Gerald Kersh (TSF #11)

This was a tough one, folks. When choosing the sub­jects for this column, I try to select authors whose work is related to the issue’s theme, if there is one. With dark suspense though, finding an appropriate author to profile proved to be a problem.

For one thing, dark suspense as an “official publish­ing pigeonhole” is a new creature; virtually everyone who’s been writing in this vein in the last few yean is still writing and is very visible.

The next idea, of course, was to look at the sub­genre’s forefathers, writers of “dark mysteries* from the ’40s and ’50s. The problem here is that the only widely-known names—such as Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, Frederic Brown, and James Cain—are very well-known, and there’s really no mystery as to what the hell ever happened to them: they’re dead, books have been written about each, and movies have been made based upon their work (except for Brown).

The next step, then, s was to look for other, lesser-known but still highly-regarded authors from the same time period. There’s no shortage of writers that fall into this category, but most,’ if not all, will be unfamiliar names to honor fans, thereby making the more appropri­ate name of this column Who The Hell Is…?, rather than What The Hell Ever Happened To…?.

So, what to do…

After considering and rejecting many candidates (William Campbell Gault, Robert Colby, Charles Williams, Harry Whittington, Charles Willeford, Henry Slesar, Stanley Ellin, Hilda Lawrence, Geoffrey Household, L.P. Davies, H.F. Heard, William March, Janet Caird, William Hallahan, John Franklin Bardin…whew!), I decided to profile Gerald Kersh, a prolific and talented writer of various bizarre mys­tery and horror tales. So, on to our profile:

Gerald is dead.

The End.

Just kidding.

Actually, Gerald is dead, but there’s much more to the story than that Kersh’s name is probably familiar to many honor fans because of his outstanding short story “Men Without Bones,* which has been anthologized many times over. For those unfamiliar with the tide, it involves the discovery of some loathsome, invertebrate humanoid creatures in the jungles of South America, and a further discovery about the nature of us humans. It also concludes with one of the all-time great last lines.

Regardless, Kersh’s career encompassed far more than just this one notable story; in fact, the sheer num­bers are somewhat staggering: during his career, Kersh produced more than 3,000 short stories, over 20 novels, and roughly 5,000 magazine articles.

Equally amazing are the details of the author’s life. At the tender age of four, Kersh was declared dead of lung congestion. Quite a stir was created when, during the funeral, young Kersh regained consciousness and sat up in his coffin. Nor would this episode be Kersh’s only brush with death. While serving as a war correspondent in London during World War II, he was buried alive three different times by enemy bombs. A large, burly man, Kersh also counted nightclub bouncer and professional wrestler among his many colorful occupations.

The author published his first novel, Jews Without Jehovah (1934) while still in his mid-’20s, but the book was quickly with­drawn from circulation to avoid libel law­suits. Kersh soon developed his own distinc­tive style and favorite subject matter, focus­ing on the sordid underside of London soci­ety—the gamblers, hustlers, prostitutes, pimps, psychopathic killers, drug dealers, and sundry bohemians.!1]

Prelude To A Certain Midnight (1947) concerns the rape and murder of an eleven- year-old girl in a seamy section of London. Clock Without Hands (1946) is a more pedes­trian murder mystery, as the killer of a ragged gigolo is ultimately revealed to be a Caspar Milquetoast sort—so meek-and mild, in fact, that no one believes his confession.

The significant theme expressed in Clock Without Hands is that of the strong male pitted against the weak male. Proud of his unusual physical strength, ferocious appearance, and fighting ability, Kersh had a penchant for describing fierce tough-guy types and powerful, aggressive individuals of either sex, as evident in his aptly-titled The Weak And The Strong (1945).

The Great Wash (1953; U.S. title The Secret Masters) is perhaps Kersh’s finest nov­el. Fascinated by the atomic bomb, the author crafted this thriller of global intrigue, concerning a plot to explode sili­con bombs at various strategic underwater locations, resulting in massive tidal waves which would flood the world’s major population centers. A newspaper writer and his mystery novelist friend stum­ble onto this nefarious plot and risk their lives to foil it.

Despite his notable accomplishments at novel length, Kersh’s best work was likely In short story form. Besides the aforementioned “Men Without Bones,” the author also produced such memorable tales as “The Queen Of Pig Island,” in which a beautiful girl with nei­ther arms nor legs is the ruler of an island on which a fierce giant and two clever midgets fight for her affection; “What Ever Happened To Corporal Cuckoo?,” concern­ing a soldier who gains immortality through a fortuitous accident, and goes on to battle his way across four cen­turies; “The Oxoxoco Bottle,” which reveals what really happened to Ambrose Bierce when he disappeared In Mexico in 1914.

Born in England in 1911, Kersh was married three times, received a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award in 1957, and became a U.S. citizen in 1959. He died in Middletown, NY, on November 5, 1968, at the age of 57. Although Kersh left no small lega­cy of fiction behind, I for one wouldn’t have minded seeing even more stories flow from his talented pen. Although the majority of Kersh’s fiction is long out of print, I highly recommend tracking down whatever you can of the author’s work.

Some information courtesy of Samuel L Bellman, in Critical Survey Of Mystery And Detective Fiction, Magill (1983) 

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