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FREAKS AND FANTASIES
Introduction by Chris Mikul
“It is my intention to write horror stories alone. Have you ever witnessed an accident in the street? Hundreds collect in a moment. They are drawn there by that morbid streak in humanity, that overmastering desire to feast one’s eyes on gruesome details. Such a sensation will be gratified in my stories. Men and women will buy them to experience the delightful tremor of tragedy beside their own firesides. Who would not walk miles to see a murder committed?”
— from Mysterious Martin by Tod Robbins
Tod Robbins, athlete, socialite and author of a brace of remarkable horror stories, was born Clarence Aaron Robbins in Brooklyn, New York, on 25 June 1888. His grandfather, Aaron Robbins, was a successful merchant; his parents, Clarence and Eloise, were prominent members of New York society.
As a youth, Robbins combined a love of sports and athletics with the desire to be a poet. As he wrote in an autobiographical sketch which appeared in the November 1923 issue of Everybody’s magazine, he was well aware of the apparent contradiction.
At preparatory school, where I played end on the football team and held the New York Interscholastic pole-vault record, I was careful to conceal my poetic aspirations. It did not seem to me that poetry and pole-vaulting mixed very well together. The other youths who rode that winged steed, Pegasus, were referred to contemptuously in the school vernacular as “greasy grinds”.
Later, at Washington and Lee University, I discovered that I could pursue both my athletic and literary careers without fear of ridicule. I was one of the editors of the year book and captain of the track team at the same time and I was able to attend to both without having to don false whiskers.
While at university, Robbins acquired the unlikely title of the ‘Lightweight Champion of France’. As Robbins told it, he and some of his fraternity buddies, having attended a boozy celebration, rolled up to the local opera house where a boxer who went by this title was giving an exhibition. Urged on by his friends, the short but muscular Robbins accepted the boxer’s challenge, climbed onto the stage and disrobed. For a moment he lost his nerve but, steeling himself, he expanded his chest, stuck out his jaw and looked as ferocious as possible. His opponent immediately sought the manager, who announced that ‘Monsieur La Force’ would be unable to accept the challenge as he was indisposed. “Gentleman,” he said, “it gives me great pleasure to announce to you that one of your college, Mr Tod Robbins of Washington and Lee University, has just won the Lightweight Pugilistic Championship of France by default!”
The truth came out the following morning. “The Lightweight Champion of France” was a ham actor, who had lost his job in a traveling burlesque show. Broke, stranded in a nearby town, he had evolved the bright idea of posing as a champion pugilist and giving a boxing exhibition to raise the wherewithal to get back to Broadway.
Robbins inherited a large amount of money on the death of his grandfather, making him financially independent. In 1909 he caused something of a scandal in Brooklyn by eloping with Edith Norman Hyde. The marriage, which produced two sons, did not last long, and in 1914 they were divorced. Edith went on to win the first ‘Miss America’ title in 1919.
In 1912, Robbins published his first novel, Mysterious Martin. It tells the story of the saturnine Burgess Martin, who writes a book containing such hypnotically vivid descriptions of murders that anyone who reads it is impelled to commit murders of their own, and a crime wave ensues. It ends with Martin committing suicide so that he may record the sensations of his own death.
After an allegorical novel, The Spirit of the Town (1912), and a slim volume of symbolist poetry, The Scales of Justice and Other Poems (1915), Robbins published his most famous book, The Unholy Three (alternative titles The Terrible Three and The Three Freaks) in 1917. It recounts the strange criminal adventures of three refugees from a circus — Tweedledum the dwarf, Hercules the giant and Echo the ventriloquist. In 1925 it was made into a hugely successful film by the famed horror director (and former circus jack-of-all-trades) Tod Browning, with Lon Chaney playing Echo. Chaney reprised the role in a 1930 remake, the only sound film he made before his untimely death.
