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.


Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore

Catherine Lucille Moore wrote six tales featuring her sorcery-fighting swordsmistress Jirel of Joiry, published in Weird Tales between October 1934 (“Black God’s Kiss”) and April 1939 (“Hellsgarde”). The second, “Black God’s Shadow”, appeared in the December 1934 issue alongside Robert E Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born”, the story in which a crucified Conan bites back at a vulture.

Weird Tales, October 1934

Margaret Brundage cover to Weird Tales, showing Jirel of Joiry and the Black God

Impetuous, fearless and undaunted by danger, Jirel shares many characteristics with her sword and sorcery stablemate, but her stories are nothing like Conan’s. In each adventure, having been set up as a dynamic “female warrior queen and spitfire of the fifteenth century” (as Sam Moskowitz puts it), Jirel is usually plunged straight into the sort of situation where her physical prowess and combat skills count for nothing. The classic Jirel of Joiry tale, after a brief and deftly sketched actionful introduction, has her being transported to another realm, usually a highly surreal one, where magic and dream-logic replace the straightforward adventure-style jinx you expect from sword & sorcery. This makes Jirel something of a puzzle. Whereas Conan cuts through the pretensions (and the major arteries) of sorcerers, priests and eldritch things with brute force and barbaric common sense, the situations Jirel finds herself in can usually only be solved by fighting fire with fire — by finding some ally, or some weapon, as magically powerful and dangerous as the opponent she’s facing. This means her adventures can feel somewhat arbitrary, bookended as they are by magics that both get her into a fix and out of it. But it’s between these points Jirel’s real heroism comes to the fore, and it’s heroism of a strange sort, though one she shares with most 20th century pulp-style heroes from Conan to James Bond. Although, when you think of, say, Conan or Bond as heroes, you think of their way with a sword, a gun, or a fist, or their general ability at taking down a villain, the point at which these pulpsters really prove their heroism is usually a moment in which they’re being helplessly tortured or tormented — think of Conan nailed to that cross in “A Witch Shall Be Born”, or Bond making his way through Dr No’s torturous and tortuous obstacle course on his way to a date with a giant squid (or the line everyone remembers from Goldfinger: “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”). Moore seems to have refined this moment to make it the centrepiece — almost the entire tale, in fact — of her Jirel stories. As Moorcock & Cawthorn put it in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books:

“C. L. Moore excels in the evocation of a pervasive, miasmic atmosphere of evil. This is achieved to a great degree by her descriptions of the distress and degradation evinced by its victims…”

Jirel of Joiry“Black God’s Kiss” starts breathlessly, with Jirel of Joiry already captured and being brought before her gloating conqueror Guillaume, who has just seized control of Castle Joiry. Delighted to find Joiry’s commander is a woman, he forces a kiss, then has her sent to a dungeon. Jirel, fired up with the need for revenge, travels to another dimension to find a means of getting her own back. Fortunately, Castle Joiry has a House on the Borderland-style trapdoor in its lowest cellar, a strange corkscrew helter-skelter passage to a black-lit world of nightmare visions. The bulk of the story is Jirel’s combined horror and awe as she crosses this land in search of a weapon to revenge herself on Guillaume. She witnesses a stream of weird and frightening sights, but at no point is she required to do anything but witness them:

“Half-way across, she saw one of the white blotches approaching her with slow, erratic movements. It bumped along unevenly, and at first she thought it might be inanimate, its approach was so indirect and purposeless. Then it blundered nearer, with that queer bumpy gait, making sucking noises in the ooze and splashing as it came. In the starlight she saw suddenly what it was, and for an instant her heart paused and sickness rose overwhelmingly in her throat. It was a woman — a beautiful woman whose white bare body had the curves and loveliness of some marble statue. She was crouching like a frog, and as Jirel watched in stupefaction she straightened her legs abruptly and leaped as a frog leaps, only more clumsily, falling forward into the ooze a little distance beyond the watching woman. She did not seem to see Jirel. The mud-spattered face was blank. She blundered on through the mud in awkward leaps…”

This realm Jirel has slipped into seems rather Freudian — that degraded woman hopping frog-like through a swamp could be an image of Jirel’s shame at Guillaume’s treatment, but also a sort of reversed fairy tale transformation, with the dark anti-prince kissing our human heroine and turning her into a frog.

