Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Leonard Cline and John Wilstch's ROPE NECKTIES

In my previous post, I noted that Leonard Cline and John Wilstach certainly knew each other by April 1928. The reason is that Cline sent a letter to Wilstach about his serial "Rope Neckties" that had appeared in three consecutive issues of Argosy All-Story Weekly, 21 April, 28 April, and 5 May 1928. We know this because when the novel was printed in book form, as Rope Neckties in 1939, Wilstach published a letter in Writer's Digest for September 1939, part of which reads:

Recently one of my old Argosy western series was published in book form by McBride, called Rope Neckties, with the nom de plume of John Van Buren. While it was serialized I received a letter from the late Leonard Cline, poet, critic, and novelist of note, praising part of the yarn and saying that pages 88-89 was a prose poem worthy of a French master. Reading it over in mag form I thought he was kidding. Now, rereading the same in book form, darned if I don't think he is right. Anyway, the dress has a lot to do with it all. 

The imprint on the 1939 volume is the Dodge Publishing Company, which was owned by the Robert M. McBride Company. The text to which Cline and Wilstach referred is as follows: 

If you have ever rode herd at night you’ll recollect that the cattle 'll move and stir about uneasy during the long hours from midnight on. There is always some sound. The sharp yelp of the coyote or the snorting and neighing of a pony half asleep on his feet, and wanting to go the rest of the way.

Sudden, just as you are about half dead in the saddle, hunched over, an’ a cigarette tastes bitter’n dust; when all you long fer is curl up on the ground and sleep, there comes a solemn pause that seems to say: “Hush, little doggies, be still.” There is quiet along the prairie—even the wind dies down—and, unconscious, you seen to be waiting for something beautiful to happen.

And dog-gone it, partner, something does. At that moment you is offered heaven on a silver platter. A gray veil pushes back those golden stars, there is a feeling of peace everywhere, and the sun, gentle like, lifts out of the east like a welcome.

Calling it "a prose poem worthy of a French master" does seem to be stretching it, but it is a nicely poetic scene in miniature. Rope Neckties was reprinted in 1948, back under Wilstach's own name, as a digest-sized paperback of the Hillman imprint "Novel Selections, Inc." It was no. 4 of the "Fighting Western Novel" series. See the cover, above right.

For assistance on this subject, I am grateful to John Locke, and to the late Denny Lien.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Mystery of the John Wilstach Letter on THE DARK CHAMBER

In the early 1990s, as I began exploring the papers of Leonard Cline, I found an interesting undated and unsigned carbon copy of a letter to The Saturday Review about their review of The Dark Chamber. Reading the letter, I thought at first that Cline himself might have written it, for the tone, and some of the sentiments, are similar to Cline's. Also, I had before me the review in The Saturday Review by Allan Nevins from Cline's own scrapbook, and noted that Cline himself had bracketed two comments, one of which is also quoted at length in the letter.   

The review itself appeared in the 10 September 1927 issue of The Saturday Review, and the letter of comment, signed as by John Wilstach, appeared in the 8 October issue. It didn't take much digging to realize that John Wilstach  (1890-1951), was a real person, a newspaper man who published stories prolifically and who also worked as a theatrical press agent. He must have moved in the same circles in New York as did Cline, and thus they likely knew each other by 1927 (they certainly knew each other by April 1928). So having penned his reply to the book review, Wilstach sent a carbon to Cline, then in jail in Tolland, Connecticut. 

I present here the letter carbon from Cline's papers, and and the review from Cline's scrapbook. (Click on the pictures to enlarge them.)

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Chicory Hill

On December 10th 1926, Leonard Cline and his second wife Katharine Gridley (who were married only a month earlier on November 9th) purchased a large amount of land in rural Mansfield, Connecticut, to the north of Willimantic.

On December 23rd, The Willimantic Chronicle reported on the sale by the Tryson Real Estate Agency of “Koulaga place on Wormwood Hill, Mansfield, seventy-five acres of land with buildings, to Leonard and Katharine Cline of New York City.” The land had also been known as  Knoll Crest, but the Clines renamed it Chicory Hill.

