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From THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD
When we think of the early foundations of the horror or gothic tale, we naturally think of Anne Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. While it’s true that credit for founding the genre rightly belongs to Horace Walpole, the fact remains that for every person who has slogged through Walpole’s overwrought and overblown novel there are at least a hundred who have read Frankenstein.
While Edgar Allan Poe owned the genre in the 19th century, the vast majority of ghost story writers were women. This demographic changed in the latter part of the century and the early 1900’s when M.R. James and his contemporaries such as A.M. Burrage and the Benson brothers rose to prominence. By the time Weird Tales launched in 1923 writing the horror story was seemingly a man’s game. However, a few women were beginning to appear in both Weird Tales and across the Atlantic in Hutchinson’s Mystery Magazine. By the 1930’s there were several women making significant contributions to the genre. As to who would rightly claim the title “First Lady of Fear Fiction”, I’m going suggest someone who has been pretty much overlooked by genre historians, at least, until now . . .
Before we examine the career of Mary Dale Buckner, let’s look at some of the more well-known mistresses of the macabre:
Pre-dating Weird Tales, Greye La Spina’s tales of terror graced the pages of The Thrill Book during the magazine’s short but distinguished run of sixteen issues in 1919. From there she transitioned to Weird Tales, with a number of notable stories published over the next two decades. Today, La Spina is best-known for her novella, Invaders from the Dark, published in book form by Arkham House, and later, Ramble House.
The 1920’s saw Cornish author, G. G. Pendarves rise to prominence with her stories appearing in both Weird Tales and Hutchinson’s. Pendarves passed away in the mid-1930s and with the exception of the anthologized classic “The Eighth Green Man” her work remained fairly obscure until Robert Lowndes reprinted several of her stories in The Magazine of Horror and Startling Mystery Magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In recent years Midnight House has issued the first of a two-volume set collecting her complete body of weird fiction, Thing of Darkness.
Certainly C.L. Moore would be the best-known of the pulp authors, with an impressive body of work both by herself and in collaboration with her husband, Henry Kuttner. In Moore’s case, while tales such as “Shambleau” and “Black Thirst” certainly can be considered “horror”, her reputation is primarily in the fields of fantasy and science fiction.
Others to consider would be Everill Worrell, with a small, but excellent body of work including the well-known tale of vampirism, “The Canal” and Francis Bragg Middleton with a couple of dozen short tales to her credit. The weird menace genre of the 1930s featured several yarns under the byline of Gabrielle Wilson, who was Mrs. Ray Cummings. However, whether these stories were authored by Mrs. Cummings or her prolific husband is open to debate . . . I myself can find no significant stylistic differences between the stories published by Wilson and those by Cummings. There was also the husband and wife team of Edith and Ejler Jacobson, though their entire output of weird fiction totals barely a dozen tales.
This all brings us to “Donald Dale”, the pen-name of Mary Dale Buckner, author of over three-dozen superior examples of gothic horror published mostly in Popular Publication’s trio Dime Mystery Magazine, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories, with a few appearances in competing publications such as Uncanny Tales.
Ms. Buckner began her writing career to support herself while working on her Ph.D. Like many residents of rural areas during this time, she was largely self-educated in literature and history; and like her contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith, this erudition shines through in her prose, which, as will be shown in this volume, holds up remarkably well seventy-odd years after its initial publication.
Buckner was a linguist and her mastery and love of the language clearly in her prose, which is on a level rivaled by only a few of her contemporaries. Buckner’s prose is never flashy or showy; she’s not one to describe an old house as “tenebrous” when “shadowy” will serve just as nicely. However, her erudition shines brightly in tales such as “Caverns of Cain”, a story that simply would not exist without the author’s great familiarity with the epic Beowulf.
From the author’s masterful essay “Fear Fiction” (included in this volume), there’s little doubt that Buckner has read the epic in the classic translation and it would be no surprise to learn that she had also read it the original Old English.
As to the essay itself, this is the first time I’ve included a non-fiction piece in a DTP book. My reasons for including this essay are twofold; first and foremost, the insights offered by one of the few female practitioners in the field are bound to be of interest any devotees of the weird menace genre. Secondly as a refutation of the usual chuckle-headed criticism leveled at the genre by mainstream critics, Buckner’s essay remains unimprovable over seventy years after its initial publication. Witty, without being snide, and thoroughly grounded in the history of literature without being pretentious; Ms. Buckner presents an excellent overview of the horror story’s place in literature. (As a side-note, there isn’t a work referenced by her that shouldn’t be read by any writer hoping to make a career writing this type of fiction).
For years the popular line has been to dismiss the weird menace genre as uninspired hackwork that relied strictly on sadism and shock for effect. While this criticism can be applied to some of the lesser talents working in the field, it’s hard to see how one would apply this criticism to the work of well-known regional poet, John H. Knox, masters of atmosphere such as Arthur J. Burks and Arthur Leo Zagat, or the obviously well-read Wyatt Blassingame and Mary Dale Buckner . . .
While many of Buckner’s stories follow the prescribed formula of presenting a rational explanation for seemingly supernatural occurrences, Buckner often gave the reader an ambiguous ending where almost everything had a rational explanation, but one or two events were left unexplained with the possibility that supernatural forces were indeed at work. It’s this willingness to push the boundaries of the form that make the “Donald Dale” stories such a delight; as with the thrillers of British author, Walter S. Masterman, one never knows at the onset if they’re reading a supernatural yarn or one with a more prosaic ending.
“Donald Dale’s” career was remarkable not only for the high quality of material produced, but also (sadly) for its brevity. Like her contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith, who penned some two-thirds of his entire prose output in the space of five years, Mary Dale Buckner’s career began with “The Beautiful Dead” in March 1937 and ended with “Caverns of Cain” in April of 1941. The reader will see that she started writing at a very high level and went out on a high note. In terms of quality and quantity, Buckner’s contributions to the genre are quite impressive; one is left to wonder just how impressive her career would have been had she continued writing fiction. The some three-dozen stories that appeared during her four-year career are all uniformly excellent as will be seen in this and subsequent volumes.
So, does “Donald Dale” merit the title of “First Lady of Fear Fiction”, at least as far as the pulp era is concerned? I won’t go out on a limb and say definitively that Mary Dale Buckner was the best female author of horror fiction in the first half of the last century, but I would certainly aver that no serious discussion of the topic can take place without at least considering her. That her work has remained uncollected and unreprinted since the 1930s is a dreadful oversight and one that we hope to correct with this and two subsequent volumes that will collect the majority of her weird fiction.
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