Allison V. Harding was amongst the most prolific of all the contributors to Weird Tales, having had 36 stories published in its pages. However, what gives her a unique position in that periodical’s history is that they stories appeared in less than eight years; her debut had been with “The Unfriendly World” in July 1943, and she was represented in each of the next nine successive editions up to January 1945. That in itself was a remarkable record for a new author but it pales into insignificance when compared to her later achievement: between July 1946 and May 1949 her fiction was featured in an astonishing eighteen consecutive issues of the bimonthly magazine. Indeed, during the 1940s Harding reigned supreme, with her first 34 Weird Tales stories published in little more than six years. Only five issues published in that time lacked her byline.
Harding’s writing was popular with readers, and in the 25th anniversary issue of March 1948, “The Coming of M. Alkerhaus” was named the “overwhelming” reader’s favorite, despite competition from the likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Edmond Hamilton and Seabury Quinn. She also produced a memorable villain, the Damp Man, an intimidating and well- depicted supernatural killer who was popular enough to be recalled from apparent death to feature in two sequels.
Harding only ever appeared in Weird Tales and its sister publication Short Stories (which included six of her nongenre pieces between 1944 and 1950, most as by “A.V. Harding”), but after her final WT contribution, “Scope” in January 1951, she was heard of no more. For someone as productive as Harding certainly was, it seems strange that after forty-two stories in seven and a half years she appears to have simply vanished.
The name Allison V. Harding was a pseudonym; according to Weird Tales’s pay records, her real name was Jean Milligan. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 31 May 1919, she died aged 85 on 13 December 2004. It is probably relevant that her husband was Lamont Buchanan, a nonfiction writer and the associate editor and art editor of Weird Tales between November 1942 and September 1949. It has been mooted that Allison Harding could even have been Buchanan himself, but as yet there has been no firm evidence to justify such an assumption one way or another. Regardless of his or her real identity, it is the stories that matter, and here there is much that is striking. Some are admittedly average, but these are few and are exceeded by superior efforts that deserve more than their ephemeral pulp existence.
All of Harding’s storeis have contemporary settings and are written in a straightforward and readable style; the scenarios are well portrayed and the plotting imaginative, and while she may not have generated any real masterpieces, she consistently produced stories that captivated and entertained. From her first contribution to the last she wrote in a smooth and assured manner, structuring her prose such that it lent itself readily to the short format, and providing her Weird Tales readers with a wide variety of outré themes.
Those themes ranged between the orthodox and the unusual; there are ghosts seeking revenge and a man pursued by his doppelganger; there is a haunted car and a haunted boat, family curses that reverberate through the centuries, and a killer who literally has water in his veins; there is a rooming house for those who have died violently and a rural inn imperiled by a long dead Indian; there is a world where any fast movement can lead to destruction, another in which darkness brings unimaginable menace, and another where trees seek to eradicate mankind and establish their own dominion. Harding’s fiction was always notable for its diversity and variety, and these aspects are evident when considering her overall canon.
The author’s first story, “The Unfriendly World” (July 1943) tells of a psychiatrist who is called in to treat a young man, George Torey, who is afraid of falling asleep. Torey maintains that between the sleeping and waking worlds there is a nether dimension that he physically slips into, a hostile dimension inhabited by dark, twisted creatures, monstrous and misshapen, armed with harpoon-like weapons, creatures who hate intruders such as he, and who seek only to kill them. Agreeably written and intriguing, this is a story that favorably impresses within its 9,000 word length. “Night Must Not Come” (September 1943) sounds as if it might have been a sequel to that debut, but instead it relates the tale of a defense drill in which an entire East Coast city is to be completely blacked out. One man reads an old volume of folklore which stresses a duty “to keep light always somewhere in the darkness ... for man has a stake in this eternal struggle between light and dark—the stake is his very existence.” The blackout goes ahead but strange things occur, confirming what the old book said, “warning those in cities ever to keep guardian lights throughout the night.”
