Sunday, April 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Henry Kuttner

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
Henry Kuttner was born this day, April 7, in 1915.  He passed away far too young in 1958.

Kuttner got his start in Weird Tales, his first story being "The Graveyard Rats", a grisly little piece.  Other stories for WT followed, and soon he was branching out into science fiction and the shudder pulps.  Legend has it that he started using pseudonyms after writing stories that appeared in the first two issues of Marvel Science Stories, stories that almost got the magazine shut down for pornography.  Supposedly no editor would buy stories with Kuttner's byline for a while.  Mike Resnick reports in his introduction to Girls for the Slime God (in which the above mentioned stories are reprinted) that in a late 1940s poll of sf readers, two of Kuttner's pen names came in higher than his real name.  Those pen names were Lawrence O'Donnell and Lewis Padgett.  Not surprising since his best regarded stories are under those names.

Kuttner's best work was done in collaboration with his wife C. L. Moore.  The story is that Kuttner wrote her a fan letter, not realizing that "C. L." stood for "Catherine Lucille."

Kuttner wrote in a wide variety of genres, including sword and sorcery.  His tales of Elak of Atlantis (reviewed here, here, here, and here) as well as his two stories of Prince Raynor (reviewed here and here) helped fill the gap left by Robert E. Howard's death.  

It was in science fiction that he made his reputation.  Stories such "Mimsy Were the Borogoves", "The Proud Robot",  "The Twonky", "When the Bough Breaks", the Baldly stories (collected in Mutant), the Hogben stories, and countless others have remained popular and readable to this day, showing only a few signs of not aging well.  His story "What You Need" was filmed as an original series Twilight Zone episode.  Kuttner wrote a lot of what at the time was considered novel length work in the pulps, much of it still unreprinted.  A few years ago I managed to get most of the pulps containing these stories, and over the next year or two I hope to make time to read and report on them.  It's also been long enough since I read some of them, that I need to refresh my memory.

There's a lot of great Kuttner material that either hasn't been reprinted or has been reprinted in such obscure places that it doesn't matter.  For example, "We Kill People" from Astounding's March 1946 issue is every bit as good as the stories that are the most well-known.

Kuttner's work was marked by a dry, cynical sense of humor and a pessimistic outlook on life, and the stories often ended on a note of horror.  As the 1940s turned to the 1950s, the Kuttner quit writing so much for the pulps.  Part of this was burn-out, part of this was Kuttner was finally getting his college degree and then a master's.  He authored several mystery novels during this period.  He passed away from a heart attack.

I first encountered Kuttner on a hot, humid afternoon the summer before I entered high school.  I was taking a break and pulled out the SFBC edition of The Best of Henry Kuttner, which had arrived in the mail a few days earlier.  Although I don't recall why I purchased it, I suspect it was because Ray Bradbury, who was something of a protege of Kuttner's for a while, wrote the introduction.  The first story was "Mimsy Were the Borogoves".  My mind was blown.  My life would never be the same. 

Of all the science fiction and fantasy authors I've ever read, Kuttner is still my favorite.  I thank God frequently that Stephen Haffner has reprinted so much of his early work.  (I just wish he'd done it before I spent all that money tracking down those pulps.)

Kuttner (along with his wife C. L. Moore) is one of the few authors who has his/her own shelf in my library.  (The others are Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett and her husband Edmond Hamilton, and Robert E. Howard, who books take up two shelves.  Charles Beaumont would have his own shelf if he had written more books before he died.) 

Much of Kuttner's early work is clunky, but if you read his stories in chronological order, you can see him maturing.  He was a writer who wasn't afraid to stretch himself, to take chances and do something different.  Just read "Happy Ending" as an example.  The story is told in reverse, Ending, Middle, Beginning, and it works.

If you've not read Kuttner, you should.  A large of number Big Names (Mariam Zimmer Bradley, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick) list him among their influences. Find out why.

Happy Birthday, Hank.


  1. Coincidentally, I was reading about Kuttner's contributions to the Cthulhu mythos this morning over breakfast. Happy Birthday Henry!

  2. Although Kuttner is not my favorite SF writer, or even in the top ten, he was consistently good and entertaining, and sometimes rose to great work.

  3. Cahrles R., would that have been in Famous Monsters of Filmland?

    Charles G., I'll agree, he was consistently entertaining. While no one who made his living writing for the pulps could be excellent all the time, the number of stories he wrote I would consider great is more than many writers of that period produced.

  4. Mrs. Kuttner was the class half of that team. She's always been one of my two or three favorite writers. For proof, just compare Kuttner's writing before and after he married her,

    1. I won't disagree with you. She brought a level of sophistication and polish to his work that just wasn't there before. Kuttner was stronger on ideas than on execution.

      I don't recall which titles, but she went on record at one point saying that some of the stories with his name on them were actually written by her. They put his byline on them because he got a higher word rate.

      I read "As You Were" a few years ago, a story apparently written by Kuttner with little or no input from Moore. It was published in Thrilling Wonder in 1950. There are passages that are clunky and reminded me of his early work. A shame, because it had the potential to be one of his major stories.

  5. Happy Belated Birthday, Henry, indeed! So much more of your work I need to read.

    1. Paul, a good starting point would either be The Best of Henry Kuttner, which you can probably find online at a reasonable price, or Haffner Press's Detour to Otherness, which combines two of Kuttner's collections with a paperback's worth of uncollected tales. I'm working my way through the latter a bit at a time and intend to post a review sometime in the next few months.

  6. Henry was my great uncle and sadly I have never read any of his work. Love reading things like this. Fall will be the time to do it.

    1. Bridgett, thank you so much for your comment. Did you know him or did he pass before you were born? If you knew him, I would love to hear any memories you would care to share. You can reach me at

      I've moved the blog to a new site and carried all the content over. You can find it at I'll be writing more posts about Kuttner and Moore there over the fall and winter.