Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Origins of the Damp Man

Art reveals something of the artist. It's why so many artists burn their work or wish it to be burned upon their deaths. Luckily, there is a Max Brod for every Franz Kafka--or for almost everyone who would see his work destroyed.

Lamont Buchanan and Jean Milligan seem to have lived hidden away from the world. Was it really such a terrible place? Or were the two not up to confronting it? I don't know. The imagination is like a pitcher used to fill the vessel of the unknown. I would say, though, that a study of Allison V. Harding's stories would likely reveal something of their author or authors. That might be more than the Buchanans would want. In any case, I have read only five of their stories. "The Damp Man Again" and "Take the Z-Train" are especially revealing.

One of the things I see in reading these five stories is that Allison V. Harding seems to have drawn on previous stories for inspiration. The Damp Man series--"The Damp Man" (July 1947), "The Damp Man Returns" (Sept. 1947), and "The Damp Man Again" (May 1949)--have antecedents. Most obviously, these included stories of weird menace, terror, or horror from the 1930s. The Damp Man also seems like a comic book villain to me, and he came along when millions of Americans--children and adults alike--were reading comic books every month. Although he is a man, the Damp Man is also a science-fictional creation. The Scooby-Doo endings of weird menace stories don't work with him. He is more nearly a supernatural creature--a monster--but with a scientific explanation. In Weird Tales and other magazines, Fritz Leiber, Jr., explicated the need for a scientific (and urban) "ghost" for the twentieth century. The Damp Man would seem to fit in that category.

The Damp Man is also a psychopath and a stalker. We're familiar with his type today. He would have been a more novel concept in the 1940s. However, six years before "The Damp Man" was published, the psychopath or stalker showed up in one of the first movies in a new form. The form was film noir. The movie was I Wake Up Screaming (1941) with Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Carole Landis. Also called Hot Spot, I Wake Up Screaming features a creepy detective played by Laird Cregar. When I saw the movie, I thought of all the real-life and fictional psychos and stalkers of later years, such as John Hinckley, Jr. Moreover, I thought of the Damp Man, and I wondered if Lamont Buchanan had seen I Wake Up Screaming and called upon it when he created his own creepy and obsessive character of the late '40s.

The Damp Man is a science-based monster. His corpulence and turgidity are results of science gone wrong. As a twentieth-century "ghost" (by Leiber's formulation), the Damp Man can also be considered a kind of water spirit or water ghost, a concept that goes back to ancient times and ancient mythologies. I won't go into the history of water spirits and water ghosts, but I'd like to mention one in particular. The fact that the Damp Man is explainable by science (such as it is) sets him apart from others of his kind. His defeat sets him apart as well, for it is by being frozen that the Damp Man is foiled in his obsession (which can be called a kind of haunting). The Damp Man wasn't the first water ghost to suffer his fate, however. In 1891, Harper's Weekly Magazine published "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" by John Kendrick Bangs, a humorous story with a twist ending. Unlike ghost stories of old, the spirit in Bangs' story is defeated by a scientific process, freezing, just as the Damp Man was frozen more than half a century later. "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" was reprinted many times over the years and four times between Lamont Buchanan's birth in 1919 and the publication of "The Damp Man" in 1947. That's not to say that Mr. Buchanan read the story or was inspired by it. But there was precedence for freezing a water ghost, just as there was precedence in movies, comic books, and pulp fiction for the kind of character Mr. Buchanan developed in his Damp Man stories.

To be concluded . . . 

How has the world gone on without James Flora? I don't know. But at least we have his life's work to sustain us. That work includes his illustrations for A Red Skelton in Your Closet, a collection of ghost stories published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1965. Here is Flora's illustration for "The Water Ghost" by John Kendrick Bangs, previously published as "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall."

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

No comments:

Post a Comment