Weird Tales: “slick-paper fiction wrapped in pulp”

ESSAY by Maggie Brown

Weird_Tales_March_1942Weird Tales emerged in 1923 as a pulp magazine devoted to representing “the best weird and fantastic stories obtainable.” Just a few years into its publication history, Weird Tales came to define the weird fantasy genre with its mixture of “horror, science fiction, swords and sorcery, occult, dream fantasies, supernatural, black humour, psychology, and even some bizarre crime thrillers.”[1] The magazine’s innovative blending of the detective, Gothic and science fiction genres attracted marginalized groups of readers that differed from the accepted societal norms, forming what Lauren Berlant calls an “intimate public.” As an alternative to the commercially popular yet raunchy and poorly written “shudder pulps,” the editors, writers and readers of Weird Tales were determined to distinguish their fantasy magazine as an esteemed publication devoted to printing sophisticated literature for their intimate public to read.  These high-brow aspirations clashed with the popular belief that the cheaply printed pulps “cater[ed] to an unsophisticated and unsubtle class” of “blue collars” with fiction that simple and not particularly literary. Weird Tales was started during a major cultural shift in aesthetic criticism, when “high” art was shifting to an elitist, intellectual minority and distinguishing itself against “lowbrow” popular literature and mass culture.  Because of its genre niche and physical resemblance to other pulp magazines, Weird Tales suffered financial failure and automatic rejection by the literary establishment, both during its own era and today. Scholars perpetuate the high-low modernist split by continuing to ignore the literary aspirations of Weird Tales’ publishers, as well as the quality of the authors that the magazine introduced.  Far from acknowledging the productive tension between the literary ambitions of Weird Tales and the genre-related associations of its pulp form, critics have allowed the taint of the pulps to dictate their objects of study, writing off Weird Tales as a trashy quick-read for the uneducated mass.

weird_tales_193302Weird Tales had to defend itself amongst a sea of pulp magazines “mass-produced as a cheap thrill for the working man (and schoolboy)…written quickly, to be read in the same way, and discarded,” as well as against the genre of the raunchy “shudder pulps.”[2] These shudder pulps, such as Dime Mystery, in the genre of weird menacism featured fiction encapsulating the “bizarre, seemingly unexplainable deaths…in a Gothic setting of dreary houses…of devil cults and demoniac evildoers, of heroines under dire threat, and heroes pitted against seemingly hopeless odds.”[3] With sex-sadism portrayed on the covers streaming in bold “Debutantes for the Damned” and grotesque menaces such as the “Hairless Thing” torturing helpless heroines within the pages, shudder pulps exploited lascivious gimmicks to sell imaginative quick reads that served as a mental escape during the Great Depression.[4] Shudder pulps readers did not desire esoteric and self-analyzing works that would only further remind them of their poverty. These specific pulps created the popular conception that the pulps were low culture products based on a simple writing style and the shock effect of salacious subject matter. They served a mass audience of workingmen and youths and as a result conjoined the fantasy genre and pulps with low culture and the lower, uneducated classes in contrast to modernist magazines like The Criterion, that published T.S. Eliot and Woolf for educated elite readers. Furthermore, the shudder pulps became associated with Weird Tales because both were printed on pulp paper and included elements of horror and the supernatural. By genre association, the literary value and consideration of Weird Tales was reduced to gimmicky schoolboy stories rather than sophisticated literature.

WeirdTales2In contrast to the shudder pulps, the audience and genre of Weird Tales instead established an “intimate public” that separated it from the common lowbrow pitfall of the pulps. The audience of Weird Tales, most notoriously H.P. Lovecraft’s cult followers, are often blamed for harming the reputation of its writers. The fans unintentionally “caused critics to dismiss Lovecraft unread as merely the object of a cult of overzealous amateurs.” Critics believed that the audience damaged the literary value of the fiction because of their “extravagant claims and uncritical praise.”[5] However, viewing the audience as an “intimate public” rather than the derogatory “cult follower” dissolves the oversimplifying label of lowbrow. The audience in Weird Tales embodies what Berlant describes as “intimate public [which] operates when a market opens up to a bloc of consumers, claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires.”[6] The intimate public of weird fiction lovers that coalesced around Weird Tales sets it apart from the shudder pulps, complicating the reductive, reflexive association of popular literature with simplistic escapism. Unlike the shudder pulps, the contributors and readers of Weird Tales were determined to raise the magazine to a literary level comparable to the modernist little magazine. In his call for writers in the United Amateur Press Association, Lovecraft describes the kind of intimate public the Weird Tales editors sought to accommodate:

