Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Smith, Thorne

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(1893-1934) US writer, best-remembered for humorous novels, many turning on some fantastic Plot Device which thrusts the protagonist into grotesque predicaments, often via unwitting Transformation, and leads him on a mild, mind-broadening version of the Night Journey. The Topper books, which led to the Topper Movies and the tv series Topper (1953-1956), are Topper: An Improbable Adventure (1926; vt The Jovial Ghosts: The Misadventures of Topper 1933 UK) and Topper Takes a Trip (1932). These afflict the hapless hero Topper with the companionship of irresponsible Ghosts who find death no obstacle to fast living. Characteristically, straitlaced Topper is principally tormented by the sexy female ghost, whose Invisibility and intangibility are embarrassingly partial and intermittent. Cheerful bawdiness is a TS trademark, as is his Prohibition-era emphasis on heavy drinking as the prelude to unwise capers.

In The Stray Lamb (1929) the protagonist's incautious Wish to see humanity from outside is granted by a Pan figure, who transforms him into a succession of animals, culminating in a chimerical anthology creature (> Imaginary Animals). Turnabout (1931) subjects a jaded husband and wife to Identity Exchange when a magic statue from Egypt grants another unserious wish; after farcically experiencing pregnancy and childbirth the man in particular Learns Better. This was filmed as Turnabout (1940). The Night Life of the Gods (1931), particularly wild and shambolic in its comedy, has a protagonist who is irresponsible from the outset: he and his jealous mistress, a leprechaun's daughter, preside as lords of misrule over a riot of Magic and pseudoscientific petrification (e.g., of disagreeable relatives). This process is reversible and allows Pygmalion-like vivifying of Classical Statues, loosing a partial Pantheon from Graeco-Roman Mythology on New York. Inevitably these include Bacchus and an armless Aphrodite. After copious misadventures the Gods weary of modern life's strictures – especially policemen – and willingly return to stone. They are joined by the protagonist and his lover, eternally embracing in stone. The movie is The Night Life of the Gods (1935).

Rain in the Doorway (1933) transports a harassed lawyer from the gloom of the Depression through a Portal to a Topsy-Turvy department store run on Marx Brothers principles, featuring a Pornographic Department, permanently drunk owners, summary justice dealt out to awkward customers, and general anarchic wish-fulfilment. The protagonist's adventures are ultimately rationalized as insanity or skewed Perception; still, his inhibitions have "passed away forever", and TS is certain that this is a good thing. Skin and Bones (1933) returns to the TS formula of bizarre transformation when a chemical accident turns the hero, at unpredictable intervals, into a living skeleton. In The Glorious Pool (1934) a triangle of ageing protagonist, wife and mistress is complicated when a garden pool acquires Fountain-of-Youth properties; the pool's nymph statue also comes alive to join the tangle of relationships.

Omnibus editions are: The Thorne Smith 3-Decker (omni 1936), containing The Stray Lamb, Turnabout and Rain in the Doorway; The Thorne Smith Triplets (omni 1938), containing Topper Takes a Trip, The Night Life of the Gods and the nonfantasy farce The Bishop's Jaegers (1932); and The Thorne Smith Three-Bagger (omni 1943), containing The Glorious Pool, Skin and Bones and Topper.

Some of the uproariousness of TS's comedy has faded with time: his naughtiness inevitably seems less naughty today, and often comic effects are milked too assiduously through repetitive description and dialogue; but many passages remain very funny. His reiterated, heartfelt pleas against stifling conventions (middle-class propriety seen as Bondage) still sound a note of youthful charm. He should be read when young. [DRL]

other works: Dream's End (1927), a "serious" novel of Haunting and Dream symbolism; Lazy Bear Lane (1931); Did She Fall? (1936), detective thriller; The Passionate Witch (1941), completed after TS's death by Norman H Matson and filmed as I Married a Witch (1942), and its sequel Bats in the Belfry (1942), by Matson alone.

see also: Humour; Slick Fantasy.

James Thorne Smith Jr


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.