10/13/13 – THORNE SMITH AND THE AMERICAN GHOST
With Halloween creeping upon us, this seems the perfect time to ask a personal question: how do you like your American ghosts? Do you prefer them spooky? Atmospheric? Maybe you savor a gothic entity laced with fear and darkness, or a tale where the supernatural explores the human psyche. If so, I’ll direct you to Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, or Nathaniel Hawthorne. But if (like me) you prefer the sorts of ghosts who eagerly urge you to hoist a drink or two (or twenty), then you’ll want to spend an evening with Thorne Smith.
James Thorne Smith Jr. was born in 1892 in Annapolis, Maryland. His father was a Navy commodore, his mother the granddaughter of Maxwell House Coffee namesake Don Jose Maxwell. Thorne was an indifferent student, and he eventually dropped out of Dartmouth to take a job writing advertising copy. Advertising helped support his family, but his true love was writing. He was prolific, turning out thirteen novels, poetry, a children’s book, short stories, and a few screenplays, all in the space of seventeen years. His first success came in 1926 with the publication of his most popular work, Topper, a comic fantasy involving a pair of frivolous ghosts out to rescue their chosen human from mediocrity while breaking a couple of laws and commandments along the way. Other supernatural fantasy novels followed, including Topper Takes a Trip, The Stray Lamb, Turnabout, and, my personal favorite, The Night Life of the Gods.
Reprobates-in-training or not, it’s easy to identify with a Thorne Smith protagonist. He’s usually under-appreciated and stifled, trapped in a thankless existence by a combination of societal expectations and overbearing relatives. The supernatural meddling that illuminates his life arrives in the form of comical circumstance and clever dialogue. Our protagonist emerges a happier – although tainted – soul by the end of the story, ready to reject the hypocrisy of his world. But although the plots are inviting (who wouldn’t want to spend a little time “falling” through no fault of their own?), it’s Smith’s voice that’s the real draw. He’s witty and dry, and his humorous observations about human nature remain as funny today as they were when written decades ago. It’s rare not to laugh out loud while reading.
Thorne Smith died of a heart attack in 1934 at the age of 42, but his impact on popular culture continues even today. Science fiction and fantasy genres owe him a debt (Neil Gaiman considers him a favorite), as do the various iterations of very human ghosts in movies such as Heaven Can Wait, Beetlejuice, and Ghost.
But perhaps the ghost should introduce himself. I’ll leave you with George Kerby, materializing before the stunned Cosmo Topper with a customary bottle of Prohibition hooch in each hand:
Kerby cut him short with a laugh and moved over to the fireplace.
“You still believe in ghost stories, I see,” he said, good-humouredly. “Well, I’m all here, every inch of me. Never felt better in my life. Shake. I’m glad you see me.”
“I’m overjoyed I do,” replied Mr. Topper, gingerly accepting the proffered hand. “Would you mind opening one or both of those bottles? A drop of something would help a lot.”
“Topper, I love you,” whispered Kerby, hurrying away in the gloom. (Topper)
Before Thorne Smith, most American ghosts arrived to scare, plague, or righteously redeem you. I’ll take a little supernatural corruption with an abundance of clever, sophisticated charm.