Steve Fisher, Black Mask, and the Noir Revolution

Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher

I Wake Up Screaming, the limited edition collection of Steve Fisher’s influential crime fiction writing, includes seven stories from Black Mask Magazine, three representative tales from minor pulps of the same period, the first publication in almost twenty years of his most famous novel, I Wake Up Screaming. It also features the first mass market publication of two important but forgotten essays by Fisher on how the noir fiction genre was developed under editor Fanny Ellsworth in Black Mask, and how the Hollywood community of the late 1930s and early 1940s developed the noir plot and style traditions, mostly through the screen plays and fiction of Black Mask writers.

Fisher is important because his work in fiction and in film helped bring a new noir sensibility and esthetic to crime thrillers. In a seminal essay from the 1970s, Pulp Literature: Subculture Revolution in the Late 1930s, which is included near the end of this collection, Fisher suggests a paradigm shift in Black Mask Magazine crime fiction away from the objective, unemotional, hard-boiled writing style Hammett and the first wave of Black Mask boys famously introduced to the magazine and to American popular culture, and for which Black Mask Magazine is primarily remembered.

What Fisher describes as a “subculture revolution” in the “pulp literature” of late 1930s is the development of a much moresubjective, emotional, psychologically driven style of crime story thriller primarily developed by himself and Cornell Woolrich in Black Mask under the direction of the magazine’s influential, new editor, Fanny Ellsworth.

It is difficult to remember more than seventy years after the revolution, but Steve Fisher, Cornell Woolrich, and a few other of the second wave Black Mask boys of the late 1930s, ushered in a dramatic change in crime fiction narration from the objective, hard-boiled writing promoted by Joseph Shaw and the earlier editors of Black Mask Magazine to the subjective, psychologically and emotionally heightened writing favored by Fanny Ellsworth who replaced Shaw in 1936.

This shift in style and focus led to the creation of the film genre we now know as noir through the writings of Steve Fisher, particularly in film scripts, and through the novels and short fiction of Cornell Woolrich, whose writings we now also call noir, although the term was originally applied only to film.

This dark new style and psychology of crime narration jumped from magazine and book publications into screenplays, and led
in the 1940s to the emergence in Hollywood of the classic age of the noir film thriller. The obsessive, dreamlike narration favored by Fisher and Woolrich in their tense crime tales was a perfect match for the dark shadows, and frightening, expressive camera angles developed primarily in German and Hollywood horror cinema. Narrative fiction style, and camera photography styles played against and enriched each other in the development of this new film genre. No writer was more influential in both fiction and in film scripts than Steve Fisher in ushering in the classic age of Hollywood film noir.

Fisher speaks about his experiences in early 1940s Hollywood writing and doctoring film scripts, particularly for noir productions starring Humphrey Bogart, in the final essay of this collection, a rare memoir.

Fisher’s two brief essays, collected for the first time in this 10volume, point to changes in the style of the crime thriller in the late 1930s through the 1940s not often noticed by commentators on Black Mask’s influence on film, and on popular American culture.

Certainly, Curt Siodmak’s fantasy horror masterpiece, Donovan’s Brain, the darkest of obsessive, subjective, first person narratives, serialized in Black Mask in 1942, years after Fanny Ellsworth had led the magazine, would not have made it into Black Mask, despite a long tradition of short horror stories, if the darker, more psychological, obsessive, emotional talents of Fisher (nine stories from August 1937 to April 1939) and of Woolrich (twenty-two original stories from January of 1937 to June of 1944) had not first been let loose on its pages.

Black Mask writers and genres influenced Hollywood in more ways than hard-boiled dialogue and tough-guy detection. The late Curt Siodmak’s work on horror films, especially at Universal scripting and creating The Wolf Man (1941), and with Val Lewton, at RKO scripting I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is also of interest, particularly with regard to the emergence of a noir crime thriller film esthetic from the shadows of the “horror” films of the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood (see my interview with Siodmak about his film experiences, particularly with Val Lewton.

In visual terms, Val Lewton is a genius of suggestion, and his influence on the production values, and the photographed style, of the film noir genre cannot be overstated.

Once the noir film emerged at the beginning of the 1940s with the production of Steve Fisher’s novel, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Fisher’s and Woolrich’s noir work flooded Hollywood.

In 1943 the great run of more than two dozen noir films based on works by Cornell Woolrich, the genius of the dark thriller, began when Val Lewton produced The Leopard Man (1943): Robert Siodmak (Curt’s brother) directed Phantom Lady (1944); The Mark of the Whistler (1944) followed; Clifford Odets scripted Deadline at Dawn (1946); then came Black Angel (1946) and The Chase (1946), followed by The Guilty (1947) and Fear in the Night (1947).

Steve Fisher scripted Cornell Woolrich’s I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) with a telephone call assist from his pal Woolrich. When Fisher couldn’t come up with an appropriate ending for I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, Woolrich suggested that Fisher resurrect the sexually obsessive, psychotic cop from I Wake Up Screaming, and turn him into the culprit, motivated by his lust for the framed man’s wife. Ironically, Fisher originally had based that haunting and haunted police detective, Ed Cornell, on his friend Cornell Woolrich.

More than two dozen films based on Woolrich’s work have been produced. The most famous Woolrich inspired film, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window. François Truffaut’s two films based on Woolrich tales are also well known, The Bride Wore Black (1968), and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). So powerful is his talent for noir invention, Cornell Woolrich, who died in 1968, leaves behind a body of written work that continues to attract noir filmmakers into the twenty first century. Although he never wrote a screenplay, Woolrich’s novels and short stories inspired so many film thrillers, and have become so associated with the genre, that Cornell Woolrich is spoken of as the “master of noir fiction” by no less an expert than the dean of detective and crime fiction critics, Otto Penzler.

In his Armchair Detective essay, Fisher defines the shift in sensibility in Black Mask Magazine fiction that led to the noir revolution. He speaks of his own “subjective style, mood and approach to a story.” Which was very different from Hammett “who wrote objectively, with crisp, cold precision, no emotion was described. You saw what happened from the outside but were never permitted inside a fictional character.” Despite Fisher’s apt observations about Hammett’s writing style, many critics would hold John Huston’s 1941 film version of Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart, to be a prime example of film noir.

The point is not to debate cinema and fiction styles, but to note a sea change in the esthetic of the crime thriller that startedto take place in pulp fiction (and some would argue in American cinema) in the late 1930s, and which came of age in Hollywood films in the 1940s; and to note Steve Fisher’s role in short stories, novels, and in his many screenplays that promote this change in style, and in sensibility.

The memorable title of Steve Fisher’s breakout novel, I Wake Up Screaming is the apotheosis of that new, subjective, emotional style.

I Wake Up Screaming is such a good title for a novel, communicates so directly and powerfully its intention to pull the reader into a maelstrom of emotion and tortured psychology, that Hollywood almost didn’t use it for the famous film based on its story because the new crime thriller paradigm was still so unfamiliar.

Daryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox, who paid Fisher $7,500 for the film rights, and his studio executives felt that the title was too jarring and ominous for the audience of the day. But after a short-circuited release as Hot Spot, the studio re-issued the film under the original, and great title to a hugely popular success at the box office, and with critics.

According to most commentators on film, including The New York Times, All Movie Guide, and Woody Haut’s Blog, I Wake Up Screaming is one of Hollywood’s first noir films, if not the first.

As Bruce Eder noted in All Movie Guide: I Wake Up Screaming “opened up a whole new genre of psychologically centered crime thrillers, and also became one of the most heavily studied movies of its era.”

Although Steve Fisher was a key writer in the development
of film noir as a Hollywood genre, and one of the most influential screenwriters of the 1940s, he did not write the screenplay for the movie; but the novel is such an indelible blue print for the doom and sexual perversity of the film that Fisher’s influence on noir film must be given credit even before he wrote his first script.

The New York Times opened its book review of the novel in March, 1941 with this succinct summation of the emotional and psychological elements which power Fisher’s narrative: “Essentially this is the story of the unrelenting pursuit of an innocent man by a detective who is determined to prove him guilty of murder. The scene is Hollywood, and the man who
is wanted for murder is a scriptwriter. He has no idea who committed the murder; neither does he have any way of proving his innocence.” What is left out of this review is the sexual obsession of the characters, particularly those of Ed Cornell, the corrupt and perverse police detective.

By 1941, the year the film and the novel were released as tie-ins, I Wake Up Screaming had been serialized in Photoplay-Movie Mirror, and Fisher had graduated from writing for Black Mask Magazine, and the less literary pulps like The Shadow (where Fisher’s shoeshine boy detective, Danny Garrett, was founding editor John Nanovic’s favorite series character); and certainly Fisher no longer needed to write for the almost forgotten publications like G-Men, and The Whisperer (of which we include one story each in this collection as exemplars of Fisher’s penny ante writing).

But Fisher did not give up magazine writing when he became a screenwriter, not even pulp magazine writing, and he never gave up novel writing, and in later life in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s he devoted himself to TV series scripting, an occupation not unlike writing series character stories for the pulps.

Steve Fisher: A Brief Writer’s Biography

The Early Years

According to Steve Fisher’s granddaughter, Monica Fisher, in revisionist correspondence with Woody Haut’s Blog (December 30, 2006) Steve Gould Fisher was born August 29, 1912 in Marine City, Michigan. Fisher died on March 27, 1980 in Canoga Park, California; his last scripts had been written for television only a few years before he died: Fantasy Island (1978); Starsky and Hutch (1976); and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975). Once Fisher started writing for money, he never stopped. He successfully sold stories, novels, and scripts for fiy years, from the 1930s through the 1970s, an impressive record few twentieth century writers can also claim.

Fisher grew up around Los Angeles where his mother, an actress, enrolled him in Oneonta Military Academy. He was a teen when he sold his first tale to a magazine. At sixteen he ran away from school, and joined the Navy, and served for four years (apparently on a submarine).

Fisher was in the service when he began to publish stories and articles in US Navy and Our Navy. Fisher was stationed for a time in Honolulu, and Hawaii would be a favorite locale for a number of his stories, including “No Gentleman Strangles His Wife,” (Black Mask, January 1938) included in this collection. After he was discharged from service in Los Angeles in 1932, Fisher stayed in L.A. and continued to write for US Navy at a penny a word. His earliest pulp writing was for a number of erotic pulps, of which the earliest example I can find is “Panama Passion, Zippy” (September 1933), and “Shanghai Sue” for the first issue of Spicy Mystery (July 1934), which despite the venue was actually a romance tale, a genre Fisher would perfect in just three or four years for the highest paying slick markets like Cosmopolitan, Liberty, and Esquire.

According to Walter Gibson, author of many of The Shadow novels for Street & Smith, Steve Fisher was so good at presenting love, and other more complex emotional, human relations in pulp formula plots like spy, detective, and romance tales that his pulp producing peers called him “Somerset Maugham at a penny a word.”

Black Mask

In 1934 Fisher moved to New York City (Greenwich Village for most of the 1930s) and lived in apartments never too far from the Street & Smith editorial offices in the Chelsea district. Early in his career, Street & Smith promoted Fisher as “The Navy’s Foremost Writer.”

As Frank Gruber reminds us in The Pulp Jungle (1967), Street & Smith was at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, and the house that started pulp fiction publishing, Munsey’s, was just a bit further downtown. Together with the other publishers they put out about 150 pulps in 1934 when Gruber and Fisher came to town.

According an early reminiscence called “The Starving Writer,” published in The Writer (July 1948), Gruber arrived in New York in 1934 one month after Fisher. They had been corresponding and met up in Ed Bodin’s office; Bodin was literary agent for both friends at the time. Gruber, like Fisher, arrived alone with a typewriter, a suitcase, and a few dollars. As Gruber noted in many reminiscences, “I had one thing else… the will to succeed.” Both Gruber and Fisher shared this powerful desire to succeed.

Gruber had been reading Horatio Alger books since he was a youngster, and they impressed him: not only with the power that will and determination might have over circumstance, but also with a desire to become an author and write books that would sell as well the Horatio Alger series.

Before Black Mask: The Pulps and Street & Smith

After a few dry months, Fisher and Gruber began to sell the occasional story. The earliest pulp story I could find by Fisher that was not written for a “spicy” or a “Navy” publication is “Authorized Mutiny,” in the February 1934 issue of Top-Notch. Fisher’s sales increased steadily, and he wrote for every kind of pulp fiction market. During his career Fisher published about 500 stories in pulps like Clues, Detective Fiction, Thrilling Detective, True Gang Life, The Shadow, Phantom Detective, Saucy Romantic Adventures, Ace Detective, Doc Savage, Black Mask, Crime Busters, Detective Romances, The Whisperer, Thrilling Adventures, DareDevil Aces, Dime Sports Magazine, and Detective Story Magazine. These are just representative examples.

Most of Fisher’s work appeared under the name Steve Fisher, but he used the pen names Stephen Gould, and Grant Lane, particularly for early novels, and when more than one of his stories appeared in the same issue of a magazine.

Fisher also invented a number of series characters, including, as Stephen Gould, Sheridan Doome, a Naval intelligence officer with a grotesquely scarred face for The Shadow. And also the very popular “Kid” detective stories, starring Danny Garret, a shoeshine teen detective who appeared regularly as the second feature story in The Shadow. Sheridan Doome is of interest because he was the hero of two of Fisher’s early novels, Murder of the Admiral (The Macauley Company, 1936), and Murder of the Pigboat Skipper (Hillman-Curl, Inc., 1937). Both these pure pulp novels based on The Shadow character are in print.

The founding editor of The Shadow Magazine at Street & Smith, John Nanovic, championed Fisher’s career. Nanovic was an influential force in pulp publishing. He also helped invent the Doc Savage pulp which Fisher’s friend Lester Dent almost wrote single-handedly under the house name Kenneth Robeson.

According to correspondence with Will Murray, literary agent for Lester Dent’s estate, and a noted authority on pulp publishing, Nanovic told him that Fisher’s series character, Danny Garrett, was the best ongoing character featured in The Shadow. Garrett is a shoeshine boy detective who operates in an often dark and grotesque adult world of hard-boiled toughs, world-weary detectives, and gruesome murders.

Fisher’s teen detective deserves some commentary. Of course, the child hero in an apparently adult world is an American publishing phenomenon first associated with Horatio Alger, Jr.’s work, starting in 1900. But the Hardy Boys (starting in 1927) and Nancy Drew (starting in 1930) are probably the primary models of the child as hero detective in American popular fiction. Fisher easily adapts juvenile mystery trappings to the forbidding, hard-boiled, and dark city landscape that is the background universe of The Shadow. The Danny Garrett “Kid” character was vital enough to survive the pulp magazine format, and continue when The Shadow became a comic book. 
In considering the juvenile detective character tradition, I put the Rover Boys, and Tom Swift outside the mark in the adventure category; and rank Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Detective a work of different literary consideration.

In any case, teen detective protagonists were starting to appear in movies around the time of Fisher’s invention, and in time the two mediums influenced each other. By the 1940s both the hard-boiled detective film genre, and the Universal Studio horror film genre became formats for popular movie comedies, in part because of a younger audience.

I also note that The Shadow character first appeared on radio as a host in 1930, soon to have his own radio show, and by the following year his own pulp. Because of The Shadow character’s radio prominence, especially with teens, I imagine that the magazine starring The Shadow also drew a significant teenage audience.

Although the Danny Garret stories I read by Fisher had charm, and were entertaining, they suffer from a recurring problem Fisher has in constructing believable, formal detective puzzles. A number of his Black Mask tales could have been improved with better ratiocination plotting. Fisher is much better at suspense and thrills than at detection.

To a modern reader, Fisher’s pulp mysteries, especially his Danny Garrett stories, present such inept forensics, and poor crime scene security, that these procedural elements of the detection seem incredible. I must evaluate Fisher’s work both 
as entertainment, and as American writing. This is a different standard from that usually applied to most pulp magazine fiction. I must admit, however, that as I read Fisher’s Danny Garrett tales, I kept thinking that despite the flaws in these plots, Danny would make a good detective film character in a 1940s B mystery movie, probably featuring Jane Withers and Mickey Rooney.

