Thursday, January 31, 2013

John Impola (1906-1989)

Né Eino Impola
Journalist, Editor, Author
Born January 22, 1906, Crystal Falls, Michigan
Died March 26, 1989, Seattle, Washington

John Impola was born Eino Impola, son of Finnish immigrants, on January 22, 1906, in Crystal Falls, Michigan. As a boy he lived in Cathlamet, a small town located in Wahkiakum County, Washington. Impola was a lifelong journalist, educated at the University of Washington (Class of 1928), and soon after on the staff of the Waterville Empire-Press (ca. 1930). That's about the time he contributed his lone story to Weird Tales: "Whispering Death" (Nov. 1929). Impola worked for the Seattle Times from 1933 to 1946, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries from 1946 to 1949, and the Daily Journal of Commerce, a businessman's newspaper, until retiring as managing editor in 1973.

Impola's first wife, Eileen I. Impola, died in 1967. He remarried in 1971. John Impola died on March 26, 1989, at age eighty-three. His widow, Marion Janet Thornton (1907-1992), endowed a scholarship in his name. Here is the complete text describing it from the website of the University of Washington: 
University of Washington Department of Communication
Impola Scholarship
Awarded to a Communication major with an interest in advertising or journalism. The John Impola Endowment for Journalism Education was established in 1990 by John Impola’s widow, Marion, with an initial contribution of $10,000. His interest in journalism began in Cathlamet, where, as a schoolboy, he would drop by a print shop after class to handset type. Level-headed, objective and responsible reporting was almost a religion to him. It was hoped that the proceeds of this scholarship would be used to improve and enhance business and financial information dissemination.
I wonder what an old-school journalist would have made of the use of the passive voice or the phrase "financial information dissemination" in the last sentence. In any case, I'm happy to report that John Impola's name lives on at his alma mater.

John Impola's Story in Weird Tales
"Whispering Death" (Nov. 1929)

Further Reading
I suspect there is more information on John Impola in the holdings of libraries in Washington or in Seattle itself.

Despite the fact that John Impola contributed just one story to Weird Tales, his name landed on the cover in November 1929. The cover artist was C.C. Senf. I wonder how many covers of Weird Tales show the villain threatening the supine love interest as the hero attempts intervention.
Here's a photograph of a rather rakish John Impola provided by Randal A. Everts. It dates from about the time Impola contributed his story to Weird Tales.

Thanks to Randal A. Everts for further information and for the photograph.
Text and captions copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thomas deV. Harper (1889-1939)

Aka Thomas D. Brett
Mercantile Reporter, Author
Born June 12, 1889, San Diego, California
Died April 26, 1939, Oregon

Update (April 29, 2013): As you can see from the date shown above, I wrote on the author Thomas de Verney Harper three months ago tonight. After I had posted my article on Harper, I received a copy of a remarkable letter written by Harper's nephew to Randal A. Everts. Dated November 15, 2011, the nephew's letter runs to six lined pages and closes with genealogical data on the Harper and Brett families. In his letter, the nephew, Mr. Brett, seems to have anticipated my questions of January 29, 2013, for he provides details on the lives of his family. I am most impressed by Mr. Brett's diction and his keen insight into his family members and his fellow human beings. It is a most illuminating letter and the kind of thing that may very well come to an end when generations of people who put pen to paper no longer walk the earth. In any case, the following is an updated article on the author Thomas deV. Harper with corrections based on a letter written by his nephew, Mr. Brett.

Thomas de Verney Harper was born on June 12, 1889, in San Diego, California. (1) Wikipedia gives his mother's name as "Clara Marie de Lille Harvey." Mr. Brett calls her "Clara Harvey Brett (ex-Harper)." She was born on December 10, 1866, in Carson City, Nevada. The story of her early life is otherwise incomplete. I don't know the name of Thomas deV. Harper's father, nor does Mr. Brett mention it in his letter.

