Historian of Horror : Why Adam Breckenridge is My New Hero

Why Adam Breckenridge is My New Hero

I presume that the populace is following with rapt attention the unfolding celebration here on HorrorAddicts.net of the advent of Adam Breckenridge’s new release, Deathly Fog. It looks really interesting, and I look forward to reading it as soon as Amazon deigns to complete my order for it. And of course, I wish Adam the very best of luck. I know that writing a coherent story is a major undertaking, having done that myself a fair number of times, and sincerely wish for him that he makes a lot more money from his efforts than I have from mine. Plus, there are less tangible benefits such as accolades, adulation, and the simple pride of accomplishment. But money is nice, as well. Samuel Johnson, after all, did once say that any writer who claimed to write for any reason other than money was either a liar or a fool. And the Good Doctor was rarely wrong, although his purported opinion of Shakespeare leaves something to be desired. 

I’m sure my devoted reader(s) are wondering why all that makes Adam my new hero, and that’s a fair question. I’ve witnessed a lot of debuts and acclaimed releases in my nearly sixty years of literacy, and while I would never want to minimize his achievement, I could see why folks might think my reaction was just a tad over the top. Even with his attained goal of having completed a short story a day for an entire year, which is pretty damned impressive, hero worship seems so much more than would reasonably be called for.

It’s because something that Adam said in the post of August 15th regarding the inspiration for his tale brought me around to the notion of composing this and at least one subsequent column. I have never written 366 stories in a year, and it’s extremely unlikely that I ever will. I maybe write a short story or two a year, along with the odd poem, and my career as a novelist appears to have stalled at two volumes. Frankly, this column I concoct for the edification and entertainment of the populace is the bulk of the writing I’m doing at the moment. It brings me great pleasure to do so, but like all my creative endeavors, I find that inspiration does not always spring full-grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. There are many times when I struggle to settle on a subject.

Those who have been kind enough to follow my progress in this space might have noticed that I look for a connection to my current topic from my own life experiences and cultural frame of reference. I’m always seeking out ways to humanize the inhumane by providing a context based on the things I’ve seen and done and the places I’ve been and the people I’ve encountered along the way. And there have been a lot of all those.

The reality is that there are so many stories to tell, it’s often difficult to settle on a single one every couple of weeks. As I type this, I am sitting in what was once one of my now-grown children’s bedrooms, filled floor to ceiling on all four walls and in back-to-back free-standing bookcases centered in the space behind my desk with books and magazines and toys and recordings and objets d’art and various and sundry other odds and ends, all of which have their own yarn to relate. And that’s just in my office. Throughout the fairly sizeable house my wife and I still occupy are numerous other artifacts from all over the planet, the detritus of a whole family tree of world travelers and doodad acquisitors. Every piece in that accumulation of relics has a story to tell here. 

And then there’s the better than six terabytes of stuff I have stored on two sizeable external hard drives. Two because those things don’t last forever, and backing up that much data every so often is de rigeur if one wants one’s career as your Historian of Horror to endure. You can thank me later for that foresight.

So, which one now? Which explication of the terrifying shall a personal anecdote or randomly noticed factoid or bit of cultural flotsam inspire for this particular exercise in the elucidation of the eerily ephemeral? Thanks to Adam, I have one ready, as of a few minutes after I read his post.

The fourth paragraph of which included a reference to ‘the old adage that ninety percent of everything is crap’, which has been known in science fiction fandom for sixty-five years now as Sturgeon’s Law. It even has its own Wiki page. I looked. It’s right here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law

You see, I knew Theodore Sturgeon, a little. Not well; I doubt he would have remembered me for more than a few seconds at a time except as one of the myriad fen (there’s that word again!) who orbited around him at the several science fiction conventions we both attended in the 1970s. But he was always kind and gracious to me, as he was to all the fenfolk. He came to the cons, he hung out with us, he read his stories to us, he laughed and drank and dined with us, he signed anything we shoved under his nose to receive an autograph upon. And he let us call him Ted. 

