He loved their beauty and their tranquility, and in his fiction he employed them with both of those characteristics in mind, but he also loved the sense of separation they evoked, as well as the terrible frailty one could feel because of that isolation. Bad things can happen at a lake, including murder, infidelity, rape and kidnapping.
MacDonald loved one lake in particular, Piseco Lake in upstate New York, fifty miles northeast of Utica in the Adirondacks. It was there that he and his wife Dorothy owned a large plot of lakefront land, purchased with the winnings from a wartime poker game, which later became the family's summer home for thirty-five years. Every spring from 1951-on, John, Dorothy and son Johnny would escape the crushing heat of Florida and make the long trek by car northward. Their cabin was built on a remote shore of the lake and could only be reached via a long, twisting dirt road that encouraged privacy and allowed the nearby wildlife to flourish. MacDonald wrote a great deal of his published works there, and it was at Piseco that he and Johnny burned 800,000-words of unsold short stories from his earliest days as a writer.
But most important to the reader of MacDonald is the spell Piseco Lake cast over the fiction the author produced. Lakes serve as the setting of numerous short stories and novels, and anyone who has read JDM's "cat biography" The House Guests can recognize Piseco virtually any time a lake is used by the author. Of the works I have already written about in this blog Piseco served as a model for the opening scene in Judge Me Not, the place where Jane Wyant committed adultery in Cancel All Our Vows, the weekend getaway spot in You Live Once, and the setting for the entire plot of All These Condemned. Of the ninety-one short stories I've covered so far in this blog, ten of them feature settings at a lake.
Now I can make that eleven. MacDonald's early novella "You've Got to Be Cold" takes place almost entirely near a remote lake that was certainly modeled after Piseco. Appearing in the April-May 1947 issue of The Shadow, it is a rambling, wildly improbable tale featuring one of JDM's quintessential "damaged veterans" who, returning from World War II finds it difficult to adjust back to normal living. The lake setting emphasizes the hero's detachment from society and its distance from any hint of the modern world allows a primeval menace to permeate the the story.
Walker Post is a mess. He's a man who doesn't give a damn about himself or anyone else, and who is content to drink his life away in run-down bars. While fighting in the Pacific during the war he lost his mother and his wife in an auto accident and he has returned to a home devoid of any family. His former boss offers him his old job back, but after working there several weeks he walks out. "He thought it would give him something familiar to hold on to. It hadn't worked." After putting his furniture into storage and moving into a shabby furnished room, he begins to drink up the two thousand dollars of insurance money left from his wife's death.
"He hadn't tried to find work... He knew he wasn't drinking himself to death. Just enough liquor each day to cloud the pictures in his mind. Just enough to dull the constant irritation with everything around him. He slept in the cheap, sour room between the gray sheets. He ate heavy fried foods. He walked the streets slowly and wondered what there was to care about. In some distant corner of his mind he was uncertain and frightened. Some mornings he would remember and realize that it would have to end sometime. There would be no more money. But that was a long time off... He spoke to no one. He didn't read. He didn't go to movies. He sat and drank and ate and slept and walked, fighting down the mad thing in his heart that wanted to flash out at the people around him. He wanted to strike and crush and batter the faces of those around him."
He's about to get his chance to do just that. As a result of his surliness he manages to get into a bar fight and is nearly demolished before striking back. Not quite sure if he is winning or losing, the battered, nearly unconscious Post is pulled out of the bar and put into a car by an unknown man. His rescuer introduces himself as Dr. Benjamin Drake, who just happened to be passing by when he heard the ruckus. Drake senses Post's unhappiness and offers him a job working for him at a new "combination summer camp and health resort" just constructed on the site of an old, deserted lumber camp on remote Lake Meridin. After initially refusing, Post decides to take him up on the offer. The work will be physical and he can keep to himself if he wants to. Post tells Drake, "What's the difference what I do?"
The following day Drake picks up Post and they head to the camp. The path to the lake is nearly invisible, an old, overgrown dirt road off of an old country lane, protected by low hanging bushes and a fallen tree trunk that turns out to be fake. After another quarter of a mile of dirt road and a four mile walk down a nearly invisible trail, they arrive at the "resort."