Fisher’s military experience in the Navy influenced his writing from his early pulp sea stories like “Murder in the Navy,” (Thrilling Detective, November 1934), “Flaming Freighter,” (Thrilling Adventure, October 1934), “The Navy Spirit,” (True Gang Life, February 1935), and “The Tattooed Skipper” (The Shadow, May 1935).

Three of a Kind at Black Mask: Fisher, Gruber, and Woolrich

About this time, circa 1936, Fisher divorced his first wife and married Edythe (Edie) Syme, an editor at Popular Publications, Inc. Gruber and his wife oen went to dinner with Fisher and Edie.

By then, Fisher and Gruber had become close friends with Cornell Woolrich with whom they occasionally had dinner on those rare occasions when they were able to sidestep Woolrich’s restrictive, overbearing mother.

Fisher, Gruber, and Woolrich all started to sell to Black Mask when Fanny Ellsworth took over editorial reign in 1936, and their work began to appear in 1937. In The Life and Times of The Pulp Story, Brass Knuckles (1966) Gruber claims that he and Fisher managed to take the reclusive Woolrich to a party where they 
all got drunk. The next day Fanny Ellsworth called Gruber and reported that Woolrich had come tearing into the Black Mask offices threatening never to write for the magazine again because Fisher and Gruber had told him that they were getting three times the word rate for their stories than Fanny was giving Woolrich. Fisher and Gruber had been too drunk to remember the hoax!

Gruber knew Ellsworth well from selling lead rangeland novels to her during the years she ran the very successful Ranch Romances. Gruber thought Ellsworth an extremely erudite and perceptive editor who could have run The Atlantic Monthly or Harpers. In The Life and Times of The Pulp Story, Gruber claims that he introduced Fisher to Ellsworth, and helped him break into Black Mask. Both Gruber and Fisher credit Ellsworth with deliberately—and perceptively—changing the course of the magazine.

Romantic Emotion in the Highest Paying Magazines

Between 1938 and 1939 Steve Fisher achieved a kind of tipping point stability in his life and career: his fiction appeared 
in Black Mask Magazine, Liberty, Argosy, Cosmopolitan, the most prestigious pulps and the highest paying slick magazines seemingly at will.

Following the strategy he would use for all his genre fiction, Fisher jumped to high paying mass market magazines for his Navy and romance influenced stories: “Navy Girl,” (Cosmopolitan, September 1940), “Navy Man,” (Argosy, June 1941), and “My Heart Sails Tomorrow” (Liberty, June 1940). He published novels, and a number of new novels were in the works, and he had already made important sales and connections with Hollywood that would pay off for the rest of his professional life—which for Steve Fisher meant the rest of his life.

Early Hollywood Connections

Fisher’s first story sale made into a film was The Nurse from Brooklyn (1938), although Woody Haut says Fisher sold film rights to his first novel, Spend the Night (1935) for $125. But no film ever issued from that work.

With “Shore Leave” (Cosmopolitan, August 1938), Fisher had a compact love and spy story he helped the credited scriptwriter, Harvey Harris Gates, turn into a modest film for Monogram Pictures, Navy Secrets (1939). In later years, Fisher would script a number of films for Monogram.

By 1938 Fisher had Harold Ober, a prestigious agent, representing him in New York on book deals, and in Hollywood for film deals Fisher had H.N. Swanson, the legendary Hollywood agent who had started by representing F. Scott Fitzgerald and his great American novel, The Great Gatsby.

In fact, life seemed secure in 1938. Fisher and Edie boarded The Queen Elizabeth and cruised to France on a whim. The photograph of Fisher and his wife that faces his Armchair Detective essay at the end of this collection is from the Lester Dent Collection at The University of Missouri, and was probably taken in 1938 on that cruise.

We get a clear picture of Fisher’s optimistic state of mind from a letter he wrote to Dent on August 15, 1938, from this trip to France. The letter is in the Dent Collection of Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri/ State Historical Society of Missouri:

… Yes, Shore Leave sold to the screen, which proves what I said about Swanson as an agent… I’ve set so many sailing dates that I guess the people in N.Y. are going to suspect I’m like Jack London with “The Snark”… I’ve a standing Hollywood offer at Paramount for one thing, and though it is only $250. I may take it starting sometime in January. Hope by then Swanie can boost the price. It’s for a full six months deal.

…Have you read Of Mice and Men? It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in print. Objective writing, a good deal like yours…

By the time of this letter, Fisher had already published four or five novels under various names, including Spend the Night (1935), Satan’s Angel (1935), Murder of the Admiral (1936), Murder of the Pigboat Skipper (1937), The Night Before Murder (1939), and, a few months later, Homicide Johnny (1940).

1941 and Beyond: Steve Fisher Screenwriter

Finally Fisher’s first major, mainstream, novel success, Destroyer (a war novel reviewed prominently in The New York Times about predicted sea battles with the Axis fleet near Guam) was serialized in Argosy in April of 1941, and published as a book the summer of the same year.

This year, 1941, was Fisher’s breakthrough season. In one month Twentieth Century Fox purchased, for $7,500, Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming. Dodd Mead & Co had only just published it.

And almost at the same time, Fox also bought Fisher’s story, Red Cross Girl, for the very substantial 1941 price of $17,000. Swanie must have been cooking at his negotiating game. With the sale of I Wake Up Screaming, H.N. Swanson got Fisher the job of writing an original story for Fox, but Lamar Trotti wrote the script To the Shores of Tripoli (1942). Finally, that same year Fisher wrote his first film script, Berlin Correspondent (1942) for Fox. Both Fox films were war stories, a genre that appealed to Fisher. The best of Fisher’s wartime screenplays (written with Albert Maltz) was Destination Tokyo (1943), a submarine thriller starring Cary Grant for which Fisher received an Academy Award nomination.

In 1945, Fisher and his pal Frank Gruber adapted a novel,
 Mr. Angel Comes Aboard, by fellow Black Mask writer Charles G. Booth, into the screenplay for Johnny Angel, a great hit for RKO. More importantly for students of noir, Fisher signed a contract with MGM, and replaced Raymond Chandler on Chandler’s The Lady in The Lake (1947), an experimental classic film starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. For MGM Fisher also scripted the last of the Thin Man film series, Song of the Thin Man (1947), based on a novel by another Black Mask master, Dashiell Hammett. Bruce Elder in All Movie Guide considers these two film scripts the height of Fisher’s prestige in Hollywood.

But the same year Fisher also wrote the script for John Cromwell’s classic noir film, Dead Reckoning (1947) at Columbia. This stylish, disturbing, grisly, and beautiful film starred Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. In his Hollywood memoir, Play It Again, Sam Spade, included as the last piece in this collection, Fischer discusses how he came to work on this film, some of his techniques of screen writing, and his relationship with Bogart.

Through the 1950s Fisher’s film scripts continued to explore dark action and disturbed characters in work for major and minor studios. As mentioned Fisher received an assist from Cornell Woolrich on his plotting for the film adaptation of Woolrich’s I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) at Monogram. Fisher also did Tokyo Joe (1949), another film starring Humphrey Bogart, at Columbia, which he designed with Bogart in mind; Roadblock (1951) at RKO; The Lost Hours (1952); The City That Never Sleeps (1953); and Hell’s Half Acre (1954).

Though Fisher’s screen plays moved on from dark thrillers to westerns, and other genres until his work, though steady, lost much of its classic, historical import, Fisher remained aconsummate professional workman.
Woody Haut, the author of Heartbreak & Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (Serpent’s Tail 2002) sums it all up nicely:

From 1945 to 1970, Fisher was one of the hardest working script writers in Hollywood, with over fifty film credits to his name… But, on the basis of one novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and films like Dead Reckoning and The Lady in the Lake, Fisher deserves a place on the short list of influential noirists.

Steven Gould Fisher’s Achievement

Once heightened emotion, and the interior life of the characters would be explored in Black Mask after 1936 with Fanny Ellsworth’s influence, Fisher’s writing in the best of his stories improved in the complexity of human psychology he was able to reveal.

