Nat Schachner: Mr. Terror Tales?


As we’ve now issued over a dozen volumes of weird menace fiction here at Dancing Tuatara Press, I’ve been afforded some time to reflect on the material published and those volumes still to come. Overall, the project has been one of discovery for me, as well as an opportunity to revisit some old favorites. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that my tastes have changed over the years and some authors that I once considered minor are new favorites (Donald Dale and Mindret Lord); whereas others that I had considered the top of the pecking order now seem flawed (though still enjoyable).

One thing that I have been able to do is get a much better feel of how various authors were being viewed at the time. For example, we tend to think of Hugh B. Cave and Arthur J. Burks as being a bit more important to the genre than they actually were . . . Certainly both were major contributors to the weird menace genre, but in terms of actual volume and overall importance at the time, I’d have to say that John H. Knox, Wyatt Blassingame, and Wayne Rogers were slightly higher on the totem-pole. Of course, these three gentlemen lacked the cachet of being Arkham House authors like Burks, or continuing to write in the genre for sixty-odd years like Cave.

However, the biggest surprise to me was the importance of Nat Schachner during the glory days of the genre in 1935-1936, particularly to Terror Tales magazine. Today, Nat Schachner is remembered (if he’s remembered at all) for a pleasant, if minor, series of stories collected as Space Lawyer and published in book form by Gnome Press and for being named by Isaac Asimov as “his favorite science-fiction author”. The caveats are that the good doctor was speaking of his teenage years when the stories were first published and the series itself belongs very much to those halcyon days when the science in science fiction consisted of babble about “tractor beams”, “anti-gravity engines”, “death-rays” and similar nonsense; and with stories that once one deducted the pseudo-scientific jargon could just as easily take place in the Old West or the High Seas circa the early 19th century. Still, Schachner’s Space Lawyer is a fun read if one makes allowances for the time. However, there’s nothing in Schachner’s science fiction that would be indicative of what he was able to do with the Grand Guignol Gothicism called for in Popular Publications trio of weird menace magazines . . .

Schachner’s first appearance in Popular Publications was a collaborative effort with Arthur Leo Zagat in Weird Tales, “The Dead-Alive” in 1931. Whether it was due to the penurious pay or the sometimes-heavy editorial hand of Farnsworth Wright, neither man ever appeared in Weird Tales again. Whereas his colleague, Arthur Leo Zagat jumped in to the new genre in January of 1934, Schachner took his time to get a feel for what editor Rogers Terrill was looking for and in mid-1934 his first weird menace yarn, “Marble Murderer” appeared in the July issue of Dime Mystery Magazine, to be followed the next month with “Eat, Drink, & Die”.  However, it’s the following year when Schachner pulled off a remarkable feat that earns him a claim to the title of “Mr. Terror Tales” (at least for 1935). Starting in January and ending in July, Nat Schachner had a story of at least 9,000 words in every issue of Terror Tales, and by that summer he was tapped to give a boost to the new sister publication Horror Stories and from July through November he had three novelettes and a major novella “Vault of the Damned” published by year’s end.

All in all, a remarkable period of productivity, and while we usually try to present an overview of an author’s career, such is the quality of Schachner’s work that between this volume and its follow-up, we’re going to publish the entirety of his 1934-935 Terror Tales output in our first two volumes of his work. Interestingly enough, there are easily enough collaborations between Nat Schachner and Arthur Leo Zagat authored in the early 1930s to fill a very substantial volume; however, these are all works of science fiction and thus, not appropriate to this particular volume . . . (editor’s note: As DTP is launching a new line, “John Pelan Presents: Classics of Modern Science Fiction”, the idea of collecting the Schachner/Zagat collaborations in book form looks to be a very real possibility in the near future.

After all, until the advent of Kuttner/Moore and Pohl/Kornbluth, the team of Nat Schachner and Arthur Leo Zagat were easily the front-runners for sheer volume as collaborators; and in terms of quality, they were light-years ahead of teams like Flint/Hall and the like. In fact, you would have to look back to the 1800s in France to the team of Erckman/Chatrian to see a similar output, and E/C were all over the map in terms of type of material, whereas Schachner/Zagat were focused strictly on one type of story. It’s truly a shame that they never collaborated on a series of weird menace tales; the outcome would have been most interesting. 

