This November, the Chicago drama troupe Wildclaw Theatre — which received rave reviews last year for its staging of the horror classic “The Great God Pan” — will premiere a brand new adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Our very own Lovecraft columnist Kenneth Hite will be on hand representing Weird Tales at the show’s opening night on Sunday, Nov. 16. It’s an auspicious occasion: the 75th anniversary of the story’s original 1933 publication in Weird Tales, the 85th anniversary year of the magazine itself, and a triumphant return to the Chicago arts & letters scene for Weird Tales, which was based in the Windy City all throughout its heyday of the 1920s and ’30s.
For fifteen years, the Chicago office of Weird Tales was the cutting edge of far-out strangeness in the American consciousness, as it produced such classic icons of the genre-to-be as Robert E. Howard’s bloody barbarian-king Conan and H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled cosmic monstrosity Cthulhu. And the Midwestern location was not incidental to the Weird Tales story; not only did visionary editor Farnsworth Wright come to WT straight from his gig as music critic for the Chicago Herald & Examiner, but it’s worth noting that all of 20th-century horror literature might have evolved differently if Weird Tales had originally been based in the New York publishing mecca, instead of in Chicago. When the magazine’s first editor was dismissed in 1924, Lovecraft himself was publisher Jacob Clark Henneberger’s first choice for a replacement. But Lovecraft could just barely stand leaving his beloved Providence, R.I., to live for a time in nearby New York; uprooting himself to Chicago was utterly out of the question. And so Weird Tales went on to be shaped by Wright’s eclectic vision of the strange and horrific, while Lovecraft spent the rest of his days undistracted by editorial duties, penning mind-blowing stories now considered American classics. Both men’s work influenced horror for generations to come.
Wright wasn’t the only Chicagoan responsible for the magazine’s profound stamp upon the genre subcultures that rose in its wake. Fashion illustrator Margaret Brundage had been one of Walt Disney’s classmates at both McKinley High School and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts; in 1933, she became Weird Tales’s chief cover artist. The 65 lush pastel illustrations she created over a thirteen-year period, featuring eye-catching scenes of whip-wielding witches, maidens in bondage, and black-clad gothic succubi, would provide a template not only for other pulp magazines, but for the goth-fetish fashion styles that remain popular today.
What’s more, one of Brundage’s latter-day collectors, Chicago author and genre-fiction scholar Robert Weinberg, has been the leading authority in maintaining and promoting the Weird Tales legacy for the past three decades now. His book The Weird Tales Story remains the definitive history of the magazine’s literary greatness.
So, Chicago-area Weird Tales fans, we encourage you to take part in the horror history your city helped build: head to the Athenaeum Theatre and see Wildclaw’s production of “The Dreams in the Witch House” — either on opening night this Sunday, or during the show’s five-week run. It promises to be a night to remember.