There's never quite been a magazine such as Weird Tales. In any conversation of genre, it’s hard to place the publication in a tidy box of fantasy, horror or science fiction; over the course of its history, it’s published a range of speculative stories, often crossing from one genre to another. Throughout its 30-year run, the magazine proved to be the starting point for a wide range of authors such as H.P. Lovecraft to Tennessee Williams to C.L. Moore. The magazine was the first dedicated publication devoted to stories that broadly fit into the speculative fiction movement, founded just three years before the first “Scientifiction” magazine, Amazing Stories landed on magazine racks in 1926. The story of the magazine’s history is a remarkable tale of survival, and one that helped to launch many a career in the speculative publishing genres.
Weird Tales magazine came from publisher Jacob Clarke Henneberger, who had worked with several small magazines throughout his young career, including the successful College Humor. In 1922, he founded Rural Publications, Inc., along with J.M. Lansinger, with the intention of cashing in on the pulp-fiction market. Henneberger had been influenced early on by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and he wanted to form a publication that captured stories that didn’t quite fit, hoping that it would prove to be a major success. He noted that in speaking with a number of writers, they wanted to publish stories that didn't quite fit anywhere else, stories that included fantastic, bizarre and mysterious: "I must confess that the main motive in establishing Weird Tales was to give the writer free rein to express his innermost feelings in a manner befitting great literature." Upon its formation, the company began to publish two magazines: Real Detective Tales and Mystery Stories and Weird Tales. While the pulp market had catered to a number of popular, speculative proto–science fiction, fantasy and horror stories (such as the stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs), Weird Tales would be the first to exclusively publish fantasy and horror fiction in the pulp market.
The first issue of Weird Tales was published in March 1923, edited by Edwin Baine and priced at $0.25, a high price at the time for a pulp magazine. Assisted by fellow writers Farnsworth Wright and Otis Kline, the magazine was initially off to a promising start, and over the next couple of issues, Baine brought in several promising authors: Clark Ashton Smith and Francis Stevens, bright points in an otherwise lackluster table of contents. At the same time, an up-and-coming author, H.P. Lovecraft, discovered Weird Tales and fired off no less than five submissions to Baine, all single spaced. Baine rejected each one, pointing out to Lovecraft that while he enjoyed them, they needed to be submitted properly. Lovecraft balked, but eventually retyped and mailed in his short story “Dagon,” which was purchased and placed into the October 1923 issue, alongside stories from authors Seasbury Quinn and Edgar Allan Poe. With Lovecraft came other authors: He urged Frank Belknap Long to submit and he continued to send his own stories, becoming a mainstay of the magazine’s table of contents.
While its content served a small core audience, Weird Tales had trouble gaining traction among the high volume of competing magazines. Several remedies were implemented, such as a change in the magazine's size, but a year into the magazine's run, it had run up debts of over $40,000 and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Henneberger was forced to work out a special deal with the magazine's creditor and printer, B. Cornelius, which kept the magazine afloat.
The financial problems were compounded by Edwin Baine's lack of enthusiasm for the magazine's content. Faced with mounting debt and a magazine with lackluster content, Henneberger fired Baine from Weird Tales but retained him to edit Real Detective Tales, where his interests were more aligned with the publication. Henneberger then turned to the one author he had ordered Baine to accept stories from on every submission: H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft and his wife, however, were reluctant to move to the much colder Chicago. Henneberger made an unprecedented offer: Lovecraft's would be paid 10 weeks salary up front, and would be granted a free hand when it came to editing the magazine. When Lovecraft turned the offer down, Henneberger turned to Baine's former assistant, Farnsworth Wright, who became the magazine’s lead editor, assisted by William Sprenger, who was brought in as the magazine's business manager.
Born in 1888 in California, Farnsworth Wright had ended up in Chicago after serving in France during World War I, where he worked as an interpreter. He had been bitten early on by the speculative-fiction bug, and was a fan of authors such as William Morris. Upon returning to the United States, he had landed a job with the Chicago Herald, and eventually ended up writing for Henneberger's company. When Henneberger started Weird Tales, Wright was the magazine's first slush reader, all while writing on the side, publishing several short stories in the magazine: “The Closing Hand” (March 1923); “The Snake Fiend” (April 1923); “The Teak-Wood Shrine” (September 1923); “An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension” (October 1923); “Poisoned” (November 1923); and “The Great Panjandrum” (November 1924). However, while he turned his hand at some fiction, his real legacy comes with his work as editor of the magazine.
Coming in after Baine's stewardship, Wright had an uphill battle to bring the magazine back from the dead. For much of 1924, he was constrained by work that had been accepted by his predecessor. It wasn’t until later that he was able to start accepting new stories from authors such as Seabury Quinn and Clark Ashton Smith, both of whom would become major names with the magazine. Wright worked closely with his authors, slowly building up a new pool of talent. Over the next couple of years, he bought the first stories from authors such as Robert S. Carr (“The Flying Halfback,” September 1925), Edmond Hamilton (“The Monster God of Mamurth,” August 1926), Tennessee Williams (“The Vengeance of Nitocris,” August 1928) and C.L. Moore (“Shambleau,” November 1933), all of whom would go on to have much larger careers in the arts. When Wright came across Moore’s submission, he reportedly closed the Weird Tales office in Chicago in celebration of finding such a story. Weird Tales had gone from a publication of mediocre fiction to much stronger platform which would make a huge impact in the speculative world.
