Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Memoirs of a Pulp Fiend!

Continuing our massive interview with pulp historian Stefan Dziemianowicz (Part 1 is available over at A Thriller a Day).

PE: Why the fascination with Weird Tales? I mean, sure they’re pretty to look at but you don’t actually read these old moldy things, do you?

SD: There's this joke they tell in pulp-collecting circles (which I'm sure can be adapted to comics collecting, book collecting, "fill-in-the-blank" collecting) about the novice pulp collector who's going table to table at a pulp convention, buying titles for "investment" purposes, when he comes to one table where a bunch of veterans are shooting the breeze, discussing their favorite pulp stories. "You actually READ the magazines?" gasps the horrified novice. "Don't you know how much that devalues them?!?!?" Actually, other people tell this joke better than I do, but it's not as much a joke as you might think. There are people who collect pulps and, for whatever reason, don't read them. Me, I came to pulp magazines as a reader, and although I've not read every magazine in my collection, I've read a lot of them.

As to "why Weird Tales"--hey, that's the title of the editorial that ran in the famous May-June-July 1924 issue, and just being able to spout that kind of trivia makes me sound like more of a nerd than I really am, doesn't it?--that's simple. I started reading fantasy horror and science fiction in my adolescence, which is to say the late '60s and early '70s. That was a half-decade or more before the advent of Stephen King and a good decade before there was anything remotely resembling a modern horror genre with bookstore presence. What you could find, in scanty form, were the classics: Poe, Blackwood, Machen, Le Fanu, Bierce, and other writers from the Victorian and Edwardian era. The most "modern" writers of horror fiction you were likely to find at your local neighborhood bookstore (dare I date myself and mention that this was back at a time when the concept of chain bookstores such as B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Borders had yet to gain traction?) were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson. If, like me, you chowed down on every title of theirs as soon as you could get your hands on it, you couldn't help but look at the publication credits on the copyright page (sort of like gnawing the bones of the book to suck every last juicy morsel from it) and--guess what!--you discovered that ALL of them published stories in Weird Tales.

You've got to remember that Weird Tales stopped publication in 1954, which means by 1969 it was only 15 years dead. To put that into perspective, that's the same interval that separates Stephen King's "Carrie" from "The Dark Half." Put in perspective another way, only 20 years separate the death of Weird Tales and the publication of Carrie where as 36 years--nearly twice as long--separate Carrie from the books King published in 2010. What I'm getting at is that, in the late 1960s and '70s, the classic Weird Tales was not yet the embalmed memory we think of it as today. It was still possible to stumble on copies in used bookstores, or run across cheap reading copies in specialty science fiction and fantasy book catalogs, like the ones you saw listed in the ads at the back of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Those catalogs sometimes put you in touch with offerings from the then current specialty press, much of which was full of memoirs, and even current fiction, by the likes of Joseph Payne Brennan, Hugh Cave, H. Warner Munn, Carl Jacobi, and other Weird Tales alums. The early '70s were the period when fan fascination with Lovecraft was starting to take off in a way that even the readership of Weird Tales in its heyday couldn't have imagined, and given that Lovecraft's name was virtually synonymous with the magazine, if you read anything about Lovecraft, odds were you picked up a lot about Weird Tales. Those same years, Sam Moskowitz launched the reissue of Weird Tales. The magazine was underfinanced, which meant that Sam had to fill it with a lot of fiction out of copyright that Weird Tales itself might never have published, and it was almost impossible to find at the newsstands. But, hey, it was Weird Tales--!!!!!--and the very fact that it was resurrected from the dead only fed the mystique that drove fans like me to seek it out. (I should also point out that about the same time, Sam Moskowitz opened his collection to a guy named Tony Goodstone who was compiling a magnificent retrospective book on pulp magazines entitled, simply, The Pulps. The book included a generous sampling of fiction from most of the major pulp genres, including a few Weird Tales stories. Most important--it included a bunch of glossy insert pages reproducing cover art from the magazines. As you put it in your question, the magazines are "pretty to look at," and it's the cover art that hooks you. This was the pre-internet days--hell, this was the pre-computer days--when you couldn't find repro like this with a mouse click on Google search. Goodstone's book was the equivalent of pulp porn.)

Jeez, look at how wet I'm getting over this. I'm starting to sound like a teenager in the backseat of a car, only with a magazine rather than Betty Lou the cheerleader--ain't I? (They've got a word for that, don't they? Can we say it in this blog?)