"It lay below them, a thousand yards away. It was small, possibly a mile long and a half mile wide. A large patch of the sky had cleared and the still water threw a deeper blue back toward the sky. It ran east and west... Wooded hills rose steeply from the lake on every side except the west. Ahead Post could see the outlines of weathered gray buildings against the evergreens. It was very quiet, strangely quiet. Post felt a momentary uneasiness."
As well he should. Dr. Drake drops the veneer of kindness and begins ordering Post down to one of the buildings. He warns him that there is only one way out of the place, the way they came, and that to attempt to leave will not be tolerated. That's kind of a moot point right now, as Post's long months of drinking have softened him up to the point that he is ready to drop. He meets two other "workers," big tough guys who eventually become Post's prison guards. There are only two "patients" there, both well-to-do businessmen in separate and remote cabins, one accompanied by his wife, the other by his daughter.
When Drake leaves for a few days Post decides he's had enough and tries to leave, only to be stopped by one of his co-workers, who shoves him to the ground and warns him of further violence if he doesn't get with the program. When Drake finally returns and learns of Post's attempt to leave, he pulls out a newspaper clipping from his pocket. It's a story about a barroom brawl and how one Walker Post killed another man in a fight, and how the police in three states were now looking for him. Post is stuck.
To further summarize this sprawling plot would take forever, and I'm not going to attempt it. Suffice it to say that Drake's plan with his patients has nothing to do with curing them and everything to do with getting huge sums of money from them. Walker and the second patient's daughter eventually combine forces to try and escape, but the reader can guess that the minute she's introduced: "tall... slim... high cheekbones... gray eyes..." The JDM female archetype.
Although MacDonald permitted "You've Got to Be Cold" to be included in the second Good Old Stuff anthology (under his original title "The Night is Over") he was not proud of this particular work, calling it "clumsy" and admitting that the characters' motivations were "unreal." Francis M. Nevins, Jr., who was one of the editors of the two Good Old Stuff volumes, had a much better opinion of the story, calling it "smoothly written, sharply paced and impossible to leave unfinished." He also termed it "a fine example" of JDM's early use of the psychologically damaged veteran, his "self-ruination" and eventual redemption. I'll agree that it is a nicely-written pulp yarn with a couple of interesting characters, and that it has a uniquely interesting premise, but it does seem a bit drawn out at times and the structure wobbles every now and then. The knowing reader certainly comes away with a fresh reminder that pulp magazines paid writers by the word.
MacDonald's biographers rarely -- if ever -- discussed or even mentioned individual works of short fiction in their books, but Hugh Merrill gives "You've Got to Be Cold" a sentence in The Red Hot Typewriter. Unfortunately, it's a perfect example of the careless writing and sloppy research that makes that work so suspect. He prefaces his observation by claiming that the pulps were MacDonald's apprenticeship and that "...like any apprenticeship, he learned by imitation.
"His asylum in "You've Got to Be Cold"... bears an astonishing resemblance to the hospital run by Dr. Anthor (sic) in Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely."
Well. First of all, as anyone who has actually read the Chandler novel can attest, the hospital in Farewell, My Lovely was not run by Jules Amthor (or even Jules "Anthor"), and the only thing "astonishing" is the fact that Merrill would compare a rustic and remote group of cabins by a small lake with a mental hospital in Bay City, California. There are no locked rooms in Benjamin Drake's "health resort," and Walker Post is not held there as a patient. It is not an "asylum" in any sense of the word and for Merrill to make this connection leads me to suspect that he has never actually read Chandler's book but has instead relied on one of the movie adaptations for his reference here. In the 1975 film version of Farewell, My Lovely, the location of Marlowe's imprisonment is indeed run by Amthor, but the character was changed from a phony psychic to the madam of a brothel. In the book the hospital was run by a Dr. Sonderborg.
If MacDonald was copying another writer in "You've Got to Be Cold" it certainly wasn't Raymond Chandler.