The expression of this complexity of emotion and interior life had always been Fisher’s nascent and natural strength as a popular fiction magazine writer.

This expression of powerful interior states is the primary narrative shift that leads to the dark, shadowed dream worlds of noir that Fisher explores in full stride in his novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and his memorable film noir scripts of the 1940s. To support his claim of the emergence of a new subjective, emotional, psychology driven school which he called “tough-tender,” in his Armchair Detective essay Fisher offers two of his 1938 stories as harbingers of the new style: “Wait for Me” (Black Mask, May 1938), and “Goodbye, Hannah” (Double Detective, December 1938). Both of these tales are included in this collection.
 Fisher writes:

“One of my Black Mask stories was ‘Wait for Me,’ about a white Russian whore in Shanghai trying to escape the country, a U.S. sailor tagging along after her everywhere, calling out ‘Wait for me,’ but she didn’t, and in her devious manipulations to obtain a phony passport, was murdered in an upstairs room while the sailor waited for her below. All he wanted to say was that he would marry her, and that way she could have a legitimate passport.

“Well, that one broke all the old style and even a lot of taboos, and other stories like it followed by me Gruber, Woolrich, and others, and since Black Mask was still regarded as the beacon light of pulp fiction, other magazines began to take notice of this not so very subtle style change…. The subculture revolution had started.”

Of the enduring emotional impact of “Goodbye, Hannah,” which was collected in 1949 for the hardback story collection To The Queen’s Taste, Fisher quotes the book’s esteemed editor Ellery Queen (Fred Dannay) who wrote in his introduction to the tale more than a decade after its first appearance: “Steve Fisher packs more emotion, more heart into his yarns than most contemporary writers of the detective story. Your editors have yet to read a Steve Fisher story that fails to rise high above the level of cold, mechanical puzzle.”

By the way, in an essay I wrote for the editors of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s blog, “Black Mask Magazine, Steve Fisher, and The Noir Revolution” on Something Is Going to Happen.

I attribute this shift in Black Mask from the objective, hardboiled narrative to the emotional, noir narrative “The Ellsworth Shift.” That is how important I think Fanny Ellsworth is as a Black Mask editor, and as an unheralded contributor to the revolution of noir writing in the1930s. Steve Fisher and Frank Gruber felt the same way about Ellsworth, and wrote about her contribution to the noir shift.

My choice for Fisher’s greatest short story of psychological depth, and emotional resonance, a pulp story so rare in quality it’s first person narrative still chills us with the impact of real psychopathology, is “You’ll Always Remember Me” from Black Mask (March 1938). This story, although previously anthologized, is so good, so compelling, it had to be included in this collection of Steve Fisher’s pulp magazine writing.

This vivid short tale looks forward to William March’s 1954 novel, The Bad Seed, and also anticipates the pervasive 1950s theme of juvenile delinquency, particularly as raised to the level of social pathology in the short crime fiction of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, and in his iconic novel of 1953, The Blackboard Jungle.

Fisher, who is not a gifted stylist like Chandler, nor a precise narrator like Hammett, wrote swiftly without fuss. As Fisher’s great friend, Frank Gruber, also a versatile, success in pulps, novels, films, and in TV notes in his many memoirs, including The Pulp Jungle, he and Fisher were in the writing game to make a living. When they first arrived in Hollywood they both befriended Frederick Faust (Max Brand), one of the most prolific and successful fiction writers of the last century, and a hero to both of them. Faust, who was at the end of his fabulous career “fixing” dialogue for films, and recycling characters like Dr. Kildare, still wrote at least five to fourteen pages of fiction every day. He died on assignment during World War II, and Fisher wrote a memorable eulogy to him for Writer’s Digest.

Frederick (Max Brand) Faust was the ideal career writer to both Fisher and Gruber. Faust was a grand success in every genre and every medium he attempted. For Fisher and Gruber, every avenue for income from writing was fair game, and all honest writing, whether commercial fiction or great literature was worthy of the pride of the craftsman.

Fisher’s drive to succeed as a writer was as important as his natural talent to his great success. And he succeeded in almost every genre, and in all fields of fiction writing from the pulps to the slick magazines (an estimated 500 stories); in novels (at least 13); in film scripts (53); and television show episodes (200).

Steve Gould Fisher was an active, successful writer during a career that spanned five decades. He never stopped writing and publishing novels. He wrote for magazines, including the pulps, long after he had to for income. He remained active in film after the height of his prestige as a screenwriter in the 1940s and 1950s. He became very active in television work from the 1950s to the end of his life.

Early on, Fisher knew he had a special talent for expressing emotion, and he exploited that talent. For example, his love stories were enormously popular in pulp venues, and then in the most widely read, highest paying, prestige magazines of his day. That he was such an accomplished writer of mass-market love tales is unusual for an acclaimed crime thriller novelist, and versatile film scenarist. His greatest skill was evocation of emotion.

Although he occasionally compared himself to Jack London in conversations and in letters, Fisher considered himself a writer for hire, not especially a writer for the ages. He was very proudof his professionalism. He did not have to create art, or literature, for him to appreciate what he was writing—as long as he gave every piece he created his best effort at that time.

In a long letter to Writer’s Digest published in the December 1946 issue, Fisher wrote from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, where he was on contract creating film scripts, to “call to task” the editors for saying that many Hollywood contract writers “getting a thousand dollars a week” or more, were ashamed of what they wrote. Fisher jumped right in to defend all commercial fiction writing:

Please don’t tell me that magazine writing is ‘different’ from scenario writing because I have done a great deal of them both… and unless I can be proud of what I write, then I will not write it. I have no apologies for Lady in the Lake, the new Robert Montgomery film which will be in your town before Christmas; nor for Dead Reckoning, the new Humphrey Bogart starrer I wrote last summer, and certainly I am proud of Gallant Man… I am proud of all these things and glad I wrote them, and I want everybody in the world to know I wrote them. Is that being ashamed?

If you are a real writer, then all the things you write are written honestly, and all are one and the same thing—an expression of yourself, and whatever experience and talent that you have. I don’t believe any writer who writes should be ashamed of anything… whether it’s in Paris Nights, Christian Fiction, or one of the blood and thunder half cent a word fourth string pulps. It represents the best that he can do at the time, and you shouldn’t condemn him for it. I was never ashamed of my pulp stories…

Fisher was a keen observer of all of his contemporary writers, both his pulp and slick magazine peers, and also the writers
who were producing what Fisher recognized as art. In his many personal letters, and his letters to the editor of magazines like Writer’s Digest, Fisher observed and commented on the writing and the writers of his time.

Unlike some writers who had more literary cachet, Fisher was always a consummate professional wherever he worked. For example, while Fisher and William Saroyan were both at MGM in 1941/1942, Saroyan had a terrible tiff with the studio over his original script for The Human Comedy.

Saroyan vowed never to work in Hollywood again in a scathing humorous article in Variety that was quoted in papers across the nation. In brilliant spite, Saroyan transformed the script into his most popular novel, and published it before the film was released.

Raymond Chandler, a Black Mask narrator of genius, was deeply scarred by his Hollywood experience. Chandler criticized Hollywood in a famous magazine essay collected in his book collection of detective stories, The Simple Art of Murder.

According to Frank Gruber, who loved Chandler’s work, but admired his friend Fisher’s professionalism more, he and Chandler got in a great argument over the fact that Steve Fisher had replaced Chandler on the script for Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. Chandler believed he also deserved a credit for the script. Only Fisher received credit, and the film was both a critical and popular success.

Fisher deeply respected writing as an art, and was a perceptive observer of talent. One can only wonder at an obscure notice in The New York Times for June 12, 1943 which I discovered while reviewing Fisher’s career in newspaper notices: “Steve Fisher and William Faulkner have been assigned to the staff of writers working on Warner’s projected Battle Cry….” That film was never produced, and I could not discover if Fisher and Faulkner ever met while working in Hollywood. Of course, it is well known that Faulkner told the studio bosses he “wanted to write at home” and one day just in California, and returned to writing literature at his home in Mississippi.