They say you never forget your first love, and I haven't. I bought my first copy of Weird Tales in 1971. It was the November 1950 issue, with a cool Frank Kelly Freas cover. I paid $3.00 for it. It featured a Fritz Leiber story I coveted because I'd become acquainted with its existence the year previous. (More on that later.) The rest, as they say, is history. I was a collector just waiting to be bit by the pulp bug. One buy led to another, and another, and with each issue of the magazine you bought, I became more and more aware of its legacy and history. Weird Tales published 297 issues in its first incarnation. Do the math, and you can figure that it probably published upwards of 4,000 stories. And not just throwaways. Virtually every writer of short horror and fantasy fiction who amounted to anything between 1923 and 1954 published in its pages. Some of the stories that appeared in Weird Tales literally altered the course of the modern fantastic tale and became the foundation that decades of horror writers afterward built on their work. There was no other repository like this for weird fiction, and there likely never will be again. Getting access to it 16 years after it closed shop made me feel a little like how graverobbers must have felt when they broke into King Tut's tomb.

PE: Off topic a bit but you once edited a string of reprint volumes with Greenberg and Weinberg called 100… Run us through the process of a monster undertaking like that. Did you sit in your living room surrounded by pulps, close your eyes and point?

SD: Not off-topic at all. Remember how all of those mad scientists in shudder pulp stories had armies of drool-slavering cretins whom they pressed into service to carry out their evil designs? Well, I had my own gang of mutant editorial associates. Basically, I would wave a pulp story under their noses, and when they got the scent, I would order "Go fetch permission for World English Language rights!" Those boys never let me down--

Say, I get the idea you're not falling for this bunk...

Okay, the truth is I did get to cull a lot of pulps for stories for the 100 short-short story books, but there was a natural process of triage. The anthology theme limited us to certain magazines. 100 Crooked Little Crime Stories pretty much made it possible for us to print any crime/mystery/suspense story that satisfied editorial demands. 100 Crooked Little Crime Stories and 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories mandated that the crime story chosen feature a detective or crime-solver of some sort. 100 Wild Little Weird Tales limited us to a single magazine: Weird Tales. Word count for these books dictated that stories run no longer than 2,500 to 3,000 words so that was yet another winnowing tool. Then, the deal clincher: the story had either to be in the public domain (a surprising number of pulp stories are, notably those published under house names in fly-by-night magazines); by an author with whom--or with whose agents and reps--we have a good working relationship (for example, Hugh Cave, a true gentleman who always seemed so delighted to be remembered for a book that we never had any problem working out terms with him); or published by an author whose work had been copyrighted by Popular Publications. Popular Publications was, at one time, the biggest publisher of pulp fiction magazines, and we were lucky that Bob Weinberg served as business manager for the concern to whom copyright for all Popular Publications magazines had been assigned.

You might think that this would create extremely stringent conditions under which to assemble an anthology, but the fact is it gave us access to an astonishing number of magazines and their contents. The pulps were intended to provide quick, forgettable escapist entertainment, and you would be surprised at how many stories in a particular issue of a particular magazine--say, Detective Fiction Weekly or 15 Mystery Stories--clocked in at just the right word count. Most of the stories that filled "the back of the book in pulp magazines" were tailor-made filler pieces, written to order in some cases to be fit around the advertisements and longer stories that ended part way down the jump page. It was a delight to discover that, even though written to format, a number of the stories were quite good, or at least as good as any that appeared in the front of the book. Mind you, this turned reading that I would normally do for fun into "work," but I still got a kick out of sitting down with obscure magazines that only fellow pulp collectors were familiar with and pulling stories from them for a second life.

The book that damned near killed the three of us wasn't an anthology top-heavy with pulp stories, but Horrors: 365 Scary Stories. It featured all new stories, especially written for the book, none longer than 750 words. This was back in the pre-electronic submission days, and I was getting and reading upwards of 30-40 manuscripts per day. Granted, at 750 words per story, that's not a lot of wordage to have to read, but a story is a story, and I was doing this all on top of my daytime job. Every day I would come home from the office and find a neatly stacked and rubber-banded pile of manila envelopes plopped on the floor in front my apartment building mailbox. I knew what my leisure hours were going to be spent doing that evening. Years later, I realized that I was doing the latter-day equivalent of pulp editing for that book. Pulp magazine editors read a lot of stories on a daily basis, a lot by people who never managed more than a sale or two in their lifetime, and a lot more by people who wrote so badly that they never made a sale. The experience raised my admiration for a guy like Doc Lowndes who, at one point in his career, was reading stories for science fiction, fantasy, western, sports, and probably love pulps on a daily basis for notoriously lower-tier publications.

