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WEIRD TALES:  1928-1938

By Peter M. Renfro

It is a dark and stormy evening in late September as I sit down to write this.  It feels appropriate to have the night sky intermittently lit up with lightning and the thunder to punctuate my thoughts.  The task before me is to delve into my impressions of Weird Tales during the decade of 1928 – 1938.  Since the fall of 2001 I have been reading each issue consecutively. 

Weird Tales came into existence in March 1923 and left the publishing world in September 1954 (future incarnations of the title fall outside the general scope of pulp definitions).  Many will agree with my assertion that the Weird Tales reputation stems almost entirely from the 1928-1938 decade – the editorship of Farnsworth Wright raised the pulp to unparalleled heights.  Not only did he bring forth definitive stories from Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Williamson, Seabury Quinn, C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton and Robert Bloch, but he also showcased them under the artistry of Margaret Brundage, J. Allen St. John and Virgil Finlay.

As 1928 opens, Weird Tales is about to enter its fifth year of publication.  Most of the stories still share the traditional trappings of ghosts, vampires and other things that go bump in the night.  The writing style in general shares many of the trappings of late 19th Century fiction; though a few stories reflect a more modern pizzazz of the Roaring Twenties.  A few writers like Edmond Hamilton, Ray Cummings and Nictzin Dyalhis bring a scientific element to Weird Tales.

Science fiction as a genre is still in its infancy; in fact, the term had not even been coined yet – the stories were commonly referred to as scientific romances.  Yet Hamilton is in full swing with his Intergalactic Patrol stories.  Sadly, they represent just about everything that is bad in pulp science fiction.  The bad guys are really, really bad, and the good guys are really, really good.  In these stories, Edmond Hamilton nearly wears out the exclamation key on his typewriter as characters Oooh and Aaaah and Golly-Gee over this or that incredible discovery or narrow escape!  Each adventure seems to have the largest, grandest, most unusual, most dangerous, and every other superlative imaginable happening!  Aside from grammaticism, my biggest disappointment in Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol stories is the lack of three-dimensional space battles.  The Patrol is all the time drawing a line between the home worlds and the invaders…he seems to forget the space ships can just as easily fly above or below any ‘line’ drawn in space!

The worst of these is perhaps “Crashing Suns” from August 1928.  This story is “The Giant Claw” of pulp SF – I don’t even know where to begin with the criticisms.  First and foremost, the writing is horrible.  I can forgive many, many faults as long as the writing is crisp, clear and fits the mood of the story.  Hamilton strikes out on all three counts.  The science is laughable - an alien species, realizing their sun is cooling, comes up with the brilliant idea of altering their sun’s course so it will crash into Earth’s Sun.  They predict the resulting ‘super sun’ will be big enough for their needs…and all of this takes place within one year (!).  What’s really sad is that Jerry Bruckheimer could probably produce a big-budget film version, not change a thing, and have a hit movie.  This is pure space opera at its all time lowest level.

Aside from the Interstellar Patrol stories, Edmond Hamilton was also known for his End-of-the-World tales.  In what seemed an endless parade of stories, the earth is menaced by creatures from underground, creatures from under the sea, creatures from outer space, creatures from another dimension, creatures from the future – and these invading creatures all had intricately constructed plans to destroy humanity or the Earth, and these plans always included one simple flaw that could not only thwart the entire plan, but destroy the entire invading army in the process.  Invariably, Hamilton’s hero would discover this secret flaw just in the nick of time.  “The Dimension Terror” from June 1928 is perhaps the best written of these tales.

As time wore on, Edmond Hamilton would try his hand at other stories and every now and then would strike pay dirt.  My personal favorite is “Child of the Winds” in the May 1936 issue.  Hamilton’s writing is remarkably restrained in this delightfully pastoral story of sentient wind.  Another nice departure for Hamilton was “Vampire Village” published under the Hugh Davidson pseudonym in the November 1932 issue.  Although the story itself is none too original, the writing style was remarkably mature and free from extraneous exclamation marks.

As the ‘20s draw to a close, Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories were still in their infancy.  During this phase, almost all the stories have logical explanations for the strange goings-on.  Quinn’s style showed very little variation through the late ‘20s – De Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge would stumble upon some strange phenomena in or around Harrisonville, New Jersey; overcome some dire threat, then De Grandin would then spend the last two or three pages pontificating ad naseum the logical explanations.  These early tales have little to recommend other than watching Quinn’s style develop.  By the early ‘30s, the focus shifts to actual supernatural occurrences, with the stories becoming increasingly more gruesome and fantastic.  This pattern culminates in the 1933 story “Malay Terror”; perhaps the most extreme de Grandin story Quinn ever wrote (flying heads with attached stomachs?!?).  After this, the Jules de Grandin stories begin to settle down to more mundane (though still unnatural) scenarios. 

