They Were Always Here: Tigrina

When going through the membership lists of the Weird Tales Club for our earlier post on female Weird Tales fans, one name stood out: Tigrina. I was curious who the woman was who hid behind that pseudonym. The story of Edythe Eyde (1921-2015) is far more interesting than I could have imagined, and illuminates how women’s contributions to early fandom got erased; not always by malice, but also because the stories that survived were those of the people who endured in fandom; men. For the full Tigrina story I happily point to the very extensive, three-part article on fiawol.org. Really, do click the links – there’s a wealth of ’40s fandom in there!

What we (the general ‘we’) know about early fandom is very much depending on the stories that are told around it; the stories that were told by the men who went on to write books or did other great things in the field of SFF, and were then invited on podia to tell the old stories. And what they then told about: “Uncle Forry, please tell us again about Ray Bradbury!” and “Uncle Ray, please tell us again about when you saw King Kong for the first time, and about Ray Harryhausen!” and “Other Uncle Ray, please tell us again about Forrest Ackerman!” It became a circle jerk, in which many fans who also propped up fandom got forgotten, including the women. But fandom was as lively then as now, if not more so, and fans built networks, reached out and met up.

Forrest “Forry” Ackerman wrote in Weird Tales, March 1940, on the topic of Weird Tales Clubs: “I should like to take this means of informing the imagi-natives of Los Angeles and environs of the existence of just such an organization in this vicinity. Over one hundred consecutive meetings have been held!” He counts Henry Kuttner as a member, and visits from Robert Bloch, Catherine Moore, and Emil Pataja. “We maintain a monster magazine library for the free use of all members, with Weird Tales running back over ten years, and The Hyborian Age and A History of the Necronomicon. The ‘Ghouls’ Get-together’ takes place every Thursday night of the year (excepting rare fifth Thursdays, when we all turn into vampires and go out and ‘paint the town red.‘)”

Ackerman’s pitch was clearly skewed towards the Weird Tales audience, and his trademark hyperbole is already evident. It was catnip, though, to teenage Edytha Eyde, who can be counted as an early ‘fandom goth’. She wrote to him: “I have always wished to belong to such an organization as yours, as I am deeply interested in the Occult, particularly Witchcraft and Black Magic. Unfortunately, my family has always been strongly against my studying these fascinating subjects. I am attending college now, however, (sophomore at exclusive Girls’ School) and I live away from home, so I have more of an opportunity to study the Occult sciences, and also to write this letter to all of you.”

She enclosed a piece for Ackerman’s zine, Voice of the Imagination (VOM), aptly titled ‘Hymn to Satan’. And we’re off to the races. Further issues of VOM saw letters printed, in which she expressed the wish to attend their gatherings, and told more about herself: “My parents, although kind and understanding in some ways, have never understood my liking for the weird and occult, Therefore, they would never understand or approve of my keeping up a correspondence with those who share my enjoyment of terrifying and gruesome things. In fact, if my secret were discovered, I would be denied the privileges I already enjoy, such as an occasional horror show, or spooky radio program.”

She also countered critique of her artwork: “I believe you stated…that my pictures would meet more with your approval if the characters sketched were not wearing quite so much clothing. Well, forgive me for saying this, but I disagree most heartily with your opinion. I do not wish to hurt your feelings, but the scantily clad damsels which so often appear in your fan magazines, although nicely drawn, do not seem, to me, to fit in with the type of magazines they are supposed to be. I think that figures clad in weird futuristic costumes or mystic robes and veils would be much more appropriate.”

Astute criticism there, and one which still applies to Fantasy art. She was curious about other members of the Los Angeles Fantasy Society, with a hint of things to come: “Also, I noticed that in the picture that Fojak gave me of Morojo and him in Chicago (or was it New York?) at the Fantasy Convention, there was another girl in that picture. Who is she? She certainly is attractive. I would like to meet both Morojo and her some time.” (Fojak, Morojo and Pogo are all ‘Ackermanese’ nicknames, based on Esperanto).

Forry would eventually meet up with Tigrina, and gushing write-ups in VOM ensued: “FOLLOW THIS GREAT FEATURE:–“TALES OF TIGRINA”– EVERY ISSUE EXCLUSIVELY IN THE VOICE!” 4E’s (his own rendering of “Forry”) prose is torturous, but the undercurrent is clear. He’s smitten: “She dressed in green and brown, complete to green fingernails. Fascinatingly, her second finger left hand is longer than her middle finger, the sign the Old Norse nue for the were-ylgr…the lycanthropess!(…) She said she’d offer me a lick of her ice cream but she was very conscious about germs. I wondered it she meant me. Later she tempted we with an apple. – (Serpentigrina!) I bit. But if she thought I lost my soul she was mistaken for my soul was saved — permanently — a long time ago. In The Beginning, in fact.”

Tigrina enjoyed being amongst like-minded folk, seeing Forry’s write-ups as a ‘welcome to the group!’ She cosplayed, bringing into practice what she saw as appropriate science fiction dress, started a petition to have Bela Lugosi guest star on the Inner Sanctum Mystery radio show, then just launching, and soon took another swipe at VOM‘s cover nudes: “Believe me, I hate to say this, but I thought that the cover was disgusting. It is well drawn, but it is just the picture itself which is repulsive to me.” She herself provided the cover of VOM 22, of April 1942, portraying her alter-ego, the witch Hazel with her cat Spoox.

She wrote in this issue: “To be able to retain the powers of performing spells, reciting incantations, etc. one must be possessed of a strong will. In dissipation, the will is steadily weakened so that it can easily be dominated by others. So students of the occult should not indulge in harmful practices. I am interested in Devil worship and Black Magic purely for revenge, power, love of mystery and just ‘pure devilishness’, but no further than that. I know also, that my interest in the Black Arts is, to a certain extent, a rebellion from the exceedingly ‘straight and narrow’ path that I have sometimes been forced to tread.”

And, again: “I was glad to see there were not so many of those horrid pictures this time. I feel that I must, however, express my extreme disapproval of the damsel in this edition of your magazine. Why, she is not even pretty! If all, women appeared thusly, I think that they should be exterminated. Ugh, she is posilutely rePULsive! And the title of the picture makes it doubly so. I can readily see how one might call the small picture on the cover of your magazine ‘art’, that is, if you like that sort of thing. (Said ‘art’ does not include the monster, creature, or oversized balloon she holds in her hands). But how can you even for an instant think that there is anything artistic or beautiful, or fantastic about that horrificaricature on page seven.”

