Friday, May 24, 2013

Before the Golden Age-Emil Petaja

Emil Petaja
Author, Poet, Science Fiction Fan, Collector, Publisher, Photographer
Born April 12, 1915, Milltown, Missoula County, Montana
Died August 17, 2000, San Francisco, California

Emil Petaja's life changed when he first read Weird Tales. Has any other teller of weird tales made such a claim? That fateful encounter came in 1931 when the author-to-be was in his mid-teens, a golden age for fantasy fans. He wrote his first published letter in a science fiction magazine in 1933, his first poem ("Witch's Bercuse" in Marvel Tales) in 1935, and his first story ("The Mist" in Phantasmagoria) in 1937. Because of his early activity in the field, Petaja earned his rightful place in First Fandom.

In this blog I have looked at lesser-known authors. My biographies of well-known authors have been brief. But as I have worked on the current series of authors first published before the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I have found that even some prominent authors have gotten short shrift, at least on the Internet. Arthur Leo Zagat and Nathan Schachner, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, and P. Schuyler Miller are examples. You will find lists of their published works on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, critical and historical information in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and some very limited biographical information on Wikipedia, but too often, the whole picture of a writer's life is missing. Emil Petaja is an exception. There is a lengthy biography of Petaja on Wikipedia. I won't rehash what the authors of that biography have written. Instead I'll just highlight a few facts.

Emil Theodore Petaja was born of Finnish parents in Milltown, Montana, nearly one hundred years ago. (The surname Petaja is Finnish for "pine"--it's fitting that a child with that name should come into the world in a place full of pine and in a town called Milltown.) Petaja became a fan and a collector of science fiction and fantasy as a teenager. In the 1930s, he corresponded with other genre writers, including H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Petaja moved to Los Angeles in 1937 and befriended Forrest J Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner, and Hannes Bok, among others. For a time he and Bok were roommates. After Bok's death, Petaja published memorial works for his friend under the Bokanalia Foundation, which he founded in 1967. Like Ackerman, Petaja was an inveterate collector of memorabilia, including movie memorabilia.

Petaja wrote science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, and detective stories. Much of his work was based on Finnish mythology and folklore. Weird Tales published eight of his stories and two of his poems. After a long and distinguished career during which he seems to have been in contact with every well-known person in his field, Emil Petaja died on August 17, 2000, in San Francisco. Ackerman, Bradbury, and--just this month--Ray Harryhausen have since passed away. Few if any of the old Los Angeles science fiction fans are left.

Emil Petaja's Stories & Poems in Weird Tales
"Lost Dream" (poem, Jan. 1938)
"The Warrior" (poem, Jan. 1939)
"Monsieur Bluebeard" (Sept. 1944)
"The Music-Box from Hell" (May 1945)
"Votaress" (Sept. 1945)
"The Jonah" (Mar. 1946)
"Skydrift" (Nov. 1949)
"The Hungry Ghost" (Mar. 1950)
"The Insistent Ghost" (Sept. 1950)
"Live Evil" (July 1952)

Emil Petaja's Letters to "The Eyrie"
June 1932 
Sept. 1934 
Aug. 1935 
Apr. 1938 
Mar. 1946 

Some paperback covers of novels by Emil Petaja: The Caves of Mars (1965), one side of an Ace Double with cover art by Alex Schomburg. I have read this book. My best advice is just to look at the cover.
Alpha Yes, Terra No! (1965) with cover art by Ed Valigursky.
The Time Twister (1968) with cover art by Jack Gaughan.
The Star Mill (1966). Again, Gaughan was the artist.
The Path Beyond the Stars (1969), a third cover by Jack Gaughan.

Text and captions copyright 2013, 2023 Terence E. Hanley


  1. thanks the the covers and some stirred memories!

    1. Dear Doug R.,

      You're welcome. The covers of old science fiction paperbacks and magazines are among my favoritist things in the universe.