Last August I was invited to be the Guest of Honor at PulpFest, an annual gathering of collectors and readers of the old pulp fiction magazines. Since the theme of the convention was Weird Tales magazine and the 125th birthday of H. P. Lovecraft, I was asked to talk about how Lovecraft and Weird Tales influenced my life and work. This is the result, along with a few weird tales of my own about collecting pulps and meeting the people who helped to create them…
When you’re asked to talk about H. P. Lovecraft, you wonder what can be said that hasn’t already been talked about a thousand times. His influence on horror fiction can still be seen today in the works of writers like Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, and many others. Lovecraft’s own work has been reprinted more than ever, since nearly all of it seems to be in the public domain, and new books about Lovecraft and new volumes of letters appear frequently. The most recent is The Variorum Lovecraft from Hippocampus Press, edited by Lovecraftian scholar S. T. Joshi. The promotional material states, “For the first time, students and scholars of Lovecraft can see at a glance all the textual variants in all relevant appearances of a story — manuscript, first publication in magazines, and first book publications. The result is an illuminating record of the textual history of the tales, along with how Lovecraft significantly revised his stories after initial publication.” This may be more Lovecraft than most people want, especially three volumes worth for $180, but my long pre-ordered copy is due at my door any day.
I’d like to talk about Lovecraft and Weird Tales as they influenced me, both as a writer and as a pulp collector. I probably wouldn’t be a writer today if I hadn’t read the work of Lovecraft and his disciples when I was young. And I certainly wouldn’t be a fan of the pulps. As I got more and more into both the pulps and Lovecraft, I began to grow closer to the man himself.
You all about know the Six Degrees of Separation, how we’re all connected to any other person though six different degrees. People we know, know someone else who knows this person who knows that person, etc., usually in regard to Kevin Bacon. So this talk is
primarily about how I got within one degree of H. P. Lovecraft. But at the same time, I’m going to take some side trips into the world of pulp collecting that pure Lovecraftians might not appreciate as much as I hope the folks attending PulpFest might.
To start, I have to go way back to the 1950s and Cub Scout paper drives. People gave away magazines as well as newspapers, and in one stack of offerings was a small pile of mid-50s digest Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell’s ASF was a bit too complex for me (I’d have been better off with Harry Bates-edited stories) But there was one serial, We Have Fed Our Sea by Poul Anderson (later The Enemy Stars), that grabbed my attention, both because of the title, which I found haunting then and now, and the illustrations, which were quite eerie, almost as eerie as the Fritz Eichenberg woodcuts in a Book-of-the-Month Club edition of Poe which my parents had, and which I read over and over until I saw those pictures in my dreams at night.
But my main point of entry into the weird tale was the paperback book. Those of us coming of age in the early 1960s had 25 and 35 cent treasures galore available to us. First and foremost for me were the horror anthologies and collections brought out by Ballantine Books: I remember The Graveyard Reader, edited by Groff Conklin and containing Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats” (which first appeared in Weird Tales), Zacherley’s Midnight Snacks and Zacherley’s Vulture Stew, Basil Davenport’s Deals With the Devil and Tales to Be Told in the Dark, and single author collections like John Keir Cross’s The Other Passenger and Fritz Leiber’s Night’s Black Agents, many stories of which came from Weird Tales, as did the stories in Joseph Payne Brennan’s Nine Horrors and a Dream, my favorite of which was the eerie “The Green Parrot”.
There were also the paperback Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, which were filled with horror stories, and Ace’s The Macabre Reader and More Macabre, edited by Donald Wollheim. Two Belmont paperbacks that really made an impression on me were Robert Bloch’s Nightmares and More Nightmares, with Weird Tales reprints. I knew Bloch from Psycho — my parents had taken me to the movie and I bought the paperback afterward.
When Ballantine and Ace started reprinting the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs in paperback, I bought and read every one. One of my most vivid memories is reading the Ballantine paperback of The Master Mind of Mars during a rather dull high school assembly — the thin paperbacks fit nicely into the school binders.
