A Dialogue Between
Weird Tales author H. Warner Munn
& Jessica Amanda Salmonson
MANY YEARS AGO, a young fanzine editor wrote to H. Warner Munn (whose first stories appeared in Weird Tales as early as the 1920s) & asked if it would be possible to obtain an interview with him. Harold wrote back saying, sure, why not. The fan editor wrote again, delighted, informing Harold he should send the interview along in the next two or three weeks, for the editor had a tight deadline.
Typical of Harold, the ultimate gentleman, he was not annoyed with this audaciousness, though he certainly was surprised. Where was he going to get an interview with himself without an interviewer? He called me up & asked if I'd do it. The result was duly transcribed & sent to that young editor, who drastically abbreviated it for the only issue of his obscure 1979 fanzine. The interview was not published in its entirety until several years later.
Years after Harold's death, I find myself thinking of him from time to time, & missing the evenings spent together over chocolate & apple pie. I have often said that there's really no reason for science to find the secret to eternal life, because Groucho Marx & Jack Benny are already dead, so what would be the use of such a discovery now? The same goes for Harold.
At the time of this interview, Harold was part of the celebrated Ballentine Adult Fantasy line taken over by the del Reys. His historical novel The Lost Legion was about to be released by Doubleday (truncated from his unpublished full version). He was looking forward to his Guest of Honor stint at World Fantasy Convention, an honor he richly deserved & about which, afterward, he was easily made misty-eyed due to his continuing appreciation for having experienced so much attention & love from so many fans & professionals. He was happily surprised by little things, such as Andrew J. Offutt, an author whose sword & sorcery Harold liked, coming through a long line for his chance to get Harold's autograph.
What follows is that interview, conducted late in 1978, with very few updating footnotes added.
H. WARNER MUNN fantasy author for the celebrated pulp magazine Weird Tales, & currently for Del Rey Books a gentle, calm, warm, & good friend arrived at my Seattle abode about noon in order to subject himself to a tape recorded interview. My roommate helped decipher the workings of the machine Harold had obtained on loan. Finally everything was working. "All right," I said. "This interview is underway. What should I ask first?" With more good intention than expertise, I began:
"Your most famous work must be the Merlin saga, which will eventually be three volumes.1 One of my favorite sections of Merlin's Ring takes place in China, a very humorous piece of writing. It is contrasted rather startlingly with a radically opposed portrayal of Japan. Did you invent the shapes of these cultures, or are they rooted in actual history?"
"They exist & were researched," said Harold. "Of course, the one in China comes under the head of Fantasy, as I was trying to imitate the work of Ernest Bramah. With the story that dealt with Japan, I wanted to deal with something similar to the defense of the Alamo. But the culture was researched & was good for the time period."
"You do quite a bit of research on all your stories, short pieces as well as novels."
"I enjoy research. In fact, Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales said I got carried away by research sometimes."
"Didn't he tell you earlier that you didn't research well enough at the very beginning of your career?"
"No," he said. "Well, I made a couple of mistakes when I wrote 'The City of Spiders.' I placed the North Star in the wrong place. It should have been Polaris & I said it was Vega; it will be, in 12,000 more years. In another place I had a spider nodding its head, which was impossible because a spider's head had no neck & is solid with the thorax. Those two mistakes in one story taught me a lesson. I've been very careful since."
"That story appeared in the early Weird Tales considered by a lot of fans & readers to be almost a holy magazine from a perfect era. Was everything really that wonderful?"
"Oh, you could generally figure on one or two good stories in a magazine. The rest were fillers. Not everything in what they think was the golden age was gold. A lot of it was brass. Quite a lot of it was not worthy to preserve. I tried to do the best I could at the time; they turned out well. I've had some nice compliments on stories like 'The Werewolf of Ponkert.' Most recently there was a man by the name of Copper who wrote a book on The Werewolf. He gave me a nice short write-up in that."
I smiled at Harold's reference to the book I'd given him some while before. His novella "The Werewolf of Ponkert" & its sequel "The Werewolf's Daughter" have been reissued in both hard & soft covers as The Werewolf of Ponkert, written initially at the encouragement of H. P. Lovecraft.
"Your first novel was King of the World's Edge," I said. "What year was that?"
"1925, I believe."
"Wow. Was that a very well received book at the time, being an early work?"
"Oh yes, very much so. I had some nice compliments on it in comparison to [Robert E.] Howard's stories. One letter said it was better than Howard."
