Monday, April 11, 2016

Henry Kuttner: Another forgotten master

Kuttner and Moore working on a manuscript

It was April 7th, 1915.

Near Basra in Mesopotamia: Turkish troops were assembling,preparing to launch an offensive against the British fortifications. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in Los Angeles, California, science fiction writer Henry Kuttner was born.


OK, probably.  But it’s no coincidence that, from the publication of his first short The Graveyard Rats in 1936, to his untimely death in 1958 at the age of 42, Kuttner was not only incredibly prolific [1] but incredibly well received.

Kuttner was very much a cerebral writer – many of his stories (though still just a fraction of his output!) are well enough crafted that had he not specialized in genre fiction he would surely be studied today alongside O. Henry as a short story craftsman.  Sadly, specializing in genre meant that his income depended on a prolific output in order to make a living at the penny-a-word rates of the pulps, so the range of quality in his work is quite wide.

Truth be told, the biggest challenge in his early work isn’t the ideas – it’s the execution and the styling, which for Kuttner seems to have been something for which time was required.  A master of complex stories, pacing, and surprise endings, his tales early are often interesting and engaging even when they’re (frankly) not all that well written from a stylistic perspective.

As genre grew and pay rates rose, it became possible for Kuttner to make a better living with his typewriter and his quality evened to the point where he became known for the literary quality of his prose.  But frankly this is no mystery: starting with letters to Weird Tales in the 20s and continuing with his engagement with the Lovecraft Circle (a collection of young writers and fans who essentially had an early fanzine kind of correspondence with Lovecraft himself) Kuttner was busy developing his craft, and while his early work may have suffered somewhat from an over-intellectual style, after meeting C. L. Moore in 1936 [2] they began collaborations – most intensely after their marriage in 1940.

This was surely a match made in literary heaven – Moore was herself an incredibly gifted and justifiably admired author in her time, but it seems to me that her skill with style and colour was just the thing Kuttner’s work needed.  Indeed, some of their most popular work was written in intense collaboration – so intense in fact that L. Sprague de Camp, who knew them both well, once said that once completed it was impossible for them to tell which sections of a story had been written by which of them. [3] You can almost watch Kuttner’s writing improve after the match – and Moore herself said that she thought her own writing owed a great deal to what she learned from working with Kuttner. [4]

Now, Moore’s work was excellent [5], her styling and pacing sublime, but the more hard-core of the two when it came to pulp writing was probably Kuttner – thus the more prolific bibliography over a huge variety of publications.  Kuttner’s styling may have suffered from the sheer volume, but he was nothing if not versatile.

This combination of skills is what drove much of the pair’s production in the 40s and early 50s – Moore contributed the style, Kuttner the page-rate and to some degree the cerebration for which he was justly famous.  Sadly, production waned when Kuttner started working on his masters degree [6] and really never recovered – Kuttner died in 1958, and Moore sadly remarried to a physician who for some reason loathed SF and SFian society so much that he induced her to have nothing more to do with it – even to preventing the SFWA from honoring her as a Grand Master.

Still, the mystery here is less why they both stopped writing but why – after so many years – Moore is still (somewhat) known but Kuttner has been all but invisible for ages. 

It’s strange indeed – especially considering that even 20 years after his death, Ray Bradbury (whose first horror story “The Candle” was reputedly finished by Kuttner, and who so desperately wanted Kuttner’s career in the beginning) named him a neglected master in his Introduction to a collection of Kuttner stories in 1975.  In the same volume he acknowledges Kuttner’s amazingly fertile mind by referring to him as “a pomegranate writer: popping with seeds.”

Indeed, Bradbury may be the most literary and respected of the writers who claim Kuttner as an early influence, but he’s not the only one; Roger Zelazny (the Amber stories), Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) and William S. Burroughs all owe this man a debt, among many others I’m sure.

Kuttner does still turn up of course – how could he not?  In particular, over the years his mythos stories have often been included in collections, including occasional collections of only or mainly Kuttner stories.  But somehow he never seems to get the level of recognition that his best work demands – in fact, while his name remains well known among long-term fandom and of course among lovers of Lovecraftian mythos much of his work remains fairly obscure. 

He has begun to regain visibility in recent years, in part because of the film adaptation of The Last Mimzy (2007) and a small number of recent collections [7], but he still remains sadly underappreciated by genre fandom.

Part of this is surely snobbery – you’d think that a fandom that essentially revolves around the nerdiest of pastimes would be willing to take any accomplices it could get, but the truth is that since the late 50s sword & sorcery and Lovecraftian horror have been increasingly sneered at as unworthy – could this be part of the reason why Kuttner’s work doesn’t get the recognition it deserves?

As I said, at his best Kuttner’s tightly plotted, intricate stories are surely at least in the same league as O. Henry – I think any real fan of early genre writing owes it to themselves to explore at least a little of his work.  You never know what you might learn.


1. Seriously: check out his summary bibliography at isfdb.

2. Amusingly, Kuttner’s relationship with Moore begins with a fan letter he wrote to her in 1936, around the time of his own first professional publication, in which he assumed she was a man.

3. Apocryphal, and possibly part of the mystique de Camp was building about them, but the story goes that they would just leave the page in the typewriter – sometimes even mid-sentence – for the other to continue, alternating constantly until the tale was finished.  This sounds wonderful, but it seems unlikely that a story written in this way would ever be fully coherent, and it was surely the following editorial stages (with both their skillful input) that led to such tightly written stories.

4. Hmm.  While I don’t typically enjoy full collaborations, perhaps there’s an idea here?  I can think of a few authors who have great ideas but less great writing – or amazing writing but not to amazing ideas. Could we force them to marry?  You know, for the good of the genre?

5. And in terms of averages at the very least, probably also superior to Kuttner’s.

6. With the intention of becoming a psychologist of the head-shrinking rather than rat-mazing variety.

7. Yay for e-books and the publication of out-of-copyright anthologies I guess.

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