A Tale of Two Southerners
by Chris Mikul
Ride the Nightmare was the second of eight novels published by the journalist and comic strip writer/editor Ward Greene. Born in Asheville, North Carolina on 23 December 1892, he was the son of Allison Greene and his wife Susan (née Rosenburg), and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. While still at high school, his ambition to be a writer was kindled when he won a contest with an essay entitled ‘The South Today’. After graduating from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, he snared a job as ‘assistant sporting editor’ at the Atlanta Journal. He later recalled:
I reported at seven-thirty, figured the standing of ten baseball leagues, handled heads, copy and makeup, took the play-by-play detail of the local game over the telephone, got out the final baseball extra, and put the predate to bed by seven o’clock. For this I received $7.50 a week. But I was a newspaperman!
He went on to become the paper’s ‘star reporter’, and was sent to France in 1918 to report on the men from Georgia who were fighting with the American Expeditionary Forces. He married Hallie Bowden in the same year.
Greene moved to New York in 1920 and was offered a job with King Features Syndicate, the company owned by William Randolph Hearst that provided comic strips and other content to newspapers across America and other countries. Greene eventually became its executive editor, and stayed with the company for the rest of his life. Although he was now a New Yorker, he remained a Southerner at heart. Once, when a new intercom was installed in his office, he called a sub-editor on it and played ‘Dixie’ on his harmonica.
He began writing in his spare time and had considerable success with his first novel, Cora Potts (1929), an unusual take on the rags-to-riches story. It opens with its eponymous heroine aged 14 and living in a small town in Mississippi. After becoming strangely excited by the fiery sermon of a preacher at a revival meeting, Cora allows herself to be deflowered by a boy she doesn’t much care for, then steals some money from her father and catches a train to a larger town. In no time at all she’s the mistress of a banker who installs her in a house and keeps her in finery by embezzling $100,000 from his bank. When he’s arrested she escapes with some of the cash, changes her name and opens a high-class brothel which is eventually undone by a crusading preacher and an unruly mob. Cora next pops up at the state capital, Corinth, going by yet another name and the owner of a company that makes skin whitening creams for black people. Craving respectability, she throws herself into fund-raising for the war effort (it is now 1917). The other society ladies remain wary, though—her past is uncertain, she has no husband—so she resolves to marry a young man about to go to war. The wedding is all set to go when a former employee threatens to reveal her past, and the ever-resourceful Cora is forced to resolve the issue in a decisive way.
Cora Potts demonstrates all of Greene’s strengths as a writer. His style is pungent, lively and slightly mannered, and he skewers small-town hypocrisy and snobbery with a deft hand. It was given a rapturous reception by the critics, with the New York Times calling it “one of the most amusing and quaintly original novels the South has yet contributed to American letters”, while the Saturday Review of Literature thought it “a success story more faithful to life than the average biography of an industrial leader”. And for the venerable H.L. Mencken, writing in the American Mercury, it was “A gorgeous panorama of the New South. The humour never fails and some of the scenes a faire belong to farce in the grand manner.” These were the sort of reviews some first-time novelists would kill for.
It was going to be a hard act to follow, but Greene realised that he had a friend who could provide the perfect subject matter for another provocative novel. This was William Seabrook, whom he had known since they were young reporters together. Since then, Seabrook had become one of the most talked-about writers in America, famous for his accounts of adventures in exotic places. Unbeknown to his readers, he was also a haunted man, fascinated by the occult although naturally sceptical, and an alcoholic who spent his life wrestling his own sexual demons. Greene’s novel wouldn’t hide any of it.
Like Ward Greene, Seabrook was the scion of an old Southern family. He was born in Westminster, Maryland in 1886, and was inspired to become a newspaperman by his grandfather, who was editor of the American Sentinal. He got his first break at the Augusta Chronicle, where he worked his way up to city editor. Seabrook was a terminally restless man, though. Bored, he quit the paper and went to Europe where he spent a year bumming around France, Italy and Switzerland. On his return, he became, incongruously, the music critic for the Atlanta Journal, where he met Ward Greene and the two hit it off. He quit the paper after marrying Katie Edmonson, the daughter of a Coca-Cola executive, and started an advertising agency with a partner which made them a lot of money. He had a flashy car and a large house, he went golfing, but he was restless again. It was 1915, and despite the fact that America had not entered the war yet, he volunteered to serve with the American Ambulance Field Service in France.
On his return to the States, Seabrook and Katie moved to New York, where he worked briefly for the New York Times. The couple became fixtures in Greenwich Village’s bohemian scene, and Katie, being a true bohemian, was very tolerant of Seabrook’s sexual proclivities, which centred on tying up women. In his remarkably frank autobiography, No Hiding Place, Seabrook records that this obsession, which he called his “greatest want” and never really understood, began at the age of eight when he had an almost mystical vision of a beautiful woman bound in golden chains. Seabrook was forever on the lookout for beautiful women who would indulge him, while Katie turned a blind eye.