Tigrina referred to part of the photo collage; a nude in the lower right corner, her nipples and genitals covered by the text “SPECIAL VOMERMAID”, holding the head of Ray Bradbury. She herself was marked with number 13. The drawing on page 7 indeed has nothing to recommend it, and nothing to do with SFF. I wonder how many female fans were turned off by these repeated nudes. They may seem tame to modern eyes, but they still give off the signal: we allow women in, but actually we’re still a boys’ club. How many women considered putting up with this as the price of admission? And how many women were unwilling to pay at all?

Her admission of Satanism got pushback in VOM 23, June 1942: “Tigrina is a silly girl.” and “Well, I don’t believe in forcing people to live religious lives, either. But she didn’t have to rebel that much!” Henry Kuttner, at 27 perhaps a bit older than other VOM readers and by then already married to CL Moore, had a more considered reply: “I do feel that Tigrina is sincere, and also that she has rather got off on the wrong foot, so to speak. Also I’m a little dubious about her expressed motives – revenge and power and so on. I have no personal criticism to make, but I feel it advisable to say that if those are Tigrina’s chief and only motives, she should consider carefully before investigating the real Satanism. (…) I thought it advisable to write her through Madge, in view of the always possible danger of an amateur student being victimized by fake cults.” It’s worth reading in full.

Tigrina’s reply to her critics was revealing, but you need to take her age and her conservative background into account: “It is true that occasionally I dabble in the Black Arts (what person does not who is interested in that sort of thing?) but only as an experiment or as a harmless (?) manner to give vent to my injured feelings. And I do not limit myself to experimenting with evil spells against those whom I dislike! But if there are truly such opposite beings as god and Satan, if such opposite beings do exist, I think that you know which deity that I would accept as Master!”

After this, there was radio silence from Tigrina, presumably because of college work. She returned with VOM 36, October 1944, (“Now that I’m not so closely supervised”), an issue that saw several of its members writing from overseas, in uniform. There had been gossip about her, which she now caught up with: “I was amused, amazed, and dismayed by the many conjectures and opinions concerning my character, physical appearance, etc. Evidently, some of you do not even believe that I exist. I assure you that I do, although I have often wondered why, and so, I imagine, have some of you.” She called out one Bob Tucker in particular, who apparently was an early champion of the ‘fake geek girl’ theory. Even then! “I shall probably never ‘keep company with any half-baked fans out of sheer gratitude’ as you so quaintly express it, nor am I in the habit of keeping company with friends for reasons of sheer gratitude anyway. I associate with my friends because of mutual enjoyment in companionship.” She also had no time for Sam Youd: “I was amused at Sam Youd’s aversion to me, and his calling me an “affected young school girl”. Perhaps I am affected, and it is true I am young in years, but I am no longer a school girl. So you would like to give me a thrashing, eh wot? What on earth for? What ever have I done to you? Do you feel the urge to beat up everyone whose opinions perhaps vary with yours?”

Then she finally read Kuttner’s open letter to her, and she reflected on the preceding few years: “I wish to express belated gratitude to Mr. Kuttner for taking the time from his writing of weird fiction in order to give me his opinions and advice. Many of you held an antagonistic attitude toward me in bygone days. I can see how you came to the conclusion that I was a spoiled young schoolgirl. Consider my position, however. There I was, for the first time away from the confines of home life. What was more natural than that I should immediately take advantage of my new “freedom”, and delve heart and soul (?) into the study of Black Magic, etc., and all the things that had been so strictly denied me? I was like the youth who, being denied the use of liquor at home, went to his first cocktail party, imbibed with great gusto, not discriminating in his choice of liquors, and who, as a result, became slightly confused.”

While Ackerman caught up with her during 1945, her contributions to VOM tapered off. She summarised: “Fantasy, to me, is an escape and refuge from the troublesome, work-a-day world, and I am sure that it is the same for many other fen.” She then capped it with a response to a humorous piece by Robert Bloch, stating that the world needed more Ackermans, and that it was therefore Forry’s duty to breed. She said: “Since Forrest Ackerman is a steadfast leader in Fandom, and a prolificontributor to Fantasy, the problem then, is not to ‘find Ackerman an Ackerwoman’, but (although this is not a ‘problem’, since the great Forrest J shows no inclination of forsaking Fandom) ‘how to retain such a valuable personality in the realms of Fantasy’.”

Forry could have read these words more closely, yet decided it was a good idea to propose to her, via a public letter to Tigrina: “Finding myself in the incredible position of being in love, I choose this unorthodox (certainly fantasstic!) method of proposing to U. U are a beautiful phantasy treasure, darling + measure up to so many of my ideals that I feel U could bring a lasting source of happiness into my life. I should very much like to be engaged to U. Please reply via ‘Dunky’ – who will be in the enviable position of knowing before me if U will do me the honour to be my fiancée. Je elske dig! Mi amas vin. Forry, 13 June 45. RSVPDQ”

An uncharacteristically pun-free cri du coeur from Ackerman. Puns, as well as common sense, an admonishment and plenty of emotional labour, were supplied by Tigrina, in her response: “So you envision us reading from the same copy of our favourite fantasy magazine, and want to play ‘ring around the rosy’ with my third finger left hand as a target? Tsk, how romantic! I’m honoured, to be sure. (…) I must compliment you upon your unique and utterly fantastic method, but there are those who might question the good taste of this public avowal of your affections. ‘Marriage is a Private Affair’, or so the theatre marquees proclaim. So are proposals! As this was rather an unexpected turn of events, I must reply with the trite phrase supposedly used by the average blushing maiden when being asked the Fatal Question, and say: “Oh, Forrest, this is so sudden!’ And as long as I am keeping myself in suspense, and you in suspense, well– let’s keep the rest of the fen guessing too, shall we?”

Tigrina was not going to turn Forry down in public, but it may be clear that marriage was not on the cards. While (relatedly?) her contributions to the ‘Ackerman group’-centred VOM waned, she was not done with fandom yet. A two week visit to Los Angeles, and Forry’s banquet in her honour got a write-up in the STEFNEWS of August 1945. Are they or aren’t they was still pretty much a topic of debate: “After the meal was finished, 4e had brought forth a cake lettered ‘Welcome Tigrina’ which was served with ice-cream (…) Tigrina wore a pea green outfit which included a hat with a veil, which she remembered to raise before eating. (I had remarked to Evans that her lifting or failure to lift this veil would indicate how excited she was.) It is fortunate that Ackerman did not wear a veil!”


