Virgil Warden Finlay was born and raised in Rochester, New York; his father, woodworker Warden Hugh Finlay, died at age 40 in the midst of the Great Depression, leaving his family (widow Ruth and two children, Jean and Virgil) in straitened circumstances. By his high school years, Virgil Finlay exercised his passions for art and poetry, and discovered his lifelong subject matter through the pulp magazines of the era--science fiction, via Amazing Stories (1927), and fantasy and horror, via Weird Tales (1928), beginning to exhibit at the age of 16. By age 21 he was confident enough in his art to send six pieces, unsolicited, to editor Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales. Once Wright determined that such detailed work would transfer successfully to relatively rough paper the magazine used (they were called "pulps" for a reason), he began buying Finlay's work. Finlay's illustrations debuted in the December 1935 issue of WT, and appeared in a total of 62 issues of the magazine, down to the last issue of the classic pulp in Sept. 1954. He also executed 19 color covers for WT, for issues from Feb. 1937 to March 1953.
Finlay quickly branched out to other publications after his 1935 debut; he was an immediate hit. In 1938 he went to work for A. Merritt at The American Weekly, moving from Rochester to New York City. Later the same year, he married Beverly Stiles, whom he had known in childhood in Rochester (Nov. 16, 1938). His adjustment to the city and to his new job was not smooth, however; he was fired and re-hired more than once. Yet during his period on the magazine's staff (1938-43), and later as a freelancer (1946-51), Finlay estimated that he did 845 different images, large and small, for Merritt's magazine.
Finlay served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and saw extensive combat in the South Pacific theatre, notably on Okinawa and did posters and illustrations for the Morale Services during his three years of military service. He resumed his artistic career after demobilization, doing a considerable amount of work for science fiction magazines and books. As the pulp magazine market narrowed through the 1950s, Finlay turned to astrology magazines as a new venue for his art.
Finlay also wrote poetry throughout his adult life. Virtually none was published in his lifetime, though significant samples have been printed posthumously.
Finlay had to undergo major surgery for cancer in early 1969. He recovered enough to go back to work for a time; but the cancer returned, and Virgil Finlay died of the disease early in 1971, aged 56. Finlay just missed a resurgence in interest in his artwork from the early 1970s onward. Both Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc. and Gerry de la Ree have published series of collections of Finlay artwork since the artist's death. The later books published by Underwood contain illustrations from the Gerry de la Ree editions, as well as additional material. A slightly later generation of fantasy fans were introduced to Finlay's art by reprints of his earlier work in the horror film fan magazine Castle of Frankenstein alongside the fine writing that gave significance to that magazine. Roads, a fantasy novella by Seabury Quinn, first published in the January 1938 Weird Tales, and featuring a cover and interior illustrations by Finlay, was originally published in a very limited edition by Arkham House in 1948. It was recently given a 21st Century facsimile reprinting by Red Jacket Press (http://www.redjacketpress.com/books/roads.html).