PIERRE BERTON December 1 1948


PIERRE BERTON December 1 1948



At the flick of a mad idea, stories gush from Thomas P. Kelley—tales of love, horror and the kangs of 1001948 A.D.


NAKED pretty 18-year-old Ann Kempton stood before the bureau mirror in her bedroom, as the flickering rays of a nearby candle cast golden beams on the shapely curves of her body . . . What she did not see was a sinister figure . . . drawing ever closer ... a man with lust in his mind and murder in his heart . . .

At the magazine rack of the nearest cigar store, all hell is breaking loose. Hideous plant men from Venus have attacked the earth and are swarming right off the cover of Gripping Tales. Wide-eyed, buxom blondes, clad only in solitaire rhinestones and wisps of surgical gauze, are in the clutches of brutal, pig-eyed monsters. Private Eyes, hats low over brow, roscoes clutched firmly in right hands, ure pointing the finger of guilt right at you! And, on the uppermost rack, a full-lipped, heavy-lidded brunet in a nightgown and rolled silk stockings is waiting to Confess.

Beneath the gaudy covers of the pulp magazines (which get their name from the fact that the paper appears to have been chewed by wasps) there can be found the modern equivalent of the fairy story, the penny dreadfuls of the Atomic Age. What reader, dipping for the first time into this literary witch’s brew, has not asked, wide-eyed: “Who, in the name of the Sacred Moon of Jupiter, writes all this stuff?”

Part of the answer (if not all of it) can be found in one of the back rooms of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house on the campus of the University of Toronto, in the |>erson of its temporary steward, Thomas Patrick Kelley, a man of prolific output, violent imagination and 30 pseudonyms.

Jesse James leaped through the doorway into the open and was before the surprised men, his gun

blazing. And then six shots rang out in the midnight air with such rapidity as to be almost simultaneous. And then the six men crumpled and fell dead upon the snow— a bullet between the eyes of each of them! . ..

Kelley, an ex-prize fighter, has been writing for the pulps since 1937. His name—or names—have appeared on stories in Weird Tales, Fantastic Adventures, Short Stories, Argosy, Adventure, True Police and run the gamut from Whispered Confessions (“He Loved Every Dollar I Had”) to The People’s Magazine, a religious quarterly (“Peter Cartwright, the Pioneer Parson”).

In the last decade, Kelley has, by his own count, churned out between 2 x/¿ and 3 million words in the form of some 400 short stories, 14 full-length novels and three novel-length poems for children. He has been paid as little as one third of a cent a word, as much as 10 cents a word. In peak times he has made as much as $300 a week and $10,000 a year. In bad times he has scraped by on precious little.

This is a bad time. In the steaming jungles of popular literature, pulp magazines spring up and die as swiftly as mushrooms. High production cost« and a paper shortage have murdered a host of magazines as ruthlessly as Manuel Da Costa, Wolf of the Desert , murdered a swarm of Arabs in one of Kelley’s stories. This and the fact that “I can write good stories but I can’t pick good horses” explains why he is cooking French fries for fraternity men. But it is the only time Kelley has had to supplement his writing with other work since he started. (He had a war job for a while but that was patriotism—not penury.) By midwinter when old magazines begin to reappear under new names, Kelley expects to be on his own once more.

It is doubtful whether the pipe-smoking young men of good old Delta Kappa Epsilon realize that their steward, under the pseudonym of T. P. Monohan, is the author of such stirring historical novels as “Outlaws Ride the Range.” Inside the

paper jacket of this book are advertisements foi other novels: “Fast on the Draw” by Tex Elton “Western-Gun Justice” by Zed Kelly, and “Deadshot Riders” by Rex Hays. All of these authors are Thomas P. Kelley in disguise.

Kelley has written entire issues of Uncanny Tales, Eerie Stories and Recent Detective. Every one of the first person accounts of the tortured course of true love which appeared in a recent issue of Whispered Confessions (“Actual Confessions By Real People”), all the way from “My Bride of Disillusionment” to “I Married a Gambler,” were turned out in about a week by Kelley. Once a reader of Uncanny Tales wrote in to say that although Kelley was getting a lot of praise he thought one Gene Bannerman, another author, was being badly neglected. He thought Bannerman every bit as good as Kelley. So he was. Bannerman was Kelley.

On one occasion a Toronto pulp editor was horrified to find that his magazine was about to go to press 1,000 words short of being full. It was midnight, but Kelley was on hand. He promptly scribbled a short story called “I’ll Meet You in the Beyond” on the backs of three envelopes. It was exactly 1,000 words long.

