Obituary: Carl Jacobi

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The Independent Online
Carl Jacobi was a journalist, weird-fiction and adventure-story writer, and one of the last surviving pulp-fictioneers to have contributed regularly to the legendary American horror magazine Weird Tales during its "glory days" (the 1920s and 1930s).

His horror stories in particular were highly regarded, both by readers and fellow professionals. E. Hoffman Price, English-born Hugh Cave, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Robert "Psycho" Bloch, the poet Joseph Payne Brennan - Weird Tales regulars all, at one time or another - were confirmed Jacobi admirers. Robert E. Howard, creator of "Conan The Barbarian", thought his imagination "subtle and poetic". The fastidious H.P. Lovecraft (sternest of stern critics) considered his talent "phenomenal".

Carl Richard Jacobi was born in Minneapolis (a city he never much left) in 1908. He was a voracious reader, gulping down at an early age quantities of Jules Verne, Wells and Poe, as well as the Frank Merriwell and Tom Swift boys' adventure yarns. He was always a writer. At his junior high school he earned good pocket-money concocting his own "dime novels" (short story booklets), and selling them to fellow students at 10 cents-a-piece. Even in his eighties, when chronic ill-health plagued him, he would sit at his typewriter playing with an idea to see if it could be turned into paying fiction.

He attended the University of Minnesota from 1927 to 1930, majoring in English Literature, although long before graduation he made his first professional sale, a short detective tale, "Rumbling Cannon", to Secret Service Stories. This ought to have paid around 50 dollars, but Jacobi received not a cent, since the pulp folded soon after the story was published, a catastrophe which ought to have warned him of the folly of pursuing a writing career.

However, his enthusiasm was unquenched, although initially he had to support himself immediately after graduation by joining the Minneapolis Star as reporter, reviewer and sub. After a while regular hours palled, and he left the Star, renting an office in uptown Minneapolis in which were typewriter, paper, a few reference books, and a list of editorial addresses in New York.

In these Depression years of the early 1930s the pulp-writer needed as formidable a creative armoury as possible, along with a certain amount of luck, and cunning, to crack even the lowest paying markets. Jacobi had a useful knack for dreaming up memorable milieux against which to set his tales, and bizarre situations that stayed in the mind long after the magazine the story itself was in had been finished and tossed away.

He may have been the only writer ever to have a story firmly rejected by the redoubtable Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, only to have Wright, weeks later, begging for the story back, because an incident in it had stuck in his mind. This was "Revelations In Black", a chilling, and much-reprinted, vampire tale set in an old stone farmhouse outside of Minneapolis Jacobi had driven past one night (the house's eerie statue- lined garden, as seen by brilliant moonlight, had caught his eye, and his imagination).

He also clawed his way into the better-paying adventure market (quite unlike weird-fantasy or horror) by finding a gap in the field (no one was writing stories set in the East Indies or the Malay Straits much), then cleverly using the kinds of people he wanted to feature in his stories as unpaid field-researchers. He would write to those in charge of far- flung outposts deep in the heart of the Borneo jungle, say, demanding geographical detail, obscure ethnic lore, atmospheric and forestal conditions; anything, in short, you couldn't get out of a book. This way he became an acknowledged expert in a field he had created himself, at the same time virtually inventing whole new fiction sub-genres, such as "Borneo terror tale", "New Guinea Adventure", and so on. Later he turned the same trick with Baluchistan.

Over a 40-year career Jacobi wrote of vampires, giant cobras, gun-runners, South Sea poachers, alien invaders, murderous sleepwalkers, werewolves, cosmic castaways, swashbucklers of the Spanish Main (impudently he wrote to the celebrated historic novelist and creator of the arch-swashbuckler Captain Blood, Rafael Sabatini, for buccaneering detail, thus initiating a sparky correspondence that lasted until Sabatini's death in 1950), doppelgangers, dimensional doorways, ghouls, diabolical strangers, blondes clutching smoking .38s, possessed pianos, and a thousand and one other strange, disturbing and utterly riveting matters.

Some of his tales are classics of weird fiction - the brooding "Moss Island", "Hamdryad Chair" (extremely uncomfortable), "The Cane", "Portrait In Moonlight", "The Unpleasantness at Carver House", "The Digging at Pistol Key" (pirate loot and obeah worship), "The Tomb From Beyond" (admired by Lovecraft), "The Bells Toll Blood" (Terror Tales editor Rogers Terrill, no faint-heart when it came to stories of gruesome horror, rejected it as "too gory"), "The Corbie Door" (which leads to a strange Gothic world). But his adventure yarns are equally as entertaining, and certainly not to be dismissed merely because their creator never strayed much beyond a hundred miles or so from his hearthside.

Carl Jacobi did not have the easiest of lives. When the pulp markets collapsed he took regular employment with Honeywell as an electronics inspector, while still pounding the typewriter off duty. Debilitating illness crippled him during the final half-decade or so of his life, although his literary agent and biographer Dixon Smith did much to alleviate his various afflictions.

Most of Carl Jacobi's supernatural fiction was collected in four volumes: Revelations In Black (1947), Portraits In Moonlight (1964), Disclosures In Scarlet (1972), and the recent Smoke of the Snake (1994). A sampling of his exotic adventure stories was collected in East Of Samarinda (1989). A rather more generous helping would be very welcome.

Jack Adrian

Carl Richard Jacobi, journalist, short story writer, and electronics inspector: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 10 July 1908; died St Louis Park Plaza, Minnesota 25 August 1997.