Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Stephen King Connection


Regular readers of this blog have no doubt seen the small list of quotes I've placed in the right column of the page, quotes of praise about the work of John D MacDonald. The most succinct and adulatory of this tiny collection is also the most oft-quoted: author Stephen King's "[John D MacDonald was] the great entertainer of our age."

 Although the two writers were separated by 31 years of age their careers shared many characteristics, including early years as short story writers working in entry-level markets (JDM in the pulps, King in second-tier men's magazines), similar writing styles that featured a strong gift of narrative, and ultimate best seller status in the world of American fiction writing. The two men were also friends, a relationship that began with MacDonald's agreement to write the introduction for King's first short story anthology Night Shift. After MacDonald passed away King wrote a fascinating tribute to his pal that appeared in the inaugural issue of Mystery Scene magazine, along side tributes from over two dozen other writers, including Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Charles Willeford and Harlan Ellison. King's piece offered an interesting history of his introduction to the fiction of JDM, how the elder author came to write the introduction to Night Shift, and ended with King's heartfelt admission of deep loss.

 King revealed that his first exposure to MacDonald occurred in 1959 when he read the author's 20th novel Murder in the Wind, which was published three years earlier. He described how the book illuminated a truth that was instrumental in guiding his own career choice as a writer:

 "[I was] knocked cockeyed by it... and both while reading it and afterward, I went around in a state of exhilaration, thinking 'So it can be done. It can be.'

 "By 'it' I suppose I meant telling the truth about life even while you were writing for the popular market, so often regarded by those self-esteeming English profs as a market made up of closet sadists, lowbrow truck-drivers, and bored housewives. But even at twelve, with no more experience of life than a rural upbringing could afford, I knew the feel of the real when it touched me in that book. How could I, or anyone, not feel it? Murder in the Wind did not reach out and touch you; it grabbed you, jerked you into a dark alley, and assaulted you.

 "MacDonald was writing about people I knew, about smells I had smelled, and I thought, about the way I would feel under certain circumstances. It was like seeing your first color movie after a lifetime of black-and-white."

When King was in college he managed a brief period of "writer's block" by reading many of MacDonald's novels, a recollection he revealed in his excellent 2000 memoir On Writing, where he mentioned the incident in a condemnation of creative writing classes. By the the time King had become a full time writer -- after the publication of the paperback edition of Carrie in 1975 -- his second novel 'Salem's Lot contained an interesting passage, probably an unconscious bit of writing but one which would blossom into a kind of literary mutual admiration between King and MacDonald. The novel's hero Ben Mears is an author who returns to his boyhood town of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, only to discover that the town's citizens are slowly turning into vampires.  During a lengthy interview with Homer McCaslin, the county sheriff, he reveals his occupation and it turns out McCaslin had read some of Mears' published work. McCaslin was not impressed. The interview (and the chapter) ends with the sheriff offering the author some advice:

 "You ought to write books with better sense. Like the guy who writes those Travis McGee stories. A man can sink his teeth into one of those."

Three years later, after the publication of his third novel The Shining,  King put together a collection of his early short stories he called Night Shift, and after the initial editing process with his editor Bill Thompson, he was asked who he would like to write the introduction. Specifically, King recalled Thompson's question thusly:

"If you could have anyone in the world do the introduction to the book, who would you pick?"

King remembers his response as being "quick and automatic. 'John D. MacDonald,' I said."

"Why MacDonald?" [Thompson] asked.

"Because he taught me everything I know," I said, hesitated, and then added in spite of my embarrassment (hell, it was the truth): "Because I idolize him."

"Well, let's ask him," Bill said

I said that would be okay (as long as we was Bill Thompson), but I was taken aback all the same. To me it was like asking God to write an introduction... Someone like that writing an introduction for my book? Presumptuous, man. Extreeemly presumptuous.

"He'll probably be too busy, though," I said. What I really thought was that John D. MacDonald was about as likely to waste his valuable time writing an introduction to my book of short stories as Adolph Hitler was apt to be then employed building snow-forts down in hell.

"Doesn't hurt to ask," Bill said...

I went back to Maine, thinking little more about the business. In my mind MacDonald had already sent Bill a form letter or no response at all.

