Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Secret Origins of the Superhero-Part Three

In contrast to superhero, superheroine, and superman, the word superwoman is, in its earliest use that I have found, positive. It remained mostly positive for years after that. That's a little surprising, but if I had to speculate on why the word superwoman was positive rather than negative, I would start with the realization that the evolution of popular culture in America and Britain coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria and her eponymous Age. There was a kind of sentimentality about the female sex then, but there was also a kind of power in women, not only in moral and civilizational terms but also in terms of marriage, the household, and the family. A man's sphere might be in the wider world of work, but at home, the woman reigned supreme. That's just theorizing. The actual evidence of the positive connotation of the word superwoman lies in nineteenth-century newspapers.

1856-The First Use of Superwoman

On February 22, 1856, a woman named Violet, living in Pewee Valley, Kentucky, screwed up her courage to write to the editors of the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier. It was her first to any newspaper editor. In their issue of February 27, the editors kindly printed it under the heading "A Letter from Pewee Valley" (p. 2). She wrote in part:
The day--the day on which I make this, my first epistolary attempt, imparts to my spirit a sort of super-woman strength and inspiration--the birthday of the glorious and immortal founder of our great republic. While I write, I hear the roar of the cannon in the direction of Louisville, saluting the spirit of the great defender of human rights and human liberty. What a multitude of reflections does the recurrence of this day suggest! [. . .] It is the day of all others fit to be held sacred to the Genius of Liberty, and it would seem on this occasion she had literally illustrated her power, in breaking the chains which hoary Old Winter has bound us [. . . .]
Superwoman is here used as an adjective--"super-woman strength and inspiration"--yet it approaches our idea of the powers possessed by our present-day superheroes. What's more, Violet felt inspired, in the original sense of the word, by the long-departed figure of George Washington. But did she also feel inspired by Liberty? It seems so. So was she like an antebellum Billy Batson who, by invoking the strength, convictions, and activity of George Washington and the power and genius of Liberty, took on the powers of a superwoman sufficient to do something she had never done before, that is, pen a letter to a newspaper editor? That might not be as farfetched as it sounds.

There is a similar use of superwoman in an article in The Inter Ocean of Chicago, dated April 7, 1877, under the heading "Woman's Kingdom" (p. 6). The author of the article, Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, quoted another writer, Grace Greenwood, in her praises of yet a third female journalist, Fanny Fern, who, in fourteen years with the New York Ledger, had never missed a deadline:
Think of what this fact proves--what habits of industry, what system, what thoughtfulness, what business integrity, what super-woman punctuality, and, O Minerva, Hygeia, what health!
Here again is the positive use of the descriptor superwoman and again the invocation of powerful figures from history or mythology.

This generally positive connotation of superwoman carried through in the few uses of the word I have found in the late nineteenth century, but after the 1890s--after Nietzsche--the Superwoman, like the Superman, was looked upon less positively than before. For example:

"Woman and Superwoman" by Montrose J. Moses from The Theatre, December 1904, page 319. The situation as described in the introduction to Moses' poem is suggestive of a dystopian future. And I think that the author looked upon the Superman and the Superwoman as Alfred Sutro later looked upon the superhero and superheroine of literature, for each pair, though strong, is loveless. What kind of tradeoff is that? And why have we made it, just as Moses and Sutro foresaw that we would?

Notice that instead of an adjective, superwoman came to be used as a noun as the nineteenth century progressed, and so we got closer to the actual figure of a Superwoman, which seems to have been just the distaff version of Nietzsche's Superman. Neither was universally admired or thought of as desirable. Regardless, George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman, from 1903, gave both enough traction that by the early 1900s, readers seem to have had a pretty clear idea of just what these new men and women were without having to be told. Some people apparently even wanted to be Supermen and Superwomen. (Remember the progressive affinity for eugenics.) An example:

An advertisement for To-Morrow Magazine, appearing in, of all places, the Blue-Grass Blade of Lexington, Kentucky, September 23, 1906, page 3. To-Morrow was a progressive journal, its writers and editor believing in a better, more rational world to come. As the small print says, the magazine was "[f]or the Superman and Superwoman and the New Civilization." Evidently there was no need for an explanation as to what those terms might mean. In any case, we have seen this combination of words--Superman and civilization--before, in Siegel and Shuster's story "The Reign of the Superman," printed in their fanzine Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3,  from January 1933. In other words, more than a quarter of a century had passed between To-Morrow and Siegel and Shuster's story, and yet people still believed at some level in the coming of the Nietzschian Superman and a utopian New World or New Civilization of the future. But then reality and the fallen nature of man intervened and we instead had the Nazis' Thousand Year Reich and the Bolsheviks' Workers' Paradise, both designed to bring about a glorious future civilization and both proving murderous and oppressive in the extreme.

The history of the word and concept of superwoman is really interesting and more complicated than I thought it would be. (You should see the newspapers of the 1910s and '20s.) A person could write a book about all of this. But I'm not here to write a book. Instead I'll move on to my last batch of super-words before returning to Weird Tales.

To be continued . . .

Happy Halloween from Tellers of Weird Tales!