If the 1900 census is accurate, Clara Harper married James Brett in 1889, seven years after he had arrived in the United States from Canada. In his letter from 2011, Mr. Brett writes:
The newlyweds James and Clara Brett, and Clara's infant son Tom from a recently prior marriage, arrived in Portland, OR, in 1890. They ran a horse ranch on the western outskirts of Portland. Each urban working day, my grandfather would use his horses in his drayage business in town, returning the horses to the ranch for the night.
Tom Harper and his younger half-brother, Sereno Elmer Brett, worked for their father in his business and were thus exposed to the workings of the city. As a result, Tom got a job as an office boy, his brother as a messenger boy. James and Clara Brett had four children in all: Thomas deV. Harper (1889-1939), Sereno Elmer Brett (b. Oct. 31, 1891), Lucy Myrtle Brett (b. Nov. 16, 1893 or 1895), and a straggler, James Edward Brett (b. Aug. or Sept. 27, 1903).

In the 1906 Portland city directory, the oldest son, Thomas, was listed as "Thomas Brett" and as a clerk for his father, a cigar seller. By the time of the 1910 census, he had become "Thomas deV. Harper" and at age twenty was boarding with another family and working as a laborer. Much happened between those two dates to affect a change in the life of Tom Harper. First, he "bailed out" of his job in Portland (in Mr. Brett's words) and joined the U.S. Marines. Assigned to the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, Brett sailed with the Great White Fleet on its world tour, December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909. The fleet departed just six days after Clara Brett's birthday. It returned five short months before her death. By 1910, Tom had returned to civilian life and had reclaimed his mother's name to become Thomas deV. Harper.

Mr. Brett writes:
With an impeccable resumé, Tom, soon with a fine marriage, a suitable residence, and his one child, Dorothy, obtained a lifelong employment as a regional business assessor for the Dun Company, later merged to become the famous Dun and Bradstreet Company. (2)
The Harper and Brett families were haunted by premature death: According to the letter writer, Mr. Brett, the next to be struck down was Thomas deV. Harper's wife (whom he does not name). Harper remained unmarried for many years. His daughter went to live with relatives while he was on the road and busy with his career. "Unfortunately," recounted Mr. Brett, "just as Tom was grabbing at the brass ring, only a few months after remarrying, Tom had a heart attack, dying at age 50." Unsaid in the letter is that Harper's wife, Cora M. Harper, had preceded him in death on August 1, 1937, at age forty-eight or forty-nine. Thomas deV. Harper's death occurred on April 26, 1939, in Oregon. (3)

So Thomas deV. Harper was a writer. A search of the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and The FictionMags Index yields just one short story: "The Hermit of Chemeketa Mountain" from Weird Tales, April 1929. (4) Harper also wrote two letters published in "The Unique Magazine," in February 1931 and September 1932. That may be as much as anyone knows about Thomas deV. Harper's writing career.

Much more is known of his brother, Sereno Elmer Brett. Born on October 31, 1891, in Portland, Oregon, Sereno Brett graduated from Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in 1916. He enlisted in the Oregon National Guard and served  for two months with the Pancho Villa Expedition along the Mexican-American border in 1916. On November 28, 1916, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Leavenworth. When the United States went to war in Europe, Brett was ordered overseas. He was promoted to captain on July 25, 1917, and transferred to the Tank Corps in March 1918. Six months later Brett led the first American tank attack of World War I at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in September 1918. He continued as second in command to Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne and took over when Patton was wounded in battle. For his actions in the war, Brett was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. He remained in the army during the interwar period and was promoted to brigadier general in 1942, not long after his country returned to war. An associate of George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower, Brett retired in October 1943 and died nine years later on September 9, 1952, in Santa Barbara, California. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his wife, Second Lieutenant Elizabeth March Brett, A.N.C. (1898-1981). (5)

