Kicking the can around in email with noted book and pulp collector Kevin Cook, we hit a thread of wishing we’d been alive back when, getting new stories by favorite writers hot off the press. It began as Kevin was doing a big reread of Arthur Machen, about to go to The Terror next — and I mentioned that for Machen, it was only so-so.
For those who enjoy such chatter:
Kevin: Just to note the difference, I can still distinctly remember my first readings of stories like “Queen of the Black Coast” and “Beyond the Black River.” The Wow factor was very much in evidence. It’s the same stuff we were just writing about with the initial what-happens-next reading of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”
I will also note at this point that you were correct about The Terror, which hardly held the same sense of mystery upon rereading, when you already know what happens. It was also from Machen’s later period.
I feel a lot about him much as I do with Conan Doyle in that they both hit the high points in their careers in the 1890s. The same could, of course, also be said of Wells. What a great decade, though!
Even among forgotten authors, my favorite books by Frank Aubrey, Alfred Clark, Anthony Wall and Eugene Shade Bisbee all appeared in that decade.
Don: Yeah, The Terror — by no means peak Machen. If you love Machen, everything’s worth at least a slog thru (even Dreads & Drolls, tho it is brutal), but if you’re just hitting the high points. . . .
Can you imagine being a reader in the 1890s when all that ground-breaking stuff was popping? Or buying Weird Tales off the stands for the new HPL and CAS and REH stuff, or Black Mask for Hammett? Man.
Kevin: Think of the five-year period roughly 1924-1928 when Hammett was writing one red-hot story after another. Lovecraft published his two greatest stories, “The Colour out of Space” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Burroughs published his last major work, the Moon series consisting of “The Moon Maid,” “The Moon Men” and “The Red Hawk.” Merritt published his masterpiece The Ship of Ishtar. Harold Lamb published the Sir Hugh stories, and major figures like Robert E. Howard got their start.
All you had to do was basically read four pulps: Argosy All-Story Weekly, Weird Tales, Adventure and Black Mask.
And I wasn’t even considering stuff published originally in book form like The Purple Sapphire by John Taine.
In the next decade you would have Howard, Chandler and Woolrich at their pulp peak. Even earlier in the US you had the peak of the Munsey scientific romances from roughly 1916-1920 with Burroughs, George Allan England and Perley Poore Sheehan leading the way for the newcomers like Merritt, Francis Stevens, Charles B. Stilson, Homer Eon Flint and Austin Hall to get started.
Still, that 1890s in the UK, hard to beat: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Time Machine and The Three Imposters alone would be hard to surpass, not even to take into consideration the cultural significance of Holmes and the whole time travel motif.
Naturally, The Strand would be the leading magazine, but Pearson’s would not be far behind. Incredible beautiful illustrations for works like The Lost Continent by Cutcliffe Hyne, “The Spell of the Sword” by Frank Aubrey and The War of the Worlds would mark Pearson’s late in that decade.
The other cool thing was that those British authors knew each other — along with Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker. Their presentation copies of books inscribed to each other are very, very expensive collectors’ items today.
All those great eras: Sword-and-Sorcery was new, supernatural horror was new, the hard-boiled detective story was new, Sword-and-Planet was new.
Everything fresh and unspoiled compared to what we have today with Cthulhu Mythos pastiches, Conan pastiches, Holmes pastiches and — best of all — new Elak and Thongor pastiche stories.
Don: Back to me — Kevin mocks with black irony any new Thongor or Elak yarns being “best of all.” Don’t think he suddenly lost his mind. Only the most bottom-feeder fanboys get aroused by that sort of thing.