Donald Wandrei was an American writer and editor of weird fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. He is also known for co-founding, with August Derleth, Arkham House publishers, which prevented the works of his friend H.P. Lovecraft from being forgotten.
Donald Wandrei was born on April 20, 1908, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Albert and Jeannette Adelaide Wandrei. He had three siblings: David, Howard, and Jeannette Alberta. Howard was a noted science fiction writer and an artist.
Wandrei attended the University of Minnesota, which is where his literary career began. He was a contributor to the Minnesota Quarterly and a member of the editorial board of the Minnesota Daily. He sold his first story, “The Red Brain” (originally entitled “The Twilight of Time”), to Weird Tales in 1927. Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, upon reading this submission was so impressed he is said to have thrust the manuscript to co-worker E. Hoffmann Price and commanded him to read it. This story tells of a far distant future in which people have no bodies, just brains. Wandrei published his first book of poetry, Ecstasy and Other Poems, in his senior year. He graduated in 1928 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.
After graduation, Wandrei moved to New York City, where he took a job as advertising manager for the publisher E.P. Dutton & Co. He moved back to St. Paul in 1929 and returned to school, where he completed three years of courses towards a Ph.D. in English. His second volume of poetry, Dark Odyssey, written with Howard, came out in 1931. Wandrei returned to New York in 1932 and worked as a public relations executive while continuing to write.
He spent most of the 1930s in New York City, pursuing a career as a fiction writer, and he was actively involved with the pulp magazines. He was one of the “Lovecraft Circle,” a group of writers with whom Lovecraft corresponded, along with Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and others.
The magazines that published his stories included Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, Clues, Black Mask, Astounding, Fantasy Magazine, Argosy, Esquire, Unknown, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Among these stories were “The Shadow of a Nightmare,” “The Tree-Men of Mâ€™bwa,” “Raiders of the Universes,” “The Fire Vampires,” “The Monster from Nowhere,” “On the Threshold of Eternity,” “Black Fog,” “A Trip to Infinity,” “Requiem for Mankind,” “The Shrieking House,” “When the Fire Creatures Came,” and others.
Soon after Lovecraft died on March 15, 1937, Wandrei wrote Derleth with news of the death. Derleth immediately wrote to Wandrei “that something should be done to keep Lovecraft’s work in print.” Thus, in 1939, Wandrei and Derleth started the publishing company Arkham House, which they formed specifically to publish the works and letters of H.P. Lovecraft. This feat is particularly important as they saved many of Lovecraft’s works from being forgotten. Arkham’s first book was The Outsider and Others, a huge volume containing most of Lovecraft’s stories then known to exist.
Wandrei served in the armed forces during World War II. His service interrupted both his writing and his involvement with Arkham House. He returned to St. Paul after the war, moved back to New York in 1947, and moved to Los Angeles in 1950. He returned to St. Paul in 1952, where he remained until his death.
During this period, he dabbled in comics, screenplays, and songwriting. He also resumed his work at Arkham House, including assisting in editing Lovecraft’s letters and the fiction of Frank Belknap Long and Clark Ashton Smith.
Wandrei’s first novel, The Web of Easter Island, was published by Arkham House in 1948. This weird novel interweaves the mysterious stone figures of Easter Island and Stonehenge, ulterior dimensions, endlessly repeated cycles of time and super-time, and a strange image called The Keeper of the Seal found in a decrepit English graveyard. Wandrei wrote this novel in 1932 as Dead Titans, Waken, and submitted it to Harper & Brothers, which rejected it. Wandrei revised it for publication by Arkham House.
Unfortunately, litigation consumed the last years of his life, cutting his writing output. This litigation included a legal battle with Derleth’s estate over ownership of the copyrights of the Lovecraft works published by Arkham House (Wandrei prevailed in the lawsuit).
In 1984, he won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention.
Donald Wandrei died in 1987 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Don’t Dream (1997), published by Fedogan & Bremer, gathers all of Wandrei’s horror and fantasy fiction. Fedogan & Bremer also published Colossus: The Collected Science Fiction of Donald Wandrei (1989). Available from Arkham House is Frost, a collection of detective tales featuring I.V. Frost, who solved his cases using deduction, in the vein of Sherlock Holmes. Coming from Hippocampus Press is Sanctity and Sin: The Collected Poetry and Prose-Poems of Donald Wandrei, which collects all of Wandrei’s poetry, including recently discovered works. The book will feature illustrations by Howard Wandrei.