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel travels to the centre of this weird realm, and finds a one-eyed statue of the Black God. Kissing it (as she feels compelled to do), she feels “something cold and stunning; something alien beyond any words” enter her. Returning to her own world, she repays her degradation by passing Guillaume the “dreadful, cold bleakness” of the Black God’s kiss — and then, in a very un-Conan-like twist, realises too late that beneath the humiliation and anger she felt attracted to this powerful man. The second tale, “Black God’s Shadow”, sees her trying to right this wrong, and returning to that weirdly black-lit world to free the dead Guillaume.

My main reaction to the Jirel stories is to find them, on the one hand, genuinely weird and wildly imaginative, and on the other, turgid with so many internalised battles with fiercely-felt but abstract emotional tussles, that they were a combination of fantastic thrills and solid drudgery to read. It’s perhaps unfair to quote a sample passage out of context, but this is the sort of thing I mean, when Jirel finds the statue of the Black God:

“Gradually the universal focusing of lines began to exert its influence upon her. She took a hesitant step forward without realising the motion. But that step was all the dormant urge within her needed. With her one motion forward the compulsion closed down upon her with whirlwind impetuosity. Helplessly she felt herself advancing, helplessly with one small, sane portion of her mind she realised the madness that was gripping her, the blind, irresistible urge to do what every visible line in the temple’s construction was made to compel…”

The passion behind even these abstract passages is undoubtable, but it can also feel so much like wading through mud, at times, having to read through so much deeply felt but abstract prose. Sam Moskowitz puts it best, I think, in his chapter on Moore in Seekers of Tomorrow:

“The climax of each story found Northwest Smith [Moore’s other series hero] or Jirel of Joiry in the formless haze of spiritual battle with the unknown. The plot situations were rarely solved by a logical sequence of events, but instead by a burst of rhetorical hypnotism.”

A young C L Moore, from the Teller of Weird Tales blog

A young C L Moore, from the Tellers of Weird Tales blog

Jirel’s adventures feel shamanic. She passes from this world to another, to face some magical evil in a world where none of the logic of this one applies — and so none of the usual action-story resolutions can be applied, either. Perhaps it’s wrong-footing to think of them as sword & sorcery because, although the Jirel of Joiry tales do include swords and sorcery, the swords and the sorcery almost never meet. In fact, the thing the Jirel stories remind me of most are fever dreams — something I thought of only when I read that, when she was young, Moore suffered from ill-health and had to spend a lot of time bed-bound, which is where she developed her love of imaginative stories.

It’s the flashes of (often horrific) imagination for which I’ll remember these tales — as at the beginning of perhaps the best of them, “Hellsgarde”, where Jirel approaches a mist-shrouded castle, expecting it to be abandoned, and finds herself confronted with a small troop of motionless soldiers. Then she realises: the guards are dead, propped into a standing position by having their own spears driven through their throats. She rides gently between them, then:

“Was that motion among the ghastly guard? Her heart leaped to her throat and she gripped the saddle between nervous knees with a sudden reflex action that made the horse shudder. For one of the men in the row before her was slipping silently toward the flagstones. Had the spear-butt slid on the bloody tiles? Had a breeze dislodged his precarious balance? There was no breeze. But with a curious little sigh from collapsing lungs he folded gently downward to his knees, to his side, to a flattened proneness on the stones. And a dark stream of blood trickled from his mouth to snake across the pavement as he lay there… Only in a nightmare could such things happen.”

Only in a nightmare, or in the stories of C L Moore.


Unknown Magazine

Cover to the first issue of Unknown Magazine (March 1939), art by H W Scott

The fantasy, SF and horror pulps remembered most fondly are those that made a name for publishing a particular type of story — often a specific sub-genre, rather than a broad genre. Weird Tales, for instance, is most remembered for Lovecraftian-style “weird” horror, even though it published a lot more besides, including the more traditional type of ghost story, and sword & sorcery. Unknown, which was for a brief time Weird Tales’ only serious rival in the world of fantasy pulps, was better known for a much lighter type of tale, one so characteristic to the magazine that it became known as the “Unknown school” (though it had had its precedents in the likes of humorous fantasists F Anstey, Thorne Smith, and Richard Garnett). As Weird Tales came first, Unknown defined itself against the older pulp: “No more houses of dripping blood, grinning harridans with butcher knives, bodies dangling from razor-bladed rafters”, as Ray Bradbury wrote in a letter to Unknown. Isaac Asimov characterised WT as “grim” as opposed to Unknown’s “impudent” — “with the accent on the imp”.

