Donald Wandrei was an important member of Lovecraft’s circle of writers in the 1920s and 1930s. He helped to get some of Lovecraft’s work published shortly before the author died, and later went on to co-found Arkham House with August Derleth in 1939. Wandrei began writing in 1926, and began getting published in the early 1930s, chiefly in pulp magazines like Astounding Stories. (He was later able to get H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shadow Out of Time published in the magazine in 1936.) He was also a poet, and published a series of sonnets in Weird Tales—this seems to have been the inspiration for Lovecraft’s Fungi From Yuggoth. Several collections of his short stories and poetry have been published since the 1930s and 1940s, and one novel. He passed away in 1987.
I was only able to find one of his stories locally, in Peter Straub’s wonderful anthology, American Fantastic Tales. I suspect, (and hope) that it is not typical of his work. I would like to find a good collection of his stories that represents his strengths as a writer.
Published in 1965, Nightmare reads like a dream journal entry that has not quite been transmuted into actual fiction. An unidentified man approaches a mysterious dark house. He is fearful and vigilant, but is still driven to enter. The house contains a “guardian” and a “treasure”, but these are not described much in the story, so it is difficult to understand the man’s motivations or reactions to what is going on. The guardian evidently controls various supernatural allies that try to thwart the man’s progress as he enters the house and climbs the stairs to the room where the treasure is kept. This takes forever.
These ghostly entities are paraded carnival-haunted-house style until the man finally reaches the top of the stairs. My favorite: “…a head rolled from a door on the right, grinned at him for a moment, and rolled out of sight across the hall…” There are a lot of these types of apparitions—but too many, so a single focused effect is lost. He passes various doors on his way to the door. At the very end of the story, where Lovecraft would overuse italics, Wandrei uses capitalization. This does not make the ending any less of a disappointment.
The story is interesting in showing the influence of other writers. Wandrei’s prose is heavily loaded with adjectives, adverbs and lengthy, grammatically elaborate sentences, mimicking the verbosity of Lovecraft. Like many of Lovecraft’s shorter works and poetry, Nightmare is not much more than the record of a bad dream, but it lack’s Lovecraft’s artfulness. His descriptions of the various stalking minions of the guardian, both inside and outside the house, are very reminiscent of Manly Wade Wellman’s The Desrick on Yandro—a strongly recommended example of Appalachian horror, and a much better story.
Some observations about Wandrei:
•He once lost an ice-cream eating contest with Lovecraft.
•He unsuccessfully attempted to type Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward from the author’s handwritten manuscript, but could not decipher all the corrections and modifications Lovecraft had made.
•Lovecraft believed that Wandrei’s early publication success would make him and another member of their circle “cheap magazine hacks.”
(These items are mentioned in De Camp’s excellent biography of H.P. Lovecraft.)