Monday, March 22, 2010

"The Great Stone Death"

When John D MacDonald was asked by Stephen King to write an Introduction for his 1978 collection of short stories Night Shift, MacDonald responded with an interesting, at times belligerent piece about the mechanics of writing. While praising King and deploring the large majority of popular authors -- "...household names who have never really bothered to learn their craft" -- he made two observations about the field of writing King specialized in. His first was a kind of backhanded compliment toward King which disparaged the horror field:

"... I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in a field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate."

The second was a more direct aphorism about the field in general:

"Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humor and the occult. In clumsy hands the humor turns to dirge and the occult turns funny."

MacDonald does not reveal that he himself once tried writing horror, way back at the beginning of his career when he was churning out short stories for the pulps. He had two tales printed in the most famous of all horror pulps, Weird Tales, both published in early 1949 and both largely forgotten. The first of those stories, "The Great Stone Death," originally published in the January 1949 issue, has recently been anthologized in the 2010 eBook Death Quotient and Other Stories, and using MacDonald's own rules as outlined in the Night Shift Introduction, we can be thankful that it was not a field the author pursued afterward.

The story reads like any tale a reader could have easily found in one of the pre-code horror comic books of the era (I was particularly reminded of "The Thing With the Golden Hair."). Two men on horseback are riding along a trail deep in the wilderness of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. John Logan has been persuaded by his companion Steve Fowler to take this camping trip in order to have John "learn the country." He's recently relocated to the American Southwest because of a lung problem, but has spent most of his time in a hotel bar, gazing out at the mountains with "a kind of sneering look." This bothered Steve, a local who has spent a lot of time in the mountains, and he eventually convinces Logan to make the trip.

Logan is regretting his decision. His horse has thrown him once already and he has a perpetual feeling of unease about the wilderness, " though some grim spirit crouched back in the blue shadows and silently watched their progress with an enigmatic smile." He is a city boy and takes comfort in the safety of a place "where he could protect himself." He views Steve as a guileless simpleton with no imagination. When the two make camp for the night, Logan reveals his fears to Steve, who laughs them off.

Logan: "There are thousands of square miles that have never been seen by man. Actually, they are the same as they were back in the dawn of history. Who knows what you might run across up in these hills."

Steve: "The great stone lizard, maybe?"

Logan: "What's that?"

Steve: "Oh, foolish Indian talk. Their old men talk about some great stone lizard that lives up above the timberline. Been up here for centuries, the way they tell it."

Logan: "It could be."

Steve: "Hell, man! You beginning to sound like the Indians."

When Steve compares his own feelings about New York City to Logan's fear of the wilderness, the uneasiness subsides, but only until Steve drifts off to sleep. Then Logan lies there awake:

"... he looked up at the unwinking stars and the roar of the stream seemed to be whispering something to him in hoarse, damp words. Words he couldn't quite understand. He huddled down deeper in the bedroll and licked dry lips. Far off in the pine forest something screamed in distant, futile horror. The sound sent feathers of ice crawling up his spine. Deadly is the long night."

By morning his fears had lessened and the two enjoy breakfast before heading out again... to a place far up above the timberline...

"The Great Stone Death" is a relatively short work of 3,600 words that is as predictable as it is derivative. MacDonald obviously has no love or appreciation of of the horror genre and the tale reads like a well-done pastiche, which it probably was. It is usually classified along with his other science fiction works simply because something impossible happens, but it reads with a kind of detached air that tells me the author really wasn't interested in what he was doing. It's not poorly written or uninteresting, it just doesn't leave the reader with the sense of wonder and place that his other s-f stories do.

Yet the JDM fan should be happy to see it republished, even if it's only in eBook form. Unfortunately I'm discovering that Death Quotient and Other Stories is marred by more than a few typographical errors, usually the kind that pass a spell-check but are actually the wrong words. Nowhere is this more unfortunate than in "The Great Stone Death," where the last word in the story is almost certainly in error and possibly spoils a surprise ending. Having no access to the original, I can only speculate.


  1. While I agree with you that the last word of the story is almost certainly in error, I can at least vouch that the error is from the original magazine. Assuming, of course, that they haven't updated the e-book I have from the version you had a few years ago. The original magazine also has "hopple" where I would expect "hobble"; and "canon" with a tilde above the n rather than "canyon".

    At least the magazine has a Heinlein story as well; the only one ever in Weird Tales. One of the fun things about tracking down the original mags is seeing who else pops up in them.

    1. Yeah, a few years ago a reader in England emailed me to let me know about that final word. I guess the only way to know for sure if it was intentional is to take a look at MacDonald's original manuscript, which is down at the University of Florida.

  2. The terminal typo is in the original too, as others have pointed out. My best guess is that the word was supposed to be "giant," though it is also possible that other words were cut out by accident.

    As a New Mexican, I should note that the spelling of caƱon for canyon is not a typo, but is correct for that region and time (it still is today), and MacDonald's description of the geography and vegetation of that area (around Santa Fe) is accurate, other than for the giant stone lizard.

    1. That's a pretty good guess and it certainly makes more sense. Since writing this I've acquired a copy of the original and seen the "typo" for myself.