IN New York there are half a dozen dime novel factories; in London there is an equal number. Much of the time of these publishers is occupied in cutting the titles off their rivals’ productions and pasting new ones on after a few names and situations have been changed. After a certain number of years, youth having outgrown itself—and a new reading generation arisen—the old novels are picked up, rehashed, and reproduced with new illustrations. It would be utterly impossible, of course, to turn out original matter year after year at the rate of one million copies (representing ten to twenty libraries) per factory per week.
It is necessary, however, to invent every month or two a new series of thrillers, which, combining the three best productions of a rival factory, perhaps, may pass among boys as something comparatively novel. As the manager of one of the country’s biggest nickel-horror factories once said to me :
“The public can be fooled most of the time, but the small boy ?— Not all of the time.”
This brings me to the men who direct this system of mutual piracy and co-operative humbug. Before I became a dime novel writer, I had conceived such men as something long-haired, unshaven, and breathing of ambrosia. To my surprise I found that the directors of the dime novel industry were shrewd business men, who regarded their calling with a gravity that provoked the mirth of those who had come in from the fresh air.
The novice, however, soon falls under the spell—that mystic influence which sends boys to the Rockies armed to the teeth and gravely cocking their pistols at every turn of the road. Author, publisher, and boy reader—all live in a world that is a distorted creation.
Here is an example of this most ludicrous gravity on the part of the publishers and writers of dime novels. We have heard too much about the boys. Two weeks after I had been hired as “the author of ‘Slick Parker,’ ‘Old Wide Brim,’ ‘Dauntless Dan,’" and other weekly productions I was called into conference with the manager of the thriller department and the head of the firm.
It was a solemn meeting. “Old Wide Brim” had fallen off in circulation. From 50,000 per week it had dropped to 16,000. “Slick Parker” was not too good, either. They both needed originality. The brains that had produced them for fifty-two weeks each year wanted oiling. In fact, a New Brain was needed. The old one, worn out, would be discarded. I was the proposed new victim of the factory mills.
“We’ll take the two great detectives,” said the head of the firm, gloomily, “and put them into one library for a bit. We’ll kill the ‘Wide Brim’ library, but we can’t kill the hero right away. Put Slick Parker and Old Wide Brim on the same case, and—and—well, what have you to suggest ?”
The manager of the thriller department and the New Brain looked at one another dizzily. Then the wheels began to work. Yes—that was the idea ! Splendid ! We would have the title made right away : “Slick Parker’s Ally ; or, Two Great Sleuths on the Same Case.” Good ! And for a front illustration. Ha ! (It was the perspiring manager who ejaculated :)
“They get on the same trail, not knowing about each other—meet at climax in dark room—possibly trapdoor or sewer. They grapple—fight to the death. Dead-lock. Then a light or a familiar ejaculation. ‘You here—Slick Parker !’ ‘Old Wide Brim, by all that’s holy !’ ”
“Mmm, very good,” said the head of the firm, thoughtfully. “But don’t you think ‘You here’ is a little worked out ? You might have the villians who trapped them enjoy the joke of their not knowing each other, and laugh when they hear the two great detectives fighting one another. Mmm! But you must be careful not to make fun of your heroes. They must win, you know—they must win."
“You—you might have the villains” I ventured, “believe the detectives have killed each other. Then the villains go away, after which the detectives escape.”
“The villains wouldn’t do anything so careless unless they saw the corpses !” snapped the manager.
“Tut ! tut !” said the head of the firm. “The young man is right. It is—ahem !—upon the small errors of life that the great events—ahem ! — are based.”
Something gave way in my throat. Next minute I was conscious of having giggled, and that I presented an embarrassed face to two aggrieved ones.
“What’s the matter ?” asked the manager severely, while the head of the firm stared disapproval.
“It’s—it’s rather f-funny—in—in a way,” I stammered.
“Y-yes,” said the manager doubtfully, “it has a humorous side—if you look at it that way. But you must —you will learn to take it seriously.”
