Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Dwarves on the Cover of Weird Tales

In his book Danger Is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines: 1896-1953 (1993), Lee Server recounted the story of the weird menace magazines of the 1930s, titles that included Dime Mystery Magazine, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories. Despite the shared word "weird" (and despite some overlap between the two), weird menace and weird fiction were separate genres. Mr. Server explains:
The "terror" or "Weird Menace" stories, as they came to be known, had many of the trappings of the horror genre, but there were distinct differences. Unlike the traditional scary story, the new form eschewed the supernatural. . . . No ghosts or vampires or black magicians, but equally creepy types out of real life, the mutilated and the psychotic, renegade scientists and crackpot cult leaders. (p. 106)
Weird menace was inspired by a trip that pulp publisher Henry Steeger made to Paris, more specifically to the le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, where he saw theatrical violence, cruelty, and gore in abundance. "We could do a magazine like that," Steeger realized, "with the same sort of emphasis." (Quoted on page 106.) Lee Server sees other possible influences, writing:
Steeger may also have had an eye on such contemporaneous movies as Island of Lost Souls, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Freaks, each offering similar modern-dress horrors--vivisectionists, deformed maniacs, denizens of the carnival sideshow, all staples of the Weird Menace world. (p. 106)
He continues:
Villains, when they did materialize, were a mix of scheming psychopaths--mad scientists, religious cultists, vengeful old crones--and their repellent assistants--gnarled dwarves, brainless mutants, horny hunchbacks. They invariably came equipped with a panoply of elaborate devices for torture and slow death, bubbling vats, buzz saws, iron maidens, branding irons, or flame throwers. (p. 109)
Note the phrases "gnarled dwarves" and "horny hunchbacks."

Now, I can't say that Weird Tales was influenced by the weird menace magazines in its depiction of dwarves. After all, four of the eight covers shown here predate the arrival of Dime Mystery Magazine, the first of that type, in 1933. Instead, it seems to me that weird fiction and weird menace both drew from popular culture, folklore, fairy tales, and other sources in how they treated dwarves, hunchbacks, and other people not deemed of normal stature, build, or appearance. I suppose the idea was that sin or moral failings are expressed in the physical appearance of sinners. Even Tolkien's dwarves, heroes that they are, are sometimes lacking in moral fiber. Writers and artists of the pulp era fell too easily into stereotyping not only black people (as seen in a previous posting) but also dwarves. One difference is that black stereotypes in art are often about appearance, whereas stereotypes of dwarves seem to be about their moral character or about their role in the human drama. Either way, the pulps were not always kind to little people.

I count eight covers of Weird Tales showing dwarves or other little people. Six of the eight show dwarves as bad guys, or suggest that they are. One is neutral. And only one, the last, is positive. Note that the first dwarf cover following the advent of the weird menace magazines, from May 1937, could easily pass as one among that genre. The blurb on the cover--"a powerful tale of weird horror"--should remove any doubt that Weird Tales, usually "The Unique Magazine," was in this case imitating rather than standing alone.

Weird Tales, March 1926. Cover story: "Lochinvar Lodge" by Clyde Burt Clason. Cover art by Andrew Brosnatch. You could call this the classic image of the dwarf in fantasy. He could easily have been one of J.R.R. Tolkien's inhabitants of Middle Earth. Unfortunately, it looks like the dwarf here is a villain. On top of that, he is about to be walloped.

Weird Tales, April 1926. Cover story: "Wolfshead" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by E.M. Stevenson. I'm not sure that this is a depiction of a dwarf, but he looks pretty small in stature. Whatever he is, the man here is a villain, and he appears to be animated by the spirit of a wolf.

Weird Tales, March 1927. Cover story: "The City of Glass" by Joel Martin Nichols, Jr. Cover art by C.C. Senf, another bizarre cover by the artist. The dwarf's bodily distortions make it almost like something from a hallucination or a dream. I still can't figure out what is that thing on his foot. Update (Dec. 21, 2016): Now I've got it. That's not a thing on his foot. It's a stool. Apparently the woman has been sitting. Upon getting up, she has upset the stool and his foot is behind it. I'm an artist and even I had a hard time reading that picture.

Weird Tales, July 1929. Cover story: "The Corpse-Master" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by C.C. Senf. Update (Jan. 9, 2017): Again, here's a threatening dwarf and again he's green. 

Weird Tales, July 1930. Cover story: "The Bride of Dewer" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by C.C. Senf. The dwarf here is not obviously a bad guy. The depiction here appears to be neutral at worst.

Weird Tales, May 1937. Cover story: "The Mark of the Monster" by Jack Williamson. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. I'm not sure that the male figure here is a dwarf, either, but again, he looks small in stature. Even if he is a normal-sized man, he has physical deformities, making him a suitable weird menace villain. Margaret Brundage drew a lot of pictures of women being tormented by men. She was no shrinking violet, and maybe the reading public demanded it, but I wonder if she felt that way herself sometimes.

Weird Tales, July 1938. Cover story: "Spawn of Dagon" by Henry Kuttner. Cover art by Virgil Finlay. Here is the typical Virgil Finlay Tor Johnson-like muscleman or eunuch and the typical moping face on the dwarf in front of him. Note that his skin is green, like that of two of the preceding dwarves. I take the color green to be a signifier of alienness. Plants are green. So are snakes and frogs. So, too, are many monsters, like Cthulhu.

Weird Tales, May 1940. Cover story: "The City from the Sea" by Edmond Hamilton. Cover art by Hannes Bok, who created the only obviously positive image of a dwarf on the cover of Weird Tales. It looks to me that the image of dwarves, like that of black people, softened as Weird Tales matured in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Revised January 9, 2017.
Text and captions copyright 2016, 2017 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. The term "Weird Menace" as a sub-genre of horror fiction is a distinction that I had not heard before, but it certainly is a legitimate one. In the context of this posting, it is worth pointing out that two of the movies which Lee Server suggests as possible influences -- ISLAND OF THE LOST SOULS and FREAKS -- each feature deformed beings who are victimized by, and ultimately turn upon, the normal-looking people around them. In the horrific conclusions of both films, the deformed do indeed become "weird menaces", but only to those who deserve it...though in each case, the nature of their retribution strains moral credulity. Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau my well be the most unsavory character in cinema history -- thoroughly repulsive and dislikable -- yet his vivisection at the hands of his creations never fails to send chills down my spine! And that final image of Olga Baclanova indicates a torturous punishment of a questionable extreme.
    The first image that you posted -- showing a handsome matinee idol-type about to club a bearded midget --may have been meant to represent a hero saving a girl. But it brought to my mind the old adage "Why don't you pick on somebody your own size?"
    The second cover here, by E.M. Stevenson, looks to me more like an attempt at foreshortening by the artist rather than a depiction of a dwarf (but I could be wrong.)