Thursday, June 20, 2024

Weird Tales: The Houdini Issues-Part Seven

"Ask Houdini"

There were three Houdini issues of Weird Tales magazine and three Houdini stories. Each was a cover story and each the lead story in the issue in which it appeared. Two of the covers have depictions of the great escapist himself. The third shows the Great Sphinx of Egypt, illustrating "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," which was ghost-written by H.P. Lovecraft. Pictures of Houdini are also inside each of the three issues. The cover illustrations were by R.M. Mally, the interiors by William F. Heitman.

There is also nonfictional content about Houdini in each issue. In the March 1924 issue, there is an introductory essay to the story "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt." Eighty pages later, there are two more introductions. One is an announcement of a new letters column to be called "Ask Houdini." The other is a general introduction to the Houdini issues. Both are under the heading for the regular letters column, "The Eyrie."

"Ask Houdini" took the place of "The Eyrie" in the issue of April 1924. Again, there are two introductions, the first telling readers about how to write to Houdini. The second is a forward, ostensibly written by Houdini. Then the letters begin. There are seven in all. The seven (or six) correspondents were identified only by their initials. (There are two with the initials H.W. I can suggest that one or both were Harold Ward.) The seven letters in the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales were by:

  • H.L. of Terre Haute, Indiana. I doubt that this was Howard (Phillips) Lovecraft. He wouldn't have been caught dead in Terre Haute. H.L. asked Houdini about Samri S. Baldwin, known as "the White Mahatma." Born in Cincinnati in 1848, Samuel Spencer Baldwin had died only a month before this letter was published, on March 13, 1924, in San Francisco. Like Houdini, Baldwin was a magician and escape artist. He was also a profound skeptic of spiritualism, séances, and mediums. Although Houdini wrote that Baldwin could be reached by mail, it was too late by then. Only a séance could have worked, if only the darned things would work.
  • J.H. of Detroit, Michigan, asking about dowsing.
  • H.W. of Peoria, Illinois, with a question about séances.
  • H.W. of Springfield, Illinois, with a more confrontational letter, one that mentions a man named Jacoby.
  • H.M. of Louisville, Kentucky, again, concerning séances.
  • K.H. of Buffalo, New York. The subject: again, séances.
  • S.T. of Evanston, Illinois, a long and prolix letter pontificating on science and philosophy and challenging Houdini as not the right person to investigate spiritualism. (I would say that he was the perfect person to do so in that he was a skeptic and an expert in deception, misdirection, and sleight of hand.) The letter mentions Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge.

The first anniversary number of May/June/July 1924 contained the second and last installment of "Ask Houdini." There is an announcement at the top of the page and fifteen letters in all:

  • K.L. of Cumberland, Maryland, asking about clairvoyance.
  • C.A. of Madison, Wisconsin, asking about the possible comfort of a belief in spiritualism for those reaching the end.
  • A correspondent without initials, writing a very long letter from Shelbyville, Indiana.
  • C.D. of New York City, writing about the stage play Outward Bound (by Sutton Vane), which played in New York from January to May 1924. (It was adapted twice to the silver screen, first as Outward Bound in 1930, then as Between Two Worlds in 1944. I have seen the second version: a very interesting movie) C.D. wrote as an apologist for spiritualism. Houdini responded with a lengthy answer, more or less putting him in his place, as he did for every dupe, fanatic, defender, supporter, and apologist of spiritualism. Not that they knew it. Not that they stayed there.
  • H.J. of Columbia, Missouri.
  • D.W.N. of Erie, Pennsylvania, asking about John Slater of California.
  • V.L. Deb. of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, mentioning "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt."
  • McN. of Montreal, Canada. Another very long letter, again defending spiritualism. Houdini wrote a long reply.
  • A correspondent without initials, writing from San Francisco, California.
  • R.G.R. of Brooklyn, New York, writing about Éliphas Lévi and the "Black Mass."
  • N.S.J. of Daytona Beach, Florida, writing a more even letter and  a more scholarly inquiry.
  • J.P. of Lewistown, Montana, writing what I think is the most interesting letter to date, a weird tale of seeing the spectre of a hanged man and his dog with a tongue of flame.
  • J.V. ( a woman) of Grand Rapids, Michigan, writing another letter from another defender of and believer in the fraud that was and is spiritualism.
  • E.H. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who had attended Houdini's lecture at Carnegie Hall on February 21, 1924. I like the immediacy and concreteness of letters like this one and the one by C.D. above.
  • H.H.C. of Erie, Pennsylvania, who attended Houdini's lecture in Erie the next day, February 22, 1924.
  • L.O. of Pasadena, California, who wrote a long letter full of sources, like the grimoires of a Lovecraftian story. In response to L.O.'s letter, Houdini wrote his last words to appear in Weird Tales: "The whole subject of occultism is frail."
It seems to me that at least a couple of letters in the first installment of "Ask Houdini" were essentially plants: the editor and publisher needed content and may very well have asked at least one of their regular contributors, namely Harold Ward, to provide a question or two for Houdini's consideration. (If Harold Ward was the ghostwriter behind "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" as well as a letter or letters to "Ask Houdini," then the April 1924 was not only a Houdini issue but also a Ward issue.) By the time the second installment came around, though, letters--many of them quite long--had begun arriving from readers.

