Saturday, March 3, 2012

Phil Stong

Phil Stong (b. Keosauqua, Iowa, 27 January 1899; d. Washington, Connecticut, 26 April 1957)

Philip Duffield Stong was the oldest of three sons of Benjamin J. Stong (1870-1936) and Ada Evesta Duffield (1877-1967), who were married in 1897. Stong’s maternal grandfather had settled, in 1857, in southeastern Iowa near the bend of the Des Moines River around Keosauqua, buying his farm with money he had earned prospecting gold in California. Some elements in Stong’s later novels had their origins in the stories told by his grandfather.

Phil Stong, as he bylined himself, was educated in Des Moines at Drake University (A.B. 1919), and after graduation he taught debating and journalism at an Iowa high school for a few years before entering journalism himself in 1923, first as an editorial writer on the Des Moines Register, afterwards joining the Associated Press in New York in 1925. Through his work at the Des Moines Register, he met Virginia Swain (1899-1968), a young reporter who had graduated from the University of Missouri. They were married on 8 November 1925 in Ohio. They had no children.

Stong worked in New York in various capacities at the North American Newspaper Alliance (1926-27), Liberty Magazine (1928), Editor and Publisher (1929), and The New York World (1929-31), after which time he devoted himself to his creative writing. Stong wrote some twelve novels before he had one accepted for publication. This first-published novel, State Fair (1932), a tale of romance at the Iowa State Fair, was a great success; it has been filmed three times, first in 1933 (starring Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers), secondly as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 1945, and again in 1962 as a musical with Pat Boone, Bobby Darin and Pamela Tiffin.  With Hollywood money, Stong bought some three hundred and twenty acres of his grandfather’s former farm, which had been sold off years earlier.  Though he resided in New York (and later in Connecticut), Stong managed the raising of cattle and crops at the Iowa farm until his death.

Others of Stong’s novels were also made into films, most notably Career (1935), filmed twice, in 1939 and again in 1959, the latter version starring Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine.  In addition to his many novels for adults, including a sequel to State Fair entitled Return in August (1953), Stong also wrote many popular children’s books, including Honk: the Moose (1935), No-Sitch: the Hound (1936), Captain Kidd’s Cow (1941) and Hirum, the Hillbilly (1951).  These, and others, were illustrated by Kurt Weise (1887-1974), the award-winning German-book children’s book illustrator and writer. 

Stong’s one publication which relates to the fantasy field is an anthology, The Other Worlds (New York:  Wilfred Funk, 1941), significant not in the least for being one of the first books to reprint magazine science fiction.  The book is best known in its book club edition, published by Garden City Publishing Company in 1942, whose cover makes it appear that the book’s title is: 25 Modern Stories of Mystery and Imagination. This has given rise to some bibliographical confusion. Stong has a lengthy sixteen page foreword, and has divided the stories into three groupings: I. Strange Ideas (which Stong defines as “short story notions involving the fantastic that I had never heard of before”), II. Fresh Variants (as the name implies, more familiar tropes “pleasantly and ingeniously diverted into new channels and conclusions”), and III. Horrors (more conventionally styled stories in their “best new presentations”); with nine stories in the first section and eight in each of the remaining two.  Stong added introductory “Notes” to the second and third sections.  On the dust-wrapper of the original edition, the publisher advertised the book as “the best modern stories of free imagination since Dracula and Frankenstein”.
The 1942 edition

Stong’s commentary is rather breezy and colloquial, and it doesn’t stand the test of time well. Oddly, he claims that the first requirement of a good fantastic story is "that it should not be remotely possible”. Additionally, he expressed a preference for supernatural tales and a disdain for interplanetary ones (“there are not a dozen such stories with even mild originality or amusement value”), which disappointed readers devoted to science fiction. Furthermore, he ruled out ghost stories that rely “on their merits as ghost stories”, and vampire stories (“it is precisely because Bram Stoker did the excellent novel Dracula on this subject that no maundering imitations of his interesting bloodsuckers are worth the paper on which they are printed”), as well as stories of were-wolves or of any were-creatures.  Stong humorously supplies endings for any ghost, vampire, or werewolf stories that readers may care to make up for themselves.  Here is Stong’s take on the vampire tale and some of its many clichés:
    With trembling hands we threw back the lid of the coffin inhabited by the extremely late—say two hundred years or so—Countess Grimova Lapitupsky. (Italics, please.)  The body was as fresh and flushed with the warm hues of life as if the Countess were merely sleeping.  I stood spellbound by her beauty—two hundred years is nothing for a beautiful vampire, but clothes are not vampires and play out in a century or so. I stood spellbound—
    The old priest (preferably Greek Orthodox) looked at me severely.  “We have out duty, my son.”
    He passed me the sharpened ash (the woods vary) stake.
    “No, no,” I murmured, hesitating, as I poised the cruel point over the lovely ivory bosom. (The technicians call this last touch Lech Appeal and there is too much of it in vampire stories to be quite healthy.)
    The ponderous mallet fell, driving the needle-tipped ashlar and my thumb-nail into the beautiful demon’s heart. A terrible scream and a great spate (it had better be a spate in a vampire story) of fresh blood gushed from wound and mouth alike.
    “Gospadar e tvorets,” said Papa solemnly.
    And then as I turned sadly away, a beautiful smile of peace rested for an instant on the lovely face before the Countess fell into dust. 
 The accuracy of his humor notwithstanding, Stong compiled his volume utilizing strange criteria. 

In the middle of the foreword, Stong offhandedly mentions that August Derleth had given him assistance on this book, and that helps to explain some of Stong’s selections, which includes Lovecraft’s “In the Vaults” as well as Derleth’s own “The Panelled Room” and Derleth’s collaboration with Mark Schorer “The Return of Andrew Bentley”, all to be found in the section devoted to Horrors. Derleth’s “assistance” might also explain the inclusion of other stories from Weird Tales, including “The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner, another by Seabury Quinn, one by “John Flanders” (correctly identified as Jean Ray), and two stories by Manley Wade Wellman.  In fact of the nine stories in the Horrors section, only Derleth’s “The Panelled Room” did not originally appear in Weird Tales

In the first section, Strange Ideas, stories are included by notable science fiction authors such as Lester del Rey and Ralph Milne Farley. Mainstream writer Michael Fessier, author of Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind (1935), has one quirky tale, “The Man in the Black Hat”. And there is one original story, “Aunt Cassie” by Stong’s wife, Virginia Swain. Other contributors include Thorp McClusky, Mindret Lord, Paul Ernst, John Jessel, and Walker G. Everett.

The second section, Fresh Variants, opens with “A God in the Garden” by Theodore Sturgeon—an early appearance for his work in a hardcover anthology.  Other science fiction writers included are Eando Binder, Murray Leinster, Harry Bates, and Henry Kuttner (under the pseudonym “Kelvin Kent” but identified as Kuttner in parentheses in the table of contents.  A second story original to this anthology appears in this section, “A Problem for Biographers” by Mindret Lord. 

Overall The Other Worlds is moderately interesting anthology for its time, limited in several ways, but one that doesn’t live up to its billing.  As Basil Davenport noted in his review of the book, Stong doesn’t follow his own stated standards of originality.  “If you are well-read in the field,” Davenport wrote, “you will certainly miss your favorites; and as you read through the volume you will find that Mr. Stong is much too easily pleased, and that he often abandons his own expressed or implicit standards. . . . He insists on the value he sets on originality of idea or treatment; but too many of these stories have well-worn themes that are hardly redeemed by their treatment.” (The Saturday Review, 27 September 1941).

In 1957 Phil Stong died of a heart attack in the workroom of his home in Washington, Connecticut, where he and his wife had lived since the 1930s.   

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Doug. It's good to know that the anthology is easily available and affordable. I only want it for Swain's tale and, out of curiosity, for Stong's introductory "insights." I was book hunting a few days ago and came across his novel WEEKEND in a DJ and nearly bought it. I may go back to pick it up now.

    I have never read a vampire tale with a Greek Orthodox priest. Clearly, he was writing tongue in cheek. He rightly identifies the "Lech Appeal" and its unhealthy abundance in vampire fiction. What would Stong say about it now? He'd be horrified, I think. It's more like vampire porn these days.