The Weird Tales of Wyatt Blassingame
It’s a shame, but when you check standard bibliographies for information about Wyatt Blassingame you will find references to dozens of books (mostly for younger readers) on subjects ranging from the ancient Incas and the Spanish invasion to armadillos, sharks, skunks and Josef Stalin! The more complete reference works may make mention of some fictional works for the same audience, such as Paul Bunyan Fights the Monster Plants, which is at least in the realm of fantastic literature; and you may even see a reference to “hundreds of short stories”. However, unless you’re using a much more specialized guide, it’s unlikely that you’ll see any discussion at all of one of the most outstanding bodies of work in the annals of mystery and weird fiction. Despite writing for the top pulp markets of the time and maintaining a continuing presence by successfully switching to the more prestigious “slicks” after WWII, only a slim paperback collecting some of the exploits of Detective John Smith exists to preserve any of his genre writings.
This is a situation that we here at Dancing Tuatara Press intend to correct. While a goodly amount of Wyatt Blassingame’s fiction falls outside our area, there is still a huge amount of top-drawer material that with the exception of the occasional pulp reprint hasn’t seen the light of day in over sixty years. We anticipate some five volumes of his best work from the weird menace years up through the evolution of these magazines to more traditional hardboiled mystery in the post-war years.
Born in Alabama in 1909, Wyatt Blassingame (like his contemporary John H. Knox) set off to seek his fortune and see the country via the expedient methods of hitchhiking and freight hopping. And like Knox, he found all roads led to New York and the publishing industry, where his brother Lurton was building a successful business as a literary agent. It was his brother who gave him the eminently practical advice to study the current offerings on the newsstand and write similar stories.
Whereas Wyatt Blassingame ultimately wrote (and sold) every type of genre story including horror, western, romance, detective, sports, and adventure (seemingly missing only the true confession genre), his strength was in the thriller or supernatural yarn and this was his bread and butter until the war years where his time with the Naval Air Service gave him material for several books.
Starting with “Horror in the Hold” in the December 1933 issue of Dime Mystery and continuing throughout the next two decades Wyatt Blassingame penned over one-hundred tales of weird detective stories and supernatural menace before making a sudden shift to work for juveniles, both fiction and non-fiction. As “Horror in the Hold” appeared in what is considered the third “weird menace” magazine to be published, Blassingame can certainly be considered among the genre’s founding fathers, preceding other top writers in the genre such as John H. Knox, Arthur Leo Zagat, and even the field’s acknowledged master, Arthur J. Burks.
In the 1930s, Popular Publications was well on the way to a position of dominance in the mystery and horror genres, covering every conceivable nuance of the field from traditional mystery to action-packed stories of Federal agents to the more lurid tales featured in Dime Mystery, Terror Tales and Horror Stories. Much of Popular Publications’ success was attributable to a strict focus on a particular type of story in each publication, the exception to the rule was the venerable Weird Tales, subtitled “The Unique Magazine”. Despite being the home to such authors as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales was always close to the chopping block and only marginally viable from a business standpoint.
Due to the stable of authors that went on to become household names (such as the three gentlemen mentioned previously) a sort of revisionist history became the norm in pulp collecting circles that implied that the stable of authors appearing in the “Big Three” of the weird menace genre were somehow inferior to the more literary sorts that occupied the pages of Weird Tales and that authors such as Burks, Knox, and Blassingame couldn’t quite make the grade . . . Of course, the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. The “Big Three” paid at least twice and frequently more than the rates offered by Weird Tales. Among the mainstays of the three magazines were Burks, a career military man who approached the writing business with the single-minded focus of an officer utilizing a sound strategy to conquer various markets; then there was John H. Knox, an erudite man of letters, well-known in literary circles for his poetry; and then there was Wyatt Blassingame, a consummate professional who achieved five decades of success based upon his skill at identifying the hot new markets and reliably delivering the goods. Of the three, only Burks appeared in Weird Tales and most of these appearances were early in his career when he was just learning his craft.
With the exception of one lone tale in Strange Stories in 1941 Wyatt Blassingame’s work was to be found only in the better-paying markets of Popular Publications. The same held true after the war when the pulps began to slowly fade away. He targeted the best markets and throughout his career remained an author who could choose his spots.
Further essays will examine the approach that Blassingame took to the weird tale, but suffice it to say that another characteristic he shares with John H. Knox was a willingness to break the main rule in the weird menace style guide and like Knox he was easily good enough to get away with it. What rule was this that only the elite could ignore it? Quite simply, it was the utilization of a tried and true formula that was still an effective plot device some thirty years when it was the cornerstone plot element of the popular cartoon show Scooby-Doo. There are variations on the theme, but the central point is that the monster, demon, vampire, or what-have-you is a man in a rubber suit, who for purposes generally tied to hidden wealth or an inheritance is trying to scare the locals away. Now known as the “Scooby-Doo Ending”, the denouement is generally a hurried summation of the sinister (and now foiled) plot delivered as a confession by the now captured evildoer. This was also the standard for the weird menace tales published in Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories.
What Wyatt Blassingame and John H. Knox did on a fairly regular basis was to ignore this mandate and turn in stories that were purely fantastic in nature. It could of course be argued that using a supernatural rationale to explain amazing events in their stories was no more implausible than some of the “rational” explanations utilized by some of their contemporaries. As both authors were (with Hugh B. Cave and Arthur J. Burks) the standard bearers for the three magazines they were allowed a much greater flexibility than many of their contemporaries. This translated into a great benefit for the readers as the regular contributors stuck to the formula making the challenge to reader “how was it done?” as well as “who done it?” In the cases of Blassingame and Knox the reader also had to puzzle out whether or not mysterious forces as well as the prosaic were at work.
I was tempted to eschew my usual format for these books and present Blassingame’s work in chronological order as no other writer was so synonymous with the evolution of the genre, starting at the very beginning of the weird menace genre and remaining as a leading contributor to Dime Mystery as the magazine made its shift to a less sensational type of fiction in the 1940s. When assembling a multi-volume set of a given author’s work, I try to vary the content in order to make each book a “sampler”, rather than a chronological presentation that almost always shows a tentativeness as the author struggles to find his/her voice early in their career, progressing to a mastery of their craft and often (sadly) diminishing quality as the author becomes bored with the material that brought about their success or they find themselves in a changing marketplace that they have failed to adapt to. There was no danger of this in assembling these collections of Wyatt Blassingame’s work. As can be seen in the title story and in “Village of the Dead” he started out at a very high level and stayed there. There have been few collections that have been as enjoyable to put together for the simple reason that there was never an occasion where I felt I had to “hide” an inferior story. There were certainly some stories that I liked better than others, but there simply weren’t any bad ones. It’s my hope that you find this and the subsequent books as enjoyable to read as I have.
Summer Solstice 2010