Arthur Leo Zagat
Posterity is a funny thing, particularly in literary matters. For an example, Paul Ernst is thought of today as the author of The Avenger, despite authoring a tremendous volume of high quality weird tales. Robert Bloch is forever cursed with the tag of “the author of Psycho”. Hugh B. Cave, despite a bibliography that runs over eighty pages of single-spaced type and includes hundreds of stories published in everything from Australian Women’s Weekly to The Saturday Evening Post, will always be thought of as a horror author. . . And how about Arthur Leo Zagat?
Unfortunately, until the publication of this volume and an earlier collection of stories from Spicy Mystery published by Black Dog Press and the forthcoming “Terror Trios” series from Altus Press, Zagat had only one book to show for a phenomenal career that in twenty years saw him produce top-quality mystery and horror fiction at an amazing clip of around a million words a year. Among his mystery tales were popular series characters such as Doc Turner, (featured in The Spider) and Red Finger, (back-up feature in Operator #5). Zagat also dabbled in science fiction, which most modern readers would concede was not really his strong suit. Sadly, it’s from the latter genre that his only book came from, Seven Out of Time, published by Fantasy Press in 1949 may well be the best of Zagat’s science fiction novels, but it’s hardly the best of Arthur Leo Zagat. . .
To find Zagat at his best we need to look at the over five-dozen novelettes and novellas that featured in Dime Mystery Magazine, Terror Tales, Horror Stories, and occasionally in the competition’s Thrilling Mystery Magazine. Zagat had a natural flair for the conte cruel in the tradition of Maurice Level and the Grand Guignol Theatre. His first try in the genre was a short story, “Midnight Fangs”, published in the January, 1934 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine and is included in this volume. The very next issue featured a novelette, “The Swamp Terror” and the following issue contained “Black Laughter” (also included in this volume); Zagat never needed to write another short story for Dime Mystery (or any other publication); from that point on, Zagat was in demand as an author of lead “novels” or novelettes. As an indicator of how Zagat started out strong and grew from there, every issue of Dime Mystery from January of 1934 to March of 1935 featured a Zagat novelette or novella.
When Popular Publications decided that there was room for an additional magazine specializing in this type of fiction, Arthur Leo Zagat was the obvious choice to pen the lead feature for the new magazine, Terror Tales, which debuted in September of 1934. The novella, “House of Living Death” is featured in the “Terror Trios” series. It should be no great surprise that when Popular added a third title (Horror Stories) to the mix in January 1935 Zagat was on hand with “Mistress of the Beast” (featured in this volume).
1935 was an odd year for Zagat; after his brilliant run in 1934 overwork got to him and he developed pneumonia and nearly died. While forced to slow his feverish pace just a bit, Zagat couldn’t resist making the best of a bad situation and describing his medical ordeal in terms that were at least as chilling as any of the tortures that appeared in his stories: “During that recent attack, the surgeons bored into my back some nine times with hollow needles from four to six inches long and an eighth inch in diameter. They didn’t use any anesthetic, but I had to ask whether the plaguey things were in there . . . Once I got a real thrill when the doctor said, conversationally, ‘I’m scraping the sac around your heart, the pericardium.’ That was the time they found the bag of pus for which they were looking and pumped infected matter out of my chest for forty-five minutes.”
Certainly the above served to satisfy readers’ tastes for the grotesque in lieu of a new story and began a trend that carries on to this day, with a more or less recent example being modern master of the macabre Edward Bryant gleefully sending out postcards with close-up photographs of his eye surgery, or Edward Lee and myself signing copies of Shifters in our own blood. . .
This bout with serious illness rattled editor Rogers Terrill far more than it did Mr. Zagat. Terrill felt it necessary to warn readers that there would be a temporary halt to the regularly featured stories by Mr. Zagat, but that he would be returning in the very near future . . . However, such was the level of Zagat’s productivity that he wasn’t really missed, as there was a considerable inventory of material on hand and by the time this was used up, Zagat was back at work. As there were only an issue or two published without a Zagat story, readers probably wondered what on earth Terrill was talking about.
By the time the weird menace genre faded away in 1941, Zagat had become one of the highest paid authors in the pulps. Throughout the decade of the 1940s Zagat continued churning out mystery, detective, and science-fiction stories; however, it seemed like there was definitely something missing . . . Having to eschew the gothic touches that made his stories so memorable, Zagat produced highly readable mystery and science fiction tales for a variety of markets. While all of these are at least competent, commercial-grade fiction, the “wow factor” just isn’t there. A last foray into the weird menace field introduced a clone of Doc Turner, the mild-mannered Dr. John Bain, who was featured in Strange Detective Mysteries beginning in 1937. The Bain stories also echo the tone of the earlier Doc Turner tales and his work in Spicy Mystery echoes the Gothicism of an earlier time, but the over-the-top chaos that made his weird menace tales so memorable just isn’t there.
Arthur Zagat certainly prospered during the 1940s as one of the highest paid pulpsters; even as the wartime paper shortages began to have an impact on the less successful markets. Zagat was appearing seemingly everywhere. . . As to how he would have handled the death of the pulps and birth of the digest magazines and paperback originals, sadly, we’ll never know . . . Arthur Leo Zagat suffered a massive heart attack and passed away in 1949. He was only fifty-three . . . Who knows what he might have accomplished had he lived another decade?
A comparison would be to the career of my late friend, Richard Laymon, who after two decades of being hugely popular in both the US and UK by way of a British publisher was well on his way to becoming a household name in the US was struck down at a relatively young age.
After being known for decades only as the author of the novel Seven Out of Time, it appears that books scheduled over the next couple of year’s will do much to restore Zagat’s reputation in the horror field. There are no less than twelve of his novellas lined up for publication at Altus Press (four volumes in the “Terror Trios” series) and at least three more collections of novelettes coming from Ramble House. While it’s interesting to speculate on what twists and turns his career may have taken had he lived another decade or so, Arthur Leo Zagat still managed to produce a remarkable body of work in less than twenty years.
As a one-man fiction factory there are few authors that can compare to either his volume of work or the quality thereof.
If this is your first encounter with this amazingly talented author, there’s a lot more to come! Enjoy!
All Hallows 2010