Forgotten Masters of the Weird Tale #1
The First Ladies of Fear Fiction: Mary Dale Buckner & Greye La Spina
Before I planned out this series of columns I discussed possible subjects with a fellow scholar and he asked the obvious question: “If a given author is good enough for you to laud him as a ‘Master of the Weird Tale,’ why would he/she be forgotten?” A great question, and one that got me to thinking about the factors (other than the obvious one of quality) that can cause an author to be either fondly recalled or allowed to drift away into the mists of obscurity.
Longevity and accessibility certainly plays a role; one such example would be the late Hugh B. Cave; not only was Mr. Cave a fine writer, but also a very nice guy who always had time for his many fans; attending conventions, corresponding with fans, and generally remaining in the public consciousness. He also stayed active writing in the genre right up until his death. Hence, Cave is remembered while equally skilled contemporaries such as John H. Knox and Wyatt Blassingame are forgotten.
There’s also the circumstance where an author has a champion for his work after his death. While it’s certain that H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard would have achieved their posthumous fame in any event (they were both just too good and too influential to be ignored), it certainly didn’t hurt having August Derleth and Donald Wandrei found a publishing house for the express purpose of keeping Lovevraft’s work alive and Howard was fortunate in having Glenn Lord working tirelessly to keep his work in print after his death in 1936.
However, for each Howard or Lovecraft there are a dozen talented known only to a handful of devotees of the genre; in many cases, the quality of work is outstanding, but the marketing of said work either by the author or the author’s estate is severely lacking. That said, let’s take a look at a woman whose career predated Weird Tales and lasted thirty years, and at another whose entire career lasted a mere forty-eight months but produced over three dozen exceptional stories, mostly of novelette or novella length; and why both authors merit not only the distinction of being called “Forgotten Masters of the Weird Tale,” but can also vie for the title of “First Lady of Fear Fiction” (at least as far the first half of the twentieth century is concerned).
The two writers in question are Greye La Spina and Mary Dale Buckner (Donald Dale). Of the two, La Spina is probably the more familiar to modern readers thanks to having the cachet of being an Arkham House author (her excellent werewolf novel Invaders from the Dark was published in 1964) and by having a handful of her stories reprinted, first by Robert Weinberg, who brought out “The Gargoyle” as one of his pulp reprint series in the 1970s, and later by anthologists who discovered such excellent tales as “The Devil’s Pool” and “The Antimacassar.” Whereas Ms. La Spina wrote a variety of tales for a number of different markets, Mary Dale Buckner was much more single-minded in her approach, which may have been part of the reason for overall high quality of her work. As a specialist, she did one thing and focused on doing that one thing very well. Ms. Buckner began her writing career to support herself while working on her Ph.D. Like many residents of rural areas during this time, she was largely self-educated in literature and history; and like her contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith, this erudition shines through in her prose, as well as the diverse backgrounds used in her stories. Unlike her fellow Southwesterner John H. Knox, who set many of his stories in his native West Texas and New Mexico, Buckner used a wide variety of meticulously researched locales as her settings.
Buckner was a linguist, and her mastery and love of the language showclearly in her prose, which is on a level rivaled by only a few of her contemporaries. Buckner’s prose is never flashy or showy; she’s not one to describe an old house as “tenebrous” when “shadowy” will serve just as nicely. However, her erudition shines brightly in tales such as “Caverns of Cain,” a story that simply would not exist without the author’s great familiarity with the epic Beowulf.
Ms. Buckner was about to begin working on her doctoral dissertation in late 1936 when the specter of financial need loomed before her. The fiction market at the time presented a number of options for an author with an interest in the macabre. There was the venerable Weird Tales, which published everything from sword-and-sorcery tales of Robert E. Howard and Clifford Ball, to science-fictional horror as epitomized by Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith with his Zothique stories of a decadent and dying earth in the far-flung future, to the psychic detective stories of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin, to traditional ghost stories, and of course the Cthulhu Mythos tales of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle. However, Weird Tales had always been one of Popular Publications’ weaker magazines and paid accordingly. A much more robust marketplace was the same publisher’s trio of magazines helmed by Rogers Terrill. The three magazines devoted to the genre of “weird menace” were Dime Mystery Magazine, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories.
