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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Thornton P. Knowles, 1931-1998: An Iconoclastic Writer

    Note: I first posted this thumbnail literary biography in November 2014 without letting on that Mr. Knowles, a product of my imagination, was a fictitious character. I re-post the expanded piece in the spirit of this year's April Fool's day.
     Thornton Prescott Knowles was born in Nitro, West Virginia on December 3, 1931. His mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse and his father worked as a janitor in a factory that manufactured marbles on the banks of the Ohio River. Darlene Prescott Knowles, born and raised in East Liverpool, Ohio, gave birth to her only child when she was 44-years-old. Odell Knowles, Thornton's alcoholic father, hanged himself in an abandoned barn when Thornton was fifteen.

     In 1953, Knowles graduated from Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Three years later, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Mountain State University in Beckley, West Virginia.

     From 1956 to 1976, Dr. Knowles worked as an industrial psychologist for the Wheeling Steel Corporation in the West Virginia panhandle forty miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He lived in a modest home on the Ohio River in the village of Beach Bottom, West Virginia.

     In 1956, Knowles published his first novel in the noir crime genre. In Homicidal Ideation, a paranoid wife beater undergoing psychological treatment murders his counselor under the mistaken believe the psychologist was having an affair with the wife. The highly auto-biographical novel, set in a fictitious West Virginia town, received very little critical attention and did not go into paperback. The book, however, highlighted the author's rather low opinion of his fellow man and his taste for humor bordering on the macabre.

     Rigor Mortis is Not Your Friend, a crime novel featuring a psychology major who murders his abnormal psychology professor and tries to make the homicide look like suicide, came out two years later. Detectives horribly bungle the investigation. The student gets away with the crime, graduates with honors, and later achieves minor notoriety as a mass market true crime writer.

     In 1961, Knowles published a short novel called, The Friction Tape Isn't Holding. This mystery thriller involves a clever, sociopathic serial killer who terrorizes a large university psychology department. As it turns out, the murderer is a former graduate of the program who was driven crazy by his inability to get his first novel published. The police bungle this case by beating a confession out of the suspect. The judge ignores the unconstitutionality of the investigation and allows the introduction of the evidence at the murder trial. Notwithstanding an incompetent prosecutor, the jury finds the defendant guilty. Knowles' portrayal of the murder victims and the brutal detectives makes the reader almost root for the serial killer.

     In Writer's Block, 1962, a washed-up novelist from Follensbee, West Virginia named Barry "Corky" Legatt, pays a so-called "writer's psychologist" $5,000 to rejuvenate his attenuated creativity and his passion to write. Following the therapy sessions, Corky is no better off. When the therapist refuses to refund the fee, Barry hires an out-of-work screenwriter to kill the psychologist, a scam artist named Chlorine Shingles. The murder-for-hire plot goes off as planned. As a result of an indifferent police investigation (who cares about the murder of a psychologist?), Chlorine's death goes unpunished. While the therapy didn't do the trick, the successful murder scheme got the novelist's creative juices flowing. The now inspired murder-for-hire mastermind bases a novel, right down to every murderous detail, on his own deadly scheme. Corky's literary agent quickly places the crime novel with a major publisher that promotes the book into a bestseller. So, a happy ending in Writer's Block? As one would expect in a Thornton P. Knowles creation, no way. Corky, in writing his novel, Deadly Therapy, incriminates himself as the real life mastermind behind Chlorine Shingle's murder. A year after his greatest literary success, Corky finds himself on the way to prison for the rest of his life. When asked by a reporter if spending the rest of his life behind bars was worth becoming the author of a bestselling novel, Corky answers, "Hell yes!"

     For Whom the Bullet Tolls, 1963, is a darkly comic noir crime novel about a forensic ballistics expert who almost gets away with murdering his drug counselor by switching the barrel of the murder weapon. As one would expect in a Knowles piece of fiction, the investigators are cruel and stupid and the victim is worthy of his gruesome fate.