(1) Randal Everts believes the correct spelling is likely to be de Vernet.
(2) Founded in 1841 as The Mercantile Agency by the abolitionist Lewis Tappan (1788-1873), R.G. Dun and Company was the first commercial reporting agency in the United States. In 1933 the company merged with J.M. Bradstreet and Company to form Dun and Bradstreet. That firm is still in existence and is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. By the way, 1841 was also the year in which Tappan attended and reported on the Amistad trial.
(3) I wonder here if the account of Thomas deV. Harper as having been married twice before the mid-1930s is correct. Could both of his wives had died so young, and prior to his own death? Mr. Brett writes that late in life Harper married a woman half his age. Could there have been a third wife? Mr. Brett mentions Harper's widow, Gladys, "a pleasant, astute, sociable young woman," who joined the W.A.C. during the Second World War and was stationed in London. Was she actually the second wife? Unanswered questions remain, even with Mr. Brett's fine letter.
(4) I also searched for the name "Thomas Brett" without results. By the way, Chemeketa is a real place: Chemeketa Community College is located in Salem, Oregon. Chemeketa Park is located in Santa Clara County, California. We should remember that Harper's mother was named Clara.
(5) Like his brother, Brett was a writer and author of Lumbering in National Defense (1920). A.N.C. stands for Army Nurse Corps. Sereno Brett receives mention in Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I by John S.D. Eisenhower (Simon & Schuster, 2001), pp. 216 and 218.

Thomas deV. Harper's Story & Letters in Weird Tales
"The Hermit of Chemeketa Mountain" (Apr. 1929)
Letter to "The Eyrie" (Feb. 1931)
Letter to "The Eyrie" (Sept. 1932)

Further Reading
There's plenty of reading on Sereno E. Brett on the Internet and in print but almost nothing--really nothing--that I could find on his brother, Thomas deV. Harper.

From early in his army career, Sereno E. Brett was in the tank corps. He served with George Patton in World War I and as a chief of staff of the Armored Force at Fort Knox in World War II. Here's an illustration from a book about the second war. So what's the connection with Thomas deV. Harper? The two men were half-brothers. Here's another connection: the illustration--from Rough Riders Ho! by Rutherford G. Montgomery (1946)--is by E. Franklin Wittmack (1894-1956), a contributor to and cover artist for Weird Tales.
Weird Tales author Thomas de Vernet Harper (1889-1939), a photograph from 1918. From the collection of Randal A. Everts.

Thanks to Randal A. Everts for the letter from Mr. Brett and for the photograph of Thomas Harper.
Revised slightly on October 5, 2017.
Text and captions copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, January 28, 2013

Edison Marshall in Rensselaer

In doing research on Edison Marshall (1894-1967), I contacted the Jasper County Public Library in Rensselaer, Indiana. The librarian sent me some information on one of the county's most famous sons and I returned the gesture by sending some information I had found at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis. Now the library has written about Edison Marshall on its own blog in an article called "A Boy Called Tess: Rensselaer writer Edison Marshall." (1) Rensselaer has remembered Edison Marshall and two other writers, Eleanor Stackhouse Atkinson (1863-1942) and James F. Hanley (1892-1942) (2), with stone markers at Milroy Park. You'll find a photograph of those markers on the library's website. Thanks to the Jasper County Public Library for further information on Edison Marshall and thanks to all librarians everywhere for their invaluable effort.

(1) The name "Tess" refers to Marshall's middle name, Tesla, which was abbreviated in his youth. Evidently his parents weren't taking any chances when they named him: whether AC or DC won out, they were covered. 
(2) No relation to me. Incidentally, Milroy Park is named in honor of General Robert H. Milroy (1816-1890), a Civil War general. Incidentally again, Eleanor Stackhouse Atkinson was the mother of mystery writer Eleanor Frances Atkinson Cox Pratt, better known as Eleanor Blake (1899?-?), and grandmother of Wally Cox (1924-1973). Finally, Wally Cox and Marlon Brando were close friends, so close in fact that, according to Wikipedia, Brando kept Cox's ashes in his bedroom and talked to them every night. Now that's a weird tale.

Copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lovecraft in Smithsonian Magazine

It isn't often that a writer for Weird Tales is mentioned in a mainstream magazine, but H.P. Lovecraft has made an appearance in Smithsonian. The occasion was Halloween 2012 (Smithsonian, Oct. 2012) and the publication of an article called "The Great New England Vampire Panic" by Abigail Tucker. The story is a fascinating one and tells about a panic in nineteenth century New England in which the bodies of suspected vampires were exhumed and sometimes treated in gruesome ways in attempts to banish them. The central part of the story concerns Mercy Lena Brown, a young girl of Exeter, Rhode Island. Called Lena, the girl died of tuberculosis in January 1892 (when Lovecraft was not even two years old). Suspected of "feasting 'on the living tissue and blood of Edwin'," her sickly brother, Lena was removed from her grave and had her heart and liver burned by villagers. The ashes were fed to Edwin Brown, who nevertheless died two months later.

