Pulp Corner: The Shadow
“Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows”
The Shadow might be the most celebrated and far reaching creation to come from the rich history of pulp magazines and fiction. His only rival in terms of popularity and influence is likely Doc Savage who spawned characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond. Almost every single vigilante hero can be traced back to The Shadow; chief among them of course is Batman.
The Shadow’s true identity is WWI spy, Kent Allard but eventually he pulls a pseudo Don Drapper and fakes his death and takes on the identity Lamont Cranston. The real Cranston globe trots while The Shadow portrays him as a playboy millionaire in NYC. As The Shadow, he is known to blend into the darkness like an agent of the night. He is a highly accomplished detective as well as a master of disguise. He is known to his enemies by his blazing eyes and maniacal laugh that seems to both terrorize and taunt his victims. The Shadows always wears a black slouched fedora as well as a black cloak that is lined with crimson and a black business suit underneath (It was still the 1930s after all).
From 1931-1939, 325 pulp novels were written about him, each a different installment that can be read in any order without prior knowledge (think the James Bond movies). The Shadow was also made into a radio broadcast where they changed his skill set to have “the power to cloud men’s minds, so they could not see him”. They attribute this to his time in East Asia studying various mysticism. The book version however, is what we will be focusing on mostly.
The Shadow was written by various people but predominatley Walter B. Gibson all under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant. Gibson (who was also a professional magician) is the perfect writer for the series. While the books all belong to the crime/mystery genre in tone, his background as a magician helps to explain in great detail a lot of the sleight of hand movements that may allow The Shadow to escape a situation where another author may have just glossed over it. This also helps to ground these situations and paint The Shadow as a much more realistic hero than some others.
Each book is short, maybe 100 pages with about a dozen chapters. Each chapter ends on a cliff hanger that makes it impossible to put the book down. The style of writing is simple and straight forward which lends itself to compulsory reading. Some reprint versions you can find contain the illustrations that originally accompanied the books. This really helps add to the flavor of the time period.
Early on, The Shadow was much more of a Batman type loaner taking matters into his own hands but as the series progressed he establishes a network of agents. These agents are made up of associates of The Shadow. Some are people he has saved, others are former criminals as well as people in public positions that can aid him in his day to day operations. None of these people know anything about the man behind The Shadow; they act as his eyes and ears throughout the city and allow a lot of the groundwork to be set. Many times the books will focus on his agents for a few chapters giving the book a much more crime novel feel. The Shadow is always involved though, perhaps in the background for the first few chapters and then he’ll be front and center at different points throughout. Since it’s not told in the first person this helps to keep upthe mystique and you find yourself looking forward to his impending arrival.
There is something strangely fascinating to have a capable hero take law into his own hands in such a smoothly orchestrated way. To have a criminal about to execute an innocent victim and then The Shadow emerges from the dark to dispense justice (sometimes with twin .45s) and have those criminals wrapped up and waiting as the police arrive and our hero is nowhere to be seen. Yet, his presence is ominously felt; perhaps you saw the flicker of a cape out of the corner of your eye. The characters are all thankful for the intervention but are left feeling uneasy. Readers now-a-days are used to this as a fairly common comic book archetype, but I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read these in the 1930s with nothing else like it.
I had originally intended to review The Shadow book I had just read
But it looks like I got a little carried away. I’ll save that for another time.
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