Most horror fans instantly recognise “Weird Tales” as the pulp magazine that jump-started the career of H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and other popular horror writers in the early 20th century. However, one detail that appears to be consistently omitted from the magazine’s history is the frequent contributions of women writers who were also some of its most popular contributors.
Typically, we think of “horror” as something more or less that happens to women, encapsulated in the popular tropes of the “gothic heroine,” “scream queen,” or “final girl,” but less frequently do we think of women as the creators of horror, even though they have been present since the genre’s inception. Therefore, The Women of Weird Tales is more than just a collection of horror tales by women writers, it is part of a revisionist history that brings the voices of women to the fore in a genre long dominated by men.
This anthology contains stories by four of the magazine’s most popular writers: Greye la Spina, Everil Worrell, Mary Elizabeth Counselmann, and Eli Colter. And like many women horror writers today, they were familiar with and often subverted the common tropes that were popular in their day. Take the “hysterical woman” from detective fiction and the confessional style of telling a story through journal entries, popularized by Edgar Allan Poe. Everil Worrell, a stenographer and secretary for the U.S. Department of the Treasury by day, all-around Renaissance woman by night, playfully deconstructed the hysterical woman in her stories “Leonora” (1927) and “The Grey Killer” (1929). She also wrote “The Canal,” which was adapted for an episode of Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery.
My particular favourite from this collection is the opening story, “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” by Greye la Spina, in which a mad scientist sacrifices the woman who loves him for his ambition in a lethal experiment. Think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in reverse: instead of discovering the secret to bringing the dead back to life only to abandon it, the horror is derived from the sacrifice of love in service of power.
Although this collection does enrich our understanding of how women contributed to pulp horror in the early twentieth century (I would definitely encourage readers not to skip the forward by literary horror scholar Melanie Anderson of Monster, She Wrote), it does raise other pertinent questions. For example, are there other intersecting, invisible histories of authors of colour, queer authors, working-class authors, or disabled authors that have also contributed significantly to weird fiction that were erased by the dominant narratives spearheaded by bigots like Lovecraft himself? Like the suffragette movement in the United States that was gaining momentum at the same time Weird Tales was being published, the category of “woman” was largely restricted to upper-and-middle-class white women. Therefore, when considering revisionist histories of “women authors,” it’s important to ask whether this category is telling the whole story or restricted to one representative group.
The Women of Weird Tales is a beautifully curated collection with artwork by M. S. Corley (you might recognise his illustrations from the adaptations from Aaron Mahnke’s Lore series and the Carnacki comic books) that will be a welcome addition for any devoted reader of weird fiction looking to expand their collection beyond the standard repertoire of male authors.
The Women of Weird Tales is published by Valancourt Books.
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