Original text and captions copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Secret Origins of the Superhero-Part Two

The earliest reference to an actual living person as a superhero that I have found is from The Sun of New York, New York, December 24, 1909, page 6, just two months after Alfred Sutro had his talks on the subject first summarized in the London Observer. Again, the use here of the word is not positive. Instead it is sarcastic. The author of the item, entitled "The Little General," seems to have wanted to take his subject down a peg or two. And who was his subject? None other than the Honorable John Francis Fitzgerald (1863-1950), aka "Honey Fitz," grandfather of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Here is the reference:
     Fitz has not only covered his chief antagonist [James J. Storrow II] with confusion. He is swimming in a sea of glory. He is the real hero, the super-hero of the Spanish War. Here him beat himself at Captain John Drum Camp, Spanish Veterans:
          "I acted like a little General in giving orders about the camp."
     Not only did he command the well; he nursed the sick. He had physicians and nurses sent to Virginia. If there is a Massachusetts Iberian Veteran alive to-day, he owes his life to Fitz.
It sounds like Fitzgerald, like politicians of today, boasted about himself and his exploits, likely to build himself up in the eyes of his constituents and to win votes. The item quoted here makes him sound small, though, not large, certainly not like an Übermensch. Nonetheless, he was a political figure, and nowhere would the Übermensch be as active--or as lethal--in the twentieth century as in politics.

The term and concept of the Übermensch is of course German. It comes from Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, written by Friedrich Nietzsche and published in four parts from 1883 to 1891. According to Wikipedia, the word is translated as "Beyond-Man," "Superman," "Overman," "Superhuman," "Hyperman," or "Hyperhuman." (My friend Larry Blake, knowing that the word superhero is protected by trademark, instead refers to his comic book characters as "hyper-heroes.") The word superman clearly came before superhero or superheroine. The earliest occurrence of superman that I have found is again from a British newspaper, from 1892.

1892-The First Use of Superman

In its issue of April 15, 1892, the Birmingham Daily Post (p. 7) printed a long article with the heading "London Gossip" and the subheading "The New Light of Anarchy." The subject is the German philosopher the paper calls  "Nietsche," who was by then "lying at the last extremity" at a maison de santé. "He is now deprived of speech, recognises [sic] no one, and is apparently unconscious," quoted the article. Nietzsche would linger in that state or something like it for eight more years, finally to die in 1900. The article mentions "The Coming Book," Zarathustra: A Book for Everybody and Nobody, then in print in Paris but slouching towards Great Britain. The author of the article was confident that his countrymen would resist Nietzsche's worst ideas. He had far less confidence in his Continental counterparts. Anyway, here's the context:
The hero Zarathustra, disgusted with the sordid meanness and base motives of the human race, has retired to a cavern in the desert, with no other companions but an eagle and a serpent. He spends his life meditating on the "Super-Man," the ideal being who is to reform, by precept and example, the whole human race, and bring all men to equality of fortune, position, and intelligence. (1)
So the word and seeming concept of the Superman sprang directly from the philosophical musings of one man. It did not grow out of a generalized culture or popular culture. The author of the article and probably countless critics and observers since Nietzsche's time have seen the Superman as a negative, just as Alfred Sutro saw the superhero and superheroine as negatives in 1909. (2) Even as late as January 1933, science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster cast their version of the Superman as an evil or malevolent being. The title character of their seminal tale "The Reign of the Superman" fell short of success, though, and so Siegel and Shuster refashioned him into a superhero instead of a supervillain. And that's how Superman was born.

To be continued . . .

(1) Nietzsche's concept of the Superman seems to have ties to Darwinian evolution. I don't think we should overlook the influence in turn of Nietzsche and Darwin on the development of eugenics or the influence of all three on Nazi ideas of race and racial superiority. However, Nietzsche was opposed to antisemitism; Nazi crimes can hardly be laid at his feet. I'm no expert on Nietzsche at all, but it seems to me that as a kind of physician, he observed, described, and diagnosed problems among us and in the human psyche. He even made prognoses that have turned out accurate. However, it seems extremely unlikely to me that he would have prescribed nazism or any other socialist or collectivist system, or any kind of mass movement at all.
(2) That's not to say that the idea of the superhero or the Superman was entirely negative before comic-book superheroes came along in the 1930s. In 1918 and 1919, American newspapers referred to fighting men of extraordinary valor and accomplishment as superheroes, including Sergeant Alvin C. York of the U.S. Army and Sergeant G. Morini of the Italian Bersaglieri. Also in 1918, A Soldier's Oath, by William Farnum, was advertised with the blurb "[a] super-hero in a super-play." So maybe going into the 1920s--only a decade or so from the birth of the first superheroes in comics--there was the positive concept of the superhero and the negative concept of the Superman. In Superman, maybe Siegel and Shuster brought the concepts together as a positive character, thus leaving space for the arrival of the supervillain.

"The Reign of the Superman" by Jerry Siegel writing as Herbert S. Fine and illustrated by Joe Shuster. Siegel's story was published in the fanzine Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3, from January 1933, the same month in which Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Like Alfred Sutro before them, Siegel and Shuster were Jewish.

The Superman versus the Übermensch and look who comes out on top. Superman #17, from July/August 1942 with cover art by Fred Ray. 