Other pulp reprints were becoming available to poor high school kids — Bantam’s Doc Savage paperbacks began in 1964, and I bought them all, through high school and college and beyond, though I stopped reading them after #50. No offense to Doc enthusiasts, but they were getting a bit repetitious.
Of those paperbacks I bought then, I still have them all. Many other childhood collectibles are gone — my DC and Marvel Comics from the mid-50s through the early 60s, including the first Green Lantern, first appearance of Supergirl, you name it. My baseball cards have likewise disappeared, including my 1953 Topps cards and all those Carl Yasztremski rookie cards that showed up in almost every pack.
Still, if something survived of my childhood, I’d want it to be those books that I still have. Monetarily they’re worth far less than the things I got rid of, but they made me who I am. And H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch (one of Lovecraft’s disciples) and Weird Tales did the same.
My first full exposure to Lovecraft was a 1963 Lancer paperback,
The Dunwich Horror. Oddly enough, the story that made the greatest impression on me was “In the Vault,” I suppose because of the suggested goriness of the ending. I became a Lovecraft fan, laying my hands on everything I could that he’d written. Then I started to find paperbacks about a guy named Conan by Robert E. Howard. The year before I’d read “Shadows in Zamboula” in The Spell of Seven (edited by L. Sprague deCamp), and was eager for more. The Spell of Seven also had the third of the Weird Tales Three Musketeers, Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Dark Eidolon,” and a few years later I found more of his work in Arkham House books.
Whenever I looked at the copyright pages of these paperbacks, though, I would always see credits to Weird Tales and Arkham House. But what were these? There was no Weird Tales on the newsstand. My mom and dad didn’t know anything about it. No Arkham House books were in the bookstores I went to. And there was no Internet back then to look this stuff up.
But when I was in college, I wandered into a used bookstore in New Hope, PA and found a new copy of Clark Ashton Smith’s Tales of Science and Sorcery for $4. Most of the stories were science fiction, which didn’t interest me as much as weird fiction, but Arkham House’s address was in the book, and I wrote for their catalog. At that time in the late 60s, their books were only $4 or so. The Lovecraft letters volumes were $7.50 to $10. And I bought every in print volume I could afford over the next few years. During that time, I also found my first pulp, which happened to be my first Weird Tales as well –the August 1935 issue, the only pulp in a used magazine store. It cost $4, and once it was in my hands, with that Margaret Brundage portrait from the first Dr. Satan story, I was hooked. It wasn’t a great issue, but it did have a Clark Ashton Smith story, a reprint of “In Amundsen’s Tent” by John Martin Leahy, and a Jules de Grandin story — but what issue didn’t? I still have that issue, with the penciled 400 right in the middle of the white W in WEIRD.
But there were no more issues of Weird Tales for a long time. Still, I overdosed on fiction from the magazine, thanks to Robert A. W. Lowndes. In the early 70s I discovered, subscribed to, and bought all the back issues of the digest horror magazines Lowndes edited: The Magazine of
Horror, Startling Mystery, Weird Terror Tales, and Bizarre Fantasy Fiction, a total of 59 issues with tons of stuff from old Weird Tales and Strange Tales. I taught junior high for only one year, ran the theatre at the school, and had a backstage office instead of being in charge of a homeroom, so I was able to read in my office. I didn’t like teaching, so I turned in my resignation after Christmas, but finished the year, so since I didn’t have to worry about observations, I got a lot of reading done.
When my wife Laurie and I moved back to Pennsylvania in 1973, I met a young guy named Barry Traylor, who many of you know. He infected me with the pulp collecting bug, and though I’ve made some improvement over the years, I still have a mild case. I also met Chuck Miller, who started out publishing Robert E. Howard chapbooks and later, with Tim Underwood, became Underwood-Miller. Chuck died this past year, but I remember sitting with Barry in Chuck’s bedroom (like a lot of collectors, he lived with his parents then) and talking pulps and writers for hours. I also remember when Chuck had a
whole pile of the pulp Ghost Stories for $2 each, and I only bought one of them. What a chump I was.
