The Crimson Clown was a brilliantly strange concept for a pulp crime-fighting hero that provided readers with enjoyable thrills, but never quite reached the bizarre excellence his premise offered. The Clown was created by Johnston McCulley and debuted in 1926 in Detective Story Magazine. Collections of the stories featuring the character were reprinted over the years by a variety of publishers including Chelsea House, Cassell in the UK, and Ramble House.
McCulley was a very prolific pulp scribe who secured his place in pop culture history with the creation of Zorro. You’re familiar with Zorro, of course. The masked swashbuckling swordsman of old California would be an adventure fiction mainstay for decades, spawning many versions and imitators in a variety of media. In addition to Zorro, McCulley created a myriad of other heroes and villains for the pulps. The Man in Purple, the Black Star, the Spider, all of whom had great concepts, but were often presented in pedestrian chase stories, or episodic crime yarns. Often these stories depicted the the hero gaining and losing the upper hand in his conflict with the villain in a predictable formula that typically depended more on coincidence and unbelievable occurrences rather than clever storytelling or credible plotting. This is not to say those tales aren’t enjoyable, because they frequently were. It is likely that much of the stories’ weaknesses originated in the challenge of meeting multiple deadlines rather than a lack of storytelling skill on the part of the writer. This was a common dilemma for pulp writers. Whatever the reason it is unfortunate that such strange and striking characters were featured in stories that, while serviceable, were not as creative and bizarre.
This is certainly the case with the Crimson Clown whose image and milieu deserved more effort and creativity than was evident in his stories. I mean, just look at this guy.
THIS is the disguise the stalwart hero Delton Prouse decided he’d use to strike a blow against boredom and the gangsters and ne’er do wells who preyed on the honest citizenry. Talk about striking fear into the hearts of men! Many people don’t like bats, but a lot of folks don’t mind them. Same with spiders or other supposedly scary things; some don’t like them but many don’t care. But everyone hates clowns! Nothing’s creepier than a guy who has a big red smile painted on his face but you can see that HE’S NOT SMILING UNDERNEATH. It’s one of nature’s warning signs.
Think about it. Even a crime-hardened gangster will get the shock of his life if he were to go around the corner of his hideout where he felt he was safe, only to confront some freak in a red clown suit. That would give even the hardest boiled yegg reconsider his line of work. And while the criminals in the Mcculley stories fear the Clown, and the police for their part are attempting to hunt him down also, neither respond to the character with the atavistic revulsion and mind-bending bewilderment that he deserves.
Any character as weird as the Crimson Clown really deserves to have some baroquely strange stories. Any hero with the cajones and possible brain damage to dress up as a clown to fight crime is extreme enough to pull out all of the stops. It’s all well and good to go out dressed in a cape and slouch hat and look all cool, but the Crimson Clown knew what’s really scary.