Exeter, located southwest of Lovecraft's hometown of Providence, was considered "one of the border towns" and called "Deserted Exeter." Apparently it was just the kind of place in which Lovecraft liked to set his tales of backwoods people and their backwoods ways. In her article for Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker briefly discusses the possibility that Lucy Westenra, the teenaged vampiress in Bram Stoker's Dracula, was based in part on Mercy Lena Brown. Ms. Tucker continues:
Whether or not Lucy's roots are in Rhode Island, Lena's historic exhumation is referenced in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shunned House," a short story about a man being haunted by dead relatives that includes a living character named Mercy.
The reference in "The Shunned House" comes in about the middle of the second section of the story:
It was Ann White who first gave definite shape to the sinister idle talk. Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace, and one may imagine the point of view of the same section in 1768. 
I don't believe Lovecraft mentioned Lena Brown by name. In any case, because of his reference to the tragic young girl, he earned a place on the periphery of her story and a mention in Smithsonian.

Original text copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tolkien and Weird Tales-Part 4

Tolkien and Howard

In his biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, Daniel Grotta observes that "1936 appears to have been a turning point" in the author's life. Tolkien gave a well-received lecture on Beowulf that year. He also had The Hobbit, "his first full-length fairy story," accepted for publication. At age forty-four, Tolkien was on the cusp of a new career as a world-renowned author of fantasy. Nineteen thirty-six was also the year in which Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, brought his own life to an end.

I could write all day about Tolkien and Howard. Lots of people already have. But I don't suppose I would have anything new to say. Instead I'll try to keep it short. The most obvious similarity between the two is in their creation of a world set in our own world's dim past, a world of adventure in which magic holds sway. I haven't seen any discussion of another similarity I have noticed, but the lack of discussion could be because there is nothing to discuss. I won't let that stop me though.

Robert E. Howard created Conan and his Hyborian Age in 1932 with a number of stories, background notes, and at least one map. The first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," was published in Weird Tales in December of that year. Howard went on to write many more tales of his dark and sullen barbarian before his death. Other writers followed with their own pastiches. In the fantasy revival of the 1960s, Conan became very popular and was of course adapted to the comics. That's where this map, based on Howard's original, comes from:

As you can see by the legend, the Hyborian Age took place in our own past, "circa 10,000 B.C." The continent over which Conan roams corresponds roughly with Europe, with a little bit of Asia and Africa thrown in as well. Conan is a Cimmerian. That's his country (in yellow) in the northern and western part of the continent. Robert E. Howard must have known a little about geography, but the layout of his countries and their features seems a little odd to me.

J.R.R. Tolkien began writing The Hobbit and its sequels in the 1930s. Like Howard before him, Tolkien developed a geography and history of his imaginary land. Bilbo Baggins liked maps. I suppose Tolkien did, too. In any case, here's one depiction of Middle-Earth (1):

Tolkien probably did not know anything about Howard or Conan or even Weird Tales when he began designing Middle-Earth. (2) There is some small resemblance between the two continents however. Both face to the west and a barrier sea. (3, 4) Both protrude into that sea on the north and suck themselves in on the south (leaving enough room for a legend in the lower left corner). Both also contain an inland sea on the east, the Vilayet Sea in Conan's world, the Sea of Rhûn in the Hobbits' world. There are several prominent rivers flowing from northeast to southwest on both maps. In the top map, the southernmost large river, the Styx, bends to the south. In the bottom map, its counterpart bends to the north and drains the middle part of the continent. I have the same feeling about this map as about Howard's. Artificial is the obvious word to describe it. A physical geographer would probably have a thing or two to say about both maps. Perhaps the two authors should have consulted with someone like Slartibartfast before proceeding. (5)

There's one more thing worth noting here: If you were to overlay one map on the other, you would see that Cimmeria and The Shire are roughly in the same position in their respective continents. Is that a coincidence? I'm not so sure. Howard and Tolkien (Lovecraft, too) favored northern and western lands and peoples over all others. You can't go too far north and west of course. Then you would be in the boondocks. But mostly north and mostly west work out pretty well and make a good native country for your hero.

