OF WALDO FRANK
You don’t generally pick up a Dancing Tuatara Press volume to find a work by the first President of The League of American Writers and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. For that matter, we haven’t published too many books by important political essayists for The New Republic or authors who are still considered major literary and polit-ical figures in South America nearly fifty years after their passing. But great thrillers are where you find them, and we’re very pleased to be bringing you this new edition of Chalk Face by Waldo Frank.
One problem when an author achieves fame in one area is that his works in another are often overlooked entirely. Just to name a few examples: Walter Owen will always be the author of The Gaucho: Martin Fierro while The Cross of Carl and More Things in Heaven are pretty much forgotten; Herbert Asbury will always be the father of the “true crime” genre and author of Gangs of New York, whereas we know him for his marvelous novel The Devil of Pei Ling; Collin Brooks (or “CB” as he was known) will likely be remembered as a journalist and editor of The Sunday Dispatch despite his great love for his “shockers”, of which thus far we have published Mad Doctor Merciful. Waldo Frank was a very interesting individual, though in retrospect his ideas about the spirituality of Spain being a template for the West to follow may seem surprisingly naïve—but there’s no doubting his sincerity or passion.
In fact, if we want one word to sum up Waldo Frank, I think “passion” is probably it. When one reads Frank, be it a review, a political essay, thoughts on mysticism, or even the account of an unfolding revolution (Cuba), or a thriller such as Chalk Face; there is absolutely no doubt that the author feels strongly about his subject. Every page—no, every line—is written in such a way as to leave no doubt that the author feels strongly about what he is writing. So much so that he’s not afraid to leave himself open to criticism or even outright mockery about his views. Ernest Hemingway has no little fun at Frank’s expense in Death in the Afternoon. I won’t take sides in the matter, but I’ll just point out that it wasn’t Waldo Frank that wound up fellating a shotgun.
Waldo Frank was a very spiritual individual, passionate about what he believed could be a synthesis of opposing religions, resulting in a re-birth or spiritual wholeness. He believed that this very thing had taken place in Spain and that the New World needed to emulate the Old. Frank’s strong belief in Hispanic spiritual values leading to a Utopia are dealt with at some length in his cultural study, Virgin Spain (1926) and in his 1929 novel The Rediscovery of America. Whereas Hemingway found Frank’s theories naïve, the people of Latin America welcomed him with open arms on his lecture tour that same year.
Frank’s popularity in South America was to be a lasting thing. So great was his influence that the U.S. State Department sent him there in 1942 to try and discourage South American governments from allying with or supporting Nazi Germany. It was already too late for Argentina—the government was not at all pleased with Frank’s message and declared him persona non grata and forced him to leave the country. Frank’s own summary of his sojourn, South American Journey, was published the following year. Throughout the decade Frank continued his studies of South American history, with the end result being one of his most important books, Birth of a World: Simon Bolivar in Terms of His Peoples, published to considerable acclaim in 1951. A decade later his real-time observations of Latin American history in the making—the overthrow of the Batista government by Castro’s revolutionaries—were edited and collected to form the book Cuba: Prophetic Island.
While there’s no doubt as to Frank’s importance as a cultural bridge between Anglo and Hispanic cultures and the Old World and the New, his influence in fiction is a bit harder to ascertain. Contemporary reviewers spoke well of both The Unwelcome Man and Chalk Face but I’ve been unable to find any references to his work by contemporary thriller writers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that thriller writers of the 1930s and 1940s didn’t read Frank, just that we don’t have any empirical evidence that we can point to such as correspondence between authors citing his work. However, Chalk Face is listed in both editions of Bleiler’s Checklist of Science Fiction and Supernatural Fiction. For those unfamiliar with the Checklist it is a single volume that attempts to list every book in the English language with science fictional or supernatural content. There are significant differences between the two editions; hundreds of titles were dropped as being too borderline, and many new works were added.
The most important difference between the two editions is the introduction of a system of coding by subject matter. For example, Chalk Face is designated with “B” for “mental aberration”, and of other books cited in this article, More Things in Heaven appears with an “N” for “magic and witchcraft”, though to my way of thinking it more properly should have also had a “V” for “fantastic plots, conspiracies”. Collin Brooks’ amazing novel, Mad Doctor Merciful, is listed and appropriately catalogued with an “L” to indicate “possession”; the same is true of Herbert Asbury’s The Devil of Pei Ling, though this title is further codified by the presence of a “K” for “detective stories with fantastic elements”. With thousands of titles indexed and data provided as to publisher, subject and even length, the Checklist is an invaluable tool for writers, editors, and publishers. While we can’t be sure that other writers of fantastic fiction read Frank, the fact that it was listed in the Checklist make the odds in favor seem pretty good. Whether or not we’re able to play connect the dots is not nearly as important as acknowledging the possibilities. Whether read by many or only by a select few, Chalk Face is an important step on the ladder of the evolution of the weird tale.
Frank’s fiction can take the reader to some pretty dark places without being overtly graphic. His first book, The Unwelcome Man, is a gripping psychological study of a man contemplating suicide. Chalk Face is a murder mystery, but, much more than that, we are presented with a narrator who may or may not be entirely reliable. For much of the book “the man with the white head” is seen either from afar or is reported on second hand. We’re never quite sure until the end what the truth is, and truth, as Frank sternly warns, is often a horrible thing to deal with.
Yes, it’s a thriller, but to simply dismiss Chalk Face as an entertainment of a few hours’ time is much akin as to saying that Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story or that William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley is about a circus. To place Frank’s novel fairly among work by his contemporaries, I would cite Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber and several of the novels of Tod Robbins, notably In the Shadow and Master of Murder and much later works of psychological horror such as Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Frank Walford’s Twisted Clay and R.R. Ryan’s No Escape and The Subjugated Beast. Chalk Face can stand proudly alongside these other classics, all which serve to prove that “horror” is not a genre so much as it is our emotional reaction to something.