The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage (2013) by Stephen D. Korshak & J. David Spurlock

Sometime in 1932, a six-foot tall, chain smoking woman, in need of a job to support her three-year-old son and crippled mother, walked into the office of legendary Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. The woman was a freelance fashion design illustrator with no knowledge of who H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Otis Adelbert Kline, Seabury Quinn, Jack Williamson, Robert Bloch and dozens of other writers were. She had simply looked through the telephone book to find the name of a publishing company where she might find employment. During this initial meeting the woman, Margaret Brundage, displayed a painting of an Oriental female done in pastel chalk to Farnsworth Wright that caught his eye.
—Stephen D. Korshack, “Queen of the Pulps” in The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 11

In 1932, Margaret Brundage (née Margaret Hedda Johnson) was a single mother; her husband Myron “Slim” Brundage was an alcoholic who had abandoned the marriage and the care of their son Kerlynn (born in 1927). Her first pulp cover would be for the Spring 1932 issue of Oriental Stories, and her first cover for Weird Tales would be for the September 1932 issue. Over the next 13 years she would produce 66 covers for Weird Tales, more than any other artist, and those during the height of the magazine’s golden years—when Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were still alive, and C. L. Moore would make her sensational debut.

Pulp authors vied for their story to be featured on the cover; it often meant extra pay as well esteem. Pulp fans argued in the letter pages about the propensity for nudes, and began spreading the rumors that Brundage (originally signed only as M. Brundage; her gender was not revealed until a couple of years later) was using her non-existent daughters to model the bondage shots. Sometimes the covers had real effects on the authors lives, as one anecdote might show:

“You said you’d like to read some of my stuff, and so I—I brought a copy of this magazine that’s just come out…It’s—it’s got a yarn of mine in it. I—I thought you might like to look at it.”

My eyes bulged. I’d never looked at a magazine like that before! That cover! A big, handsome man, except for his very short hair, was standing there with a big, green snake wrapped around him. A blonde girl sat on the ground staring at him. She was something! All she had on was a wispy scarf that didn’t quite cover her up front. Between her legs was another wisp of cloth fastened to a red and gold belt.

“It’s—it’s ‘The Devil in Iron.’”

—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 58

Weird_Tales_1934-08_-_The_Devil_in_Iron

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage is not quite a biography, however. It is primarily a collection of obscure but critical sources and essays on her life and work: memoirs and interviews normally only found in moldering and expensive fanzines, as well as new essays that expand on her life before and after Weird Tales. On top of that, the book includes a full gallery of her pulp art, and numerous photos of her life and art you won’t find anywhere else, all reproduced without the clipping or muddying of color typical of a lot of pulp art books. It is a gorgeous production from start to finish—and an enlightening one, as Brundage herself is a fascinating subject.

Arguably the best part of the book is J. David Spurlock’s “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage.” Most of the interviews and memoirs you could track down with time; this is new, and fantastic. A glimpse at Margaret Brundage before she was the Queen of the Pulps. Her fascinating encounter with a young Walt Disney in 1917 has to be read to be believed:

Margaret (walks toward the freshman, mumbling under her breath): If I were a man, they would give me a title; Editor, Art Director, something. One day women will win the right to vote. We’ll see some changes then.

(Approaching freshman, extends her hand): Dizzy, is it?

Walter: Oh… it’s Disney, Walter Disney.

(Both laugh)

Margaret: Sorry, I’m Margaret Johnson.

Walter: Are you the art director?

Margaret: Well, sort of. They have me doing the work but (raising her voice), I GUESS I’M NOT MAN ENOUGH FOR THE TITLE. So tell me about yourself. Do you have any experience?
—J. David Spurlock, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 128-129

Did it happen exactly that way? Hard to tell. But it gives the flavor of the young fiery woman who would get mixed up with the Bohemian scene in Chicago, and eventually marry (and divorce) labor agitator “Slim” Brundage. Her life in the 1940s and beyond is filled in by examining her work with Bronzeville “the epicenter of the Chicago black renaissance”; Margaret Brundage did not have the same racial prejudices as many in the period.