Through the protagonist of I Wake Up Screaming, a Hollywood scriptwriter, Fisher comments on the talents of the industry hacks, and also on the quality writers of the day like William Saroyan and, again, John Steinbeck:

“You write don’t you?”

“Only plays,” I said.

“And you don’t care anyway; the only ones that care haven’t the talent to tell it on paper. The only ones that care are the ones that eat dog food and live out their miserable lives here, hoping to hell they get a break. And if they get a break, they don’t care any more. But some of us will always be extras and this is our lives.”

“You’re going to be late, Wanda,” Jill said.

“Some sweet day a John Steinbeck will come out and tell about it,” said Wanda. “He’ll tell about it because it’ll make him money. But he’ll tell. The way guys are beaten up because they don’t want to give their dough to racketeers. How girls have to sleep with fat slobs to get work. How girls get pregnant and climb the hills and jump off the Hollywoodland sign.”

I Wake Up Screaming presents a knowing insider’s view of film production, the glamour of Hollywood society of the late 1930s and early 1940s, and also the grim and gritty underside 
of Los Angeles, and of California. In addition to its fame as a psychological, noir crime thriller, the novel is also important as a Los Angeles, as a Hollywood, and as a California novel.

Fisher’s most famous book falls in a line of novels started in 1937 by James Cain’s Serenade, a work that is about an opera singer’s meteoric rise to film stardom. But Cain’s Hollywood experience scarred him, and his characters seem to speak for him when he has one say “…no picture is any good.”

Next in line I would place Nathanial West’s 1939 Hollywood apocalypse novel, Day of the Locusts. This metaphoric work takes Hollywood over the edge to a symbolic end of days. And in 
the line after Fisher’s novel, I would place Raymond Chandler’s Little Sister (1949), a classic private eye tale written by a stylistic genius from his own tarnished view from rough experience as a scriptwriter.

West’s, Cain’s, and Chandler’s novels have been accepted into the cannon of American literature, if not universally accepted as high art. Fisher’s novels remain on a lower rung of popular fiction.

Some critics questioned Fisher’s carelessness in his emendation of the 1941 novel in 1960 for a revised edition in which the local Hollywood culture is updated to the late 1950s.

Some of the new references seem to jar with the original spirit of the work. But that spirit shines through so strongly that in the end the revision, although a mistake in critical judgment, doesn’t undermine the power of the novel.

Steve Fisher, particularly in his film scripts, but also in I Wake up Screaming, is a master of dark, psychological thrills. His dreamlike fictional worlds deliver more powerful emotional experiences than more elegant stylists are able to arouse. As Otto Penzler noted about Fisher’s Black Mask companion, and fellow creator of noir crime suspense, Cornell Woolrich: “Woolrich is the greatest noir writer who ever lived, in spite of stylistic failings that include so much purple prose that in the hands of a lesser writer, would make one wince.” Both Fisher and Woolrich are money writers who get the job done of thrilling their readers.

In Black Mask Magazine, Fisher and Woolrich shared a talent for presenting aberrant mental states, and for casting suspenseful plots with inventive incidents. “You’ll Always Remember Me” is one of Fisher’s greatest short fiction achievements, and as chilling
a first person presentation of psychological derangement as any that ever appeared in an American magazine in the last century.

Fisher and Woolrich’s best Black Mask fiction set the stage
for the noir revolution in popular fiction, and popular film. And Fisher’s novel, I Wake Up Screaming, created the blue print, and was the inspiration, for the noir genre that has had an enduring impact and influence on film and fiction in popular American, and in world entertainment.

I would like to thank Will Murray, literary agent for Lester Dent’s estate and a meticulous pulp-publishing historian, and also Woody Haut, the noted noir film and hard-boiled literature commentator and critic, for original research and insights.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch.

Interview: Rafael DeSoto

Rafael DeSoto was born in 1906 in Barta Rolta, a small town in Spain on the border of Portugal. He came to the United States to study architecture at Columbia University in New York. The depression forced him to quit school and support himself by drawing. He studied anatomy under George Bridgeman at the Arts Students League and eventually went to Pratt Institute and higher degrees.

But Mr. DeSoto will tell you that he picked up his real training in his first two years as a dry brush illustrator for Street & Smith’s western, mystery and adventure pulps. By 1934 he had done his first magazine cover for one of their “less advanced” pulps, Top notch. He was soon Street & Smith’s most versatile cover illustrator, doing covers for Western Story, Doc Savage, The Shadow—in time over two hundred other titles.

Because he could work more than twice as fast as anyone else in the business (he could knock out two to three covers a week) and because he was an innovative illustrator in demand by every publisher, Mr. DeSoto holds the record for doing covers in the ’30s and ’40s.

In time, Popular Publications, one of the great pulp publishing houses and the publishers of Black Mask in the ’40s, dominated his time. But no one owned him.

He did covers for Argosy, Adventure, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and The Saturday Evening Post. In the fifties he worked for the paperback houses. “All of ’em,” he tells us, including Dell, Ace, Signet.

Rafael DeSoto also did some notable advertising work. He did a series of illustrations for the first Frigidaire campaign. He also did White Owl and Canadian Club advertisements.

Mr. DeSoto, who now teaches anatomy and composition at Farmingdale College on Long Island, feels that the magazine illustration of the pulp era is as close as commercial work has ever come to a fine art in America.

“In the old days everything was done for impact,” he said. “Nowadays it’s all design. The old drawings that jump off the page at you, the illustrated initials, the fine line work-that is an art that is almost lost and I wish that they would revive it.”

We here at Black Mask are reviving it. This is the first interview Mr. DeSoto has granted to the press. Usually he lets his covers speak for themselves.


Keith Alan Deutsch: Were you reading the pulps? What made you try out for them? For westerns?

Rafael DeSoto: I used to see them on the stands. Constantly. There seemed to be hundreds of them. And naturally I used to buy them. They were fascinating. I read them. And soon enough I pursued them. It was the depression. I had never done any work. Somehow I prepared a quick western for a sample and went to good old Street & Smith. The Art Director was Mr. James. The assistant Art Director was Harry Laury.

When I was in the waiting room and looked at all the beautiful paintings hanging around I got cold feet. When my time for an interview came I left my painting outside, I wouldn’t show it be cause I knew how bad it was.

So the inevitable happens and the Art Director says, “I can’t give you any work until I see something you’ve done.” So I went back out and brought my painting in to him. He looked at it a while and said; “You know, this is the most Spanish cowboy I ever saw.”

So I went to the library and I studied about Western life. About heels and boots and chaps and ten gallon hats and six gun holsters and so forth. I will say the second drawing I made was a little better. He hired me to do dry brush Illustrations. Dry brush is when you get your brush filled up with ink, but you dry it up a little and work with it. You can get very fine lines and sometimes double lines as you go along. You get very nice effects. It’s not used too much nowadays.

So he started me on dry brush drawings and I learned more doing those things than at any point in my career. I learned about composing a story. I learned about composition. After a while they became easy. It was those two years that prepared me for my later illustration. After those first years I got so busy doing covers I had much more work than I could do.”

Deutsch: When did you start doing Black Mask covers?

DeSoto: Well I wasn’t doing them at first. That was the top magazine. First I did mostly Street & Smith titles. I did The Shadow. After I started on the important magazines, I always thought that I should do something different with Black Mask. To make it stand out. So I decided to work with very dark backgrounds. So I decided to put jet black backgrounds around the shadows right into the black. Only the light part would show.

When I brought the first one into Mr. Steeger, the publisher of Popular Publications, he hit the top. “Golly, that’s good.” he said. “That’s what I want.”

Naturally I had reduced the whole scene into a close up because it is hard to work, to get too many things into the backgrounds. I think they were very effective. Harry Steeger knew what he wanted. If he liked something, he bought it. If not you couldn’t sell it to him. nIt really brings back memories. I had a lot of fun doing those things.

Now Terrell, who was the editor of Black Mask at that time, always thought that I was a little meek about drawing the gun. He’d tell me, “The gun is very important. Make it look big. Make it look like a cannon, And give it some flesh contact between the villain and the girl. Not exactly hurting her. Maybe his hand across her mouth. Some physical contact to show that the girl is in danger. Without being hurt. She’s not screaming because she’s hurt, but because she’s scared.” And I played on those things.