Through Barry, I made a connection to one of that era’s primary pushers to the pulp-addicted, Rick Minter. Rick was an amazing guy, and I bought a lot of pulps from him, both at the PulpCons I attended, and through the mail. He knew what I liked and would make lists to tempt me in his very precise handwriting. I still have those letters. On a few Christmases, Laurie would surprise me with a late 20s Weird Tales she had secretly bought from Rick for me. Those were great presents.
Every now and then I’d be lucky enough to find a small non-Minter stash – a baseball card dealer I knew had a batch of pulps for which I traded him some 1956 Elvis Presley cards as well as some baseball
cards. Among them were three near-mint Public Enemy, and four near-mint Secret Agent X, so I was pleased with the deal.
Then in 1973, Lovecraft started to change my life a bit. I joined an amateur press association called the Esoteric Order of Dagon (the EOD), made up of Lovecraft fans. It was fitting, since Lovecraft was a member of a number of APAs, in which you write and print a fan magazine (or zine), and send it to the Official Editor (OE), who collates them and sends them out in a mailing so that every member gets one copy of each. At any one time there were twenty to thirty members. I wrote reviews, criticism, some terrible fiction (a politically incorrect parody of Conan called “Pink Nails”), and mailing comments about everyone else’s magazine. Some of us in the PA/Ohio contingent gathered in person, and one of the people I met at the house of Scott Connors (who Clark Ashton Smith fans may know) was J. Vernon
Shea, whose stories I’d read in some Arkham House anthologies and in the Magazine of Horror. But more importantly, he had corresponded with Lovecraft from 1931 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Letters to him were in the Lovecraft Selected Letters volumes, and here I was meeting him in person. I was finally within one degree of HPL. Vernon was a nice guy, then in his 60s, a bit opinionated, but who isn’t, and he became a frequent correspondent, back in the days when we sent letters instead of emails.
In 1974 I came across a true pulpster – Arthur J. Burks, who probably wrote over 800 stories for the pulps, and who I knew from his Arkham House collection, mostly of Weird Tales stories, titled Black Medicine. He lived, I discovered from an article in the newspaper, only about 20 miles from me, in Paradise PA. (I should have known he was a local because of one of his later Weird Tales stories, “The Wizard of Bird-in-Hand,” a nearby town). Unfortunately that article was his obituary. Nevertheless, I contacted his widow and interviewed her for my EODzine. She had married Mr. Burks after most of his pulp days were over, but we had a nice conversation and she showed me an original Adventure cover painting. Not wanting to discuss commerce at a time of loss, I didn’t ask if she’d be willing to sell, but learned later that Bob Weinberg had bought it. He who hesitates…
I did meet an artist and oldtime pulp fan at a flea market in my home town of Elizabethtown (where I actually bought a jacketless copy of Lovecraft’s The Outsider and Others, the first Arkham House book, for…fifty cents). His name was Li Hidley, and he had been a friend of Hannes Bok. I bought a Frank R. Paul interior from him — the illustration for Will McMorrow’s “Venus or Earth” from the April 1941 Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and it’s still hanging on my office wall.
In 1975 I went to Heaven – the First World Fantasy Convention in
Providence, a tribute to Lovecraft. And there I walked among giants. I met Frank Belknap Long for the first time, a close friend and correspondent of Lovecraft’s who had many stories published in Weird Tales and other SF and fantasy magazines. I met Frank later at Ben Indick’s Indickon, a small party at his house. Ben was in First Fandom and had gatherings of Lovecraft folks and EODers. Frank Long was very frail then, and didn’t hear well. As proof of that, one of my Arkham House books by him is inscribed To “Shet” Williamson. I’m just glad he didn’t get the wrong vowel as well.