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Secret Origins of the Superhero-Part One

Before Spider-Man and Superman, before Marvel and DC, even before comic books, there was the word superhero. (1) My hypothesis is that the word and the concept originated in the 1890s, give or take a decade, just as so much of our popular culture originated at that time. In order to test my hypothesis, I have used an online search engine/database/index of newspapers dating to the nineteenth century. I can't say that the newspaper articles I have found were actually the earliest occurrences in print of the following words. Even if they're not, my guess is that they're close, as ideas, concepts, and memes seem to arise at a certain time, often in a certain place, and in a certain society or culture.

1909-The First Use of Superhero and Superheroine

In late 1909, the British author, playwright, and critic Alfred Sutro (1863-1933) gave a series of talks on the then-current state of literature and fiction-writing in his native country. An article in The Observer of London, dated October 17, 1909, is the earliest use I have found of the words superhero and superheroine (p. 10). The article is in fact entitled "Super-Heroes and Super-Women," and it summarizes a talk Sutro gave at Working Men's College, Camden Town, the evening before. He would give that talk more than once over the month or so to follow. By November and December, summaries of his talk had reached readers in the United States.

Sutro's superhero and superheroine of literature are not positive types. They are instead selfish, self-centered, hedonistic, cruel, brutal, callous. They set themselves above others and know no bounds to their desires or conduct. "The note of the new departure [from the old literature and the old types]," wrote The Observer in its summary of Sutro's talk, "was a force of relentless egoism, a brushing aside of all ties and duties in the quest of self-development, self-gratification--self, always self." Upon reading those words, we might wonder, are we talking here about 1909 or 2018?

Sutro may have given his talk at a liberal or progressive institution, but his ideas are decidedly conservative. As is so often the case, the conservative critic here possessed a keenness of vision often lacking in his more liberal counterparts. Sutro may have been talking about his own time, but he also seems to have foreseen our current situation. There is more to his ideas--so much that pertains today--that I have included an image of the original article below. After you have read it, you might start to think that we are all now like Sutro's superheroes and superheroines--cruel, brutal, callous, unloved and unloving, self-seeking, selfish, self-centered. Maybe that's the general state of humanity and why we are so desperately in need of escape, redemption, and salvation.

When we think of the superhero, we imagine someone with great or extraordinary powers. Alfred Sutro used this new term in a different way, though. His superhero isn't our superhero. His is a man positioning himself above the rest of humanity, and I don't mean above as in "Look! Up in the sky! It's Superman!" I mean above as in the original sense of the word, meaning over or on top of. In the twentieth century, we saw cruel and brutal men who considered themselves above the rest of humanity and who seized or attained power to exercise their will to be so positioned. As with Sutro's superheroes, they were driven by intellectual or pseudo-intellectual ideas which granted them their superiority or over-ness. (See the article below regarding intellectualism.) Some of those men even had a term for themselves: Übermenschen--Overmen. They also had a term for those who must be under them: Untermenschen--Undermen. The first term at least comes from a writer and a work from the previous century. That work, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, by Friedrich Nietzsche, was published as a complete edition in German in the 1890s. The first English translation, entitled Thus Spake Zarathustra, was published in 1896, that great and seminal year in our popular culture. The first translation done by an Englishman (or maybe he was Scottish) was by Thomas Common. His version came out in 1909, the year in which Alfred Sutro gave his talks at Camden Town.

Sutro, by the way, was Jewish.

To be continued . . .

(1) I'll use the word superhero interchangeably with its variants, super-hero and super hero. Likewise with the words superheroine, superman, and superwoman.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Superheroes and Supervillains

A few weeks ago I wrote a little about heroes and villains. I would like to write more now about superheroes and supervillains as a lead-in to a series involving Weird Tales.

When we were kids, we read a lot of comic books. Most were superhero comics, and even those that weren't about superheroes were often superheroized, for example, Super Goof in Walt Disney comics, Jughead Jones as Captain Hero in Archie comics, Conan the Barbarian in Marvel comics, and even Warlord in DC comics, who always wore the same outfit--and had the same split beard as Green Arrow. We drew superhero comic books, too, and if I can come up with a little time, I'd like to draw more.

Not long ago, someone told me that the word superhero is trademarked by Marvel and DC. I didn't think that could be true. After all, superhero is a word. How can you trademark a word? Especially a word that was in use before there was such a thing as a comic book? So I read a little about it, and I guess Marvel and DC, who haven't always gotten along, jointly own the trademark for a word, or at least they've got everybody scared enough not to challenge them on it. Pretty soon, I guess, you won't be able to use the word marvel without Marvel's (meaning Disney's) permission. Maybe princess will go the same way. Anyway, you would hardly know it today, but there was a time before comic book superheroes. That time was in living memory of people my dad's age and older.

Everybody likes to play the game of firsts. What was the first this, the first that. So who was the first superhero? You could say that Superman was the first superhero as we know them today. If there hadn't been Superman, there would almost certainly have been someone else--that's the way our popular culture was going in the 1930s--but Superman hit at just the right time in just the right way to bring about what is now called the Golden Age of Comic Books. Once Superman arrived, superheroes were here to stay. Some people say that there were superheroes before Superman--Popeye for instance (1929), or The Phantom (1936). I think the Scarlet Pimpernel (1903) is a good candidate for the first superhero, but there are those who would push his origins all the way back to ancient Greece or even to ancient Sumer in the person of Gilgamesh. If we follow a different line of hypostulatin' we might come up with a different answer. As it turns out, that line fits pretty well with what I have found on the origins of the word itself.