There must have been more letters--possibly far more--that went unpublished. After the May/June/July issue of 1924, Weird Tales went on hiatus, returning in November 1924 in more or less the format we recognize now. There was no more Houdini and no more "Ask Houdini." We might be able to figure out who some of the letter writers were in the spring and summer of 1924, one hundred years ago now. But that's a job for another day.

Original text copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, June 17, 2024

Weird Tales: The Houdini Issues-Part Six

"The Hoax of the Spirit Lover"

"The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" by Houdini is the cover story and the lead story in the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales. At just three pages, it's the shortest of Houdini's three stories in "The Unique Magazine" and the one most like a non-fiction article rather than a work of fiction. It reads almost like a transcription of a spoken narrative. Maybe it's the one closest to Houdini's actual and original words.

The story is set in Montana but has a Chicago connection. It involves a séance and all of the trappings of Spiritualism. Approached by three men suspecting a hoax, Houdini exposes a fake medium and his helper. As it turns out, the helper is the fiancé of one of the attendees of the séance. He is supposed to have died. In actuality, it was his twin brother who had died, and the surviving twin had pulled off an insurance fraud to claim his money. As the legal saying goes, Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.

As in "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt," the theme in "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" is the exposure of fake and fraudulent mediums, the topic of Houdini's lecture tour during that spring of 1924, one hundred years ago as I write. Part two of "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt" appears later in the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales, as does the first installment of the letters column "Ask Houdini," with letters ostensibly written by readers and answers ostensibly written by Houdini.

If "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" was actually the work of a ghostwriter, I take that to indicate that the ghostwriter also had a Chicago connection. Otis Adelbert Kline is an obvious candidate for true author of the story. Farnsworth Wright, not yet editor of the magazine, is another. Author John Locke has suggested Harold Ward as the man behind "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover." (1) Kline and Ward, both of whom hailed from the Chicago area, were friends or acquaintances. I suspect that if you were in contact with one, you were in contact with the other, at least when it came to writing jobs or assignments. Both were close at hand for the publisher and editor of Weird Tales. Both were also workhorses. If Baird and Henneberger needed content in a hurry, which would have been the case with the Houdini issues, Kline and Ward (Wright, too) were there, ready and waiting.

Evidence in favor of Ward as the true author of "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" appears in the "Ask Houdini" letters column published in that same issue of April 1924. There are seven letters and seven replies in the first installment of "Ask Houdini." Letter number three is from an H.W. of Peoria, Illinois, while letter number four is from an H.W. of Springfield, Illinois. I don't think there can be any doubt that one or both letters were written by Harold Ward. In fact, six of the seven letters have the letter H in the initials of the letter writers: H.L. of Terre Haute, Indiana; J.H. of Detroit, Michigan; H.W. of Peoria; H.W. of Springfield; H.M. of Louisville, Kentucky; and K.H. of Buffalo, New York. Only letter number seven, by S.T. of Evanston, Illinois, lacks the H in the initials of its author. Ward's mother was named Sarah. If he was the author, did he use her first initial in letter number seven? On the other hand, the seventh letter is probably least deferential or most challenging towards Houdini. It even defends Arthur Conan Doyle as a "learned and sincere" man. So maybe Ward was not its author after all. In any case, it's clear in that letter that by the spring of 1924, Houdini and Doyle had indeed had a falling out and that the former had taken a "decided stand" against the latter. (Weird Tales, Apr. 1924, p. 92.)

(1) See The Thing's Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales by John Locke (Off-Trail Publications, 2018), page 142.

Weird Tales, April 1924. Cover story" The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" by Houdini. Cover art by R.M. Mally. That appears to be Houdini left of center, in which case this was the second successive cover to show his image.