At the first WFC, I also met Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, L. Sprague deCamp, and many others. A true fanboy, I recorded all the panels and speeches. And since we were in Providence, Lovecraft’s
home town, I visited all the sites – his various houses, the Charles Dexter Ward House, St. John’s Churchyard, Swan Point Cemetery, and the Shunned House on Benefit Street. (If you want to see the photos I took, as well as pictures of all the writers, they’re on Flickr, and my user name is Hunding.)
Just last month I took my son Colin to NECON, a small horror convention in Rhode Island, and we visited a friend of mine who lives on Benefit Street, just up the block from the Shunned House. We went to all the Lovecraft sites, since Colin had never seen them. Some of the people at the con had gotten permission to go to Brown’s John Hay Library to view some of Lovecraft’s original manuscripts and letters, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t go along. But when I got home, as a sheer coincidence, there was an email for me from the John Hay library – they’re doing an exhibition from August through December, and wanted to use my photos of Robert Bloch at the first WFC that I had on Flickr. I said of course, and they responded that if I came up for the exhibition they’d give me a personal look at the Lovecraft manuscripts!
Speaking of libraries brings me to another old pulp friend, with little connection to Lovecraft other than that he severely criticized one of her stories in a letter. A fellow member of the EOD told me that Amelia Reynolds Long, who had several stories in Weird Tales as well as many of the SF magazines, lived in Harrisburg. I did some
investigation and found that she worked in the archives of the State Museum there. I interviewed her and found her to be a fascinating lady, intelligent and well-read, and I visited her a number of times, frequently taking her to lunch in Harrisburg. I reprinted several of her works in my EODzine, and did a special issue about her when she died. She gave me a number of gifts. Even though I insisted that she allow me to pay her for them, she refused. She’d never married and had no family, so was happy to pass things on to someone to whom they’d be meaningful. She gave me issues of Astounding Stories and Strange Stories, and the original Hugh Rankin interior illustration to her story, “The Twin Soul” from the March 1928 Weird Tales. Another gift that I treasure is the Visionary Press edition of Behind the Evidence, that Amelia wrote under the pseudonym of Peter Reynolds. She inscribed a dustjacketed copy to me. There’s a Lovecraft link here in that William L. Crawford’s Visionary Press published only three books — one was Mars Mountain by Eugene Keys in 1935, Behind the Evidence in 1936, and also in 1936, a separate book printing of The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H. P. Lovecraft.
Another pulpster that I have to tell you about if for only one anecdote was the science fiction writer, Basil Wells, who lived near my wife’s original home in western Pennsylvania. We had a nice visit talking about his life and writing career, and at that time he was selling books and pulps in some of the adzines, and offered to let me look through his current stock. I bought several of his own books which he signed for me, and a number of Astounding Stories from the mid to late 30s. They were in decent condition, but nearly all of them had a small hole going entirely through the magazine in the upper lefthand corner. When I asked him why, he said, “Oh, there was a time when I used them to insulate my garage.”
In 1977, I struck the kind of vein every collector dreams of, the “Victoria Library.” Laurie was pregnant at the time, but we still went to a lot of auctions, and there was a local auction at an old small house on the outskirts of town. To my great delight, they had pulps, and I bought nearly all of those offered: a pile of near-mint Double Detective, a pile of Red Star pulps, issues of Amazing Quarterly, two piles of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and a lot of oddballs, including a 1936 Movie Action with Karloff in The Walking Dead on the cover. The only lot I didn’t win was a pile of Max Brand Western, which I really didn’t care about. Afterwards, a gentleman came up to me and told me they had a lot more pulps, but they’d put a few lots out to see how they’d go (which was not well). The man was Col. Clair Nauman, the son of Henry Nauman, whose house and property it had been.
So we went back to find a house full of books, pulps, and paperbacks. The ceiling of the old one story house actually bowed with the weight of books in the attic. I was shown all the pulps and I said I’d like to buy them all, and offered $500, but asked the colonel to treat it as an opening bid, and to please let me make a final offer. Two days later he called and said come get them.
