Black Cat, The

Tagged: Publication

US short-story magazine founded in Boston by Herman D Umbstaetter (1851-1913) in October 1895. Umbstaetter remained its publisher, under the Short Story Publishing Co imprint, and editor until the September 1912 issue when his health forced him to sell the magazine to Samuel E Cassino (1856-1937) who ran it with his son, Herman, until 1919. Theresa E Dyer (1872-1967), who had been Umbstaetter's assistant, continued to edit the magazine, but when Cassino transferred the magazine to Salem, MA, the editor became (from December 1913) Frank Wellman Osborne until 1915 when Harold E Bessom (1895-1982) took over. The magazine was transferred to New York during 1919 and set up under its own company owned by Fox Films, and Bessom remained as editor until the magazine ceased in October 1920. It was briefly revived by William R Kane, of Highland Falls, New York, from January 1922 to at least December 1922 (the last sighted issue) or perhaps April 1923. For most of its life The Black Cat was a slim, review-size Magazine, more like a chapbook and seldom more than 48 pages, but from December 1919 to October 1920 it suddenly flirted with the standard Pulp format which may have contributed to its demise. It appeared twice monthly between January and June 1922.

The Black Cat earned a reputation for encouraging new writers and for publishing clever and original short fiction. Its most famous discovery was Jack London, for although London had placed a few earlier stories in The Overland Monthly and The White Owl (a Black Cat) imitator, The Black Cat was the first magazine to actually pay him for a story and the $40 received for "A Thousand Deaths" (May 1899), which concerned a scientist using a human as a guinea pig to explore how he could bring the dead back to life, was literally a life-saver. Other writers of interest who sold some of their earliest (non-sf) writings to The Black Cat include James Francis Dwyer, Ben Hecht, Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), Clark Ashton Smith, Vincent Starrett (1886-1974), Rex Stout and Henry Miller (1891-1980).

The most famous story published by the magazine helped establish its reputation for the unusual, "The Mysterious Card" (February 1896) by Cleveland Moffett, where a man has a card upon which he can see nothing but it revolts all he shows it to. The story was so popular that Moffett wrote a sequel, "The Mysterious Card Revealed" (August 1896), which would have been best left unwritten. It encouraged a number of stories that explored tricks of the mind (see Psychology) and the potential of Hypnosis such as "A Hundred Thousand Dollar Trance" (May 1896) by Eugene Shade Bisbee, where an audience believes a man ages in front of them, and "The Man With the Box" (July 1896) by George W Tripp, where a man creates a machine that deludes others into believing something is other than what it is (see Perception). The cleverest of these stories is "A Mental Mischance" (September 1896) by Thomas F Anderson where a man can genuinely read minds (see Telepathy) but is fooled by interpreting hopes as memories. Umbstaetter was evidently interested in the potential of the mind. He collaborated with Anderson on "The Mystery of the Thirty Millions" (April 1896) which describes a strange new ship which can influence others by some hypnotic force.

The Black Cat was full of stories about new scientific Inventions, some rather more futile than others. In "My Invisible Friend" (February 1897), Katherine Kip describes a liquid that causes Invisibility. In "Underwater House" (March 1899) by Frank Bailey Millard (1859-1941), a scientist establishes a laboratory on a remote Pacific island where he invents a variety of devices, including a television. There are mechanical slaves (see Robots) in both "Ely's Automatic Housemaid" (December 1899) by Elizabeth Bellamy (1837-1900) and "Mr Corndropper's Hired Man" (October 1900) by W M Stannard. A machine that can cancel sound serves little good in "The Horn of Marcus Brunder" (June 1899) by Howard Reynolds. In "The Transposition of Stomachs" (April 1900) by Charles E Mixer there is a stomach transplant, whilst in "A Witch City Mystery" (August 1901) by Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey a scientist discovers how to regenerate healthy humans by first liquidizing them (see Regeneration). The first trip into Earth orbit is described in "The Man Who Found Zero" (September 1901) by Ion Arnold. Radium, considered the wonder Element of the period, is used to make spirits visible in "A Rule That Worked Both Ways" (December 1904) by Octavia Z Bond, whilst its curative powers are explored in "Itself" (May 1907) by Edgar Mayhew Bacon (1855-1935).

The two writers who worked with all these themes and produced some of the most original work for The Black Cat were Don Mark Lemon (1875-?   ) and Frank Lillie Pollock. In "The Invisible City" (September 1901) Pollock has a Scientist develop a mechanical method for mass Hypnosis and creates an entire City in a desert where almost everything is an illusion. Don Mark Lemon was The Black Cat's most regular contributor of unusual stories. They include "Doctor Goldman" (December 1900), in which tissue transplanted from a dead man's brain also transfers his final memories; "Doctor Million" (February 1905) with a pill that makes people lose weight with the catch being that the only way to stop it reverses the process; "The Man Who Did Things Twice" (June 1905), a Moffettesque-type story in which a man repeats on the following day everything he did on the previous one including, apparently, dying; "The Essence of Advertising" (August 1906) has a chemical that can extract thoughts; "The Mansion of Forgetfulness" (April 1907) has a device that destroys the memory (see Amnesia) without damaging the brain; and "The Lace Designers" (May 1907) in which spiders are fed a special Drug which causes them to weave remarkable web designs.

Few stories of scientific speculation were published after Umbstaetter's death. The last such story of any significance was "John Jones's Dollar" (August 1915) by Harry Stephen Keeler, which looked at the world of 3221 and how Money invested in 1921 was now sufficient to buy the solar system, such was the power of compound interest. Hugo Gernsback reprinted this story in the March 1927 Amazing Stories. There were still many interesting contributors to The Black Cat in its final years. The soon to be notorious mystic William Dudley Pelley (1890-1965) contributed "Suspended Animation" (May 1916). Philip Francis Nowlan contributed perhaps his earliest story, the vignette "Mars, Humorist" (September 1916). Carroll K Michener (1885-1970), who later sold to Weird Tales first appeared in Black Cat with "The Dagger" (June 1918). Perhaps the most surprising author to have debuted in The Black Cat is Henry Miller who was paid for critiquing stories from earlier issues with his views published in the May, June, August and October 1919 issues. The first story he commented upon was "The Unbidden Guest" (February 1919) by Carl Clausen (1895-1954) who would later contribute to Amazing Stories.

The Black Cat was highly influential and much imitated by magazines like The White Owl, the early Ten-Story Book and even The Smart Set, and its influence can also be detected in The Thrill Book and Weird Tales. It was an independent and rather idiosyncratic publisher of science fiction and original ideas outside the growth of the field in the early popular fiction and Pulp magazines, and provided an original and clever perspective.

Umbstaetter compiled his own selection of favourite stories, The Red-Hot Dollar and Other Stories from The Black Cat (anth 1911) and was probably the anonymous editor of Through the Forbidden Gates and Other Stories (anth 1903) both of which include many of the magazine's unusual stories. A recent selection is The Man Who Found Zero (anth 2011) edited by Gene Christie. [MA]

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