(1) I don't know the source for this map, nor who drew it.
(2) According to L. Sprague de Camp, the bee in the bonnet of all Howard and Lovecraft fans, Tolkien did in fact read at least one Conan story, but that wasn't until the 1960s.
(3) What lay on the other side of that sea? Another continent of equal wonders?
(4) Both continents are also oriented in the same way the continent of Europe is oriented (or should I say "occidented"?).
(5) Here's an oddity for you: Blogger's spellchecker accepts Slartibartfast without a problem but puts a red line under Lovecraft.

Text copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tolkien and Weird Tales-Part 3

I have a book called Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, published in 1944 by Random House, an American firm based in New York. The publishers were Bennett A. Cerf, Donald S. Klopfer, and Robert K. Haas, all Americans and all born in New York. The two editors of the book were Herbert A. Wise (Cerf's uncle) and Phyllis Fraser (Cerf's wife). They were also Americans. The editors selected fifty-two tales by forty-three authors for inclusion in their anthology. (One story has two co-authors. Ten authors have two stories each.) Of those forty-three authors, twenty-two were British, plus one Armenian-British author (Michael Arlen). Two were French, two were Irish (one of whom was the Irish-American writer Fitz-James O'Brien), one was Danish, and one was German. The balance--fourteen authors--were Americans. Of those dozen-plus-two, most were and are well known: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, F. Marion Crawford, O. Henry, Edith Wharton, Conrad Aiken, Alexander Woollcott, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. The last two of course won Nobel Prizes not long after this collection was published. That leaves just three lesser-known American authors: Richard Connell, who is known for just one story, "The Most Dangerous Game"; Edward Lucas White, author of "Lukundoo"; and H.P. Lovecraft, who placed two tales in this collection, "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Dunwich Horror." (The last three stories by the way came from Weird Tales.) Readers of Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural would probably have been unfamiliar with White and Lovecraft, coming as they did from the pulps. The editors kindly wrote a lengthy introduction to Lovecraft's two tales, which close the book. They refer to "The Dunwich Horror" as a "splendid story." I agree.

I haven't read all the stories in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. I'm certain that the editors had good reason to include the stories and authors they did. But were they biased? A larger question: Are publishers, editors, critics, readers, and academia in general biased in favor of British writers when it comes to fantasy? Is there a bias in favor of more "literary" stories or stories from well known authors, especially from the past? Is there an equal bias against pulp fiction and pulp authors or new fiction and new authors? Is there a bias in favor of a specific kind of fantasy and against certain others? The Hobbit is a heroic quest, an Odyssey across Middle Earth. It's a kind of tale as old as literature itself. It also contains elements of a fairy tale, a genre that is also quite old, dating as it does from early in our own childhood. "The Call of Cthulhu" or "At the Mountains of Madness" is something else. Both are also quests, but they are set in the present. More importantly, there isn't any magic, for in the twentieth century science slew magic. Lovecraft's science-fantasy stories may have had precedent in the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and other nineteenth century authors, but if you think about it, they were startling innovations.

Do we then favor the traditional story: the heroic quest, the fairy tale, the ghost story, the Gothic romance, the Utopian novel? Is there opposition to innovation in fantasy fiction--against science-fantasy and science fiction, against a tale set in the present or in the future, on some other planet or in another dimension? Does the general readership favor tales that look to the past while dismissing tales that border on science fiction? I think most people would feel unembarrassed if you found them reading a ghost story or even The Hobbit. But what if they were discovered reading science fiction or--horrors!--a pulp magazine? How would they react to that? With shame and embarrassment? I don't know. In any case, there is even today a stigma attached to certain kinds of fantasy. It's why decades ago Judith Merril started calling science fiction "speculative fiction" or "SF." (2) It's also why respected writers such as Margaret Atwood, Walker Percy, and Cormac McCarthy--all of whom have written science fiction--have also avoided being labeled as science fiction writers. (3)

Movies and television are dominated by fantasy. Unfortunately, most of it is throwaway storytelling. Little resonates. The Lord of the Rings series is different. Despite Tolkien's claims that his tales of Middle Earth are not allegorical, we can see our own story unfolding before us, not just the story of the twentieth century, but of all of history. We are in an unceasing struggle against evil. If we win against evil, it's because of our better qualities: heroism, courage, determination, strength, loyalty, friendship, love. The Lord of the Rings is a great piece of moviemaking, but I don't think it won the Oscar for best picture because it's big and epic and loaded with special effects. I think it won because it's a very human story.

