Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"The Man from Limbo"

"The Man from Limbo, " a 15,000-word John D MacDonald novella, was originally published in the April 1952 issue of Dime Detective. This was not a good time to be a fiction pulp magazine, as the paperback market was quickly overtaking the cheap fiction magazines in popularity. In 1952 the once venerable Dime Detective had already been forced into a bi-monthly publication schedule and had only nine more issues to go before folding completely. "The Man from Limbo" would prove to be MacDonald's next-to-last story for the publication that had done so much for him -- 39 stories published! -- and shows him to be still quite able writing the kind of wild yarns he had produced in his very early years.

The title was not his. "The Man from Limbo" was the change the editors of Dime Detective made to JDM's original, lackluster "Terror in the Town," proving once again that MacDonald was not always the master of the short story title. But the story itself is a good one, a wild, suspenseful and at-times enigmatic story of a WW II veteran who unwittingly gets caught up in a crooked small town election and nearly dies as a result. It's a tale that harkens back to the kind of story and -- more specifically -- the kind of hero he used frequently when he first began writing fiction for a living, and it quite possibly tapped into some of the author's own shortcomings in the world of business.

Dolph Regan is our hero, a veteran from the European Theater of war who returned home in seemingly good shape, but who soon began having bouts of paralyzing fear that would overtake him completely. When asked what he was afraid of, he couldn't say: "Nothing. And everything... Fear of people, with overtones of claustrophobia. Fear of failure." The bouts would last for several days and he would hide in his room, completely useless. He is unable to continue his job as an architect and his doctor diagnoses him with "fear psychosis," giving him a choice. He can "hide in hospitals" for the rest of his life, or he can take a job the doctor has lined up for him as a travelling jewelry salesman. "You have to make yourself do it," the doctor tells him. "Do it for three months, Dolph, and this will never come back again."

For six weeks Dolph forces himself to do the job, but it isn't easy:

"Sometimes it was a full hour before he could force himself to enter a store. If the owner was too busy to talk, it was like a reprieve. He gave his sales talks woodenly, his body bathed in a cool sweat. But he forced himself to do it. He forced himself to believe that it was becoming easier. He made sales -- not many. But those he made were precious to him."

Dolph has come to the next stop on his route, the upstate New York town of Brasher -- an obvious stand-in for Utica -- and in the middle of a sales pitch he suffers another panic attack. He stumbles out of the store and manages to get back to his hotel, where he is looked at by a doctor who questions him closely. "There wasn't much he could tell the doctor. Just that the name of the city had a tantalizing familiarity... tinged with dread." He is awakened the following morning by the sounds of a parade going by on the street below.

Brasher is holding an election for Mayor in a couple of days and the parade features one of the candidates riding on the top of a convertible. After a moment or two Dolph recognizes the candidate as Wally Block, his former sergeant from the war, and he immediately realizes why the name of the town was vaguely familiar. Wally sees Dolph, who points at the door of the hotel to let him know where to meet him. He is elated at the thought of seeing an old war buddy and no longer feels the effects of his panic. Assuming that Wally will come to the hotel to meet him, he waits in the grill room and is met instead by a young campaign aide, Jan Holland. The seasoned MacDonald fan can tell that sparks will ensue:

"He decided that she was an extraordinarily pretty girl, very nearly a beautiful girl. Her hair was the shade of butter toffee under the pert hat with its tiny veil... Her face was broad through the cheekbones, her eyes set wide and gray, her mouth cool and fresh."

Jan is cool to him and reveals that Wally has sent her to find out if Dolph was in town to help him or to hurt him. Dolph is aghast and assures Jan that he thought the world of Wally during the war. He offers to write a testimony for him to be presented at a pre-election-night rally and the two head over to campaign headquarters. When Dolph finally does meet Wally, the candidate's manner is cool and his questions strange. When Wally offers him a post-election position in the new government, Dolph is curious enough to go visit Dilly Shenck, the real power in town, to try and get some answers. He ends up at the end of a gun and locked in a coffin-like box. It's a situation that now seems strangely familiar...

The rest of the tale is a wild ride featuring corrupt city politics, ruthless villains and a dangerous six-foot redheaded moll called Redtop. There are improbable chases, a hideout that is MacDonald's usual Lake Piseco stand-in lake-house, and a sex scene so brief and vaguely-written I didn't realize it had taken place until the end of the story. The novella is divided into three chapters, each with a title, and we get -- of course -- a happy ending. It's a good example of MacDonald's growing maturity, while at the same time retaining a lot of the melodrama and improbability of a typical pulp story.

I've written before about MacDonald's frequent use of the "damaged" war veteran in his early work, a man returning home and finding it difficult to fit back into the society he had once been part of. Dolph immediately reminded me of Ben Lawton, a similar veteran in need of mending from his 1949 novella "Killing All Men." It is surprising, however, to find that character type in a story written so late in his career, at a time when he had just finished The Damned and was on the cusp of becoming a major paperback novelist. What is even more interesting to me about this tale is the hero's particular neurosis, which characterizes itself as a fear of people and, specifically, of selling. The reader eventually learns that the cause of Dolph's problem has nothing to do with the way his subsequent illness cripples him, which makes it all the more curious as to why MacDonald spent so many words on it. The author's own inability to fit into a "normal" kind of work environment had evidenced itself not after the war but after he graduated with his Harvard MBA. He failed and was fired from most of his attempts in the business world, stints which included selling insurance and collecting bad debts. The description above of Dolph's fear of selling is recognizable to anyone who has ever had to make a cold call, and MacDonald was no doubt writing from experience.

And I will issue one warning to any potential reader who suffers from claustrophobia. The five paragraphs that begin Chapter Two describing Dolph's attempts to free himself from the coffin-like prison are some of the most realistically-written and uncomfortable I've ever read. In fact, I basically had to skim over most of them.

"The Man from Limbo" was anthologized in 1992 as part of the indispensable Dime Detective collection titled Hard-Boiled Detectives. Edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H, Greenberg, it's currently out of print but easy to find.

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