PAUL ERNST—A MASTER OF THE WEIRD TALE
Paul Ernst is best remembered today for his work under the house name of Kenneth Robeson, a byline most frequently associated with Doc Savage. Of course, Lester Dent penned the Doc Savage novels leaving Ernst to be assigned the task of creating a new pulp super-hero, which he did with Richard Benson, the Avenger. While Ernst’s creation is not nearly as well-known as Doc Savage, the stories proved popular enough to run for several years and were reprinted in paperback in the 1980s, with SF author and pulp aficionado Ron Goulart adding several volumes to the series. In the last few years a new publisher has begun issuing the series in handsome trade paperback format.
As with many of the wordsmiths of the day, Ernst wrote widely on a variety of subjects and by his own estimate was successful in placing 90% of his output; a rather remarkable achievement for any writer, the more so as Ernst was cranking out over a million words a year at the time. Despite his versatility, Ernst’s first love was the supernatural tale and Popular Publication’s Weird Tales was the perfect market in all respects except one; that of financial remuneration. Despite being one of the Popular Publications family of magazines, Weird Tales was sort of in the position of the ugly step-child and frequently close to having to shut down.
Ernst’s first story “The Temple of Serpents” appeared in the October, 1928 issue of Weird Tales and is remarkable for the level of craftsmanship shown by a novice, so much so that it was reprinted by the magazine in the 1950s when editor Dorothy McIllwraith was mining earlier issues for “classics”. The same is true of his third sale to the magazine, “A Witch’s Curse”. Between 1928 and 1930 Ernst placed several additional tales to markets including Weird Tales and Ghost Stories, culminating with the sale of a novel (The Black Monarch), which was to be serialized in five parts. This last sale was a sufficient confidence builder to allow for Ernst to take the plunge into full-time freelancing.
As mentioned, Weird Tales was a perfect market for Ernst’s atmospheric supernatural tales in all but one critical respect, that of money. While Popular Publications as a company was robust, with a number of very successful titles, Weird Tales was not among them and was constantly in danger of folding. Subsequently, the pay rates were low even by the standards of the day. On the other hand, their mystery line was not only successful within their genre, but was treated as the standard-bearer of the whole publishing enterprise. By 1934 Paul Ernst made a tentative step toward these higher-paying markets, submitting a story to Dime Mystery Magazine under the byline of “George Edson”. The story was accepted and the check came promptly, leading Paul Ernst to embrace these new markets. It looked to be a perfect match, but there would be some difficulties, leading to Paul Ernst becoming somewhat of a rebel—but such a subtle one that he would not only succeed but excel—becoming one of the most popular and prolific authors of the new genre that has come to be called “weird menace”.
While fiction writing is generally thought of as strictly a creative enterprise, there are often restrictions of some sort in place, and at no time has this been truer than during the heyday of the pulp magazines prior to WWII when specialization and formula fiction were the order of the day. Certainly there were generic fiction magazines that flourished, such as the aptly-named Short Stories, and a number of higher-priced magazines that ran stories on a wide variety of subjects, but they were the exception rather than the rule.
Far more typical were magazines devoted to a particular narrow focus. There were pulps dealing with battles at land, sea, air, and the far future; pirates, cowboys, explorers, airplanes, railroads, zeppelins, mysteries, super heroes and super villains, G-men and detectives of all sorts, boxing, baseball, adventures in Asia, the old west, and the jungles of three continents.
Into this mix the horror story took on a degree of specialization as well. There was the venerable Weird Tales and its imitator Strange Tales as well as the more specialized titles such as Ghost Stories and Mind Magic, and for a glorious period of time lasting less than a decade there were several publications devoted to what has evolved into the sub-genre we call “hardcore horror” or “splatterpunk”.
Chief among these were the trio of magazines published by Popular Publications that we fondly call “Terrill Tales” after editor Rogers Terrill. They consisted of a new incarnation of Dime Mystery Magazine (a publication with a well-deserved reputation for being as exciting as a decomposing slug) and sister publications Terror Tales and Horror Stories. To set them apart from Weird Tales, which featured everything from ghost stories to sword and sorcery to interplanetary adventures, Terrill insisted on three fundamentals: mystery, horror, and credibility. The first required that there must be an element of the whodunit present; the second required that a genuine atmosphere of dread was involved; and the last alluded to the editor’s mandate that every story have a logical explanation (no matter how implausible).
This formula was a success from 1934 until the death of the genre at the end of decade. At its best these guidelines accounted for some ingenious work that can stand shoulder to shoulder with masters of the mystery tale such as Edward Hoch and John Dickson Carr. At its worst it allowed for scenes of villains capering about in rubber monster suits in plots that would have fit right in on an episode of Scooby-Doo. By the end of the decade most of the better writers had tired of the routine and most of the readers were ready for something else. While the war-time paper short-ages gets a lot of the blame for the demise of the weird menace magazines, the truth of the matter is that the genre had already imploded—leaving just a remnant, a deflated monster suit more pitiable than terrifying.
