“Who Knows What Evil Lurks…? The SHADOW Knows!”

Jack Goblin By Jack Goblin, 2nd Nov 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/3nq60dok/
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Crime, Thrillers & Mystery

A retrospective of the American pulp hero the Shadow, the Master of the Night

"The weed of crime bears... bitter fruit!"

The American pulp hero the Shadow started as just a voice; but what a voice.

In 1930, New York publishing house Street and Smith was facing increased competition from other publishers, especially with regard to pulps: Thick magazines printed on extremely cheap wood pulp paper and sold for a dime or quarter. To promote their flagship pulp, Detective Story Magazine, Street and Smith sponsored a radio show featuring readings and adaptions from the magazine and its impressive list of authors, among them Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace. And to introduce the material, the producers decided to have a narrator begin and conclude the show. He was a figure of mystery… authority… power, who they chose to call, “the Shadow”.

Almost from the start this narrator – played first by James LaCurto, but then (and more effectively) by Frank Readick, Jr. – attracted more attention than the readings. People paid attention when the Shadow, in a voice that seemed both omniscient and sinister, intoned, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows!” When he then laughed in a way that gave goosebumps, they were fascinated. They began writing Street and Smith to find out who this ‘Shadow’ was, and were there going to be any stories about him?

This wasn’t exactly the reaction Street and Smith executives had expected. But realizing they had something here, they decided to see what they could do with it. There wasn’t much to work with: The Shadow’s words and laugh, his association with radio and their detective magazine, and the public reaction. Making a general outline – some sort of mysterious detective / crime fighter – they recruited Walter B. Gibson to write the first Shadow book, giving him largely free rein to come up with anything he could.

Gibson was a stage magician, newspaper reporter, and writer who specialized in articles and books on stage magic and magicians, and true crime stories, although he had submitted some detective fiction to Detective Story Magazine. He was a man of considerable imagination, and a powerful sense of the dramatic. Also, a really fast writer and typist. Approximately two weeks after being given the job, Gibson returned to Street and Smith with the first few chapters of a 70,000 word story and a synopsis of the rest to get approval to proceed.

He blew the editors’ socks off.

How to write of a man of mystery about whom nothing is known? By keeping him a mystery, and revealing as little as possible. Rather than focus on the Shadow, Gibson used the magicians’ tricks of misdirection and substitution to make a story in which the character was omnipresent but seldom seen in his true form. And where much of the plot was carried by a proxy hero.

At the start of the book, just as a despondent young man was about to throw himself off a New York bridge into the night-time waters below, he was pulled back with overwhelming strength by a strange figure that was almost part of the darkness. The figure, a hat making his face invisible, offered money, excitement, a chance to make a success of himself, in exchange for absolute obedience and taking great risks. Dazedly, Harry Vincent agreed; and his life became a whirlwind of danger and action.

Over the next few days mysterious messages from what appeared to be a large organization came to him. Unsure what was going on, Harry nevertheless followed instructions, surprising himself with his abilities and resourcefulness – and luck – as he spied on and interfered with what turned out to be a murderous criminal ring. His adventures and efforts sent him traveling from Chinatown to the outskirts of Long Island and all over New York.

Sometimes those adventures went wrong; and when Harry was in danger, or trapped, or on the point of death, suddenly from out of nowhere his benefactor – the Shadow – would appear. Inhumanly quick, strong, skilled, and capable. His face was never seen, being either in shadow or disguised. He could disguise himself as anyone, mimicking looks, voice, gesture, and body shape so well that even close acquaintances and family would be fooled.

Nor was that the end of his abilities. There was no lock he could not open, no wall he could not scale, nowhere he could not go. He spoke foreign languages like a native. He could hide in shadows with a skill that made the most accomplished ninja look like an amateur; anywhere there was darkness, the Shadow might be. He always arrived in the nick of time, fists flying, guns blazing, overwhelming all opposition. Often, he laughed: Laughed in triumph, in mockery, in defiance, in a way that terrified all criminals, and immediately told everyone who they were facing.

His intelligence was superhuman, and – like a chess master or puppeteer - the Shadow directed Vincent and his other agents, taking a hand himself when necessary, until he had learned all he needed to know about the criminal ring and smashed it almost completely. All of this transpired in less than a week.

This, in a story told at top speed, and with massive amounts of atmosphere.

The editors told Gibson to finish the story and start work on the next batch of Shadow novels, he was now the official writer under the house name of Maxwell Grant. The first Shadow pulp came out in April 1931, and the public ate it up. The Shadow was even more wonderful, more astonishing than they had dreamed, and they wanted more… MUCH more. Each new book just seemed to fan the flames of the Shadow’s popularity higher and higher. The demand for Shadow stories was so great that what had originally been a quarterly Shadow magazine was made monthly; then bi-weekly.