I have thought for some time that American popular culture--genre fiction, comics, movies, magazines, sports, etc.--as we know it today began in the 1890s, more or less. The technological, economic, and societal forces that brought that about aren't really the issue here. Instead, if you just look at a few dates, you might agree that there's something to this line of thought:
  • Safety bicycle invented, 1890
  • First color newspaper supplement (Chicago Inter Ocean) in America, 1892
  • First automobile manufacturing company in America, 1893
  • First Ferris wheel, 1893
  • U.S. Golf Association (USGA) formed, 1894
  • First newspaper comic strip (Hogan's Alley by Richard Outcault) published, 1895
  • First movies shown to paying customers in the United States, ca. 1895-1896
  • First all-fiction pulp magazine (The Argosy), 1896
On the other hand, firsts, origins, and beginnings are good cause for fights and debates. So instead of trying to make a case for the 1890s as being the beginning of popular culture in America, I'll just look at the origins of the word superhero and its superkin, superheroine, supervillain, and, yes, superman and superwoman. It won't take long to get back to Weird Tales.

To be continued . . .

Conan was created by Robert E. Howard and first appeared in Weird Tales. The genre inhabited by Conan is now called sword and sorcery or, more to the point, heroic fantasy. We might as well call Conan a superhero, but he wasn't really cast as a superhero until the 1960s or '70s. (Remember that all of the Conan stories published in Howard's lifetime came before the first real superhero comic book.) At the height of the sword-and-sorcery/fantasy craze of those two decades, Marvel Comics began publishing Conan the Barbarian, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Smith. The first issue appeared in October 1970 (forty-eight years ago this month). Here is the cover for number 15, from May 1972. Already there were teamups, a feature of superhero comic books, as Conan was joined in this issue by Elric of Melniboné, created by Michael Moorcock and first in print in 1961.

Barry Smith, also called Barry Windsor-Smith, is a British artist who came to Marvel Comics with a pop-culture sensibility. I can see the influence of Jack Kirby in his work, but there's also some Jim Steranko there. But then if Mr. Steranko was influenced by Kirby, then there is only an influence once removed. This is the cover for Conan the Barbarian #16, from July 1972.

Shortly before Marvel began issuing Conan comic books, Lancer Books revived Robert E. Howard's original stories in paperback form. The covers of these books were most famously done by Frank Frazetta. I suspect that the Lancer series were the impetus for Marvel's comic book version. In any case, this pair of images from comic book and paperback versions of the same story from the same period is relatively rare. Both have their merits, but I think the Frazetta illustration makes for a tighter composition, greater action, mystery, and intrigue, and a more evocative image. Conan of Cimmeria, from 1969.

Barry Smith left Conan the Barbarian with issue number 24, in March 1973. With him went much of the otherworldly atmosphere and imagery of the series. In his place came a number of other artists, chiefly John Buscema, who had been doing superhero stories at Marvel for many years. Buscema was fast and had a knack for action, composition, and visual storytelling, but in his hands, Conan became more nearly superheroized. Here is the first cover after Barry Smith, number 25, from April 1973, drawn by Gil Kane and Ralph Reese.

Don't get me wrong. I love John Buscema's work, and I read Conan the Barbarian with real pleasure. When we were kids, we even drew our own sword-and-sorcery comic books. But Conan in Marvel's hands was essentially a superhero. Like the Incredible Hulk, he always wore the same torn clothing over his middle section. (Conan's outfit was always brown and furry rather than purple.) Like Spider-Man, he often teamed up with other superheroes, or in the case of Red Sonja, who also always wore the same outfit, a superheroine. There is even in this cover (no. 78, Sept. 1977) a skewed viewpoint, like in the old Batman TV show. Note the red-robed cultists, another throwback to Weird Tales.

Consciously or not, John Buscema evoked an image from another of the Lancer Conan paperbacks, Conan the Avenger, from 1968, again with cover art by Frank Frazetta.

More evidence of the superheroization of Conan: a Marvel Treasury Edition of Conan the Barbarian, complete with a gorilla cover. (Truth be told, gorilla covers came before superhero comic books. See my previous postings, here and here.) From 1978.

Frazetta could do a gorilla cover like nobody else. I think this is one of his most powerful covers for the Conan series, from 1967.

Text copyright 2018, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

From a Foreign Front

Three years ago today, someone named WorldbyStorm posted an essay on a website called The Cedar Lounge Revolution. The subtitle of the blog is "For lefties too stubborn to quit." It looks like this blog is based in Ireland. The title of WorldbyStorm's essay is "Science fiction and competing narratives as regards history and progressiveness." You can reach it by clicking here.

In the comments section, a man named Mike Atkinson mentioned my name. Here is what he wrote about me:
Or "Weird Tales" historian Terence E. Hanley writing lengthy online tirades screaming abuse at anyone of the vaguest liberal or progressive tendency.
Today, after stumbling across it, I wrote a long reply to Mr. Atkinson's comment. You can read my comment by clicking on the same link. His comment came at the end of several months of my writing about totalitarianism, utopianism, liberalism, and progressivism, also about the controversy involving weird fiction, fantasy, and Weird Tales magazine from 2012 and after. Maybe I ruffled Mike Atkinson's feathers a little with what I wrote.

