Zane Grey’s ‘The Day of the Beast’ (1922)

Zane Grey is, of course, very well known as an author of Westerns, but in The Day of the Beast (1922) he deserts the romance of Old West for a topical theme and a deliberately unromantic and stereotypically modern setting:

Middleville […] a prosperous and thriving inland town of twenty thousand inhabitants, identical with many towns of about the same size in the middle and eastern United States.

The book is a fierce and stormy (and indeed steamy) melodrama, and an indignant denunciation of American postwar society. Three wounded privates return from the war, too late for a hero’s welcome:

Well, the first few soldiers to return from France got a grand reception, were made heroes of. They were lucky to get back while the sentiment was hot. But that didn’t last…. Now, a year and more after the war, where does the soldier get off? […] there’re over six hundred thousand of you disabled veterans, and for all I can read and find out the government has done next to nothing. New York is full of begging soldiers—on the streets. Think of it! And the poor devils are dying everywhere. [….] Well, a selfish and weak administration could hardly be expected to keep extravagant promises to patriots. But that the American public, as a body, should now be sick of the sight of a crippled soldier—and that his sweetheart should turn him down!—this is the hideous blot, the ineradicable shame, the stinking truth, the damned mystery!

So a character fulminates, and as he speaks he clearly has Zane Grey behind him, urging him on. The novel makes a crude and total contrast between, on the one hand, the returning soldiers, physically damaged but morally unblemished, and on the other the hedonists, Pharisees and hypocrites at home. To Daren Lane, the book’s hero, the war had been a great crusade against barbarism:

It had been an ideal which he imagined he shared with the millions of American boys who entered the service. Too deep ever to be spoken of! The barbarous and simian Hun, with his black record against Belgian, and French women, should never set foot on American soil.

When he comes home, however, he finds that barbarism (mostly conceived in sexual terms) has taken root in Middleville, which now seems ‘so strange, sordid, shrunken, so vastly changed’.

Daren Lane is hardly a convincing character, coming back full of moral purity. He is a reminder, though, that whereas twenty-first century writers tend to see war as corrupting the men who go to fight, back in 1922 there were plenty who still wanted to see it as an ennobling experience. His wounds are adaptable to the demands of the plot. He has, for example, a crippling spinal injury, but is still able to take on fit young men in a fight, and prove himself in a dramatic river rescue.

One gets the sense that Daren Lane is less a character than Zane Grey’s weapon for attacking degenerate modern America. The men who did not go to fight are all ‘slackers’, and dangers to the town’s womenfolk:

the slackers, like Mackay and Swann, [were] representative of that horde of cowards who in one way or another had avoided the service—the young men who put comfort, ease, safety, pleasure before all else—who had no ideal of womanhood—who could not have protected women—who would not fight to save women from the apish Huns—who remained behind to fall in the wreck of the war’s degeneration, and to dance, to drink, to smoke, to ride the women to their debasement.

The sexual vulnerability of women is a subject that excites Grey; both he and his hero are fascinated and appalled by the immodest dress of young postwar women: ‘Lastly, he saw that she wore her stockings rolled below her knees and that the edge of her short skirt permitted several inches of her bare legs to be seen. And at that he did not know what to think. He was stunned.’ Lane is so disturbed by jazz, the ‘nigger music’ that sets the tone for the young citizens’ gatherings that he has to shut his eyes to protect himself from the sight of its effect on the young:

Neither music nor ragtime, it seemed utterly barbarian in character. It appealed only to primitive, physical, sensual instincts. It could not be danced to sanely and gracefully. When he opened his eyes again, to see once more the disorder of dancers in spirit and action, he seemed to have his analysis absolutely verified.

That Zane Grey was excited by the lubricious immoralities he hints at is pretty clear. In addition, his writing uses a typical scandal-monger’s trick to excite the reader into collaborating with his lurid imaginings. That is – he leaves things unsaid. Foe example, when Daren peers through a spyhole into a club where young men and women are doing advanced and immoral things, the exact nature of their activity is left to our imagination. When sexually precocious schoolgirls hand round risqué rhymes in class, the rhymes are not quoted, just left for us to speculate about (though we are told that their author, in writing them ‘dragged her girlhood pride in the filth and made of herself a byword for vicious boys.’

