From Gernsback to Campbell
September 1935 issue of Weird Tales
; cover art by Margaret Brundage
Street & Smith was a well-established pulp publisher, with an excellent distribution network, and the revived Astounding was quickly competitive. It was edited by F. Orlin Tremaine, with assistance from Desmond Hall; both had come to Street & Smith from the wreckage of Clayton. Tremaine was an experienced pulp editor, and Street & Smith gave him a budget of one cent per word, which was better than the competing magazines could pay. In December 1933 Tremaine wrote an editorial calling for "thought variant" stories that contained original ideas and did not simply reproduce adventure themes in a science-fiction context. The early stories identified by Tremaine as "thought variants" were not always particularly original, but it soon became apparent that Tremaine was willing to take risks by publishing stories that would have fallen foul of editorial taboos at other magazines. By the end of 1934, Astounding was the leading science fiction magazine; important stories published that year include Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time", the first genre science fiction story to use the idea of alternate history; The Legion of Space, by Jack Williamson; and "Twilight", by John W. Campbell, writing as Don A. Stuart. Within a year Astounding's circulation was estimated at 50,000, about twice that of the competition.
The month after Tremaine announced his "thought variant" policy, Hornig launched his own "New Policy" at Wonder Stories; as with thought variants, the goal was to emphasize originality and bar stories that merely reworked well-worn ideas. Hornig's rates were lower than Astounding's, and sometimes his writers were paid very late, or not at all; despite these handicaps, Hornig managed to find some good material, including Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey", which appeared in the July 1934 Wonder and has been frequently reprinted.
Amazing Stories, and its sister magazine, Amazing Stories Quarterly, both of which had been edited by T. O'Conor Sloane since Gernsback lost control of them in 1929, published little of note during the early 1930s, though Sloane did print the first story by several writers later to become well-known, including John W. Campbell, John Wyndham, and Howard Fast. The Quarterly schedule became irregular in 1932, and it finally ceased publication with the Fall 1934 issue. Weird Tales had survived a bank failure in 1930 that froze most of the magazine's cash, and was continuing to publish well-received material—mostly fantasy and horror, but still including some science fiction. H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard became regular contributors, and Margaret Brundage monopolized the covers for a while, becoming perhaps the best-known artist to work for the magazine; almost all her covers included a nude figure. Virgil Finlay began contributing interior artwork in the mid-1930s; both Finlay and Brundage were very popular with the readers.
Gernsback experimented with some companion fiction titles in other genres in 1934, but was unsuccessful, and Wonder Stories' decline proved irreversible. After a failed attempt to persuade his readers to support a subscription-only model, he gave up and sold the magazine to Ned Pines of Standard Magazines in February 1936. It was retitled Thrilling Wonder Stories to fit in with Pines' other titles such as
Thrilling Detective, and given to Mort Weisinger to edit, under the supervision of Leo Margulies, Standard's editor-in-chief. The format was left unchanged, but the stories and covers became much more action-oriented. Standard's first issue, dated August 1936, contained stories by several well-known writers, including Ray Cummings, Eando Binder, and Stanley G. Weinbaum, but overall the fiction was unsophisticated compared to what could be found in Astounding. A comic strip, "Zarnak", was tried, but this only lasted eight issues.
Interior illustration by Virgil Finlay for Earl Peirce's "The Homicidal Diary", in the October 1937 issue of Weird Tales
Two more science-fiction and fantasy magazines were launched in 1936, but neither lasted beyond the end of the year. Hersey, who had tried the market in 1931 with Miracle, brought out Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine, in an attempt to market pulp magazines to comics fans. Everett Bleiler, a historian of science fiction, describes the stories as "moronic" and "third-rate". Although the magazine was timed to exploit the release of the first Flash Gordon serial, it was a failure, and only one issue appeared. The Witch's Tales, a fantasy and horror pulp with ties to a popular radio show of the same name, was slightly more successful, with two issues in November and December 1936. Ashley considers the fiction to have been of reasonable quality, and the magazine's failure may have been because Carwood, the publisher, was small and relatively inexperienced, and may have had weak financing and distribution.
At the end of 1937, Street & Smith promoted Tremaine to assistant editorial director, and his place as editor of Astounding was taken by John W. Campbell. A few months later Street & Smith let Tremaine go, and gave Campbell a freer hand with the magazine. Campbell immediately changed the title from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction; his editorial policy was targeted at the more mature readers of science fiction, and he felt that "Astounding Stories" did not convey the right image. He also asked his cover artists to produce more sober and less sensational artwork than had been the case under Tremaine. His most important change was in the expectations he placed on his writers: he asked them to write stories that felt as though they could have been published as non-science fiction stories in a magazine of the future. A reader of the future would not need long explanations for the gadgets in their lives, so Campbell asked his writers to find ways of naturally introducing technology to their stories. He also began running regular scientific fact articles, with the goal of stimulating story ideas. Campbell's approach differentiated Astounding from rivals; Algis Budrys recalled that "it didn't look like an SF magazine" because covers did not show men with ray guns and women with large breasts.
Meanwhile, Bernarr Macfadden's Teck Publications, the owner of Amazing Stories, was running into financial difficulties, and in 1938 the magazine was sold to Ziff-Davis, a Chicago-based publisher. Raymond Palmer, the editor, was a local fan. Under Sloane Amazing had been dull; Palmer wanted it to be fun, and soon transformed the magazine, publishing escapist stories. He was unable to make Amazing into a real rival to Astounding, and Ashley speculates that Bernard G. Davis, who ran the editorial offices of Ziff-Davis, may have instructed Palmer to focus on entertainment rather than on serious science fiction.
During the 1930s the hero pulps were among the most popular titles on the newsstands; these were magazines focused on the adventures of a single character, such as Doc Savage or The Shadow. These often had science-fictional plots, but were not primarily science-fiction or fantasy magazines. One example that was clearly fantasy was Doctor Death, which featured an evil genius who had supernatural powers. It appeared in February 1935 and lasted for only three issues.