PE: You’ve made quite a career mining those pulps for great stories. Do you have any idea what percentage of the total stories published you’ve read?

SD: The short answer to that question is, not as many as I would like to have read. When I first started collecting pulps as a teenager, you could count in nanoseconds the amount of time it took me to get the wrapper off the magazine I'd bought from a used book dealer and plunge into the pulp. But that was back in my high school days. Suffice to say, my literary horizons have broadened since then--young pulp collectors, please take note: there ARE other types of fiction to read out there--and since I do a lot of reviewing of contemporary genre fiction that, and the obligations of "the day job," have cut severely into my free time. 

Despite the fact that there were not that many horror/weird fiction pulps, there's only one that I've read the complete run of, cover to cover. That was Unknown/Unknown Worlds (39 issues) and I did that, in part, because I wrote a book (my first, in fact) on that magazine. I blush to admit I've read maybe only half of the stories in Weird Tales, and not all of the good ones. I got a lot of Weird Tales stories under my belt when I and Bob Weinberg and Marty Greenberg compiled 100 Wild Little Weird Tales. That book was made up of one hundred stories in the 2,500 to 3,000 word range from Weird Tales, and that required me to read all the short filler stories at the back of the magazine and pick the cream of the crop.

I would say that, for most of the the other weird fiction pulps--Strange Tales (7 issues), Strange Stories (13 issues), Ghost Stories (60+ issues, and this one counts only partly since they fobbed off most of the contents as "true" ghost stories) I've read about half to 3/4 of the contents. Then you get hybrid magazines like Fantastic Adventures (some horror, but mostly fantasy of a juvenile stripe), Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Fantastic Novels (largely reprints of old lost world fantasies and early scientific romances from the pre-1930s)--I've read about the same percentage of those. I've got about 1/3 to 1/2 of the runs of the shudder pulps Horror Stories and Terror Tales, and about the same percentage of the shudder pulp incarnations of Thrilling Mystery and Dime Mystery. I'm less well read in those, only because they're formulaic and reading too many in succession will put you to sleep. Sort of the same experience I had when I tried reading Doc Savage novels as a teen. Speaking of Doc Savage, there's a lot of horror and science fiction in hero pulps like Doc, The Spider, G-8, Operator 5, et al. But those magazines, like the shudder pulps, are dearly priced on the collector's market today and I know I'll never own all of the ones with weird fiction.

My goal before I die is to have read all of the stories in the genuine weird fiction pulps.

PE: What is SD’s WT collection like? Have you got a WT room? Perhaps Cthulhu shot glasses for SD?
SD: What's my Weird Tales collection like? Okay: I've got a complete run, sort of. Of the original 279 issues, I'm missing all but four issues: the first 3, and the first Lovecraft issue (October 1923). I've got photocopies of those issues. I could break down and buy the Girasol reprints, and probably will at some point, but I'm a nostalgic kind of guy, and my photocopies were made off of August Derleth's set before it was dispersed. I've got copies of all the issues from subsequent incarnations of the magazine.

I'd like to think that, before I die, I'll acquire a complete run of the 'zine, but it's not likely. As I mentioned, when I started collecting, even pulps like Weird Tales didn't cost that much to acquire. They were pretty much the obsession of a small but devoted core of fans. Talk to the guys who attended the first Pulpcon 30-some-odd years ago and they'll tell you how they were buying and selling Spicy pulp, hero pulps, and shudder pulps for a couple of bucks apiece. Yep—the same magazines that you see fetching several hundred dollars a pop on Ebay these days. After back burnering pulp collecting while I was in college, I started collecting in earnest again in the 1980s, when I moved to the NYC area and started working in publishing. The first core part of my Weird Tales collection came when I responded to a listing in the Boston Book Annex (do they still exist?) catalog for a set of 35-40 issues of Weird Tales from the 1930s and 40s. If memory serves, they wanted $500 bucks for them. I don't know whose collection they got them from, but they definitely got them from a collector. These babies were in cherry condition: no cover creases, glossy covers, white paper interiors, tight spines, even pages that were uncut in some issues. They were so incredible I thought at first I'd been duped into buying replicas. And these were issues with stories by Lovecraft, Howard (including some Conans), Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch—literally the best and brightest writers for the magazine. Included was a pristine copy of the now infamous issue with Margaret Brundage's "bat girl" cover. They try to hawk that on Ebay for $500 to $1,000 bucks a shot. I got it, like all the other issues in that lot, for about $13 to $14 on average.