     Knowles' editor at Rhododendron Press, T. Duie Pyle, wrote a piece about his cranky author in The Golden Rod Review titled, "Thornton P. Knowles: Armed and Humorous." In the 1974 piece, Pyle describes Knowles' novels as "hilarious, hard-boiled, off-beat, irreverent, raucous, and satirical." The editor compares Knowles' style, voice and point of view to the writings of Ring Lardner, S.J. Perelman, Damon Runyon and Ross H. Spencer. According to Mr. Pyle, the fact that none of Thornton Knowles' books made the best seller lists makes this author one of literature's best kept secrets.

     In 1966, Knowles published his most outlandish work, Last Rites, a weirdly gripping tale about a professional hit man who finds Jesus and becomes a priest. The dialogue that takes place in the confessional booth is hilarious. Knowles' last novel, Swallow the Leader, is an absurd psychological thriller featuring a psychopath who murders, then eats the flesh of his victims who are small town mayors. In this black comedy, Knowles vents his rage at petty, small potatoes politicians.

     In 1976, Dr. Knowles published what would become his best-known work, a 650-page nonfiction book called The Psychology of Writing. With this book, Knowles infuriated the literary community with lines like: "Writers think they're more talented than they really are. Whether that makes them unlikeable, or unlikable people gravitate to writing, is a social scientific mystery. In the end, it doesn't really matter why writers tend to be jerks." To illustrate his hypothesis, Knowles frequently cites his favorite author, the southern California novelist, poet and short story writer, Charles Bukowski. In discussing how pretentious some poets are, Knowles mentions a West Virginia poet who wrote under the name Toussaint L'ouveture. The poet's birth name: Walter Box. Knowles considered L'ouveture's literary work as phony as his name.

     In The Psychology of Writing, Knowles discusses the writer's proclivity toward substance abuse. He profiles Truman Capote and novelists who struggled with drugs and booze. While Knowles admired Capote's talent, he was not a big fan of Capote's narrative nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood.  He considered the best-seller a second-class novel passed off as true crime.

     Although he told people that dream analysis was a fraud, Dr. Knowles, in The Psychology of Writing, put forward his own theory of dreams. According to Knowles, there are two kinds of dreamers, people who dream fiction and those who dream nonfiction. The fiction people dream of people and places unknown to them in their waking lives. The nonfiction types dream about family, friends, and past experiences. According to Dr. Knowles, fiction dreamers are more creative and usually more intelligent than their nonfiction counterparts. He said that much of his writing originated in his dreams.   

     In 1980, Dr. Knowles began teaching a writer's workshop at Alliance College in western Pennsylvania. He held that position until the school closed in 1987. (The campus is now a woman's prison.) Finished with academia, Knowles moved to Elkins, West Virginia where he opened a private anger management practice.

     Knowles' 1989 novel, Celebrity Stalker, was his only work of fiction not set in West Virginia. The story features a Los Angeles FBI agent who essentially wrote the book on the investigation of celebrity stalking cases. Halfway into his tenure as FBI agent, Ross Benson, sick of dealing with Hollywood celebrities, begs for reassignment. His supervisor promises to get Benson off the stalker squad after Benson takes on a new case involving one of Hollywood's most famous and beloved actresses. Special Agent Benson accepts the assignment and in the course of his investigation identifies the stalker and takes him into custody. At that point he accepts a position on the fugitive squad. The actress stalker victim, however, has fallen in love with the FBI agent and insists they begin a romantic relationship even though she knows that Agent Benson is married. When Gloria Swandyke's advances are repelled by the agent, she retaliates by anonymously harassing him with threatening letters and obscene phone calls. The stalking soon escalates into vandalism and threats against his wife. Gloria Swandyke, a better actress than stalker, is caught, and amid an enormous amount of publicity, is arrested and taken to jail. At her televised trial, the jury finds Swandyke not guilty by reason of insanity. Following two years in a fancy mental health facility, Gloria stars in a movie about her ordeal. The film is a massive hit and earns her an Oscar. Agent Benson, in response to his tormentor's success and the way he is represented in the film, takes his own life. In typical Thornton P. Knowles fashion, evil triumphs over good culminating in a very unhappy ending.

