Friday, June 17, 2011

"A Dark People Thing"

In the first three or four entries I posted to this blog, over a year and a half ago, I went into the background of how I was introduced to the works of John D MacDonald. I wrote about how I sold his books when working in a department store, how I became a subscriber to the JDM Bibliophile, and ultimately how I became involved in the work of compiling a complete bibliography of the author's many published works. Although I came late to the party and operated on the extreme periphery of the real action, I was able to supply information that had not yet been obtained by MacDonald's many bibliographers. It was a minor blip in the history of JDM but a huge formative experience in my own life and it introduced me to the world of bibliographic research, a hobby I have loved ever since. It also introduced me to the vast wonderland of John D MacDonald's short fiction, an incredibly rich body of work that seemed to me to be a kind of Rosetta Stone that explained the singular skills he later possessed as a novelist. That experience is detailed in my third post.

I had answered a call for help from Walter Shine, a JDM fan and bibliographer who, along with his wife Jean, wrote a column in the Bibliophile. The couple had just published their first book, the most complete listing of all of MacDonald's writings to date, titled A Bibliography of the Published Works of John D MacDonald with Selected Biographical Materials and Critical Essays, a major event in the JDM world at the time. It was a huge expansion and continuation of Len and June Moffatt's JDM Master Checklist, which first appeared in 1969, and it remains to this day the single most authoritative source of information on the writings of MacDonald. Yet like any such work, it was imperfect and, more important, incomplete. There were a few errors that slipped through and numerous omissions, understandable when trying to track down the voluminous work of such a prolific writer. Specifically, there were ten short pieces -- nine of them works of fiction -- that MacDonald had sold, received payment for but whose actual publication could not be verified. The Shines hoped to publish a second edition of the Bibliography with these ten stories located.

It was -- and is, I suppose -- normal practice for the publisher of periodicals to supply tear sheets to the authors of works that had been published in their magazines. By definition, this happened after the magazine was actually published, when said sheets could be removed from the magazine and sent to the author as proof that the work had appeared. In the quaint old days before computers and the Internet, these tear sheets served several purposes, mainly as a way a writer could market him or herself when attempting to sell subsequent stories. MacDonald, a meticulously organized man, kept his tear sheets in a separate file, along with a "carbon" (photocopy, for those of you too young to understand that term) of the original manuscript, copyright information and any correspondence sent or received from the publisher or his agent regarding the specific piece. And while most magazines -- even the lowly pulps --followed the practice of sending these pages, occasionally they didn't, and for a writer as busy as MacDonald was in his short story days, I suppose it was easy to let something like that slide, as long as he received his check.

The finding guide for the JDM Collection at the University of Florida reveals that most publishers sent MacDonald tear sheets, but some were sloppy about it. This Week, for example, did not supply tear sheets for nine of the twenty-six JDM stories they published over the years. To a bibliographer, finding proof of publication for a story published in one of the largest circulation magazines in the world would not be hard work, even thirty years after the fact. But when a story was sold to a pulp publisher like Popular or Columbia Publications, the work of locating it could involve hundreds of man hours fingering through brittle old pulps, scanning tables of contents and even reading portions of each story. That is what was required of me back in 1981 and I jumped at the chance.

The list of the "missing ten" consisted of five sports stories, two or three mysteries, a mainstream work, a non-fiction work for the Author's Guild Newsletter, and the story I'll be talking about here. The sports stories were easy to look for, since Shine knew which publisher purchased each piece, thereby narrowing the list of possible venues to the sports pulps that particular publisher produced. The mysteries were almost as easy and the piece for the Author's Guild I wasn't going to look for. The last item on the list was known to have been sold to Bluebook, that venerable old fiction pulp that had been in business since 1905 and who had already published twelve MacDonald works of fiction. In 1960 they had purchased a JDM short story titled "Underwater Safari," but Moffat, Shine and the half-dozen other bibliographers who had worked on the Master Checklist has been unable to locate the issue featuring this story.

