Introduction to THE LADY OF THE YELLOW DEATH and Other Stories
The Weird Tales of Wyatt Blassingame
There are few authors that can cite a volume of work that’s of such a quality and as prodigious a quantity within the horror and mystery genres as Wyatt Blassingame. Sadly, there are few authors whose work has been so universally ignored.
The reasons for Blassingame’s neglect are many, first and foremost, the author himself had moved on to greener pastures as first the pulps died and secondly the mystery digest field began to shrink, leaving few markets for the type of stories that he had mastered. Wyatt Blassingame was always sort of the odd man out, even during his peak productivity during the height of the weird menace boom in the 1930s. The big three magazines of the genre (Dime Mystery Magazine, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories) had a set formula that they liked to adhere to: a number of grisly crimes would be committed, seemingly by a supernatural entity. The trail of blood would generally lead to the hero’s girlfriend/wife/significant other, who in the process of being threatened by the vampire/demon/ghoul would manage to lose the majority of her clothing just before the hero would step in to set things right and reveal the menace as a normal scoundrel with some sort of preposterous scheme that involved terrorizing the locals.
Wyatt Blassingame was having none of that. Where most of his contemporaries would look no further than the films featuring Boris Karloff and/or Bela Lugosi, Blassingame was extremely well-read in the mythologies and folklore of a dozen cultures and put this knowledge to excellent use. This knowledge base coupled with a masterful ability to accurately convey the details of a particular region lends his stories a verisimilitude that transcends even the most far-fetched of plots. As is demonstrated by the titular story of this volume, he was also quite adept at the period piece. This too, was a milieu usually eschewed by editor Rogers Terrill. Only Blassingame and a handful of other authors ever ventured beyond a modern day setting. Oddly enough, some of the most memorable pieces published in the three magazines were period pieces, including Blassingame’s “Lady of Yellow Death” and Chandler H. Whipple’s “The Curse of the Harcourts”. Perhaps this is indicative of a missed opportunity . . .
What we’ve attempted in this and the preceding volume is to present a “sampler” of Blassingame’s stories, rather than stick to chronological order. “Back from Beyond” and “Love Comes from the Grave” are examples of how well Blassingame could handle the short form. Generally, he was being called on to supply the lead novel or novelette for the magazine and wrote short stories only occasionally. Many of these appeared under his alias of William B. Rainey; these will all be collected in this series, interspersed with his longer works.
The long form is where Blassingame truly excels; as a horror author myself, I’ve always felt that the ideal length is 12,000-35,000 words. At that length there’s adequate room to develop the plot (even throwing in a bit of misdirection), build convincing characters and put the whole thing together without wasting space with expository dialogue or rehashing events of the previous pages. From the very start (1934), Blassingame was writing stories of this length at a very high level and unlike some contemporaries, he didn’t become bored with the genre and tail off later in his career. For example, “River of Pain” and “Three Hours to Live” are both from 1934 and “Lady of the Yellow Death” is from the dying days of the weird menace genre in 1939. The reader will see that Wyatt Blassingame led from strength and continued producing top-notch material throughout the decade.
As the weird menace genre imploded, Blassingame changed to more straightforward mysteries, though always featuring a weird touch . . . Throughout the 1940s, he showed up in a variety of publications and saw a collection of detective stories featuring John Smith published by Bart House in 1944. By the end of the 1940s, the pulps as a whole were dying out and where there had once been as many as three dozen magazines devoted to detective and mystery tales, by the end of the decade that number had shrunk to the point where even a top-notch pro like Blassingame couldn’t be assured of being able to place everything he wrote. There simply were too many stories competing for too few spots. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Blassingame turned to non-fiction, particularly the juvenile market and over the next three decade churned out a phenomenal number of titles are subjects ranging from armadillos to Stalin’s Russia and the Spanish conquest of Peru. By the time interest in the weird menace pulps started to pick up in the 1970s and 1980s, Wyatt Blassingame had been away from the genre for decades and unlike his contemporary, Hugh B. Cave; he showed no desire to re-visit the subject. Fortunately, he has left an impressive volume of top-notch weird tales for us to enjoy and more volumes in this series are to follow!