Friday, May 18, 2018

Weird Tales and Missing Links (Part II)

As I promised in the last post, here is part two and thirteen more tales to go through. Do they stack up to the first half? Read on and find out.

The second half of the Weird Tales Superpack only contains stories from the original run of the magazine. Unlike last time there are no pieces from any of the reboots or relaunches.

That is just fine with me as, from what I have seen, post-original run stories are not Weird Tales at all but cutesy and comedic farces more in tone with what would run in the pointlessly influential Unknown Magazine by John W. Campbell instead of the genre-mixing and tradition-linking stories the pulps were known to be. It does not mean every story here is great, but it means they try to achieve a similar goal. There is nothing quite like a pulp story, and a weird tale is even harder to get right, but these stories continue in the vein jut as much as the ones I covered in the first part of this series. For the amount of content it offers, this pack is more than worth the paltry price in goes for.

The stories I will be covering here are:

"The Medici Boots" by Pearl Norton Swet (September, 1936)
"The House in the Valley" by August Derleth (July, 1953)
"More than Shadow" by Dorothy Quick (July, 1954)
"In the Dark" by Ronal Kayser (August-September, 1936)
"Dearest" by H. Beam Piper (March, 1951)
"Doom of the House of Duryea" by Earl Pierce, Jr. (October, 1936)
"The Mississippi Saucer" by Frank Belknap Long (March, 1951)
"Mask of Death" by Paul Ernst (August-September, 1936)
"The Ring of Basset" by Seabury Quinn (September, 1951)
"Tiger Cat" by David H. Keller (October, 1937)
"Old Mr Wiley" by Greye La Spina (March, 1951)
"The Long Arm" by Franz Habl (October, 1937)
"The People of the Black Circle" by Robert E. Howard (September, 1934)

Another spread like last time. I am unsure why there is not much taken from the 1940s, but it is what it is. Let's get back into it.

The first story in this piece is The Medici Boots by Pearl Norton Swet. This one is about the titular relics from an old age, a pair of boots with a secret. A young woman tries them on and mysterious things start to happen. She begins to change. It's a bit predictable and the ending just sort of happens, but the whole story behind the boots is fascinating.

Next we have August Derleth's The House in the Valley which is a Lovecraftian tale. I've never read Mr. Derleth's work before, though I have tremendous respect for his contributions to genre fiction. My problem is that I dislike Lovecraftian fiction fully and absolutely. I enjoy Weird Tales. I enjoy horror tales. I enjoy the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I do not like pastiche and I do not like aping of others. The reason is that I read stories because art is meant to connect the reader and creator to something above both parties. That connection is hampered by the creator refusing to follow their own muse. It doesn't mean one can't write a good story with another's parts, it simply means I won't be invested in the makeshift vehicle. Part of that problem is highlighted in this very tale. Mr. Derleth does not understand, like everyone who writes such fiction, that the appeal of Mr. Lovecraft is the clash between reality and unreality, and the certain with the uncertain, all done with high dramatics and an odd understatement, which makes them glorious contradictions of entertainment. Mr. Derleth is simply writing a monster story, and the bolted on Lovecraft parts hurts it. This was an utter bore.

More Than Shadow by Dorothy Quick is next. A shadow the shape of a dog appear on a carpet and soon enough a dog appears that acts just like the shadow did. It takes a lot of skill to make a poodle, of all dogs, eerie, but the author manages it and then some. This was a welcome return to the expected style of Weird Tales after the last story completely broke the pace. I will definitely seek out more Quick to read in the future.

Following on that is Ronal Kayser's In the Dark. After hours at a chemical plant, the watchman and the president are alone. As the watchman does his rounds, the president is leaving a recorded message behind. You see, he has done some terrible, awful things and is falling apart in his guilt. But there was more to it than a simple crime. A lingering ghost clings to him and pries at his consciousness. This was fantastic. I was engaged from page one until the end of this short piece. It sure is nice to get back into the good material again after the disappointment of Derleth's tale.

