The creators of some of the most interesting, creative and thought provoking fictional universes were themselves, extraordinary people. Last time, we learned about Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and how both men crafted worlds unlike anything that had come before in popular culture. Now, let’s take a look at some other remarkable writers, some you’ve heard of…others have disappeared into the inky veil of obscurity.
Worlds Built: The Cthulhu mythology, The Necronomicon, Herbert West: Re-animator, Miskatonic County Massachusetts (The fictional Massachusetts setting of many of Lovecraft’s horror stories.)
Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a sickly, withdrawn child. He was homeschooled until he was 8 years old. He was in public school for only a year until his mother pulled him out, he didn’t return to public school until he was a teenager. Lovecraft’s door to door salesman father had suffered from a psychosis brought on by syphilis and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Like the aforementioned Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft was very close to his mother. Unlike Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft also had the emotional support of his grandfather. It was Lovecraft’s grandfather that nurtured his writing by telling him his own, original horror stories. Lovecraft became distraught and deeply depressed after his grandfather’s death, suffering from a nervous breakdown while in high school. Lovecraft also suffered from night terrors, claiming that he would see ghastly, demonic creatures in his dreams that would try to kill him. Later, Lovecraft’s mother would also suffer from a nervous breakdown, however her condition was much more severe and she was hospitalized in the same psychiatric hospital her husband had been admitted to decades before.
Lovecraft used his personal experiences to fuel his stories. The author explored the frailty of the human condition and human psychology in many of his most famous horror stories. In these stories, Lovecraft would introduce the concept of elder, cosmic deities such Cthulhu, a massive sea dwelling creature of immeasurable evil. First appearing in Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu story in Weird Tales Magazine, in 1928.
The story would lead to many more encounters with ancient, alien gods, most of which were set in Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic County in Massachusetts. Much like Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Maine (The setting for Cujo, The Dark Half, and Needful Things), Lovecraft’s Miskatonic gave his stories a smooth continuity, similar to what a comic book fan would find in the Marvel, or DC Universe (Well, at lest before the New 52 ruined everything).
Lovecraft helped create and popularize the “Weird Horror” genre and inspired countless, writers and artists ranging from the aforementioned Stephen King to Richard Corben. Shortly after Lovecraft’s death in 1937 at age 46, his publisher, contemporary and friend August Derleth expanded on many of the Cthulhu stories and Mythology, even organizing all of the “Elder Gods” and assorted cosmic beings into a Pantheon of sorts. Even now, decades after Lovecraft’s death, his work has grown on its own and the Cthulhu Mythology continues to be expanded upon.
MOVIE COUNT: 24-ish. There has been about 24, give or take films based on H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. The problem is that many of these films are either loosely based on Lovecraft stories or they are the combination of two stories. (Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna both did some really good adaptations of Lovecraft with the Re-animator series, but they combined many elements from other stories.) Many of the 80s, schlock-fest inspired Lovecraft adaptations were so loose, they were barely close to the Lovecraft Mythos. The best has to be The Call of Cthulhu, a film many said could never be made. This film by Andrew Leman was a low budget ($50,000) re-telling of the 1928 story and was made to look as if it came from the Black and White, silent era. It is an amazing testament at what a great script, great director and great cast can do for a movie without needing a multi-million dollar budget.
Comic Connections: Marvel had quite a few adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories appearing in their bronze age horror comics, and later in their adults only MAX titles. I highly recommend Richard Corben’s H.P. Lovecraft’s Haunt of Horror. DC comics never really did any direct adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft, but Hellboy creator Mike Mignola had Batman meet the Lovecraftian horrors. IDW would later have many of their licensed characters encounter Cthulhu and his ilk. That meant the Transformers, Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe and others fought the same menace, it was a pretty entertaining and ambitious project.