Finally, if there is any bias in tastes in fantasy fiction, it may be justifiable. Tolkien found his way into print without ever writing for a pulp magazine. It helped that he was a scholar and a professor. It also helped that he wrote for children, at least in The Hobbit. It may even have helped a little that he was British. More than anything, though, Tolkien was a good writer and a good storyteller. Was he a better writer than Lovecraft? That's like comparing apples to oranges. Was he better than the average pulp fictioneer? I'll leave that question open and instead close with a quote from Duke Ellington, whose judgment can be applied just as easily to literature as to music: "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind."

Next: Tolkien and Howard

(1) Phyllis Fraser in fact was from plumb in the middle of the country and hailed from Kansas City, Missouri. In addition to being married to Bennett Cerf, she was also a cousin to Ginger Rogers. I can keep going with this: A Hollywood actress for a time, Phyllis Fraser was also related in some vague and distant way to Rita Hayworth and Lucille Ball.
(2) This month--January 21 to be exact--marks the 90th anniversary of Judith Merril's birth. Happy Birthday, Judith!
(3) According to a friend, science fiction fans hold their own bias and look down their noses at comic books. Even comic books have become hoity-toity and are now split between "graphic novels," which are important, and comic books, which are still trash. By the way, there's a name for the difference between two levels of fantasy: High fantasy refers to stories like The Hobbit which take place in an imagined world. (Tolkien would probably argue that Middle Earth is not wholly imagined.) Low fantasy refers to stories set in our own world. That distinction--high vs. low--doesn't refer to the quality of the work itself. However, the word low certainly has its connotations.

Lovecraft, Tolkien, Howard, and other authors of fantasy and science fiction became very popular in the 1960s and '70s with the release of paperback editions of their work. Ballantine Books was in the fore in delivering fantasy to its readers. Lin Carter edited a series called Ballantine Adult Fantasy beginning in 1969. He also presented analysis and history of the genre, including these two volumes, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos (1972, with cover art by Murray Tinkelman) and Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings (1969, cover artist unknown).

Text and captions copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, January 7, 2013

Tolkien and Weird Tales-Part 2

H.P. Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. A mere year and a half separated him in age from J.R.R. Tolkien, who came into the world on January 3, 1892. Lovecraft spent almost his entire life in the city of his birth. His gravestone is inscribed "I am Providence." Born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now part of the Union of South Africa), Tolkien was removed to England when he was just three years old and spent most of the rest of his life in his parents' native country. (1) Not long after he arrived in England, Tolkien's father died in the Orange Free State. Lovecraft also lost his father when he was a child. Both Lovecraft and Tolkien were educated at home (although both also received formal education). Both were prodigies: Tolkien could read by age four and learned to write soon after, while Lovecraft recited poetry as a toddler and began composing his own verse by age six. "He was a brown-eyed tot with long golden curls," L. Sprague de Camp wrote, adding that Lovecraft's mother "dressed him in a Lord Fauntleroy suit." Tolkien received the same treatment when he was a child:
Mabel Tolkien apparently took great pride in dressing her sons in the finery of the day: short black velvet coats and knee-length trousers, large round hats with drawstrings, frilly white satin shirts with wide collars and huge red bows loosely tied at the neck. She also made them wear their hair long and curly. (2)
Without putting a name to it, Daniel Grotta seems to be describing a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit. It's worth noting that Fauntleroy also lost his father when he was a child.

Frances Hodgson Burnett must have tapped into a common fantasy in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-1886), namely, that of the orphaned boy who is unexpectedly rescued from genteel poverty by a wealthy benefactor or high status. That fantasy came true in some ways for both Lovecraft and Tolkien. However, Lovecraft's benefactor (his grandfather) died in 1904 and the boy was returned to his genteel state, living with his mother and maiden aunts in a life of ever-diminishing means. Lovecraft never completed high school and seldom held a job. Instead, he became an amateur astronomer, scholar, writer, printer, and publisher. Lovecraft began writing professionally in 1919 and contributed to Weird Tales during the magazine's first year in print, 1923. He would continue writing for pulp magazines until his death in 1937. Lovecraft's mother died in 1921, leaving her son a true orphan in the world. Three years later, Lovecraft married and moved to New York City, both on the same day. Both ventures proved to be failures.

Tolkien on the other hand received a sound formal education and became a professional and widely respected scholar and writer. (Tolkien was also left an orphan with the death of his mother in 1904.) He served in the British army during World War I and saw combat on the Western Front. (3) Returning to civilian life, he worked as an etymologist, then in academia where he remained until retirement in 1959. By all appearances, Tolkien's marriage was happy and successful. He and his wife had four children, two of whom are still living. Lovecraft on the other hand was literally the last of his line: in his own lifetime, he was the only male living in the United States with the surname Lovecraft.

There are other similarities. Despite his Germanic name, Tolkien was very British and conservative. I don't think it's any coincidence at all that the Hobbits who save their land from evil come from the West. Lovecraft was of course a devoted Anglophile and a Tory. He was probably not a racist; he might more properly be called a "racialist." Like Tolkien, Lovecraft favored northern and western Europe over all. There are obvious differences between the two men as well. First, Lovecraft was a materialist, while Tolkien was a devout Catholic. Second, there appears to be little overlap in the books and writers who individually influenced Tolkien and Lovecraft. Also, Tolkien specialized in the Anglo-Saxon period, whereas Lovecraft was enamored of eighteenth-century England. Both now are giants of twentieth-century fantasy. Despite that, both are treated seriously in academic studies, Tolkien perhaps more than Lovecraft. As I noted in my previous posting, Lovecraft and Tolkien (along with other writers of the pulp fiction era) became wildly popular in the 1960s, mostly through mass market paperback editions of their work. Both inspired song, music, movies, television shows, and role-playing games. (First came Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, then Call of Cthulhu in 1981.) Both also inspired imitation, for today it seems every writer of fantasy wants to be either Tolkien or Lovecraft. (4) A question remains: When it comes to fantasy fiction, have Tolkien and other British writers been esteemed more highly than Lovecraft and his compatriots?

To be continued . . .

(1) Bloemfontein was later the location of an astronomical observatory. If you want to reach for connections, you might remember that Lovecraft was an amateur astronomer. The astronomer Morris K. Jessup spent three years at Bloemfontein. Although he never contributed to Weird Tales, he can be counted among those who wrote about flying saucers, a group that included Vincent H. Gaddis, Donald E. Keyhoe, Millen le Poer Trench (aka Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea), and MacKinlay Kantor, all of whom were contributors. Correction (Jan. 19, 2013): MacKinlay Kantor did not in fact contribute to Weird Tales. Instead, he contributed to Real Detective Tales and Mystery Stories, edited by Edwin Baird, former editor of Weird Tales. Real Detective Tales was a companion magazine to Weird Tales before Jacob Clark Henneberger sold it off in order to keep his "Unique Magazine" in print.
(2) From The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle Earth by Daniel Grotta (1978).
(3) Lovecraft's mother prevented him from serving in the national guard during the war. As a private in the coastal artillery, he would not have been far from home and in no danger. Even that, it would appear, was too much for her to take. It's fascinating to think how Lovecraft's life would have been different after military service. As he himself wrote, "It would either have killed me or cured me."
(4) Time was when they all wanted to be Robert E. Howard, but there are far fewer barbarians crowding the bookrack today than in 1970. Now everyone wants to write great sweeping fantasies (preferably trilogies, tetralogies, or beyond), or tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I have to ask: Don't we have enough elves, dwarves, and wizards? Aren't there enough stories of Great Old Ones and other dripping horrors?