Well, I called him Mr. Sturgeon, because I was young and awed by being in the presence of one of the best writers of the 20th Century, regardless of genre. And he would smile and nod and seem genuinely pleased to have me ask him to sign my copy of the September 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction that contained his first published story, “Ether Breather”.

If only I still had it. Alas, it vanished in the Great Sell-Off of 1989, when I was obliged by financial constraints to pay my mortgage and feed my children on the proceeds from the liquidation of huge chunks of my various collections.

Oh, well. God knows where I’d put it all, if I still had it.

Anyhow, thanks to Adam, what I do have is a tale to tell you. One regarding things you didn’t even know you needed or wanted to know about.

How delicious is that?

But wait, you say. Sturgeon was a science fiction writer, not a horror writer. Well, y’know, Oscar Wilde was mainly the playwright of comedies of manners like The Importance of Being Ernest or Lady Windermere’s Fan, despite scribing The Picture of Dorian Gray. Robert Louis Stephenson wrote mostly adventure tales for boys like Treasure Island, and yet he managed to churn out the delicious horrors of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And Henry James was a mainstream author who wrote one of the greatest ghost stories ever, The Turn of the Screw. Even Charles Dickens took time out from his massive doorstop expositions on social conditions in Victorian England to bestow upon us all the many spooks and spirits found within A Christmas Carol. So, it’s okay if Ted Sturgeon wrote a few scary pieces along with the futuristic stuff. He’s allowed.

In my brief segment of one of the recent podcast episodes, I mentioned that, of all the pulp magazines that proliferated in the first half of the 20th Century, the most important for our genre was Weird Tales. The second most important in terms of historical impact was undoubtedly Unknown, published by Street & Smith as a companion to their science fiction magazine, Astounding. Both were edited by John W. Campbell, who demanded a higher standard of quality and serious thought from his writers than was required by most pulp publications, including Weird Tales, which relied more on shock and gruesome sensationalism than Campbell wanted for his periodical. Street & Smith had deeper pockets than most other publishers, as well, so Campbell’s authors, a cadre which included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. Van Vogt, and even L. Ron Hubbard, were better paid and more prestigiously regarded than those who found exposure in lesser venues. Had Unknown, which was retitled Unknown Worlds near the end of its all-too-brief run, survived the wartime paper rationing that restricted the output of even the largest pulp publisher of its day, it might have wound up being the premier source of horrific literature for the subsequent decades that Astounding, now called Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, has been for its genre, rather than Weird Tales.

Oh, well.

As I mentioned above, Sturgeon’s first story to appear in a pulp magazine was in Astounding in September of 1939. His next several were in Unknown. The first three were light fantasies. The fourth, though. Oh, boy. The fourth created an entire subgenre of swamp things and man-things and heaps and blobs and globs and all manner of frightening critters that emerged from bayous and marshes and peat bogs all over the world to terrorize mostly comic book audiences throughout the next several decades. And it has one of the best last lines in all of horror literature.

“It” was published in the August, 1940 issue of Unknown, and has been reprinted dozens of times since, in many languages. It is one of those elemental tales that was at the time so sui generis, and yet has been so inspirational that it is often overlooked as the original of the many horrors that followed its appearance. The early, one might almost say seminal scholar of speculative fiction, E.F. Bleiler, said of it in his 1983 book The Guide to Supernatural Fiction that it was ‘told with gusto… Obvious reminiscences of the Frankenstein monster and anticipations of the hordes of comic book Things that wander about destroying people.’. I think that was a tad dismissive for a work that has had so enormous an impact on subsequent developments in our favorite genre.  

All about which I shall expound at length in the next installment. So, join us in a fortnight for “Whatever Happened to Baron von Emmelmann?” Same bat-time, same bat-channel. And, as always, my fellow denizens of the darkness…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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