WILL THE REAL MR. TERROR TALES PLEASE STAND UP?
When the writers of weird menace fiction are discussed, the names we most frequently see brought up are the likes of Hugh B. Cave, Arthur J. Burks, Ray Cummings, and in recent years (thanks in large part to your not-so-humble editor) Wyatt Blassingame, John H. Knox and Russell Gray. The explanations for the remembrance of these gentlemen are not hard to deduce. Hugh B. Cave wrote well into the new centu-ry and to top it off was a very friendly and accessible gent who attended many conventions and had a lot of interaction with readers of a new generation. Arthur Burks had the magic name of being an Arkham House author. Ray Cummings was known as one of the pioneers of science fiction. The latter three gents were simply three of the best at this particular genre and could stand head and shoulders with the best of the Weird Tales circle.
The name that doesn’t get mentioned as often as it should is Arthur Leo Zagat, a genius of the lead “novel” of the 1930s pulps. In this era, only one story could “lead” an issue of the magazine, so in a year there were only twelve spots for a story in the 17,000 to 25,000 word range. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to focus only on that spot and it certainly takes an incredible talent to hit the mark every time.
There are two authors who really specialized in writing lead “novels” in the weird menace genre: Frederick Davis and Arthur Leo Zagat. Zagat did the most leads, tripling Davis’ output. All told he produced around five dozen pieces, almost all of which were of novelette length or longer.
So how is it that this major contributor is all but forgotten? The answer is pretty simple. Arthur Leo Zagat died tragically young at the age of fifty-three in 1949. His best work was in a genre that was shunned by anthologists and his work was also of a length that makes anthologists tear their hair out. The conventional wisdom (which is idiocy by the way) is that the more names you have in an anthology the better your sales will be, as fans of an individual writer will buy the book to read the one story by their favorite. As I said, that’s idiocy. I know hundreds of readers and I have yet to meet one fanatical enough to buy an anthology on the strength of one short story. Conversely, I know lots of folk who would pick up a book containing a novella by a favorite writer.
Sadly, to the genre reader, with the exception of
the rather underwhelming Seven out of Time, the million words a year man who was
sought after for endorsements by typewriter manufacturers and was without
question one of the finest stylists in the weird menace genre, vanished from the
public eye as suddenly as an apparition in a haunted house. This is the third
collection of stories by Arthur Leo Zagat that is see-ing publication through
Dancing Tuatara Press. As many of you know from my introductions to other
volumes, the key factor in what makes a DTP book is that it is a volume that I
either want in my own collection or a book so rare that while I may have a copy,
most people don’t. So it’s a book in my collection that I think others will
enjoy. I don’t say this too often, but I’m going all in on Arthur Leo Zagat. I
have enough material on hand for at least ten volumes averaging three hundred
pages. The thing with Zagat is that he started at a high level and stayed there.
His science fiction is much a thing of its time, with the charm of the
pre-Campbell days (ludicrous science, but darn fun adventure stories), but his
weird menace which evolved from a heavy Gothic style to the more modern and
faster-paced prose favored in post 1937 years stands the test of time
Born in 1896, Zagat had the writing bug from an early age, trying his hand at verse. As with his contemporary, John H. Knox, the poet’s eye for language is readily apparent in his prose. Of course, the number of poets that can make a living from their work can usually be counted on the fingers of one hand, and this was certainly true in the early 1900s. Zagat also wrote a humor column while attending New York’s City College, but neither avocation gave much of a hint as to the work he would be remembered for.
Zagat served in the First World War in the Signal Corps and upon returning to civilian life got married and returned to school obtaining a law degree from Fordham University in 1929. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression there wasn’t a huge demand for young lawyers and Zagat found himself working a variety of low level jobs until, like much of America’s workforce, he found himself unemployed with just a few dollars to his name. Borrowing a typewriter, Zagat set out to make his mark as a writer of fiction. With the poet’s natural gift for language, Zagat was an instant success, selling his first story immediately and finding editors clam-oring for more of his work. What was to prove a brilliant career was launched.
Zagat’s forte was the novella, or, as the hyperbolic editors called them, “the feature-length novel”. These “novels” generally ranged from 17,000 to 25,000 words in length, thus, in any definition save that of the pulp magazines, these were novelettes. Writing works of this length not only guaranteed top billing on the covers, but usually qualified the author for a slightly higher word-rate, often an additional half cent a word. Zagat’s output was prodigious, rivaling that of Arthur J. Burks. He turned out mysteries, science fiction, and many other types of fiction. In addition to lead “novels”, he was also a dependable writer of shorter fiction, including the popular Doc Turner stories in The Spider and the Red Finger series that ran in the pages of Operator #5.
Finally in 1934 Popular Publications took a bold step, changing the format of Dime Mystery Magazine, a publication known for its publishing of staid novels that were a cure for insomnia, if nothing else. The change was made in October 1933 with the appearance of Dance of the Skeletons by Norvell Page. The weird menace genre was born, and by January 1934 Arthur Leo Zagat was on board with a short story in Dime Mystery Magazine and when Popular expanded the line in September 1934 with the publication of Terror Tales, editor Rogers Terrill turned to Zagat to write the lead “novel”. Zagat responded with House of Living Death. This “novel” will be featured in a later volume of Trios of Terror.
Zagat took to the weird menace genre like a fish to water. Terrill needed dependable wordsmiths, particularly authors that could be counted on to turn out “feature novels” on a regular basis, and Zagat filled the bill with gusto, with some three dozen such pieces for Popular Publications as well as another dozen or so for their competitors.
Zagat’s work was rife with the tropes of the early Gothics: decaying mansions, dark family secrets, bizarre cults, and scheming madmen. What sets Zagat’s work apart from many of his contemporaries is the poet’s sure touch with language putting him in the company of the great John H. Knox. In fact, fellow author Roger Howard Norton dubbed him “magister trismegistus of the macabre”. Were this monicker applied to anyone other than Zagat or Knox it would be ludicrous. Bestowed on Zagat, even with tongue slightly in cheek, it’s perfectly appropriate.
In addition to colorful descriptive phrases such as “lambent gloom” and “choking fetor” Zagat’s tales featured a good deal of introspection from his characters, leading the reader to feel a growing sense of dread. When Zagat pulls it off, he’s able to sustain a growing feeling of unease over a twenty-thousand word story, a very difficult feat. When he falls short, it’s often when he’s using the female point of view. These cases aren’t complete failures. Zagat has the words, but he hasn’t got the tune. It feels like watching Char-lie Daniels playing Mozart—all the technique is present, he’s hitting all the notes, but something doesn’t ring true.
The truly remarkable thing about Zagat is not only the generally high quality of his work, but the amazing quantity of work that he produced. From his debut until the war years he was writing at least one “feature length novel” and four or five short stories every month. In 1935 at the height of the weird menace years Zagat suffered a near fatal attack of pneumonia and one of his editors felt it necessary to alert fans as to the impending lack of Zagat stories.
The warning, while heartfelt, proved to be completely un-necessary . . . There was enough Zagat material in inventory that the monthly flow of fiction continued unabated without missing a beat.
When the weird menace genre faded away at the end of the decade Zagat continued his prodigious output, though his time was now split between mystery stories and science fiction yarns. Tragically, Arthur Leo Zagat died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of fifty-three. At the time he was one of the most sought after and highly paid authors in the pulps. One can only imagine what he might have gone on to accomplish had he lived another ten or twenty years. As it is, Arthur Leo Zagat did leave a magnificent body of work for such a short career. Readers can be assured that there will definitely be more Zagat volumes from Dancing Tuatara Press.
Memorial Day 2015