Bill’s Bookshelf # 4: Alfred Hitchcock Presents…Books

By the early 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock was riding an enormous wave of popularity. His television program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955 – 1962), had made the director a household name. 1960 saw the release of his highest grossing and arguably most famous film, Psycho, followed sensationally in 1963 by The Birds. I’m a “baby boomer.” Watching and discussing Hitchcock with my parents helped us to relate, to bridge the generation gap. I suspect it was this way in many homes.

The market was ripe for all things Hitchcock. He shrewdly licensed his name and likeness to board games, magazines, books, and other merchandise. I think the Bobblehead came much later.

Hitchcock lent his name to two book series marketed by Random House as “books for young people.” One series, The Three Investigators, was similar to the Hardy Boys adventures, but with three young sleuths instead of two. Created by Robert Arthur, Jr., who also wrote some of the books and suggested story lines for others, always featured a final chapter in which the three boys conferred with Alfred Hitchcock, going over the clues that helped them solve the mystery. The other series was a succession of theme-based anthologies: Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful (1961),  Ghostly Gallery (1962),  Solve-Them-Them-Yourself  Mysteries (1963),  Monster Museum (1965),  Sinister Spies (1966), and Spellbinders in Suspense (1967).  My cool Uncle Bob gave me one of these books for Christmas every year. They were large books with eye-catching colorful covers and dust jackets, and at least one illustration per story. I decided to revisit these mementos of my youth on a recent trip to my mother’s house.

Upon pulling these volumes down from my childhood bookshelf and perusing the tables of contents, I noticed that many of the stories were interchangeable with those found in any anthology, not necessarily intended for children only. This is either because kids had higher reading levels back in those days, or because many of the stories originally appeared in pulp magazines, which generally aimed for a wide variety of readers.

At the risk of over-simplifying, I’ve separated the authors into three groups:

  1. The usual suspects from the pantheon of “weird Fiction” writers, such as Algernon Blackwood, Henry Kuttner, and Lord Dunsany
  2. The venerable classic writers, including Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. Popular contemporary writers  like Ray Bradbury, Jerome Bixby, and Robert Bloch

Special mention must be made of Robert Arthur, Jr., the real star behind these books. Hitchcock did little more than license his name and likeness to the book series. Arthur edited the books and wrote the introductions and liner notes in that famous droll deadpan Hitchcock delivery. Anyone familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock TV show can almost hear the director’s voice when reading the introductions. This is because Robert Arthur also wrote most, if not all, of the scripts Hitchcock used when speaking to the audience at the beginning and end of each show, and leading up to commercial breaks.

In the 1930s, Arthur wrote for the pulp magazines, including Unknown Worlds, Amazing Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, Collier’s, Argosy, and others. He created and edited Pocket Detective Magazine for Street and Smith, the first pocket-sized all-fiction magazine.

In 1940, he studied writing for radio at Columbia University and eventually teamed up with David Kogan to write and produce a radio show called The Mysterious Traveler for the Mutual Broadcasting System. The Mysterious Traveler ran from 1944 until 1953. They received the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Mystery Radio Show from the Mystery Writers of America.

Arthur moved to Hollywood in 1959, where he wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so he was the natural choice to edit and write additional material for the Hitchcock books.

A more thorough biography of Robert Arthur can be found here, at the web site of his daughter, writer Elizabeth Arthur.

Since I’ve already mentioned that some of the stories in these books transcend the genre of “children’s books,” I also remember that a few of the tales disappointed me even at age eleven or twelve, due to their generic, fairy tale nature. Case in point, Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum includes a story written in 1950 called The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles, written by Margaret St. Clair (1911 – 1995) writing under the pseudonym Idris Seabright. I should add that Margaret St. Clair is a very intriguing author who deserves further discussion, sometime in the near future, here at Bill Ectric’s Place, as her interests included witchcraft, nudism, and feminism, and her novel, Sign of the Labrys (1963) is notable for its Wicca theme. Maybe by the time I read her Gnoles story, I was already jaded by movies like Psycho, Revenge of Frankenstein, and 2000 Maniacs. I recently found out that the same story appears in The Fantasy Hall of Fame, Edited by Robert Silverberg (Harper Prism, 1998) chosen by a vote of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America association. This made me curious, so I clicked through a series of links, trying to understand why the Fantasy Hall-of-Famer’s have such high regard for the story.

The classic role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, includes gnolls (notice the alternate spelling from gnole) among its many denizens. Gary Gargax, who co-created Dungeons & Dragons with Dave Arneson, credits the idea to Lords Dunsany. He describes the gnoll as part gnome, part troll, even though Dunsany doesn’t specifically state this in his story. Perhaps Dunsany assumed we would get it.

