In Danse Macabre, his 1981 mediation on the horror and fantasy genres, prolific author Stephen King offered the closest thing to an origin story he had. When he was roughly the age of 12, King had happened upon some old short story collections in his uncle’s attic. Among them was an anthology of stories culled from one source in particular: Weird Tales, a magazine devoted to prose of the most bizarre and fantastical variety. He scooped them up and began reading.
His aunt, King recalled, was the likely suspect in their subsequent disappearance. “Not that it mattered in the long run,” he wrote. “I was on my way.”
Weird Tales, which debuted in 1923, did more than inspire King. It featured the work of Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch (Psycho), and dozens of other writers who laid the foundation for much of the 20th century’s escapist entertainment.
On the occasion of the publication’s 100th anniversary, check out some of the lesser-known facts behind its history, its connection with Harry Houdini, and why Tim Burton was once on board for a Weird Tales-inspired HBO project.
1. Weird Tales was expensive for its time.
While fantasy fiction has persisted for centuries, the 1920s to 1940s were when “the pulps” grew in popularity. The magazines—which were named for the cheap wood pulp paper used in their printing—often focused on a genre like detective fiction.
Chicago journalist J.C. Henneberger began publishing Weird Tales in 1923; the magazine emphasized horror and fantasy stories. Henneberger was inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and believed that a hub for startling and sensational fantasy would find a home among readers. “I must confess that the main motive in establishing Weird Tales was to give the writer free rein to express his innermost feelings in a manner befitting great literature,” he wrote.
Henneberger ran Weird Tales with partner J.M. Lansinger and editor Edwin Baird. The magazine debuted with the tagline “the unique magazine” and a feature story, Anthony M. Rud’s “Ooze,” about a massive amoeba. At 25 cents per issue (around $4 today), it was far above the typical 10 cent pulp price.
2. Weird Tales almost had H.P. Lovecraft as editor.
Weird Tales struggled early on. In addition to being a novel genre for the era, it was expensive to produce. Henneberger first tried enlarging the size of the publication. Then he tried a change in leadership, moving editor Edwin Baird over to another publication, Real Detective Tales. Henneberger next invited frequent contributor H.P. Lovecraft to take over editorial duties. (The writer would go on to become a huge influence in fantasy and horror, though his racist views have long since damaged his reputation.)
Lovecraft, however, could not be persuaded. He knew the magazine was in debt, which weakened his long-term employment options. He was also reluctant to move from New York to the publication’s home base of Chicago. Not even 10 weeks of salary paid upfront could change Lovecraft’s mind. Henneberger instead went with Farnsworth Wright, who remained at the editor’s desk until 1940; he died of Parkinson’s disease that same year.
3. Harry Houdini was a “contributor.”
Famed magician Harry Houdini was of particular interest to Henneberger, who believed Houdini’s fame could help draw attention to his magazine: Houdini’s image appeared on a few covers and a column, “Ask Houdini,” was also featured. In 1924, Henneberger arranged for H.P. Lovecraft to ghostwrite a story that would be credited to Houdini. The escape artist provided a premise—a daring escape from the Great Sphinx of Giza—that Lovecraft fleshed out. The resulting story, “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” was well-received. Houdini, however, wouldn’t be a regular contributor: He died in 1926.
4. Conan the Barbarian debuted in Weird Tales.
In addition to Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard was one of the marquee names featured in Weird Tales. Howard’s first Conan the Barbarian story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was published in the magazine’s December 1932 issue. The tale was actually a rewrite of an earlier story that featured Howard’s other sword-wielding adventurer, Kull the Conqueror. (Howard had previously published a story in the rival pulp magazine Strange Tales about a hero named Conan who was devoted to a god named Crom, though the character otherwise had little in common with the Conan to come.)
5. A teenaged Tennessee Williams had his first story published in Weird Tales.
Playwright Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie) is not a name one might normally associate with gothic or fantasy fiction, but that memo was lost on Williams. The writer had his first published work in the pages of Weird Tales in 1926 when he was just 16 years old. In “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” a pharaoh’s sister exacts revenge on her murdered brother’s enemies. Weird Tales paid Williams $35 for the story—which amounts to more than $600 today.
6. Weird Tales had a pioneering cover artist.
Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a pulp by how racy and lurid it appears on newsstands. Weird Tales relied heavily on sensational illustrations to entice readers, and few did as good a job as Margaret Brundage. The artist (1900-1976) did a total of 66 covers for the magazine and many more for other titles, earning her the honorific “Queen of the Pulps.” Because employing a woman cover artist was uncommon for pulps of the era, Brundage is widely seen as a pioneering force for pin-up and fantasy artists that came later, including Frank Frazetta. (Not that many readers knew she was a woman at the time: She often signed her art as “M. Brundage.”)
7. Weird Tales was almost an HBO anthology show.
In the 1990s, HBO scored a hit with Tales From the Crypt, a campy take on the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s. The network believed it could do the same with Weird Tales, an anthology based on the fantastic fiction seen in the magazine. Directors Oliver Stone, Tim Burton, and Francis Ford Coppola were among those planning to helm one episode each for a 90-minute pilot in 1995. Unfortunately, the series failed to materialize.
8. Weird Tales is still being published.
J.C. Henneberger published Weird Tales from 1923 to 1938 before selling it to Short Stories Inc., which kept it in print through 1954. Since then, Weird Tales has undergone periodic revivals. Fan and publisher Leo Margulies printed four issues in 1973; Bob Weinberg and Victor Dricks took it over and licensed out the name for issues that were published in 1979, 1981, and 1988. The magazine had semi-regular publication in the 1990s before it was sold again in 2005 to Wildside Press; John Harlacher purchased it in 2011. A May 2023 issue is currently being sold on the magazine’s website. It’s little wonder that although Weird Tales began with the moniker “the unique magazine,” it’s since become known as “the thing that wouldn’t die.”