One Hundred Years of THE THRILL BOOK

Feb 25, 2019 by

A century ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Allan England, A. Merritt, and others were spinning scientific romances and fantasies for the general fiction magazines. THE ALL-STORY editor Robert H. Davis called such tales, “different.”  “Off Trail” was how Arthur Sullivant Hoffman of ADVENTURE described the story type.

In 1919, Street & Smith circulation manager Henry Ralston, decided to launch “a magazine wholly devoted to different stories.” Unfortunately, he also selected the inexperienced and inept Harold Brainerd Hersey to helm his new magazine.

In a 1955 autobiographical essay, Hersey suggested that, “No one, anywhere, had come up with the notion that this kind of story was leading in a definite direction, except Bill Ralston . . . . others like myself were keenly interested in futuristic stories, but none of us visualized a magazine given over to it entirely.” So began the legend that Street & Smith’s THE THRILL BOOK was the world’s first science fiction and fantasy magazine.

Inpatient to get things underway, Hersey mailed a two-page letter to potential writers for THE THRILL BOOK:

“We are strongly desirous of securing strange, bizarre, occult, mysterious tales . . . We are also in the market for clean, swiftly moving adventure serials, novelettes, and short stories . . . In this magazine accent is laid on the curious twist; the strange angles of human nature; the coming into contact with an unseen world; miraculous but logical happenings; thrilling occult stories with any background either here or in foreign lands; adventures of extraordinary speed and absorbing interest; mysterious occurrences; spiritual and ghostly narratives; romantically woven novelettes and serials, and whimsical things. If you have an idea which you have considered too bizarre to write, too weird or strange, let us see it.”

Hersey’s notice left THE THRILL BOOK open to any kind of story — adventure, mystery, fantasy, romance, or whatever — as long as it was unusual. With a limited budget and imagination, the new editor relied on his friends, former dime novelists, untried authors, and his own poetry to fill out the magazine.

The first issue of THE THRILL BOOK carried the date March 1, 1919. Published as a semi-monthly in the dime novel format, it featured “Wolf of the Steppes” as its cover story, It was probably the high point of Hersey’s editorship. Credited to Greye La Spina, this werewolf story was the first published work of Fanny Greye Bragg. The author would later become an important contributor to WEIRD TALES.

After eight issues, THE THRILL BOOK became a pulp. It also had a new editor — Ronald Oliphant — after Hersey was canned. Although he turned toward Hoffman’s ADVENTURE for inspiration, Oliphant would also publish some of the magazine’s best science fiction. He serialized Gertrude M. Barrows’ dystopian “The Heads of Cerberus” over five issues. Published under the author’s Francis Stevens pseudonym, it was probably the best story to appear in THE THRILL BOOK. Oliphant also ran two early Murray Leinster science fiction novellas.

The sixteenth and final issue of THE THRILL BOOK was dated October 15, 1919. Interestingly, it included two science fiction tales, both by female writers: the concluding segment of Francis Stevens’ “The Heads of Cerberus” and Greye La Spina’s “The Ultimate Ingredient.”

If only THE THRILL BOOK had employed an experienced editor from its start and adhered to the Hersey-described visions of Henry Ralston, perhaps its story would have been very much “different.”

(The final issue of THE THRILL BOOK — dated October 15, 1919 — featured cover art by James Reynolds. The cover story — Murray Leinster’s “Juju” — is an adventure tale.

To learn more about THE THRILL BOOK, see Richard Bleiler’s THE ANNOTATED INDEX TO THE THRILL BOOK, published by Borgo Press in 1991; Sam Moskowitz’s description of the magazine in UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS: A HISTORY AND ANTHOLOGY OF “THE SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE” IN THE MUNSEY MAGAZINES, 1920-1920, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970; and Will Murray’s “The THRILL BOOK Story,” featured in PULP VAULT #14, still in print from Black Dog Books and available via Amazon.)