Spurlock gives some of the extra details missing from the interviews and memoirs, filling in some of the context. It is not a blow-by-blow, cover-by-cover essay—there might be a market for such a thing, but the focus is on Brundage’s life beyond the pulp scene, which many researchers have overlooked or ignored, and for that it is welcomed and invaluable.

There isn’t much of Lovecraft in the book, but then there wouldn’t be. Lovecraft seldom included women or nudes in his fiction, much less bondage, and never had a story of his feature on the cover of Weird Tales during his lifetime. More than that, Lovecraft has been noted as a general critic of Brundage’s artwork:

As for the covers—I never yet saw one that was worth the coloured inks expended on it. Of course the luscious & irrelevant nudes are rabble-catchers & nothing else but—an attempt by Wright to attract two publics instead of one.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lee McBride White, 28 Oct 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea Etc. 362

About the Conan tales—I don’t know that they contain any more sex than is necessary in a delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age. Good old Two-Gun didn’t seem to me to overstress eroticism nearly as much as other cash-seeking pulpists—even if he did now & then feel in duty bound to play up to a Brundage cover-design.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 14 Aug 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 382

About WT covers—they are really too trivial to get angry about. If they weren’t totally irrelevant and unrepresentative nudes, they’d probably be something equally awkward and trivial, even though less irrelevant. The “art” of the pulps is even worse than its fiction, if such be possible. Rankin, Utpatel, and Finlay are the only real illustrators of WT who are worth anything. I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject-matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 1 Sep 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 391-392

Lovecraft wasn’t alone in his criticism. Clark Ashton Smith was not trained as an artist, but had his own self-taught style in drawing, painting, and later sculpture noted:

Glad you liked “Ilalotha,” a story in wich I seem to have slipped something over on the PTA. The issue containing it, I hear, was removed from the stands in Philadelphia because of the Brundage cover. Query: why does Brundage try to make all her women look like wet-nurses? It’s a funny, not to say tiresome, complex.
—Clark Ashton Smith to R. H. Barlow, 9 Sep 1937, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 313

This was an oblique reference to something that comes up in one of Brundage’s interviews in the book:

E&O: Where you ever asked to start covering  your nudes a bit?

Brundage: I was never asked to, no. One funny thing did happen. One of the authors—well, Weird Tales asked me to make larger and larger breasts—larger than I would have liked to—well, one cover, one of the authors wrote in and said that things were getting a little bit out of line. And even for an old expert like him, the size of the breastwork was getting a little too large.

Etchings & Odysseys Interview with Margaret Brundage, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 32

We don’t know who wrote in, whether it was Smith or Lovecraft or someone else. Brundage is quite frank in her interviews about the details of her work for Weird Tales, and frank too about her sense of loss at the death of Robert E. Howard, whose stories she would illustrate for many of the covers. If you consider his Conan tales as extensions of the Cthulhu Mythos, her covers form some of the first Mythos art in color. For her work on Weird Tales alone, Brundage will probably long be remembered, emulated, parodied, and subject to homage. Her October 1933 “Bat Woman” cover for Hugh Davidson’s “The Vampire Master” has long been a favorite hallmark of her Weird Tales work, and is paid tribute to even today by artists like Abigail Larson.

Margaret Brundage as an artist and as a human being was more than 70-odd pulp covers. A lot more.

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage was published in 2013 by Vanguard Publishing, and is available in a paperback, hardcover, and deluxe hardcover editions.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson & “The Woods of Averoigne” (1934) by Grace Stillman

Joanna Russ may have been the first woman to write prose set in the Cthulhu Mythos…but she was preceded by at least two female poets who tackled the Mythos as their subject, and while often neglected, their work stands among the first verse contributions to the burgeoning Mythos.