Deutsch: How did you meet Mr. Steeger?

DeSoto: I just went there. He was the publisher. He either liked it or he didn’t. I approached the Art Director and he brought me to the editors and the publisher. The very first example I brought to Popular Publications they bought. Left me without a sample. Before I went to Popular I was working for Dell doing western and detective covers.

Street & Smith bought my first cover for $60. I remember I would get up early in the morning to go out and see if my cover was on the stands yet. In a short time my price was up to $150 and then $250. I could do two or more a week. Pulps were very much in demand, very much in style. With no TV you had to read then. Every month Mr. Steeger called me in and told me I shouldn’t do anybody else’s covers. Four years after Street & Smith had started me I was straight Popular, I worked for them for ten years. But he couldn’t stop me from doing whatever titles I wanted to do outside.

Deutsch: What about horror covers? I noticed among the many cover paintings you showed me one with a mummy in it. Popular Publications had quite a few horror titles. Did you work any of them?

DeSoto: Yes, of course. I have one in my studio of a man that was half metal and half flesh. And nobody could shoot him down. I still have the cover. His arm and one of his eyes and part of his face is metal.”

Deutsch: Did they tell you to use girls with most of their clothing missing for the horror titles?

DeSoto: Ah, yes. Even in detective covers they would tell me to reveal as much as possible. I don’t know how they published some of them. I used to rip them up, you know. Show half the breast. The legs. Just enough to cover what you couldn’t show. Yes, I was told.

One time I did this spicy detective cover, I was told to show a lot of leg, so I decided to show a woman sitting down and putting her stockings on. I did a rough sketch and thought I really had it. I ended up showing it to Mr. Steeger and he wouldn’t have it. “It is not what you’ve exposed,” he said to me. “You could even reveal more thigh. You’ve drawn it wrong. That’s all. Looks like she’s taking her stockings off. Can’t have that. Study someone putting ’em on. It is OK if the lady is almost naked if she’s putting her clothes on. But it’s no good, even if she’s hardly removed anything, to show a woman getting undressed on a cover.” Sure enough, I had my wife practice taking her stockings off and there was a difference. I redid the painting and Mr. Steeger loved it.

There was a lot of censorship in those days, but there were rules like that and an awful lot of pretty raw stuff went through. And when pocketbooks first started in the early ’40s, well most of that stuff was even stronger. I didn’t even read the books after I did a few. All you had to do was show a half-naked woman and a bed. That was a whole other era.

Deutsch: What about the demise of the pulps?

DeSoto: I saw the writing on the wall in the early ’40s. There was the war, a paper shortage, but most of all it was the pocketbooks. So I went into pocketbooks, I did a slew of them in the ’40s and ’50s. Until ten years ago I was still doing ’em. And I also did a lot of work for Magazine Management after the pulps died. After the war most pulp artists went to the men’s adventure books like Stag and Men’s Adventure and war stories. I used to do both the covers and the inside illustrations. Duotones, mostly blues. The men’s books never used straight line drawings.

Deutsch: This is the age of pocketbooks. The most exciting area of publishing today.

DeSoto: Yes. I agree. They try everything now.

Deutsch: You don’t see many line drawings nowadays though, do you?

DeSoto: Well pocketbooks didn’t have them to begin with.

Deutsch: Do you think that’s a mistake?

DeSoto: Yes. Very much.

Deutsch: Some pocketbooks do have illustrations, notably Ace’s science fiction and Tarzan books. But not too many or too much. The appeal of the pulps depended quite a bit on their covers and line drawings. Dramatic, vivid illustrations. Sort of a cross between comic books and fiction.

DeSoto: Yes, that’s right. That is an art that has almost died and I wish that they would revive it. You see, many readers love the stories, but they haven’t the imagination to visualize the scenes. To picture it. We learned how to approach a situation so that it was not confusing. And so it has impact. Just like the stories.

Deutsch: What procedures were used in planning a cover?

DeSoto: Well, this is what happened. As a rule they had the stories written. I used to read them to pick up a scene for the cover. Not every story was suitable so I asked the editor to give me a little leeway to change things around. So I used to give my own version of what the story was to be. Then I gave them pencil sketches; maybe one or two, and I’d do the covers from them. In time they were asking their authors to do their stories from my covers! Reversed the procedure.

Deutsch: How did you make the paintings from the sketches?

DeSoto: Well I proceeded to take photographs, I built my own studio and took my own photographs. I posed the models. These things have to be done fast. I took many many photos and then I laid ’em out on the table and chose the best for the best parts of a few and made a composite. Always had to distort something. For effect or to make room for the titles. I used to arrange for those in my sketch but they didn’t always fit. Everything was planned out from the beginning. Once the photo was drawn I used to sketch in my dark tones and from the dark tones work out to the light. I never presented color sketches or let anyone see my photos.

All my early works was oils. Then I went to casein. An awful lot of my work was casein. Later work was acrylic. Everything was done for impact.

Deutsch: Who were some other illustrators you admired?

DeSoto: Nick Eggenhoffer was a great dry brush illustrator at Street & Smith when I was just starting. His best work was westerns. I remember a great cover man. Scott. W. Scott. Also Walter Baumhofer. He did an awful lot of Doc Savage covers. Harris. R.G. Harris. Arthur Bowker, I remember he did fine work.

Deutsch: What about Virgil Finlay?

DeSoto: Ah, yes. He was a great genius in line work. We used to call him the Salvador Dali of pulp. Fantastic illustrator, but his cover work wasn’t very good. He was a poor colorist.

Deutsch: Black Mask was something special?

DeSoto: Ah yes. Of all of them it was the best. I worked very hard to make it distinctive. After a while I got the dark backgrounds and I worked all close up as I explained to you. Look at the gun on your cover. It looks like a cannon. I went to a place where they made props for the theater and I had them build me a .45, exactly authentic to the last detail, out of wood. And he painted it so you couldn’t tell the difference. Due to the shape of the handle, the grip of the hand was different from any other revolver with a .45. And I did sketches of hands holding it in all positions.

And one thing I hated to see was a gun not being held right. It looks like an amateur shooting. If an amateur is going to shoot, he’s not a gangster. He’s not a criminal. One thing you’ve got to say about my Black Mask covers. My villains can shoot!

Curt Siodmak: The Black Mask Interview

On the set of I Walked with a Zombie, Curt Siodmak Remembers His Horror Movie Days

He lives in a small village called Three Rivers, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, at the foothills of the Sequoias. The house is situated on top of a hill and sheltered from encroachment of neighbors by fifty acres of grazing land, which is studded with trees. Through the huge glass windows of the redwood house, which was built by the famous architect Neutra. Snowcapped mountains stretch in a circle. Once a jeep came down the fire trail at night. Siodmak wanted to move. Too many people, he complained. In day time he feeds his cows, the horse, two ravens which knock at six at his window asking for food. At night a score of racoons show up punctually. There are bobcats, and also a talkative mountain lion, who walks back and forth at late hours, answering in his own language when talked to. This is a hermit’s life, and one wouldn’t be surprised to see the Frankenstein monster lumber down the mountainside.

There is something owlish in Siodmak’s appearance, in his large glasses and bald head, but also something authoritative since he is used to directing pictures or giving lectures at colleges and universities. His latest one was a course in Modern Science Fiction. The Window Into the Future for the University of Santa Cruz. Sitting in his book-lined office, one wall covered with paintings of the Dutch school, Siodmak faces a wall and not the mountain view when he is working at his typewriter. He doesn’t want to be distracted by the beauty around him.

You knew Val Lewton, the producer of The Cat People, Bedlam, I Walked With A Zombie, Isle Of The Dead, The Leopard Man, The Curse Of The Cat People, The Body Snatchers?

Yes. I met him in circumstances perfect for a horror picture. My agent made an appointment for me to see him at RKO studios. He sat on Stage 2, watching the shooting of Cat People. The stage was huge, cavernous, the biggest one in Hollywood. In a corner a living room set was built, the rest was dark. Lewton was a big man, an eternal pipe in his mouth. He sat on a chair too small for him. A commotion was going on the set, a noise which had the overtones of panic.

