Hard to imagine that we’ve assembled over a dozen weird menace collections without touching on the works of an author who while forgotten by posterity was very high on editor Rogers Terrill’s list of heavy hitters. In fact, so popular was Francis James that he is one of two authors whose absence from the pages of Dime Mystery Magazine, Terror Tales, and Horror Stories was deemed worthy of notice to the readership . . . “Francis James is back!” trumpeted the cover blurb; indicating that at least as far as Popular Publications was concerned, the appearance of James’ by-line on the cover meant more sales. The only author accorded similar treatment was the indefatigable Arthur Leo Zagat, whose heart surgery caused editor Terrill to warn readers that they might have to muddle along for a few months without new Zagat stories while the author recovered (of course, no such shortage occurred as the prolific Zagat had ample inventory on file to cover his convalescence and by the time new material was needed he’d already turned in another 100,000 words or so of new work.)
We tend to think of Francis James as one of the second wave of weird menace authors along with writers such as Mary Dale Buckner (Donald Dale), Russell Gray, J.O. Quinliven and so on . . . While it’s certainly true that his most productive run was after 1936, the fact is that James was on board and contributing major pieces as early as 1934 under the pseudonym of “James A. Goldthwaite”. This by-line was quickly abandoned and James debuted under his own name in the first issue of Horror Stories with the lead novel Music of the Damned. Oddly enough, James is the only author not mentioned on the cover! Apparently, editor Rogers Terrill had yet to develop the confidence in James that he would have in just a short time. 1935 was hardly a banner year with only five stories published in the pages of Horror Stories and Terror Tales and one novelette in Dime Mystery Magazine. Another five pieces appeared in 1936, including the title piece of this collection and “The City Ruled by Death”.
By this point James had established the style that would endear him to the editors and readers and the flaws that would cause critics to dismiss his work. James was a “gosh wow” writer; taking a cue from the “raw heads and bloody bones” school of the early British authors such as Dick Donovan and Clive Pemberton, a typical James plot introduced a horrifying situation, brought in an additional layer of menace in the second or third chapter and then piled additional horrors on until the penultimate chapter. This made for breakneck pacing and the literary equivalent of a roller-coaster ride to hell. In the final chapter, James would do his level best to tie all the loose ends together and resolve the mystery.
The downside to this structure is that James would often write himself into a corner and have to resort to a fairly preposterous deux ex machina ending. Great literature? Certainly not. Sloppy writing? Unquestionably. Entertaining reading? Here’s where James’ faults may be forgiven . . . Whatever else may be said of James plotting, his stories are a lot of fun to read. To an audience raised on the Saturday serials wherein inconsistencies from one week to the next were politely forgotten, James work had the same sense of fun about it, the pacing was so lively that any inconstancies or lapses in logic could be overlooked. I don’t mean to suggest that James indulged in what critics James Blish and Damon Knight termed “the idiot plot”, wherein it is necessary to the story that all characters behave like complete idiots in order to further the plot. (Seen to its best advantage in modern horror films such as The Evil Dead when playing the demonic chanting on the tape recorder apparently causes the ground to shake, lights to flash, and generally disturbing things to occur and no one thinks to turn the damn thing off . . .) I’m sure that the reader can think of dozens of other examples. No, these aren’t the flaws that you’ll see in Francis James; such flaws are pretty much limited to minor faux pas, rather than major insults to the reader’s intelligence.
Looking at his work as an editor of some twenty-five years in practice, I can see where many of his stories can be improved, but were I reading for a horror anthology, the only reason I would ever have had for rejecting a Francis James story would be due to length. And here’s another interesting facet of his writing . . . While most of modern colleagues would agree that the novelette to novella is the ideal length for the horror story (and editor Rogers Terrill seemed to agree as the majority of fiction that ran in his three magazines was of that length), no other authors of the Popular Publications stable other than Frederick Davis seem to have been quite so single-minded about writing at this length as was Francis James (and Davis wrote just a handful of pieces compared to James’ tally of well over fifty pieces.)
Perhaps this, more than anything else, has been the root cause of Francis James being ignored by most anthologists. Certainly, the weird menace genre as a whole has received short shrift by most horror anthologists over the years, but short pieces by the likes of Arthur J. Burks and Hugh B. Cave turn up from time to time. However, once the 10,000 word count is reached, anthologists seem to think that more names on the contents page is always preferable and a lengthy piece (if included at all) need be by a very popular contemporary author or household name of the past, certainly not by a pulp author whose fiction has remained uncollected. Of course, Francis James almost never wrote anything under 12,000 words.
As mentioned, there are over fifty of these page-turners that, with the rare exception of a couple of stories reprinted years ago in small anthologies by Robert Weinberg and Sheldon Jaffrey, have remained unavailable to readers. With this and subsequent volumes on the drawing board, all we can say is to quote Rogers Terrill from the cover of the March/April 1939 issue of Terror Tales: “Francis James is Back!”