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NIGHT OF HORROR
And Other Stories
by Joel Townsley Rogers
Introduction by Barry Warren
Joel Townsley Rogers is one of those authors fated to be remembered and praised for a single work: in his case, the one-of-a-kind surrealistic nightmare novel The Red Right Hand (1945). Readers sufficiently excited by their encounter with this deservedly legendary work of imagination may have undertaken the nearly impossible quest to track down copies of his other three novels: Once in a Red Moon (1923); The Lady with the Dice (1946); and The Stopped Clock (1958), cheap paperback copies of which occasionally surface (in a mutilated abridged version) as Never Leave My Bed (1963). (Sadly, The Lady with the Dice, issued only in a flimsy paper Handibook edition, was also abridged by its publisher—without Rogers’ participation—from 90,000 to 50,000 words, and the original full-length manuscript destroyed or lost.)
What even these Rogers fans may not realize is that this author with the outré style and imagination left behind a legacy of (literally) countless other works. For he was one of that unsung legion in the first half of the 20th century who scrounged a living by churning out an endless succession of stories for magazines—in his case, mostly pulp detective, futuristic science fiction, and men’s soldier-of-fortune or aviation tales, with rare forays into such respectable forums as Harper’s and Saturday Evening Post. But unless you’re the sort of driven collector willing to spend hours in graveyard bookstores sifting through piles of moldy, disintegrating New Detective, Argosy, and True Crime magazines (the kind with lurid cover illustrations of strangler’s hands menacing a screaming dame in a lowcut emerald dress, or a tong lord poised to plunge his dagger into a dapper hero just as he pries open a casket overflowing with faceted diamonds and rubies and gleaming gold coins), you’re not likely to have encountered any of the prolific Rogers’ magazine fiction.
This anthology at last makes available several examples of this versatile writer’s cleverly plotted and atmospherically evocative crime stories. It does not claim to be a “best of” anthology, since probably no reader alive today has had a chance to become familiar with Rogers’ entire creative output. Faced with the challenge of describing what’s so good about these tales without depriving other readers of the frisson of discovery, I’ve tried to limit these introductory remarks to pointing out some of the qualities they share in common as emanations from a single creative imagination, hopefully avoiding the temptation to become too specific about the very details of plot or structure that make each of the stories uniquely effective.
The title piece, “Night of Horror,” might be more properly placed in an anthology of Roger’s fantasy and science fiction—if such a collection should some day be published. But its precise yet disquieting descriptions of rural twilight, and the exquisite modulation of its gradual slide into nightmare, set the tone and make it an effective companion to the other tales in this volume. Interestingly, its style is perhaps the most “realistic” of these tales, devoid of the poetic hyperbole and garish humor that characterize much of Rogers’ writing, making the intrusion of the fantastic all the more terrifying. Just as disturbing is the more subtle suggestion that the comfortably domestic parents seem nearly as fearful of the strange son with the special qualities that has been visited upon them.
“The Murderer” stands out for its cool consistency of tone and carefully rendered visual style—a montage of Edward Hopper paintings of the Southern rural countryside (the truckstop diner, the washtub on the porch, the bridge outside of town where, one realizes with a shiver, starved souls might well be driven by desperation to trade furtive sex for nylons), all leading to a moment of truth in the cold grey dawn. (Of this story, Joel’s son Tom Rogers—also a writer—comments, “The Murderer” was one of [his] most commercially successful stories. It was widely anthologized and translated after its Post appearance, and it also came out as a radio drama and as a television presentation, I believe—back in the 1950s before we had a television—on the show "Lights Out." We got to see it on the tv in the basement of our neighbors the Reesides. It was also presented on South African radio or television.) The delightful revelation—found in a television reference book—that musical effects for the “Lights Out” dramatizations (1949-1952) were provided by theremin, organ, and harp should already be making the hairs stand up on the back of your neck!
In fact, the tight unity of time, place, and action, the slightly macabre emotional tone, and the highly visual elements that characterize all of the stories in this collection would have made any of them ideal candidates for 30-minute episodes on the 50s’ “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” tv series. Like that memorable show, these stories feature gradually mounting suspense, characters that you can easily see being portrayed by distinctive character actors (they had faces then!), and a sudden unexpected twist at the last moment, delivered with a sardonic humor that leaves a shiver of creepiness.
Consider “The Little Doll Says Die!” The point-of-view character, Herbert Creedy (Hitchcock might have cast Tom Ewell in the role) lacks the creative powers to be a playwright, but uses his sterile intellect as a “play doctor” to identify and fix the weaknesses in other writers’ plots. Rogers doles out telling details in such a way that we begin to understand things before Creedy does, lending a particularly ghastly irony and tension to the discussion between him and sweating George Sutts about how to solve the difficulties of a particular murder mystery plot that young Sutts is currently creating. Even after Creedy suddenly fits all the pieces together to grasp what is going on and races up the stairs of the desolate Breakers Inn, he—and we—will encounter a surprise that reverses everything, including his own part in the murder mystery’s unfolding plot.