C.L. Moore/Henry Kuttner: (Moore): Jirel of Joiry, and Northwest Smith (Kuttner): Graveyard Rats, The Salem Horror (Together): Vintage Season, Mimsy were the Borogoves
Like many of C.L. Moore’s contemporaries, the writer suffered from illnesses as a child and found solace in literature, thus nurturing her love of the written word. Moore would eventually create Jirel of Joiry, a sword wielding warrior woman from Medieval France who would battle against Supernatural forces. Moore’s next most popular character was Northwest Smith, a spaceship pilot and smuggler, much like Han Solo. Northwest Smith was a loveable rouge who lived by his own code of ethics. Sometimes, like in the story Shambleau, Smith’s moral code would come back to bite him. In this classic tale, Northwest Smith rescues a beautiful young woman from a mob who wants to kill her. Smith trusts the woman and takes her in, soon falling under her Medusa-like spell. The woman is revealed to be a Shambleau, a creature with “hair” that is really hundreds of snake like coils that grant her victims bliss, while his life force is being sucked out of him.
Henry Kuttner grew up in poverty in San Francisco. He worked for his Literary Agent uncle and soon found himself writing his own stories. This led to his first sale, The Graveyard Rats, one of his creepiest horror stories involving a cemetery Caretaker who tries to rid the grounds of massive rats, but soon finds that they are stealing newly buried corpses and living with a giant, underground dwelling zombie creature. While Kuttner wrote his own great horror stories, he was also an avid fan of other writers. Like Robert E. Howard and C.L. Moore, Kuttner corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft and helped contribute to his Cthulhu mythology. Kuttner loved the work of C.L. Moore so much that he obsessed about a crossover with the sword and sorcery character Jirel and the space faring Northwest Smith. Moore and Kuttner continued to correspond with each other on this and other stories. During this correspondence, Kuttner would write The Quest for the Star Stone, the only crossover between Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith.
Kuttner soon learned that the C.L. Moore who wrote his favorite stories was in fact a woman, Catherine Lucille Moore. Moore’s publishers had urged her to use her initials rather than her full name, foolishly believing that the reading public was not ready for a female science fiction and fantasy writer. The two met in person and eventually married, creating a very influential partnership. The two used so many pseudonyms and worked so prolifically that it is often hard to tell where Kuttner’s contributions begin and where Moore’s end.
One of my favorite Moore/Kuttner stories is called Vintage Season. The story is about a man who rents out his mansion to strange visitors who talk about how they are there to see a grand spectacle. The man soon learns that the visitors are in fact time travelers who came to the past to see a massive meteorite strike the city. The travelers claim that they can stop and warn many people about the tragedies they witness, but they don’t want to keep their culture from developing. The man tries to warn people about the time travelers by writing a journal, however he is killed by a strange new plague (That the time travelers knew about) and his house and the note were destroyed in a controlled fire meant to quarantine the city. It’s a dark, yet compelling analogy to explorers poisoning the lands they visit.
Sometimes it is very difficult to tell weather you are reading a Kuttner story because Moore would often write under his name. Since Kuttner was a man and this was a much more misogynistic era (1930s-1950s), his pay scale was much higher than Moore’s so, she would often use his name. Due to this practice, Kuttner is often unfairly under appreciated, many Pulp historians claim that some of his best stories are written by Moore. Separately, the two were amazing writers in their own right, together they created some very influential pulp fiction under a number of pen names. C. H. Liddell, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Lewis Padgett were all aliases for the pair of talented writers.
MOVIE COUNT: 3. There are two direct adaptations of “Lewis Padgett” stories. Mimsy were the Borogoves, a story about space age toys sent to the past to enlighten children and save the dying future was loosely adapted as The Last Mimzy (2007). The Twonky was a comical story about a robot like device that gives its owner everything he wants, until the owner realizes how frustrating that can be. This story was adapted rather well in 1953 as a sci-fi comedy. The aforementioned Vintage Season was turned into the 1992 film, Timescape. The movie is needlessly more complex and muddles the intent and scope of the original story. It’s a decent enough science fiction film, but a horrible adaptation.
Comic Connections: As far as straight out adaptations, I can’t find any. However, Henry Kuttner wrote a lot of Golden Age Green Lantern stories that have a very cool science fiction spin on them. His run spans 1944-1946 and most of the stories were short, 13 page features. Most comic books of that era were anthologies containing a 13 page feature and other shorter stories.