I was fascinated watching the relationship between Dr. Trowbridge and Jules de Grandin develop.  Quinn always describes the detective in feminine terms (slender, elegant and classy), and he is a houseguest who never seems to wear out his welcome.  By the early ‘30s, Trowbridge and de Grandin seem to share the same room, and once they actually share the same bed (I believe the story is “The House with No Mirror”).  Perhaps I read a little too much into these situations, and they eventually cease by the mid-1930’s.  Perhaps Farnsworth Wright objected to these vague hints of homosexuality?  Actually, de Grandin’s sexuality is rather vague - he did have one great love early in his life, which he frequently referenced.  And neither he nor Trowbridge are ever short of compliments when faced with a nude woman (the frequency of which are enough to make even Hugh Hefner envious!). 

Towards the end of the ‘30s Quinn began experimenting with off-trail stories.  “Roads”, a Christmas tale, received the most acclamation from the readers.  Personally, I found these stories to be over-written and needlessly bogged down in inconsequential details.   Perhaps the most outlandish on these is “Strange Interval” from the May 1936 issue.  In this story a young man is cruelly castrated aboard a pirate vessel and must live much of his life as the handmaiden of the girl he loves.  Although perhaps the most extreme, this was not the only story Quinn dealt with transgender issues!

In early 1928 Robert E. Howard was as much known for his letters in The Eyrie as he was known for his story contributions, but this began to change with the August ’28 issue and the introduction of a character named Solomon Kane.  A major writing force was forging itself right in front of the readers.  I can add little to what has already been written about Howard.  He virtually invented the entire sword and sorcery sub-genre; but perhaps Howard’s stories endured and prospered in later years not because of the blood and thunder…but the philosophical musings Howard’s characters often indulged themselves in.

Ironically, as Howard rose to prestige, H. P. Lovecraft appeared to be declining…perhaps not in quality, but certainly in quantity.  “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) and “The Dunwich Horror” (1929) are two of Lovecraft’s greatest stories…yet after their publication, he would only make intermittent appearances - “The Whisperer in the Darkness” in 1931; “The Dreams in the Witch-House” in 1933.  And yet, the Lovecraft mythos prospered as other writers peppered their stories with the Elder Gods and numerous citations from the Necronomicon.  Yet, for all his popularity, Lovecraft never once was graced with a cover (was this an editorial decision on Wright’s part; or perhaps Lovecraft’s own wish?).

Perhaps the greatest fantasist Weird Tales ever had was Clark Ashton Smith.  His imagination seemed boundless, and his verbiage was unequaled (anyone reading more than ten of his stories should receive an honorary English degree!).  Many of Smith’s tales are loosely connected; many taking place in far-off worlds like Zothique or medieval fantasy-lands like Averoigne.  My personal favorite is “The Colossus of Ylourgne” from the June 1934 issue - a dwarf wizard constructs a giant Frankenstein-like monster for his mind to inhabit so he can wreak revenge on the countryside.  Much of the descriptive passages bring to mind paintings by Heironymous Bosch.

I would like to put forth the idea that Smith’s May 1932 story, “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”, may be the basis for Ridley Scott’s film “Alien”.  A group of mercenaries explore an ancient Martian pyramid.  In the vaults beneath, they stumble upon these urns that contain alien brain-eating parasites.  The story was later adapted as a comic in the ‘50s, and this may be where Dan O’Bannon drew much of his inspiration for his screenplay.  Check out the special features on the “Alien” DVD – the early sketches for the film could just as easily serve as illustrations for “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”.

Jack Williamson’s career was first established in the science fiction pulps; but in 1933 he entered the pages of Weird Tales with his novel of weird adventure called “Golden Blood”.  He quickly became a favorite of the readers, even though his later appearances were decidedly under par.

But enough about the popular writers; they comprise but a small percentage of the stories.  Let me draw attention to some of the lesser-known authors and their stories that had as much writing polish or unique ideas to stand alongside the masters.

Perhaps my favorite is a nearly forgotten tale called “The Thing in the House” by H. F. Scotten from the May 1929 issue.  This is the first of only two stories he published; it balances weird menace with a slightly outré scientific premise with some genuinely unsettling passages.  A scientist is able to create an invisible creature from pure thought; he loses control of the creature during his nightmares (much like Dr. Mobeius in “Forbidden Planet”).  The best parts of the story detail the police surrounding the scientist’s house and coming to the realization the creature they are fighting is invisible.  It is a shame that Scotten’s follow-up story, “The Invading Madness”, is a confused narrative of creatures from another dimension.  This story had some unique ideas, but characters, plotting and narrative are not handled well and the result is quite disappointing.

