Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Letter From Seabury Quinn by Bobby Derie

Seabury Quinn—whose longer tales I simply cannot wade through—is the perfect popular ideal—those who differ from him have just so much less chance of suiting cheap editors.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 4 Dec 1934, LWP 390

Seabury Quinn was the most popular writer at Weird Tales during his lifetime, and his sales eclipsed those of Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Where those later writers have gained greater respectability in death, and their work published and republished, adapted to comics, film, music, and other media, Quinn’s fiction has only partially and periodically regained the notice of the public, and the study of his life and works largely neglected. In part, this is because unlike Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith, there are very few surviving letters from Quinn’s pen or typewriter, and those are mostly in private hands, unpublished, or lingering in obscure fanzines.

This is one such letter, a relative rarity both in length and content. It was written to Weird Tales fan Emil Petaja in December 1934. Around this period, Petaja had also written to and received letters back from both H. P. Lovecraft, recently collected in Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja from Hippocampus Press; and Robert E. Howard, the latter incident appearing in Novalyne Price Ellis’ memoir One Who Walked Alone.

[Address - Seabury Quinn]
24 Jefferson Avenue,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
December 6, 1934.

Dear Mr. Petaja:

Thanks a lot for the mighty good letter you sent me November 25. I’ve been intending to get an answer off ever since I received it, but the necessity of making a trip over to Cincinnati upset all my plans, and this is my first opportunity to attend to any personal correspondence for some time.

About a Ms. I’m sorry, but I haven’t got such a thing around the house.[1] You see, I’m mos casual in my work. My stuff is roughed out in longhand---and very rough it is, too, being little more than a series of notes, set down for the most part in my own private system of shorthand. Then it’s typed, and I make only one copy---no carbons. They are a damned nuisance, and when one is an inexpert typist, such as I, the necessity of doubling all corrections makes the work too heavy for a lazy man. Too, the fact that I’m pretty much a one-magazine man, writing only for W.T., and then only as occasion, inclination and pressure of work permits,[2] I have a rather small output. In 1934, for instance, I wrote only three stories.[3] “The Jest of Warburg Tantavul” was published in September, in January will be another de Grandin yarn, and the last of the year’s output comes out in February, I think. I called it the Web of Bondage, but only God and the NRA[4] know what Farnsworth Wright will decide to call it when he prints it. However, it’s a departure---for me, at any rate. Not about Jules de Grandin --- but I hope you like it.

Several of my readers have been kind enough to ask for Mss. and I have suggested that they write to Editor Wright and ask him for his copy when the printers are done with them. He’s a good scout, Wright is, and will let you have a Ms. if he has one available. Then, if you’ll trouble to send me the title page of the thing, I’ll be mighty glad to put my John Hancock on it and mail it back to you and voila, as we occasionally say in Brooklyn, you’ll have the autographed Ms. though only Secretary Wallace and the AAA know what you want of the damned thing.[5] Me, I always want to get rid of ‘em as fast as I can.

Just at present I’m seething to go on some more yarns, but just haven’t been able to find time to put ‘em down on paper. I’ve a notebook full of new plot situations, and if I can get around to it, I can turn out a year’s supply for W.T. in a couple of months. The job is to get started, however. I’m not a slow workman. Two thousand words a sitting is my usual stint, and generally a story takes only about a week (evening work) from inception to mailing. Typing is the hardest work of all. If I could bawl ‘em out to a stenographer it would be a lot simpler, but I’ve tried it a couple of times with disastrous results. The darn girls all think they now what I wanted to say better than I did, with the result that dictation meant double duty--- one job of making notes and dictating, a second one of revising and “restoring” the typist’s ms. No luck in that.

During October I was down in New Orleans and had a great time poking around a lot of out of the way places. Tried to drink up all the licker in town, too, but failed miserably in the effort.[6] But I came back with a lot of plot suggestions, and 1935 should see some of them germinating into real stories. An afternoon spent in old St. Louis cemetery, reading and coping the French epitaphs was an inspiration in itself.[7] Yeah, I surely feel the birth-pains tearing me right now.

Have you read Price’s latest?[8] That feller is surely one great writer, as is Hamilton.[9] I’m a great admirer of Greye La Spina, too. She’s a hot number, and one of my greatest pleasures is to have her over to my place for dinner and a chat. How about Lovecraft? He, personally, is a delightful chap, but I don’t go for his writing in such a big way.[10] Like Hamilton better. Or Price, or Kline.[11]

If you’d really like to have one of my Mss. just drop a line to Farnsworth Wright, tell him your desire, and I know he’ll be glad to let you have one. He’s might decent and accommodating that way.

And thanks again for your kind criticisms of my work. I’m going to try to merit some more from you and the other W.T. readers in the coming year.

Cordially yours,

Seabury Quinn [12]

[1] Petaja, like R. H. Barlow, wrote to pulp writers asking for the manuscripts of their stories that appeared in Weird Tales.

[2] While not always a “one magazine man,” Weird Tales was the main outlet for Wright’s pulp fiction in this period, as The Magic Carpet Magazine had ceased publication in 1934.

[3] Probably “The Jest of Warburg Tentavul” (Weird Tales Sep 1934), “Hands of the Dead” (WT Jan 1935), and “The Web of Living Death” (WT Feb 1935).

[4] The National Recovery Administration.

[5] Henry Agard Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture and a supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).

[6] Prohibition was repealed in December 1933.

[7] New Orleans formed a backdrop to several of Quinn’s stories, the French epitaphs may have been a possible inspiration for “Pledged to the Dead” (WT Oct 1937). In a letter to Virigl Finlay in 1937 about illustrations for the story, Quinn wrote:

To walk through old St. Louis Cemetery is to turn the clock back two centuries. Even in broad daylight, ladies arrayed as Julie was [...] St. Louis Cemetery in the moonlight --- how H. P. Lovecraft would have reveled in it! (FCA 25)

[8] E. Hoffmann Price, probably “Queen of the Lilin” (WT Nov 1934) starring Pierre d’Artois, his own occult detective. This was the last of the d’Artois stories, and Price wrote in the introduction to Far Lands and Other Days:

Quinn and I conferred. Although my Pierre d’Artois was coeval with his Jules de Grandin, so that neither could be considered as having influenced the other, Quinn’s hero had won such tremendous applause, and had appeared so many times, that I told him I did not wish to be in the position of doing pastiches. I dumped d’Artois. (xvii)

In his memoir of Quinn in the Book of the Dead, Price expanded on this:

Seabury and I exchanged letters, and I said to him, “This is not a matter to debate. As a matter of self protection, I am killing the Pierre d’Artois series, lest someone fancy that I am imitating you. Not that I would not—it is that I could not do a good job of it!” (164)

[9] Edmond Hamilton, better known for his space opera stories, but a Weird Tales regular.

[10] Quinn and Lovecraft had met in 1931; neither was particularly fond of the other’s approach to fiction, though they recognized their respective talents.

[11] Otis Adelbert Kline, who had some early success with Weird Tales and by the 1930s had largely turned to being an agent, working with E. Hoffmann Price, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert E. Howard among others.

[12] Quinn had a habit of drawing a smiley face (and, less often, a frownie face) in the culminating Q of his signed letters; this is very typical of the signatures in his letters to Virgil Finlay, published in the Fantasy Collectors Annual 1975.

Works Cited
FCA     Fantasy Collectors Annual 1975
LWP    Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja

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