Saturday, May 20, 2023

? ? ?-The First Anonymous Story

There are two kinds of anonymous works. First are works written by some unknown person or persons, often in the distant past, but sometimes today, too, things written for example on subway walls and tenement halls. "The Twa Corbies," a traditional ballad reprinted in Weird Tales in February 1926, is an example of an anonymous work from the distant past.

The second kind of anonymous work is one whose author wishes to remain unknown. Somebody somewhere knows who wrote it, but the reader doesn't. "The Young Man Who Wanted to Die," from Weird Tales, March 1923, is a short story of the second kind. The author used triple question marks--? ? ?--as his or her byline, but only so the reader would not know his or her identity. Edwin Baird, editor of Weird Tales, probably knew who the author was. They probably sat together in his office and hashed out the idea, for "The Young Man Who Wanted to Die" is more than just a simple anonymous work, as we'll see. There is actually a kind of meta-anonymity in the story and its authorship.

It seems likely to me that "The Young Man Who Wanted to Die" was written by someone who had another story in that first issue of Weird Tales. The idea was to avoid having more than one story by a given author in any one issue of a magazine. That was a common practice in the pulp magazine business. It's one of the reasons that there were so many pseudonyms used. Readers liked their favorite authors, but they also liked variety. Maybe more bylines made for better sales.

"The Young Man Who Wanted to Die" is set in Chicago. Its author was probably also a Chicagoan. In reading the story, I came upon a word I had never encountered before, "scarehead." According to Merriam-Webster, it means "a big, sensational, or alarming newspaper headline." There's no guarantee here, but maybe the author worked in or was familiar with the newspaper business, or more generally the writing business.

"The Young Man Who Wanted to Die" is in five episodes. In the first, an unnamed young man, living in "a miserable, two-dollar-a-week bedroom in a Chicago lodging-house," prepares to kill himself. He will use gas to do it, but before completing the deed, he sits down to write a suicide note. Why is he doing this thing? As the French say, cherchez la femme. Beyond that, he has always wanted to know what is on the other side. He more or less identifies as a dead person. In pursuit of that knowledge, he has read every book about Theosophy and related subjects, attended meetings of psychic societies, and studied psychology. (His mother would have told him, "Go to church.") Still, he is unsatisfied.

The woman is named Lily May. She is named. He is not. Lilies symbolize lots of things--femininity, fertility, love, purity, devotion. They also symbolize rejuvenation and a restoration of innocence. Lilies are commonly used as funeral flowers. Lily May proves to be the young man's flower after his near-death experience. As for May: we are currently in the month of May. Look out your window. That's all the explanation you'll need as to why she's called May.

The second episode is brief. It describes the young man's near-death experience in which there is "a dazzling golden light" and a vision of a girl on a throne, "clothed in a virginal robe." The young man is then swept away in episodes three and four into a strange, out-of-body odyssey through eons and worlds. There are phantasmagoric visions and encounters with monsters. Finally he comes to a place in which monstrous, ravenous, venomous serpents do battle with each other. One triumphs over the others--and then turns its attentions to him . . .

He awakes. He is in a hospital. His nurse soothes him. He babbles to her. You can guess who she is. The last episode concludes with a brief newspaper item about him, about how he was found and saved from death, and about how he arrived in the care of his nurse, "who seems to know the young man" but declines to identify him. He remains anonymous.

"The Young Man Who Wanted to Die" is by an anonymous author, but it's not as simple as that. Within the story itself, there is also anonymity. "I've destroyed every clue to my identity," writes the young man in his suicide note. That comes near the beginning. At the end, the nurse maintains his anonymity. The brief newspaper item that closes the story--also by an anonymous author--reads:

An unidentified youth attempted to take his life in a North Side rooming-house last night by inhaling gas. The landlady smelled the odor of gas and called the police. Miss Lily May Kettering, a nurse at the National Emergency Hospital, who seems to know the young man, although refusing to divulge his identity, reports that he is on the road to recovery.

All of that makes me think that "The Young Man Who Wanted to Die" is kind of a gimmick. The author's name was probably elsewhere in the first issue of Weird Tales, but there's reason to believe that he wrote this story anonymously because the whole thing is about anonymity. If you're trying to avoid having a single byline occur more than once in your magazine, this is a clever way to do it.

So we have an author who was probably known to the editor, probably from Chicago, and probably in the writing business. He wrote anonymously. He also included in his story an anonymously written newspaper item. In his altered state of consciousness, the young man has strange visions and makes a strange journey through time and space. He approaches death but is saved from it by an intervention. (The last word the young man speaks in his vision is "God.") And in the end, he gets the girl. In other words, there is a happy, sentimental, Hollywood-movie-type ending. So where have we seen all of these things before, not only to do with the story but also with its author? The obvious answer is Otis Adelbert Kline and his previous story, "The Thing of a Thousand Shapes," also in his anonymous authorship of news-based items in Detective Tales.

So was ? ? ? Otis Adelbert Kline. The answer is: ? ? ?

* * *

Firsts in "The Young Man Who Wanted to Die":

  • The first anonymously written story in Weird Tales.
  • The first occurrence of the word Cimmerian in Weird Tales. (It's used as an adjective, not as a noun.)
  • The first story with a title as a variation of "The Man Who . . ."

I noticed a long time ago that there are lots of stories with titles beginning with "The Man Who . . " I didn't know that there were so many, though. In consulting T.G.L. Cockcroft's Index to the Weird Fiction Magazines (1962),  I find that there are thirty-five "The Man Who . . ." stories. If I count right, thirty-one of those are in Weird Tales. There is also of course "The Young Man Who Wanted to Die" by ? ? ? (Mar. 1923), as well as "The Two Men Who Murdered Each Other" by Valma Clark (July-Aug. 1923). That makes at least thirty-three stories in Weird Tales of "The Man Who . . ." type.

That construction goes back a long way. The earliest example I know of is in "The Man Who Would Be King" by Rudyard Kipling, which was published in 1888. And maybe that's all it took. H.G. Wells, an admirer of Kipling's story, had his own story called "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" published in The Illustrated London News in 1898. There were and are many, many more, and I'm sure there are more to come.

The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis in the Lancer edition, 1970, originally published in 1963. Cover art by Howard Winters.

Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I was amused by your comment that you didn't realise there were so many titles starting "The Man Who" and that you had found 35 instances in Cockcroft's index. FWIW, the title index in the Fictionmags Index ( et seq.) lists over 3000 items with this title construct.

    For obvious reasons I haven't checked them all, but FWIW, there was a novel called THE MAN WHO WAS GUILTY in 1886 (2 years before Kipling) and TOO SHARP BY HALF; OR, THE MAN WHO MADE MILLIONS back in 1871. There were also a number of short stories including "The Man Who Stole a Meeting-House" in 1867 and a poem titled "The Man Who Frets at Worldly Strife" in 1819.

    As the Fictionmags Index is primarily a 20th/21st century index, I wouldn't be surprised if there were similar titles dating back to the 18th or even 17th century.

    1. Hi, Phil,

      After posting this entry, I thought about the possibility that "the man who . . ." could be in the Bible as well. I did a quick search and found a few examples, but nothing that stood out especially. I'll have to look more closely at that idea.

      Like you, I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are examples from the 1700s or even 1600s, in other words, when people began to write and publish what we call fiction. If the model for "the man who . . ." is from the Bible, it couldn't have taken long for it to show up in novels, romances, and short stories.

      Thanks for writing and for all of the great work you do.