Instead, Bill called and read me an extremely courteous letter from MacDonald, saying he would read my stories, and, if he liked them, do the introduction. I couldn't believe it. Refused to believe it, in fact, until Bill sent me a photocopy. Then I had to... but I knew he'd decline, because the stories weren't very good, mostly just pulp stuff I'd published to help keep my family afloat during the first four years of married life (and having no inkling, at that time, that MacDonald had fought his own battles for light and survival and a little extra nourishment in that same pulp jungle, as Frank Gruber termed it), and besides, MacDonald wrote crime stories, not horror stories, although I'd be less than honest if I didn't add... I also knew he'd written some horror and fantasy shorts, and two sf novels.

His agreement to do that introduction and its prompt arrival a couple of weeks later pleased and impressed me more than the kind things the essay itself had to say about my work; MacDonald's generosity to a young writer who he'd never met helped to keep that young writer open to the needs -- and wistful hopes - of other young writers...

MacDonald's piece was a rambling yet brief and pitch-perfect analysis on the art of writing and being a writer. Discussing King -- a man he had never met or spoken to -- he was really writing about himself, putting into words beliefs about his profession he would repeat in interviews over and over until his death eight years later. Remember, this was before King had become STEPHEN KING, the bestselling American author of all time, so MacDonald's agreement to write this introduction was obviously done because he genuinely liked the stories and enjoyed the craft employed in creating them.

King wrote MacDonald a thank you letter before the book was actually published, saying how much he appreciated the gesture and the content: "I thought [it] was intelligent, witty, and very kind. Your comments on why and how we write were especially welcome." He went on to praise MacDonald's novel Condominium, which King has just read, calling it "a good, honest, meaty job of writing and an acrobatic feat of storytelling." MacDonald responded a month later, saying "Glad the introduction seemed okay to you," and went on to bemoan the mountain of mail that had piled up while he was away on a cruise.

In 1980 King sent two copies of Night Shift to MacDonald, apologizing that they were "sadly overdue" and revealed that he and his wife Tabitha had been in Florida the month before and had thought about giving MacDonald a call but didn't because King was afraid that JDM "might bite [his] head off" for not sending him a copy of the book.

The next year King published his sixth novel (I'm not counting the Richard Bachman books -- that particular secret hadn't been revealed yet). Cujo was the story of a rabid St. Bernard who menaces a mother and her young son trapped inside a car in a remote location. Containing almost no supernatural content, it featured King's second fictional reference to his idol. As things turn bleak and it becomes apparent that there is no way they can get free, the mother ruefully thinks:

The time might also have gone, but she would have to live with that -- and perhaps die with it. No one was going to come. There was going to be no knight on a silver steed riding up Town Road No. 3 -- Travis McGee was apparently otherwise occupied.

That same year King published his first non-fiction work, the indispensible Danse Macabre, a lengthy and wonderfully written study of the horror fiction genre. In it he relates the story of how JDM came up with the title for his 1979 Travis McGee novel The Green Ripper:

John D. MacDonald tells the story of how for weeks his son was terrified of something he called "the green ripper." MacDonald and his wife finally figured it out -- at a dinner party, a friend had mentioned the Grim Reaper. What their son had heard was *the green ripper, and later it became the title of one of MacDonald's Travis McGee stories.

One year later MacDonald finally reciprocated in the literary game by including a Stephen King reference in the 1982 Travis McGee novel Cinnamon Skin. While staying in the apartment of Meyer's niece, the duo eat dinner and Meyer heads to bed.

I cleaned up, looking around, and found a paperback by Stephen King about a big weird dog. Took it to bed and read a lot longer than I'd planned to. Very scary dog. Very scary writer. Wondered if he would be able to guess what kind of person Evan Lawrence was: as scary as King's dog, but in a different way.

King's 1983 novel Christine featured a scene where a man is sitting reading a John D MacDonald novel.

When King's Pet Sematary was published later in 1983 King gave a copy of the book to John and his wife Dorothy, inscribing it "I hope this book scares the hell out of you." So, in the subsequent and final McGee novel The Lonely Silver Rain MacDonald plays the game again. While waiting at an airport McGee buys a book; this time it's King's Pet Sematary:

Once through Security I found an empty chair that backed up to a wall. There I pretended to read the book I had picked up at the hotel newsstand. I had gotten to the part where a buried cat came back to life, but couldn't walk well.

That was MacDonald's last King reference, as he wrote only one more book before he died in December of 1986. King, however, has continued to include references to MacDonald in his works of fiction. In Bag of Bones the protagonist recalls having read 23 John D MacDonald novels. In Needful Things a character reads a JDM novel while nursing her baby son. In Duma Key a character references the kinds of sociopathic people that MacDonald turned into an art form in the persons of Max Cady, Junior Allen and Boo Waxwell. And in the fifth entry to The Dark Tower series, Wolves of the Calla, MacDonald's name appears on a menu board(!)

