Updated: Jul 26, 2022
By John C. Alsedek:
As I may have mentioned a bazillion times in this space, I was born and raised in the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital city and the biggest one between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. And as I’ve also mentioned a bazillion times in this space, I was a science-fiction/horror/fantasy fan from as far back as I can remember—quite literally. My earliest childhood memory is of watching the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows during its original ABC run when I was maybe two years old.
So it’s sad that when writer Amelia Reynolds Long passed away in Harrisburg on March 26, 1978, I not only didn’t hear about it, I didn’t even know who she was. As a matter of sad fact, I only found out the details of Long’s life just a few weeks ago. And what makes it doubly sad is that not only was Long a pioneer in the science-fiction genre, it was her short story "The Thought-Monster" that inspired one of my favorite movies as a kid, 1958’s Fiend Without a Face.
Born in Columbia, PA (it’s literally just down the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg), on November 25, 1904, Long and her parents moved to Harrisburg proper when she was very young; she would call Harrisburg home for the rest of her life. She attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1931. She spent the rest of the 1930s writing science-fiction and fantasy stories for the pulp magazines of the era, including the most famous of them all, Weird Tales. Along with C. L. Moore and Clare Winger Harris, Long was one of the very first female writers in the genre. "The Thought-Monster" (1930) was one of her earliest works; others include "The Undead" (1931), "Omega" (1932), "Scandal in the Fourth Dimension" (1934), "A Leak in the Fountain of Youth" (1936), "Reverse Phylogeny" (1937), and "When the Half Gods Go—" (1939).
At the end of the thirties, Amelia Reynolds Long moved from science fiction into mysteries, penning a number of well-received "whodunit" novels under several pseudonyms. Receiving praise for her ability to create believable characters, situations that never came across as forced, and twist endings that never felt like "cheats," Long continued producing mystery novels through the 1940s and into the early 1950s; two of her better-known books of this period are Death Wears a Scarab (1943) and The Lady is Dead (1951).
In the latter part of the 1950s, Long switched it up again, devoting her energies to what she’s best remembered for today: poetry. That would remain her focus for the remainder of her life; her last published work was Pennsylvania Poems, an anthology she edited for the Harrisburg Workshop less than a year before her passing. Long’s poetry focused largely on American history and the natural world, but also sometimes harkened back to her earlier days with poems such as "I Dreamed of Long Dead Cities," "Lucifer’s Reply," and "Our Ghosts Draw from the Crowded Future." She was very active in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Poetry Societies; today, the Pennsylvania Poetry Society has an award in her name.
However, even as she was moving over to poetry, she received a most unexpected offer via longtime friend, literary agent, and horror/sci-fi superfan Forrest J. Ackerman. Thinking that Long’s 1930 story "The Thought-Monster" would be an interesting property for the up-and-coming American International Pictures, Ackerman had approached AIP co-founder James H. Nicholson with the idea. Nicholson passed, but one of AIP’s producers, Alex Gordon, was intrigued and suggested it to his brother Richard, who had his own production company. As a result, Richard Gordon and partner John Croyden ended up purchasing the rights to make "The Thought-Monster," filming it under the title Fiend Without a Face in 1958.
Shot in the United Kingdom but set in the fictional town of Winthrop, Manitoba, in Canada, Fiend Without a Face kept the basic concepts from Long’s short story, including an invisible monster murdering townsfolk and experiments involving the materialization of thought, but expanded upon them. In the film version, the monsters feed on the atomic power generated by an experimental U.S. Air Force radar installation, eventually absorbing so much energy that they become gruesomely visible: their form is that of an ambulatory human brain and spinal column, with feelers and eye stalks growing out of it! Major Jeff Cummings (played by Marshall Thompson) leads an investigation into the source of these beasties, and the trail leads back to retired scientist Professor R. E. Walgate (played by Kynaston Reeves).
By far the most memorable part of Fiend Without a Face is the finale, when the brain monsters become visible and attack Major Cummings, Professor Walgate, Cummings’ love interest/Walgate’s typist Barbara Griselle (played by Kim Parker), and a few others at Walgate’s home. The brain monsters are done via stop-motion animation by German special effects artist K. L. Ruppel, and for such a modestly budgeted film ($140,000 total), the stop-motion work is quite effective. In fact, it turned out to be a little too effective. In particular, British filmgoing audiences were repulsed by the way the brain monsters burst and bled out when shot or split with an axe during the movie’s finale. The British Board of Film Censors had demanded some cuts before Fiend Without a Face was released, but those apparently weren’t enough, and the matter was even brought up in Parliament! That didn’t stop people from seeing the movie, however, and it grossed over $650,000 in the U.S. and U.K. markets, running on a double bill with The Haunted Strangler. Today, it’s remembered as one of the better B-films of the 1950s.
Fiend Without a Face star Marshall Thompson also starred in another of my childhood favorites—a film that would be a primary influence for the Ridley Scott classic Alien. Yep, we’ll be talking It! The Terror from Beyond Space next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.