Anthopology 101: The Real Macabre

By Bud Webster

A brief word of explanation is in order, I think, as I write my fourth essay for the Bulletin (my eleventh overall). I've said much of this elsewhere, but it bears repeating for readers unfamiliar with the "Anthopology 101" column prior to its appearance here.

My purpose is not just to review old books; I can think of little more useless than praising/condemning books and stories that are decades out of print and frequently unavailable to the casual reader. Instead, my intention is to give those same books and stories a historical perspective, both within the field and in the Real World, and, as much as is possible under the circumstances, shine a light on the back-stage events that went into assembling them. Context is everything; "Scanners Live in Vain" wouldn't have made nearly as big a splash had it been published in 1980 instead of thirty years earlier.

I've used this metaphor before, but it's apt: if science fiction is a landscape rich with strata, then anthologies are the core samples through which we can understand it better. It's that "geological" context that I try to do with these essays; with any luck, it works.

Now, on to this issue's core sample.

It's impossible to study the history of science fiction, and specifically anthologies, without running into the same names over and over again: Groff Conklin (of course), Judith Merril, Damon Knight it's a long list. One of the names most frequently encountered, and often in the strangest places, is Donald Wollheim.

Elsewhere I've addressed Wollheim's two earliest anthologies, and will inevitably return to him (let's face it, the guy was everywhere), but this time around I want to look at a couple of small books he did while at Ace, The Macabre Reader (1959), and More Macabre (1961). In my experience, people either remember these two books fondly or they've never heard of them. Whichever is the case for you, nostalgist or neo, stick around and I'll feed you.

I'm going to abstain from my usual practice of placing the books I cover in historical context this time, seeing as how there's a two-year gap between them. Suffice to say that a lot of stuff was going on, not the least of which was the Space Program, Camelot, the Cold War, and a few minor stfnal things, like Dorsai!, The Marching Morons, and The War Against the Rull. You know, stuff.

I've covered Wollheim's career in some detail elsewhere and elsewhen, so I won't repeat it; on the off-chance that a few of you aren't up to speed, though, I'll hit the high spots: he was one of the founding Futurians, helped organize the first sf convention, edited Stirring Science Stories and Cosmic Stories, as well as the Avon Fantasy Reader series. Joined A. A. Wyn's Ace Books as editor in 1952, where he had something or other to do with an English guy named Tolkien, left Ace and founded his own house, DAW Books, in 1972. He also inaugurated a yearly "Best SF of the Year" series in 1965, following in the footsteps of Judith Merril and Bleiler & Dikty. On top of that, he edited the first mass-market sf anthology, The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, in 1943, following it up a couple of years later with The Portable Novels of Science, both of which I've covered before.

Not a light-weight, this Wollheim fellow, I think I can say without fear of contradiction.

Nor, more to the point, can "light-weight" be used to describe his determination to put together one of the best and most complete collections of fantastic literature, eventually assembling perhaps the largest such collection in private hands. In this incredible array of material, he had a resource few other editors ever had access to, and whenever possible, he used it.

The Macabre books are a case in point. Let's look at their contents:

The Macabre Reader
Thomas Lovell Beddoes - "The Phantom-Wooer"
Thorp McClusky - "The Crawling Horror"
Robert Bloch - "The Opener of the Way"
H. P. Lovecraft - "Night-Gaunts"
John Martin Leahy - "In Amundsen's Tent"
H. P. Lovecraft - "The Thing on the Door-step"
Thomas Burke - "The Hollow Man"
Donald Wandrei - "It Will Grow On You"
Clark Ashton Smith - "The Hunters from Beyond"
Zealia Brown Bishop - "The Curse of Yig" (with HPL)
Ray H. Zorn - "The Greegree"
Robert E. Howard - "The Cairn on the Headland"
Henry S. Whitehead - "The Trap"
H. P. Lovecraft - "The Dweller"

Look at that table of contents. For a number of young kids myself included this was our first exposure to the Gentleman from Providence. Two poems, a novelette, and a ghosted "collaboration," all in the same book. And the rest is pretty damn impressive, too: five stories from Weird Tales, three from Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, three from various newspapers, one (the Wandrei) from Esquire, of all places, a poem by Ray Zorn taken from an issue of Wollheim's own 1930s fanzine, The Phantograph, and a singleton verse, "The Phantom Wooer", from a collection first published in a tiny edition of 250 that Wollheim probably had three copies of.

Date-wise, it ranges so far that it's hard to see from one end to the other. The earliest, Thomas Beddoes' poem, goes back to 1850; the latest, Wandrei's "It Will Grow On You," was originally published in 1942. A 92-year span is, I think, remarkable. Even more so is the fact that these disparate selections, for all their distance apart in time, fit together extremely well.

There are a couple of familiar faces here, most obviously the Bloch and the Lovecraft story, but more than half of these saw their first and/or only reprinting here. And I don't feel terribly reluctant (well, maybe a little) to admit that there are several names in that table of contents that are completely unfamiliar to me.

