OUT OF THE LONG AGO: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 14

Back to my ongoing series of posts where I’ve been reading a single issue of Weird Tales from 1925. If you want to read along in order you can go back to the beginning and start here. This week we’ll press on with…

“Out of the Long Ago” was written by Seabury Quinn, an author I’ve heard quite a bit about in my studies of the history of pulp fiction. He was well known and quite extensively published over a span or some forty years, but faded into obscurity while contemporaries like H.P. Lovecraft (who, by the way, also appears in this issue), Robert E. Howard, and others continue to be read today. “Out of the Long Ago” was one of Seabury Quinn’s earliest published stories in a career that continued into the 60s. In fact, according to Hellnotes

Who was the most prolific contributor to Weird Tales magazine? Was it H.P. Lovecraft? No. Robert Howard? Nope. It was Seabury Quinn, who contributed 165 stories to “the unique magazine,” including the popular series featuring the French occult detective Dr. Jules de Grandin and his sidekick, Dr. Samuel Trowbridge.

The Robert E. Howard site On An Underwood No. 5  published a fun exchange of letters between Lovecraft and Howard regarding Seabury Quinn. First, from Lovecraft:

I met Quinn twice during my stay in N Y, & find him exceedingly intelligent & likeable. He is 44 years old, but looks rather less than that. Increasingly stocky, dark, & with a closely clipped moustache. He is first of all a shrewd business man, & freely affirms that he manufactures hokum to order for market demands—in contrast to the artist, who seeks sincere expression as the result of an obscure inward necessity.

…then Howard:

Their capacity for grisly details seems unlimited, when the cruelty is the torturing of some naked girl, such as Quinn’s stories abound in—no reflection intended on Quinn; he knows what they want and gives it to them. The torture of a naked writhing wretch, utterly helpless—and especially when of the feminine sex amid voluptuous surroundings—seems to excite keen pleasure in some people who have a distaste for wholesale butchery in the heat and fury of a battlefield.

Okay, then… But this story has none of the things Howard was railing about there, so clearly that side of Quinn’s writing developed along with the general salaciousness of the pulps themselves. As early as 1925, things hadn’t gotten quite so “spicy” yet, and the younger Quinn was apparently still finding his legs not just as an author but a manufacturer of hokum. And Lovecraft says that like it’s a bad thing… You could carve that on my tombstone and my spirit would rest easy.

Anyway, “Out of the Long Ago” is written in epistolary form, which means the story is told as a series of letters, journal entries, and/or other fictional documents that allow the characters to tell their own stories in their own voices at some remove from the action. It’s not an uncommon form, though pretty much out of fashion now. If you’ve read the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, you’ve read at least one epistolary novel. In this case we’re reading the diary of Prof. Simeon Warrener.

It’s also an old fashioned convention to leave off the exact year: Sept. 20, 19— prevents the story from being dated, maybe? So we’re meant to believe that this was last September? Or anywhere up to Sept. 20, 1999 anyway? Not sure, but it’s definitely not the first time I’ve seen this.

The first letter reveals some of the weakness of the epistolary form. We’re treated to what feels to me a dry recitation of who the other characters in the story will be, and their basic relationship to Prof. Warrener. But so far, nothing has actually happened, flying in the face of the typical pulp story that tends to open with a bang. It may well be fair to say that, somewhere around 1925, we’re seeing a transition point between a less straightforward fiction of manners and the still nascent realist streak that the hardboiled writers who were only starting to develop would bring not just to the pulps but what we can see as the ongoing pulp tradition epitomized by the likes of James Patterson and Lee Child.

The limits of the epistolary show up in the second entry where Prof. Warrener tells us what Alice tells him, which to my ear comes off as hearsay. As readers we’re being pushed back from the professor’s experience of that moment, and even more so from Alice’s, hearing about it after the fact in a second layer of past tense. Honestly, it makes me feel too much like I’m experiencing the writing and not the story.