Another time, a harassed editor, his hungry presses screaming for fodder and the deadline fast approaching, asked Kelley to sit down and write a story on the spot. “What shall I write?” asked Kelley. “Write: T Was a Love Slave,’ ” said the editor. Kelley wrote, while copy boys tore the manuscript from his typewriter and rushed it into print. Pretty soon the editor shouted that that was enough. Kelley stopped writing, picked up his cheque and left.

I was a very pretty girl, in all truth I can say that. Some five feet four inches in height, with wavy auburn hair and long-lashed brown eyes. I had an unusually shapely figure and the crisp freshness of youth. And l must

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admit that there was something about the laughing, handsome and reckless Drake Mallory that fascinated me . . .

Kelley looks as Irish as his name, in all truth one can say that. At 39, he has black brows, a bullet head and a boxer’s nose. When Kelley describes the plot of one of his stories his eyes light up, his brow furrows and his face takes on a demonical look. As the. plot progresses, Kelley becomes more and more excited, waving his arms, slamming his fist on the table, crouching and whirling, acting out each of his characters as he talks. This is not surprising when you consider that, in his youth, Kelley played every male part in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from Topsy to Simon Legree, while traveling with his father’s medicine show.

Kelley’s father, from Newboro, Ont., was known as “Old Doc Kelley” the length and breadth of the continent. His medicine show was advertised as “The Majestic Tour of the Inimitable Exponent of Irish Mirth and Medley.” It included Kelley’s Dixie Cotton Pickers and Kelley’s Big American Lady Minstrels and was used to promote the sale of cure-alls of the order of The Banyan, Tiger Salve and Healing Oil. Young Kelley, besides playing Uncle Tom, also doubled on violin and piano

and was straight man for the comedians.

Despite all this, Kelley managed to get in his schooling (at the age of 10 he sold an essay about a huge bear to a rich schoolmate for a nickel) and take two years at the University of Notre Dame. He toured the southern U. S. for seven years as a prize fighter, winning no titles, but taking part in 107 fights and scoring, according to his own claims, 45 knockouts. Then he quit the ring and came back to Canada. The depression and his imagination goaded him into becoming a writer.

My name is Na-Ela. It was in the sunken city of Lothar some two thousand years ago that I first opened my eyes to that weird and watery world ruled by my father NaHarus the Just—beloved and last king of the Tarkamites . . .

Kelley, hungry and out of work, was walking past a millinery shop of Toronto’s Yonge Street when something about the hats, stuck on little model heads, made him pause.

“Heads, I thought. No bodies!” said Kelley, describing the incident later. “Heads without bodies! That was ‘The Last Pharaoh,’ my first story—he was 3,400 years without a body. They kept his head alive on the Bowl of Life Eternal. His body had turned to dust eons ago. It was supposed to be strangely anointed by the old Egyptian physician Sarksas—he

was going to fix the head back on the body after so the Pharaoh’d be able to live forever—but just then the Kvksos attacked and sent an arrow through old Sarksas’ heart. The Pharaoh—he and his wicked paramour Atma (she’s the only one of the lot 1 let live, incidentally, I don’t know why)—they lived on through the centuries, just a couple of heads seeking the right bodies—ones with the blood of royal Egypt flowing through their veins. Weird? Sure. But 1 made it plausible.”

Kelley had a hard time figuring out how to kill off the Pharaoh and end the story: “I was living in a filthy little

hotel at the time. I was plastering the kitchen, when l noticed the place was swarming with rats. So—I got it! I had the Pharaoh hung head downward n a rat pit. They ate him up.”

He wrote the story in longhand and sent it in to Weird Tales which promptly bought it for $500. (It was 67,000 words long.)

“I tell you I never got a sock in the ring like 1 got when that letter of acceptance came,” Kelley says. “I was hit so hard 1 went down on one knee.”

From that moment, Thomas P. Kelley was a professional writer.

“The champagne is chilled, the supper snack ready, sir.” Hendricks, the butler, personified one in manner, looks, dress and speech.

Allen Bedford Marshall III turned. In his early thirties, with wealth and a good social background. Allen Bedford Marshall III was looked upon by the mothers of “the four hundred” who had marriageable daughters themselves as “a good catch”—a term now given added emphasis by his recent inheriting of some six million dollars.