Text copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Weird Tales: The Houdini Issues-Part Five

The Séance at Castle D---

"The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt" was Houdini's second story for Weird Tales. It came in the form of a two-part serial. Part one was in the issue of March 1924. In part two, having escaped from the oubliette in the lower recesses of Castle D---, Houdini returns to the castle so as to rescue the Countess D--- and her sister Rosicka from the clutches of the villainous Popkens. As he explores the castle, Houdini hears the sound of a weird voice and finds that a séance is underway. Popkens is acting as medium. He's trying to convince Rosicka to reveal secrets that the Countess would not. "The voice droned on," Houdini recounts, "and I soon realized that Popkens was trying to make Rosicka think that it was her mother's voice commanding her to reveal the secrets." (Weird Tales, Apr. 1924, p. 54, col. 2). Popkens is of course the leader of a group of spirit-fakers, "unscrupulous charlatans," Houdini calls them. He drips with disdain for Popkens and his ways, remarking on Popkens' "audacity" and "effrontery" in carrying out this supposed communication with the dead.

Houdini intervenes, silently strangling Popkens into unconsciousness and then taking his place at the head of the table. In the darkened room, speaking in Magyar, he impersonates Popkens, now in the voice of Count D---, the deceased father of the Countess and Rosicka. Houdini feels his way in the dark and locates the two sisters, cutting their bonds. Then a tussle begins and the lights come on. Oh, no! Another crisis! Another fight! But don't worry, Houdini comes out on top and the sisters are saved.

It's my guess that "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt" was composed not by Houdini but by a ghostwriter. I have nominated Otis Adelbert Kline as the possible true author of the story. There are other candidates, too, including Harold Ward. In any case, the purpose behind "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt" was of course to tell a story, but it was also likely to have been part of Houdini's ongoing campaign against frauds and fake mediums. He was on a lecture tour that spring with those kind of people as his subjects and targets. That summer he engaged himself in on-site and in-person investigations of their activities, exposing at least one well-known medium--Mrs. Mina Crandon of Boston--as a fraud. You have to admire the Great Houdini for being so hard and steadfast against the whole business. We could use somebody like him today, a true skeptic and debunker to go after similar fakes and frauds in any number of fields of endeavor. But then there is no end to deception and human folly, nor to human depravity. The liars, fakes, and frauds, moreover the people who believe in lies and in fake and fraudulent things, are numberless. Skilled truth-tellers, skeptics, and debunkers are comparatively few. And now when they say unpopular things, they're silenced, cancelled, censored, or even imprisoned for their offenses.

* * *

I quoted from Houdini's story above for a reason. I'll repeat part of the quote and add some emphasis:

". . . I soon realized that Popkens was trying to make Rosicka think that it was her mother's voice commanding her to reveal the secrets."

Those words stood out to me for a reason, and it has to do with what I have read of Houdini's life and his relationship with another teller of weird tales.

Four years before "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt" was published in Weird Tales, Houdini traveled to England, looking for mediums and possibly for the specific purpose of meeting Arthur Conan Doyle, whom he knew to be involved in Spiritualism. Houdini sent one of his books to Doyle as an introduction. On or about April 11, 1920, they met for the first time at Doyle's home. A friendship--or was it an acquaintanceship?--grew from there. Doyle and Houdini wrote back and forth and visited with each other, apparently more than once. Then, on June 18, 1922, in a hotel room in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Houdini attended a séance conducted by Doyle and his wife, Lady Jean Doyle. Lady Doyle would act as medium in an attempt to communicate with Houdini's mother, Cecelia or Cecilia (Steiner) Weisz, who had died on July 17, 1913, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Lady Doyle went into her trance and began writing messages, supposedly from the dear departed. Houdini was cooperative and polite, but the whole thing was obviously a fraud. Houdini recognized as much, either on the spot or after some time spent in thought:

First, Lady Doyle began by making the sign of the cross on her pad of paper. Houdini and his mother were Jewish. (Or I believe she was Jewish.) In fact, his father and her husband was a rabbi.

Second, Lady Doyle's messages were written in English. Cecelia or Cecilia Weisz, a native of Hungary, spoke and wrote five languages. According to Houdini, English was not one of them.

Third, June 16, two days before the séance, was her birthday.* Lady Doyle's messages made no mention of a day that would have been very special to a man who was so close to his loving and doting mother. (Although he was Jewish, Houdini referred to her as a saint.)

