They Were Always Here (2)

As time moves on, fans who once were very prominent may fade into the background, without actually disapearing fully. I do wonder what happened with Trudy Hemken, prolific Weird Tales letter writer of the ’30s, who we wrote about. David Ritter from the First Fandom Experience blog, chronicling the early days of fandom, got in touch with the letter her letter in early ’40 issue of the satyrical ‘zine Sweetness and Light.

Fandom then, as much as now, will have been a collection of cliques and incrowds, while pretending to be one happy family, and with its caricatures of well-known fandom ‘types’ Sweetness and Light would indeed have been “a bombshell in a place of peace.” You’ll no doubt recognise some or several of these types. In her letter, Trudy mentions Esperanto; it’s is a dig at Forest Ackerman. In 1940, Trudy still sticks to Weird Tales, though she no longer feels the need to write.

That year, Weird Tales would see a change of guard, when editor Farnsworth Wright was fired (he died later that year). Dorothy McIlwraith took over as editor and, despite scepticism from Wright-loyalists, steered the financially ailing magazine into profits again. She remained editor in an increasingly tough market for pulp magazines, until 1954 when Weird Tales folded. She was credited as D. McIlraith and readers were none the wiser that their favourite magazine was edited by a woman.

Dorothy McIlwraith. The May 1940 issue was the first to credit her as editor

As Bob Barnett writes (WT 03/51): “Please, Mr. Editor, if you have the say-so, never let the publishers change the make-up of Weird Tales to this modern semi-slick, impersonal, cold and lifeless ideal that others are going in for.” And McIlwraith gamely replies: “The Editor would like to assure Mr. Barnett that he has all the say-so as to what goes in the pages of Weird Tales. Especially this is noticeable when brickbats are flying.”

To adapt or not to adapt? Other pulps went digest or changed their formula. There was a lusty debate going whether Weird Tales should publish only “fantasy” (also including horror) or also science fiction (other than Lovecraftian, I assume). A few months before (WT 09/50), a Morton D. Paley implored: “don’t let those only fantasy fans sway your opinion – plenty of us s-f enthusiasts read Weird too. Keep the science-fiction coming!” Reply: “The Editor is going to be on a spot in nothing flat on this fantasy; s-f discussion. But we hope to concentrate on good stories.”

Membership card for the WT Club, issued to “Tigrina”, a female fan of the early ’40s

Dorothy McIlwraith was not the only woman in Weird Tales’ pages. Of course, there have been several female writers contributing to the magazine, even aside from C.L. Moore. The Tellers of Weird Tales blog identifies 127 female contributors. And then there are, of course, the female fans, who write in to the magazine. In the the March ’51 issue we find, for example, a letter from (Mrs.) Dee M. Groff, “one fantasy fan of 20 years’ standing.” In the May issue of that year we find more letters from women:

Naiia Andreyeff from New York complains about readers who expect their writers to write to order: “Perhaps I’m in a beefing mood this morning (having spent half the night enjoying WT) because being a bit of a writer myself, I’m finding it hard to locate the proper angle for my particular piece of the month. At any rate, I’ve read WT for the past twenty years and am still an adict. In my estimation, the majority of stories in each issue are good. I am a handwriting analyst and have some of Lovecraft’s and Clark Asthton Smith’s handwriting… most interesting.” (She leaves us dangling there.)

“Not ghoulish enough.”

Jacquelyne Miller says Weird Tales is “the Finest Horror Magazine I have ever seen. It is and has been my favourite ever since I first saw it on the newsstand.” However, about the March 51 issue: “The illustrations of ‘Mississippi Saucer’ and ‘A Black Solitude’ were good but I miss Lee Brown Coye. I didn’t care for the cover; it wasn’t ghoulish enough.”

Mrs Alice Law from Dublin has been, since a quarter century, a keen student of occultism, and: “I have been a reader of Weird Tales since 1920, in U.S.A., when I could obtain copies of your magazine. Unfortunately, now, I usually have to wait until I travel to Northern Ireland (Belfast) to procure them, as, no doubt you are aware that many American magazines and other journals are banned in Eire by the censor.”

