been within 4,000 miles of, featuring a barely manageable cast of disparate characters, a labyrinthine yet neatly worked-out plot, action galore, and a shock in the very last line.

As a Second World War correspondent Cave travelled widely in the Pacific and South-East Asian theatres of war, and at last was able, post-war, to draw on his own experiences of far-off lands for his fiction - and non-fiction, since he had found a useful source of income in "true war" books: factual wartime exploits, based on scores of interviews with those involved, and written in a pacy, populist style. Both Long Were the Nights (1943, US PT-boats holding off the Japanese off Guadalcanal) and The Fightin'est Ship (1944, the story of the cruiser Helena and its plucky crew) were best-sellers, while Wings Across the World (1945, the story of the USAF Air Transport Command) became an invaluable source-book for later air historians.

The demise of the pulps after the war (due to the rise of the comic book) did not affect Cave's career since he was now selling to the slicks. One of his main markets was Good Housekeeping, and a volume of his GH stories was much later published in the UK, A Summer Romance (1980), then in Japan, where it was used for teaching English in schools.

During the 1950s and 1960s, he lived in Jamaica and, for several winters, Haiti, which usefully not only provided material for a number of travel books (including the best-selling Haiti: highroad to adventure, 1952) but also a clutch of later paperback originals in the horror vein, in which his by then intimate knowledge of voodoo came in handy.

In the 1960s Cave's writing hit a low patch, his output down to a few romantic novels only published in the UK. Then, in 1977, came a sensational revival of interest in his genre work with the publication of a multi-story collection of fantasy and horror stories from the old pulps, from the specialist publisher Carcosa, Murgunstrumm and Others, lovingly put together by the young award-winning editor, publisher and fantasy writer Karl Edward Wagner.

As a collection Murgunstrumm won the prestigious annual World Fantasy award in 1978 and on the coat-tails of this relatively late triumph Cave was able to take the dust-cover off his typewriter and settle down to turning out fresh tales of darkness and dread, this time for mainstream publishers. He wrote a number of young-adult novels (published in Britain as well as the United States), put together a booklet of his verse ( The Sacred Cave, 1992), published a hugely entertaining volume of freewheeling reminiscences, Magazines I Remember: some pulps, their editors, and what it was like to write for them (1994), and became an honoured guest at pulp conventions all over America. In 1991, at the age of 81, he was presented with the Horror Writers of America "Life Achievement" award ("They only gave it me because everyone else is dead"), marking the event with a new novel of terror, the riveting Lucifer's Eye.

From 1977 through to the Millennium over 30 books with the Cave name on them were published, six volumes in 2000 (his 90th year) alone. At 93 he was still producing original work, and fresh collections of his 1930s and 1940s weird and adventure fiction still found a ready, indeed eager, market of readers, most of whom not even born when he was actually pounding it out.

Hugh Cave was an old-fashioned entertainer on the grand scale. Though essentially a pulp writer, time and again he rose above the restrictions of the form. Once begun, his best work is virtually impossible to put down, and out of his vast output there are doubtless titles still to come. The Mountains of Madness, a shudder-pulp voodoo novel, was published only last month, and at least one new volume of his hard-boiled detective stories is scheduled for publication in 2005.

Jack Adrian

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