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, 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:

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 . . .

(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

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