Wednesday, July 29, 2020

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

Peirce & Bloch

Last week I wrote about how Robert Bloch came to know Weird Tales and H.P. Lovecraft. This time it's Earl Peirce's turn.

We know a whole lot less about Earl Peirce, Jr., than we do about Bloch or Lovecraft. That's one of the reasons I misidentified him so badly at the outset. The evidence was there all along. However, it was locked away in objects formerly known as books. These were and are unseen by the very nearly blind eyes of the Internet.

The first quote below is from an interview that Bloch did with Graeme Flanagan. I presume this to be from a booklet entitled Robert Bloch: A Bio-Bibliography by Graeme Flanagan (Canberra City, Australia: Author, July 1979). The second is from the book Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography by who else but Robert Bloch (Tor, 1993). I don't have either of these books and I'm not the one who came up with the quotes. They're actually on a message board on the website Ancestry.com, put there by J.M. Rajala, who co-edited Lovecraftian Voyages by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. (Hippocampus Press, 2007). Here is the URL and link to Mr. or Ms. Rajala's posting:

https://www.ancestry.com/boards/localities.northam.usa.states.connecticut.unknown/4905.1.1.2

Here is the first quote, from Mr. Flanagan's interview with Bloch:
I knew Earl Peirce Jr. in Milwaukee as a fan in 1935-37. He was a bright personable young man, about my age, whose father was in the U.S. Forestry Department [sic]. He contacted me, expressing an interest in writing, and I encouraged it--introducing him to my circle of friend and (via mail) to various writers I knew. He wrote and sold several stories--"Doom of the House of Duryea," a vampire yarn, was his best--then moved to Washington with his family. In late '41 I visited him there with my friend Harold Gauer: he had married and was (I seem to recall) working for the Navy Department. That was the last I saw or heard of him for at least twenty-five years. Then he showed up here, with a different wife, and spent a day with me. He had changed so much that I'd never have recognized him, and there wasn't a trace of the rather intense and imaginative fantasy devotee who had once dreamed of starting an organization to rule the world--the "Si-Fan," modeled on Sax Rohmer's secret society in the Fu Manchu series.
So at last we have something firsthand and personal about Peirce. We know or can be pretty sure that he lived in Laramie, Wyoming, from his birth in 1917 until 1921. From then until 1933 he was with his family in Syracuse, New York. That means that he turned twelve--the Golden Age of Science Fiction--in Syracuse in 1929, the same year in which the term science fiction was first used in print. It was around that time, too, that science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines began to proliferate:
  • Amazing Stories, 1926
  • Amazing Stories Annual, 1927
  • Tales of Magic and Mystery, 1927
  • Ghost Stories, 1928
  • Amazing Stories Quarterly, 1928
  • Air Wonder Stories, 1929
  • Science Wonder Stories, 1929
  • Wonder Stories Quarterly, 1929
  • Astounding Stories (later Astounding Science-Fiction), 1930
  • Scientific Detective Monthly, 1930
  • Wonder Stories, 1930
We don't have a discovery story for Peirce like that of Bloch, who found Weird Tales at a Chicago train station in 1927. But as Rage Against the Machine sang, what better place than here? What better time than now? It seems pretty likely to me that Peirce discovered science fiction and fantasy in the mid to late 1920s and certainly no later than the early to mid 1930s. (1)

Peirce arrived in Wisconsin in 1933, first in the north woods, then in late 1933 or early 1934 in Milwaukee. If Bloch's memory was still good forty years after the fact, then Peirce would have been in Milwaukee for a couple of years before he and Bloch met in 1935. Like I said, it seems pretty likely that Peirce was already a fan by then. As Bloch recalled, he was a "rather intense and imaginative fantasy devotee." It sounds like that's how Bloch found him and not how he made him.

The second quote posted by J.M. Rajala is from Bloch's autobiography:
[U]pon becoming a professional writer I began to receive communications from readers with aspirations of their own. One such was Milwaukee resident Earl Peirce, Jr.; I encouraged his successful submission of stories to Weird Tales." (p. 204) 
So maybe Peirce saw Bloch's name and address in an issue of Weird Tales and that's how the two met. Anyway, Peirce had his first letter in "The Eyrie" in November 1935, then two more the following year, in June and November 1936. His first story, "Doom of the House of Duryea," was published in between, in October 1936.

Peirce & Lovecraft

According to J.M Rajala, "H. P. Lovecraft had remarked in a letter in June 1935 that 'Young Peirce seems to be a very interesting character, & I surely wouldn't mind hearing from him some day'." Lovecraft soon got his wish. I don't know the dates of Peirce's missives to Lovecraft, but there were two that went in the opposite direction. Both were published in Lovecraft's Selected Letters, volumes in which Lovecraft's letters are numbered and dated. In this case, they are Number 900 from November 28, 1936, and Number 925 from February 17, 1937. The second came just two months before Lovecraft's death and is one of the last of Lovecraft's letters reprinted in Selected Letters.

So, during two years in the life of Earl Peirce, Jr., from 1935 to 1937, he met Robert Bloch, wrote four letters printed in Weird Tales (the fourth is transcribed below), wrote two letters to H.P. Lovecraft and received two in return, and had four stories published in Weird Tales. At ages eighteen to twenty, he must have been thrilled beyond belief--he must have felt that he really would rule the world.

But then things began to change. The shadow of Lovecraft's death passed over Weird Tales and his circle. World war approached. And perhaps most importantly, Earl Peirce, Jr., began to grow up.