“Lolita got loose,” he said between two puffs from his pipe. Lolita was the black panther used in the film. Simone Simon, the French star, convincingly turned into that black cat and committed murder. Lewton seemed to get pleasure out of scaring me, knowing I didn’t appreciate a black panther roaming a dark set. He had a streak of sadism in him. He told me later that in school he cherished a game: you put your hand on a wooden desk and the boy next to you tries to stab your hand with a pocket knife. The trick was to withdraw the hand the very last moment possible. Once he nailed a friend’s hand on the desk top with dire consequences. I guess that that frame of mind helped him to become a famous horror motion picture producer. “Just sit quiet and Lolita won’t bother you,” he said. “But she might eat you.” I whispered. There, between his spread fat legs a dark cat’s head appeared. The round head turned upwards, the ears folded back, a huge mouth opened, and I looked into a red canyon framed by long white teeth. I heard a growl, deep and menacing. Lewton froze into a statue. I turned into a slab of marble. “She growls.” I managed to say. “She purrs'” he insisted, but his ruddy complexion had become white. He slowly lifted his hands over his head and signaled like a semaphore. Presently the trainer came along, waving a huge lollipop. The panther slid out from under Lewton’s chair. She took a last look at Lewton’s fat thighs, undecided if she should take a bite out of them or lick the lollipop. Her sweet tooth made the decision for her. The trainer gave her the lollipop, picked her up, and threw the two hundred pounds of cat over his shoulder. That’s how I met Val Lewton. In style!

You wrote I Walked With A Zombie for him.

Yes. We discussed that idea after I regained my composure. But in his office. I couldn’t concentrate on the dark set. After I told Lewton my approach to the film, he promised to leave me alone. I hate interference by producers. They pay me to put my ideas on paper, not theirs. I found out that he was a frustrated writer. He had ideas that didn’t fit my conception. But he had great taste and culture and intelligence, a fact that showed in his pictures. He created the intelligent Lewton horror films. He tried a novel approach to horror pictures, and succeeded. He put recognizable people into fantastic stories. Now, don’t confuse Science fiction with Science fantasy. I never wrote about people from other stars, wearing antennas, or having shapes unknown to us on earth. All I did in my science fiction novels is selecting an idea which I believe will happen in the near future. I project that idea on people of today. How would we react, if, as in my novel The Third Ear, people could read each other’s thoughts, or in Hauser’s Memory, if we could transfer memory from one person to another… a young man also having the memory of an old one, who has lived his life. Or in my latest novel City in the Sky which Putnam’s published in May, if we would build a huge satellite in space as big as a city. What kind of people would live there and how would they act? The astronauts didn’t change their attitude and returned unchanged, they were space mechanics when they left the earth for the moon, and our expectations that humanity would improve with that exploit didn’t happen.

Then you had freedom to do what you liked when you worked for Lewton?

No. Val changed part of the story and some dialogue, working closely with another writer. But when an idea is good it cannot be completely destroyed. The original idea will always shine through, despite the efforts of the producers and directors to put their stamp on it. My novel Donovan’s Brain was made three times into a motion picture. Every time the producers and writers improved on it and every time the film fell apart. John Huston is for me the most intelligent film maker. He understands stories and has appreciation for them. He took The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, broke it down in camera angles, telescoping it, since a motion picture is never a full sized novel but an extended short story. Why tamper with a book that is a classic? We writers are craftsmen. When we finish, come the geniuses, producers, directors and actors. They think they can do better in a week of rewrite than the original author who might have spent a couple of years on the book.

You seem to be bitter.

No. I know the game and it doesn’t faze me. I had an imaginary altar in my office at the studios and when things became annoying, I just went there in my mind and prayed.


I prayed to Pegasus and said “my weekly check. My weekly check.” That brought me down to earth. After all I was working for money.

Then you are a cynic.

Maybe I am. But I am not enamored with my work. As soon us I am through with it, I think of the next one. When I sold Donovan’s Brain to Republic Studios for very little money since I was flat broke, Herbert Yates, the studio head, called me in. He said. “Siodmak, you’re crazy. A scientist like Dr. Cory in your novel doesn’t live in a little house in the desert. He lives in castle! And there and there is a great part for Vera.” She was the girl, an ice skater from Czechoslovakia, whom he later married. “And the title is The Lady and the Monster. That’s there I quit. Then Allan Dowling bought the rights from Republic. I was assigned to write and direct. They didn’t like my screenplay which was the novel just broken down. They wrote a new one, in a week! In it God destroys the brain with a thunderbolt. That’s where I left the projection room. A third time the story was done in England. It was called The Brain. In it an actress stripped and they infused a cancer cure. You know, I still have to see one of those versions completely. I never sat through one of them.

You contradict yourself. You said you don’t care what happens to your stories when you finish them and still you are up-tight about them.

Of course one cares. A writer is always on the defense. And that’s for a valid reason. Writers are often alcoholics. Hemmingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Neill. You name them. They suffer that the words which they need to express an emotion, often do not exist. An idea can be expressed only approximately, since the number of words in any language is limited. There is only one example of infinity for me, that is color-there is an infinity of shading of red, or blue, – of any color. The trouble is to mix them as the eye of the mind sees them. The painters also suffer from the inability to put on canvas what their inner eyes see. The same happens to writers, only worse. They have a limited vocabulary to choose from, no more words than there are in a dictionary. Writers like Vladimir Nabokov invent words—you can’t find them in the Webster. I guess he stays sober.

I see 35 of your screenplays registered by the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

That’s about half of the pictures I wrote. Some I also directed. I worked in Europe a great part of my life in Germany. France, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, even behind the Iron Curtain, in Czechoslovakia, during the golden time of their picture making until the Communists stopped it.

A horror story?

No. A ski film: you can’t show horror pictures in those countries. They don’t accept them. They are thin skinned about blood on the screen. Like the Nazis were.

Why should that be?

Bad conscience, I guess. I put, with the help of a song writer and musician Frankenstein into music. A musical for Broadway. It is called The Song of Frankenstein.

That’s amusing. What happened to it?

We never finished. Michael Butler, the producer of Hair, came out with a jazz version of Frankenstein. Since he was riding high at that time, we lost faith. Also it is almost impossible to get the million together which such a show would cost. But it had an excellent idea.

Can you tell me the idea?

Sure. Human beings are monsters. But why is the monster called a monster? It is only a couple of days old. Nobody has hurt it. Why should it be mean and vicious? The monster was the only human thing in your play.

That makes sense. Have you given up the idea of finishing the show?

No. I want to go back to it. I hate unfinished things in my life. I don’t think I ever abandoned a project. It would haunt me to know that a book has not been completed. Or a story has been left unfinished. I don’t care so much if I find a publisher. But my projects have to be complete.

Did you know Boris Karloff?

Of course. I wrote many pictures for him. He was a very tall man and very soft spoken and gentle. His pleasure was reading stories to children, gentle stories. He was highly intelligent and not conceited. I once wrote a screenplay for him at Universal Studios called Black Friday. He thought he wasn’t a good enough actor for the lead and took a secondary part, suggesting Stanley Ridges, a very good stage actor to play the part. Lon Chaney, Jr., was a friend of mine. I never met senior. Lon was a very patient man and a pro, who suffered from having such a famous father. You know it took almost six hours to put the Wolfman’s mask on his face, the claws, the hair, and two hours to take it all off. He could eat only liquid food through a straw when he wore that mask. Jack Pierce, the famous make-up man, devised the Wolfman’s mask. He also designed the Monster in Frankenstein.

How did you get into the horror business?

I always wrote science fiction stories. There is a magazine, Amazing Stories, Volume 1, 1926, which already had one of my stories; when I was still in school in Germany my stories were already published over here. I still have a copy of “The Eggs From Tanganyika”, which was the title of that piece. That story was the pattern of my future work. The idea was simple: Explorers find giant eggs in the Gobi desert. They take them to New York. The eggs hatch and giant flies emerge from them. They fly in the stratosphere and swoop down to pick up a human to devour him. The conclusion is that since they are so immense, they propagate only in small numbers like elephants and not like flies.

