How about a new Guest Blogger for These Mean Streets?
You’ve encountered Tom Krabacher’s name here before, notably in my report on PulpFest 2015.
Just yesterday I was dismissing the academic compilation The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales (yet another poorly-edited essay collection to add to all the other ragtag surveys of fantasy and weird fiction), and had the thought that you might appreciate a review from someone else.
Someone like Tom — a career academic, but also a lifelong fantasy and pulp fan. Awhile back he sent me this review from a zine he does for the Robert E. Howard United Press Association, and I figured I could drop it into the action at some point. And today seems like a good time for it.
So, this coverage is previously published — but in an amateur press association of only thirty or so members, and I imagine at least half of them skipped over the review entirely at the time.
This appearance gives it to the wider world.
Take it away, Tom:
A serious study of Weird Tales has been long overdue.
The magazine’s role in the development of 20th century weird fiction is legendary and the only previous book-length treatment of the topic, Robert Weinberg’s The Weird Tales Story (1977), is now close to forty years old. Given the wealth of new information that has become available in the meantime, a book such as this one, coming from a respected academic publisher, should have been more than welcome.
Sadly, it’s a major disappointment.
The book consists of an introduction by the editors and fourteen articles by different contributors. Most (but not all) of the authors come from an academic background and many (but again, not all) of the contributions began as papers presented at recent meetings of the Popular Culture Association.
And herein lies a large part of the book’s problem. Academic volumes of this type — assemblages of articles by different authors focused on a common theme — are successful only if there is tight editorial control. Such control is necessary to ensure that the contributions stay true to the book’s avowed purpose and that clarity of writing prevails.
Unfortunately, the book is weak in both these respects and the result is an uneven mix of articles that range widely in subject matter (and writing quality) and lack a clear focus.
As for the contributions themselves, it’s frequently a case of there being less there than meets the eye. This is particularly so with many the self-consciously academic ones. Nicole Emmelhainz’s article on collaborations among Weird Tales authors, for example, seems to be little more than an attempt to take an obvious point and make it sound profound by dressing it up in the trappings of contemporary critical theory.
Similarly, the article that leads off the book, an examination of “artistic authenticity” and modernism in the magazine by Jason Ray Carney (who has also penned a dissertation on the subject of Weird Tales), epitomizes everything that’s bad with contemporary academic writing: overemphasis on theory, lots of jargon, a dearth of actual information, and tediously long sentences whose syntax you can spend a lifetime unraveling.
Other articles simply don’t have much of importance to say. Jonathan Helland’s piece on the contributions of author C.L Moore and artist Margaret Brundage in the October 1934 Weird Tales comes across as little more than a by-the-numbers feminist take on the subject that offers little that’s noticeably original. Bobby Derie’s piece on Lovecraft and sexuality seems to consist of bits and pieces cobbled together from his much more comprehensive Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).
The two separate articles by the book’s editors that focus on different thematic aspects in Robert E. Howard’s writing are refreshingly free from jargon but contribute little to the reader’s appreciation of Weird Tales, itself. The essays by Paul Shovlin and Sidney Sondergard on the writers Robert Bloch and Harold Lawlor, respectively, fail to say anything significant about their involvement with the magazine.
And so on.
Which brings us to the book’s biggest failing: the fact that, in the end, it has little new to say about Weird Tales. The discussion of the topic that occurs is for the most part simply a rehash of information long available in the 1977 Weinberg volume. Frustratingly, little effort was made to draw upon the new information, much of it in the form of authors’ correspondence and publisher’s records, which has surfaced in the intervening years.
In the end I came away from the book knowing little more about Weird Tales, the magazine, than I did going in.
In short, the book’s very title, The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror is woefully misleading. Of the fourteen essays that make up the book, only two — those by Morgan Holmes and Scott Connors — make an effort to address the book’s putative purpose, the role of the magazine in the development of modern fantasy and horror. Holmes looks at the central role the magazine played in the development of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre, while Connors examines the effect the appearance of a magazine specializing in weird fiction had on the genre’s gradual disappearance from the general fiction magazines of the era. Not surprisingly, these are probably the two most substantial contributions to the volume.
To be fair, some of these problems seem to have been beyond the editors’ control. From what one of the editors has said privately, they were constrained by the material they had to work with. Moreover, apparently a decision by the publisher late in the game to reduce the size of the book required the exclusion of additional contributions, including a promising one on poetry in Weird Tales.
Also, to give credit where credit is due, the very appearance of the book in itself is a success of sorts, an indication that its subject is now seen as meriting serious critical consideration.
Even so, any reader who picks up the volume hoping to find an in-depth treatment of what Weird Tales was and why it is important to the development of weird fiction will go away disappointed.
As I noted at the beginning, a serious, up-to-date critical treatment of Weird Tales is long overdue. Unfortunately, it still remains to be written.