Mary K. Tieman writes: “I have been reading Weird Tales for I don’t know how many years. Sometimes I can find Weird Tales and sometimes I can’t. But since I made a deal with the lady at the newsstand she keeps my copy especially for me. And I consider myself lucky. I’ve never written a fan letter before but I shall speak as though to a friend.”

In the previous blog there was already mention of a Weird Tales club; something like this indeed happened. I’ve looked through the hand full of Weird Tales issues I have from ’50 and ’51, and several contain a list of new members. There are a fair amount of names in there, which can be identified as women. In Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction (1926-1965), Eric Leaf Dean took a sampling: “Of the 448 club members I could gender-identify from these six lists, 118 were female, almost exactly the same gender breakdown as revealed by an analysis of all the letter writers to the magazine.”

Here’s an overview of letters and new members as fractions of totals in the issues I have:

US IssueUK IssueLetters in EyrieWeird Tales club
01/01/48No letters10/33 = 30% (partial list)
01/07/50UK No 61/7 = 14%17/98 = 17%
01/09/50UK No 71/5 = 20%No updates
01/03/51UK No 102/6 = 33%No updates
01/05/51UK No 114/6 = 67%23/89 = 26%
01/07/51UK No 120/8 = 0%12/80 = 15%

There is a curious spike in both letters and new members to the Weird Tales club, and I wonder what caused this. Had women been encouraged to contribute in one of the previous issues? Was McIlwraith making a point by publishing a majority of letters from women in the May ’51 issue? And was she then told by the publishers to stop it? There are no letters written by women in the next issue. It mattered not, as the point was made:women were always part of Weird Tales!

Tigrina (Edyte Edye) reading the Weird Tales issue of May 1945

(RvS)

They Were Always Here

The oldest of the handful of Weird Tales issues we have is dated May 1936. It would have arrived on newsstands and with subscribers in the previous month, and I figure it’s the last one Conan writer Robert E. Howard would have received before his death. I doubt he sat down to read much of it, concerned as he was with the round-the-clock care of his ailing mother.

The Margaret Brundage cover is not one of her more lurid, though it still has a man in a red devil’s costume menacing a pretty girl. Maybe he had a quick glance through; no, nothing of his was printed. Perhaps he read Clark Ashton Smith’s poem Ennui. “Dull ashes emptied from the urns of all the dead, have stilled the fountain and have sealed the fountain-head” No – definitely not in the mood for that; his own well had run dry as it was! Perhaps his eye fell on his own name, in a letter in The Eyrie:
Eleanor Layton, of Washington, D. C., writes, in part: “Howard gets better and better; Conan is superb, magnifique and more! Moore’s characters, Smith and Jirel, are wonderful companions in perilous adventure. Smith and Lovecraft are delightfully productive of chills, as always. Keep Weird Tales up to the mark; detective stories and stories with a natural explanation are not weird.

Catherine L. Moore’s “Jirel of Joiry”

Well-known fan of the time, Gertrude Hemken also writes in. Her letters would appear 32 times in the letter column between 1931 and ’38, sandwiched between a few letters to Astounding and a letter to Golden Fleece. Her career as weird letter writer encountered a full stop via a potato chowder recipe in The Milwaukee Sentinel. About the 5-part Conan serial The Hour of the Dragon she writes:
Conan grows more and more tense in each issue. I almost hate to see it end. But then there is always the promise of more Conan stories in the future…

There’d be no further Conan stories written by Howard though, and only in death did editor Farnsworth Wright give the writer the respect his due, though still not in payment. That, though, could not be known yet by any of the correspondents whose letters we find in The Eyrie.

Irene Pierce, of National City, California, signed herself “an old reader returned.”
Noticed a new illustrator in a recent issue of Weird Tales. He’s very good: as good, in his particular style, as Hugh Rankin. Remember, the poetry, illustrations, and short stories are what kept WT what it has never ceased being – that is, weird.