Then your stories had a scientific basis?

Yes. My science fiction books have. Whenever I start a novel, I call the most outstanding scientist in that field, asking him to supervise the technical part of the novel. I’ve had no refusals so far.

Because you are well known?

I don’t think I’m that well known. But most scientists are as bored with their jobs as other professionals. They dread the repetitious lab work. To work with a writer is a welcome diversion. You know, I believe that every human being is a frustrated writer. When you have a pencil you believe you can write. People who own a violin wouldn’t think of playing it without taking lessons. Everybody thinks he has a novel hidden in himself. But he doesn’t bring it out.


Laziness. Boston University collects my manuscripts. They want papers of contemporary writers. I just sent the pages off which I messed up with my last novel City in the Sky. The package came to 35 pounds of paper! About 2,000 pages, cut down to 220 printed ones! That should scare everybody. Nobody works as hard as a writer. Do you get paid talking to me?

I have to make a living.

So do most of the people if you don’t marry rich or inherit wealth. But when you have a job like directing a picture or having an assignment in a studio, you have to be there on time. When a writer gets up in the morning, who asks him to work? His work, like that of a sculptor or printer, is speculative. It might be worth nothing in currency or it might make him rich. So-called creative artists need an immense self-discipline which few people have.

You still didn’t tell me how you got into the horror business.

Hollywood at the time, I mean the ’40s, didn’t only typecast the actors but also the writers. I wrote the story and screenplay of The Return of the Invisible Man for a young Vincent Price at Universal. The picture made money and I was in the groove. Of course Donovan’s Brain helped a little. From then on I wrote many horror pictures for U., but also musicals like Frisco Sal for Susan Forster, and Shady Lady for Ginnie Sims, but the horror made the money for the company.

But you originated the Wolf Man.

A producer, Jack Gross at Universal, wanted to do a werewolf story. I gave the Wolfman his character-a human being that wants to die since he knows that he will change into a wolf and kill when the moon is full.

Even a man who is kind at heart and says his prayers at night might become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon shines full and bright.

I made that ditty up. Now people believe it is part of European Folklore.

Those pictures scared me when I was a kid. I didn’t dare get out of bed in the dark, afraid of the monsters hiding in the room.

You see, I did a lot for the American family life. I scared the little kids so much that they stayed in bed and the parents could play bridge. But these stories also have a deep atavistic meaning. They appeal to our hidden basic instincts which we remember subconsciously since the time our forefathers lives in caves. Man wanted to identify himself with the strongest animal he feared. The wolf was the most dangerous animal in Europe at that time. So, there was the Tigerman in India, the Snakeman in the Pacific. The fairytales are in my opinion the fear of winter. Little Red Riding Hood is swallowed by the bad wolf-the winter-the young hunter, spring, frees her and kills the winter with its cold and hunger. Sleeping Beauty has the same theme: the bad witch-winter-poisons her. Spring, the young prince kills the witch, Sleeping Beauty coughs up the poisoned apple, comes back to life and the thorns start blooming with a million roses. Very poetic!

What is your next plan? Another book?

No. I want to go on a lecture tour, to meet young people and to get a new lease on life which a writer needs after having been under house arrest while writing a novel. Or work for magazines like Black Mask, which I like for its literary background and its appreciation for classical stories. But I don’t know. Maybe I am going to do a motion picture in Morocco. There is a chance that the Moroccan company likes my screenplay I treasure and which I wrote ten years ago. I had a deal with the Egyptians but the 1967 war broke out and the film didn’t materialize. I like to direct. It is fun working with people, and seeing on the screen what has been a written work. We live in a visual age. But films have a very limited life. How is your Latin?

My Latin? Why? Not so good.

Non lettera scritta sed lettera impressa manet. Not the written word remains, only the printed one. A film is like the written words. They die with the time—but a published book or a printed story might last forever. You collect for Black Mask classic stories or stories of known writers. If those stories were on film, the film would have aged. But the printed words don’t seem to die.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch.

Interview with Lurton Blassingame

1977—We visited the offices of Mr. Lurton Blassingame recently at 60 E. 4294 St. in the old Lincoln Building near Grand Central Station. Mr. Blassingame has been a literary agent and confidante to authors since the ’20s. During the early ’30s when the pulp magazine was as vital an entertainment medium as radio or the movies—if not more influential—he wrote articles for Writer’s Digest giving advice on the various fiction markets. Eventually his advertisements for his literary agency appeared more frequently than his articles and he has remained influential in publishing for almost half a century.

Mr. Blassingame, distinguished looking and articulate, remembers all the popular writers of the ’30s and ’40s. In fact, he wrote his master’s thesis at Columbia on the history of pulp fiction.

“Back in those old pulp days,” he recalled, “what counted was telling a well constructed story and telling as many of them as possible. You had to be prolific to survive.” He told me anecdotes about various pulp authors and editors. Because I edited, in 1974, the last issue of Black Mask, the great pulp magazine that introduced the hardboiled detective to American literature through the earliest work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner and their followers, I was particularly interested to hear stories about Captain Shaw, that magazine’s greatest editor. Famous for Perry Mason, Gardner wrote more books that sold more than two million copies than any other writer. Captain Shaw prided himself and the magazine for presenting stories told in the real language of real men who had worked and traveled in America. He wrote many an editorial congratulating his authors (and particularly Gardner) for the authenticity of their language.

Mr. Blassingame was charmed by the Captain but found him a naive fellow who let a lot of risqué dialogue slip through because he didn’t know the meaning of the lingo. Mr. Blassingame relates that Ted Tinsley, a regular contributor, delighted in slipping whorehouse argot past the good Captain and that many a trick got turned without Shaw being the wiser.

I asked Mr. Blassingame why the pulps died. “The 25-cent novel had a lot to do with it,” he told me. “It was generally thicker than a pulp. And it seemed to offer better writing. In general there were better authors represented in the 25-cent novel. Originally the size of these novels was only a bit smaller in height and width than the pulps and then they came out as ‘pocket books’ for their own racks. At first it was genre fiction, mostly detective, that dominated the 25-cent novel, and suddenly the paperback industry of the early ’50s was born.”

But the 25-cent novel was only the first competition. “The advent of television gave the pulps the final blow,” Mr. Blassingame commented. “You had to exert a certain effort to read. You could just sit back and watch television. I had friends who would always ask me to bring them some western pulps cause they knew I could get them for free through my business. By the early ’50s none of those friends were asking for Western pulps any more. They were watching the ‘Lone Ranger’ on television.”

I asked him how he explained the popularity of the paperback book in the face of the terrible power of the TV tube.

“Well, you’re right,” he said, they’re selling more paperbacks than ever in history. Of course our population has grown considerably in the last twenty to thirty years and there is less illiteracy too.”

I recalled a story I had heard of how literary agent Scott Meredith had called all his major magazine fiction authors in the late ’40s or early ’50s to tell them that the 10,000 to 25,000 word short story was now a dead market and that they should extend all their stories to at least 100,000 words or give up writing. The age of the fast paperback novel was about to dawn. Why did paperback become entrenched so fast? For one thing, he said, there was the blending of books with TV so that both mediums sold each other. “And you get to read stories about things you can’t get or can’t get enough of on television, like science fiction.

“One of my clients, Frank Herbert, has a book, Children of Dune (Berkley, $1.95) on three bestseller lists including the New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. Over one million copies of that book are in print and two million copies of the Dune trilogy have been sold since 1965.”

Now that’s what I call mass marketing. I was surprised and delighted. I had come to interview Mr. Blassingame about pulp writing and he had proven to me that the old pulp tradition was as vital a part of popular culture as I have always felt. Interestingly, Mr. Blassingame is also the agent for Robert Heinlein, the classic science fiction author whose Stranger in a Strange Land was a national sensation in the ’60s and the first pure science fiction novel to make the bestseller lists.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch. Reprinted by permission of the author. Reprinted from Cover One #0, 1977.