Editor's picksNews

The Smart, Sophisticated Pulp Fiction of Jane Rice

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2017)

“I like corn on the cob, men’s pajamas, zoos and ghost stories, and I dislike galoshes, mathematics, people who put burnt matches back into the box, surrealism and stewed tomatoes.”

So Jane Dixon Rice told Ladies Home Journal in 1946, three years after the fantasy magazine for which she wrote her most famous stories ceased publication and a decade and a half before she moved to Greensboro.

I lived here for over a decade before learning she was alive and local. As a teenager, I’d collected old pulp fantasy magazines, including Unknown, the short-lived, yet influential one that published much of her best work before being killed by wartime paper shortages in 1943. In 1997, horror and suspense writer David J. Schow told me that he was a huge fan of hers. He said when he was in North Carolina working on the script for the 1994 film The Crow, he kept meaning to come to Greensboro to meet her but never did. Although he told me I should seek her out, I never did either, and she died here in 2003 at the age of 89.

Life is a litany of lost opportunity. Just ask Fred Chappell, the award-winning Greensboro professor, poet and novelist I profiled for YES! Weekly in April. Fred began teaching at University of North Carolina Greensboro in 1964, a year or so after Jane Rice moved here, and is an admirer of her stories, The Idol of the Flies and The Refugee. Fred never met her, either, but his regret led him to suggest that I write this article.At Fred’s urging, and with the aid of James Rockhill, who wrote the afterword to a posthumous collection of her fantasy and horror stories he co-edited, I tracked down her extremely kind and gracious son John Dixon Rice He was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1937, when his mother was 24, and he moved to the Triad in the early 1970s, as his parents had 10 years before. A few weeks ago, I sat with John Dixon Rice and asked him to tell me about the mother he called “a very remarkable woman.”

He said his mother was born Jane Dixon in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1913 and was in the same family that the Mason-Dixon line was named after. He said his grandfather helped develop the X-ray, which led to his early death because of the exposure to radiation. John Rice Jr. said his mother was educated at Saint Mary’s of Notre Dame and Yale where she received a degree in Cytology. She then volunteered to assist with medical situations at Norwalk Connecticut hospital and was very capable of doing support work in the medical field, he said.

Jane Dixon married John Thomas Rice “in 1932 or 1933.”  John Thomas Rice was a representative for textile mills and worked for the American Leather Company before they merged with Elmo Leather in Sweden, a business into which his son would follow, and which would eventually bring both John Rices to the Triad. John Dixon Rice said that his mother began writing when the family was living in Rocky River, Ohio.

“I don’t recall how long they lived there, or when they moved there from Evanston, Illinois,” he said. “That’s where I spent a far amount of time growing up and went to high school.”

John Dixon Rice candidly admits to not having paid much attention to his mother’s fiction at the time. He said his father was the businessman, and, after their marriage, his mother never had to work, despite having a significant amount of talent and could pursue what she loved, he said. John Dixon Rice. said his mother liked to write and “did some experimental things and did some consulting.” She continued to do what she was doing, and then put it on the market as people consulted her to do.

“She took her time because she never had to really work,” he said. “But she had a lot of natural talent. She once said ‘the artwork is more famous or more interesting when the artist or writer dies.’ She was not one to promote her stories and artwork, but along the way, more and more people were interested in what she did.”

The only collection of Jane Rice’s fiction is The Idol of the Flies and Other Stories, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and James Rockhill, which the specialty press Midnight House published a limited edition of 500 copies in 2003, right after she died. It is now out of print, with copies regularly going for several hundred dollars on Amazon and eBay. It contains 22 stories, 11 of which were published in the pulp fantasy magazine Unknown (later renamed Unknown Worlds) between 1940 and the magazine’s demise three years later. Campbell, who helped create what was once called “modern science fiction” (later the “golden age science fiction”) via his editorship of Astounding Stories, conceived of Unknown as a vehicle for a distinctly modern kind of fantasy and horror. In his magazine, ordinary Americans of the 1940s, encountered the supernatural. Gone were crumbling ruins, overwrought prose, eccentric and hysterical narrators facing eldritch horrors favored by his competition over at Weird Tales, the home of H. P. Lovecraft.

