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Entry updated 29 September 2020. Tagged: Publication.


US magazine, 39 issues, March 1939 to October 1943, published by Street & Smith, edited by John W Campbell Jr; pulp-size March 1939 to August 1941, letter-size October 1941 to April 1943, then back to pulp-size to October 1943; monthly March 1939 to December 1940, then bimonthly.

The fantasy companion to Astounding Science-Fiction, Unknown was one of the most sophisticated of all Pulp magazines, and its demise one of the most lamented. The first issue featured Eric Frank Russell's novel Sinister Barrier (March 1939; 1943; rev 1948), but a better indicator of the direction in which the magazine would develop was, in the same issue, H L Gold's story "Trouble with Water" (March 1939), a humorous fantasy exploiting the incongruity of confronting a twentieth-century American with a figure out of folklore. Campbell was developing in Unknown the type of intellectual fantasy which had appeared in the general Slick magazines, like Collier's Weekly or Harper's Magazine, exemplified by the works of Lord Dunsany or Thorne Smith, but was hitherto unknown in the pulps. While Unknown featured some ordinary sf and Sword-and-Sorcery stories, particularly during its first year, it quickly attracted a group of regular contributors who defined its very individual flavour. Among them was L Sprague de Camp, with such stories as "Nothing in the Rules" (July 1939), Lest Darkness Fall (December 1939; exp 1941; rev 1949), "The Wheels of If" (October 1940) and his collaborations with Fletcher Pratt: "The Roaring Trumpet" (May 1940), "The Mathematics of Magic" (August 1940) – combined in The Incomplete Enchanter (coll of linked stories 1941) – The Castle of Iron (April 1941; exp 1950) and others. These De Camp/Pratt stories – the Harold Shea series, in which the hero is transported into a series of fantasy worlds drawn from Norse mythology, Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590-1596) and so forth – typify the exuberantly wacky approach to fantasy which Unknown made its own. Other authors who appeared frequently were Anthony Boucher, Cleve Cartmill, L Ron Hubbard – with Slaves of Sleep (1939; 1948), "The Indigestible Triton" (1940), "Fear" (1940), "Typewriter in the Sky" (1940) (these two collected as Fear & Typewriter in the Sky [coll 1951]) and others – Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, whose sword-and-sorcery Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series had a wry, ironic tone which suited the magazine very well, Theodore Sturgeon and Jack Williamson. Unknown occasionally carried serials, but most issues included a complete novel or novella. Notable examples were Robert A Heinlein's "The Devil Makes the Law" (September 1940; as "Magic, Inc." in Waldo & Magic, Inc., coll 1950), Williamson's Darker Than You Think (December 1940; exp 1948), Alfred Bester's "Hell is Forever" (August 1942), Leiber's Conjure Wife (April 1943; 1953; vt Burn Witch Burn 1962) and A E van Vogt's The Book of Ptath (October 1943; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D.; vt Ptath 1976).

Until June 1940 Unknown had illustrative covers, of which the best (apart from #1, by H W Scott) were the work of Edd Cartier, the artist whose style most exactly caught Unknown's tone. With the July 1940 issue Unknown adopted a lettered cover intended to give it a more dignified appearance. In October 1941 it switched, three months before Astounding, to the larger letter-size, at the same time changing its name to Unknown Worlds. The December 1943 issue was to have adopted the Digest size which Astounding had taken the previous month, but it never appeared: wartime paper shortages had put an end to the magazine. After World War Two, a revival was mooted, and an anthology in pulp format, From Unknown Worlds (anth 1948) was put out to test the market, but Unknown never reappeared, although H L Gold's fantasy companion to Galaxy, Beyond Fantasy Fiction, was an avowed imitation. Unknown appeared during Campbell's peak years as editor. Its reputation may stand as high as it does partly because it died while still at its best.

Anthologies drawn from Unknown's pages include The Unknown (anth 1963) and The Unknown Five (anth 1964), both edited by D R Bensen (the second with one new story by Isaac Asimov); Hell Hath Fury (anth 1963) edited by George Hay; Unknown (anth 1988) edited by Stanley Schmidt and Unknown Worlds: Tales from Beyond (anth 1988) edited by Stanley Schmidt and Martin H Greenberg. There have also been several indexes and guides to the magazine the two most useful of which are listed below.

The UK edition, from Atlas Publishing Company, had fewer pages and was unusual in appearing for more issues (41) than the original, outlasting it by six years. It was published regularly from September 1939 to December 1940, then intermittently for three years, then mostly quarterly, ending with Winter 1949. Like its parent, but a little later (June 1942) it changed its title to Unknown Worlds. [MJE/MA]

see also: Golden Age of SF.

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