The weird menace genre was what had previously been known as the “rationalized supernatural story” with generous doses of torture and titillation thrown in. By 1937, the genre was at its height,with variations on the basic theme ranging from the atmospheric Gothicism exemplified by Arthur Leo Zagat and Paul Ernst to the crisp pacing and casual brutality of Russell Gray (Bruno Fischer) and Francis James. The originators of the form such as John H.Knox, Wayne Rogers, and Wyatt Blassingame were still on hand, as were the second wave of contributors, which included a number of prominent authors such as Arthur J. Burks, Ray Cummings, Francis James, and Nat Schachner. It should be noted that less than a year’s time separated these two groups and that the third generation (1936 – 37) was pretty much defined by the advent of Russell Gray (1936), J. O. Quinliven (1936), and Mary Dale Buckner (writing as “Donald Dale” in 1937).
Ms. Buckner was very well-versed in the classic Gothic literature and saw the three magazines as a great opportunity to earn enough money to allow her to finish her dissertation. As a great deal of chauvinism existed at the time in the pulps in general and horror/mystery genre in particular, she invented the alias of “Donald Dale” and debuted in the February 1937 issue of Dime Mystery with “The Murder Child,” a competent enough short story, but one that was hardly indicative of what was to come. She was back the next month in Terror Tales with “The Beautiful Dead,” a story that was much more typical of the quality of fiction that could be expected from her. “The Beautiful Dead” is one of those rare stories in the weird-menace magazines, one that calls for (and receives) a sequel. The urbane Prince Zagoul with his extravagant ideas of using the human body to create art isn’t the sort of villain to discard after one short story. The sinister prince made his return a few months later in the pages of Horror Stories — an odd editorial decision, as it either assumed that readers were buying both magazines or, as is equally likely, it completely escaped the editorial staff that “Art Class in Hell” was a sequel to the earlier tale.
At this point, editor Rogers Terrill still didn’t know what he had in Ms. Buckner, and despite the quality of “The Beautiful Dead,” she didn’t merit cover billing, being squeezed out by such luminaries as William Hines. By 1938 this had all changed.… With some of the earlier contributors such as Paul Ernst and Arthur J. Burks drastically curtailing their output (at least as far as this genre was concerned), Terrill needed new voices who could step up to the plate and provide lead features. He struck pay dirt with Donald Dale, Russell Gray, and J. O. Quinliven. Together, the three authors brought about a revival of the three magazines and spearheaded a new direction that eschewed much of the earlier Gothicism and purple prose in favor of a more direct style and a more graphic focus on sex and sadism than had been present in the earlier issues.
While many of Buckner’s stories follow the prescribed formula of presenting a rational explanation for seemingly supernatural occurrences, Buckner often gave the reader an ambiguous ending where almost everything had a rational explanation, but one or two events were left unexplained with the possibility that supernatural forces were indeed at work. It’s this willingness to push the boundaries of the form that make the “Donald Dale” stories such a delight; as with the thrillers of British author Walter S. Masterman, you never know at the outset if you’re reading a supernatural yarn or one with a more prosaic ending.
Sadly, Ms. Buckner had joined the ranks of the weird-menace authors just as the clock was running out on the genre. Unlikemany of her contemporaries, she showed no interest in switching over to more mundane mystery tales or trying her hand at the lower-paying markets such as Weird Tales. While her career had started quietly, she went out with a bang with the publication of “Caverns of Cain,” a masterful tale drawing on the Old English epic of Beowolf. And with that final novelette, “Donald Dale” was gone.
