John H. Knox — The Many Faces of Fear
Generally speaking the weird menace magazines weren’t known for encouraging a great deal of creativity. The formula prescribed by editor Rogers Terrill called for the introduction of a seemingly supernatural menace, who after wreaking an appropriate amount of havoc and often as not disrobing the heroine would be revealed to have a wholly rational explanation, and often as not turn out to be an unscrupulous businessman in a rubber suit aiming to terrify the townsfolk.
Granted, when done well, this formula could not only have some genuine moments of terror, but also prove to be a clever whodunit that could stand with the best stories in the more traditional mystery magazines. When done poorly (as was often the case), the stories would prove to be a mere paint by the numbers exercise unworthy of the readers’ attention.
The best of the weird menace authors found ways to push the envelope and use this basic structure as a jumping-off point to come up with some truly excellent weird tales. Paul Ernst and Wyatt Blassingame wouldn’t just push the envelope; they would tear it to shreds and frequently offer up straightforward supernatural yarns. John H. Knox favored a more varied approach. In this volume you’ll see science-fictional tropes used such as a plague caused by prehistoric microbes, a reign of terror conducted by a sophisticated robot as well as more standard plot devices, which in Knox’s hands work amazingly well, even in one case where the mysterious spectre is proved to be nothing more than a man clad in a black sheet!
This latter tale is so evocatively written that even after this most mundane of revelations the story still has the feel of a supernatural yarn. Another story postulates the use of electrical shocks as a cause of madness rather than a cure and instead of taking the easy way out wherein everyone is cured; Knox makes the bold move of having the treatments leaving most of its subjects permanently insane.
While all of the volumes in our series of the selected weird tales of John H. Knox are assembled with an eye toward providing a variety of tales, in this volume I’ve made a special effort to showcase as wide a range as possible of stories all united by Knox’s masterful style. I feel we’ve succeeded in this and each story included is rife with the poetic turns of phrase and sense of place that characterizes his work and sets it on a much higher plateau than many of his contemporaries.
It’s doubtful that my readers or even other writers for the weird menace pulps connected the John H. Knox that provided monthly thrills and chills with the well-known Southwest poet, still revered in literary circles as the founder of a highly-regarded poetry journal. Thanks to help of fellow Knox enthusiast (and poet and weird fiction author in his own right) Scott Nicolay, we are able to include one of Knox’s poems as a capstone to this volume.
While the vast majority of Knox’s poetic work is firmly in the mainstream, “Deserted Kiva” is definitely in the realm of the fantastic and would not have been out of place in Weird Tales or in August Derleth’s seminal anthology of macabre verse Dark of the Moon.
As shown in “Deserted Kiva”, Knox is operating on another level entirely when writing of his native New Mexico or West Texas. The Southwest is a peculiar place, with the ghosts of the conquistadors mingling with the ancient spirits of the peoples native to the region. The land itself speaks of mystery with its deserts, mesas, strange rock formations, and vast unexplored caverns. Knox successfully captures this milieu in many of his tales and amassed a body of work that should have him ranked with the great regional writers of the weird tale.
With the reprinting of stories such as this volume’s “Tenement of the Damned” and “Children of the Black God” in the preceding book and numerous stories yet to be published in this series it is hoped that John H. Knox will no longer be overlooked, but will assume his rightful place alongside H.P. Lovecraft with his tales of fiend-haunted New England, August Derleth with his ghosts of the Sac Prairie, and Henry S. Whitehead with his portraits of voodoo-plagued Haiti.
If this volume is your introduction to the work of John H. Knox, you’re only one book behind, and as of this writing Reunion in Hell is still in print. That's just part of the good news; the even better news is that there more collections of the weird tales of John H. Knox to follow!