Sunday, December 18, 2011

Weird Tales at Christmas

Every year at Christmastime, a supernatural being takes to the sky in a vehicle drawn by magically endowed beasts. With him he carries a large, bottomless sack, a cornucopia of cloth filled with gifts and treats, a kind of TARDIS provisioned for a 'round-the-world trip. In one night, he visits all the children of the world, sliding down chimneys too narrow to accept his bulk, or phasing through walls and doors to enter their homes. They never hear him or see him. The only evidence of his visit is the array of gifts he leaves under the Christmas tree, the candy he stuffs into their stockings, and the bite marks he leaves on the cookies they have offered him. The story of Santa Claus isn't exactly a weird tale, but it would easily have fallen into the purview of the like-titled magazine of the twentieth century.

Of course the story of Santa Claus wasn't the first Christmas story. That story, too, has its supernatural elements, beginning with a visitation from an angel, then a virgin birth under a newly-bright star, and a prominent role played by three magi. There are horrifying and violent events, too, but the original Christmas story is one of hope and joy, repeated every year for two millennia.

Weird Tales, published between 1923 and 1954, seems to have been lacking in Christmas-related content. That can be explained in part by the fact that after the magazine went bimonthly in January 1940, there was no December issue. It can also be explained--at least on the surface--by the fact that Weird Tales printed weird fiction, heroic fantasy, and related genres. But as I have tried to point out, the story of Santa Claus and the baby Jesus have their fantastic elements, too. Many of the most well known Christmas stories--A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street--are also fantasies. It would have been natural for Weird Tales to print stories like them.

Weird Tales may not have printed much fiction or poetry related to Christmas, but that gap was more than filled by a story that combined the tales of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ. For good measure, it also included elements of fantasy, sword and sorcery, and even science fiction. That story is "Roads" by Seabury Quinn.

Seabury Quinn (1889-1969) was most well known to readers of Weird Tales for his stories of the supernatural investigator Jules de Grandin. But in January 1938, with world war rapidly approaching, Weird Tales printed Quinn's uncharacteristic "Roads." Set in historic times, "Roads" is the story of a wandering, sword-wielding Norseman who witnesses and participates in world-changing events. I won't say anything more about the story except to urge those who haven't read it to do so. Perhaps a little outrĂ© and not well known outside circles of fantasy fiction, "Roads" might otherwise approach the status of a Christmas classic. As it is, "Roads" proved the most popular story among Weird Tales readers for the issue in which it appeared and the year it was published, and the fourth most popular story printed between 1924 and 1939, the years for which records were kept. Only "The Woman of the Wood" by A. Merritt, "Shambleau" by C.L. Moore, and "The Outsider" by H.P. Lovecraft were more popular.

Ten years after "Roads" was first published and after the tides of war had receded, Seabury Quinn's story was printed in hardback for the first time in an edition of just 2,137 copies. The publisher was August Derleth's Arkham House, a firm specializing in weird fiction. Roads was Quinn's first hardbound book and the first illustrated volume issued by Arkham House. The illustrator was the indispensable Virgil Finlay.

"Roads" had been reprinted before. At Christmastime in 1938, printer and fantasy fan Conrad H. Ruppert issued 200 copies of what he called "the most beautiful Christmas story ever written." Editor Sam Moskowitz, in his introduction to a reprinting in the paperback Worlds of Weird (1965), described "Roads" as "a saga that may well prove to be the greatest adult Christmas story written by an American." In 2005, Red Jacket Press issued a facsimile edition of the book from 1948.

Real life is often weirder than fiction and in ways that sometimes beggars belief. In closing my essay on Seabury Quinn, I should point out that he was born during the holiday season, on January 1, 1889. "Roads" then was published in the same month (or at least in a magazine with a cover date of the same month) in which its author turned forty-nine--a nice achievement for a man in the last year of his fifth decade on earth. In any case, Quinn's birthdate might be unremarkable by itself. But strangely, Seabury Grandin Quinn died on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1969, even as Santa Claus began his magical trip around the world.

* * *

For pagans, materialists, Lovecraftians, and others, here is a bit of Yule verse by the poet of Providence:

Yule Horror
by H. P. Lovecraft

There is snow on the ground,
And the valleys are cold,
And a midnight profound
Blackly squats o'er the wold;
But a light on the hilltops half-seen hints of feastings un-hallowed and old.
There is death in the clouds,
There is fear in the night,
For the dead in their shrouds
Hail the sin's turning flight.
And chant wild in the woods as they dance round a Yule-altar fungous and white.
To no gale of Earth's kind
Sways the forest of oak,
Where the sick boughs entwined
By mad mistletoes choke,
For these pow'rs are the pow'rs of the dark, from the graves of the lost Druid-folk.

From Weird Tales, December 1926.

Seabury Quinn's "Roads" appeared in the January 1938 issue of Weird Tales, but it was not the cover story. That honor was reserved for "The Witch's Mark" by Dorothy Quick. Fans of cover artist Margaret Brundage can easily see why.
Ten years later, Arkham House issued "Roads" in hardback with cover and interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay.
Here is one of those illustrations, originally printed in 1938.
If you're going to tell the story of Santa Claus, you of course need a polar setting . . .
a sleigh . . .
and at least one flying deer. And what about Santa? I'm afraid he never appeared on the cover of Weird Tales.

Covers (top to bottom):
Jan. 1927, art by C. Barker Petrie illustrating "Drome," a serial by John Martin Leahy and set in Antarctica.
July 1925, art by Andrew Brosnatch illustrating "The Werewolf of Ponkert" by H. Warner Munn.
July 1934, art by Margaret Brundage illustrating "The Trail of the Cloven Hoof" by Arlton Eadie.

Merry Christmas from Tellers of Weird Tales!

Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Very informative. I'm looking forward to reading roads. Thanks for the recommendation and I hope you all have a very merry Christmas!

    1. Thank you, Alexander,

      And Merry Christmas to you and yours, too!