Friday, November 17, 2023

Edgar Allan Poe in the First Year of Weird Tales

This is a very long essay, but as it is about Edgar Allan Poe, I think I should offer it to you all in one piece so that, if you're able, you can read it in one sitting.

* * *

In early 1809, two men were born who would change the nation, though in different realms and at different scales. The first-born of them came into the world in a great eastern city. The second was born on the American frontier. The first was born in the North but grew up in the South. The other made the opposite kind of journey. Both were orphaned in their childhood. Both were frequent failures and had great tragedy in their lives. Both men served in the military, though only for a short time. Both were known for their writing, their words, and their sense of humor.

Both of these men of 1809 died too young, the second-born by violence, the first perhaps also by violence. They died within forty miles of each other, though their deaths were separated by sixteen years and more. The second died in spring, when lilacs bloomed in the dooryard. His death was mourned by millions, and millions witnessed the passing of his funeral train to the final resting place of his earthly body. The second died in autumn. His body was placed in a simple coffin and only a few attended his funeral. The service lasted all of three minutes on a "dark and gloomy [. . . a] raw and threatening day," according to one of the attendees. The headstone of the departed lacked even his name. Only decades after his death did his grave receive proper attention. Now both men are renowned all over the world and both graves are well visited.

The first-born was conservative. In his work, he explored, among other things, the afflicted psyche of the modern man. The other was liberal. He warred against the ancient institution of slavery. The first was one of our greatest writers. There is a professional football team named after one of his poems. The second was one of our greatest presidents. You will see his visage on pennies, five-dollar bills, and the face of Mount Rushmore. It's strange to think that Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe were born just twenty-four days apart.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was and is justly revered in America. There have probably been more books written about him than anyone else in our history. From the moment of his death, the Rail-Splitter, our Great Emancipator, has never been forgotten and is always close in our thoughts as we contemplate the history and meaning of our country. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) on the other hand was slandered at his death, and though his works were still in print for many years afterwards, there were long periods during which he seems to have been almost forgotten, or at least relegated to a minor place in American letters.

That changed as the nineteenth century went on. If you look at the list of collections by Poe in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, you will see big gaps--1856 to 1869, 1871 to 1878--begin to narrow as the turn of the century approached. And every year or almost every year from about 1888 to today, there has been a collection of Poe's works published somewhere in the world. One of those collections, a fairly early one in fact, was entitled Weird Tales (1895).

Jacob Clark Henneberger (1890-1969), cofounder of Weird Tales magazine, is a curious case. He helped bring Weird Tales to life in 1923 and helped keep it alive in 1924 and after. He seems to have been devoted to the magazine and to weird fiction in general, and yet we have almost nothing from his own hand on any subject at all. He seems to have been almost an invisible partner in the whole affair and to have essentially disappeared after the 1920s. But in a letter dated April 14, 1969, exactly seven months before his death, he wrote to Joel Frieman about his adolescent encounter with Poe:

As a lad of 16 I attended a military academy in Virginia. The English department was headed by one Capt. Stevens, a hunchback who was a rather chauvinistic chap in that he favored Southern writers. One entire semester was devoted to Poe! You can imagine how immersed I became in him. . . . (Ellipses in the original source, WT 50: A Tribute to Weird Tales, edited by Robert A. Weinberg, 1974, page 6.)

The school of which Henneberger wrote was Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia. Capt. Stevens was Captain Luke Leary Stevens (1878-1944), who, in addition to being a teacher, was a farmer, a school superintendent, and a state representative of his home county.

Note that Henneberger wrote that he became "immersed" in Poe. There is a suggestion but not quite an affirmation that he was in fact a fan of Poe. There is a general lack of information--a lack of being entirely forthcoming--in Henneberger's letter that I find frustrating. Why not tell us the name of the school? Why do we have to "imagine how immersed" in Poe he became? And how exactly did he feel about Poe? Why doesn't he say? But then Henneberger founded and stuck with a magazine based on Poe--or at least I believe that it was based on Poe--and so we should assume, I guess, that he was a fan not only of the author but also of weird, mysterious, and fantastic fiction in general.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was much more direct. In his first letter printed in "The Eyrie" (Sept. 1923), he wrote:

"My models are invariably the older writers, especially Poe, who has been my favorite literary figure since early childhood."

