Tuesday, August 4, 2020

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

Peirce After 1940

Following is a list of published stories and letters by Earl Peirce, Jr., taken from The FictionMags Index. I have broken the list down by decade. Peirce's contributions to Weird Tales--seven stories and four letters--are indicated by boldface type.

  • Letter in "The Eyrie," Weird Tales (Nov. 1935)
  • Letter in "The Eyrie," Weird Tales (June 1936)
  • "Doom of the House of Duryea" in Weird Tales (Oct. 1936)
  • Letter in "The Eyrie," Weird Tales (Nov. 1936)
  • "The Last Archer" in Weird Tales (Mar. 1937)
  • "The Death Mask" in Weird Tales (Apr. 1937)
  • "My Grave Awaits Me" in Dime Mystery Magazine (July 1937)
  • Letter in "The Eyrie," Weird Tales (July 1937)
  • "The Homicidal Diary" in Weird Tales (Oct. 1937)
  • "The Cat" in Fantasmagoria (Winter 1937)
  • "The White Rat," with Bruce Bryan, in Weird Tales (Sept. 1938)
  • "Satan Fills the Morgue" in Strange Detective Mysteries (Nov./Dec. 1938)
  • "Mum’s the Word for Murder" in Dime Detective Magazine (Feb. 1939)
  • "The Stroke of Twelve" in Weird Tales (June/July 1939)
  • "A Killer and His Brother" in Detective Tales (Aug. 1939)

  • "Portrait of a Bride" in Weird Tales (Jan. 1940)
  • "Legacy of the Dead" in Terror Tales (July 1940)
  • "Tailor-Made Shroud" in Detective Tales (Dec. 1940)
  • "The Shadow of Nirvana" in Strange Stories (Feb. 1941)
  • "Bluecoat’s Birthright" in Detective Tales (May 1941)
  • "Greetings from the Grave" in Detective Tales (Mar. 1943)
  • "Murdertime Gal" in Detective Tales (Dec. 1946) [Randolph Barron--presumably Peirce's detective character]
  • "Crazy to Kill" in Detective Tales (Jan. 1947) [Randolph Barron]
  • "Escape" in Detective Tales (Oct. 1949)

I see two patterns in this list. First, Peirce's contributions to Weird Tales came to an end in January 1940. Second, Peirce began shifting away from weird fiction and towards detective fiction in the late 1930s. By mid 1941, the shift was complete: his last five published stories were for Detective Tales, and in 1949, after just thirteen years, his career as a pulp writer and published author seems to have ended.

In regards to the first pattern, I think it's useful to know that Weird Tales also went through a transition at about the same time. In 1938, Short Stories, Inc., purchased the property and moved its offices to New York City. Although Farnsworth Wright remained as editor, he was eased out in early 1940. The March issue was the last credited to him as editor. (By the end of the year he was in his grave.) Dorothy McIlwraith took over in May 1940. I don't know that she cleaned house exactly, but that began a new era in Weird Tales. An analysis of contributors before and after May 1940 might prove worthwhile in cases like this. The point is that Peirce's contributions to Weird Tales ended with the end of Wright's tenure as editor.

The second pattern shows another parallel with the writing career of Robert Bloch. In an interview with Darrell Schweitzer, conducted in 1982, Bloch talked about the changes he made in his writing in the late 1930s and early 1940s:
I found that there was a greater market for humor in the science fiction field at that time than there was in the fantasy field, and I liked to write humor, so I just went on from there. I would say that it may very well have helped to broaden my writing, but I had already begun to change my style. I had departed from the Lovecraft thing in 1939 or 1940. It wasn't just in science fiction, because my fantasy was also changing style. I had been experimenting with writing style. I got into mystery and suspense because I admire the work of people like Raymond Chandler. (1)
So it looks like Peirce made the same kind of switch as Bloch, and at about the same time. But if there was any direct connection between the actions of these two men, it has probably been lost in time. By the way, Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) had his first detective story in Black Mask in 1933. In 1939-1940, his first two novels, both starring Philip Marlowe, were published. These were The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940), which were not as well liked by critics as they were by readers and writers, including John Steinbeck and S.J. Perelman. (2) Despite what the critics might have thought, mystery, detective, and crime stories were wildly popular at the time. According to Chandler's biographer, Tom Hiney, "one in every four books lent by American libraries in the 1940s was a mystery story." (3) Maybe Peirce, Bloch, and writers were leading while at the same time following a trend.

* * *

There were also big changes in the life of Earl Peirce during the early 1940s. On May 7, 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. On December 26, 1941, with the United States at war with Japan and Germany, he married nineteen-year-old Gloria Hallett Grimm (1922-1999). He was then just twenty-four. Peirce and his three brothers served in the U.S. Navy or Naval Reserve during the war. His older brother Beach was killed in action in the Pacific in June 1942, at about the time as or shortly after the Battle of Midway. That left Earl Peirce as the oldest of the Peirce boys. He served four and a half years all together, including as a pharmacist's mate on board the hospital ship USS Benevolence. Peirce separated from the navy on October 13, 1945.