It was also during this period that Seabrook met the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley, who makes a memorable appearance in Ride the Nightmare in the guise of Bellerophon Cawdor. They were introduced at a lunch presided over by the journalist Frank Harris (who would go on to write the scandalous autobiography My Life and Loves). Seabrook described Crowley as “a strange disturbing fellow, with a heavy pontifical manner mixed with a good deal of sly, monkeylike, and occasionally malicious humour,” and they hit it off immediately. In 1919, Seabrook invited Crowley to stay with him and Katie in Georgia where, with Seabrook’s consent, Katie engaged in sexual rituals with the self-proclaimed ‘Great Beast’. Seabrook and Crowley also conducted a curious, week-long experiment during which they communicated with each other using only one word: ‘wow’. It inspired Seabrook’s only published work of fiction, a short story called, of course, ‘Wow’.
Seabrook crossed paths with Ward Greene again when he went to work for King Features Syndicate. He was hired to write quirky stories about crimes, scandals, historical oddities and so on. (Crowley was the willing subject of several lurid articles.) Seabrook was again making good money, but again he grew bored. In 1921, he set off for Arabia and spent many months living with a Bedouin tribe, adopting their dress and customs and even participating in armed raids against rival tribes. He enjoyed himself so much he thought briefly about staying with them (that the Bedouin had no problems with women being tied up was another bonus). Seabrook’s account of his life with the tribe, Adventures in Arabia (1927), sold quite well, but was eclipsed by the huge success of the book he published the following year, The Magic Island, which detailed his experiences in Haiti. Readers were enthralled by his vivid descriptions of voodoo ceremonies, and in particular his account of zombies, which entered popular consciousness for the first time, and even became a craze (the 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie being one by-product).
Seabrook was therefore on a considerable roll when Ride the Nightmare appeared in 1930. Although Greene made its central character, Jake Perry, an artist rather than a writer, he otherwise stuck closely to Seabrook’s personality and life prior to his departure for Arabia. It’s all here: the egotism, the S&M sessions, the heavy drinking, the childish neediness, the moments of self-doubt and self-destructiveness. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal and Seabrook, who was brutally honest about his life and failings, approved. In her memoir, The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, Seabrook’s long-suffering but devoted second wife, Marjorie Worthington, recalls Ward Greene paying a visit to the villa in France where they were living. Worthington notes that she ‘resented’ the book, which had recently been published, but that it had done nothing to impair Seabrook’s friendship with Greene.
Structurally and thematically, Ride the Nightmare is in some ways a male version of Cora Potts. Both open in a small Southern town (indeed it may be the same town) with their protagonists, still in their teens, indulging in an activity respectable society would find grossly immoral (in Cora’s case, losing her virginity on a whim, in Jake’s, tying up a black girl). Immediately afterwards, they leave home, and over the next few years achieve great success while never feeling the need to conform to conventional morality. Ride the Nightmare failed to attract the glowing reviews Greene’s first novel received, however, no doubt due to the fact that Jake is a much more perverse and confronting figure than Cora. A typical comment came from the reviewer for the Saturday Review of Literature, who thought that “a book like ‘Ride the Nightmare’ could do more to reconcile readers to censorship than fifty books advocating it”.
For his third novel, Weep No More (1932), Greene returned to Corinth, where Cora Potts sold skin whitener and Jake Perry had his ad agency. Rather than focusing on a single character, it recounts several days in the lives of a small circle of friends and acquaintances who are astonished when one of their number, a dowdy librarian, announces her engagement to a rich young New Yorker. (Cora Potts also makes an appearance—she’s now a respectable matron but very popular with the younger set). Into their midst comes Eloise King, returning to Corinth after ten years modelling in New York. She thinks that all Southerners are hicks, and it is her actions during a booze-fuelled party that propel the novel, a sparkling social comedy for its first two thirds, into much darker territory.
Greene’s most successful novel, Death in the Deep South (1936), was based on the then notorious case of Leo Frank, which he had reported on for the Atlanta Journal two decades earlier. Frank, who was Jewish, was the superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia. In April 1913, the strangled and battered body of 13-year-old factory-worker Mary Phagan was found in its cellar, and Frank was convicted of her murder and sentenced to death in 1915. The case received nationwide press coverage, with many believing Frank’s conviction a miscarriage of justice and clear case of anti-Semitism. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, but shortly after this, a group of men dragged Frank from jail and lynched him. It is today generally believed that he was innocent, and the murderer was the factory’s janitor.
Greene’s novel, which follows the facts of the case closely, was compared by critics with Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and became a bestseller. It was made into an excellent movie in 1937, They Won’t Forget, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Claude Rains, with Lana Turner (in her first screen appearance) playing the murdered girl.
