Horla Non-Fiction (February 2021)

 

HARRIS COVERLEY SPOTLIGHTS A PERHAPS LESSER KNOWN PRACTITIONER OF THE WEIRD

The Early Weird Fiction of Joseph Payne Brennan

JOSEPH Payne Brennan is, for those aficionados of early-to-mid twentieth century weird fiction, one of those names that repeatedly pops up, but whose work is otherwise hard to find. Most of Brennan’s works are seemingly within copyright, unlike so much of Lovecraft, Howard, Smith, and Brennan’s good pen pal Frank Belknap Long, which stops the open sharing of his stories and poems online (although there are some excellent readings by Edward E. French on YouTube which I would highly recommend, which French assures us are done with permission of Brennan’s estate).

Scholar

Brennan was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1918, but was raised in New Haven. After graduating high school he entered college, but was unable stay due to his father’s sudden death and subsequent need to support his family (he was reportedly bitter about never having achieved a degree, and blamed it for a lack of respect from the literati). He first worked in advertising and journalism, before acquiring a job at the Sterling Memorial Library of Yale University, where he would, with the exception of military service during World War Two, remain for the rest of his professional life, working in acquisitions. Serving on the European Front, he fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded four battle stars for his bravery.

Short Stories

While working at Yale, Brennan established his parallel career as a writer and editor. His primary mode was verse, and as such he published thousands of poems starting in 1940 until his death, and for which he won numerous awards, including in 1978 the International Clark Ashton Smith Poetry Award. As for fiction, he began writing Western short stories in the late forties before moving over to more supernatural work in the early fifties as that market dried up.

Unfortunately, the switch came as the market for fantastic (as opposed to science fictional) fiction was itself depleting, which encouraged Brennan to begin his own little magazine, Macabre, one of the few horror fiction outlets of the era. He had already been publishing his poetry journal Essence since 1950, so it was not too much a new territory. Macabre ended up running irregularly from 1957 to 1977.

Brennan should also be noted as something of an early post-war scholar of weird literature, producing H. P. Lovecraft: A Bibliography in 1952 for Biblio Press (expanded from an earlier, selective bibliography), the second such work of its kind (the first was in 1943). He later wrote a general evaluation on Lovecraft’s work, as well as other pieces on macabre literature, such as an article on the work of the decadent (and some would say proto-Ligottian) poet David Park Barnitz.

Brennan retired from Yale in 1985, and died in 1990, but not before being recognised by the 1982 World Fantasy Convention and given a special convention award for lifetime achievement (this appears to be separate from the actual World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, which for that year was given to Italo Calvino).

Nine Horrors and a Dream was originally published in 1958 by the immortal Arkham House in an edition of 1,336 copies, with cover art by Frank Utpatel. It was later reprinted by Ballantine in 1962, which helped it attain its status, then only given a third and most recent printing in trade paperback by Dover in 2019 (with an ebook edition the same year).

This was Brennan’s first book of prose (the preceding volumes Heart of Earth and The Humming Stair being small collections of verse), and is generally considered his finest work, or at least the one with the enduring level of popularity. It was included as an entry in Stephen Jones’s and Kim Newman’s 1988 compendium Horror: 100 Best Books, sandwiched between Ray Bradbury’s The October Country and Robert Bloch’s Psycho.

Mixture

Is it still worthy of such a placing? The back of this new edition has Stephen King proclaim Brennan “a master of the unashamed horror tale”, but at the same time the speculative fiction critic Don D’Ammassa elsewhere suggests that Brennan’s “stories were noteworthy for their effective development of suspense and terror without the excesses of violence which characterise modern horror fiction[.]” In my reading, the content is a mixture of different moods: some tales are pretty gruesome, others are fairly quiet in their eeriness.

Originally published from 1952 to 1958, the stories collected in Nine Horrors and a Dream (subsequent Dover Publications edition, New York, left) are essentially the complete early weird fiction of Brennan, with only a handful of absences (those pieces originally and only published in issues of Macabre, and therefore virtually inaccessible, unless one has private collections of that journal or physical access to Brennan’s papers collected at Brown University Library).

They represent an author, although adept at verse, was, in spite of previous successes in other genres, still finding his way forward with weird prose, before creating more endearing works such as the adventures of the occult detective Lucius Leffing, and more mature and well-tailored stories such as “The Pavilion”, “Diary of a Werewolf”, and “The Horror at Chilton Castle” (which are present in the 1980 collection The Shapes of Midnight). But it is also the case that Brennan’s stories are fundamentally conservative, in that there is little-to-nothing that is revolutionary or progressive in their content or their method. As can be assumed by his Lovecraft bibliographies, Brennan was devoted to his master’s work, but his own often resembles a lesser E.F. Benson or Robert Bloch than anything in Lovecraft’s corpus.