Two years came and went, and the Peirce family moved again, this time to Washington, D.C., where Peirce's father was appointed chief of the Division of Co-operative Forest Protection within the U.S. Forest Service. (2) We don't know when that move happened, but Peirce's last letter in Weird Tales (July 1937), in which he noted the death of H.P. Lovecraft in March 1937, was dispatched from the nation's capital:
The news of Lovecraft's passing, although not the shock of surprize, [sic] is nevertheless the shock of an irreparable loss, not alone to WT, but to his admirers and acquaintances the world over. I shall always regret that I never had the good fortune of meeting him personally, but I am truly grateful for the impulse which prompted me to write to him a few months ago, and that I have two letters in his own hand. What most impressed me were his sincerity and genuineness, which qualities were not alone in making him unique among modern writers. You have my sympathy, for this must be a hard time, but I imagine it is a feeling of pride for you to know that so many of his stories originally appeared in WEIRD TALES. Unlike many other men of genius, Lovecraft was fortunate enough to be living at a time when his work was recognized as outstanding. With the passing of time this recognition will become more universal and his work will take its proper place in the world's great literature. (p. 124) (3)
Lovecraft's work hasn't quite assumed a place "in the world's great literature," as Peirce prophesied, but Lovecraft and his stories are now known all over. His young admirer may have been filled with a fannish kind of enthusiasm, but at age twenty, Peirce briefly saw the future when he wrote, With the passing of time this recognition will become more universal . . .

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) In 1924, at about age seven, Peirce's name was mentioned in the Roll of Honor in St. Nicholas magazine for a drawing he had submitted. That may have been the first time his name was in print, and though his drawing wasn't shown, he could only have been thrilled at what he had accomplished. 
(2) In 1938, Earl S. Peirce, Sr., was assigned to the timber salvage project in New England after the hurricane of 1938. Given his penchant for incorporating real events in his stories, Lovecraft might have written about the hurricane had he lived.
(3) Peirce wrote that Lovecraft's death was "not the shock of surprize" (sic). Did he know something that most of the rest of Lovecraft's circle didn't know? I guess we need that last letter from Lovecraft to Peirce, dated February 17, 1937.

Earl Peirce's fourth published story, "The Homicidal Diary," was in Weird Tales in October 1937, right after "The Shunned House" by H.P. Lovecraft. The illustration for Peirce's story was by Virgil Finlay. It's pretty lurid. In the early 1950s, comic books would be condemned for publishing images like this one.

"The Homicidal Diary" is the also the fourth of Earl Peirce's stories I have read. It might be my favorite among them, despite the subject matter. As in his previous story, "The Death Mask" (Apr. 1937), there is a proposed scientific or pseudoscientific explanation for the events described in the story. However, when this one wraps up, we can't be sure that the explanation is a good one.

There is talk of hypnotism in "The Homicidal Diary." There is also a subtext of what we recognize now as psychopathy or sociopathy. The eponymous diary was written by a fictional serial killer, Emil Drukker of Cologne, Germany, who has been executed for his crimes. I imagine that Peirce was inspired (if that's the word for it) by news stories of real-life German serial killers such as Johann Mayer or Peter Kürten, the so-called Vampire of Düsseldorf. The twist is that the diary seems to have a life and influence of its own. An out-of-place touch in the story is in the mention of Drukker Castle. It may have been 1937, and the story may have some grounding in science or pseudoscience, but the old gothic castle still stands.


I won't give things away, but reading this story made me think of "Yours Truly--Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch. That story wasn't in Weird Tales until July 1943. That makes me wonder, in the literary association of Bloch and Peirce, just who influenced whom? Had Bloch already started to move towards telling tales of psychos and killers by the late 1930s when Peirce's story appeared? Again, my lack of knowledge of Bloch's career is showing. 

One more thing: there is a scene in "The Homicidal Diary" that makes me think of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by that first (or second, if Thomas De Quincey was the first) chronicler of the torments of the Abbie Normal brain, Edgar Allan Poe. I wonder if Earl Peirce ever realized that his first and last initials were the same as Poe's, or if he ever in his childhood combined Poe's and Ambrose Bierce's surnames to arrive at an approximation of his own.

Peirce's story wasn't in Startling Mystery Stories in the issue Fall 1967, but Virgil Finlay's illustration was. For some reason, though, the designer or engraver flipped it. I don't know what story it illustrates in that issue.

Acknowledgment is made to J.M. Rajala for quotes and other information.
Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, July 26, 2020

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

In Milwaukee

I'm a forester and I like reading and learning about other foresters, but that's not exactly why I have gone into such detail on the forestry career of Earl S. Peirce, Sr. (1886-1978). I have done it because knowing about his travels tells us something about his son's own career as a writer. In 1933, the Peirce family moved from Syracuse, New York, to Wisconsin, where Mr. Peirce resumed his career with the U.S. Forest Service by working on the Chequamegon National Forest. (It's pronounced SHWA-meg-on. We went there during our forestry summer camp.) In late 1933 or early 1934, Peirce was transferred to Milwaukee and appointed chief of operations in the Lake States region. His second-oldest son, Earl Peirce, Jr., was then fifteen years old.

Born in Chicago, Robert Bloch (1917-1994) was already in Milwaukee by 1933-1934. He had moved there with his family in 1928 or 1929. Bloch attended Washington High School, then Lincoln High School in his adopted hometown. At Lincoln High School, Bloch met Harold Gauer (1914-2009), who would prove a great and lifelong friend to him. I don't have a biography of Bloch, and so I'm lacking in the details of his early career. According to a frequently half-right/half-wrong source on the Internet, Gauer was the editor of the high school literary magazine that printed Bloch's first story, "The Thing." The source calls the literary magazine The Quill, but a quick search on the Internet shows that The Quill was instead the title of the Lincoln High School yearbook. Something isn't right there. In any case, Bloch, who was ahead in his schooling, and Gauer, who must have been behind, both graduated from Lincoln High School in 1934.