King's most direct fictional reference to MacDonald came in 1990 when he published Four Past Midnight, an anthology of four novellas. The final entry was titled "The Sun Dog" and King dedicated it to his literary friend:

This is in memory of John D. MacDonald. I miss you, old friend -- and you were right about the tigers.

The novella is preceded by a lengthy "note" where King relates how he came up with the idea for "The Sun Dog." Nowhere does he mention MacDonald or the cryptic reference to "the tigers." It is probable that the note was written before King decided to dedicate the novella, for nothing in the subject matter of the story bears any relationship to MacDonald, at least as far as I can tell. "The Sun Dog" is about a Polaroid camera that is given as a birthday gift to a young boy. Instead of reproducing images of what the camera is pointed at, it prints images of a particular scene in front of a house, with a savage-looking dog in the corner of the frame. As subsequent shots are taken the dog slowly begins to fill the screen, eventually ripping through from some other dimension and attacking the camera's owner. The novella is an unfortunate choice as King's one and only story specifically dedicated to MacDonald, as it has got to be one of the weakest works of fiction he has ever written. Dull, predictable and wordy beyond belief (even for King!), it might have made a fairly interesting 3,000-word short story as part of a larger anthology. At its existing length of 62,000 words spread over 145 pages it is nearly unendurable.

(Lest anyone think I am being disrespectful to King, I would note that I was an early and rabid reader of his works, beginning in 1975 when I unpacked pile of paperback copies of Carrie while working in the book section of a department store. Leafing through it I noted the epistolary style of the writing -- reminding me a great deal of Bram Stoker's Dracula --  took it home and devoured it. I purchased and read every subsequent King novel -- in hardcover! -- up to The Talisman, when I simply ran out of gas and lost interest. I have been back to the well now and then over the years but have not come close to reading everything the man has published.)

In 2007 King was chosen to receive the annual Grand Master award from The Mystery Writers of America. Not surprisingly, his acceptance speech included a JDM reference:

"I'm delighted to be getting the Grand Master Award and to be joining the company of some of my greatest idols and teachers -- people like John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake. The award means a great deal to me personally, because it's an award from people who understand two things: the importance of good writing and the importance of telling stories."

In interviews over the years King rarely fails to mention MacDonald when talking about early influences. A good example is one you can read here, where he states,

"I had cut my teeth on [JDM] stories. I still think that of all the people doing top fiction today, he is the best. He was my model as a kid. If there are people out there that want to write, all you need to do is read 20 of his stories to get an idea what it takes to make a story kick over."

It really must have been a waking dream for King to have become an associate, and later a friend, of his childhood idol. The two authors and their wives eventually met, and MacDonald and King exchanged letters regularly in the years up to JDM's death. During MacDonald's final year King was one of the few people on earth to whom JDM revealed the plot of the never-to-be-written new Travis McGee adventure, and he wrote to King of personal travails, including his wife's cancer and chemotherapy treatments. And in 2001 the Kings purchased a winter home in MacDonald's adopted town of Sarasota, barely a mile south from the home where the MacDonalds lived from 1952 to 1969.

It's safe to assume that King's Mystery Scene tribute really was as heartfelt as it reads, and it's as touching to read today as it was back in 1987.

The death of a writer who has spoken so clearly from his own heart into your own is always a painful, scouring thing, and I'm in a little too much grief to find any uplifting conclusion... It doesn't seem right to me, somehow, that a voice like that should ever be stilled... I'll read [one of his books] when I need something I know will hold up. Man, he was a good writer, wasn't he? When you went out to the drugstore to grab a paperback, most times you got a bologna sandwich. With John, you got the whole fucking delicatessen. And man, he was a good man.

Jesus, John, I miss you.


4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed that essay very much, thank you.

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  2. Fantastic and insightful, thanks

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  3. Just found your blog - great work! I finished The Lonely Silver Rain yesterday. I had a hard time getting through the first 30 pages, because I knew there were so few left ahead of me. And now, 18months or so later, i have read all 21 Travis McGee novels. What an amazing journey.

    I'll scroll through your blog to find some suggestions on what to read next.

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  4. Thank you David. There's plenty more JDM to read, most of it easily available from eBay, Amazon and the like. I'm discussing the novels in the order of their publication, and so far you can read about the first 22 of them here.

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