What these bibliographers apparently didn't know was that Bluebook stopped publishing in 1956. Four years later it was revived, not as a men's fiction magazine but as a men's action/adventure magazine, attempting to take its place among other successful ventures such as Men, True Men, Man's Life, Men in Adventure, Action for Men.... I think you get the picture. Fiction in general was gradually fading from all magazines and what was replacing it was non-fiction articles (in the general circulation magazines) and phony "true" stories that appeared in these rather tawdry men's mags. (Some were true, many were obviously not.) Bluebook for Men began publication in October 1960 and lasted until 1975, retaining its focus on fiction until it inevitably drifted into the sensationalistic "true" accounts of "Lust Orgies of Frustrated Wives" and "Bazooka Train-Buster!" In 1964 Bluebook for Men changed its title to simply Bluebook, and was still appearing on newsstands under that title when work on the JDM Master Checklist began. This may have been one of the reasons it took so long to identify the publication of this "missing" short story.

Walter Shine's plan for locating the "missing ten" was to go through the pulp magazines held in the Library of Congress, which  was (and, I suppose, still is) on of the great repositories of these crumbling, fading fiction magazines. And while the Shines had lived in Washington, D.C. for much of Walter's working career, in the late 1970's he retired and the couple moved to Florida. They didn't have the time or money to zip back up to DC to spend a few days combing the stacks. Walter and Jean issued a request through their column for anyone with easy access to the Library of Congress and with a willingness to work on a great cause to apply.

I was born in Washington D.C. and lived most of my life in its nearby suburbs, so I certainly had access. I had a passion for the fiction of MacDonald and would certainly be willing to spend some of my free time in the effort of helping the cause. I wrote Shine that I would be willing to do the grunt work and he responded with enthusiasm. He did all of the interfacing with the drones at the LOC (as a former council at the Labor Relations Board, I imagine Walter still had some pull in DC), so all I had to do was show up on an appointed day and begin going through the pulps.

Boxes of them. Oh, my God, I couldn't believe the amount of work I had ahead of me. Year after year of titles such as Sports Novels, Fifteen Sports Stories, New Sports Magazine and Sports Fiction. Two years of Argosy. Eight years of Detective Tales. And, the last seven years of Bluebook from its original run, up to 1956. I had a list of the stories with JDM's original titles, the date sold, a list of known pseudonyms ("house names") and the first sentence from each story.

It took me two full days, from nine in the morning to closing at five or six, working straight through with no lunch break. Unfortunately I was unable to locate a single missing story. I wrote a six page letter to the Shines, outlining my efforts and listing each and every issue I researched. They passed the letter on to MacDonald, who responded (to Walter), "Thanks for sending me that extraordinary letter from Steve Scott. That is a lot of time to spend in the stacks. As I read it I kept hoping he would come up with something that is still missing." Needless to say, MacDonald's comments on my efforts went a long way to assuage my disappointment over being unsuccessful. Walter, ever the encouraging one, told me I had been quite successful, as he now knew where not to look.

Over the next couple of years a few of the missing titles surfaced. A mystery story titled "Devil-Head" and sold to Popular Publications turned out to have already been identified and listed under the title "Three Strikes -- You're Dead!" which appeared in the June 1949 issue of All-Story Detective. "A Good Judge of Men," which was supposedly sold to Argosy, was in fact sold to Cavalier. Then, in 1984, a librarian at the University of Florida named Carmen Russell was reading a listing from a Santa Barbara book dealer and spotted a 1961 issue of Bluebook for Men which purported to include a John D MacDonald story featuring the unfamiliar title "A Dark People Thing." She reported this finding to Walter, who was equally confused. He knew there was only one missing story that was sold to Bluebook, so he pulled out his copy of the original manuscript and, toward the end, read these sentences, spoken by a French ex-patriot:

"In some places of the worl' is called gris-gris. Some is voodoo. Some is hex. A dark pipple t'ing."

"Underwater Safari" had been found, and Walter wrote about it excitedly in his JDM Bibliophile column. Yet when he attempted to locate a copy of the magazine he was unsuccessful. He tried the bookseller but the issue had been sold. He tried several others, but Bluebook for Men was not a big collector's item at the time. He even wrote a plea in a subsequent column asking anyone who had a copy to sell it to him. To my knowledge he never did see the issue.

And neither did I, until recently, when I found an online merchant offering a copy of the issue for sale. I grabbed it and was happy to add it to my collection of old magazines featuring the work of JDM. Another one down.