Earl Peirce, Jr., was born on February 28, 1917, Bloch on April 5. Just five weeks and a day separated them. If Peirce went to Lincoln High School, he may have been in the same class as Bloch and Gauer. Then again, unless he was also ahead in his schooling, Peirce would have graduated in 1935 when he was eighteen years old. Then again, too, he may have gone to a different school.

In January 1935, Bloch became a published author in a national magazine. His story was "The Feast in the Abbey," and it appeared in Weird Tales when its author was still seventeen. By the end of the year, Bloch had about half a dozen professionally published stories under his belt. These included "The Secret in the Tomb," in which Mysteries of the Worm by Ludvig Prinn first appeared (Weird Tales, May 1935), and "The Shambler from the Stars," in which Bloch killed off a fictionalized version of H.P. Lovecraft (Weird Tales, Sept. 1935). Bloch had graciously asked Lovecraft's permission to do him in. Lovecraft had enthusiastically assented. He later returned the favor in his last known work of fiction, "The Haunter of the Dark," published in Weird Tales in December 1936.

Bloch was unusually precocious. In his schooling, he was ahead of his own cohort. That precociousness carried over into his writing career, too. Earl Peirce, Jr., who was also a precocious writer, lagged behind him by more than a year. Peirce's first published story, "Doom of the House of Duryea," didn't make an appearance until October 1936. This was of course in Weird Tales.

There was a writer's club operating in Milwaukee at the time. Called the Milwaukee Fictioneers, it was established in January 1931 and met regularly at the houses of its members. The originators of the club and some of its early members included Al P. Nelson, Bernard Wirth, Lawrence Keating, Leo Schmidt, David Costello, Jim Lounsbury, and Donald McDonald. Later, the Milwaukee Fictioneers became more closely associated with science fiction and fantasy. Raymond A. Palmer (1910-1977) was a member. So were Ralph Milne Farley (1887-1963), Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-1935), Frederic Brown (1906-1972), Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994), Donn P. Brazier (1917-2002), and Arthur R. Tofte (1902-1980). Robert Bloch joined on a date unknown to me and perhaps everybody else. He soon recruited Harold Gauer into the ranks. After Weinbaum died in late 1935, the Fictioneers published a memorial volume called Dawn of Flame (1936). Palmer and Keating wrote introductions. Palmer's version was limited to just six printed copies. Dawn of Flame was the only book issued by the club.

Unfortunately, there isn't any mention of Earl Peirce, Jr., in any source that I have found on the Milwaukee Fictioneers. Unfortunately, the group didn't keep minutes of their meetings. If Peirce ever attended a meeting or was ever a member, his association with the club is now lost. But then a lot of the details of his life are now lost.

To be continued . . .

Earl Peirce's third published story was "The Death Mask" in Weird Tales, April 1937. It's a fairly conventional story of weird fiction. I don't detect any elements of Cthulhu Mythos or Bloch's De Vermis Mysteriis mini-mythos in its pages. The illustration, by Harold S. De Lay (1876-1950), is competent enough, but it depicts the weak or insipid man so common in the sentimentalized or even feminized popular culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in America. A younger artist might have drawn it a little differently: less dime novel and more pulp magazine. "The Death Mask" is well-written and reads almost like a treatment for a proposed screenplay. The influence of cinema upon young writers of the 1930s would appear evident. The illustration, by an artist born in the late nineteenth century, and the story, by an author of the early twentieth, don't quite match.

Like I said, "The Death Mask" is fairly conventional. One of the conventions is the physical and psychological isolation needed in order for the weird or gothic plot to function. The main action in Peirce's earlier "Doom of the House of Duryea" takes place in a remote cabin in the woods. In "The Last Archer," the narrator is left alone with his strange employer on a very small island upon which there is the standard gothic castle. The lonely castle returns in "The Death Mask." This one lies suitably in ruins outside a small village in Spain. The secret it holds is, at first as you read it, strange and creepy. Suspense builds. Then the explanation comes, and there is a kind of deflation of expectations, for the explanation is merely mundane, I guess in keeping with the tradition of the original gothic romance. It's worth noting that the female lead is no shrinking violet: she is the one who solves the mystery, saves her man, and gives him the ultimatum which lies on the lips of every woman, especially the American woman of the twentieth century: if you go on doing what you're doing, you will do it alone, for I am leaving. I think "The Death Mask" is worth your time.

The twentieth-century American had a problem when he or she wrote weird or gothic fiction: how does the writer bring the gothic or medieval past into the machine age, the space age, the age of mass communications, in which there are no longer any frontiers and no remaining unconnected or unexplored places (at least of the geographic kind)? In the early part of the century, the answer was to strand your characters in remote places where ancient and medieval things might still hold sway. (It helps if those places are Catholic, for in Catholicism especially among the world's religions, supernaturalism, superstition, and mysticism survived.) Fritz Leiber, Jr., treated that very problem in his stories of the mid-twentieth century by dreaming up urban horrors and weirdities. But what now?

I think it's still possible to write weird fiction, despite our thoroughly scientified culture and despite the advent of smartphones and GPS. And if high fantasy is not to your liking, and science fiction fails to meet its mark, then maybe all there is left is weird fiction. Weird fiction offers something else, though: it offers things spiritual, magical, mystical, supernatural, nonmaterial, and primitive to us who live in a time in which those things have been extinguished--or so we think. Civilization has its discontents. I think we long for these other things, or at least for a past in which they were still possible. The longing might be naïve or rosy, but it's there nonetheless.

In any case, Earl Peirce, Jr., seems to have been moving past Cthulhoid and Vermoid horrors as his writing career went along. By the time "The Death Mask" was published, he may have been living in Washington, D.C., with his family. If not, it may have been his last story published while they were still in Milwaukee.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Robert Bloch Speaks from the Grave

"I believe no constructive human activity has ever been the work of a mob, but only of individuals or of several people working in close communal concert. To me, any large group of people is susceptible to mass hysteria and harsh and violent conduct."

