Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990)-Part Five

Brennan & Lovecraft

Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990) was old enough to have corresponded with and even to have met H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Like Lovecraft's eventual literary executor, Robert H. Barlow (1918-1951), he could have, as a teenager, entered into Lovecraft's circle. But he didn't. Brennan was also old enough and probably good enough and talented enough to have been published in Weird Tales in the 1940s, possibly even in the 1930s. But he wasn't. Instead, he went his own way and seems to have worked almost in isolation for years. One thing to keep in mind here is that Brennan went to work before his twentieth birthday in order to support his family. He also lost three years of his writing life while serving in the U.S. Army in Europe during and after World War II. We can wonder about what might have been, but that doesn't do much good. Instead, we have what we have from Joseph Payne Brennan, which is no small thing at all.

Brennan was quiet and reserved. In photographs, the look on his face is the same, no matter when the photograph might have been taken: serious, unsmiling, possibly sad, maybe a little bit grim. Many of his poems are of sadness and loss. Like Lovecraft, he was filled with nostalgia, for an ideal time in the past, especially for a time before his family went into decline. He said:

I'm attracted to the Victorian period, I think, because it had at least the illusion of stability and permanence. [. . .] My grandmother here--my father's parents flourished in that time. They had a large, happy, successful family. They were relatively wealthy and successful and since I personally have known mostly poverty, I suppose I look back and wish I could have been in that prior generation. You know, they had a big house and a maid, all the amenities. I am not sure how my grandfather achieved all this but he did. And also it seems to me that since that generation, more deprivation and trouble and unhappiness has come to succeeding generations. (1)

I have written before on the idea that weird fiction is about the past and looks to the past, with loss and longing and nostalgia. Brennan's sentiments are as good as any in bearing out that idea.

Brennan was a bibliographer of H.P. Lovecraft, an essayist and poet on him, too. Here is a list of his Lovecraft-related works:

  • A Select Bibliography of H. P. Lovecraft (1952)
  • H. P. Lovecraft: A Bibliography (1952)
  • H. P. Lovecraft: An Evaluation (1955)
  • "H. P. L.: An Informal Commentary" in Howard Phillips Lovecraft Memorial Symposium (1958)
  • "Lovecraft's 'Brick Row'" in Macabre (Summer 1959)
  • "Lines to H. P. Lovecraft" (poem) in Macabre (Summer, 1959), reprinted in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (Arkham House, 1959) 
  • "Time and H.P.L." in Macabre (Summer 1960)
  • "Three Footnotes on H.P. Lovecraft" in Macabre (Summer 1961)
  • "A Haunter of the Night" in HPL (1972)
  • "Lovecraft on the Subway" in Macabre (1973)
  • "Lovecraft and the O'Brien Annuals" in Macabre (1976) 

This compilation is from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) and includes only those works that refer to Lovecraft by name in their titles. There may be others.

Like Lovecraft, Brennan was a writer of stories, poems, and non-fiction. He was involved in amateur press and small press and was a prolific correspondent, including with August Derleth (1909-1971). Brennan had at least one story, "The Feaster from Afar," in the Cthulhu Mythos. It appeared in the collection The Disciples of Cthulhu, published by DAW Books in 1976. Like Lovecraft, he was a New Englander and had a strong sense of place. Brennan said of himself, "I'm more apt to be intrigued by a landscape than by a personality." (2) The same deemphasis on personality or characterization is also in Lovecraft.

Brennan wrote about nature in a more sympathetic way than did Lovecraft, I think. Although both men were urbanites, Brennan spent his childhood summers on his grandparents' farm in East Hartland, Connecticut. Although he wrote of the old New England devil-in-the-woods, Brennan doesn't seem to have been alienated from nature, nor to have been squeamish about the forces and ways of nature. On the other hand, threats supposedly represented by nature have become clichés in our popular culture. It seems likely to me that they were no less clichés in Lovecraft's time. And so Lovecraft and others personified--or demonized--nature, such as with the whip-poor-will, a bird, a mere bird of the gloaming and of the tangled woods. It's worth noting that Brennan had at least two works referring to Nietzsche, a poem by that title in his 1949 collection Heart of Earth, and "Zarathustra at the Gate," from the same collection. A look at Lovecraft and Nietzsche might be worth the time spent. Or has someone already done the looking?