The United aims to assist those whom other forms of literary influence cannot reach. The non-university man, the dwellers in different places, the recluse, the invalid, the very young, the elderly; all these are included within our scope. And beside our novices stand persons of mature cultivation and experience, ready to assist for the sheer joy of assisting…It is a university, stripped of every artificiality and conventionality and thrown open to all without distinction.[7]

weird tales poeLovecraft emphasizes the unpretentiousness and radical inclusivity of those who exist outside the accepted societal norms. He argues that Weird Tales sheds the exclusionary elitism of academics and the upper class while still fostering literary cultivation. The magazine’s mission was to provide a “body” in which members of the weird fiction subculture could collaborate and communicate. The readers, writers, and editors prided themselves in being what Seabury Quinn calls “[a] select, sophisticated minority,” an aspiration that is most evident in the correspondence section titled “The Eyrie” within each issue.[8] Within the pages of “The Eyrie” readers, writers, and editors came together to discuss, criticize and praise the texts published in Weird Tales, establishing a “family feeling” amongst the magazine’s followers that promoted “a kind of mutual concern for its well-being.”[9] “The Eyrie” provided the space for the intimate public of Weird Tales to make requests for reprints, share their opinions about the texts, and praise or blame the magazine’s organization. Writers were also able to praise other writers. Editor Farnsworth Wright evokes the power of the readers’ opinions, including the writers as readers, in his declaration to Weird Tales’ intimate public that “this is your magazine and you are its real editors.”[10] The intimate public of Weird Tales is best displayed within the communicatory forum of “The Eyrie,” as seen in the following reader’s letter:

I have only one grouse against the magazine—it should be three times as large, and also it is a hellish thing to be reading by candlelight whilst watching over someone who is doing his best to croak, which was my job a short while ago.[11]

weird_talesThe reader’s mention of his job at a hospice emphasizes the reclusive “fans of the supernatural” intimate public that the magazine welcomed with open arms.  This readership, far from demeaning the new work that Weird Tales sought to foster, actually established the fantasy genre and did not harm the literary reputation; on the contrary, it  “kept the work alive in the margins of the marketplace.”[12]

Just as Weird Tales’ audience was considered detrimental to its literary aspirations, the fantasy genre was indistinguishable in the critical mind from all other genre fiction. Even H. P. Lovecraft was ignored as non-literary during his publication. Edmund Wilson’s criticism illuminates this caustic tie to horror genre and the existing pulps when discussing Lovecraft’s stories:

Such creatures would look very well on the covers of the pulp magazines, but they do not make good adult reading. And the truth is that these stories were hackwork contributed to such publications as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, where, in my opinion, they ought to have been left.[13]

