Allison V. Harding, horror and fantasy author of the 1940s, is nigh forgotten these days, even though she was prolific, publishing thirty-six stories in Weird Tales between 1943 and 1951, as well as six non-genre stories in Weird Tales‘ sister magazine Short Stories.
I reviewed two of her stories, “Ride the EL to Doom” and “Guard in the Dark”, for my Retro Reviews project, and liked what I read, so much that I put “Ride the EL to Doom” on my ballot for the 1945 Retro Hugos. Others must have agreed with me, because “Ride the EL to Doom” made the longlist for the 1945 Retro Hugos, as did Harding’s novelette “The Day the World Stood Still”, one of her rare forays into science fiction. I didn’t review “The Day the World Stood Still”, though Steve J. Wright did.
Allison V. Harding is also a mystery, because we almost nothing about her. Of course, there are plenty of pulp authors about whom we know next to nothing, but most of them are one or two story wonders, not one of the top ten most prolific contributors to Weird Tales. Furthermore, Allison V. Harding was clearly popular in her day, as the letter columns and reader polls in Weird Tales indicate.
So why do we know so little about her, even though the history of Weird Tales is fairly well documented? Part of the reason is that early Weird Tales scholars like Robert Weinberg didn’t much care for Allison V. Harding’s stories and dismissed them as forgettable fillers and therefore never even bothered to research the author.
What we do know about Allison V. Harding is that the name is a pseudonym. The person behind this pseudonym was unknown, until Sam Moskowitz dug into the files of Weird Tales in the 1970s and found that the cheques for the Harding stories were addressed to a woman named Jean Milligan, an attorney and daughter of a prominent East Coast family. Jean Milligan was also married to Charles Lamont Buchanan, assistant editor of Weird Tales and Short Stories. So mystery solved. Or is it?
ETA 3: Anya Martin, who has done a lot of research into the mystery that is Allison V. Harding, reports that Jean Milligan was not in fact an attorney, even though her checks were sent to an attorney. She attended Connecticut College for two years, but dropped out after the death of her mother in 1938. It’s not known where Jean Milligan worked, though both the Milligans and the Buchanans were wealthy families.
Because there are also people who believe that the author of the Allison V. Harding stories was not Jean Milligan at all, but Charles Lamont Buchanan himself who used his fiancée and later wife as a front to avoid the appearance that he was publishing his own fiction in the magazine he co-edited. But more on that later.
For almost seventy years, there was little interest in the works of Allison V. Harding. Her stories were rarely reprinted, not even by the indefatigable August Derleth who kept a lot of Weird Tales authors in print via Arkham House, until the fantasy boom of the 1960s and 1970s suddenly made authors like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft hot properties again.
However, it seems that we’re in the middle of an Allison V. Harding mini-renaissance. Her stories are getting more attention than they have received in decades and there is even an Allison V. Harding reprint collection from a publisher called Armchair Fiction available now entitled Allison V. Harding – The Forgotten Queen of Horror. It’s certainly an apt title, though sadly, the paperback collection is only available on Amazon.com, not on the international Amazons. Armchair Fiction folks, if you happen to be reading this, please check the “expanded distribution” checkbox on the Createspace/KDP Print interface or Ingram Spark or whatever you’re using, so the international Harding fans among us can order the collection without having to pay horrendous shipping fees.
As for why Harding is experiencing a renaissance at this particular moment in time, a large part of the reason is probably that vintage pulp magazines are more accessible these days than they have been in seventy years. Original copies of Weird Tales are expensive and rare collector’s items, but pretty much every copy of Weird Tales and many other pulp magazines may be found online in their entirety at archive.org. So those of us who enjoy vintage speculative fiction can now read those vintage pulp magazines again the way they appeared on the newsstands seventy or eighty years ago and are not just limited to the stories that anthologists considered important enough to reprint. And some of us stumbled upon Harding’s stories and thought, “You know, those ‘forgettable fillers’ are actually pretty damn good.”
So why do Allison V. Harding’s stories speak to us today, when they obviously didn’t speak to previous Weird Tales scholars? Part of the reason may be that scholars of Weird Tales tend to focus either on sword and sorcery or Lovecraftian cosmic horror. And that was not what Allison V. Harding wrote. Most of her stories were what would be called urban fantasy now, tales about supernatural going-ons in the modern world (in fact, a lot of what could be found in the pages of Weird Tales in the 1930s and 1940s is urban fantasy). But unlike contemporary urban fantasy writers, the monsters of Harding’s stories are rarely vampires, werewolves and the like. Instead, her monsters are the mechanical objects of the modern age. Harding liked to write about haunted machinery and objects (which was something of a trend in the 1940s, also see the Retro Hugo winners “The Twonky” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore and “Killdozer!” by Theodore Sturgeon), whether it was EL-trains, automobiles, steam shovels, telescopes or toy soldiers. Her characters are often working class people like construction workers, motormen, conductors, truckers and steelworkers, though scientists, lawyers, teachers and journalists also appear. There is a certain noir sensibility to her stories and her descriptions of industry and urban life in the 1940s are dripping with atmosphere. In short, it’s good stuff and quite different both from the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft (though Lovecraftian monsters occasionally show up in Harding’s work) and his acolytes and the more gothic horror of writers like Dorothy Quick. In many way, Harding’s stories are more reminiscent of Stephen King (whose 1983 horror novel Christine is maybe the last hurray of the haunted machinery story) than of her fellow Weird Tales authors of the 1930s and 1940s.