This is how you do it, J.C.!

Henneberger and Lovecraft were contemporaries. They were born a little more than six months apart, Lovecraft in an old, Waspish New England city, Henneberger in rural and small-town Pennsylvania Dutch country. Both grew up in the 1890s. Both would presumably have been exposed to Poe's stories and poems by way of collections published during that mauve decade. Both, too, would have turned the golden age of twelve years old in 1902, when several collections, including a 787-page edition of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, were published, all in one year. As I've written before, I think that the most likely source of the title Weird Tales is in the Poe collection Weird Tales, published in 1895 by Henry Altemus Company of Philadelphia. Henneberger was "immersed" in Poe at age sixteen. Poe was Lovecraft's "favorite literary figure since early childhood." Many of Lovecraft's early stories, including "The Outsider" (Weird Tales, Apr. 1926), are very Poesque. Weird Tales itself would seem to have been a revival of and a venue for Poesque tales of mystery and imagination. Maybe its companion title, Detective Tales, was intended to follow in the footsteps of the man who wrote the first detective story in our literature.

Other early contributors to Weird Tales were also Poe fans and Poe admirers. Poe's name was mentioned frequently in early letters to "The Eyrie," including in the very first one, submitted by Anthony M. Rud (1893-1942), author of the very first cover story as well and published in that same first issue, March 1923. Rud, then, was the first reader of Weird Tales to mention Poe in its pages. Many others followed in their letters to "The Eyrie," including:

Walter F. McCanless (1876-1965) was a Southern author. Like Captain Stevens, he hailed from North Carolina, and, like Stevens, who was two years his senior, he was a teacher. Maybe the two men knew each other. In any case, McCanless had a long letter in Weird Tales in March 1924. Part of his letter is a complaint about the short story "The Autobiography of a Blue Ghost" by Don Mark Lemon (1877-1961), which had appeared in Weird Tales in September 1923. In his letter, McCanless also urged the editor, Edwin Baird, not to print "The Transparent Ghost" by Isa-belle Manzer (1872-1944), and for about the same reason that he objected to Lemon's tale, namely, that it would make a farce of Weird Tales. (He was too late: the serialized story "The Transparent Ghost" was already in its second part by then.) McCanless moved on to his main point:

"We, of the South, believe in Edgar Allan Poe. To have it said of one that 'He writes like Poe' is, to our minds, the highest compliment that can be paid one. (By the way, 'The Crawling Death' by P.A. Connelly [sic; Weird Tales, Nov. 1923] is, in my opinion, equal, for thrills, to anything Poe ever wrote.) We, therefore, should hate to see a publication parody his best known style of writing. Poe, however, attempted humor of a sort (example, 'Why the Frenchman Wears His Arm in a Sling'), but with no very great degree of success, since he is best known for horror and mystery stories. To see these parodied by a publication would result in making such a publication taboo in the South. We turn to joke books that do not hurt our pride."

Poe may have been born in Boston, but Southerners, including Luke Leary Stevens and Walter F. McCanless, claimed him as one of their own, and I think rightly so. They were and are protective of Poe. Manly Wade Wellman, an adopted North Carolinian, wrote a story called "The Devil Is Not Mocked" (Unknown Worlds, June 1943). Well, McCanless wanted us to know that people of his region would not stand for Poe or the Poe-like story to be mocked either. By the way, we have probably all noticed that fans of fantasy, including comic book fantasy, take their subject seriously. They don't want it to be made fun of or mistreated in any way. That desire for seriousness goes back at least as far as 1924 and McCanless' letter.

The first editorial mention of Edgar Allan Poe in Weird Tales is in the blurb for "The Sequel" by Walter Scott Story (1879-1955), in the first issue of March 1923. That blurb reads:

Walter Scott Story offers a new conclusion to Edgar Allen [sic] Poe's "Cask of Amontillado"

(You'd think that a magazine based on Poe would spell his name right.)