"Did you agree or did you take that with a grain of salt?"
"With a grain of salt. I was surprised. I was a great admirer of Howard's fiction."
I side-stepped the chance to discuss Harold's associations with other writers from that legended period. He was not intimately involved with many of his colleagues, & the better anecdotes about his major exceptions, H. P. Lovecraft & Seabury Quinn, have been chronicled elsewhere. I wanted to know more about Harold's own writing experiences.
I said, "It was quite a few years before there was a sequel to that first novel. How come such a long period of time elapsed before the appearance of Ship from Atlantis?"
"There was a change of editors at Weird Tales by the time I had a sequel ready to show. Dorothy McIlwraith had her own stable of writers. A lot of old writers were eliminated. She wanted famous names like H. Bedford Jones for example. I think more reprints went into the magazine than before. That cut down the space available. So although I had finished the story, I had no place to put it. It laid around for quite a while. Then Donald Wollheim published a short story of mine called 'The Wheel.' I wrote to him asking if I had any royalties coming on it. He said no, as it had been in the public domain. But he had been looking for me in order to publish King of the World's Edge. In about three months, that too would have been public domain. Pyramid Books also wanted it & were negotiating. Wollheim for Ace had given up on finding me. So it was fortunate that I wrote him. When he bought King of the World's Edge I told him I had a sequel to it, Ship from Atlantis. I sent it in & that was published also. Since then, I wrote the second sequel to it, which was Merlin's Ring, much longer. I'm now working on The Sword of Merlin to finish the trilogy."
King of the World's Edge & Ship from Atlantis were reissued by Del Rey Books in a single volume as Merlin's Godson.
"I'm certainly looking forward to The Sword of Merlin," I admitted. "To leap back a moment, you mentioned 'The Wheel' earlier. That brings back my own memories. The anthology it appeared in was Wollheim's More Macabre. It was the first horror anthology I ever read, when I was quite small. 'The Wheel' made a lasting impression on me. It occurs to me to ask how it feels to have a large following of grown-up readers who discovered your work as children, when it was already in the public domain?"
"That's what happens if you're born of long-lived parents & hang around long enough. I hope that some other stories will be published later. Practically everything that I have written has been published or is under contract now. 'The Wheel' was the second horror story that I ever wrote. The first one was 'The Chain.' I don't intend to do any more real horror stories. I've written one since, 'The Well.' It was published in Best Horror Stories of the Year, but actually it was not as horrible as the other two. I've written one other, 'The Smith of Horrah' which has not been published yet, but may be next year."
"Where might that appear? Do you know yet?"
"It'll probably be in the next Year's Best Horror from DAW Books. Gerald Page will be looking at it before long."
I was thinking how someone ought to publish a collection of Harold's stories, which have never been brought together in one place. I said, "One of the other very popular series you've done has to do with your 'symbol' perhaps (you may have two symbols, both Merlin & the werewolf), about the werewolf clan. The Master particularly seems to intrigue a lot of people. I know these stories are going to be collected by Donald Grant2 I sometimes wonder if The Master is still about, wrecking havoc, as there's still plenty of horror in the world. Will you be writing more in this series?"
"Not directly," said Harold. "In The Sword of Merlin he will be referred to, as Merlin will go to the planet from which The Master came. There, I think, Merlin will probably have his ring made, or the sword. That's the planet Mithras, a dead dark cinder which circles the star Algol. The Arabs call it 'the ghoul' because it has a red tinge & apparently it blinks like a winking eye. It blinks because there is a planet circling around it. In my story the planet came there by being thrown out of orbit from another star which went nova & burnt off all life. It is peopled, but only by spirits which want bodies to live in for the warmth & novelty of being alive for a short time."
I asked, "You don't have any deep, secret reason for relating so well to werewolves, do you?"
"No...except that they are part of fantasy, & I've always been interested in fantasy more than science fiction."
"As have I," I replied, & returned the topic to something I'd passed up before. "In the forthcoming Merlin book, will this grow partly from your research again? Are you doing a lot of research now?"
"I'm doing research on it now, yes. It's been difficult because I used up most of the best information that I had in Merlin's Ring. It's been a process of a slow accumulation of the facts."
"You left a few loose ends in Merlin's Ring. You seemed to be setting things up for a sequal even then, especially with King Arthur left where he was, & shown to be where he was. Were you truly planning to sew up those loose ends at the time?"
