Meet the Reclusive Woman Who Became a Pioneer of Science Fiction
The Amazing Stories of Clare Winger Harris
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 decided 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 are 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. It didn’t belong to 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 20th 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 space-time from which Ms. Harris would appear, stepping through a shimmering tunnel with Mary Poppins-like authority to answer my questions in full.Attributed to “Mrs. F. C. Harris,” [“A Runaway World”] is the first American science-fiction story by a woman using her own name.
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 on to 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.
Claire Marie Winger was born on January 18th, 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. F. C. 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 358 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. The stories run the gamut of quaint, thrilling, and terrifying.
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 39, 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 1930s, 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 maybe—maybe—50 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.
Clare and Frank eventually divorced, and Clare moved out west. In an April 10th, 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 now—in 1960—worth 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 apemen, such an ending is, if we’re being truthful, a little unsatisfactory.Every single published account of Clare Winger Harris ends that she stopped writing, raised her family, and died in 1968.
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 12 or 13 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 crowded around the computer and started typing the names of relatives into a search engine. They were astounded when Clare’s name filled 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 man—six feet, eight inches 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 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 26th, 1968. She was 77. “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 copilots 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 42 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.”
From The Artificial Man and Other Stories by Clare Winger Harris. Used with the permission of Belt Publishing. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Brad Ricca.