I grew up reading Weird Tales and similar 1920s-40s-era fantasy fiction, because that’s what my brother Rod left lying around our various Philly apartments, either in its then-current pulp-mag form, or as reprints packaged in such anthologies as Famous Fantastic Mysteries. They were my intro to what fantasy meant (and still means) to me.
Which is odd, in a way, because unlike Rod, I grew royally tired of H.P. Lovecraft and his acolytes (fuck Cthulhu!), with their dependance on oozing slime and adjectival mayhem. But the greater sense of… not sure what to call it – the otherworldly divine? – has stayed with me. So many fantastically good writers who could worm written words into new meanings and inclinations.
Recently I’ve downloaded gobs of material from those early decades (on Kindle, it’s often free or $.99 for more than you can read in a year of bathtub reclining) and I’ve uncovered another anomaly, if you will (or won’t) beyond slobbering Cthulhu:
If you compare the ’20s pulps with the prime of English 19th-century fantasy, you see almost exactly the same plot contrivance: a harried, confused, fearful wanderer or executor finds an appalling diary or manuscript describing the writer’s hideous and inexplicable experience with the repulsive occult or a horrifying hidden malignancy (my use of over-the-top adjectives here is to provide a scaled-back example of how these stories were so often cobbled together verbally).
A somewhat alternative outline was for the author to receive such information from a reluctant, blithering friend or an isolated madman working by himself but trying to drag the narrator into his hideosity.
Now, here’s the thing: In 19th century England, the upper and upper-middle classes were both the writers and the readers of these stories – the only ones literate enough and with tine enough to enjoy slow, outre tales while sipping tea and cognac in their drawing room overlooking the esplanade that slithered downhill to the over-bowered and haunted woods.
The narrators were most often loners who lived in aged, isolated houses, with unlimited time to waste “investigating.” Everyone had servants, even when it made no sense.
But by the 1920s-’30s, the audience for the pulps in the U.S. – as well as the writers themselves, receiving a half-cent a word for their outpouring – were nothing of the sort; they were tawdry city schleps with ragged trouser cuffs, trying to earn enough today to feed their families tomorrow.
So… the same approach aimed at an entirely different audience. How did this happen?
I don’t know. Somebody has probably parsed this out, but if so I haven’t read it, like I haven’t read a lot (beyond history, current science and, yes – old, rancid fantasy).
But after plowing through multiple compilations of my old-loved mustiness, I got to thinking (it happens): What made Stephen King such a revelatory fantasy/horror writer in the 1980s? I think it’s because he broke this mold. Hd didn’t write from the perspective of a privileged horror-strewn leftover in his library easy chair, he wrote about – and for – the everyone-in-the-street reader, peopling is work with lower and middle-class characters that tied reader and narrator together.
Not since Poe has anyone accept King, along with his slightly lesser attendants, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker – there is actually an aged church in London called All Hallows Barking by the Tower! – precipitated such a shift in the American public acceptance of horror and fantasy.
No, not even Lovecraft (fuck Cthulhu again!).