Monday, February 23, 2015

Science Fiction and Fantasy by John D MacDonald

This morning I’m launching another list in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources section of this blog: a bibliography of all of the science fiction and fantasy short stories, novellas and novels written by John D MacDonald.

Every MacDonald fan is aware of his three science fiction novels, Wine of the Dreamers, Ballroom of the Skies and The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. The fans whose interest in JDM extends to his short fiction are no doubt knowledgeable of the fact that he wrote a lot of science fiction stuff back in the early days of his career, published mostly in the sf pulps of the day. Many of the best of those tales were collected in a 1978 anthology titled Other Times, Other Worlds, which is now out of print. The editor of that indispensable collection, the peerless Martin H Greenberg, included an appendix to the book, a bibliography of MacDonald’s science fiction. It was culled from the obvious magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. It also included the latter-day Playboy story “The Annex,”  a 1964 story published in Cosmopolitan titled “The Legend of Joe Lee,” (both included in the anthology) and an obscure early work published in Spectator Club called “The Spiralled Myth.” The entries on this list totalled fifty-three.

But there were several stories that were missed. I guess if even Martin H Greenberg isn't infallible there’s hope for the rest of us.

There were at least three stories that predated any of the work MacDonald published in the standard sf pulps, and in somewhat unlikely publications. His first was a golfing fantasy titled “Hole in None” that appeared in a January 1947 issue of Liberty. Following that was a Bluebook tale about an unusual invention titled “The Pendans Box.” And near the end of that year he wrote a futuristic novella about nuclear proliferation in Doc Savage called “Or the World Will Die.” Only then, in 1948, did JDM see his first sf pulp story published, “Cosmetics” in the February issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

This began the author’s great spurt of sf writing, with ten stories published in 1948, 17 in 1949, 14 in 1950, eight in 1951, three in 1952 (including Ballroom) and one in 1953. But that was only the end of MacDonald appearances in sf magazines; he continued to write the occasional sf or fantasy story, and they appeared in other kinds of publications. In 1955 he wrote a straight-up science fiction story that was published in Bluebook, called “Virus H.” Its theme was one that the author came to embrace more fervently as he grew older, the ecology of the planet. The story even has aliens in it!

The remaining works are more fantasy than science fiction, with the exception perhaps of The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. These include some I have already written about: “A Dark People Thing,” “The Straw Witch,” “The Annex,” and “The Reference Room.”

And there may be more out there. As is evidenced by the early Doc Savage entry, some of the stuff he wrote for that magazine and its sister publication The Shadow may have fantasy or science fiction elements to them. I either don’t own these stories or haven’t read them in several decades, so if in the process of writing this blog I come across any, I will update the list when the posting appears.

As before, I want to thank J.J. Walters for creating the web page and making it readable and easy to use. We’ve put the list together in two different formats: entries listed alphabetically and then chronologically.

I would also like to thank Trap of Solid Gold reader Eric Gimlin for providing some very helpful advice as to what should be included and what should not. His prompting inspired me to dig out some of the early unlisted stories to determine their genre and to sit down and put this list together.

What I didn’t do here was segregate the science fiction from the fantasy. That’s a pothole I don’t want to drive over. I’ll simply finish with what I’ve always thought was the best quote on the subject, written by Rod Serling for the 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The Fugitive”:

Science fiction [is] the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"The Straw Witch"

In a week or two I will be launching a new link in The Trap of Solid Gold Resources you see in the right hand column of this blog, a listing of all of John D MacDonald’s science fiction and fantasy fiction. It’s going to contain all of the stories and novels that Martin H. Greenberg included in his appendix to Other Times, Other Worlds -- MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction anthology -- as well as several additional titles that were omitted but are clearly science fiction. It will also include a couple of stories that lean more toward fantasy, and some that barely qualify as representative of either genre. “The Straw Witch” will be on that list.