FANews (also August ‘45) reported: “Last Saturday Aug 4 TIGRINA of Palo Alto came to LA to spend two weeks. Her time is being completely monopolized by 4e who is undoubtedly pressing his suit. 4E threw a welcoming party Sat. Nite in the Tamarack Room of Clifton’s Cafetaria, where the LASFS used to meet in the good old days. Most of LA Fandom attended, I believe there were about 17 altogether. ((We sincerely trust that a proper impression was made and that TIGRINA will enjoy her two weeks stay. Good Luck, everyone!))”

Further reporting from the LASFS has Forry indeed schlepping her all over town. And then, in LASFS #9 of 26 August: “Tigrina has tied herself to Los Angeles with a secretarial job at the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers in Hollywood.” While Forrest served in the US Army from 1942 to 1946 he often drove to town to attend LASFS meetings. As several fans lived nearby, the clubhouse at South Bixel Street was the social centre of a whole community of fans.

Tigrina, now also in LA, soon became a mainstay. The hormones of Shangri-L’Affaires’ 14-year old editor, Gerald Hewett, rose to the occasion: “Well, I am amazed. I am dazed. I am with glazed eyes. I got help on ‘Shaggy’ (…) The only persons present who did any actual work were the afore ahindsaid Laney, TIGRINA (lovely as the petals of the desert rose), EEEvans, SDRussell, Tigrina,(graceful as the nodding lily), Forrest J Ack-Ack, Robert Hoffman, Tigrina (radiant as the morning sunrise), and Pete Granger and I. Oh, yes, Tigrina arrived here today for the meeting. Charming girl.”

Tigrina was soon made club secretary, and made notes of club meetings. They are a fun read: “Kenneth Bonnell, not to be outdone by Wally Daugherty’s enthusiastic ideas for Club publicity at the previous meeting, piped up with an idea of his own, suggesting that the male members of the Club choose from among the many classy lassies prevalent in the motion pictures the one with whom they would most enjoy being marooned on the moon. This idea was somewhat squelched, however, when some far-seeing member suggested that the originator of this plan might find himself in quite a predicament if such a thing were actually to happen.” Tigrina laid on the burn.

FANews had several pages on LASFS affairs by her in October. “you’ll just have to take our word for it that she writes up (normally dry stuff) in a very interesting manner.”. And even in condensed form, we get nuggets of fandom tribulations. During S.D. Russell’s lecture on witchcraft: “The speech was unintentionally highlighted by a bit of modern skullduggery when Master Gerald Hewett, annoyed no doubt by the blasphemous snored of Niesen Himmel, who was obtrusively seeking the Land of Nod, proceeded to apply, by means of a lighted ‘Lucifer’, prodigious heat to Monsieur Himmel’s pedal extremities.” And, another lecture: “Russell’s second lecture was postponed because Sam arrived too late (he’d been studying the subject and lost track of time)…” And later: “Meeting adjourned at 9:36 to hear a lecture (third and final) by Russell but it had to be postponed as Sam pleaded insufficient notes… General discussions prevailed.” October 11th: “Betty Northrup and Jack Parsons came up from Pasadena especially to hear Russell’s lecture, but Russell didn’t appear.” Those lectures on witchcraft would’ve been in better hands with Tigrina herself!

Reading through the notes, you see that keeping the Club running and maintaining the Club room was a community effort: a roster was drawn up, there was a Rent Payers’ Committee, and things were taken care of (who’ll get the mimeograph fixed?). LA fandom, 1945, was more than just Forrest J. Ackerman. An acknowledgement: “All of the aforegoing ‘minutes’ have been condensed from ‘carbons’ sent to us by the LASFS Sec’y, TIGRINA. We publish them as a service to fandom to show what Fandom’s most active club is doing. (…) Thanx, LASFS. And Thank you TIGRINA!”

Editor of The Acolyte, Francis Towner Laney, wrote a memoir in 1948 about the heyday of LA fandom. On Tigrina he wrote: “One of the first arrivals was Edythe Eyde of Palo Alto, a rather handsome young lady who through her VOM-publicised romance with Ackerman received more notoriety and less fame than she deserved. Tigrina, as she preferred to be called, took a genuine interest in weird fiction and cinema, was a not incompetent poet and, in a pedantic sort of long-winded way, a pretty good fan writer. She was rather short, neatly built, and with a whooping laugh that sometimes embarrassed her. Everyone around the club seemed to like Tigrina, and she managed to stay around for close to two years without becoming embroiled in any fusses, apart from one memorable occasion when E. Everett Evans unadvisedly patted Tigrina’s little posterior one night after the meeting, and came within a hairsbreadth of having his face slapped as T told him off in a way I hugely loved. Right there in the clubroom, too.” At the end of 1946 she put her name forward as candidate for Director of the LASFS for 1947, but didn’t get the majority vote, and stayed on as secretary until June 1947.

Tigrina read fortunes as her alter ego Witch Hazel at the group’s 1945 Hallowe’en party, and on a coast-to-coast Memorial Day broadcast, she talked about the Pacificon, and especially the costume party. It was valuable publicity for the group; it would be the first post-war WorldCon, organised by the LASFS. It was held on the weekend of July 4-7 ’46, and Tigrina helped to run it: she and Virginia Daugherty organised the Masquerade, then as now a popular event, and took part herself: “Tigrina describes her costume as Dracula’s Daughter, but it didn’t follow any movie. It was all black, spangled with black sequins. A headpiece like Batman’s was at first accompanied with a black eyemask, the only mask at the masquerade. Elbow length gloves, bra, and tights from waist to ankle, with over all a peekaboo cloak. She sang a couple of songs of her own composition” I am reminded of that Weird Tales cover.

A photo of LASFS’s 1945 Christmas party shows a group of 17 people, including six women. Ackerman is in the top row, and his hand rests on Tigrina’s shoulder. The program book of WorldCon has a page with their photos and their names combined; people were shipping them – or was it a last ditch attempt by Forry himself? They visited Edgar Rice Burroughs, were photographed together at Pacificon, but still those distant wedding bells came no nearer. It slowly dawned on Forry that no matter how smitten he was, no matter what good friends they were, it could go no further than that.