Anyone who reads this blog must know by now that I have a difference of opinion with the progressive, leftist, socialist, Marxist, statist, totalitarian worldview. (I'll leave "liberal" off that list, as liberalism is another thing.) But I don't recognize myself in Mr. Atkinson's comment, and I wonder if anyone of you might. I invite comments on my own blog. You may also want to leave comments on the website The Cedar Lounge Revolution. I should tell the authors of that blog that my family comes from the left side of Ireland--left on the map, that is, or western Ireland, Strokestown to be exact, which has a museum devoted to a disaster ultimately attributable, in my opinion, to the depredations of the State.

Thanks for reading.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The English Professor and the Early American Author

Another of my uncles has died. His older brother died just two months before him. There were eight boys in their family all together. Just two remain. Four served in the U.S. military during World War II: two in the U.S. Army Air Force (one in China-Burma-India, the other in the Philippines) and two in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific. All four came home after the war but to a household in which their mother was absent: she died less than a month after the war ended. Four more of the boys served during the 1950s, one in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, another in the U.S.S. Iowa off the coast of Korea, still another in the U.S. Air Force, and the youngest as a photographer on board the aircraft carriers Antietam and Wasp. Their only sister, though she wanted to join up during World War II, did not serve in the military. Instead she worked in national defense and was injured in a fall from a loading dock. My uncles had big voices, big personalities, big appetites for booze, food, cigarettes, and cigars, and some of them were good-looking enough to have been movie stars. They were, as so many men and women of their generation were, larger than life.

I'm back now after the funeral. We buried the sixth-born of my uncles on Tuesday next to his parents. He was the one who served on board the Iowa, nicknamed "the Great Grey Ghost of the Korean Coast." He was also one of the first of his family to attend college. At least a couple of his great-grandparents were illiterate immigrants from western Ireland. His grandparents worked in the meatpacking industry in Indianapolis. My uncle broke from the past (or stood on their shoulders) by becoming an English professor. He studied at La Salle College and received his master's degree from Temple University. In 1966, he went to the State University of New York at Albany, where he studied under Mary Elizabeth Grenander (1918-1998), a poet, philanthropist, and professor of English. She was an authority on Ambrose Bierce, and she edited and introduced Poems of Ambrose Bierce, published in 1995 by the University of Nebraska Press. We are about a month away from the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth.

At Albany, my uncle carried out research on the early-American author Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), and I believe he was planning to have the fruits of his research published in professional journals. He told us not very long ago that he felt that he was beaten to the punch by other researchers, and so he set aside his work. Instead he became an instructor, then a professor in English at the Community College of Philadelphia, in the same city in which Charles Brockden Brown was born. We still have some of my uncle's research. I hope to go through it to see what might still be publishable.

Although Charles Brockden Brown was not forgotten after his death, he lay in relative obscurity until new editions of his works were published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I don't know whether my uncle discovered Brown on his own or was directed to him by one of his professors, perhaps even by M.E. Grenander. In any case, scholarship on Brown seems to have begun taking off in the 1960s. Now we even have a Charles Brockden Brown Society, founded in 2000.

Brown read the works of Gothic and Romantic authors in England and is supposed to have been influenced by them. In return, he is supposed to have influenced similar authors in the United States and England, including Mary Shelley (1797-1851). We are in the bicentennial year of her most famous novel/romance, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. (Among other things, that book offers a lesson to those who would attempt to exercise God-like power.) Mary Shelley is sometimes considered the author of the first science fiction novel. I won't argue for or against that idea. Instead I'll point out that Charles Brockden Brown was also an author of genre works, which might be called Gothic romances. These include Wieland, or, The Transformation (1798), Arthur Mervyn: Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799), and Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (1799). His works of short fiction are comparatively few, but they include "Somnambulism: A Fragment" (1784), reprinted at least once in recent years as a short story.

Like Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Brown died young (at age thirty-nine, versus age forty for Poe; they came within two days of sharing a birthday). Unlike Poe, Brown was not well remembered after his death, even if his works were reprinted more than once during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems pretty unlikely to me that the editors, publishers, readers, and fans of Weird Tales would have known very much about him. One exception (always an exception) was H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote, in his study "Supernatural Horror in Literature "(1925-1927; revised 1933-1934):
Of Mrs. Radcliffe's countless imitators, the American novelist Charles Brockden Brown stands the closest in spirit and method. Like her, he injured his creations by natural explanations; but also like her, he had an uncanny atmospheric power which gives his horrors a frightful vitality as long as they remain unexplained. He differed from her in contemptuously discarding the external Gothic paraphernalia and properties and choosing modern American scenes for his mysteries; but his repudiation did not extend to the Gothic spirit and type of incident. Brown's novels involve some memorably frightful scenes, and excel even Mrs. Radcliffe's in describing the operations of the perturbed mind. Edgar Huntly starts with a sleep-walker digging a grave, but is later impaired by touches of Godwinian didacticism. Ormond involves a member of a sinister secret brotherhood. That and Arthur Mervyn both describe the plague of yellow fever, which the author had witnessed in Philadelphia and New York. But Brown's most famous book is Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798), in which a Pennsylvania German, engulfed by a wave of religious fanaticism, hears "voices" and slays his wife and children as a sacrifice. His sister Clara, who tells the story, narrowly escapes. The scene, laid at the woodland estate of Mittingen on the Schuylkill's remote reaches, is drawn with extreme vividness; and the terrors of Clara, beset by spectral tones, gathering fears, and the sound of strange footsteps in the lonely house, are all shaped with truly artistic force. In the end a lame ventriloquial explanation is offered, but the atmosphere is genuine while it lasts. Carwin, the malign ventriloquist, is a typical villain of the Manfred or Montoni type.
So the readers of Weird Tales never saw Brown's work in their favorite magazine. Fortunately, readers of today will easily discover his fiction and non-fiction, even the most obscure or previously hard to find, in inexpensive editions.