Originally published in the January 12, 1964 issue of This Week magazine, this very short story is one of MacDonald’s better works, as is most of the author’s fiction of this period, and qualifies as fantasy only in the individual reader’s perception. It’s one of those “was it real or only imagined?” kinds of stories, with the payoff coming in the final paragraph of the piece. Some may argue this point, but I think I’m on pretty solid ground here, and even if you want to dispute my assertion, you’ll have to agree that it is otherwise an excellent, well written story.

The protagonist is a paid assassin named Williamson, on a mission in an unnamed country to kill an ambassador. Two prior attempts by other had failed and now the security around the man was impregnable. His large country home was now guarded around the clock, with the grounds lit by floodlights at night, and his transportation provided by a bullet-proof limousine. He never appears outside of the home except to go or to come home from the embassy. Williamson has found a safe place in a wooded area where he can observe the house at night with high powered binoculars. Every night he is there, observing, trying to find some weakness he can exploit and take out his target.

The long nights have got him thinking and remembering. Specifically, he has begun recalling a brief period during the last war (WWII?) where he learned his trade as a clandestine killer of civilians. On a mission that had gone terribly wrong, he found himself hiding in the cellar of a house for several weeks with his partner, an old, grizzled Irishman named Gulligan.

Gulligan, like an old hound, had caught the whiff of death. In the darkness his mind wandered, and he talked on and on. Gulligan was a sour old hulk, an Irish murderer, a life-long saboteur and conspirator, just the sort of malignant riff-raff they sent on missions like that one. They never sent their clean young men to assassinate civilians.

Gulligan’s rants revolve around the imminent death he foresees for both himself and Williamson, and he slowly recalls the myths of his homeland.

"I don't know how they summon all the others, Billy boy, but for the ones like you and me, for us they send one of the straw witches... On the nights when the moon rises full and yellow they gather where there's a black pool, and quaggy ground so no fool can approach them. You can hear them on a still night, making their little sing-songs of laughter, sitting with their pale beautiful feet in the black water, all of them with silver needles knitting straw in the moonlight, fashioning it into wee gallows ropes and dainty shrouds... When yours comes for you, lad, you won't be thinking she's a straw witch. No, you'll have your mind on but one thing, and she will take your hand in hers and be in such a sweet hurry to take you to a private place. But when you reach to her, her thighs will be as smoke, her breasts no more than the wind passing, and it is only her lips you will find with a snow taste to them, cold as pebbled snow, and with a quick and clever suck she takes your wind away and your murderer's soul."

Gulligan sickens in the dark cellar and begins to rave. Williamson “felt for the socket at the base of his skull” and quickly, silently kills him. He saw no straw witch come for Gulligan, but he does recall the man’s dying words: “Darlin’ darlin’”

After a full month of observation outside the ambassador’s estate, Williamson finally comes up with a plan. Every night at the same hour the man opens his door to let his dog out. He’s too far away for a rifle shot, and even if he wasn’t, the target is wary enough to only crack the door wide enough to let the pet outside before quickly closing it again. But the dog is free to wander all over the expansive grounds of the estate, and if Williamson can manage to get close to him he believes he can accomplish his mission successfully...

“The Straw Witch” was the second in a great burst of excellent short works MacDonald produced for This Week, after a five year hiatus from writing for this newspaper supplement. Up until “End of the Tiger,” which appeared in October of 1963 JDM had written one or two stories per year for This Week, beginning in 1950 and taking a break in 1958. Then, between “Tiger” and “The Quickest Way Home” in 1966 he wrote no less than twelve uniformly excellent works of short fiction, including two I have written about: “The Loveliest Girl in the World” and “Blurred View.” In all likelihood this run of stories was due to the magazine’s new Fiction Editor, Stewart Beach, a longtime writer and editor who had been around the literary scene since the 1920’s. Back in 1929 he had written a book titled Short Story Technique and obviously thought MacDonald’s was very good. In 1957 he edited an anthology of This Week stories titled This Week’s Stories of Mystery and Suspense and included JDM’s 1955 entry “There Hangs Death.”

