Unknown lasted less than five years and only thirty-nine issues. The explanation for the magazine's demise is that Campbell lost his writers and his supply of paper to World War II. I detect some other problems however. First, the magazine went from a monthly to a bimonthly schedule with the February 1941 issue. Later that year--in October--Unknown changed names and formats. Those developments came before Pearl Harbor. Major changes in a magazine are often a sign of trouble. That may or may have been the case with Unknown. I think a more significant change occurred more than a year before, for with the July 1940 issue, Unknown eliminated full-color cover illustrations in favor of a Reader's Digest-like listing of contents. Wikipedia calls it a "more dignified cover layout." I suspect that John W. Campbell was shooting for some kind of dignity or respectability in a pulp magazine when he made the change. Maybe he was trying to appeal to a more literary readership. Maybe he didn't want his readers to feel ashamed or embarrassed about buying or reading a magazine with a garish cover depicting fantastic creatures and events. If that's the case, then I think there is a better explanation for Unknown's demise.
In our overly educated and intellectualized culture, a thing can't just be what it is. It has to be made something significant. So-called scholars have tried to do it to comics, television, music, and every other form of popular culture. Science fiction and pulp genres are no different. A few years after Unknown Worlds gave up the ghost, Judith Merril began editing anthologies. Her aim was to make science fiction more respectable and to integrate it into the literary mainstream. To that end she started using the term speculative fiction or even sf instead of science fiction. (5) The implication is that science fiction is for children, or pimply-faced teenaged fans, or socially inept adults in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence. In order for it to be worthy, science fiction must be taken away from these people, renamed, and made subject of intellectualized university courses, unread literary journals, and stuffy symposia. That attitude is perfectly expressed by Margaret Atwood, a writer of science fiction who bristles at the label. "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships," she writes, "speculative fiction could really happen." Or more succinctly: science fiction is "talking squids in outer space." (6) I suspect that Ms. Atwood is being disingenuous. She must know that science fiction is not about talking squids. It's more likely that she's just trying to avoid the supposed embarrassment of being a writer of science fiction while inhabiting the world of mainstream literature. (7)
In any case, if John W. Campbell decided that fantasy had to be taken away from Weird Tales and its readers, or that fantasy had to be made respectable and that one way of doing that was to turn his simple pulp magazine into a pseudo-literary journal of some kind, then he miscalculated. Readers of pulp fiction want to see art on the cover of the magazine they buy. They don't want The American Mercury. World War II may have been the proximate cause of Unknown's demise. The ultimate cause may have been a little more complicated.
Despite its manifest high quality, Unknown Worlds came to an end. It was and is a well-remembered magazine. It's interesting to consider the possibility that Unknown in one form or another might still be with us, as Astounding Science-Fiction is. Maybe The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has filled that role. There's another possibility, though. Weird Tales was in its twentieth year when Unknown Worlds ceased publication. More than a decade would remain in the life of "The Unique Magazine." Once again, Weird Tales had outlasted the competition. I'm not sure that Weird Tales was unaffected however. Under the direction of Dorothy McIlwraith, Weird Tales published humorous stories, stories of contemporary or urban fantasy, and stories from writers of science fiction. (8) Maybe Weird Tales was in fact the heir of Unknown Worlds.
Mar. 1939 to Oct. 1943
39 Issues (7 Volumes)
Published by: Street and Smith
Edited by: John W. Campbell, Jr.
Format: Pulp size from March 1939 to August 1941; bedsheet size from October 1941 to April 1943; then pulp size again for the last three issues.
Notes: Unknown became Unknown: Fantasy Fiction with the December 1940 issue, then became Unknown Worlds with the October 1941 issue.
(5) Judith Merril did not invent the term. Wikipedia says that it was Robert Heinlein's. Intellectuals have done the same kind of thing by calling comic books "graphic novels," "sequential art," or "graphic storytelling."
(6) Quotes are from Wikipedia.
(7) I don't mean to say that science fiction and fantasy should not be well written or that those genres should remain subliterary. My objection is to the intellectualizing of popular culture. If you want to use words like subtext or deconstruction or hegemony or some other academic monstrosity, do it with your own subject matter. Leave comics and science fiction alone.
(8) Weird Tales also published stories of what can almost be categorized as weird menace. The Damp Man saga is an obvious example.
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley