Horace McCoy (1892 — 1955), like Raoul Whitfield, served as an aviator during World War I, and his first stories for Black Mask fed the insatiable public hunger for air-adventure fiction. Born in a poor but literate Irish-American family, McCoy grew up near Nashville. Quitting school at sixteen, he held a variety of jobs, then joined the Air National Guard and got himself sent to France to serve as bombardier on De Havilland bombers. On August 5, 1918, when his pilot was killed, McCoy took over the controls, shot down an enemy plane and flew his own home, despite twice being wounded by machine-gun fire. After recovery he was given the Croix de Guerre. By November he was piloting his own fighter, but the war ended before he could “outshine [Eddie] Rickenbacker,” as he promised his parents in a letter. 1 Nevertheless he logged four-hundred hours over enemy territory, was wounded again and pinned with another medal.
McCoy aspired to be a writer, but he knew he needed to learn the trade. He found a job with one Dallas paper as a sports/crime reporter, then moved up to its rival as sports editor. He used his position to run with the rich, to drive big cars and to dress like a dandy. “Mack was consumed with ambition,” said a friend, “he always had big ideas.” 2 McCoy married and had a son, but he left his family for the Dallas society scene — an accomplished swimmer, golfer and tennis player, he fit right in. He also began to act with the Dallas Little Theatre in 1925 and won national attention for his ability. By 1927, however, his habits outpaced his means and he needed more income.
He sent a tale of South Seas adventure to “Cap” Shaw, who purchased it. Not as prolific as other Black Mask writers, McCoy nevertheless created one of its strongest serial heroes. Captain Jerry Frost was a Texas Ranger who flew small aircraft with the Air Border Patrol. Romantic and over-written, the Frost tales sprout declarations about life and death like crabgrass, despite Shaw’s editing. In 1929, probably because of his debts and social excesses, McCoy had to leave his Dallas newspaper job. He edited a local magazine, then eloped with a debutante.
Her parents annulled the marriage, and McCoy woke up in a run-down boarding-house of bohemians and failed artists, where he churned out pulp fiction for six or seven magazines. Still passionate about flying, McCoy often borrowed planes from former social acquaintances. One of these he crashed while trying to set a local altitude record.
An M.G.M. scout who had seen his theater work set up a screen test. McCoy went to Hollywood. But the screen test failed and the Great Depression hit. A tramp, a bum, McCoy slept in abandoned cars, picked fruit and vegetables in the Imperial Valley, worked as a soda jerk, a bodyguard and a picket – until he was hired as a bouncer at a marathon dance contest in Santa Monica. Still focused on Hollywood, he wrote up this experience as a movie script called “Marathon Dancers.” That did not sell, but he got on as a contract writer with R.K.O. studios, beginning what he called “my notable career as a studio hack.” 3 He married again, again to the ire of his bride’s parents, who left her penniless. But McCoy managed to finish a novel based on his movie script, which was titled They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and published in 1935. Although later a favorite of French existentialists, McCoy’s book sold only 3,000 copies the first year. It tells the story of failed actress Gloria, who in desperation enters a marathon dance contest that becomes an endurance nightmare. Realizing that this punishment is her life, Gloria convinces her partner to kill her as a testament to the meaning/meaninglessness of life. By turns lyric and grim, the novel combines irony and fear with a subtlety McCoy would never again achieve.
McCoy thought that he was above the pulps and stopped writing for Black Mask. He even complained about the B movies he worked on: “These bastards never give me a shot at the A pics,” he said. But he stayed with the studios and worked on two more books, No Pockets in a Shroud (1936) and I Should Have Stayed at Home (1937). Both were autobiographical and bitter about his Hollywood experiences. During this period McCoy (front row, second from right) was a member of “The Black Mask Boys,” a group that included Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Finally resigning himself to Hollywood, McCoy turned out sixteen original scripts between 1937 and 1940. In 1942 he wrote a major movie, Gentleman Jim, for Errol Flynn. In the mid-1940s French writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Gide and Andre Malraux discovered They Shoot Horses, Don”t They?, and Simon de Beauvoir said that it “was the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America.” Europeans began to rank him beside Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway. McCoy, however, was broke, depressed and “fat from too much food and booze.” 4 What raised him for the last time was a manuscript he had been working on, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which Random House liked and published in 1948. His best work since They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the novel displayed a masterly alternation between action and reflection. Eastern reviewers may not have liked it, but Warner Brothers bought the story as a vehicle for James Cagney, who wanted another “really nasty role” to cement his screen persona. On top of this, in early 1951, McCoy sold an original script called “Scalpel” to Hall Wallis Productions for $100,000. The novel and the movie were winners, and McCoy was working on a new book called The Hard Rock Man when he was struck by a heart attack. At fifty-eight, McCoy was broke when he died December 15, 1955, and his widow had to sell his books and jazz collection to pay for his funeral. 5
1 McCoy in Nolan, Black Mask, 177-78. 2 McCoy’s friend in Nolan, Black Mask, 178. 3 McCoy in Nolan, Black Mask, 180-81. 4 de Beauvoir and McCoy in Nolan, 182. 5 Nolan, 184.