Weird Tales Cover-1933-05This is an unfortunate case of judging a magazine by its cover—or, in this case, by the quality of the paper that it was printed on. Weird Tales can be grouped with the salacious shudder pulps only by considering what these publications are not—that is, literature in some form of the realist tradition. The differences between the intricate dystopian landscapes of Weird Tales, in which the plots develop sophisticated insights into modern culture, and the indulgent, indecent and poorly structured fiction of the shudder pulps may be even greater than the distance between Virginia Woolf’s novels and Lovecraft’s stories. It’s hard to say, since critics have, until very recently, refused to even consider genre publications as having any literary value. It is still the case that prolific, visionary writers of the magazine, including Clark Ashton Smith, are dismissed as writers of lowbrow popular fiction. Because of their association with the popular end of modernism’s highbrow-lowbrow distinction, these authors are unjustly perceived as outside the sphere of literary modernism and unworthy of academic study. One of the first writers of science fiction, Smith illustrated Weird Tales and contributed to its pages poetry and prose fiction in a subgenre that Brian Stableford categorizes as “phantasmagoric Romanticism.”[14] Comparable to the modernist mission to “make it new,”[15] Smith “wanted to outdo in imaginative reach all established mythologies of past and present.” Like Lovecraft, Smith focused on the modern crisis of “the detachment and clinicality of the scientific outlook.” Smith’s work also portrays existentialist philosophy, a zeitgeist of the time, pursuing the “utter irrelevance and insignificance of man, and the sheer helplessness of human ambition in the fact of cosmic processes which render human efforts meaningless and absurd.”[16] When reading Smith’s poetry and prose it becomes evident that his audience was not simply an uneducated working class seeking a trashy quick thrill, as was the case with the shudder pulps. A selection from “The Abominations of Yondo” emphasizes his experimental craft:

Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished, and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.[17]

Weird_Tales_July_1944Smith had an innovative style that was “virtually inimitable” and rejected “the kind of homogeneity and stereotypy which would be capable of mass-production,” particularly through his imagined words and worlds so distant from anything conceivable or paralleled to reality.[18] As with Lovecraft, critics saw Smith’s fiction as “bad writing” and “literary incompetence,” unable to value it for its “unusual method.” Smith’s stories suffered from the lack of an established audience “tuned in to their idiosyncrasies.”[19] Smith is still not appreciated in today’s literary conversation and his texts remain untouched by literary analysis. Smith’s work applies many criteria of literary modernism—defamiliarization, existentialism, innovative prose style—to genre fiction, making him a modernist author in a pulp magazine. Smith’s introduction of modernist literary goals into a popular medium threatens to topple the genre hierarchies that have defined modernism since its inception.

weird_tales_193310Despite the unified efforts of readers, writers, and editors to establish Weird Tales as a literary magazine, accommodating specific readers with high taste, Weird Tales remained tainted by its association with the shudder pulps. Consequentially the magazine suffered financially. The audience and the fiction itself were not inherent obstacles to the magazine’s success, although they were perceived as such by critics. Ironically, the magazine’s financial struggle resulted from its mission to elevate its stories to literary status, since its desire to be literary clashed with its mass culture pulp form. Weird Tales struggled to meet its intimate public’s desires and survive financially. The editors “resisted the temptation to lower their standards when those around them courted higher circulation figures with gimmickry, sensation and a fairly murky line in sex exploitation” as the shudder pulps did.[20] However, the battle of maintaining high literary standards and not succumbing to the cheap tricks that shudder pulps used to market their magazines left Weird Tales financially insolvent. Consequently, there were certain “lapse[s] of taste” within the magazine’s history, although limited and not nearly as extreme as the sex exploitation of shudder pulps. For example, the May/June/July 1924 issue published the short story “The Loved Dead” by C.M. Eddy, a story that featured necrophilia, a controversial topic (to say the least) which ignited a rage to have the magazine banned in a number of cities. As a result of this controversy, sales of Weird Tales increased. However, Wright would never lower his standards to the “sex and sensationalism that boosted the flagging sales of other ‘pulps’ during the hard years of the Depression” and Eddy’s piece was considered a minor “lapse in taste.”[21] The temptation of the immensely successful contrivances that allowed the shudder pulps to fly off the newsstand appeared again near the end of the magazine’s run, during Dorothy McIlwraith’s tenure as editor. Mcllwraith transformed the format of the magazine by printing only the writers’ comments on stories in “The Eyrie,” which previously included readers as well. McIlwraith also introduced a “Weird Tales Club” in which readers submitted their address to communicate personally with other fans. She claimed its creation was motivated by reader demand: “Readers wanted it–they wrote in telling us how much they would enjoy meeting others of similar taste.” Under McIlwraith, Weird Tales published less poetry, more reprints, had an attempt at radio broadcasting of the magazine, and introduced a section titled “It Happened To Me” where readers shared allegedly psychic experiences.[22] The excessive increase of advertisements alone illustrate the editor’s direct response to the failing nature of the magazine and the fact that the specific, intimate public of readers and writers ultimately could not support it financially.

