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Monday, October 17, 2011

Nictzin Dyalhis

A question on a chat group I'm a member of prompted some digging around into the career of the mysteriously named Nictzin Dyalhis. Dyalhis has a reputation far beyond the quality of his writing. Everett Bleiler (in Science-Fiction: The Early Years) summed up what is considered one of Dyalhis's best stories, "When the Green Star Waned", as "distasteful and negligible as fiction, what with bad writing, loose ends and illogicalities"; it was, however, "a seminal work in the history of pulp s-f. One of the earliest space operas, it was read by most of the early writers and offered both conceptual and literary patterns. It also may have been the first to use the word 'blaster,' no matter how spelled, for a disintegrator." (Dyalhis describes his disintegration weapons as a 'blastors'.) A Google search will turn up this fact endlessly, along with endless variations of the author's Wikipedia entry.

But little else. Google search 'Nictzin' or 'Dyalhis' and you'll find only references to the author; neither is a real name used elsewhere. Searches of genealogical records again turn up nobody else unrelated who has either name, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that Nictzin Dyalhis was not born with that name.

However, he was known in official records under that name at least as early as the First World War. His draft registration card gives his full name as Nictzin Wilstone Dyalhis, born 4 June 1873. The date of registration is 10 September 1918 and Dyalhis is 45, yet this is the earliest record of him I have been able to find.

The card does offer some clues: he was a 'box nailer' working for one Paul Delancey; he registered in Chautauqua which is in the westernmost corner of the county of New York, not far from the state line with Pennsylvania. Dyalhis gives his address as a PO Box number in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania, which is about 14 miles south-east of Chautauqua as the crow flies.

Sugar Grove is a small borough of Warren County with a population in the hundreds. Amongst its residents back in the late 19th century was Samuel Lord, an Englishman (born in Yorkshire in 1837) whose family had emigrated to America in 1847 and took up residence in Busti, Chautauqua. Samuel was married to Fidelia A. Phillips (born in Busti in 1845) in 1865 and had four children: Murna (1867), Carrie (1869), Ralph (1872) and Hattie (1874).

Samuel, described as a farmer in the 1900 census, died in 1903 and by the time of the 1910 census, Fidelia was living alone. Their daughter Hattie W. Lord had been living with her parents in 1900 but seems to have disappeared from the 1910 census. Hattie - Harriet Weber Lord - was born 1 January 1874 and raised in Sugar Grove where she graduated from the Sugar Grove Seminary. She was an accomplished musician and elocutionist in her younger years and the 1900 census return lists her occupation as "lecturer and reader". 

By the 1920 census she has married Nictzin Dyalhis and, as Harriet Dyalhis, is residing with her mother in Sugar Grove. Dyalhis, presumably now released from his war service, was described as a 47-year-old chemist, working in a laboratory. He was born in Massachusetts, his father having been born also in Massachusetts and his mother in Guatemala, which is at odds with information that he was later to give. In a later biographical note in Weird Tales (cited by Mike Ashley in Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction) Dyalhis claimed that his name was an old English name derived from the same Roman word that produced Douglas. Everett Bleiler notes: "He claimed that it was genuine, originating in Scottish memories of the Roman flamen dialis." The flamen dialis was the high priest of Jupiter, a position created by Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome (succeeding Romulus). This has a ring of truth to it - although I hasten to note again that Dyalhis is not an old English name, nor an old Scottish name... Dyalhis had a habit, in his writings, to corrupt words. Thus in "When the Green Star Waned", the green star of the title, Earth, became Aerth, and the invading alien force was from Venhez (Venus). L. Sprague de Camp (in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, 1976) claimed that Dyalhis was inherited from his Welsh father which is clearly not true as (a) his father was from Massachusetts; and (b) Dyalhis is not a Welsh surname. "There have been reports that it was a modification of a more conventional name like Douglass or Dalziel," continues Bleiler. Another suggestion is that the name is a corruption of Dallas. However a corruption of dialis (Latin for "of Jupiter") from the man who enjoys corrupting planetary names seems just as plausible.

