Friday, November 11, 2011

"That Strangest Month of All"

A few postings back I wrote about Cosmopolitan magazine, how it holds the record for most John D MacDonald appearances in a slick general interest magazine. While many may think of MacDonald as a "pulp" writer -- and indeed he was one, with the majority of his short fiction written for such periodicals -- he wrote an awful lot of general interest, non-crime fiction that appeared in magazines not normally associated with mystery fiction. I'm talking about titles like Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook, McCall's, Esquire, Playboy, and a host of titles who have long since published their last issues, including Collier's, Woman's Home Companion, Liberty, and The Saturday Evening Post. Most of these magazines published several JDM short stories over their long history, but a few were one-shots. And while one may wonder why this prolific author appeared only once under these titles, the real question becomes why his fiction appeared there at all. A good example is the one and only short story he ever sold to Family Circle magazine, "That Strangest Month of All."

Family Circle seems one of the most unlikely homes for JDM fiction. Begun in 1932 as a giveaway periodical in then-newly emerging supermarkets such as Safeway and Piggly Wiggly's, the magazine was aimed squarely at housewives, with features on cooking, cleaning, sewing and childrearing. There were also the seemingly mandatory features on Hollywood stars, although these articles contained nothing that would be considered gossip or innuendo. Indeed the premier issue featured Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby on the cover. And, like almost every other magazine of the era, Family Circle contained fiction -- usually two original short stories per issue -- written by third-rung mainstays of the industry of the time, authors like George Sumner Albee, Dana Burnet and Nelia Gardiner White, people whose work is virtually unknown today to all but a handful of readers.The artwork that accompanied these stories was illustrated by some of the great names of the era, artists like Peter Stevens, Richard Hook and Ernest Chiriaka, and their artwork in Family Circle is indistinguishable from their work in the higher-class slicks.

John D. MacDonald came to Family Circle relatively late in the game, at a point where his short story writing had taken a back seat to his novels. "That Strangest Month of All" appeared in the October 1959 issue of the magazine and was one of only two shorter works he would have published that year. Coming in at a tidy 5,000 words, the author employed an oft-used premise that bears a close resemblance to Stanley Ralph Ross' 1952 short story "You Got To Have Luck" (and probably dozens of other tales), where a housewife, living in a remote location, is home alone and terrorized by an escaped bad guy. In Ross's tale it is a convict, in MacDonald's, an escaped mental patient. And MacDonald, as he often did when featuring a female protagonist, uses the plot to tell a morality tale, where wishing for more, or simple unhappiness seems to be the causation of the events that follow. Not a very progressive notion, especially in a male writer (see his "Jail Bait" and "Pickup") but I think here the author was attempting something a little deeper than simply a story about a woman in peril. Much of the writing deals with the mental process of fear, as the heroine (in third person limited narrative) is suddenly confronted and then held captive by a powerful lunatic.

"She was a wife named Susan, a slim tanned woman with a soft cap of black hair, a lively face, but with a brooding inward look, an air of containment. She was called Susan. Not Sue. Not Suzy."

Susan and family (MacDonald's typical four-member family unit) live on an old farm, fourteen miles from an "industrial city" and barely within visual distance from their nearest neighbor. Husband Paul has left for work and the school bus has left, carrying her two children to morning classes. It is a day of "incomparable stillness and clarity," with the sun shining in a cloudless sky and warm enough for Susan to put on her "treasured and threadbare yellow sun suit" so she can finish sanding an old drop-leaf table out in the large backyard.

"Autumn had always been for her a time of haunting nostalgia, a longing for something she could not even identify. A time for what Paul called her 'gypsy' mood. It left the children uncertain and Paul troubled. They seemed to sense she was off in some place where they could not reach her."

As she works on her project Susan is surprised to see a helicopter flying low over her farm, and then the sound of sirens in the distance. A fire, perhaps? Children gone missing?

"As she worked, she became aware of a curious feeling of restlessness, a tiny threshold of irritation. She turned suddenly and looked behind her and found herself staring into the eyes of a man who stood a dozen feet away. She looked at him and knew the meaning then of the helicopter and the sirens."

And not just any man.

"He was big, as big and hard and solid as the trunk of one of the old oaks. He wore gray denim coveralls that seemed to be some sort of uniform... She looked into the man's face and saw an animal emptiness that stopped her breath. The shaved head and the hard high cheekbones and the flattened cartilage of the nose gave him almost a cartoonist's version of brutality. But what horrified her was the slackness of the lower part of his face and the pale uncomprehending opacity of his eyes... She remembered a long-ago time when she had been cornered by a vicious dog. She had stood very still then, a small frightened girl, sensing that any attempt to run would be the necessary trigger."