So how is it? "A Dark People Thing" is a very readable, enjoyable story, a late period MacDonald tale that harkens back to his earlier work with a distinct flavor of the old pulps. It's told in the first person by a man named Joe Connolly, a Unit Manager for a television production company, and while Joe is not exactly a peripheral character, the focus of the narrative is on another person and Joe is the observer. Plus, "A Dark People Thing" contains an element of the supernatural that, while somewhat ambiguous, is definitely strong enough to place this story among MacDonald's other works of speculative fiction. The tale would be comfortably at home in an issue of Weird Tales.

The story is told in flashback, as Joe recalls how his employer, El-Bar Productions, began work on a television series to be titled Safari. Shot on location in the Belgian Congo it was to have starred Kirk Morgan, the popular, handsome and dashing star of Gunner's Mate, a series he had ended to begin work on Safari.  Forty half-hour episodes were shot but never saw the light of day, because Morgan died while shooting the last episode, and El-Bar went bankrupt. The viewing public mourned and the newspapers wrote about how heroically Morgan died, but Joe is telling his story in order to set the record straight, before the "tub-thumpers" make Morgan into some sort of folk hero. For while the public loved the man, off screen he was a decidedly different person.


"I don't want to malign the deceased. But you can't get the whole picture unless you understand I despised him. In that I do not stand alone. I stand shoulder to shoulder with everybody in the movie and television industry who ever had to work with him. Also in this group you can find a couple of hundred of beautiful women who got too close to him."

As Unit Manager Joe heads to Leopoldville along with most of the crew to begin setting things up. He enlists the aid of a local Frenchman named Rene du Palais to help him deal with the locals, and things go smoothly while they await the arrival of the actors. Along with Morgan, there's Nancy Rome, the love interest who is a "shrewd, tough, talented broad" and who has already spurned Morgan's predictable advances. There's the comedy relief, Sam Corren, "a fat whiner who is scared of germs and heart trouble," and there's the actress playing The Other Woman, Luara ("no typo") who is slinky and sexy but who is also a "devout reader of the scriptures."

Morgan immediately begins wooing the clueless Luara, but when he makes his move she slugs him with a heavy historical novel and "told him to watch his language when in the company of ladies." So early in the shooting Joe knows there is going to be trouble, because tomcat Morgan "needs a conquest to mend his self-esteem." He doesn't think there will be much trouble finding some local talent for him, but he doesn't anticipate what happens next. Rene du Palais shows up on location with his 19-year old daughter. Her name was Therese, she had been educated in a convent and was engaged to be married. Her mother was was a woman of "complex racial mixtures" and the union of her parents had given Therese an ethereal beauty that MacDonald conveys masterfully:

"Therese was slender, shy, innocent, with smoky hair, huge gray eyes, skin of velvet, ivory and gold. The agents of kings used to search for just such women."

Morgan's reaction was "as predictable as tossing a fat grubworm into a hen yard." Joe reminds the reader that, despite his comic ending with Luara, Morgan was an expert seducer, and he goes into overdrive. Rene, who he had previously ordered around like a house servant, now became a personal guest of the great star, and though he had shown absolutely no interest in Equatorial Africa before, he "suddenly  became a tourist in need of a guide." Therese was chaperoned by an elderly female relative, but that didn't matter in the beginning, during the set-up. Joe and others on the crew could see what was happening, but their warnings to Rene were dismissed. Therese was a "good girl" and Mr. Morgan was being very kind to her.

When a piece of film equipment breaks down and requires a three halt in production, Morgan makes his move. He and Therese managed to ditch the chaperone and they vanished. When a frantic Rene comes to Joe in order to ask Morgan about his daughter's whereabouts, he is told Morgan is missing as well. He leaves, looking "sick, tired and old." Then three days later, Morgan reappears, casually walking into Joe's room without knocking. When asked where he has been for three days, he informs him that he has been in Goma, at the Hotel du Grand Lac. When asked about Therese, he responds, "Tasty. Very tasty. But three days does it, men. A dull child at heart, you know. Once the bloom is off the blossom, they tend to get emotional." He informs him that he left the girl at her garden gate, "blubbering and snuffling." He yawns and leaves the room.

The next morning Rene appeared at the hotel to offer his resignation. He brought with him a replacement, another Frenchman named Jules Boudreau. Joe tells him how sorry he is and Rene blames himself for not heeding Joe's warnings. Yet when he leaves he refuses to shake Joe's hand.