And it was still not enough. A radio show started in 1937, and a Shadow comic book and newspaper strip in 1940. There were Shadow movies and serials, and no end of memorabilia. America had embraced the Shadow.

Incredibly, Gibson remained the main (although not the only) writer through all of this, churning out 70,000 word epics every two weeks for most of the next 18 years, as well as collaborating on the Shadow radio show, newspaper strip, and comic. His writing style, imagination, and excellent memory for the imaginary world he’d set up were a very large part of the reason the Shadow was such a hit. Constant promotion and publicity by Street and Smith did not hurt either.

But the real key to the Shadow’s popularity seemed to be that he touched a deep public desire. It was the Depression. It was the end of Prohibition. Gangs ruled in Chicago and other places. People had lost jobs and savings through no fault of their own. Many Americans had little faith in government and the judicial system. Criminals, evil men, the rich, the powerful: They could escape the law through political influence and bribery, or by legal tricky, or by operating behind a mask of respectability, or by running and hiding. But nobody could escape the Shadow. He was incorruptible, unstoppable, apparently omniscient: Retribution personified…a real life Nemesis. He cared nothing for the law, only for justice and people, and he never failed.

Subsequent Shadow books were much like the first. Despite Gibson’s care in keeping the focus off the Shadow and details about him scarce, though, some couldn’t help but emerge, both in the first book and later ones. But were these facts accurate, or deliberate deception on the part of the Shadow or Gibson? People sometimes wound up knowing LESS about the Shadow when they’d read one of his books than before. He had been a WWI flying ace and intelligence agent…or not. The Shadow’s real face was horribly mutilated…or not. The Shadow used the mansion, car, and servants of millionaire Lamont Cranston and looked just like him. Obviously, he WAS Cranston…or not.

In the latter case, DEFINITELY not. At one point the real Lamont Cranston returned home from a long absence overseas to find people insisting he hadn’t been gone at all. As confounding as that was, though, it paled when he encountered a figure who looked just like him. Identifying himself as the Shadow, the figure said Cranston’s identity had been needed in his war against crime, so he’d used his disguise ability to appropriate it while the millionaire was out of the country. He did this not for Cranston’s money, but for his social contacts.

And the Shadow not only expressed no remorse for this epic theft, he calmly told Cranston he had no intention of ending his imposture. So since it would be a problem if TWO Cranstons were around, it would be in the real one’s interests to leave the country again; and stay gone, this time. Naturally Cranston was more than a bit angered by such cheek. But the Shadow was not someone you could argue with, and the next day Cranston resumed his globetrotting. And “Lamont Cranston” remained a man about town, learning things from his friend the Police Commissioner that were most interesting…

That was in the pulps. In the radio series and the movies, with limited time to tell the story, things were greatly simplified. The Shadow WAS Lamont Cranston; none of this doppleganger business. He didn’t slink through shadows, he had the ability to ‘cloud men’s minds’ and become invisible. There was no secret organization, just his girlfriend Margo Lane. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, the radio show was at least as popular as the pulps.

During the 30′s and most of the 40′s the Shadow continued strong; fighting criminals and criminal gangs, super criminals, mad scientists, master spies and master minds, and anyone who threatened the U.S. or committed crimes. He became even more relentless and remorseless as time went on, and his twin .45 automatics cut down bad guys almost beyond number. Others could talk of rehabilitation of criminals; the Shadow practiced extermination.

But after WWII, increasing costs in publishing, and competition from radio, TV, and comics began making pulps unprofitable. Changes were made but they didn’t reverse the decay, and in 1949 Street and Smith’s pulp line – including the Shadow magazine – ceased publication. The Shadow radio show continued for five more years but in 1954, it too came to an end. Changing social tastes had left the Shadow behind.

But unlike most other pulp heroes, he was not forgotten. Indeed the Shadow’s lone wolf, superhuman, anti-hero archetype lives on in Batman, and a few other comic book and popular characters. Most of the American public know of the Shadow, although they may be hazy on details. And irregularly, there are attempts to resurrect the character and make new stories about him in movies or comic books. But these seldom work well, for the Shadow was a creature of his time. Like his times, he’s become an icon of American society and history.

Not bad for just a voice.


The Pulp Net – A discussion of all things Shadow.

The Night Master by Robert Sampson, Pulp Press, 1982


45 Caliber Automatics, Hero, Lamont Cranston, Margo Lane, Maxwell Grant, Pulp, Radio, Shadow, Walter B Gibson

Meet the author

author avatar Jack Goblin
Was born. Haven't died yet. Don't intend to anytime soon.

Thank you much for reading my articles. I hope they brought you pleasure and enlightenment. :)

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
3rd Nov 2013 (#)

great write up Jack...thank you!

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author avatar joyalariwo
4th Nov 2013 (#)

Very Interesting Jack, didn't know much about the shadow, well I guess I do now, thank you for sharing.

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