Sounds like the steal of the century, right? Well, not entirely. Again, we're talking the 1980s, before Ebay came around and started exposing the pulp market to comic book collectors who famously had more money than fans of other collectibles. I attended my first Pulpcon in 1990, when it came around to New Jersey, and quickly discovered I was one of the only guys on the floor with any interest in Weird Tales or weird fiction magazines. The overwhelming majority of collectors were interested in hero pulps and pulps in other interest area. There was one dealer who had a lot of 1920s issues of Weird Tales and he was discounting them for me the more I bought. So I got most of my issues from 1926 to 1930 for about $25 to $30 apiece. Gee I'm starting to sound like a real gloating collector, aren't I? (Don't even ask about science fiction magazines. The common wisdom is that science fiction fans were slavishly devoted collectors who kept everything they could get their hands on, with the result that there are no scarce science fiction magazines. Dealers were almost giving these away for lack of interest in the 1980s and '90s.)

The last key chunk of my collection dropped into my lap the week before I got married in 1996. A dealer friend had just bought a complete run of the magazine and sold me most of the 1923 and 1924 issues I needed. Great prices to be toting up the same week you're trying to figure out how much you're going to be in hock for the next decade. In the last decade, I've bought maybe three issues of Weird Tales to plug gaps in my run. Regardless, I'm glad to have acquired my collection before Ebay came into existence. With the prices fetched these days and the competition, I couldn't afford to buy for my collection.

In addition to the Weird Tales run, I've got the infamous "associational items": Canadian issues of Weird Tales with cover art different from the American editions, original art from the magazine, etc. Sorry, no Cthulhu shot glasses.

PE: Are there times when you sit in your easy chair, smoking jacket on and pipe alit and crack open a WT, or are you on to other pulps now?

SD: I do have a smoking jacket and easy chair in my pulp room, but I should specify that the jacket was made from the flayed skin of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and the chair is this neat contraption with straps on the legs and armrests and this little skullcap doohickey for keeping your head warm. It's also wired for illumination like those itty-bitty book lights you used to see them sell at Barnes & Noble. I don't smoke a pipe, but I've discovered that pages from my pulp duplicates make great rolling papers.

Seriously, you would be greatly depressed were you to see my pulp room. It's my attic, which is finished but pretty cluttery with books and magazines. I have 4 floor-to-ceiling bookcases about three and a half feet across with nothing but my weird fiction and science fiction pulps in them. And I've probably got about 40 boxes of pulps boxed up to accompany them. I'm in a household with two working writers, and that means that every square inch of space except for a narrow corridor down the center of the each room is piled with tottering stacks of books and papers. If this place ever caught fire you'd be able to see the flames from Jupiter. For the longest time, I used to know instinctively where every magazine and book was located, the same way I could remember the plot of just about every book and story I read. But I'm pushing 53. It's not that my memory isn't so sharp any more as that a life of constant reading has made it impossible for me to retain everything.

Remind me, again: This is the Larry King show we're on, right?

As I alluded earlier, I do read pretty widely, so yes I don't always spend my pulp time with my nose buried in an issue of Weird Tales. I've got complete runs of all science fiction magazines published in the U.S. (and a bit of the UK) up to the 1960s, and in some cases beyond. There was a lot more science fiction published than weird fiction in the pulp years. And there was a lot more detective fiction published than science fiction. I'm pretty thick with mystery and detective magazines from the 1930s-1950s. I have very few complete runs of anything in this area until you get to the digests of the 1950s and '60s. Those were the last gasp of the pulps before the paperbacks totally took over. I do have complete runs of some oddball adventure type pulps. In fact this year, after almost 20 years of acquiring, I finally completed my run of Jungle Stories (I was shy only one issue for about the last 7 years) I keep kidding myself I'll get around to doing annotated guides to all of these magazines some time in my infinite spare time.

PE: You did a fabulous job on the Robert Bloch books. Is there another project waiting in the wings for your special talents?

