About the Author
Clare Winger Harris (1891–1968) was an early science fiction writer whose short stories were published during the 1920s. She is credited as the first woman to publish stories under her own name in science fiction magazines. Her stories often dealt with characters on the "borders of humanity" such as cyborgs. A native of Illinois, she died in Pasadena, California at age seventy-seven.
Brad Ricca earned his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University, where he currently teaches. The author of Super Boys , he has spoken on comics at various schools and museums, and he has been interviewed about comics topics by the New York Daily News , The Wall Street Journal , and "All Things Considered" on NPR. His film Last Son won a 2010 Silver Ace Award at the Las Vegas International Film Festival. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
I’m standing in front of a house outside Cleveland, half-waiting for a spaceship to arrive. When it finally appears, blotting out the sky, I will crane my neck and stare at its sleek, impossible angles. People will shout, point, and run.
But I don’t see it.
Instead, the house at 1652 Lincoln Avenue sits quiet. It was built in 1917 of stone brick with a front porch. The house is a duplex, split in two by an interior wall I can only imagine. There is a single dormer window sticking out from the attic, perched towards the sky. There is a big tree on the left, whose tips are already turning to fire, here in the September sun. The front door is closed.
When I asked to organize a new edition of Clare Winger Harris’s stories, I knew I wanted to see the place she once lived in Lakewood, Ohio. But as I stare at her old house, I see little in the way of connection. There is some old grating and windowsills that may have survived the century, but that’s about it. The old bones are there, but the paint is new.
People still live here, but there is no one home, so I don’t push it. What’s to push, anyway? This wasn’t William Faulkner’s house. Or Emily Dickinson’s. Or Langston Hughes, who went to high school in Cleveland. No, this was the house of Clare Winger Harris, who wrote weird science fiction in the early decades of the twentieth century. If I rang the bell and announced that, like I was some door-to-door literary merit salesman, I can easily guess the reply:
It’s a fair response, especially for a woman author who wrote in a marginal genre in cheap magazines. That is why I wanted to write something here that wasn’t the usual elevation of her work. I don’t want to tell you what to think of her stories; I just want you to read them. Instead, I want to tell you about her.
I circle around again, looking at the cracks and corners. I again hope for some unexplainable trans-temporal event, a sudden fold in spacetime from which Ms. Harris would appear, stepping through a shimmering tunnel with Mary Poppins-like authority to answer my questions in full.
I then realize that the people who live here now, whoever they are, might have one of those security cameras to guard against people stealing their Amazon packages. As I duck behind the dashboard, I think about what Clare might think of such an invention. I think of similar things possibly inside this house: phones, computers, microwaves, and televisions; pads and tablets and smart things you can shout at. In a way then, she was here in full.
I look again. Maybe instead of an alien ship I can I hear the three baby boys she raised here, something we have in common. I can see her husband Frank, hat in hand, out the front door and onto his job as an engineer at American Monorail. I can almost see the postman come to the door. All writers, regardless of decade, wait for the mail.
But I still can’t see her. I can’t see Clare. But she’s inside. I know it. I can hear the typing.
If I had a future-o-scope or a time-televisor (the Golden Age of science fiction had singularly practical terms for these things) and could look ahead to the next several months as I researched Clare’s life, I would have seen that I would soon reveal, in this introduction, an important unpublished story of hers and a whole chapter of her life that had never been written about, among other things.
But that is yet to come.
Claire Marie Winger was born on January 18, 1891 in the county seat of Freeport, Illinois to Mary Porter ‘May’ Stover and Frank Stover Winger, an electrical engineer. Frank was related to Mary; he was a Stover on his mother’s side. Clare had a brother, Stover Carl Winger, born 1893, who was named after their mother’s wealthy father, Daniel Carl “D.C.” Stover, founder of the Stover Engine Works. After their children were born and raised, Clare’s parents divorced.
In 1910, Clare graduated from Chicago’s Lake View High School and went to Smith College with a bright future ahead of her. While at school, Clare met Frank Clyde Harris, a veteran of World War I who worked as an engineer designing heavy armor plating. He might have seemed very familiar to her. Clare dropped out and they married in 1912 in Chicago. The newlyweds traveled to Europe before relocating cross-country as Frank finished his Master’s in architectural engineering. During these years, Clare had three sons: Clyde Winger (1915), Donald Stover (1916), and Lynn Thackrey (1918).
In 1917, Clare’s father published a novel with the fantastical title of The Wizard of the Island; or, The Vindication of Prof. Waldinger. How did an electrical engineer become drawn to science fiction? He most certainly read the best trade magazine on the subject, The Electrical Experimenter, which later became Science and Invention. In addition to publishing circuit diagrams, editor Hugo Gernsback pontificated on all kinds of bizarre, theoretical inventions like the “thought telegrapher” and “television.” He also advocated for a new type of literary genre called “Scientifiction” that used scientific fact as the basis for imaginative stories.