I'll tell you right off that I think "The Sequel" was a needless effort, one that completely alters the meaning and undoes the intent of Poe's original. Story should have left well enough alone. An overly sensitive reader might even think of his tale as insulting towards Poe or even towards the art of literature in general. That's probably beside the point, which is that early tellers of weird tales were fully conscious of Poe. Some, like Walter Scott Story, wrote imitations, homages, or pastiches. Poe's influence upon certain other authors was more subtle.

Walter McCanless was getting at something when he wrote that Poe "is best known for horror and mystery stories,and it seems to me that very many of the early stories in Weird Tales were one of those two types. Both horror and mystery are broad terms. In a narrower sense, in the case of some of Poe's stories, horror can be taken as psychological horror, an account of the workings of one man's diseased mind, sometimes told from within that mind. "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) is an example. As for mystery, we now think of that term in a narrow sense and as the name of a literary genre. There are other kinds of mysteries to be sure. But, again, Poe is credited with having invented the mystery genre, also called the detective story, with his first tale of C. Auguste Dupin, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841). Both of these examples were reprinted in Weird Tales as "Masterpieces of Weird Fiction."

The Poesque horror story and the Poesque detective tale come at things from two opposite ends. One is a tale of passion, feeling, irrationality. The other is dispassionate, reasoning, scientific. Remember that Poe called his detective stories "tales of ratiocination." He collected several stories of certain other types in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), the title perhaps inspired by Sir Walter Scott's essay, On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition (1827). I take grotesque and arabesque not as opposites but as two kinds of more or less the same thing. "William Wilson" (1840) and "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), two stories of what I think you can call psychological horror, are included in Poe's contents.

The protagonist of the horror story is flawed--physically, mentally, or morally weak or deficient, if not insane. Maybe he is in a long line descended from Jack Williamson's Egyptian-Hebraic hero and a progenitor of the weird-fictional hero of the twentieth century. The Poesque detective, on the other hand, possesses a level and piercing intellect. Later American detectives, being flawed antiheroes, have more in common with the weird-fictional hero. British detectives, perhaps their French counterparts, too, also some prissy Americans, are at a higher level of society. In any event, the tale of ratiocination can be seen as the beginning not only of the detective story but also as a beginning of the science fiction story with its strong, able, and triumphant hero, a man who applies science and reason to all problems, thereby solving them. The bad part about all of that is that there may be very little of the human in the problem and especially in the problem-solving. Otis Adelbert Kline's Dr. Dorp, for example, is basically nonhuman. It's worth noting here that in an essay entitled "Edgar Allan Poe," D.H. Lawrence wrote:

     But Poe is rather a scientist than and artist. He is reducing his own self as a scientist reduces a salt in a crucible. It is an almost chemical analysis of the soul and consciousness. (p. 111)

That essay was published in 1923 of all years. (It was reprinted in The Recognition of Poe, edited by Eric W. Carlson and published in 1966, which is my source for the quote above.) If you read Poe, you might be struck by a lack of moral sense. Maybe he was more a scientist than artist after all. On the other hand, if his subject was himself, then he was both the rational scientist and the tormented and passionate individual placed on the examination table or under the microscope, in other words, a human being and perhaps an artist after all.

So Poe had his horror stories or weird tales and his detective stories or tales of ratiocination. Under J.C. Henneberger and his business partner John M. Lansinger (1892-1963), Detective Tales came first, on October 1, 1922, to be precise. Weird Tales followed of course in March 1923. There was and is crossover between weird fiction and mystery or detective fiction. Batman for example is both a detective and a weird-fictional hero. And as I've written before, "The Call of Cthulhu," doubtless a piece of weird fiction, can also be considered a detective story. (As in "Ooze," see below, the murderer in Lovecraft's story is not human, or at least some of the murders are committed by the nonhuman Cthulhu.) If, in 1923 and after, you had wanted straight science and no horror or weirdness in your literature of choice, you could have read Hugo Gernsback's radio magazines. Or you could have waited until Amazing Stories came along in April 1926, the same month, by the way, in which Weird Tales printed one of Lovecraft's most Poesque stories, "The Outsider." Shortly after that, Lovecraft began writing "The Call of Cthulhu" (Weird Tales, Feb. 1928), a mostly Lovecraftian story of some length, although it now occurs to me that it bears some similarity to "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" (1838) by Poe.