Poetry has always been an important aspect of the Mythos. Many of the principal writers of the early Mythos—H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, etc.—were poets, and bits of poetry are embedded in their fiction, or like Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” (1930-1943) cycle or Robert E. Howard’s “Arkham” (1931) can be viewed as a part of the fabric of the Mythos itself. This poetic tendency in part reflects the tradition of the fantastic verse such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834), which was sometimes made a part of weird fiction, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” which was revised to contain “The Conqueror Worm” (1845).
Of course, another large part of the poetic tradition of the Mythos is that Weird Tales was unusually in the amount of poetry it published—including several of Lovecraft’s “Fungi” and works from other authors. What might surprise readers is the amount of poetry in WT that was written by women. According to Partners in Wonder: Women in Science Fiction, 1926-1965, 63 female poets were featured in the pulp magazine during the period of the Unique Magazine’s heyday—including Alice I’Anson, whose “Teotihuacan” (WT Nov 1930) so inspired Robert E. Howard. Amateur poets also existed among the early fandom, writing verse to contribute to fanzines, such as Virginia Kidd’s “Science and Knowledge” (The Fantasy Fan, Dec 1933).
It was rare for anyone not among the circle of Lovecraft & his fellow Mythos writers to craft Mythos poetry in that early period, but at least two did—Virginia “Nanek” Anderson and Grace Stillman.
Shadow Over Innsmouth
by Virginia Anderson
(Dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft by Nanek)
We have forgotten some of mankind’s ways:
The art of dying, or say … Meroy’s gift.
So when age grows upon us and our days
By span of man are numbered, the seas rift
And take us in. Then in the rites of old
We pledge allegiance where the strange pale gold
Of obscene Gods dispense eternal life
Wherein to glory, savour and renew. …
Free from the world’s alarms and strife
In ocean palaces of colalous hue,
Shedding the shape of man and doubling back
In form at least on evolution’s track.

Virginia Combs came of age in the small town of Crandon, Wisconsin during the tale end of the Great Depression; bought her first pulp magazine (Planet Stories) in 1938 or ’39, and soon was a prolific writer of fan-letters to several pulp magazines, most especially The Spider. She took the pen-name “Nanek,” borrowing the term from the Sikh religion of the Spider’s associate Ram Singh (Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism, the name was sometimes rendered in English as “Nanek”). Her correspondents included Norvell Page, A. Merritt, Isaac Aasimov, and Hannes Bok. At a time when fandom was primarily male, she stood out; Page even wrote her into the Spider series as “Jinnie Combs” in “Volunteer Corpse Brigade” (The Spider Nov 1941). In 1942, she married and became Virginia Anderson—but to her pulp friends and fandom, she was always Nanek.

I guess it never occurred to me that there were things you didn’t do because you were male or female.
— Virginia Anderson, XENOPHILE #40 (5)

The pulps and fandom were not just an escape, but an outlet for her creative energies—she wrote poems based on the works of the pulp authors she admired, which were published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries and fanzines. In 1942, Francis T. Laney, a prominent member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society wrote, asking for a poem for his fanzine The Acolyte, which was mainly dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft. Nanek responded with “Shadow Over Innsmouth” which appeared in the second issue (Winter 1942).

“Shadow Over Innsmouth” is an homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (WT Apr 1936), but where Lovecraft focuses on the human character discovering (and eventually embracing) their Deep One heritage, Nanek gives us the alien perspective of someone who has already completed the transition. Rather than simply revisit Lovecraft’s tale, she moves beyond it, taking her cue from Lovecraft’s final line “[…] in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”

The tone of the poem is one of escapism—though not within an element of horror, involving as it does rites of allegiance to “obscene Gods,” and the “doubling back […] along evolution’s track.” Immortality still has its price, physical and spiritual; to shed human constraint means to become something other than human. Contemporary readers might see in this foreshadows of posthumanism, but there is also an echo of Christian mythos here: “[…] our days By span of Man are numbered” is almost Biblical language, and as many Christians expect their souls to be taken into heaven, so to do “the seas rift And take us in.” This does not necessarily imply any blasphemous intent on Nanek’s part, but it does help to contrast the “life everlasting” beneath the waves to the “life everlasting” in Heaven—both involve leaving behind earthly life.

