Thorne Smith – TOPPER
Today’s audiences think nothing out of the ordinary about BEETLEJUICE (1988) or CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST (1995), or the romantic supernatural possibilities of GHOST (1990) or WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998), but prior to Topper most ghost stories were unsettling tales in the Wilkie Collins or M. R. James tradition. Thorne Smith would forever change our relationship to ghosts and the supernatural by breaking every rule of logic and convention with his stories.
A MAN IN BODY ONLY
Topper is the story of mild-mannered, repressed banker Cosmo Topper, a man who “could not be troubled. His mental process ran safely, smoothly, and on the dot along well signaled tracks; and his physical activities, such as they were, obeyed without question an inelastic schedule of suburban domesticity. He resented being troubled. At least he thought he did.” His well-ordered life begins to unravel when he buys a car formerly owned by a young married couple, George and Marion Kerby, who were always ready to party at the drop of a cocktail. The Kerbys had died when George lost control of their vehicle during a drunken joy ride and crashed into a tree. Unwilling to ascend to a higher plane of existence, the Kerbys take it upon themselves to haunt Topper.
Unlike the spirits in traditional Gothic tales, who rattle chains and frighten us at night, the Kerbys are jovial ghosts who’ve lost none of their zest for life’s pleasures. They drink, dance, and sing and before long they have Topper doing the same, eliciting in him the belief that “I think I could learn how to live.” As Topper’s adventures develop, so does his relationship with Marion Kerby, and he falls in love with her. She is everything his dull and stuffy wife isn’t: vibrant, funny, and flirtatious. She even understands the sadness in his eyes: “Perhaps they’ve looked on loveliness too late, the world does wicked things to us with its success and routine and morality. Topper, it either cheats us with wealth or numbs us with want, steals away from us all the color and wonder of being alive, the necessary useless things.”
The novel concludes with Marion at last leaving for that higher plane and Topper acknowledging the impact she has made: “You’ve created happiness in me, you’ve awakened dreams and left memories. You’ve made me humble and you’ve made me human. You’ve taught me to understand how a man with a hangover feels. You’ve lifted me forever out of the rut of my smug existence. I’ll go back to it I know, but I won’t be the same man.” Marion reminds him, “You never were. You were never intended to be.”
Topper’s popularity stemmed from several sources. Its initial success can partly be attributed to the novel appearing six years into Prohibition and thus providing a vicarious outlet for those unhappy with the hypocrisy of the law. However, the explosive success of its reprinting by Pocket Books in the 1940s (over two million in sales, more than doubling its sales during “The Great Drought”) and its continued success through Modern Library’s reprint in the year 2000 can more accurately be seen as a testament to Thorne Smith’s genius in calling to the repressed spirit that resides in all of us.
Another vital element of Topper is its most singular creation: Marion Kerby. She is a self-assured, independent woman. Yes, she’s a ghost, but make no mistake, she is also a modern woman—though a bit on the ectoplasmic side. She is the first of many strong, free-spirited women Thorne Smith brought to literature well before there was a feminist movement. She takes her wedding vows, particularly “til death do us part,” quite literally. Upon dying, she sees no reason to tolerate her husband’s callous and indifferent ways and begins to playfully go after what she wants: her man Topper.
Marion is the mold from which Smith would create all of his leading female characters. One of the trademarks of a Thorne Smith story is the use of a powerful woman as a catalyst for the life-altering changes that occur in a man’s life. While this innovative portrayal of women all too often went unnoticed or ignored by critics, it was recognized by the female population, including Grace Bradley, who named husband William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd’s horse Topper in honor of her favorite novel.
NOTE: This overview of the Thorne Smith novel TOPPER is excerpted from my article “Host To Said Ghosts: The Thorne Smith Story”, which originally was published in SCARLET STREET magazine issue # 37 in April 2000.
©1999-2012 Michael D Walker