Virgil Finlay's epic illustration for Poe's Tell Tale Heart

Virgil Finlay: Master of Dark Fantasy Illustration

Virgil Finlay was a contemporary of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard. He started as an illustrator on Weird Tales, went on to create fantastic art for the best genre fiction of his day, (Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury) and for many of the other pulp magazines: Fantastic Novels, Super Science Stories, Thrilling Wonder, and Famous Fantastic Mysteries. He is regarded as one of the great twentieth century illustrators of horror, sf and fantasy at the point when these genres met the mass market in the Golden Age of the Pulps, then the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He made over 2500 artworks, a remarkable achievement given his painstaking method of scratchboard and ink.

Early Years and Inspirations

Finlay was born in 1914, in Rochester, New York, at an exciting period for artists, released by modernism and the heady popularity of adventurous literature; but it was a perilous era for anyone trying to make a living. Born just before the First World War Finlay was delivered to hardworking, but impoverished parents as the family was hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Finlay’s inherited work ethic both supported and confined him, as the tireless industry of his technique suffocated any form of great enterprise.

Joseph Clement Coll ilustration, Virgil Finlay influenceBut the young Finlay loved his art. He surrounded himself with the inspiration that would nudge him into a lifetime of aliens, robots, demons and sirens. His imagination was stirred by the shining stars of commercial art that decorated the magazines, newspapers, and books of the time. This was the era of the pulps but had started with the Golden Age illustrators, of Arthur Rackham, Franklin Booth, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, and Joseph Clement Coll. These artists created the direct and powerful illustrations for the thrilling stories of the time, from Arthur Conan Doyle, to Brothers Grimm, mythological tales of the Native American, the Celts and the Ancient Greeks. Booth was a giant of such illustration creating detailed pen and ink work that would make commercial art respectable and Clement Coll’s old school craftsmanship would add a darker and more mysterious mood to the fertile imagination of the young Finlay. During this period Alexander Anderson too was the first american engraver and much admired by this generation of eager dreamers.

Nimrod and his Horn, Inferno, Dore, Virgil Finally influenceFinlay’s own art developed in the late 1920s and 30s and a settled on scratchboard illustration. For him, and many others of that generation the visual impact of the technique could be traced back to Gustave Dore‘s fantastical worlds and, further, to Henry Fuseli whose fearful, gothic compositions focused on single subjects with little but the dark backgrounds to frame their purpose.

When we look at the inspirations of an artist it is too easy to fall into a historical narrative, but for the artists themselves, it doesn’t matter where the art comes from. Dore’s line engravings of Dante’s Inferno, Martin Schmidts‘ stipple engravings of Fuseli’s Nightmare), Rockwell Kent‘s Blakean Moby Dick woodcuts, Booth’s elegant pen and ink work, all would have been consumed by Finlay who was entranced by the fierce detail of such art. It is hard to tell exactly why he fell for the scratchboard technique, but it gave him the satisfaction and clarity that would please both his desire to echo his inspirations, and the earn the appreciation of readers of the pulps of the 1930s and 40s.

Weird Tales

Weird Tales, April 1937, Virgil FinlayIn December 1935 he sent 6 artworks to Farnsworth Wright, then editor of Weird Tales, one of the magazines that would have bewitched a young man desperate to see his work featured alongside his storytelling heroes, H. P. Lovecraft, Abraham Merritt and Robert E. Howard. By all accounts Wright loved the art but was concerned that the detail would translate only into a muddy mass on the rough pulp of the magazine. A few tests persuaded him otherwise and so began a long career of inventive illustration, with Finally providing mainly interior, but occasional cover art for Weird Tales, entrancing an audience that had been used to simple decorations and dense lines of text. Finlay brought the stories to life, drew the reader in, made the tales of Merritt, C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner sing on the page. His work was greatly admired by the writers, Kuttkner became a close friend, Lovecraft , Seabury Quinn and Merritt wrote in glowing terms as the appreciation of his work, garnered further publication in other popular pulps, Amazing, Fantastic Adventures, and Strange Stories.

