One of H.P. Lovecraft’s more successful colleagues was Paul Ernst, a frequent contributor to Weird Tales and other pulp magazines in the 1930s. Besides two fiction series, (Dr. Satan and The Avenger), Ernst published nearly a hundred short stories and several essays; additional work was published under various pseudonyms. One of his better known stories, The Microscopic Giants (1936) was discussed in an earlier post, (see Between Wars, Beneath the Ground).
In a number of ways, Paul Ernst is representative of pulp fiction writers in the first few decades of the 20th Century. Unlike, Lovecraft, he had few pretentions about the nature of the work he was doing for Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories, Weird Tales and Amazing, among others. But he was a successful writer of weird fiction who supported himself with his publications. His first story appeared in 1928, but he did not become a full time author until he was 30. He wrote fiction as a sideline until his income from publishing exceeded his office salary, which allowed him to devote himself whole heartedly to his writing. Who of us has not had this dream?
Robert Kenneth Jones, in his affectionate study, The Shudder Pulps: A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s (1975) provides interesting detail about the author, whom he visited and interviewed for his book. Jones met with Ernst in Florida in the 1970s, where the author had retired. Ernst passed away in 1985.
Paul Ernst was appreciated for his craftsmanship and attention to detail. Though his stories frequently include supernatural events, these occur in realistic, often prosaic settings. He did not believe in depicting excessive violence in his fiction, and pulled back from the truly horrifying or grotesque, as well as the overtly sexual or sadistic, which was typical of some of the more sensationalist magazines of the time.
In response to the preference of some of their readers, Ernst and a few other authors began to avoid the habit of explaining, scientifically or otherwise, all of the supernatural events in their stories. Instead, they left these matters mysterious and unexplained, and thereby achieved a more intense effect. Paul Ernst was notable for this, and one can see this combination of the ordinary and the completely unexplained in stories like Escape (1938) and The Tree of Life (1930). In a sense it is a homier, more intimate version of the cosmicism readers find in H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith. Jones estimates that up to a third of Ernst’s output between 1934 and 1938 used this approach to supernaturalism in his work.
As with H.P. Lovecraft and numerous other authors of weird fiction, Ernst believed that many of his story ideas, almost half of them, came from dreams that he had the night before.
How did Paul Ernst feel about life and work as a pulp fiction writer? Jones paraphrases the author as saying that “a pulp writer, to survive, had to forget everything he wrote. That is the only way that what you said the day before wouldn’t get in the way of what you were saying today.”
Paul Ernst describes his routine to Jones in an interview:
“I wrote four days a week, 5,000 words a day, for fifty-two weeks a year—a million words a year, from 1934 to 1940. I worked from nine in the morning until one thirty. I learned to do it right the first draft. It was letter perfect. I got an idea, sat down at the typewriter, numbered page one, and proceeded from there. I sold ninety percent of my material. But I never read anything I wrote. I had no interest in it. You could throw it out the window, as long as I got the check. When I wrote science fiction, it was just a wisp of science built around the weird.”
(Compare these remarks to George Allan England’s essay, The Fantastic in Fiction (1914)—see (If You’d Rather Write Pulp Fiction…)
I would like to spend a little more time with this author over the next few posts. In my humble opinion Ernst is still worth reading, not only because he is entertaining, but because his work helps round out one’s appreciation for the pulp fiction of the 1930s.