In the film Gods and Monsters (1998), the character James Whale describes actor Boris Karloff as “the dullest fellow imaginable.” Historically, Whale directed Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), making a struggling stage actor a movie star. In Gods and Monsters Whale comes across as a sadly self-absorbed figure, but by all accounts, Karloff was a genial pipe-smoking and tea-drinking Englishman of his day, often conversing at length about cricket and the writings of Joseph Conrad.
To revisit cricket matches from Karloff’s time would fascinate only collectors of old Wisden cricket annuals. What bears further attention is Karloff’s devotion to the works of Conrad, an author Paul Johnson in Modern Times (1991) called “the wise and sad old Pole.”
Karloff (1887-1969) was born William Henry Pratt, his birthplace in what was then suburban London now indicated by an historical marker. His was a respectable Victorian family with a history of British colonial service. One of his aunts was Anna Leonowens, whose memoirs inspired the musical The King and I, and one of his brothers became a diplomat and retired with a knighthood.
The Pratts expected Billy, as he was known in the family, also to go into foreign service. From plays performed at his local church, as a boy he fell in love with the theatre, a lifelong struggle with a lisp and a stammer proving no obstacle. His family, however, looked down on acting as a career, and so he took a stage name.
Over the years he gave various accounts of its origins, leaving his biographers stymied. On one occasion he said, “the ‘Boris’ I took out of the air or a book or something.” It is worth considering that he may have derived his stage name in part from his deep reading of Conrad: Conrad named his elder son Borys, and “Karloff” suggested something Slavic akin to Conrad’s actual surname of Korzeniowski. To add another layer of protection to the Pratt family reputation, Karloff began acting professionally in Canada.
Fame from playing Dr. Frankenstein’s monster made Karloff’s name a byword for menacing horror. From the 1930s into the 1950s, audiences of stage, screen, and radio knew what sort of character to expect when his name appeared. In 1966, a younger generation encountered him as narrator of a half-hour televised cartoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
All the while, few people were aware that Karloff always had on hand a volume of Conrad. An exception was his friend, Edmund Speare, a professor of literature and editor of several anthologies of prose and poetry. In 1943, Speare and his publisher got an idea for a new anthology, this one to be called Tales of Terror and to be edited by Boris Karloff.
“It’ll be amusing,” Speare told Karloff, “to have a collection of bogey stories selected by a professional bogey man.” Karloff agreed, and while he toured the country with his hit Broadway macabre comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, Speare’s publisher sent Karloff boxes of books. An avid reader, Karloff enjoyed consulting with Speare by letter and telephone as he whittled his choices down to fourteen short stories.
Then Speare pulled the lever on the trap door. Now, all they needed was for Karloff to write an Introduction. It was news to Karloff, but the prospect intrigued him. From the start, Karloff insisted that, whatever else, this collection must include a story by Joseph Conrad, and here was Karloff’s chance to explain why.
“All my reading life,” Karloff wrote about Conrad, “I have been devoted to this great master of English prose.” For Karloff, Conrad “had the power of creating suspense and terror through suggestion.” As Conrad sketched suspense and terror, “he added one ingredient which drives his stories home,” namely, compassion. “He knew that compassion is the touchstone of our common humanity, and he never fails to make us share and understand the sufferings of his characters persevering hopelessly but gallantly in an unequal struggle.”
For Tales of Terror Karloff chose Conrad’s story “Amy Foster.” Karloff conceded that an episode about a shipwrecked stranger may not be an obvious tale of terror. He noted, though, that “it has for its theme the essential loneliness of every human being, and is a masterpiece of understatement, and that’s reason enough for me.”
According to Karloff’s official biographer, Stephen Jacobs, in Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster (2011), Tales of Terror sold well, going through four printings. So, in 1946 Speare proposed another anthology with Karloff as editor, And the Darkness Falls. That volume ran to 630 pages and contained stories and poems, and, along with an Introduction, before each story or poem Karloff wrote a brief biographical note about its author. Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting poem “Ulalume” and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s chilling ballad “Richard Cory” joined tales by Guy de Maupassant and Dorothy Sayers, Nikolai Gogol and Cornell Woolrich, writing under his pen name William Irish.
The penultimate feature in this collection was by Joseph Conrad, “The Brute.” Based on actual events, it recounts the fate of a British sailing ship seemingly possessed by a murderous demon. Karloff wrote, “No collection of tales that I have ever had a hand in assembling could possibly be complete without a Conrad story.” Unlike “Amy Foster,” this story was more clearly a dark and eerie tale. “That one of his colorful pieces,” Karloff said, “can find a natural place in an anthology of this nature is proof again of the author’s many-sided genius.”
In addition to his reading Conrad, in November, 1958, Karloff performed on live television in a ninety-minute adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The venue was a weekly anthology series, Playhouse 90, what former actress and now Benedictine nun Dolores Hart described in her memoirs as “the most ambitious and arguably the most prestigious show of television’s Golden Age.”
In 1960 Hart appeared with Karloff in another Playhouse 90 production, but here Karloff joined a cast that included Roddy McDowall and Eartha Kitt. This version of Conrad’s novella aspired to be avant-garde but ended up being tedious. Still, it remains worthwhile sitting through it to see Karloff as Kurtz and appreciate his deeply intuitive, dare one say compassionate, portrayal of a man embodying how civilization can degrade back into barbarism. Boris Karloff was more than a monster, indeed, but, like Joseph Conrad, he showed us the monsters within us.
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