By then or shortly thereafter, young Peirces had begun arriving. There were about eight all together from one or two marriages. I won't name them. I hope some are still living. It's nice to think, too, that Peirce had some unpublished stories among his papers and that they are still in existence. In any case, Robert Bloch remembered:
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 [i.e., until the mid 1960s]. 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. (4)
If that was in the mid 1960s, then Earl Peirce was only then approaching fifty--still young, but on the other hand, times change. In 1965, he was in Silver Spring, Maryland, where other members of his family lived. (His father died there in 1978.) Earl Stanley Peirce, Jr., died on June 6, 1983, in Newton, New Jersey. He was just sixty-six years old.

* * *

I sense one more possibility or pattern in the writing careers of Peirce, Bloch, and others like them of the 1930s and '40s. This is my own hypostulatin', as a friend of mine puts it. See what you think of it. It begins with Scooby-Doo.

The Scooby-Doo-style plot begins with happenings that are interpreted as being supernatural. There is creaking and clanking, moaning and other frights. Everybody panics, but once all of the running around is done, the mysterious happenings are revealed to have a merely mundane explanation. I haven't read the early gothic romances, but I think they follow the same kind of plot line, that what at first appears to be supernatural is in actuality not. Only later did the gothic romance expand to include stories of the supernatural, or as in the case of Frankenstein, the super-scientific.

The line leading from the gothic romance to weird fiction isn't exactly straight or unbroken. I think it's fair to say, though, that one comes more or less from the other. The twentieth century writer of weird fiction was confronted with a problem, though. I have written about it before. The problem is this: how do you write a story about supernatural happenings in an age in which science and reason are supreme? That problem was compounded as the century progressed and especially as World War II approached and then raged. What is writer of essentially romantic or gothic sensibilities to do when this is the way the world has turned?

Here's my hypostulatin': One solution was to transform the gothic romance into the hard-boiled detective story of the 1930s and '40s. Instead of setting his or her story in the dark, forbidding, and (physically) isolated rural place, such as a castle or an abbey, the writer moves it to the equally dark, forbidding, and (psychologically) isolated city. The hard-boiled detective remains as the story's romantic hero, exemplified by Chandler's latter-day knight-errant, Philip Marlowe. Unlike the supernatural gothic romance, the detective story plays it straight, but the supernatural element remains in a way, in the form of a stalking evil or depravity afoot in the city. Often in this new brand of romance, the gothic or medieval monster is transformed into the scientific monster of twentieth century, either the psychopath or sociopath, as in I Wake Up Screaming (1941) or He Walked by Night (1948), or the representative of the fanatic totalitarian mass movement, as in Pickup on South Street (1953). There might even be a super-scientific element as in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which might better be described as science fiction (in the end of apocalyptic intensity) than a detective story. In all of this, we should remember that film noir (a label coined in French theorizing), which is essentially the hard-boiled detective story converted to film, grew out of and was influenced by German Expressionism and the horror movies of the 1920s through the 1940s: The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Frankenstein (1931), The Wolfman (1941), or I Walked with a Zombie (1943) as proto- or peri-film noir. The whole thing seems to have come full circle in the television show Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975), in which the detective, in this case a reporter, investigates supernatural happenings in the city at night, things that the police would rather just have ended in Scooby-Doo fashion. That's how they explain them, too. (5)

The upshot is that it might only have been a natural development for writers like Peirce and Bloch to have turned to detective stories once America had: a) become pretty thoroughly urbanized and industrialized, at least in popular culture; b) Science or at least quasi-science had slain God and religion; and c) perhaps most importantly, World War II came along and wiped out the romantic fantasies of previous ages.

To be continued . . .

(1) "Robert Bloch Interviewed by Darrell Schweitzer" in Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle (Centipede Press, 2009), pages 236-237.
(2) Raymond Chandler: A Biography by Tom Hiney (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), page 114.
(3) Ditto, page 119.
(4) Interview with Graeme Flanagan, presumably in Robert Bloch: A Bio-Bibliography by Graeme Flanagan (Canberra City, Australia: Author, July 1979).
(5) Although H.P. Lovecraft claimed not to be able to write a detective story, what else is "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928) but a tale of detection (and a good one at that)?

"The Stroke of Twelve," in Weird Tales, June 1939, was Earl Peirce's sixth story for the magazine. It looks to be his shortest to date. It's a modest story, one of those "he got what he deserved" kind of tales. I see it as a step down from his previous entries. By the time he wrote it, Peirce had definitely been afflicted by adverbitis. Here's a sample: "His eyes stared incredulously, fearfully stupidly." That's three -ly words in one short sentence, which can sometimes be three too many in a story, let alone in a sentence. Worse still is another of Peirce's supposed adverbs, "stone-facedly." (Supposed because it's not even a word.) And that bit of his eyes staring. Eyes don't stare. People stare. It's like saying, "His hand picked up a cup of coffee" or "His legs walked across the room." His hand didn't do it. His legs didn't do it. He did it. These are the kinds of things that keep pulp fiction, or genre fiction in general, from being taken seriously. It's why pulp writers and readers continue to be seen as essentially sub-literate.

A gallery of covers with Earl Peirce's byline, from top to bottom: Strange Stories (Feb. 1941), Detective Tales (Mar. 1943), Detective Tales (Dec. 1946), and Detective Tales (Jan. 1947). At least one of those looks like an Earl Peirce cover story; he seems to have been getting some traction in these detective magazines as the 1940s went on. Then it all came to an end in 1949. Was Peirce too busy with babies, children, and work by then? I just don't know.

Thanks to The FictionMags Index and to Randal A. Everts.
Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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