     While residing in Elkins, Knowles also wrote two small books of poetry. One of his most vocal critics, the poet Yancy Follicle, in an interview published in the now defunct literary journal, Ivory Tower, said that Dr. Knowles could manage everyone's anger but his own. Follicle called Knowles' fiction "burlesque." Knowles fired back, calling Follicle's poems the work of an insipid, puerile, ivory tower hack. (Knowles once recommended to another West Virginia poet, an English teacher named Felix Clappe, to immediately join AA--Alliteration Anonymous.)

     Over the years, Knowles maintained a steady correspondence with the West Virginia poet Oscar Coggins who wrote under the name, J.C. Pancake. The two men had what could be described as a love-hate relationship. Coggins once called Knowles a mildly-talented nut case. Knowles returned the favor by calling Coggins a red-neck, inchoate sex offender whose poetry reeked of perversion. After that, their correspondence came to an end.

     In 1994, Doyle vonPekker, retired English professor and editor of the poetry journal Mountain Breezes, approached Knowles with the idea of an authorized biography. Knowles, who had once referred to vonPekker's free-verse poetry as akin to the rantings of an unmedicated schizophrenic, declined. When an archivist with West Virginia University asked Knowles if he had plans regarding his literary papers, Knowles said yes--to burn them in his backyard.

     While Thornton Knowles didn't consider himself a short story writer, a genre he ridiculed as more fartsy than artsy, he did publish several stories in various crime fiction digests. Two of these works found their way into a pair of short story anthologies.

     In story called "Jury Nullification," Knowles features a pole dancer named Wiggles Operandi who murders her boss who was the owner of the nightclub. The victim, Basil Pompay, after doing five years at the state prison in Moundsville, West Virginia for forcible rape, had re-named himself Incarceration Jones. Operandi, after dispatching Jones by lacing his beer with anti-freeze, forges a handwritten will leaving his entire estate to her. As could be expected in a Knowles crime plot, the clueless authorities mishandle the case by allowing for Jones' cremation without an autopsy or toxicological inquiry. Jones' son, a first rate degenerate like his deceased father, contests the holograph will. At the probate hearing, the son presents three ex-FBI handwriting experts who declare the will a total forgery. The jury, by finding for Operandi, ignore the overwhelming question document evidence. The jurors obviously wanted to deny the son his father's estate. As is often the case in Knowles' work, the villain emerges victorious at the expense of justice.

      In Knowles' other anthologized short story, the protagonist, an ex-banjo player named Sherlock Poy, murders his mother and runs her corpse though a rented, commercial grade wood chipper. In "No Body, No Foul," after spraying Mamma Poy into the Ohio River, Sherlock begins cashing her Social Security checks. Without a body, detectives who suspected that the missing Helen Poy had been murdered, beat a confession out of Sherlock. As a result, the local prosecutor has no choice but to dismiss the case on Fifth Amendment grounds. Sherlock, cashing in on his new found infamy, takes up the banjo again and records a flash-in-the-pan hit called, "The Mamma Poy Wood Chipper Blues." Typical Knowles.

     In a short story called, "No Good Deed," Knowles shows his softer side by portraying a beloved, aging professor battling dementia. Several of the professor's favorite students commit minor crimes in helping him disguise his growing disability. When the professor's worsening condition can no longer be covered up, the students who helped him are identified and expelled from college. Shortly thereafter, the distraught professor commits suicide by throwing himself off the campus clock tower. In the professor's suicide note, addressed to college president Dr. Fenton Kitch, he wrote: "Life is a tiny island of happiness in a vast sea of pain and suffering. Life's greatest gift is death. Have a nice day." Thornton Knowles was not a fan of the happy ending.