Armchair Fiction‘s Allison V. Harding collection is also getting some attention online. Sandy Ferber recently reviewed it for Fantasy Literature, as did Paperback Warrior, a blog that mostly reviews vintage crime novels, thrillers and men’s adventure novels. Both reviewers praise the stories and of course, also go into the mystery that is Allison V. Harding’s identity. And once you start to dig into Harding’s identity, you’ll quickly come across the claims that Allison V. Harding was a pen name for Lamont Buchanan rather than his wife Jean Milligan.
Sandy Ferber notes that some of the stories feel as if a man wrote them, some feel as if a woman wrote them and that it’s impossible to know either way. He also suggests that Lamont Buchanan and Jean Milligan may have been a couple writing together like Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. That’s one theory that actually makes a lot of sense.
The Paperback Warrior reviewer, meanwhile, comes to the conclusion that Allison V. Harding was a pen name for Lamont Buchanan, because no woman could have written those stories. And why? Let’s have a quote:
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.
Sorry, but much as I like the Paperback Warrior blog otherwise (cause they do excellent work spotlighting vintage crime and adventure fiction), that’s just egregiously sexist. First of all, it’s not actually all that easy to tell an author’s gender by their writing alone. When I put some of my own writing into that online tool that supposedly determines the author’s gender from a writing sample, the program usually thinks I’m female when I put in a sample of my fiction and male when I put in a sample of my non-fiction. However, I don’t actually change genders, depending on whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.
We all know the case of James Tiptree Jr., whose writing Robert Silverberg described as “ineluctably masculine”, until Tiptree was revealed to be a woman, Alice B. Sheldon – oops. And having read Tiptree’s/Sheldon’s fiction many years after her identity was revealed, i.e. with the benefit of hindsight, I always thought that several of her stories were very obviously written by a woman. On the other hand, neither Leigh Brackett nor Andre Norton have ever struck me as particularly feminine writers. Both frequently had male POV characters. Norton wrote a lot of boys’ own adventures in space and Brackett’s stories featured macho heroes and had a very hardboiled noirish style. On the other hand, Dorothy Quick almost always had female POV characters and is the only golden age writer of any gender whose stories consistently pass the Bechdel test. C.L. Moore and Margaret St. Clair can go either way, with some stories feeling more female and others feeling more male. The only published story (under that name) by Ruth Washburn not only isn’t particularly feminine and has a male POV character, the lone female character is also a stereotyped shrewish wife. The 1945 Retro Hugo finalist The Winged Man, credited solely to E. Mayne Hull, but attributed to Hull and her husband A.E. van Vogt, features an all-male submarine crew with the only female characters being a bunch of offensive amazon stereotypes from the future escorting a bridezilla to her wedding who are too stupid to understand the science of WWII era submarines. The sole female character in “The Martian and the Milkmaid” by Frances M. Deegan is also something of a caricature, though Deegan also hints that her (male) narrator is not exactly reliable. Alice-Mary Schnirring’s “The Dear Departed” barely has any female characters at all, as does “The Werewolf’s Howl” by Brooke Byrne. So in short, the women SFF writers of the golden age and beyond were all over the place with regard to female POV characters and themes.
Also, it’s quite an assumption to make that a woman in the 1940s wouldn’t have been familiar with the technical details of construction work, EL-trains, railroads, bulldozers, etc… that are found in Allison V. Harding’s work. For starters, there have always been women who were interested in technology. And in the 1940s, a lot of women were actually working in factories, as conductors, train drivers and in other traditionally male occupations to replace the soldiers that were fighting overseas. Furthermore, Jean Milligan may have come into contact with the technical details in her job as an attorney, if she worked on contracts, liability cases and the like. And according to the information Tellers of Weird Tales dug up, one of her sisters was married to an engineer, so she might have gotten the details from her brother-in-law. Or maybe she simply found heavy machinery fascinating. We have no way of knowing.