SD: Thanks for the nod on the Robert Bloch books. I got to know Robert Bloch very remotely through correspondence and one wonderful meeting with him at the first Necronomi-Con and it was an honor and a privilege to work on collections of his writing. It was similarly an honor to work with a guy as talented as David Schow on those books. David and I have one more collection of Bloch's material coming out, all of his stories related to Jack the Ripper, from Subterranean Press. I've been a bad bottleneck on this owing to an insane work schedule, and Sub Press has been more than patient about it, to my genuine relief. Just recently, me and Bob Morrish—you may have heard of him; he co-edited a primo magazine in the 1990s named The Scream Factory with two guys named Enfantino and Scoleri—handed in a book collecting the best short weird fiction of Henry Kuttner to Centipede Press. I'm not doing as much freelance editing and anthologizing as I used to, in part because I'm doing it at my job as a senior editor at Barnes & Noble in their book publishing arm. I've been able to get a lot of neat stuff into print. I'm supposedly writing a book on Stephen King, but am way overdue on my contract for it. And I've been promising for 20 years now to write a complete annotated guide to Weird Tales, which would be a story by story, issue by issue guide to the original 279 issues. I think part of the reason why I've not sat down to do it is because I'm convinced that once I've read the last story in the magazine, I'll die. I have to time the writing of the book just right so that I finish the last annotation just before I get to the last sentence of the last story. If there's a twist in the final line, I'm screwed.

(In one of my rare serious moments, I'll just add that Stefan is one of the most giving persons I know. He's always ready to help at the drop of a hat. His Annotated Guide to Unknown & Unknown Worlds is the best example of a "guide" I've ever read and is 100% responsible for my Guide to Manhunt -PE)

The Bibliography (unless otherwise noted, all books are co-edited with Robert Weinberg and Martin Greenberg—I've tried to be complete, but I'm sure a title of two slipped though the cracks)

The Annotated Guide to Unknown & Unknown Worlds (SD only)
Between Time and Terror
Bloody Mary and Other Tales for a Dark Night (SD only)
A Century of Horror 1970-1979 (edited by David Drake, intro by SD)
Crafty Cat Crimes
Famous Fantastic Mysteries
Girls' Night Out: 29 Female Vampire Stories
Hard-Boiled Detectives
Horrors! 365 Scary Stories
The Lost Bloch
(3 volumes, edited by David J. Schow. SD as "research assistant")
The Metal Monster (by A. Merritt, intro by SD)
Murder Most Scottish
Nursery Crimes
100 Astounding Little Alien Stories
100 Creepy Little Creature Stories
100 Crooked Little Crime Stories
100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories
100 Fiendish Little Frightmares
100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories
100 Hilarious Little Howlers
100 Menacing Little Murder Stories
100 Sneaky Little Sleuth Stories
100 Tiny Tales of Terror
100 Twisted Little Tales of Torment
100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories
100 Wicked Little Witch Stories
100 Wild Little Weird Tales
The Reader's Bloch
(2 volumes, 1 forthcoming)
Rivals of Dracula
Rivals of Weird Tales
Sea Cursed
(T. Liam McDonald, SD & MHG)
Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia (3 volumes, co-editor S. T. Joshi)
A Taste for Blood (uncredited, credited to MHG)
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream...Nightmare
Tough Guys and Dangerous Dames
Virtuous Vampires
Weird Tales-32 Unearthed Terrors
Weird Vampire Tale


Jack Seabrook said...

Great interview! It made me recall finding a copy of a 1948 issue of Startling Stories with Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe in a bin at a used book store in Plainfield, NJ, for $5 in the late 70s. Earlier this year, I finally found the last Fredric Brown magazine after 20 years of searching--High Adventure, June 1959. This is one wacky hobby.

Walker Martin said...

When I saw the title "Memoirs of a Pulp Fiend", I did a double take and wondered when did I send Peter something to post? Then I realized it was not about me at all but about Stefan. We've bumped heads a few times over boxes of pulps at conventions, the last time being at the NYC Paperback Convention in September. Fortunately Stefan was looking under the table and I was looking on top the table, so no conflict.

Stefan, are you coming to the Bordentown pulp show on November 6, 2010? (

Matthew Bradley said...

Outstanding. Thanks for putting this stuff out there.

Stefan DZ said...

Gratifying to read the positive feedback and to hear that some of my pulp collecting experiences match those of others. Walker could, indeed, run rings around me as a pulp fiend. The fact that I was looking under the table while he was looking at what was on it was me showing deference to a superior pulpster. Definitely looking forward to the Bordentown pulp show on 11/6. Rich Harvey always throws a good bash. Both Walker and I will come back from this one with more pulp "fish stories": the ones we landed, AND the ones that got away.