Lilian Kaltz from Philadelphia dives headlong into fandom:
I have just this moment finished reading Mr. Julius Hopkins’ idea of a WT Club and it is a gem of an idea. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Washington, D. C. and he is most capable for being president of the Washington club. I would like to volunteer my services for starting a Philadelphia club of WT readers. I have been reading WT since a little girl, although I have never subscribed, preferring to patronize the neighborhood store.”

The Weird Tales Club would indeed come into being, and women would be part of it (but we’ll get back to that). Assuming that no women have signed their letter with initials, out of 21 letters in The Eyrie, 4 are by women. They are as knowledgeable as the guys, as enthusiastic and as eager to be involved. And, despite what men from the Manosphere may tell you, they love Conan, and not just to cling to his leg! If we look at Getrude, Trudy Hemken, we see her trying Astounding on for size, but apparently the Church of Campbell is not quite her jam. In Weird Tales she finds a home; over 30 printed letters in 7 years speaks of belonging. She was about 18 when she started writing, and perhaps at 25 life took over. Then again, a letter apparently appeared in issue #4 of the mimeographed satirical fanzine Sweetness and Light in 1940; perhaps to comment on the caricature that had appeared earlier, of “The Fan who has written more letters to the magazines than any other fan”…

In her blogpost on the Flashing Swords! debacle, Angeline already wrote: “Women have always been here.” They have, and they’ve always been active, either visible or behind the screens. Because the blood of a fan creeps wherever it wants to go.

(R)

Flashing Swords 6: A Deeper Cut

The past couple of days have seen controversy over Flashing Swords! #6, the revival of Lin Carter’s Sword and Sorcery anthology series by his literary executor, Robert M. Price. When pop culture site Bleeding Cool revealed that Price’s foreword was a screed excoriating feminists and trans people, slipping in a racist dogwhistle while he was at it, authors lined up to withdraw their work. In a statement regarding the decision to withdraw his story “Godkiller” from the collection, Cliff Biggers summed up his views:

This introduction does not reflect my beliefs, my feelings, or my philosophy of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. I still believe that sword and sorcery is a fine genre that has room for people of all races, genders, lifestyles, and beliefs, as it has from the early days when women like C.L. Moore and Margaret Brundage played a vital role in developing and popularizing the genre.”

Margaret Brundage’s cover illustration for Weird Tales, September 1934

Frank Schildiner, Paul MacNamee and Charles R. Rutledge likewise withdrew their work, making it clear that they had been unaware of the political context in which it would be published, with MacNamee stating that, “A request to remove the introduction [had been] refused.”

In light of all this, it’s interesting to revisit Lin Carter’s foreword to Flashing Swords! #1, which – as the title’s original exclamation mark implies – is exuberant, enthused and most of all, dedicated to the idea of a genre as a community. Carter tells of the formation of SAGA, the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guide of America, Limited, which would give birth to the first anthology: “Think of it: an author’s guild with no crusades, blacklists, burning causes, or prestigious annual awards! A far-flung legion of kindred craftsmen, with no fees, dues, tithes, or weregilds”

The tone evokes the fellowship you find at conventions when everything’s going right; in short, when you find your people. It couldn’t be further from Price’s attitude.

Lin Carter (1930-1988) at Iguanacon, the 1978 Worldcon

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m grateful to be part of a community where authors step up and defend what’s right, even when it means the loss of an outlet for their work. But they shouldn’t had to. They should never have been put in the position of finding their work in a collection whose foreword seeks to exclude so many of their colleagues and readers, because in 2020 we should be well beyond prejudice and gatekeeping. Of course, we’re not. And contrary to popular belief, the problem is not confined to the actions of some old guard, jealous that they’re no longer the vital centre of things.

As I write this, social media is awash with discussion of the Hugo Awards, where it seems that inclusion has been an afterthought instead of the foundation it should be. Instead, what was centred was nostalgia for a mythical time when men were men and writers were whiter. Campbell and Lovecraft came up. But diversity in Sword and Sorcery, as in SFF in general, is not a new thing, regardless of whose names have been most prominent in the past. Women have always been here. And indeed, Margaret Brundage and C.L. Moore are as much at the foundations of the genre as Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. And to use a Sword and Sorcery anthology to add to the extensive media pilloring of trans people is not only cruel, it is absurd when our imaginations live in the worlds that Jeffrey Catherine Jones painted.