One last thing in regards to Brennan and Lovecraft: like Lovecraft, Brennan has his papers at the John Hay Library at Brown University.

To be continued . . .


(1) From "Etchings & Odysseys Interview: Joseph Payne Brennan" in Etchings & Odysseys #7 (1985), pages 58-59.

(2) From the same source, page 59.

Original text copyright 2022 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990)-Part Four

Brennan Works, 1950-1990

Joseph Payne Brennan wrote mostly for pulp magazines and small magazines. Something of an anachronism, he arrived almost too late to play the pulp game. Most of his early stories were for Western titles. Brennan made his way into the pages of Weird Tales only after 1950. That magazine came to a much-lamented end not long after, in September 1954, having by then shrunken away to digest-size. The same thing had happened to other pulp titles, those that had survived anyway. Shrunken or not, most gave up the ghost by the late 1950s or early 1960s. (The last true pulp magazine is supposed to have been Ranch Romances, which rode off into the sunset in 1971.) It looks as though Brennan had just one story in a mainstream slick magazine, "I'm Murdering Mr. Massington," published in Esquire sixty-eight years ago this month, in February 1954.

Brennan started his own small magazine, entitled Macabre, in 1957, not as a replacement for Weird Tales but "to work for the revival of that unique magazine [and to] serve as a rallying place for all those devoted to horror and the supernatural." (1) The first issue was dated June 1957. Every issue after that was named for a season, Summer or Winter, twice a year until 1966, once a year--but not every year--after that until 1976. There were twenty-two issues in all. Most included at least one of Brennan's works. The author also contributed to The Arkham Collector, Weirdbook, Whispers, Nyctalops, Myrddin, Cross Plains, Fantasy Crossroads, Borderland, and others--hundreds of stories and poems in all. And yet he considered himself a failure, at least during a period--long or short, but probably long--when he engulfed himself in a cloud of typical Irish gloom, in 1985 when he was interviewed by Etchings & Odysseys. In his high school yearbook he had given his ambition: "Intend to write." Write he did, very successfully, and yet he believed that he had failed. So sad, so unnecessary--and maybe self-indulgent, too.

Like William Hope Hodgson and August Derleth before him, Brennan penned tales of an occult detective (although I think Brennan's detective investigated more conventional cases, too). The detective's name is Lucius Leffing. As far as I can tell, Leffing's first published adventure was "The Haunted Housewife" in Macabre #12, Winter 1962/1963. Brennan chronicled Leffing's investigations in more than three dozen stories published not only in Macabre but also in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, from 1965 until 1984. These and other stories were collected in four volumes, The Casebook of Lucius Leffing (1973), The Chronicles of Lucius Leffing (1977), Act of Providence (1979) with Donald M. Grant, and The Adventures of Lucius Leffing (1990). One unusual feature of the Leffing stories is that they are set in Brennan's hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, with the author himself as narrator and sidekick, a kind of Watson to Leffing's Holmes. Brennan had other non-Leffing stories in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine as well. His short story "Junk," from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine for June 1990, may have been one of the last stories Brennan sold in his lifetime. 

To be continued . . . 


(1) From "Recollections of Weird Tales: Joseph Payne Brennan," in The Weird Tales Story, edited by Robert Weinberg (West Linn, OR: Fax Collector's Editions, 1977), page 61.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, July 1975, with Joseph Payne Brennan's byline on the cover for his novelet "The Apple Orchard Murder Case." Cover artist unknown.

