Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Coincidental Friendship of H. Warner Munn and H. P. Lovecraft by Todd B. Vick

In “The Eyrie” of the March 1924 issue of
Weird Tales, H. P. Lovecraft wrote, “Popular authors do not and apparently cannot appreciate the fact that true art is obtainable only by rejecting normally and conventionality in toto, and approaching a theme purged utterly of any usual or preconceived point of view.”[1] A bold statement, to say the least, especially in a magazine whose byline is The Unique Magazine. But Lovecraft demanded his fiction to be unconventionally ‘other than,’ and as original as possible. For him, crafting a story was an art form. In this same letter, Lovecraft goes on to declare:

Wild and ‘different’ as they may consider their quasi-weird products, it remains a fact that the bizarrerie is on the surface alone; and that basically they reiterate the same old conventional values and motives and perspectives. Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology—the usual superficial stock trade, and all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace.[2]
Had Lovecraft accepted the job as editor when J. C. Henneberger offered it to him back in 1924, he would have likely been a harsh editor, and the magazine would have taken a decidedly different path. Much of the fiction Edwin Baird and Farnsworth Wright accepted would have, no doubt, been rejected by Lovecraft. But alas, we were rewarded the benefit of Lovecraft the writer. There is no telling exactly which stories or authors Lovecraft was disparaging in this letter to Weird Tales’ editor at the time, Edwin Baird. They may have not been Weird Tales’ authors, though it is likely most were. Even so, Lovecraft is making a valid point regarding breaking away from conventional story writing, creating an original tale, thinking outside the box. At least his creative mind demanded as much. Something he also expected, or at least wanted other writers to do. Some of the readers of The Unique Magazine demanded the same, at least they demanded their stories weird, if not ‘original.’

H. P. L
So, in an effort to promulgate something weird and original, Lovecraft made this suggestion: “Take a werewolf story, for instance—who ever wrote one from the point of view of the wolf, and sympathizing strongly with the devil to whom he has sold himself?”[3]

Those of us who love the pulps and their writers (we all have our favorites, of course), probably know that H. Warner Munn attempted to answer Lovecraft’s request with, “The Werewolf of Ponkert,” Munn’s first published short story. About Munn’s story, Farnsworth Wright claimed, “It was the popularity of Mr. Quinn’s werewolf story[4] that led us to feature The Werewolf of Ponkert, by H. Warner Munn, in last months’ issue.”[5] (italics is Wright’s) “The Werewolf of Ponkert” was the cover story for the July 1925 issue of Weird Tales, the same issue in which Robert E. Howard made his debut with “Spear and Fang.”

Lovecraft, as far as I’ve been able to determine, never responded to Munn’s story in “The Eyrie” of any of the subsequent Weird Tales issues. It’s possible that when “The Werewolf of Ponkert” was first published, Lovecraft did not put two and two together and notice that his March 1924 letter in “The Eyrie” was Munn’s inspiration. In fact, it may be that Lovecraft never knew that fact until after he met Munn, and Munn confessed as much. However, there is some evidence from Munn himself that Lovecraft may have recognized Munn’s efforts on behalf of Lovecraft’s letter:

Thinking about the first-person idea tendered in Weird Tales, a tale formulated; I wrote it down, sending it to Weird Tales’ editor Farnsworth Wright, and he bought at [sic] for the usual price of a penny a word. I got a check for $65.00. Bingo! I was now a writer. And as a result of the tale, I received a congratulatory note from the man who had written the letter suggesting my story.[6]

Munn was 22 at the time and up to that point he had only had a few poems published but no fiction. Which means his first time at the proverbial home plate of short fiction resulted in a cover story home-run. The “note” that Lovecraft wrote Munn, as far as we know, no longer exists, so it is impossible to know if it was written merely to congratulate Munn for writing a good cover story, or for using Lovecraft’s idea from his March 1924 letter. Moreover, Munn does not further elaborate on the contents of the note.

