Weird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror: Another wonderful collection from “The Unique Magazine”

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Weird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror edited by John Betancourt and Robert WeinbergWeird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror edited by John Betancourt & Robert Weinberg

This is the seventh anthology that I have reviewed that has been drawn from the pages of Weird Tales, one of the most famous pulp magazines in publishing history. Each of the previous collections had employed its own modus operandi in presenting its gathered stories. Weird Tales (1964) and Worlds of Weird (1965) had been slim paperbacks featuring previously uncollected stories. The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997) had spotlighted tales solely from WT’s very first year. Weird Tales: A Selection In Facsimile (1990) was a generous hardcover offering photocopied pages from the original magazine. Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors (1988) gave us one story for each year of the magazine’s initial incarnation (1923 – ’54), while Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies (1988), another mammoth hardcover, had not confined itself to those 279 classic issues of “The Unique Magazine” alone, but had included stories from its four later incarnations, as well. And then there was Weird Vampire Tales (1992), which limited itself to stories of all manner of blood- and life-suckers, and even Rivals of Weird Tales (1990), which gave us stories from some other pulps of the time.

And now, Weird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror (1997), another generous hardcover, of 460 pages, whose M.O. is to give us four stories from each of the magazine’s seven decades of existence (including its latter-day incarnations), for a total of 28 marvelous tales of horror, fantasy and sci-fi. Preceded by a knowledgeable introduction by editors John Betancourt and Robert Weinberg, the collection is a highly pleasing one, and practically every single one of the stories therein manages to impress. Many familiar authors are highlighted — authors whose initial fame came as a result of their appearance in the magazine; authors such as Lovecraft, Howard, Moore, Kuttner, Bradbury, Bloch, Quinn, Derleth, etc. — as well as some names that might be less familiar. Like those other anthologies mentioned up top, this one is most assuredly a must-have for all readers of the fantastic, the supernatural, the macabre and the outré. Personally, I loved it!

As for the stories themselves, the 1920s are represented by voodoo expert Henry S. Whitehead’s grisly ghost story that transpires in a Mississippi hotel, “The Fireplace.” This is followed by one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous and oft-anthologized stories, “The Rats in the Walls,” which tells of the prehistoric horrors to be found beneath the English abode known as Exham Priory. In “Bells of Oceana,” former Marine Arthur J. Burks writes of a troopship, in the middle of the Pacific, that becomes the prey of a very murderous, Lorelei-type of creature. Finally, in “The Eighth Green Man,” British author G.G. Pendarves writes of the Sons of Enoch cult in the Connecticut countryside, and of the strange fate that befell two men who ventured into its clutches.

The 1930s was the so-called Golden Age for Weird Tales; its heyday as regards quality and the finding of fresh talents. This period is here represented by Clark Ashton Smith, for starters, an author widely known for his lushly written fantasies, but who here gives us a more science-fictiony-type of tale with “The Seed From the Sepulcher,” and its hypnotic parasite plant in the upper Orinoco. Mary Elizabeth Counselman is up next, with her tale — “The Accursed Isle” — of seven men who are shipwrecked on a very small island, one of whom has gone bonkers and turned into a night killer. But which one? One of Henry Kuttner’s most infamous pieces, “The Graveyard Rats,” is up next. Kuttner’s very first published work is a truly claustrophobic and gruesome story that deals with Masson, a cemetery caretaker and part-time ghoul, and his underground battle with a veritable army of rodents. The future Mrs. Kuttner, C.L. Moore, next gives us one of her more well-known stories starring Northwest Smith (who had also figured in one of Weird Tales’ most famous pieces, “Shambleau”). In “Lost Paradise,” Smith and his longtime companion, Yarol the Venusian, learn just how Earth’s moon became the wasteland it has been for untold millennia; another beautifully written story by this great author.

Sales for Weird Tales declined in the wartime years of the ‘40s, although the magazine continued to discover fresh new authors to maintain its high quality. This decade is represented here first by Fritz Leiber, whose tale, “The Hound,” gives us a protagonist who is continually haunted by the modern-city supernatural being of the title. Next up is another story of modern-day urban paranoia, Ray Bradbury’s “The Crowd,” in which a man learns the hard way that those people who magically seem to appear at the site of auto accidents might have more on their minds than idle curiosity. August Derleth’s “Pacific 421” is a straightforward ghost story mixed together with a homicide plot, centering around the spectral arrival of a wrecked locomotive, and concluding on a highly ironic note. And then there is Manly Wade Wellman and one of his many adventures starring John Thunstone (a supernatural investigator, of sorts). In this one, “The Dead Man’s Hand,” Thunstone goes to the assistance of a father and daughter who have run afoul of an ancient North American race, the Shonokins, a race that would figure in many later Thunstone tales.

