This occasional newsletter about author Gerald Kersh, is assembled by Paul Duncan, who is presently writing a Kersh biography. Each new edition will appear here, but to have it automatically e-mailed to you as soon as it is completed, e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Authors are so well researched, and libraries around the world so complete, that it’s not often that you can add a new book to an author’s bibliography. Well, I’ve just done it! The book is called Private Life Of A Private, was published anonymously, and was a collection of 39 of Kersh’s columns from the Daily Herald. It was a paperback, saddle-stitched, and the dramatic pictorial cover of a soldier declares that it is ‘a Hurricane Book.’ 100,000 copies were printed and sold by W H Allen & Co. in October 1941. I’ve seen a copy but don’t own one. Needless to say, if anyone has a spare, I’ll be happy to take it off your hands.
It’s a simple question and one to which you’d think everyone would know the answer. Wrong. Let’s do the where first. I have seen biographical notes which place his birth anywhere from America to Russia to Poland. Nowhere near. Kersh was born at 18 High Street, Teddington, a suburb of London. Secondly, I have seen his year of birth vary between 1909 and 1911, but the date has always been August 6th. A quick look at the birth certificate reveals he was born on August 26th 1911, which means that, because no-one bothered to check, every reference book in the world is incorrect - somehow, I think Kersh would have preferred it that way.
The only sustained character in Kersh’s writing career was Karmesin (pronounced carr - muh - zin) a name derived from some middle-European term for crimson. Generally, Kersh would meet this old guy with a big moustache, and even taller stories, and we’d learn a bit about criminals, and perhaps a smidgen about human nature. The stories were certainly entertaining and one would consider Karmesin an enchanting creation if it wasn’t for the fact that he existed in real life. More, as they say, will be revealed in the biography. For now, here is a list of the 18 Karmesin stories I have found. The list has the title of the first story, the alternative titles in brackets, and then the earliest appearance I’ve found so far. Only 3 have been collected, which are indicated with an asterisk at the end of the listing.
One of the strengths of Kersh’s writing is the way he makes you understand the people he’s writing about. And when you understand people, it doesn’t matter whether the story is set in the present, the future, or the past - you’ll respond to them as people. When reading his short stories, I’m always surprised by the historical or biblical tales because they seem so fresh, so contemporary, in feel. So it was a very pleasant surprise indeed when I read The Implacable Hunter, a book I was reluctant to read because of its subject matter - the conversion of Saul to St Paul. This reluctance is shared by virtually everyone I mention the book to, even avid readers of Kersh. It is usually the book they’ve had for a long time but haven’t quite got around to reading it yet because the windows need grouting or they were busy watching paint dry and the like. I don’t know what I can say to put your mind at rest. The story is not about Paul working crowds as some sort of evangelical preacher. No, it’s told from the point of view of Diomed, the local Roman Consul, who is desperately worried about his best friend Saul.
When I visited Kersh’s widow, Flossie, I asked her about the book, and she explained its subtext:
"I was coming back from the war. I got stranded for a while in Le Havre and then ultimately we got on a troop ship, and on a troop ship there was a priest, a big Pole, about six foot five or so - but proportionate. That one was terribly unhappy at the end of the war, although he was glad the war was over, because he had developed such friendships with the GIs, you see, and here he was condemned to going back to a parish, and little old catholic ladies who, as he put it, ‘insisted on confessing’ although they never did anything sinful. He was just concerned. He couldn’t see himself doing it. He was terribly unhappy. And he was going to quit the priesthood, although he owed the catholic church a great deal on the grounds that these poor women had slaved, washing clothes, scrubbing floors, to raise the money to give him an education. So he owed the church something for giving him that. But it had come to this that he could not face this parish business anymore.
"What he proposed to do was to leave the church, get married, have children like other people do, and would I marry him. I was a little startled and then I thought about it, not in terms of doing it, but what motivated him, and I spent quite a lot of time arguing with him. I told him that he had far too much conscience, that he owed the church an awful lot because they gave him an education and a status, and he was the sort who would be eaten up by conscience if he had to quit. He might want children but it would be a terrible mistake - it would kill him. Not that he would shoot himself - but he would just fade away.
