Thursday, 6 May 2010

"Weird Tales" and its writers

The magazine "Weird Tales" has a legendary reputation amongst fans of fantasy and science fiction, but little seems to be known about it in detail.

It was a monthly magazine, first issued in March 1923; founded by J.C. Henneberger, an Edgar Allen Poe enthusiast, and edited by Edwin C. Baird, who was also responsible for a companion magazine, "Detective Tales". Considering its later reputation, it comes as a surprise to learn that it was never much of a commercial success: its first issues failed to make money and in 1924 it was taken over by Farnsworth Wright, who edited it for the next sixteen years. Its backbone in this period was provided by three writers I am going to look at here: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith; though it also provided an early outlet for such young writers as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and, improbably enough, Tennessee Williams. Rates of pay were always low, a great deal of rubbish was printed, and the stiking semi-pornographic covers by Margaret Brundage (frequently showing a scantily-clad girl in the grip of an alien monster) generally had little to do with the contents. Even so, the magazine was rarely profitable.

Let's look at the writers.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an oddity, stemming no doubt from his unfortunate childhood. He was born in Rhode Island in 1890 and lost his father at the age of 8. An overprotective mother gave him hypochondriac tendencies and consequent irregular schooling, and when she died in 1921 his aunts took over her role. He never really escaped from this. He inherited just enough money to enable him not to have to work for wages, provided he was content to live frugally. He never held a long-term regular job, nor did he ever even make a serious attempt to earn a decent living from his writing (which included being paid small sums for "revising" other people's stories: one of those he assisted with this ghost-writing being the escapologist Harry Houdini). He lived in New York for a few years, them returned to Rhode Island in 1926 and remained there, except for occasional brief forays, for the rest of his life. He made little attempt to adjust to life in the 20th century, preferring to see himself as an 18th century "gentleman of leisure" and to live accordingly; an ideal for which his means were, at best, barely adequate.
In his earlier years he was violently racist, despising not only negroes but, more typically, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and even French-speaking Canadians; but towards the end of his life he supported Roosevelt, detested Hitler, and described himself as a socialist. His interests were wide: he always tried to keep abreast of developments in science, so he was fascinated by the discovery of Pluto in 1930, and was aware of (and supported) the geological theory of Continental Drift as early as 1931. It is, however, typical of the man that when he visited Quebec and was surprised to find there was no adequate guidebook to the old city, he set himself to write one - but, having completed the task (which ran to 75,000 words) he made not the slightest attempt to interest a publisher: it was "solely for his own amusement"! One of the paradoxes of his life was his marriage to a divorced Russian Jewess, Sonia Green, who was seven years his senior and possessed of far more business acumen. Inevitably they drifted apart after a few years, though amicably. This strange marriage, combined with the total lack of women, sex or "love-interest" in his stories, has inevitably led to speculations that Lovecraft was impotent, or a suppressed homosexual, but the reality seems to have been much more boring - he simply didn't have much sexual motivation.
Lovecraft was a compulsive writer. Apart from his stories and some poems, his biographer L. Sprague de Camp estimates that he wrote perhaps 100,000 letters inhis lifetime, up to 15 a day, some of them very long. His correspondance with Clark Ashton Smith alone ran at 40,000 words a year at its peak. He became involved in amateur journalism as a teenager, with stories and scientific articles, and woeked for "Weird Tales" from the start, though the magaine never paid him much. His earliest influence was Poe, but then in 1919 he attended a lecture by Lord Dunsany, the Anglo-Irish fantasy writer, and for a while his stories showed a strong Dunsanian influence. About 1926 he began his Cthulu stories, which are generally seen as his most typical work; the general theme being that a race of malignant super-beings, who once inhabited the earth but were driven out, try to break back in again by psychic contact with humans.
His weaknesses as a writer are obvious: some would maintain that he simply couldn't write. His choice of words, especially adjectives, was completely without taste; often pedantic, pompous or just silly; always in danger of detracting from any atmosphere he had built up. His heroes are less than heroic; generally scholarly but weak and timid, and prone to swooning from fear (see footnote at end). He did not have Tolkien's attention to detail: he drew no maps of his imaginary lands (where was Leng in relation to Kadath? He never bothered to work it out), and the snatches of invented languages occasionally uttered by his monsters are simply impossible. Nevertheless, his morbid intensity of vision just about overcame his manifest defects. He really did believe in his monstrous creations, or it seemed that he did. And just aoccasionally he managed to produce a really good story, without too many lapses of literary taste.
By 1936 Lovecraft was more or less bust, not earning enough to live on and with his inherited capital rapidly diminishing. He was also in poor health, complaining of indigestion. In March 1937 he was found to have intestinal cancer, too far advanced for an operation. He bore the situation stoically and was dead within a fortnight. None of his works appeared in book form during his lifetime, and his fame is largely posthumous, particularly through the efforts of August Derleth.