“Ebony Magic” by Stella Wynne (her only WT story) is another favorite (from March 1928).  It is a sheer joy to read for its recreation of the early 20th Century Black dialect.  A colored man and his mulatto wife have a prognostication nightclub act.  In the beginning, it is a complete sham…but as time goes on, his wife taps into true ESP powers.  As her powers grow, his body weakens.  Out of love for her husband, she kills herself.  The story treats its black characters very sympathetically, that I find very unusual for this time period.  I should point out that very rarely are black people denigrated in the pages of Weird Tales.  There are a number of minor black characters that are shady or subservient, but I suspect blacks are better represented in the pages of WT than just about any other pulp publication from the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Although Frank Belknap Long Jr. is remembered as one of the better and more prolific writers, he only has a few appearances in Weird Tales during this time frame.  The first, and by far the best, is “The Space-Eaters” from July 1928.  This is one heckuva creepy story!  From the opening quote from the Necronomicon, to the main characters of Frank and Howard, this is perhaps one of the earliest stories to expand upon Lovecraft’s mythos, and perhaps the first to feature him as a character within the story.  Howard is trying to write the ultimate nameless-horror story, when Frank’s neighbor encounters just such a creature.  Despite some dialogue that would be laughable by today’s standards, there are some truly frightening images (the arm that is not an arm, that stretches down from the sky haunts me to this day).   

One of the most interesting science fiction tales to appear is “The Distortion Out of Space” by Francis Flagg in August 1934.  This story blends together elements found in “…And He Built a Crooked House” by Robert Heinlein, “The Captured Cross-Section” by Miles J. Breur and “Little Girl Lost” (from ‘The Twilight Zone’).  A fragment of a meteor smashes into the second floor of a country farmhouse.  Two hunters investigate and discover one of the rooms is gateway leading to another dimension.  They go in search of the farmer’s wife who is lost inside.  The end of the tale has one of the hunters shooting at an orb-like crystal that shatters and breaks them out of the distortion.  But during the split second before the ‘doorway’ collapses, a mental rapport is established and the hunter receives mental impressions that the meteorite was in fact an alien spaceship that crashed on earth.  The wounded alien created the distortion of space in an attempt to protect itself while it learned more about the planet it had crashed upon.  The last thing the hunter senses is tragic futility coupled with great accomplishment – apparently the alien is a space pioneer; his success is tempered by the fact his own race will never know of his accomplishment.  Much of the story unfolds like typical pulp fiction; but the last two pages inject more fresh ideas that most novel-length stories of the time.

November 1933 ushered in a new era for Weird Tales.  C. L. Moore spearheaded a new batch of writers and her story “Shambleau” remains a milestone both in her career and in annals of Weird Tales. 

Catherine Moore was just 22 years old when this, her first professional sale, was published.  Not many authors land with such an impact.  The beginning of the story has an almost Old-West feel to it.  The writing during the opening pages is not very distinguished, and we have to take on faith the characterization of Northwest Smith.  But about halfway into the story, things really take off.  Moore’s descriptive passages are genuinely weird, yet confidently mature.  This is about as fine a melding of science fiction and weird-horror as any (the only serious competitor that comes to mind is Jack Williamson’s “Wolves of Darkness”).  And just when most ordinary writers would end their tale, she is just getting started.  The ending pages discussing the possible origins of Shambleau are intriguing and held this reader’s attention (unlike many of Jules de Grandin’s closing expositions).  Perhaps the real power of this story lies in the weakness of Northwest Smith; he is built up as a typical pulp hero, yet in the embrace of Shambleau he is completely helpless and needs to be rescued.  Even the end of the story shows his uncertainty, his vulnerability.  This is quite a departure from characters like Tarzan, Conan or even Jules de Grandin.

Moore would continue to explore the boundaries of imagination, beauty, and the ‘feminine’ side of weird tales for years to come.  She would tackle the male-dominated sword-and-sorcery genre with Jirel of Joiry, and extend the exploits of Northwest Smith.  Many of her stories would take place within the darker recesses of her characters’ minds, or on alternate planes of reality.  Her greatest asset would also be one of her biggest faults – a tendency to over-write her descriptive passages.  Many of her subsequent stories would lack the punch of “Shambleau” because her brilliant descriptive passages would wear out their welcome and slow down plot development.

Carl Jacobi, Manly Wade Wellman, the Binder brothers and Henry Kuttner also joined the ranks of Weird Tales during the mid-30s…but by far the greatest discovery was in January 1935: Robert Bloch.

