November 4 story: The Dreadful Writer, Part I

This is the full interview with the British-American writer James L. Cunningham. It first appeared on All-Men’s Adventure Magazine in 1935. The original interview was half as long and its most “juicy” aspects had been cut off, probably out of fear of upsetting the moral authorities that back then were keeping a close eye on this kind of magazines. The writer died later that year from cancer, which could explain his strangely forthcoming and open answers. After Monroe Webster, the editor and interviewer, died in 1965, the original interview with lines marking the parts to cut out was found among his papers.


Webster: All our readers already know you, but there’s still very little about your personal life that is known. Would you care to tell us a few things about you?

Cunningham: Sure. I was born in Loughton, near London, in 1871. My father was a cobbler and my grandfather had been an artillery officer who had fought in Waterloo.

W: You followed your grandfather tradition, right?

C: Yes, although joining the army was an offhand decision. I had some romantic views of the army and war, like almost all lads my age, but that was it. I simply ended up there because my best friend joined the army so I followed him.

W: And you began writing around that time, correct? Many people know you for your strange moniker, the Dreadful Writer. You got it around that time, isn’t it?

C: Yes, in the late 90s, when I began publishing stories in the magazines then known as the penny dreadfuls. A writer and critic, William Edwards, read one of my yarns and commented that “it is not only that these stories are rightfully called penny dreadfuls, but we should call their authors dreadful writers too.” That wasn’t aimed specifically at me, although it was my story that prompted him. What people don’t know is that a few months later, Edwards, who was an old-fashioned (and literally quite old) gentleman, wrote me an amusing apology where he told me my story was the first dreadful he had ever read and that if he had read the others first, he would have defended me.

W: Ha! Well, but you embraced the nickname anyway.

C: Yes, it was a great title. Those in the business were envious of it, actually. After all, one thing is to be called ‘a dreadful writer’ and another completely different is to be ‘the Dreadful Writer.’

W: But you left the British Islands soon, at the peak of your popularity. Why? Not that I’m complaining since you came to the United States, but it’s still a mystery.

C: The answer should be obvious – it wasn’t really the peak of my popularity, or rather, I was widely known, as a figure, but not widely read. If I’m remembered a lot from those days if because I was, again, THE dreadful writer, but my output actually decreased. Besides, the dreadfuls were under attack from many sides, and my relationship with Hansworths’ Halfpenny Dreadfuls, an attempt to sanitize these popular magazines, went sour, for many reason. Personal, artistic, money, and so on.

W: Interesting. To go back to your origins, how or why did you start writing? Most writers I know were voracious readers.

C: I wasn’t, although compared to my friends, all of them from poor working-class families, yes, I guess I almost looked like an intellectual. If there’s any reason to be for my vocation to be found in my youth, I guess my father is to blame. He had considerable stacks of old blue books, which were like the granddads of the dreadfuls, the dime novels, and even the pulps, and I read them almost until they fell apart. Some were quite bad, mind you, and most were blatant or hacked copies of old Gothic novels, but were entertaining enough. Some people have said the darker tone in my stories comes from my military experience, and I guess there’s some truth to that, but I suspect it really comes from those novels of bandits, vampires, ghouls, assassins, and other unsavoury villains.

W: Naturally, I have to ask you about it: your military years. You started writing war stories, true-stories, as the magazines announced them, but how true were they? Some of them were set on wars you didn’t even fight.

C: Oh, of course, they were ‘true-stories’, as true as the ‘true-crime’ novels. Still, they were true in a sense… All of them had nuggets of truth, something I had either seen or someone who had personally seen it had told it to me. I changed everything else, the setting, the time, the nation, the war, the names; I made up the villains, their mischievous and fantastic plots, and so forth. But there was always an element of truth in there.

W: Such as?

C: Their deaths, usually.

W: Their deaths? Interesting of you to say that because I was going to ask you about that. Your stories are known for their visceral realism…

C: Visceral is a very apt word. I have a whole drawer dedicated solely for fan letters written by medical students. Apparently, I’m very popular among doctors, nurses, and surgeons.

W: And you have also been accused of being a pernicious influence on young minds.

C: True, but that was already said about the blue books. I still remember when the French novels were supposed to pervert our chaste British girls and lead them to the brothels! I pay little attention to such things, and in fact, I have mostly managed to avoid such controversies here in America.

W: You believe this may have something to do with our national character?

C: Perhaps, but not in the sense I think you mean. It’s not that there aren’t book burners over here, I have been told that the late Comstock hated me, but they are, well, less intelligent. Very outspoken and belligerent, sectarian even, but not that sharp. Here they focus more on the superficial, the seamy gloss of the crime pulps, and it seems that as long as I avoid grisly covers and ‘spicy’ pulps, I can get away with a lot. And I don’t (and can’t, I’m quite old-fashioned about that) write for the girly pulps, so I’m safe about the second point.

W: So, about the violence in your stories…

C: It’s there, but it’s almost scientific, clinical, which I guess explains my reputations among the medical profession.

W: So that’s where the “true-story” of your stories come from? The injuries?

C: You seem disappointed. But yes, that’s a big chunk of it.

W: It’s an odd thing to focus on.

C: Well, you see, I saw a lot of death during the war. I know other soldiers who write, and for them it is the opposite, but I believe that softening that act, the deadly strike, to tone it down, is almost… immoral, a disservice, even an insult to the dead. It’s exactly that what first got me in trouble in Britan, when a popular Anglican rector denounced me for my “violent and truculent words.” And that’s the curious thing, which goes back to why I believe the British censors are smarter, when I talked to him I was able to discover what really offended him about my work.

W: And what was that?

C: That I gave no privilege or exception to the villains when they were harmed or even killed. A blow to a villain or a saint, as he said, were equally grisly, with no regards to their moral status. I believe he said my writing was just about “breaking bodies.” Basically, he was angry that my villains didn’t just drop dead, clean and easy, like an obstacle being removed. Luckily for me, this a point too suble for many, so I have managed to avoid similar charges.

TO BE CONTINUED

2 thoughts on “November 4 story: The Dreadful Writer, Part I

  1. Pingback: November 7 story: The Dreadful Writer, Part II – Emperor's Notepad

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