If I were to ask you to name some of the famous writers who had work published in the pages of the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, odds are that you might reply with some of the following: H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu stories sprung up in Weird Tales; Robert E. Howard, who placed his Conan stories therein; Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner, perhaps Clark Ashton Smith. Readers who are a bit more familiar with the so-called “Unique Magazine” might confidently respond with Seabury Quinn, the author who appeared in Weird Tales more times than any other … a remarkable 165 appearances in the 279 issues that the magazine came out with during its initial incarnation, from 1923-1954. All male authors, you will notice, although several readers may happily be aware of C. L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore, whose 1933 story “Shambleau” so amazed Weird Tales readers, and for good reason. Thus, it comes as something of an eye-opener to learn that no fewer than 114 women had their work printed in the pages of Weird Tales before 1933 alone, a fact revealed by Melanie R. Anderson in her introduction to Valancourt Books’s beautiful new release The Women of Weird Tales (2020).
The year 2020, may I interject here, might have been a lousy one for planet Earth, but it sure was a good year for several of the female writers of Weird Tales, who, via three releases over the last few months, have at long last been given the recognition they deserve. I have already written here of Armchair Fiction’s Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror, which came out last June and shone a spotlight on one of Weird Tales’ most popular authors of the ‘40s and ‘50s, in the first anthology given over to her work. This past October, Everil Worrell was given a similar treatment, with the first anthology of her stories, Call Not Their Names. And in November, this Valancourt book was released, dealing with four women who were all frequent contributors to the magazine: Worrell, Greye La Spina, Mary Elizabeth Counselman and Eli Colter. Something of a renaissance for the distaff side of “The Unique Magazine,” thus. The Valancourt book gives us a baker’s dozen from these four authors; tales ranging from 1925-1949. Most of them are pretty wonderful, and cover a wide range of subject matter. Many of the stories are quite ghastly, even grisly and ghoulish, to the point that the reader may at times be surprised that such macabre doings have sprung from a woman author. The tales are presented in strict chronological order, meaning that the anthology often jumps from one writer to the next, but for the sake of this review, I would like to deal with one author at a time, so that we might get a sense of her combined efforts here.
Let’s begin with Massachusetts-born Greye La Spina (1880-1969), who had 15 stories printed in Weird Tales (including one series) and is here represented by five. “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” (from the 1/25 Weird Tales) is the earliest story chronologically here, and thus kicks off this collection … somewhat weakly, I’m afraid. Here, an obsessed scientist believes that he can trap the vaporous soul essence of a person after death, utilizing his specially constructed glass bell, but tragedy looms when his unloved wife volunteers for the experiment. It is an interesting tale, albeit too superficially presented. Much better is La Spina’s “The Dead-Wagon” (from the 9/27 issue), in which we meet the accursed family of Lord Malverson. When the wooden carving on the portal of Malverson Abbey, depicting a wagonload of the deceased during the Great Plague of 1664, suddenly sports a red cross one day, the current head of the house, Lord Malverson himself, knows that one of his heirs will soon come to his demise. And matters become even more dire when Malverson’s soon-to-be son-in-law sees a wagon of the dead in the estate’s courtyard, and later, when his own infant son suffers a traumatic head injury and hovers at death’s door. It is a marvelous story, and the origin of the family curse a fascinating one. In the author’s next tale here, “The Deadly Theory” (5/42), an artist relates a very strange story about his lady love, Marzha; the woman’s younger sister, Idell; and their father, Elisha, a modern-day alchemist of sorts. When Marzha is poisoned by her jealous sibling and is found newly dead, Elisha vows to bring her back to life for her fiancé, utilizing a process involving cremation, the elixir known as Primum Ens Sanguinis, occult rites, and incantations. And soon enough, Marzha does indeed return from the dead … but that is only the beginning of this truly bizarre story, culminating with not one, but two surprise endings. Some very fine work here from Ms. La Spina! In “Great Pan Is Here” (11/43), a young man and his future fiancée are stunned when the Greek nature god Himself arrives at his house and declares that He wishes to take possession of the backyard for His festive rites and gatherings. In this truly charming fantasy, La Spina throws in a love story, a nymph statue that comes to mystical life, an enchanted night of dancing with the dryads and nymphs of the so-called “Old World,” and a seemingly magical transformation, as that prim and decorous fiancée is awakened as to her true nature. Finally, in “The Antimacassar” (5/49), a young career woman, Lucy Butterfield, goes off in search of her missing coworker, and winds up at the boardinghouse of one Mrs. Renner, who also gives sewing lessons. Before long, Lucy is unnerved by the nighttime cries of 12-year-old Kathy Renner, beseeching her mother with cries of “Mom! I’m hungry!” This is the only La Spina story that I had encountered previously, and without giving away too much, let me just say that it was in the pages of the 1992 anthology Weird Vampire Tales. Anyway, these five stories by La Spina have only strengthened my resolve to one day read her werewolf novel Invaders from the Dark, originally serialized in the April-June 1925 issues of Weird Tales. If only I could find it at a decent price.
