The genre of epistolary fiction -- stories told through letters, journal entries and news reports -- dates back to the beginnings of fiction itself, but most scholars date its English language debut to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, a hugely successful effort that not only spawned scores of imitators of the specific form, but also marked the maturation of the novel itself as an art form. By the end of the 18th century the form had pretty much run its course, but many novels written in the following century used the form, most notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and that greatest of all epistolary novels (in my opinion), Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (Not that I’ve read even a fraction of the works done in the 18th century.)
It’s usage in the 20th century continued sporadically, with notable titles such as The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Stephen King’s still amazing first novel, Carrie. More contemporary efforts now include communications of the digital age such as emails, text messages and Twitter tweets.
The closest John D MacDonald came to writing an epistolary novel was his 1960 masterpiece The End of the Night, which begins with a long letter and goes on to include a “Death Row Diary” and several official memoranda. But these entries are far too lengthy and detailed to convey the illusion of a real epistle, and one gets the feeling that the author began with the idea of writing the novel in this specific form but his words simply got away from him. A year later he wrote One Monday We Killed Them All, which begins with an excerpt from an official statement, but that is as far as he takes it.
His short fiction contains at least three examples of this form, and there certainly may be more among the stories I haven’t read. His November 1950 science fiction story “Final Mission” employed memos, the minutes of a country club meeting and even excerpts from a play before ending the story with straight prose. “Dear Old Friend,” written in 1970 and one of the last short stories MacDonald would write, used several rough drafts of a letter recorded on a dictaphone before ending with the finished product, an amazing example of concise and perfect short story writing if there ever was one. But his first effort at epistolary storytelling was -- I believe -- back in 1949 with another science fiction tale he titled “Like a Keepsake.”
Made up of six letters, presented in chronological order, “Like a Keepsake” appeared in the June 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, MacDonald’s third of seven stories he would have published in that science fiction pulp. Each letter is written by Bill Wheeland, a welder in his late teens, to a girl named Zell. Bill has just returned from a trip to Venus, where he met and dated Zell, and things ended badly. Believing “that stuff the fellows told me,” he made a pass at Zell on their last date before Bill left for Earth and got his face slapped. Zill left in a huff and Bill wandered around for hours before hitting the sack. He’s writing to a.) apologize for his bad behavior and for thinking that Zell’s name was funny, b.) to confess that he isn’t really a space ship co-pilot, c.) to let her know that he is scheduled to return to her planet in three months, and d.) to tell her she is “the most gorgeous thing” he’s ever seen. At the end of his letter, almost as an afterthought, he mentions something that’s happening on Earth:
The papers are full of some sort of trouble in London. Tonight on the telescreen they gave us a quick look at it. I couldn't make head or tail of it -- a black line that goes right up from a rooftop straight up into the air. The big scientists have given out with a lot of fancy language but nobody seems to know anything about it except that it's growing.
The letter, postmarked “New Mexiport,” is dated 10 September 1998.
Bill’s next letter is written ten days later and he’s now writing from Bristolport in England. Gone, for the most part, are the pleasantries and romance and they are replaced with an explanation as to why he is in England and the “trouble” that is happening there. The black line has grown and it is now two miles thick and its properties baffling. When it was pencil sized, a man walked through it and was cut in half. As it grew scientists tried experimenting on it. Steel bars shoved into it came out with the inserted portions gone. Bathtubs full of water had their ends cut off without any of the water flowing out. They’ve tried flame throwers, electricity, fire hoses, even bombs, and nothing makes a dent in it. And it has begun to attract the crazies.
Lots of crazy people have sneaked by the police lines and jumped into it. They don't even yelp, I hear. Crazy religions have popped up all over and people are yammering about the end of the world... the newspapers are full of fancy talk. One old bug called it a "crack in infinity." Imagine that?
The third letter comes from Parisport, nine days after the second one, and London is gone…
“Like a Keepsake” contains a kind of poignancy that may not be apparent after a single reading, and the events and the ending of the tale may evoke little more than a “so what?” in the reader, but looking more closely one sees how MacDonald slowly unravels background and character through (and despite) this most limiting of fictional forms. Little bits of information thrown out here and there do much to create this future world (well, the future as written in 1949). Like comparing the early size of the “line” to Zill’s “pretty arm,” discussing Earth’s political balance of power by relating it to two military bases -- one British, one Russian -- on Venus, and postulating that Earth’s historic Black Death of the fourteenth century was probably known to Zill by way of Earth’s missionary schools on Venus, all convey a richer fictional world simply by the manner of their indirect inclusion into the storyline. “Like a Keepsake” may not be the best or the most memorable bit of science fiction writing John D MacDonald ever composed (it wasn’t included in his sf anthology Other Times, Other Worlds), but it is a great example of his storytelling skills, his use of economy in writing, and the way he could encourage the imagination of the reader in only five pages of a pulp magazine.
Although the story was never anthologized, it has reappeared an an eBook -- well, really an eStory, via Peril Press, who was also responsible for several other reissued tales, including “What Makes Sammy Laugh?” which I wrote about a few weeks ago. “Like a Keepsake” can be purchased from either of the two big online booksellers for a mere 99 cents, well worth the price to own and read a bit of JDM sf that hasn’t see the light of day, or Venus, in over sixty years.