Lovecraft and Cook
It was W. Paul Cook, a close friend of Munn’s, who alerted Munn about Lovecraft’s March 1924 Weird Tales. Cook, a jack-of-all trades, was “a printer, an amateur writer, a book publisher, and several times president of the Amateur Press Association.”[7] Shortly after Munn’s story published in Weird Tales, Munn showed Cook the note he received from Lovecraft. Because of Cook’s associations in amateur journalism at the time, he was a friend of Lovecraft’s. So, Cook asked Munn if he’d like to meet Lovecraft, an offer Munn quickly accepted. Munn traveled with Cook from Athol Massachusetts (where he was born and raised) to Providence, RI to visit Lovecraft. This trip took place almost two years after Lovecraft’s congratulatory note to Munn, in the summer of 1927. Lovecraft detailed the visit to Clark Ashton Smith in an August 2, 1927 letter:

My other guests were very welcome, too—Morton, Long & his parents, Cook and Munn. Munn is a very promising youth of the blond, muscular type. He will probably develop into a romancer rather than fantaisiste, & thus have a better chance of professional success.[8]

Of course, Munn continued writing weird fiction (mostly horror), and while not as successful nor as prolific as Lovecraft, he did manage to write some very memorable stories that are still being read today. Some of the more notable stories are from his werewolf series called Tales of the Werewolf Clan. From this initial meet and greet, a lengthy friendship and continual correspondence ensued between the two writers, along with more occasional trips between their home towns to see one another.

Unknown October 1939
About Munn’s stories, Lovecraft once said, “It is too bad that that the better-paying magazines run so persistently to the prosaic. That’s where young Munn is in luck—his tales all savour more of adventure & romance than of the weird, hence will always find a ready reception.”[9] Munn likely wished that were the case, especially since he was not able to break away from the Weird Tales market into other pulp magazines (except for Dreams May Come published in Unknown in 1939). Even so, “Lovecraft [also] had little success with pulps other than Weird Tales and liked to prophesy success for his friends in being better able to create commercial fiction than he could.”[10] 

          Munn was prone to write more historical adventure and romance stories with traditional Gothic themes such as werewolves and the like, something Lovecraft thought was mostly junk.[11] For instance, regarding Munn’s story from the December 1930 Weird Tales, “Tales of the Werewolf Clan: The Master Strikes,” Lovecraft declared, “The trouble with Munn’s tale is that it subscribes too much to the traditional of swashbuckling romance—the Stanley J. Weyman cloak & swordism of 1900.”[12] This was simply a literary tradition Lovecraft did not care for. But, it was one in which Munn preferred and with which he managed some measure of success. Regardless of Lovecraft’s preferences, he supported Munn’s efforts (at least to his face) though he did confess to August Derleth about some issues he had with Munn’s Gothic tales:

Yes—Munn does get into arid and sterile regions when he tries to hitch his romantic-adventure mood and technique to the domain of the weird. He is drawing the poor Master out to such lengths that one cannot keep track of the creature's nature and attributes—indeed, the impression is that he merely retains the supernatural framework as a matter of duty—or concession to Wright—whereas he really wants to write a straight historical romance. But the kid's young, and we can well afford to give him time. Let him get Ponkertian werewolves out of his system, and see what he can do with a fresh start![13]