In third person, past tense, Quinn could have gotten into Alice’s experience of the moment, in the moment, in her POV. Then later, at the party, fast forward with something as easy as: Alice told the professor all about the strange man who’d chased her in Cag na Gith. That way, we, the readers, are in the action, and feel what Alice feels in that moment of fear, which is always more interesting than hearing her tell someone else who may or may not (and in this case, mostly not) have any particularly interesting emotional reaction to it. Even if we go through that with Alice and she’s later dismissed by the professor, suspense is built because we know something Warrener doesn’t—that this was true and scary, and he needs to pay attention.

The monster as described by Alice is scary, indeed. I’ve never encountered the synonym bugwolf for werewolf, but it’s groovy. I promise to appropriate it if I ever write a werewo—I mean, bugwolf story myself!

Once Prof. Warrener gets to Cag na Gith, the writing really opens up and takes on the style of first person narrative that tends to mark the better epistolary stories. His description of the town is fantastic and sets a joyfully grim tone.

See how early the horror “trope” that says the locals know not to go to the scary place or do a particular thing, yet the protagonist gleefully ignores their advice and angers the local bugwolf or releases the demonic horde or otherwise lends credence to their “superstitions” made it’s way into the genre? M.M. Owen addressed this in his article “Our Age of Horror” as a sort of cultural conservatism:

In general terms, the best way to survive a horror setting is to be supremely, boringly sensible: don’t talk to strangers, don’t stay the night in a foreign town, don’t go to the aid of anyone who looks sick, don’t go into that crumbling old building. If a very attractive stranger tries to seduce you, it is almost definitely a trap. Respect tradition, do not commit sacrilege, listen to the advice of elderly locals. At the heart of a lot of horror is a conservative craving for the predictable and the known.

Don’t dig around the dolmen or the old quarry. What part of that do you not understand, you liberal academic elitist asshole, Prof. Warrener? Stir up th’ bogles an’ th’ bugwolves at yer peril!

But seriously, to me this is not a bug(wolf) in the horror genre but a feature. The horror story depends on someone not being socially or culturally conservative. Like many of the best horror stories, “Out of the Long Ago” depends on what I call the persistence of the logical—where at least one primary character is steadfastly unwilling to believe that anything supernatural is happening. And Prof. Warrener here is a prime example of the persistence of the logical in action. Without it, the story would have ended with Alice’s scary story at the party.

Now, because it’s a pulp magazine from 1925…

Casual racism alert:

The half-mythical story of some remote ancestor of Frank’s who married a Mohawk woman in the days when Boston Common was a cow pasture is a standing joke among his friends, and Alice declared she was addressing the charming little ballade to the drop of redskin blood in him.

Certainly she succeeded in making him a temporary aborigin, for he was red as a boiled lobster from collar to hair before she brought the song to a close.

Well, Seabury Quinn was from Washington D.C. Still, the fact that his Native American heritage gives Frank the necessary strength to protect poor Alice from the jaws of the vicious bugwolf redeems that…?

And our institutionalized sexism alert:

Thankfully, Alice showed up at the dig to cook for them after the superstitious old boarding house matron kicked them out. How could three grown men possibly be expected to arrange their own food for God’s sake? That kind of talk might stir up daemon-rabbits and bugweasels! And anyway, her being there gives her a chance to be charmed by her suitor’s wild, violent rage on her behalf, leading to the story’s final line:

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

You had me at repeatedly stabbing the bugwolf while screaming like a savage redskin.

That last bit aside, and despite a slow start and the inherent limitations of the epistolary form, I liked this story. I’d like to read more from Seabury Quinn, and there’s lots to read, though I understand that finding it all may be a bit of a challenge. Still, what we saw here was a prolific author at the beginning of a long career, showcasing some clever ideas, deft turn of phrase, and the manners and culture of his time, warts and all.

 

—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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