Jeffrey Catherine Jones’ 1975 cover for “The Sowers of the Thunder”

When they reviewed The Red Man and Others, the Rogues in the House podcast dubbed our stories New Wave Sword and Sorcery, and Remco and I found that hugely encouraging. But the representation of lesbian, bi and disabled women in the world of Ymke and Kaila isn’t revolutionary, as these themes have been with us in fantastic fiction from the ’70s. And while we aim to be inclusive in our stories, it’s not a box to tick to score woke points: we wrote along the demographics of our own social world, and these are our friends and our colleagues we represent, and also ourselves.

At the same time we’re limited, as people often are at our age, by nostalgia. We know we’re not the crest of the genre wave, and that somewhere, some twenty-year-old is writing stories that will wash Sword and Sorcery up on a new and exciting shore. That should fill us all with anticipation, not defensiveness.

Even when we use our stories to subvert conventions, literary or societal, we still find ourselves reacting against tropes that aren’t confined to the past. Kaila follows a trail blazed by Dark Agnes and Jirel of Joiry, but still she encounter people (including her future girlfriend) who are surprised to meet a short, female swordmaster. And maybe that’s because progress, social or literary, has not been linear. If we’re a New Wave, it’s one that echoes that of the 60s and 70s, when Michael Moorcock and Tanith Lee, whose works still influence us, transformed Fantasy. Successive waves never entirely wash away what came before, and that includes the bad as well as the good.

Catherine L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in “Hellsgarde” (1939)

It would be easy, and tempting, to lay the blame for the Flashing Swords #6 controversy entirely at Price’s door. Discussion among fans and pros on social media yesterday made clear that his remarks don’t represent where Sword and Sorcery is going, or at least not the part of it that has a future. We could bury the whole thing as yet another case of King Canute railing hopelessly at the incoming egalitarian tide. However, as I said earlier, such ugliness is not unknown to us, and such rants are written with the assumption of receptive readers. Publisher Bob McClain of Pulp Hero Press delisted the collection and released a rather odd, limp statement:

When Bob Price sent me the manuscript, I assumed that he had shared his introduction with the authors, given the controversial content. I don’t agree with much of anything in that introduction, but I also don’t like to censor other viewpoints – so, on the assumption that all the authors were on board, I published the book. The problem, of course, is that the authors didn’t know what Bob had written in the introduction. Surprise! And of course they don’t want to be seen as implicitly accepting or endorsing Bob’s opinions by having their work appear in his book.”

McClain behaves as if he were a shocked bystander at a road accident, when in fact he had chosen to publish the foreword in the first place, and it’s interesting that he evades the implications of his own complicity: by publishing Price’s words, he apparently was satisfied to be seen as accepting or endorsing those words. Had that foreword not become common knowledge pre-publication, we must assume he would have gone ahead and published it, adding to the hostility experiences by women and minorities while standing on his principles.

As a woman working in the genre, I’m grateful for the solidarity of authors who said in no uncertain terms that Sword and Sorcery is for everyone, and I equally understand perspective of those who just want to tell stories, and had not expected or wanted those stories to be plunged into a political context of any kind. It is telling though that three major S&S-themed podcasts, The Cromcast, Rogues in the House and Appendix N Book Club, have a great love for the genre and its old staples, but are also progressive and richly analytical of the genre’s shortcomings.

This genre went through a major schism not so many years ago. People made statements, chose sides, left discussion groups, and in some cases ended friendships. You’ll get no finger-wagging about echo chambers from me; I support people’s right to avoid people and places where they are made to feel unwelcome in the world of escapist fantasy. The real world being what it is, many of us have had an awful lot to escape. Speaking personally, having spent most of my life fighting a disease that’s proved impervious to both blades and magic, I’m in Sword and Sorcery for enemies I can run through with a sword, for courage and wit to save the day, and for bands of allies of all kinds who make it worth splitting up the rewards.

(ABA)