McCoy, Horace (pulp fiction writer)



One of the original “Black Mask Boys” nurtured by Joseph Shaw, editor of Black Mask magazine, Horace McCoy never achieved the fame of Raymond chandler or Dashiell hammett, but his talent was very likely the equal of theirs. His career was studded with highlights in several fields and contained several singular and extraordinary works.

He was born in Pegram, Tennessee, and grew up in Nashville. Early on he showed a talent for writing and a taste for adventure. He dropped out of high school and drove a taxi on the graveyard shift in the red-light district of New Orleans. During World War I he went overseas with a unit of the Texas National Guard and saw combat as a bombardier. In a DeHavilland bomber that was attacked by German Fokkers, McCoy was peppered with machine gun bullets but managed to guide the craft to safety after the pilot was killed. He was awarded a Croix de Guerre for heroism by the government of France. Back in the states he worked for newspapers in Texas, doing sportswriting and general reporting. In a pattern he would follow his entire life, McCoy’s creative urges went in different directions at once. He worked as a reporter, dabbled in local theater productions as an actor, and began writing fiction. Black Mask bought the first story he sent them, “The Devil Man,” set in the South Seas, and published it in the December 1927 issue.

With McCoy’s second sale to Black Mask he was on more familiar and resonant ground. “Dirty Work” was about a flying Texas Ranger named Jerry Frost, one of “Hell’s Stepsons” assigned to patrol the state’s rugged border country. The Frost stories combined the landscapes and character types of the western with the detached tone and bloody violence of the new style of hard-boiled detective story. They were tough, lively pieces, written to the Joe Shaw standard, with paragraphs and sentences so spare and direct as printed that no blue pencil could remove so much as a comma. McCoy wrote another 15 stories for Black Mask in the next few years, all but one of them featuring Jerry Frost.

About this time McCoy took a job as an editor at a high-minded, muckraking journal called The Dallasite. McCoy edited, reported, wrote, proofread, and did everything else but deliver the copies to doorsteps, but the magazine soon folded. At loose ends, McCoy began writing more pulp, selling to a variety of masculine-interest magazines like Action Stories, Battle Aces, and Western Trails, along with his original market at Black Mask. With the depression on and no prospects in Texas, McCoy moved to Los Angeles with hopes of breaking into the movies as an actor. He hit bottom, sleeping in alleyways and on park benches. At the Santa Monica pier he found a job as a bouncer at a marathon dance contest, one of those tawdry spectacles that had become the depression equivalent of bear-baiting: desperate people willing to dance till they dropped from exhaustion and fever in the hope of winning a cash prize. From this experience, and writing in the same hard, brittle style that was well known to Black Mask readers, McCoy fashioned a short novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a haunting, nihilistic masterpiece, one of the great literary documents of the Great Depression.

McCoy wrote two more novels in the ’30s, both of them also based on personal experience and observation: No Pockets in a Shroud, about a doomed muckraker, and I Should Have Stayed Home, a sleazy Hollywood story centering on the lowlife fringes of the movie business. No Pockets in a Shroud was published in Britain: it did not find an American developer for another 11 years, and that American paperback edition suffered from severe political censorship. The editors eliminated any “leftist-sounding” rhetoric and changed one female character from a communist to a nymphomaniac. By the mid-1930s, McCoy was no longer sleeping in alleys but was a solid fixture in Hollywood, a hack screenwriter working for Columbia Pictures, then Paramount, Warner Bros., Republic, and other studios big and small. Most of his screen work, he would be the first to admit, was unmemorable, but some was outstanding, especially Gentleman Jim (1942), McCoy’s adaptation of the life of boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett, and The Lusty Men (1952), a poignant, demystifying look at the seedy lives of nomadic rodeo cowboys.

McCoy had one more great piece of fiction in him, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948). McCoy’s earlier work, particularly They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, had garnered him a strong and growing reputation in postwar France. He was lauded by intellectuals and critics as a master of modern fiction, comparable to William Faulkner. Unknown in his own country, McCoy was moved by this applause from abroad and inspired to write a new novel. The story of a psychotic criminal genius, told by the man himself, Ralph Cotter, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was a stunning, nasty, and pitiless piece of work, arguably McCoy’s masterpiece. The topic was translated into a not-bad movie, with James Cagney as the fiendish Cotter. But McCoy did not find the literary acceptance he hoped for, at least not in his own country. A heart ailment plagued him in his last years, and he died in Hollywood at age 58.



  • “Devil Man, The” (1929);
  • “Dirty Work” (1929);
  • “Flight at Sunrise” (1934);
  • “Frost Rides Alone” (1930);
  • “Golden Rule, The” (1932);
  • “Gun Runners, The” (1930);
  • “Headfirst into Hell” (1931);
  • “Hell’s Stepson” (1929);
  • “Little Black topic, The” (1930);
  • “Mailed Fist, The” (1930);
  • “Mopper-Up, The” (1931);
  • “Murder in Error” (1932);
  • “Renegades of the Rio” (1929);
  • “Somebody Must Die” (1934);
  • “Somewhere in Mexico” (1930);
  • “Trail to the Tropics, The” (1932);
  • “Wings over Texas” (1932)


  • Corruption City (1959);
  • I Should Have Stayed Home (1938);
  • Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948);
  • No Pockets in a Shroud (1937);
  • Scalpel (1952);
  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935)

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