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

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