“Death Went That Way” (November 1943) is particularly good, in some ways anticipating Stephen King’s Christine 40 years later, relating how a man is hired to drive a patched-up coupé from the East Coast to California but finds that the car does not want to go there. It had been owned by an infamous gangster who died behind its wheel and who is now haunting his old car. In under 10 pages, Harding evokes a memorably eerie ambiance in what is certainly the best example of her earlier fiction. This was followed by “House of Hate” (January 1944), which is one of the few Harding tales that fails to convince. Telling of a man whose strange neighbors are abusing their ward, it is quite compelling up until a “twist” ending that admittedly surprises the reader but on closer analysis makes very little sense and leaves far too many unanswered questions.
Much better is “The Marmot” (March 1944), the chilling account of a man who is cursed for an impulsive iniquitous deed by having a marmot magically enter his leg and then seemingly eating him from the inside, although examinations show that nothing is there. He is considered mad until the truth is revealed, much too late, in what is a good story with echoes of Henry Lucas White’s classic “Lukundoo” from 1927. “The Day the World Stood Still” (May 1944) has nothing at all to do with the later film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but it is one of Harding’s few excursions into science fiction. It is the rather preachy tale of the impingement of another dimension into that of the Earth, causing anything travelling at a significant speed to be absorbed and disappear. That speed gradually reduces until even the act of walking quickly can lead to a person vanishing. A desperate last-gasp attempt to solve the problem is made, a problem now known to have been caused by an imbalance resulting from the millions of tons of explosives detonated in the War.
“Guard in the Dark” (July 1944) tells of a small boy’s obsession with his toy soldiers, which he believes protect him from a formless horror descending upon him each night. But that protection comes at a cost as the soldiers are depleted, and replacements become difficult to come by, leading to a bleak and forlorn ending. “The Seven Seas Are One” (September 1944) is about revenge from beyond the grave as a retired sea captain in New England awaits his nemesis, a man he had killed years earlier and thousands of miles away, but to whom time and distance matter little.
In “Ride the El to Doom” (November 1944), the demolition of the city’s out-of-date and decaying elevated railway system cannot be accepted by a man who has been driving one of the trains for so long that he has literally become a part of the mechanism. This is a good story with some well described and gripping scenes as the el runs rapidly and violently along the tracks towards a bridge where the rails have been removed. As an aside, this piece appeared under the name of “Alice B. Harcraft” in the January 1946 Canadian edition of Weird Tales, probably because that issue had another Harding reprint (“The Murderous Steam Shovel”) and the publishers were reluctant to have two stories by the same author in one issue.
“Revolt of the Trees” (January 1945) was the tenth successive issue of Weird Tales that Harding had appeared in since her debut. It concerns a reporter with psychic abilities who learns that all of the trees in the world are planning to rise up and eliminate humanity, a premise that is handled more than capably despite its implausibility. “Fog Country” (July 1945) followed, and it is an excellent story, atmospheric and compelling as the brutal saga of the Hobells of Elbow Creek is brought to a grim conclusion in a sentient, smothering fog with the last survivor of the family finally understanding that the old superstitions are founded in a sinister reality.
“Night of Impossible Shadows” (September 1945) relates how a man visits an old friend in a remote setting, a man whose experiments have resulted in him being afflicted by “shadows that are independent of us and that have a malign, monstrous power of their own.” The evocative descriptive prose and the tensely convincing narrative combine to make this memorable. “The Murderous Steam Shovel” (November 1945) is reasonably effective, better than the title perhaps suggests, telling of a haunted steam shovel seeking vengeance on behalf of its murdered operator. The concept of the sentient excavating machine is reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon’s “Killdozer!” which had appeared in Weird Tales a year earlier, but this story is quite different.
In “Tunnel Terror” (March 1946), a truck driver’s family bears a curse that the river will seek their deaths resulting from the actions of a remote ancestor. When he finds that he has to transport goods through a road tunnel under the river, his days become numbered. “The Wings” (July 1946) is the forgettable story of a man held prisoner by a totalitarian regime and his plans to escape and warn the world of the evils that are intended by the warmongering leaders. “The Machine” (September 1946) is a far better tale. Two scientists develop a mechanism that will have the ability to read souls; little do they realize that they are unleashing a force of evil that threatens to take over the world and which can defend itself by forcing obedience. “Shipmate” (November 1946) is about a haunted boat and the man who buys it cheaply despite its “bad reputation.” He becomes aware of a presence on the boat, and gradually he learns the truth of what actually happened to the previous owner. This is an enjoyable story with some memorably uncharacteristic purple passages such as “A depression settled over his soul even in sleep, for were these not the long, dim corridors of Time that led irrevocably to that last shrouded door we deny until it opens some day before each one of us?”
“The House beyond Midnight” (January 1947) is an exciting, relentlessly paced tale of a newly married couple involved in a car crash and finding themselves reported dead, leading to them being lured into a rooming house peopled by the spirits of those who have died violent deaths. “The Immortal Lancer” (March 1947) is a minor effort in which an influential reviewer spitefully and viciously pans a new play, which leads to the starring actress killing herself. His own violent death soon follows, and he finds himself doomed to eternally seek a forgiveness that will never be forthcoming. An imposing aura of mystery is instilled in “The Place with Many Windows” (May 1947), a narrative revolving around a deserted factory built on an area of cursed ground; the plot develops quickly and unrelentingly to a fiery climax.
Harding’s only series character made his debut in “The Damp Man” (July 1947), the story of Lother Remsdorf Jr., an obese and murderous millionaire whose veins are filled with water rather than blood. His obsession to create a new race of superhumans in his likeness leads him to fasten his attention on Linda Mallory, an expert swimmer, but his pursuit of her is thwarted by the determination of the reporter, George Pelgrim. Remsdorf reappears in “The Damp Man Returns” (September 1947), still fixated on Linda, but this time he is frustrated just as he is about to transform the girl into a creature of his own type. These are both acceptable efforts, but had little to distinguish them from similar pulp mainstays in the 1940s; however, Remsdorf himself is a menacing character, well depicted as an almost unstoppable force of evil.
In “The Inn by Doomsday Falls” (November 1947), a young couple are staying at a rural inn beside a waterfall, a place reputedly haunted by the ghost of an Indian chief who died there many years earlier. After a series of strange and deadly events, a disturbing truth is revealed. “The Frightened Engineer” (January 1948) is a very good story dealing with the construction of a new Trans-state Turnpike that tells what happens when the highway reaches Hill 96, a mound that resists all attempts to level it and which conceals a horrifying secret.
“The Coming of M. Alkerhaus” (March 1948) is about a mysterious movie maker whose films begin to herald actual events. The studio refuses to release his latest production, feeling that its end-of-the-world scenario is too downbeat for public consumption, but that does not affect the workings of destiny and the fate of two particular people in what is a satisfying and cleverly constructed story. “City of Lost People” (May 1948) is a forcefully told piece about a young man who experiences episodes in his life where he is the only person in the world. The story is atmospherically persuasive in its depiction of the empty metropolis and its complete lack of any inhabitants, and it has a clever if contrived explanation for the apparent delusion.
“Isle of Women” (July 1948) is essentially a “lost race” narrative in which a group of people shipwreck on an uncharted atoll south of the Galapagos Islands and find it inhabited by a tribe of cruel Amazonian women. It’s written with gusto, fast paced and quite entertaining, but it fails to stand out from much similar pulp fare right down to its explosive finale. “The Follower” (September 1948) is a fairly good story about a man who is convinced that he is being murderously stalked by his own double, leading to a powerful and unexpected ending. “The House on Forest Street” (November 1948) features a dissolute and ruthless nephew seeking what he sees as his rightful inheritance from the four elderly survivors of his family, coercing them into transferring their property to him. What he fails to appreciate is that there is an even older force determined to safeguard the family’s interests.
“Four from Jehlam” (January 1949), Harding’s longest story at close to 15,000 words, tells of four friends who are cursed by a dervish whom they unthinkingly insult while traveling in India. She tells each of them how they will die, and as the years go by, their deaths occur as predicted despite their efforts to avoid the promised fates. It is those efforts that indirectly cause their respective demises, all of which come about as foretold but in an indirect manner. The narrative is interesting and quite clever with some evocative, descriptive prose and a sharply portrayed sense of the desperation that grips each of the four doomed men. In “The Holiday” (March 1949), a man with family and money problems suddenly becomes successful, and within a decade he has entered politics and becomes president, his life one of satisfaction and prosperity. The twist in the tale is not entirely unexpected, but the story still succeeds.
“The Damp Man Again” (May 1949) is the third in the series revolving around Harding’s cold-blooded, inhuman murderer. Remsdorf does not return, having been conclusively disposed of in the previous episode. In the immediate aftermath of those events, George Pelgrim finds a diary which details Remsdorf’s background and his lethal deeds. Initially there appears little point to the story, which seems to be going nowhere, but events take an unforeseen turn, leading to a surprising and unsettling final few paragraphs, that elevate this tale from ordinary to better than average.
May 1949 was the eighteenth consecutive Weird Tales that had featured a Harding story, and after missing July, she was back again for the next two with “The Deep Drowse” in September and “The Underbody” in November, giving her an outstanding record of appearing in twenty out of twenty-one issues. “The Deep Drowse” is a reasonable end-of-the -world piece told from the perspective of two people who manage to live longer than most although it is not entirely credible in its depiction of the ultimate inheritors of the earth. “The Underbody” is the darkest of all Harding’s work, the horrific tale of an unliving creature from beneath the earth luring innocents to their death; its disturbing conclusion is memorably bleak in its implication.
At little more than 3,000 words “Take the Z Train” (March 1950) is the shortest of Harding’s stories and her most enigmatic and thought-provoking. An insecure and disillusioned clerk catches the same train home every evening, but on this day he finds himself on the unknown Z train, which he realizes is peopled by his earlier selves and others who have made a significant contribution to the hopelessness and disenchantment that have drawn him into his present despairing existence. He then finds himself on a carousel as a young child, reliving a magical day when the whole wide world of the future awaited him with welcoming arms, a world that could have been but never was; the only reality now for him is the significance of the journey of the Z Train.
“Scope” (January 1951) was the last of Harding’s stories and one of her best, a science fiction offering about the biggest telescope ever built. One of three astronomers devises a supplementary lens that will enable a further view of the universe than has ever been possible before; what they see is at first incomprehensible until finally it resolves itself into a huge eye and then a gigantic hand that seems to be moving towards them. The gradual realization of what is being seen and its implications is adeptly portrayed by the author and skillfully accentuates the cosmic insignificance of Earth and her inhabitants.
All in all, Allison V. Harding’s body of fiction was impressive in its creative force and its often original premises. She wrote good stories well, and there was little repetition in her plots. Certain themes do recur, such as mechanical things that become murderous due to sentience or haunting (“Death Went That Way,” “Ride the El to Doom,” “The Murderous Steam Shovel,” “The Machine” and “Shipmate”) and people thought insane or over-imaginative until their so-called fantasies are demonstrated to be true (“The Unfriendly World,” “The Marmot,” “The Seven Seas Are One,” “Guard in the Dark” and “The Follower”).
There are also tales in which identities are not as they are at first assumed (“House of Hate,” “Fog Country,” “The Place with Many Windows,” and to a certain extent “The Holiday”); other narratives start with a suggested spectral element and then seem to have a rational explanation, only to be turned around in their final paragraphs to show that the supernatural does indeed have its own menacing power (“The Place with Many Windows” and “The Inn by Doomsday Falls”).
There are no vampires or werewolves in Harding’s fiction, and only three of her stories specifically involve revenge from beyond the grave (“The Seven Seas Are One,” “The Murderous Steam Shovel,” and “The Place with Many Windows”) while end of the world scenarios feature in four tales (“Revolt of the Trees,” “The Coming of M. Alkerhaus,” “The Deep Drowse,” and “Scope”). Battles fought across dark landscapes where only the central character is aware of the grim reality and the deadly nature of the conflict are the subject of “The Unfriendly World” and “Guard in the Dark,” and fog has an eerie sentience in both “Night Must Not Come” and “Fog Country.”
Harding uses doctors and reporters as main characters in nearly a third of her works. A similar proportion are told in the first person, with only half of her output providing a happy ending for the characters involved, emphasizing that she had no predetermined literary formula. Primarily, her stories were short, typically 6000–8000 words, with only seven exceeding 10,000 words although she was just as proficient at these longer lengths.
Apart from four translations in a 1966 French collection (Histoires d’Horreur), only a few of Harding’s stories have been anthologized. “Take the Z Train” has appeared several times, and another five feature in single collections, “Death Went That Way,” “The Marmot,” “Guard in the Dark,” “The House Beyond Midnight,” and “The Damp Man.” These are all good tales, particularly the first and fourth, but there are other real standouts in the Harding canon such as “Four from Jehlam,” “Scope,” and “Fog Country,” none of which have been reprinted. These all typify the author’s strengths of tight plotting and inventive storytelling, and they demonstrate that she was could rise above the constraints of the pulp fiction format.
An author whose contributions to Weird Tales put her in the top ten of that magazine’s authors as far as the number of her stories published, Allison V. Harding is now virtually forgotten. However, she was popular in her time and produced some exceptional tales that warrant more acclaim than they have received. What her oeuvre also demonstrates is that almost certainly there remain many intriguing pieces in the pages of the pulps that are underappreciated and will regrettably probably stay that way.
The mystery still remains as to what happened to the author’s career. She does not seem to have published anything after “Scope” in 1951, and her husband. Lamont Buchanan, who had written twelve successful illustrated nonfiction books between 1947 and 1956, also dropped off the map. More might have appeared under other pseudonyms, for by 1956 both of them would only have been in their mid-30s with five decades or more of life before them, and it is difficult to understand why they should both have stopped writing and then never returned to what had been productive careers.
We may never know the answers, and it may have been a simple case of getting bored or disillusioned and moving on to a more satisfying and remunerative occupation. However, we can at least be thankful that Allison V. Harding did devote some seven and a half years to the creation of many enjoyable stories that all this time later still intrigue and please.
Mike Barrett lives in Wilmington, Kent.
Allison V. Harding—A Chronology
All stories appeared in Weird Tales unless marked as appearing in Short Stories Magazine.
“The Unfriendly World” (July 1943)
“Night Must Not Come” (Sept 1943)
“Death Went That Way” (Nov 1943)
“House of Hate” (Jan 1944)
“The Marmot” (March 1944)
“The Day the World Stood Still” (May 1944)
“Guard in the Dark” (July 1944)
“The Seven Seas Are One” (Sept 1944)
“Night Without Darkness” (SSM, Sep 10, 1944)
“Death Whistles Twice” (SSM, Oct 10, 1944)
“Ride the El to Doom” (Nov 1944)
“Revolt of the Trees” (Jan 1945)
“Fog Country” (July 1945)
“Night of Impossible Shadows” (Sept 1945)
“The Murderous Steam Shovel” (Nov 1945)
“Tunnel Terror” (March 1946)
“The Wings” (July 1946)
“The Machine” (Sept 1946)
“Shipmate” (Nov 1946)
“The House Beyond Midnight” (Jan 1947)
“Ticket to Doom” (SSM, Jan 10, 1947)
“The Immortal Lancer” (March 1947)
“The Place with Many Windows” (May 1947)
“The Damp Man” (July 1947)
“The Damp Man Returns” (Sept 1947)
“The Inn by Doomsday Falls” (Nov 1947)
“The Frightened Engineer” (Jan 1948)
“The Coming of M. Alkerhaus” (March 1948)
“The Double Feature Murders” (SSM, Apr 25, 1948)
“City of Lost People” (May 1948)
“Isle of Women” (July 1948)
“The Follower” (Sept 1948)
“The House on Forest Street” (Nov 1948)
“Crime of a Thousand Clues” (SSM, Dec 25, 1948)
“Four from Jehlam” (Jan 1949)
“The Holiday” (March 1949)
“The Damp Man Again” (May 1949)
“The Deep Drowse” (Sept 1949)
“The Underbody” (Nov 1949)
“Corpse on Vacation” (SSM, Jan 1950)
“Take the Z Train” (March 1950)
“Scope” (Jan 1951)