--Robert Bloch in an Interview with Tom Collins (1981)

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Love Not in Ruins

I have listened to music for two and a half days. For two and a half days, a continuous stream has played and I haven't had to do anything but pause it and then play it again. Songs have played from the British Invasion through the 1970s and '80s and into the alternative rock of the 1990s. I have worked on an art project while listening, and I have thought about art and the eternal moment, about the passage of time, about nostalgia and the loss of the irretrievable past. I have also thought of our current situation and the pain and suffering and loneliness that it has brought with it. The stream has ended. But while listening, I read comments on the music that made it. So many of these comments are filled with expressions of loss, grief, pain, loneliness, and pangs of memory and nostalgia. I also read about bands, singers, and musicians, and some of their lyrics, too. And through all of it, I have come out with such an uplifting feeling. Despite all of the terrible things going on in the world and that have gone on in our lives, I feel uplifted. This feeling comes from the timeless power of art--of music, images, and words and all of the things they express, none greater than love.

We attach popular culture, especially popular music, to time. We remember listening when we were young, remember the people, many of whom have been carried away by time and circumstance, who introduced us to it or listened with us. We remember our youth and the comfort that music offered us in difficult times and the promise it offered, too, that things would one day be better. We remember the people whom we loved as well as the beginnings of love that still, mercifully, thankfully, lives. There is power in this music, when the voices rise or turn or the music swells, power in the words, like chants or incantations--"Everything is love" or "It's like tears/It's like love"--power in the hypnotic jangle and simple words of "Get Together," the drive and vivid imagery of "Achilles Last Stand," the sweetness and expressiveness of Marty Balin's voice, the big, rousing sound and sentiment of "A Sort of Homecoming" (who setting the needle down for the first time on the first track of The Unforgettable Fire has ever forgotten the experience?), and the white-hot brilliance and depth of feeling in the music of The Smashing Pumpkins. You can substitute your own groups, singers, and songs for the ones I have mentioned here and all of those that I haven't but to which I listened anyway. You can play your own two-and-a-half-day-long stream of music. My hope is that during that time and afterwards, you will feel uplifted, too.

In these videos and streams there are so many comments of nostalgia, and this makes me think about something that has been on my mind a lot, including in regards to this blog and its subject. I have said before that we seem to be living among the ruins of a once great civilization. Like people in the Dark Ages picking through the ruins of the Roman Empire, we gather bricks and stones for our huts and hovels and build little or nothing ourselves. We mine the past for everything we can, including thirty-year-old music, forty-year-old movies and television shows, and fifty-year-old comic books. We also mine pulp fiction, which existed only in and for a brief time, as well as its genres, which have proved a little more durable. I am as guilty as anybody. My current art project is about things that happened decades ago. I have drawn comic book stories of Golden Age superheroes. And I write this blog about a magazine that ended before I was born, and of course about its authors and artists, who are all dead, or if they're not all dead, they are, like Westley in The Princess Bride, mostly dead.

As I listened to this music that is itself attached in our minds to certain times and places--especially as I read comments about the music--I began to think of the necessity of an escape from a serious dilemma and how we might make it. The dilemma is this: If we attach music--or any art form--to any particular time, place, person, or situation, then once it is gone, then the music is gone, too. If it is only for a moment, then when that moment and all memory and experience of it are gone--when the last person who remembers it from the first time around dies--then the music dies, too. There's nothing wrong with attaching music to our lives and to the people and events in our lives, but I think it has to be attached to something greater and more lasting. It has to go on, not just lasting into the ruins that come after it but living and breathing in the eternal moment. It has to be able to mean as much to the person who comes after it as to the person who first experienced it. It can't die with the death of any or all. It has to go on, and if it can, then it can exist outside of time, in an eternal and inextinguishable moment, as an imperishable creation and a true work of art.

People still enjoy pulp fiction and pulp genres, but aren't we now just picking among ruins? I kind of think so. That's one of the reasons I closed my previous article with the question, does it really matter? We are absorbed in minutiae. We endlessly masticate the past like a cow with its cud. (How else is it pulped after all?) We write endless papers and stories about pulp fiction and its authors. (Guilty.) We're always trying to gain new insights into the past. (Guilty.) We want to be the ones to discover something new (Guilty) and to form new explanatory theories, not just about this or that small thing but about the whole thing. We want to be the ones to postulate the Grand Unified Field Theory about individual authors and whole genres, all the way down to the level of the sentence and word,* all the way down to the sub-sub-genre of which we ourselves just happen to be the discoverer, namer, and chief and usually sole theorist.

Why exactly? Does it really matter? How far are we going to go in all of this? (Or I guess I should ask, how far am I going to go in all of this?) The coming of the coronavirus has set into high relief vital things against those of little importance, against the minutiae with which we become absorbed and into which the living of our lives becomes lost. Feelings of nostalgia are natural and human. There is pleasure and an ache in them, thus the attraction, I guess. But I think that if we are going to live full lives--lives lived in the present rather than in the no-longer-possible and gone-forever past--we will have to separate art from our feelings of nostalgia and let it inform, inspire, and uplift us, no matter the time, place, or situation in which we live. More importantly, I think we have to bring into the world the things that art makes as its subjects. Beauty, yes, and other things, too, but most importantly, vitally, centrally--love. There must be love. We must create it, cultivate it, nurture it, propagate it, and never let it die. Living and loving don't have to be only in the past. They can be now. They must be--there must be love, life, art, and other acts of creation in the now. They must never end and never die.