Finally, as I say about every JDM This Week entry, these stories are readily available through various newspaper archives, and can be accessed via a commercial entity such as Pro Quest, or through local library systems that provide access to a particular newspaper that carried This Week during the 1950’s and 1960’s. And, in the case of “The Straw Witch,” this story was included in MacDonald’s 1966 short story anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories which is available as an eBook, or, if digital reading is not your thing, used copies of the paperback can usually be found for very reasonable prices.

In fact, with this posting I have now covered every entry in that excellent anthology, and for those who are interested you can access the postings individually either through the Books by John D MacDonald or the Short Stories by John D MacDonald lists available through my Resources..

Monday, February 9, 2015

"Half-Past Eternity"

Longtime fans of John D MacDonald’s novels and short stories are probably aware that his early science fiction novel Wine of the Dreamers originally appeared as a novella in an early sf pulp magazine. Although billed on the cover of the May 1950 issue of Startling Stories as “A Complete Novel,” it clocked in at “only” 44,000 words, far short of the approximately 80,000 that would make up the novel of the following year. More serious fans of his work would also know that his second science fiction novel, Ballroom of the Skies, was based on another earlier novella, one titled “Hand From the Void,” a 20,000 word piece that appeared in the January 1951 issue of Super Science Stories. The characters names are different, as is the locale, but it’s the same plot structure, same basic protagonist, many nearly identical scenes, and the same ending as the novel that was published about two years later.

MacDonald’s third and final science fiction novel didn’t appear until the end of 1962, long after most of the pulps had died and long after he had been a regular contributor to this genre. But even The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything had an antecedent, believe it or not, although not one so obviously patterned on previous plot and characters. This 20,000-word novella was published in the July 1950 issue of Super Science Stories and its subject was time: time and the ability to manipulate time for certain individuals. But unlike Kirby Winter, who could slow it down to near cessation with the use of a particular pocket watch, the device in “Half-Past Eternity” is modern medicine.

It’s one of MacDonald’s more delightful stories, in that it is barely science fiction for much of its early pages, and the subject matter of the plot straddles several different story types and works on several different levels: it’s a crime story, a sports story, a business story and a science fiction story. This gives the author the opportunity to show off his mastery of several of the devices he used to write all different kinds of fiction during his pulp days. And even though it is first and foremost a science fiction story, its real strength and attraction lies in the characterization of its protagonists, a hustler and con man and a woman who figuratively sells her soul for money.

The opening scenes of the story come straight out of any number of stories MacDonald wrote for Fifteen Sports Stories or Dime Detective.

The Kid didn’t talk. Nat February talked. Which is what you might have expected.

The kid had a punch like the business end of a mule, sure, and he kept pouring in, shuffling flat-footed, game all the way through. But everybody on the Beach knew that the kid, who, by the way, at thirty-one was a kid no longer, had suffered slow degeneration of the reflexes to the point where his Sunday punch floated in like a big balloon and he could be tagged at will.

The kid has has managed to score a match with an up and coming contender named Jake Freedon, and the kid is seen as nothing more than a waystation on the way to a championship match. “There was no question about Jake Freedon winning. The kid was all through in the fight game although nobody had told him that yet.” Nat February, a well-regarded bookie in this seedy, marginal little world, certainly knows that. Imagine his surprise when he is approached by a dignified, if shabby old gentleman who wants to bet a large sum on the kid. After attempting to dissuade him, February takes his money and gives him long odds of the kid knocking out Jake in the first round. If that happens, the gentleman -- whose name is Garfield Tomlinson -- will clear $96,000.

Of course, it does happen, so quickly that most can’t tell how Jake Freedon ended up face down in a pool of his own blood with a broken jaw. Jake later describes it to his disgusted backers:

“I tell yah,” Jake mumbled, “I never seen the punch coming. Not at all. I know, I’ve been hit before, but then I seen it when it was too late to duck. This time I never even knew I was hit. I’m moving in and boom -- I’m walking up the aisle with rubber knees.”

February pays off, but his losses aren’t as great as they could have been. A sixth sense told him to spread the bet around town, which while lowering his profit had Jake won, substantially cushioned his loss when the impossible happened. But the upset doesn’t go down well with a particular bookie, whose collector -- a man by the name of Sam Banth -- is also a minority owner of the concern. He has seen his investment go from $10,000 to $2,200, and in disgust he takes what’s left and quits.

