Arthur Leo Zagat—Magister Trismegistus of the Macabre


Born in 1896, Arthur Leo 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 clamoring 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 12,000 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. In October, 1933 the change was made 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.

Zagat took to the weird menace genre like a fish to water; Terrill needed dependable wordsmiths, and 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 Charlie 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. Amusingly enough, there were already so many Zagat stories in inventory that readers were unlikely to have noticed any difference at all, and likely thought the editors must have been drinking on the job.

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. In fact, the body of work he produced in the weird menace genre surpasses the combined output of Hugh B. Cave and Arthur J. Burks combined! Readers can be assured that there will definitely be more volumes of weird fiction by Arthur Leo Zagat from Dancing Tuatara Press.

John Pelan

Midnight House