John Locke has a new book ostensibly about the origins of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, The Thing’s Incredible: The Secret Origins of Weird Tales. However, it is oh so much more.
I became smitten with the pulps the first time I read one of my grandfather’s, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson pulp adventure stories. That was over twenty years ago and it was the spark that initiated the journey to discover his life and work. Before I knew that much about the Major’s contributions to comics I fell in love with his pulp stories.
When I first began to research Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s life and work in earnest I was not connected to the pulp or comics community. There was no context for me of where this genre fit into the greater world of literature. That naivete allowed me to accept the work on its own merit without prejudice as if I time traveled back to a period in American life when the pulps were at the height of their popularity and I was any reader perusing the newsstands for the latest adventure stories. Even as I have branched out to read other pulp writers besides the Major, that “beginner’s mind” is at the core of my love of the genre.
Eventually I found the courage to approach the mostly male dominion of pulpdom and I got to know some of the best historians and writers about pulps. Through their generosity and assistance, my understanding and knowledge of the genre has expanded and I’m still learning. John Locke, in particular, has been my guide through the high and low adventures of the pulps.
John is a true archeologist of pulps, digging and sifting through the dust until he finds the holy grail of whatever current pulp story he is following to its ultimate end. And he’s found some pretty grand nuggets along the way. Fortunately, you can read much of his work through Off-Trail Publications. John’s latest book is a culmination of so much of what makes him an excellent researcher and a terrific writer. The Thing’s Incredible: The Secret Origins of Weird Tales reveals the mystical origins of the fantastic fiction magazine Weird Tales.
True confession. I have never read Weird Tales magazine nor have I ever read any H.P. Lovecraft and I probably won’t. For those of you who are devoted fans of Weird Tales and H.P. Lovecraft this is the book you have been waiting for. Why then, do I love this book? Because dear reader, the thing that is incredible is not so much the details of Weird Tales but the richer story that Locke provides in everything he writes. It is the story of the nuts and bolts of what it meant, and in many ways, still means to be a writer, an editor and a publisher. Throughout the book the story of the struggle to create this unique magazine, Locke’s passion for the world of writing and publishing reveals the passion that drives every writer to keep forcing thoughts into some kind of coherent whole even when there is rejection and little or no pay. He reveals the agonies of long-suffering editors and the constant panic of financial doom that most publishers face at one time or another and it’s a great tale. Not the least because of the interconnections between so much of popular culture that came out of this period including modern comic books. Locke not only knows his pulps and his comics but he’s well versed in films. This coupled with his exhaustive research into newspapers of the day have given him an insight into the times that is exceptional.
The people who began this fantastical journey come alive through the meticulous research and often newly discovered anecdotes and letters. Edwin Baird, the editor is particularly sympathetic for anyone who has ever attempted to read and correct a poorly written manuscript. Baird complained openly to his readers and potential contributors in a column, The Eyrie. In one instance suggesting that certain clichés might not be the thing. “The time has come to talk of cats and Chinamen, and rattlesnakes and skulls—and why it is these things abound in yarns for Weird Tales…Sometimes the result is interesting. And sometimes it is awful! And again, sometimes it is a ludicrous thing, unconsciously funny.”
H.P. Lovecraft is revealed as the archetype of every eccentric and brilliant writer who ever told and sold a tall tale. His letters are gossipy, full of puns and pseudo characterizations of himself as for one, an ancient grandfather. He invents nicknames for everyone and uses old-fashioned language and spelling and is genuinely highly entertaining. Some of Lovecraft’s views on the subject of his life with Weird Tales are worth a good laugh as in this letter to Clark Ashton Smith about the editor Farnsworth Wright’s timidity in regard to eerie tales. “I trust [your future titles] may somehow get past Little Farny’s timid glance. A recent experience of little Bobby Bloch does not form an encouraging omen—for Pharnabozus turned down a yarn of his (about a chap who found that his bedfellow in an hotel was a badly decomposed cadaver) on the ground of excessive horror, bringing up the now-classic case of 1924…Poor Farny—he’s like a dog which has received a nerve-breaking scare, & cringes every time anything reminds him of it.” This is simply delicious and there’s a lot more of it.
The stories and lives of publishers Jacob Henneberger and his partner J.M. Lansinger along with long time editor Farnsworth Wright are rendered in the same meticulous research with poignant conclusions. And woven through it all is the rich context of the fundamentals of the publishing business, the place of pulps within American culture, the places and people of the time and the significance of their lives. It was rumored before the book appeared that there were over 500 notes. Specifically there are 609. Those notes indicate the determination of a writer to get to the bottom of the story. John Locke like every hero in a film noir movie refuses to back down when confronted with a dark alley. The facts in his hands are not random but connected to bring a larger picture into focus and become a story not just of the origins of Weird Tales but a story of the times, of the causes and effects of what it meant to be a writer, an editor and a publisher with a unique idea. And best of all, it’s told in John’s wry, sly wit. You will love this book. I do. I have the hardcover because I know I will be going back to it again and again.