19 October 2017

Seabury Quinn: More Popular Than Lovecraft & Howard

by Brian Thornton

With Halloween close upon us, I have been thinking quite a bit lately about Weird Tales. A contemporary of Black Mask, the early 20th century pulp magazine which launched the careers of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and a host of other early hard-boiled and noir fiction writers; Weird Tales had its own stable of big names for whom it proved a springboard: H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth and Robert E. Howard, just to name a few.

The collected work of these authors has sold in the millions, spawned comic book and movie tie-ins, and has rarely been out of print in the half-century since the paperback publishing revolution of the 1960s. It was the advent of the paperback novel more than anything else which helped to posthumously revive the literary careers of so many pulp writers, and especially those of both Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, and Howard, the creator of Conan.

And yet during their pulp heyday none of these authors was nearly so popular, year in, year out, as a New Jersey native and longtime Washington, D.C. resident who specialized in mortuary law.

Meet Seabury Quinn.
Mortuary Law Specialist Seabury Quinn

The creator of an "occult detective" who frequently comes across as a more violent doppelganger for Agatha Christie's famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Quinn sold over ninety stories to Weird Tales between 1925 and 1950. Quinn's protagonist Dr. Jules DeGrandin ("Grandin" was actually the author's middle name) was featured in most of them.

Sporting a full head of blonde hair where Poirot was dark-haired and bald as an egg, French to Poirot's Belgian, and a man of action where Poirot seemed averse to most anything the least bit physical, DeGrandin was also short, fussy about his impeccable wardrobe, and given to repeating certain catch-phrases in French: all traits he shared with Christie's detective. He also had a faithful side-kick who narrated his stories, like Poirot (and like Sherlock Holmes' famous Dr. Watson, DeGrandin's side-kick was also a doctor).

DeGrandin's stories were initially set in a variety of exotic locales. When Quinn realized that the series was likely to have a long run, he settled DeGrandin and his friend Dr. Trowbridge in the latter's (fictional) hometown of Harrisonville, New Jersey. Over the quarter century the series ran, Harrisonville rivaled Lovecraft's creation Arkham, Massachusetts for the sheer number of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other monsters rampaging around the local countryside.

Quinn cranked out his DeGrandin stories at a rapid clip, and it frequently shows in the writing (he was much more careful with the novels he wrote over the course of his long career): his supporting characters are often thin (frequently ethnic) stereotypes and sometimes the plot resolutions were outright sloppy, and because of their sheer number, tended to get recycled.

But what they lacked in craft they made up in  energetic prose, action, gore, and young, pretty women in distress (a fact reflected in many of the Weird Tales covers dedicated to Quinn's work). DeGrandin was handy with both sword and gun, and always shot to kill. And while the stories always seem to start out with an eldritch element to them, the monster promised by such titles as "The Grinning Mummy," "The Great God Pan," and "The Serpent Woman" almost always turns out to be all too human. Evil, despicable, villainous, sure. But human.

There was also a fair amount of thinly-disguised kink in the DeGrandin tales: several of the stories revolved around the deeds of white slavers (cue the whips and chains), for example. In fact, whips play an outsized role in much of the hazards faced by the inevitable young, white, female kidnap victims in a number of the stories. Racy stuff for the first part of the 20th century.

Weird Tales' loyal readers ate it up. Quinn's pieces provided the cover stories for more Weird Tales issues during the magazine's heyday than the work of any other author. He consistently topped the magazine's yearly reader's poll, handily beating out authors we find more famous today, such as Lovecraft, Smith and Howard.

Unlike Lovecraft, Smith and Howard, Quinn seems not to have needed the money generated by his fiction sales. He was by turns a successful lawyer and journalist (including a fifteen year stint as editor of a mortuary trade journal entitled...wait for it...Casket & Sunnyside.). Also unlike Howard, who shot himself in his parents' driveway at age thirty in 1936, and Lovecraft, who died of cancer in the family home in 1937, aged 47, Quinn lived until 1969, dying shortly after his eightieth birthday.

By this time the DeGrandin stories were long out of print. And there they largely remained, in spite of several attempts to revive interest in them. Not even the paperback revolution, so good for the work of Lovecraft and Howard, especially, could do Quinn's little French occult detective much good.

This may have changed as a result of another paradigm change in publishing: the ebook. Nightshade Books recently published all ninety-plus DeGrandin stories in a five-volume collector's hardcover edition. The were able to do this based in part on the projected revenues they'll use to recoup that expense by putting out ebook editions of the complete DeGrandin collection. (You can find a link here.).

The stories are worth a look (and the price, as is so often the case with ebook republications, is definitely right.), especially such highlights of the series as "Murder on the Links," "The Devil's Bride," and "The Gods of East and West."

And just in time for Halloween!

12 comments:

janice law said...

A charming account. He sounds like one of the writers that drove me to invent Anna Peters and a different kind of pulp fiction female.

Art Taylor said...

Great post! I don't know this author but will surely look him up!

David Dean said...

Enjoyed this, Brian. I was one of those young readers during the paperback's heyday that read Lovecraft and Howard. And you're right--Quinn was absent from the line-up. Thanks for introducing him.

Melodie Campbell said...

Thanks for pointing me to him, Brian. I've just finished reading a Perry Mason, and can use another author to satisfy my need for a pulp hit. (grin - it's my guilty secret. Love the old books with the lurid covers.)

R.T. Lawton said...

Brian, I think I have all of Howard's stories and have been to the house (now a museum) in Texas where he lived and died. Read several stories by Lovecraft, but never heard of Quinn. Will now look him up. Thanks.

Jeff Baker said...

Wonderful, Brian! I read some of the Quinn stories in paperback reprints that came out in the '70's, I think (I read them much later!) They had titles like: "The Skeleton Closet of Jules DeGrandin," and back cover come-ons like: "When the gates of Hell swing open, only Jules DeGrandin stands in Satan's way!" (Paperbacks are worth it for the stories and the introductions, one by Manly Wade Wellman.) The electronic versions are the more likely options for readers, but the Science Fiction Book Club has been hawking a multi-volume set of the DeGrandin stories. Quinn's non-Grandin stories are noteworthy, especially the novella "Roads," about a Roman Centurion present at both the Nativity and the Crucifixion and his journey to become...well, you'll have to read the story! Oh, and Weird Tales also started the career of a writer very familiar to this blog--Robert Bloch! (Am I talking too much?)

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Jerry House said...

WEIRD TALES, dubbed "The Magazine That Never Dies," has been published since 1923 -- sometimes in fits and starts and in various formats. The last dated issue was in 2014, but the magazine may rise again. I would estimate that about a third of the magazine's run is available on-line at Internet Archive; a number of these issues contain DeGrandin and non-DeGrandin stories by Seabury Quinn. Worth checking out.

Steve Liskow said...

Never even heard of Quinn, so thank you for the heads-up.

Going to your link to check out the Kindle...

Leigh Lundin said...

Thanks, Jerry House. Brian, you're right– I hadn't heard of Seabury Quinn. I haven't check with my brother to see if Quinn was on his radar.

TMN said...

I wish Quinn had made Dr. Trowbridge a little less stupid. He seems to lack the most elementary knowledge of most subjects. Perhaps Quinn thought the readers of Weird Tales were as dumb as the doctor and needed de Grandin to spoonfeed them the necessary information.
But to a modern reader it's almost as irritating as de Grandin's outlandish French oaths and the formulaic structure of the stories themselves. It doesn't help that some of the stories are as bad as Lovecraft claimed they were. The Dead Hand and The Vengeance of India comes to mind
But the best of the stories in the series are still well worth reading. By the way, The House of Horrors seems to be an early example of the weird menace stories that became so popular several years later.





Rory Coker said...

Quinn was over-rated in the heyday of WEIRD TALES, and he is justifiably forgotten today. He was no great shakes as a writer, none of his characters threaten to come to life at any moment, and while he does try to get some thin originality in his plots and menaces, by and large we are right at hack level, and we never go above that level.