Wright was an eccentric individual, with odd tastes that helped to define the tone and style of the magazine. He had an uncontrollable tremor due to his Parkinson’s disease and spoke softly. He was described by Raymond Palmer as “an editor who has a real handicap to his work. But how appropriate to a ‘weird’ magazine.” Because of his odd tastes, Wright was often forced to navigate between the sometimes-conflicting natures of the magazine; some readers wrote into the magazine’s letter column asking for more scientifically rigorous stories, while others insisted that more gothic-inspired tales were desired. Indeed, Lovecraft found this when his serialized story “At the Mountains of Madness” was printed in Astounding Science Fiction, after being rejected by Weird Tales: Readers complained that it lacked hard science. In the late 1920s, Weird Tales found itself with new competition for fantastic stories, primarily from Hugo Gernsback's landmark magazine Amazing Stories, the first dedicated magazine to purely science-fiction stories. More would follow as the science-fiction field exploded with new publications throughout the rest of the decade and beyond. Weird Tales did what they could to stand out on the racks, most prominently by hiring Margaret Brundage as the magazine’s primary artist, whose risqué cover art certainly attracted attention.
Weird Tales faced a crisis in the mid-1930s as the Great Depression loomed, and as several of the magazine’s major authors passed away. Henry S. Whitehead died in 1932, followed by Arlton Eadie in 1935 and Conan the Conqueror creator Robert E. Howard, who died by his own hand a year later in 1936. The biggest blow came in 1937, when the magazine’s mainstay author, H.P. Lovecraft, died due to cancer in his small intestines. Wright himself had suffered from a number of health problems, starting with a case of sleeping sickness that he contracted during World War I. In 1921, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which would progress over the entire time that he edited the magazine. The magazine also faced financial difficulties, slashing its employees’ salaries. But the magazine did eventually regain its footing and paid off its debts. The magazine’s backers reorganized into the Popular Fiction Company. Henneberger was never able to fully regain control of his company, however.
The end of the 1930s marked continued difficulties for the magazine. In 1938, Henneberger sold his share of the company to William Delaney, owner of Short Stories magazine. In 1940, Wright stepped down as lead editor of the magazine and underwent surgery to help cope with his Parkinson’s disease, only to pass away in 1940. Weird Tales felt a unique pressure when it moved to New York: imitation magazines. One, Strange Stories, edited by Mort Weisinger, was launched in January 1939 but lasted a mere two years before folding, too much of a cheap copy of Weird Tales. Two months later, however, Street & Smith, the company that published Astounding Science Fiction, launched Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell Jr. It too was a short-lived threat, canceled in 1943 due to paper shortages and poor sales.
In April 1940, a new editor, Dorothy McIlwraith, stepped up to the table to take charge of the magazine. She would be responsible for bringing on a new crop of writers, which included such people as Ray Bradbury, Frederic Brown, Fritz Lieber Jr. and Margaret St. Clair. McIlwraith was born in Ontario on October 14, 1891. After finishing college at McGill in 1914, she moved to the United States and worked for Doubleday, eventually ending up as an editorial assistant for Short Stories magazine, which was owned by Short Stories, Inc. In 1938, the company purchased Weird Tales from Henneberger and relocated their offices to New York City. As Wright's health began to fail, McIlwraith, now in charge of Short Stories, assisted Farnsworth with his duties, ultimately replacing him in the spring of 1940.
The transition marked a major change for the magazine. Under its new management, McIlwraith was directed to tone down the content and covers of the magazine by Delaney, who also increased the size of the magazine while at the same time reduced pay for its writers. The changes had the opposite intended affect: Revenue from the magazine declined at the same time that World War II was causing major complications for periodicals. McIlwraith has also been cited as a lesser editor than Wright, who simply couldn’t match the eccentric tastes of her predecessor, which had a further impact on the tone and character of the magazine. Over the remainder of the 1940s, the magazine slimmed down along with its quality. Faced with lower pay rates, many of the magazines’ surviving authors tried their talents with other, competing magazines. The end was near. Weird Tales was reduced to digest size in a last ditch effort to save on costs. It didn’t work, and the last issue of Weird Tales was sold in 1954. It was the end to a major, three-decade run of a magazine that had a lasting impact on the genre.
It wasn’t the end of the Weird Tales name, however. Several attempts were made to revitalize the magazine, with a short run in the 1970s and several anthologies in the 1980s. In the late 1980s, Weird Tales was brought back by publisher/editors George H. Scithers, John Gregory Betancourt and Darrell Schweitzer, and the revival published through the 1990s. In 2005, the title was sold to Wildside Press, which remade the magazine, placing Ann VanderMeer in charge as editor. Under her watch, the magazine was very successful, winning a Hugo Award in 2009 and introducing a new generation of authors to a new face of Weird fiction. In 2011, the magazine was sold to Nth Dimensions Media and was met with another turbulent start. As of 2013, the magazine is continuing forward.Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter @andrewliptak.