Monday, May 11, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr. (1917-1983)-Part One


I first wrote about Earl Peirce, Jr., on May 17, 2017. I misidentified him then as Earl Monroe Pierce, Jr., based on his age and his residency in Washington, D.C., where Peirce/Pierce is known to have lived. A month later, an anonymous commenter let me know that I had the wrong person and provided a link to an online discussion about the right one. I removed what I had written and promised an update and correction. By then it was too late: my mistake was memorialized in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) and you can still find it there today. I pride myself on doing good work. It's not such a good feeling to do bad and to know that I have done bad. It's not a good feeling, either, to know that my mistake is flapping in the breeze of the worldwide web. I'm not a member of ISFDb and don't know anyone who is. I hope that once this new series is over, someone will let them know that the whole mess has been straightened out and that it's time to recognize the real Earl Peirce, Jr., for who he was.

The Peirces of Maine

One of the reasons I misidentified Earl Peirce, Jr., is that it just didn't seem to me that his surname was spelled correctly. We once had Franklin Pierce as president. We know Hawkeye Pierce as a fictional Korean War surgeon. (1) We even have Jeremy Duncan's pierced friend Pierce in the comic strip Zits. To complicate matters, Earl Peirce was also known as Earl Pierce. My mistake was in thinking that the correct spelling was a mistake and vice versa. (2) What I didn't know is that there are scads of Peirces who have called Maine home since the colonial era and that their numbers have included militia captains, wealthy lumbermen, a prominent artist, a well-known (in his time) archaeologist and art historian, and not one but two writers of genre fiction. Only one of them was Earl Peirce, Jr. I'll get to the other--his third cousin--before we reach the end of this series. 

To be continued . . .

The first story by Earl Peirce, Jr., to appear in Weird Tales was "Doom of the House of Duryea," in October 1936 (with cover art by J. Allen St. John). Peirce's byline wasn't on the cover, but his story has proved popular and enduring. It was reprinted in Tales of the Undead: Vampires and Visitants (1947), Far Below and Other Horrors (1974, 1987), Weird Vampire Tales (1992), and Bloodlines: Vampire Stories from New England (1997),  suggesting a New England origin for the writer himself . . .

"Doom of the House of Duryea" is also in Acolytes of Cthulhu (2001), in which Peirce's last name was misspelled (see, I'm not the only one to make that mistake) but which was graced by cover art by the late Gahan Wilson. (I apologize for the poor quality of the image: the Internet isn't everything it's cracked up to be.)

The main action in Peirce's story takes place in a cabin by a lake in northern Maine. If it is a Lovecraftian tale at all, it might be on account of a centuries-old family curse and secret knowledge drawn from obscure and forbidden books. Among the books mentioned are Episcopi (real), Nider's Ant-Hill (real, as Formicarius), and an unnamed work by Ludvig Prinn (not real). The last, De Vermis Mysteriis, was created by Robert Bloch as an addition to H.P. Lovecraft's list of grimoires, both real and not real.* Bloch was of course an acolyte of Lovecraft. Younger by a generation, he corresponded with Lovecraft, and together they wrote a series of back-and-forth stories in which they killed each other off. What is less well known is that Peirce also corresponded with Lovecraft and that he was friends with Bloch. At or about the time that "Doom of the House of Duryea" was published, Peirce was living in Bloch's hometown of Milwaukee. (Not long afterwards he moved to Washington, D.C., with his family.) I suppose that's why Peirce was called a "midwestern writer" in the introduction to his story in Weird Vampire Tales (1992).

Earl Peirce, Jr., seems to have been up on his lore. I had never heard of either Nider's Ant-Hill or Episcopi before reading his story. He also made a reference to an "Enoch" and "the terrible drawings by an ancient Dominican of Rome." I don't know and couldn't find for myself a reference for either. The word vrykolaka also appears in "Doom of the House of Duryea." That's not one you see very often in old weird fiction. There is also a word new to me--shocking and disturbing, too: INFANTIPHAGI. (Yes, it's capitalized in the original.) That word may be new to everybody else who reads it, too, for it seems to have been Peirce's own neologism. Maybe he used it for shock effect, as young writers and artists often do with such things. It's still shocking to me, more than eighty years after he wrote it, but the shock effect can only wear in our current age: I'm not sure that Peirce could have known that we would one day, once again, worship Moloch. One thing to consider here: the eating of offspring by parents (filial cannibalism) and of the mother by her offspring (matriphagy) occur in nature. As a forester, Earl Peirce's namesake--his own father--might have known of such things, or maybe Peirce read of them in his father's library, just as the fictional son in "Doom of the House of Duryea" reads of them in his own father's reeking, mildewy, yellow book of horrors on that stormy and fateful night by the lake . . .

*De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludvig Prinn was first mentioned in "The Shambler from the Stars," published in Weird Tales in September 1935.

(1) Hiester Richard Hornberger, Jr., better known by his nom de plume Richard Hooker, graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine and later practiced medicine in Waterville and Bremen. (Franklin Pierce graduated from Bowdoin, too.) Hornberger (1924-1997) served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and went on to write the original novel (1968) on which the movie and television show M*A*S*H* were based. I imagine he met more than one Peirce/Pierce during his decades in Maine. Maybe one of them provided him with the surname of his fictional counterpart. Hawkeye Pierce's real name, by the way, is Benjamin Franklin Pierce. Remember this: if you draw any line long enough it eventually becomes a circle. Here's another circle: Earl Peirce, Jr., came from a Maine family and died in New Jersey; Hornberger was born in New Jersey and died in Maine.
(2) The spellchecker in Blogger doesn't like the spelling Peirce, either.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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