Saturday, August 31, 2013

Rivals of Weird Tales-Strange Tales

The Thrill Book blazed a trail for weird fiction and fantasy in the pulps. Unfortunately that magazine lasted only a few months. Four years later, in March 1923, Weird Tales made its debut, and for awhile it was the only American magazine wholly devoted to fantasy fiction. In April 1926, Amazing Stories showed up next to Weird Tales on the newsstand. Science fiction magazines proliferated after that. Weird fiction and fantasy magazines were far less common--and usually short lived.

Despite its perennial financial troubles, its relatively low circulation, and its meager payments made to authors and illustrators, Weird Tales seems to have set a standard for pulp fantasy. It's hard to imagine that any magazine publisher would look upon Weird Tales from a financial viewpoint and think, "I've got to get a piece of that action." Yet during the pulp fiction era, one publisher after another attempted to enter the fantasy market. One of the first was the notorious Bernarr Macfadden. His Ghost Stories ran from July 1926 to December 1931 for a total of sixty-four issues. I'll write about that magazine after I'm finished with the current batch.

The current batch begins with Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, often shortened to Strange Tales. Popular culture--which could probably also be called popular commerce--is all about imitation. Weird Tales (dating from 1923) and Amazing Stories (dating from 1926) ran on parallel tracks. Every pulp publisher worth his salt sought to imitate those two magazines, right down to their titles. William Clayton, head of Clayton Magazines, was no exception. In the late 1920s, Harold Hersey, former editor of The Thrill Book, urged Clayton to publish a science fiction magazine. Clayton declined--but only for awhile. In January 1930 he issued Astounding Stories of Super Science with Harry Bates as editor. Astounding Stories of Super Science later became Astounding Stories, then Astounding Science-Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr., bringer of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. That magazine is still with us as Analog Science Fiction & Fact.

With his own iteration of Amazing Stories in hand, Clayton launched Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror in September 1931 with Harry Bates at the helm. The abbreviated title, Strange Tales, is in obvious imitation of Weird Tales. The covers for the seven issues of Strange Tales are clearly not. The main title logo--the words "Strange Tales" enclosed in a black bat cartouche--is distinctive. Six of the seven cover illustrations are credited to H.W. Wesso (Hans Waldemar Wessolowski), an artist who never worked for Weird Tales.

"At times, the contents pages of Strange Tales and Weird Tales seemed interchangeable," wrote Stefan Dziemianowicz. The first issue of Strange Tales included stories by Ray Cummings, Arthur J. Burks, Gordon MacCreagh, Clark Ashton Smith, S.P. Meek, Victor Rousseau, and S.B.H. Hurst, all of whom also contributed to Weird Tales. Clark Ashton Smith's contribution was "The Return of the Sorcerer," a tale on the edge of the Cthulhu Mythos, which originated of course in the pages of Weird Tales. The letters column was called "The Cauldron: A Meeting Place for Sorcerers and Apprentices."

Needless to say, there were differences between the two magazines. Strange Tales paid better and printed longer stories than Weird Tales. If not for the timing--the early 1930s were the worst years of the Great Depression--Strange Tales might have given its weird cousin a run for its money. Instead the whole thing came to an end in January 1933 and that's a shame. It would be nice to write a companion blog called "Tellers of Strange Tales."

Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror
Sept. 1931 to Jan. 1933
7 Issues (Volumes 1-3)
Published by: Clayton Magazines
Edited by: Harry Bates
Format: Pulp size (6-5/8 x 9-3/4 inches); 144 pages
Note: Clayton Magazines also published and Harry Bates also edited Astounding Stories of Super Science.

Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror ran for just seven issues between September 1931 and January 1933. According to the Speculative Fiction Database, H.W. Wesso was responsible for six of those seven covers. Otherwise known as Hans Waldemar Wessolowski (1894-1948), Wesso was a prominent artist of science fiction and fantasy of the pulp fiction era. His life and career were entirely too short.

This is striking image--no pun intended. The hand holding the bow and arrow is unnecessary. The snake clothed in some kind of spirit or energy is compelling enough.
The Speculative Fiction Database doesn't credit Wesso with this illustration for the Nov. 1931 issue, but other sources do. This is probably the weakest cover of the seven. The draftsmanship on the woman's body is very poor. Maybe Wesso was a better artist than this.
Another wolf cover (Jan. 1932), like the first issue of The Thrill Book from thirteen years before.
Wesso's cover for the March 1932 issue is bizarre and surrealistic. If you had seen it hanging in a gallery between paintings by Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico, you might not have blinked an eye.
Wesso's cover for the June 1932 issue was more conventional, but it looks strangely out of place in the 1930s. George Barr or Stephen Fabian could have painted this picture.
Note the big gap, from June to October 1932. What happened to the August issue? In any case, that could easily be a Lovecraftian hero in the picture. Wesso's cover was reused for the dust jacket of Rivals of Weird Tales (1990).
The last issue, January 1933, again with cover art by Wesso. The bat motif is almost repeated in the bow tie of the vampire.
Bat imagery abounds in popular culture. Nine months after the last issue of Strange Tales came out, Weird Tales published this cover by Margaret Brundage. I'm not sure how many people know or have read "The Vampire Master" by Hugh Davidson, but no one who has ever seen the cover illustration for Davidson's story is likely to have forgotten it. It's a truly iconic image in the history of the pulps.
In Spring 1940, National Periodicals published Batman #1, with a main title logo reminiscent of the logo for Strange Tales. The cover art is signed Bob Kane.
The main title logo for the Batman television show of the 1960s is even more like the magazine logo of thirty years before.
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Strange Tales was recently revived for three issues by Wildside Press, which was also publishing the revived Weird Tales, thus making them sister magazines for a time.

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