Fourth, the messages were written in Lady Doyle's own style of expression. Doyle admitted as much. (See the book by Randi & Sugar referenced below, after the asterisk.)

And fifth, on the night before the séance, Lady Doyle had pumped Houdini's wife Bess for information on the relationship the great escapist had had with his mother.

That hotel séance marked the beginning of Houdini's falling out with Doyle. In reading about their relationship, I have the impression that Doyle was more or less a fanatic when it came to Spiritualism. He seems to have been more interested in using Houdini for his own purposes than in forming any real friendship with him. He seems to have wanted to recruit Houdini into his own belief system, as fanatics do. And yet he acted like the injured party in their falling out. Imagine: Doyle and his wife not only lied and misrepresented themselves--they not only tried to trick and use and defraud Houdini--they also tried to exploit his relationship with his mother, his love for and memories of her, to manipulate him into coming over to their side in the debate over Spiritualism. I'm not sure that they were exactly malicious in what they were trying to do. Nonetheless, it was pretty rotten. What poor taste. How inconsiderate and hurtful. As Houdini (or his ghostwriter) wrote in "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt," what audacity, what effrontery. What a lot of charlatans they and people like them were (and are). Either that or delusional. Or gullible in the extreme.

* * *

According to Houdini, his mother spoke five languages, one of which was Hungarian. In "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt," Houdini speaks Magyar, albeit with an American accent. So did he also know Hungarian, or Magyar? I don't know. Maybe that's a bit of evidence that his ghostwriter knew that Houdini was born in Hungary rather than the United States. Maybe the ghostwriter assumed that because he was born in Hungary, Houdini spoke Magyar, without thinking that German, or maybe even Yiddish, was more likely Houdini's native language.

So did that ghostwriter also know about the séance of June 18, 1922? Did Houdini, through his ghostwriter, strike against the fake medium who claimed to speak in his dead mother's voice? Was that the ghostwriter's reason for including the séance scene in his story? I don't know, but it makes you think. Of course we'll never know the answers to these questions unless we can dial up the Great Houdini (or one of the other Weird Tales authors) using some clunky old séance machine.

* * *

*Some sources give her birthday, June 16, as the day of the séance. Another gives the date as July 17, erroneously calling it "the day after Mama's birthday." (Source: Houdini: His Life and Art by The Amazing Randi and Bert Randolph Sugar, Grosset & Dunlap, 1976.)

Weird Tales, March 1924. Cover story: "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt" by Houdini. Cover art by R.M. Mally.

Original text copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, June 10, 2024

The Houdini Issues: The Story So Far

Last year was the 100-year anniversary of Weird Tales magazine. There were eight issues published in that first year, 1923, beginning in March and ending in November. There was a bimonthly issue in July/August--call it a vacation issue--and no issue at all in December. Things were looking pretty good for the new magazine at the close of its first year.

Nineteen twenty-four started off well enough. There were monthly issues in January through April, but then the troubles began. Or at least the outward troubles began. Behind the scenes, the publishers Jacob C. Henneberger and John M. Lansinger parted ways that spring. Lansinger got the companion magazine Detective Tales and took editor Edwin Baird with him. Henneberger held onto Weird Tales--it was supposed to have been his favorite--but, with the departure of Baird, he needed an editor. And if he wasn't already in arrears with his creditors by then, Henneberger soon would be. By April 1924, he had twelve issues under his belt. The next would make thirteen. Would it be an unlucky thirteen?

One result of all of this was the first-anniversary number of Weird Tales and the only quarterly issue of the magazine, at least in its first incarnation. That issue was dated May/June/July 1924. In other words, in this month of June 2024, we are one hundred years past the near-final flourish of "The Unique Magazine." There would not be another issue until November 1924.

Last year in this space, I wrote, one by one, about the issues of 1923. As this year began, I jumped ahead to the first-year anniversary number of May/June/July 1924. My purpose is to use that anniversary as a starting point for a series about observances--or at least mentions--of other anniversaries between then and now. Before getting into that, I began a series on the Houdini issues of Weird Tales, of which there were three: March, April, and May/June/July 1924. My writing fell off pretty quickly after that beginning. Since then I have been busy with my regular work and with things to do with my family. You, the readers, have been hanging in there with me, though. I thank you for that.