However, just a few years earlier the genre was fresh and new, debuting in the October, 1933 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine with Norvell Page’s “Dance of the Skeletons” as the lead feature. A year later Paul Ernst made his first foray into the field with “Our Host, the Madman”. Apparently having some reservations about the subject matter, Ernst published a few more tales under the Edson byline before finally appearing under his own name in February of 1935. “Edson’s” work had proved to be popular with the readers to the point that Ernst never abandoned the pen name, with stories as Edson appearing all the way to mid-1938, when Ernst’s other commitments caused him to leave the field. The last Edson story was in the May/June issue of Terror Tales and the last Ernst story showed up a month later in Dime Mystery Magazine.
Now a rather peculiar thing happened when assembling this volume. To give you a behind-the-scenes peek at how I work, I usually start with a huge stack of Xeroxes of stories by a particular author. Since we’re dealing with a genre that is by definition formulaic, I try to select as wide a variety of tales as possible. The next step is to whittle down the stack so that I’m left with the aforementioned variety of themes and plots and also, whenever possible, a variety of length. I’m allocated anywhere from 80,000 to 105,000 words for a DTP book. With the weird menace genre I’m working with stacks of stories from Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, Horror Stories and Thrilling Mystery, while keeping an eye out for anything that might be of interest from the short-run competitors such as Uncanny Tales, Ace Mystery, etc. The end result that I want is to present as diverse a group of stories by a single author as you’re likely to find.
As to the peculiar thing that happened, I knew from the start that I was going to use “Madman’s Circus” from Horror Stories. Not only is it a terrific thriller, but I also planned on making it the titular selection. So with that in mind I delved into the stack of Ernst stories from Dime Mystery. Being fussy about such things, I had a separate stack of tales written under the “George Edson” by-line off to the side. After doing some quick re-reads and placing stories in my three groupings (“Definitely Include”, “Not this Book”, and “Possibly”) I noticed I had a pretty large stack of “Definitely Include” . . . As it turns out I had al-ready sold myself on no less than eleven stories of varying lengths all from Dime Mystery Magazine! Factoring in “Madman’s Circus”, I was somewhere between 90,000 and 95,000 words (our target size) and I had twelve “Definitely Includes”. Noticing that one of the pieces made reference to the numeral twelve, I thought a title change was in order and just like that, the first collection of Paul Ernst’s weird fiction is done.
In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that a previous volume that gathers together all of Ernst’s Dr. Satan stories from Weird Tales has been published by our friends at Altus Press, but that for the most part Paul Ernst’s other weird fiction has been allowed to fade into obscurity. We hope to rectify that situation. There are over six-dozen weird/horror tales just from Popular Publications’ three mainstays. Add to that appearances in rival publications and some of his best material from Weird Tales, it’s quite likely that we’re looking at as many as five volumes of his stories. Imagine what he would have accomplished had he not “rebelled” at the direction the magazines were taking. Paul Ernst left the field in mid-1938, and while it was pretty evident that the genre was not going to survive long-term, it was still a robust market until 1941.
So what made Paul Ernst a rebel and why did he leave the field that he was obviously very successful in? To begin with, having established himself first as George Alden Edson, and debuting under his own name a few months later, Ernst frequently ignored the mandate of stories having a rational explanation and instead he served up a variety of supernatural tales that would not have been at all out of place in the pages of Weird Tales. Of course Rogers Terrill and his staff knew a good thing when they saw it, so Ernst and the other heavy hitters such as Arthur Leo Zagat, Wyatt Blassingame, and Arthur J. Burks also became known for their occasional forays into the supernatural. I should probably take this opportunity to torpedo a falsehood that has been repeated so often that it’s almost a mantra regarding the weird menace magazines. As the vast majority of stories feature a rationalized explanation for seemingly super-natural occurrences, many scholars in the field have taken it on faith that this was an editorial guideline with the unwavering seriousness of a Papal bull.
As to that, I can plainly retort “balderdash!” I have in my possession a series of notes exchanged between Rogers Terrill and one of the authors who came on-board in what we call the “second wave”, in which editor Terrill is directing the author to emphasize the supernatural elements of the tale. So much for the “mandatory” rationalized endings. It would seem from Terrill’s notes that while the rational-ized ending was a staple of his three magazines, he wasn’t at all opposed to utilizing a full-blown supernatural tale if it made sense in the context of the story.
Having had a nice run of atmospheric, near-Gothic stories lasting from 1934 through much of 1937 readers began to lose interest, as the majority of stories were predictable, due to following the rationalized ending formula. In order to spice things up a bit authors were asked to spice things up a bit by turning up the level of sexual implications and outright sadism. Some authors, such as Bruno Fischer, under his bylines of Russell Gray and Harrison Storm, responded with gusto, churning out tales that would stand comparison with the most lurid splatterpunk yarns of the present time. Paul Ernst, however, was having none of it. As the decade drew to a close, Ernst turned his attentions elsewhere, penning a number of stories in other genres until finally being drafted to work under the house name of “Kenneth Robeson” as the author of the Avenger series.
With a lucrative monthly assignment and the time to explore other genres, Ernst left the weird menace genre behind entirely and only rarely returned to supernatural fiction. However, during the decade of the 1930s, few authors were able to match Paul Ernst in either quantity or quality of work. This volume is but the first of several that will present the best of Paul Ernst’s weird fiction. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Winter Solstice 2014