Sunday, February 2, 2020

Farnsworth Wright’s Favorite Weird Tales by Bobby Derie

Julius Schwartz
In 1932, teenage fan Julius Schwartz became involved with the Science Fiction Digest, a high-end fanzine (which in 1934 would become Fantasy Magazine). One of the features of SFD was a series titled “Titans of Science Fiction,” short biographical pieces based on interviews with the subject. The last such piece before SFD changed its name concerned Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales from 1924 to 1940. In that piece, Schwartz reports:

Thinks the following stories are the best he has published, not in order:

The Stranger from Kurdistan—E. Hoffman Price;
The Phantom Farmhouse—Seabury Quinn;
The Outsider—H. P. Lovecraft;
The Werewolf of Ponkert—H. Warner Munn;
The Shadow Kingdom—Robert E. Howard;
The Canal—Everil Worrell;
The Wind that Tramps the world—Frank Owen.
—“Farnsworth Wright” by Julius Schwartz, Science Fiction Digest, March 1933

A year later in another fanzine called The Fantasy Fan, Schwartz and his frequent collaborator Mort Weisinger (who also wrote in SFD and would be the editor of Fantasy Magazine) wrote a column titled “Weird Whisperings,” containing factoids and scuttlebutt about weird and fantasy pulp writers and editors. One detail was apparently taken straight from the Wright interview:

Farnsworth Wright says the best stories he’s printed in Weird Tales are (not in the order listed): “The Stranger from Kurdistan” by Price, “The Phantom Farmhouse” by Quinn, “The Outsider” by Lovecraft, “The Werewolf of Ponkert” by Munn, “The Shadow Kingdom” by Howard, “The Canal” by Worrell, “The Wind that Tramps the World” by Owen…—“Weird Whisperings” by Schwartz & Weisinger, The Fantasy Fan June 1934

Farnsworth Wright
It isn’t clear why this particular list came out at this time; Farnsworth Wright was not normally in the habit of naming favorites. But the list may or may not have been influenced by a conversation among the Weird Tales circle a few years earlier. In 1930, August Derleth was working on his B.A. thesis at the University of Wisconsin, on weird fiction, and had sent a long list of what he considered the best stories in the Unique Magazine to H. P. Lovecraft. The Old Gent from Providence went through his own archive of the magazine, and sent a letter to Wright with his own list:

Last week I went over my whole file of Weird Tales in an effort to check up a list of best stories prepared by young Derleth and came to the conclusion that, of everything published since the first number, the following items have the greatest amount of truly cosmic horror and macabre convincingness. I don’t know whether Derleth will agree with me or not, but these are all on his vastly longer list of superior tales. They are:

“Beyond the Door” — Paul Suter
“The Floor Above” — M. Humphreys
“The Night Wire” — H. F. Arnold
“The Canal” — Everil Worrell
“Bells of Oceana” — Arthur J. Burks

I’d include [Frank Belknap Long’s] “Black Druid” if it were published—the Child has improved steadily since the “Death Waters” period when the impress of the artificial Kipling convention was on him. The authors producing the best and most consistent average of high-grade material (not necessarily the most poignant in sheer horror) are Henry S. Whitehead, Arthur J. Burks, E. Hoffmann Price, Belknap, Munn, Frank Owen, and Clark Ashton Smith. Quinn probably could make the grade if he (a) wouldn’t try to write so much, and (b) would write seriously for persons of adult mental age (as in “The Phantom Farmhouse”) instead of frankly catering to the microcephalic rabble. Hamilton has great stuff in him, but like Quinn has become the slave of the herd and of his one recurrent plot formula. Robert E. Howard is on the up-grade. If he will avoid popular catering, he will turn out important stuff in future. Little Derleth, too, is growing-though his most marked improvement is in his non-weird work….reminiscent stuff in the Proust vein. Klarkash-Ton’s future prose work will be worth watching, and Wandrei is always splendid when he writes at all.—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, Jan? 1930, LA8.22-23 (cf. ES1.247)

The lists are far from identical, in part because Wright was looking principally at the stories he had published as editor of Weird Tales from Nov 1924 to 1933—which would rule out “Beyond the Door” (Apr 1923) and “The Floor Above” (May 1923)—and should, arguably, rule out “The Phantom Farmhouse” (Oct 1923), except that Wright had reprinted that story in the March 1929 issue, possibly in part because of Lovecraft’s praise.

