Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Before the Golden Age-Ray Cummings


Pulp magazines began in 1896 when The Argosy switched to what we now recognize as the pulp format: a lengthy all-fiction magazine printed on cheap, wood-pulp paper with untrimmed edges. Over the next quarter century, the pulp market was dominated by general interest story magazines, especially Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book, and Short Stories. These magazines published a variety of genres, including fantasy and nascent science fiction. Titles devoted to more specific genres came along during the second generation of pulp magazines. These included Western Story Magazine (1919), Black Mask (1920), and of course Weird Tales (1923), the first American magazine devoted exclusively to works of fantasy.

Hugo Gernsback published the first regular magazine of science fiction, Amazing Stories, in 1926, but the Golden Age of Science Fiction did not begin until John W. Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding Stories in 1938. In short, any period described as "before the Golden Age" could potentially include the years 1896 to 1938.

The first group of authors I would like to write about began their careers not only before the Golden Age, but also before Amazing Stories, the first science fiction pulp magazine. They include Ray Cummings, Ralph Milne Farley, and Murray Leinster.

Ray Cummings
Technical Writer and Editor, Pulp Fiction Writer, Comic Book Writer
Born August 30, 1887, New York, New York
Died January 23, 1957, Mount Vernon, New York

Raymond King Cummings was born on August 30, 1887, on Times Square in New York City. Educated at Princeton University and on his family's orange plantation in Puerto Rico, Cummings worked as a writer and editor for Thomas Edison from 1914 to 1919. All-Story Weekly published the first story he ever sold, "The Girl in the Golden Atom" (Mar. 15, 1919). Cummings followed that with "People of the Golden Atom" (All-Story Weekly, Jan. 24-Feb. 24, 1920) and more than 600 (and perhaps as many as 750) tales in a decades-long career. The Golden Atom stories were reprinted in hardback in 1922. Since then they have been reprinted again and again in magazines, anthologies, and paperbound editions. It's fair to say that Cummings' career was built upon a miniature universe.

The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction mentions Cummings' series of Scientific Club Stories (in the manner of the older "club story" form); his Matter, Space, and Time sequence; and his Crimes of the Year 2000 series for Detective Fiction Weekly. Cummings also worked in the planetary romance genre (pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs) in his stories of Tama of Mercury, and in the space opera genre with his stories of Greg Haljan. A website called Technovelgy: Where Science Meets Fiction lists Cummings' scientific inventions and innovations. Not listed is this quote:

"Time . . . is what keeps everything from happening at once,"

a quote that I believe I have heard attributed to Albert Einstein. Not bad for a pulp fiction writer.

Cummings' wife, Gabrielle Wilson, and daughter, Elizabeth or Betty Starr, were also writers. Husband and wife lived for a time in a hotel in New York City, where they wrote through the night and woke up for breakfast at noon. As Cummings' pulp fiction career began to shrink away in the 1940s, he ghosted comic book scripts for Timely Comics. Wikipedia lets us know that he adapted "The Girl in the Golden Atom" to Captain America #25 and 26 in a story entitled "Princess of the Atom." Cummings also wrote stories for Human Torch and Sub-Mariner comics.

I have never read anything by Ray Cummings, but I believe he has a reputation for being juvenile or old fashioned. Edgar Rice Burroughs can be described with the same words, yet he doesn't lack for fans. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction equivocates, but in the end is probably correct: "So there will likely never be a Cummings revival." However, his idea of a miniature universe will probably go on for as long as people read works of fantasy.

For Weird Tales
"Explorers Into Infinity" (three-part serial, Apr., May, and June 1927)
"The Giant World" (three-part serial, Jan., Feb., and Mar. 1928)
"The Robot God" (July 1941)
"The Lifted Veil" (May 1947)

