Burks’ Works, or How to Ruin a
Perfectly Good Typewriter in Just
a Couple of Months
They called him “The Speed Merchant of the Pulps” or “The Million Words a Year Man”, those who were less kind called him a “hack”, or worse . . . We’re now in a very good position to look back over Arthur J. Burks’ phenomenal career and evaluate just where he stands among the authors of fantastic fiction. His admirers point out that he could create a story out of just about anything, his detractors accuse him of being sloppy, repetitious and having to frequently resort to a deux ex machina ending to wrap things up. As is most often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
It’s interesting to note how his career parallels that of pulpdom’s other Arthur, Arthur Leo Zagat. Both authors achieved such a level of productivity that they were sought out by typewriter manufacturers to provide endorsement advertising. Unfortunately, they both tend to be remembered for some of their worst work rather than the genres in which they excelled. Both men wrote a great deal of science fiction, mystery, adventure, and anything else that was selling and could be counted on to reliably provide copy whenever called upon to do so. It’s estimated that for considerable periods, they averaged 5,000 to 10,000 words per day. To give you an idea of what that really means, most working writers will tell you that hitting 1,000 to 2,000 words a day is working at a pretty good clip. Much has been written of Walter Gibson’s productivity working on The Shadow (a hefty novella every two weeks) or Lester Dent’s voluminous work on Doc Savage. Not to take away anything that these two worthies accomplished, but both had the advantage of dealing with a recurring character and formulaic plot. That sort of set-up allows for a good deal of recycling or cannibalizing scenes—one can literally take paragraphs from one Shadow novel and insert them into another without causing so much as a bump in reading the story. Not only was Burks producing a higher volume of material, it was all broken up into novellas, novelettes and short stories of varying length with as many different plots and settings.
Burks burst on to the scene in the 1920s with sales to Weird Tales, initially under the pen-name of Estil Critchie. Within a year, the career military man had no compunctions about publishing under his own name, and the torrent of fiction began in earnest. Gifted with a fertile imagination, Burks often said he could find a story idea in just about anything; he wasn’t bragging—he was just stating how his creative process worked. For example, looking at an ornate floor-lamp, where did it come from? How about the people that manufactured it, what were they like? Where did they live? Following up enough questions like these with just the right amount of fancy and in short order you have a story to take to market.
Unlike some of his contemporaries such as Carl Jacobi, who had to rely on copious amounts of research to write convincingly about foreign countries, the well-travelled Burks could rely on memory and his amazing facility for recalling details. Despite the speed with which he was writing, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any errors of sociology, geography, or history in Burks’ stories. This verisimilitude leant an air of authenticity to his supernatural tales, making them all the more effective.
While we have chosen to primarily commemorate his work in the weird menace genre, Burks began with subtle, supernatural tales including his “Santo Domingo” story cycle. In a break with our tradition, we have included three stories from Weird Tales as they were (a) far too good to pass up, and (b) “The Black Harvest of Moraine” should silence those critics who claim that Arthur J. Burks went steadily down-hill after 1937.
While Burks went on to be a reliable author for Weird Tales, as well as churning out reams of other material, it wasn’t until 1935 that he really found his sweet spot . . . In October, 1933 editor Rogers Terrill transformed the appallingly bad Dime Mystery Magazine from the format of a long and (usually) deadly dull novella backed by a couple of mediocre shorts to become the flagship of a new genre, which combined the elements of the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris with the rationalized supernatural tale. We’ve come to call stories of this type “weird menace” and the magazines that featured them the “shudder pulps”.
Unlike some contemporaries who came on board in 1933/1934, Burks wisely took a “wait and see” approach (likely because of bad experiences being paid late by Weird Tales, another magazine in the Popular Publishing family.) In summer of 1934 a companion magazine was announced as forthcoming, Terror Tales, which debuted in September and was rapidly followed by a third title, Horror Stories. At this point the handwriting was on the wall and Burks jumped in with both feet. His debut was the rather inauspicious short story, “Terror in the Dark” in the February 1935 issue of Horror Stories. The next month, March of 1935 he was featured in all three publications. Dime Mystery had “Death Calls from the Lake”, Terror Tales featured “Six Doors to Horror” and Horror Stories gave us “Where the Dead Dance Always”. Of the three pieces, one is present in this volume and “Death Calls from the Lake” will be featured in our next volume of Burks’ stories. A fifty percent average of stories deemed suitable for reprinting out of his first four efforts may give you an idea of just how well his talents meshed with the fledgling genre.
Later in 1935, the competition rolled out Thrilling Mystery and Arthur J. Burks had the lead piece. All in all, Burks authored some five dozen stories in the field of weird menace, all the while continuing with work in other genres. When producing that volume some level of burn-out is to be expected. In the case of Arthur J. Burks it came about suddenly and definitively. Somewhere in late 1937 the quality of his work dropped off noticeably. My friend and frequent colleague, Stefan Dziemianowicz has pronounced post-1937 Burks as “unreadable”. In point of fact, Burks’ voluminous productivity in the weird menace genre also fell off drastically for Popular Publications, with more stories appearing in Thrilling Mystery and elsewhere. I’ll offer up the titular story as “exhibit A” to make the case that Burks could still turn out a compelling yarn in 1938, but high-quality work in 1937-1938 and later is hard to come by.
With the advent of the USA joining in WWII, the weird menace genre fell victim to both paper shortages and its own shortcomings as formula fiction. Some attempts were made briefly to keep things alive by switching the focus to various recurring detective characters in Dime Mystery Magazine (the more bizarre, the better). Most of these so-called “defective detectives” made Adrian Monk seem like a perfect well-adjusted, normal chap.
After the war, Burks’ appearances in Weird Tales were few and far between. As one of the elder statesmen of the pulps, he was able to experiment a good deal and some of his most atypical (and excellent) work is from this period. I give you “The Black Harvest of Moraine” as an example of just how good some of his work from that period was.
One would think that with the boom of specialty presses in the early 1950s that an author with such a huge backlog of material as Burks would have had several collections assembled. Sadly, the only such volume is Look Behind You, a (as my mentor George Locke put it), “cheap and nasty” presentation that did neither the author or publisher much credit. In the 1960s, August Derleth finally got around to issuing a collection from Arkham House, and true to form, he concentrated on Burks’ earliest work for Weird Tales and ignored everything else. We can’t lay all the blame on Derleth, however, as the author went on record many times to say that he felt his earliest work was his best.
My feeling is that Burks severely underestimated the quality of his other work, particularly that in the weird menace genre. This volume presents eleven of his best weird menace stories; after reading them, I hope that you will agree with me that the author did indeed sell himself short when reflecting on the quality of his work. Just as another point of reference, our friends at Centipede Press have a volume of Burks in preparation for their “Masters of the Weird Tale” series that will come in at over 1000 pages! Here at DTP, we plan at least one more volume, and the challenge I’m finding is how to keep it at a reasonable length. Regardless of how fast he churned work out, there’s a level of quality in Arthur J. Burks’ best tales that few others could approach, I hope that you enjoy this small sample.