Menace of the False Start; or Making a Dent in the Pulps!

Lester Dent: Master of the False Start

We’ve all been there, whether in the course of pursuing a lofty dream, or simply working hard to achieve a worthwhile goal. We often encounter circumstances and situations that can — if we allow it — kill our enthusiasm and destroy all our hopes. These “dream dampeners” come in many forms, from lost opportunities to failed attempts, from unexpected obstacles to sudden setbacks, from closed doors to dead ends. But one of the most sinister situations of all is the infamous “false start.” Nothing can dash our hopes more quickly than believing we’re finally on our way, or that we’ve finally arrived — at last! — only to have the bottom fall out beneath us.

Here’s the thrilling story of a man who endured several false starts and dead ends on his road to success.

During the mid-1920s, a twenty-two-year old telegraph operator for Western Union dreamed of bigger, better, and more creative, opportunities. He was a voracious reader and a big fan of the dime-novel magazines known as the pulps; and he was confident that he could write stories just as exciting as — if not better than — the ones being churned out monthly in dozens of these cheap adventure magazines. So, over the next three years, while working a mostly uneventful graveyard shift, now as a telegrapher for the Associated Press, Lester Dent wrote and submitted story after story. And in return, received rejection after rejection from the editors of these pulps.

Finally, Dent made a sale! Street & Smith’s prestigious Top Notch magazine agreed to publish one of the writer’s adventure stories, “Pirate Cay,” in its September 1929 issue. Dent felt he was well on his way: he had made his first professional sale to his beloved pulps, and subsequent sales shouldn’t be that difficult — not for a paid and published author who had cracked one of the leading fiction markets! Then again….

Dent continued to struggle as a writer, and continued to receive rejections from other publishers. And even Street & Smith didn’t seem interested in Dent’s subsequent stories. Then, quite unexpectedly, Dent was contacted by Dell Publishing Company in New York City! Someone at the company had chanced across “Pirate Cay” and wanted to hire him to write exclusively for their magazines! What’s more, Dell was offering a salary of $500 per month! An astounding amount for the time.

Dent was astonished at his good fortune. He’d never expected his writing career to make such an abrupt (and lucrative) course change; but he wasted no time in accepting Dell’s generous offer. At long last, Dent had arrived! Or had he?

At the beginning of 1931, Dent relocated his family to New York, where he settled into his new position as a Dell magazine novelist. He learned the secrets of being a prolific plotter of pulps. (Repeat that three times fast! ) He also taught himself to write quickly, and to produce exciting fiction that required few edits or rewrites. Life was good! Of course, all this was happening during the Great Depression. And Dell had overextended itself at the newsstands. The publisher’s entire line of pulps imploded less than five months after Dent had “arrived” — both literally and figuratively.

Dent was out of a job — and back to square one, submitting stories to various magazines, sometimes making a sale, but more often getting a rejection notice. And even Street & Smith, which had published Dent’s first story, wasn’t buying his fiction. The shadow of financial difficulties was darkening the writer’s future — and it would take another kind of “shadow” to rescue Dent!

Street & Smith was enjoying great success with their new mystery pulp, The Shadow. In fact, the magazine sold so well that the publisher was releasing a new Shadow novel every two weeks. But the editors at Street & Smith were worried: one man, Walter Gibson, was writing all of these pulp tales; and if anything should happen to Gibson….

Suddenly remembering that promising new writer they’d published many months earlier, the editors at Street & Smith called on Dent to try his hand at writing a Shadow novel. If Dent did a good job, he’d become Gibson’s backup on the popular feature … or so Dent was led to believe.

Lester Dent spent the next three months writing The Golden Vulture, an exciting novel in which he perfectly captured the dark atmosphere of a Shadow adventure, while nailing the mysterious character Gibson had created. The editors loved it! Dent had done it! He was going to be working on one of the most avidly read new pulp characters of the day. Or was he?

Street & Smith applauded Dent’s efforts, paid him for his novel, and then promptly filed it away for a rainy day. “All that work,” Dent may have thought, “for nothing!” How many more false starts and setbacks was he to face? (How many false starts have you faced, dear reader?) Dent kept on writing, and he never lost hope in his dreams — and neither should you!

So the writer was mentally and emotionally prepared for the next opportunity that came his way. Street & Smith wanted to create another pulp hero to further capitalize on the success of the Shadow. Only this time, the publisher wanted elaborate adventure stories featuring a character who would use science and gadgets in the same way the Shadow used magic and disguises. Such grand and brainy exploits were exactly what Dent wrote best, hence, following the writer’s successful Shadow-novel tryout, the editors at Street & Smith invited Dent to help create their new character and write his first adventure.

Dent might have wondered if this were yet another false start, another dead end. If he did, he certainly didn’t allow his reservations to dampen his enthusiasm. He hurried home and immediately got to work on the now legendary novel, The Man of Bronze, which Street & Smith published in March 1933, in the premiere issue of Doc Savage Magazine. It marked the beginning of 181 pulp adventures for the character who was the forerunner of comic book superheroes (and who served as one of the inspirations for Superman, the Man of Steel.)

