Rivals of Weird Tales edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg
From 1923 – ’54, over the course of 279 issues, the pulp publication known as Weird Tales helped to popularize macabre fantasy and outré horror fiction, ultimately becoming one of the most influential and anthologized magazines of the century, and introducing readers to a “Who’s Who” of American authors. I had previously read and reviewed no fewer than six large collections of tales culled from the pages of “the Unique Magazine,” and had loved them all. But Weird Tales, of course, was far from being the only pulp periodical on the newsstands back when, as amply demonstrated in the appropriately titled, 500-page anthology Rivals of Weird Tales. In this wonderfully entertaining, generous collection, editors Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg (who had put together many of those other WT collections) have selected what they feel to be representative samples from some of the other “weird fiction” mags of the day, including Tales of Magic and Mystery, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Horror Stories, Strange Stories, Unknown Worlds (a side project of John W. Campbell as he concurrently edited the seminal Astounding Science-Fiction), Fantastic Adventures, Stirring Science Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Beyond Fantasy Fiction, from the period 1927 – ’55. Preceded by a highly informative introduction by Dziemianowicz, the result is one staggeringly impressive gathering of unusual fiction.
What might be surprising to some is that many of the authors normally associated with WT can be found in this collection, too; by economic necessity, the authors back when sold their wares to whichever editor would buy them, especially if the buyer could better WT’s penny-per-word rate. Thus, H.P. Lovecraft is represented here, with his tale of a human corpsicle, “Cool Air”; Conan creator Robert E. Howard is shown off nicely with his oft-anthologized tale of the resurrected Odin, “The Cairn on the Headland”; Henry Kuttner delivers up one of his pulpy Prince Raynor stories, “Cursed Be the City”; his future wife, C.L. Moore, expounds on the dangers of 3-D cinema (in a 1939 story!) in “Miracle in Three Dimensions”; August Derleth gives us the pithy voodoo tale “Logoda’s Heads”; prose poet Clark Ashton Smith surprises by writing in a much less florid style than usual, in the truly grisly story “The Return of the Sorcerer”; and Seabury Quinn, the author who appeared in WT more than any other (165 times!), mainly via tales of his psychic sleuth Jules de Grandin, here gives us a lovely and beautifully written tale of supernatural second chances, “Doomed.”
Then, there are tales that can only be described with that one catchall word: weird. Thus, we have Hugh B. Cave’s “Imp of Satan,” in which a Brazilian poison turns a man into an inches-high killer; Manly Wade Wellman’s “For Fear of Little Men,” in which a Native American grapples with another diminutive menace, the pukwitchee; Carl Jacobi’s “Spawn of Blackness,” in which that ebon color gives birth to a murderous, oversized rat (!); Anthony Boucher’s “The Anomaly of the Empty Man,” in which it is learned that by playing a certain record of a diabolical diva backwards, deadly results can be obtained; and Philip K. Dick’s early story (from 1953) “Expendable,” wherein talking spiders aid Mankind in its battle against the ants….
Another type of story to be found in this collection might be termed “nasty chillers.” Of this type can be counted Frank Belknap Long’s “Johnny on the Spot,” in which Death is personified; Cleve Cartmill’s short and not-so-sweet “Oscar”; Fritz Leiber’s tale of a demonic mirage in the Southwest, “The Hill and the Hole”; Jane Rice’s exquisitely penned story of a beautiful young man in WW2 France who just happens to be a werewolf, “The Refugee” (capped by a marvelous surprise ending); Robert A. W. Lowndes’ Lovecraft-inspired “The Abyss”; Cyril M. Kornbluth’s truly bizarre “The Words of Guru”; Kris Neville’s story of radiation-spawned mutants and paranoia, “Underground Movement”; and Richard Matheson’s truly frightening “Sorry, Right Number” (which was later adapted for TV’s “The Twilight Zone”).
To leaven the chills, Rivals also gives us a generous amount of stories in a lighthearted vein, ranging from the chucklesome to the laugh-out-loud funny. Of this ilk may be counted Eric Frank Russell’s “Me and My Shadow,” in which a henpecked milquetoast gets a genuine makeover from his own shadow; Lester del Rey’s “Coppersmith,” in which the reawakened elf Ellowan learns that making a living in the 20th century can be a major challenge; H.L. Gold’s “Warm Dark Places,” in which tailor Ira Kaplan is cursed with the ubiquitous presence of fuzzy little… things; Malcolm Jameson’s “Philtered Power,” a tale of modern-day politics and medieval alchemy; Fredric Brown’s “Armageddon,” in which 9-year-old Herbie Westerman goes up against Satan with nothing but a water pistol; Theodore Sturgeon’s marvelous “Shottle Bop,” in which a lowlife good-for-nothing becomes a 1940s “ghost whisperer”; L. Sprague de Camp’s story of a most troublesome fire elemental, “Mr. Arson”; and finally, the truly hilarious offering from Robert Bloch, “The Weird Doom of Floyd Scrilch” (just one of Bloch’s 25 tales dealing with the punning, Runyonesque con-man character Lefty Feep; a collection of all these tales in one volume would be most appreciated!).
To make this already wonderful collection even better, the three editors have also included two full-length novellas. In Jack Williamson’s pulpy in the extreme “Wolves of Darkness,” invaders from another dimension inhabit the slain bodies of humans and other animals (horses, coyotes and, of course, wolves); thus, Williamson gets to deliver THIS perfect example of pulp verbiage:
Dark things — masses of fetid, reeking blackness — seemed to creep from its ugly protuberances, to swarm toward us through the tainted filth of the writhing, evilly glowing vegetation. The darkness of evil concentrate, creeping from that nightmare world into ours!
You’ve gotta love it! Finally, there is this collection’s longest offering, at 82 pages: Norvell W. Page’s classic novella “But Without Horns,” in which three FBI men must tackle the mutant mentality of a Midwesterner with the wholly imposing name of, uh, John Miller. This surprisingly gritty story takes all kinds of surprising twists before slamming to a halt on a decidedly downbeat note. It is so very impressive that I am now highly inclined to read Page’s collection of stories dealing with his superhero The Spider, which has been sitting on my shelf for ages now…
So there you have it …30 stories of varied style and content; a huge collection that amply demonstrates that even though Weird Tales might have been the best in its class, there WERE surely other delicacies to be had on the newsstands back when. All fans of fantasy, sci-fi and horror literature are advised to pounce on this one. With nary a clinker in the bunch, this anthology comes more than highly recommended!