A few weeks later Therese put on "the wedding gown she would never wear," slipped out of her house before dawn, got on her bicycle and rode down to the quays along the Congo River and jumped in. It took rescuers a half an hour to recover her body. When Morgan is told, he looks "mildly astonished."

"He licked his manly lips, fingered his sculptured throat, swallowed hard and said, 'A hell of a silly thing to do. The kid mist have been missing some marbles. She wasn't what you call real bright.'"

Surprisingly, the film company isn't attacked by the locals or kicked out of the country by local officials. Taping of the show continued, and it wasn't until they were on episode 20 when one of the actors remarked about Morgan's "strange... subdued and remote" acting. The director complains to Joe that Morgan is "going dead on me," and a producer observes that "...I get the feeling  he's sort of fading away. You know what he does when he isn't working, eating or sleeping? He sits and stares at the wall, hour after hour." And later after a few drinks together, the same producer wags his finger drunkenly at Joe and slurrs, "It's a hex. Deepest Africa. Witch doctor stuff. Revenge, Joey. For the dead girl. For Therese..."

"A Dark People Thing" works well within the context of the magazine it appeared in, and it's a good, enjoyable read. After all those years of searching for it, It's nice to know that it was worth the effort, even if it isn't a lost JDM classic. The author's ability to maintain narrative and establish character with as few words as possible is evident throughout, as well it should be at this point in his career. The supernatural element was a bit of a surprise, especially coming at a time when MacDonald had long given up on science fiction (and he never did much horror), but it is handled in a way that ... well, I don't want to give away the ending, in case anyone wants to embark on their own search for "Underwater Safari."


Incidentally, this particular issue of Bluebook for Men doesn't look all that different from the earlier versions of Bluebook that appeared in the 1950's. It hadn't yet morphed into a real sweat magazine yet, featuring torturing Nazis and bikini-clad machine gun-toting babes. That would certainly come later, but in 1961 the new incarnation looked pretty much like the old. The interior is, for the most part, black and white, and what little color is employed is their characteristic use of various shades of blue, from arresting bright tones to a nearly slate gray. The artwork is uneven, to say the least, but given the budget Bluebook worked under, it's pretty good, even if it doesn't come near to Cosmopolitan of Collier's standards. The illustration for "A Dark People Thing," by Jim Infantino, for example, isn't much to get excited about, but turn one page and -- if you're a lover of magazine art like I am -- I think it's safe to say that your breath will be taken away. "Ordeal in Paradise"  by Tom Bailey is a "true" story, complete with a affidavit labeled "Verified Authentic" and signed by the subjects of the story. It's the tale of a South Pacific shipwreck where only a man and a young girl survive, and after floating on wreckage in shark-infested water for over a week, end up on a desert island, where they are eventually... shot at by a Japanese soldier left over from World War II! True or not, it's an interesting and well-written piece with a somewhat predictable ending, but what I'm sure led many a reader in 1961 to bother with it at all is its incredible illustration by Ted Lewin. Done in the usual Bluebook two-tone, it is a work of art that seems to belong in another magazine. Its composition, it's limited use of light, and its astounding lifelike depiction of the female form all make it worth reproducing here, even if it has nothing at all to do with John D MacDonald.


2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this latest interesting article on JDM. I collect BLUEBOOK and have most of the pulp issues but I only have scattered copies when it became a men's adventure magazine in the 1960's. One copy I do have however, is the Feb 1961 issue with the JDM story. I see the magazine had more fiction than the other men's adventure titles with stories in this issue by M.E. Chaber, Pat Frank, and Hank Searls, all fairly well known writers of the time.

    The last BLUEBOOK I have is Oct 1969 and the contents appear to all "articles" and no fiction. I put articles in quotes because these so called factual pieces often read like poorly written fiction.

    By the way, the new giant issue of PULP VAULT 14 has a long, over 40 page article on the history of BLUEBOOK by Mike Ashley. An excellent article on this great magazine and it can be ordered from amazon.com.

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  2. Thanks Walker, and thanks for the lead on the new issue of PULP VAULT. I'll have to check it out.

    I only own about a dozen issues of the old pulp BLUEBOOK, mostly ones featuring a JDM story, but there are a few JDM issues I'm still looking for. It was a great fiction magazine, featuring (mostly) good writing and good illustrations. Flipping through an old issue is like reliving a long forgotten past, even though I was far too young to have enjoyed it when it was being published.

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