*Some time ago I read a story of a historian who some people thought had changed the meaning of America by her discovery of a faded dash in the Declaration of Independence. Yes, seriously, that's what they thought.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr.-Aside No. 3

Bloch & Lovecraft

Robert Bloch (1917-1994) discovered Weird Tales in the summer of 1927 when he and his aunt were at the Chicago and North Western railroad terminal in his hometown. She told him to choose any magazine he wanted from the newsstand. "I immediately zeroed in on Weird Tales," Bloch recalled more than half a century later. His aunt wasn't very happy with the choice, but at the tender age of ten Bloch had made the discovery of a lifetime. (1)

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Bloch's soon-to-be idol and mentor, didn't have a story in Weird Tales that summer. Bloch would have had to wait until the October issue to read one instead. If that's what happened--if the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales really was Bloch's first encounter with Lovecraft--then it would have been a perfect introduction, for that's when "Pickman's Model" first appeared. I'm pretty sure "Pickman's Model"--the Night Gallery version--was my introduction to Lovecraft, too, though I didn't know it at the time.

Six years later, Bloch was living in Milwaukee and rising at 6:30 on the first of every month to dress and then rush away from his home on East Knapp Street to the cigar store on Ogden Avenue, gasping, clutching his quarter, hot to buy the first of only two or three copies of Weird Tales carried by the spinster ladies who ran the store. (One sold cigars. The other smoked them.) (2) Bloch turned sixteen that year. Only a couple of more years would pass before his own byline began appearing in Weird Tales.

Nineteen thirty-three year was a fateful year in Bloch's career. He had already had his first letter printed in "The Eyrie," the letters column of Weird Tales. That was in November 1932. (He asked that Weird Tales remain decidedly weird.) Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, Bloch wrote a fan letter to Lovecraft. In pretty short order, he received a reply, dated April 22, 1933. Thus began a short but voluminous correspondence. "He was the man who I most admired in fantasy, next to Edgar Allan Poe," Bloch remembered. "He is the man who suggested that I write, encouraged me to write. He is the man responsible for my writing career. And I would say he is probably the strongest formative influence--outside of my own parents--on my entire life." (3)

The letters between Bloch and Lovecraft would continue until the end of Lovecraft's brief remaining years on earth. Bloch was devastated when Lovecraft died in March 1937. "At the age of twenty, the news of his fate came to me as a shattering blow," Bloch remembered. (4) In an effort to recuperate from the blow, he answered an invitation from Henry Kuttner (1915-1958), another young author who had suffered the shock, to visit him in California. Bloch made the trip in May. During his stay on the West Coast, he also met Fritz Leiber, Jr. (1910-1992) and C.L. Moore (1911-1984), fresh from her Hoosier home. Kuttner and Moore would later marry.

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) lists more than four dozen published letters and cards from Lovecraft to his young correspondent. (There is no corresponding list, no pun intended, of letters from Bloch to Lovecraft.) Six of these letters were published in Lovecraft's Selected Letters, which were issued in five volumes by Arkham House. (And other publishers, too?--I'm not sure.) They are: No. 624-June 9, 1933; No. 645-Aug. 19, 1933; No. 662-Nov. 1933; No. 748-Jan. 25, 1935; No. 780-Apr. 30, 1935; No. 814-Dec. 4, 1935. Lovecraft's last letter in the ISFDb list was dated January 25, 1937, the same month in which "The Thing on the Doorstep," Lovecraft's last story published in his lifetime in Weird Tales, appeared. Two months after that he was in his grave. Bloch also wrote letters to Weird Tales. According to Thomas G.L. Cockcroft's index, there were twenty-six of them between November 1932 and July 1945. That number puts him in sixth place behind Henry Kuttner in the list of most prolific letter writers in "The Eyrie." 

I have one more piece of information from the Centipede Press book Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle (2009). In an article called "Robert Bloch on Weird Tales," the author remembered his association with the magazine and its contributors. Asked by his editor to mention his own favorites among the stories he wrote for Weird Tales, Bloch responded: "Certainly there will always be a special place in my affections for the early yarns written in the Lovecraftian style--the Egyptian cycle which gradually evolved from them," and so on. In this series, I have written about what seems to be a kind of mini-mythos invented by Robert Bloch, with Mysteries of the Worm (or De Vermis Mysteriis) by Ludvig Prinn playing a central role. Now it seems that the mythos has a name: the Egyptian Cycle. It's not in my imagination after all. In fact, Robert Price has already written about it in an article called "The Egyptian Tales of Robert Bloch" on The Lovecraft Ezine. That happened six years ago, on October 14, 2014. You can read it by clicking here. Mr. Price has also discussed the stories in the cycle, all from Weird Tales:
  • "The Faceless God" (May 1936)
  • "The Opener of the Way" (Oct., 1936)
  • "The Brood of Bubastis" (Mar. 1937)
  • "The Secret of Sebek" (Nov. 1937)
  • "The Fane of the Black Pharaoh" (Dec. 1937)
  • "The Eyes of the Mummy" (Apr. 1938)
  • "Beetles" (Dec. 1938)
Half of these were published during Lovecraft's final year on earth. "The Brood of Busbastis" appeared in the same issue in which Earl Peirce, Jr.'s story "The Last Archer" was published. Ironically, that was in March 1937, the same month in which Lovecraft died. Peirce's story seems to be connected to Bloch's Egyptian Cycle. Maybe we can add it to the list as Story Number 7-1/2. As I have already noted, Peirce's first story, "Doom of the House of Duryea," mentions Ludwig Prinn, but doesn't seem to have a connection to the Egyptian Cycle. So were there actually two connected mini-mythos creations, the Egyptian Cycle and the Mysteries of the Worm/Ludwig Prinn cycle? Or maybe a more important question is this: Does it really matter?