Updated on February 22, 2022.
Text copyright 2022 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990)-Part Three

Brennan's Weird Fiction in Print & on Film

Joseph Payne Brennan wrote about 500 short stories and more than 2,000 poems. His earliest short story listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) is "The Green Parrot," from 1952. That was also his first story in Weird Tales. Brennan's late arrival in the magazine is just one bit of evidence that he was something of an anachronism. He knew that about himself and admitted as much about himself. Born in 1918, Brennan was old enough to have corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft and others in Lovecraft's circle. Living in Connecticut, he could easily have made a trip by train to visit with that gentleman of Providence. Instead Brennan seems to have been alone in his youth and in his early writing and work, at least in terms of his weird fiction. (1) A contemporary or near contemporary of Henry Kuttner (1915-1958), Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985)Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), and others, Brennan was accepted into the pages of Weird Tales only after they had gone. In his introduction to "Levitation" in Dying of Fright: Masterpieces of the Macabre (1976), Les Daniels wrote: "Joseph Payne Brennan is the last major author of supernatural stories to have been associated with Weird Tales." (p. 267). John Pelan called him "the last of the great Weird Tales authors." (2) Yes, an anachronism, and maybe great, too, and one of the last. Brennan considered himself a failure. (3)

There is a very Irish sense of doom or fate in Brennan's stories. His lack of self-esteem--that feeling that one is special, even if one is especially bad--is very Irish, too. (We have been dealing with the same kinds of feelings in our very Irish family for years.) Brennan was a nature poet. His stories are often about the encroachment of the natural--or supernatural--world or forces upon civilization, conversely about people becoming bewildered, engulfed by, or overpowered by natural or supernatural forces after going beyond the edge of town or away from the road, into swamps or hemlock woods, or even into the overgrown backyard of a suburban home. Doom or fate await them--men die not for anything they might do but because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We should remember that Brennan was admirer of Maurice Level (1875-1926) and the conte cruel.

Brennan had at least three of his stories adapted to film, four if you count "Slime" as the original source for the 1958 theatrical release The Blob. Two of his stories were adapted to the television series Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff and broadcast on April 16, 1962. "The Lethal Ladies" was the overall title for two stories with the same theme, "Murder on the Rocks" (originally "The Pool" in The Dark Returners, 1959) and "Goodbye, Dr. Bliss" (originally "Goodbye, Mr. Bliss" in The Dark Returners). Brennan's story "Levitation" (originally in Nine Horrors and a Dream, Arkham House, 1958) was adapted to an episode of the same name in Tales from the Dark Side in 1985.

Most of Brennan's stories were printed or reprinted in small-press collections or in small magazines, in his own Macabre (from 1957 to 1976) or in similar titles such as The Arkham Collector (from 1967 to 1971), Weirdbook (from 1968 to 1990), and Whispers (from 1973 to 1997). One prominent exception to all of that is "The Feaster from Afar," published in the paperbound anthology The Disciples of Cthulhu (DAW Books, 1976). But then tales of the Cthulhu Mythos often find their way into print without much problem. The last of his works that I have found to have been published in Brennan's own lifetime is the poem "Necrophiliac," from Grue #10, Fall 1989. What a terrible and ironic title for a final poem.

To be continued . . .

(1) Brennan was fortunate enough early on to know and work with Jack Schaefer (1907-1991), but Schaefer was a writer of Westerns, not of supernatural horror and fantasy stories.
(2) From Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle, Centipede Press, p. 329.
(3) "I'm attracted to the Victorian period [. . . ]. I also have a feeling that probably as an individual I would have been less of a failure then than I am now." From "Etchings & Odysseys Interview: Joseph Payne Brennan," Etchings & Odysseys #7 (1985), page 58. 

Original text copyright 2022 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, February 7, 2022

Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990)-Part Two

Brennan: Double Life and In Weird Tales

Joseph Payne Brennan lived a double life as a writer. His short stories were mostly in the pulp genres, Westerns in the period 1948 to 1956, supernatural horror and fantasy from 1952 onward. He began his writing career, however, as a poet, primarily a nature poet, and it was as a poet that he wished to be remembered. His first published work was a poem, "When Snow Was Hung," which appeared in 1940 in the Christian Science Monitor. About two thousand more poems flowed from his pen over the next five decades. These were published in the New York Times, the University of Kansas City Review, and Voices, among other titles, including many newspapers. In living his double life, Brennan edited and published his own periodicals, Macabre (23 issues, 1957-1976), in which he compiled tales of supernatural horror and fantasy, and Essence (47 issues, 1950-1977), a journal of straight poetry.