Dyalhis (misspelled Dyalihis) and Harriet Weber Lord were married some time between 1909 and 1913 (cf County Courthouse and Vital Records listed here); this ties in with information to be found on the 1930 census which states that 56-year-old Harriet had married at the age of 38, implying she was married in 1912. So we can say with certainty that Nictzin Wilstone Dyalhis had adopted that name whilst still in his thirties; the fact that he does not seem to appear in the 1910 census under any variation of that name may mean that it was then only recently adopted. (Or he could have been abroad.... the simplest explanations often being the correct ones, although there is no trace of Dyalhis in available immigration and travel records.)

During the early 1920s, Dyalhis began selling to pulp magazines, notably Adventure and Weird Tales. His stories in the latter - which numbered only eight between 1923 and 1940 - garnered the author a disproportionate number of covers (five), most notable amongst them covers by Virgil Finlay and Margaret Brundage. Mike Ashley says that Dyalhis "began writing in the early 1920s with stories of Amerindian life" before moving on to tales of the occult which he claimed to know through his extensive travels, saying that he had lived in the Orient (where he joined an occult society) and had visited Tibet and Haiti, where he witnessed a voodoo ceremony.

His output was not extensive - in fact I know of only 13 stories:

Who Keep the Desert Law (Adventure, 20 Oct 1922)
For Wounding – Retaliation (Adventure, 20 Nov 1922)
When the Green Star Waned (Venhez; Weird Tales, Apr 1925; Weird Tales, Jan 1929)
The Eternal Conflict (Weird Tales, Oct 1925)
He Refused to Stay Dead, with Eric Marston (Ghost Stories, Apr 1927)
The Dark Lore (Weird Tales, Oct 1927)
The Oath of Hul Jok (Venhez; Weird Tales, Sep 1928)
The Red Witch (Weird Tales, Apr 1932; Magazine of Horror, Jan 1968)
The Whirling Machete (Underworld Magazine, Dec 1933)
The Sapphire Goddess (Weird Tales, Feb 1934; as The Sapphire Siren. Avon Fantasy Reader, 1951; Weird Tales, Spr 1981)
Gangland’s Judas (Complete Underworld Novelettes, Aug 1934)
The Sea-Witch (Weird Tales, Dec 1937; Weird Tales, Jul 1953)
Heart of Atlantan (Weird Tales, Sep 1940)

The 1930 census shows that Dyalhis and Harriet had separated. Harriet Dyalhis is listed as a patient in Warren State Hospital, Conewango, Warren, PA. Originally called the State Hospital for the Insane, the asylum became Warren State Hospital in 1920 and still exists today. What afflicted Harriet is unknown, although the deaths of her mother in 1929 and her elder sister Murna in 1930 may have contributed. She is listed as married and under her married name.

Nictzin is now living in Waynesboro, Franklin, PA, and has a new wife, her name given as Netulyani Dyalhis. His various details have changed: he was now born in Arizona, as were his mother and father; he is 50 (thus born c.1879) and was first married aged 30 (or c.1909/10) - his wife is 39 (born c.1890) and was married aged 19 (or c.1909/10), which is patently untrue. Dyalhis gives his occupation as "machinist (machine tool manufacturing)", one of the chief forms of employment in a town at the time.

In 1932, Nictzin and Netulyani had a daughter, Mary Agnes Dyalhis, born in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania on 11 March 1932. Her marriage certificate reveals that her mother, far from being Netulyani, was born with the rather more down-to-earth name Mary G. Sheddy, although she is listed on her husband's World War II draft registration card as Netulyani Del Torres Dyalhis. Her death in April 1977 was registered with the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) as Mary Dyalhis, which also gives her date of birth as 5 July 1897 and age at death as 79 which, if correct, means the 11 year gap in ages between Nictzin and Netulyani given on the 1930 census was actually 24 years.

A more likely date is 5 July 1891, given on a social security application made in September 1938. In this, Netulyani Deltorres Dyalhis, daughter of John T. Deltorres and his wife Annetta, claimed to have been born in Pottawatomie County, Kansas, which agrees with the 1940 census return, which gives her age as 48. Her daughter is listed in the latter aged 8, the family living at Tyaskin in Wicomico County, Maryland, having lived in Rural, Wisconsin, at the time of the 1935 census.

Nictzin is listed as a writer for magazines in the 1940 census, but had also then recently (May 1939) made an application for social security, claiming that he was born on 4 June 1880 in Pima, Arizona. In this, he claims his father's name was George A. Dyalhis and his mother Natulyani Deltorres Dyalhis, under which name his wife had tried to claim social security eight months earlier.

