Shadow of a Dark Muse: Reprint History of Original Fiction from Weird Tales 1928-1939

By Benefiel, Candace R. | Extrapolation, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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Shadow of a Dark Muse: Reprint History of Original Fiction from Weird Tales 1928-1939


Benefiel, Candace R., Extrapolation


Between the World Wars, newsstands were rife with lurid fiction marketed in the form of cheaply produced pulp magazines. These publications, inheriting the mantle of public popularity and critical opprobrium from the fiction papers and dime novels of the previous century, were largely seen as ephemeral providers of poorly written, disposable entertainment aimed primarily at young males seeking a thrilling escape from the drab world where they lived and worked. As Ron Goulart points out in his history of the pulps, Cheap Thrills, "At the close of the First World War there were barely two dozen different pulp titles, but by the middle Depression years over two hundred separate pulps were on sale" (13). Many were specialized, featuring detective, western, war, or science fiction stories. Despite their wide distribution and popular appeal, the perceived lack of enduring value of the pulps led to a long neglect of their content. Even now, few of the stories from these relatively short-lived titles remain of interest to contemporary readers. The exceptions are those stories from the pages of a pulp that billed itself as "The Unique Magazine," otherwise known as Weird Tales.

The sometimes-colorful history of Weird Tales has been amply dealt with elsewhere, including Robert Weinberg's The Weird Tales Story, and a privately printed pamphlet, by Reginald Smith, Weird Tales in the Thirties. Goulart, in the course of decrying the excessive devotion to perverse sex, violence, and torture in the general run of the horror pulps, characterizes Weird Tales as "relatively literate" (180). Borrowing from the titles of Weird Tales' fiction, he describes the pulp as offering readers, in its 1923-1954 run,

  a smorgasbord of horrors, both traditional and unusual--grinning
  ghouls, grinning mummies, haunted mansions, midnight visitors, mist
  monsters, mutations, lomb dwellers, tree men, unicorns, vampires,
  werewolves, whistling corpses, witch doctors, wolfwomen, yellow
  dooms, beasts, beetles, germs, giants, golden spiders, graveyard rats
  and black abbots, black adders, black castles, black druids, black
  hounds, black masses, black sorceries, etc. (175)

Ashley, in his history of the science fiction pulps, states that Weird Tales became "not so much a magazine as an institution" (41), but this was not a given in the turbulent early years of its publication. In its first year, under the editorship of detective pulp specialist Edwin Baird, Weird Tales, despite having published writers later to become very popular regulars in its stable such as Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Owen, Seabury Quinn, and the soon-to-be overwhelmingly influential H. P. Lovecraft, floundered both artistically and financially. A change of editor followed in late 1924, when Farnsworth Wright, a devotee of fantasy fiction who would helm Weird Tales through its greatest age, joined the magazine. Indeed, the departure of Farnsworth Wright from Weird Tales in early 1940, shortly before his death, was the final nail in the coffin of the magazine's greatest days. By that time, Weird Tales was already suffering after the losses of major contributors H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and the semi-retirement from fiction of Clark Ashton Smith (Ashley 140).

Weinberg comments, in his entry on Weird Tales in the survey Science Fiction, Fantasy and Weird Fiction Magazines, that "variety and diversity made Weird Tales something special among pulps" (729), and most commentators concur in their estimate of Weird Tales as an important and influential magazine. Weinberg's position is unequivocal. Of Weird Tales, he says,

  Not only did it offer a long-term market for supernataral and fantasy
  fiction, but it provided an outlet for stories that would never have
  been published otherwise. It was in Weird Tales that Lovecraft
  published nearly all his important work. The Cthulhu Mythos, starting
  with "The Call of Cthulhu" . 

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