Friday, March 22, 2024

Weird Tales & George Washington's Axe

Weird Tales was in trouble one hundred years ago this month. Although by March 1924, "The Unique Magazine" had been in print for a full year, and although it seemed to be prospering, Weird Tales was also only two months away from faltering. After the quarterly anniversary number of May/June/July 1924, Weird Tales went into hiding, and things fell apart for its publishers, Jacob C. Henneberger, John M. Lansinger, and their Rural Publishing Corporation of Indianapolis and Chicago. In actuality, things fell apart for Henneberger, for in the spring of 1924, he sold his interest in Detective Tales and College Humor to his business partner and college friend, who took editor Edwin Baird with him. Henneberger was left holding the bag that was Weird Tales.

That's when disinterested businessmen rode in to save the day. I say "disinterested" because they were not fans. Or at least they were not obviously fans. The real saviors were George M. Cornelius (1866-1946) and his son George H. Cornelius (1897-1973) of Cornelius Printing Company of Indianapolis. Other owners and stockholders in the new Popular Fiction Publishing Company, listed in the December 1924 issue of Weird Tales (page 190), were William R. Sprenger (1902-1972), Farnsworth Wright (1888-1940), and J.C. Henneberger (1890-1969). All but Henneberger gave their addresses as 325 North Capitol Avenue, Indianapolis. That was in fact the address of Cornelius Printing Company. I think it safe to say that without Cornelius Printing Company, there would no longer have been a Weird Tales magazine.

As it so happens, Cornelius Printing Company opened its new facility at 2501 East Washington Street in Indianapolis on November 1, 1924, and in December of that year, the staff of The American Legion Weekly moved from New York to the Circle City to assume its activities in Cornelius' new building. If you have kept up on the many biographies I have published on this blog, you will notice that there were many World War I veterans who contributed to Weird Tales, some of whom were also associated with the American Legion.

Now an aside. As I understand it, the Cornelius Printing Company building is still standing just off of East Washington Street, at Tacoma Avenue, in Indianapolis. I remember seeing it on our drives downtown when we were kids. Of course I never knew that it was once the place where Weird Tales originated. I also didn't know that George M. Cornelius and his family once lived in the neighborhood where we lived, they on Layman Avenue, we on Johnson Avenue. C.L. Moore (1911-1987) and her family also lived in Irvington, as did actor and singer Bill Shirley (1921-1989), actress Marjorie Main (1890-1975), cartoonist--or caricaturist as he preferred it--Kin Hubbard (1868-1930), and painter William Forsyth (1854-1935). Cornelius was buried out of Shirley Brothers Mortuary Irving Hill Chapel, a firm founded by Bill Shirley's family and an establishment not far from our childhood home.

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I have had my own disappearance: I haven't written since February 20. I have been busy with my regular work and caught up as always in crisis, loss, grief, and other sad and distressing events. I want to get back to my writing here and to the topic at hand, which is Weird Tales in the spring of 1924 and its three Houdini issues. At least we're still in the centennial season of those events.

* * *

When I last wrote, I let everybody know that I had ordered two copies of Weird Tales #367 but had received only one. That situation hasn't changed. Weird Tales still owes me a copy of issue #367. I have never worked for a magazine, so I don't know who is the responsible party. I guess ultimately it's the publisher's responsibility to meet the obligations of his own company and operations. That includes filling orders I would think. The current publisher of Weird Tales, according to my one copy of issue #367 (out of the two that I ordered) is Weird Tales, Inc., in the person of John Harlacher, who has as his titles Publisher and Creative Director on the title page. Mr. Harlacher is an actor, stage director, and filmmaker. He seems to have an interest in what you might call the pulp genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I don't think it would be very much of a stretch to call him a fan. It looks like he's also a businessman. Weird Tales, Inc., is a business. It's still running. Nevertheless, it still doesn't meet its obligations. This is a really simple thing, Mr. Harlacher, if you're reading: Just send me my magazine. Please. Be a responsible businessman, meet your obligations, and just send me my magazine.

* * *

I'll close with two comments. First, a reply I made to a comment by John of World of Monsters. From March 6, 2024:

As I see it, there are two issues here:

First is the issue of simply running a business. I think if you're going to run a business, you need business people. Good business people know how to run things, keep things going, meet the obligations of the business. Fans usually don't make good business people. They're too close to their subject. Weird Tales has failed before because of a lack of business acumen. One hundred years ago, businessmen--the men who ran Cornelius Printing of Indianapolis--saved Weird Tales. It is because of them that we have it today. The magazine would have otherwise been just a footnote in the history of pulps.

Second is the issue of content, editorial policy, and so on. I'm planning to write about that issue in a series of entries on Weird Tales #367.

Second, Weird Tales as it is today bears a resemblance to the original of a century ago, but is it really the same thing? In one way or another, Weird Tales ended in 1924, 1938, 1940, and 1954, but at least there was continuity in its staff, authors, editorial policies, and so on until that final year. It ended again in 1974, 1983, 1985, 1994, 2012, 2014, and 2020. But even by 1974, it was too late. Weird Tales and the whole universe of pulp magazines and pulp fiction had already come to an end. There was no bringing it back. Yes, there's a magazine now called Weird Tales. And, yes, it has the same main title logo that it had more than ninety years ago, also the same editorial column, "The Eyrie," that it has had from the beginning. But isn't Weird Tales at this point really just a franchise operation, trading on a name and a cachet not its own? It's like Paul Revere and the Raiders or The Guess Who, of which there was or is little or nothing left at the end of what they were at the beginning. Or, to put it another way, Weird Tales today is like George Washington's axe. The handle has been replaced five times and the axehead has been replaced three times, but this is still George Washington's axe. That's the claim that has been made all along anyway. I don't mind that anyone would continue to trade on a long-ended franchise. I like the title, the main title logo, "The Eyrie," and all of the other trappings of Weird Tales. I like that there is tradition in all of these things and more (except for the tradition of not meeting obligations). After all, weird fiction is a traditional and conservative genre. It ought to be based in the past and to draw from the past. But we should all know these things for what they are, and we should all know that they have come to us from out of a time that is gone forever and can never be brought back. Let Weird Tales be an exercise in nostalgia while still updating weird fiction for today. After all, weird is in our lives and we live in a weird world. All of that is fine, as long as we recognize that the Weird Tales of today is not the Weird Tales of one hundred years ago or even seventy years ago or even  . . .

The Cornelius Printing Company building when it was still new, 1924-1925. The building front, located at the end of South Tacoma Avenue in Indianapolis, with its triple windows and double doors, is still recognizable. From the Indianapolis Star, February 4, 1925, page 9. 

Text copyright 2024 Terence E. Hanley

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