Sunday, 26 October 2014

Terror on the Newsstands Part One: The Horror Pulps

If you are familiar with the popular culture of early to mid-20th Century America, then chances are you familiar with pulp magazines. Pulp magazines were cheap magazines printed on wood pulp paper and devoted primarily to fiction. For most of their history pulp magazines sold for only 10 cents (in contrast to the more expensive slick magazines, that sold for 25 cents). In many respects the pulp magazines were the descendants of the dime novels of the 19th Century. At their height from the twenties to the Forties, pulp magazines covered a variety of genres. There were pulp magazines dedicated to Westerns, detective stories, science fiction, and so on. There were even the "hero pulps", that centred on one particular hero (the most famous being The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Spider). As might be expected, there were even pulp magazines dedicated primarily to the horror genre.

Horror stories had been featured in pulp magazines almost from the beginning. The first pulp magazine was Argosy, which started in 1882 as a children's magazine. By 1896 Argosy had evolved into what would later be recognised as a pulp magazine. The success of Argosy naturally led to other pulp magazines. Argosy and its sister magazine, The All-Story, published a wide variety of fiction, including the occasional horror story. In fact, the horror writer Tod Robbins and fantasists A. Merritt and Perley Poore Sheehan were published in The All-Story.

By the 1910s pulp magazines devoted to entirely one genre began to arise. Street & Smith launched Detective Story Magazine in 1915. In 1919 they launched Western Story Magazine. It was in 1919 that Street & Smith launched The Thrill Book, the first magazine that published a large amount of fantasy and horror. While The Thrill Book published its share of mainstream fiction, usually at least half (and sometimes more) of the magazine was devoted to fantastic fiction. Indeed, a horror story was included in its very first issue, the werewolf tale "Wolf of the Steppes" by Greye La Spina. The Thrill Book would feature stories by such fantasy and horror writers as Murray Leinster, Seabury Quinn, Tod Robbins, and Francis Stevens. Unfortunately, The Thrill Book would not prove to be a success. It lasted only eight issues before Street & Smith cancelled it due to poor sales.

While The Thrill Book proved to be a failure, the next pulp magazine that would publish a good deal of fantastic fiction would not be. Indeed, Weird Tales could well be the best known fantasy and horror magazine of all time. Here it must be stressed that Weird Tales was not exclusively a horror magazine. It published its share of outright fantasy fiction and even occasionally science fiction. It was both the home for many of Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery tales (including those featuring Conan the Barbarian) and Edmond Hamilton's space operas. That having been said, even as it was being published it might have been best known for its horror stories and it seems that it is the horror stories for which it is best remembered today.

It was in 1922 that  J. C. Henneberger and his partner J.M. Lansinger founded Rural Publications Inc.  J. C. Henneberger was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and macabre stories in generalIt as then natural that he would launch a magazine devoted to what we now call "dark fantasy". The first issue of Weird Tales was published with a cover date of March 1923. That first issue was priced 25 cents, which was more than most pulp magazines at the time (which generally cost about a dime).  That having been said, that first issue was also 192 pages, which was longer than most other pulp magazines (they averaged about 128 pages).

Weird Tales would have a bit of a rocky start. To a small degree Edwin Baird would shape Weird Tales as we now know it. He published many of the authors who would make the magazine famous, including  H. P. Lovecraft, Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, and Francis Stevens. Unfortunately Mr. Baird did not always use the best judgement when it came to choosing stories. The May-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales included "The Loved Dead" by C. M. Eddy, Jr. with contributions to some degree or another from H. P. Lovecraft. The story not so subtly touched upon the then, as now, forbidden subject of necrophilia. Legend has it that the story was so controversial that particular issue of Weird Tales was removed from newsstands and even banned in the state of Indiana. Whether the legend is true, one has to suspect that "The Loved Dead" earned Weird Tales no love in certain quarters.

Regardless of Mr. Baird's choices of stories, Weird Tales lost money while he was its editor. In fact, after one year not only was the magazine not turning a profit, it was $40,000 in debt. Drastic measures had to be taken to save the magazine. While Edwin Baird would remain the editor of Detective Tales, he was promptly removed as the editor of Weird Tales. The job as editor of Weird Tales was offered to H. P. Lovecraft, who declined, and ultimately it was Mr. Baird's assistant, Farnsworth Wright, who replaced him as editor. An agreement was then struck with the magazine's printer, B. Cornelius, that he would become chief stockholder and if the magazine ever made enough money to pay off the $40,000 owed him, then the stock would go back to the magazine's founder,  J. C. Henneberger. A new company would emerge from all of this, Popular Fiction Publishing Co.