Indeed, most of the stories on Wright’s list ended up reprinted in the magazine. Wright had initiated the “Weird Tales Reprint” feature in the July 1925 issue of Weird Tales, publishing classic and often out-of-print weird fiction (which happened to be in the public domain), but in January 1929 he relented and began republishing stories from the magazine’s earliest issues—which the magazine often had purchased complete rights to, allowing them to publish the reprints without paying any fee or royalty (or obtaining permission from) the original author.

This practice was not without its risks. In 1927, Wright had edited together a short anthology of some of the best pieces from the magazine’s first year. The Moon Terror and Other Stories was a dud; copies remained advertised for sale in Weird Tales into the 1940s. Lacking any “name” authors, the lack of sales discouraged further attempts at weird collections or anthologies during Wright’s editorship—though the success of the British Not at Night series and its competitors at reprinting stories from Weird Tales must have told him there was some value in reprints.

In this way “The Wind That Tramps The World”, first published in April 1925, was reprinted in June 1929; “The Stranger from Kurdistan” of July 1925 reappeared in December 1929; Lovecraft’s “The Outside” from April 1926 reappeared in the June-July 1931 issue; and “The Canal” first published in December 1927 was reprinted in April 1935. The success of the reprinting of these classic weird tales can be seen in the tallies of votes from the readers that Wright kept for the most popular stories in each issue; several times the reprints beat out original fiction—such was the case for “The Phantom Farmhouse.”

“The Werewolf of Ponkert,” which originally appeared in July 1925, was reprinted too—but under a different editor. Dorothy McIlwraith on taking over the editorship of Weird Tales in May 1940 discontinued the feature, advertising the magazine as “All Stories New—No Reprints” (which put WT in opposition to its science fiction pulp competitors). The policy was eventually rescinded with the May 1951 issue as Weird Tales declined; Farnsworth Wright did not survive to see “The Werewolf of Ponkert” published again in the January 1953 issue.

Wright’s affection for these stories and authors can be seen in one of the editorials he wrote discussing the reprint feature:

The magazine, we believe, has lived up to the aims of the founders, and has provided a feat of imaginative literature that has entrenched it thoroughly in the affections of its readers, and assured its continued success as long as we continue to play fair with you by printing superb weird tales such as we have given you in the past—stories that reach out into the depths of space and picture such beings as Donald Wandrei describes in The Red Brain; stories of such cataclysmic horror as H. P. Lovecraft depicts in The Rats in the Walls; stories that sound the abysses of physical suffering as H. Warner Munn does in The Chain; fantastic tales surcharged with beauty and sweetness and light, such as The Wind That Tramps the World, by Frank Owen; epochal masterpieces such as E. Hoffmann Price's sublime little tale of devil-worship, The Stranger From Kurdistan, with its audacious close; superb imaginative master-works of literary craft such as A. Merritt's tale of the revolt of the forest, The Woman of the Wood. It is our aim to continue to give you such marvelous weird tales as these; for it is on these stories, and others like them, that the brilliant success of WEIRD TALES has been built.—Farnsworth Wright, “The Eyrie” in Weird Tales, May 1929

The one story from Wright’s list that hasn’t been mentioned—and was never reprinted in the pages of Weird Tales—was “The Shadow Kingdom” (Aug 1929). Why is not exactly clear. In part, it was probably because of age; most of the stories reprinted in the “Weird Tales Reprint” were from the earliest days of the magazine, 1923-1927. Reprint rights do not appear to have been an immediate issue either; when Howard, Lovecraft, E. Hoffmann Price, & others were attempting to publish an anthology of their best Weird Tales stories, Wright apparently gave Howard the go-ahead to use “The Shadow Kingdom” in March 1933 (CL 3.41). Perhaps it was simply that Howard appeared so often in the magazine already (and that Weird Tales was so far behind in paying him), that Wright did not wish to reprint any of his work in that fashion—nor rile Howard’s father after his death by using his fiction without composition. We can only speculate.