"Later, I raised this matter with Aloysius Kuhar, Archbishop, Minister Plenipotentiary, and asked if I had harmed that man because I felt a little guilty. I said, ‘Look, I didn’t want to marry him anyway, but that isn’t the point. Was my advice wrong? Did I hurt him?’ And Kuhar said, no, that that was his story too, that he owed the church his education, his stint at the Vatican, his position as Minister Plenipotentiary, which was a diplomat. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t think you said anything wrong. In point of fact, I think that conscience would have killed him in the long run.’
"So I told Kersh this story and Kersh said, ‘I’ve long thought of that in terms of St Paul. There was a man who was driven by conscience because his family was so evil - they were tax collectors. In Christ, St Paul saw a relation - a simple but honest man, who was a dissident preacher, and a good one, somebody very attractive, who was being condemned unfairly. And his conscience was bothering him to such an extent that he turned on his own family - that I understand. And the Jews who despised Saul as a turncoat are wrong because they don’t understand what he was made of. I’m going to write a book about it, and if they condemn me for it, I don’t care.’"
It is exciting and moving - brilliantly done. Reviewing the book, Anthony Burgess compared it to Robert Graves’ I Claudius books, saying it was that good.
The Implacable Hunter was not published in the US. It was rejected by Doubleday, Lippincott, Mackay, McGraw-Hill and probably others. The reason given was basically that they were afraid of what the Christian and religious groups would say about the book in the US and they didn’t want to take any flak. It was published in the UK by Heinemann on June 5 1961 and received probably the best reviews of Kersh’s career. There was a paperback as well, Pan X311, published July 3 1964. I have copies of The Implacable Hunter for sale.
I have written various articles over the past couple of years:
Ask me for a list of books/magazines for sale and I’ll send you one. I have copies of books not published in America. My list includes contemporary reviews of the books and some idea of the plot and subject matter. All the money I make from selling these helps finance my research, so if you buy from me you can feel like a patron of the arts.
Gerald Kersh (1911-1968) was a great storyteller. He had 19 novels and 21 short story collections published - 21 of these books were never published in the US. He wrote novels, short stories and articles about mystery, SF, war and any subject you care to mention.
During World War Two, Kersh hit the bestseller lists in the UK with They Die With Their Boots Clean, the first big propaganda novel of the war. It followed the story of a group of recruits in the Coldstream Guards as they are melded into a fighting force. An important part of their training is learning the proud history of the Guards, which they are honour-bound to preserve. This introduced one-eyed Sergeant Bill Nelson, who is the subject of the sequel: The Nine Lives Of Bill Nelson. They were collected into one book for the US market, Sergeant Nelson Of The Guards, with a new introduction and a glossary of army slang.
Other war books by Kersh published during the conflict were The Dead Look On (about the Lidice massacre), Faces In A Dusty Picture (a forced march across the Western Desert), and A Brain A Ten Fingers (Serbs, Croats and Slavs must work together to build a bridge and escape the Italians). Once, Kersh had four books in the top ten bestseller lists. It there had not been paper rationing, his publisher said Kersh would have been a millionaire.
Now it can be told. The big news this newsletter is that Kersh once published, edited and damn near wrote a complete 6-page newspaper. It was called the Bradenton Beachcomber, ran for one issue, and was obviously assembled for fun. As well as a Mr Chickery Christmas story, and articles about hellfire and damnation, there was poetry, and a column printing all the local gossip. The back page has a photo of Kersh, his wife and friends arguing in the Gulf Hotel, Bradenton Beach, and their dialogue, which mainly consists of Kersh telling everyone what to do, and failing miserably. The sale of advertising, by the way, went towards the fund for a new local Fire Department Building - perhaps he should have published it in Barbados the following year, where his house burnt down.
It has been often rumoured that the ventriloquist dummy sequence in the three-story film Dead Of Night, was Kersh’s famous story The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy, first published in Penguin Parade 6 (ed Denys Kilham Roberts, 1939). Personally, I doubted it because others, notably Ben Hecht in The Rival Dummy (1928, filmed as The Great Gabbo), had published similar stories, although Kersh’s has a peculiar power. Recently I came across some extraordinary correspondence between Kersh and the writer of the sequence.
The screenwriter sent his script to Kersh, saying that Kersh’s story was his inspiration, but he had changed the story whilst retaining the spirit - would Kersh object? Kersh then asked his friend and newspaper editor Harry Ainsworth to compare the script with the original story. HA said he would think both were written by the same author. Kersh then proceeded to grant the film writer permission to go ahead and use the script, saying that he would not sue and did not require screen credit. Once again, the myth turns out to be the truth.
Like most writers, Kersh wrote occasionally used other names. The reasons varied. When he worked on Courier magazine before WW2, he wrote about half the issue, so he used a pseudonym or was simply anonymous. During the war itself, when Kersh became famous because of the novel They Die With Their Boot Clean, he was so prolific he was published everywhere. However, since he was unable to go into combat because of his legs, writing was his contribution to the war effort. For that reason he didn’t want to be praised or recognised for work which he considered as nothing compared to the bravery of the men on the battle fronts. Below is a list of some pseudonyms I’ve found. There may be others yet to be discovered.
For those who don’t know, Gerald Kersh (1911-1968) was a great storyteller. He had 19 novels and 20 short story collections published - 20 of these books were never published in the US.
Novels, short stories and articles about mystery, SF, war, horror, history and virtually any subject you care to mention. Most of his writing during World War Two was published under various pseudonyms.
Well, his first big success was the novel Night And The City (1938), filmed in 1950 by Jules Dassin, starring Richard Widmark. This is now considered one of the great film noirs, although it must be said that it bore little relation to the book. The 1992 version of Night And The City, directed by Irwin Winkler and starring Robert De Niro basically copied the Dassin film and not the book.
It sure is. Harlan Ellison is a big fan, as is David J Schow, James Sallis, Michael Moorcock, Bill Pronzini, Mark McShane, Andrew Vachss, Jane Fonda and many more.
I have conducted interviews with: Bernard Miller, Gerald’s cousin, they went to school together; Willie Bloom, brother-in-law, who Gerald used to tell his stories to before they were published; Richard Bloom, nephew, who has supplied me with a great deal of information about the family, photos, his reminiscences in America etc.; Major Norman Kark, who took Kersh on as Assistant Editor on The Courier magazine in 1937; Wensley and Tom Clarkson, sons of Tony Clarkson, Kersh’s editor and friend at the Daily Mirror; and Flossie Kersh, Gerald’s third wife and widow.
On the bibliographic side, as well as visiting the libraries (British Newspaper Library, British Museum Library, BBC Written Archives, BFI Film Library, and central libraries of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds), I have relied on the research and collections of people like Bob Adey and Jack Adrian.
The book will contain a full life story and examination of the work of Kersh, and will be backed up with detailed listings of the books, short stories, articles, film and radio scripts, and the critical reception of his work at the time of publication.
Harlan Ellison, who has done much to help me promote Kersh in recent months, is guest of honour at Readercon 11 (in Waltham, just outside Boston, Massachusetts, July 9-11 1999) and he has nominated Kersh as the Memorial Guest Of Honour. This means the program will contain a Kersh section with an article, a short story and a bibliography. The organisers also hope to put together a talk about Kersh. I hope to attend and will let you know either way in a future newsletter. For more information about Readercon their address is PO Box 381246, Cambridge, MA 02238, USA. Their web site is www.mit.edu/~zeno/readercon.html.
Below is a list of some of Kersh’s most reprinted (and best) short stories, with their first appearances. I’ve found around 400 short stories so far, or which over a hundred have never been collected.
1 Men Without Bones (15), Esquire, August 1954
2= The Crewel Needle (11), Lilliput, May-June 1953
2= The Oxoxoco Bottle (11), Saturday Evening Post, December 7 1957, as ‘The Secret Of The Bottle’
4 The Brighton Monster (9), Saturday Evening Post, February 21 1948, as ‘The Monster’
5= The Ape And The Mystery (8), Saturday Evening Post, June 26 1948, as ‘The Mysterious Smile Of Mona Lisa’
5= Crooked Bone (8), Saturday Evening Post, August 10 1968
5= River Of Riches (8), Saturday Evening Post, March 8 1958
5= Voices In The Dust Of Annan (8), Sad Road To The Sea (Heinemann 1947)
9= Comrade Death (7), Courier, Summer 1938
9= A Lucky Day For The Boar (7), Playboy, October 1962
9= The Thief Who Played Dead (7), Saturday Evening Post, February 13 1954
9= The Unsafe Deposit Box (7), Saturday Evening Post, April 14 1962
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