Monday, August 18, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Five

Early Science Fiction Monsters

Next month--September 2014--marks the sixtieth anniversary of the demise of Weird Tales. Against all odds, the magazine had survived for thirty-one years and 279 issues when it came to a close in September 1954. Few pulp magazines could claim that kind of longevity. After January 1940, Weird Tales went to a bimonthly schedule. In its last year, it shrank to a digest-sized magazine. If you knew nothing else about pulp magazines, you might think that Weird Tales had run out of steam by the summer of 1954. That's true in its way, but the 1950s were full of casualties, and though they were succeeded by digests, men's adventure magazines, and paperback books, the pulps, which had enjoyed a golden age stretching back to the 1920s or before, effectively reached their end in the first full decade after the war.

Weird Tales was a magazine of weird fiction (a seemingly indefinable genre), but it also published heroic fantasy, science fantasy, ghost stories, horror stories, monster stories, and even science fiction. Strangely enough, the first issue of Weird Tales showed on its cover not a vampire, werewolf, ghost, or other monster from the past, but a monster of the future, a man-made monster, a science-fictional monster before the term science fiction was even in use.

Weird Tales
, March 1923, the first issue of "The Unique Magazine." The cover story is "Ooze" by Anthony M. Rud, the cover art by Richard R. Epperly. The monster has an octopoid appearance in this illustration. In the story, it's actually a giant amoeba created by science. Renowned for being the first American magazine devoted exclusively to fantasy, Weird Tales began with an image and  a story of science fiction.

Weird Tales was alone on the newsstand for some time after its debut, but then the first science fiction magazine came along in Amazing Stories (April 1926). Other magazines of fantasy, terror, and horror made a run at success in the 1920s and '30s, but few lasted very long. In strong contrast, science fiction pulps flourished. During and after the war, they proliferated, first in the traditional pulp format, then in digest-size. I read once that the last true pulp magazine was a science fiction title from the late 1950s. That may or may not be true. In any case, digest-sized science fiction survived well into the 1960s and early '70s. Analog, originally Astounding Science-Fiction (1938), remains, as do The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1949), and a latecomer, Asimov's Science Fiction (1977). All are digests. Weird Tales is also still in publication, but not continuously since its inception. The current incarnation is its fifth, or sixth, or . . . .

Before World War II, science fiction had its devoted fans (short for fanatics). To the general reader, however, science fiction was just a bunch of "Buck Rogers stuff." There were few science fiction movies in the 1930s. The monsters in those movies were the typical mad scientist or man-made monster or degenerate fiend of the pulps. If you wanted monsters, you went to see monster movies, not science fiction movies. Universal Pictures specialized in that genre, and though there was a good deal of blending of science fiction and horror in the movies--Frankenstein (1931) is a perfect example--there were few if any truly science-fictional monsters. In other words, the monsters of science fiction were still mostly the monsters of the past, or of decadence, and as such they fell into the province of fantasy and weird fiction.

The monsters of the 1930s continued into the 1940s. The Wolfman, a truly great monster movie, wasn't released until 1941. Even as late as 1955, Universal released a new film starring an old--a very old--monster: Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. By then of course, the Universal Monsters of the 1930s had fallen on hard times, but there was a new kind of monster from a new and very fresh genre to take their place. Surprisingly, it wasn't a new and up-and-coming studio that trumped Universal in the monster movie game, for Universal itself adapted to changing times and released some of the best science fiction monster movies of the 1950s.

To be continued . . .

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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