THE MYSTERIOUS MISTER CUMMINS
Both as Editorial Director of Surinam Turtle Press and as a Consulting Editor for our parent company, Ramble House, it has been my privilege to select and introduce books by many outstanding authors. The list includes Gelett Burgess, Robert W. Chambers, F. Blake Crofton, Fox B. Holden, Jon L. Breen, Ted White and Dave Van Arnam, Jim Harmon, George Sylvester Viereck, Jack Woodford, Clare Winger Harris, Gary Lovisi, Mack Reynolds, and Wallace Irwin.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of most of those authors, and more’s the pity, for they are all worthy of your attention. In our editions we have included biographical and critical notes about all of these. Compiling such data is seldom difficult. A good starting point is often the author’s own books, many of which contain biographies of their creators. From there one moves to standard biographical and bibliographic sources, thence to newspaper and magazine files.
But the case of Harle Oren Cummins is very different. Welsh Rarebit Tales is apparently his only book. The 1902 edition contains no data about the author. Searches of the usual sources yield very little information.
One picks up an occasional bit of data. Among other sources, William Contento’s “Fictionmags Index” is especially valuable. Cummins was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1859, and died in 1931. He wrote for the early pulp magazines. His story “The Man and the Beast” appeared in Argosy for April, 1901. “The Space Annihilator” appeared in Argosy for September, 1901. “The Man who Made a Man,” Cummins’ most famous and most often anthologized story, appeared in McClure’s Magazine – not a pulp but a general magazine -- for December of that same year. The 1902 edition of Welsh Rarebit Tales contains acknowledgements to the Frank A. Munsey Company, publisher of Argosy, S. S. McClure & Co., and the Shortstory Publishing Company, another pulp publisher.
One story which I would dearly love to read is “The Ring of the Golden Snake,” published in The Nickel Magazine for September, 1902. This was presumably too late for inclusion in Welsh Rarebit Tales but there are Argosy collectors. Perhaps one of them would be kind enough to furnish us with a copy of this story, which could be included in some future volume.
Welsh Rarebit Tales is an important book, not solely because the fifteen stories it presents remain readable and in many cases powerful more than a century after their initial publication. It is also, apparently, the first collection of stories many of which are derived from the pulp magazines. Dozens of authors got their start in the pulps, including most of the leading American genre writers of the Twentieth Century. Search the back issues of these garish, cheaply printed periodicals and you’ll find the works of Louis L’Amour, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, H. P. Lovecraft, Cornell Woolrich, Robert E. Howard, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs and countless others.
There were also hundreds, perhaps thousands, or talented story-tellers whose works appeared in the pulps and have now been relegated to indexes compiled and essays written by dedicated scholars and collectors of mass culture. Harle Oren Cummins is one of them.
In this book you will find a story almost certainly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein, another very likely influenced by the works of Ambrose Bierce, a horror story that might well have been read by H. P. Lovecraft and contributed elements to his tale “Pickman’s Model,” and two stories that offer remarkable foreshadowings of William Lindsey Gresham’s notorious novel Nightmare Alley.
There is also a tale that was wild science fiction when written, but that involves a startlingly accurate description of the cell phone!
Well, Harle Oren Cummins, whoever he was – or, for that matter, whoever she was, for “Harle Oren Cummins” is a gender-neutral name – was a pioneer indeed. He (assuming Cummins was a “he”) deserves better than the oblivion which seems to have been his fate. What did he do in his six decades of life? Was he a successful businessman,? Did he practice law or medicine? Was he an academic? An explorer? An inventor? A musician? Did he leave his mark on the world in any way other than these fifteen skillfully crafted stories? Fifteen – or sixteen, if we include the mysterious “The Ring of the Golden Snake.” What an intriguing title that is!
Maybe someone will track him down. I’d love to know.
-- Richard A. Lupoff