Then we come to Dearest by H. Beam Piper. An old colonel deals with his relatives trying to put him away. He had taken them in after his brother died, and they now use the excuse of his advanced age to take their share of the inheritance and put him away. Stories like this never really stop being relevant, unfortunately, though there is no preaching about the issue here, thankfully. A voice speaks to the protagonist one day out of the blue and begins telling him things. They strike up an odd relationship that leads to an ending that is quite extreme. Personally, I think it goes on a bit too long after that climax, but the story is strong enough that it didn't bother me.

Following on that is a longer piece by Earl Pierce Jr. entitled Doom of the House of Duryea. A man named Arthur Duryea reconvenes with his father after a twenty year absence. Arthur's aunt warned him of his father's secret: that is vampirism. But it is not the sort of vampirism you might be thinking of. This weird tale ramps up with its eerie atmosphere to an ending that is as creepy as it is horrifying. One of the best here.

The Mississippi Saucers by Frank Belknap Long is next. In this story, a boy named Jimmy rides shantyboat along the river with his sister and uncle. He reads in the paper of what looks to be a monster flying in the sky. Soon enough he finds himself tangled up with forces outside of his control. Isn't it funny how before the '80s one could write a story with a child as a protagonist and not have it classified as an entirely different genre? Because even though being a child affects how Jimmy acts and sees the world, it does not change this from being a Weird Tale like any other one here. It was probably because no one needed a protagonist to look like them to be invested in a story. Would be nice to go back to that again. Anyway, I digress. It turns out the object is a UFO. But before he can deal with that some men come to his uncle's boat to cause trouble. The weakness of this story is that the UFO has to be explained (as does the very hokey and unneeded transhumanist message) which takes a lot of the mystery and wonder out of what was already a strong piece. It also goes on too long. But as a whole it is a fun piece.

We then come to the infamous Dr. Satan. This a story about a mysterious man who has all kinds of knowledge of the occult and uses it to commit crimes while a detective foils his schemes. You see, Weird Tales once tried to have their own pulp "hero" (actually a villain) for the magazine. Those who wrote into the magazine apparently protested, so it didn't last, but at least they gave it a go to try and tap the market. This story is by Paul Ernst and is called Mask of Death. It's a decent mystery, but not very engaging and takes far too long to get going. It wasn't that readers of the magazine were adverse to heroics (Conan made his debut here, after all) but that the story and villain character just are not very strong or engaging. There's more than a little unfulfilled potential in an occult powered villain who terrorizes the innocent. The ending also has everyone sitting around and discussing how the problem was solved which is not very Weird Tales at all and, like the last story, drags the weirdness out. Not a bad story, but definitely not a highlight. This tale just doesn't do it for me.

Thankfully we get back into what we all came here for with the single biggest contributor to Weird Tales' entire 31 year run. That would be Seabury Quinn who wrote 146 tales, and the story included here is The Ring of Bastet. This one star his famous Dr. Jules de Grandin, occult detective. The doctor and his friend are eating at a restaurant when a party comes in and a woman passes out. She's wearing a certain ring which leads things to spin out of control. This story is a lot like the previous story but done far better with smoother pacing and a plot that constantly moves from one point to the next. It is easy to see why the character appeared so much in the magazine while Dr. Satan died off.

David H. Keller's Tiger Cat follows and brings us away from detective stories. A man buys a villa (actually a mountain!) and discovers a door that has not been opened by previous residents. What he finds on the other side is the stuff nightmares are made of. The biggest disappointment with this is the lack of blatant fantastical elements. This could have slid right into a weird menace magazine. But it is still quite engaging to the end.

Old Mr Wiley by Greye La Spina is one of the better known storytellers from Weird Tales even if her work has not been in print for a long time. In this one a boy has grown ill and his great-grandfather gives him a puppy to cheer him up. But because the mother is a selfish person, they have to meet in secret so the boy can see the animal. His nurse plots to make him better without upsetting her employers. This story was a delight with colorful characters and an ending that had me wanting more. One of the the best in the pack. I'll definitely by looking for more of her work in the future.

We then come to The Long Arm by Franz Habl, a more traditional horror piece. The main character meets an old friend who begins to spill his guts about some shady things that happened in the past. Strange deaths and mental abilities are pieces of the dark puzzle that is his friend's story, and leads to an ending that you might not see coming unless you know Weird Tales. It was a good story, but the abrupt ending could have used a bit more meat to it.