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His prosaic delivery is often strangely flat for an acclaimed poet, although there are occasional flourishes that leave a warm print on the cerebrum. His plots are often mostly predictable by the middle of the tale, leaving the reader to coast along until the end. A decent surmising of Brennan’s appeal comes from his entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy: “[His] stories are often derivative but are always strong on setting and atmosphere and hence are much beloved by traditionalists[.]”

This is not to say that Nine Horrors and a Dream is bad book by any means, but that it is best left to the collector, the true weird fiction fanatic, rather than a novice or casualist—although the tales I believe would be perfectly suitable also for getting, say, a ten year old interested in written horror, given their relatively simple style.

The first and longest story in the collection, “Slime”, originally the cover story for the March 1953 issue of Weird Tales, is probably the most famous story you’ve never heard of, because it was totally and utterly ripped off for The Blob (1957)—the core plot is almost exactly the same, and the monster acts almost exactly the same way. The main differences are that Brennan’s “slime” comes from the ocean depths rather than from a meteor, and that it is defeated in the end by fire rather than by freezing. Other than that: the small rural town, the scared teens, the incredulous police, the absorbed tramp—it’s literally all here. The story itself is entertaining still—it’s delivered at a removed level, third person, going from character to character, without a real protagonist, unless you count the slime creature itself. It can be a little dry and journalistic, but it remains enjoyable, and its place in speculative fiction history keeps it a classic in its own right.

Next comes “Levitation”, which like half of the others in this collection is original to it, and is notable for being adapted for an episode of Tales from the Darkside. A tale of hypnotism at a carnival gone tragically wrong, it is an effective chiller and can still be found here and there in numerous anthologies. “The Calamander Chest” is more derivative, but is still a decent story—I would hold however that Lisa Tuttle in her story “The Memory of the Wood” handled the trope of the haunted chest much more effectively (see A Nest of Nightmares, Valancourt Books, 2020; or see my review in The Supplement, Issue 95, September 2020, Atlantean Publishing).

“Death in Peru” and “On the Elevator” are more disappointing, being of the humdrum and predictable nature that Brennan is otherwise noted for. The former involves a case of voodoo in the Andes (no, it doesn’t make any sense to me either), while the latter concerns a water-logged zombie deciding to murder a random guest at a hotel (bad luck I suppose).

Supernatural

Next comes “The Green Parrot”, Brennan’s very first published supernatural story in the July 1952 issue of Weird Tales—and which very well could have been his last. It is a very thin ghost story, but it is at least well-crafted.

After those three we get to “Canavan’s Back Yard”, by far the best in the collection, maybe even the finest of Brennan’s stories that I’ve read so far. An ill-kept back yard somewhere in New England is the site of a witch’s curse which brings a terrible end to the eponymous homeowner. An atmosphere rich piece that moves nicely as it builds suspense, the invocation of witchcraft rather than some ghost or arboreal monster makes for a fresh fear. This one proved popular enough that Brennan wrote a sequel, “Canavan Calling” (published in Charles L. Grant (ed.), Night Visions 2, 1985).

The remaining three stories are very minor: “I’m Murdering Mr. Massington” is a tale a bizarre pact between a writer and a neurotic; “The Hunt” concerns a strange figure chasing after yet another neurotic for a nasty end; and “The Mail for Juniper Hill” is the story of a drunken postman who even a fatal snowstorm can’t stop delivering his mail (most notable for introducing Brennan’s recurring locale mentioned in the title).

Disappointing

All in all the collection is fairly disappointing for such a supposed “classic”. I also can’t figure out which stories are the “horrors” and which one is the “dream” (“Levitation” perhaps seems the most oneiric, so maybe that one, but I can’t be sure). I am glad though that Dover put it back into print and am glad that I read it, for Brennan’s work is best compared to that of his contemporaries Long, Bloch, and Manly Wade Wellman, whose work I admire and who all came as the pulp successors to the great weird triad of Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith. Still, I would say, aside from some truly good stories within, it is mainly for the completists.

References

“Bibliographies”. The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. Sourced at: https://www.hplovecraft.com/study/biblio.aspx

“Biographical note”. Guide to the Joseph Payne Brennan papers, 1936-1990 (bulk 1940-1988), Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online. Sourced at: https://www.riamco.org/render?eadid=US-RPB-ms2009.011&view=biography

“Brennan, Joseph Payne”. Encyclopedia of Fantasy. (1997). Sourced at: http://sf-encyclopedia.uk/fe.php?nm=brennan_joseph_payne

“Summary Bibliography: Joseph Payne Brennan”. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Sourced at: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?2164

Brennan, Joseph Payne. Nine Horrors and a Dream. (2019). Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York.

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Along with previously in Horla, Harris Coverley (left)  has short fiction published or forthcoming in CuriositiesHypnosThe Periodical, Forlorn, and Frost Zone Zine. He is also a member of the Weird Poets Society, with verse most recently accepted for Polu TexniSpectral RealmsScifaikuest, Horror Sleaze Trash, and View From Atlantis, amongst others. He lives in Manchester, England.