The book is sodden with the fear of unleashed sexuality, but one one sexual subject it is utterly sentimental. Mel Iden, a young woman Daren had admired in the past, had an affair with a soldier during the war, and gave birth to an illegitimate ‘war baby.’ For this she is vilified by the townsfolk, but Daren sees in her a sort of glory. He is convinced (without any evidence that I could see) that her affair ‘had not been on her part a matter of sex. She was far above wantonness.’ He puzzles over what could have led to her fall, and decides that she is wonderful, and indeed pure:

Through long hours in the dark of night, when Lane’s pain kept him sleepless, he had pondered over the mystery of Mel Iden until it cleared. She typified the mother of the race. In all periods of the progress of the race, war had brought out this instinct in women—to give themselves for the future. It was a provision of nature, inscrutable and terrible. How immeasurable the distance between Mel Iden and those women who practised birth control! As the war had brought out hideous greed and baseness, so had it propelled forward and upward the noblest attributes of life. Mel Iden was a builder, not a destroyer. She had been sexless and selfless. Unconsciously during the fever and emotion of the training of American men for service abroad, and the poignancy of their departure, to fight, and perhaps never return, Mel Iden had answered to this mysterious instinct of nature. Then, with the emotion past, and face to face with staggering consequences, she had reacted to conscious instincts. She had proved the purity of her surrender. She was all mother. And Lane began to see her moving in a crystal, beautiful light.

The book has a great deal of this kind of nonsense. Now, I have read plenty of twenties British novels that make the dramatic contrast between virtuous ex-soldiers and corrupt civilian society (think Sorrell and Son, for example) but none where it is quite so crudely or steamily drawn.

Zane Grey seems to know very little about the actual war. His references to it lack detail, but pile on the morality. I doubt that he was very interested in the war. He wanted to denounce postwar society, and the ex-soldier is a convenient weapon for the job. Maybe this book is the converse of his westerns – what modern life has become when it loses touch with the many virtues of the frontier.

Perhaps I should read one of the Westerns. That’s what I intended to do, since September will be Westerns month at the Sheffield Hallam Popular Fiction Reading Group. When I found a soldiers story among Grey’s work I couldn’t resist it – but having read this rather awful book, I don’t have the stomach for another Grey just yet. Luckily a local charity shop was offering a 1937 Max Brand western that looks a much jollier prospect, so I shall read that instead.

6 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    A different sort of Grey response to WWI is here: https://roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com/2019/06/zane-grey-war-hater.html

    • Posted August 23, 2019 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that reference. I shall definitely take a look at Grey’s The Desert of Wheat.

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted August 23, 2019 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Most interesting – thank you!

    A later war and a film, but an intriguing comparison:

    ‘…Often considered a low-budget The Best Years of Our Lives, Till the End of Time follows the same general plotline: three demobilized soldiers, one disabled as a result of his wounds, rely on each other in their struggle to “return to normalcy.” The film’s final scenes are actually quite radical in their suggestion that the antifascist war must now be waged on the home front, as the three soldiers (Robert Mitchum, Bill Williams, and Guy Madison) take on members of a racist veterans’ organization in a barroom brawl. In an exchange that is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Crossfire, the protofascist organizers try to recruit the soldiers into the veterans’ group—if they can demonstrate that they are not Jews, Catholics, or Negroes. Mitchum responds to their overture by telling the story of his friend Maxie Klein, who was killed at Guadalcanal. Saying, “If Maxie were here, he’d spit in your eye,” Mitchum acts in Maxie’s stead, launching a wad of spit that begins the fistfight. Even the paralyzed soldier (a former boxer) finds that by balancing himself against the wall, he, too, can get in a few good punches. Screaming, “Send them to me!” he regains his manhood through his participation in the battle. In contrast to The Best Years of Our Lives, which suggests that the “return to normalcy” requires that the male bonds of wartime be replaced by privatized, heterosexual domesticity, Till the End of Time insists that those male bonds be maintained and channeled into the postwar struggle against fascism at home…’

    Some things stay with you for ever, and some deserve to.

    It used to be shown on television on Sunday afternoons and I’d watch it for that scene. It was a bold move; the film’s director, Edward Dmytryk, was later jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten.

    • Posted August 23, 2019 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      I know The Best Years of Our Lives, but Till the End of Time has passed me by. Sounds a fascinating film, and Robert Mitchum is always good.I’ll look out for it.

    • Steve Paradis
      Posted September 3, 2019 at 2:47 am | Permalink

  3. Sally Parry
    Posted August 24, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I read this novel last year because I had run across a mention of it in a scholarly book on all of Grey’s writings. It is truly melodramatic and an over-the-top response to the perceived hedonism of the 1920s. Thanks for your post.


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