The Houdini issues were, I think, another outward sign of the inward troubles experienced by Weird Tales. If you're struggling financially and need to bring in some cash, maybe you had better do something new and different. The Great Houdini was world-renowned in 1924. Even now, one hundred years later, people still know and invoke his name. That's pretty remarkable when you think about it. Getting Houdini on board with Weird Tales would make for a great coup. The Great Houdini would help to sell magazines. He would make them magically disappear from the newsstand. Or maybe that was the thinking.

Houdini met with Henneberger in Chicago in February 1924. Then or soon after, the two signed an agreement. Under its terms, Houdini would write "articles" for publication in the magazine. That was sure to boost sales. And what would he receive in return? Well, some press would come his way, and maybe he needed it. Maybe he was struggling a little in his career. In addition to that, Houdini was setting off on a lecture tour of America, the subject of which was his efforts at busting what were called spirit-fakers, or fraudulent mediums. Hooray (or Hou-ray) for Houdini!

Like I said, there were three Houdini issues of Weird Tales. Each had a story written under Houdini's byline. Each story was also a cover story, the first two depicting Houdini himself. These three Houdini issues were:

  • Weird Tales, March 1924--Cover story: "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt," part one of a two-part serial by Harry Houdini. Cover art by R.M. Mally.
  • Weird Tales, April 1924--Cover story: "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" by Harry Houdini. Cover art by R.M. Mally. Also inside: part two of "The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt."
  • Weird Tales, May/June/July 1924--Cover story: "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" by Harry Houdini. Cover art by R.M. Mally.

So far this year, I have written several entries on Houdini and his stories in Weird Tales. These are:

  • Weird Tales: The Houdini Issues-Part Two (Feb. 2, 2024)--"Spirits & Sphinxes"--An account of Houdini's association with Weird Tales, a list of his magazine credits, a beginning of his association with Arthur Conan Doyle, and a look at the Sphinx motif in connection to Houdini.
  • Weird Tales: The Houdini Issues-Part Three (Feb. 5, 2024)--"Imprisoned with the Pharaohs"--Jumping ahead to the third and last Houdini story, I wrote about how H.P. Lovecraft was the actual author of "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," the cover story for the anniversary number of Weird Tales. Lovecraft's authorship of that story has been common knowledge for a very long time.
I left off with Part Four saying that I would next like to write next about the séance at Castle D---, the setting for the main action in "The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt." And that's what I'll do before moving on to the middle story, "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover."

To be continued . . .

Copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, June 8, 2024

"Microcosmic God" & AI

I have one more post about Theodore Sturgeon and then it's back to the Great Houdini.

One of the stories by Sturgeon that we read in our weird fiction book club is "Microcosmic God," originally in Astounding Science-Fiction in April 1941. It's a compact and well-told story. I would call it novella- or novelette-length. In that, Sturgeon treated his readers well and avoided the bloat. An author of today would have turned it into a mega-novel or even a whole series. "Microcosmic God" has been reprinted again and again. I read it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (1970). I also read the comic book version adapted by Arnold Drake and drawn by Adolfo Buylla, published in Starstream: Adventures in Science Fiction in 1976.

We decided in our group that the Neoterics in "Microcosmic God" are a kind of artificial intelligence, or AI. I wonder if they were the first example of AI in science fiction. There were of course intelligent machines before Sturgeon's Neoterics. But was any one of those designed specifically to solve problems too great for the human mind, or at least on a convenient time scale? I don't know. Or: maybe not. Anyway, I think Theodore Sturgeon deserves credit for being the first or one of the first science fiction authors to foresee the real-world development of problem-solving artificial intelligence. At the end of "Microscopic God," we are left with the question: what will the Neoterics do (to us) once they emerge from their impenetrable bubble? We can have the same kind of question about our own AI. I think I would take my chances with the former--after all, they are living beings--versus our soulless machines, which are or may be, truth be told, created and promoted by equally soulless human beings.

A two-page spread from Astounding Science-Fiction, April 1941, with a Piranesi-like illustration by Charles Schneeman (1912-1972).

Thanks to Nate Wallace and the other members of our group, Lisa, Scott, Chris, and Carl.
Text copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, June 6, 2024

"It" in Print & Image

"It" by Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was in Unknown in August 1940. Sturgeon's contemporary, Joseph Payne Brennan (1981-1990), was working for a newspaper in New Haven, Connecticut, at about that time. Brennan had been trying for years to break into print, especially into the pages of his ideal, Weird Tales. Published by Street & Smith, Unknown was in much the same vein as "The Unique Magazine." I think "It" would have fit right into its pages. 