Fanny Greye La Spina’s career was in many ways exactly the opposite of Buckner’s focused, frenzied activity. While she did manage to write over one hundred stories in a career that began during World War I and ended during the 1950s, writing fiction was but one of several artistic endeavors that captured her attention over the years, and the writing of the weird tale was just one facet thereof. As with Ms. Buckner, we can bemoan the fact that she didn’t write more, but as with Jane Rice (an author whose career was quite similar), we can be glad that when she was focused on weird fiction, she was very good at it.
Among her many other endeavors were designing embroidery and lace for ladies’ magazines. A talented artist, La Spina also spent a lot of time painting in various media, including oil and watercolors. For whatever reason, she never attempted illustrations for her stories and, to my knowledge, little (if any) of her artwork survives today.
Having authored a number of yarns in her teen years and believing the writing game to be easy money, La Spina sat down and wrote “Wolf of the Steppes” with the idea of selling it to the prestigious Popular Magazine. Her timing was spot-on: editor Eugene Clancy was just at the point of launching a new publication that would feature a wide range of tales, The Thrill Book. Clancy contacted the author and announced that he wanted “Wolf of the Steppes” for the lead story in The Thrill Book! This was great news for the novice author, and she responded with such a volume of work that more than one pseudonym was required in order to comply with the magazine’s policy of never having more than one story by any author in the magazine. Three stories appeared under the aliases of Esra/Isra, a nod to an essay that she wrote at age nineteen on General Israel, which won her a prize and really inspired her to try her hand at writing fiction. “The Wax Doll,” “The Inefficient Ghost,” and “The Broken Idol” all appeared under pseudonyms. Among the other classic stories that appeared in The Thrill Book were “From Over the Border” and “The Ultimate Ingredient.”
Sadly, a disagreement with editor Harold Hersey caused La Spina to put her submissions to The Thrill Book on hold until a new editor; Ronald Oliphant, took over and coaxed her back into the fold.
Despite the generally high quality of material that appeared in The Thrill Book, the magazine was doomed almost from the start. Originally published in dime-novel format, it switched to the standard pulp size after the first eight issues. Street and Smith’s distributor leaped about like a maddened kangaroo leaving copies here and there at newsstands, but with such inconsistency that the magazine never really had a chance to develop a loyal readership, and the publication folded after sixteen issues.
Loyal to the very end, La Spina’s “The Ultimate Ingredient” appeared in the last issue. The magazine is now one of the most highly valued of all pulps, as collectors seek out the original source for serialized novels such as Murray Leinster’s The Silver Menace, Francis Stevens’s classic The Heads of Cerberus, and H. Bedford Jones’ The Opium Ship. The magazine also featured a number of tales by Tod Robbins, J. U. Giesey, and Edward Lucas White’s classic “The House of the Nightmare,” as well as some fine material by editor Hersey under a variety of pseudonyms. As a note to readers, I’ll mention that Adventure House has published the first volume in a series intended to collect the entire run of The Thrill Book. Obviously, I recommend purchase of the set.
After her major market folded La Spina busied herself with submissions to other publications, and also focused on her artwork as well as working as a newspaper photographer. In 1923 a new magazine appeared that, rather than being a catch-all like Argosy and The Thrill Book, was entirely dedicated to horror and the supernatural… Weird Tales was designed for the type of fiction that La Spina most enjoyed writing, but editor Edwin Baird was not overly enthused with her work and purchased only “The Tortoise-Shell Cat,” which appeared in the November 1924 issue. She did not appear again until Farnsworth Wright took over the editorial duties. Wright’s response to La Spina’s fiction was far more enthusiastic than Baird’s. With the first issue of 1925, La Spina was on hand with “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” and returned two issues later with “The Last Cigarette.”
While Farnsworth Wright is often criticized (and justly so) for his incompetence in dealing with certain authors (such as Clark Ashton Smith and Arthur J. Burks), he was definitely an ardent supporter of Ms. La Spina, writing very enthusiastic letters of acceptance and urging her to write more stories.