There were a lot of rebinds from Argosy and other Munsey pulps, but there were also the first year of Astounding Stories, nearly all the Gernsback SF pulps from 1926 through the early thirties, starting with the first issue of Amazing Stories and the first appearance of Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space.”, all the quarterly’s, Air Wonder, Science Wonder, and the Amazing Stories Annual with Burrough’s Master Mind of Mars, which I sneak-read in assembly. There were also a ton of 1910’s All-Story, with lots of Burroughs, and the issues in which H. P. Lovecraft had letters to the editor! Also Adventure, Short Stories, All-American Fiction, and many other titles, though hardly any hero pulps, and no Weird Tales, alas.
Henry Nauman, the deceased owner of all these treasures, loved fiction and fiction only. He called his collection The Victoria Library, and his son told me that he would stop at every new and used bookstore they came across, and he would leave his family in the car while he shopped. He made a list of all his books in and bound them by hand in several hardcover volumes, so he wouldn’t buy duplicates. I later bought twenty thousand vintage paperbacks, most fine to near-mint, and I got a book dealer friend of mine to buy the fifty thousand hardcovers, which I got to cherrypick when he was finished taking books for his stock. I even managed to write a fantasy story out of all this, “The Bookman,” which is in my collection, Figures in Rain, available at all fine dealers’ rooms in which I’m sitting.
To get back onto the Lovecraft and Weird Tales track, I’d like to talk about my next pulpster friend. Anyone who knows pulp science fiction knows the name of Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, who wrote SF and fantasy over a period of 70 years, from his first pulp story in 1930 until his death in 2003. He was also the editor of Fantasy Press, and during the 1930s published The Galleon, a small magazine where Lovecraft’s story, “The Quest of Iranon” first appeared. Unfortunately, he had loaned The Galleon paperwork to a Lovecraft scholar who never returned it. Lloyd became a good friend, and I took him to a number of conventions.
He also did me a very good turn. In the late 70s and early 80s, I had started writing short fiction, and had sold to The Twilight Zone Magazine, Playboy, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, all of which would buy more stories from me. I even sold a humor piece to The New Yorker, which ended up being my most reprinted story, and a short film was made of it.
I started writing novels, and wrote two in two years, but didn’t know what to do with them. I needed an agent, and Lloyd Eshbach recommended me to his agent, Jim Allen, who was with The Virginia
Kidd Agency. He sold my first two novels to David Hartwell at Tor Books. Soulstorm was a haunted house story, and Ash Wednesday was
about a haunted town.
Soulstorm came out in 1986, and that year I also had a story in the fifth issue of The New Black Mask. I happened to be in New York City, and went into the Mysterious Bookshop to get a copy, and I ran into James Ellroy, who was there for the same reason. We were both delighted at getting our names on the cover of Black Mask, particularly with a Dashiell Hammett cover! Our old friend Bob Sampson also had a story in that issue. My story there was also made into a short film.
But even more thrilling to an old pulp fan was what happened in 1990. I realized a dream, when a Special Chet Williamson Issue of Weird Tales was published, with three new stories and an interview — and a cover by Kelly Freas from the November 1950 issue of Weird Tales. And this is when the new series was still pulp-sized and had the red spine! This issue sold very well, not necessarily because of me, but because it had the first reprinting of Stephen King’s “The Glass Floor” since it first appeared in the Lowndes digests! I have reprint issues available at that aforementioned dealer’s table…
Since then I’ve written more original novels, primarily horror, mystery, and suspense. I’ve also had two short story collections published, but I’ve only ever written two truly Lovecraftian stories – “From the Papers of Helmut Hecker” in Lovecraft’s Legacy and “Appointed” in Black Wings II, and both of those are in my collections. Actually my main influences in writing horror have been Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, two of the writers most responsible for bringing horror out of the gothic castles and into modern American life.