Tigrina’s account of the ‘how and why’ is under the pseudonym ‘Lisa Ben’ because she was “concerned that she would upset elderly relatives”. Her parents had already been concerned about her liking for Weird Tales and supernatural radio shows. What she could not reveal, not even to her science fiction friends, was her first love. I think that where ‘Tigrina’ was an aspect of Edythe Eyde that she kept carefully hidden from her parents, ‘Lisa Ben’ was another aspect carefully compartmentalised.

“A few years later, in 1945, I moved down here to Los Angeles to get away from my mother, who was always coming by and going through my things. (…) I found out one day when I was sunning myself up on the top of the garage of the place where I had a room. Some other girls that lived in the building came up and spread out their towels and started to talk among themselves. I noticed that although there was plenty of talk, they never mentioned boys’ names. I thought, Well, gee, that’s refreshing to hear some people talk who aren’t always talking about their boyfriends and breakups. I got started talking to them just out of friendliness. I DON’T know what brought up the subject, but one of the girls turned to me and said, ‘Are you gay?’ And I said, ‘I try to be as happy as I can under the circumstances.’ They all laughed. Then they said, ‘No, no,’ and told me what it meant.”

It’s worth reading in full. It’s a poignant account of her first love and the disapproval of her mother. In Los Angeles, the girls she met took her to a gay bar, and she got the full initiation when policemen entered the bar: “Well, I was frightened. I said, ‘I think I’ll leave.’ The two women at the table said, ‘Don’t leave yet. Wait a half hour because sometimes they lurk outside and then as you leave they’ll take you in.'” It wasn’t a real raid; those policemen just came to intimidate: “In those days, every once in a while there would be an article in the newspapers like, ‘Party of Perverts Broken Up at Such and Such,’ and there would be a list of names.” It’s a tactic still used by media and politicians about gay and trans people: call them perverts, and let the readers’ imaginations come up with something infinitely worse than what really went on in those clubs: dancing.

She started publishing her magazine for gay gals, Vice Versa, in June 1947, coinciding with her stepping down as secretary for the LASFS: “I wrote Vice Versa mainly to keep myself company. I called it Vice Versa because in those days our kind of life was considered a vice. (…) And vice versa means the opposite. I thought it was very apropos. (…) I put in five copies at a time with carbon paper, and typed it through twice and ended up with ten copies of Vice Versa. (…) Then I would say to the girls as I passed the magazine out, ‘When you get through with this, don’t throw it away, pass it on to another gay gal.’ We didn’t use the term lesbian so much then. We just said gay gal. In that way Vice Versa would pass from friend to friend. I wrote almost everything in the magazine, although once in a while I would get a contribution. I wrote book reviews, although there were very few books around at the time that said anything about lesbians.”

Loose ends: By the time of Ackerman’s proposal, she knew she was gay, even though she may not have been able to put the word to it. I can imagine she did weigh up whether to marry him; it would offer a certain stability, respectability… a beard. But, there’s this occasion, earlier, when she ran into her first love: “out from this hotel doorway came my friend. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘How are you? I thought that was you. You know, I’m married now and you should see Junior. I have the cutest little boy.’ She had grabbed hold of my arm, and before I could think, I said, ‘Don’t touch me!’ I reacted that way because all through those years I had never resolved my love for her. (…) I went home and I was just crushed, although, since she was married, I wouldn’t have taken her back. I didn’t want her. She was tainted.”

Ackermanclaimed(in the program book for 1994’s GalaxiCon V, where he was a Guest of Honour): “I sort of nudged her out of the closet. In 1947 she went on to boldly create the legendary VICE VERSA, America’s first underground ‘Uranian magazine,’ a type-written and carbon copied affair. She had so few contributors that I, as an empathetic writer, adopted the pseudonym Laurajean Ermayne and wrote reviews, poetry and fiction.” I honestly think he’s overstating his own role in her ‘coming out’ (such as it was), but Ackerman has been known to be a relentless self-promotor – and architect of our collective memory of early fandom, with him as main star. Still, they kept in contact, as Tigrina she made fandom appearances, wrote stories (with Ackerman) and even appeared as fan in his Famous Monsters of Filmland with Ackerman, Don Glut and ‘Schlock’.

She put what she’d experienced in SFF fandom into practice in her newfound life, trying to find and build a community, and in the process she became an unintentional trailblazer. There was one difference though, as she reported later: “I never realized how serious it was. I blithely mailed these things out from the office with no return address, until one of my friends phoned me and said, ‘You know, you really shouldn’t be doing that. It is against the law and it could land you in trouble.’ And I said, ‘Why? I don’t mention the city it’s from. I don’t mention anybody’s name. And it’s not a dirty magazine by any stretch of the imagination.’ And she said, “Well, it would be dirty to the straight people because it’s about girls'”

After Vice Versa she started writing and performing gay song parodies, like the filking at SFF conventions. She did this as Lisa Ben, an anagram of ‘lesbian’; protecting herself, but also harking back to the days of nicknames in SFF San Francisco. Tigrina had retreated to the background, but Lisa Ben was to stay for quite a while. A favourite of hers is not a parody; written in the 1950s, it starts like this:

Scattered are we over land, over sea.
How many we number will never be known.
Each one must learn from the stars.
She must wear a mask on her heart.
And live In a world set apart.
A shy secret world of her own.
Here’s to the days that we yearn for.

Hear Edyte reminiscing on her past on the Making Gay History podcast.

The Tower of Cthulhu

The sketch made by H.P. Lovecraft, of a statue of the Great Cthulhu, and sent to his correspondent R.H. Barlow in May 1934, always amuses me. Far from the fearsome Old One (first written about in The Call of Cthulhu, 1928), it seems to me a middle-aged man, sitting on the toilet, upon whom it suddenly dawns that there’s no more loo paper. Existential dread indeed, but it’s hardly the sort of creature to inspire madness and a quick demise, as so often happens to Lovecraft’s protagonists.

