Thursday, April 6, 2023

Joel Townsley Rogers (1896-1984)-A Second Story of the South

Joel Townsley Rogers was born on November 22, 1896, in Sedalia, Missouri, and attended Harvard University. His studies were cut short by his entry into the U.S. Naval Reserve in June 1917. He served two years and more, separating in August 1919. Rogers' writing career began right away. From February 1920 ("The Battle Cruiser Lady" in Snappy Stories) until February 1959 ("No Matter Where You Go" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), he had scores of stories in American pulp and slick magazines, often under the byline Roger Curly (for his curly hair). Rogers also wrote several books, including the murder mystery The Red Right Hand (1945). He was one of several tellers of weird tales who called Washington, D.C., home, and that's where he died, on October 1, 1984. "Hark! The Rattle!" was his only story for Weird Tales. 

I have written about Rogers and his book The Red Right Hand before. Click here for a biography and here for my essay on The Red Right Hand. By the way, one of the characters in the book is Inis St. Erme. His name is an anagram of "Sinister me."

Joel Townsley Rogers' Story:

"Hark! The Rattle" is a brief tale set in a New York nightclub called the Purple Lily. There are two main characters, an intense and agitated young man named Tain Dirk, and an older man, his questioner and eventually his accuser, named Jerry Hammer.

So, Dirk and Hammer.

"Hark! The Rattle!" is an unusual story written in an unconventional style. The main action takes place in the present. An explanation of the current situation comes in the form of a flashback set in the Okechobee [sic] Swamp of Florida. The present is exactly the present, that is, in early 1923. The flashback takes place on the day Dirk was born, January 1, 1899.

Rogers' story isn't exactly a club story, even if it is set in a club. The first club story in Weird Tales is probably still to come. It is a murder mystery of sorts, though, and the first of that genre to appear, as long as we can be generous in applying the label. After "Ooze" by Anthony M. Rud, "Hark! The Rattle!" is also the second story of the American South in "The Unique Magazine," and that brings up a matter of interest.

When I was a student of literature, I read a lot of novels by Southern authors, and I read a lot about Southern literature. When you read about Southern literature, you're sure to come upon the term or category Southern Gothic. The works of William Faulkner (1897-1962), Carson McCullers (1917-1967), and Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) are frequently thrown into that category. There are, of course, others, including Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), who contributed to Weird Tales. I didn't understand very well what "Southern Gothic" means when I was a student. I'm not sure I understand very much better now, although Faulkner's story "A Rose for Emily" comes to mind when I consider it.

Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945), a native Virginian, is known to have used and perhaps to have originated the term Southern Gothic. Her comments on what she called "the Southern Gothic School" first came in a talk she gave in front of the Friends of the Princeton Library on April 25, 1935. Her talk appeared as an article entitled "Heroes and Monsters" in The Saturday Review of Literature, May 4, 1935. The first use of the term that I have found in American newspapers is in a yearend summary of Southern literature, "Hatred, Small Town Tensions Were Major Themes," written by Harnett T. Kane (1910-1984) and published in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger on December 19, 1948, page 44. Kane wrote:

Eddison [sic] Marshall, with "Castle in the Swamp," presented a heavily hued Southern Gothic tale in the traditions of "Wuthering Heights."

Although Edison Marshall (1894-1967) was born in my home state of Indiana, he lived for most of his life in the South. He also contributed to Weird Tales, although he didn't know it: his contributions were posthumous. The castle or old manor house is a staple of the Gothic romance. If Wuthering Heights is Gothic, then Jane Eyre is more Gothic still. In 1943, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur set Jane Eyre in the global south, in this case the Caribbean, in their film I Walked with a Zombie. There is of course a big house and a woman who comes from the outside to learn its secrets.

We should remember in all of this Leslie Fiedler's view of American literature, dazzlingly articulated in his Love and Death in the American Novel (Dell/Delta, revised edition, 1966) and summarized in a couple of quotes:

[. . . ] the American novel is pre-eminently a novel of terror (p. 26)


It is the Gothic form that has been most fruitful in the hands of our best writers [. . .]. (p. 28)

In other words, in essence, all of American literature, or the mainstream of American literature, is Gothic.

Joel Townsley Rogers was also a Southerner. You could call his story "Hark! The Rattle!" a Southern Gothic work, for there is violence and murder, superstition and supernatural workings, poverty and decay, and more than one Southern, grotesque type, including "[a]n old crone," a tobacco-spitting man with yellow eyes and a gun in the crook of his arm--Rogers called him "Poor white trash"--and another old crone, this one an American Indian. Inside their "dreary hut," fashioned from the swamp, is an unseen young woman in the process of giving birth. "He dies!" screams the old Indian woman, pointing at Hammer's friend. "We want his soul!" And so a weird twist unwinds in the story.

The point of all of this is that I wonder whether American authors, editors, and readers of the early to mid twentieth century saw the South as a kind of foreign land, replete with its own foreign customs, traditions, cultures, and peoples, a kind of equivalent to the global south and all of its hot, humid, dank, dark, and gloomy places. I wonder if to them the Mason-Dixon Line was like an American equator. Here above it, in the North--in Chicago, New York, and the Northeast--weird things are less likely to come about. But the region below it--the American South--is a place and the proper setting for Gothic terrors and Gothic horrors.

Two more things, first, "Hark! The Rattle!" is written in a strange, dream-like, almost hallucinogenic or surrealistic way. I'm not sure that Rogers' approach and style changed very much between 1923 and 1945, when The Red Right Hand was published.

And second, in "Hark! The Rattle!," just as in "Ooze," a monster comes from the swamp, although this one is of a far different kind. That made me remember that Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, is also a creature of such places:

A foe in the hall-building: this horrible stranger
Was Grendel entitled, the march-stepper famous
Who dwelt in the moor-fens, the marsh and the fastness;


Grendel this monster grim was called,
march-riever mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness; 

So maybe the swamp monster of American popular culture goes all the way back to Beowulf, just as the idea weird seems to do.

"March," by the way, refers to marches or borderlands. A march-stepper or march-riever, then, is a wanderer, thief, or plunderer of the borderlands. There are marches--the Bossonian Marches--in Robert E. Howard's Hyborea. William Hope Hodgson wrote about such a place in The House on the Borderland (1908), though his use of the word denotes something far different. "On borderland we run," sang U2 in "A Sort of Homecoming," the unforgettable first track of The Unforgettable Fire (1984). And to come full circle, William Faulkner's last book was The Reivers (1962), adapted to a movie starring Steve McQueen in 1968. "Rieve" or "reive" is chiefly a Scottish spelling, and so we're back to Scottish words again. "Reave" seems to be the preferred spelling. Blogger doesn't like either of the first two spellings but is okay with the third.

Edison Marshall's Castle in the Swamp, in a Dell map-back edition from 1951. Note the blurb on the back cover. In addition to evoking Gothic imagery, it is written almost like lines from Beowulf: "Sinister was the swamp . . ." Note also that Dell published both Marshall's book and Fiedler's.

Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

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