“Of course—of course,” murmured the man who had made millions out of the small boy. “You can get to work on the combined library. You have an order for three in advance. You can invent the other two titles and central ideas for illustration before you go. And please, Mr. Manager, write to Mr. Q. a reprimand. I noticed in last week’s issue ol ‘Prairie Pete’ that he made his Indians bite the dust. I have repeatedly told you that I object to Indians biting the dust. Let them fall with a scream, but I will NOT have them bite the dust !”
The men who write dime novels and nickel horrors are very often newspapermen. But the ranks change every month. Like soldiers on the battlefield, the writers succumb to various causes. Some refuse to be serious ; some are too serious ; some have not the requisite inventive ability, and some fall by the wayside. For this latter reason a verbal contract is often made with the author for three novels at once. This keeps him working steadily for two weeks ( ! ) that he may get his money ; otherwise, and not improbably, he may take a holiday after one novel is written and a check received.
There are a few veterans who survive the ordeal of continued production, but even they break down at intervals. Then a New Brain is introduced and worked out, while the veteran lies fallow. When the New Brain is used up he is “suspended” for some triviality—such as a grammatical error ! Then the veteran is sent for. He is given a check in part payment for three novels to be delivered before the balance shall be forthcoming. He works on for a time, then breaks down again, and either another New Brain is discovered or an old one has to be patched up.
There are exceptions to this rule, however. I personally know men who make a substantial income out of the business of writing dime novels, and one or two who, after years, do not show the strain which such work must entail. Theirs, however, is the mechanical genius, which moves as regularly as a clock ticks and wears as long.
For each novel a writer is paid $40. For each borrowing, stealing, or manipulation of another man’s work half price is paid. When a “library’s” circulation goes up—as often happens when a New Brain is captured — the writer may have his pay raised to $50 per novel.
I know one remarkable veteran who is coaxed out of the Bowery in an emergency with the inducement of $100 a novel. He is the only man who can turn out a certain brand of detective fiction and keep that “library’s” circulation steady. His work never varies a degree from his own standard, with the result that he goes on like Tennyson’s brook. He wrote these detective stories for our fathers ; he may write them for our sons.
The writer, poorly paid as he is for each 20,000-word novel, has methods of his own for beating the factory. Personally I confess that I never wrote more than 16,000 words to a novel, but my sentences and paragraphs were broken in a way that defied count. I give an example here of the system which was employed by myself and others to beat the thirty-two pages of the nickel novel.
A novice, full of a clear conscience and a desire to give his employers a bookful, if nothing else, would record an event in this manner :
“We are pursued by Broncho Bill,” Red Dave suddenly gasped.
“Broncho Bill !” hissed Shang Martin. “I’ll get squar’ with that man yet.”
Still fleeing for their lives, they suddenly came upon a strange hut, through the door of which they unceremoniously burst. Inside a strange sight awaited them.
This, trashy as it is, would break the heart of a veteran. What a shameful ignorance of the elasticity of words ! What a disgraceful saving of valuable space ! This is how the veteran would write the same thing : “Curses !” gasped Red Dave suddenly.
“What is it ?” Shang Martin asked quickly.
“We are pursued.”
“What ! Pursued? ”
“Yes ; curse the luck !”
“Who is it ?”
“I know him.”
“You do ?”
“Yes. Broncho Bill !”
“Broncho Bill !” Shang Martin almost shrieked.
His face turned pale, even beneath the tanned skin.
“Ay, curse him !” hissed Red Dave, with mighty oath. “But I’ll squar’ him yet.”
Suddenly there burst upon their view a low log cabin, built in an open glade, under a cliff covered with furze brush and pines.
“What is that ?” Shang asked quickly.
“A hut,” answered Red Dave. “Whose is it ?”
“I do not know, but there is no time to lose.”
“What shall we do ?”
“We must go in. Broncho Bill is closing in on us. We must make a stand in yon hut and fight till the last drop.”
Without stopping to inquire if any one lived in the hut Red Dave and his companion burst open the door with the stocks of their rifles.
Red Dave stepped inside.
Suddenly he started back with a hoarse cry of horror.
“What is it ?” asked Shang Martin.
Inside the hut a horrible sight awaited their gaze.
Now and then the manager or the head of the firm will send a letter of protest when the paragraphing and tautology are outrageous. And the wail of the letter is invariably :
“You do not take this business seriously enough. Show a little interest in what you are doing. You make your characters talk as no human beings ever did !”