As its editor Farnsworth Wright would be responsible for transforming Weird Tales from a struggling magazine to the best known dark fantasy magazine of all time. He continued to publish stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Seabury Quinn, and Clark Ashton Smith, while introducing such new writers as Robert Bloch, Edmond Hamilton, and Robert E. Howard to the magazine. It was also Farnsworth Wright who hired illustrator Margaret Brundage in 1933 to create its now iconic covers. Miss Brundage's covers could be controversial at times, even among Weird Tales readers, as they often depicted semi-nude damsels in distress and often in bondage. She worked on the magazine until 1945.

It was in 1938 that Weird Tales was sold to William J. Delaney, who had recently acquired the pulp magazine Short Stories from Doubleday. The magazine's editor Farnsworth Wright did not adapt well to the change in management and disagreements on the magazine's policies soon ensued. Mr. Wright then left Weird Tales in 1940. Sadly, he died only a few months after leaving the magazine. He was replaced as editor by Dorothy McIlwraith. It was while Dorothy McIlwraith was editor that such writers as Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber,  C. L. Moore, Theodore Sturgeon, and Manly Wade Wellman were first published in the magazine.

Given its fame today, it might be surprising to many to learn that Weird Tales was not particularly profitable. At its peaks it never sold more than 50,000 copies each issue. In contrast Street & Smith's popular hero pulps The Shadow and Doc Savage sold anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 copies in the Thirties. While Weird Tales might not have had particularly large circulation numbers, it did have an extremely loyal cult following. As a result it actually lasted much longer than many pulp magazines. Weird Tales ceased publication with its September 1954 issue after 279 issues.

While Weird Tales was never particularly profitable, other horror magazines would follow it into the market. MacFadden Publications published the magazines True Story and True Detective, which occupied a place in between the pulp magazines and the more expensive slick magazines. In 1926 they introduced a companion magazine to True Story, Ghost Stories. Ghost Stories published some of the same authors as Weird Tales, including Robert E. Howard and  Frank Belknap Long, as well as reprinted material by such writers as H.G. Wells, and Charles Dickens. Ghost Stories lasted for 64 issues, ending its run in 1932.

Tales of Magic and Mystery was a rather shorter lived magazine.Tales of Magic and Mystery was devoted primarily to magic and even published non-fiction articles on the subject. That having been said, it also published its share of horror fiction. Among the stories published in the magazine were "Cool Air" by H. P. Lovecraft and "Ghostly Hands" by Miriam Allen deFord. The magazine was also notable in that it was edited by Walter Gibson, who would go on to co-create The Shadow, as well as write most of the Shadow novels. Unfortunately Tales of Magic and Mystery would not last long. When its publisher, Haddon Press, estimated the costs to publish the magazine they had neglected to include the price of paper. As a result Tales of Magic and Mystery lost money every month. First published in December 1927, its fifth and final issue was dated April 1928.

The first serious challenger to Weird Tales came in the form of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, known more simply as Strange Tales. Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror was published by Clayton Publications, the publisher of the successful science fiction pulp magazine Astounding Stories. It even shared its editor with Astounding,  Harry Bates. As might be expected  Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror published many of the same writers as Weird Tales, including  Hugh B. Cave, Paul Ernst,  Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Jack Williamson. Its first issue was dated September 1931. Unfortunately the Great Depression hit Clayton Publications very hard. The company accumulated a good deal of debt and eventually went bankrupt in April 1933. Clayton Publications sold their magazines to pulp magazine powerhouse Street & Smith. Street & Smith elected to continue Astounding (which survives to this day as Analog), but chose not to go on with Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. Its final issue was then its seventh, cover dated January 1933.

Unless one counts the notorious "shudder pulps" or "weird menace" pulp magazines (which I'll cover in part two), only a few more horror or dark fantasy pulps would emerge in the Thirties. One very short lived horror magazine would be a spin off from a radio show. The Witch's Tale was a horror anthology series that debuted on WOR on 21 May 1931 and later went national through the Mutual Broadcasting System. One of the earliest horror anthologies, it proved very popular. Its success led to the pulp magazine The Witch's Tales, the first issue of which was cover dated November 1936.  With the exception of a story by the radio show's director Alonzo Deen Cole in that first issue, it is widely believed that it consisted mostly of reprints. If so this could explain why The Witch's Tales only lasted two issues. Its December 1936 issue would be its last.

It would be in the last years of the Thirties that Weird Tales would once more see viable competition in the horror and fantasy field. The first was Strange Stories, published by Better Publications. Its first issue had a cover date of February 1939. While its editor was not credited, it seems likely that it was Mort Weisinger, who would later become an editor on the various Superman titles at DC Comics for years. Mort Weisinger edited several of Better Publications' pulp magazines.

Strange Stories was a fairly blatant imitation of Weird Tales, even down to its covers. Not surprisingly, it published many stories by writers who had written for Weird Tales, including Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Seabury Quinn, Eric Frank Russell, and Manly Wade Wellman. Strange Stories would only last thirteen issues, with its final issue cover dated  February 1941. Some believe that it may have suffered due to competition from Street & Smith's Unknown (which I will cover below). This could well be possible. Originally costing 15 cents, its price was cut to 10 cents and its page count dropped from  128 pages to 96 pages with its August 1940 issue. At the very least, this would seem to indicate that sales for Strange Stories were not particularly strong. At the same time the demise of Strange Stories might have been linked to Mort Weisinger's departure to National Comics.  In other words, it might be more than coincidence that Strange Stories ended its run just as Mr. Weisinger left Better Publications.

Strange Stories was followed onto newsstands almost immediately by another fantasy magazine. The first issue of Unknown was cover dated March 1939. Unknown was published by Street & Smith and was essentially a companion magazine to their popular Astounding Science Fiction. Under John Campbell Astounding published only hard science fiction (that is, science fiction with a very firm basis in science). This meant that he had to sometimes reject otherwise good stories for the magazine. This led Mr. Campbell to consider launching a fantasy magazine in which such stories would be suitable. The end result of this would be Unknown.

In many respects Unknown would be a very different magazine from Weird Tales, even though both dealt in the fantasy genre. Essentially John Campbell required that the fantasy novels and stories published in Unknown follow their own internal logic. Quite simply, like the science fiction stories published in Astounding, the fantasy stories of Unknown had to obey some sort of laws. And while Weird Tales tended towards dark fantasy (often with an emphasis on the dark), the fantasy stories in Unknown would often be lighter and even humorous.

This is not to say that horror fiction did not appear in Unknown. In fact, horror stories often appeared in the magazine. Robert Bloch's modern day vampire story "The Cloak" appeared in Unknown in 1939. Jack Williamson's classic werewolf tale Darker Than You Think first appeared as a novelette in the magazine in 1940. Fritz Leiber's classic horror novel Conjure Wife first appeared in the April 1943 issue. Conjure Wife would later be adapted as the films Weird Woman (1944), Night of the Eagle (1962), and Witches' Brew (1980).

With its October 1941 issue Unknown would be renamed Unknown Worlds. Unfortunately it would only survive two more years. The paper shortages of World War II had a huge impact on pulp magazines, with the cost of printing them rising dramatically. Because of the paper shortages John Campbell faced the choice of continuing either Astounding or Unknown Worlds. Mr. Campbell chose to continue Astounding and so the October 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds would be its last.

Unknown would be the last major, new pulp magazine to publish a substantial amount of horror fiction. The paper shortages of World War II would take their toll on pulp magazines. Many reduced their page counts or shrank to digest size. Many were cancelled. At the same time pulp magazines faced growing competition from the relatively young medium of comic books. Things would not improve for pulp magazines following the war. Pulp magazines faced new competition in the form of the growing paperback market and television.

It was in 1949 that pulp giant Street & Smith cancelled nearly their entire line of pulp magazines, including such titles as Western Story Magazine, The Shadow, and Doc Savage. Astounding was one of the few to survive; retitled Analog Science Fact and Fiction in 1960, it survives to this day. Weird Tales, the most famous dark fantasy pulp magazine of all time, would cease publication in 1954. If the era of the pulp magazine did not end with Street and Smith's mass cancellation of magazines in 1949, it most certainly ended in 1955 with the demise of the American News Company, the company that distributed many pulp magazines and later comic books.

While the era of the pulp magazines would come to an end in the mid-Fifties, the impact of the horror pulps continue to be felt to this day. It was in the pages of Weird Tales that much of the work of such writers as H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Seabury Quinn, and others were published, writers who would have a lasting impact on horror and dark fantasy in general. Like Weird Tales, Unknown would also have a lasting impact on the horror and fantasy genres. Quite simply, Unknown pioneered the subgnere of modern, rationalised fantasy . Even once the magazines ceased to be published, the writers published in them would have a lasting impact on authors ranging from Harlan Ellison to Ramsey Campbell to Stephen King. Though the horror pulps are gone, they are hardly forgotten.

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