You may think that Chicago has provided mainly nonfiction background for horror stories, with assorted fires and massacres and murderers and housing projects. But once upon a time, horror fiction had its headquarters here. Then it moved to, of all places, Sauk City, Wisconsin.
See, the legendary magazine of horror and fantasy, Weird Tales, was published here. In its pulpy pages lurked the otherworldly mayhem of Clark Ashton Smith, the monsters who menaced Conan (eternally “the Barbarian”) in Robert E. Howard’s two-fisted tales, and, of course, Cthulhu and companions, in stories by H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft was offered the editorship of the magazine, if he’d just relocate to Chicago. H.P. Lovecraft, the ultimate reclusive wizard of New England, in Chicago? The blood runs cold.
The problem with pulp magazines was that they were extremely disposable: that was the point. Printed on the cheapest (pulp) paper, they would disintegrate like night monster in the sun. And why not? Lurid covers, vulgar ads, and stories by nobodies like August Derleth, Ray Bradbury, Tennessee Williams, Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber…who’d want to save such stuff?
August Derleth wanted to save it; in fact, he even believed some of these stories deserved to appear in books, real books with cloth covers and dust jackets. When H.P. Lovecraft died in 1937, he felt the time had come for action. But no publisher could be found who would bother with an author who appealed to a devoted but small group of readers. (It’s Roger Price’s indictment of American mass marketing: if Everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it.) So he started his own company.
He noted, later in life, that at no time in its history did Arkham House ever make back its expenses. Publishing the works and letters of Lovecraft to begin with, it expanded to other members of the Lovecraft circle and then dedicated itself to what some call horror and others call dark fantasy. The books were well-made, with good, solid construction and dustjackets by artists in the same field as the authors, printed in editions of 1500 to 2000 copies. Only the books by H.P.Lovecraft were reprinted, for all other Arkham House books, the first edition was the only edition. They generally cost two dollars each, and even in those small editions sometimes took years to sell out.
Arkham House is still in business, thirty years after Derleth’s death (I have one of its rejection slips in my vast collection.) But the Derleth Years, roughly 1939 to 1971, are legendary in the world of horror fiction. Now that the publisher hasn’t any leftover copies, those books from the 1940s are worth hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. (One of the things you’ll find on the Arkham House website is a list of books they ask you to please not order: they printed ‘em, but there aren’t any in stock.)
Of course I mention this because somebody’s collection of Arkham House books has come in: not a vast amount, but probably more than we’ve seen in the last decade or so. (They were only in Wisconsin, for crying out loud: what were your grandparents buying in the 40s? War bonds?) We have one book by Donald Wandrei, co-founder of Arkham House (and a man who went with H.P.Lovecraft to Providence, Rhode Island to taste every flavor of ice cream offered in a shop there), Clark Ashton Smith (sculptor and odd jobs man whose stories are set in dark, distant lands), A.E. Coppard (English writer whose “Adam and Eve and Pinch Me” is his most famous story), and Ray Bradbury (local lad whose first book this was, and who has gone on to become part of the ABC of Science Fiction). We also have In Re: Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories that was the first book for Derleth’s OTHER publishing company, Mycrift & Moran, which was less profitable even than Arkham House. (But he published anyhow; there were giants in those days.)
Of course the horror of all this is you can’t buy any of these until next July. Save up your pennies. (And anybody out there who would LIKE to send us more Arkham House books or issues of Weird Tales is perfectly welcome so to do. They’ll be among friends.)