Alfred Hitchcock And The Suspenseful Word
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!