Ray Cummings and his Golden Atom stories made their debut in "The Girl in the Golden Atom" in All-Story Weekly for March 15, 1919. The story (Cummings' favorite among his own works) was very popular and led to many sequels and reprintings.
Here's a cover for Fantastic Novels Magazine from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, demonstrating that Cummings and his work had staying power. The title "The Girl in the Golden Atom," by the way echoes the title of the stage play Girl of the Golden West (1905). The play was adapted to film in The Girl of the Golden West, a musical released in 1938 and starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. The cover art here is by Lawrence.
Avon reprinted Cummings' story "The Princess of the Atom" in 1950. The name of the cover artist is unknown.
By the 1970s, comic book fans and probably many science fiction fans had forgotten about the Girl in the Golden Atom, but they could still read stories of a miniaturized universe in The Micronauts, a comic book series published by Marvel beginning in 1979. The cover art was by Marvel workhorses Dave Cockrum and Al Milgrom.
Even Dr. Seuss got in on the act of little worlds nestled within our own when he published Horton Hears a Who! in 1954. We would do well to remember Horton's refrain, "A person's a person, no matter how small."
Ray Cummings tried his hand at planetary romance in his stories of Tama, Princess of Mercury. Cover art by Jerome Podwil.
Tama returned in Tama of the Light Country, again with cover art by Mr. Podwil.
Here's a cover for Super Science Novels Magazine, August 1941, with cover art by Robert C. Sherry. Note the setting in the Light Country.
Ace had a field day with Ray Cummings' work during the 1960s. Note the theme of miniaturization in this cover for Beyond the Vanishing Point. The cover artist was Ed Valigursky.
Here's a more brightly colored cover for A Brand New World. The cover art is unsigned and uncredited, but is this the work of Jack Gaughan?
Another Ace cover, this one by Ed Emshwiller and for Brigands of the Moon.
If you want to see other science fiction artists pale, just put their work next to that of Alex Schomburg, as in this cover for The Exile of Time.
I would collect Ace Books from now until the end of time if there were enough covers like this one for Wandl the Invader.  Ed Valigursky was the artist.
Even as late as 1966, when the magazine Famous Science Fiction Tales of Wonder was printed, Cummings' first story, "The Girl in the Golden Atom," was read by fans of the genre. The flying saucer cover art was the work of Virgil Finlay.
We shouldn't forget that Ray Cummings contributed four stories to Weird Tales. Here is the cover for July 1941 illustrating his novelette "The Robot God." The artist was Hannes Bok. That looks like a self-portrait on the right.

Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley


  1. http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue21/atom1.html

    This story was an enjoyable read. The hero falling in love with a woman from another world seems to have been a popular trope of the day and the genre (Merritt's 'Through the Dragon Glass' springs to mind). The notion of a scientist who discovers a means of miniaturisation reminds me of a film I only ever saw once, but thoroughly enjoyed - an old black-and-white called 'Devil Dolls' directed by Todd Browning of 'Freaks' fame. Maybe you've seen it?

    My favourite short story in this particular oeuvre would have to be Howard Fast's 'A Matter of Size' which I re-read again after many years. The idea of something appearing human while not being so (the miniature humanoid species in 'A Matter of Size' have a lot of insectoid traits as well) made a big impression on me as a teenager. It was funny to read the story again and to realise the more surreal touches are part of an attempt to make a conscious point - it's an allegory about racism (at least, as far as I can tell).

  2. Aonghus,

    I think I saw The Devil-Doll (1936) a long time ago, when I was a child. (We watched scary movies on The Sammy Terry Show, Friday nights on WTTV-4.) I remember that it was a creepy movie, but then Tod Browning had a talent for making creepy movies.

    I could have gone on with the theme of miniaturization. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) comes to mind, especially the end when he slips through the interstices of matter and--do I remember right that the movie closes with a shot of the universe?

    Thanks for writing.


  3. I forgot all about the 'The Incredible Shrinking Man'! Funnily enough I saw this film for the first time a few years ago - it was pretty good, and I'm sure it does end up with a shot of the universe (some correlation with stars and atoms, I'm guessing). I also remember 'The Micronauts' as they featured in the 'Stars Wars' comic issued by Marvel to tie in with the films in the late Seventies.

    Nice Blog!

  4. The Ace paperback covers you inquire about for WANDL THE INVADER and BEYOND THE VANISHING POINT look to me like the work of Edward Valigursky.

    John Boston

    1. Thanks, John, after these many years. I have made the changes after confirming with the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

  5. Well, there may be no full-fledged revival of Cummings' works, but with the magazines that he appeared in now being facsimile reprinted, and with several new collections of his works (I even reviewed one for Amazon) appearing, I think that his works are getting more attention.