Sunday, September 29, 2013

Unknown and Unknown Worlds-Part 1

Our story thus far: Although The Thrill Book, published in 1919, told weird and fantastic tales, the first magazine wholly devoted to those genres was Weird Tales, which began in March 1923. Weird Tales suffered from perennial financial difficulties. Nonetheless, it held on for 279 issues and thirty-one years, finally coming to an end in the pulp bloodbath of the 1950s. In that time, Weird Tales had its rivals and imitators. It even gave rise to a new genre, the weird menace or shudder pulps. Each in its turn folded, usually after only a few issues. Then, in 1939, a new magazine of fantasy arrived on the scene. For a time, it must have looked like the mantle of fantasy fiction would be taken from Weird Tales and placed upon Unknown. In his History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Mike Ashley wrote: "Unknown published without doubt the greatest collection of fantasy stories produced in one magazine." (1) There were stories by L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, Anthony Boucher, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, and L. Ron Hubbard. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories first saw the light of day in Unknown. "They" by Robert Heinlein, one of the most paranoiac and solipsistic stories you're likely to read, was also published in the magazine. C.L. Moore migrated from Weird Tales to Unknown and its science fiction companion, Astounding, in 1939-1940. Unknown also published Leiber's "Smoke Ghost," one of the most memorable of weird tales, and "Conjure Wife," about witches on a modern college campus. "'Conjure Wife,'" wrote Robert Weinberg, "like 'Smoke Ghost,' pulled the supernatural story kicking and screaming out of ancient ruins and dropped it square into the middle of urban sprawl." (2) And that was entirely the point.

Unknown was published by Street and Smith and edited by John W. Campbell, Jr., the same crew that put out Astounding Science-Fiction. In Astounding, Campbell remade science fiction and forged a golden age. I think his intent was the same with Unknown and the genre of fantasy. Weird Tales, admittedly a little giant in terms of budget and sales, bestrode that genre. Every other fantasy magazine of its time was forced either to imitate Weird Tales (as in Strange Tales and Strange Stories) or to react to it some way. It seems to me that the weird menace pulps were one possible reaction: a sort of hybrid of weird fiction, hero pulps, and confession or true crime, in which the events of the story, no matter how weird, are in the end explained rationally. Campbell's Unknown was another:
[Campbell] stressed the power of good writing over the cheap theatrics and the purple prose that weighed down other weird-fiction magazines. More importantly, he demanded that his writers make their fantasy as logical as science fiction. There were to be no more fainting narrators, no more last-minute rescues, no more heaping on ridiculous fantastic effects. In Unknown, even the incredible had to operate by some sort of rationale. (3)
I think we can take that as a swipe--not by the writer of those words, but by John W. Campbell--at Weird Tales in general and at some very popular and well-loved writers in particular. (4) In any case, that approach, an attempt to bring weird fiction and fantasy out of the Gothic past and into the modern present, was something of an innovation. Campbell also introduced humor into fantasy fiction. On one hand, humor was sorely lacking in fantasy before Unknown. On the other, humor too often and too easily elides into irony, parody, and ridicule, all indicators of decadence, as our current culture shows us.

To be continued . . .

(1) Volume 2: 1936-1945 (1975), p. 40.
(2) Horror of the Twentieth Century: An Illustrated History (2000), p. 108. A quibble: the use of the term urban sprawl is an anachronism and probably a little inaccurate in this case. "Smoke Ghost" takes place in the heart of the industrial city.
(3) From Stefan Dziemianowicz's introduction to Rivals of Weird Tales (1990), p. xvii.
(4) The fainting narrator is out of Lovecraft. Additionally, he and Robert E. Howard were both guilty of writing the purplest of prose. An example that leaps to mind is Howard's use of a supposed adverb, "blackly." If anyone can explain to me how anything can be done "blackly," I'd like to hear it. On the other hand, C.L. Moore and Fritz Leiber, both widely-admired and both contributors to Unknown, also committed the sin of using the "word" oilily. One of the first things you learn in composition class is to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. And when you do put them into play, they should at least be real words. Any writer who uses blackly or oilily ought to know better and as punishment should be horsewhipped.

Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley

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