Thursday, November 5, 2020

Unmasking Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten “Queen” of Horror

Weird Tales was a popular pulp fiction magazine specializing in horror and dark fantasy stories from 1923 to 1954. Between the years 1943 and 1951, the magazine published 33 tales of terror by an unknown author named Allison V. Harding. Mysteriously, Ms. Harding disappeared from writing altogether after her last submission to the pulp. No more stories. No paperback original novels. It’s like she never existed.

In June 2020, an excellent reprint publisher called Armchair Fiction released a compilation of 16 stories from Weird Tales titled Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror. The publisher claims that Harding was actually a woman named Jean Milligan who lived from 1919 to 2004, a fact backed up by business records from the offices of Weird Tales showing that Ms. Milligan was paid for the stories bearing Harding’s name.

So Jean Milligan was the talented horror author behind the Allison V. Harding name, right?

Interestingly, it’s not that simple.

A blog called Tellers of Weird Tales did some valuable legwork in 2011 calling the Milligan-Harding connection into question. The evidence is laid out below.

It turns out that Ms. Milligan was married to a mainstream author named Lamont Buchanan who wrote serious books about baseball and American history. Meanwhile, his bride was never known to write anything before or after the eruption of 33 stories using the Harding pseudonym.

Evidently, Mr. Buchanan also had a steady paycheck during the relevant window of time. What did he do? He was the Associate Editor of Weird Tales. If Mr. Buchanan wrote stories for his employer’s magazine, it would have been standard practice to utilize a pseudonym for those stories to not clog up the masthead with his own name. Moreover, he was an author of serious books who wouldn’t want his brand sullied by overtly writing for the pulps. Is it possible that Mr. Buchanan was actually Allison V. Harding and he submitted the stories as if they were coming from his non-author wife?

If these suspicions are valid, why would Mr. Buchanan use a woman’s name for his horror story pseudonym? I can only speculate, but during the key years, the Weird Tales Managing Editor (Mr. Buchanan’s boss) was Dorothy McIlwraith, a woman. This egalitarian editorial hierarchy might have been the perfect place to have a faux female contributor of stories for the consumption of the magazine’s mostly male readership.

It’s also possible that Mr. Buchanan was double-laundering his stories through both the Harding pseudonym and his wife’s name as the submitter. Maybe his boss, Ms. McIlwraith, didn’t even know that her subordinate was the man behind the stories. If so, that’s a fun little scam worthy of a pulp magazine story of its own.

The best way to put this conspiracy theory to a test is to have Paperback Warrior read a sample of the stories and determine if they were written by a man or woman.

Here are the capsule reviews of the three stories we DNA tested:

The Frightened Engineer

In this Lovecraft-inspired story, a turnpike construction project is derailed by Hill 96. Under normal circumstances, dynamite and earth-moving equipment would be used to grade the hill for the highway. In this case, it’s almost as if Hill 96 does not want to be disturbed - as if it were alive. This was a very fun story - like a good Twilight Zone episode - but not particularly terrifying.

The Underbody

The anthology’s cover art is the illustration that originally accompanied this story in Weird Tales. It’s about a boy who finds a man stuck in the soil of a shallow hole behind his house. When the boy brings his father out to see the man in the hole, he’s disappeared. The boy takes to calling the reappearing dirt-man, Mr. Mole. This story was legitimately unsettling and scary - exactly what I seek in pulp horror.

The Damp Man

This was the author’s most popular story spawning two sequels appearing in Weird Tales. A female swimming champion turns to a male reporter for help because she is being stalked by a frightening large man in a dark suit. The stalker is absolutely vile, moist, and menacing. Great horror story.

DNA Test Results:

There is no way hell that these stories were written by a woman of 1940s America. The first two stories have no female characters at all, and the even the third story is told through a male’s eyes. Furthermore, “The Frightened Engineer” has many technical details about turnpike road construction, a stereotypically manly pursuit in the 1940s.

Another large factor supporting this conclusion is that these stories are really good, even excellent. Without question, a female author was capable of excellence. However, I’m not buying for a second that the talented author of these stories threw her typewriter out the window without authoring another published word for the next 53 years of her life.

Regardless of the true authorship, pulp horror fans will enjoy the Armchair Fiction collection of Allison V. Harding stories. Whether or not the author is the “Queen” of horror is up for debate, but the quality of these stories is not. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

1 comment:

  1. Hi, guys. Greg Luce here from Armchair Fiction. Thanks for taking an interest in our stuff. We think the Harding collection is a great set of stories. LOVED YOUR PODCAST ABOUT THE BOOK! Thanks again. Regarding your speculation that Harding might have actually been a man (her husband), I would say it's certainly within the realm of possibility. I'd actually heard something similar to that before, namely, that some of the stories were written by her, while other stories were written by him. It's all speculation though, and I don't suppose we'll ever know the truth. However, I would point out one thing, there are a significant number of female authors of that era who wrote in a manner that might be considered "masculine." This is because the overwhelming audience in those days for a magazine like Weird Tales or Amazing Stories, or even for the speculative fiction genres in general, were men (not so much anymore); so it makes sense in that regard that Harding might have authored all these stories. One of the best examples I can think of is Andre Norton. She, like Harding, wrote almost exclusively to a male audience—at least in her early years, which were very close time-wise to Harding. I read probably 15-20 of her early novels when I was a young adult and they were all very masculine in their approach—in fact, for quite some time I thought Norton was indeed a man. Anyway, it's something to consider. Thanks again for your great coverage!

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