Cline sent a small photograph of the house at Chicory Hill to his ex-wife, Louise, and their two children, Mary Louise and Leonard III. Cline wrote: “This is the house, perhaps 200 years old. All hand-hewn oak beams, doors of one plank, hinges and latches hand-wrought, four fireplaces and a huge Dutch oven. I built half the furniture. White roses around it; and in front an ancient haunted orchard.” 


On May 10th, 1927, Katharine Gridley Cline signed a quitclaim deed that released to her husband and his heirs “all her rights of dower and other interests” in the property. Less that one week later, in the early hours of May 16th, a tragic event happened that changed the entire trajectory of Cline’s life.

Wilfred Irwin, who was staying with Cline at Chicory Hill, was wounded by a shotgun after a drunken quarrel. When the authorities arrived, Cline was found carrying the shotgun. Irwin was taken to a nearby hospital, but he died some hours later, and the State of Connecticut, looking into the matter,  charged Cline with first degree murder. The trial began in September 1927, but ended abruptly after four days of jury selection when Cline pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to one year in jail, with a $1,000 fine.

Cline spent his sentence in the Tolland Jail. His second wife Katharine deserted him, and Cline re-converted to Catholicism—he had first converted to Catholicism in his youth, but in his college days at the University of Michigan he had become atheist. Cline was released from jail two months early, his sentence shortened for good behavior. On July 15th 1928, he returned to his home at Chicory Hill, where some friends had arrived to assist and support him.

On August 31st, he received three special visitors, his ex-wife, Louise, and their children Mary Louise and her younger brother Leonard. I believe these two small photos of the home at Chicory Hill were taken then.

Sixty-some years later Cline’s daughter reminisced about that summer at Chicory Hill: The house had a little entry, and a square staircase. There was a large middle room, a massive stone fireplace and a dutch oven. To the left there were two adjoining rooms, one used as a bedroom, the other as a sitting room or office. The house had no plumbing. On one side of the house was a carriage entry, covered to pull in a wagon. (Her father wanted to expand the house on this side.)  There was an old barn down the hill, with a stone foundation and a wooden top.

At some point in the latter half of 1928, Cline reconciled with his first-wife, and they planned to remarry after Cline could achieve some financial stability. Louise and the children returned to Baltimore, and in late November or December 1928, Cline went to New York City, where his friend Henry Luce, whom Cline had known in Baltimore, had given him a job on Time magazine.

While in jail Cline had made plans to turn Chicory Hill into a kind of artist’s colony, with writers, poets and artists in residence, but the idea never came to any fruition. Cline died of heart failure in mid-January 1929. Chicory Hill was sold to pay off some of the large debt he had left behind.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Donald Douglas reviews The Dark Chamber in 1927

A rather breathless and overwrought book review, from the 4 September 1927 issue of The New York Herald Tribune. The last paragraph is the best. Donald Douglas (1893-1966) was a journalist, teacher and author. His novels include The Grand Inquisitor (1925), a metaphysical and psychological thriller, and The Black Douglas (1927), a historical novel. 

Moon Magic

by Donald Douglas

There would be only wrong and error in calling Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber another one of those tales where men go down on all fours to howl like wolves or take white powders and change themselves into golliwogs. There would be as little use in comparing it to Algernon Blackwood’s best stories or, indeed, in comparing it to anything, for in both the loose and exact sense of the world it is incomparable. Don’t go in fear of the shuddery were-wolves of Dracula, of the spurious booby-traps of the “Gothic Romance” or even the supernatural visitations conjured up in Blackwood’s alarums ringing from the vengeful gods. Nothing of that sort appears in Mr. Cline’s exquisite prose poem, even if he does give you gooseflesh with a black hound named Tod, and even one of his women talks about astrology and turns the bright stars into green mold. One even suspects that Mr. Cline uses his device of vampirism and curious suggestion only as a frame on which to hang the shimmering cloak of his prose that shines like a web from the sun or sings in the ordered cadences of immaculate tonality.

You will find a tale as good as Dracula and as mind-curdling as “The Mark of the Beast” without the added nuisance of Bram Stoker’s unexciting prose, or Rudyard Kipling’s habit of stopping his plot to make nasty remarks about men who get married. Even Mr. Cline’s discourses on lycanthropy and music are mated to the central plot and his most rhapsodic painting of autumnal field and deep woods and dreary main holds in its form and color, all the intention of his art.

None the less why should we call The Dark Chamber by the dull name of a book? It is no book, but rather a sweep of clouds over the blue gulf of the sky and a nest of ferns hidden in the oozy marsh of a haunted wood and an arctic moon riding over the haunted gables of a house gullied with shadowy mysteries and the march and splendor of chords resolved into a diapason. It gets into your blood and rings in your heart and foams like a curl of waves on dark speeding oceans, or freezes the brain like a solitary walk over a road winding down toward the stricken silence of a space empty save for the dead ghosts of things. Try to tell its plot in a cold and sober prose and the whole being and essence of the book is gone like breath spent on air. Describe the family where the musician, Oscar Fitzalan, ran the gamut of fear and horror and the red clutch of vampirism and you make a tone poem sound like a calliope vibrating in a sick screech of tinny harmonies. In any genuine work of art you can not separate the atmosphere from the substance or divorce the plot from its lovely mesh of prose. That kind of thing can only be with justice in retelling the machinations of the indisious Dr. Fu Manchu.

You must imagine the composer, Fitzalan, going to the manor of Richard Pryde [sic, for Pride] because he has been offered a job at some kind of collaboration and wants some time to write his own music. He enters a mansion built near the upper reaches of the Hudson and falling, for all its magnificence, toward slow desolation. He meets Miriam, the wife with her blood-red lips, and the daughter, Janet, with her wayward impulse towards passion, and the secretary, Hough, with his death-mask of a face, and the dog, Tod, with his sinister name and black bristles and small yellow eyes staring into the horror of an indefinable dream. In time he meets his employer, Pryde, towering  like rocky cliffs over the river and with his face like the slate of grimness of a ledge plucked with two eyes peering like the lightless eyes of the blind. Believing that memory is indissoluble and that every image of one’s own life is recorded on the plate of the brain, Pryde uses Fitzalan as his aid in tracking down every event of the past. He broods in a study built into the heart of a hill with the door lifted like a snout. He has volumes and volumes packed into shelves’ and every volume is a record of a past experience evoked by a perfume, a chance song in the street, the least stir in the tight layers of the mind. At last his researches go back to events in the lives of his ancestors and by a non-Freudian analysis of dreams even into the dim lairs and green lagoons of the prehistoric past. By the aid of drugs and the force of his own will and other incantations Pryde achieves the end of his search; but that end must be left for Mr. Cline to tell in his own words.

Even from this first hour in a house cloaked in shadows thrown by the sputter of dim candles Fitzalan himself takes part in the drama of the wife and the mother and the secretary and the dog ringed around the inner drama played in the dark chamber of the master of the house. Miriam and Janet and Hough and the sinister Tod are drained of life by the tyrannous presence of Pryde and by his weird power to draw the energies and the very life of others into the net of his own purpose. Everything plotted by Miriam, at the expense of Hough and Fitzalan, has its origin in her hope to be freed of the stone monster who has lain like a sphinx on her breast. Janet’s unrest is not the unrest of youth. It is the protest and defiance of ordinary life against the unimaginable exactions of the man with a fixed idea. Shadows thicken over the hills and fear steals like snow into the hearts and pawns who exist only for the protection and life of the king. What if the queen rebels to seduce a knight and drive one of the bishops to despair and death? Behind the torn anguish of his pieces sits the implacable king like a fixed image wrought from stone and with a stone circling like  graven heart in the hollows of his breast.

It is most notable that Mr. Cline has wrought the miracle of combining a tale of terror with the sheer loveliness of golden song. That is why he makes Fitzalan a musician and why through the closing shadows shines the bright radiance of a beauty visible even in the murkiest gloom of the dark chamber. Even the excess of the plot and situation are made plausible with sound psychology and lustering, with hill and dale and human hearts caught in a garment of tenderness and pity and the power of love over the clutch of the obscene, Not the reality of life, perhaps; but the intense ache and the moon-haunted reality of a dream experiences in phantasmal meadows edged with the deepening gold of the ascending sun.