Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Birthday to Weird Tales

Weird Tales, the first American magazine devoted exclusively to fantasy fiction, made its debut ninety years ago this month, in March 1923. Today is a holy day and I would like to wish everyone a Happy Easter, but I would also like to say Happy Birthday (or birth month) to Weird Tales.

Weird Tales was the brainchild of Jacob Clark Henneberger, a Pennsylvanian by birth and a great fan of Edgar Allan Poe going back to his school days:
As a lad of 16, I attended a military academy in Virginia [Henneberger wrote]. The English department was headed by one Captain Stevens, a hunchback who was a rather chauvinistic chap in that he favored southern writers. One entire semester was devoted to Poe! You can imagine how immersed I became in him.
On the map of American literature, many roads lead to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). You can make a case that Poe was the originator of the detective story, science fiction, horror, and weird fiction in America. If that is indeed the case, then he can be considered the progenitor of our pulp fiction or genre fiction (although he never wrote a Western or a straight fantasy). (1)

In 1922, Henneberger and a partner, J.M. Lansinger, formed Rural Publications, Inc., with the intention of publishing two new magazines, Detective Tales (later Real Detective Tales and Mystery Stories) and of course Weird Tales. These two titles would be the vehicles for stories such as Edgar Allan Poe had told more than seventy years before. Henneberger appointed Edwin Baird as editor. Assisting Baird were Farnsworth Wright and pulpwriter Otis Adelbert Kline. The cover date for the first issue of Weird Tales was March 1923. The magazine probably showed up a few weeks before that, as the cover date was more an expiration date than anything else. Most pulp magazines sold for a nickel or a dime. The first issue of Weird Tales would have set you back a quarter, but two bits got you 192 pages and twenty-four stories, including the first installment of a serial by Kline, a hook for the next month's issue.

There weren't any interior illustrations in the inaugural issue of Weird Tales. Those would have to wait until the third issue. However, the cover of the magazine featured a two-color design by Chicago artist Richard R. Epperly. His subject was a long story with a short title, "Ooze" by Anthony M. Rud. Epperly's illustration (below) shows the eternal triangle of pulp fiction: the monster (or villain), the woman in peril, and the hero who has come to her rescue. "Ooze" is an effective and well-written story. I can recommend it, especially if you're interested in the development of the weird tale and possible influences on H.P. Lovecraft.

In their first volume of a planned series, The Best of Weird Tales (1997), editors Marvin Kaye and John Gregory Betancourt included two stories from the magazine's first issue, "The Grave" by Orville R. Emerson and "The Basket" by Herbert J. Mangham. "The Grave" retells a supposedly fictional event from World War I. (It could easily have happened in fact.) We should remember that the war had ended a mere four and a half years before Weird Tales made its debut. Readers of the magazine would have included thousands of young men who had witnessed and lived horrors such as in Emerson's tale. (They also included Farnsworth Wright, assistant editor of Weird Tales.)  "The Basket" is a brief but memorable story, weird in its way, but more closely an episode from life. It reminds me of a story I read many years ago, I think by Guy de Maupassant, with the closing (and very depressing) sentiment that we are all wretches.

None of the authors from the first issue of Weird Tales is well known today except Otis Adelbert Kline and future editor Farnsworth Wright. Clark Ashton Smith (July/Aug.), Seabury Quinn (Oct.), and H.P. Lovecraft (Oct.) made their debuts later that year. Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, Edmond Hamilton, and others arrived later still.

Weird Tales struggled in its first year and was never on very firm footing. J.C. Henneberger believed in his magazine however, as did its staff, writers, artists, and readers. Weird Tales, "The Unique Magazine," survived into the 1950s and finally gave up the ghost in September 1954 after thirty-one years and 279 issues. Other pulp magazine titles preceded it in death. Many more would follow as pulps died out in the 1950s and early '60s. Few are as well remembered now as Weird Tales. The magazine has been revived again and again and still exists on the Internet. It's no wonder that Weird Tales has been called "The Magazine That Never Dies." So, Happy 90th Birthday, Weird Tales!

(1) Pulp magazines had their own offshoots, including paperback books (which supplanted pulp magazines in the 1940s and '50s) and comic books, particularly superhero, science fiction, and horror comics. If I can build a case upon a case, I would suggest that Edgar Allan Poe was the father of not only detective fiction, science fiction, and weird fiction in America, but also grandfather of the three major types of superheroes: the detective (Batman), the science-fictional superhero (Superman), and the weird or supernatural superhero (e.g., The Spectre).

Text copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley