Prolific Pulp Writer Hugh Cave Dies at 93
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page B06
Liquored-up private eyes, femmes fatales quivering in passion -- tenderly! vulnerably! -- babe-crazy mole men, voodoo and vampires: This was the realm of the immensely prolific sex and horror writer Hugh B. Cave, 93, who died June 27 at a hospice in Vero Beach, Fla. He had diabetes.
Since his teenage years in Boston, rarely a week passed without Mr. Cave publishing a tale brimming with what one reviewer approvingly called his "vulgar energy."
He specialized in grisly prose that proliferated in Dime Detective, Black Mask, Weird Tales, Spicy Adventure and other hard-boiled magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. He also wrote nonfiction action tales during World War II and won renown for accurate depictions of Haitian voodoo practices and Creole patois, based on several years living in the Caribbean.
He had more than 800 pieces published during the heyday of pulp magazines -- working his way up to 5 cents a word -- and later sold more than 350 stories to "the slicks," such as Saturday Evening Post, American Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook and Collier's. Those assignments earned him upward of $12,000 for a romance novelette.
With pulp magazines disappearing during World War II paper-rationing drives, Mr. Cave came to rely on mainstream publications and books to earn a living. He spun out more than 50 book titles -- including several due out in the next few years.
Regularly feted as one of the last giants of the pulp days, he was honored at horror-enthusiast festivals and conventions.
Hugh Barnett Cave was born in Chester, England. His literary interest sprang from his mother, who vividly remembered her former neighbor, Rudyard Kipling. She became a nurse and met Mr. Cave's father, an accountant who worked for the British army, during the Boer War. They moved to Boston, where they raised their son.
The elder Cave was seriously injured in a streetcar accident, went into a coma, and upon recovery became estranged from the family. "That generated the seed of interest in writing horror stories," said Mr. Cave's biographer, Milt Thomas.
The father later moved to Sweden with his secretary, leaving his son grief-stricken.
Mr. Cave was an enthusiastic reader as a child. At 15, he won honorable mention in a short-story contest sponsored by the Boston Globe, and within a few years went to work for a vanity press as a designer of book jackets.
His literary career began after a car accident. While Mr. Cave was recuperating in the hospital, his publisher asked him to edit a manuscript written by the publisher of "Brief Stories," a pulp magazine. He wrote his own submissions to the magazine, "Island Ordeal" and "The Pool of Death," which appeared in July and August 1929.
A fast writer, he embraced the pulp market much derided by "serious authors" of the day. Recognizing the overripe nature of his chosen field, he sometimes used the amusing pseudonym "Justin Case." He said he knew what publishers expected, namely an excuse to disrobe the heroine, and the earlier the better.
He told one interviewer: "It meant 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."
As a craftsman, he took his work quite seriously and tried to distinguish it with authentic descriptions of New England roadhouses and Caribbean climes. At first, he relied on National Geographic and other journals for background material. Later, he lived on a 541-acre coffee plantation in Jamaica that he renovated and made profitable.
In his horror novel "Legion of the Dead" (1979), he tried to subvert the usual expectation of the art by showing voodoo as a force for good.
One of his best-known stories was "Murgunstrumm," which features vampires at a country hotel. He thought up the idea after a repulsive-looking country farmer, angered that Mr. Cave wandered onto his land while looking for a fishing hole, chased him from the property. The author went home and used the farmer as a model for a vampire.
He turned to nonfiction during World War II, writing a best-seller, "Long Were the Nights" (1943), about PT boats at Guadalcanal. The military was pleased and sent him to the South Pacific to find other stories. He wrote four more, including "The Fightin'est Ship" (1944), about the cruiser Helena, and "I Took the Sky Road" (1945), about Cmdr. Norman M. "Bus" Miller, a highly decorated Navy pilot.
For all his association with magazines filled with purple prose and little plausibility, Mr. Cave became angry when he saw sloppy writing. A former short-story judge for Scholastic magazine, he once decried student writers with "a dangerous contempt for discipline" and editors "who mistakenly think that prose, to be effective, must be as murky as swamp water."
He saw himself as a defender of common sense in language and was particularly disdainful of the phrase, "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," which he considered meaningless.
He married Margaret Long Cave in 1935. They grew estranged but did not divorce. She died in 2003. He spent 21 years with Peggie Thompson until her death in 2001. A son from his marriage died in 1985.
Survivors include his son and a grandson.
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