I wish that my uncle had completed his work on Charles Brockden Brown and that it had gotten into print, but these are the things that happen in a man's life: One path taken instead of another. A life lived here rather than there, with these people rather than with those. Who can say which is or might be best?

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Religions of Weird Fiction

I'll get right to the point: there aren't any, as far as I know--religions of weird fiction, that is. If you look to the right, you'll see a label, "The Religions of Science Fiction." You'll see also that I have written a lot on this topic, and when you read what I have written, you'll understand that when I refer to the religions of science fiction, I'm talking about religious, pseudo-religious, and quasi-religious beliefs that have arisen from science fiction and its precursors. Chief among these are flying saucers, dating from 1947, and Dianetics/Scientology, from 1950. There are also what you might call proto-science-fictional religions in Theosophy and "I AM" Activity, and there are similar beliefs that have come along since the 1940s and '50s. Shaverism came from that era, too, and though it doesn't reach the level of a science-fictional religion, it has its own religious, pseudo-religious, or quasi-religious characteristics.

At first you might think that religion and science fiction don't go together. After all, science brooks nothing when it comes to unreason, superstition, or claims for the existence of anything supernatural. The other side of that, though, is that science clearly doesn't satisfy certain basic human needs. Believers leave religion and a belief in God behind them, but because they are believers, they need a replacement, and so they search endlessly for something to stand in the place of God. (More on that in a while.) Scientists and science-minded people, then, too easily fall into belief in the religions of science--Scientism, Darwinism (alternatively, Lysenkoism), materialism, atheism, Utopianism, Marxism or "scientific socialism," environmentalism, the cult of global warming, etc. Likewise, readers, writers, and fans of science fiction also fall too easily for the religions of science fiction. At least one of those religions--flying saucers--is pretty well harmless. Another, which shall remain nameless, has done great harm and has even brought about the deaths of some of its current or former adherents.

Weird fiction doesn't have that problem. Writers of weird fiction (notwithstanding Lovecraft's materialism--more on him in a while, too) concede the existence of the supernatural even before they begin. They seem to have their heads on straight and don't fall for pseudo-religious nonsense. They don't suffer the fate of their materialistic characters, who, because they can't bend, break. And so, as far as I know, no author of weird fiction has ever spawned a real-world religion or cult. Likewise, as far as I know, no reader or fan of weird fiction has ever followed his or her favorite author down the rabbit hole of a made-up religion. So my title, "The Religions of Weird Fiction," is about nothing at all. If anyone has a suggestion or assertion that there is or might be an actual religion, pseudo-religion, or quasi-religion of weird fiction, I'm happy to listen.

* * *

In doing research for my series on Harold S. Farnese, I ran across this passage in Lovecraft: A Biography by L. Sprague de Camp (Ballantine, 1976):
He [Lovecraft] argued science and religion with his correspondents. [. . . ] With Catholic Derleth he was polite about religion. But when, in early 1931, Frank [Belknap] Long flirted with Catholicism, Lovecraft went after him hammer and tongs: "that incredible & anti-social anachronism (1) called the Popish church . . . . Popery fosters everything effeminate & repugnant." Although on other occasions he admitted religion to have some practical social value, he now declared: "I hate & despise religion" because, he said, it lied about basic, scientifically established facts. (p. 372)
I have wondered before whether Lovecraft was anti-Catholic. (I wrote on this topic in "Lovecraft and the Mass Rock" on October 21, 2015, here.) Well, if de Camp described the situation accurately, now we know that he was. Lovecraft's comments here seem to me unsophisticated and noncritical, his tone overwrought. I suspect that his hostility towards Catholicism was a kind of knee-jerk reaction that would have come naturally to an old-fashioned Yankee Protestant or Puritan. We should remember that he was also a nativist and that he lived during a high water mark of the very anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan in America. Only recently (1928) had there been a presidential campaign in which very strong anti-Catholic sentiment showed itself, not only in the United States at large but also in Lovecraft's home state of Rhode Island. (1)

There's more to that passage from de Camp's book, though. Here is another passage:
When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! This, for a jew [sic], crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God's son? The proof of such a claim is lacking. Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that the claim is believed--whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining pretensions--is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage. A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross--how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed? (2)
That's not from Lovecraft--it was actually written by Friedrich Nietzsche, and it comes from his Human, All too Human (1878). Note the same hostility and incredulity as in Lovecraft. Note the similar words or phrases, too, Catholicism as an "anachronism" and Christianity as "an antiquity projected into our own times from remote prehistory." In addition, Lovecraft sensed what Nietzsche articulated when the former wrote, "Popery fosters everything effeminate & repugnant," for Nietzsche famously criticized Christianity as a religion that feminizes men, or at least unmans them, for example:
Christianity [. . .] has waged a deadly war against this higher type of man; it has placed all the basic instincts of this type under the ban; and out of these instincts it has distilled evil and the Evil One: the strong man as the typically reprehensible man, the "reprobate." Christianity has sided with all that is weak and base, with all failures; it has made an ideal of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life to preserve itself. [Emphasis in the original, from The Antichrist (1888).] (3)
There are of course lots of other quotes like this from Nietzsche. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Nietzsche was not so keen on science. Both, however, were conservative and aristocratic. Anyway, I wonder, was Lovecraft familiar with the writings of Nietzsche? Or did he arrive at some of the same conclusions and for some of the same reasons (at whatever intellectual or philosophical level he may have occupied) as did Nietzsche?

