Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Egypt on the Cover of Weird Tales

Egypt and subjects related to Egypt have been on the cover of Weird Tales seven times by my count. The first was the triple-issue first anniversary number of May/June/July 1924 and shows a generic Egyptian scene of Sphinx and pyramids. The next three show women being menaced by one thing or another. The last three are a little more complicated and not easily categorized.

There were Orientalists among the first generation of writers for Weird Tales, Otis Adelbert Kline and E. Hoffman Price chief among them. Farnsworth Wright must have been one of them, too, as he eventually saw a pet project, Oriental Stories/The Magic Carpet Magazine, into print. In any case, the mysterious East held the imagination of writers, artists, and readers alike for decades before Weird Tales came along, but an event of the 1920s brought Egypt to the fore, namely, the opening, on February 16, 1923, of King Tut's tomb. The first issue of Weird Tales, dated March 1923, was probably on the newsstand by then. A year later, as investigations at the tomb continued, Weird Tales capitalized on the interest in Egypt, pyramids, tombs, and mummies with its cover, by R.M. Mally, for Harry Houdini's story "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs." Universal Pictures got in on the action eight years later with what I think was the first mummy movie, called, appropriately enough, The Mummy. Like the covers of Weird Tales from the 1920s, that movie also featured a woman menaced by a villain, in this case, the mummy himself, come to life. And like the last two Weird Tales covers on the subject of Egypt, it had that woman in ancient Egyptian dress.

Finally, as a friend calls it, some hypostulatin': I wrote last time about World War II and noted that the last Weird Tales cover on that subject came only midway through the war. It seems to me that after the war, American popular culture had some new things to deal with and responded accordingly with some new or rapidly evolving genres: film noire, science fiction, the Cold War thriller. But it also retrenched (to use a military metaphor) into horror, fantasy, and monster movies, stories, and comic books. As we have seen, stories of monsters, being stories of the supernatural, have had a hard time surviving in a world in which all things are scientified (my neologism, not my friend's). Almost every monster movie made these days is actually a science fiction movie, as all the monsters have a science fiction explanation. Even the recent Mummy series, overloaded as it is with computerized effects, has the look of a science fiction extravaganza. Anyway, it's strange to see an Egypt cover on the Weird Tales issue of March 1945, the month in which the Allies broke into Germany on the Western Front and the war in the Pacific was finally nearing the Japanese homeland. What was in people's minds at the time? Did they think that we would just go back to the way things were before the war? Was there a kind of nostalgia for the prewar world? Even if there was such a thing, the people of the time must have known that the world had changed beyond measure and that there would be no going back.

Weird Tales, May/June/July 1924. Cover story: "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" by Harry Houdini. Cover art by R. M. Mally.

Weird Tales,  August 1927. Cover story: "The Bride of Osiris" by Otis Adelbert Kline. Cover art by the underrated Hugh Rankin. 

Weird Tales, April 1928. Cover story: "The Jewel of Seven Stones" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by C.C. Senf.

Weird Tales, June 1929. Cover story: "The House of Golden Masks" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by Hugh Rankin.

Weird Tales, April 1930. Cover story: "The Dust of Egypt" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by Hugh Rankin.

Weird Tales, November 1938. Cover story: "I Found Cleopatra" by Thomas P. Kelley. Cover art A.R. Tilburne.

Weird Tales, March 1945. Cover story: "Lords of the Ghostlands" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by A.R. Tilburne.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. The earlier Egypt-themed covers shown here all have a certain charm, even though they look like they were produced in a junior high school art class!
    The use of this theme on the March 1945 cover may have had something to do with the popular Universal Studio's mummy movies starring Lon Chaney Jr that were just coming to a close at this time. The last of these films, The Mummy's Curse, was released around the time that this issue would have been on the stands. Though a weaker entry in the series, it is still a competent thriller, aided greatly by a mesmerizing performance by Virginia Christine as the resurrected Princess Ananka. The scene in which she rises from here burial site in the swamp is one of the most haunting sequences in motion picture history...

    Yeah, after WW II and the deployment of nuclear weapons, supernatural menaces didn't seem like much of a threat. Science was the new boogeyman. Giant monsters were now the spawn of scientists -- generally accidental results of atomic radiation -- a thinly disguised metaphor for the unknown quantity that the Atomic Age had thrust upon us. Godzilla was a walking analogy of the atomic bombings of Japan.
    The world had witnessed death and destruction on a biblical scale. How could a haunted house ever compete with that?

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for placing that last cover in a larger cultural context. That's one of my aims in this blog.

    I'm still trying to understand the attempt to return to prewar culture after the war. Maybe people found out pretty quickly that it couldn't work. The most perceptive artists should have known. Or maybe I'm just overstating the idea.


  3. I think that nostalgia is a very natural desire; a longing, an appreciation for things past. And while change is a normal occurrence, war has a way of thrusting change upon people, of forcing it on them at a break-neck rate, making them lose their past before they know it's gone. WW II changed much of the world dramatically in a very few years, burying the past in literal and figurative rubble one explosive event after another. As the dust was settling, it's understandable that the populace would be trying to find some focus on both what was lost and what had been gained. I think that the passing of the pre-war culture was akin to an unexpected death in the family -- a loved one is suddenly gone before you have a chance to say goodbye...

    1. Mike,

      I won't add anything to your very thoughtful comment. I'll just say thanks for writing.