Brennan was a latecomer to Weird Tales. Though he had read the magazine since his teenaged years and had made submissions from time to time, Brennan did not have a story published in "The Unique Magazine" until "The Green Parrot" in July 1952. Three more stories followed: "Slime," the cover story for the March 1953 issue; "On the Elevator," published in July 1953; and the "The Calamander Chest," one of Brennan's own favorites, published in January 1954. Then, disaster struck: in September 1954, after thirty-one years in print, Weird Tales came to an end. "I felt as if my world had come apart," Brennan later wrote. "I was depressed for months." It was probably no coincidence that just three years later Brennan launched his own magazine of weird fiction, Macabre.

August W. Derleth (1909-1971) also lived a double life as a writer. Like Brennan, he published in the fields of weird fiction and straight poetry, especially nature poetry. Under his Arkham House imprint, Derleth issued hardbound volumes of weird fiction from 1939 to 1971. One of these was Joseph Payne Brennan's Nine Horrors and a Dreampublished in 1958 in an edition of 1,336 copies with a dust jacket design by Frank Utpatel (1905-1980). Ballantine Books reprinted Nine Horrors and a Dream in 1962. The cover artist was Richard M. Powers (1921-1996). The contents of Brennan's book
  • "Slime" (originally in Weird Tales, Mar. 1953)
  • "Levitation" (original to Nine Horrors and a Dream)
  • "The Calamander Chest" (originally in Weird Tales, Jan. 1954)
  • "Death in Peru" (originally in Mystic Magazine, Jan. 1954)
  • "On the Elevator" (originally in Weird Tales, July 1953)
  • "The Green Parrot" (originally in Weird Tales, July 1952)
  • "Canavan's Back Yard" (original to Nine Horrors and a Dream)
  • "I'm Murdering Mr. Massington" (originally in Esquire, Feb. 1954)
  • "The Hunt" (original to Nine Horrors and a Dream)
  • "The Mail for Juniper Hill" (original to Nine Horrors and a Dream)
Brennan's dedication reads: "To the Memory of Weird Tales 1923-1954," as if the magazine were a departed loved one. But as editor Marvin Kaye (1938-2021) later called it, Weird Tales is the magazine that never dies. It has come back again and again. And Joseph Payne Brennan may have been the only author to have had something published in the first incarnation of 1923-1954 and in the revivals of the 1970s and '80s and in the second-longest run of the magazine under editors John Gregory Betancourt, Darrell Schweitzer, and George H. Scithers. Here are his credits for Weird Tales:
  • "The Green Parrot" (short story, July 1952)
  • "Slime" (novella, Mar. 1953)
  • "On the Elevator" (short story, July 1953)
  • "The Calamander Chest" (short story, Jan. 1954)
  • "Orchids from Author" (Letter to "The Eyrie") (Summer 1974)
  • "Fear" (novella, No. 2, Spring 1981)
  • "John Mason Sidd" (poem, Spring 1988)
  • "Because" (poem, Summer 1988)
  • "Haunted House" (poem, Summer 1988)
  • Letter to "The Eyrie" (Summer 1988)
Thirty-six years--did any author in his own lifetime have a longer career in the pages of Weird Tales?

To be continued . . .

