Monday, October 27, 2014

"What Makes Sammy Laugh?"

I will be the first to admit that the eBook revolution was not something I welcomed with open arms. As a long-time collector of books and magazines, the thought of reading something in the sterile environment of the digital world left me cold. There is something about the feel of a book, a magazine, especially those produced during the mid-twentieth century, that is impossible to replace. The cover art work, the smell, the feel, the simple physical presence of the volume all add up to a unique experience, no matter how many times it is repeated, and replacing this with electronic letters on a screen is just not the same. And living in a room (or a house!) full of books and magazines is an irreplaceably comforting feeling for some of us.

I’ve slowly come around to reading books on a Kindle, however, and the thing that was most responsible for this conversion was not the convenience of being able to download and read the latest best seller in the twinkling of an eye, but the gradual appearance of old and rare books and stories that heretofore had been the domain of the collector, now available to anyone with an internet connection. There is a whole new world out there containing hundreds and hundreds of scans of old paperbacks and magazines, some digitized via optical character recognition, most simply page scans. Virtually every science fiction pulp published in the 1940’s and 1950’s has been digitized and is available for download, if one knows where to look. This is not yet the case for other kinds of pulps, but they are slowly making their way into circulation and one day may be as ubiquitous as the sf scans.

It is harder and more time consuming to digitize the text, to create dynamic documents that can be manipulated and formatted, but this is becoming big business as well. I wrote with not a little bit of surprise back in March of 2010 of the appearance of a new John D MacDonald short story anthology titled Death Quotient and Other Stories, a digital-only collection of science fiction and horror short stories, most which had never been reprinted. From that volume, the first eBook I ever purchased and read, I learned that this new technology was a mixed bag, that the quality of the finished product was as variable as the person or persons producing it. Death Quotient and Other Stories contains not a few typographical errors, the kind that routinely occur during any OCR capture, that must be corrected manually if they are to be corrected at all. A simple proofreading would do, but this kind of obvious step in publication seems to be too much for some of these “publishers” to bother with, since the price of the finished product is usually very low. Still, the chance to read stories that had before only been available at great cost was simply too much to pass up, and the typos are more annoying than confusing.

Of course, the question of rights raises its head in these cases, and a review of these books’ copyright pages reveals different things. Death Quotient and Other Stories has one, and the work (the compilation) is registered to its publisher, Wonder Publishing Group. Other ePublishers release works that contain no copyright information. What is the real legal status of these works, the old short stories of John D MacDonald? A review of the copyright pages of any hardcover or paperback anthology containing JDM material published after his death reveals different information, depending on which story the anthology contains. “In A Small Motel,” for example, which was reprinted in the excellent 1997 anthology American Pulp (ed. Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini & Martin H Greenberg) indicates the original copyright date, taken out by the magazine’s publisher, but contains no indication of a copyright renewal (copyrights on works published prior to 1978 were in place for 28 years and needed to be renewed in the 28th year before lapsing into the public domain). Still, the entry contains the notation that the story was reprinted “by permission of the agent of the author’s estate…” “Jukebox Jungle,” which originally appeared in Black Mask and was reprinted as part of Maxim Jakubowski’s 1991 collection New Crimes 3, has the following notation in that collection: “© 1950 by John D MacDonald.” There is no indication that permission was received from MacDonald’s estate to republish. And “Murder in One Syllable,” which was anthologized in the 2010 collection The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (ed. Otto Penzler) contains information on its copyright page that the story’s copyright was renewed in 1976 by the author’s son, Maynard MacDonald.

I’m no expert on copyright law (obviously!) and I possess only a very basic knowledge of how it works. I do know that MacDonald worked diligently in the 1960’s to catalog his magazine work in order to renew the copyrights. I also know that the agents of MacDonald’s estate were, at one time, doggedly pursuing publishers who violated copyrights that were owned by MacDonald and his son, so I always wonder about the few anomalies that show up now and then. A Bullet for Cinderella seems to be the one John D MacDonald novel where the copyright renewal was missed and the work entered the public domain. It showed up as an early low budget eBook and was even republished in 2010 as a paperback under the author’s original title, On the Make. And in addition to Death Quotient and Other Stories, several other JDM short stories have appeared for sale via online stores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. These all come from a single publisher, one Peril Press, which seems to be a company dedicated to reprinting stories from the pulps. These eBooks -- at least the three which I purchased -- contain no copyright information whatsoever. One must assume that these tales are in the public domain and that Amazon and Barnes and Noble have vetted the legality of selling these works. The MacDonald reprints, ten in number as of this writing, are all sold individually for a mere 99-cents per story, and there were a few I didn’t own in paper, so I purchased them.

“What Makes Sammy Laugh?” originally appeared in the August 1949 issue of Detective Tales and, as far as I can tell, was never reprinted until its Peril Press release in 2012. Coming in at a neat 3,100 words, it appeared the same month that “Looie Follows Me,” MacDonald’s first four-figure sale, appeared in Collier’s. It’s doubtful that JDM received anywhere near that figure for “What Makes Sammy Laugh?” and it is nowhere near as good a story as “Looie,” but it is a very good, representative example of MacDonald’s pulp work of the time, that year before he began writing novels. It contains a wise-guy protagonist, a pure evil villain, some snappy dialogue and some very brutal violence. All hallmarks of early John D MacDonald.

The highway was steel-blue, shimmering with heat and as straight as a rifle shot. Sammy Rufus plodded along, his heels making a faint sticky sound on the asphalt. Whenever he heard the growing hum of a car behind him he stepped off onto the shoulder, turned, beamed the Rufus special smile, gave a full arm sweep with a thumb at the end of it, pointing east.

But no one stops to give Sammy a ride. A “small dark man with pointed features” and wearing a suit that accentuates a “bold look,” he is ignored and avoided by every passing vehicle. Sammy is an urban confidence man, an “angle expert,” who is stranded in the wilds of Texas after having had his pocket picked while sleeping at a train station. He has traveled from New York City to California to follow up on a race track tip, and on the way back he stopped off in Oklahoma and made some more money betting the ponies there. Then it was off to Reno, where he joined a high stakes poker game, only to lose everything.

After five hours of play the only thing he had left was a dazed smile. Being a man of ingenuity he had sold wristwatch, extra clothes and luggage for enough money for a ticket to New York. He fell asleep in the station and woke up with his hip pocket neatly sliced with a razor, the wallet gone.

As he walks along the road in the bright heat, he spots the figure of a man sitting by the side of the road up ahead. Ever the gregarious one and desperate to talk with someone, Sammy approaches but is stopped short by the intensity of the man’s stare. He is a young man with hair bleached yellow by the sun and with skin a deep red-brown. Sammy sizes up the man as a “low voltage punk who found the fourth grade too tough for him.” But the man’s size and powerful looking hands makes him wary.

After explaining that he has no money, Sammy finds himself on the ground with his cigarettes taken from him. After demanding and getting his lighter back, he starts to leave, but the man, no longer smiling, orders him to stay. He introduces himself as “Jones” and shakes Sammy’s hand, nearly crushing it. When Sammy complains that the act was “a dandy joke,” Jones orders Sammy to laugh. Sammy complies.

[Jones] looked at him and then laughed himself. It was a resonant, throaty braying, a brass obscenity. He wasn’t young when he laughed. He was ageless, and evil. Sammy felt the evil. It tightened his throat and he was suddenly cold in spite of the brutal weight of the sun.

Sammy is effectively Jones’ prisoner, and when Jones uses a helpless Sammy to have a passing car stop, he is horrified to watch as Jones grabs the driver, takes him to the side of the road and bashes his brains out with a heavy rock. With transportation now, Sammy rides along as passenger as Jones heads to the Mexican border, intent on swimming across the Rio Grande, and leaving no doubt in Sammy’s mind that poor Sammy will not be making it to the other side...

The title of “What Makes Sammy Laugh?” was obviously a punning play on the title of Budd Schulberg's noted 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run?, and it was not MacDonald’s original title. Credit for that must go to a now-forgotten editor at Detective Tales, who wisely changed MacDonald’s uninspired “Thumb Game” to something more memorable. And it would have been nice if MacDonald had used Sammy’s special talents (“angle expert”) to help extricate the protagonist from his captor, but when that moment comes (as the reader knows it must, given the light tone of the prose) it is something completely out of left field. Still, the ending is satisfying and Sammy is allowed to use his angle expertise in the story’s final sentence.

The other nine Peril Press JDM titles contain several that I have written about, a few years before they appeared digitally. Here is the complete list, with the hyperlinks taking you to my own writeup on this blog.

“But Not to Dream” originally appeared in the May 1949 issue of Weird Tales
“Final Mission” originally appeared in the November 1950 issue of Planet Stories
“The Great Stone Death” originally appeared in the January 1949 issue of Weird Tales
“Hole in None” originally appeared in the January 4, 1947 issue of Liberty
“Like a Keepsake” originally appeared in the June 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories
“Vanguard of the Lost” originally appeared in the May 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures
“Who’s the Blonde?” originally appeared in the August 9, 1952 issue of Collier’s

Two of the short stories are bundled together in a single collection.
“The Men Women Marry” originally appeared in the June 8, 1956 issue of Collier’s
“The Unsuitable Girl” originally appeared in the February 3, 1956 issue of Collier’s

At 99-cents a pop, these stories -- editing warts and all -- are well worth the investment.

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