The term was first used by Lord Dunsany in a short story called How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles, one of fourteen stories by Dunsany in his The Book of Wonder (1912). Writers who have named Lord Dunsany as an influence include  J. R. R. TolkienUrsula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Moorcock. I think now I see the reason for my disappointment. I was looking for stories that would scare me; whereas, the “Gnole” stories were an extension of the fantasy tradition, which can sometimes be scary, but mainly strives to elicit the sensation of wonder.

Margaret St. Clair’s The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles can be seen as an homage to the earlier story by Dunsany. In both stories, someone tries to “get over” on the Gnoles and it backfires on them. Dunsany’s character, Nuth, is a skillful burglar. Stealing valuables from ordinary houses has become so effortless, he decides to practice his “art” on the Gnoles, who dwell in a dark forest and are known to keep large emeralds in their premises. In St. Clair’s updated tale, the interloper is a salesman, a rope merchant, well-versed in all the sales techniques that were proliferating in countless business manuals in the booming American economy after World War II. In this light, I see how the relationship between these two stories would have appealed to the Fantasy Hall of Fame crowd.

 

Seeing Things! Strindberg and Kittelsen

Left: August Strindberg; Right: Theodor Kittelsen selfportrait

Alchemy, schizophrenia, sinister wizardry, religious fanaticism, and even a knowing wink of humor, The Inferno, by writer August Strindberg (1849-1912), is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. 

There is some disagreement as to how much of The Inferno is based on an actual nervous breakdown suffered by the author and how much Strindberg embellished and exaggerated his madness to make a better story (much like I did in my novel, Tamper). Having just finished reading Inferno, I have to believe that if Strindberg really went temporarily insane in the mid-1890s, he certainly recovered enough to write a delightfully macabre book about the experience.

 The main character of Inferno, presumably Strindberg himself, wanders from place to place in search of peace of mind, experiencing bouts of paranoia, hallucinations, apophenia (imagining profound connections in random coincidences), and pareidolia (seeing faces and other shapes in ordinary objects, like when someone claims to see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast).

A couple of brief passages from from Chapter 5, Purgatory:

The house is old, the rooms are low, the passages dark, and the wooden staircases wind and twist hither and thither as if in a labyrinth. There is an air of mysteriousness about the whole building, which for a long time has attracted me. My room looks out on a cul-de-sac, so that standing in the middle of it, one sees nothing but a moss-grown wall with two small round windows in it.

and later in the same chapter:

In my fireplace I burn coals which, because of their round and regular shape, are called “monks’ heads.” One day when the fire is nearly extinguished I take out a mass of coal of fantastic shape. It resembles a cock’s head with a splendid comb joined to what looks like a human trunk with twisted limbs. It might have been a demon from some mediaeval witches’ sabbath.

The second day I take out again a fine group of two gnomes or drunken dwarfs, who embrace each other while their clothes flutter in the wind. It is a masterpiece of primitive culture.

The third day it is a Madonna and Child in the Byzantine style, of incomparable beauty of outline. After I have drawn copies of all three in black chalk, I place them on my table. A friendly painter visits me; he regards the three statuettes with growing curiosity, and asks who
has ” made ” them. In order to try him, I mention the name of a Norwegian sculptor. ” No,” he savs, ” I should rather be inclined to ascribe them to Kittelsen, the famous illustrator of the Swedish legends.”

Upon reading this, of course, I had to look up Kittelsen. He was quite an artist. I’d seen his work before, a long time ago, and some of his illustrations could almost be used in the part of Tamper that purports to be the excerpts from Olsen Archer’s book on Richard Shaver:

In Labyrinths of the Damned, I have attempted to build on Mr. Shaver’s work and to integrate his theories on underground, cavern-dwelling humanoids with other related phenomena.

The Himalayan Yeti, known to Tibetans as the Demon of Kangchenjunga, seeking refuge deep in glacial ice caves.

First hand accounts of alien abductions and nefarious animal mutilations, in and around the underground Military Base in Dulce, New Mexico.

Evil Scandinavian trolls, hunched and deformed, creeping into rural towns at night to desecrate churches and steal babies. Under dark, moonless skies, they scuttled from one peat-roofed house to another, looking for an open window to a child’s bedroom.

The North American Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, sighted mostly in the Northern U.S. and Canada.

Scottish gnomes, those rumored descendants of the Picts, who, during the Dark Ages, took refuge in caverns to escape marauders, and left behind cave paintings and small quartz pebbles painted with symbols and wavy lines.

The so-called “mole people,” encountered deep in now-abandoned coal mines of West Virginia and in the extensive network of caverns the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia . . .

Just for fun, here’s a mock-up cover for Tamper using an illustration by Kittelsen called The Plague on the Stairs (this is not the actual cover of Tamper): 

Here is the complete text of Strindberg’s The Inferno,

and here is more on Kittelsen.