The first story in the first issue of Weird Tales is "The Dead Man's Tale" by Willard E. Hawkins, a decidedly Poesque story of psychological horror, even if Hawkins was inspired by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). The story is told in the first person by a man deranged by his love for a woman. The first detective story is "The Chain" by Hamilton Craigie, which is ten stories into that inaugural issue. Although there is a somewhat weird element in Craigie's story, it's essentially a tale of ratiocination, and its hero is very nearly without flaw or weakness.

In between those two stories is "Ooze" by Anthony M. Rud, a proto-science-fictional tale of the South but also one involving some detective work, carried out by an urban-dwelling Northerner. (In "Ooze," the Southerners are generally low characters, the Northerners high, or at least medium-high.) In this case, the murderer is a giant amoeba rather than an orangutan, as in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." As for the first ape in Weird Tales, see "The Extraordinary Experiment of Dr. Calgroni" by Joseph Faus and James Bennett Wooding, also from March 1923 and also a story of super-science. And maybe at this point we should consider that all ape and gorilla stories are descended from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and that that was the real gorilla connection in Weird Tales. By the way, Poe paired "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" with another of his stories in a one-bit pamphlet published in 1843. The other is a story called "The Man That Was Used Up" (1839). If you substitute one relative pronoun for another, you get "The Man Who Was Used Up," and so maybe we have another first for Edgar Allan Poe: he wrote the first story with the title construction "The Man Who . . .". The irony is that the pronoun who is used in reference to people, while that is used in reference either to people or things. So who--or what--is the title subject of Poe's story? Is he a man or is he something else?

I'm not sure that Poe was the first literary figure to treat a narrative from the viewpoint of a diseased, depraved, insane, or dysfunctional narrator, in other words, to turn a story upside down by making the villain his protagonist and to try, at least, to make him appear sympathetic, though in a perverse way. There may have been precedent for that in Shakespeare, for example in Othello. I think Poe took a lot from Shakespeare, and I would like to read about parallels in their work. Remember that the word and concept weird may have come to us through ShakespeareThomas De Quincey (1785-1859) and his confessions were a more immediate precedent perhaps. The hero or antihero of Gothic fiction and weird fiction, Nelson Algren's man with a golden arm, the Angry Young Men of postwar British literature--on and on they go--all may very well be descended from Poe's defective protagonists. So just remember the next time you're watching a movie or TV show and find yourself rooting for the thief, the murderer, or the drug addict: you may just be the latest consumer of a Poesque brand of fiction.

The narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado" is named Montresor. Like Iago, he has a complaint against his hapless victim, poor Fortunato. (Or Unfortunato.) You could call him a killer, but killing isn't exactly his aim. Instead, it's a perverse and depraved kind of revenge--or worse. Walter Scott Story's "Sequel" picks up where Poe left off. Story's story is overtly Poesque, a kind of pastiche in fact. Other Poesque tales are more subtle. However, the discerning reader can tell one when he or she sees it. For example, in the July/August 1923 installment of "The Eyrie," H. M. of New York, New York, remarked upon the similarity of "The Devil Plant" by Lyle Wilson Holden (Weird Tales, May 1923) to "The Cask of Amontillado." I have a feeling that if you were to study the first few years of Weird Tales contents, you would find many more parallels--which might be a polite word for ripoffs. We have seen the same thing during the past century regarding Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. (Not that I've been around for the past century.) That doesn't seem to be the case with Clark Ashton Smith, but how would you ever rip off CAS? With his language, imagery, and vast vocabulary, he seems to have made his work ripoff-proof.

