FIRST & LAST: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 1

In his famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, author Lester Dent offers a lot of advice—some slightly oddball and some with real lasting value. This week, let’s look at the opposite ends of his “formula” in terms of how to start a story and how to end it.

Dent says: “First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.”

And ends with: “The snapper, the punch line to end it.”

So how did actual pulp authors of (more or less) his era stack up to that advice? Rather than cherry-pick examples of the best or worst, I thought it would be interesting to find a random pulp magazine and look at just the first and lines from every story. So without further ado, I give you just the first sentences of every story in the January, 1925 issue (Volume 5, Number 1) of Weird Tales, edited by Farnsworth Wright.

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by J. Schlossel

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets.

The Electric Chair by George Waight

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time.

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey Coombe, Bart., snorted contentedly as his round bald head and his plum white shoulders emerged above the waters of his morning tub; without troubling to open his eyes, he reached over the edge of his porcelain container and groped blindly along the length of the heated towel rail.

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Strange tales are told of the rajah of Laera-Kai, of the justice he dealt, of the rewards he gave; but the strangest of all these many tales is that of the gift he gave to Zaid, the Persian who had served him long and well.

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

When the Planter’s Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, burned to the ground in the notable fire of 1922, the loss of that section of the South could not be measured in terms of that ancient hostelry’s former grandeur.

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

Hour after hour John Martin staggered up the steep trail, singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

Yong Lo was a reptile with an artist’s soul.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

The moon’s stealthy searchlight extended long, ghostly fingers into the darkened bedroom on the second floor of a fine old house that huddled between encroaching warehouses on a street that had known better days.

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

Two letters in the afternoon mail; both requiring answers.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

My twenty-first birthday.

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I heard Boucke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

Some men are like the throb of a kettledrum.

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

Christophe, who called himself Henri I, Emperor of Northern Haiti, was the greatest monster in all history.

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Flora, hesitant, whispered: “It is—impossible.”

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The ruins of historic old Wrightstone Castle still rear their crumbling towers above the dreary Hampton Bog, near Manchester, a fast decaying but fitting memorial to the foul deeds and fiendish proceedings that have taken place within its bleak walls.

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

(Actually the opening line of Chapter 13 in the second part of a two-part serial:)

When Benton realized that Virginia and Holton had disappeared, he thought quickly of the best course to pursue.

(Attention novelists: The first sentence of each chapter is just as important as the first sentence in a short story!)

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

“Cielo, what an enormous crystal globe, Filippo!” exclaimed Dottore Giuseppe del Giovine, regarding the great inverted glass bell that hung over the professor’s dining table.

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe.

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

The only man who knew the story was Carson, and he never told it.

 

And now, the last sentences:

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by J. Schlossel

The survivors of the Twelve Confederate Worlds made their way to the Earth, the least injured of the planets, and there they began anew, in a strange environment, to build the civilization that had been wrecked by the invaders from beyond the Milky Way.

The Electric Chair by George Waight

When they reached him, he was quite dead.

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey, a little shaken, stared at the letter. He continued to stare until his wife reminded him that the eggs were getting cold. . . .

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Yet once, at least, though he did not know it, the rajah had made a futile move: the shot of Al Tarik had missed; and there was no wound on the Persian’s body.

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

The fingers had sunk deeply into the bluish, discolored flesh, and the coroner’s jury noted unusual circumstance when they sent out a description of the murderer confined to this peculiarity, that these marks indicated that the murderer (who was never discovered) possessed very long thin fingers, the index fingers being almost or quite as long as the middle fingers.

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

White man’s madness—ever it leads to sorrow and to death.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

His dismembered, clenched fist remained aloft in the locked handcuff, next to his other arm by which he swung, bleeding to death from the handless right arm dangling over Yong Lo’s strangled body.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

But a fear had lodged in my emotional system that had not, until that withered native had said “cah”, been wholly absent from me.

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

“I shall make her consent to marry you,” he said, pointing to the laboratory table, “by means of the wishing machine!”

[TO BE CONTINUED]

(Goes back to that advice, again, that a chapter can (should?) also end on a kind of cliffhanger or a version of Lester Dent’s “punch line.”)

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

And Alice Frasanet, fox-trotting, bridge-playing, tea-drinking Alice Frasanet, laid her fluffy, empty little head against his breast.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

Oh, my God, I amthe dead man!

(Okay, I have to say right away—that one is my favorite!)

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I looked away towards the black topsail masthead.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

On the bottom lay a lump of putty!

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

He died a few years ago, in Cap Haitien, insisting, even on his deathbed, that his story was true.

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Heedless of Sundry’s astonished stare and wild questionings, the newPhilip Kingswell caught a passing car, bound for the West End—bound for Flora.

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The present Count Wrightstone, Sir Mandeville Wright, is now residing at London.

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

“Good-bye to the land of Teeheemen,” echoed her companion.

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

I, who believed I would never experience the emotion of regret, shall suffer remorse for that weakness until I die!

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

And there in the heart of the jungle, with only the moon looking on, the girl found her place in the out-stretched arms of the man and the evening breeze softly kissed the reunited pair.

(Do I even say this? The character recognition software read “arms” as “anus.” Might have changed the whole ending there. Proofreading, people. Proofreading.)

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

For Carson was as hard-headed a man as you could find in the country, and his pride was that he wasn’t superstitious.

 

Kinda weird without any other context, but we’ll start to try to make sense of this starting next week. And hey—how about this idea:

Because the kind folks over at archive.org were kind enough to scan this and make it available to anyone who wants to read it—what if we all read this whole issue of Weird Tales together, coming back to it from time to time as a way to touch base with what coaches would call “the fundamentals”—the basic skill set required of the genre author?

That could be fun!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to FIRST & LAST: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 1

  1. “Yong Lo was a reptile with an artist’s soul.”

    Me: What? I have to find this.

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