J. C. Henneberger founded the American pulp magazine to cover the field of "Poe-Machen Shudders" in 1923. It followed the success of titles by Rural Publications, which appeared in a variety of genres, notably College Humour and Magazine of Fun. Weird Tales was in publication until 1954 and was most successful during the 1930s under the editorship of Farnsworth Wright. During this period it published fiction by influential fantasy and horror writers, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton, Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, and August Derleth.
Henneberger identified that there were quality writers who were unable to place their stories in the mixed-genre magazines of the early 1920s and presumed that there was an audience for stories that were weird and macabre. He established the character of the magazine through a policy of reprinting "weird" classics, such as Bulwer Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters," Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and a later series of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Weird Tales did not immediately attract a regular readership. In its first year Henneberger employed Harry Houdini as a writer, which resulted in the column "Ask Houdini" and the publication of stories (ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft) about supposed occurrences in Houdini's life. These adventures further established a fascination with Egypt, magic, and the supernatural. The oriental tales by Frank Owen and Seabury Quinn's long-running psychic detective series "Jules de Grandin" even furthered the magazine's popularity. Although it is notable that right from the first issue some of the bizarre events of the horror stories were explained in a rational scientific manner, the magazine achieved notoriety early on in its publishing history as it was allegedly banned from bookstalls in 1924 because it carried C. M. Eddy's "The Loved Dead" with its overtones of necrophilia.
After Farnsworth Wright and the Popular Fiction Publishing Co. took over from Henneberger in 1924, the magazine offered stories in the range of weird scientific, horror, sword and sorcery, exotic adventure, and fantasy, and it maintained an audience even during the Great Depression. The magazine was especially congenial for new writers. Robert E. Howard published his first story in Weird Tales in 1925 and went on to publish the "Conan the Barbarian" series between 1932 and 1936. H. P. Lovecraft first appeared in the readers' letters column, "The Eyrie," commenting on stories from previous issues. He published most of his major works, especially those developing the Cthulhu Mythos, in Weird Tales. Other writers who were particularly influenced by Lovecraft also wrote for the magazine. These included Robert Bloch, who would go on to write Psycho in 1959; Henry Kuttner, who with his wife C. L. Moore would become prominent fantasy writers in the 1940s; and August Derleth, who, as well as being a writer, became an influential anthologist and founded the publishing company Arkham House.
Some of the fiction published in Weird Tales was known for its relatively sophisticated sexual themes. C. L. Moore's first short story, "Shambleau," is a good example. She also published a fantasy series with the heroine "Jirel of Joiry" with the magazine. Along with Clark Ashton Smith, Moore contributed to the magazine's fascination with a medieval setting and sword and sorcery theme, as well as its acceptance of interplanetary locations.
The magazine's horror fiction tended to portray science as being out of control and subject to various representations of the mad scientist. It provided a niche for developing science fiction writers such as Edmond Hamilton, who was influential in the development of "space opera." His series "Interstellar Patrol" was published in Weird Tales from 1928 to 1930.
In the late 1930s the magazine changed its overall style with the deaths of Howard (1936) and Lovecraft (1937), the retirement of Ashton Smith in 1936, and Farnsworth's relinquishment of the editorship in 1939 (he had been struggling with Parkinson's disease since 1921). The editorship was then taken over by Dorothy McIlwriath, an established magazine editor who stayed with Weird Tales until the publishing company went bankrupt in September 1954. Her editorial policy focused on supernatural fiction, especially occult detection such as Manly Wade Wellman's "Judge Pursuivant" series published between 1938 and 1941. She also featured the work of Ray Bradury and Fritz Leiber, but during this time Weird Tales was competing with a larger number of available outlets for fantasy writing. However, the pulp magazine's 31 years in publication and 279 issues were very significant in supporting the careers of many initially underrated popular fiction writers.
Ashley, M., editor. A History of the Science Fiction Magazine. London, NEL, 1974.
Joshi, S. T. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. Rhode Island, Necronomicon Press, 1996.
Weinberg, R. E., editor. The Weird Tales Story. West Linn, Oregon, Starmont House, 1977.