While Campbell is known for nurturing such male writers as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, he considered Rice one of his stars, and praised her prose fulsomely in his blurbs, calling it “beautiful” and “magnificent.” To this day, she is best remembered for two stories she sold to him, The Idol of the Flies and The Refugee.

Crest of the Wave Illustration by Ed Cartier.

While in no way imitative, The Idol of the Flies is in some ways an inversion of Srendi Vashtar, the darkly comic Edwardian classic short story by “Saki” (H. H. Munro). But where that story is about a frail, sympathetic, animal-loving boy who invents his religion to escape the domination of his maiden aunt, the boy in Jane Rice’s story is neither an animal lover nor frail. His invented religion centers not around a captive ferret, but a fetish made of filth that he keeps hidden in a shed, and his cruelty extends to the humans who work for his rich but feeble aunt. It is ultimately a story of just desserts. The boy is so appalling he offends the demonic entity he intuitively worships and is destroyed by it, as well as the insects and other small creatures he’s been torturing.

Jane Rice wrote other memorable stories for Unknown, some funny, some scary and some both. Despite her elegant prose, she could be as hard-boiled as any two-fisted male pulp writer. In The Crest of the Wave, the waterlogged corpse of an obese mobster who’s been given the “cement overshoes” treatment comes back to wreak soggy vengeance on his mistress and her lover.

Edward Gorey illustration for The Refugee from MONSTER FESTIVAL edited by Eric Protter 1965.

Her other most famous story is The Refugee, one of the most reprinted werewolf stories in the English language. Bestselling horror and suspense novelist Peter Straub included it in his massive 2009 Library of America anthology American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now, alongside stories by Shirley Jackson, John Cheever, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov and Fred Chappell. “I knew nothing of Jane Rice until the critic Gary K. Wolfe suggested I read her,” Straub said when I asked him how her work ended up in his anthology. “Somehow, I came across a copy of that wonderful story. I loved it right away, and thought it was one of the best pulp stories I’d ever read–clear, straight storytelling, in good, tight, effective prose.”

The Refugee also seems slightly influenced by Saki, in this case, his classic darkly comic werewolf story Gabriel-Ernest, although here it’s a woman who discovers a naked young man at sunrise, and the eroticism is heterosexual and more overt. The story is about an American expat suffering the deprivations of Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943, the year it was written.

When Unknown Worlds, as the magazine had been renamed, folded in 1943, Jane Rice turned her attention to “slick” (meaning better paper and binding than the pulps and better pay for the writers) magazines like Ladies Home Journal, Mademoiselle and Charm, mostly writing humorous short-shorts with either minimal or nonexistent fantasy elements. Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she wrote a few for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in the 1980s, a few more for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Her last story was the novelette The Six Dog, which Necronomicon Press published as a chapbook in 1995. Stephen Jones reprinted it in his anthology The Best New Horror 7 the following year.

“Jane Rice was one of the great unsung heroines of the pulp magazines,” Jones said. “Like Catherine Moore, Leigh Brackett, Margaret St. Clair, Everil Worrell, Francis Garfield and other women writers of the 1930s and 1940s, her work is still not receiving the attention it truly deserves.”

The author wishes to thank John Dixon Rice, James Rockhill, Stephen Jones and David J. Schow for their help with this article. Jane Rice’s The Refugee can be read for free online or downloaded as a PDF at the Library of America’s Story of the Week web page.

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.

Addendum: John Dixon Rice’s name was changed in the article from John Rice Jr. to denote that he was not named after his father but after both his father and mother, subsequently, John Thomas Rice’s name was changed from John Rice Sr.

The co-author of The Idol of the Flies, James Rockhill was not credited in the original article as being the co-author.