The Snake Fiend and Others by Farnsworth Wright

Earlier this year, an idle whim made me wonder what sort of fiction Farnsworth Wright produced. As editor of Weird Tales from 1924 to 1940, he presided over its Golden Age, publishing key works of weird fiction and sword & sorcery, and establishing the careers of writers such as H P Lovecraft and Robert E Howard — as well as, it has to be said, rejecting some of their best works, including At the Mountains of Madness. So what about the products of his own imagination? I expected there to be a collection of his stories out there, but couldn’t find one, so I started looking up the tales in online scans. ISFDB listed 9 stories, but as I got into the project I found twice that number available in magazine scans online — though admittedly, most of them don’t contain any sort of fantasy or weird element. But once I’d started I got more and more interested and ended up with a collection of 19 stories and 9 poems (two of which are translations), enough for a slim volume (though I did drop one story, which I’ll explain below), so I decided to bring one out — not because I think Wright is likely to catch fire with a modern audience, just that I thought other people might, like me, be curious.

Farnsworth Wright in New York. Has any man ever so resembled a bookmark?

Wright had a pretty wide experience of life, and his fiction reflects that. He served in the First World War — mostly as a translator, in France — and three of his stories, “Enemies”, “The Vow” and “Lonesome Time” are about the war. Mostly they show him thinking through how it’s possible to fight for one’s country while believing very strongly in the wider brotherhood of humanity — something he actively engaged in by learning, teaching, and translating into Esperanto (including Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”).

Both before and after the war he worked as a reporter, and his fiction features several stories of reporters, including a rookie in a last-ditch attempt to hold onto his job (“In the Depths”) and an experienced reporter investigating a suicide that seems more like a murder (“The Silent Shot”) — a story that also features a near-forensic description of a bullet wound to the head, which makes me think Wright must have seen such a thing (though I suppose he had ample opportunity during the war). He also worked as a music critic, and music features in both a comic tale of an opera star living beyond his means (“Out of the Frying Pan”), and a more serious, lyrical tale of a creative genius’s path to musical greatness (“The Stolen Melody”).

A couple of tales touch on a traumatic event that occurred when Wright was in college and went into the sea with a friend called John P Rauen. Both got into difficulties in the currents around a deep submerged hole and while Wright managed to keep himself above the surface until he was rescued, Rauen drowned. As John Locke says in his biography of Wright in The Thing’s Incredible: The Secret Origins of Weird Tales, this traumatic underwater struggle made its way into Wright’s story “In the Depths”, but it’s even more evident in “The Pole-Star”, published in the February 1921 issue of boy’s magazine The Open Road. This is about a trio of boys who go on a swimming trip and one gets into serious difficulty — made only the worse by being under a fairground fortuneteller’s curse that he’ll die when he next sees the pole-star.

There’s another, rather surprising, class of stories in Wright’s output, to do with the moral edification of young women. “Mother” and “The Medal of Virtue” are both about young women being brought into a realisation of how much they’ve strayed down the wrong path. In the former, the “wrong path” involves the wearing of stockings and hanging around with young men who smoke. Egad! “Mother” is a particularly interesting tale — not so much as a piece of fiction, as in the fact that it came from the future editor of Weird Tales. It’s the story of a shopgirl who embarks on a career in a chorus line in search of a little more excitement and better pay, who’s given the opportunity of her first solo performance when she impresses everyone with her suggestive embellishments to a song called “Shimmy, Jimmy”. What makes this story particularly notable is where it was published, a journal called The Light, “the Official Organ of the World’s Purity Federation”, whose byline was “The White Slave Traffic and Public Vice Can and Must Be Eliminated”. This from the man who, just over a decade later, would be putting Margaret Brundage’s art deco nudes on the cover of Weird Tales, often in scenarios with a distinct air of bondage about them (and not a stocking in sight!)…

Illustration from Wright’s “The Medal of Virtue”, art by F W Small

The first issue of Weird Tales, March 1923, which featured Wright’s tale “The Closing Hand”

The first issue of Oriental Stories, Oct/Nov 1930, featuring Wright’s “The White Queen”. Art by von Gelb.

Wright’s fiction only really turned toward the weird once he got involved in Weird Tales — initially as its chief slush-pile reader, then as its editor (whereupon he used the pseudonym Francis Hard for his own fiction). His early efforts, “The Closing Hand” and “The Teak-Wood Shrine” are a little crude, the former in particular being nothing but a camp-fire scare, but his later weird stories are a bit more sophisticated — though never, it has to be said, anywhere near the likes of the writers Weird Tales is remembered for: Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and so on. They also, quite notably, stay away from the supernatural. Wright favours poisonings and madness rather than monsters and ghosts — apart from one foray into the blatantly fantastic, “An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension”, where the weird is employed entirely for humorous purposes. Or, should I say, “humorous” purposes.

(And, speaking of “humorous” — that tale I left out. One of Wright’s stories for Weird Tales was “The Great Panjandrum”, and I decided to leave this one out because, a humorous tale, it relies entirely on racial stereotypes for its humour, while also being disappointing as a story — I kept expecting a twist of some kind, but there was none. So, in the end, it was easy to leave out.)

If I were to say anything about Wright’s later fiction it’s that it seems to be playing with the idea of the double. Characters who share a name turn up in a couple of stories — “The Medal of Virtue” and “Poisoned” — while characters who suffer a complete moral transformation, until they become their own opposite, can be found in “The Picture of Judas” and, again, “The Medal of Virtue”. (And a link between apparent enemies is a theme from his earliest tales, the war tales.) His longest story, “The White Queen” is very much of the era of the The Sheik (1919), and the whole Orientalist-romantic-fantasy of a young woman being abducted by/falling for the menacing/commanding/ravishing (in both senses) desert-dwelling prince of the east.

Wright’s fiction is no must-read (I’m not over-selling this, am I?), but I found it interesting enough, considering his importance as a figure in the history of modern weird fiction. The Snake Fiend and Other Stories (which also contains all the poems by him I could find) is out now in ebook, kindle and paperback. There are a few illustrations reproduced (some of which I did my best to rescue from moiré-pattern hell). For, like me, the idly curious.

The full table of contents and other details can be found here.