Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Oscar Cook

Oscar Cook (b. Tollington Park, Islington, 17 March 1888; d. Kensington, 23 February 1952)

Richard Martin Oscar Cook, who commonly went by his third name Oscar, was born in greater London, the second son of Henry Adcock Cook (b. 1858), an athletic goods manufacturer, and Alice Cole (b. c. 1861), who were married in the Parish of St. James, Muswell Hill, Middlesex on 30 October 1885. Besides an older brother he had a younger sister.  Little is known of his youth and early adulthood, but he was educated at St. Catherine’s School and the family lived for a time in Broxbourne. At the time of the 1911 Census, Oscar was working as an insurance clerk in Broxbourne. By June 1912, he was nine thousand miles away from home in Borneo, where, finding himself out of a job after a disagreement with his employer at the Beaufort Borneo Rubber Company, he joined the North Borneo Civil Service, in whose employ he remained for about eight years, returning to London in 1920.  Back in England he was encouraged by friends to write a personal memoir of his time in Borneo, and when completed, he took his manuscript to the literary agency Curtis Brown.  There he met agent Christine Campbell Thomson (1897-1985).  Thomson gave his manuscript a more attractive title and proceeded to sell it to British and American publishers.  Borneo: The Stealer of Hearts was published in London by Hurst & Blackett in August 1924, and soon afterwards by Houghton Mifflin of Boston.  Following Thomson’s recommendation that he write about what he knew, Cook published a number of stories set in Borneo in magazines such The Blue Magazine, Hutchinson’s Adventure-Story Magazine, Hutchinson’s Mystery-Story Magazine, and The Novel Magazine.

Oscar Cook and Christine Campbell Thomson were married in London on 30 September 1924. Around this time, for about a year, Cook worked as the editor of two magazines, Hutchinson’s Mystery-Story Magazine and Hutchinson’s Adventure-Story Magazine.  In 1925 Cook acquired a controlling interest in the publishing firm Selwyn & Blount Limited. His wife devised and edited for the firm the very successful “Not at Night” series of horror anthologies, the first of which, titled “Not at Night,” appeared in October 1925.  Less successful on the Selwyn & Blount list were Cook’s own novel The Seventh Wave, published in September 1926, and a reprint of his memoir, Borneo: The Stealer of Hearts, in August 1927. Cook tried his hand at playwriting, and a version in three acts of The Seventh Wave was performed in 1927. 

Selwyn & Blount also published his wife’s novel, His Excellency, in September 1927.  The “Not at Night” series meanwhile had grown by two further volumes, More Not at Night in September 1926 and You’ll Need a Night Light in September 1927, but the success of this series was not enough to keep the firm alive.  In 1928 Selwyn & Blount was acquired by Hutchinson, which continued the profitable “Not at Night” series, making in total twelve volumes, the final being the Not at Night Omnibus (1937).  Thomson continued to edit the series, including tales of her own (under the pseudonym Flavia Richardson) as well as stories by her husband.

In 1928 Cook and Thomson’s only child was born, a son Gervis Hugh Frere Cook, who in adulthood became a navy officer and hyphenated his surname as Frere-Cook.  In the family tradition, Gervis Frere-Cook edited a few books in the 1960s and early 1970s, including The Decorative Arts of the Mariner (1966) and The Decorative Arts of the Christian Church (1972), before his early death in 1974.

Beginning in 1925, Thomson sold American serial rights for four of Cook’s stories to Weird Tales magazine, and these stories were mostly reprints (sometimes under new titles) of tales which had previously appeared in England.  (One Weird Tales story which appears in various indices as by Oscar Cook is actually bylined “Cargray Cook” and is mistakenly included with those by Oscar Cook. This story, titled “On the Highway,” appeared in the January 1925 issue.)  The story which appeared under the title “The Sacred Jars” in Weird Tales in March 1927, and which appeared in England as “When Glister Walked,” is actually an expansion of an episode which had appeared in chapter six of his memoir.  Cook’s best stories are those which are highlighted by the local color of Borneo.  His most famous story is probably “Boomerang,” which was effectively adapted by Rod Serling for a second season episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, where it was retitled “The Caterpillar.” The episode was broadcast on 1 March 1972.

Cook and Thomson’s marriage broke up in 1937, and Oscar Cook died in Kensington at the age of 63 in early 1952. 

NB: An earlier version of this entry appeared in my column “Notes on Neglected Fantasists”, Fastitocalon no. 1 (2010).  

4 comments:

  1. Richard Martin Oscar Cook died on 23rd Febuary 1952.

    cheers,

    Johnny Mains

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  2. Thanks, Johnny. Coincidentally, I just received my copy of your anthology The Screaming Book of Horror, and am looking forward to reading it.

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  3. I really hope that you enjoy it Doug - I really loved working on it. If you want to drop me an email after you've read it, give me a shout.

    Little side note to Oscar Cook, his daughter was going to announce her wedding in the Times newspaper, but Oscar died and they tried to hold off the publication for a little bit - but it ended up that Oscar's death notice and his daughters wedding notice ended up in the Times on the same day.

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    1. I have just read Oscar Cook's memoir book: Borneo: Stealer of Heart. and it was very interesting to me as i come from Borneo. He had served in my district.

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