Monday, 26 February 2018

Weird Tales and Missing Links (Part I)


I have been fascinated with Weird Tales for a while now. There wasn't nothing like it where I grew up, and nowhere to learn anything about it. In a world starved for unique, bizarre, and fun fiction with a bit of brains, we appear to either have Big 5 published grey gruel pushed on us or are forced to journey out into the wild world of independent publishing and barrel through the brush to seek it out. There is no more cohesive library for fans of the phenomenally fantastic to find what they want.

So most people walk away. We see that trend continuing year after year. Genre fiction is dying. If we want to save it we have to go back to the source and see what we're missing and what we can regain from the era that was the most prosperous. That time period, whether you want to admit it or nor, is the pulp era.

Appendix N proved that there was a very obvious canon of fantastical tales that influenced a whole generation to the point that they were building games in order to play in those worlds. Sure, one could argue that Appendix N was only what Gary Gygax preferred, but it's not worth arguing and is clearly not true when speaking to those that lived in that era. Looking at any account of fiction fans of the time one would be hard-pressed to not see mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Abraham Merritt, Henry Kuttner, H.P. Lovecraft, Leigh Brackett, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Manly Wade Wellman, Edmond Hamilton, Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard. These names were conveniently erased over time by those who wanted to use genre fiction for something other than escapist entertainment and for something considerably less inspired and far more idiotic. Those that did survive were tarred and feathered, and essentially read out as the wrong sort to read.

Even to this day you will have those refusing to read writers from the Golden Age of genre fiction because of hearsay and rumors, and not because of any story they ever wrote. In fact, the term Golden Age itself was co-opted for use for a later generation that did not influence nearly as much as the pulps did. That bit of deceptiveness has cost much over the years. Just as Superman is the Golden Age of comic books, John Carter is the Golden Age of genre fiction. Take it or leave it, but it is what it is.

This needless erasure is a shame, because what they wrote is quite good. Phenomenal, even. You can even find these stories for free, as most are in the public domain. You can even easily find information on these writers if you are so inclined.

The pulp era Golden Age is more accessible than ever before, and every reader is free to make their own decision on how well they hold up.

Right now, you can go on amazon.com and buy a pack of 26 stories by most of these authors for $2. That is less than you'll pay for the most recent forgettable John Scalzi book, and you will be offered some of the best stories you've probably never read. And they are quite delightful. You will be able to read stories without artificial genre boundaries and where you will be pulled into a world much like ours only from an angle you might not have considered. No politics, no preaching, no pointless perversion. Just fun and a good time.

And real fantasy and fun. None of John W. Campbell's trying to make fantasy fiction "realistic" or trying to take the grandeur and teeth out of the action. There was a magazine for that called Unknown. It didn't last very long, and yet its influence is puzzling. But that's a whole other topic. This post is about the real best magazine in fantasy, one that lasted much longer. This is about Weird Tales.

Personally, I was stunned reading these. I know I've said that a lot since going on this journey through the old canon and missing link between adventure classics like Haggard and modern pulp like the original Star Wars movies, but this time I mean it. Let me go through each story to show you. In this post I will go through the first 13 stories of 26 and will save the remainder for a follow-up post.

"Beyond the Black River" by Robert E. Howard (May and June, 1935)
"The Secret of Kralitz" by Henry Kuttner (October, 1936)
"The Shunned House" by H.P. Lovecraft (October, 1937)
"Way Station" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (November, 1953)
"Never Stop to Pat a Kitten" by Miriam Allen deFord (July, 1954)
"The Diary of Philip Westerly" by Paul Compton (August-September, 1936)
"The Door into Infinity" by Edmond Hamilton (August-September, 1936)
"Isle of the Undead" by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (October, 1936)
"The Perfect Host" by Theodore Sturgeon (November, 1948)
"Gainful Employment" by Jamie Wild (Summer, 2000)
"The Tree of Life" by C.L. Moore (October, 1936)
"Mop-Head" by Leah Bodine Drake (January, 1954)
"The Golgotha Dancers" by Manly Wade Wellman (October, 1937)

As you can see, it's a very varied list that spans a good amount of time. And the stories themselves are also quite a decent spread of Weird Tale goodness. They hold different settings, characters, and ideas, with the only constant being that they are limitless tales of the unknown. They can go anywhere and do anything.

And that they do.

Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard is a Conan story involving a plot to slay a wizard, an advancing force of Pictish invaders, and demon monsters summoned from the depths. Conan faces insurmountable odds, but he doesn't face them alone. If there is a better story to start off a Weird Tales anthology than a Conan story I severely doubt it. You get your action, drama, and eerie feels here with an ending that will grow hairs on your chest. This sets the tone going forward.

Henry Kuttner's The Secret of Kralitz is a Gothic Horror tale in the Lovecraftian mold starring a line of barons that teeter toward an indescribable fate. It takes a bit to get rolling, but once you reach the end you'll almost wish it were longer. This is a part of the literature tradition modern genre fiction has all but gutted. The creeping unknown of what you think is and might be falls upon you like it does the protagonist. Gothic influence is regularly ejected in favor of nihilism these days, and that's a shame. The old tradition offers so much more to the reader.

But then we get to who is probably the most well-known author here. That would be H.P. Lovecraft and his story The Shunned House which is business as usual for him. It starts with a detailed history of the house in question, reminding the reader of The Dunwich Horror published nine years prior though actually written first, giving off the vibe of an historical document more than a short story. Unfortunately, unlike that story, the beginning is far too long-winded and most of it is inconsequential to the best parts of the story. However, I would say the second half is a better story than Dunwich if only because the protagonist is heroic, works to solve the problem, and actually succeeds in the end despite his circumstances. As such, this is heroic fiction and was exactly what this reader enjoys the most. There really was no writer quite like Lovecraft.

We then jump to the 1950s with Mary Elizabeth Counselman and her story Way Station which is unrelated to the Clifford Simak novel of the same title. A newly wed couple enters a motel and learns the inhabitants inside may not be what they seem. This story managed a balance of eeriness and lightheartedness that completely disarmed me when reading. I had guessed the secret early, but that was apparently the point, as the plot then went beyond it for a warm ending that easily made up for what predictability there was. This is the first story I've read of hers, and it probably won't be the last.

Never Stop to Pat a Kitten by Miriam Allen deFord was such a pleasant delight that I had to pause after reading it to reconfirm this story did exist and I didn't just make up reading it. Essentially, a man stops to pet an adorable kitten on the street and the bizarre begins to occur. I don't want to spoil exactly where it goes, but this is what I think of when I think of the term Weird Tales. They just don't make them like this anymore.

After that we go into a similar piece by Paul Compton called The Diary of Philip Westerly. This involves a dark reflection in the mirror that grows more plain as the protagonist grow more demonic. This felt far more like a vignette than I would have liked with an ending that didn't really go anywhere. I was reminded of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, but whereas that involved a beautiful man with a stained soul, this didn't really explain what sort of man the lead was to tell me if I should root for him or understand his plight. The stakes are more assumed than anything and he is a very insular man which makes understanding his decisions difficult. It was good, but the ending was definitely weak.

But then we reach what might be my second favorite of the bunch (you'll know my first soon enough) by Edmond Hamilton, the planet cracker, world wrecker, and sphere smasher himself. But this is an action pulp called The Door into Infinity and not Space Opera. And man alive is it incredible. Mr. Hamilton could switch genres like he was changing shirts. Secret societies, beasts from beyond time, knife fights, daring escapes, and dread fill this piece from beginning to end. If there was one story that slapped me in the face and told me to keep the pages turning, it was this one.

And here's my favorite review of this piece:


Sounds great to me!

Next is Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's Isle of the Dead. This actually ran a month after the previous story did in the original run of the magazine. A yacht comes across a mysterious island of zombies and the poor lost protagonists must figure a way out as everything goes to hell. Keep in mind that these are not typical postmodern George Romero zombies, but old school dead and bloated corpses moving on their own as if from some unseen force with a purpose. This is another full tight adventure story that is actually surprisingly graphic even today. It isn't for the squeamish! Pure horror. Nonetheless, it's a good one.

Theodore Sturgeon's The Perfect Host follows. This one also took me a while to get into. Each part is named after a different character with a different point of view to a series of events. Basically, a sick woman leaps from the balcony of a hospital and dies . . . or did everyone see what they thought they did? Even the pulps could try literary tricks, and this story is a prime example. Though it does have the problem of a couple of the characters rambling a lot and taking time getting to the point. If this was done in a novel it would absolutely drive me mad. Experimental ideas like this really do work better in short form. That said, this is what you read Weird Tales for.