Robert E. Howard’s heroes are made of sterner stuff than Lovecraft’s. When confronted with the supernatural, they may be afraid or disgusted, but it seldom heralds the end of the story. More often, it’s an opportunity to kick the tale into a higher gear. In The Tower of the Elephant (Weird Tales, March 1933), in which Conan gets confronted with a cosmic being:

Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. The eyes were closed, as if in sleep.

This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer. This was Yara’s god; where then should the gem be, but concealed in the idol, since the stone was called the Elephant’s Heart? (…)

Tears rolled from the sightless eyes, and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own.

Not only is an encounter with a Great Old One an opportunity for more action for Robert E. Howard, he goes one better, completely reversing the reader’s expectations. Yag-kosha is a victim, not the threat, in this story, and it’s the sorcerer Yara who is the real monster. Howard takes Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic horror and subverts it. But I wonder: did Lovecraft send him a similar drawing to the one he sent Barlow, before The Tower of the Elephant was written? Was it Sad Cthulhu, hunched on his perch, which inspired the image of the tortured Yag-kosha?

It’s all there – the humanoid body, the wings, the head’s not dissimilar when you think of it. Perhaps Howard simply ‘filed off the serial numbers’ by replacing the octopus-like head with an elephant’s. Or, perhaps, the evil sorcerer’s mutilation of the Great Old One went further than his body and eyes alone? Could Yag-kosha have had a multitude of tentacles around his mouth, of which only one survived Yara’s torture? Were the debased Yag-kosha and Great Cthulhu kinfolk?…

(RvS)

C.L. Moore

I’ve just been rereading the foreword of Lin Carter’s first Flashing Swords! Anthology from 1973. Female writers, and women in Heroic Fantasy, have been on my mind lately, and some paragraphs made me go ‘hm!’.

These stories appeared in the most glorious of all fiction pulps, Weird Tales. Although in direct competition with brilliantly gifted and enormously popular fantasy or horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner or C.L. Moor, Howard’s Conan stories were amongst the most popular ever printed in the pioneer fantasy magazine.

The Conan stories certainly are the most enduring, but at the time they were indeed popular, but not more so than those of Lovecraft or Moore, or writers like Seabury Quinn. In the period described Kuttner hardly got a look in, though; his first story appeared in early 1936, months before Howard’s death. Last named of these four authors is Catherine L. Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry stories were praised in the letter columns. We’ll charitably chalk the misspelling of her name up to a careless typesetter; the same who misspelled Carter’s own hero as ‘Thonger of Lemuria’.

C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in ‘Hellsgarde’

So popular did this exciting new blend of the adventure story, the imaginary world fantasy and the tale of supernatural horror become, through Howard’s fiction, that when he died in 1936 a number of talented writers stepped forward to fill the gap in the pages of Weird Tales left empty by his demise. (…)

This, hardly before the sod of Cross Plains, Texas, had covered the burly, two-fisted author who had in his time earned more money than anyone else in town, including the local banker, other writers, like Henry Kuttner, with his Elak of Atlantis stories, and Kuttner’s wife, C.L. Moore, with her delightful Jirel of Joiry tales, began contributing to what became in a very short time a new genre of pulp fiction.

Moore, of course, had started her Jirel of Joiry series in 1934, with Black God’s Kiss, and three further stories had appeared by the time of Howard’s death. To label Moore as ‘Kuttner’s wife’ is doing her a disservice; at that time, Kuttner was still very much ‘Moore’s husband’. That word ‘delightful’ also sounds condescending. I really get the sense that Carter didn’t know what to make of her, so decided to stick with ‘not much’. After all, she wasn’t part of the trinity of REH, HPL and CAS, and her heroine, or prose, wasn’t something that he could emulate (and by extension, understand).

Moore’s first Jirel story, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’; trailblazer.

Howard, however, was impressed by Moore’s work, and Jirel inspired him to try his own hand at a ‘sword-woman’, Dark Agnes. He sent it to Moore, who wrote him: My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?’

These are not the words of someone emulating Howard but those of a peer, perhaps even someone who Howard looked up to and whose approval he sought. We don’t have his letter, so we don’t know what he wrote her exactly (one wonders whether Dark Agnes a nerdy and wrong-footed attempt at wooing Moore. If so, she wasn’t biting), and Sword-woman remained unpublished until 1975.

In the mid-70s, when Flashing Swords! appeared, there was no such thing as the Internet, and whatever Heroic Fantasy fans knew about the genre’s history came mainly through the forewords of these paperbacks. Sure, there was Amra and a half-dozen fan- and pro-zines, but you’d have to be a dedicated Robert E. Howard fan to get them; they were not terribly cheap and definitely not easy to find. Even in the mid-90s, it took the coincidence of landing in a class with the son of the secretary of the Dutch science fiction club for me to finally get in touch with wider Dutch fandom – and it was not for lack of trying! ‘Hunger makes raw beans sweet,’ the Dutch say, and the words of Carter will have etched themselves as gospel in the reader’s memory.

Jirel at the start of ‘The Black God’s Kiss’. In the story she wasn’t naked, though.

The difficulty of obtaining info also meant that editors of subsequent books often relied on their predecessors’ work, so that even dodgy info was repeated until it became canon. Sean Richards, in The Barbarian Swordsmen anthology does a better job in giving Moore her rightful place at the roots of Heroic Fantasy, though Jirel is the only female hero in the book and the cover has your standard barbarian, sword in hand, with a woman boobily clinging to him. Even now, near half a century later, these paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s are ‘must haves’ for fans, and Flashing Swords! has proven enough of a brand that Carter’s ‘literary executor’ brought out a new (though abhorrantly mutated) edition. So, whole generations, at least until quite recently, absorbed the idea of C.L. Moore as ‘Henry Kuttner’s wife’ and Jirel of Joiry as ‘delightful’.

In the last decade or there has been a reclaiming of C.L. Moore as one of the founders of the genre; Cora Buhlert’s recent (and Hugo-eligible) articles, ‘Black God’s Kiss’ by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women’s Sword and Sorcery Writing and ‘Black God’s Shadow’ by C.L. Moore or Overcoming Trauma as a Core Theme of Sword and Sorcery are must-reads. The tide is turning, yet it will still take time before the pervasive smell of sexism has fully washed away.

(RvS)

Where Have All the Pictures Gone

When we first considered bringing out a book of our short stories, which was to become The Red Man and Others, it went without saying that it’d be illustrated. I’ve got a background in illustration, so we’ve got the ‘in house’ talent, but we also like the look and feel of illustrated books: the art adds a sense of occasion.

