Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Eternal Triangle: Man, Woman, Monster

First I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year. I hope this year offers health and happiness to all.

Second, I would like to begin a new series in which I attempt to classify the covers of Weird Tales magazine. I'll begin with the cover of the first issue from March 1923 and the pattern it set for many covers to follow. The pattern is one of the eternal triangle of man, woman, and monster--not an animal, not another man, but a monster.

Every boy wishes to be a hero, to rescue the beautiful damsel in distress, to slay the horrible monster that threatens not only her but also perhaps his own happiness. (After all, if he is to go on living, he must have her and be loved by her.) I suppose every woman in her heart wishes to be a damsel, in distress or not. There may be something else at work in the eternal triangle though. A boy may wish to be a hero. An adolescent or man on the other hand may see himself as more monster than man. The eternal triangle in fantasy allows a man to identify with the hero rather than with the monster--to escape the real or imagined facts of his own existence. I think that's one of the appeals of the TV show Beauty and the Beast: the man who sees himself as a beast can believe that he might win the love and affection of a beautiful woman.

Pulp magazines abounded with images of the eternal triangle. In science fiction, the monster was often of the bug-eyed alien variety, a creature so common that it earned an acronym: BEM. In weird fiction and fantasy fiction, the monster was of other types, some of which you'll see below. With its illustration of Anthony M. Rud's "Ooze," Weird Tales began with a cover showing the eternal triangle. The man and woman are the subjects of a search by the narrator of "Ooze." The monster is the reason they are missing. Richard R. Epperly's depiction of the monster isn't quite accurate, for in the story the monster is not an octopoid (or Cthuloid) creature but an outsized amoeba. In any case, let the menacing and the rescuing begin.

Weird Tales, March 1923, the first issue of "The Unique Magazine." The cover story is "Ooze" by Anthony M. Rud.  The artist was Richard Ruh Epperly. There is also supposed to have been a variant cover in which the black and orange plates were reversed.

In the eternal triangle, the woman is menaced by a monster while the man comes to her rescue. The woman may be in the clutches of the creature as in this illustration. In other variations, she is threatened by the monster (see July 1926, immediately below), or she is shielded from the monster by the man (see Feb. 1928, below that). The man sometimes has only his bare hands with which to fend off the monster's advances. More often he has a weapon, either a gun or a blade. The man in the illustration above isn't taking any chances: he has both gun and knife.

Note the somewhat childlike or primitive aspect of the drawing. Rather than face the monster as they would in three dimensions (thus facing away from the viewer), both man and woman are shown in profile and are looking at the monster as if they and it exist only in two dimensions. I doubt that any readers of the first issue of Weird Tales quibbled with the art: for the first time, they had before them an American magazine title devoted exclusively to weird and fantastic fiction.

Weird Tales, July 1926. The cover story is "Through the Vortex" by Donald Edward Keyhoe, later of flying saucer fame. The artist was E.M. Stevenson. The cover is now in full color, but there is still a somewhat primitive aspect to the art, especially in the dragon. The woman is being threatened by the monster, but the man--a classic pulp hero--intervenes. His weapon of choice: a pistol.

Weird Tales, February 1928. The cover story is "The Ghost Table" by Elliot O'Donnell. The artist was C.C. Senf. Once again, the man intervenes between the woman and the monster, in this case a scary table, so scary that the woman swoons. The weapon is again a pistol. This is the same issue in which "The Call of Cthulhu" appeared for the first time, yet the editorial staff of Weird Tales chose "The Ghost Table" as their cover story. That might not be as bad as giving Milli Vanilli a Grammy for best new artist, but you get the idea.

Weird Tales, September 1928. The cover story is "The Devil-Plant" by John Murray Reynolds. The cover artist was C.C. Senf. The monster this time is a plant. The man seems to be in no great hurry to chop at it with his knife, which--for some reason--has blood on it. Sexual imagery is probably unavoidable in depictions of the eternal triangle. Often the woman is wrapped in snakes or tendrils or threatened by long-necked dragons as in the cover from 1926. Here she is being engulfed in flora, more symbolic of the female than of the male, especially when the parts of the plant are vertically bifurcated. So this cover is unusual in that the monster is more feminine than masculine. There will be more monstrous plants in a later category of cover illustrations.

Weird Tales, February 1929. The cover story is "The Star-Stealers" by Edmond Hamilton. The cover artist was Hugh Rankin. C.C. Senf was a competent artist and occasionally produced a really fine cover. But for true weirdness, none of the early Weird Tales cover artists could match Hugh Rankin. And speaking of triangles, get a load of that monster. Note the influence of art deco, especially in the female figure, her clothing (such as it is), the bird-like motifs, and the lettering, no doubt done by hand by the artist himself.    

Weird Tales, September 1931. The cover story is the third installment of "Tam, Son of the Tiger" by Otis Adelbert Kline. The cover artist was once again C.C. Senf. The monster in this example is humanoid. The hero's weapon is a sword. I haven't read "Tam, Son of the Tiger," but I suspect it was inspired by the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs. By the way, four of the six installments of "Tam" were cover stories. All four of those covers were by Senf. "Buccaneers of Venus" (following) also earned four cover spots.

