Wednesday, July 15, 2020

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

Family

Earl Stanley Peirce, Jr., was born on February 28, 1917, in Laramie, Wyoming, to Earl Stanley Peirce, Sr. (1886-1978) and Dorothy Davis (Beach) Peirce (1891-1964). He was the second of four Peirce boys:
  1. Ensign Beach Peirce (1915-1942), a naval aviator who died in action in the Pacific Ocean in June 1942;
  2. Earl Stanley Peirce, Jr. (1917-1983), author and subject of this series;
  3. Dudley Beach Peirce (1919-1991), an attorney in the U.S. Department of Commerce; and
  4. Peter Waldo Peirce (1921-1986), manager of Seaboard Finance Company of Silver Spring, Maryland.
All but Peter were born in Laramie, and all served in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Naval Reserve during Wold War II. All lived in the area of Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Maryland, from the late 1930s or around 1940 onward.

Earl S. Peirce, Sr., was a forester and worked most of his career for the U.S. Forest Service. His first assignment after graduating from Yale Forest School in 1910 was as forest assistant at Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. On October 15, 1913, he married Dorothy Davis Beach in Meriden, Connecticut. In 1915-1916, the elder Peirce was a forest examiner at Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. I have a note that he was at Medicine Bow National Forest in Laramie, Wyoming, from 1913 to 1916. According to his own recounting of his career, Peirce worked as forest supervisor at Medicine Bow National Forest from 1917 to 1921. If his sons' places of birth are correct in the public record, then Peirce was in Laramie, continuously or not, from as early as 1915 to as late as 1919, probably until 1921, as he himself remembered. From 1922 to 1932, Earl S. Peirce, Sr., was director of extension with New York State College of Forestry in Syracuse. 

So Earl Peirce, Jr., spent the first four years of his life in Laramie, and his childhood years, from 1921 to 1933, in Syracuse, New York. In 1933, the Peirce family relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Mr. Peirce worked once again for the U.S. Forest Service. I don't know when they moved from Milwaukee, but by 1940, the Peirces were in Washington, D.C., where Earl S. Peirce, Sr., closed out his career with the forest service in 1951.

The Peirces came from a prominent family and had connections to prominent people. I would like to be able to say without a doubt that Earl Peirce, Sr., knew and was a friend or colleague to one of the most prominent foresters and conservationists of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, I can't make the connection. It seems pretty likely to me, though, that Peirce knew Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), who was an author, the father of wildlife management in America, and a co-founder of the Wilderness Society, for their careers ran on parallel tracks. Like Peirce, Leopold graduated from Yale Forest School (in 1909) and worked on western national forests early in his career (from 1909 to 1924). In 1924, Leopold was appointed to the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. (Remember that Peirce was also in Wisconsin, from 1933 to about 1937 or 1938, I think.) Leopold spent the rest of his life in Wisconsin, where he bought a farm made famous in his seminal work on conservation, A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949. Like Peirce, Leopold married after securing his first forestry job (in 1912), and he and his wife had several children (five in all, all of whom rose to their own prominence). Leopold died while fighting a wildfire on a neighbor's sand county farm, seventy-two years ago this spring.

Earl Peirce, Jr., also made connections while living in Wisconsin. More on that below, in the forthcoming Aside No. 2, and in the next full part of this series.

To be continued . . .

Earl Peirce's second published story, "The Last Archer," appeared in the March 1937 issue of Weird Tales. It wasn't the cover story, but his byline was there, above that of his fellow Milwaukeean, Robert Bloch. H.P. Lovecraft had a story in that March issue, too. It was "The Picture in the House," originally in Weird Tales in January 1924. March 1937 was the month of Lovecraft's death. I wonder if there was any regret that his name failed to make the cover of the last issue of Weird Tales published in his lifetime. At least two of his circle had their names there. Maybe that's all we can ask for at this late date. The cover art is by Margaret Brundage and is of the Reaching Hand type.

Earl S. Peirce, Jr., had just turned twenty when "The Last Archer" was published. You wouldn't know it to read it, for his story is well written and mature beyond his years. It's suitably weird, too. As you read "The Last Archer," you begin to understand what is going on; you just don't know what it all means. Suspense builds as to how the story might be resolved and the solution to the mystery revealed. A less mature author would have handled the whole thing differently and to less satisfaction on the part of the reader, almost certainly by overwriting the story or attempting to explain everything in detail. Instead we're left with unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries, and that's just how it ought to be.

