Friday, November 11, 2011

Weird Tales and World War I

Weird Tales, the first American magazine devoted exclusively to fantasy fiction, made its debut in March 1923, a mere four years and four months after Armistice Day, the end of hostilities in what was then called the Great War. One of the most disastrous events in human history had come to its end on November 11, 1918, yet the effects of the war would be felt for decades afterward, right down to the present day.

The war and all its horrors were still fresh in the minds of Americans when Weird Tales appeared on the newsstand. Thousands of men who had escaped the battlefield with their lives were nonetheless damaged, in body and spirit. Their wounds ranged in severity from mended limbs and healed bullet wounds to the unspeakable tragedy of "the basket case," a term applied to quadruple amputees, who were carried around in baskets. There were of course wounds to the face and head: ears, noses, and jaws shot off; eyes gone; flesh mangled and burned. There was also a wound new to warfare, the chemical wound, inflicted by German gas attacks. For the first time since the Civil War, America was haunted by young men who under different circumstances might have been called monsters.

Many years ago, I watched a television program about early horror movies. After World War I, Lon Chaney, Sr., "Man of A Thousand Faces," became a star, based on his ability to transform himself into hideous human creatures: the Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Hyde, Quasimodo. The program I watched made the point that audiences were prepared for Chaney's transformations because they had seen terrible wounds and mutilations in their own families or among their friends. Stories about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves have been told for centuries. But would Weird Tales have arrived when it did--would it have been read as it was--if it had not been for World War I?

The first issue of the magazine included a weird tale of World War I, "The Grave" by Orville R. Emerson, included in the anthology The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997). Doubtless other stories were inspired--directly or indirectly--by the events of 1914-1918. Jacob Clark Henneberger, founder of the magazine, was a U.S. Navy veteran of the war. Longtime editor Farnsworth Wright served as an interpreter of French in the U.S. Army. Many of the magazine's contributors were also veterans: Henry Lieferant, Loual B. Sugarman, R. Ernest Dupuy, Harold Freeman Miners, Pettersen Marzoni, R. Jere Black, Jr., Carlos G. Stratton, Forbes Parkhill. The list could go on. One contributor to Weird Tales, William Hope Hodgson, was killed in the war. How many more talented young men were killed before they could make their own contributions, not only to art and literature, but to the world itself? On this day, November 11, 2011, the ninety-third anniversary of the cessation of hostilities, we remember them and the sacrifices they made.

An illustration by Virgil Finlay for A. Merritt's story, "Three Lines of Old French," originally printed in All-Story Magazine in 1919. The illustration is from 1940.

Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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