“Very good, Hendricks,” he answered. “Miss La Verne will arrive presently.”

At first, Kelley stuck to weird, fantastic tales, usually with Egyptian backgrounds. “I guess I know more about Cleopatra than any living man,” he says. “I’ve read Emil Ludwig’s book, ‘The Nile,’ four times.”

Often he started a story without any idea how it would end.

“Take in Chapter Six of ‘I Found Cleopatra,’ just after Manuel Da Costa, the Wolf of the Desert, had attacked the oasis with his thousands of villainous Arabs to carry off the Midnight Lady, who’s really Cleopatra in disguise. I have him leave Brian O’Hara, the hero, for dead. Then I write: ‘Slowly, I got to my feet, hardly knowing where I was or what I’d do next.’ Well, you know, I didn’t actually know what he would do next. Had no idea at all.”

When Kelley exhausted the past, he decided to move his locales into the future, on the theory that everybody knew all about the present. “I decided as long as I was jumping into the future I might as well take a good jump, so I wrote ‘A Million Years in the Future.’ It was only the pleadings of my wife that stopped me from making it a billion years.”

Kelley’s wife, Ethel, takes a lively and personal interest in his stories. “Ethel helps a lot,” Kelley says. “In that ‘Million Years’ story I had them on this planet riding strange beasts. I couldn’t figure out what to call the beasts. ‘Call them kangs,’ Ethel says. ‘By gad,’ I says, ‘I will.’ Kangs. The named fitted exactly.”

Kelley and his wife often lie in bed at nights figuring out plots. Kelley usually writes a story by “talking it” to his wife. She sits at the typewriter as he walks about dictating. However, he writes his “really good stuff” in longhand himself.

He has met some challenges in his day.

“Once.a magazine asked me to write a story called “The Greatest Monster,” he recalled recently. “Greatest, mind you. That meant there could be nothing bigger. Now, say I wrote about a monster 10 miles high. Some guy would come along and write about one 20 miles high. There was a poser! I had to figure out a monster so big there can be nothing bigger. Well, there was only one answer, of course: I made the earth, itself, the monster. It was like a huge snake, see, curled up like an armadillo. It. had already eaten a couple of its moons. Now it’s waking up, with the war and the bombs and everything. I’ve never read about a bigger monster. If I do, then I’ll have to try again. I’ll make the planet Jupiter into a monster.”

The kiss went down to my toes in a breathless, delicious shock. My knees knew an amazing weakness and my lips trembled as I returned the kiss. I'd been kissed a number of times before by any number of good-looking, eligible young men, but I'd never known lips like his .. .

Inevitably, Kelley was drawn into the vortex of the true detective story and the real confession tale. A host of Canadian pulps had sprung up during the war and were selling at hot-cake speed to servicemen and others traveling about the country.

“They’ll call you up just like I’d say to you, ‘Go out and get a pound of hamburger,’ and ask for three confessions and four detectives by the end of the week,” Kelley reports. “Then they’ll tell me how many they want sexy, how many nonsexy and I turn ’em out.”

For the true detective stories, he has a few newspaper clippings to go on and his imagination. He once wrote an 8,000-word true detective based on a 300-word clipping. For the confession stories, he needs only his imagination.

“I’m good on characters,” Kelley says. “Some guys, if they want to say a girl’s beautiful, they’ll write a 200word paragraph of straight description. I don’t do it like that. I sneak it in in little bits. One time I might mention in passing that she has thighs like pillars of white ivory, then, later on, I’ll sneak in the fact that her hightipped breasts look like young pomegranates.

“I’m starting a detective yarn now. Who am I having the killer? A murdering fiend? No! A little defenseless old woman. That makes it more horrible.

“Say I want to describe a horrible, fiendish monster with slavering jaws and wild eyes: I wouldn’t describe it

at all! Instead I’d say it was so horrible I couldn’t describe it.

“And here’s another tip. Have the detective the murderer. That always fools ’em. I’ve done that several times.”

Kelley admits that he has never yet made the reader the murderer, but he once wrote a story in which the author was murdered.

As for confession stories, he’s not very 'proud of them. “Sickening! Sickening!” he says. “When they phone me up asking me for some more I plead with them not to give me any. ‘No! No!’ I say. ‘Make it all detective stories.’ But it’s never any use.” Often Kelley takes his weekly output of detective and confession stories down to an editor and gets them accepted without anyone reading them.

