Ghost In Your Arms

Topper — Thorne Smith
Topper, book 1

Topper

Thorne Smith’s 1926 supernatural farce Topper is the first (and best) of two Topper novels.

Many would say that middle-aged Cosmo Topper has a perfect life. Marriage, job, life in the suburbs, pet cat: Cosmo has it all. If he were not far too repressed to be honest, Cosmo would explain that he feels crushed under the weighty bricks of conformity. Even the simple pleasures he might otherwise enjoy are robbed of their joy by the context in which he experiences them.

Cosmo does what so many middle-aged men have done in his position: he buys a flashy car. The car used to belong to George and Marion Kerby, who lived the scandalous life Cosmo might have lived had he not feared the disapproval of society and his long-suffering wife. Cosmo can at least have their car, rebuilt after the wreck that ended the Kerbys’ lives.

To Cosmo’s tremendous surprises, he gets the Kerbys as well. Or at least their ghosts.


Too obsessed with earthly delights to head off into whatever afterlife waits (and not much interested in doing so), the Kerbys enjoy their afterlife in much the same way they did their life: drinking, partying, and wild disregard for social niceties. Amused by Cosmo, they include him in their hijinks, at the cost of his social standing and Mrs. Topper’s regard. While the inevitable court appearance is not to Cosmo’s taste, it’s clear he’s not entirely unhappy with the new lifestyle the Kerbys are inflicting upon him.

Awkwardly half-infatuated with Marion when she was alive, Cosmo is almost immediately smitten with his newly deceased Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Convinced that death has left her a single woman, Marion is happy being the focus of Cosmo’s attention. A series of madcap adventures follows, as Marion and Cosmo drink their way across America.

The fly in the ointment? Marion’s husband George claims that as they died simultaneously, death did not part them; they are still married, As far as he is concerned, Marion is not a free woman. Bad news for Cosmo, the focus of George’s homicidal ire…

 ~oOo~

Thorne Smith’s popularity fell off a cliff round about the time that a Del Rey reprint series introduced him to me. Perhaps this is because his plots are alcohol-fueled. Drunk driving had become distinctly unfunny by the 1980s. Before 1980 Thorne Smith works like Topper and Turnabout were still getting the occasional TV adaptation. After 1980 Smith and his works fell into obscurity.

The book shows its age in other ways. Cosmo off-handed contemplates engaging in domestic abuse as a fix for his marital problems. There are also passages like

Stevens’ mind was so tolerant that he could have attended a lynching every day without becoming critical.

This gives us an unwelcome hint as to what sort of pastimes white Americans enjoyed in the 1920s. Well, at least Cosmo isn’t particularly hostile to African Americans — perhaps because he only ever encounters them as self-effacing servants.

Something I noticed on this reread: eyes. Scary eyes. As, for instance, the eyes of his cat.

This it was that gave Mr. Topper the shock. For the first time in their four years of companionable association Topper realised that the cat saw nothing, that is, nothing immediate. Although her yellow, searching gaze included him, it passed far beyond him down distant vistas from which he was excluded. Caressing and condoning on their way, Scollops’ eyes seemed to be roving through the ages, dwelling on appalling mysteries with the reminiscent indulgence of a satiated goddess.
Looking into Scollops’ eyes, Mr. Topper discovered that there were things he did not know, colours of life beyond his comprehension, impulses alien to his reason.

That passage borders on the Lovecraftian. Later passages are little better.

Suddenly Mr. Topper realised what was troubling him. It was eyes. Old familiar eyes. He felt that he knew them all. He knew the eyes at the office, from the president’s to the elevator boy’s. It was surprising, he thought, how desperately well he knew eyes. Mr. Topper saw eyes. Mr. Topper understood them.

Cosmo’s boss is also an eye-watcher.

The president was an old man, and, like Topper, he had grown weary from watching eyes. He had peered into them for more than half a century . . . too deeply.

One does not need Cosmic Beings to hint at existential horror. Everyday life can do the trick.

This would have been an entirely different fantasy novel if Topper and his wife had consulted a marriage counselor (assuming that such existed then). Or even if the pair had ever dared speak frankly to each other. Mrs. Topper does not get as much attention as Cosmo (nor, as far as I can tell, a first name of her very own), but their joint quest for perfect conformity has left her as miserable as Cosmo. More so, in fact, because her approach to life requires her to be unhappy. Cosmo vaguely senses that something is off-kilter with his life, but Mrs. Topper is well aware that things have gone awry.

Mrs. Topper buried her face in her hands and presently tears trickled through her fingers. “Why am I this way?” she whispered. “I don’t want to be. I don’t mean to be.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Topper, she is not the protagonist and so she does not get a scantily clad zany guide out of her dreary life. While her husband is off cavorting with a much younger woman, Mrs. Topper is left to deal with her issues on her own, with only a pair of scandalously sheer panties as a signpost towards the person she would prefer to be. Which, by the way, she manages.

I find myself less sympathetic towards poor old Cosmo than I was almost forty years ago. Also less interested in the book, which meanders into its third quarter. Still, this is the Thorne Smith novel, the one that inspired movies and TV shows. If you are a literary anthropologist, or just curious, this is the place to begin.

Topper is available is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).


Comments

  • Marcus Rowland

    He's a wonderful author, and out of copyright in Europe - I was going to write an RPG based on the books, but there were too many problems with American copyright so it never happened. As part of the process I did scan and put all of the books on my web site, including the detective novel, but don't look if you're in the USA!

    http://forgottenfutures.co.uk/smith/smith.htm

    They're also on Gutenberg Australia in more formats.

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