Susan attempts to smile and holds her hands out so he can see she is carrying nothing. He has trouble speaking when he asks if anyone is in the house. When the sirens sound again he "raised his head sharply, the flattened nostrils widening," grabs her by the arm and drags her inside. As the sirens fade she "stood there in her terror [and] one part of her mind thought quite calmly, saying 'This is the way it happens.'"

After giving him a drink of water, she notices that the man has been shot through the hand.

"He stood for a moment with his eyes shut, and her sudden pity was as keen and unexpected as a knife. He was exhausted. His hurt hand was horrid. Dumb creature in pain. And what of all the tales of the thorn in the pad of the lion? Were they true? ... She thought,  'And for you there is no place. No place in this world.'"

After bandaging his hand she gets him to sit calmly in a kitchen chair. But suddenly the phone rings and all thoughts of paws and lions are thrown out the window as he leaps up threateningly. Susan quickly convinces the man that the call is probably from her husband, and to ignore it would bring the police here. She picks up the receiver and Paul tells her that there is an escapee from the local lunatic asylum loose, one who has already killed three people, and for her to lock herself in the house and to keep the kids inside when they return from school. The thought of the school bus returning and her children coming home awakens a realization within her.

"You must think, she told herself. This is an almost mindless thing. You can't run from him, even when the school bus stops. You can't save everything. So it comes to a choice. At any cost to you, Susan, you must warn them. Before the school bus comes."

She quickly devises a plan to lure the man upstairs under the pretext of hiding him in the attic. Once there she will break a jar of turpentine onto the floor, light it and jump out onto the roof, with the belief that the flames will prevent the man from following her. The plan almost works, but Susan is unable to light a match quickly enough and darts out of the window. Unable to follow her because of the heavy boots he is wearing, he grabs the nearest object -- a can of orange paint -- and hurls it at her, hitting the standpipe she is holding onto and splattering the paint all over her and onto the roof. Then she sees him emerging from the window, boots now off, climbing out with little difficulty and toward her...

The basic plot and resolution of this story are fairly predictable, and I recall that the first time I read this back in 1982 I was thoroughly unimpressed by it, thinking that MacDonald surely could have done better by this point in his career. "That Strangest Month of All" was, after all, written only one year before he published two of his finest novels, The End of the Night and Slam the Big Door. But re-reading it nearly thirty years later reveals an interesting subtext that was lost on me in my younger years: the process the protagonist goes through in a moment of real peril. The ending of this short story -- which I won't reveal other than to state the obvious, that Susan does indeed survive -- contains several interesting touches that never would have been articulated in earlier JDM work, including some poignant revelations about the escapee's past and Susan's processing of her ordeal moments after it is resolved. MacDonald had come a long way from "Jail Bait," where a similar situation seems almost like divine retribution for wanting something different in life than marriage and children. JDM's short story output had been reduced to a relative trickle by this point in his life, but the quality of the product was far and away superior to his early pulp work. This should have come as no surprise to me, but writing this blog has become a learning experience.

In 1982 Family Circle celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and its September issue of that year contained loads of retrospectives and histories of the various departments and features of the magazine over the years. To celebrate all of the fiction the magazine had brought to newsstands over five decades, the editors chose only one story to reprint, and that story was "That Strangest Month of All." It appeared with a brief introduction and a smaller reprinting of the original story art, a meticulously accurate illustration by Dick Hook. It was, perhaps, an easy editorial decision to choose an author who, in 1982, was at the height of his bookselling power, but the story itself is good enough to have left no doubt as to the wisdom of its selection.

"That Strangest Month of All" has yet to be anthologized.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

JDM in Panama (1977)

"We sat in the shelter of the [Hotel Panama] Pool Terrace and talked with others who had been milling around town that day, about what they had found and the attitude of the people. Because of the increasing agitation for a new canal treaty, we expected the same sort of obvious hostility we had once experienced in Caracas: people glaring, shaking fists, blocking the sidewalk, making audible comments.

"But no one experienced any of this. The Panamanians seemed pleasant and courteous, though not overtly warm. One cabdriver had told us his particular view of reality. He said the politicos and the students were the ones making the big fuss about the canal. and the general public did not really care that much. The thing they cared about was that the canal keep operating, because it brought in a lot of money in wages, and it brought tourists. He said he thought Panamanians could run it okay if they took over, but probably wages would go down and tolls would go up, because that is always what the politicos do, everywhere.

"In all Latin countries one sees, of course, those quick dark glances from the slender young men. Scorn, disdain, challenge? A look is only a look. Without accompanying word or gesture, it can be interpreted incorrectly. Instead of thinking about plastique and machine pistols and assaults on the embassy, he may be wondering where you bought the funny hat or pondering what he is going to wear to the evening disco. Many travelers have acute attacks of paranoia in foreign places. Drawing the most generous conclusions is the way to retain balance and sanity. Fear spoils the view."

-- from Nothing Can Go Wrong (1981)