Monday, September 29, 2014

"The Spiralled Myth"

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big expert on science fiction. Oh, I’ve read my share of Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov, I’ve read most of the Bradbury anthologies, and I own a ton of science fiction pulps, some of which I’ve actually read from cover to cover. I’ve been through every episode of the Star Trek canon, at least twice, seen all of the major sf movies made since the early seventies, and I even sat through the first half hour of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. But I’m no expert, or even close to being one, for no other field of popular culture seems to engender such fanatical attention to detail. Science fiction fans love their science fiction, to the point that any philistine who dares broach an opinion on the subject that someone disagrees with will know it pretty quickly.

The fact that so much early science fiction has survived in a fairly available form is thanks to the men (almost always men) who purchased, read, saved, collected and catalogued the pulps where most of this literature originated. No other area of pulp writing can make this claim. Back in the days when I was collecting, a visit to any used book store in the Washington, DC area would reveal any number of sf pulps for sale, in various states of survival, and usually for a pretty penny. But trying to locate a mystery pulp, or a sports pulp, or a love pulp was nearly impossible. These magazines were never afforded the reverence that the sf pulps were, and far fewer of them have survived the years since they first appeared on newsstands.

John D MacDonald wrote for the pulps and, with the exception of love pulps, tried his hand in every genre, with varying degrees of success. He didn’t do too well with the western or horror pulps, provided adequate material for straight fiction pulps, and, of course, excelled in the mystery/crime pulps. I would also argue that he excelled equally well with the science fiction pulps.

This would never have been a point of contention back in 1948 -1951 when MacDonald penned most of his sf output, almost all of it for pulps like Super Science Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and Thrilling Wonder Stories. His name appeared proudly on the covers of most of the issues these stories were published in, and judging from the letter columns of these magazines (sf pulps were pretty much the only kind of pulp that printed letters to the editor) he was just as respected as the other authors were. But in 1968 when paperback versions of his two science fiction novels were reprinted (Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies) an afterword written by the author ruffled more than a few feathers in the science fiction community. After confessing that he found the two books rewarding reading after so many years he wrote:

Herein there are no bug-eyed monsters, except the ones forever resident in the human heart. There are no lovelies being rescued by space explorers from giant insects who talk in clicks and carry disintegrators. No methane atmospheres. Nothing emerging from the evil swamps. Not even a single dutiful robot, harboring either electronic love or the cross-wired circuitry of rebellion. Because of these omissions I may well be responsible, also, for turning off the hard-core aficionado of science fiction who, because these are more about people than things, might also term them “silly.”

Then in 1978 when a paperback anthology of his sf stories was published (Other Times, Other Worlds), another afterword written by the author had a similar effect. Never the best judge of his own work, MacDonald decried many of the “false and strident note[s]” in some of those stories because the science of 1978 had proven them wrong or impossible. “Dance of a New World,” for example, could no longer be fully enjoyed because we now know that humans living and farming on the planet Venus would be impossible “without a great deal of plumbing and carpentry.” (Really, John, nobody gives a damn… it’s science fiction!)

I prefer the science fiction of John D MacDonald over other sf because I prefer the writing of John D MacDonald, the strength of its straightforward prose, the focus on narrative and character, and its ability to transport and transcend. Martin H. Greenberg, the editor of Other Times, Other Worlds, put it this way: “All his fiction, both sf and mystery, is characterized by strong portrayals of social and psychological types, and the strengths and weaknesses that typify the human condition.” Greenberg nominated three of the sf stories contained therein as “minor classics,” even though they were virtually unknown to the reading public at large.

But these stories were well known and well remembered by science fiction fans who had read them when they were first published. Two of those fans were Len and June Moffatt of Downey, California, who became huge figures in the world of science fiction fandom. Their interest in MacDonald’s science fiction writings led to an interest in the author’s mystery stories, and on into his novels. In March 1965 the Moffatts began publishing a newsletter focused on compiling a bibliography of all of MacDonald’s published writings. That homemade newsletter, which they called the JDM Bibliophile, soon morphed into a semi-scholarly journal that grew from a two-page first issue to thirty to forty pages of news, essays, bibliographic information and letters from readers. After thirteen years at the helm of “The Bib,” Len and June turned over the reins to Ed Hirshberg, an English professor at the University of South Florida, but they continued to write a column for each subsequent issue, on up until the final effort in 2004. (I’ve written a piece on the JDM Bibliophile -- mainly about how I discovered it -- which you can read here, and a longer piece which chronicles the journal’s history while paying tribute to Len Moffatt after his death, which is here.)

Among the many, many contributors to the Bib over its long run, names that would draw a blank even from fans of the author, was John D MacDonald himself. JDM took an interest in the journal from the very beginning, especially because its original intention -- to definitively catalog his entire literary output -- would aid him in preparing anthologies of his older short work, an idea that wouldn’t come to fruition until 1978 with Other Times, Other Worlds, and later in 1982 with the first edition of The Good Old Stuff. Over the years MacDonald contributed a variety of different kinds of writing, ranging from essays on writing, reminiscences from his wartime years, a piece on the aging of Travis McGee, and many answers to reader’s questions and comments on prior articles. And, yes, a few pieces of fiction appeared in its pages. Right before he left for heart surgery in 1986 (the operation that would lead to his death) he submitted a piece he thought had never been published before (“The Killer”). And way back in the early days of the Bib, in 1966, he sent in a short science fiction story titled “The Spiralled Myth,” an 850-word tale that he knew had been published previously, but details of the publication were lost to him. All he knew was that it appeared in April 1948 in something called The Spectator Club.

That year, 1948, was a tumultuous one for the MacDonald family. They began it living in the college town of Clinton, New York, a place they had moved to the previous year in hopes that the academic atmosphere would be conducive to the MacDonalds’ artistic sensibilities. What had begun with hopes of stimulating intellectual relationships and dialogues ended with venal spats about who was allowed to come to tea parties, and gossip about who was screwing who. Dorothy’s mother Rita was ill and died in June of the year. That fall, after clearing up the estate, the family took the bold step of packing everything up and moving to Mexico, inspired by descriptions of the American artistic community in Cuernavaca in Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano. So it’s understandable that MacDonald’s otherwise meticulous record keeping could have fallen off the rails during this period of his life.

The Moffatt’s published the story in the third issue of the JDM Bibliophile, with this brief preface:

The author’s files indicate that this piece was published by the Spectator Club, possibly in 1948. Our thanks to Mr. MacDonald for permission to reprint it here. Further information as to when and where it first appeared would be appreciated. Of this piece, the author says: “The bit is certainly weird enough.” And it is, Weird -- and gripping…

And I would add, abstruse.

“The Spiralled Myth” opens with a man and a woman walking along a city sidewalk. Told in third person limited from the woman’s point of view, the first paragraph lets the reader know that they are going to have to pay close attention.

As she walked along beside him, she thought that it would be far better if he never walked. Standing, he was white, firm and unified, with bones and flesh neatly arranged in solid pattern. When he walked it was as though a generator bolted to the concrete of a power plant, tore loose the bolts and galumphed away. His white cheeks juggled and shook and the spasm of his step was uncertain and swooping, making her wary lest he might fall.

But the city is not real -- apparently. It is a creation of the man’s mind, made for the woman. The woman is not supposed to know this, but she does and keeps it to herself, because “it would not be wise to let him know that she had long suspected that the city was composed of what he wanted her to see and to believe.”

It is a near perfect creation, but the woman knows that just beyond “the bustle and activity” of where they are walking is a “great silence, where his creatures sat at the base of the walls, motionless, dead and amused.” The only reality she feels is the “tiny stinging gash that his teeth had made on the inside of her lower lip… That touch of tongue to gash was reality and the city was the fiction he had made.”

This scene -- again, apparently -- has been played out countless times before over a span of ten thousand years, and she knows that at some point she will put a stop to it…

The first time I read “The Spiralled Myth” back in the early 1980’s I didn’t know what to make of it. I still don’t, although repeated readings bring the author’s intentions into better focus. This could be science fiction, or perhaps not. It could be the workings of a person’s mind, a madness that plays out over and over again endlessly. The reader can make any assumption they like, as there doesn’t seem to be any definitive interpretation here. That it was intended as science fiction is taken as a given in the JDM world: it was included in a listing of MacDonald’s science fiction short stories compiled by Martin H Greenberg in the back of Other Times, Other Worlds. But it is doubtful that it would have been accepted for publication by any of the standard science fiction pulps that were around in 1948. It is far too indirect and, at 850 words, way too short. And at 2-cents a word, MacDonald would have cleared $17.00 for his effort.

For years I had assumed that The Spectator Club was an obscure science fiction fanzine. These homemade journals were prevalent when MacDonald began writing and he even talked about their popularity in one of his Clinton Courier newspaper columns. But the actual facts reveal an even more unlikely source. Named after an eighteenth century daily periodical published in England, The Spectator Club was a limited circulation prozine (professional magazine) that was open to publishing the works of professional and semi-professional writers in the New York City area. The list of contributors, in addition to MacDonald, included Robert W. Lowndes, Charles Dye, Alexandra Krinkin, H. Beam Piper, Nat Schachner, Lester Del Rey, Philip Klass, Morton Klass, Theodore Sturgeon, Hannes Bok, and Frederik Pohl. The journal lasted only about two years and published at least eight issues, with a run of only about 50 (the number of issues was based on the current membership). To say that this would be a rare find is not overstating the matter. I discovered this information from an entry on a rare books website, where the collected volumes were available for a mere $464.00. (Somebody bought it… it’s no longer available.) Exactly how MacDonald became involved with this endeavor is a story lost to time, and the author himself does not seem to have recalled it when he donated “The Spiralled Myth” to the JDM Bibliophile in 1966.

Outside of its original appearance in The Spectator Club and its republication in 1966, “The Spiralled Myth” was reprinted one more time, in a subsequent issue of the JDM Bibliophile. Issue Number 9, printed in March 1968, was a special “reprint edition” of the Bib, done in response to a flood of new subscribers who joined after learning of the journal in Anthony Boucher’s New York Times column “Criminals At Large.” Len Moffatt’s original preface to the piece was reprinted as well, indicating that no one had learned anything more about the mysterious Spectator Club.


  1. I discovered JDMB by reading Anthony Boucher's "Criminals at Large" column in the NYTBR, so I was in on it from issue #1. It was my gateway into mystery fandom, and I'm eternally in the debt of Len and June Moffatt for that.

  2. Thanks Bill. The Moffatts' contribution to the JDM legacy can not be overstated.

  3. Thank you for this. This was the only JDM Science Fiction story I knew of based on the list in the back of OTOW that I have never been able to locate a copy of, and one of only 6 or 7 that I don't have the original publication of. (6 or 7 because I'm not sure if I should count the HC of Wine of the Dreamers; I have the pulp but I believe the book was expanded.) At least now, thanks to you, I have about 1/10 of the story; and some more information on it. Even if what you say makes it sound less and less likely that I'll ever find a copy, it's good to finally have something more than a name.

    Even better, finding this place has given me 3 JDM Science Fiction stories that I didn't know about to get; I've ordered all 3 already. And I'm enjoying slowly working my way through the archives here. Do you happen to know of any other SF stories by JDM that a) aren't on the OTOW list and b) you haven't covered here? (It's not that I don't enjoy JDM's other stuff; it's just that if I tried to get everything I would go crazy. Or crazier.)

    1. It never occurred to me that the original "Wine of the Dreamers" could be different from the subsequent novel. I'll have to pull out my pulp copy and read it. I don't own the HC version but I assume the paperback is the same... I've never heard otherwise.

      When you refer to the other three sf stories not included in OTHER TIMES, OTHER WORLDS, I assume you mean "Nicky and the Tin Finger," "Hole in None" and "The Reference Room," right? Just so anyone reading this will know what we're talking about.

      I am aware of at least one other JDM story that could be classified as science fiction, although only in the broadest terms (it takes place a few years in the future.) It's a novella titled "Or the World Will Die" and is set in a world where the atom bomb has proliferated to nearly every country on earth. It's a rambling piece that features several different characters and moves all over the country, but is pretty good for early JDM. It appeared in the November-December issue of DOC SAVAGE. (I was working on a blog piece for this novella when I had to stop posting three years ago.)

      There may be others, as I haven't read everything JDM ever published.

      If you would like to read "The Spiralled Myth" send me an email.


  4. I just pulled out my copies of the pulp and paperback; just a quick glance at the first page of each shows the novel version to be different. I also assume the paperback is the same as the HC other than the new afterword, but that is just an assumption.

    Yes, those are the three stories I meant. Working through your archives here I also saw you mentioned "The Pedans Box" in Bluebook as an early SF/ Fantasy story. That one doesn't seem to have an affordable copy floating around at the moment, though.

    I like the idea of never knowing for sure if we've found everything; part of me wants to read it all but it's always nice to imagine we have something out there to find someday.

    1. I forgot about "The Pendans Box"! I'll have to put that on my blog "to do" list, along with comparing the two versions of WINE OF THE DREAMERS.