But even though my Lovecraftian stories are few, Lovecraft has had more of an influence on me that I often realize. I was reading an article on Lovecraft’s “The Picture in the House,” one of the earliest Lovecraft stories I’d ever read, and it mentioned the climactic scene of the blood dripping through the ceiling, and I recalled that in my 1989 novel Dreamthorp, I’d written a similar scene in which blood
drips from a ceiling onto a velvet hat, and I wondered if Lovecraft’s image might have been an influence. But then I remembered, Wait a minute, I dreamed that. I had a dream of blood dripping onto a velvet hat and had written it down, thinking that someday I might use it in a book. But: was the dream inspired by my memory of Lovecraft’s story? So I checked both texts against the other. “The Picture in the House” describes it as “a large, irregular patch that slowly dripped crimson,” and in my book was “a large, irregular spot from which the blood dripped.” So phrases and images lodge in your mind and they might pop up years later, because I’m sure that when I was a kid and read that story for the first time, it made a tremendous impression on me. I may be influenced by Lovecraft far more than I realize. Cue the theremin…
My fascination with Lovecraft, both as a writer and as a man, has remained. I am still a Lovecraft collector – though I’ve given up trying to get all the early Weird Tales – they’re just too rare and expensive. I have to settle for the Girasol two volume facsimile set, The Weird Writings of H. P Lovecraft, instead. But there are always new collections of letters, writings, things like the latest facsimile reprint of Crawford’s Marvel Tales, in which Lovecraft appears, a handmade volume from a chap named Lance Thingmaker, which I can’t recommend too highly. I have two portraits of Lovecraft, one a painting and one an original chalk and charcoal in my house, as well as a handcut silhouette. (Did I mention that a have a very kind and permissive wife?) I own an original postcard sent by Lovecraft, and a typescript page for the 1936 edition of The Shadow over Innsmouth (I got these from Roy Squires, another prince among dealers). I bought The History of the Necronomicon pamphlet from Rick Minter, and a 1915 Providence Amateur, HPL’s own zine, from George T. Wetzel, who did the Lovecraft Collectors Library in 1955. So I think I’m in it for the long haul.
Lovecraft and Weird Tales have introduced me to some great people over the years, many who made their bones in the pulps. In addition to those I’ve spoken of, I’ve met Hugh B. Cave, Joseph Payne Brennan, Fritz Leiber, H. Warner Munn, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Donald Wollheim, Lester delRey, Walter B. Gibson, and Jack Williamson, no relation.
What’s more, I learned a lot about writing from the pulps. One of my prime goals when I write is to try and find an ending that’s surprising yet inevitable. And recently I was made newly aware of how well this works by reading the complete Thibaut Corday Foreign Legion stories by one of the pulps’ finest plot creators, Theodore Roscoe. So thanks to Altus Press for giving me the opportunity.
I’ll end by telling you how being within one degree of Lovecraft landed me in my latest creative venture. Robert Bloch was perhaps my major influence, and Lovecraft was perhaps his. Bloch was kind enough to write blurbs for my first two novels when I was starting out, and I once lovingly introduced him at a Horror Writers of America banquet. We all know that Psycho is his best known work, and he wrote two sequels to the book, but the first takes place twenty years after Norman Bates goes into the state hospital for the criminally insane. The Robert Bloch estate and Macmillan Entertainment wanted someone to write an immediate sequel — what happens right after the last pages of the original Psycho, and they invited me to write it. It’s now finished and accepted, and next April will see the hardcover publication from Thomas Dunne Books of Psycho: Sanitarium. They were pretty huge shoes to fill, but I think that Psycho fans will enjoy it, and there are a number of tributes to Robert Bloch, little Easter eggs that the true fan will pick up on.
I was truly honored and humbled to be able to do this book, just as I’ve been very honored to have been invited to be your guest at PulpFest this year. The writers we recognize and remember at events like this have been instrumental in teaching me and hundreds of other writers their craft. As Robert Bloch followed in H. P. Lovecraft’s footsteps, I like to feel that I’m following in Robert Bloch’s, and in those of every other pulp writer who showed the way. From Cleve F. Adams to Arthur Leo Zagat, from Adventure to Zeppelin Stories, this literary gorilla of the gas-bag thanks them all, and I thank you.
— Chet Williamson, PulpFest, Columbus OH, August 14th