This is our protagonist, for want of a better word. A former stockbroker, Sam Banth quit the brokerage house where he worked to climb the ladder of a different and more direct form of gambling. His ambition is intense and his guile more sophisticated than that of an average debt collector. His physical description is the first clue that this will not be a typical MacDonald leading character. He is young, tall and well dressed, but:

Taken as a whole, Sam Banth’s face was well proportioned, almost handsome. But each individual feature was oversized, heavy. The big lips rested together with a hint of ruthlessness and brutality. Pale eyes protruded slightly, and they looked coldly incapable of any change of expression. His neck and sloped shoulders were ox-heavy.

Before walking out on his former senior partner he breaks the man's nose.

Convinced that the boxing match was somehow fixed, he pays a visit to the winner, who is celebrating his victory. The kid, with a faraway look in his eyes, is sitting at a table covered with bottles. He’s playing a kind of a parlor trick for the party’s guests. When somebody blunders against the table and one of the bottles drops, the kid reaches out with lightning speed and catches it inches from the floor. He is able to do this despite the fact that he is obviously drunk. When Sam finds out from February that the big winner’s name was Garfield Tomlinson, he does a little research at the city library.

At last he found the references he wanted. His hand began to tremble. Dr. Garfield A. Tomlinson -- Pathologist. From the magazine index he located the Journal of American Medicine for February, 1946. Relation Between  Hormone Theories and Tissue Entropy in Geriatrics. He read the article with great care. Much of it was meaningless to him, but he absorbed a few of the basic ideas.

It doesn’t take much to find out that Tomlinson lives in a rambling farmhouse outside of Kingston, New York, and Sam wastes no time in heading for the place. The door is answered by a young woman, and MacDonald’s description of her is detailed and characteristic of his introduction of his female romantic interests.

Sam, in one searching glance before he smiled, took in the straight tallness of her, the wood-smoke eyes which had sooted the lashes heavily, the ripe tautness across the front of the blue work shirt, the lorelei curve of flank which blue jeans couldn’t hide, the softness and petulance and discontent in the wide mouth. She was a big girl. A big restless unhappy girl with annoyance at him and the world showing plainly.

She is Linda Tomlinson, the doctor’s daughter, and she tells Sam her father is in the barn around back. Before she can close the door on him there is this telling exchange:

Sam: What do you want most in the world, Miss Tomlinson?

Linda: That’s a stupid question. Money. Enough to smother me.

Sam: What would you say if I told you that because I came here you’re going to have exactly that?

Linda: I would say you’ve got nails in your head, friend.

Using a ruse to gain entry into Tomlinson’s barn/laboratory, Sam lays out his suspicions about what the doctor is doing and what he did to the kid.

Let me hazard a series of guesses. Your funds are running low. You are at a critical and interesting stage in your experimentation. You have learned to apply new principles, apparently. The main ways of getting finds are too slow. Maybe you’re so far off the beaten path no institution will give you a grant. Maybe they would if you showed them what progress you’ve made, but you’re not ready to do that yet. You contact [the kid], manage in some way to give him a set of reflexes faster than any man ought to have, and then you bet all your funds and collect a small fortune.

Tomlinson is forced to admit that Sam is correct and goes on to explain the the method he has discovered to increase a subject’s speed by stimulating glands in order to telescope time. A test subject so treated would have a reduced lifespan but would live out that lifespan with reactions and perceptions much faster than those not treated. In the case of the kid, he was selected because he had no other set of skills with which to make a living, and would have eventually become a charity case. “I speeded him up at first,” explains Tomlinson, “in the ratio of a one tenth decrease in lifespan. The effect was to make him live sixty-six seconds for every sixty, thus speeding his reaction time by one tenth of a second.” When that didn’t have the desired effect it was increased to one-fifth. The effect was permanent and the kid had to be coached to slow down all aspects of his manners and appearance lest his change become apparent to anyone who knew him before.