Robert Ervin Howard came from a very different background. He was born in 1906, the son of a country doctor in Cross Plains, Texas. He always fancied himself as a cowboy, and liked to appear sporting revolvers and a ten-gallon stetson hat. Despite this macho image and the frequent idealisation of barbarians in his stories, he strongly objected to Lovecraft's racism and often rebuked him for it.
As a writer, we would have to say that Howard set himself strictly limited goals, and hence generally achieved them. He stuck to a very basic vocabulary, thus avoiding Lovecraft's use of unfelicitous words and phrases. He was at his best describing action, especially violent action, and attempted virtually nothing in the way of intellectual content or character development, but his stories were well-paced and effective for their kind. His heroes were comic-book-style fighters, the complete antithesis to Lovecraft's swooning scholars. If Lovecraft was influenced by Poe and Dunsany, Howard's work bore more resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. In professional commercial terms he was a far more successful author than Lovecraft; he sold his first stories whilst still a teenager, and over the next decade published some 200 stories: not all fantasy, and only a small number featuring his most famous creation; Conan the Barbarian (most of the Conan cycle was put together by Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter manyyears after Howard's death). It was sufficient to provide him with a comfortable income of about $2,000 a year; comparable to the earnings of a small-town bank manager. Howard was always modest about his work; he never claimed any literary merit, and his only boast was that he was the first professional writer from that part of the country.
But despite his success, Howard was neurotic. He quarrelled violently with his father and was devoted to his mother, who suffered from inoperable cancer. In June 1936 she fell into a terminal coma and Howard, unable to face life without her, drove out of town and shot himself through the head with his own revolver. He was 30 years old. It will seem obvious to any amateur psychologist that this creator of superheroes and pretend cowboy was in his writings fantasising about a persona he would like to be, but was not.

Clark Ashton Smith is the least remembered of the "Weird Tales" authors, which is a pity, because he was by any standard of judgement much the best writer of the three, as well as the least neurotic. He was from California, born in 1893. As with Lovecraft and Howard, his education was irregular, and largely organised by himself; allegedly involving reading the entire Shorter Oxford Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica several times! He saw himself primarily as a poet, and published his first poems at 19; but his poetry is too florid for modern tastes and is seldom read nowadays. About 1925 he began writing fantasy stories, and produced about 100 over the next decade, inventing not one but several imaginary lands: Zothique, Xiccarph, Averoigne and others, all different in character. His most obvious influence was an earlier American fantasist, James Branch Cabell, from whom he inherited a style of urbane good taste. His style was more ambitious than Howard's, and he was far superior to Lovecraft in his choice and use of words. At times his approach can be irritating, especially when taken in large doses, and his interest in necrophilia is somewhat alarming; but generally he managed to describe horrors without being distasteful, and wild fantasies without being ridiculous. His exotic imagination never flagged, and unlike Lovecraft and Howard, women featured in his stories as well as men.
   But the, about the time when Howard and Lovecraft died, Smith stopped writing stories. This may have been connected with the deaths of his parents in 1935-36, but it seems he had already given up, leaving only a few unfinished efforts. He lived till 1961, long enough to witness the great fantasy revival begun by Tolkien, but for the last 25 years of his life he produced virtually nothing.

By the late 1930s, "Weird Tales" was inserious financial trouble. Its main contributors were no more: Lovecraft and Howard were dead, Smith had dried up, and the editor, Farnsworth Wright, was sinking into alcoholism. In 1938 the magazine was taken over and Wright was fired; but rescue efforts were unsuccessful, quality declined further, and in 1954 the magazine closed. Its posthumous fame amongst lovers of fanatsy lierature was to be far greater than its actual success when in print.

The nature of Lovecraft's stories was once lethally summed up by Avram Davidson as follows:- "Man-eating Things which foraged in graveyards, of human/beastie crosses which grew beastier and Beastlier as they grew older, of gibbering shoggoths and Elder Beings which smelt real bad and were always trying to break through Thresholds and Take Over - rugous, squamous, amorphous nasties, abetted by thin, gaunt New England eccentrics who dwelt in attics and eventually were Never Seen Or Heard Of Again. Serve them damn well right, I say".

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