What is not speculative is that Farnsworth Wright made no secret of the regard he had for the story. In recalling Howard’s death, and other authors that had passed away, he noted:

The necrology of WEIRD TALES authors is altogether too long. Beginning with the tragic death of Alanson Skinner (The Tsantsa of Professor Von Rothapfel, etc.), who was killed in an automobile accident several years ago, WEIRD TALES has lost by death Henry S. Whitehead (Jumbee, etc.), S. B. H. Hurst (The Splendid Lie, etc.), Edward Lucas White (Lukundoo), Robert E. Howard (The Shadow Kingdom, etc.), Arthur B. Reeve (The Death Cry); those two fine English authors, G. Appleby Terrill (The Supreme Witch, etc.) and Arlton Eadie (The Eye of Truth, etc.); the Mexican poetess Alice I’Anson, and the young Illinois poet Robert Nelson. New authors are coming into their maturity and stepping into the places of those who have gone, but we hope it will be a long, long time before any more of our writers will be added to the necrology of this magazine.—Farnsworth Wright, “The Eyrie” in Weird Tales, Jan 1937

Later that same year, Wright was once again asked to put down his favorite stories from Weird Tales in print; he begged off, to a degree, but pointed to the stories that were most popular among the readers. Unsurprisingly, there was some considerable overlap with his 1933 list:

WE ARE often asked what are the best stories that have appeared in WEIRD TALES. To answer this ex cathedra would be arbitrary, because the only test of a story’s greatness would be the editor’s own preference. There is another test, however — the popularity of a story with our readers. When a story in the magazine so grips the imagination that votes continue to pour in for it months and even years later, then it is safe to assume that the story possesses what is generally known as "It.” By such a test, The Woman of the Wood by A. Merritt leads the field. Other stories that have piled up an impressive total of votes throughout the years are The Outsider and The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft; Shambleau by C. L. Moore; When the Green Star Waned by Nictzin Dyalhis; The Last Horror by Eli Colter; The Wind that Tramps the World by Frank Owen; The Tenants of Broussac and several other tales of Jules de Grandin by Seabury Quinn; Revelations in Black by Carl Jacobi; The Werewolf of Ponkert by H. Warner Munn; Skull-Face and The Shadow Kingdom by Robert E. Howard. And there are others.—Farnsworth Wright, “The Eyrie” in Weird Tales, Sep 1937

Edmond Hamilton
Edmond Hamilton, who visited Wright shortly after his firing from Weird Tales but before his death in 1940, reports:

I recall that on that last occasion, Wright, though busy with a new project, did talk for a while about all the years of Weird Tales. He expressed a hope that some of the stories he had published in it, which he thought were good, would someday be reprinted. And how that had come true! I wish he could have been here to see it.—Edmond Hamilton, “He That Hath Words”, Deeper Than You Think #2

While some of Wright’s favorites have faded into obscurity outside of the most hardcore of pulp and weird fiction fans, the general sentiment is accurate. Whatever his skill or arbitrariness as an editor, at least two of the writers that Wright counted among his favorites—H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard—have passed into the canon of American fiction.

History seldom records such justification of an editor’s personal taste.


CL       The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
ES       Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth
LA        Lovecraft Annual


Sara Light-waller said...

Do you know the story of why Hamilton was fired from Weird Tales?

greyirish said...

Edmond Hamilton wasn't fired from Weird Tales, he was just another pulp writer. Hamilton was visiting Farnsworth Wright, who was the editor of Weird Tales until he was fired from the position in 1940 - probably as a combination of cost-cutting and Wright's declining health (Wright suffered from Parkinson's disease) - he died a few weeks after retirement, not long after Hamilton's visit.

Buntybarbarian said...

Fascinating article, Bookmakring this to read Wright's favorite stories. I am familiar with Howard, Lovecraft, and Quinn but the other writers are a mystery to me.