She could not help but admire the utter fearlessness of the man advancing up the road in that ghostly predawn light and so recklessly exposing himself to the gunfire of a murderer and racketeer

. . . But if she uias hoping that all this might end in romance, she was doomed to disappointment. “Knuckles” Kane lived only for adventure and war on the underworld . . .

Speed is a pulp writer’s stock in trade. You have to be prolific, at half a cent a word, to pay for the week’s groceries. Kelley wrote one 15,000 word novelette, “City of the Centaurs,” in one day. He wrote “The Tapestry Triangle,” a 40,000-word paper-covered hook which was published in Toronto and sold in England, in one week. He was paid a flat $150 for it.

His 60,000-word novels take him 10 days to two weeks but he gets as high as $1,000 for them. In 1940 he supplied plots for 52 half-hour radio plays. (Somebody else wrote the actual scripts.) Kelley visited the radio station once every two weeks to dictate the plots. He’d figure out the first plot during a seven-minute streetcar ride, transfer to a second streetcar and have his second plot figured out by the time he reached the studio.

Kelley was recently asked which was his most fantastic story. He raced rapidly through half a dozen of his wildest plots, finally settling on one called “The Island of Death.”

“You can’t have anything more fantastic than that, where I have Death a beautiful woman on an island,” said Kelley. “You know where her lover came from? She’d first met him two billion years before when he was shot down from a planet as a seed and it grew up in the shape of a person. You can’t get anything more fantastic than that. Look at the Bubbling Grey Sea, the Brain of the Earth. Look at the Board of Life—I had them all in that story. The Board of Life, that was a huge, gigantic hoard on the side of a black mountain—oh, a tremendous mountain, it had the Alps beat off the map. On this mountain there’s a huge board with a billion little pin points of light. Each one of those lights is a human life. When one goes out—pop! —that’s somebody dying. That was "The Island of Death.” It was wellliked. Yes, they liked that one.”

Peter Cartwright never quailed before any man. In a flash he seized the bully’s hand, brought his great strength into play with a vicelike grip that forced the other, screaming, to his knees. Peter then made the man pick up his Bible and return it to him . . .

Aside from his own work, and the historical research he sometimes finds it necessary to do, Kelley does little reading. “I’m a great believer in Edgar Rice Burroughs,” he says. “Know what he says? ‘Read nothing. Learn nothing.’ Well, Burroughs did all right.”

Ultimately, Kelley has his eyes on Hollywood. “1 have seven plots-—seven wonderful plots,” he says. “Unusual— distinctive. I can say, in all truth, that none of them lias ever been used before.”

One of the plots involves the unrequited love of a Siamese twin for a girl who makes her living putting her head in a lion’s mouth. There's a subplot involving a professional dwarf suddenly faced with the tragedy of finding that he’s starting to grow again. Kelley hopes to have Peter Lorre play the part of both Siamese twins. “They are joined at the waist,” he explains. “Gad— can’t you just see him?”

Meanwhile, Kelley continues to churn it out in an unending stream. He is spurred on by the fact that he has always sold everything he has written, with one exception—a story of Roosevelt’s reincarnation within the body of a crooked U. S. president , 400 years

into the future. Roosevelt was alive at the time and the editor thought the story might be in poor taste. Kelley burned the 70,000-word manuscript in disgust. Shortly after, the editor wrote that he’d decided it wasn’t in poor taste after all. Aside from this regrettable loss, there is no evidence that the presses won’t continue to gobble Kelley stories as long as his imagination and stamina hold out.

As part of the exhaustive research that went into the preparation of this article, it became necessary to challenge Kelley to make up a story on the spot. He rose to the occasion beautifully, beginning without hesitation:

“All right, there’s this big dance going on, see, and there’s this escaped criminal, a man with a price on his head, hiding among the dancers. Suddenly he meets this beautiful girl and

he’s so struck by her he throws caution to the winds. Instinctively he senses there’s something strange, something different about her. He’s fascinated. He pursues her. Then she turns to him and says, T must leave now.’ ‘But, please—give me some clue as to where you live,’ the escaped criminal pleads. Suddenly the midnight hour strikes and the girl starts to run down the stairs . .

Thomas P. Kelley crouched forward, eyes alight, arms gesticulating, words worth upward of half a cent each pouring from him, as he molded his own particular version of the age-old pulp story of Cinderella.

And the cloven-hoofed Wolves of Whorra were advancing to the attack, led by nine nude women who had been dead for a million years! iy