How far the mighty have fallen! And I’m not talking about King Kong toppling off the summit of the Empire State Building. I’m referring to the afterlife of the great British novelist Edgar Wallace.
No one climbed higher than Wallace in the literary world of the 1920s. At one point his publisher estimated that one out of every four fiction books sold in England came from his pen. His biographer Neil Clark tells us that no 20th century author had more stories turned into films. His fans crossed all boundaries and borders, and included Clark Gable, King George V and Adolf Hitler (who allegedly owned a complete set of Wallace’s crime stories). Some 50 films based on his stories were made in Germany alone!
His output was as prodigious as his fame. When Wallace died at age 1956, he left behind more than 170 books. At the high point of his career, he wrote faster than his fans could read. During the course of 1924 and 1925, he released 18 novels, but in 1926 he released another 18 in just 12 months. Surely supply had now exceeded demand? Yet Wallace never saturated the market, at least not during his lifetime. By one estimate, he eventually sold 300 million copies of his books!
And today? Almost everything Edgar Wallace wrote is out-of-print. His celebrated novel The Green Archer, which spawned two popular movie serials, doesn’t even rank among the top 2 million bestselling books on Amazon. Alongside Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and John Buchan, Wallace deserves credit for inventing the modern British thriller, but even dedicated fans of the genre won’t recognize his name.
I don’t expect a Wallace revival any time soon, and for the simplest reason of all. Readers don’t have a clue where to start in the huge stack of books he left behind. He was, in the apt words of one critic, "The Man Who Wrote Too Much."
Yet there’s one thing on Wallace’s resume that everbody knows about: King Kong. At the very end of his life, the prolific English storyteller brought his talents to Hollywood. His last major project was, in his words, a "big animal play" he wrote for director Merian C. Cooper, a World War I hero turned to movie-making.
Sad to say, this towering achievement of Wallace’s career has been disputed by posterity. Wallace didn't live long enough to see the release of King Kong, and Cooper later tried to take credit for the story. "Not one single scene, nor line of dialogue in King Kong was contributed by him," the former aviator insisted. But Wallace’s surviving 110-page film treatment puts the lie to that claim. In fact, all the most memorable ingredients of the story—from the “Beauty and the Beast” angle to the climb atop the Empire State Building —came from Edgar Wallace.
Wallace never got the chance to write the novelization of King Kong, but only because he died too soon. That responsibility fell to Delos Lovelace, a hack writer who didn't do justice to Wallace’s story. The end result is that the work that should have immortalized Edgar Wallace's reputation, and perhaps inspired readers to check out his other books, dilutes his legacy. Indeed, he must share credit for the one novel that he would have made much better on his own.
You probably know the story. Not many plots from the early 1930s are still familiar to media-drenched pop culture fans in the current day, but the big ape that climbed to the top of the tallest building in New York has achieved mythic status. The film has been remade every generation, and two more reboots are in the works as I write. King Kong has also spawned comic books, toys, board and video games, a musical, a Japanese anime series, and a theme park ride. Oh, yes, and a lot of rip-offs (anyone want to play some Donkey Kong?). Given all this, how can you not know the story?
But for those of you who have been hiding on someplace even more remote than Skull Island for the last 80 years, here’s a quick summary. Moviemaker Carl Denham heads off with cast a crew to an island somewhere to the west of Sumatra. Here he hopes to film an adventure movie with actress Ann Darrow, and maybe get footage of the mysterious creature Kong, rumored to live there. But Denham gets more than he bargained for—not just the gigantic ape, but a host of other prehistoric creatures. Kong takes a fancy to Ann Darrow, and carries her off to his mountain lair. Twelve crew members are killed in the pursuit, but Denham and his formidable first mate Jack Driscoll manage to rescue Darrow and capture King Kong.
They bring him back to New York for display as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But he escapes during his Broadway debut, abducts Darrow again, carrying her to the top of the Empire State Building. Military planes shoot him down from the summit of the skyscraper, but not before he puts down the actress who lured him to his doom. When a police officer praises the aviators who killed King Kong, Denham demurs in the final lines of the story: “It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
That’s a gripping story, whether told on film or in print. And if Wallace had lived, the novelization of the film script would probably rank as one of the great horror classics of the era. Alas, Delos Lovelace’s efforts did not do justice to the majesty of tale—or to the rich psychological currents implicit in Wallace's plot. The spark of genius behind King Kong was the notion that this mammoth ape could be a sympathetic leading man. The folks who gave us Godzilla or Jurassic Park weren't capable of that leap of the imagination. And when King Kong is reaching out for the pestering planes trying to shoot him down from the Empire State Building, I suspect that somewhere in the rapidly-beating hearts of the excited audience members is the hope that beast will prevail over man-made machine. After all, as the adage goes: All the world loves a lover.
But the novel is clumsy, written without poetry or grace, and terribly lopsided. While I was approaching the end of the book, I even wondered whether I hadn’t been given a faulty edition. I was almost finished, and only 25 pages remained, but the story was still dealing with the pursuit of Kong on Skull Island. Could the novelist really finish that episode, bring King Kong to New York, put him on display on Broadway, follow his escape, climb and tragic fall in the few pages left?
As it turned out, that’s exactly what Lovelace does. The slow pacing of the early chapters is now thrown aside, and the most memorable scenes in the entire story are tossed off in a few paragraphs. This is something I expect from an amateur author, who finds that the word count is running too high, so the ending is rushed and trivialized.
And even when Lovelace slows down for description, he commits high school level errors—for example, check out the glaring mismatch between subject and modifying clause in this sentence:
"Monstrous beyond conception, as hairy as any of the simian creatures of an African jungle whom he resembled in all but size, the fact that he picked his way with a slow almost human caution, made him all the more incredible"
But even if you fixed the grammatical error here, you’re still left the "incredible," "monstrous beyond conception" clichés.
I am left hoping that some more skilled author will do a remake of the book, just as directors have remade the film version of King Kong. In the meantime, if you want to read a great book version of a horror movie, stick with Dracula and Frankenstein. Those novels do not disappoint. As for the mighty Kong, he may tower over the other film villains just as he rose above the Manhattan skyline in his shining moment; but— alas!—his book never gets off the ground.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.
Publication Date: August 28, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. Ted Gioia