Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"A Corpse in His Dreams"

Mystery Book Magazine was another one of those ubiquitous pulps from the late 1940's and early '50's, but it didn't start out that way. From its first issue in July 1945 up through May 1947 it was a well-received mystery digest, similar to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and it published the works of many "A-List" authors such as Dorothy B. Hughes, Brett Halliday, Lawrence Treat and Cornell Woolrich. Like Ellery Queen, the covers were sedate and featured a minimum of artwork, certainly nothing as lurid as your average mystery pulp. But sales were not good, so beginning in the Fall of 1947 the magazine became a larger-sized pulp and reduced its publication schedule to quarterly. The covers started looking like a mystery pulp should -- indeed, the artwork on the front of Mystery Book Magazine was superior -- but sales continued to lag. In the Fall of 1950 the magazine's title was changed to Giant Detective, published two issues under that name, then disappeared forever.

Like a lot of other publications of the time, it featured a novel or novella in each issue, then filled the remaining pages with short stories. Editor Leo Margulies, better known for his stewardship of the science fiction pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories, helmed Mystery Book Magazine for its entire run, and was responsible for publishing four John D MacDonald pieces within its pages, two novellas and two shorts. MacDonald thought well enough of these works and agreed to have three of them included in his Good Old Stuff anthologies. "A Corpse in His Dreams" was his second entry, published in the Spring 1949 issue, and is one of the novellas.

Running 24,000 words, "A Corpse in His Dreams" begins oddly and at times reads like the work of a different author. The first couple of pages contain all sorts of interesting and strangely lyrical passages, and the writing seems stylistically different than what the early JDM reader is accustomed to. There are flashbacks-within-flashbacks that are inserted parenthetically, a device I don't recall ever seeing before or since in MacDonald's stories, although there are a lot of his stories I've never read. But once the plot gets moving we land in familiar MacDonald country and things race along to an exciting and suspenseful conclusion. MacDonald packs a lot of material in this tale: a brooding, haunted protagonist, the ghostly memory of his deceased fiancé, a focused, somewhat psychotic villain, and a couple of rich sisters who own a failing factory.

We first meet hero Matt Otis on a train, returning to his hometown of Cranesbay after an absence of nine years. Now a famous war correspondent, Matt has been covering the civil war in China where he has been "imbedded" with the troops of the Nationalists. Matt is a haunted man. He is haunted by his dreams, and the memory of Alicia Crane, his long-dead fiancé who died in an automobile accident with Matt behind the wheel. She returns to him over and over again at night, calling to him in a thin, clear, sweet voice, "Matthew! Matthew, darling. Matthew Otis! I'm dead! Dead, dead, dead..." He has been afraid to return home, but realizes that he must "if he [is] ever [to be] able to live in the present and in the future." His guilt has crippled him and "made all his days of danger tasteless, his vain seeking of delight insipid."

"Guilt is a hand across the eyes, a knife in the heart. There can be no peace, no joy, no ecstasy, no pride in accomplishment. With guilt all there can be is a pseudo-life where one goes through the motions expected of an adult, and carries in his mind the horrors imagined by a child."
Cranesbay, founded by Alicia's grandfather, is a New England costal town, "carelessly arranged on the shelf of land between the hills and the sea." As the train pulls into the station:

"He felt the rising tide of excitement... but it was the excitement of a man who, alone in a factory at night, has caught his fingers in slow-moving gears and knows that the gears will inevitably pull in his arm, elbow, shoulder, killing him at last."
We flash back nine years earlier, to a seaside Cranesbay restaurant, where Matt and Alicia are enjoying dinner.They are interrupted by Roy Bedford, Alicia's former beau, who joins them at their table, leaving his own date alone at hers. Roy is reveled to be a driven, competitive former schoolmate of Matt's, one who "had seemed to depend on winning as much as on breathing." He has come from modest beginnings, the son of the town drunk, had never attended college and clearly resents his peers who did. But he seems tipsy this night and leaves as suddenly as he arrived. Then, on the way home, the crash, leaving Matt with a broken leg and Alicia dead.

The early pages of this tale seem uncharacteristically clumsy for MacDonald, with the aforementioned parenthetical flashbacks, the sometimes florid prose, and most unnerving, a third-person omniscient narration that jolts suddenly from one character to the other, leaving the reader nearly dizzy. When Roy joins Matt and Alicia, we suddenly get his background in the form of a flashback, then we quickly materialize inside the head of Rose Carney, Roy's date, where we are treated to her back-story. This all takes place in Matt's flashback! Happily, once these flashbacks are over with and the motivations established, the story becomes a typically engrossing MacDonald yarn.

Matt discovers Roy is still in town, where he has become a wealthy entrepreneur, buying up business after business. Rose is still his "girl," and he has set her up in a nice oceanside house outside of town, where she lives alone and does Roy's bidding. Roy has managed to accomplish most of the things he has set out to do, save one. The town's primary employer, its one major industry is the Furnival Pneumatic Tool Company, founded years ago by the grandfather of it's current owner Patience Furnival. Actually, Patience is only the majority owner, for the company is publicly traded and another large block of stock is owned by her frivolous younger sister Susan. The remaining shares are owned by Roy, and he wants control. He makes a few offers to Patience, then threatens her with ruin when she refuses. Business has been bad since the war. Her father died and Patience, along with her factory manager Evan Cleveland, has tried to keep it going, but all sorts of outside pressures keep it teetering. Things like needed steel supplies that suddenly get underbid by another business, and a sudden lawsuit for patent violation launched by a rival factory. But Patience is stubborn and hates Roy, so she sends him packing.

Evan secretly pines for Patience, but Patience has always longed for a relationship with Matt. Roy, meanwhile, sets his sights on aimless Susan and her block of stock. He proposes marriage which, when consummated, will give him controlling interest in the factory. When Matt foils his plan, things start to happen, things that seem mysteriously familiar to the events of nine years ago...


It's all very exciting, very pulpy and very predictable. Still, there are a lot of familiar MacDonald themes going on here. We have a haunted hero, although Matt is not the typical post-war vet trying to fit back into society, and we have a business-industrial setting, the kind of world where MacDonald's writing excels, impeccably realized with a minutiae of detail. The two female love interests -- living and dead -- are typical JDM types, one blonde, gray-eyed and beautiful, the other dark, regal, tall and, yes, beautiful. The good guys --Matt and Evan -- are accomplished professionals in their respective trades, and Roy is revealed to be a soulless sociopath who seems almost superhuman at times. And if the story begins like an out-of-control roller coaster, it eventually settles into an exciting, satisfying work of early JDM suspense.

Thankfully, MacDonald didn't update the setting for "A Corpse in His Dreams" as he did so many of the other Good Old Stuff entries. The tale of war correspondents, industrial intrigue, and a kept woman in a beach house would have become impossibly convoluted had he attempted to move things up to the 1980's. As I've written before, I believe it was a mistake to have "updated" any of the old stories he re-published, but doing so with this one would have been nearly impossible.

"A Corpse in His Dreams" is included in the second of those two pulp anthologies, More Good Old Stuff.

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