Thursday, July 28, 2016

Weird Tales and the Inner Sanctum

The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers was first issued in hardback by Simon and Schuster as part of its Inner Sanctum Mystery series. As Mike Tuz pointed out in his recent comment, that was at about the same time that Universal Pictures was releasing a series of horror movies under the same name. If you listened to the radio in 1945, you were likely to hear a sardonic voice and the sound of a creaking door in the introduction to a weekly show called Inner Sanctum Mystery (more popularly known as Inner Sanctum Mysteries). A decade later, you could have watched Inner Sanctum on television, if only for a season. So how were these series related? Where did the Inner Sanctum brand begin? And what did it all have to do with Weird Tales? That's what I'll write about today.

First, I should say that there doesn't seem to be much of a connection between Weird Tales and Inner Sanctum Mystery. In beginning my research, I was hoping to find more. So maybe the title of this article is a little misleading. On the other hand, there are some pretty big gaps in the online history of the brand. For example, a list of radio episodes on Wikipedia includes the names of only a few scriptwriters. Likewise, The Internet Movie Database includes the titles and casts of all forty episodes of the TV series, but the writers' names are mostly missing. And good luck finding a comprehensive list of the titles in Simon and Schuster's hardbound Inner Sanctum Mystery series. So maybe there are still connections awaiting discovery. Weird Tales and the Inner Sanctum had this much in common at least: both began in the 1920s as the creations of enterprising young publishers.

In the case of Simon and Schuster, those enterprising young publishers were Richard L. "Dick" Simon (1899-1960), a piano salesman, and M. Lincoln "Max" Schuster (1897-1970), an editor of a trade magazine. (1) According to Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, "Simon's aunt, a crossword puzzle devotee, asked Simon whether there was a book of these puzzles that she could give to a friend. Simon discovered that none had been published, and, with Schuster, launched a company to exploit the opportunity." The year was 1924, plumb in the middle of a decade of fads and other wonderful nonsense. Crossword puzzles became the latest, and Simon and Schuster was off and running.

Almost from the beginning--or at least as early as 1927--Simon and Schuster ran a regular advertising column called "The Inner Sanctum" in the New York Times and Publishing Weekly. Readers may or may not have known it, but "the Inner Sanctum" is the name the two publishers gave to an office within their own suite of offices on 57th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. The Inner Sanctum was in fact a room situated between the respective offices of Dick Simon and Max Schuster. Here is a playful map from 1927, drawn by C. Vernon Farrow:

The legend reads, in part, "The Sun Never Sets on The Inner Sanctum of Simon and Schuster." Before going on, I would like to show another map drawn by the artist Charles Vernon Farrow (1896-1936):

This one is entitled "A Map of the Wondrous Isle of Manhattan" and is dated 1926. The isle was and is wondrous to be sure, and the cartographer Farrow made a wondrous map to match it. This map in particular makes me think of Dell's famous line of map-back paperbacks of the 1940s. Dell was the second major publisher of paperback books in America. Simon and Schuster, publishers of Pocket Books, was the first.

So "the Inner Sanctum" originally referred to the house of Simon and Schuster, then to series of books published by that house. Not all of the Inner Sanctum books were mysteries, at least at the outset. There is, for example, an Inner Sanctum edition of War and Peace, published in 1942. According to Martin Grams Blog (here), the Inner Sanctum series, published monthly, were color coded: blue binding for "serious drama," red for "lighter fare" and/or romance, and green for "detective stories." (Mr. Gram's wording is a little ambiguous. I hope I interpret it correctly.) Later, once the radio show became popular, the Inner Sanctum series were strictly mysteries.

The first Inner Sanctum Mystery was I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Charles Houghton, published in 1930. In 1935, a young woman named Lee Wright (1904-1986) began working at Simon and Schuster as a secretary. The following year, she became editor of the Inner Sanctum Mystery series, and in 1944, senior editor. It was Lee Wright who was so effusive about Joel Townsley Rogers' story and novel The Red Right Hand, and it was she who saw it into print in 1945.

Another Simon and Schuster employee figures pretty prominently in the story of Inner Sanctum Mystery as well. His name was Leon Shimkin (1907-1988), and in 1924, at age seventeen, he signed on with the firm as a $25-a-week bookkeeper. Described by the New York Times as "[t]ireless and hard-driving," Shimkin soon worked his way up to be business manager and eventually to chairman of the board and owner of the company. He was in on the founding of Pocket Books, the first line of mass-market paperback books in America, in 1939. (Shimkin was treasurer of the venture.) "While critics scoffed at the notion of selling 25-cent paperback books in supermarkets and similar outlets," wrote the Times, "Pocket Books was an immediate success." It also spawned myriads of paperback book publishers, many of which lived on the pulp genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, detective, and mystery stories. Paperbacks also helped bring pulp magazines to an end after World War II. Hardbound books survived of course, and the Inner Sanctum Mystery series carried on at least until the 1960s. I have titles for 1960--The Dead Beat by Robert Bloch--and 1966--The Incredible Scholck Homes by Robert L. Fish. I don't know when the last title in the series was published.

In the early 1940s, Leon Shimkin sold the rights to Inner Sanctum Mystery to Universal Pictures. By the time the first movie came out in 1943, Inner Sanctum Mystery, also called Inner Sanctum Mysteries or just Inner Sanctum, had been on the radio for a couple of years. I suspect that Shimkin helped orchestrate that deal, too. In any case, the radio show, which began on January 7, 1941, was a hit. Under producer Himan "Hi" Brown (1910-2010), Inner Sanctum Mystery ran for more than eleven years and a total of 526 broadcasts. The last came on October 5, 1952. (2) As I said, the writers' credits are mostly missing. Stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant, both of whom were in Weird Tales, were adapted for the show.

From 1943 to 1945, Universal released six movies in the Inner Sanctum Mystery series starring Lon Chaney, Jr. These are supposed to have been based on the radio show. The titles are:
  • Calling Dr. Death (1943)
  • Weird Woman (1944)
  • Dead Man's Eyes (1944)
  • The Frozen Ghost (1945)
  • Strange Confession (1945)
  • Pillow of Death (1945)
Weird Woman was based on the story "Conjure Wife" by Fritz Leiber, Jr., and although "Conjure Wife" wasn't in Weird Tales (it was in the rival title Unknown Worlds in April 1943), its author was. The movie title of course echoes that of Weird TalesBy the way, Leiber's father, Fritz Leiber, was in the non-Universal movie Inner Sanctum from 1948. He played a character called Dr. Valonius.

Finally, Hi Brown produced the television adaptation of Inner Sanctum in his studios in New York City. The show ran for forty half-hour episodes from January to October 1954. (The show ended a month after Weird Tales.) As an early anthology series, it gave a lot of young actors and actresses--Warren Stevens, Jack Klugman, Jack Albertson, Betsy Palmer--a chance to appear on television. It very likely helped pave the way for other anthology series as well, particularly The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), which, like the original radio series, had, in its host, the series' only regular character. The host of The Twilight Zone was of course played by Rod Serling, a most worthy successor to the Weird Tales mantle.

(1) Simon seems to have been the principle partner. There is comparatively little on the Internet about Schuster. Find A Grave has him, but his birth date--March 2, 1897--and birthplace--Austria--are missing. Schuster's father was a U.S. citizen at the time of Schuster's birth. According to Schuster's World War I draft card, "[the] child came to the U.S. when [he was] 6 weeks old." Max L. Schuster died on December 20, 1970, at his home in Manhattan.
(2) Like pulp magazines, radio drama and comedy were casualties of the post-war world. All survived in one way or another, however. Pulps didn't die so much as simply change form. They became paperback books, digest-sized magazines, and standard-sized magazines. The last true pulp magazine was Ranch Romances and Adventure, which came to an end in 1971 or thereabouts. Radio shows didn't exactly die, either. They simply became TV shows, and most of the old radio stars made the switch to television. Some, like Jack Benny, were successful. Others weren't. Incidentally, Hi Brown produced a later radio show called CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974-1982), more or less as a reprise of Inner Sanctum Mystery, complete with the sardonic host and the creaking door. I am happy to say that we listened to that show when we were kids, and so we got in on the very tail end of radio drama in America.

Here are some sources:

Simon and Schuster
"Leon Shimkin, a Guiding Force At Simon & Schuster, Dies at 81" by Edwin McDowell, New York TimesMay 26, 1988

Inner Sanctum Mystery

"Debunking the Myth . . ."

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. As I comic book fan I' was happy to learn that it was the Inner Sanctum radio series that introduced the concept of a horror host who introduced and closed each episode with a pun-filled monologue; a trend that was later adopted by Al Feldstein at EC Comics, and a decade after that by Archie Goodwin at Warren Publications.

    1. Dear Mike,

      I didn't write much about the horror host character in my article here, but there was a direct line from the radio horror host to the comic book and television horror host of the 1950s and beyond.

      By the way, I looked for an Inner Sanctum comic book title contemporary to the series that appeared in other media. No dice. However, there is a more recent comic book with that name.