In 1923, Clare wrote her first and only published novel, the classically-themed Persephone of Eleusis: A Romance of Ancient Greece through the Boston-based Stratford Company. Three years later, Weird Tales Magazine published her story “A Runaway World” in its July issue. Attributed to “Mrs. FC Harris,” it is the first American science-fiction story by a woman using her own name.
The realm that Clare was publishing in was a decidedly strange one. Though writers had been publishing weird science stories since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818, it wasn’t until the advent of the pulp magazines that the genre became popular. The pulps, with names like Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories, were aimed at the youngish reader with their fully painted covers, spot illustrations, and dense stories printed on cheap paper. They had letter columns where readers could offer critique and exchange letters in a kind of early typeset Internet. Many of these early letter-writers rose up into significant and lucrative roles as writers, editors, and publishers. Science fiction was embraced, and then run, by its first-contact fans.
In June 1927, while Clare was living in Lakewood, Amazing Stories ran a writing contest cooked up by Gernsback, who had now fully embraced science fiction publishing. Clare entered, along with three hundred and fifty-eight other people, with her environmental space opera “The Fate of the Poseidonia,” in which Earth’s water supply is stolen by opportunistic Martians. Clare won third place for her story (with a female lead) and signed it “Clare Winger Harris.”
In announcing the winners, Gernsback, whose earlier editorials probably influenced Clare’s father, gave praise couched in the cultural moment:
That the third prize winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest, for, as a rule, women do not make good scientification writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited. But the exception, as usual, proves the rule, the exception in this case being extraordinarily impressive.
The prize opened doors for Clare. She published extensively in the pulps for the next three years, especially for Gernsback. These stories, reprinted in this volume, run the gamut of quaint, thrilling, and terrifying. I will not spoil your experience by summarizing them here. Read them. You are so close. Trust me.
Her story “The Ape Cycle” in the May 1930 issue of Science Wonder Quarterly is generally considered her last. It might also be a largely unacknowledged source for a popular media franchise, but I will let you judge that for yourself. Then suddenly, at age thirty-nine, Clare stopped. Someone even wrote into Amazing Stories in late 1930 and asked “What happened to Clare Winger Harris? I’ve missed her . . .” Every single account of her life says that she quit to focus on raising her children.
When Clare quit, her popularity was so great that her name was regularly being used on covers as advertising. She could have, like her peers, gone on to write novels, comic books, or even for the screen. But she walked away. Or did she?
In the early thirties, after “The Ape Cycle,” a fan of Clare’s from the east side of Cleveland wrote her a fan letter. He gushed about her work. He said that he was working on his own magazine with his best friend and would like her to submit to it. He was in high school.
Clare might have smiled at this request, which might be why she sent a story. It appeared in 1933 in the fifth and last issue of a stapled, mimeographed pamphlet called Science Fiction that had a print run of maybemaybefifty issues. The boy who wrote her was Jerry Siegel and his friend was Joe Shuster. In a couple of years, they would go on to create Superman, the most recognized science fiction character on the planet.
I am very pleased that we have that story, titled “The Vibrometer,” collected here for the first time since that small self-published magazine. Special thanks to comics scholar Dr. Thomas Andrae for his generous gift of this timelost story. Its existence shows how influential Clare was to the next generation of science fiction writers, even those creating the perfect fictional hero. She was often a teacher. One of her most enduring legacies, also reprinted here, is a letter she wrote for the August 1931 issue of Wonder Stories. In it, she lists possible science fiction plots for writers like Jerry Siegel and others, including “Interplanetary space travel,” “Adventures on other worlds,” and “The creation of synthetic life.” Hopeful writers tore this out and followed it. You can still follow them today. I have endeavored to follow them here.
After the divorce, Clare moved out west. In an April 10, 1960 interview with the Plain Dealer’s Jane Scott, Frank Harris looks back on his life in Cleveland, where he stayed after the divorce. His monorail company was integral to the war effort and he was nowin 1960worth six million dollars. Frank, still a workaholic, doesn’t mention Clare. He says his hobbies are collecting oriental art with his new wife, whom he met on a golf course. He is also proud of his children: Clyde develops missile systems, Don is an engineer in Indiana, and Lynn is a research writer for the government in California. Some later accounts of Clare’s life claim that Frank, as the fully realized technological man of the future, was an inspiration for her own work.
Though Clare disappeared from the writing life, her stories were reprinted with great regularity in other sci-fi mags, though with similar biographical blurbs. In 1947, she self-published a collection of her short stories titled Away from the Here and Now: Stories in Pseudo-Science from Dorrance Press without any introduction. Other reprints and inclusions by fans and scholars followed, from Richard A. Lupoff and Lisa Yaszek, among others. She was recently included in a 2018 summertime exhibit at The Pasadena Museum of History celebrating science fiction authors in the area.
Every single published account of Clare Winger Harris ends that she stopped writing, raised her family, and died in 1968. Some go so far as to say she had no living relatives.
She left only her stories behind.
But for someone who wrote about spaceships, cyborgs, and ape-men, such an ending is, if we’re being truthful, a little unsatisfactory.