Gainful Employment by Jamie Wild is next and is the only story here from the year 2000 and outside of the original run of the magazine. The fantasy setting leads way to a tongue in cheek comedy with dialogue to match that could have come from The Simpsons or Monty Python's Flying Circus. The main character meets a dragon who gives him a job. He completes the job then gets another one. It's a fine enough cutesy comedy, but there is nothing about it that screams Weird Tales and could have easily run in any other magazine. There is no weight, no drama, and no eerie atmosphere, that even the lighter stories have. The story is a subversive take on a knight's quest which goes pretty much where you think it will when the dragon starts talking back to the hapless main character. It's just a solid comedy fantasy story that is clearly from the '90s/'00s. If that's what you want, then this is for you. But it's not Weird Tales, or pulp, and it shows how far away short stories have been pulled from that tradition over the years.

But right away we're pulled into The Tree of Life by one of the finest writers of genre fiction that ever lived. That would be C.L. Moore, and this is the best story in the collection. This a tale of Northwest Smith, the obvious inspiration for Han Solo, as he deals with a ruined civilization and what may in fact be the darker remnants. Instantly, the weight missing from the last story returns as does the Weird Tales perfect blend of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror in one perfect amalgamation of a story about beauty and danger that are so close and yet just out reach for mortal man to grasp. I have never come across another writer that had perfectly captured this mood than C.L. Moore did. One of the worst things to happen to genre fiction was this loss of intense Gothic mood that allowed so much flexibility in what stories could allow. Needless to say, this is one of the best stories in this collection eve if you're not big on the Gothic style. Space bounty hunter hunts down an abomination. That's all you need.

The oddly named Mop-Head by Leah Bodine Drake follows. A woman marries a young widower and one of the kids just doesn't take to her. But then something called "Mop-Head" begins to get involved with their family and everything gets turned on its head. Leah Bodine Drake was mostly known for her poetry and this is one of two short stories she actually wrote for Weird Tales. It's a shame she didn't write more. This was well worthy of printing as a creepy horror story with one odd monster that will make your skin crawl.

Lastly, we have a story by the great Manly Wade Wellman to end this post on which is The Golgotha Dancers. The tale is about a haunted painting where those inside come out to terrify the owner. Wellman's eccentric prose style really helps this come alive. The specific inscription on the painting is what really got to me. It was simple, but memorable.

"I, too, came close. There was no plate, just as the guard had said. But in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas were sprawling capitals, pale paint on the dark, spelling out the word GOLGOTHA. Beneath these, in small, barely readable script: 
"I sold my soul that I might paint a living picture."

Of course if you've read a haunted painting story before you more or less know where this is going, but let's also be honest. No one under the age of 40 has probably read a haunted painting story unless they went looking for it. Like I had to. Nevertheless, it makes a good addition to this collection in rounding out the story selection for a story well appreciated. If the ending doesn't make you smile then you simply have no heart.

These stories do make me wonder about the narrative that women were discriminated against in the pulp era. A good portion of those included in this pack, and in Weird Tales' actual pages, were women and known to be women, and the magazine enjoyed high sales regardless of that fact. They also wrote better than many of the writers put out books for the big publishers today. And everyone was fine with it.

It also makes me wonder just why the success of Weird Tales has been downplayed by certain individuals in the industry. The relationship between its tremendous success and its forcible removal from influence in Western genre fiction is baffling. It sold far more than the John W. Campbell attempt at gutted Fantasy and has a had a bigger effect worldwide on genre stories in literary form and other mediums than anything Campbell pushed out. So why did Unknown have more influence on the North American literary market when the audience wanted stories like Weird Tales and not more like Unknown? Why were the audience's wishes ignored and told what they were supposed to read? Why were writers encouraged to travel paths the majority of their readers didn't want them to go? Does this correlate with genre fiction's segregation into tiny fan clusters (fetishizing certain subgenres to the exclusion of its much deeper roots) while the larger audience simply walked away from their ghetto? Is that why sales keep dropping year after year and continue to get more and more insular? It sure seems like pulp is what the audience wants as the success of anime, detective stories and mysteries, video games, manga, bande desinee, superhero movies, and the continued popularity of old Star Wars and '80s genre films show. All of which were heavily indebted to the pulps and all of which enjoy more success than what followed Campbell's example.

Something isn't adding up, and it goes surprisingly far back. It is plenty suspicious.

But that's enough of that. I'm getting off track.

We will see how the rest of this collection goes when we reach the second part. I'm eagerly awaiting getting to it.



As for pulp inspired works, I have my own out there now. You can check it out at the link below and tell me how I'm doing!


2 comments:

  1. Man, you get some of the good stuff in that super pack. I had no idea that was out there, thanks for the tip.

    ReplyDelete