Route 28 (1940) is Greene’s most experimental novel. It’s virtually plotless (until the dramatic events that bring it to a conclusion), with Greene more interested in getting inside the heads of his large cast of characters. They live along Route 28, the highway that runs through New Jersey, and include a young farmer, a rich divorcée from New York, a burnt-out farm salesman and a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a storekeeper. The book contains some of Greene’s sharpest writing, and what may be the most succinct expression of his sardonic world view. This is, fittingly, put into the mouth of a young novelist named Rodney Crane. When asked during a long, raucous and drunken evening at a bar why he is laughing, Crane replies:
“What’s funny? My dear man, everything’s funny; the whole world is funny; it is the most excruciatingly, uproariously humorous glob of dust and gas—it’s—it’s a belly laugh—by the comic in a celestial burlesque show—and we sit here—inside the burp!—jabbering of free will and joy and whatnot—while flatulence creates another Eden and the gods roar!”
The second novel Greene published in 1940, the extraordinarily vivid King Cobra, was credited to Frank Dudley. (He had earlier used this pseudonym for a crime novel, The Havana Hotel Murders, an uncharacteristically workmanlike effort that appeared in 1936). King Cobra deals with a Ku Klux Klan-like secret society, the Red Riders, who wear red robes instead of white and burn a giant serpent instead of a cross. Here, Frank Dudley is also the name of the narrator, a newspaper reporter. After observing with amusement the foundation of what is supposed to be a fraternal society by three of his town’s biggest reprobates—a drunken old demagogue, a womanising huckster and a former brothel madam—he agrees to write their press releases to make a few extra bucks, but quits after the society’s membership has swollen to a million and it has begun to persecute Jews, Catholics and Negroes. He keeps a close eye on the society, though, and is on hand to observe the mysterious and incendiary events that lead to its demise.
What They Don’t Know (1944), which is set in New York, is Greene’s most low-key, realistic work. It follows a small group of people over several months in 1942 as they cope with the effects of America entering the war, from the small annoyances of food rationing and gasoline shortages, to the anguish of seeing family members and lovers enlisting and heading off to an uncertain fate. What it conveys most clearly is the bewilderment of many ordinary people who don’t understand the war and have no idea how it will end.
In a biographical note printed on the back of What They Don’t Know, Greene wrote, “I would rather write than be President.” This turned out to be his last novel though. After the war, he concentrated on his work at King Features Syndicate. One of its biggest stars was the comic strip artist Alex Raymond, who had huge success with Flash Gordon during the 1930s. When he returned to the U.S. in 1946 after serving with the Marines in Europe, Greene suggested he do a crime strip. He wrote the first script for Rip Kirby, which became another big hit for Raymond, and remained its chief writer until his death.
Some of Greene’s 1930s novels were reprinted in paperback (including Ride the Nightmare, saddled with the unwieldy new title of The Life and Loves of a Modern Mister Bluebeard for the 1949 Avon edition). During his last years, however, his name was linked to a very different kind of literary production. During the early 1940s, Walt Disney had read a story by him entitled ‘Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog’ and decided it could be the basis for an animated feature. He hired Greene to work on the script for the film, which became Lady and the Tramp, and a book version published prior to the film’s release so that people would be familiar with the story. He also briefly wrote a comic strip offshoot called ‘Scamp’, but on 22 June 1956, six months after the premiere of Lady and the Tramp, Ward Greene died while on a visit to Havana, Cuba. William Randolph Hearst was one of his pallbearers.
William Seabrook had died ten years earlier. After The Magic Island, he had another success with Jungle Ways (1931), an account of his travels in Africa. The book also provoked some controversy because of the scene in which Seabrook described taking part in a cannibal feast. It wasn’t until Marjorie Worthington published her memoir in 1966 that the truth was known. Seabrook had indeed tasted human flesh, but it had happened in Paris, after his return from Africa (the flesh, procured by a journalist friend, had belonged to a young man killed in a traffic accident).
Seabrook and Marjorie settled in France where he briefly fulfilled a dream (also expressed by Jake Perry in Ride the Nightmare) of living in his own castle. He continued to indulge himself by tying up women whenever he could, and Marjorie describes a scene where some local dignitaries arrived for dinner to find a young girl hanging from their balcony, naked apart from a leather skirt that Seabrook had brought back from Africa.
His drinking had now become a serious problem, however, and he was suffering from writer’s block. Back in the States, he took the drastic step of having himself committed to Bloomingdale mental asylum. His hard-hitting account of his time there, Asylum (1935), put him back in the headlines. He produced a couple more interesting books—Witchcraft (1940), a study of occultism and the paranormal in which he devoted a chapter to his friendship with Crowley, and his aforementioned autobiography. His drinking was as bad as ever though, and Marjorie was eventually forced to leave him. He died in a New York hospital in 1945, after taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
William Seabrook, who made such a stir in his time, is today almost forgotten, but Ward Greene captured something of his essence in Ride the Nightmare. He was a strange, infuriating, selfish and otherworldly man, but some people, somehow, found him lovable.