"Not definitely," he confessed. "But I don't think I've ever written anything but what I've left in some little means of creating a sequel, were there any demand for one. That's what I did with 'The Werewolf of Ponkert,' what I've done with most other stories since a little built-in opportunity to go on if it turned out well."
"Different things are occurring to me from things you said before. You said you probably wouldn't write any more horror stories. Yet if we include the werewolf clan stories, you've written a lot of horror in the past & you've a very large following of Weird Tales fans & other horror fans. Do you feel you're leaving them by the way by turning to pleasanter fantasy?"
"Not really. I wrote eight stories of the clan originally. I was going to write more. Then the series came to an end because of the change of editorship. The one that actually ended the series was 'The Return of the Master' which was a long novelette written before the short stories. So when Bob Weinberg was interested in reprinting these a couple years ago, I wrote two more to fill in some of the gaps. You see, these stories deal with a certain family & each one is approximately thirty years apart in sequence. They deal with historical events in which the Master is responsible for great tragedies & disasters, as members of the werewolf clan happen to be in that area to act as a catalyst. The two stories that I wrote to fill in those gaps were not enough. Since then, I've written three more to more or less complete the series. The last story now in the series, which Donald Grant will be publishing in a book as 'The Master Goes Home,' is a rewrite of 'The Return of the Master.' So actually I don't see any real reason for continuing that series."
"Not that series, but with horror story fans among your greatest admirers, must your whole body of horror work now stand complete as you turn to more romantic fantasies?"
"Pretty much. A new novel might have a gothic sequence in it, like in Merlin's Ring when Gwalchmai confronts the idol to raise his dungeon. That could be considered horror. There might be certain elements of horror in historical stories which I may or may not write. But I don't intend to do anything intentionally in that line. If anything happens, it'll be more or less by accident."
As an aside, because few people have been informed of the correct pronunciation of the main characters' names, Harold pronounced Gwalchmai "GWALL-mee" & the immortal amazon Corenice he prounced "KOR-a-NIKee."
"Nowadays," I continued, "much of the horror fiction is being published in the small press.3 So it's probably best that you do write what presently interests you, for you'll get more money for it! But I don't mean to malign the small press, since I'm involved in the small press, & this interview is for the small press. Many of your greatest admirers are involved in the small press right now. I wonder if you have any particularly strong feelings about the proliferation of small press publishers, editors, writers & artists which abound right now?"
"I think it's a very healthy indication of the interest that people have in that type of fiction. It's been, for a long time, almost impossible to find certain valuable stories written years ago. These things are now being reprinted in small editions of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 copies. They get snapped up pretty fast; their value increases; they become collectors' items. So the stories are perpetuated, whereas in the past it has been very difficult to find particular stories."
"Limited edition publishers are a little different from what I was thinking about. It's hard to think of Donald Grant as a small press! I was thinking more along the lines of, maybe, Weirdbook or Whispers.
"Yes, these are bringing out new things which are in the same classification as Weird Tales. I'd like to see Weird Tales come back but I don't think it will. These small presses like Weirdbook, Whispers, The Diversifier, or in England Fantasy Tales..."
"Dragonbane in Canada."
"Yes. These are all doing fine work. I wish them all good luck. They provide an outlet for the beginner, a chance to get their work before the public & make a little money at the same time, which is always nice."
Throughout the interview, Harold has been serene, talking softly. My own evil nature, however, won't allow this serenity to go unchallenged, & I say, "If I might touch on something else for a moment I want to confront you on something. Maybe I want to fight with you. You mentioned The Diversifier. I believe it was that publication which published an ill-conceived forum on Harlan Ellison's pro-E.R.A. stance at last year's WorldCon in Arizona, a state that failed to ratify equal rights for women. In that forum you came across anti-feminist sounding, saying Harlan really oughtn't mix politics & fandom. Considering that you have a very dear friend who is a feminist & for whom feminist & fandom must mix, & who was very proud of Harlan for his act, do you think you ought to comment further?"
Harold chuckled through most of that tirade, then responded: "I have no clear-cut sentiments regarding feminism or anti-feminism. Some of my prettiest friends are feminine & I wouldn't want it any other way."
It seemed de rigour to blush at that statement, so I complied.