For several months, I try in vain to locate relatives of Clare Winger Harris. I finally give up. I send a last, desperate Facebook message to someone named Dan. He writes back and says he is part of the larger Harris family, but doesn’t know anything. I give up again. The following Monday, I get a call. I almost don’t answer until I see the glowing words “California.”
“Hello,” I say.
“Hi.” A pause. “It’s Don Harris. I got your number from my nephew. You wanted to talk about Clare?”
When Don was twelve or thirteen years old, he remembers visiting the Brookmore Apartments, an elegant, four-story brick building in Old Town Pasadena. Don went there to visit his grandmother. When he entered her one-room apartment, he was always struck by one inescapable fact: it was filled to the top with books.
“You could tell she was smart,” Don says.
Donald Lynn Harris visited his grandmother every couple of months. She shared books with him on Tibetan Buddhism and Rosicrucianism. She was analytic, but also philosophical. Don remembers one time she gave him a book by Manley P. Hall, the metaphysical thinker and occultist whom Clare knew. It sparked quite an interest in him. One time, she gave him her own book of stories. He remembers reading part of it.
“Clare was brusque and businesslike,” Don says. “But she was nice to me. She would have been a bad grandma for a young child, but she was a good one for an older person.”
Years later, Don and his family crowd around the computer and start typing the names of relatives into a search engine. They are astounded when Clare’s name fills the results.
“There was nothing about my grandfather Frank,” Don says. “We thought he was more famous than her.”
When I ask why they divorced, there is a pause.
“We have a whole family of eccentrics,” Don says, laughing. They stayed together until their kids were fully grown, but their personalities were just too similar. Grandfather wanted to be chief of the roost. He was a big man6’8” tall. His sons saw him as overwhelmingly powerful.
“But he was gentle with me,” Don remembers. “He gave me some Chinese art once.”
Don recalls that Clare didn’t have a lot. Sometimes, when she needed extra money, she would work the switchboard at the Brookmore, plugging wires in and out. She was supposed to inherit a great deal of money from D.C. Stover, but by the time it eventually reached her, the estate had been plundered. Others tried to warn her of this, but she was reluctant to believe it. She was a loner.
“They found her in the hall,” Don says. It was October 26, 1968. She was seventy-seven. “I’m not sure any of us knew what it was. A heart attack? She didn’t waste away. She was very healthy.”
All three of her sons came to California for the funeral. There was the elder Don, who flew missions in World War II. There were rumors he had flown over Dresden. Someone whispered that during one flight, one of his co-pilots got hit and had his head severed. Don flew back with it in the plane with him.
“He came back darker,” says Don, who was named after him.
Lynn was a Marine who came back with a little bag of gold teeth. He showed them to Don. Lynn was very close to Clare. But he was always getting into trouble, says Don. He lived in the Yucatan and she had to bail him out of various problems. When Clare died, Lynn was accused by the family of looting her apartment.
“He took the TV,” Don says. “I have some stuff of hers, mostly books. She didn’t have much. She was relatively reclusive.”
When I ask if the family was influenced by her work, or at least the spirit of it, Don says that his dad was the biggest fan. Clyde Harris was a physics nerd who worked on heat-seeking missile systems. Don, a liberal, would often argue with his dad and try to guess at his various projects, which were classified. His dad would often cave, and they would argue about the ethics of it all.
“It was all in good fun,” says Don.
After his dad died, Don traveled to Nepal with his wife. They went to Lumbini, the windswept birthplace of the Buddha. Don attributes his interest in Buddhism to his grandmother Clare, who he said was one of the first in southern California to embrace it.
Don takes a breath that I can hear over the phone. He explains to me that he saw something very strange on that trip. Something weird.
“There was a dog,” he says. “Only I looked into his face and I saw my dad. I can’t explain it. But I saw it. My dad told me something then, just by looking at me. I had a big change after that.”
Donald Lynn Harris is the grandson of Clare Winger Harris and lives in a house in the California woods. When he was younger, he was into drag racing. He joined the Back to the Land movement, bought land, and set up probably the first solar panels in the county. He started small-scale hydro systems to encourage renewable energy resources. He set up similar systems in Nicaragua, where he met Benjamin Linder, the American engineer who was murdered by the Contras in 1987. Infuriated, Don became vocal and political, drawing the attention of the government. Years later, he would end up, for a moment, on a long list of suspects in the Unabomber case. Don laughs when he tells me this. He is still very political but gives me the advice to choose my battles. But, he says, thinking aloud: the older I get, my belief system means more to me than my own aging body.
Don must radiate out from his remote home to get a good wireless signal. I picture him under an open sky, his voice beaming through the ether like the radio waves in his grandmother’s stories. He wouldn’t have it any other way, living along the outer rim of society, even though it’s getting a little harder to chop his own wood.
Don has no children. His wife of forty-two years recently passed away. When I offer my condolences, he tells me it’s okay.
“We believe in other dimensions,” he says, using the present tense. “So, keep an open mind,” he tells me, cheerily and full of wonder.
We believe in that stuff.