The Weird Tales of Wyatt Blassingame
With this, the fourth collection of Wyatt Blassingame’s weird menace tales, I suppose that we should no longer refer to him as a “neglected author”. Granted, as of yet none of these collections have appeared on the best-seller list of The New York Times, and thus far, we haven’t seen reviews of The Tongueless Horror, Lady of the Yellow Death or The Unholy Goddess in Publishers’ Weekly or in Michael Dirda’s column in The Washington Post—but at least the evidence is now available to one and all in support of my claim that Wyatt Blassingame is a “Lost Master of the Weird Tale”.
If you’ve been buying the offerings of Dancing Tuatara Press all along, then the case for Wyatt Blassingame has likely already been made on the strength of such pieces as “Song of the Dead”, “Lady of the Yellow Death, “Passion Flower”, “The Tongueless Horror”, etc. If this is your first experience with Blassingame, this volume still provides numerous examples of the author transcending the limitations of the formula that held sway over the weird menace genre.
The “weird menace” formula alluded to above was a simple, and, for a time, very successful idea which may be credited to editor Rogers Terrill. Basically, it was a fusion of the rationalized supernatural story which goes all the way back to Poe and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and includes tales such as Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, Masterman’s The Green Toad and countless others; and the graphic violence of the Grand Guignol theatre. To these, Terrill insisted on a bit of titillation and teasing (the distressed damsels being disrobed), and insisted that the menace must seem to be from a supernatural entity only to be revealed at the story’s end as a cover for the machinations of a human mischief maker. Variations of the theme persist today, with the cartoon series Scooby-Doo being a great example (minus the titillation and torture).
Writers were faced with the challenge of standing out in a magazine wholly devoted to similar stories. There were many miserable failures—forgettable formulaic exercises (none of which will be reprinted by me), but there was an astonishing percentage of successes—far more than the 10% of good stuff allowed by Sturgeon’s Law, nearly 25% of the material published in Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories reveals a degree of creativity on the part of the author to either excel within the formula or bend the rules sufficiently to rise above the pack. Wyatt Blassingame did both on a very consistent basis. Of all the writers that helped form the genre in the beginning, there are only two whose works I am reprinting in toto; John H. Knox and Wyatt Blassingame. There are a couple who came along later that merit the same treatment, Mary Dale Buckner and Ralston Shields, but both of these worthies had the advantage of studying the genre for three years to see what worked and what failed. Even such greats as Hugh B. Cave, Arthur J. Burks, and Wayne Rogers had some misfires over the years, but Blassingame started out writing excellent stories and was still around when the genre faded away, still producing top-notch work.
This present collection ranges from what may be the genre’s strongest year, 1935, to a little-known piece from 1939 that shows Blassingame still being remarkably inventive and at the top of his game in contrast to some of his colleagues such as Arthur J. Burks, who save for occasional triumphs, had pretty much burned out on the weird menace tale by mid-1936, or John H. Knox, whose production slowed to a trickle before being rejuvenated by an offer to write a series character for Thrilling Mystery. In Wyatt Blassingame’s case the genre gave up, long before the author was ready to give up on the genre. Even as late as 1941 we find Blassingame still writing horror fiction for the short-lived competitor to Weird Tales, Strange Stories, where he’s joined by Weird Tales alumni such as Colter, Derleth, & Quinn and his weird menace colleague Arthur J. Burks (with one of his best post-1936 stories). We plan on using this piece in the next volume of Blassingame’s weirds, along with a couple of stories from other rarely used markets like Thrilling Mystery.
Blassingame’s loyalty to Rogers Terrill was apparent by the dearth of material sold to other markets. There’s no doubt that he could have been a major force at Weird Tales or Strange Stories, and Leo Margulies was always eager to have him on board at Thrilling Mystery, but regularly writing the lead feature for Dime Mystery, Terror Tales and Horror Stories kept even the prolific Blassingame busy. The one “oddball” piece in this volume is from one of the pulp’s oddest magazines, The Scorpion. When I was a kid, The Scorpion and its predecessor, The Octopus, were legendary rarities among pulp collectors, discussed with the same sense of awe as was usually reserved for The Thrillbook. Since then, both magazines have been reprinted, first by Robert Weinberg and more recently by Girasol Collectables, and I commend both as being excellent reads. The two magazines were an ill-advised idea to create a hero pulp that revolved around the villain, rather than the hero. Why this experiment was tried when both Wu Fang and Dr. Yen-sin proved to be dismal failures is quite a puzzle, but both were filled with the sort of mayhem that made the Norvell Page and Wayne Rogers issues of The Spider so entertaining and practically weird menace books in their own right. After The Octopus bombed, the decision was to re-tool the villain and try it again, so The Scorpion was born. Popular hedged their bets by having the back up stories written by familiar names, not the least of which was Wyatt Blassingame. Despite an exciting lead feature written at a break-neck pace and excellent back up stories, The Scorpion was stung by poor sales and the experiment was not repeated.
What is interesting about Blassingame’s work in the late 1930s and early 1940s is that he was still using the tropes of the weird menace yarn and doing so very successfully. Unlike John H. Knox, who immediately toned it down when he began chronicling the exploits of Col. Crum, Blassingame’s first series detective Joe Gee faces the same sort of terrors as those that plagued the heroes of earlier stories in Terror Tales and Horror Stories. A bit of the mood is relieved as we readers know that a series character isn’t going to get killed off, but in Blassingame’s case he more than made up for it with what happened to the supporting cast!
However, by late 1941 Terror Tales and Horror Stories were gone, Dime Mystery and Thrilling Mystery went through an odd phase of series detectives plagued by a number of ailments facing weird menaces, evolving rapidly into more conventional detectives dealing with more conventional perils. The violence was toned down and even in the “Spicys”, the girls were keeping their clothes on and the villains were more concerned with profit than torture for its own sake. The weird menace genre was dead, and after a successful stint of detective tales, Wyatt Blassingame turned to the far more lucrative field of juvenile non-fiction books.
While he didn’t write many overtly supernatural stories, there’s no doubt that if he had written for Weird Tales, there would have been a Blassingame book published by Arkham House; however, as it was, the weird menace genre fell into disrepute, being judged by its worst examples rather than its best, and, until Robert Weinberg reprinted some of the material and scholars like Bob Jones and Sheldon Jaffrey brought about a rediscovery of the genre, no one, including the authors who had been mainstays of the genre, did much to keep it alive. As these volumes from DTP show, there was a great deal of memorable material published within the genre and Wyatt Blassingame was certainly among the very best authors in the field.