Over the next 16 years, Dent would write most of these 181 novels, which are still in print: from 1964 to early 1990, Bantam Books reprinted these adventures in popular paperback editions; and the novels are currently being released by Sanctum Books in a format that resembles the original pulps magazines. As a result, Doc Savage is just as popular today as he was 80 years ago. In fact, proving the character is still a hot commodity, Hollywood has announced plans for a big-budget Doc Savage movie with Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson playing the “Man of Bronze.”

With so many false starts and dead ends, Lester Dent could have lost hope and abandoned his dream. We’re glad he didn’t! “He does not fear bad news [lost opportunities, failed attempts, closed doors, false starts, dead ends, delays, setbacks, self doubt and disappointments of every kind]. He is confident; he trusts in the LORD.” (Psalm 112:7 NET Bible)


The SHADOW of Success! (Encouragement for Creators; Diet for Dreamers)


Continued from our last thrilling episode (3/21/23):

Cutting edge in 1931: Philco Model 90 Cathedral Radio!

During the height of the Great Depression, Street & Smith, a leading publisher of pulp fiction, decided to launch a radio drama to promote their Detective Story Magazine. But their marketing strategy yielded unexpected and unusual results: the show’s mysterious announcer, the Shadow, quickly became the most popular aspect of the weekly broadcasts. So, instead of listeners flocking to newsstands to purchase Detective Story, they went searching for “that Shadow mystery magazine.”

Street & Smith didn’t publish such a pulp. Furthermore, the company thought it had finished with magazines featuring a single continuing character. But Street & Smith wasn’t about to let a golden opportunity slip by. The publisher quickly decided to go with the flow and give readers what they wanted. Only one problem: at the time, the Shadow was nothing more than a sinister-sounding voice on the airwaves — accompanied by a bone-chilling laugh. Who was this man of mystery?

Enter Walter Gibson, a young and, as it turned out, extremely prolific writer. Gibson (1897-1985) had been a carnival magician, then a Philadelphia newspaperman, and was currently ghostwriting books for the greatest magicians of his day, including the legendary escape artist
Howard Houdini. When he arrived at the New York offices of Street & Smith to propose an idea he had for a new literary project, the editors waylaid the writer with an unexpected and unusual opportunity: We’re not sure who or what this mystery man is, or from where he came, but we need you to pen a Shadow novel — and we need it quick!

Gibson decided to go with the flow. He went home and quickly outlined the entire novel; and after a few days, he’d already finished the first 3 or 4 chapters. Then he received a call from an editor at Street & Smith, a potentially aggravating and frustrating call! The publisher wanted to get their new mystery pulp on the streets as soon as possible, so there wasn’t enough time to commission a cover painting for the novel. But, heh, the publisher had an unused piece of cover art already on file, which prominently featured a Chinese character. “So, Mr. Gibson, can you put a Chinese guy into your novel?”

The writer could have fumed, “Why didn’t you ask me that to start with?!?” Instead, he simply shrugged and got back to work. Gibson’s mind was made up; he’d gone with the flow. He added the requisite Asian plot elements — which he quickly realized added greatly to the story — and continued pounding the typewriter keys until he’d produced the pulp novel The Living Shadow. This impromptu novel introduced the now-legendary master sleuth who waged an unending war on everything from phony spiritualists to corrupt politicians to the evil lords of the criminal underworld; the wealthy Lamont Cranston by day, a cloaked figure by night, adept at magic and hair-raising escapes!

Gibson’s novel, written under the house name of Maxwell Grant, appeared in early 1931, in the first issue of The Shadow Magazine. The new pulp sold out almost immediately, and it wasn’t long before Street & Smith increased its publication to twice a month! Oh, and the publisher insisted that Gibson write all the adventures of his masked avenger!

Gibson stated, the publisher “asked me to write one a month, and next thing they wanted them twice-a-month. …[So] I just dropped everything else and did the Shadow for 15 years. I was pretty much Depression-proof.” All told, Gibson penned an astounding 282 Shadow pulp novels over the next two decades, and lived quite comfortably while doing so. These books are still popular today, still being devoured by readers, and the Shadow is one of the most iconic, most copied characters of the 20th century! In fact, the Shadow served as the inspiration for another literary cash cow, a certain caped crusader called the Batman!

In Gibson’s case, it paid (literally) to go with the flow, just as Street & Smith had. Of all the numerous books and magazine features the writer produced, the Shadow remains his best-known and most popular work — his great creative legacy. And yet, Gibson could have said “no”; or chosen to write only a few novels featuring the mysterious crime fighter, before moving on to write “the great American novel” or some such nonsense.

In the pursuit of your goals and dreams, and in all of your creative endeavors, whenever you come to a crossroads, or encounter an unusual
and unexpected opportunity, ask God to help you make the right decision. It’s quite possible you’d best be served just going with the flow. After all, who knows what direction good people should take? The Shadow knows! (And you can trust God to let you in on the secret!)

“The steps of good men are directed by the Lord. He delights in each step they take. If they fall, it isn’t fatal, for the Lord holds them with his hand.” (Psalm 37:23 TLB)

Next time (Friday), don’t miss the startling true story of a struggling writer who tried to break into the world of pulp fiction — and eventually made a real dent!