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83-year-old returns from the dead!

How weird is that? In the pulp fiction world of Weird Tales magazine, which has been revived five times, not very.

April 05, 2006|Peter Carlson | Washington Post

A disc jockey, who happens to be a werewolf, battles Satan in the mosh pit of a punk bar.

Plato attends a party thrown by the gods and is served the Platonic ideal of a cream pie. "This is the real thing," he says, "not just the shadow on the wall." Then the gods start a food fight.

In hell, Benito Mussolini is tried for war crimes. When he's convicted, a beast with the head of a hippo and the body of a crocodile eats Il Duce's heart in one big gulp.

Weird things happen to weird creatures in the weird stories in Weird Tales magazine. But the weirdest tale of all might be the story of Weird Tales, an 83-year-old bimonthly pulp magazine that keeps rising from the dead. Now, it is alive and living in a red brick house in Rockville, Md.

On the front lawn, there's a sign with pictures of bunnies and eggs and a cheery greeting: "Happy Easter." John Gregory Betancourt, publisher and co-editor of Weird Tales, lives here with his wife, who works for Fannie Mae, and their kids, cats and dogs.

Down in the cellar, in a room packed with pulp magazines, new and vintage, Betancourt, 42, the author of 37 fantasy and sci-fi novels, publishes Weird Tales. With help from editors, writers and illustrators around the country, he also publishes six other genre mags: Adventure Tales, Strange Tales, Cat Tales, Fantasy, H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

Betancourt's company, Wildside Press, also issues reprints of classic pulp magazines from the '30s and '40s, containing not only the original stories and pictures, but also the original ads, which are kitsch classics:

"ROMEOS: Don't let your love-making be spoiled by a cough due to a cold.... Keep Smith Brothers' cough drops handy."

But the heart of Betancourt's pulp empire is Weird Tales. Founded in 1923 and dubbed "the unique magazine," it published horror and fantasy stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and Robert E. Howard, whose Conan the Barbarian was born in its pages.

The decades between the world wars were the golden age of pulps, cheaply printed mags packed with sensational stories of crime and love and horror. Weird Tales distinguished itself from the pack by focusing on horror and by printing famously racy covers by Margaret Brundage, the "queen of the pulps," who specialized in painting nearly naked women being tortured by fiends and monsters.

In 1954, Weird Tales died, killed by television. It was born again in 1973, only to die again after four issues. In 1981, it resurfaced in the form of a paperback book but died after four more issues. In 1984, it resurrected, publishing Stephen King and Bradbury before succumbing again. In 1988, it climbed out of the grave -- Betancourt was among the editors -- and lasted four years before once more kicking the bucket. In 1998, it was revived by a husband-and-wife team. Last fall, they sold Weird Tales to Betancourt.

"I've always loved the magazine," says Betancourt, who discovered pulp fiction as a teenager in New Jersey. "Many of my favorite stories originally appeared there."

Weird Tales has a circulation of 5,000, but Betancourt feels he can sell more copies. He hopes to catch eyes on newsstands by publishing delightfully lurid covers by Rowena Morrill, a worthy successor to Brundage.

WT's April cover is a Morrill painting of a ghostly, hollow-eyed sorcerer clad in a black gown with a chain belt that holds two drooling skulls. That's a gem, but it can't quite match Morrill's February cover: a buxom blond clasped in the tentacles of a giant, leering octopus.

"That was done as a book cover in the '80s, but I don't remember what was in the book," Morrill says by phone from her studio in upstate New York. "They said, 'Come up with the most outrageous image you can, and make it in the style of pulp fiction.' I thought it was hilarious."

Betancourt loves Morrill's paintings. So does Saddam Hussein. In 2003, American soldiers found several Morrill masterpieces decorating one of Saddam's palaces.

She doesn't know how the paintings, originally done as book covers, reached Saddam but she was horrified to learn that he's a fan. She's more comfortable seeing her work in Weird Tales, although she admits, somewhat sheepishly, that she doesn't read the magazine.

Perhaps she should. Weird Tales is a lot of fun. The April issue contains 10 short stories and seven poems, all of them certifiably weird. In one, the employees of a British nursing home huddle around the dying, feasting on their souls at the moment of death. In another, a stranger stopping in a small German town on Christmas Eve is invited to a church service, only to learn that the congregation's offering to God is ... him.

Along with the horror, there's some humor. "The Grave of My Beloved" is a darkly comic tale about online cemeteries and their attendant problem of "cyber-necrophilia." And "Fimbuldinner: The Last Supper" -- the story in which Plato watches the food fight of the gods -- is a zippy, zany romp: "There was something menacing about her. He couldn't really put his finger on what it was, but the necklace of skulls was high on the list."

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