"I wish feminists luck in all of the things that they're fighting for," said Harold. "My remarks in The Diversifier were not very valuable because I never heard Harlan Ellison speak. I didn't go to that particular convention, & I mentioned that, too. I don't think we really have anything much for an argument on that subject. I ceased being interested in politics about the time of Columbus. Anything ancient or medieval is much more interesting to me than modern times. Even in the line of writing, I was always impressed by Jules Verne. I'd like to see something written by someone who could write in the present day along the lines that Verne did. He not only worked within the confines of science as known in his time, he also was very good at plot. The stories themselves were interesting. A lot of stories today are written in such a way that they're overburdened by science or else the characters in them are cardboard. Now I'm reading The Dark Design by Philip Jose Farmer, the third in the Riverworld series. I'm fascinated with that. I finished Lucifer's Hammer. I think those two are the best things I've read for quite a while."
"I don't like either one."
Harold grinned at that.
I added, "I like Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas. I also suggest Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre as neither top-heavy in its science nor cardboard in its characters."
"Speaking of feminism," said Harold, "I might say that I have read all the Gor stories so far, by John Norman. I have never met any women anywhere in my travels who would be happy on Gor,4 or happy with any of John Norman's characters. I can't picture the kind of woman even in the context of a planet as savage as Gor who would be delighted to be chained to the foot of the bed, or go around naked & enslaved & enjoying it. If I met one of them, I'd probably be scared to death."
"How can you read those? You've read them all even though you know they're terrible?"
"I've been waiting for him to improve."
"I don't think he ever will now," I said. "He's too popular."
"I'm hoping the series will come to an end," said Harold. "I was interested in the first book about his girl. I thought she'd show up in later books, & I've been waiting for that to happen, for things to get back to her. I think that if those stories were cut down about two-hundred pages each, why, the plotting, the monsters, the various events could be compressed so that it'd be a pretty good story. But he's emphasizing the war between the sexes too much."
I said, "I strongly suspect that people who I more or less respect, yet who can read Gor stories, are probably relating more to the Burroughs aspect rather than the sadomasochism."
"I think so. That's the way I feel about it too."
"Personally I fail to see their saving graces. Even if we don't look at the negative sexual content, the run-on sentences alone make incredibly poor reading. He's simply a poor writer. But I can see the Edgar Rice Burroughs appeal. Burroughs was kind of neat, & I bet he's rolling in his grave about these."
We share laughter. Harold said, "When you do anywhere from three to five hundred pages & you find places where you could skip a hundred pages without missing anything, something is wrong."
"That certainly never happens with what you write. Especially in Merlin's Ring. Something remarkable happens in every chapter."
"I was impressed by Mathew Phipps Shiel when I first started to write for the fun of it. He weaves an intricate plot. You find out that if you skip anything, sooner or later you have to go back fifty or a hundred pages to find out what you missed, because it is pertinent to the plot. I like to write that way myself. When I was a little boy, I was exposed to a lot of classics because my grandmother had them in the house: Dickens, Thackeray. She corresponded with Wells & Jules Verne, as I've mentioned before. But it occurred to me not too long ago that there was also something else that was contributory to my writing. On my grandmother's family tree there was a minister. We had a collection of his sermons bound in the house. I was impressed when I read those because they were not dry reading like most sermons naturally would be. Rather, I think he had a vivid imagination. in some of them, he harks back to the time of the puritans. Hell was a lot hotter in those days. Some of those sermons were really scary. I guess imagination ran in the family. It comes out in strange places."
"One time you told me an inadvertent real-life horror story about all of the Weird Tales & other old magazines you had before you moved to the Pacific Northwest. Just to make all the crazy collectors out there a little crazier, could you tell what happened to all that material?"
"That was a horror story all right. I came out here not knowing whether or not I was going to stay. Consequently, I boarded up the house & nailed the doors shut, & left things pretty much as they were. The place was empty for almost five years. After about three years, there was a high wind which took off some of the roofing over the library. Nobody told me anything about it until a year later. Rain came in, ruined a lot of my books. Dry rot sat in. I had all of the first years of Amazing Stories, Air Wonder Stories, practically all of the science fiction magazines, a whole trunk full of Weird Tales from the first one on up to the time I left, oh, Astounding, quite a lot of Argosy, Argosy All Story, Cavalier, & a number of books I made myself by taking out stories like Darkness & Dawn & other George Allen England stories & binding them up myself in artificial leather. The rain ruined about three-fourths of the collection. When I went back to sell the house, I opened the window & shoveled them out. They were burned."
