John H. Knox:
Poet Laureate of the Perverse
Among all the writers of weird fiction in the 1930s two authors shared the rather unique background of being accomplished poets with solid reputations established in the little magazines and limited editions of the time.
The two men were Clark Ashton Smith and John H. Knox. Oddly enough, their reputations are quite dissimilar today . . . While both men brought a lyrical quality to their depictions of the horrific and grotesque, Smith, due in large part to his association with H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth has had at least one volume of poetry or prose in print since the publication of Out of Space and Time in 1942. Most recently Night Shade Books has embarked on publishing Smith’s complete short fiction in a six-volume set.
John H. Knox on the other hand was featured only in a slim chapbook published in 1972 and a handful of stories that have appeared in various facsimile editions such as Girasol Collectables’ reprints of Terror Tales and anthologies edited by the late Sheldon Jaffrey and more recently Ron Hanna’s excellent anthology Weird Wonder Tales. Other than these few appearances, aficionados of the horror story have overlooked the work of John H. Knox.
This volume is the first in a series that aims to rectify this oversight and preserve the weird tales of John H. Knox in a permanent format such as these stories deserve.
So who was this talented poet and how did he come to make the transition from bard to the author of such bone-chilling tales as “Mates for the Murder Girls” and “Court of the Grave Creatures”?
Born the son of a preacher in New Mexico moving to Abilene as a boy, Knox was encouraged by his father to read Shakespeare and other classic authors. By his late teens he was captivated by more contemporary authors such as Jim Tully, whose tales of the vagabond lifestyle had a profound effect on the young man.
Knox went off to see America first hand via hopping freight trains and doing odd jobs that ranged from manual labor to working as a cameraman in Hollywood. After two years on the road Knox returned home to Abilene and where he began writing poetry while furthering his education at McMurray College.
Knox’s poetry was well received, appearing in The Prickly Pear and other “little magazines”. In 1924 Knox founded The Galleon and began his career in earnest and by 1930 Knox found himself in the center of a literary group that included authors such as Edward Anderson, Files Bledsoe, and William Curry Holden.
Despite being surrounded by such literary types and his own passion for such serious authors as Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, Knox’s own fiction was of a much more fanciful and darker nature.
When Dime Mystery Magazine made the switch from tiresome reprints and mundane mysteries to the new genre of “weird menace” the young author tested the waters by submitting a short piece entitled “Frozen Energy”; it was accepted and published in the December, 1933 issue, thus making Knox one of the earliest of the “weird menace” authors; and a member of an illustrious fraternity which included Hugh B. Cave. Wyatt Blassingame, and Arthur J. Burks.
While most of his contemporaries wrote a wide variety of stories ranging from aerial combat to westerns, Knox was far more single-minded in his approach, concentrating his energies on Popular Publications’ trio of terror: Dime Mystery Magazine, Horror Stories and Terror Tales with an occasional foray to their competitor, Thrilling Mystery.
The formula of the “weird menace” pulps was that of the “rationalized supernatural” tale. Generally a series of horrific murders would occur with all signs pointing to a supernatural agency, with the implications that a vampire, werewolf, or even a demon from the pit was to blame. The fiends would demonstrate a penchant for disrobing and torturing nubile young ladies and would be revealed on the final page to be all too human usually involved in some larcenous scheme that was dependent on terrifying the local citizenry.
At its worst this formula resulted in tales that resembled a typical episode of the Hanna-Barbara cartoon Scooby-Doo (lacking the talking dog and hippie van, of course). However in the hands of an accomplished and inventive author like Knox the stories transcended the limits of the genre and became true masterpieces of the macabre.
Knox, being widely read, tended to incorporate the folklore of his native Southwest and Northern Mexico into his stories that lent them a verisimilitude matched only by the widely-traveled Arthur J. Burks and the scholarly Chandler H. Whipple.
Throughout the glory days of the genre (1934-1939) Knox was practically omnipresent with a short story or novelette appearing somewhere nearly every month. Sadly, by the end of the decade politicians (who are always on the lookout for something to feign moral indignation over) targeted the “weird menace” pulps as corrupters of young minds and caused Terror Tales and Horror Stories to fold and Dime Mystery and Thrilling Mystery to alter their format to somewhat more conventional detective stories.
Knox made the switch and began a series of tales involving the diminutive Colonel Crum. While these stories are fine examples of their type the inventiveness and vigor of his earlier work seemed to be missing. Whether or not this was a result of the stress of his first marriage breaking up or a growing disinterest in a market that was becoming progressively more restrictive, his fiction output slowed dramatically.
By the 1950s Knox had re-married and moved to Alabama, turning his attentions to newspaper work and real estate sales. Again, like his contemporary Clark Ashton Smith, Knox had turned out a career’s worth of top quality work in less than a decade, and like Smith did find time to write the occasional tale, but for all practical purposes his writing career ended with the passing of the “weird menace” pulps.
This book and subsequent volumes will collect all the known weird fiction of John H. Knox. For those readers previously unfamiliar with the work of this unjustly forgotten master of the macabre I’ve included in this volume some of the stories which first introduced me to his work. It’s my hope that you experience the same thrill that I did discovering the work of this remarkable author.