Lastly, we reach another piece by Robert E. Howard to bookend the collection. This one is known as The People of the Black Circle, and is one of his most popular. As one would imagine, this is a Conan story. A princess begs for help after being tormented by sorcerers and having her brother, the king, killed. Of course she comes upon Conan who is more than willing to take up the task and slay any sorcerer scourge. There is much else aside from the main plot, multiple character motivations, and plenty of action to go around to end this Weird Tales pack off right. Howard was one of the best for a reason.

One odd thing about these stories is not just their strangeness, but their general uniform intent. If I had not known better I could have sworn they were all written for this anthology, all at the same time, and all following a very vague theme. You would not know these 20+ stories all spanned a thirty year range otherwise as these authors are all following a tradition going back to at least Edgar Allen Poe and are all doing so while letting their own individual talents and interests filter their attempts. This linked tradition is what hold them all together to form a greater whole which is probably why Weird Tales garnered such a readership that was so loyal at its peak and why it is the most fondly remembered pulp magazine.

But I will add one note. This only happened after I had read most of the stories here, but it became very noticeable to me. I noticed a shift in latter entries.

The later stories contained more mundane settings and resulted in less fantastical elements aside from a monster or two. Even the more realistic settings are not given quite the wondrous touch the earlier stories gave. Something had definitely changed with Weird Tales. The stories edited by Farnsworth Wright (pre-1940) had fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all in weird and wondrous locations that were just as fascinating as the strange problems the protagonists found themselves embroiled in. It felt like fantasy that was one step from being real. A large chunk of the post-1940 stories all take place in cities or suburban areas and have a tendency to over-explain the mysterious element. They read more like normal horror stories. The fantastical settings are almost entirely gone, as well.

Now, this doesn't really hurt quality, as some of the post-1940 stories are better than the earlier ones, but it is a noticeable shift. I'm not sure if this can be blamed on the editor change, but I think it has more to do with shifting tastes of the authors writing. A number of the same people who wrote in mundane settings would go on to write for John W. Campbell's Unknown which specialized in muddying up wonder and imagination to water down fantasy itself. And Unknown was never popular with readers so it clearly wasn't an audience choice for this shift.

Nonetheless, just about every story here is more interesting than the mainstream short fiction anthologies of today. If you want to know why the popularity of short stories dropped off, this shift from the way Weird Tales did it might have had a lot to do with the problem. But that has nothing to do with this release.

There is nothing but storytelling here. No preaching, no nihilism, no attempt to inform the reader of a truth that their ignorant brains haven't yet comprehended, no perfect vision of the future spoon fed to the audience (aside from one hokey story), and no snarky irreverence to reality itself. These were written for one purpose: to entertain. And that's exactly what they do.

Are these tales dated? That depends on what weasel-word terminology one uses to define their claim. They were written in specific eras which means the characters speak in dialects common to those time periods. As they should. I don't know when the ridiculous charge of "dated" meant that authors should have psychic abilities that let them understand terminology and phrases that arose after their deaths, but I also do not understand why certain critics have the need to punish them for these "problems" the writers could not have foreseen. In that aspect, they are timeless.

The writers were attempting to link to a tradition older than themselves. Regardless of time or space, these tales go beyond a simple charge of being irrelevant because they aim for greater things than speculating on science that might be proven wrong in a few years or a social fad everyone will be laughing at even sooner. They hit on eternal truths and are focused on a form of entertainment made to pass down through the ages, regardless of fads or trends. This are timeless.

If there's a reason they are dated it is because we no longer allow ourselves to link to traditions or generations older than our own. We are focused on stories that exist as mirrors to reflect back on us instead of ones that exist as windows to a potentially bigger and greater world than the one we live in. If there's a reason they are dated it is because we have lost our imagination. If there is a reason they are dated it is because we have no link with those who lived before us.

If that is the case then we have bigger problems to worry about than an inability to enjoy old fiction.

Because only the old can stand the test of time.

I write Weird Fiction of my own, though in the Action Adventure genre. Want to follow an ex-punk as he battles mud monsters from Hell on a dying world? I've got you covered.

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