I sighed. Then to change the gloomy mood, I asked, "What is your working space like? What is your daily or weekly work schedule when you're writing?"
"When I'm writing something definite, & definitely committed to it like now on The Sword of Merlin, I set myself a goal of a thousand words a day, which is four pages. That is very little. I can do anywhere from two to five thousand words in an interesting section. If something bores me, I get to 500 & quit. But then during the night when more thoughts come, it's easier to go on from there. My working space now, while it is cool weather, is downstairs in my living room. In summer, or if someone else is there that interferes with my writing, I go upstairs to my library.5 I try not to have anything in front of my eyes which distracts me. I try to work in a place where it is quiet. I used to play certain records. I would play 'Indian Summer' for a romantic interlude, 'Ride of the Valkyries' if I wanted to write something that dealt with war. That would get me in the mood & I could write like mad for a while. Now I try to find a radio station with a minimum of conversation & mostly music, & just let it drift into my mind without really listening to it."
"For all of the young & not so young people who want to be writers," I said, "and who want to write great fantasy novels like Merlin's Ring, do you have any advice for how they may manage to do something more than just think about it?"
"Any fantasy should have a good sound basis of fact," said Harold. "You can start in by reading indiscriminately, coming up with some mysterious thing that you wished you knew more about, then do some research on that. Many good stories have gotten started that way. I started The King of the World's Edge partly because I'd read one of the Welch triads in which Merlin is mentioned as sailing away in a house of glass with his nine bards, & was never heard of again. Well, there was only one place that he could sail, westward, from where he was. Westward to America. Also, most of the religions placed the land of the dead in the West. Merlin was an old man. Obviously most of his friends were dead. I thought that he might like to go & see if he could find them in the land of the dead. Consequently, he discovered America."
"That's certainly rooted in possibilities. In New England & Eastern Canada, many of the Indian place names turn out to be of Gaelic origin."
"And we're coming to more of those all the time," he added. "Now there are an accumulating number of facts that indicate that the Phoenicians or Carthaginians specifically may have known about Brazil, & made land contacts there, maybe even settlements. I would dearly love to write a story about Carthaginians who escaped from Carthage before Rome finally conquered the city. I'd have them sail westward & settle in Brazil. Somebody ought to write that."
"Perhaps after your current project you can get that underway."
"I wanted to write that story first, but I promised Judy Lynn del Rey that I'd give The Sword of Merlin top priority."
"For new, struggling writers you seem to suggest that they shouldn't rely on instinct for their ideas. E. Hoffman Price told me that most fantasy writers are lazy, they aren't good writers; the reason they write fantasy is because it is easier than having to do research on something that is real. Your own advice seems to say that it really won't work out well if a writer is unwilling to do that research anyway."
"Building any story is like building a house," said Harold. "You've got to have a good foundation. Then you can put up any kind of house that you want. You can add rooms. You can put in a picture window. You can put on as many stories as you want, several wings, build fantastic fronts, fantastic chimneys, anything you like. But if you don't have a good foundation, that is, facts, in your story it'll collapse under its own weight. It won't be authentic."
"On that profound point, I think we can end this interview. So, thank you Harold Warner Munn."
1. Harold never finished the third volume of the Merlin trilogy, so it must stand as Merlin's Godson & Merlin's Ring only. However, as Godson is actually two shorter novels, the series might be regarded as a trilogy even as it stands.
2. Donald Grant issued Tales of the Werewolf Clan in two volumes. There have never been paper editions.
3. It will surprise new readers that the later boom in horror did not exist in the 'sixties & 'seventies, when, after the demise of Weird Tales, small magazines such as W. Paul Ganley's Weirdbook & my own Fantasy & Terror were the best markets.
4. I have.
5. Harold built his house in Tacoma with his own hands. To get to his library, one had to use a built-in ladder; there were no stairs. It led into a rafters room where books hovered over one from all sides, a pleasant chaos of letters & what-not a very romantic setting.
copyright © 1979, 1988, 1998 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
A synoptic version of the above conversation first appeared as "Interview with H. Warner Munn" in Chet C. Clingan's Dragonard, 1979. The full version appeared as "A Dialog Between H. Warner Munn & Jessica Amanda Salmonson" in Robert T. Garcia's American Fantasy, Chicago, 1988. There have been only minimal corrections to this archival presentation.
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