ALL THE COLOURS OF DEATH — EDMUND SNELL AND THE THRILLER
How does an author have over two-dozen books and chapbooks and well over 100 stories, (most of which were novella length) published, almost all of which are mystery or macabre fiction and of uniform high quality, and become almost completely unknown in a few decades? That’s the riddle of the man named Edmund Snell. If he’s known at all today, it’s for his novels The White Owl and The Yu-Chi Stone. The sad thing is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Snell has the misfortune of having most of his career spent before marketing categories changed the way that people looked for books. It’s far too easy to simply type in “Vampire Romance” or “Lycanthropy” or “Serial Killer” and be directed to a dizzying array of titles, many of which are self-published and of little merit. In Edmund Snell’s day, a book was simply “a thriller”. That could mean supernatural terror, science fiction, or just a straight-forward caper novel of the Don Westlake mode.
Many readers would be surprised to learn that Snell’s output as an author of short stories and novellas far exceed-ed the wordage of his published novels. During the 1920s it was next to impossible to pick up a British fiction magazine and not find an Edmund Snell story therein. When the story papers came along with the format of The Thriller calling for a full-length novella every issue, Snell was really at home, producing an astonishing amount of work of mystery/adventure fiction ranging from the supernatural to tales of American gangsters to weird tales set in exotic locales such as Borneo and Singapore.
Many of you are no doubt wondering “just what the heck is a story paper?”, and rightly so. During the heyday of the pulps one could find “thrillers” in hardcover (Anthony Rud’s weird menace novels of Jigger Masters as an example), cheap paperbacks, fiction magazines from the prestigious “slicks” to the lowly pulps and these were all common formats on both sides of the Atlantic. However, our friends across the pond did things just a little bit differently, as they had entire imprints primarily dedicated to appeasing the appetites of customers for the lending libraries, they also had a long tradition of “story papers”. Story papers were generally tabloid format with a usual length being around 64 pages. These publications served as the home to Sexton Blake and many other mainstays of British crime fiction such as Anthony Skene’s tales of Zenith the Albino.
The format was generally a novella of some 20,000 to 30,000 words backed up with several short features. The publishers wanted to cram as much material into an issue as possible, hence a tiny font of perhaps 6pt to 8pt was used. Very little of the lead features have seen reprinting, not for lack of quality, but rather due to the unwieldiness that comes from putting such lengthy pieces into anthologies. It’s an odd situation that has persisted for years; many authors (my-self included) absolutely love working at the 15,000 – 30,000 word length. It’s perfect for telling a story driven by a central plot and perhaps a sub-plot or two and developing your characters without a lot of excess baggage. The problem? Conventional wisdom (such as it is) in the publishing industry has always taken the stance that the more names you have in an anthology the better it will sell. The idea be-hind this (which I think is so much horse puckey) is that readers of a given author will snap up the book due to seeing said author’ name on the table of contents. Of course, the reality is that there are very few authors with so rabid a fan-base that a publisher has any sort of reasonable expectation that these readers are going to plunk down $8.00 to $10.00 in order to read one short story by one of their favorites. The result of this thinking is that many anthologists shy away from lengthy stories in favor of getting more names onto the contents page. I’ve always gone about this from the other direction and like to build an anthology around a couple of lengthy pieces, but that’s just me… The other line of approach favored by publishers is to group stories about simi-lar subjects or situations, the “theme anthology”. One of the great things about the specialty press is that we can ignore this “conventional wisdom”, and publish books that make sense to us and hopefully to you, without worrying about a sales staff that has to be spoon-fed snappy descriptions as to what the book is about and why the bookstore should order copies. (I’ve actually had a publisher reject a non-theme horror anthology that went on to win some awards and sell out its print-run on the basis that it was “too difficult to ex-plain to the sales staff what the book was about!)
Anyway, to give you some perspective on what we haven’t (as yet) seen collected in book form, there’s nearly two dozen Edmund Snell novellas just from one source (The Thriller), and the vast majority of Arthur Leo Zagat’s best work in the weird menace genre (I have nearly a dozen collections mapped out, the vast majority of which are tales in the 20,000 – 25,000 word range.) And that’s just two authors.
As I’ve mentioned, Edmund Snell’s thrillers ran the gamut from gangster stories to Grand Guignol horror, however, it was in the area of the “Asian Menace” tale that Snell really excelled, whether dealing with warring tongs or aboriginal magic, Snell’s tales of the Far East such as those collected in The Finger of Destiny are of a level far surpassing the quality of most of his contemporaries. For years many of the bibliographies have published erroneous data about his books, labelling The Finger of Destiny as a novel and The Back of Beyond as a short story collection, when in fact, the reverse is true.
Before signing off, I have to thank Fender Tucker of Ramble House Publishers for leading the charge in the Edmund Snell revival well before I came on board with the company by publishing Dope & Swastikas and The Sign of the Scorpion. With nearly two dozen titles in the works, it seems that Ramble House will be Snelltopia for readers, at least for the foreseeable future. Of course, what’s truly intriguing is what I don’t know about as of yet! For all I know there may be another two-dozen supernatural novels serialized in British magazines that have yet to be indexed.
Sadly, until Mike Ashley completes his index of the British magazines, there’s really no bibliography to speak of. The Thriller has been pretty well indexed as has Detective Fiction Weekly, but there are literally dozens of fiction magazines (mostly British) that we know (or suspect) that Snell contributed to that haven’t been indexed at all and are fairly rare today. Considering how prolific the author was, it’s very likely that there exists as much quality material that I don’t know about as there is of material that we do know of… The bright side is that I for one am committed to restoring as much of this fine author’s work as possible and I hope I’m not alone in my enthusiasm.
Fat Tuesday 2015