There are a few factors which gave Unknown its specific character, but chief among them was its editor, John W Campbell Jr, who supposedly started the magazine as a means to publish stories which had been submitted to Astounding, but which didn’t fit that magazine’s hard-SF style. As a result, a lot of the writers published in Unknown were SF writers with ideas for fantasy stories, and they approached fantasy in a more science-fictional manner. For them, fantasy was something to be confronted with a modern, logical and analytical approach. The most characteristic tales of the “Unknown school” feature an Average Joe confronted by a single instance of the supernatural or magical (rather than being transported to an entire other world, for instance), usually with humorous results.

The Unknown, edited by D R Bensen, Pyramid Books 1963

There are a good few examples in The Unknown, a 1963 anthology of stories that appeared in the magazine during its brief life (39 issues in total, from March 1939 to October 1943, when the company’s limited wartime paper allocation was given over entirely to Astounding). Henry Kuttner’s “The Misguided Halo”, for instance, has a young advertising executive mistakenly given a halo by a novice angel, because of a confusion between him (Kenneth Young of Tibbett, North America), and a momentarily-lapsed holy man (Kai Yung of Tibet). Comic shenanigans ensue as Young tries to maintain a normal life despite this holy glow. Similarly, in H L Gold’s “Trouble With Water”, the Average Joe is Herman Greenberg, proprietor of a beachside hotdog & drinks stand, who insults a Water Gnome and is cursed so that “water and those who live in it will keep away from you” — with the result that he cannot wash, or shave, or drink anything but beer, and also (in a momentary boost for his business) cannot be rained upon.

A theme begins to develop, as these average Kenneths and Hermans inevitably go to doctors and psychiatrists for an answer to their problems, only to be dismissed with sedatives, or looked upon as an interesting case for further study, but never actually helped. (The one psychiatrist to star in his own story in The Unknown, in Nelson S Bond’s “Prescience”, actually pursues such an odd case, despite his disinterest, but with disastrous results.) But there is always a solution to be found, and usually it’s by the hero accepting the fantastic situation and working with its own peculiar logic, rather than by trying to attempt any kind of rationalisation. In fact, there are whole subgenres of fantasy which deal with this sort of approach — deal-with-the-devil stories, for instance, one example of which is here, Anthony Boucher’s “Snulbug”, in which the devil dealt with is a very minor imp with limited powers. Boucher’s hero, Bill Hitchens, is notable for not being an Average Joe, but a scientist, who summons the imp Snulbug to try and make some money to fund his research. Bill’s idea — for the devil to bring him a newspaper from tomorrow, so he can make a profit from its information — has, the imp points out, been tried before, and is limited in its usefulness, but Bill pursues his own (logical) approach to the magical situation, and comes through in the end.

Edd Cartier illustration for Anthony Boucher’s “Snulbug”

Unknown featured other types of story, of course. Some — such straight horror tales as Manly Wade Wellman’s Poe-versues-Vampire tale “When It Was Moonlight” — are no doubt here because Unknown paid better rates than Weird Tales, and so got the chance to accept or reject them first. Another far more WT-style writer, who got his first professional sale in Unknown, was Fritz Leiber. Unknown published the first five Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, as well as some of Leiber’s Lovecraftian/M R James-inspired ghost and horror stories, including “Smoke Ghost”, which Ramsey Campbell cites as being important for making its ghost a thoroughly integrated part of a modern urban environment. (It’s his Fafhrd & Gray Mouser tale, “The Bleak Shore”, that gets included in The Unknown.)

Even when Unknown folded, the effect of its take on the fantastic lingered. Poul Anderson’s fantasy novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (first published in 1953, in F&SF), for instance, has its hero (from our world) defeating giants and dragons by working out the scientific rationale behind their fantastic nature, and his contribution to the first Thieves’ World anthology, “The Gate of the Flying Knives” (in 1979) is resolved by the hero’s use of an abstruse snippet of mathematical knowledge, which Anderson can’t quite hold back from naming, entirely anachronistically. A piece of parchment holds a gateway to another dimension, and to prevent its denizens from chasing through to our world after a heroic escape, the hero gives the parchment a “half twist and brought the edges back together”, meaning it now has only one side:

Air rushed in where the gate had been, crack and hiss. Cappen heard that sound as it were an alien word of incantation: “Möbius-s-s.”