As for why Allison V. Harding suddenly stopped writing, people of all genders stop writing for all sorts of reasons. Furthermore, a lot of pulp authors just seem to vanish after a handful of stories, only to show up in a different genre later on. For example, Mona Farnsworth had five stories published in Unknown in 1939/1940 and then seemingly vanished, until she reappeared as an author of fourteen gothic romances in the 1970s. Did she really stop writing during the thirty years inbetween or did she work in a different genre or under another name? That’s something else we’ll probably never know.
As for the arguments that Allison V. Harding was really Charles Lamont Buchanan, I don’t find them all that convincing. For starters, there was no taboo against editors publishing their own work during the pulp era. John W. Campbell and Frederick Pohl both published their own work, though they used pen names, and no one objected. Pohl also published his then wife Judith Merril. So if Lamont Buchanan really did write the stories, he had a reason to use a pen name, but no reason to hide his identity from Weird Tales editor Dorothy McIlwraith. And even if Lamont Buchanan wrote the stories, it makes no sense for him to use a female pen name. Yes, Weird Tales was probably the most woman-friendly SFF magazine of the pulp era with a large female readership and a lot of female contributors, but the majority of the writers were still male. And while pen names were common during the pulp era, cross-gender pen names were not all that common and I can’t think of a single example of a male writer using a female pseudonym during the pulp era. So why would Lamont Buchanan use a female pen name for stories that were not even particularly feminine in tone and subject matter?
ETA: German critic and fan Peter Schmitt points out that Robert A. W. Lowndes did publish two stories “The Leapers” and “Passage to Sharanee” in 1942 under the female pen name Carol Grey. Bobby Derie confirms this, so there is at least one precendent. Bobby Derie also points out that H.P. Lovecraft occasionally ghostwrote for women writers and that the resulting stories appeared under the women’s names.
Peter Schmitt has also dug up a story attributed to Donald Matheson in the table of contents but to Florence Matheson in the byline in September 1934 issue of Amazing Stories. ISFDB lists the author as Florence rather than Donald. Whoever they were, we know nothing about them.
The fact that Allison V. Harding’s stories only appeared in Weird Tales and Short Stories, i.e. magazines Buchanan and Dorothy McIlwraith co-edited, is not as big a clue as it seems either, for plenty of pulp authors only wrote for one magazine or one publisher. For example, the above mentioned Frances M. Deegan almost exclusively wrote for magazines of the Ziff-Davis company, because the company was based in her hometown and she had developed a good relationship with editor Raymond F. Palmer, as she explained in the biographical note that went with one of her stories. Interestingly, Frances M. Deegan was also suspected of being either a house name or the wife of a Ziff-Davis assistant editor, who also happened to be called Frances, though those claims have been largely debunked.
Another argument is that no one in Jean Milligan’s family knew she was a writer. However, not every writer shares their work with their family and the family quite often doesn’t care either. If you asked the members of my extended family, quite a few probably have no idea that I’m a writer either. Furthermore, Jean Milligan might well have wanted to keep her writing secret from her family. It’s also possible that she worried being published in a lurid pulp magazine like Weird Tales (though it was somewhat less lurid by the time Harding was publishing there) might have harmed her professional reputation. That’s why C.L. Moore published under her initials, after all, because she feared that her employer, a bank, might find out.
As for the claim that Lamont Buchanan was both an editor and a writer of non-fiction, whereas Jean Milligan was not known to have written anything other than legal briefs, I’m not sure why writing books about baseball and the history of the Confederacy or the two party system in the US would necessarily predispose someone more to writing horror and urban fantasy than writing legal briefs would. And comparing the writing style of Lamont Buchanan’s non-fiction books to the Harding stories would only be of limited use, because fiction and non-fiction are different, though certain idiosynchracies might pop up.
ETA2: Anya Martin of the Outer Dark podcast and symposium, who has done some research into the mystery that is Allison V. Harding, points out on Twitter that Jean Milligan wrote during her teens and was a member of her high school literary club. Anya Martin has also dug up a page from Jean Milligan’s high school yearbook and an article from her hometown paper the New Canaan Advertiser, which confirm her literary activities.
Jean Milligan died in 2004, Lamont Buchanan in 2015, so it’s no longer possible to ask them directly, though it was possible well into the 21st century (and I’m side-eying all the Weird Tales scholars who’d rather pore over a crumpled shopping list by H.P. Lovecraft than interview the few surviving Weird Tales contributors/possible contributors).
As it is, we will probably never know for sure who wrote the Allison V. Harding stories, whether it was Jean Milligan, Lamont Buchanan or both of them together. However, the strongest evidence we have is the fact that the cheques were adressed to Jean Milligan and the simplest explanation is that the person to whom the cheques were adressed was also the author of the stories. So what’s the need to come up with a convoluted theory to explain why someone else wrote the stories than the person whose name was on the cheques?