Nanek’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” was only reprinted once, in The Innsmouth Cycle (1998), the text is reproduced from that copy; “Meroy” and “colalous” are probably transcription errors (for “Mercy” and “coralous”), made when originally setting the type for The Acolyte. Given the obscurity of that ‘zine, it is unfortunate that Nanek’s poem did not receive wider distribution.

The Woods of Averoigne
(Inspired by the Clark Ashton Smith’s stories)

By Grace Stillman

Deep in the woods of Averoigne,
Goblin and satyr, loup-garou,
Devil and vampire hold their feasts:
Forces of wizardry imbue
Even the foliage of the oak;
Beeches and pines in drear decay
Uplift their bony branches wan
Under a sky of corpse-like gray.
Evil is there in Averoigne:
Evil I should not see at all;
Evil whose very presence seems
Holding me in curious thrall:
Knowing it well, my feet still grope
Nearer this force malign, withdrawn;
In dread, against my will I creep
Deep in the woods of Averoigne.

Grace Stillman is a cipher; “The Woods of Averoigne” is her only publication in Weird Tales, nor does she have credits in any other pulp index. The published letters of Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, etc. contain no reference to her or the poem, so we have no idea what they thought of it—but we know what inspired it.

Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne is a fictional medieval French province sometimes compared to James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme, and was one of his own original settings—much as the Miskatonic River valley and its towns of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport are “Lovecraft Country,” and Robert E. Howard had his stories of the Hyborian Age and Thurian Age. Averoigne was introduced to the readers of Weird Tales with “The End of the Story” (May 1930), and continued on with “A Rendezvous in Averoigne” (Apr-May 1931), “The Maker of Gargoyles” (Aug 1932), “The Mandrakes” (Feb 1933), “The Beast of Averoigne” (May 1933), and “The Holiness of Azédarac” (Nov 1933). Her poem itself would appear in the same issue of Weird Tales as another of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne tales, “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (Jun 1934).

Stillman’s poem evokes the witch- and fiend-haunted forests of Averoigne, which form a common element in many of Smith’s tales. Plant life was one of Smith’s foci in life, and it shows in his fiction:

[…] the gnarled and immemorial wood possessed an ill-repute among the peasantry. Somewhere in this wood there was the ruinous and haunted Château des Faussesflammes; and, also, there was a double tomb, within which the Sieur Hugh du Mainbois and his chatelaine, who were notorious for sorcery in their time, had lain unconsecrated for more than two hundred years. Of these, and their phantoms, there were grisly tales; and there were stories of loup-garous and goblins, of fays and devils and vampires that infested Averoigne.
(“A Rendezvous in Averoigne”)

Much of Stillman’s imagery is taken directly from Smith’s descriptions of the setting, right down to the types of trees he mentions in the stories. It is, like Nanek’s later piece, a derivative work that seeks to capture something of the essential idea and feel of the original, and succeeds not so much in the first few opening lines with their talk of familiar horrors, but for the fact that despite the dark legends of Averoigne people are still drawn there—as many readers, including Grace Stillman herself, were. Again, we see a writer who has struck at a point essential to the Mythos: the point of attraction, for lovers of the weird, to these terrible and remote regions, even though they are warned away from it. By entering these areas, the protagonist—and by extension the reader—cross a threshold, pass through a limnal space or boundary, break a taboo. What is more, the nameless narrator in Stillman’s poem knows that they are doing this, but are unable to help themselves, as something draws them deeper into the darkness.

As far as I can determine “The Woods of Averoigne” has never been republished. Like Nanek’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” it represents something of a lost start. Like many early contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, they failed to gain enough audience to influence subsequent writers and fans. They were a part of the movement that eventually exploded into the sprawling shared universe of the Mythos, but were largely overlooked and ignored. It isn’t enough to simply write something good, or even to have it published; if it is not referenced, reprinted, or revisited…it becomes forgotten, unless someone finally resurrects and remembers it.

†††

With thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)