Friday, October 7, 2016

Clowns on the Cover of Weird Tales

Our country is being overrun by clowns. You will see them skulking along the edges of town or down the street from your house, in the shadows and away from the streetlight. They stalk your children at school and look in your windows at night. There is no telling what they might do next.

It has been awhile since we had some nice mass hysteria. You could call the growing clown invasion a hoax, but maybe these clowns aren't real at all. Maybe our seeing of clowns is merely an expression of our fear and anxiety at what's going on in the world. Or maybe by seeing and fearing clowns, we can somehow comfort ourselves in the face of a far greater fear and threat. Perhaps we can distract ourselves from what we are about to do as a nation.

I am reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov right now. The story is of a visit by the devil to Moscow in the 1930s. The devil, who goes by various titles, including consultant, professor, and expert on black magic, is accompanied by a retinue. One in his retinue, Korovyov the choirmaster, is a man who wears checked pants, broken glasses, and a funny hat. He is obviously a clown figure and is even called a buffoon. He is not so innocent, however. In fact, he represents in one of his aspects the arbitrary and relative nature of the all-powerful State, which, as the twentieth and now the twenty-first century have shown, is a potent force on the side of evil. Whether we elect next month the Buffoon or the Mother of Lies, we are without a doubt about to choose a president from among the devil's retinue. A creepy clown in your neighborhood is pretty harmless by comparison.

So I found a clown on one cover of Weird Tales--or maybe he just kind of looks like a clown. That doesn't make "clowns" a category or a recurring theme. I admit this is a stretch. On the other hand, I don't have all the covers of the magazine catalogued yet, so there might be a clown or another clown hiding in there somewhere, which is, after all, what clowns do these days.

Weird Tales, May 1950, with cover art by Boris Dolgov. Jaffery and Cook's index of Weird Tales does not give a cover story, but the title "Tell Your Fortune" by Robert Bloch is shown on the cover. That ties in nicely with The Master and Margarita, in which the devil, upon his arrival in Moscow, gets the ball--or I should say the head--rolling by foretelling a man's (very brief) future.

A final note: I should mention that Mikhail Bulgakov also wrote science fiction and is in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database: I am now keeping my eyes peeled for his books.
A final, final note (Dec. 12, 2016): I finished reading The Master and Margarita some time ago. As it turns out, Korovyov the choirmaster does not represent the overarching State in any of its aspects. He is instead a kind of trickster or tormenter and in the end something quite different--radically and unexpectedly different. I should point out, though, that creepy clowns seem to have disappeared from the news. We have instead mass hysteria about "fake news" and, in an ironic turnabout, Democrats looking for Russians under every bed. In any case, I regret the misinterpretation of Bulgakov's novel and of events in general.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. The current clown phobia brings to mind an article by Robert Bloch entitled "The Clown at Midnight", about the nature of horror and terror which appeared, I believe, in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #16 (My collection of FM is in storage at the moment, so I'll have to trust my memory) The title come from a quote by Lon Chaney Sr. in which he was discussing the fact that context plays an important part in whether or not something is scary. The example that he used was a circus clown. If seen going through his antics under the bigtop among a laughing audience, the clown is funny and non-threatening. But if you were to answer your door to an unexpected knocking while alone in your home at midnight, if you found the same clown wearing the same makeup the effect would be quite different indeed. The thugs who are reportedly terrorizing people these days while wearing clown costumes apparently have figured this out.
    I pretty much agree with your assessment of the presidential race; we are confronted with choosing between a terrible choice and an even worse choice. I can't stand the concept of either being our next president. Hillary repulses me, but Trump scares the bejeebers out of me!

  2. Mike,

    Clown hysteria, if there is any such thing, reminds me of flying saucer hysteria, only not as big. It's a fad that I think will fade, perhaps especially after the election. (And after it gets cold outside.) After the election, we'll have a lot more to be afraid of, so we had better enjoy a mild scare while we can.

    As for the two candidates, I'm holding to a quote I read recently: "In a choice between two evils, choose neither." I can't say which one will be worse, but then we'll never find out. We'll know only how bad one of them will be, and that will be plenty bad enough. The sad part is that as a nation we deserve all of this.

    It would be edifying at this point to read an old curmudgeon like Ambrose Bierce or H.L. Mencken on human nature in general and democracy in particular.


  3. I'm reminded of the song from Mel Brooks" movie THE TWELVE CHAIRS; "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst." In every election with a disappointing outcome ,all I can do is hope that the winner surprises me and does a better job than I expect them to do.
    I can't take the advice of "choosing neither" -- for that is, in it's own way, a choice; one that takes the outcome completely out of my hands. I feel that I have to be a part of the process, to try and make the best of a bad situation.
    I'm currently reading STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND for the first time in 45 years, and one of the main characters in the book makes a pretty profound observation about the democratic process. He observes that the system is heavily flawed, but unfortunately it's still about eight times better than any other system of government on the planet.

  4. Mike,

    Or as Winston Churchil said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. I have a crackpot theory that if governments are instituted among men, even bad men, or if we have the governments we deserve, then in essence every country is a democracy, even those with the most oppressive governments. We are going to get either the Buffoon or the Mother of Lies because we deserve one or the other of them. In fact we deserve them both, for years and decades to come, locked in deathless combat with each other, tormenting us without end . . .