Brennan could easily have read Sturgeon's story the first time around in Unknown. He would have had a second chance to read "It" just a few years later, after he gone to and returned from war in Europe. In 1946, Rinehart published a collection of stories called Who Knocks? The editor of Who Knocks?August W. Derleth (1909-1971), drew from many sources for his contents, including Weird Tales. Less than halfway through the book, readers would have encountered "It." I have a feeling that they and generations of readers since have considered "It" one of their favorites, or at least a very memorable story.

"It" was reprinted again in 1948, first in a very limited paperback edition of 200 copies. A quarter of those were given away at the 6th World Science Fiction Convention, or Torcon, held in Toronto, Canada, from July 3 to July 5, 1948. The paperback version was to promote the publication of Theodore Sturgeon's first collection, Without Sorcery, published by Prime Press, Inc., of Philadelphia, also in 1948. "It" was in that collection as well. One of the men behind Prime Press was Armand E. Waldo (1924-1993), who shared a surname with Theodore Sturgeon, né Edward Hamilton Waldo. Were they related? I don't know.

Joseph Payne Brennan's story "Slime" was published in Weird Tales five years later, in March 1953. The other day, I wrote about how similar is the introduction of his story to that of Sturgeon's. As a fan of weird fiction and fantasy, Brennan would have had at least three chances to read "It" in print before sitting down to write his own story. The influence of one upon the other seems pretty clear to me. But was that a conscious influence? I can't say.

"It" by Theodore Sturgeon was in Unknown in August 1940. The author was all of twenty-two years old at its publication. "It" was illustrated by Edd Cartier (1914-2008). His two illustrations appear above. These images are from a French-language website called Collector's Showcase, accessible by clicking here.

"It" was also in Who Knocks?, a hardbound collection from 1946. The illustrator of that volume was Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981). Unfortunately I don't have any images to show of Coye's illustration or illustrations.

Original text copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, June 4, 2024


Speaking of Theodore Sturgeon, it was twenty years ago today that a man in Granby, Colorado, went on a rampage with a heavily modified bulldozer that has since been dubbed "Killdozer." Maybe that was after Sturgeon's story "Killdozer!", which was published in Astounding Science-Fiction in November 1944. "Killdozer!" was adapted to comic book form in Worlds Unknown in April 1974 by writer Gerry Conway and artist Dick Ayers. Two months before that cover date, in February 1974, NBC had broadcast a made-for-TV movie version of Killdozer! with Clint Walker, Neville Brand, and Robert Urich. We watched that movie when we were kids. I haven't seen it since. Anyway, this makes a quadruple-Killdozer! anniversary year: eighty years since the first publication of the story, fifty since the movie and comic book adaptations, and twenty since the real-life Killdozer rampage. Maybe every thirty years there's a Killdozer outbreak, so watch out, America, in 2034.

Astounding Science-Fiction, November 1944. Cover story: "Killdozer!" by Theodore Sturgeon. Cover art by William Timmins (1915-1985).

Worlds Unknown, April 1974. Cover story: "Killdozer!", originally by Sturgeon, adapted by Gerry Conway. Cover art by . . . I'm not sure. That looks like Gil Kane art under somebody else's inks? Comic books are supposed to be a low art, science fiction barely higher, but I would say that the comic book version of the Killdozer cover is better, and not by a little.

And speaking of influences or possible influences . . . a year after "Killdozer!" was first published, Weird Tales had its own story of a murderous machine. The title is "The Murderous Steam Shovel." The author was Allison V. Harding. This is the first Harding story I have looked at with a woman as the narrator. Her name is Vilma. That might lend some credence to the idea that Jean Milligan (1920-2005) was Allison V. Harding. Whether she was or not, it seems that at least some of the Harding stories were influenced or inspired by stories written by others. This one looks like an example.

"The Murderous Steam Shovel" by Allison V. Harding in a two-page spread in Weird Tales, November 1945. The art is by the rare and elusive Boris Dolgov. It doesn't seem likely to me that the artist for Marvel Comics in 1974 saw this image from nearly three decades before. Nevertheless, he arrived at a similar kind of personified machine. Artist Boris Artzybasheff (1899-1965) also personified machines--to perfection.


In 1939, Riverside Press published Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. Here's an image of the dust jacket of the first edition, swiped from the Internet. Dolgov's murderous steam shovel looks a little like Virginia Lee Burton's version, named in her book Mary Anne. They're seen from the same angle, and both were drawn with a crayon or charcoal on textured paper. (I think.) I wonder if Dolgov was aware of Virginia's book.

Text and captions copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley