Tuesday, October 12, 2010


"Backlash" is an early John D MacDonald short story, one of two that appeared in the same February 1947 issue of The Shadow, or Shadow Mystery as it was called that year. As was the custom of the time, only one of these stories would be published with the author's real name, so one of them had to be credited to a house name. "Backlash" was the one and it was attributed to "Peter Reed." One assumes that the author had some say in which of his stories would have his name on it, just as one assumes that said author would select the story he was most proud of. And although that didn't always seem to be the case (see my piece on "Five-Star Fugitive") it certainly was for this particular issue. The other story -- "The Anonymous Letter" -- while not a classic, is an interesting and well-done tale whose power lies in its ability to evoke time and place. "Backlash," on the other hand, is a simple yarn about cosmic justice that contains both an ironic, twist ending and a highly unusual would-be murder weapon. In fact, said weapon is so obviously a plot device that the reader immediately begins wondering about it once it is introduced.

Like its companion piece, "Backlash" contains a character who spent World War II in the China-Burma-India Theater and that military stint has a direct bearing on the plot at hand. Both tales also feature men who are damaged romantically, undone by a woman upon whom they attempt to take revenge, and both feature unusual methods used to carry out their plans.

Ralph Boder has returned from the war in one piece and with a newfound romantic hope. Before the war both he and a man named Karl Downer vied for affection of a slim, dark-haired beauty named Bess Carney. When Karl returned home blind from a combat wound, Ralph naturally figured he now had the full attention of beautiful Bess. But that was not to be. MacDonald gives no other background other than a brief, quoted letter from Bess to Ralph that does all the explaining that needs to be done:

"Dear Ralph, I don't know what you mean. I never made promises to you. Because Karl was blinded is no reason why I don't marry him. The doctor says maybe someday he will see again. Please don't bother me any more. I love Karl. Don't try to see me. Your letter frightened me. Bess."
Whenever Ralph thinks of Bess with Karl he hears a roaring noise in his ears, and he has resolved that if he can't have her, no one will have her.

Ralph returned home with more than just a hope for Bess' attentions. He was also packing an unusual weapon, a homemade crossbow, purchased from "a Naga man from the hills" for a mere three rupees. He has spent weeks practicing with it, while living in a transient camp, and can now sink an arrow accurately from sixty yards. He plans to use his newfound archery skills and has one arrow named for Bess and another for Karl.

As the story opens, Ralph is checking into a hotel, making a scene as he insists on a room on the north side and only one or two stories up. His request granted, he enters his room, locks the door and quickly checks out the scene from the window. Across the street is a sidewalk cafe, easily within shooting distance. He then heads for a local drugstore and make an improbable call to Bess, disguising his voice with a handkerchief over the mouthpiece (does that trick even work?) He pretends to be an old army buddy of Karl's named Fowler and sets up a lunch date for the following day at the cafe next to the hotel. When Bess makes sure that the caller knows of Karl's handicap, "Fowler" responds, "Sure. I won't make any breaks. I hear he is going to be okay though." He tells her to select a table outside.

Ralph spends a fitful night of light sleep, his bravery supplemented by a bottle of cheap rye. The following day both Bess and Karl arrive at the cafe on schedule. Ralph takes a last slug of the rye and aims the crossbow at Bess, first at the V of her dress, then at her throat.

"There could be no mistake -- or Karl would have her. No one must have her."
Outside of its characteristic economy of words and the past life of its protagonist, there is little in "Backlash" to reveal it as the work of John D MacDonald. In early 1947 he had only been writing for a little over a year and had been published for barely that long. Much of his very early work reveals a writer searching for a style, one who was perhaps unsure of which particular field of fiction he would specialize in. The basic plot of "Backlash" could have come out of any comic book or cheap pulp magazine of the period and it was undoubtedly an effort MacDonald would have wanted to forget. Still, it's a brief diversion with some interesting techniques and a few telltale attempts at what would become his characteristic "voice". At 1,200 words, "Backlash" would have earned the author around $24 -- assuming the standard 2-cents per word that most pulp writers were paid-- which seems about right for this tale. Something he probably knocked off one morning before lunch.

The story has never been anthologized.

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