Notes
(1) "Time Traveling with H.P. Lovecraft: The First World Fantasy Convention," by Robert Bloch in Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle (Centipede Press, 2009), page 255.
(2) Ditto, page 256.
(3) "Robert Bloch Interviewed by Will Murray, 1975," in Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle (Centipede Press, 2009), page 269.
(4) "Time Traveling with H.P. Lovecraft: The First World Fantasy Convention," by Robert Bloch in Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle (Centipede Press, 2009), page 261.

From left to right, Henry Kuttner, Catherine L. Moore, Robert Bloch, and an unidentified woman, possibly C.L. Moore's friend Marjorie, a picture taken in Southern California in or about May 1937, possibly by Forrest J Ackerman. Bloch made the trip at Kuttner's invitation. Both were in mourning at the death of H.P. Lovecraft in March, but both seem to be having a little fun.

Kuttner had a kind of dour appearance, I think, but he was supposed to have been one of the funniest men in science fiction. He has reason for a little happiness in this picture, even if it isn't showing exactly: that's his future wife sitting next to him. The force of her gravity is even drawing him in a little.

As for C.L. Moore, she must have had the bluest of eyes, so blue that her irises often disappeared in photographs, like the eyes of Johnny Reb or Billy Yank from days of yore--like the eyes of her hero, too, Northwest Smith. Count Kuttner lucky: Catherine L. Moore was an extraordinarily charming and beautiful woman. Count me a little jealous, too.

Bloch doesn't seem to be too broken up, either. Being in the company of women can do that to a man. In fact he's clowning for the camera, pretending the kind of mayhem that one of his characters might have perpetrated. A shy or introverted man is likely to do that kind of thing, too, when women are around.

The other woman is unidentified, but Bloch later remembered a friend of C.L. Moore who accompanied her on the trip from Indiana. He even remembered her name, Marjorie. I suspect it is she, and if it is, I'm happy we have her picture and identity after these many decades.

The photograph is from Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction by James Gunn (1975), page 142.

I would like to acknowledge the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Thomas G.L. Cockcroft, and Robert Price, and to thank Randal A. Everts for the book Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle.

Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Comet Madness!

I wasn't going to interrupt my series on Earl Peirce, Jr. I was going to keep writing it straight through to the end, which is still a couple of weeks off at the current rate. But then I saw something yesterday that put me over the edge.

I saw a man driving a Jeep.

Alone.

With the top down.

And the doors off.

With the wind whipping all around him and through his vehicle.

And he was wearing a mask.

It's not just a Jeep Thing. Every day, I see people driving, with their windows up or down, or bicycling, or walking, in the breeze, in the fresh air, in the bright, hot, ultraviolet-y sunshine--and they wear masks. They're alone, and they wear masks. They're with their husbands or wives, with whom they presumably live, sleep, eat, and make love, and they wear masks. They could be astronauts in quarantine after a moon-landing--they could be the scientists in The Andromeda Strain, scrubbed and sterilized to the marrow--they could be the Bubble Boy inside his impervious plastic membrane--and they would still wear masks.

The operative part of coronavirus is virus, a thing--living, non-living, or somewhere in between--that is both discoverable and describable by science. Our superstitious acts--knocking on wood or throwing a pinch of salt over our shoulders--are of no use. They do nothing. To use a science-y kind of word, they are inefficacious. Likewise, the coronavirus does not exist or act in accordance with superstition. It does not go around in clouds, vapors, gases, or waves, like the poisonous tail of a world-ending comet, or a fog of mustard gas creeping over a Belgian battlefield, or a strange mist that engulfs you like the one in The Incredible Shrinking Man, leaving you coated all over the way a kindergartner is after crafting with sparkles and glue. It is a virus, and it is subject to the laws of nature, not the vagaries of superstition. We live in a world full of people who claim an absolute belief in science and an equally absolute disdain for superstition. In actuality, most people feed at a buffet in which both are offered and they take their pick. A little of this, a little of that . . .

A comet is crossing our skies this week. Called NEOWISE, it was discovered on March 27, 2020, the week before coronavirus deaths in the United States jumped from the hundreds into the thousands. Coincidence? I don't think so. Not when you realize that comets have been bringers of doom and disaster for as long as there have been people. It happened in 1832 with Biela's Comet. If you don't know that the world ended then, it's only because all records were wiped out in the disaster. The same comet came back in 1872 and the world ended again. In 1910, the French astronomer and science fiction author Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) predicted that if the Earth should pass through the tail of Halley's Comet, cyanogen gas could impregnate our atmosphere, thereby snuffing out all life here. I don't know which hat Flammarion was wearing when he made that prediction, whether it was his stargazer hat or his fantasist hat. Maybe he made this one himself from tinfoil. In any case, I don't remember that the world came to end in 1910, but then that was way before my time.

By the way, that's the second time Flammarion's name has come up in this blog in the last month. That's pretty good for a guy who has been dead for nearly a century and whom nobody remembers much anymore.

I'm not sure how Flammarion survived all of the cyanogen gas that swept the planet. Maybe he hid in a cave like we're all doing right now and like a "strange sect" in Georgia did on the night of May 18-19, 1910, as the comet made its deadly pass. (1) Those people were pikers, though. They may have had to deal with great clouds of cyanogen gas, but that's nothing compared to coronavirus. I heard that coronavirus can actually dissolve rubber. It happened to a fighter pilot over New Mexico when he flew through a cloud of it. His mask dissolved and he ended up crashing his airplane and dying. That's what I heard.

We don't know how many fatalities there were from Halley's Comet in 1910. We didn't keep good numbers back then. Not like today. Not like in Florida, where a man who was killed in a motorcycle crash the other day is rightly counted as a coronavirus victim because he had the coronavirus when he crashed. That's what Dr. Florida Man told us. I quote: "But you could actually argue that it could have been the COVID-19 that caused him to crash." Too bad Dr. Florida Man wasn't around in 1910 to count the victims. Then we would know. Instead all we have is the case of forty-eight-year-old Jacob Haberlach of Evansville, Indiana, who keeled over from a heart attack while trying to get a look at the comet. (2) The score so far: Coronavirus 10 billion, Halley's Comet 1.