Illustrated books, and not only children’s books, used to be common. When I take one of our old Rider Haggard books from the shelf, or Dickens, or our antique Hunchback of Notre Dame, I’ll find illustrations in there; at least a frontispiece. Yet, somewhere during the last century, illustrations disappeared from ‘adult’ books. There are different factors behind this, I think, some cultural, others technical. Many books of yore first appeared in magazines, which as a rule were heavily illustrated. Others, like the works of Dickens, appeared as cheap partworks, the predecessors of the pulps. Illustrations, in woodcut or engraving, offered a one-glance appeal to potential buyers.

Mostly, illustrations would be made ready for print by an engraver. They were highly skilled craftsmen. You can see this most clearly when looking at the work by Gustav Doré; some prints are neatly engraved with parallel hatching, others have a more organic, ‘woolly’ treatment. Maurice Greiffenhagen, who did many awesome paintings for H. Rider Haggard’s stories, painted his illustrations in gouache, after which they were rendered by an engraver.

Maurice Greiffenhagen, illustrating H. Rider Haggard’s “The World’s Desire”

Then, at the end of the 19th century, photographic reproduction became available to printers. It was cheaper but also more versatile. For magazines and newspapers in particular this was a revolution: They were no longer dependant on an artist’s impression of newsworthy items, or an engraver’s rendition of photographs; they could print photographs as they were. I wonder whether this had an impact on how illustrations were seen – as old-fashioned, perhaps, or ‘the next best thing after photographs’. Compare how radio plays took a backseat to films, even though radio drama is a valid art form in itself.

Illustrations kept going strong in the magazines and, when we talk about the science fiction and horror field, the pulps in particular. Really interesting things went on there too; Virgil Finlay is of course a fan favourite, though personally I find the illustrations by Lee Brown Coye and Hannes Bok much more imaginative. Hugh Rankin’s work may look rough and unfinished, yet on closer inspection has a delicious art deco sensibility and leaves room for the imagination. In fact, it’s Finlay’s work which I find less and less satisfying, reliant as it is on photo references. He did put a lot of work in stippling all those shades of grey, though.

Hugh Rankin’s illustration for Robert E. Howard’s first King Kull story, for Weird Tales

If you look at pulps from the time of their decline in the 1950s and ’60s, when they moved over to a digest format, you’ll see the illustrations change: they become more simplified and stylized. Science fiction then moved away from bug eyed monsters and big-bosomed girls in peril, and an atomic age sensibility took over. It’s noticeable that magazines like New Worlds opted for more abstracted and dynamic cover design, with no internal illustrations. The message to readers seems to have been that this was not like the old stuff: this was serious Science Fiction, not frivolous junk.

As paperbacks took over the spinner racks previously dominated by the pulps, and Weird Tales was no more than a fond memory (despite attempts to reanimate its corpse), illustrations could still be found there, but only with the frivolous junk Sword and Sorcery anthologies. Old Weird Tales illustrations were repurposed, Roy G. Krenkel illustrated Robert E. Howard’s stories for Donald M. Grant’s hardbacks (then badly reproduced in paperback), and Stephen Fabian diligently stippled his way through several paperbacks and fanzines. You get a sense that illustrations were used despite the trend; that they happened because of an editor or publisher’s love for the old pulp format. It just didn’t feel right to do without – even lesser publications had artists bravely stippling away. More recently, Wandering Star published Robert E. Howard’s work in luxurious hardbacks, illustrated by top talent like Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz. These editions were (affordably) republished in paperback by Del Rey.

Roy G. Krenkel, illustrating REH. My paperback of “The Sowers of Thunder” is falling apart.

Outside Weird Tales-derived anthologies (and even within – I’m not aware of a culture of illustrating Lovecraft), there wasn’t much illustration being done. Money had something to do with it too: illustrators need to be paid, and cost-conscious publisher were cramming as much (ever increasing) wordage within paperback covers as they could. I guess this then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a certain snobbery attached. I at least was smugly proud of myself when I read Lord of the Rings in the tiniest print imaginable. Of course, another kid in the bus yanked it from my hands and declared to all fellow travellers that I was reading fairytales with gnomes and such. ‘But… they’re not gnomes! They’re Hobbits! And it’s a recognised work of literature!’ I tried to stem the laughter, in vain. Illustrations might not have helped make my point.

Outside the safe space of fandom you could find illustrated books for two completely opposite market segments. You had the Folio Society books on one hand: expensive, illustrated hardbacks of classics. Then you had the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books: cheaper, illustrated hardbacks of contemporary bestsellers which were obtained by subscription: everyone could have their home library (and everyone’s heir their white elephant – as Wikipedia has it: ‘Despite this popularity, old copies are notoriously difficult to sell.’). What both series have in common is that they’ve got top talent illustrating, giving each book a certain allure. I certainly wouldn’t mind having the condensed Notre Dame for Ronald Searle’s illustrations alone!

Ronald Searle illustrating “Notre Dame de Paris” for Readers Digest.

And with digital making inroads in our reading habits, perhaps that’s where it’s heading: paper books as ‘have-things’. One book on kindle for in the bus, one for on the shelf. It’s certainly what I see in the bookshops, where classics in particular are sold in several formats, with different, stylish covers. Buying a book for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, has become an occasion again. It’s certainly what we’ve aimed for with The Red Man and Others: with the cover illustration, font choice and lay-out, with the title designs and especially the illustrations we wanted to make it into an attractive book, which people would want to put on their shelf, to occasionally pick up and dip into.

(RvS)

Control Your Shelves

Content warning throughout, for discussion of sexual violence and racism, including examples of racist language.

A few weeks ago we literally had to extend our Billy bookcases, as this year’s Christmas haul had joined last year’s unshelved presents. So, the question came up: why would we give shelf space to writers we really don’t want there? Whose works are you willing to be in dialogue with, even when they and their authors are not perfect? Whose works do reflect who you are? And which works and authors cause embarrassing silences at the table?