All of which is probably correct. The head of the firm, by the way, sometimes gets what the underlings call a “purity streak.” He will then reject half a dozen ordered novels, compelling the authors to write them over again or get no pay. On these rare occasions he is likely issue an edict to this effect :
“To Mr. - (the manager) :
“You will please instruct your young men that everything they write in our libraries must be highly probable. I desire that, if possible, the writers base their stories upon history. They might read some of our earlier numbers and Mr.--- might study our publication ‘Life of Apache Bill.’ I feel that the youth of the country require a higher class of literature than you have been giving them.
“Tell K--I think his work is crude. I notice all his stories begin with somebody who ‘MIGHT HAVE BEEN SEEN’ walking, or riding, as the case may be. I do not like this. To say that a person MIGHT have been seen implies a doubt as to the veracity of the story. He must be more careful.”
Here is a copy of a letter from a brother sufferer during a “purity streak” :
“You needn’t think you’re the only one who got it in the neck. He killed my first three novels of the new Blank and Blank Series, all because I called my hero ‘Dashing Vivian.’ He wanted me to call him ‘Fearless Phil.’ Then he got sore and said the whole idea of the series was crude.
“Tell you what, old man, this will pass. He gets it every month. Put away the Slick Parkers he killed, and about two months from now change the titles, give him new picture ideas and sell the stories back to him. That’s the only way to get them off.”
But, after all, the joy comes of seeing one’s thrillers on the news stands and one’s self as “the author of ‘Slick Parker.’ ” And, too, there is the joy of seeing the messenger boy with his nose glued to the work of your tired brain. And, greatest of all joys, is to read in the newspapers how your latest novel brought about the robbery of a bank, the disappearance from home of numerous small boys, and the breaking of many parental hearts. When one is disgusted there is an unholy pleasure in being bitter.
Detective O’Conor, of the Adams street station, Brooklyn, told me a short time ago that much of his work lay in the handling of boys who had become wayward through the reading of dime novels and nickel horrors. The records of Brooklyn police headquarters show that O’Conor made no less than a dozen arrests in four such cases within twenty-four hours.
In the first case a boy in Hudson street, who had been reading library trash, fancied he was in love with a little girl named Jemima. His father had an iron-bound box full of family heirlooms. The boy seized this box. He tucked it under his arm, sought out the girl, and besought her to “fly” with him to the west. The children were about to elope when O’Conor came on the scene.
Magistrate Dooley, in trying this matter in the Children’s Court, remarked upon the prevalence of dime novel cases. That morning O’Conor had been in court with three others. In one of them a boy who was leader of a gang of youthful “outlaws” had stolen $800 and a gold watch from a safe. When the “boy chief” and his companions were arrested they were busy dividing the “swag” in a vacant lot in Atlantic avenue.
Another lad, who had been surprised in the act of burglary, had been summoned to “stop” when chased by the watchman. This happened near the Gowanus Canal. The boy ran to the pier, struck an attitude, and with a ridiculous sense of the gravity of his situation, shouted :
He jumped into the canal. When rescued from drowning and placed under arrest, four nickel novels were found in his pockets.
A fourth boy arraigned on the same day had been arrested in a lady’s boudoir in a fashionable apartment in Brooklyn. He had his pockets full of jewelry. Investigation brought out that his parents attributed his behavior to the literature which attracted him more than school books ever did.
The most remarkable feature about the production of nickel and dime thrillers of wild west, travel, and detective types, is that the men employed to write them are not required to know anything about the conditions they try to picture.
I, myself, am the author of over a dozen wild west novels, which purport to be authentic incidents in the life of a famous scout. I have never met this scout in my life ; I never read his life story ; I am not an American, and I have never been west of Walton-on-the-Delaware. I also wrote numerous detective stories, treating of the “crook” life in New York, long before I knew where 300 Mulberry street was. With the sea I am slightly familiar, but I know a dozen dime novelists who have made pen pictures for the youthful mind of foreign countries which they knew little about, never saw, and never expected to visit.
Hence the small boy’s distorted conception of sailor life, cowboy sport, foreign lands, his own country, and true manliness.