Lost Master of the Macabre:
The Weird Menace Tales of Wyatt Blassingame
With this, the third volume collecting the weird tales of Wyatt Blassingame, we feel that a substantial case has been made to call the author a “Lost Master of the Weird Tales”. Indeed, considering the prodigious quantity and remarkably high quality of his work during the 1930s one would expect Wyatt Blassingame to be mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries such as Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard. Certainly, he was as important to the success of Popular Publications’ “Big Three” weird menace pulps as the aforementioned gentlemen were to the success of Weird Tales.
Between 1934 and 1940 Wyatt Blassingame authored over five dozen outstanding horror stories; almost all were for Popular Publications and the vast majority were of at least novelette length and frequently had the place of honor as the cover story. Such a track record should have served to make the author a well-known figure within the genre. Sadly, this was not to be the case . . . The reasons for Blassingame’s obscurity are ironically enough a result of his success!
First and foremost, with the exception of a handful of reprint anthologies edited and published by Robert Weinberg over twenty years ago and two fine anthologies edited by the late Sheldon Jaffrey, the weird menace pulps have been pretty much ignored by anthologists, with only a handful of tales by Hugh B. Cave appearing in the massive collections of his pulp fiction published by Fedogan & Bremer. Until recently, with the launch of Ramble House’s Dancing Tuatara Press only one volume (a slim paperback collection of detective stories which was published over fifty years ago) existed as evidence of Wyatt Blassingame’s career as a pulpster.
The main reason for the weird menace pulps being ignored is a partially deserved reputation for formulaic tales of cardboard characters with the main emphasis being on wild excesses of violence and hints of all manner of sexual depravity. While this is true to a certain extent, a sweeping generalization like this is no more accurate or useful than to state that Weird Tales published the worst science fiction of the 1930s. Again, a true statement, but one that ignores all of the fine work published there.
The truisms are that editor Rogers Terrill was fond of the formula where a seemingly supernatural menace would be revealed to be of a mundane nature on the last page of the story. Equally true is that when the genre was bad, it was awful . . . However, the mainstays of the “Big Three” (Dime Mystery Magazine, Horror Stories, and Terror Tales) such as Blassingame, Knox, Ernst, Cave, Zagat, & Burks were talented enough to get the most out of the formula and, more importantly, were popular enough that they could blithely ignore the editorial mandate and turn in out-and-out supernatural tales whenever they chose to do so. The results were a body of work that can stand comparison to the best stories in Weird Tales or Strange Tales. In the case of Wyatt Blassingame, he started at a high level in 1934 and remained in top form until the genre imploded in the late 1930s.
To add a bit more background, I’d like to address the canard that has floated around collecting circles for many years; the idea that somehow the aforementioned authors weren’t good enough to crack Weird Tales . . . Obviously, Burks, Cave, and Ernst were so prolific that they were frequent contributors to “The Unique Magazine” as all three men were capable of filling a magazine’s complete content. In the cases of Blassingame and Knox there’s a very pragmatic reason that they ignored Weird Tales . . . They were earning two to three times as much appearing in the “Big Three”! One might also take note of the fact that during the height of the weird menace genre (1935-1937) both Arthurs (Burks and Zagat) are pretty much absent from Weird Tales, presumably with only overflow tales being submitted there.
While Wyatt Blassingame did write a wide variety of fiction, it’s evident that with his knowledge of obscure mythologies and cultures that the genre of weird fiction was perfectly suited to his talents. Of the stories presented here, one can easily see just what a range he had within the narrow confines of the genre . . . From the haunting “Passion Flower” to his early novelettes “Death Blisters” and “The Unholy Goddess”, we see the work of a writer at the top of his form, with an ability to handle very different scenarios.
The three pieces from his first year as a professional writer serve to show just how polished his work was from the very beginning. Throughout the 1930s he remained one of the best, if not the best, of the authors specializing in the genre. Equally comfortable with Terrill’s formula or with the full-blown supernatural tale, his stories provide a great mix and keep the reader guessing as to whether or not the horror is supernatural or not. As the decade wound to a close and the weird menace genre perished due to its self-imposed limitations Blassingame switched to more straightforward detective and mystery tales and proved to be equally good at these.
Called into service in WWII, Blassingame returned to find a vastly different market from what he had left . . . The weird menace genre was gone entirely with only an occasional story of that type showing up here and there. The pulps themselves were dying, where once over two dozen mystery and horror pulps dominated the newsstands now there were only a handful of digest-sized magazines in their stead. Wyatt Blassingame saw the handwriting on the wall and immediately made the switch to authoring childrens’ books on a variety of subjects (most often, U.S. History). Later he would augment his income by teaching creative writing.
Apparently, these new careers left little time to contemplate marketing collections of his pulp fiction and thus, some of the finest weird fiction of the 1930s has remained unavailable . . . Until now . . .
If you’re starting here, we suggest checking out the first two volumes of Wyatt Blassingame’s selected weird tales, The Tongueless Horror and Lady of the Yellow Death; both available at www.ramblehouse.com from Dancing Tuatara Press. And of course, don’t miss the next volume!