It’s still peddled as received wisdom in many circles (and not just the obvious ones either – you find this misconception both on the left and on the right) that women did not read or write speculative fiction before [insert date here]. Like pretty much any received wisdom, this is wrong. On the contrary, there were quite a lot of women writing science fiction, fantasy and horror even during the golden and radium ages, let alone later. Just as there were women editors, artists, fans, etc… And it wasn’t just the one or two token women whose names we still remember either, but a lot of women whose names have been forgotten. The straight white boys’ club of SFF never existed.
However, it’s also true that women writers are less likely to be reprinted than male writers (though there are plenty of stories by male writers, including very good ones, which have never been reprinted either). The fact that early anthologies like The Great SF Stories anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg tended to favour stories originally published in Astounding over stories originally published in Weird Tales or Planet Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories, which were more female friendly, doesn’t help either. And while August Derleth did a lot of good work keeping the work of Weird Tales authors in print via Arkham House, he also favoured the male contributors to Weird Tales over the women.
The misconception that SFF was a white boys’ club prior to [insert date here] came about because women writers are more likely to be forgotten due to a combination of factors. Sometimes, you can see this happening in real time, e.g. how the Cyberpunks consigned the feminist SF of the 1970s to the memory hole as “stale” and “not worth remembering”. And how many of us bought into this claim hook, line and sinker? I certainly did, until I actually looked at Hugo and Nebula finalists of the 1970s and found not just a whole lot of good works, but also a whole lot of women.
Furthermore, the whole barrage of tactics Joanna Russ outlined in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is also still aimed at the women writers of our genre’s past. Over the past seventy years, Poor Allison V. Harding has been subjected to a whole bunch of them. First, we have “pollution of agency” a.k.a. “She wrote it, but it’s not really art and she isn’t really an artist”. And so Harding’s stories have been dismissed as forgettable fillers that just took up space in the magazine, which could have been filled by H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, if they hadn’t died six or respectively seven years before Harding started publishing.
And once people started realising that many of those Allison V. Harding stories are actually pretty good, we get “denial of agency” a.k.a. “She didn’t write it” (the claims that Charles Lamont Buchanan wrote the stories) with a side order of “false categorising” a.k.a. “She wrote it, but she had help”, in this case via categorising Jean Milligan as the girlfriend/wife and possible collaborator of Charles Lamont Buchanan rather than a writer in her own right.
Nor is Allison V. Harding the only victim of these tactics. We can see the same tactics on display with many of the women writers of the golden age and beyond. For example, early reprint anthologies often attributed the collaborations between Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore solely to Kuttner, even though we know that almost all of the Lewis Padget and Lawrence O’Donnell stories were collaborations. Thankfully, later day anthologists have corrected this. And as I explained in my Retro Review of “Black God’s Kiss”, C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories also get hit with “pollution of agency” a.k.a. “She wrote it, but it’s not really art and she isn’t really an artist” in the form of “Well, those stories are not really sword and sorcery, because they’re not like the Conan stories”.
Frances M. Deegan, prolific contributor to Fantastic Adventures, Amazing Stories and several detective fiction pulps, was long considered a house name used either by the Ziff-Davis assistant editor William Hamling or his wife Frances Yerxa (who was a writer in her own right), even though evidence shows that Frances M. Deegan was a completely different person than Frances Yerxa.
E. Mayne Hull is also usually mentioned only as the wife of A.E. van Vogt, even though she was a writer in her own right. It’s also notable that the 1945 Retro Hugo finalist “The Winged Man” was attributed to both Hull and van Vogt (because ISFDB, which is usually the most reliable source in these matters, insists it’s a collaboration), even though the magazine publication in Astounding lists only Hull as the author.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Quick, who is one of my favourite golden age rediscoveries, is remembered more for having befriended Mark Twain at the age of eleven than for her stories, even though she was a fine writer and prolific contributor to Weird Tales, Unknown and other pulp magazines. Yet very little of her work has been reprinted, whereas much worse stories by male writers which appeared alongside Dorothy Quick’s work have been reprinted.
No one denies that Margaret St. Clair existed or claims that she was really a man, but we mainly remember her for two novels from the 1960s, Sign of the Labrys and The Shadow People, because Gary Gygax decided to list those in the Appendix N to the first edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Handbook. And true, Sign of the Labrys is very good (sadly, I haven’t yet read The Shadow People). However, Margaret St. Clair had a lengthy career ranging from just after WWII to 1981 and wrote many excellent works, most of which are out of print, so we have a clear case of “isolation” a.k.a. “she wrote it, but she only wrote one [or two] of it”.
I don’t think it’s necessarily maliciousness or even intent that causes even well-meaning critics to dismiss the women SFF writers of the golden age and beyond. However, the patterns are very notable. And it’s sad that even though it has been almost forty years since How to Suppress Women’s Writing first came out, we’s still dealing with the same old tactics today.