Like some weird alien camel-like creature, sexual imagery rears its head again in Senf's illustration, nowhere more obviously than in the woman's skirt. The question is this: Does an artist purposely inject (no pun intended) symbolism into his work? Or is symbolism unconscious? I would suggest that symbolism is by definition unconscious. That's why the artist often shrinks (no pun intended) from showing his work: he knows that it reveals something about him, something that he may not know himself on a conscious level, yet is immediately obvious to the viewer. Did C.C. Senf mean to lay the staff of the monster's trident (perhaps as an extension of the monster's arm and hand) so neatly across the woman's breasts? Probably not. What about the club? The sword? Or the camel's neck and head? Did the artist mean to show them as sexual symbols? My guess is probably not, probably not, and probably not.

Weird Tales, December 1932. The cover story is the second installment of "Buccaneers of Venus" by Otis Adelbert Kline. The cover artist was J. Allen St. John. Here's a variation on the man-woman-monster triad. This time there are two monsters. The snake will reappear in a later category of covers. The man's weapon: a sword. Kline was back at it with "Buccaneers of Venus." The resemblance to the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs is even stronger here. Weird Tales even used Burroughs' artist in J. Allen St. John for this cover.

Weird Tales, February 1933. Another month, another monster. The cover story (installment number four) and cover artist are the same as in the previous example. The monster, apparently a sort of spider-scorpion, is vastly different. Critics of Margaret Brundage might object to her floating figures, yet if she was guilty, so too was J. Allen St. John on occasion. St. John's influence on Frank Frazetta, moreover on Roy Krenkel, can be traced back to illustrations like this one.

Weird Tales, May 1934. The cover story is "Queen of the Black Coast" by Robert E. Howard. The cover artist was the aforementioned Margaret Brundage. Again, the monster (enter stage left) is humanoid. Again, the weapon is a knife. But in this case, the man seems more vulnerable than the woman. She almost seems to be protecting him. Margaret Brundage was a big, tall woman and no shrinking violet. Her female figures by contrast are usually small and dainty. But perhaps only a female artist could have depicted Robert E. Howard's mighty barbarian in this way. (See also her cover for "The Hour of the Dragon," Dec. 1935).

Weird Tales, February 1937. The cover story is "The Globe of Memories" by Seabury Quinn. The cover art was by Virgil Finlay. The undead are monsters, even if they were once people. The hero must always overcome the prohibition against killing another human being if he is to survive among them. The hero in this illustration could be a self-portrait of the artist. The woman doesn't seem very involved in what's going on. She is clearly a posed model, more likely a photograph of a posed model from Finlay's morgue--no pun intended.
A photograph of Virgil Finlay from almost the same angle. I'd say yeah, that's him. 

Weird Tales, May 1940, the first issue with Dorothy McIlwraith as the editor. According to Jaffery and Cook, the cover art, created by Hannes Bok, does not illustrate a story in the magazine, despite the fact that Edmond Hamilton's byline and the title "The City from the Sea" are pretty prominent here. I haven't read the story, so I can't say one way or another. In any case, a little naked elf is still a man, and a woman in the clutches of a giant, green, furry bat-creature is still a woman in need of rescuing.

Weird Tales, January 1941. The cover story is "Dragon Moon" by Henry Kuttner. The cover artist was Harold S. De Lay. By 1941, Robert E. Howard was gone. Readers would have to make do with Henry Kuttner. The cover illustration is another iteration of the hero, damsel, and dragon image. Later readers of fantasy looked for the drama, action, and mystery of a Frazetta painting. De Lay's illustration is more subdued, but if you look closely, you can see foreshadowing of Frazetta in the horsemen in the background, in the technique in the dragon's scales and the hero's armor, and in his cloak, sword, shield, scabbard, and leggings.
By comparison, here is a painting by Frank Frazetta from 1972.  The man and the monster are somewhat similar to the figures in De Lay's painting. Unfortunately the woman is missing. Frazetta's work is entitled "Monster Out of Time." The double meaning may not have been intentional.

Weird Tales, July 1941. The cover story is "The Robot God" by Ray Cummings. The cover artist was newcomer Hannes Bok. (The male figure looks like a self-portrait of the artist.) What a change: the monster is a new type, the science-fictional monster, in this case a robot. H.P. Lovecraft, long dead, is relegated to a tiny blurb at the top of the cover. Ray Cummings, still kicking at fifty-three, gets the cover spot with a science fiction story. Note also the confessional and very topical title "I Killed Hitler." Not quite the Weird Tales of old.
A photograph of Hannes Bok, the artist and undoubtedly the model for the male figure in the illustration above.

There were 279 issues of Weird Tales, not counting variants published in Canada. I count thirteen covers in the category I have called The Eternal Triangle of Man, Woman, and Monster. Next, a variation: woman and monster.

Updated January 23, 2014.
Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Interesting stuff. The pattern of "the eternal triangle" probably shows up in the illustrations of a lot of horror, science fiction and fantasy publications. It may touch on something primal or archetypal about human relationships. What I find interesting is what form the monster takes. In your examples above there are threatening molluscs, reptiles, mammalian predators, arthropods, humanoids, birdlike creatures, and a robot. As you classify the artwork, it might be interesting to know if any particular monster type occurs more often than others, or if this changes over time. (For example, why do Lovecraft's monsters tend to be molluscs or "crinoid things"?) Cool stuff!

  2. Sean,

    After I posted this article, I thought about the possibility of classifying monsters, too. I don't see a pattern yet, except that seven out of eleven are green or greenish. That may be significant. Maybe we--as mammals--see green as something strange, alien, or even dangerous. As for Lovecraft's monsters: molluscs and other invertebrates are certainly strange, but perhaps more to the point, they're very ancient. Many people also find them scary, creepy, and disgusting.

    I'm just getting started. There will be opportunities for more speculation as things move along. Thanks for writing.