      Knowles also placed a handful of his short stories with an obscure mystery digest called Crime Stories. Many of these pieces, with plots that bordered on the outlandish, had been rejected by the major publications in the genre. For example, one of these stories featured a retired drivers education teacher named Wally Persay who used a frozen leg of lamb to beat to death his estranged wife, Mary Cacophony-Persay. To throw investigators off his trail, Wally cooks and eats the murder weapon. Notwithstanding his efforts to outfox the police, Wally is arrested and charged with first-degree murder. When asked by the judge how he pleaded, Wally says, "Your honor, I plead not guilty by reason of my deceased wife's insanity." Knowles called this piece, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

      While appearing on a panel at a Mystery Writer's of America convention in Pittsburgh, a fan asked Knowles why none of his short stories and novels included people of color. Taken back with the question, and implied criticism, Knowles simply said, "I write what I know." A month later, Knowles submitted a short story that featured a black protagonist named La' Troit Johnson who marries an Asian woman for her money. The wife, a year after the wedding, dies after consuming a cup of coffee laced with arsenic. The police arrest La' Troit and beat a false confession out of him.  Although the death is eventually ruled a suicide, La' Troit, embittered by his cruel treatment at the hands of his interrogators, murders an innocent cop. Pure Knowles.

      While he wasn't a full-blown recluse, Knowles lived a life that was apart and alone. He frequently voiced his disdain for "literary media whores" like Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal who turned themselves into television personalities. Knowles wanted recognition for his writing, but not himself. He didn't get either.

     Knowles, never married, died alone on March 31, 1998 in a small hospital in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He died penniless, embittered, and forgotten. Thirty years earlier, at a psychology conference, he had submitted a paper called "Accelerated Self-Loathing" based on the theory that as people age they increasingly hate themselves. He agued that it made facing death a bit easier. He died at age 67, perhaps a victim of his own syndrome.

     In the spring of 2016, former student Dr. Leona Hickam, a Pittsburgh area psychologist, attempted to resuscitate Knowles' literary reputation and legacy by petitioning the West Virginia Council of the Arts to posthumously nominate him for its annual lifetime achievement Mountain Voices Award. The council, without comment, declined. Perhaps the council had been influenced by Knowles' often expressed disdain for literary awards and the authors who won them. In 1976, when J.C. Pancake was named West Virginia's Poet Laureate, Knowles reportedly, and famously, suggested that in the future, when looking for a poet to represent the state, judges should consider poets from Pennsylvania and Ohio. This did not sit well.

     To further alienate West Virginians eager to improve the state's image, Knowles, when speaking at a Rotary Club meeting in Charleston, said he had enjoyed growing up in a state where everyone was below average. When that joke flopped, Knowles further shocked his audience by noting that the top student in his high school class graduated with a C average. And it got worse. According to Knowles, in choosing a homecoming queen, his class voted in a girl from another school. The Rotary Club, an organization steeped in civic boosterism, was not the venue for Knowles' brand of irreverent humor. In fact, few venues were.

   Under the circumstances, it will take an enormous effort and the passage of a lot of time before anyone will be able to successfully rescue Thornton P. Knowles from literary obscurity. Jane Fonda has a better chance of winning the Congressional Metal of Honor.


  1. Thank you. I keep adding to this phony biography because this guy exists in my warped mind.

    1. Dear Mr. Fisher... Thank you SO much for not including the sordid, seamy tale of Thornie, myself, that cement mixer, and Thornie's utterly dreadful mother.
      So when is my next payment due?
      Your pal, as in 4ever,
      Brigadier Brighton (Mrs.)

  2. You're welcome, and the payment is in the mail.

  3. Jim, you fooled me totally! I am proud to admit that you sucker-punched me on this one. However, I really don't care! I love Thornton Knowles and his literary output in the same way others love JD Salinger/Catcher in the Rye. And for a fictitious character, his nuggets of wisdom sound awfully real. Long Live, Thornton!

  4. I thank you and Thornton P. Knowles thanks you.