‘Count of Darkness' — A great writer's least-read work

Dan Crawford


e was in a slump. People weren't buying, critics weren't applauding, publishers had become a good deal less pleasant. The phrase "has-been" was whispered. His private life, if not a perfect shambles, was tending that way.

What he needed, more than anything, was work. He was a writer: writing gave his life form and meaning. Something to write, something to rekindle old fires: he needed that. After all, he could still write — when he felt like it.

What could make him feel like it? His good old stuff was just that: old stuff. The world had moved on; other writers had moved with it. Something different was called for; he worked through dreary days and long nights trying to think of what that might be, even writing a jaunty article about projects he had started and abandoned.

At last, he decided that if what he was writing was old hat, an older hat would do the trick. Historical fiction could be as popular as Captain Blood, as literary as Kristin Lavransdatter. He'd been to college; he could do research. Somewhere in old books he would find new avenues for what he did best. Once he picked out the right era, he would find ideas which would revive his interest in writing, and thus in life.

So it was that F. Scott Fitzgerald, smarting from the lack of approval for Tender Is the Night, set to work on "The Count of Darkness," stories of a young hero in 9th Century France. In the lives and loves of people 1,000 years before his own time, Fitzgerald would find the answer to his problem.

And here one would like to write "he lived happily ever after." If there is a happy ending to this phase of Fitzgerald's career, however, it is that he set aside Phillippe, Count of Darkness for other projects, which formed a more fitting finish to his career. He did enjoy the research; perhaps it helped hold back his personal darkness for a while. But the verdict of critics then and now is that "The Count of Darkness" represents one of the biggest wastes of time on the part of any major American writer in history.

The epic is quickly summarized. A 9th Century French nobleman was killed during a raid on his home by the Moors. His family — a wife and small son — fell into the hands of the Muslim foe, but they were well treated in captivity, the widow eventually making a new life for herself. Her son, Phillippe, dreamt of one day inheriting his father's grand manor and beautiful estate. Eventually, the young man sets off for his homeland, seeking his fortune in the best tradition of folk tales.

He finds his father's manor to be a pile of rubble, and the lands around it desolate. France has been laid waste in the declining days of Charlemagne's dynasty. If Phillippe wishes to be a Count, he will have to fight for every inch of territory, enlisting the peasantry, exploiting suspicion and superstition, and becoming a bigger bully than any of his rivals.

Fitzgerald's plan was to write eight short stories about Phillippe's world, which would give him the material to merge into a continuous narrative, to be published as a novel. His enthusiasm flared; he wrote his legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, that three novels might be necessary to cover the story. No, he wrote later, it would take nine books to follow Phillippe from young manhood to old age in the stronger France of the new Capetian monarchs.

What he wound up with was four sketchy short stories, which the magazine Redbook published — no one has ever thought of a nice way to say this — as an act of charity toward an author in decline. "In the Darkest Hour" appeared in October, 1934, "Count of Darkness" in June, 1935, "Kingdom in the Dark" in September, 1935, and "Gods of Darkness" only after Fitzgerald's death, in the November 1941, Redbook. Depression set in; Fitzgerald's stories came slowly, disappointing Redbook's editor, who had already pointed out that when his readers saw Fitzgerald's name on the cover, they didn't expect a gritty 9th Century war story. The gaps between stories worked against any chance of the series becoming popular with readers. The stories have not become any easier to reach now; only one of the stories has ever been reprinted. Redbook is not a magazine widely stocked in research libraries, so the stories are hard to find and, when found, hard to read.

The "Count of Darkness" tales are really no worse than the vast run of historical tales cranked out to satisfy the market for magazine fiction in this period; they just aren't any better, either. Fitzgerald's research was spotty, and he tried to make the stories more accessible by mingling his medievalism with 1930s-underworld slang, probably picked up from gangster movies. Since part of the appeal of historical fiction was that it represented an escape from an America in the grips of the Depression; this was a strange decision even if the result had been skillfully handled. (Janet Lewis, in her summary of the series, points out the unintended hilarity of showing a woman thinking of her Viking captor as a "sugar-daddy.")

In choosing a romantic era to write about, Fitzgerald then chose not to write romantic stories about it. His swashes are not well buckled; instead his stories reflect both his own personal depression and the Great Depression with it. The adventures end grimly for all involved. People now read "The Count of Darkness" for two primary reasons: the spectacle of Fitzgerald in decline, and the character of Phillippe. For his hero, Fitzgerald wanted a character he'd never done much with: a self-confident, daring man of action. His Phillippe was to be rash, courageous, a man willing to make a fool of himself and then go on as long as the goal was in sight. So, naturally, he chose as his model Ernest Hemingway.

Even this didn't quite come out as planned. Hemingway and Fitzgerald weren't seeing much of each other at this point; Fitzgerald had to rely on his memories of a young Hemingway, in the good old days. (Hemingway was much on his mind; not only was Hemingway's writing career moving up as Fitzgerald's was declining, but a rumor had reached Fitzgerald that Hemingway's next novel was to be set during the Crusades, stealing his thunder in the historical genre as well.) The Phillippe who comes out in the stories is gloomy, grim, brooding — Conan the Barbarian without the exuberance — brave enough, brainy enough, but never sympathetic, or, ultimately, very interesting. Critics have called Phillippe not so much a picture of Hemingway as a cardboard cut-out of a hero from a Hemingway short story.

Would it have come out all right in the end? The stories are inconsistent and packed with detail that was probably meant to work in the novel; they are as much an unappealing hodge-podge as Phillippe's emblem, a half-lion, half-pig creature designed by his witch friend Griselda. But maybe they're best considered as raw material, lumps of clay displayed to the public before the artist had had time to do more than outline the planned sculpture. If he'd found the heart to go on with the work, maybe Fitzgerald would have been able to see which experiments worked and which didn't.

The considered opinion of critics is that this is wishful thinking. The best that could have happened is that Fitzgerald would have found in The Count of Darkness an obsession, taking him away from The Last Tycoon and his later work. Continuing to try, continuing to fail, in this attempt to force his talent into a new and uncongenial direction, he would have fallen victim in the end to despair, and found the darkness that so afflicted him and his Count becoming complete.

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