As mentioned earlier, 1954 would be the final year for Weird Tales’ first incarnation, yet this curtailed decade is still represented by four wonderful selections. Utilizing gorgeous, dreamlike language, Frank Owen’s “The Three Pools and the Painted Moon” tells the story of the Chinese porcelain maker Tang Ling, and his efforts to place himself into one of his own creations. Seabury Quinn was the author who appeared more than any other in Weird Tales; no fewer than 165 times, actually, with 93 of those involving the occult sleuth Jules de Grandin. Here, we have one of the very last de Grandin tales, “The Ring of Bastet,” which sees the Frenchman giving aid to a young fiancée who has come under the influence of an ancient Egyptian artifact. Robert Bloch had long maintained that his short story “Lucy Comes to Stay,” a tale of deep and troubling schizophrenia, was a formative influence on his later novel Psycho, and a reading of this disturbing story here will surely show why. Finally, in “The Rhythm of the Rats,” Eric Frank Russell, an author usually associated with science fiction, updates a German legend (I wouldn’t dream of revealing which one) into modern times, and with haunting results.

The new Weird Tales of the 1970s was not above the utilization of an occasional reprint, and thus, to start off the section dealing with that decade, we have “Sea Curse” by Robert E. Howard, the Conan creator who suicided in 1936. In this wonderfully atmospheric story, a witch puts a curse on the two boisterous seamen who had murdered her niece, with both ghastly and ghostly results. The oft-reprinted story “The Dead Smile” is up next. Written by F. Marion Crawford (who had passed away in 1909, actually), this is a deliciously Gothic affair that transpires inside an old Irish estate, and one that features banshees, a sentient and headless corpse, and an ancient family secret. Morbid great fun! Playboy editor Ray Russell is featured next, in the story “Lethal Labels.” Here, a young, hate-filled man uses those ubiquitous, self-sticking mailing labels to exact vengeance on his enemy, but with boomerang results. And next, we have another terrific reprint, this one by William Hope Hodgson, the wonderful British author who had died in WW1 action in 1918: “The Finding of the Graiken.” Here, two men search for a lost ship in the weed-befouled Sargasso Sea and battle giant octopi after finding it; another great tale of life at sea, by a man who knew the milieu well.

The 1980s saw “The Magazine That Wouldn’t Die” revived no fewer than three times. From these reincarnations, this generous anthology gives us “The Dead Man,” written in typically oddball fashion by Gene Wolfe, and telling of an Indian peasant who is killed by a crocodile… but whose spirit continues to witness subsequent events. Next up, Brian Lumley offers us a wondrously atmospheric story, “The Pit-Yakker” (you’ve got to love that title!). Set in a grimy colliery town in northeast England in the mid-‘50s, this tale mixes romance, insanity, murder… and quicksand to winning effect. In Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Save the Children!,” a husband/ad exec who had earlier lost his own baby (in childbirth? Tem doesn’t make this clear) feels an obsessive urge to help all the children in the world. Brief and undeveloped as this story is, it is the sole offering in this entire collection that just did not work for me. But things rebound rather quickly with Robert Sheckley’s “Love Song From the Stars,” in which a young archaeologist exploring a small island in the Aegean learns (the hard way) how inadvisable it can be to have sexual relations with the women of planet Andar. One of the more sci-fi-oriented tales in this anthology, this one builds to a memorable conclusion.

The Weird Tales incarnation started by the Terminus Publishing Company in the late ‘80s lasted well into the ‘90s, and from these issues have been drawn this volume’s final four stories. In the truly haunting “Welcomeland,” by British horror master Ramsey Campbell, a man returns to his old hometown, which has now been partially transformed into an amusement park, with nightmarish results. Next up, another British master, Tanith Lee, give us “The Lily Garden,” in which a young student, in what seems like medieval times, trespasses into an alchemist’s walled-in garden and falls in love with the strange young woman he finds there, leading to tragedy. And then there is Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “The Pulse of the Machine,” in which a catlike shapeshifter, now in human form and attending a college in rural Idaho, hunts for a local serial killer along with his only friend, a young woman and fellow student named Anitra. Told from Terry the shapeshifter’s point of view, this suspenseful story could easily have been the launching pad for a fresh, new series of interesting works. All of which leads us to this collection’s final offering, Nancy Springer’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” in which a Martha Stewart-like, neglected housewife, with a genuine gift for turning useless household junk into works of art, finds a new and decorative use for her recently deceased hubby. A story in equal parts humorous and morbid, to round out this terrific collection.

So there you have it: 28 assorted tales from one of the greatest of all pulp magazines. As I write these words in early 2017, the latest incarnation of Weird Tales is going very strong… along with its website and very active Facebook presence, I’m happy to report. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if the magazine could survive to see its 100th anniversary in just six more years? To quote the Bard, “tis a consummation devoutly to be wished…”


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Fantastic review Sandy. As a long time fan of weird fiction, it warms my heart to see you bring attention to the authors that many may not associate with the weird. Even though the magazine’s popularity started to wane in the 40’s, it’s hard to go wrong with Bradbury, Leiber and Wellman leading the charge. Thanks for the review.

    • sandy ferber /

      Thanks very much for the kind words, Ctgt. I’ve been a fan of “Weird Tales” magazine for some time now, and one of my proudest possessions is a yellowed but still viable copy of one of the original issues from the late ’40s. I’ve loved all the anthologies drawn from this great pulp, too. As you say, it’s hard to go wrong with authors like these!

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