Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fritz Leiber and the Problem of the Weird Tale-Part 1

"We begin by denying all the old haunts and superstitions. Why shouldn't we? They belong to the era of cottage and castle. They can't take root in the new environment."

"The supernatural beings of a modern city? Sure, they'd be different from the ghosts of yesterday. Each culture creates its own ghosts."

--from "The Hound" by Fritz Leiber (Weird Tales, Nov. 1942)

Fritz Leiber, Jr. was twenty-eight years old when he sold his first fantasy story to Unknown. "Two Sought Adventure," a tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser set in an imaginary land, appeared on the newsstand in August 1939, only a few weeks before the Nazis launched their attack on Poland, thereby propelling the world into war. Leiber's first story for Weird Tales, "The Automatic Pistol"--a sort-of Damon Runyon story written as weird fiction--followed in May 1940 at about the time the Sitzkrieg came to an end. In the little world of fantasy, a new master was making his debut. In the world at large, new horrors were being unleashed, the horrors of perfect order, of the totalitarian state on the march, of the attempted eradication of the individual and the extermination of whole peoples. (1) If war is the health of the state, then the state would enjoy a hale and hearty condition not just until 1945, but in some quarters for decades to come.

May 1940 also marked the end of an era at Weird Tales--and the beginning of another. Farnsworth Wright (1888-1940) had been at the helm of "The Unique Magazine" since 1924, guiding it through what many consider its golden age. During the 1920s and '30s, Wright's stable of writers included H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Seabury Quinn, Edmond Hamilton, E. Hoffman Price, C.L. Moore, and many others. On the strength of its editor and contributors, Weird Tales enjoyed a rare status among pulp magazines: a reputation for quality if not excellence. Other publishers launched their own magazines of fantasy and weird fiction in obvious imitation. Chief among them was John W. Campbell's Unknown, the magazine that printed Fritz Leiber's first story. The debut of Unknown was not the first crack in the Weird Tales edifice. In 1938, the magazine had moved from its longtime Chicago home to a new publisher in Manhattan. In May 1940, Dorothy McIlwraith took over editorship of the magazine and Farnsworth Wright went into retirement. Before the year ended he would be in his grave.

Weird Tales began in March 1923, launched by J.C. Henneberger, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and a publisher who wanted to give prominent writers an outlet for stories of the fantastic. "When everything is properly weighed," Henneberger wrote, "I must confess that the main motive in establishing Weird Tales was to give the writer free rein to express his innermost feelings in a matter befitting great literature." (2) Hamlin Garland, Ben Hecht, and Emerson Hough were on Henneberger's list of potential contributors to his new magazine. However, Weird Tales turned into something different than he imagined and none of those men ever wrote for the magazine. Instead--luckily for fantasy fans then and now--we have the works of Lovecraft, Howard, and all the rest.

As a genre, weird fiction had been around for awhile, though it was still evolving in the 1920s and '30s, especially under its main theorist, H.P. Lovecraft. Weird Tales, like its namesake, weird fiction, was a catch-all, a mixed bag of types. Picking up an issue from the magazine's golden age, you might read:
  • a conventional ghost story,
  • a monster story,
  • a dreamland fantasy,
  • an interplanetary tale (also called science fantasy),
  • a heroic fantasy (also called sword and sorcery),
  • light science fiction or contemporary fantasy,
  • a story of a supernatural detective,
  • a tale of outright horror, or
  • a mix of any of these types.
Although some might be traced back to Poe (science fiction, detective), most of these types are ancient or Medieval in origin. For example, ghosts, monsters, dreamscapes, and other fantasies and horrors have probably been around for as long as people have been telling stories. But even a type as recent in its origins as the heroic fantasy is more or less an old kind of tale. Conan's Hyperborean world after all is simply a mix of Medieval, Classical, and prehistoric Europe, with a bit of the Orient, tropical Africa, and pirates of the Caribbean thrown in for good measure. The problem with the weird tale, then--especially as world war loomed in 1939 and raged until 1945--is this: How do you bring a story that is basically rural and Medieval in origin into an urban, industrial, materialist twentieth century? That was a problem that Fritz Leiber--if no one else--faced as he began his career as a writer of fantasy stories.

Notes
(1) In all those things except for perhaps the first, the Nazis would have found precedent in the Soviet regime and would have been equaled by or beaten at their game by the Communists.
(2) Quoted in The Weird Tales Story (1977) by Robert Weinberg, p. 3.

Copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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