The Sword and Sorcery Legacy of Donald A. Wollheim: Part One


Today would be the one hundred and fourth birthday of Donald A. Wollheim. As an editor and publisher of SF, he tends to get shortchanged in comparison to Gernsback and Campbell. However, in that debate, he's at least acknowledged. When it comes to his editorial contributions in the sword and sorcery genre, there simply isn't any attention paid at all. That is a situation in need of correction. To put it bluntly, Wollheim is the most important editor/publisher in the history of sword and sorcery fiction.

From the day he published the first part of Robert E. Howard's "The Hyborian Age" in the Spring 1936 issue of The Phantagraph, Donald A. Wollheim--at the ripe old age of twenty-one--began making his mark as an editor in the field of sword and sorcery literature. REH died soon after and Wollheim never published the entire essay, but his S&S cred had been established. To be able to claim the honor of publishing something Conan-related straight from the typewriter of Howard while he was still alive would be a horn on the helm of any heroic fantasy editor, but Don had much more to contribute in the decades to come.

Wollheim's next major editorial contribution to sword and sorcery came over a decade later, when he began working for Avon Publishing as editor for their Avon Fantasy Reader. The late Forties were a hostile wasteland when it came to the fantasy genre. Hardboiled detectives and spacemen in starships ruled the newsstands. Don and AFR helped carry the torch during those dark times.

Avon Fantasy Reader was a bit of a hybrid beast. Not quite a magazine and not quite a series of paperback anthologies. Despite its chimerical nature, AFR held on longer than most fantasy mags, then or now. Considering that The Phantagraph and Fanciful Tales of Time and Space were basically Weird Tales-centric fanzines, it's no surprise that the Avon Fantasy Reader's content looked a lot like a reprint-heavy version of Weird Tales, which was still limping along at that point. The thing to remember, however, is that WT--and Famous Fantastic Mysteries--were publishing hardly any sword and sorcery content by that point. Don Wollheim filled that void and gave his readers more S&S than any other periodical of that period.

Avon Fantasy Reader #2 featured "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune," which was its first publication for newsstands since its debut in 1929. The same can be said of "Queen of the Black Coast" in AFR #8. Issue #10 featured "A Witch Shall Be Born." AFR #12 reprinted "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" for the first time in almost twenty years. Nictzin Dyalhis' proto-S&S tale, "The Sapphire Goddess," was featured in #17. In the final issue, Wollheim published, for the first time anywhere, the underappreciated sword and sorcery classic, "The House of Arabu"--hilariously retitling it "The Witch From Hell's Kitchen." Taken together, the tales enumerated above would make an excellent S&S anthology right now, let alone in the S&S desert which was the early post-WWII era.

Besides his work as editor of AFR, Wollheim was also the editor at Avon who got A. Merritt's proto-S&S classics, The Ship of Ishtar and Dwellers in the Mirage, into print for the first time in paperback. However, Don wasn't happy at Avon and was looking for greener pastures. The story of that journey will be the topic of Part Two.