The first mention of Poe in a nonfiction item in Weird Tales is in the first installment of "Weird Crimes"--its subject "Bluebeard"--by Seabury Quinn. That was in October 1923. The first mention in a story is in the March 1924 issue, in "The Fine Art of Suicide" by Howard Rockey (p. 19). Poe is also mentioned and even quoted in "Draconda" by John Martin Leahy. (p. 65; p. 70).

Rockey wrote:

"Some day," he would muse in his lighter moments, "an inspired genius will actually live or die a real story for me--with all the trimmings that even a Poe could desire--and I won"t have to fake a single detail!"

Leahy followed Rockey in his invocation of Poe, but at greater length:

     "You know," I said, "things come crowding into my mind--visions, memories, words spoken or written, some long forgotten. Among the words penned, induced no doubt by what has just been said, this haunting sentence of Poe's:

     "'No thinking being lives who, at some luminous point of his life of thought, has not felt himself lost amid the surges of futile efforts at understanding or believing, that any thing exists greater than his own soul'."

     "So you waded through Eureka. What did you get out of it?"

     "Not much; that and a few others. This, for instance:

     "'We walk about, amid the destinies of our world-existence, encompassed by dim and ever present Memories of a Destiny more vast'." (p. 65)


     Her figure was tall and slender and willowy. In her depthless eyes, and on and about her full lips, was a look the like of which I had never seen in all my life. It reminded one of sadness, and yet it was not an expression of sadness. If I were to say that it was one of deep experience, there would come, I believe, an idea of harshness or even cruelty perhaps; but there was neither harshness nor cruelty in the eyes of Draconda. It was, I fancy, an expression very like that in the orbs of Poe’s Ligeia: "I have felt it in the ocean--in the falling of a meteor." (p. 70)

I'm not sure that it really means anything, but Eureka (1848) is supposed to have been a work of ratiocination, while "Ligeia" (1838) is a horror story or weird tale.

May/June/July 1924 was past the one-year anniversary of Weird Tales. Nonetheless, I'll point out that Poe's name is mentioned ten times in Otis Adelbert Kline's manifesto-of-sorts "Why Weird Tales." Poe is the first author and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" the first story mentioned therein. Kline called "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" "[t]he greatest weird story and one of the greatest short stories ever written."

Edgar Allan Poe had fourteen stories and four poems in Weird Tales. Five of the stories were reprinted in the first year of the magazine in the series "Masterpieces of Weird Fiction." They were:

  • "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (the cover story of the June 1923 issue)
  • "The Pit and the Pendulum" (Oct. 1923)
  • "The Tell-Tale Heart" (Nov. 1923)
  • "The Black Cat" (Jan. 1924)
  • "Never Bet the Devil Your Head"(Mar. 1924)

Poe's next story reprinted in Weird Tales was "The Mask [sic] of the Red Death," in March 1926. The last was "The Fall of the House of Usher" in August 1939. Farnsworth Wright was editor during those years. Dorothy McIlwraith took over his post in 1940. I believe she emphasized new stories, but even she eventually turned to reprinting previously published works. But no more of Edgar Allan Poe.

One last thing regarding Poe and Weird Tales. In his lecture "House of Poe" (1959), poet Richard Wilbur remarked on Poe's repeated use of spirals and vortices in his work. These are in "MS. Found in a Bottle," "Descent into the Maelstrom," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "Metzengerstein," and "King Pest." Wilbur's speculation was that spirals and vortices "had some symbolic value for Poe." His conclusion: "What the spiral inevitably represents in any tale of Poe's is the loss of consciousness, and the descent of the mind into sleep." (The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, p. 257). There were circles and spirals on the cover of Weird Tales, but I think these went beyond the symbolism of Poe's stories and sleep was not at their end.

Edgar Allan Poe on the cover of Weird Tales, September 1939, with cover art by Virgil Finlay.

This will have to do until later in the month or maybe into December when I will wrap up this series on the 100-year anniversary of Weird Tales. Until then:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

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