Robbins was also writing short stories during these years. In 1919, six brief pieces by him, including ‘The Bibulous Baby’, ‘Crimson Flowers’ and ‘An Eccentric’, appeared in one of the first pulp magazines to publish fantasy and horror fiction, The Thrill Book. Other stories appeared in All-Story Weekly, the editor of which, Robert H. Davis, supplied an introduction for Robbins’s first story collection, Silent, White and Beautiful (1920). Davis wrote that he rarely rejected anything submitted by Robbins. “While taking the most incomprehensible liberties with reality — he proceeds with such boldness and imaginative courage that the reader accepts the result as logical and conclusive.”
In 1923, Munsey’s Magazine published ‘Spurs’, which Tod Browning used as the basis of his notorious 1932 quasi-horror film Freaks. Browning and his writers took the basic set-up of Robbins’s story — a beautiful circus performer marries a dwarf for the money he has inherited — and made many changes to it, including giving it a new and notably gruesome ending. However, the film’s most iconic scene, the wedding where the freaks toast the new bride, derives from Robbins. Interestingly, while Browning, the circus insider, used the scene to reinforce the idea of a fraternity of freaks (with their famous chant of “Gooble, gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of us!”), Robbins’s version has the freaks literally at each other’s throats. Browning’s film, with a cast including people with real physical deformities such as conjoined twins and microcephalics, caused a sensation and was often banned (it was not screened in Britain until the 1960s). It almost terminated his career, and he only made a few more films before retiring and becoming a virtual recluse.
Tod Robbins married his second wife, Lillian Ames Chapman, the 19-year-old daughter of a wealthy Bostonian family, in 1914. This marriage did not last long either, and in the early 1920s he married a woman named Ethel Brown. They left the United States and, Robbins being a confirmed Francophile, moved to France. Robbins settled down to a life of leisure spent mainly on the Riviera, while still making occasional forays into literature. In 1929 he brought out a short novel, really a collection of linked short stories, called In the Shadow, describing the death of a middle-aged woman and the widely differing effects it has on her children, husband and father. Robbins’s name was kept alive among horror aficionados by the British publisher Philip Allan, who reissued Mysterious Martin (under the title The Master of Murder) in 1933, and reprinted some of his best stories in a popular series of anthologies with titles like Creeps, Shudders and Thrills.
Robbins was married for a fourth and final time in 1933. His new bride was a noted British tennis player, Nellie Adamson. They enjoyed playing tennis together (at one point playing doubles with King Gustav V of Sweden) but their easy life was brought to an abrupt end by the Second World War. Robbins refused to leave France when the Germans invaded, and spent most of the war in an internment camp. He survived the ordeal, and penned one final novel, Close their Eyes Tenderly, which appeared in 1947. He died at his home in St. Jean Cap Ferat in 1949.
Tod Robbins would probably be completely forgotten today had his namesake Tod Browning not filmed two of his works (with Freaks in particular still retaining its legendary status). Apart from ‘Spurs’, his writings have been out of print for over half a century, which is a great pity. Robbins may have produced only a small body of work, but it’s a consistently intriguing one. His fascination for murder and morbid psychology shows the influence of the decadent movement and writers of horror fiction like Robert W. Chambers, while a tale like ‘Cockcrow Inn’ is a ghost story in the classic mould. And if his themes were often ghoulish, there is also a great sense of fun in stories like ‘Who Wants a Green Bottle?’ and ‘Wild Wullie the Waster’. With their confident use of dialect and archaic language, these works could pass as authentic examples of British folklore, rather than the idle productions of a 20th century American playboy. But then Tod Robbins, financially secure all his life, had all the time in the world to polish them. I have a feeling that he wrote mainly to entertain himself, and the results were stories that can still entertain — and unnerve — today.
Acknowledgement: For the details of Robbins’s life I have relied on David Ian Chapman’s excellent article on him in Book and Magazine Collector, No 223, October 2002.
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