Sunday, May 15, 2011

W. Elwyn Backus (1892-1979)

Author, Horse Racing Tipster
Born March 7, 1892, Newport, Kentucky
Died December 31, 1979, Coral Gables, Florida

At a penny per word, writing pulp fiction was not likely to make an author his fortune. Max Brand and Walter B. Gibson were exceptions. More typical was an author like W. Elwyn Backus, who worked in paint, plumbing, and hardware while writing away for publishers of pamphlets, books, and magazines.

Waldo Elwyn "Bill" Backus was the son of a chemist and born in Newport, Kentucky, on March 7, 1892. He was educated in public schools in Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Even as a teenager, the young author was going by "W. Elwyn Backus," the name under which his stories for Weird Tales appeared. There were six in all, beginning with "The Hall Bedroom" in February 1924 and ending with "Subterranea" in November 1931. According to the website Science Fiction Citations, Backus' serial "The Waning of a World" is the first science fiction story in which the word porthole is used in relation to a spacecraft. Part four of that serial was voted by the readers of Weird Tales as the second most popular story in the February 1926 issue. "The Phantom Bus," from September 1930, has been reprinted several times, keeping Backus' name in print even after his death.

W. Elwyn Backus was born in "the land of colts, colonels, and corn," as Brick Bradford described Kentucky. It shouldn't come as any surprise that he was interested in horse racing. Backus co-authored a book called How to Select Winning Horses (1937). He also devised a sheet for bettors, the "Jockette Horse Racing Sheet." Backus lived in Kentucky and Cincinnati and retired as an advertising executive from the American Seating Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1958. Afterwards he satisfied a lifelong ambition to write a novel, but the book was never published. In retirement, Backus lived in Coral Gables, Florida, home of Tropical Park horse race track. He died in that city on the last day of the 1970s, December 31, 1979.

W. Elwyn Backus' Stories in Weird Tales
"The Hall Bedroom" (Feb. 1924)
"The Waning of a World" (four-part serial, Nov. 1925-Feb. 1926, reprinted in Aviation Stories and Mechanics, ca. 1933-1935)
"The Youth-Maker" (Apr. 1927)
"Behind the Moon" (three-part serial, Dec. 1929-Feb. 1930)
"The Phantom Bus" (Sept. 1930)
"Subterranea" (Nov. 1931)

Further Reading
"The Phantom Bus" in Terror at Night, edited by Herbert Williams (Avon, 1947); The Red Brain, edited by Dashiell Hammett (Four Square, 1965); and 100 Wild Little Weird Tales, edited by Robert Weinberg (Barnes and Noble, 1994)

W. Elwyn Backus' story, "The Phantom Bus," was reprinted in Terror at Night, an early paperback horror anthology from Avon Books. . .
and again in The Red Brain, an anthology from 1965. This is a British edition of the book. Anyone who owns cats has seen an image like this one before.
"Jockette Horse Racing Sheet," devised by Weird Tales author W. Elwyn Backus.
Finally, a postcard from Tropical Park, Coral Gables, Florida, Backus' home late in life and the place of his death.

Thanks to Randal Everts for further information on Waldo Elwyn Backus.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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