Bloch’s rise to fame was nearly derailed when a letter he wrote to The Eyrie criticizing Howard’s Conan stories appeared concurrently with his first published tale.  Many readers took umbrage at one ‘established’ writer attacking another.  Despite these prejudices, many readers were won over by Bloch’s “Feast in the Abbey”.  Once the firestorm died down (and Bloch apologized/explained), he began appearing regularly.  In the beginning, his stories were clearly Lovecraft pastiches; but within two years, his own style began to emerge and his stories dominated Weird Tales during the late ‘30s.  I feel it is a great tragedy Lovecraft did not live long enough to see his young protégé develop far beyond either of their expectations.

During these ten years, the look of Weird Tales went through three distinct phases.  In the beginning, C.C. Senf was responsible for many of the covers.  He had a more gothic, atmospheric approach.  Come September 1932, Margaret Brundage’s brighter colors, and nearly picture-perfect renderings took readers by storm.  During her six-year reign, the readers would constantly debate the merits of her nudes, but there is no denying the covers had reached their artistic apex.  Howard and Quinn were at the top of their game, and even lesser writers like Paul Ernst introduced us to Dr. Death – all brought evocatively to life by Ms. Brundage.  Only twice was her reign interrupted; both times by the grandmaster himself, J. Allen St. John (Otis Adelbert Kline’s “Buccaneers of Venus” and Jack Williamson’s “Golden Blood”, respectively).

The third phase begins in early 1937 when Virgil Finlay, after several issues of interior illustrations, finally gets a cover.  Brundage and Finlay will trade covers for the next two years until she paints her last cover for the October 1938 issue.  At this time the editorial offices shifted from Chicago to New York; a move that for whatever reason, precluded future Brundage covers. 

Besides the stories and the artwork, there is a third element that comprised Weird Tales – The Eyrie.  Amateurs and professionals mixed equally in the letters department.  Friendships were born; feuds developed and genuine criticism (good and bad) interwove the fabric of this micro-society.  Familiar names like Jack Darrow, Robert A. Madle, and Henry Hasse seemed to appear every month.  But one personality seemed to shine above them all.

September 1934 marked the first letter by Gertrude Hemken in The Eyrie.  During the next six years she would become one of the most frequent and unique contributors to the letters department.  Her observations became increasingly spontaneous and peppered with her unique spellings and made-up words.  Oogy, the word for which she is most remembered for, first appeared in February 1936.  By January 1937 her letters were getting as much notice as the stories themselves:

“Yuh, yuh, yuh, yuh – I chuckle as I hug myself in fiendish glee – hee hee hee hee.  So – Joseph Allan Ryan, of Cambridge, Maryland, doesn’t like my writing sensibly.  Okay, Joey boy, you asked for it – you’re gonna get cute words.  Yessir.  Y’know – I had often wondered what the readers thot of my kookoo comments.  Reckon as haow they like ‘em.  It’s a laff to think that I write cute words.  Doodness!  You’d never b’lieve it to look at me.  And thanx, Mr. Ryan, for dubbing me Trudy – people are too unkind and call me Gertie – and oh, how that grates on my ears, ugh!…”

Despite the slang, her comments were generally very insightful and poignant.  Sometime during the summer of 1937, Farnsworth Wright met Gertrude; I assume she visited the offices of Weird Tales (being a native of Chicago).  Mysteriously in August 1938 she started signing her letters as Caroline Ferber and by 1940 she’d ceased writing letters altogether.  I wonder what became of her?

Stories, art and letters – three ingredients that comprised the essence of Weird Tales, and all three reached a pinnacle during the ‘30s.  Weird Tales enjoyed a long life; but when people discuss the magazine, it is almost invariably the decade from 1928 – 1938 that they regard as the definitive years. 

Reading these issues consecutively, I have gained a unique (from a modern fan’s viewpoint) perspective.  To see how authors influenced one another (most famously the expansion of the Cthulhu Mythos); to see new ideas introduced and older ones given a new twist – a perspective completely lost by reading single-author collections.

Reading these issues has given me a cultural perspective.  In 1928 sound in motion pictures did not exist; by 1938 Hollywood had turned out a host of horrors (and authors like Dorothy Quick and Henry Kuttner drew on their personal tinsel-town experiences for stories).  Obscure letter writers like Forrest J. Ackerman, Sam Moskowitz and Julius Schwartz began forging alliances that would create and define fandom.  The United States came out of Prohibition; sank into a Depression; and watched as turmoil brewed in Europe.  All of this filtered into the pages of Weird Tales. 

Although there have been a fair number of below-par stories during this ten-year spread, I have been most amazed at how consistently well written the majority of stories are; perhaps the best of any pulp (except perhaps Blue Book).  Much of this credit has to be attributed to its editor Farnsworth Wright.  He seemed a fair judge for stories, and willing to take chances on off-trail stories.  He encouraged and nurtured young writers like C. L. Moore, Robert Bloch and Manly Wade Wellman.  When he died in 1940, Weird Tales would never be the same.

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