Thursday, November 06, 2008

In the Shadow of Walter B. Gibson

So I'm participating in the National Novel Writing Month event. I have to start and complete a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. Part of the author's profile I had to fill out on the site asked for favorite authors. Leading off my list is Walter B. Gibson.

Many people won't recognize the name -- but they'll certainly recognize his creation. Walter Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, is the man who created the Shadow. The character actually existed before Gibson came on board. Street and Smith used the character as the host for their weekly radio mystery show (serving much the same function as the Crypt Keeper in "Tales of the Crypt"). The character proved so popular that in 1931 they decided to launch a Shadow Mystery Magazine. That's when Walter Gibson -- already an accomplished and prolific writer -- was hired.

At the time no one knew what the Shadow looked like, or what his back story was, or anything at all about him -- save his voice. In fact, the cover of the first issue didn't even have the Shadow on it -- Street and Smith used the only cover art they could find that had any kind of pronounced shadow. Gibson took it and created the first Shadow novel, "The Living Shadow" out of whole cloth (and set a substantial part of it in New York's Chinatown).
The Shadow became a mysterious figure wrapped in black sable, dispensing justice through his network of operatives, only intervening at key events. Over the course of Gibson's 283 novels published in the magazine, readers gradually learned more about the Shadow's mythos.

That's why Walter Gibson is such an inspiration to me -- especially during this month. In addition to writing a 60,000-75,000 novel a month (and initially the pace was two a month), he also continued to write novellas and short stories about other characters. He also maintained a column about codes, and -- being a practicing professional magician -- wrote a magic column and several books about magic as well. He also performed, wrote radio scripts, comic books, and newspaper comic strips, and devised new puzzles and magic tricks.

And the most impressive thing to me is not just the sheer volume of material Gibson turned out, but how consistently high he maintained the quality. The Shadow's adventures might not have been realistic, but they were wonderful studies of mood, pacing, and atmosphere. And they created a world with its own internal logic -- an inviting world of mystery and adventure.

In lesser hands (and there were plenty during the heyday of the pulps), it would have been so much hackwork, hardly worth reading, much less revisiting. But Gibson's work lives on. Shadow adventures have been reprinted at least four different times to my knowledge (including a current run from Nostalgia Ventures). And most folks who have never read a single word of Walter Gibson have at least a passing familiarity with the Shadow.

"The weeds of crime bear bitter fruit. The Shadow knows."

My Nanowrimo entry, "The Purple Doom," is an homage to Walter Gibson's work. I doubt it will bear up to comparison with the work of that master craftsman. But pounding away at my story as the deadline looms ever nearer, I've developed an even greater appreciation for Gibson's skill.

- Ralph

Day 139 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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