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1886) was one of the most popular books of its day and inspired a look that we recognize even now. Late Victorian mothers dressed their boys this way, Sarah Phillips Lovecraft and Mabel Suffield Tolkien among them. Perhaps more powerful and subtle is the fantasy of the highly placed benefactor who rescues the poor child from his ordinary life.
Not to be outdone by Lovecraft fans, followers of J.R.R. Tolkien formed their own music groups in the 1960s. The Hobbits and Gandalf (pictured here) drew on the Tolkien craze, if only for a while.
Coming full circle, here are The Young Rascals in what look like Little Lord Fauntleroy shirts. We are nostalgic for the 1960s, or '70s, or '80s. Then people were nostalgic for the 1920s, or '30s, or '40s, or even before. And so it goes into the remote and irretrievable past.

Text and captions copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Tolkien and Weird Tales-Part 1

On the morning of March 15, 1937, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, aged forty-six, died in a hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Despite his frequent travels and an enormous body of correspondence, Lovecraft was essentially a recluse and little known outside a relatively small circle of friends and fans. He had never published a book in hardcover despite repeated opportunity. He had seldom held a job. His brief marriage had ended without issue. Forced into evermore dire circumstances, he more or less died from malnutrition and neglect. Lovecraft was also essentially an amateur. He had made some small arrangements for the handling of his literary estate, but by all appearances, the entirety of his work has fallen into the public domain. (For that we can be thankful.) August Derleth became Lovecraft's champion after his death and published a number of hardbound collections of Lovecraft's stories and poems. Arkham House, the firm co-founded by Derleth expressly for the purpose of reprinting Lovecraft's work, was never a big operation. The initial print run of The Outsider and Others (1939) for instance amounted to 1,268 copies. It would take the explosion in mass market paperbacks of the 1960s for Lovecraft to become truly popular and well known. Today, he is considered among the pantheon of twentieth century authors of fantasy.

Six months after Lovecraft's death, on September 21, 1937, to be exact, (1) George Allen & Unwin of London published its own book of fantasy in The Hobbit by J.R.R. TolkienReviewers were enthusiastic in their praise for Tolkien's book. As a result, the initial print run of 1,500 copies sold out by the end of the year. The publisher issued a second printing at the end of 1937. An American edition followed in early 1938. Still more editions rolled off the presses in the decades afterward. Like Lovecraft, Tolkien became enormously popular during the 1960s when college students and the counterculture latched onto his stories. From 1937 until his death in 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed an unbroken string of successes and popularity. (2)

The Hobbit is a fine book, light in tone, full of imagination, with well wrought imagery, characters, and sequences of action and dialogue. It's aimed at children of course and it's not so British as The Chronicles of Narnia (3). In short, The Hobbit makes for easy and enjoyable reading. It was succeeded by the more adult and challenging Lord of the Rings. Writing in the New York Times, W.H. Auden exulted at the first installment: "No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring." Other critics raved as well: "extraordinary," "distinguished," "one of the great literary achievements of our time," "one of the best wonder tales ever written." Michael Straight of The New Republic was unequivocal: "There are few works of genius in recent literature. This is one." (4)

As I write this, The Hobbit is playing in theaters all around the world. It has been nearly a decade since the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released. That film, The Return of the King, went on to win the Academy Award for best picture. There are parallels in the lives of Lovecraft and Tolkien. There are also strong contrasts. In any case, it's hard to imagine that a film based on one of Lovecraft's tales will ever receive an Oscar for best picture. That may have as much to do with moviemaking as it does with source material. Then again, it may not.

To be continued . . . 

(1) It's worth noting that those two dates--March 15 and September 21--resonate in Western culture. March 15--the Ides of March--is of course the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar. The Feast of Saint Matthew takes place on September 21, the eve of the autumnal equinox, which is, not by coincidence I'm sure, the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
(2) Names, titles, and imagery from Lovecraft and Tolkien even crossed over into popular music in songs by Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and the psychedelic rock group H.P. Lovecraft.
(3) Written by Tolkien's friend, C.S. Lewis.
(4) If you have the Ballantine editions of The Lord of the Rings from the 1960s, you have already seen these reviews.

This is as good a time as any to show three album covers and a group photo for the band H.P. Lovecraft. Note the record label: Philips (with one "l"). The lead singer, George Edwards, had previously worked for Dunwich Records. Could there have been any more appropriate label names for H.P. Lovecraft? Edwards' birthday by the way is August 19, only a day away from Lovecraft's.

Text and captions copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley