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Mary Counselman

Ian McDowell, Greensboro, North Carolina
Half in Shadow Cover
Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1911-1995) was a fiction writer and poet whose work appeared in such popular periodicals as Good Housekeeping, Colliers, and The Saturday Evening Post. She remains best known for her 30 horror and fantasy short stories in the long-running American pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales. Gentler and less gruesome than that of her peers, her writing reflects her birth on a plantation, her time at the University of Alabama, and her experience as a reporter for the state's largest newspaper. Several stories take place on tenant farms built from decaying former slave quarters, and her urban settings suggest the larger cities in her native Alabama rather than the Northern or West Coast metropolises of other pulp writers.
Counselman was born November 19, 1911, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, to Nettie Yonque McCrorey and John Sanders Counselman, an engineering teacher. She attended Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo) and the University of Alabama, and then took a job as a reporter for the Birmingham News. In 1941, she married Horace Benton Vinyard, and the couple settled in Gadsden, Etowah County, living on the Leota, their paddle-wheel steamboat on the Coosa River across from present-day Moragne Park. Counselman taught creative writing at Gadsden State Junior College (present-day Gadsden State Community College). The couple had one son, William Sanders Vinyard. Biographical notes in subsequent horror anthologies also describe the couple as living on a boat with "a large entourage of cats."
While several biographical blurbs and interviews describe Counselman as having stories and poems accepted by unnamed local and amateur publications when she was a teenager in the 1920s, her first recorded professional sale was the short story "The Devil Himself," which appeared in November 1931 in the short-lived Myself: The Occult Fiction Magazine. Her work reached its widest audience with Weird Tales, and her association with the magazine would span three of its original four decades of publication, beginning with "The House of Shadows" (April 1933) and ending with "The Way Station" (September 1953). Her most famous work, published in the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales, is "The Three Marked Pennies," written when she was 15. In a 1967 Gadsden Times interview, she said it was intended as back-of-the-magazine "filler" but caused a sensation amongst the readership and was reprinted 17 times in nine languages. The story was adapted for the radio version of ABC's General Electric Theater in the early 1950s and in the 1960s was included in the high school textbook Language and How to Use It as an example of outstanding writing. The plot centers on three coins—one marked with a cross, one with a circle, and one with square—that are circulated in an unnamed southern city. Flyers appear throughout town announcing that, on a certain date, the bearer of one coin will receive $100,000 in cash, one will receive a trip around the world, and one will receive death, based upon the symbol they possess. But, the flyers warn that the answer to the riddle of which coin is which is not obvious.
The story's theme, prevalent in but not unique to the Southern Gothic tradition, is that of the mysterious stranger who corrupts or shatters the complacency or naivete of a small community. Unlike other examples of the archetype, such as Twain's "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg," the Faustian intruder in Counselman's story is never described or personalized, and the story ends without the reader ever knowing who posted the flyers, circulated the coins, or dealt out the rewards and punishments. Instead, the focus is entirely on the unnamed town's reaction to this temptation.
"The Black Stone Statue"
None of Counselman's other Weird Tales stories had the same impact on the magazine's readership, but she remained a popular contributor. Her most critically lauded story is "Seventh Sister" (January 1943), which was reprinted in the collection The Sleeping and the Dead: Thirty Uncanny Tales (1947). It is unusual for its focus on voodoo, a subject chosen by few women writers, and even more so for its African American protagonist, an albino girl born with occult powers. Counselman treats her with rare sympathy for a "Negro" character in American pulp fiction of the 1940s, although the rest of her family remains shiftless stereotypes dependent on a benign white man. The sad rather than frightening story focuses on the tragic young African American heroine instead of the whites she encounters, unlike the "hoodoo" stories of writers such as Robert E. Howard or the Rev. Henry S. Whitehead. Another, "The Unwanted" (January 1951), addresses an even rarer subject: a young female census taker from Birmingham who encounters a mountain woman who adopts the ghosts of aborted children, including a black child and a Jewish boy. Also notable is "Parasite Mansion," which appeared in the January 1942 Weird Tales and was later adapted for the 1960-62 NBC series Thriller.
The original incarnation of Weird Tales ceased publication in 1954, sharply curtailing Counselman's fiction output. It was one of hundreds of pulp magazines (so named for the cheap paper they were printed on) to cease publication in the 1950s. A few titles survived, but they specialized in science fiction or mystery, not Counselman's brand of folklore-oriented fantasy. Instead, she sold poetry and articles to such "slick" magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, but her fiction did not make that transition. Her supernatural tales appeared in several anthologies, but they were not collected in book form until 1964, when World Distributors UK issued Half in Shadow: A Collection of Tales for the Night Hours, which contained 14 of her Weird Tales stories. This collection was not published in the United States until 1978 by Arkham House, which released a revised hardcover edition. Her other book of fiction, African Yesterdays (1975), contains "folk tales" she wrote for the pulp magazine Jungle Stories. Unusual for the "jungle adventure" genre, they featured African protagonists rather than white heroes. She also published the non-fiction Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Supernatural . . . But Are Afraid to Believe (1976) and SPQR: The Poetry and Life of Catullus (1977), along with several volumes of verse.
In a 1980 interview with horror writer Stephen Gresham for The Weird Tales Collector 6, Counselman claimed that much of her fiction was meant to be humorous, although her most famous stories belie this. Still, she touches on the other qualities that made her almost unique in "The Unique Magazine," as Weird Tales billed itself. She stated that she preferred the more charming and fairytale quality of the scariness in such books as The Wizard of Oz to the macabre and gruesome tone of such writers as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and others who were influenced by their doom-filled philosophies.
In 1976, Counselman was awarded a $6,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1981 she received the Phoenix Award for lifetime achievement as a southern science fiction or fantasy writer. Counselman died in Birmingham on November 13, 1995, at the age of 83.
Works by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
Half in Shadow: A Collection of Tales for the Night Hours (1964)
African Yesterdays: A Collection of Native Folktales (1975)
Move Over - It's Only Me (verse) (1975)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Supernatural - But Are Afraid to Believe (1976)
SPQR: The Poetry and Life of Catullus (1977)
The Eye and the Hand (1977)
New Lamps for Old (1978)
The Face of Fear and Other Poems (1984)
Additional Resources
Butler, George. "Gadsden Author's Bestseller Began as 'Just Another Story'." The Gadsden Times, February 12, 1967, p. 6.
———. "Her Short Story in School Textbook." The Gadsden Times, January 21, 1973, p. 4.
Davin, Eric Leif. Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2006.
Derleth, August. The Night Side: Masterpieces of the Strange and Terrible. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1946.
Gresham, Stephen. "An Interview with Mary Elizabeth Counselman." The Weird Tales Collector 6 (1980): 11-12.
Sullivan, Jack. "Mary Elizabeth Counselman." In The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.
Published:  July 25, 2016   |   Last updated:  July 29, 2016