All of Finlay’s WT work is good—especially the designs for your Lost Paradise & Bloch’s Faceless God. Bloch tells me that Wright considers the latter the finest illustration ever drawn for WT, & that the original hangs framed in the office.
H.P. Lovecraft to C. L Moore, 1936

Virgil Finlay, Omar KhayyamFinlay’s technique distinguished himself from his fellows, with only Hannes Bok coming close to his mastery of the sf and fantasy mode. Although Finlay’s compositional focus and background detail was not his greatest strength, he created unsurpassed mood with the graduations of dots, recalling the effects of the engravers and woodcutters so admired in his youth. A special edition of Midsummer Night’s Dream was created to highlight his astonishing work, and although this was not a success in his lifetime is much admired today and was found to have been collected by his greatest contemporary rival, Bok.

Abraham Merritt, who had achieved exalted status in the pulp era, with his early novels, The Moon Pool (1918), Metal Monster (1920) and The Ship of Ishtar (1924) became an editor on American Weekly (a sunday newspaper supplement selling in its millions); he commissioned Finlay as staff artist, to illustrate stories, articles and make decorations. Over a few short years more than 800 artworks were published, mainly executed in Finlay’s painstaking style.

The late 1930s were a busy period for Finlay, a man fulfilling his potential and living in a world that made sense to him at last: he married, moved to New York City, took night classes in technical drawing, worked for a wide range of magazines, created the iconic cover for Arkham House‘s first book, Lovecraft’s The Outside and Others (1939), and corresponded with his collaborators, many of whom had been his childhood heroes.

Works and Awards

Although interrupted by the Second World War Finally still managed to illustrate stories while serving, and as the Golden Era of the Pulps waned, he continued to produce for Fantastic Novels, Super Science Stories, Thrilling Wonder, and Famous Fantastic Mysteries. As this work thinned out, his much admired art was picked up by the new wave of digests such as Famous Science Fiction and Astrology, although their circulation was considerably lower.

1953 Fantastic, Virgil Finlay, Poe Lighthouse AFinlay’s art was widely appreciated both by fans and fellow creators, and his enduring contribution was recognized by a series of awards from the late 1940s: Best fantasy artist in the Beowulf Poll, 1941 and 1945, Best fantasy Illustrator, Fantasy Annual 1948, Best Interior Illustrator, Hugo Award 1953 (the first to receive what is now a long tradition of excellence). A hard-working, modest man he rarely appeared in public, even to receive the awards, although he attended a presentation where his incredible gifts were acknowledged with the award of  ‘Dean of Science-Fiction Art for unexcelled imagery and technique’ by The Eastern Science Fiction Association in 1964.


Virgil Finlay, Jackpot Galaxy Science Fiction October 1956Virgil Finlay died of cancer in 1971. He had illustrated the entire canon of science fiction and fantasy: Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Abraham Merritt, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Frank Belknapp, Long Arthur C. Clarke ,Theodora Sturgeon, Otis Kline, ERB, H. Rider Haggard and many more. The inheritors of the gothic novel aided by the technology of the twentieth century had taken flight and found in Virgil Finally, a creative partner who was their equal. His work graced the magazines that launched their reputations, and he created a look and feel of sf and fantasy that prevails still today: in John Schoenherr‘s art for Frank Herbert‘s original Dune, in Analog, Bernie Wrighton‘s darkly horrific work in Warren Magazines, the spacescapes of Star Trek of the 1960s and Star Wars of the 70s, Stanley Kubrick‘s pioneering sf movies, (2001, 2010), the deep terrors of the Alien movies, and so much more. Virgil Finlay’s fine dots, and his elegant and effective lines, are etched indelibly into the foundations of science fiction and fantasy offering us imaginative visions of far-flung futures that sit somewhere between hope and uncomfortable fact.


A couple of Pinterest boards are linked to this blog: one packed with Virgil Finlay‘s art, another with examples of scratchboard technique from other great artists.

Other posts of interest in These Fantastic Worlds include:

Also published on Medium.