            In between writing his Werewolf Clan stories, Munn managed to create some lively strange tales such as “The City of Spiders” (1926), “The Chain” (1928), “A Sprig of Rosemary,” (1933), and “Dreams May Come” (1939), his first new market story published in the October 1939 Unknown magazine. Aside from the earliest two (which are well worth reading), none surpassed the quality of the stories in his Werewolf Clan series. The last thing Munn wrote, possibly due to marriage and family obligations, was a four-part series that Weird Tales published between the September to December 1939 issues titled, “King of the World’s Edge.” In this series, Munn works within the historical context of exploration and Roman history to weave a stunning tales of new world discoveries, barbaric empires, and fish-monsters. It is a kind of sword & sorcery story but in an actual historical context and setting which includes monsters, magic, and swordplay, what’s not to like? The series, in a nut shell, is about a document, written by Ventidius Varro, a British-Roman legionnaire. It was discovered after a hurricane in the southern Florida Keys. The events in the discovered document take place during the height of King Arthur’s reign, but Arthur is defeated in battle, and this is the final days of Roman occupation in Britain. Soldiers, along with Arthur and a mage named Myrdhinn, are isolated and left to fight the invading Saxon marauders. At the point Arthur is defeated, Myrdhinn and the remaining legionnaires set sail for a place to hide and end up in the new world where they experience strange lands, new people (tribes), and odd creatures. In this new world, they attempt to create a new civilization but must first overcome certain adversities. 

The story was reprinted in 1966 in a single volume by Ace Publishers with its original title from Weird Tales. In the 1960s and 70s Munn wrote two additional volumes as sequels, The Ship from Atlantis (1967), and Merlin’s Ring (1974), which is considered by many to be Munn’s best work. The first two of these three books were put into a single volume from Del Rey (a division of Ballantine Books) titled Merlin’s Godson (1976). This was my introduction to Munn back in 1980.

 On January 14, 1930, Munn married Malvena Ruth Beaudoin. She eventually accompanied her husband and Cook on various excursions to visit Lovecraft and would host Lovecraft when he visited the Munns. To better understand their conversations, Malvena read several of Lovecraft’s stories. Munn declared that Malvena “found it difficult to understand some of his stories, but when he visited us, he did make a conscious effort to speak simply and easily.”[14] About Lovecraft, Malvena once said: “He talks as though he had swallowed a dictionary.”[15] The Munns had their first child (John Warner) in 1931, and another (James Edward) in 1936. With new responsibilities and an inability to publish enough stories to support a growing family, Munn stepped away from writing for nearly 30 years and worked various conventional jobs. However, he continued to write and publish for 9 years after he married, he also continued his friendship with both Cook and Lovecraft.

At one point, Cook gave Munn his entire library, which apparently was the envy of Lovecraft, who admitted as much in a letter to R.H. Barlow:

Cook gave most of his library to H. Warner Munn. He has virtually nothing now—except perhaps a few stray items up at his sister’s in New Hampshire. Yes—it was full of fantastic stuff—the best library of the sort I ever encountered. Munn, of course, now has the best collection.[16]

The loss of Cook’s library to Munn was a progressive road to hardship and a nervous collapse beginning with the death of his wife in 1930. Over the next few years, Cook lost his job when the company closed due to the Great Depression. Cook explains:
I suddenly found myself struck down from a comfortable condition of life with an income of about $5000 to a grade of no income and in debt about $1000. I have discarded everything; have given away or thrown away everything, including my job, my real estate, my household furnishings, and my library.[17]

H. Warner Munn
Cook retained a few select volumes, and likely gave Munn his library for sake-keeping. Shortly after 1934, Munn began to slowly ignore his correspondence, failing to respond to letters, and Lovecraft became a bit frustrated by this. During this period, Lovecraft once declared, “As for Munn, he’s the most notorious neglectful person in the gang . . . his negligence amounting to a positive psychological defect.” Lovecraft continues, “For example—Fantasy Magazine wants to get a hold of the long & important article on popular bizarre fiction which he wrote for Cook’s defunct Recluse, yet letters from its editor remain unanswered.”[18] Lovecraft likely heard about this from Cook, who apparently was also unable to get in touch with Munn at this time. It is uncertain why Munn was non-responsive during this period. He even took a break from publishing between 1933 and 1939. By July of 1934, Cook apparently told Lovecraft that Munn had become “religious,” and it was possibly this that had led to Munn’s despondency toward publishing as well as ignoring Cook and Lovecraft. About this, Lovecraft told R. H. Barlow:

