Summer of Unknown Writers: Greye La Spina

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

shadow_evilWelcome to another edition of “Summer of Unknown Writers”, where Innsmouth Free Press explores those books, stories and writers that time forgot and you should find.

It’s weird figuring out which writers will defy time and which will be quickly forgotten. Most of the time, it’s a random coincidence. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi.

Greye La Spina is one of those writers who was prolific and well-known in her day, but you can’t find a single collection of her stories on the market nowadays.

Born in 1880, La Spina was unconventional and a little bit wild. She traveled extensively and eventually became the first female newspaper photographer in New York. Twice-married, the second time to an Italian aristocrat, she began writing short stories with the publication of “The Wolf on the Steppes” in The Thrill Book in 1919. She is one of the first women writers of modern horror and largely forgotten.

Finding La Spina’s stories is difficult, to say the least. She published only one book, Invaders from the Dark. It was a story originally serialized in Weird Tales, then published as a hardcover by Arkham House in 1960. It also appeared in another edition in 1966 as Shadow of Evil. It is currently available from Ramble House.

La Spina seemed to have a knack for werewolf stories – “The Wolf on the Steppes” being her first one – and Invaders from the Dark can be defined as a Gothic werewolf tale, disguised as a “true” story and told in epistolary form. Portia, who is interested in the supernatural and occult, finds herself in a battle of wills with Princess Tchernova, who threatens to steal Portia’s boyfriend, Owen. Tchernova arrives in town with five big grey wolves in cages and two servants. She dresses provocatively, with a costume “cut down to her waistline in the back and in the front to the point of indecency.” It’s not surprising when it turns out the princess is a shapechanger.

devil's_poolThe book is essentially an early paranormal romance. La Spina’s other werewolf stories had more of a straight-horror flavour. “The Devil’s Pool”, published in Weird Tales in 1932, is probably the best of these. It concerns the aforementioned pool, which turns people into werewolves. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an anthology containing it, although Arkham’s Masters of Horror: A 60th Anniversary Anthology Retrospective of the First 30 Years of Arkham House contains “The Wolf of the Steppes”, in its first appearance since its original 1919 publication.

“The Tortoise Shell-Cat” (Weird Tales, 1924) is a were-cat story included in Not at Night!. It’s one of her easier stories to find, having being reprinted at least three times, but unfortunately not one of the best. Told in first person, in the form of several letters, it follows a young woman at a girls’ school, who notices that her roommate is odd and catlike. Eventually, it turns out the roommate has been cursed with voodoo magic and is being forced to turn into a cat that constantly steals stuff in an effort to um…ruin her reputation. Yes, it sounds lame and the fact that it’s Mammy Jinny who is responsible for it doesn’t help things along. Still, you can see how La Spina mastered the slow-build up in this story.

La Spina’s best story, and the one through which I discovered her, is “The Antimacassar” (Weird Tales, 1949). You can find this one in a couple of old anthologies, including Weird Vampire Tales: 30 Blood-Chilling Stories from the Weird Fiction Pulps. This is a book I picked in the 90s, and it’s worth hunting down because, as the title says, it contains a bunch of vampire stories from the pulp era.

“The Antimacassar” is notable for two reasons. First of all, it strays from the usual vampire setting (Gothic castle and vampiric nobleman), placing the action in a much more mundane setting. It also eschews the conventional methods for fighting vampires (garlic or crosses) in favour of a unique and original mythology. Second of all, it includes a creepy vampire child that wants to feast on the blood of a guest who is trying to find out what exactly happened to her dead friend when she spent some time in that house. It’s a fairly good story, despite the heroine’s convenient rescue at the end. With a few changes, it could be adapted for television, a la Masters of Horror.

arkham_mastersThe only Greye La Spina story I was able to find online is “Old Mr. Wiley” (Weird Tales, 1951). It’s fairly short, about a woman nursing a sick boy who receives visits from a mysterious old man at night. Otherwise, La Spina seems to have vanished into thin air. Luckily, in 2011 there will be a collection from Arkham House Publications entitled The Gargoyle and Others: A Quintette of Spine Chilling Horror, which would contain “Invaders from the Dark”, along with “The Gargoyle”, “Fettered”, “The Portal to Power” and the above mentioned “The Devil’s Pool”. Greye La Spina definitely deserves more recognition and at least a collection or two of her works.

Note: A reader contacted us to let us know Greye La Spina was married three times. You can see his full comments below.