Weird Tales 1923-1954

Since most of HPL’s published stories appeared in this magazine, a little history may be in order for those of you unfamiliar with pulps in general, and Weird Tales in particular.

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First Issue of Weird Tales, March 1923

Pulps were all-fiction magazines that replaced the dime and nickel novel formats. They were usually 7 x 10, with anywhere from 124 to 160 pages, though there were numerous exceptions, even among the Weird Tales run.

The firs pulp was Argosy, starting in 1895, when Frank Munsey converted his storypaper, The Golden Argosy, to the new format, adding more fiction but printed on cheaper paper. The idea was slow to catch on, but by the 1920s it was the dominant form of popular fiction magazines

The first issue of Weird Tales was dated March, 1923. It was one of two magazines started by J.C. Henneberger’s Rural Publications, Inc., located in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The other title was Real Detective Tales and Mystery Stories. Both were edited by Edwin Baird, a newspaper feature writer who had also written fiction. For reasons lost to history, both had unusually high page counts, 192, or almost half again as much as contemporary magazines, and cost 25¢ at a time when other pulps were 10¢-15¢.

Whereas Real Detective Tales was just one of a number of detective magazines on the stands, Weird Tales broke new ground. There had never been a magazine like it before, dedicated solely to weird fiction. Its subtitle was ‘The Unique Magazine.’ Even science-fiction, with its long and popular history, had to wait until 1926 for Amazing Stories to focus on the genre.

Surprisingly, given its contemporary reputation, Weird Tales was never a financial success,  just barely limping along right from the first. According to Robert Weinberg’s book, The Weird Tales Story (1977), circulation at its peak was about 50,000 copies a month. Even in the midst of the Depression, Doc Savage and The Shadow moved 300,000 copies a month, while Love Story, the most successful of all the pulps, had a circulation of one million.

With the third issue, the two magazines switched to a bedsheet pulp, that is, 8 1/2 x 11, with the page count dropping to 64 pages. It was an abrupt change, and given the lead time for producing a magazine, likely decided before the first issues had even reached the news stand. The size was changed again in 1924, to 6 x 9, with 128 pages.

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Lovecraft's first WT story, "Dagon", Oct. 1923

Baird bought Lovecraft’s first official submission to the magazine, “Dagon,”  and ran it in the Oct. 1923 issue –it had first appeared in an amateur journal, The Vagrant, in 1919–,  followed by “The Hound” (3/24) and “The Rats in the Walls “(3/24); a story Lovecraft had revised for then wife, Sonia Greene,”The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” appeared in the Nov. 1923 issue. Appearing concurrently with his own stories, were two other Lovecraft ‘revisions’ credited to C. M. Eddy, “Ashes” (3/24),  and “The Ghost-Eater” (4/24).

It’s Broke; Let’s Fix It

But the magazine wasn’t selling. After a year, Henneberger was $40,000 in the red on just Weird Tales. Instead of dumping it, he instead sold his interest in Real Detective and Mystery Tales, sending Baird along with it and set about salvaging Weird Tales. It was this kind of dedication, from Henneberger, Farnsworth Wright and others, that would keep the magazine alive for the next 30 years.

Henneberger. now lacking an editor, turned to the writer he felt best exemplified the type of story he wanted for his magazine, offering the position to Lovecraft. In one of the most frustrating missed opportunities in literary history, Lovecraft declined, saying he did not wish to move from Providence. Farnsworth Wright, formerly Baird’s assistant, was promoted.

In 1926, the newly reorganized company, now called Popular Fiction Publishing Co. (not to be confused with Harry Steeger’s Popular Publications) moved to Chicago. With Wright at the helm, circulation began to pick up until, by 1926, he was paying as high as 1¢ a word for stories, higher than a lot of the more successful magazines.

Wright was well suited to the task and continued to cultivate the best authors from the Baird issues –Otis Adlebert Kline and Seabury Quinn among others– as well as seeking out new talent such as Clark Ashtonweird 2602 275x400 Weird Tales 1923 1954 Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Edmond Hamilton, Greye LaSpina, H. Warner Munn, E. Hoffman Price and, most famously, Robert E. Howard, who would soon submit his first Solomon Kane and Conan stories.

Oddly, though Lovecraft was popular with readers and a fvaorite of Henneberger’s, Wright rejected his stories as often as not. Lovecraft took the rejections to heart, often swearing that he was no good and had no business writing fiction.

You Can Tell a Book by its Cover if it’s a Pulp Magaine.

Cover artwork for the first few years was mediocre at best. Following the move to Chicago, Curtis Senf took over the cover chores, an odd choice in that he had little feeling for the weird and macabre. Later that year, Hugh Rankin started sharing the covers with Senf. Rankin was a far better draftsman, and his line art covers are distinctive and attractive, but his heart was in doing the interior illustrations and he soon returned to that full time.

In 1932, Senf was replaced, first  by J. Allen St. John, and then by Margaret Brundage, the latter as much a part of the Weird Tales legend as Lovecraft, Wright, Howard and Smith.

Wright had long favored covers with nude women, for the simple reason  they sold better, and writers, most notably Seabury Quinn, tried to include at least one nude and/or bondage scene in each story.

With Brundage, the nudes became more sensual, even when her anatomy was awkward. She lived in Chicago and did her paintings on canvas in pastel, which she hand-delivered to the office. Weinberg reports she was paid $90 per cover. Aside from a  few more covers by St. John, including the May 1932 issue where he designed the now iconic logo, Brundage would dominate the cover spot until 1938, when the magazine was sold to a New York publisher.

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Margaret Brundage's first Weird Tales cover, Sept. 1932


In the early 1930s, the first direct competitors appeared: Tales of Magic & Mystery, Strange Tales, Dime Mystery, Horror Stories, and Terror Tales. The first two, though using many of the same authors, lasted less than a year. The latter titles, all from Popular Publications, featured violent, sadistic covers and ‘supernatural’ stories that were explained away rationally  in the end like a Scooby-Doo mystery. Despite their popularity, they really weren’t direct competition for Werid Tales, and Wright soldiered on.

Henneberger threw in the towel in 1938 and sold the magazine to the publisher of the successful pulp Short Stories, William Delaney, and the Weird Tales offices moved to New York. Wright went along as editor, but within a year was replaced by Dorothy McIlwraith.

Virgil Finlay had replaced Brundage as the primary cover artist, but Delaney, trying to put the magazine on a paying basis, cut the rates and Finlay went off to greener pastures. Hannes Bok stepped up to the plate and gave the magazine a distinctive new look.

Delaney and McIlwraith toned the magazine down, a choice dictated not only by their taste, but by New York’s 1939 crackdown on sex in the pulps.Some of the old favorites continued to submit stories, but their time was passing August Derleth, who wrote his own stories for the magazine, also sold his ‘posthumous collaborations’ with Lovecraft, but the rising stars were people like Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, and Joseph Payne Brennan.

By the 1950s, the magazine was in an irreversible decline. Like any magazine that devoured a huge amount of new material every month, Weird Tales had always had its share of really terrible stories, but these were balancced by the high quality of a few giants of the field.

In its last years, terrible stories and bad cover art seemed to become editorial policy.In 1954, after a few digest-sized issues, the Unique Magazine disappeared. Occasional revivals of the title, including the current and apparently successful one, seem less a continuation of heritage than a Weird Tales story about continuous revival of a man long dead.

^ One Comment...

  1. Doc Atomic

    Nice essay on a great pulp magazine. I’m constantly amused by how powerful an influence Weird Tales has exerted on popular culture considering that most people know it’s name, but not much about the stories inside of it.