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July 3, 2003

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What Was Weird Tales' Secret?

Here at the Mighty PDF, we bill ourselves as the literary descendants of the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales.  "In the spirit of..." is how we put it.  Now, to be honest, we are somewhat missleading our loyal following by this claim.  After all, while we have read and enjoyed many stories published in that famous magazine as reprinted in anthologies, we have never actually had the chance to sit down and read even one issue of the original magazine cover to cover.  The original Weird Tales ended publication back in 1954 and, while crumbling, yellowed copies are still available on eBay, we could never afford them...even if we didn't have to worry about being sniped.  My point is, I don't really know whether I would have enjoyed even the majority of stories.  All I know is that many of the stories I do enjoy were published by Weird Tales.  I also know what people who have read Weird Tales have to say about it, and it sounds pretty good to me.

Which brings us to the modern incarnation of Weird Tales and its "80th Anniversary Issue", (published last March).  Now, first off, let me get something off my chest.  The modern Weird Tales is edited by George H. Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer and has been publishing since Spring 1988.  Before that, another incarnation had existed sporatically starting in 1973.  There was no Weird Tales at all in the nineteen years between 1954 and 1973.  Yet, the modern Weird Tales claims it is the direct descendant of the original Weird Tales and never misses a chance to remind its readership of that.  Celebrating its 80th Anniversary is just one example.  But it's all a lie.  Sad as it may be, Weird Tales ceased to exist back in 1954.  Years later, someone decided to buy up the name and cash in on its reputation.  They may even have stayed true to the spirit of the original pulp magazine, I don't know.  The point is, the modern Weird Tales is no more the true descendant of the original Weird Tales than is, oh, say, moi.


You'll notice I said "They may have stayed true to the spirit of the original pulp magazine".  Let me expand upon that.  Having read the introduction found in the 80th Anniversary issue, I don't believe the modern Weird Tales can even make such a limited claim as that.  (Lest, gentle reader, you should think I am being too hard on the modern Weird Tales, let me point out that the modern editors chose to use their 80th Anniversary introduction as a platform from which to launch an attack on the very first issue of Weird Tales published back in March 1923.  There's nothing wrong with that...but fair is fair.  If they can dish it out, I think they can take it, don't you?)  The modern editors have indeed read the original issues cover to cover, especially the very first issue and, in the Anniversary introduction, we are told things did not look hopeful for the newly born pulp.  At least, not in the beginning.  In the editors' words: "the magazine has gotten a lot better since."  Even the 1923 cover story, "Ooze", by Anthony M. Rud, takes a beating.  To the editors, its only saving grace is that it served as the source of inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's later masterpiece "The Dunwich Horror".

Still, the important thing, according to the modern editors, is that Weird Tales did improve -- much of this improvement being attributable to the change in editorship when the reins passed from Edwin Baird to Farnsworth Wright.  And even Baird published the occasional gem, suggesting that he was willing to publish "quality" when he got it, even if he had to settle for dreck most of the time.

In fact, according to the modern editors, Weird Tales's main virtue was that it had a high "quality ceiling".  This apparently is the measure of difference between a great magazine and a poor magazine.  I quote: "Does the magazine have a 'ceiling' of excellence and innovation, beyond which it will not allow its contributors to go for fear that the readers will stop buying the magazine?" [My italics.]

Now, consider what the editors are saying here.  If a magazine publishes a story which the readers find slow and incomprehensible, the fault is not with the story...the fault is with the readers who weren't bright enough to recognize it for the masterpiece it is?

Of course, the obvious question, then, is -- who decides what is good and what is bad?  If not the readers, who?  In this case, it would be the magazine's editor.  But isn't the editor him/herself just one more reader?  If even one of those readers were to magically replace that editor, the situation would be reversed.  The story would be returned with a note that reads "We wish you well placing it with some other publication."  My point is that I don't believe "quality" can be objectively defined.  No one can say one story is of "high quality" while another is "hack-work"... except insofar as it achieves or fails to achieve the goal aimed for by the author.

No one can say one story is objectively better than another story, we can only judge how well that story meets its own objectives.  For example, Robert E. Howard, author of the Conan stories, was frequently published by Weird Tales.  Was he a high quality author or a hack?  Many modern editors would answer the latter.  To them, the mere fact that he wrote action packed pulp adventures makes him a hack writer.  That he appealed to "the lowest common denominator" excludes him from serious consideration as a "real writer".  And yet, no one would deny that he certainly was very good at writing the sort of stories he wrote.  His detractors simply don't care for those sorts of stories.

Obviously, I would challenge this attitude.  I think Howard was a "high quality" writer.  He wrote pulp adventures of the highest quality because they achieved their intended goal.  They were exciting and sexy and frightening and whatever else you might want in a pulp story.  More important, he wrote for the readers and the readers loved what he wrote.  Were his stories of equal quality to, say, Crime and Punishment?  The answer is a resounding "yes".  That doesn't mean that Howard's Conan stories should be studied in school, dissected for meaning and subtext, analyzed for character arcs, and whatever else you might do with Crime and Punishment, because Howard wasn't writing Crime and Punishment.  He was writing pulp adventures, which have a whole different set of virtues and expectations.  And just as Howard probably couldn't have written Crime and Punishment, I seriously doubt Dostoyevsky could have written "People of the Black Circle".  Not to save his life.

Coupled with this idea of a "quality ceiling" is the notion that "high quality" equates with "risky".  We are forever being told that modern writers are taking great risks by writing "edgy" stories, "out-there" stories, "innovative" stories.  Such stories are said to be brave for "daring" to push the envelope and the authors are true "artists" because they don't write for the readers, they write for themselves.

Now, first off, this last statement just isn't true.  Such writers are not writing for themselves, they're  writing for the editors.  If they were truly writing for themselves, they'd write in their diaries and leave it there.

But neither are such stories brave and risky.  Modern editors prefer "out-there" stories.  When a writer submits such a story, he/she stands a better chance of being published than if he/she submitted, oh, say, a Conan-like pulpy adventure.  (In fact, many editors, in their guidelines, specifically say they will reject all Conan-type stories, no exceptions.)  But even if the story is rejected, the writer will know that they still have the editor's respect.  And that, I believe, is the real crux of this issue.  Respect.  Because, in the end, authors will face just about any hardship -- poverty, starvation, anything -- without a qualm just so long as they have the respect of the literary community.  Because nothing hurts worse than to be laughed at.  Nothing.

No, my friends, the true risk takers, the true artists, are those writers who write pulpy adventures.  They are the artists because they know, not only will it be difficult to get published, but, at the end of the day, they won't even have the respect of the editors.  They will be laughed at.  They will be called "juvenile".  They will be seen as childish, cliched, hackneyed, out-of-date panderers appealing to the lowest-common-denominator.  But they do it anyway.  And I can't think of anything braver than that.

This editorial popped into my head while reading the introduction to the Anniversary issue of Weird Tales.  The editors of the modern Weird Tales seem desperate for respect, so desperate they have forgotten the very roots they were supposed to be celebrating.  They wanted to know what was the secret to the original Weird Tales' success?  Well, lean closer, gentle reader, and I'll tell you.  The real secret to the original Weird Tales wasn't some mythical "quality ceiling".  It wasn't because they dared to publish stories which they knew the readers might not like.  It was because they dared to publish stories they knew the readers would like.

Put like that, it sounds obvious.  Doesn't it?

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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