The Shadow, a crime buster who “had the power to cloud men’s minds” and render himself invisible, was a phenomenon of the 1930s. His adventures began on radio, and soon spread to the pulp magazines where they were written by the amazingly prolific Walter B. Gibson. The Shadow first appeared in a quarterly that sold out immediately. When the second Shadow novel was snapped up, the publishers made it a monthly and circulation reached 300,000. The stories were a success for almost 15 years and during that time Gibson, under the pseudonym of Maxwell Grant, produced 283 Shadow novels—a total output of approximately 22.5 million words.
The Shadow radio serial was a Sunday afternoon fixture and began with Orson Welles’ famous introduction, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
Television was the only villain to get the best of the Shadow. Readers of pulp fiction gave him up when the little screen beckoned and, although a movie serial was made, starring Victor Jory, the Shadow finally faded away.
Now, along with Tiffany lampshades, he has returned. Bantam issued seven of the old novels in 1969. Then in 1971 Pyramid took over and published nine more. To date, approximately a million copies of these reprints have been sold—with no end to this new popularity in sight. The Doubleday Crime Club has published two of the old novels in a single hardcover.
And the radio show? Tapes of old programs are being aired on 300 stations across the U.S., and a new generation is learning what it means to get the chills over the Shadow’s sinister laugh (which another actor did because Welles could never get it right).
Gibson, 78, and his wife—a former magician—live in a comfortable Victorian house in upstate Eddyville, N.Y. In addition to his career as biographer of the Shadow, he had another fictional hero, Norgil the Magician. Magic is a subject that Gibson knows a lot about—he ghostwrote books for Houdini, and he’s a practicing magician himself.
For Gibson the return of the Shadow is like an old oil well that has started pumping again. He doesn’t have to write any new Shadow stories—he stays busy enough just signing contracts for reprints. The Shadow insists “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay.” In Gibson’s case, the Shadow’s mind is the one that’s clouded.