Death of the Author, in short, is the theory that argues that creation and creator are unrelated. There are many facets to this, and your personal mileage may vary: what one puts up with, another will not. Emotions may come into play here, but principles too. For me, death of the author doesn’t wash, as what an author says and does is of influence on how I perceive their work. This extends to writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists. Critics may say that this is Cancel Culture, yet as a consumer I have the right to choose what I consume, just as publishers have the right to choose what they publish, and can choose whether or not to listen to calls from the public to publish – or not – a writer/artist. And if they are published, we can choose whether or not to financially support that work.

These choices are not always based on what’s legal. Material proof of Marilyn Manson’s abuse of Evan Rachel Wood has yet to be produced. Yet, her testimony is powerful and convincing, as are the reports of others who have experienced similar abuse. I believe her. But what to make of the hordes of men (mainly men) in the comments sections of entertainment websites, with their cries of “pics or it didn’t happen”? What climate does this create for any woman who suffers sexual or other abuse, when the default setting at coming forward is not being believed?

When will the Didn’t happen crowd be satisfied? Amber Heard did come with the pictures, yet it was easily spun as “self inflicted” and “she abused Johnny Depp first”. What proof will men be satisfied with, when in the UK less than 5% of rape cases reported to the police are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and of these, only three quarters make it to court? And what chance do women stand in court, when the defence attacks their morality and underwear, whereas the promising future of young men must not be compromised? And as for Marilyn Manson, if his own words are explained away as “That’s just his media persona talking,” can I understand why women feel embattled and a #metoo movement sprung up? Yes, I can. Does it affect how I listen to Manson’s music? Oh, yes!

Mists of Avalon: feminism and female empowerment?

Likewise, could I re-read the “feminist masterpiece” Mists of Avalon knowing how she sexually abused her daughter from the age 3-12 (should I add “allegedly” here?) and how she remained silent about the child molestation by her husband, for which he received multiple convictions? No, when finding that out, Avalon and other stray MZBs left our house. I wouldn’t be able to read them without adding a mental “yes, but you abused your daughter,” after each “strong female protagonist” bit of writing. This, also because she’s so very present in her books: the author may be dead to me, but it’s not a case of Death of the Author. Less clear-cut, of course, are films, the products of many hands and many talents: auteur films from the likes of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen may have lost their gloss, but films produced by Harvey Weinstein, not so much.

Then there are films that I can enjoy, though I won’t support the author. Don’t @ me; the first Twilight film isn’t bad. However, as I will not support the Mormon church and their wacky and homophobic beliefs, and knowing that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the church and will pay 10% tithe of all money she earns, I’ll not see a single penny of mine go towards her. Likewise for noted transphobe J.K. Rowling. And sometimes I’m just petty: a noted horror writer was rude to me in a Facebook group, so his books went from my shelf to the charity box.

And then you’ve got authors whose attitudes where, perhaps, “of their time”. How do you deal with sexism and racism in works from an era where these were the standard? Firstly, there is the work itself: is it unreadable? H. Rider Haggard is at times patronising about Black people and too often falls into the Mighty Whitey or White Man’s Burden tropes, but you can read he’s sympathetic towards his major Black characters. You feel he’s trying at least, as opposed to for example Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the River stories. Rider Haggard I’ll happily read – She, for all its faults, is a powerful work, in which the Mighty Whitey’s rule is not at portrayed as entirely benevolent. Wallace’s “gunboat diplomacy”, however, I can do without. Then over to the people “behind the page”; what of H.P. Lovecraft, for instance? It’s pretty well known that the Weird Tales stalwart and Call of Cthulhu writer was racist. But, which white man in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t? To answer this, I’m aided by the question: “How would they vote, now?”

Colonial justice: Sanders of the River. Illustration: William Marshall, 1976

I believe that HPL would’ve voted Trump, would’ve been very much in favour of The Wall, and I’d dare go as far as to say that he’d be liable to adhere to some QAnon trappings. He was a learned man, had ample opportunity to create a broader worldview, but stubbornly and unapologetically refused to do so. That racism is part and parcel of stories like Shadow Over Innsmouth is extensively documented.Now, Lovecraft scholar Bobby Derie, in his Deep Cuts, has chronicled some of HPL’s real life encounters with Black people. It’s worse than I imagined. In 1933 he wrote of Hitler: I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)

Compare this with what Robert E. Howard wrote on Nazi Germany, in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft: I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.

Both letters are from 1933; before the concentration camps, before the worst excesses of the Reich, yet the writing was already on the wall, and with his “poison gas” comment, Lovecraft of course hearkens back to World War I gas attacks, so we’re not talking abstracts here. What (finally) did it for me was Derie’s quoting of a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1922. To colleagues and others further removed he could be polite, even to a Black editor, but writing to close family we get the unfiltered HPL, not only drawing a link between apes and Black people, but also using a slur frequently used by slave holders for Black men: Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.

Shadow Over Innsmouth: “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. (Art: Hannes Bok, 1942)

But how about Robert E. Howard then? Yes, he was racist too. However, his is a more tangled web where very bad portrayals of Black people go hand in hand with sympathetic descriptions of non-white characters. In his article Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior Jason Ray Carney writes about the story Worms of the Earth as a story about oppression, yet recognises that it is also written against a theoretical background of inter-war racist pseudoscience. While Lovecraft travelled and lived in New York for a spell, Howard pretty much stayed in Texas, and his literary influences go back decades, so there seems to be an element of ignorance too, less wilful than Lovecraft’s.

Howard’s ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked.

Bran Mak Morn: inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. (Art: Gary Gianni)

Howard’s more blatant racism (and sexism) seem to mainly occur in the more cliché Conan stories, which makes me wonder whether he wrote them pandering to a market which he knew was receptive to such tropes, much like he got the coveted cover spot by including lesbian flogging. This doesn’t excuse racism but implies a similar cultural landscape to today, in which it was a choice to act, or not, on principles of equality; in Howard’s case, earning his daily bread seems to have won out in the end. What for me is important is that Howard shows the capacity to grow and learn. Had he lived, I think he’d have enlisted to punch Nazis in WWII, shoulder to shoulder with Black soldiers. Lovecraft, I think, would merely bemoan the loss of American, Aryan, life and prudently keep his deeper thoughts from polite society.