One thing that set Schachner as an individual author apart from his contemporaries early on was a willingness to bend the rules while staying true to the overall form . . . The weird menace formula was pretty straightforward: a seemingly supernatural menace would be introduced, generally as the cause of a series of grisly murders or on-going torture of captive maidens. By the story’s end, said menace would be revealed to have a rational (if far-fetched) explanation. This could be anything from a villain in grotesque make-up or a rubber suit to an individual whose actual physical deformities corresponded to their mental aberration.

Various inventive riffs on this formula included a sophisticated robot employed by John H. Knox in “Man out of Hell” to Schachner’s impressive novella in the November 1934 Dime Mystery “Monsters of the Pit”, in which the usual masked fiend is joined by actual Neanderthal men! Introducing a lost race element such as this was certainly an unusual approach and oddly enough, not used again until Joseph Payne Brennan did the same over a decade later in a Western pulp!

While Schachner wasn’t nearly as prolific in the weird menace genre as was his colleague, Arthur Leo Zagat, he did contribute well over two-dozen lengthy pieces to Popular Publications trio of titles between “Marble Murderer”, published in July of 1934 and “Parade of the Tiny Killers”, which appeared in the January/February 1939 issue of Terror Tales; all the while keeping up a steady stream of science fiction stories in Astounding Stories and elsewhere. Schachner’s writing career underwent a sea change as the weird menace genre died out . . . While many of his contemporaries modified their style to adapt to the demand for more straightforward mystery tales, Schachner opted to leave the genre entirely; (after all, he had his niche as a successful science fiction author to fall back on) . . . However, in one of those cruel twists of fate Schachner’s best-paying science fiction market underwent a change every bit as profound as the one taking pace in the weird menace genre . . . The man who at one time seemed the heir apparent to E.E. Smith with his galaxy-spanning tales of exploding worlds and crashing suns, John W. Campbell was flexing his literary muscle and writing an entirely new type of science fiction story under the name of “Don A. Stuart”. His work as Stuart was apparently so impressive to the publishers that when Street & Smith needed a new man at the helm of Astounding Stories, John W. Campbell was given the job.

Unfortunately, for many of the magazine’s old guard like Nat Schachner, their brand of science fiction was not what Mr. Campbell was interested in promoting. He quickly built a stable of young, talented authors that included Robert A, Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, Cleve Cartmill, A.E. van Vogt, and L. Sprague deCamp.  The slots available to the old guard authors such as Nat Schachner were few and far between . . . Schachner did sell to Campbell, appearing in both Astounding and its companion fantasy magazine Unknown, but not with the frequency that he had in the past. His options were pretty simple, either focus on the lower paying magazines such as Amazing, or shift to a different sort of writing altogether . . . 

Like his contemporary Wyatt Blassingame, Schachner quickly identified the non-fiction market for American History to be a growing arena, whereas the pulps were slowly but surely shrinking away. A writer’s writer, Schachner did very well in his new milieu, though he continued to write the occasional science fiction story. Sadly, like his friend Arthur Leo Zagat, only one book of his fantastic fiction was published, and Space Lawyer while certainly competently-written and enjoyable isn’t really representative of Schachner at his best. Schachner had a real feel for the modern gothic and it’s a shame that the genre died out when he still at the height of his writing prowess.

Nat Schachner wasn’t the earliest of the weird menace authors, nor was he anywhere near as prolific as his friend Arthur Leo Zagat. We can’t even say that he possessed the sheer literary brilliance of a Knox or Blassingame . . . However, what we can say definitively is that the some three-dozen weird menace stories that appeared under his byline have held up very well over the seventy-plus years since their original appearances. And if nothing else, I can’t think of anyone else with a better claim to the title of “Mr. Terror Tales”, (at least during 1935) . . .


John Pelan

Midnight House

Gallup, NM