Frederick Stuart Green at the beginning of the first world war, courtesy the Virginia Military Institute Archives

Frederick Stuart Greene (1870-1939),
horror's discarded genius

commentary by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


One of my favorite "unknown writers" was publishing at the tail-end of the great American Golden Age of the Short Story (which ended in the early 1920s to be supplanted by sloppy pulp fiction), namely Frederick Stuart Greene of the same Southern Gothic school that produced William Faulkner & Flannery O'Connor. His horror tale "The Black Pool" was reprinted in And The Darkness Falls (World Publishing, 1946), nominally edited by Boris Karloff though actually by Dr. Edmund Speare who is slyly credited in Boris's Preface, the only thing in the anthology that Karloff had a hand in. Many years ago I asked Forrey Ackerman, who knew Karloff, if there was any chance he actually participated in editing this remarkable anthology, & 4E said Karloff did have sufficient expertise to do so as he was well read in the horror genre, but lacked time or inclination.

Greene, the tale's headnote asserts, was active in magazine fiction from 1915-1917. In actuality, his first story had appeared in 1913 in The Saturday Evening Post, a propitious beginning. Dr. Speare offered no guess why Greene stopped writing. Indeed, Speare, who corresponded with Green shortly before his death in 1939, complained that Greene could not be induced to impart any biographical data of any kind. Speare's individual story headnotes were surprisingly detailed but since Greene denied him any information, I suspect this put Speare in a bit of a bad mood. So he wrote the headnote for Greene's tale while in a mild pique, or so I suspect, purposely underestimating a story he had so carefully selected. He first praises it as "a horror tale that is almost classical in its logical unfolding" but qualifies his praise a tad testily:

The writing is a little florid, & I must apologize for saying that some of the sentiments expressed are a bit schoolboyish. Neveretheless, there is an original plot, well-handled suspense, & a natural denouement. It is a truly gripping tale with three good shocks in it!

Though Dr. Speare could not induce Greene in the 1930s to speak of himself, in 1917 he provided Edward O'Brien with a thumbnail sketch. He told O'Brien he was born in Rappahannock County, Virginia, in 1870, though on further checking he seems actually to have been born in Jersey City, New Jersey, & moved to Virginia as a child with his family. I suspect he was of the Dorset Greenes who immigrated to Rhode Island in the 1600s, as the name Frederick, with that spelling, was & remains common in that family line. If I'm right, then one of Frederick's patriot ancestors was a famed colonel assigned to lead a Rhode Island black regiment in 1776, this regiment acquitting itself heroically against the Hessians (yes, black Americans helped establish a free America right from the start, though their own freedom & right to vote must await another century). This earlier Colonel Greene also fought against the British in 1780 in North Carolina, a state which Frederick S. Greene personally cared about, perhaps due to this Revolutionary family connection.

Frederick graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1890. He worked as a civil engineer until 1917 when he became the Army commanding officer of Company B, 302nd Engineers, at Upton, New York. After the war he worked for the New York Canal Department, remaining with the department until the year of his death. His title was Superintendent of Public Works which carried political responsibilities beyond those of a civil engineer. He lived most of his adult life on Long Island with his wife.

He was also involved in the theater. The Virginia Military Academy has in its special collections copies of four of Frederick S. Greene's plays, which to my knowledge were never published.

During his war service, which did not take him to Europe, he was in communication with Edward J. O'Brien, to whom Greene insisted that his goals were to see the war come to a satisfactory conclusion then to spend the rest of his life writing fiction. But Captain (eventually Colonel) Greene's published stories are those written before & during the war, none after. We may never know what happened to him during the war years per se, but we do have a fair record of what happened to him in the publishing world.

I first found Greene through Edward J. O'Brien's The Best Short Stories of 1916 (Small Maynard, 1917) which included three of the greatest weird stories of the decade: Theodore Dreiser's tearjerking ghost story "The Lost Phoebe" from The Century Magazine April 1916, now a recognized classic; Dana Burnett's curiously forgotten but gutwrenching New England sea horror "Fog" from McBride's Magazine February 1916; & Frederick Stuart Greene's startling physical horror story "The Cat of the Cane-brake" from Metropolitan Magazine August 1916. Carl Van Vechten in The Tiger in the House (1922) pegged "The Cat & the Cane-brake" as one of the great horror tales about cats, likening it to Robert W. Chambers' "The Repairer of Reputations" & Edgar Poe's "The Black Cat." Edward J. O'Brien wrote of it:

"The Cat of the Cane-brake" by Frederick Stuart Greene is a grim tragedy of horror, & with directness & power it is Greek in the relentless logic of its unfolding. It reveals striking originality in plot, adequate characterization, carefully handled suspense, & a natural though completely unforeseen denouement. Its stark exposure of elemental forces is unforgettable, & its compactly wrought structure is a triumph of successful technique.

The following year O'Brien selected "The Bunker Mouse" from The Century March 1917 for The Best Short Stories of 1917 (Small Maynard, 1918). It's a wartime adventure tale of psychological depth & tragedy, not quite horror, but quietly remarkable. This volume of the year's best once again included some of the greatest horror stories of the era, i.e., Vincent O'Sullivan's ghostly "The Interval" from The Boston Evening Transcript, September 8, 1917, & Burton Kline's extraordinary weird tale "The Caller in the Night" from The Stratford Journal December 1917. O'Brien remarked that it was inconceivable that one of the finest American writers (O'Sullivan) should have to resort to a newspaper to get even one story published that year, but neglected to mention that Kline's great tale appeared in a journal he himself was editing, or it too might've gone unpublished. Stories as grimly grotesque as these were not easy to sell because the public wanted (or magazine editors thought the public wanted) lightweight stuff. This was the central factor in Frederick Greene's experience as well. A readership already sufficiently psychologically punished by daily news of the war in Europe was not seeking brutality in its fiction choices; indeed, easily one-third of the fictional war stories of this period were unrealistic piffle that followed the pattern of Arthur Machen's "The Angels of Mons" in reassuring readers that God is on our side so who can stand against us.

O'Brien, as the finest editor short story artists have ever known, immediately pegged Greene as a great artist for the short form. Greene had also been one of Blanche Coulton Williams' "discoveries." She was the leading short story creative writing professor of the era & the list of her graduates is a Who's Who of the best short story specialists of the early 20th Century. She certainly never forgot her pupil, for many years later she included his 1915 mystery yarn "Galway Intrudes" in her textbook anthology The Mystery & the Detective (New York: Appleton-Century, 1938), & other of his stories were reprinted in her other anthologies compiled for high school & university usage.

Greene's crowning contribution to the horror genre, the best anthology of the 'teens, was The Grim Thirteen (Dodd Mead, 1917), which carries this dedication:

Blanche Coulton Williams, M.A., Ph.D.,
Who Quails not at the Unhappy Ending,
This Collection of Stories
Is Dedicated in Appreciation of the Fine Work
She is Doing at Columbia University
and Hunter College for the
American Short Story.

"The Black Pool" was included in The Grim Thirteen in the closing position. It is a terror tale of guilt-induced hallucinatory ghostly horror which ends with a spectacularly visual image of self-induced doom. It is relentlessly downbeat. Greene discovered such tales were almost impossible to sell. He introduced his tale thus:

The repeated rejection of this story led to the idea of The Grim Thirteen. It was sent to every magazine where it was likely to have the ghost of a chance & came back with unusual promptness, never, however, accompanied by that day-glooming, heart-chilling atrocity, the printed rejection slip. One busy editor took the time to write two pages about it; & each refusal had some word to lighten the blow.

No amount of critical praise would ever make the marketing of doom & gloom a cinch. Vincent O'Sullivan, who is included in Greene's anthology, had written in The Savoy about this very difficulty, in an essay on gloomy fiction that I included in my Ghost Story Press edition of O'Sullivan's complete weird fiction. And O'Sullivan made so little money from his writings that he frequently had nothing to eat except for -- I do not exaggerate -- a single leaf of lettuce & weak tea.

If in this commercial environment Frederick Greene were to continue writing, he must do so knowing his every success would be hard-won, appreciated only by a tiny audience of short story aficionados like Dr. Blanche Coulton Williams & Edward O'Brien together with some fellow writers. Perhaps the doomful tone of his tales was indicative of his actual moods; & it can be hard for an artist in the midst of unrelenting mental depression to shrug off difficulty in achieving anything resembling commercial validation on the basis of genius alone.

In an era when trivial writers of trivial romances were being paid a thousand dollars a pop to write tales for Good Housekeeping or Lady's Home Journal, Greene could expect a fifth so much from slightly more artful journals -- & at times he couldn't even get that. In the wake of the Great War, perhaps he no longer felt it was worth the uphill battle to convince magazine editors to peddle pessimism alongside their soap ads. If you're already depressive, it is hard to not feel worse & worse each time some editor says something on the order of, "This is the best story I've ever rejected. If you write anything with puppies & happy children in it, please try me again."

In one of The Grim Thirteen tales, the cute puppies get eaten by vagrants.

Greene's farewell-anthology certainly made his point. All the stories had been multiply-rejected as "too gruesome" for popular consumption. Dana Burnett's "Mist," as unflinching as its best-of-the-year companion piece "Fog," is a story I mentioned to Charles Waugh as one of the best American ghost stories ever penned, inducing Charles to immediately anthologize it in New England Ghosts (Rutledge Hill, 1990). Vance Thompson's rather Dickensian tale of horror, poverty, & vengeful witchcraft, "The Day of Daheimus," is without doubt the best thing he ever wrote. Greene's preface to it notes, "Like all the stories here set down, it has been rejected with praise by many magazines." A tale by Stacy Aumonier, "Old Fags," was declared by one editor to be the best story he had read in ten years, then rejected it. Thirteen tales "by authors of standing" each with a similar record of rejections in spite of excellence.

Things are certainly no better today. Many a self-published or e-published failure at fiction takes heart that this proves their own excreted rubbish is likewise superior to God. The great stories do eventually find credible publication in anthologies or magazines which tend often enough to be edited by authors; it's the innovative genre novel that nowadays has no market. But even the short stories, the better they get, the steeper the mountain they climb.

According to O'Brien when he reviewed this anthology in Best Short Stories, the goal of The Grim Thirteen was to prove to editors there was a market for stories with tragedy, gruesomeness, & sorrow sustained even in their endings. But it seems it really became Greene's kiss-off & farewell, his evidence that he did not leave for any reasons of inferiority, having given proof of his assertion that the trunks of many a successful writer held their best works unsold.

Backed by critics, teachers, & anthologists like Coulton & O'Brien, Greene believed short story art mattered & wanted to be permitted to be an artist. Had more editors like his one magazine supporter at The Century Magazine been able to sustain him, Greene might not have felt he was banging against stone walls. Perhaps he himself was at fault for lacking the degree of perseverance all artists require if they are to succeed on merit & originality as opposed to momentary commercial requirements. He lived many years after he stopped writing & was but a couple hours leisurely journey from publishing centers. But he published no more, electing instead to make his mark in the engineering world of bridges & waterways, his achievement being cited in specialized hydrologic histories.

See also The Frederick Stuart Greene Short Story Bibliography

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