With Derie’s work, and in particular discussions around the television series Lovecraft Country, a taking stock of sorts is underway. The Mythos, stories based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, is not to be scrapped completely, but conversations like this make it easier to discern which implicit and explicit elements to get rid of, and which to keep and foster. I am not convinced that a similar consensus has been reached around Howard’s work. Due to its more ambiguous nature, fans roughly fall into the camps of, “I like it, though it’s flawed, and we need to talk about it,” and “I like it just as it is. No SJW in my books!” Howard’s Conan stories, and the Sword & Sorcery genre in general, were discovered by many in their teens, and it’s hard for some to reconcile their undeveloped teenage views and nostalgia with a more adult, critical view. One publisher of a recent S&S anthology states, amongst other dog whistles: No political correctness and No social justice warriors.

Lovecraft Country: reclaiming Mythos territory.

Even so, with a recent flux of podcasts like The Cromcast (their episode on The Moon of Skulls, on racism in the Solomon Kane stories, is a must), Rogues in the House and Appendix N, all looking at the genre from a critical perspective, as well as a host of magazines who aim to make the genre about more than Manly White Men, the genre is slowly emerging from its unreconstructed ghetto. Robert E. Howard himself can yet be redeemed too; I just finished rereading the Kull stories, and found little racism or sexism in them: women are written with agency and personality, and I got the feeling that Kull’s Pictish, and non-white, brother in arms Brule is far wiser and hardly less skilled a fighter than Kull is. Then, as was pointed out by commenter Cora Buhlert: Yes, he was prejudiced and yes, there are racist bits in his fiction, but he also had Kull smash Valusia’s miscegenation laws with his battle axe.

Adaptations too need not be uncritical, and can be transformative. The Dark Horse Conan comics were generally well received, though Becky Cloonan’s portrayal of Conan was derided as “too thin.” Aside from this being a younger Conan and previous Conans perhaps having been drawn “too muscular,” I also wonder how much misogyny against a female artist has played a part in its reception. Cloonan drew the adaptation of Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, as scripted by Brian Wood. Wood has a history of harassing women, and is a good example of Death of the Author. The adaptation, despite Wood’s interpolations, is still predominantly Howard’s story, and Cloonan’s art is worth sticking around for, so I don’t feel that urge to throw it out; Wood did lose his gig at Dark Horse when word got out, which I feel is just.

What strikes me on reading, and in particularly viewing, the comic is how it deals with its crew of Black pirates. When Conan first encounters them, they are (in Howard’s prose) “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields” with their white queen Bêlit forming “a dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.” Cloonan depicts them as anonymous, almost black shapes with empty eyes and a suggestion of sharpened teeth; the idea of the savage as a 1930s reader, and a young Conan, would have it.

Conan joins the pirate queen on the Tigress and becomes the Mighty Whitey himself next to her. But as the story goes on, we get to know some of the crew better, like old N’Yaga and sub-Chief N’Gora. The language gets toned down a bit to blacks, black warriors, with huge muscles coiling and straining under their ebon skin when they try to shift a stone altar; terms which, aside from the words black and ebon were used to describe Conan. Later still, it’s N’Gora and his comrades. Cloonan’s pirates too morph into recognisable individuals, away from stereotypical depictions.

So, this is what we can do with what we don’t like; certain writers and artists we can take off our shelves, and not spend our coin on. Genres with a history of racism and sexism we can investigate and then transform and subvert. Inclusivity, in 2021, is a must, yet it involves excluding or changing that which is toxic. Because – who needs the presence of a writer who (“but think of the children!”) would want women barred from female toilets? Who’d want a Mythos that espouses fear of strangers, when those “strangers” are our neighbours and colleagues? What is a Heroic Fantasy fandom which cannot imagine heroes who are different but equal to the white, heterosexual male?

(RvS)

Solomon Kane (2009) Revisited

Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly. 

Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film,  and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” 

What if…

Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods. 

Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity. 

Puritan family Idyll – William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite) holds court.

Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves. 

A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms. 

Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood), doffing her bonnet

After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”

Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences. 

Masked villain

And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”

Solomon Kane gets righteous

However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again. 

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 this letter from an 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)

Dig Me No Grave

We’re working on a story that’s set in the mountains. For research I’m rereading Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which deals with the earlier European attempts to reach Lhasa. These early travellers were sometimes foolhardy and unwise, sometimes overly optimistic and underprepared, but one thing that comes across in the narratives is a sense of Adventure, this kismet-like drive to reach that remote city that stood symbol for everything forbidden and mysterious.

It also brought the story “Dig Me No Grave” by Robert E. Howard to mind, which appeared in Weird Tales of October 1936, less than half a year after the author’s death. It’s contains more than a share of pulpy ‘Eastern mysticism’.

This illustration by Virgil Finlay, one of the mainstays of pulp illustrators, shows why he was so well liked; he had a knack of getting to the heart of the matter, and distilling a representative image from a story that would be alluring and intriguing. Sometimes the allure lay in a carefully rendered buxom woman, sometimes in a dynamic layout. This image has no spaceway pinup, nor a dynamic layout. In fact, it’s the way in which Finlay so very carefully controls the elements that makes the image work.

We see two men, standing around the (death)bed of a third, surrounded by black candles, symbols of sinister rituals. That we’re dealing with “Oriental Mysticism” will be clear from the man behind the altar, who is Asian, wearing something like a Tibetan monk’s habit, a circle painted on his forehead. All Orientalist tropes of the time, conveying the clichéd inscrutability. This contrasts with the man on the left, who we can take for a Westerner; and an educated one at that – noble forehead, aquiline nose, you get the idea, and clothing just short of elbow patches. He seems to have dressed hastily, as his tie is at an angle.

So, there’s an atmosphere of terror on one side, but also of the calm before a storm. This is done by using the trappings of black magic, but keeping the composition very quiet and organised. The illustration is built up from evenly spaced verticals, formed by the men and the candles, and a few horizontals, being the altar and the corpse. There are a few sets of diagonals. First, that of the shrouded body, which is parallel to the top of the illustration, binding the corpse to the space, and the Westerner’s tie is parallel to the papers he’s holding; we can assume that whatever he has read is the cause of his haste and unrest.

That these papers contain a formula to awaken the man’s dead friend would be a fair guess, and that the other man is to preside over the ceremony is also clear. I can’t really remember how the story exactly goes; it’s been decades since I read it. The illustration is enticing, though, and gives a lot of direction of what the reader can expect. It certainly makes me want to pick up the story and read it again. Luckily, I can just reach out to my bookcase for the excellent collection of horror stories by Robert E. Howard.

(RvS)