The last official record of Dyalhis I have found is his WWII registration card, which also lists his birth as 4 June 1880 in Pima, Arizona, and gives his then current (1942) address as Allen, Princess Anne Road, Fruitland, Wicomico, Maryland (⇒ Google Maps). Dyalhis died on 8 May 1942 in nearby Salisbury, MD.

In an essay on Dyalhis ("Nictzin Dyalhis: Mysterious Master of Fantasy", Echoes of Valor III, ed. Karl Edward Wagner, 1991), Sam Moskowitz recorded information from the author's death certificate which records his birth as being in Pima, Arizona, although the town was apparently only founded in 1879; however, this is contradicted by earlier records which date his birth as 1873, a fact backed-up by a letter that Dyalhis wrote accompanying an early story in Adventure (1922) which said he was nearly 50, and his 1920 census return statement that he was born in Massachusetts. Dyalhis also claimed that his father was an English sea captain (again at odds with the census return, which gives his father's birth place as Massachusetts) and his mother a Guatemalan mestiza of partial Aztec stock.

If we accept that the birth date and birth place is correct, we should also accept that Dyalhis's mother was indeed Guatemalan, as stated on the 1920 census return. That Dyalhis had an interest in Aztecs and the history of the pre-historical Mexican races is clear - he even stated that his (second) wife's race was 'Toltec', although Mary was most likely from Pennsylvania. To my mind, the name Nictzin sounds like something that might be derived from Aztec or Toltec.

Alternatively, could it be derived from Indian pictogram writing? While looking for information I stumbled upon a book called The Lenâpé and their legends: with the complete texts and symbols of the Walam Olum by Daniel G. Brinton (published in Philadelphia, 1885, online here). The Walam Olum (which Brinton translates as Red Score) is a narrative of the Lenape Native American tribe of Delaware, now thought to be a hoax. However, this is a recent theory and, for 150 years following its first publication in 1836, was thought to be a genuine historical narrative. The book contains Lenape pictograms and text and I couldn't help but read the poorly printed picture 29 which reads "Oligonunk sisilaking nallimetzin kolakwaining" (At the place of caves, in the buffalo land, they at last had food, on a pleasant plain) as "nalli-nictzin".

(I'm not seriously suggesting the above as the actual source of Dyalhis's invented christian name; I'm just noting that the Nictzin Dyalhis might not have had to transport his thoughts all the way back to ancient Rome or ancient Mexico for inspiration.)

Questions about Nictzin Dyalhis's name have been asked for ninety years and it seems we are no closer to the truth. That he was legally known as Nictzin Dyalhis - for draft registration and census returns, for marriage and death certificates, for social security records - is undeniable, although I still feel that this was not the name he was given at birth.

Harriet Weber Dyalhis, nee Lord, died in 1959. She was buried at Cherry Hill Cemetery, Sugar Grove. Mary Dyalhis died in 1977; Mary's daughter, Mary Agnes Posavec, died in 2009.

Interest in Nictzin Dyalhis, however, has not died. Quite a few of his stories have been reprinted in anthologies over the years and a collection of his work is due from Battered Silicon press under the title The Nictzin Dyalhis Portfolio edited by George A. Vanderburgh and Robert Bleiler.

(* With acknowledgements to Phil Stephensen-Payne and Steven Rowe. The covers above are from Phil's Galactic Central website, with a bit of cleaning up by me; other documents are from public records.)

1 comment:

Chap O'Keefe said...

Those Weird Tales covers are classic, Steve, and your cleaning-up makes them look better than ever! You may have read elsewhere that Weird Tales has a new owner -- New York novelist, playwright, anthologist, and actor Marvin Kaye. He intends to restore the distinctive "big W" logo to the cover of the magazine with the first issue he edits, and doesn't know why it was dropped by a previous editorial team. He also intends to move away from the abstract style of art that has appeared on the covers of the more recent issues of Weird Tales.

It's rumoured, too, that more recognition will be afforded the publication's illustrious history (e.g. Mr Kaye has accepted one new short story set in the mythical French province of Averoigne created by Clark Ashton Smith). All very promising for fans of traditional horror and fantasy!