Visitors to newsstands in early 1923 encountered a number of significant American magazines for the first time. They could pick up the first issues of Time, with brief, breezy dispatches relating the week’s news from around the world. (Issues of that magazine from 1923 and some years afterward are already in the public domain, due to a lack of copyright renewals.) Or they might find dispatches from stranger, creepier worlds in another new magazine: Weird Tales, a pulp fiction magazine featuring stories of horror, fantasy, and what in a few years would be called “science fiction”. A number of iconic genre characters such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan, C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu made their mass-media debut in the magazine.
It took a while for Weird Tales to hit its stride, but there are some notable stories in its first issues, many of which will be joining the public domain five days from now. (Much of the content published in Weird Tales was not copyright-renewed, but most of the 1923 issues were.) One tale that caught my interest, as much for its circumstances as for its content, is a story by Sonia Greene titled “The Invisible Monster” in the November 1923 issue (and called “The Horror of Martin’s Beach” in some later reprints). The story features a strange sea-beast that sailors find, kill, and bring to shore, unknowingly incurring the wrath of the beast’s bigger and fiercer mother. Able to hypnotize humans so they they both fail to see her and lose control over their body movements, the mother-beast exacts her revenge on the sailors and nearby beachgoers, dragging them to watery deaths.
The story may remind a reader today of stories with similar elements like Beowulf and Jaws. But it also reads like a Lovecraft story. That’s not a coincidence: Greene and Lovecraft, who were both active in the world of amateur journalism, had met not long before. In 1922, Greene visited Lovecraft in New England and suggested the idea for the story while they walked along the beach. According to L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Lovecraft, Greene wrote up an outline of the story that night, and Lovecraft was so enthusiastic about the story that Greene spontaneously kissed him, the first kiss he had had since infancy.
Thus began a romance that would eventually result in the marriage of Greene and Lovecraft in 1924, as well as the publication of the story in Weird Tales in 1923. It’s pretty clear that Lovecraft had some hand in the story that ran there. At the time, a fair bit of his income came from unsigned editing and revising of others’ stories, he appears to have shepherded it into print at Weird Tales, and some of the vocabulary in this story is distinctly Lovecraftian. Some commenters have therefore not only added Lovecraft as an author of the story, but also credited him as the primary author, or even speculated, as de Camp does, that he wrote the whole thing from Greene’s “mere outline”. However, both Greene and Lovecraft were experienced writers, and knowing both the tendency of attributions to gravitate to more famous writers, and of women’s writing contributions to be marginalized, I’m inclined to keep crediting Greene as the author of this story, as she is credited in the Weird Tales issue.
Sadly, Greene and Lovecraft’s relationship would soon grow strained. Beset with financial woes and health problems after their marriage, they spent much of their time apart, were living in different cities by 1925, and by the end of the 1920s had divorced. Lovecraft’s relationship with his genre has also been increasingly strained. He was deeply racist, and while his stories have had a significant influence on fantasy and horror literature, many of them are also inherently infused with fear and contempt for non-white races and foreigners. That eventually led the administrators of the World Fantasy Awards, which had used his likeness on their trophies since their establishment in 1975, to redesign the award without him in 2017.
Some writers, though, have found ways to recognize the contributions of Lovecraft and other early horror writers to the genre while still engaging unflinchingly with their racism. One work doing this that I particularly like is Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country, where the main characters have to deal with both the forces of supernatural horror and the forces of Jim Crow– and the latter are often scarier than the former.
Ruff manages to rework flaws in Lovecraft’s 20th-century work into strengths for the story he wants to tell, and combines it with other Lovecraftian elements to make a sort of narrative alloy well suited for the 21st century. Once “The Invisible Monster” and other stories from the first year of Weird Tales join the public domain next week, other writers will also have the chance to take their flaws and strengths and make other wonderful things with them. I don’t know what will result, but I’d love to see what people try.