Up next for our delectation is Nebraska-born Everil Worrell (1893-1969), who is also represented by five of her 19 Weird Tales stories. In “Leonora” (1/27), a possible homage to Edgar Allan Poe, a 16-year-old girl meets, on the occasions of several full moons, a mysterious man who urges her to hop into his car and go for a ride. And after several months, she finally accedes, only to find that the stranger has a skeletal hand, and their destination is … a cemetery. This is a simply written yet highly atmospheric tale, one that grows increasingly grisly as it proceeds. And yes, Poe himself did write a poem named “Lenore,” as well as a short story called “Eleonora” … on different themes, however. “The Canal” (12/27) is a story that I had somehow forgotten about, despite having encountered it previously in that same Weird Vampire Tales anthology. How could this wonderful story have slipped my mind? In it, a reclusive oddball, a young man of night owlish habits, encounters a young woman who sits on a half-submerged barge in the middle of a desolate canal. The man immediately falls in love with this nocturnal maiden, who tells him that she will only come to him when the canal becomes stagnant, as she cannot cross running water. This deliciously creepy tale concludes with an ending that borders on the apocalyptic. Wonderful stuff! In the pulp wonder known as “Vulture Crag” (8/28), the reader is introduced to the evil mastermind Count Zolani, who has devised a machine that will enable a man’s soul/essence to become separated from his body and then propelled into space, to explore distant worlds. On the top of a vulture-plagued eminence on the desolate Maryland coast, he converts a crumbling mansion into a scientific installation, and in time invites our narrator and his girlfriend, as well as 18 others, to be his first subjects. Into this outlandish conceit Worrell throws a hulking and tongueless servant, a love triangle, poisoning, a conflagration, death by vulture, and some truly bizarre scientific concepts, to make for one way-out mélange. And “The Rays of the Moon” (9/28) might be even stranger! Here, a young man of science — and an occasional grave robber — enters a cemetery one night to dig up a fresh new subject for experimentation. On this evening, however, his chosen subject, the freshly interred corpse of a young woman, comes to life, and in a flash, our young body snatcher — or his spectral self, anyway — and the young deceased are standing beneath the mountains of the moon, having been drawn there by some mysterious agency! This tale concludes with a surprise ending that only the slowest of readers will fail to see coming; an ending so telegraphed, actually, that perhaps it was not meant to come as a surprise at all. Still, a terrific bit of writing here. And finally, Worrell gives us what is perhaps her best — and certainly most outrageous — tale in this collection, “The Gray Killer” (11/29). In this one, a woman lies in the hospital with an injured foot, writing in her diary about all the strange things going on around her. A hopeless cancer case has made a miraculous recovery, and so has a train-wreck victim. A young boy is found dead, harpooned to the skylight in the operating room (!), and an infant child is kidnapped. Meanwhile, our narrator becomes ever more frightened of her night doctor, a strange-looking man of evil aspect. And ultimately, Worrell throws some leprosy-loving space alien cannibals, as well as a tentacled Lovecraftian monstrosity, into this truly flabbergasting mix. Bottom line: I cannot imagine anyone who reads these five mind-boggling tales not desiring to read the 14-story Worrell collection that has just been released. I know I do!
As for Alabama-born Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1911-1995), I was fairly familiar with this master of the Southern Gothic, having recently read Arkham House’s famed 1978 collection of her work entitled Half in Shadow. Counselman is here represented by two of her 30 Weird Tales stories. In “The Black Stone Statue” (12/37, and also to be found in the Arkham House collection), a Brazilian explorer brings back to the U.S. a star-shaped glob of alien jelly that has the power to turn anything it touches to stone. A sculptor of his acquaintance decides that this might be of use in his work … with dreadful results. In “The Web of Silence” (11/39), a person unknown, one “Dr. Ubique,” demands $250,000 from a small town’s mayor, with the threat that if the money is not paid, something terrible will happen. And when this mailed-in extortion threat is ignored, a force is lowered over the entire valley, preventing all sounds from being heard, and resulting in days of panic and economic calamity. Counselman obviously gave a great deal of thought as to what a world without sound would entail for its residents, in this wonderfully clever tale.
Finally, as for Oregon-born Eli Colter (1890-1984), she only has one tale here out of the dozen she placed in Weird Tales, but at least it is one of the collection’s longest … and best. “The Curse of a Song” (3/28) is a straightforward ghost story largely set in the Portland that the author knew so well … the Portland of the 1880s, however. Here, a man who believes his fiancée has been unfaithful to him grows into a madman, and before he dies lays a curse on his successive generations … a curse tied to the song his fiancée had been playing on the piano when he’d caught her, the 1884 chestnut “Love’s Old Sweet Song.” And now, as his niece prepares to get married herself, the specter of this madman returns to cause further mischief. This is a fantastic tale, truly, at once scary and suspenseful, in which Colter gives us a nice history of her hometown of Portland as well.
So there you have it: 13 fascinating stories from the pages of Weird Tales magazine, written by four female authors who may now be getting an introduction to a new generation, courtesy of this fine collection from Valancourt. To read this book is to hope that both Greye La Spina and Eli Colter may themselves someday soon be given their own anthologies, perhaps from Armchair Fiction or Valancourt. It is also to be hoped that this volume is just the first of many to offer us selections written by the lady contributors to Weird Tales, ladies who — as is amply demonstrated here — could get every bit as grisly, outrageous and fantastic as their male colleagues …