Cook says he’s going to get after Munn in person & give him hell. Munn has a lot of Cook’s property in his custody, & won’t respond to any enquiries about it. Cook now advances the theory that Munn’s religious fanaticism is responsible for his boorish silence—that he has wiped all atheists off his books & won’t have anything to do either with us or with any interests with which we’re connected. That sounds far-fetched though to me.[19]

          Apparently, Cook was needing access to the library he, a year earlier, gave Munn, and it was being denied him for some unknown reason. From this point, Lovecraft became a bit embittered at Munn and began disparaging him in his letters, calling him the “elusive and invisible Werewolf of Ponkert,”[20] and “the Werewolf.”[21] In the Autobiographical Writings of R.H. Barlow, in the section titled, “Memories of Lovecraft 1934,” Barlow recalled, “H. Warner Munn has such a belief in the supernatural as to have caused him to become Catholic after his marriage; and almost repudiate his earlier work as morbid and not nice. Recently he wrote a thing L. [Lovecraft] contemned (“The Wheel” is an old thing) and said Munn was getting seedy.”[22] 

          Other than Lovecraft’s letters, there is no explanation of why Munn was absent from both his friends and from publishing during this time. It may have been because of religious commitments, for a time Munn was a council member at Ascension Lutheran Church.[23] However, I have not found any evidence that he converted to Roman Catholicism at any time in his life (other than Barlow’s reference to it) It may have been that Munn needed to give his family more attention. It’s possible it was a combination of both. Whatever the case, and it is pure speculation at this point until further information about it surfaces, Munn did not resurface until 1939 when he submitted his “King of the World’s Edge” series to Weird Tales. Afterward he went back into seclusion, this time probably actually due to family responsibilities, with two children and a wife to support (and two more kids born in the 1940s). And, as mentioned earlier, Munn did not reappear in the publishing industry until the 1960s. Additionally, when Lovecraft died in March of 1937, Munn was surprisingly quiet about it.

            Be that as it may, Lovecraft and Munn were good friends for many years. And, in the winter of Munn’s life, he wrote a two-part reminiscence of his old friend for the fanzine Whispers, detailing fond memories he had visiting, traveling, and carrying on lengthy conversations with Lovecraft. And, even though Lovecraft did not prefer traditional Gothic stories, he complimented some of these same works and others by Munn to his writing peers. Lovecraft was especially fond of two of Munn’s earlier works, “The City of Spiders” and “The Chain.” Lovecraft admits to August Derleth that “‘The Chain’ is certainly his masterpiece to date.”[24] Moreover, “City of Spiders” was a favorite of Robert E. Howard’s, who admitted so in a 1934 letter to Lovecraft: “I remember his ‘City of Spiders’ as one of the most striking and powerful stories I have ever read; and his “Tales of the Werewolf Clan” had the real historic sweep.”[25]

Munn had a very intriguing life, especially in his upbringing. His grandmother corresponded with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and by the age of seven, Munn claims to have read 100 books, including Les Miserables, the Bible and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.[26] He was an astute student of history, especially medieval history and the study of Joan of Arc. The last work Munn wrote, The Lost Legion, was the one thing Lovecraft claimed Munn had the greatest talent for— adventure and romance. It was published in 1980 and was a masterful sweep of Roman history and its empire. It focused on the Emperor Caligula's obsession to rid the empire of a single man, so he sends a legion of soldiers on a suicidal mission to eliminate this man. On the mission, they encounter one obstacle after another. The novel was nominated in 1981 for the Balrog Award, and Munn died that same year on January 10, leaving behind several wonderful stories.