If this is science, I guess we will go on having clouds and mists, vapors and waves, fogs and gasses, cloaking the planet in a deadly miasma but rendered completely harmless by pieces of cloth worn over our faces. Or really just parts of our faces because who ever breathes through their nose? You don't need a mask there.

I don't know how we're ever going to get through all of this.

Notes
(1) "Georgia Sect in Cave Awaiting End of World," York Daily (York, Pennsylvania), May 19, 1910, p. 1.
(2) "Comet Causes Heart Disease," York Daily (York, Pennsylvania), May 19, 1910, p. 1. Yes, they're from the same source.

Comet Madness!

"But wonders and wild fancies had been, of late days, strangely rife among mankind [. . . ]."
--Edgar Allan Poe

In its issue of December 1839, Burton's Gentleman's Magazine printed Edgar Allan Poe's tale "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion." The tale is brief. It takes the form of a dramatic dialogue between the two title characters, one newly arrived in the afterlife, the other a veteran. The newcomer Eiros explains how he got to this place: Earth came in contact with a comet that--tenuous as it was known to be--nonetheless took away all of our planet's nitrogen, leaving everything to "burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name. Thus ended all." Was this the first comet story in fantasy and science fiction? I don't know. Was it the first tale of comet madness? I don't know that either. Let's just call it an introduction and draw from it the epigraph above, which is as true now--or truer--as it was in Poe's day. The illustration by the way is by the Italian artist Alberto Martini (1876-1954).

Clouds, gases, and waves, engulfing us, sweeping over us, carrying us away--these have been the promises, predictions, prognostications, and panics that have come again and again throughout history, especially since science and mass culture were invented in the modern period. "One of the Terrors of Halley's Comet Which Is Not at All Likely to Be Realized," reads the caption of this illustration from the New York Tribune, May 8, 1910. Thanks for letting us know that this probably maybe won't really happen. The copywriter left off a subtitle: "But We're Going to Show It to You Anyway, Just to Put a Scare into You!" We have the same thing now with predictions of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dead from the coronavirus. Anyway, this picture has it all: the comet and its tail in the background, an ominous black cloud in the middle ground, and a huge, devastating wave washing over the village in the foreground. We don't have any comet panic this week that I know of, but there has been talk of waves and second waves for months now in regards to the coronavirus. Don't Get Caught the Wave! Wear Your Mask!

If you thought that passing through a tail of cyanogenic gas was bad, just think of what would happen if the comet were actually to crash into Earth! It would look like a cordial cherry when you squeeze it too hard, as in this illustration from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 15, 1910. There are clouds again and jets of gas, too.

This one's even better. There is actual pain, suffering, and destruction going on, though most of the people don't appear to be too worked up over things. One woman is even holding onto her hat as if to lose it would be the greatest of disasters. Taken from the Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1903, this illustration has a now-classic composition with people running around in the foreground while all kinds of terrible things are going on in the background. ("It's a cookbook! It's cookbook!") Basil Wolverton drew a picture almost exactly like it for a story called--appropriately enough--"The End of the World." To see it and others like it, click here.

So Halley's Comet passed and nobody died except Jacob Haberlach. Nelson Harding (1879-1942) of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle observed that happy event--the passing of the comet, not the passing of Haberlach--with this cartoon captioned "That Was Easy," dated May 19, 1910. Easy? Maybe. Old Planet Earth still has a little bit of sweat on his brow, though. But look how brave he is: no mask.

In World War I, on the battlefields of Europe, deadly clouds of gas became real, and men wore masks to protect themselves from it. "Learn to Adjust Your Respirator Correct and Quick" enjoined the caption on this poster by Lieut. W.G. Thayer (William Gordon Thayer, 1893-1921) of the U.S. Army. In 1918, when this picture was made, wearing a mask might mean the difference between a little more life and a horrifying death. Again, the threat was real and the need for the mask was real. Those two things don't always go together.

These are British soldiers "Fighting Foul Fumes and Fiends." They're wearing masks like the ones we're wearing now. The difference is that they faced horrors, many of them almost certain death. What do we face exactly?

The date--May 15, 1915--is significant: less than a month before, on April 22, 1915, the Germans used poison gas for the first time as they launched what became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. Note the blurb above the main title, "The Allies' Wonderful Advance on Turkey." It refers, I assume, to the landing at Gallipoli, April 25, 1915. That "advance" turned out to be not so wonderful after all.

By the way, American soldiers were gassed during the war, too, among them Robert Jere Black, Jr. (1892-1953), a teller of weird tales.

There were other veterans of the Great War who contributed to Weird Tales, most notably the editor, Farnsworth Wright (1888-1940), and the co-founder Jacob Clark Henneberger (1890-1969). The war was a seminal event in the creation of the magazine. It's hard to imagine that Weird Tales would otherwise have come about or that it would have had the subject matter from which to draw so many of its stories. There was (and is) a general atmosphere of doom or fate in weird fiction (that's actually the meaning of the word weird), also a feeling that we are helpless--or nearly so--in our encounters with the indifferent or even malevolent forces afoot in the universe. In the depths of mass warfare, men might only feel the same things.

In December 1939, just three months after World War II began, Weird Tales had its first war cover. The artist was a young Hannes Bok (1914-1964). The cover story is "Lords of the Ice" by David H. Keller (1880-1966). The plot is fanciful (it concerns a nameless dictator's plot to seize the natural resources of Antarctica), but the imagery would have been firm in the memory of its viewers: the man in the doorway could easily have stepped out of a trench in Flanders or France, circa 1915. He's even wearing a mask.