"The Last Archer" starts with a great hook: in his first-person narrative, the narrator tells of how he has been hired by a strange man named Farquhar to install a generator in Farquhar's remote island home.* They are on board a ship bound for the island. Why Farquhar needs a generator and where his island is located are mysteries for now. Also a mystery is why Farquhar never shows himself during daylight hours--and why he never eats.

Once on the island, named Durance Island, the narrator encounters and explores more mysteries, including the penultimate: Why every night does Farquhar in his castle engage in an archery battle with a cloaked figure in another castle across the way?

I won't give it away, but Farquhar eventually tells what the battle is all about. In the recounting of his story--the story of a curse--Farquhar uses a phrase that stood out for me: he wonders whether a certain ring is the one "with which that ancient king of Palestine conjured his familiar djinn and afrits." (p. 338 in the original). I don't remember coming across the word afrits before. Quite innocently, I went about my research. Then I stumbled upon a reference to a quote from a Robert Bloch story. Here is the full quote, from "The Secret of Sebek," originally in Weird Tales in November 1937 (eight months after "The Last Archer"):
     He pointed to the cryptic chapter [of De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludvig Prinn] that is known as Saracenic Rituals.
     I nodded. I knew the Saracenic Rituals only too well. The account dealt with Prinn's mysterious sojourn in Egypt and the Orient in what he claimed were Crusader days. There is revealed the lore of the efreet and the djinn, the secrets of the Assassin sects, the myths of Arabian ghoul-tales, and the hidden practices of dervish cults. I found within it a great wealth of material on the legends of ancient Inner Egypt; indeed much story material was culled from those tattered pages. (p. 583 in the original)
The Crusades, Arabian ghoul-tales, the afrit or efreet that arrives in a whirlwind--these are exactly the subjects of "The Last Archer," and I guess that makes a discovery: Peirce's story, "The Last Archer," which is not outwardly a story of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, appears to be tied to it through the work of his friend and contemporary Robert Bloch (1917-1994). Imagine: in the mid to late 1930s, while Bloch and Peirce were both living in Milwaukee, they seemed to have been working on their own mini-mythos, of which Ludvig Prinn and his De Vermis Mysteriis formed a central part or maybe the central part.

Here's a further quote from A Dictionary of the Bible, Volume IV, Part II (Shimrath-Zuzim), edited by James Hastings (p. 915):
In Tales of the Arabian Nights, and generally in the folk-lore of the East, the traveling dust-pillar is regarded as a favourite [sic] abode of the afrit or genius loci.
That leads to Clark Ashton Smith and his authorship of the story "Genius Loci," originally in Weird Tales in June 1933. "Genius Loci" is a story of a different kind all together, and Smith's genius loci is a different kind of spirit it seems.** I wonder if in their reading, Bloch and Peirce ran across in some source the connection made between the Arabian folkloric afrit or efreet and the Roman or European folkloric genius loci. They almost certainly would have read Clark Ashton Smith's story. I wonder, too, whether our term dust-devil has anything to do with the ancient and folkloric afrit or efreet. (I am also reminded of Ezekiel and his vision. See especially Ezekiel 1:4.) In any case, I think we had better be on the lookout for parallels and close ties in and between the stories of Robert Bloch and Earl S. Peirce, Jr., for I think there is something developing here, something from eighty-five years ago that has been forgotten.

The illustration, by the way, is by Virgil Finlay. It's not his best to be sure, and it doesn't quite illustrate what actually happens in the story. The editor also put it out of place in the magazine.

*The situation reminds me a little of the plot of Across the Pacific (1942), with Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor.
**Update (July 16, 2020): There are some etymologists who believe that genius and djiin--first latinized, then anglicized as genie--are related words or come from the same root. I wonder if afrit and Africa (perhaps from the Phoenician dust) come from the same root as well.

"The Last Archer" was reprinted in Startling Mystery Stories, edited by Robert A.W. Lowndes, in its Summer issue, 1968. The cover art was by Virgil Finlay, but it doesn't illustrate Peirce's story.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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