Wright’s enthusiasm paid off as the author began to write longer works such as “Invaders from the Dark” and “The Gargoyle.” Both novellas are classics in the genre, and readers’ response to “Invaders from the Dark” was overwhelming. In fact, the reception included letters of praise from other authors, such as Arthur J. Burks and Seabury Quinn. Burks complained about the serialization of the story, as he had missed his wife’s call to dinner while engrossed in the tale only to discover that it was a serial and he’d have to wait a month to read the next installment. Quinn missed his subway stop as he was locked in concentration on the tale. C.M. Eddy, Jr., was astute enough to suggest that it be published in book form — something that did occur almost forty years later!
Despite being cited as one of the magazine’s top ten authors by Wright, La Spina’s contributions were sporadic, with another novella, “Fettered,” appearing in 1926 and two great stories, “A 1927. When the Great Depression hit, La Spina took a break from supernatural fiction, not showing up again in Weird Tales until 1931, when she returned in fine form with the novel The Portal to Power. Finding less and less time to write supernatural tales for rather poor payment, La Spina only wrote two more stories for Wright. The two tales were the excellent novella “The Devil’s Pool” and the rather prosaic “The Sinister Painting.” Despite the positive response from readers, La Spina drifted away from Weird Tales and did not appear in the magazine again until 1942, when editor Dorothy McIlwraith purchased “The Deadly Theory” for the May issue.
The rest of La Spina’s submissions to Weird Tales made up for the lack of quantity with their quality. The stories included “Great Pan Is Here,” “The Rat Master,” and the classic short story “The Antimacasser.” By the dawn of the 1950s, Weird Tales was obviously on its last legs, with the general quality of the fiction rather poor and most of the stalwarts of the Farnsworth Wright years either deceased or inactive. Lovecraft, Howard, Pendarves, and Whitehead were dead. Colter, Wandrei, and Clark Ashton Smith were focusing their energies elsewhere. Of the writers that made Weird Tales “The Unique Magazine,” only Seabury Quinn, August Derleth, and Robert Bloch were appearing regularly. However, several of the old guard returned with a last story for the dying magazine. Arthur J. Burks returned with a handful of stories including the excellent “These Debts Are Yours” and the novella “Shallajai”; Everill Worrell contributed three stories including the classic “Call Not Their Names”; Donald Wandrei sent in his last bit of weird fiction, “Strange Harvest,” and La Spina contributed “Old Mr. Wiley” to the dying magazine. Despite the high quality of the stories by the aforementioned authors and new tales by writers such as Joseph Payne Brennan, Cleve Cartmill, and Margaret St. Clair, the magazine’s sales were so poor that the publisher decided to fold with the September 1954 issue.
Greye La Spina was fortunate to live long enough to see C. M. Eddy’s prediction come true.… In 1965 Arkham House brought out a hardcover edition of Invaders from the Dark with a print run of some 2000 copies. Despite the small print run, the book was very well received and picked up for mass-market paperback under a new title, Shadow of Evil.
Sadly, other than Robert Weinberg reprinting The Gargoyle in his line of pulp classics and a handful of anthology appearances, La Spina drifted into obscurity. Her best works were her novellas, and most anthologists are reluctant to devote so much space to one author. However, the prestigious Centipede Press has committed to publishing a volume of La Spina in their “Masters of the Weird Tale” series. It’s very likely that the book, which will collect all her weird fiction, will cause a resurgence of interest in her work.
So we’re left with two very different authors, both of whom can make a legitimate claim to the title of “First Lady of Fear Fiction.” Who is more deserving of the title? The lady who sporadically published some two dozen quality tales over a period of some thirty years, or the woman who burst on the scene with some three dozen tales in just four years? We’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject: Who is most deserving of the title “First Lady of Fear Fiction”? We’ll publish the results in my next column on forgotten masters of the weird tale. Send your comments and vote to: jpelan13 at gmail.com. Until then, if it looks weird, read it!