Weird_Tales_July_1944Like Dashiell Hammett’s efforts to “make literature of [pulp fiction],” Weird Tales critically and financially failed as a result of its attempt to satisfy its intimate public’s culturally conflictive demands for an inexpensive magazine that printed sophisticated weird fiction. The stigma of cheaply printed pulp juxtaposed with costly slick paper of the avant-garde modernist “little magazines” served as the kiss of death. Today, however, we can revisit pulp fiction with the blindfold of “low culture” removed to examine its literary value. The magazine itself has not been singled out for critical study, and the majority of criticism surrounding Weird Tales are collections of the stories that include sparse analysis. The (missing) critical study of the magazine seems related to the limited number of scholars writing on genre fiction, including Peter Haining and S.T. Joshi. If examined with its audience, writers, and genre in mind, Weird Tales would gain more literary value comparable to slick-paper magazines like The American Mercury. A closer look at Weird Tales’ audience, including their education level and criticism of the magazine in “The Eyrie,” it is clear that these are not the same type of readers as the buyers of Dime Detective and the sex-sadist pulps. Weird Tales’ readers took the time and consideration to write to the magazine, and did not demand racy covers. With the Gothic conventions in place within many of the stories and Poe serving as a direct inspiration for many authors including Lovecraft, the content of Weird Tales can also be ruled out as the cause of its poor critical reception. The intimate publics of Weird Tales and the modernist little magazine diverged solely on the distinction between the stigmatized pulp form and the overrated slick-paper form. Although Lovecraft was posthumously able to escape the barriers of the pulp form, Weird Tales writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, as well as the magazine itself, still remain hidden from literary analysis. An urgency to preserve and value these pulps is in order, as the remaining original prints are sparse due to their perceived lack of value and their rapidly deteriorating pulp paper. When will pulp stigma of Weird Tales decay into dust and allow recognition of the quality of the fiction in a magazine that, in the words of Seabury Quinn, “print[ed] slick-paper fiction wrapped in pulp”?

[1] Haining, Peter. Weird Tales: A Selection, in Facsimile, of the Best from the World’s Most Famous Fantasy Magazine. New York, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1990. Pages 129, 11.

[2] Jones, pages xi-xii.

[3] Ibid, page xv.

[4] Ibid, pages xiv, 11, 134.

[5] Campbell, page 167.

[6] Berlant, page 5.

[7] H.P. Lovecraft, page 104 quoted in McGurl, pages 546-547.

[8] Ibid, page 9.

[9] Ibid, page 8.

[10] Ibid, page 11.

[11] Ibid, page 133.

[12] Weird Tales September 1950 quoted on page 230: Stableford, Brian. “Outside the Human Aquarium: The Fantastic Imagination of Clark Ashton Smith.” American Supernatural Fiction: From Edith Wharton to the Weird Tales Writers. Ed. Douglas Robillard. New York: Garland Pub., 1996. 229-252.

[13] Wilson, page 288.

[14] Stableford, page 231.

[15] For more information on the high Modernists’ clash with mass culture see: Pease, Allison. “Modernism and Mass Culture.” Cambridge Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 197-211.

[16] Ibid, pages 239, 251.

[17] C.A. Smith quoted in Stableford, page 251.

[18] Stableford, page 230.

[19] Ibid, page 230.

[20] Haining, page 7.

[21] Ibid, page 11.

[22] Ibid, pages 13, 177.


Maggie Brown (MAPH ’13) is from the rural boomtown of Locust Grove, GA. She thinks a lot about genre theory and popular fiction. Her MA thesis examines the role of the genre fiction reader in today’s digital age.

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