Text copyright 2022 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, February 4, 2022

Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990)-Part One

Author, Poet, Essayist, Bibliographer, Editor, Publisher, Newspaper Staff Worker, Librarian
Born December 20, 1918, Bridgeport, Connecticut
Died January 28, 1990, New Haven, Connecticut

Brennan: Young Life, Young Writer

Joseph Payne Brennan, Jr., was born on December 20, 1918, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Joseph Payne Brennan, Sr.(1868-1938) and Nellie Wilkerson Holborn Brennan (1895-1992). He had one older sister, Loetta Mary Brennan (1916-2011), who long outlived him. As you can see by their dates, the Brennan men lived their allotted threescore and ten, while the women made it into their nineties. Nellie Brennan lived long enough in fact to bury her only son. There is a certain sadness and an ineffable sense of something lost and irretrievable in the life of that son, the author Joseph Payne Brennan. He saw it and knew it himself, and it showed in the poems, stories, and interviews he left for us after he died.

Brennan's career as a writer began when he was a freshman in high school and first fell under what he called "the all-powerful spell of [Edgar AllanPoe." That spell set him off on a quest for everything he could find in the field of supernatural horror and fantasy. His quest led him in about 1934 or 1935 to Weird Tales, then edited by Farnsworth Wright and dominated by the magazine's Big Three authors, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Brennan read every issue of Weird Tales--every issue he could find anyway--from front cover to back, over and over again. "I think my life's goal at that time," he recalled, "was to become a Weird Tales contributor." Money was tight in the Great Depression, though, and gathering enough to pay for a typewriter was out of the question. Instead, Brennan the teenaged author hand wrote his stories (one of which he had entitled "The White Wolf"), and that's how he submitted them to Weird Tales. Not surprisingly, Farnsworth Wright showed no interest. Even Lovecraft had a hard time marketing his handwritten stories and was usually persuaded to type them or let someone else do it for him.

Joseph Payne Brennan attended St. Boniface School and New Haven High School (then or now called James Hillhouse High School) in his hometown. In his senior yearbook, he stated his simple plan for the future for all to see: "Intend to write." In 1936, without anything to show up until then for his freelance efforts, Brennan entered Junior College of Commerce, now Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Connecticut. His college career was cut short, though, with the death of his father in 1938. Brennan went to work to support himself, his mother, and his sister Loetta. He landed a job as an $11-a-week office boy, often working late and always six days a week. That left little time for writing, but he finally made a sale in the form of a poem, "When Snow Was Hung," published in 1940 in the Christian Science MonitorBy then he was working on a New Haven newspaper as a steno clerk.

In late 1942, when he registered for the draft, Brennan was employed by Jack W. Schaefer (1907-1991), the editor and publisher of Theatre News, also at one time the associate editor of the New Haven Journal-CourierSchaefer and Brennan were both from the eastern half of the country, yet both broke into the business of writing for story magazines with tales of the Old West. Schaefer blazed the trail with "Rider from Nowhere," a serial published in Argosy beginning in July 1946. (1) His stories appeared not only in Argosy but also in slick magazines such as Collier'sThe Saturday Evening Post, and finally Boys' Life. Schaefer's biggest success was Shane, published in 1949 and adapted to film in 1953 with Alan Ladd in the title role. That success, coupled with Schaefer's continued devotion to writing Westerns, led him to move to New Mexico in 1955. Brennan's writing career on the other hand was interrupted by three years' service in the U.S. Army, from January 20, 1943, to January 2, 1946. Brennan's first published Western arrived more than two years after Schaefer's with "Fast-Gun Freedom," published in Western Short Stories in December 1948. (2) In all, Brennan had about two dozen stories in Western magazines from 1948 to 1956.

Here is a poem by Joseph Payne Brennan, Jr., from 1948:

To be continued . . .

(1) "Rider from Nowhere" is the first story by Schaefer listed in the online The FictionMags Index.
(2) Brennan actually sold his first Western in 1948, but that story, "Endurance," wasn't published until February 1950 in the magazine Masked Rider Western.

Joseph Payne Brennan, Jr., nicknamed "Jo," from the New Haven High School yearbook, The Elm Tree, 1936. It's fitting that Brennan, a nature poet, would first be pictured in a book named for a tree and that his war poem would be about poppies and clover, creepers, grasses, roots, and leaves.

Original text copyright 2022, 2023 Terence E. Hanley