(We can safely add Keller's story to the Polar Fiction Database. We might also speculate that the idea of the secret Nazi base in Antarctica was in weird fiction and science fiction before it became a conspiracy theory in what some people think is the real world. But then that's usually the case, not just with conspiracy theories but with all kinds of wacky ideas.)

The 1930s were a time of anxiety as people sensed that real disaster was once again stalking Europe. On November 19, 1932, the Illustrated London News printed this shocking and sensationalistic image on its cover. The artist's signature is partially cropped out, as is any caption or subtitle. (I didn't do the cropping but I'll apologize for it anyway.) It doesn't take the reading of a caption to understand the subject matter: it can only be a gas attack, perhaps on London, certainly on a city of Western Europe. The timing would not appear random, for in November 1932, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were wrangling for power in the German government. Two months later, he and they would have it.

And when it came time to stand up to the Nazis, the world didn't flinch. People didn't put on masks and hide in a corner of their houses. They showed courage, and they fought.

As I have already said and as everybody should already know, the coronavirus does not travel around the world in a cloud. You will not encounter it in any such way. Not on foot. Not in your car. Not on your bicycle. And especially not on a boat on the lake. (Unless you're in Michigan. But then only on a motorboat. Being in a canoe protects you from clouds of coronavirus.) What we're living through is not the coming of a comet or a World War I gas attack, and it's certainly not like this scene from The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).*

This is actually the first image that came to me as I began seeing people driving around in their cars while wearing masks. This is what I picture must be going on in their imaginations: the approaching cloud of coronavirus . . .

The Incredible Shrinking Man was written by Richard Matheson (1926-2013), who also wrote for Weird Tales. His second and last story, entitled "Slaughter House," appeared in the magazine sixty-seven years ago this month, July 1953. Matheson went on to write I Am Legend (1954), the story of a terrible disease that ravages the world and probably the same story that started us off on the road to zombie hordes roaming over the Earth.

*Which was released, it so happens, in the month that the Asian Flu pandemic began, February 1957.

Original text and captions copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr.-Aside No. 2

From 1936 to 1941, Earl Peirce, Jr. (1917-1983) had ten stories published in weird fiction magazines. His first was "Doom of the House of Duryea" (Weird Tales, Oct. 1936), published when he was nineteen. His last was "The Shadow of Nirvana" (Strange Stories, Feb. 1941), published in the month that he turned twenty-four. Those ten stories were the whole of his science fiction/fantasy output according to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. (There may be one more in those genres, "The Cat," a vignette published in Fantasmagoria in the Winter issue, 1937.) Peirce had nine more stories in crime and detective titles from 1937 to 1949, this according to The FictionMags Index.*

During that same period, 1936 to 1941, Peirce's friend, contemporary, and fellow Milwaukeean Robert Bloch (1917-1994) had by himself and with other authors forty stories in the same type magazines. This is according to Thomas G.L. Cockcroft in his Index to the Weird Fiction Authors: Index by Author (1967). (If the count is off, the error is mine.) Although he had a few stories in fanzines and small magazines during the early 1930s, Bloch's first in a large or national magazine was "The Feast in the Abbey," which appeared in Weird Tales in January 1935. Bloch was just seventeen when "The Feast in the Abbey" was published, but his macabre imagination was already firmly in place. Just wait until you find out what was in his feast.

I believe that Earl Peirce, Jr., was in Milwaukee from late 1933 or early 1934 to about 1936 or 1937. Only four of his stories are from that period. A letter by Peirce printed in the July 1937 issue of Weird Tales and dispatched from Washington, D.C., indicates that he and his family had moved by then. Peirce's co-authorship of "The White Rat" (Weird Tales, Sept. 1938) with Bruce Bryan (1906-2004), who also lived in the nation's capital during the 1930s, is further indication of a move. A look at the 1940 U.S. census confirms it finally, for the whole Peirce family was in Washington, D.C., that year, and perhaps for the only time in his life, Earl Peirce, Jr., was able to tell the enumerator that he was a writer.

That leaves three or four years, from the time they were about fifteen to about age nineteen or twenty, for Robert Bloch and Earl Peirce, Jr., to have been within a stone's throw of each other in Milwaukee. A later interview with Bloch (excerpted in a future part of this series) confirms that they met and talked about writing. As we have seen, there are also connections, albeit slender, between their respective stories. But did they collaborate on bringing a new fictional universe into being? I'm not sure. Or maybe I should say probably not. Or maybe I shouldn't say that. The universe created by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and members of his circle would have been before them both as a model. Both were of course Lovecraft fans. Both were also young, enthusiastic, and ready to make their mark on the genres of fantasy and weird fiction. Bloch at least seems to have begun building a kind of a mini-mythos based on his own fictional grimoire Mysteries of the Worm (or De Vermis Mysteriis, as Lovecraft dubbed it), penned by the equally fictional Ludvig Prinn. That mini-mythos seems to have been made independently of Lovecraft's  larger (and so-called) Cthulhu Mythos. Only later--later in terms of months, I guess--did Lovecraft adapt it to his own.** Lovecraft, who was by all indications kind and generous to other writers, allowed the young Bloch to use his creations in Bloch's own stories. But we'll probably never know whether Peirce played any large or lasting part in Robert Bloch's imaginings. Bloch after all went on to a long and illustrious career as an author. All indications are that Earl Peirce, Jr., no longer wrote after the 1940s.

*The FictionMags Index lists "The Cat" as well and is the source of that bit of information.
**I guess we should consider the possibility, too, that Bloch created his own grimoire and author so as to gain entry into Lovecraft's circle. Imagine the satisfaction of a teenaged author whose creation is adopted and used by the Master.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley