Time erodes all, including our collective memory. Even what is preserved in print can be subject to caprice; once well-known works can be forgotten. Take, for example, that classic space opera: Thorne Smith’s Lensmen.
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.
I owe my encounter with 1931’s The Night Life of the Gods to Del Rey’s decision to reprint six of Thorne Smith’s comic fantasies ( Topper, Topper Takes a Trip , The Night Life of the Gods , The Stray Lamb , Rain in the Doorway , and Turnabout) in 1980. I had never heard of Thorne Smith — then — although once I had read a few of his novels, I realized that I had already encountered many of his characters and plots in movies and TV. Sometimes directly adapted from his work, sometimes inspired by it 1.
Of the six reprints, Rain in the Doorway was my favourite, but The Night Life of the Gods had a quality even Rain could not match: Night Life was my very first Thorne Smith novel. As I would learn, Smith novels tend to have very recognizable themes: unhappy middle-aged men, often married, trapped in unrewarding lives, who are freed from the doldrums of modern existence by an encounter with the whimsically fantastic, which often comes in the form of a fetching young woman.
Although I couldn’t know it at the time, this being my first Smith, Night Life subverts the Smith formula. Protagonist Hunter Hawk isn’t one of Smith’s worn-down conformists. Hunter Hawk, you see, does not give a fig for convention because Hunter Hawk is a Mad Scientist!