* * *

It seems to me that human beings have a need to believe in things that are infinite, eternal, and absolute, and that when we give up on a belief in God as the source of these things, we are faced with one of two choices: we can either try to find a replacement for God, or we can can try to live without them. Both paths lead to the same destination, for it seems to me also that we have a drive in us towards annihilation, especially self-annihilation, as well as self-defeat and self-destruction. Both paths are blocked, I think, by belief, but if there is no belief and no block, we generally proceed towards self-destruction. Whether Lovecraft would have been saved by a different belief system than the one he held, and whether we would now have his art as he created it if he had believed in something different, we can't really say. But he was certainly lost in the end by believing in what I guess was essentially nothing.

* * *

I came across a really interesting idea recently, but I can't say where I found it. The idea is that there are those among us who are convinced that the Creation is flawed and that it must be corrected. We see this on a small scale in popular culture when we go to a Batman or Superman movie and are treated yet again to the character's origin story, now overhauled by the newest moviemaker. We see it also in the Star Wars saga, in which George Lucas, who is the creator, goes back and alters the original form of his own creation, moreover, when the makers of every new Star Wars movie lay waste to what was done by those who came before them.

Anyway, the problem with the idea that the Creation is flawed comes about when we as human beings believe that we can make it right, that we are smart enough, wise enough, and visionary enough to remake it all according to our own ideas, schemes, and systems. This goes beyond the concept in tragedy of hubris and into the territory of an extraordinary arrogance and rebellion. People who dream up these things--intellectual ideas, intellectualized schemes or systems for living, prescriptions on how the rest of us must live--are in love with their own minds and their own ideas. They are possessed of a pride so extreme that the word "pride" no longer applies. We might ask, what is the source of this extreme pride and arrogance? How did your ideas and schemes and systems get to be so fine? How do you know these things so well and with such conviction? The answer that seems to come back is this: I know because I know. This is a Gnosticism for the modern age. Marx is a perfect example of this kind of thinking, but Madame Blavatsky, Richard Shaver, and L. Ron Hubbard also fit the bill to one degree or another.

In any case, last week in the U.S. Senate, we saw this phenomenon at work. We saw a group of people who appear to be in love with the fineness of their own minds, their own ideas, their own schemes, their own systems, their own innovations. Their pride is in themselves. They seem convinced that they are in possession of the knowledge and wisdom necessary to correct the perceived flaws in the Creation. They know because they know. There need not be any other explanation or justification, and nothing must stand in their way in the deadly serious business of remaking it. Their belief seems to be that they are God or gods and that they possess God-like or god-like qualities. Their quest is for power, as one of their company so easily saw and diagnosed as the condition running like an epidemic among them. What they don't realize is that they can never and will never have that kind of power. They will never be able to remake the Creation, for it is what it is intended to be. It is unalterable by human effort. They cannot bend reality to their wills, and, falling well short of their imagined godhood, they will all die in the end. Weak, frail, crippled--bed-bound, failing, necessarily mortal--they will one day, we can only hope, be chastened and disabused of their notions of themselves and the fineness of their own minds and ideas. Yes, they will all surely die in the end and the unaltered Creation will go on without them.

* * *

Finally, I have written before about weird fiction against the materialist (see here). Well, I have found another example in a writer who should have been in Weird Tales but never was. His name was Stefan Grabiński, and he was a Polish author active during the pulp-fiction era in America, from 1906 to about 1930. Born in 1887, he was a rough contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft. Like Lovecraft, he died young, in 1936 at age forty-nine. (Nietzsche also died fairly young, at age fifty-five, five days after Lovecraft's tenth birthday.) In our weird fiction book club last week, we read Grabiński's story "The Frenzied Farmhouse," from 1908. The narrator of the story is a man, once a husband and father. Near the beginning of his tale, he tells us, "I am not sick, nor was I ever sick," likewise, "I am not, nor was I ever, a psychopath." We learn not to trust him very well in these claims by what he relates later on. One significant thing about these reverse confessions is that the narrator appears to head off a scientific or medical explanation for what he has done: "I am not sick, I am not a psychopath." He continues:
Instead, I was a complete skeptic. I did not adhere to any principle or doctrine; my temperament was not a suggestible one. In this respect, my friend K., whom I had always considered to be extremely superstitious, stood at the opposite extreme. His strange, at times crazy views and theories constantly raised strong opposition on my part, and we quarrelled [sic] continually, which resulted in us frequently severing contact with each other for long periods of time. And yet, it appears, he was not mistaken in everything.
So here is the former skeptic (note the past tense), now speaking (in the present tense) and telling us that he is not sick or a psychopath, implying that in and by his skepticism he was wrong, conceding that his friend K. (shades of Kafka), who is "extremely superstitious," is right, at least in some small way. In other words, as the materialist usually does in weird fiction, the narrator comes in contact with something that he cannot explain in purely scientific or materialistic terms, and he receives his comeuppance because of it. But this is a strange and not a simple story. It can't easily be categorized, explicated, or explained away. In the inexorableness of the narrator's actions, it puts me in mind of The Stranger by Albert Camus, which is a strange thing to do for a tale of weird fiction.

