Flashback: THE SHADOW by Tom Jenkins

by Tom Jenkins

Originally published in Crimespree issue 5.

An urbanized latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel to the rescue.

Suddenly from out of the darkness, a cloaked figure begins to take shape from only a blur in the shadows to become a mysterious and dominating presence with piercing eyes,a hawk-like nose, a haunting laugh and the proverbial blazing guns. It was 1932, the appearance of a new hero in an unprecedented series of suspense novels, the beginning of the exploits of a crime fighter who rescued the doomed and subdued the evildoers and then vanished back into the darkness, leaving both baffled as to his real identity.

This was The Shadow.

For the next 15 years, readers of The Shadow novels were mesmerized by this The Shadow, master of deduction, disguises and daring-do. The Shadow had its roots in the five-cent weeklies and dime-novels of “Nick Carter” and “Frank Merriwell,” but these earlier books were soon eclipsed by the more exciting and visceral stories of Walter B. Gibson (pseudonym, Maxwell Grant) led by Street and Smith Publishing. The plots were well organized and exotic, stimulating reader imagination and credulity, so despite the
hard times of the Depression, The Shadow novels, magazines and later – comics, radio and film offshoots – soared in popularity.

Racing to the newsstands and bookstores twice a month to consume each new issue, readers were treated to surprises that involved weird clues, false trails and ironic cross-purposes as Gibson filled his stories with mystification and trickery. Readers were delighted by The Shadow’s secret gadgets and escape devices, such as suction cups to
climb walls, a special powder to explode in the face of the villain when The Shadow snapped his fingers, and a ‘searchlight’ that projected darkness.

The Shadow had a hidden sanctum from which he gave orders to his trusted secret agents and made contact with Margo Lane and Police Commissioner Weston (similar to
Batman years later). It was also where he donned his disguises and changed to mild-mannered, wealthy man-about-town, Lamont Cranston, always keeping his readers

As a result, Gibson received fan letters imploring him to write more stories with The Shadow’s clever crime-solving, twists of identity and unexpected climaxes that radiated suspense. Only The Shadow’s superior intellect and willingness to risk his life could have achieved it, and readers wanted more. The 300,000 copies of each
printing twice a month were sold out almost immediately as readers devoured each novel, enthusiastic about The Shadow’s triumph over the arch villains such as The Cobra, The Gray Fist, The Black Falcon, The Voodoo Master, The Devil’s Paymaster and the infamous Shiwan Khan, who wanted to take over the world.

Gibson’s novels broke publishing records as he pounded his 18-pound, manual typewriter until his fingers were raw. Working 10 to 12 hours daily, he produced as many as 8,000 words a day, and in 1941 was toasted at a special awards ceremony for doing “a million words a year for ten consecutive years.” (He achieved a one-year total,once, of 1,680,000 words and a lifetime total of 29,000,000 words, of which 15 million were of The Shadow, with the remainder a mixture of non-Shadow books.) The more he
wrote, the more readers wanted, so eventually his publisher made arrangements for other authors to write some of The Shadow novels, with Gibson’s prior approval, and (later)
some of the radio scripts of a different version of The Shadow (who could make himself invisible by hypnosis, although it was a different persona not up to the appeal of the original Shadow who could appear and disappear in the shadows like a ghost) and even later, some film adaptations.

Gibson lived in a 24-room, three-story house built on a hill in Eddyville, N.Y. The mansion contained some 30,000 books (more than some libraries), many on magic,his hobby and former occupation when he traveled with Houdini, lackstone and Dunninger. The Shadow Room held bound copies of his 283 Shadow novels (each from60,000 to 75,000 words), magazines and other memorabilia. An authority on magic, memory phenomena, puzzles, numerology, poker, chess, hypnotism and astronomy, he also wrote 125 books on these subjects, many under various pseudonyms.

Gibson could write anywhere, sometimes all night, in the middle of a party and even when his cabin was being built, with carpenters hammering around him. He outlined
260 of his plots (averaging ten typewritten pages at 250 words each) to reach an impressive ‘outline output’ of 650,000 words. He attributed the speed and volume of
his output mostly to his early newspaper experience, writing to a deadline about an event as it was happening. The planning and organizational control of his outlining diminished (if not eliminated) the need for rewriting, so it was Gibson’s first draft that usually went to the publisher.

The phantom-like avenger captivated the American people for a time, many of whom reread The Shadow novels. Gibson said he didn’t always remember “how they turned out.” Whether or not his work is now considered high camp, or low, or simply pulp fiction, The Shadow series forged a new epoch in popular literature, setting some conceptual standards for future mystery writers, as well as imitators. Gibson continuedwriting almost to the end of this life, up to his death in 1985 at the age of 88.

The Shadow’s laugh can still be heard from the darkness.


About ten years before his death, I wrote a letter asking Mr. Gibson for permission to write about him and the astounding productivity of his books and magazines
about The Shadow. He graciously answered the letter with one of his own and sent me some newspaper clippings and other information about his career.

In addition to his voluminous writing, he also gave lectures and appeared in writing classes to instruct students on the practicality and importance of organizing
one’s material and ideas beforehand, whether it be by outlining or other pre-planning efforts before the writing process begins.

He explained that he spent time rereading his old stories, refreshing his mind on his former plotting and development of the action of his work. He included the value of
simplicity as he evolved his stories with more complexity as some of his later books became “whodunits,” as he expressed it.

He was a major success in publishing books and magazines that had an intense appeal for the public, showing what such acclaim often requires: dedication to his goals, sheer hard work over the years and a willingness to share his results with those that followed him. He was an author and he was a gentleman.

-Tom Jenkins