John H. Knox — Knox Times Three


Welcome to the third volume collecting the best weird tales of John H. Knox. If you’ve already read Reunion in Hell and Man out of Hell, then you know you can expect another selection of excellent weird tales. On the other hand, if you’re starting off here, you’ve picked as good a place as any to familiarize yourself with this remarkable author.

This volume presents eight novelettes authored between 1934 and 1938, years when both Mr. Knox and the weird menace genre were at their peak.

To understand just how important John H. Knox was to the weird menace genre it’s necessary to look at how the entire field came about. Popular Publications was home to a number of general fiction and genre titles, including the classic Weird Tales. One magazine that they had high hopes for was Dime Mystery Magazine. Unfortunately, the format of the magazine (a reprint of a short novel by a well-known author such as Edgar Wallace and a couple of back-up short stories), had done little to impress readers. In fact, they were staying away in droves. Editor Rogers Terrill decided on a radical format change . . .

The new format was based in large part on the Grand Guignol theatre and the contes cruel authored by Maurice Level. The basic premise was that a supernatural menace was threatening the town, usually manifesting itself with a series of grisly murders. Where the format differed from the standard supernatural tale was that by the story’s end the supernatural menace was revealed to be a human agency. In most cases an inheritance, properties, or mineral rights were at stake and the villain was taking elaborate steps to either kill off or terrify the townsfolk or landowners that were in the way. The first issue of Dime Mystery Magazine to employ this new format was the October 1933 issue. While this issue is remembered primarily for the lead novella “Dance of the Skeletons” by the flamboyant Norvell Page, John H. Knox was also on hand, thus making him one of the founding fathers of the weird menace genre and predating such luminaries as Arthur J. Burks and Wyatt Blassingame.

There was little in Knox’s background to suggest that he would go on to be one of the leading lights of the weird menace genre; a poet by trade, Knox had edited and contributed heavily to several “little magazines”, including The Golden Stallion. In fact, Knox was so well respected as a regional poet that there are at least two literary societies that he founded in the 1920s still thriving today.

The weird menace genre has been criticized for the self-imposed limitations of its basic plot, so like his colleague Wyatt Blassingame, John H. Knox brought a strong sense of place to the genre. A native of New Mexico, Knox drew heavily on the folklore and legends of New Mexico and West Texas. While modern readers are likely to think of Tony Hillerman’s detective novels in this context, Knox was drawing on the traditions of the Navajo and Zuni over seventy years ago.

While many of his stories could be set just about anywhere, it’s with stories such as this volume’s “The Village Cursed by God” that we get to see Knox as a regional writer of weird tales comparable to H.P. Lovecraft with his haunted New England or August Derleth and Russell Kirk with their tales of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Interestingly enough, Knox never appeared in Weird Tales or its imitators like Strange Tales. For years, many pulp collectors subscribed to the notion that the weird menace authors were somehow inferior and unable to place stories with Farnsworth Wright. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth . . . The trio of weird menace pulps under the editorship of Rogers Terrill, (Dime Mystery Magazine, Horror Stories, and Terror Tales) paid at least twice the amount that Weird Tales offered and more than that to their headliners like Knox, Blassingame, Zagat, and Cave. While Hugh Cave and Paul Ernst did appear in Weird Tales, those appearances were generally when no other viable markets were available.

When Knox strayed from Popular Publications it was generally to headline an issue of the competition’s Thrilling Mystery.  Whereas some of his contemporaries were apt to bend the rules of the format a bit and introduce full-blown supernatural elements into their tales, Knox reserved most of his departures into the realm of the supernatural for appearances in Thrilling Mystery, a fact that makes his run in the “Terrill Trio” all the more remarkable in that he was one of the first in the genre and was still around when the genre died in 1940-1941. Most importantly, he was still finding ways to put new spins on the basic plot and keep things fresh.

When the “Terrill Trio” died off, casualties of the war and a jaded readership, Knox shifted his energies to series of stories featuring Colonel Crum, a pint-sized sleuth pitted against wildly improbable mysteries. The Colonel Crum stories are among the most entertaining of the short-lived “defective detective” genre and certainly worth seeking out. However, there’s something missing, perhaps the passion for the weird menace genre that Knox had excelled in for nearly a decade. Not to say that the stories aren’t good, they certainly are, but there’s nothing there that stands comparison with his masterpieces of weird menace such as “The Village Cursed by God” or “Blood for the Cavern Dwellers”.

As WWII and the subsequent paper shortages took its toll on the pulps, Knox turned his interests to other areas and with the exception of a handful of mystery stories pretty much left the writing game behind. Still, on a story-by-story basis there are few authors that can match the quality (or volume) of work he produced in just eight years. If you’re starting off with this volume, don’t miss the preceding two and rest assured that we have at least three more collections in the works!

John Pelan

Midnight House

Gallup, NM