(1) "Finally, the early 1920s saw the first great 'Red Scare,' the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Rhode Island, and the bitter Al Smith campaign in 1928, all of which produced a new level of anti-Catholic bigotry and heightened tensions between faltering Republicans and the rising Democrats." From "Ten Turning Points in Rhode Island History" by William G. McLoughlin, Rhode Island History, May 1986 (Vol. 45, No. 2), quote from pp. 48-49.
(2) Note the elements of the tale of supernatural horror or weird fiction: things still living out of antiquity or prehistory, a "god," a "sage," Christ as a fortuneteller, human sacrifice, the drinking of human blood (so that we might live forever, like vampires), prayers, miracles, "a beyond," death as "a portal"--"how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past!" [Emphasis added.] Might we say that Christianity, or religion in general, is the religion of weird fiction? Or is it actually the other way around, that the genres of weird fiction and supernatural horror are actually protrusions of an internal religious impulse, however primitive it might be, into the very secular and outward world of books, commerce, and pulp magazines?
(3) If Nietzsche's criticism is accurate and Christianity sees "the strong man as the typically reprehensible man, the 'reprobate'," and if our current president is by some measure this kind of "strong man" (thus a "reprobate"), then the reaction to him, especially considering that it comes from so many who are themselves so deeply anti-Christian, is curiously Christian. But then I think that we live in a world teeming with non-believers and atheists who have been set up in their beliefs by two thousand years of Christianity. I guess you could call them "secular Christians," even "atheized Christians," in any case Christians of one kind or another who are ignorant or unaware of their very origins or what ultimately lies behind their beliefs and actions.

Original text copyright 2018, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Other Forms of H.P. Lovecraft

I have read a paper by my friend Nathaniel Wallace, who presented at the Dr. Henry Armitage Memorial Scholarship Symposium in Providence, Rhode Island, in August of last year. Nate's paper is about adaptations of Lovecraft's work to musical forms. That got me thinking about other adaptations of Lovecraft's stories and poems. Until someone tells me different, I'll stick with Harold S. Farnese's musical settings for two poems by Lovecraft as the first adaptations of his work to a form other than that of verse or prose. Here are the first adaptations into various forms, in chronological order beginning with Farnese's compositions. The source is the website The H.P. Lovecraft Archive, here.

First Musical Adaptations

1932 "Mirage" and "The Elder Pharos," adapted by Harold S. Farnese from sonnets by H.P. Lovecraft from The Fungi from Yuggoth (1930 and 1931 respectively)

"The White Ship" by George Edwards, Dave Michaels, and Tony Cavallari, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft (1919)
Side 2, Track 1 (6:33)

"At the Mountains of Madness" by George Edwards, Dave Michaels, and Tony Cavallari, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft (1936)
Side 2, Track 1 (4:57)

1969 Arzachel by Arzachel, Released June 1969 (Evolution Records)
"Azathoth" by Mont Cambell and Dave Stewart, based on the concept by H.P. Lovecraft (1919)
Side 1, Track 2 (4:21)

First Radio Adaptation

1945 Suspense, Nov. 1, 1945 (CBS Radio)
"The Dunwich Horror," based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft (1929)
Starring Ronald Colman as Henry Armitage

First Comic Book Adaptation

1950 The Vault of Horror, Dec. 1950/Jan. 1951 (Vol. 1, No. 16) (EC Comics)
"Fitting Punishment" by Graham Ingels and Al Feldstein, based on "In the Vault" by H.P. Lovecraft (1925)
7 pp. (pp. 9–15)

First Movie Adaptation

1963 The Haunted Palace, Released Aug. 28, 1963 (American International Pictures)
Based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft (1941)
Directed by Roger Corman
Screenplay by Charles Beaumont
Starring Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Debra Paget
87 min.

First Television Adaptations

1971 Night Gallery (NBC-TV)
Hosted by Rod Serling

"Pickman's Model," Broadcast Dec. 1, 1971, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft (1927)
Directed by Jack Laird
Teleplay by Alvin Sapinsley
Starring Bradford Dillman and Louise Sorel

"Cool Air," Broadcast Dec. 8, 1971, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft (1928)
Directed by John Badham
Teleplay by Jack Laird
Starring Barbara Rush and Henry Darrow

First Stage Adaptation

(1932) Fen River or The Swamp City, a one-act operetta proposed by Harold S. Farnese to H.P. Lovecraft but never written or performed.

In other words, there has never been, as far as I know, a stage play based on a work by H.P. Lovecraft. That sounds like an opportunity for an ambitious and enterprising playwright.

Thanks to Nate for leading me to this research and the writing of this series.

The blurb says: "Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace," but that was just to hook potential viewers. The movie is actually based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft.

Original text copyright 2018, 2023 Terence E. Hanley