World’s Built: The Trees of Eternity, Mercury Heights, Doc Saga, October
By far, Margaret Louise Strayer is the most obscure of all of the Pulp fiction Authors that I have explored in this series. Born in 1913 in Oklahoma to a farming family, Margaret was no stranger to poverty. Her father, a notorious drunk died in a fight in a local bar. His distraught wife died while giving birth to their youngest child, Margaret’s brother Bertram. Margaret and her siblings were all relocated to San Francisco, where they lived with their wealthy Maternal Aunt, Louise Hastings. Hastings was a very intelligent woman and made sure all of her new wards were literate and well educated. Hastings had a large collection of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, among other fantasy and science fiction literature. Margaret fell in love with these books, as well as the OZ adventures by Frank L. Baum. Her favorite of the OZ series was Tik-Tok of Oz, an adventure starring Betsy Bobbin, a young girl from Oklahoma. Margaret found a lot of joy in the books and this soon fostered her love of writing.
Strayer’s first story, Weary are the Lost was published under the name M.L. Strayer in Blue Ribbon Fantasy Magazine in the spring of 1928, when she was only 15! The story was the first appearance of arguably her most well known creation, Doc Saga. Doc Saga told the story of a sword wielding young female thief, Olandra in Medieval Europe whom inadvertently steals from an old wizard. This “wizard” is in reality a brilliant scientist, detective from Modern Day (1928) San Francisco known as Doc Saga. He insists that Olandra returns with him to his time and become his apprentice. What she doesn’t know is that Doc Saga is dying and she is to become his replacement. The story ends with Doc Saga dying at the hands of his arch-foe, the master criminal Raynard Crane and Olandra taking his mantle. Later stories see Olandra finally killing Raynard, giving in to her savage side. In 1935’s Passage of crime, Olandra finally passes on the Doc Saga mantle to her friend and sometimes assistant, the young priest, Nathanial West. The Nathan West version of the character and his arch villain, the ghost like, October became so popular that a radio show, titled The Doc debuted in 1937 and lasted for two years. The radio show ended after the actor playing October was embroiled in a string of murders, resulting in his unsolved disappearance.
The radio show controversy left Strayer shaken and she took a five year hiatus, returning in 1944 with the Trees of Eternity first published in Sinister Mysteries. The story about ordinary people being granted amazing powers was a minor success and resulted in three more stories, Arbor Vitae, Arbor Mortus, and Rotten are the Apples. The final story marked the return of Doc Saga and the first appearance of Mercury Heights a mysterious dimension where the good Arbor Vitae comes from. Mercury Heights and its heroes would spin off into their own stories that lasted several years.
In 1952, M.L. Strayer married J. Talbot Jr, a horror writer and heir to a typewriter manufacturer. This marriage led to Strayer’s darkest stories, including the return of October, but as a bitter, hard boiled anti-hero whom battled the forces of evil. Stayer and Talbot retreated to their cabin in the Northern California redwoods and wrote many stories. During this collaboration, readers were introduced to the Dark Stag Lord, Hysol. This immortal creature was the dark creator of the evil Arbor Mortus and led an army of possessed animal/human creatures. The 1954 story All Things Must Crumble tied all of Stayer’s creations together in an epic battle between good and evil, resulting in a cliff hanger that was meant to lead into a full length novel. The novel however was never published. in December 1954 Strayer’s cabin was engulfed in flames in a mysterious fire, she and her husband were assumed to have died, however no bodies were ever recovered. Strayer was 41, her husband was 45.
All of the information on Strayer was found in a now out of print book titled, Strayer Stories: The life and stories of M.L. Strayer by A. Campbell. Campbell included his rare, August, 26, 1954 interview with Strayer and Talbot. In my opinion, the interview gave a glimpse at the life of two very talented and very troubled individuals.
Movie Count: There were no movies based on any of Strayer’s work. It was far too underappreciated and obscure.
Comic Connections: I once read a comic adaptation of a Nathanial West era Doc Saga story from Kitchen Sink Press waaaay back in the 80s. I bought it at a yard sale for a quarter and now I can’t find any trace of its existence. The art was pretty cool, like something out of Heavy Metal. The story was far darker than its original counterpart.
Thus ends this installment of the Bloody Pulps. I’m going to take a break from the series for a little while to return to comic reviews and family antics, but in the next Bloody Pulps I will try to include some of that interview….once I rummage through my stuff and find my copy of the Strayer Stories.