A failed writer is also the central character of “The Murder Plot,” and the object of his poisonous resentment no less than a highly successful rival short story writer. The conflict plays out in real time in the successful writer’s apartment, the sort that only exists as a studio set in tv shows of the era. Their tense encounter and conversation is ostensibly about the craft of writing, though it’s apparent that there is a deeper, more dangerous antagonism between the two. (It is worth remarking that, of the stories in this anthology, not only “The Little Doll Says Die!” and “The Murder Plot,” but also “Two Deaths Have I” and “The Hanging Rope” feature writers as central characters. This has the effect of diverting some of the sophisticated reader’s attention from the raw content of the stories to an appreciation that a clever author somewhere in the wings is devising the situations and controlling our responses through his narrative style and the care with which he reveals telling details.) Again, the story ends with a typically ironic twist upon our expectations. But read those last few words of the abrupt ending again: Just how many twists have taken place?
A writer—this time for radio plays based on stories from a true crime magazine—is also the protagonist-narrator of “Two Deaths Have I”. When scriptwriter Beaman Young is assigned to turn this week’s prize-winning entry into a thirty-minute radio play, little does the authoress of the presumably fictional “true crime” magazine story suspect that Young not only witnessed the actual crime many years ago when he was a naïve teenager, but in reading and recalling those incidents now comes to a different realization of what took place out there on remote Big Moose Lake in northern Maine. His more mature understanding of human passions guides his pen to reinterpret the details and rewrite the plot to fit a different hypothesis. The ticking-clock script rewrite and showdown in the broadcast studio are enjoyable hokum, and a winking Rogers knows it, but, oh those chilly descriptions of the deserted lake resort and its out-of-season visitors . . .
An analogous problem faces ex-policeman Tuxedo Johnny Blythe, the central character of “The Hanging Rope”: Faced with a seemingly airtight locked-room murder mystery, he struggles continually in his mind to come up with some plausible hypothesis that would fit the known facts and make the tale’s two impossible homicides possible. This cleverly-constructed story rewards a second reading in order to see the art with which Rogers limits our point of view and uses a magician’s misdirection to distract our eyes from the truth. He reminds us again of his own god-like presence as creator and puller of strings by cutting away periodically to a character who is a writer. And, while not a participant in the evening’s bloody events, not present in the same building, and not even an ear- or eye-witness, the writer nevertheless plays a crucial role in understanding and solving the puzzle. While not as creepy as Rogers’ masterpiece, The Red Right Hand, this novella-length tale shares with that work a relentless accumulation of dovetailing coincidences that creates its own self-contained world, simultaneously absurd and nightmarish.
“The Pink Diamonds” is yet another offbeat crime tale that would have been right at home on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” There is no writer character standing in for Rogers this time, but, like “The Hanging Rope,” it makes effective use of shifting points of view. The opening jewel heist and shootout in a New York department store are narrated by an unsettlingly tentative omniscient voice. Succeeding scenes focus on solitary characters whose paths cross that day thanks to typically Rogers-like coincidences. When pure evil eventually intrudes into the pathetic and lonely young housewife’s world, however, the gradualness with which it makes itself known to her and us is surprisingly chilling.
What are the distinctive qualities of Rogers’ writings? First of all, there’s his style, marked by an infusion of deliberately “poetic” vocabulary and syntax that gives a decidedly surreal or fairytale effect to what may be an otherwise mundane or sordid subject. (Rogers gave full indulgence to, and fortunately managed to exorcise the worst excesses of, this poeticizing tendency in his first novel, Once in a Red Moon, creating a dense, bizarre oddity that would leave even readers comfortable with Finnegan’s Wake scratching their heads while searching frantically through their unabridged OEDs.) His style is also marked by the introduction of humor into otherwise tense or nightmarish situations, imbuing the narrative with a grotesque quality. He likes to create larger-than-life archetypal characters that take on mythic proportions; this is especially evident and effective in the four novels, but remnants of this tendency are apparent in a few of the short works in this collection, particularly “The Hanging Rope” and “The Little Doll Says Die!” It’s worth noting, too, that, with a few exceptions (most notably “The Hanging Rope”), Rogers generally avoids the cityscapes and venetian-blinded interiors typical of noir writing of the period, and instead places his stories in natural outdoor settings to create mood and atmosphere. Just reflect upon how important the settings are to “The Murderer”, “Two Deaths Have I” and “Night of Horrors” in this collection, not to mention all of his novels.
It is likely that Joel Townsley Roger’s reputation will always rest upon his supreme accomplishment, The Red Right Hand, and that is perhaps sufficient and just. But on the strength of these long-lost stories and his other three scarce novels, at last within the reach of more readers through the efforts of Ramble House, a reassessment of his talents might place him just behind—and at times neck-and-neck with—such respected writers as Cornell Woolrich, Fredric Brown, or James M. Cain. Not a bad place to be, really.
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