Regarding Munn’s story, “The Werewolf of Ponkert,” Lovecraft once confessed in a letter to Robert Bloch:

I had a letter in the Eyrie in 1923 [the letter was actually in the March 1924 issue] in which I called for the ghoul’s or werewolf’s point of view, but nobody seemed to get the point. H. Warner Munn thought he was following out my idea when he wrote his “Werewolf of Ponkert” (told by a man who was involuntarily became a werewolf, & who regrets his nocturnal deeds), but in reality he wholly missed it. His sympathies were still with mankind—whereas I called for sympathies wholly disassociated from mankind & perhaps violently hostile to it.[27]

It is true, in the March 1924 letter to “The Eyrie,” Lovecraft added the caveat, “. . . and sympathizing strongly with the devil to whom he has sold himself.”[28] Munn had dropped the ball on that aspect of Lovecraft’s request, but the readers still got a first-rate weird horror story with “The Werewolf of Ponkert.” Moreover, since Lovecraft established the parameters of the requested story, one wonders why he did not write it himself. “The Outsider” was the closest Lovecraft came to satisfying that idea. Interestingly, Lovecraft, in that same letter to Bloch, indicated that Bloch’s story, “Nocturne Macabre”[29] was the first thing he had read that fit the bill.

[Thanks to Bobby Derie for fact checking this article and providing a few helpful insights]


[1]  Lovecraft, H. P. “The Eyrie.” Editorial. Weird Tales, March 1924.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] This is possibly "The Werewolf of St. Bonnot" (WT May-Jun-Jul 1924), but it’s more likely "The Phantom Farmhouse" (WT Oct 1923).
[5] Wright, Farnsworth. “The Eyrie.” Editorial. Weird Tales, August 1925.
[6] Munn, H. Warner. “HPL.” Whispers, Whole Number 9, Vol. 3, no. 1 (December 1976): 24.
[7] Ibid.
[8]  Lovecraft, H. P., and Clark Ashton Smith. “1927.” In Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, 139. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2017.
[9] Lovecraft, H. P., and Clark Ashton Smith. “1930.” 220.
[10] Bobby Derie in personal correspondence, 5/21/2018.
[11] See Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, 248.
[12] Lovecraft, H. P., and Clark Ashton Smith. “1930.” 245.
[13] Lovecraft, H. P., and August Derleth. "1930." In Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth: 1926-1931, 305. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2013.
[14] Munn, H. Warner. “HPL: A Reminiscence” Whispers, Whole Number 13-14, Vol. 4, no. 1-2 (December 1976): 24.
[15] Ibid.
[16]  Lovecraft, H. P., and R. H. Barlow, "1934." In O Fortunate Floridian: H. P. Lovecraft's Letters to R. H. Barlow, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 54. Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press, 2016.
[17] W. Paul Cook to Donald Wandrei, 23 Aug 1931, quoted in W. Paul Cook: The Wandering Life of a Yankee Printer 40. (Donnelly, Sean (ed.) (2007). W. PAUL COOK: The Wandering Life of a Yankee Printer. NY: Hippocampus Press)
[18] Ibid. 105
[19] Ibid. 155.
[20] Ibid. 164.
[21] Ibid. 173.
[22] Ibid. 404.
[23]  See: Reginald, R. Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Vol. 2. Detroit MI: Gale Research Company, 1979. Entry for H. Warner Munn.
[24] Lovecraft, H. P., and August Derleth. "1932." In Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth: 1932-1937, 475. Vol. 2. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2013.
[25]  Howard, Robert E., and H. P. Lovecraft. "1932." In A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard: 1930-1932, edited by S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke, 292. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2009.
[26] See Reginald, R. Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Vol. 2. Detroit MI: Gale Research Company, 1979. Entry for H. Warner Munn.
[27] Lovecraft, H. P., and Robert Bloch. "Letters to Robert Bloch." In Letters to Robert Bloch and Others, edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, 49-50. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2015.
[28] Lovecraft, H. P. “The Eyrie.” Editorial. Weird Tales, March 1924.
[29] This story no longer exists.

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