However, much of being an expert is knowing other, more knowledgeable experts, and from some of my expert friends I found that Thomas Lovell Beddoes was something of an eccentric, a writer perhaps more suited to English majors than to casual perusal; and that John Martin Leahy had a soft spot for H. Rider Haggard, but wasn't quite as good a story-teller.

"The Cairn on the Headland" is classic, bull-goose Howard, a headlong plunge into Celtic history as only Howard could write it. Although maybe not up to the quality of his "Pigeons from Hell," it's far and away the most exciting of the stories here, and he proves once and for all that Lovecraft wasn't the only one who could write about tentacled horrors effectively.

As much as any other mass-market anthology Wollheim edited, this one shows his love for some of the more obscure writers in the field.1

Now, the follow-up book:

More Macabre
Richard Matheson "Mother by Protest"
H. Warner Munn "The Wheel"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Philip K. Dick "The Cookie Lady"
Hanns Heinz Ewers "The Spider"
Theodore Roscoe "The Curse Kiss"
Philip M. Fisher Jr. "Fungus Isle"
George Fielding Eliot "The Copper Bowl"

Not quite as obscure a list, although Philip K. Dick's name pops right off the page at you: what's he doing there hob-nobbing with Munn and Roscoe, not to mention Gilman? Well, "The Cookie Lady" is a fairly macabre story, sort of a turnabout on the Hansel and Gretel yarn. Along with the Matheson another nasty piece of work it's the latest of the stories here, having originally appeared in the June 1953 issue of Lester del Rey's Fantasy Fiction.

The earliest is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," dating from 1892. A favorite of feminist readers (and editors), on first glance it's just another pretty good horror story, but can also be read as the flip side of Hedda Gabler, with a female protagonist retreating from her every-day life as a typically submissive and obedient woman into a kind of madness. Immensely popular, it's been reprinted no less than four dozen times, albeit for the first time here.

Ewers deserves a mention here, and for more than just his 1915 novelette, "The Spider." He was really quite an oddball, spying for the Germans in Mexico and the US during WWI, and joining the Nazis early on (while maintaining a healthy and vocal support for Jewish culture). He's best known for the often-filmed novel, Alraune, from 1911, in which his recurring übermensch, Frank Braun, uses a kind of artificial insemination (perhaps foreshadowing eugenics) to create the title character, a soulless female. In true Gothic fashion, she turns on her "creator," although she doesn't go so far as to lead him to his death in the Arctic.

"The Spider" was probably the bee's knees Back in the Day, but now is obvious, dated, and over-long. It concerns a certain room in a boarding house in Paris, and the rather grisly suicides that take place there. Still, in 1915 it was undoubtedly effective, and it's certainly macabre. It's still more readable, at least to me, than Alraune, no matter how many movies they made of it.

Theodore Roscoe's forte wasn't the macabre, but rather a series of yarns he wrote about the Foreign Legion for Argosy, and later for his expertise about submarines. One has to wonder if French diamond merchants and Dutch adventurers really talked the way they do in his "The Kiss Curse," but it's a terrific yarn anyway. And the dialog isn't really any worse than it was in "King Kong." No, really!

Legionnaires, feminism and German spies notwithstanding, however, these eight stories (mostly from the deservedly ubiquitous Weird Tales) certainly fit anyone's definition of "macabre," even if some of them were pretty old-school even in 1961.

In fact, the 22 stories presented in these two books are good, solid examples of the sort of gleefully ghoulish tale that August Derleth did so well (and why, one might ask, is Derleth not represented here? Alas, as there is no editorial content2 in either of the two books not even story blurbs there is no answer). Seen not as two separate books, but rather one collection in two volumes, The Macabre Reader and More Macabre cover plenty of ground, both stylistically and chronologically (more than a century, in fact). Admittedly, there's a certain drop-off of both quality and quantity in MM, but I think it would be a mistake to see this as an indication that the second book was simply an afterthought.

Perhaps the original conception was for one large book, although I readily admit that this is sheer conjecture on my part. Publisher Wyn was notoriously stingy, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he told Wollheim something like, "Keep it to 200 pages or so. If this one does well enough, we'll do the other one later." Knowing that the possibility of the second book depended on the success of the first, Wollheim might very well have stacked the deck by putting most of the best stuff up front. Again, this is sheer fantasy on my part, but it's as good an explanation as any, I suppose.

I suspect that these two books, perhaps done as a single volume by one of the specialty horror presses, would have done quite nicely a few years ago. Add a thousand words or so of introduction (by someone far more learned than me, please), a few illustrations, and a slipcase, and Bob might very well have been your uncle.

As it stands now, they're well worth looking for, and not terribly uncommon. If your penchant runs to Things that go bump/slither/hissss in the night instead of ta-pocketa/clank/chug in broad daylight, the Macabre books not only scratch the itch, but give a historical perspective missing from many other such collections. Wollheim knew what he was doing, and he did it quite well, especially with these two little books.

1Or, as someone less charitable might opine, his love for showing off his collection.

2Which I also find remarkable; one would have thought that at least Wollheim would have asked Sam Moskowitz to write introductions assuming they weren't feuding that week.