Alfred Hitchcock And The Suspenseful Word

Books

In ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I wrote about discovering just how many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films and TV shows were based on stories he had optioned, but there was another side to him that I did not have space to touch upon in that book.

After numerous successful films Hitchcock’s career switched tracks in the 1950s, and because he was in at the birth of television with a very specific kind of TV suspense show, the director became one of the first human brands. His profile was sketched and imitated, his theme music became so memorable that I can hum it now and his image was defined as ‘The Master of Suspense’.

It therefore made logical sense to go into publishing. The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine bought the rights to all kinds of suspense tales that appeal to ordinary middle-income Americans who were having a pretty lush time of it in the mid-fifties. It became one of the foremost publishers of mystery, crime, and suspense short stories in America, featuring fiction of the highest quality in every subgenre of mystery fiction. Its stories went on to win dozens of awards.

The magazine was founded in 1956 and licensed the director’s name to take advantage of his newly revived popularity. Did Hitchcock have a say in the selection process? It seems doubtful but no matter, the stories espoused his values, and in its early days took a chance on new young writers  who were still finding their way in the mystery world.

With this ever-growing treasure trove of stories under its belt, the next step was to produce anthologies. In the UK they were mostly issued in pairs by Pan Books, and very often contained a ‘novella’ (sometimes called a ‘novelette’), an intermediate-length story that could easily have been published as a standard novel. Many of these were what we now term ‘domestic noir’, featuring powerful, unsentimental writers like Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar, Shirley Jackson and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. In the mix were a few horror tales from writers like Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, with a smidgen of SF and fantasy stories flavouring the mix.

The books were astonishingly popular with readers and continued to be published for years. No editorial authorship of these volumes ever surfaced, as it was made to look as if Hitch himself had hand-picked them. The novellas were what most interested me – they were the perfect length for creating maximum suspense, which is hard to sustain in a longer novel. Many of these were reprints of US books being published in the UK for the first time.

Thanks to volumes like these and the Pan Books of Horror, other smaller publishers set up similar lines, but Hitchcock’s collections set the gold standard for suspense tales. His authors rarely involved cops or police procedure, but were about ordinary women and men in tense situations.

A modern-day equivalent but with a far more hands-on editorial approach are Otto Penzler’s ‘Bibliomysteries’, which he has published and sold exclusively through his Mysterious Bookshop in New York for forty years (sadly the UK equivalent, ‘Murder One’, closed down some years ago). These short novels have an incredibly eclectic range of authors including Joyce Carol Oates, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and Anne Perry. Otto’s brief to them is simple; the story must contain a book. There are now two huge anthologies of the best stories generally available, with a third to come. Order them through Otto’s store for a more satisfying bibliophile experience!

9 comments on “Alfred Hitchcock And The Suspenseful Word”

  1. John Howard says:

    Admin; thanks again for a great suggestion. I do have to warn though that I suspect my shelves will be organising a bunch of the “boys” to be sent round as I can already hear them muttering.
    Apparently they know where you live.

  2. kevin says:

    I love Otto Penzler’s various collections of vintage mystery and suspense tales BUT refuse to purchase them.
    The size, shape, format of the books (at least here in the US) are cumbersome and flimsy, and therefore difficult to hold and enjoy while reading. It’s as if the books are being published solely for the bookshelf. Sad.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    The old Hitchcock anthologies are splendid, plus he did records, A H presents Ghost Stories for Children, This is the one with the dripping tap. Plus … Presents Music to be Murdered By. lovely stuff. I had my daughter listening to some of the ghost stories earlier.

    Wayne.

  4. Iain ` says:

    One of my all time favourite anthologies was Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do on Television – filled with very nasty stories, one of them being the Ray Bradbury classic “The October Game”.

    I probably have a few others scattered through our book collection – they were very good value.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    One of my favourite possessions is a 3.75″ Alfred Hitchcock action figure, that I bought last year. He sits in a plastic coffin that, many years ago, held hard, bone shaped sweets that could be linked together to form a skeleton. Knowing the odd ‘gifts’ Hitch sent his leading ladies, I thought it rather fitting.
    Books, old movies and action figures. These are a few of my favourite things.

  6. Bob Low says:

    Some of the Pan paperback editions I have of Alfred Hitchcock fronted anthologies have the following note on the publishing history page :-
    ‘ The Editor gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Robert Arthur in the preparation of this volume’
    I’ve always taken from this that someone called Robert Arthur was the actual editor of at least some of these books – but does anyone know who he was?

  7. snowy says:

    Robert Jay Arthur Jnr. [1909-1969] a prolific writer of short stories, he also wrote for radio, picking up two Edgar Awards, a little bit of TV: ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents..’ and ‘Thriller’, [fronted by Boris Karloff].

    But is chiefly known in the US as the creator of ‘The Three Investigators’ series. [Which in typical Hitchcock-ian style, Alf makes cameo appearances].

  8. Bob Low says:

    Thanks, Snowy

  9. Ian Luck says:

    My younger brother was obsessed with the ‘Three Investigators’ books when he was about nine or ten. I read a few, and they were fun and, in places, rather clever. Hitch appeared, sometimes at the beginning or end, rather in the manner of his bookending on his ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ show.

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