Monday, March 23, 2015

Fiction in Magazines and Newspapers by John D MacDonald

This morning I’m launching the third and final listing of fictional works by John D MacDonald, a database titled “Fiction in Magazines and Newspapers by John D MacDonald” and accessible via the link in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources indexed in the right hand column of this blog. It contains, as the title indicates, all of the known fiction by JDM that was published in a magazine or newspaper during -- and after -- the author’s lifetime. Like my previous listing titled “Short Stories by John D MacDonald” it contains all of his short stories and novellas, minus the handful that first appeared in anthologies. And like that other list, its starting point was the pioneering work of Len and June Moffat and Jean and Walter Shine, whose JDM Master Checklist (Moffats) and John D MacDonald Bibliography/Biography (Shines) laid the groundwork for all subsequent research in the field. The Shines’ work, especially, provided the basis for the list, as they were instrumental in locating and listing appearances of works republished in other magazines.

My own humble addenda to the list is the inclusion of works that appeared after the publication of the Shine’s book in 1980. This includes the few stories that appeared in the six years between publication and MacDonald’s death in 1986 as well as the discovery of a few items the Shines missed. It is, I believe, the most extensive such list available anywhere.

So, what will you find here? Whereas the prior short story list I put together contains the initial publication of each work, this list includes later printings of stories, many times published under different titles. It also includes the scores of novels that were condensed (and often rewritten) and published in magazines, again, often under titles different from the ones that appeared on the books. This should clear up some confusion that might exist, not only about the number of stories MacDonald had published, but aid the collector in avoiding duplication in attempting to acquire unique works. Here’s an example. The February 1949 issue of Detective Tales contains an excellent John D MacDonald short story titled “Killer’s Nest.” This was not the author’s original title, but was changed by the magazine’s editor, a practice that occurred frequently in the pulp trade. In 1984 MacDonald included the story in his pulp anthology More Good Old Stuff under its original title, “Neighborly Interest.” One year later the story appeared in the October issue of Redbook under yet another title, this time “The Fatal Flaw.” Without knowing this story’s lineage a collector might be induced to purchase the same story three times.

As its title indicates, this new list does not include the publication or republication of stories in book form. This not only eliminates the few stories that did not originally appear in magazines, but omits all republication of works in anthologies. That’s a job for another day, one I doubt I’ll ever get around to.

I had to make a decision about exactly how much info I wanted to include and decided on some limitations on two fronts. First, an easy one. I limited the list to only English language publications. This mainly eliminated all of the international editions of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, of which there were many, including one for Japan, France, Germany and Italy. None of these editions contain any original stories. But EQMM also produced editions for Great Britain and Australia, and these are included. The only other non-English reprint that I am aware of was a story that originally appeared in the Toronto Star Weekly and was reprinted in French for the supplement's Montreal version, La Patrie.

The other decision was to eliminate the very few non-short story works that the Shines included on their own list, such as a bit of Haiku that was published in a 1964 edition of the St. Petersburg Sunday Times Magazine, and a satirical essay he wrote in 1946 for an impossibly obscure publication called Womrath House Organ. I don’t think anyone is going to miss these pieces, and I don’t really consider them fiction.

The list is pretty bare bones, containing only the name and publication information for the periodical, the stories that appeared therein, the dates, any notes on original appearances or republication, and a link to a TOSG piece on the work where one exists.

And as on all the previous listings I have put together for this blog, I own a great debt of gratitude to J.J. Walters, who used his tech skills to put the information together in a readable format. Without his help these lists would not be anywhere near as useful or easy to read. My own initial attempts were pretty laughable.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Bloodshot Rainbow

Back in the fall of 2009 when I started writing The Trap of Solid Gold there were only two published biographies of John D MacDonald and both were out of print: Ed Hirschberg’s John D MacDonald and Hugh Merrill’s The Red Hot Typewriter. Not much for a writer once referred to as America’s bestselling author. But that was going to change. Schaffner Press, a small, independent publisher located in Tucson, Arizona, had been touting a new bio since early in 2008, with an expected publication date of Fall 2009. It was to be titled Bloodshot Rainbow and its author was one James Walling.

The year came and went and there was no book. In early January of the following year I emailed Schaffner Press but never received a response. I assumed the concern had gone belly up and hoped that Walling would have his work published elsewhere.

A year later a TOSG reader who goes by the online name of Clark Nova contacted me to see if I had any more up to date information on the bio, and when I informed him I did not he began to do his own legwork. He managed to contact James Walling and learned the reason for the work’s long delay. It was even worse than Schaffner Press going under (which it hadn’t): While travelling internationally Walling lost all of his JDM material -- his notes, his books and his correspondence -- when the airline lost his luggage. I can only imagine how devastating that must have been. But Walling assured Clark that he was starting over and was making good progress. That was in 2011.

I suppose I can be forgiven for having my doubts about ever seeing Bloodshot Rainbow. I know that if somehow I lost my own JDM collection -- my paperbacks, my hardcovers, my hundreds of magazines, my run of the JDM Bibliophile -- I doubt if I would ever want to begin again from scratch. I would probably take it as a sign that it was time to start doing something else. O ye of little faith...

This past week I received a comment on the old TOSG post from Mr.Walling alerting me to a piece in an online literary magazine called B O D Y. It was prefaced as "a condensation of sections from James Walling’s upcoming biography of the suspense novelist John D. MacDonald, to be published by Schaffner Press."


This is indeed good news, and what is even better news will become evident once you read the piece. This book will clearly be a serious, well written and intelligent treatment of its subject, not another chronological collection of facts like The Red Hot Typewriter. Walling's take on subjects like sexism and racial insensitivity contain much insight, and his assessment of MacDonald's writing ability is both original and refreshing. It's a nice, long posting that I'm sure MacDonald fans will enjoy, so I wanted to alert you to it and to provide a link.

After I posted Mr. Walling's comment I reached out to him myself and received a nice reply. He assured me that what he is attempting to accomplish is something quite different than The Red Hot Typewriter, and he passed along word from Tim Schaffner of Schaffner Press: "You can tell Steve Scott that we are planning to publish the book in late summer or fall of 2016.".

Here is the link. Enjoy.

Monday, March 9, 2015


Once John D MacDonald began writing the Travis McGee novels in 1964 he went on to produce eight of them over a period of three years before publishing another stand-alone novel. That book was The Last One Left, a terrific hardcover suspense tale that spanned 369 pages and which featured a dedication to a fictional character: Travis McGee, of course. (“I dedicate this novel to Travis McGee who lent invaluable support and encouragement.”) But that dedication wasn’t the only connection to the Fort Lauderdale salvage expert. Readers of the novel in 1967 wouldn’t know it for another year, but a prominent character in the book eventually makes its way into the McGee canon with the very next installment, Pale Gray for Guilt. That character was a boat, named Muñequita, which is Spanish for Little Doll. It went on to become a semi-regular feature of the series.

Readers first meet Muñequita early in The Last One Left, and it is not under good circumstances. The 22-foot T-Craft is adrift in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida. From the author’s description it is obviously a special craft.

Under considerably more power this same T-Craft hull design had won some savage ocean races. Fiberglass, teak, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, perhaps ten thousand dollars for such a special plaything. With the twin Chrysler-Volvo inboard, outboards, 120 horsepower each, she could scat at forty-seven miles an hour, the deep Vee hull slicing through the chop, the wake flat… With her fuel capacity increased by the two saddle tanks to over eighty gallons, at her cruising speed of thirty-two miles an hour, the engines turning at 4500 rpm, her maximum range was almost three hundred miles, without safety factor… She had been bought on whim and loaded with extras -- convertible top… searchlight, rod holders, windshield wipers, bow rails, anchor chocks, electric horn, screens, a transistorized Pearce-Simpson ship-to-shore radio tucked under the Teleflex instrument panel, pedestal helmsman’s seats, two bunks and a head fitted into the small area forward…  The graceful hull was a medium Nassau  blue, her topsides white with just enough trace of smoke blue to cut the sunglare… She had lifted and dipped and danced her way with an agile grace which matched her name. Muñequita. Little Doll.

I’m giving nothing away by revealing that the owner of the Muñequita in The Last One Left does not survive. And that’s where Travis comes in.

The opening pages of Pale Gray for Guilt features a happy McGee, as happy as anyone enjoying a new plaything before the novelty has worn off. Purchased at an estate sale, the Muñequita is carrying its new owner up the coast, from Lauderdale to Broward Beach to visit old friend Tush Bannon.

It's a funny thing about boat names. She had that Muñequita across the stern in four-inch white letters against that nice shade of Gulf Stream blue when I brought her on back to Bahia Mar. Spanish for 'little doll.' One night Meyer and Irv Deibert and Johnny Dow and I sat around trying to dream up a name that would match the Busted Flush. Little Flush? Inside Straight? Hole Card? The Ante? And I forget which one we decided was best because when I got around to changing it, I looked at the name it had and I decided that trying to match it to the name on the mother ship was a case of the quaints and the cutes, and I liked the name just fine. It was a little doll and had begun to acquire in my mind a personality that could very well resent being called anything else, and would sulk and wallow.

The Muñequita went on to become a semi-permanent fixture of McGee’s world, mentioned in all but five of the subsequent novels in the series, and featured prominently in one of them: The Scarlet Ruse. By the time of the last McGee, The Lonely Silver Rain, the boat was almost an afterthought, ignored completely in the two previous books. But in Silver MacDonald seems to have realized his -- and McGee’s -- neglect and puts things to right. He practically has to re-introduce the boat to the series’ readers.

When I had worked out a plan, I hurried back to Bahia Mar and began working on overdue maintenance on my aging runabout, the Muñequita, a two-ton T-Craft with a pair of one-hundred-and-twenty-horsepower stern-drive units. It shares the same slip with the houseboat. Usually I am very good about taking care of my gear, but it had been too long since I had given the Muñequita the loving attention she needs. I had not noticed the five-inch rip in the custom tarp cover near the gunwale on the port side, amidships. It was damp and grungy under the tarp, with mildew thriving. The automatic bilge pump had tried to take care of the incoming rain until it killed the batteries. The tarp was faded, the paint was faded and the white letters of her name on the transom had turned to ivory.

We all do penance in our own strange ways. Mine was to risk getting killed while I paid my dues. By late Wednesday afternoon, the sixteenth, the batteries were up, bilge dry, mildew swabbed away, tanks topped, tarp, mended. I had taken her outside into a pretty good sea and punished my spine and kidneys jumping her head-on into the swells to knock a lot of the accumulated marine crud off the bottom. The Calmec autopilot was working again. The bilge pump was operational, the ice chest cleaned and stocked, the power lifts greased, the lights checked and replaced where necessary. She wasn't at her best, but she was hell of a lot better than before.

If most readers of the McGee novels are unaware of Muñequita’s pre existence outside of the canon, then it’s a sure bet that nearly all of them are ignorant of the fact that the boat had a real life counterpart and that its owner was none other than John D MacDonald. He wrote an article about it in the January 1968 issue of Rudder magazine titled "The Little Doll and the Mousetrap," and his excitement over his new plaything is every bit as enthusiastic as was McGee’s. In fact he blamed McGee for “trapping” him into the purchase.

He writes that while composing The Last One Left he found the plot requiring “a very safe and sturdy little boat… I checked it out with some of those muscular, cool-eyed maniacs who try to knock their kidneys loose racing from Miami to Nassau” and created the fictional Muñequita. Then, when writing Gray he found himself wanting “McGee to have a little more nautical mobility” and had him purchase the boat from the estate. Then the rationalizations began…

Long before I made the acquaintance of T. McGee, I was living right here at the end of a point of land that sticks out into Little Sarasota Bay on Florida's west coast… As a perennial and practiced boat guest, I had no intention of owning a boat of my own until, somehow, I got mousetrapped into it by McGee. If it sounds a little fat-headed for a writer to walk around talking about one of his own fictional characters as if he exists, I think I can best explain that by talking about a bunch of extra-bright highschool kids I agreed to talk to last year. They asked questions. They got into a little argument among themselves because one intense and pretty little gal had spoken of ol’ Trav as if he might very well be in the next room. She said solidly in her own defense, “Travis exists because if Mr. MacDonald didn’t believe in him, he couldn’t make me believe in him!

And I remember how many times the books had come to a shuddering halt when I tried to make the McGee do something that did not seem suitable to him. A couple of times I have tried to imperil him by getting him into some small disaster afloat through carelessness or recklessness, Not him. He is convinced that when anything goes wrong on the water, two other things are going to go sour at just about the same time, so you had better be rigged and equipped to be able to withstand any three things going bad all at once.

So when he mousetrapped me into owning a boat, the specifications took into account not only the McGee Triple Threat Theory, but also the unique characteristics of the water and weather in Florida, and my own special brand of laziness, ineptitude and pattern of living…. After putting her into the hands of McGee and watching the use he made of Muñequita, I began to realize that, insofar as my own use of such a boat is concerned, the state of the art had turned some invisible corner where there is now enough utility in such a craft that it becomes, in this particular area where we live, more than a pleasure boat. Pleasure, yes, but in an increasingly marina-oriented culture, it is also transportation often faster, more effective, and certainly a lot safer than the seven mile trip to town on wheels… Once I had made this rationalization, I assembled a duplicate of McGee’s small boat, and in a moment of promotional self-interest, put the same name on it.

The MacDonald’s moved to their house on Point Crisp Road on Siesta Key in 1952. Point Crisp is a tiny little peninsula that contains no more than a dozen residences, and all are right on the water. The fact that the family didn’t own their own boat until 1968 is a bit of a surprise, but the article goes on to enumerate all of the various uses John and Dorothy would put to the small craft. They could zip on down to Key West, Lake Okeechobee, Biscayne Bay and the east coast of the state, all thanks to the protected Inland Waterway. But not directly to Key West, as MacDonald admits, “I am too much of a chicken of the sea to set out into heavy water.” Or they could “poke around in out-of-the-way bayous and around the mangrove islands and rookeries,” even though this often leads to running aground on the flowing silt, littoral drift, or migratory sand bars.

But for MacDonald the primary “rationalization” is it replacement as a means of travel, keeping him off the roads he grew to dislike the older he got. And here he sounds very much like his fictional creation:

So it sits out there at the dock, and when I have to run into town, it seems safer, more pleasant, healthier and certainly just as fast to go out and cast off and run on up to Sarasota and tie her up at Marina Mar which is right next to the whole downtown shopping area of Sarasota. Errands done, and with a little time to spare, one can run out big Pass and troll a little spoon down the length of Siesta Key, pick up the random Spanish mackerel, and come in Midnight Pass and run north up the bay to the house. When I am idling along I find myself listening for the sound, on shore, of somebody leaving rubber on the pavement just before they gnash fenders with somebody.

Compare that with this passage from Gray:

So I went looking for a boat I could use as a car. I would keep Miss Agnes for back roads and the Flush for open waters, and use the Muñequita for errands, and if I had to have a car, there was Mr. Hertz trying hard, and Mr. Avis trying harder, and Mr. National hoping they'd run each other into the ground. Anything in Lauderdale that I wanted to buy, and I could lift, if I couldn't buy it right at Bahia Mar, I could go off in the Muñequita and buy it. And it was nice to poot along an urban waterway and hear the distant clashing of fenders, gnashing of bumpers, and the song of the ambulances.

The MacDonald’s would reside at the Point Crisp Road house for only another year and a half after this article was written. Their new home, custom built on a then-secluded point of land on the northern end of Siesta Key, was right on the gulf and a small inlet which is now filled. I don’t know if the Muñequita followed them, or if they even had a dock built, but as can be seen from The Lonely Silver Rain, he was still thinking about this fun little craft and was, perhaps, riding vicariously along with Travis as he took the Muñequita out for a long overdue test run:

With an hour of daylight left, and the day growing chillier, I headed down toward Miami, traveling inside. Black leather jacket and watch cap, and the winds of passage strumming the canvas overhead, an NPR station on the FM, speaking mildly of the news of the day on All Things Considered, without hype or fury. The little doll growled along, at the lowest speed that would keep her on plane, white wake hissing behind her. There was comfort in being able to enjoy the boat. I had driven myself hard to get her back in shape. I had sore muscles, barked knuckles, a torn thumbnail and tired knees. Penance. Memory of the rumbling voice of the grandpa long ago: 'Anything you can't take care of, kid, you don't deserve to own. A dog, a gun, a reel, a bike or a woman. You learn how to do it and you do it, because if you don't you hate yourself.'

An out-of-date morality. Anything you don't take care of, you replace. Of course, the ERA wouldn't cotton to Grandpa's including a woman in his list of ownership items. Grandma seemed a happy woman, however.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Pulp Perspective Plus

The following is a letter John D MacDonald wrote in 1966 to the editor of a fanzine titled Bronze Shadows. Like most of its ilk, Bronze Shadows was a homemade affair, typed and printed via mimeograph and mailed out to subscribers lucky enough to have heard of it. In this case it was the handiwork of one Fred S Cook of Grand Haven, Michigan; he wrote, edited, typed, printed and mailed each issue of the ‘zine, at the cost of a whopping 35-cents per issue, or three issues for a dollar. Bronze Shadows’ particular subjects were the pulp fiction magazines Doc Savage and The Shadow, whose runs ended in 1949. How MacDonald came to know of the fanzine is uncertain, but he contributed a lengthy letter in late 1965 that was published in the third issue under the title “John D MacDonald vs. Doc Savage.” It was an extended reminiscence of his early days writing for these two pulps and his relationship with their then-editor Babette Rosmond. (Boy, what I would give to have a copy of that issue!) He followed that letter with this one, where he responds to readers’ reactions to the initial piece and gives further background. Like the previous letter, it was published under a title, in this case “Pulp Perspective Plus.”

First I would like to comment on Mr. McGregor’s plea for perspective in Bronze Shadows #5.

This 1966 MacDonald is still intolerant of leaden, dreary, shadowless prose whether it be in the vintage Doc Savage, or in contemporary Leon Uris and Taylor Caldwell novels.

I am more tolerant of the hilariously dull writing in vintage pulps than in the pretentious contemporary Michenerized journalistic novel because the old pulps have the kind of neo-camp charm of fringed lamp shades, Olsen and Johnson, wind-up phonographs, Charlie Chan movies, steamer trunks and rumble seats. Long ago, my boyhood stamp collection disappeared. Were I to find it, there would be a sweet and forlorn nostalgia in finding the spurious South African triangle traded to me by Kenny Somebody in return for a few dozen equally worthless mint issues printed in Germany during the galloping inflation after the first world war.

Nostalgia has value, even when the stimuli have none.

I believe that the standards of literary criticism must be applied to all writing, and that it is a kind of snobbism to apply it to so-called “serious” writing, and declare the pulps exempt because “they were trying to write readable adventure stories for the masses.”

So were dozens of super-melodramatic writers who fed serial installments to the newspapers in the middle years of the last century. It would take exhaustive research to find out who most of these hard-working fellows were. But at the time, until his popularity became so evident they had to notice it, they thought Charles Dickens just another one of the boys, chugging through the same vineyards.

Without shame, and with only a shy scuff of the foot, I proclaim that never once did I ever sit at one of these machines and think, “I am writing a pulp story.” Just as it is of no moment to me whether a novel is going to be published in boards, alligator hide or Kleenex. I have always said, “I am writing a story. I am trying to tell it true.”

And thus, wherever my work has been published, I am accepting the certain risk of literary standards of criticism being applied to my work. I would not want it otherwise. But I believe that I am not kidding myself when I say that I am only peripherally interested in any sort of critique. I am trying to please a critic who sits in a little room in the back of my head and sneers at nearly everything I do. I make him nod happily about once a year -- and that is a very good day. I was trying just as desperately to gain his approval when I was writing for the pulp magazines.

Writing “for” them is not correct. I was writing stories. I was trying to make magic and mysteries. When they were done I would try to be sufficiently objective to guess where they might end up, if anyone ever bought them. Stories that I thought might be published in pulp magazines during the years 1947 thru 1951 often ended up being published in Collier’s, Liberty, American, Esquire, etc.

I really think it would be a lousy situation if a man could write stories, hence exposing himself in intimate ways in the marketplace, and be immune to any form of artistic appraisal.

Naturally 99% of the stories throughout the pulp era had about the same artistic validity as contemporary television slop. But any devotee can name some names from the pulps which have a fairly classy resonance today.

During the heyday of the pulps, remember that 98% of the fiction in the lady-books was dreary meretricious crud. And probably 97% of the novels published, and 97% of the terribly, terribly sensitive bits in the litry reviews and journals have been mercifully forgotten as has most of the pulp product.

There just ain’t very much that’s any good in any medium at any time. And there is just as good a chance that there is some lasting gold in them there hills of pulp as in the mountains of other kinds of publications.

I merely say that the Man Of Bronze won’t qualify on those terms.

That does not mean I want to knock nostalgia.

Anyway, for the archive-minded, following is what I think are complete records on Street and Smith’s publications of my stories, in Doc Savage and The Shadow. Total 34 stories. I am missing the information on the dates of publication, editor’s title, and whether or not my name was used on two of these. If any of your brethren can fill in these two blanks, or find any others which my records do not cover, I would be most grateful. The five pseudonyms indicated herein cover every name my work has appeared under, in both Street and Smith magazines and elsewhere.

Here MacDonald lists the known stories and then gives details on the two he is uncertain of, including his original title, history, opening paragraph and synopsis. Both were subsequently identified. He goes on:

For the statisticians, the foregoing represents a smidgen over 300,000 words, or just about $6,000 at a time when (1946-1947) I was selling not quite one out of every three I wrote. So call it a million words of manuscript, plus another half million words discarded in the process of getting the million and a half worth mailed out, and you come down to an effective word rate of 4/10th of one cent per word. Thus 8,000 words a day, or about 5,500 of mailable mss meant on the average $32.00. So if you had the health, mule-headedness, emotional support and artistic conviction to bang out two million words a year, and if you never put your tongue in your cheek or patronized your imaginary audience in any way, you could simultaneously make a living and learn the writing business at one and the same time.

But you couldn’t count on a big social life or a small postage bill.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Science Fiction and Fantasy by John D MacDonald

This morning I’m launching another list in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources section of this blog: a bibliography of all of the science fiction and fantasy short stories, novellas and novels written by John D MacDonald.

Every MacDonald fan is aware of his three science fiction novels, Wine of the Dreamers, Ballroom of the Skies and The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. The fans whose interest in JDM extends to his short fiction are no doubt knowledgeable of the fact that he wrote a lot of science fiction stuff back in the early days of his career, published mostly in the sf pulps of the day. Many of the best of those tales were collected in a 1978 anthology titled Other Times, Other Worlds, which is now out of print. The editor of that indispensable collection, the peerless Martin H Greenberg, included an appendix to the book, a bibliography of MacDonald’s science fiction. It was culled from the obvious magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. It also included the latter-day Playboy story “The Annex,”  a 1964 story published in Cosmopolitan titled “The Legend of Joe Lee,” (both included in the anthology) and an obscure early work published in Spectator Club called “The Spiralled Myth.” The entries on this list totalled fifty-three.

But there were several stories that were missed. I guess if even Martin H Greenberg isn't infallible there’s hope for the rest of us.

There were at least three stories that predated any of the work MacDonald published in the standard sf pulps, and in somewhat unlikely publications. His first was a golfing fantasy titled “Hole in None” that appeared in a January 1947 issue of Liberty. Following that was a Bluebook tale about an unusual invention titled “The Pendans Box.” And near the end of that year he wrote a futuristic novella about nuclear proliferation in Doc Savage called “Or the World Will Die.” Only then, in 1948, did JDM see his first sf pulp story published, “Cosmetics” in the February issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

This began the author’s great spurt of sf writing, with ten stories published in 1948, 17 in 1949, 14 in 1950, eight in 1951, three in 1952 (including Ballroom) and one in 1953. But that was only the end of MacDonald appearances in sf magazines; he continued to write the occasional sf or fantasy story, and they appeared in other kinds of publications. In 1955 he wrote a straight-up science fiction story that was published in Bluebook, called “Virus H.” Its theme was one that the author came to embrace more fervently as he grew older, the ecology of the planet. The story even has aliens in it!

The remaining works are more fantasy than science fiction, with the exception perhaps of The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. These include some I have already written about: “A Dark People Thing,” “The Straw Witch,” “The Annex,” and “The Reference Room.”

And there may be more out there. As is evidenced by the early Doc Savage entry, some of the stuff he wrote for that magazine and its sister publication The Shadow may have fantasy or science fiction elements to them. I either don’t own these stories or haven’t read them in several decades, so if in the process of writing this blog I come across any, I will update the list when the posting appears.

As before, I want to thank J.J. Walters for creating the web page and making it readable and easy to use. We’ve put the list together in two different formats: entries listed alphabetically and then chronologically.

I would also like to thank Trap of Solid Gold reader Eric Gimlin for providing some very helpful advice as to what should be included and what should not. His prompting inspired me to dig out some of the early unlisted stories to determine their genre and to sit down and put this list together.

What I didn’t do here was segregate the science fiction from the fantasy. That’s a pothole I don’t want to drive over. I’ll simply finish with what I’ve always thought was the best quote on the subject, written by Rod Serling for the 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The Fugitive”:

Science fiction [is] the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"The Straw Witch"

In a week or two I will be launching a new link in The Trap of Solid Gold Resources you see in the right hand column of this blog, a listing of all of John D MacDonald’s science fiction and fantasy fiction. It’s going to contain all of the stories and novels that Martin H. Greenberg included in his appendix to Other Times, Other Worlds -- MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction anthology -- as well as several additional titles that were omitted but are clearly science fiction. It will also include a couple of stories that lean more toward fantasy, and some that barely qualify as representative of either genre. “The Straw Witch” will be on that list.

Originally published in the January 12, 1964 issue of This Week magazine, this very short story is one of MacDonald’s better works, as is most of the author’s fiction of this period, and qualifies as fantasy only in the individual reader’s perception. It’s one of those “was it real or only imagined?” kinds of stories, with the payoff coming in the final paragraph of the piece. Some may argue this point, but I think I’m on pretty solid ground here, and even if you want to dispute my assertion, you’ll have to agree that it is otherwise an excellent, well written story.

The protagonist is a paid assassin named Williamson, on a mission in an unnamed country to kill an ambassador. Two prior attempts by other had failed and now the security around the man was impregnable. His large country home was now guarded around the clock, with the grounds lit by floodlights at night, and his transportation provided by a bullet-proof limousine. He never appears outside of the home except to go or to come home from the embassy. Williamson has found a safe place in a wooded area where he can observe the house at night with high powered binoculars. Every night he is there, observing, trying to find some weakness he can exploit and take out his target.

The long nights have got him thinking and remembering. Specifically, he has begun recalling a brief period during the last war (WWII?) where he learned his trade as a clandestine killer of civilians. On a mission that had gone terribly wrong, he found himself hiding in the cellar of a house for several weeks with his partner, an old, grizzled Irishman named Gulligan.

Gulligan, like an old hound, had caught the whiff of death. In the darkness his mind wandered, and he talked on and on. Gulligan was a sour old hulk, an Irish murderer, a life-long saboteur and conspirator, just the sort of malignant riff-raff they sent on missions like that one. They never sent their clean young men to assassinate civilians.

Gulligan’s rants revolve around the imminent death he foresees for both himself and Williamson, and he slowly recalls the myths of his homeland.

"I don't know how they summon all the others, Billy boy, but for the ones like you and me, for us they send one of the straw witches... On the nights when the moon rises full and yellow they gather where there's a black pool, and quaggy ground so no fool can approach them. You can hear them on a still night, making their little sing-songs of laughter, sitting with their pale beautiful feet in the black water, all of them with silver needles knitting straw in the moonlight, fashioning it into wee gallows ropes and dainty shrouds... When yours comes for you, lad, you won't be thinking she's a straw witch. No, you'll have your mind on but one thing, and she will take your hand in hers and be in such a sweet hurry to take you to a private place. But when you reach to her, her thighs will be as smoke, her breasts no more than the wind passing, and it is only her lips you will find with a snow taste to them, cold as pebbled snow, and with a quick and clever suck she takes your wind away and your murderer's soul."

Gulligan sickens in the dark cellar and begins to rave. Williamson “felt for the socket at the base of his skull” and quickly, silently kills him. He saw no straw witch come for Gulligan, but he does recall the man’s dying words: “Darlin’ darlin’”

After a full month of observation outside the ambassador’s estate, Williamson finally comes up with a plan. Every night at the same hour the man opens his door to let his dog out. He’s too far away for a rifle shot, and even if he wasn’t, the target is wary enough to only crack the door wide enough to let the pet outside before quickly closing it again. But the dog is free to wander all over the expansive grounds of the estate, and if Williamson can manage to get close to him he believes he can accomplish his mission successfully...

“The Straw Witch” was the second in a great burst of excellent short works MacDonald produced for This Week, after a five year hiatus from writing for this newspaper supplement. Up until “End of the Tiger,” which appeared in October of 1963 JDM had written one or two stories per year for This Week, beginning in 1950 and taking a break in 1958. Then, between “Tiger” and “The Quickest Way Home” in 1966 he wrote no less than twelve uniformly excellent works of short fiction, including two I have written about: “The Loveliest Girl in the World” and “Blurred View.” In all likelihood this run of stories was due to the magazine’s new Fiction Editor, Stewart Beach, a longtime writer and editor who had been around the literary scene since the 1920’s. Back in 1929 he had written a book titled Short Story Technique and obviously thought MacDonald’s was very good. In 1957 he edited an anthology of This Week stories titled This Week’s Stories of Mystery and Suspense and included JDM’s 1955 entry “There Hangs Death.”

Finally, as I say about every JDM This Week entry, these stories are readily available through various newspaper archives, and can be accessed via a commercial entity such as Pro Quest, or through local library systems that provide access to a particular newspaper that carried This Week during the 1950’s and 1960’s. And, in the case of “The Straw Witch,” this story was included in MacDonald’s 1966 short story anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories which is available as an eBook, or, if digital reading is not your thing, used copies of the paperback can usually be found for very reasonable prices.

In fact, with this posting I have now covered every entry in that excellent anthology, and for those who are interested you can access the postings individually either through the Books by John D MacDonald or the Short Stories by John D MacDonald lists available through my Resources..