Sam is, of course, here to exploit the discovery and he lays out his plans to Tomlinson. Sam will begin identifying sports figures who have ability but are either missing one element of talent or who are aging and have lost a step. A baseball player who can field well but can’t hit. A tennis player whose legs have “given out.” a golfer who was never able to drive the long ball, a circus acrobat team, even a professional magician. Sam will used the Tomlinson’s farm land to build a sprawling sports camp to provide the extending treatment and training regimen. In exchange for receiving the treatment the subjects agree to sign over half of their earnings to a corporation owned by Tomlinson, Sam and Linda. This income will be supplemented by heavy betting on games where the subjects are involved. Tomlinson will get more money for research, Sam will get rich, and Linda will get rich and… get Sam. They eventually realize that they are “kindred spirits” and become romantically involved.

But it’s never enough for Sam. Despite the initial success and money pouring in, he always wants more, and once he learns that Tomlinson has developed a simpler method for the process, one that any layman can perform, well… Let’s just say that Sam does not have any Road to Damascus moment in this story.

“Half-Past Eternity” is a terrific work, one that is as inventive and entertaining as anything MacDonald ever wrote for the pulps. It hums along at a breakneck speed and is over too quickly, even for 22,000 words. Sam Banth is an unusual protagonist for MacDonald, an unredeemed charlatan who nonetheless evokes sympathy from the reader at times. Likewise, Linda Tomlinson is equally immoral, yet not at quite the same level as Sam, as if MacDonald was simply unwilling to create a female character who was 100% evil. And the grand finale of this novel -- the final chapter titled “The Endless Twilight” -- is as good as anything JDM ever wrote in the science fiction field. It is there that the reader will discover the seeds of The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything.

The literary device of manipulating time was an old one that went all the way back to H.G. Wells’ 1901 story “The New Accelerator” and was the subject of a 1923 French film titled Paris Qui Dort. I’m hardly an expert on the history of science fiction, but I don’t find much use of this theme before  MacDonald re-introduced it in “Half-Past Eternity,” and the most frequently cited progenitor of this sub-genre, Arthur C. Clarke’s “All the Time in the World,” wasn’t published until 1952, two full years after MacDonald’s novella. Of course, the version of time manipulation that everyone remembers the most -- at least those of my own generation -- is Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode, “A Kind of a Stopwatch,” which, like much of Sterling’s work on The Twilight Zone, owed a lot to earlier science fiction -- in this case to both Clarke’s work and, especially,  MacDonald’s The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. And the “surprise” ending of Serling’s teleplay owes not a little to the final chapter of “Half-Past Eternity.”

The novella was anthologized twice, first in a 1971 collection edited by William J. Nolan titled The Human Equation, and again in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. Both books are out of print but easily obtainable via the usual online sources. Curiously, Other Times, Other Worlds seems to be the only fiction book of MacDonald’s to be denied a reissue as an eBook. This is a shame, as it is absolutely essential JDM, containing some of his best work in the short form. Hopefully this omission will be corrected some day.

Monday, February 2, 2015

JDM on Starting the Travis McGee Series

Knox Burger
The McGee series use of color in the titles was decided at a place now gone, The Red Devil [111 W 48th Street in New York], which used to be right across the street from the Absinthe House, operated by Mark Reuben. Not only is he gone and the Absinthe gone, but of the group which met one day in The Red Devil, Geoffrey Bocca, Dick Gehman and Bobby Condon are gone as well. And many others from the writers’ group in the Sarasota area, such as Carl Carmer and MacKinlay Kantor. Incidentally you might like to hear something that Hemingway once said about MacKinlay Kantor. He said, “Mack would be a little bit better writer if he would resign his commission in the Confederate Air Force.”

This continual harvesting of my peers by the green ripper casts a strange light across my interior landscape.Their books are on my shelves. They exist in two dimensions, in the books and in my memory, and it is only when I think very specifically of one of them that I realize they are now in stasis, with no more editorial changes to make, small figures standing way back beside the tracks as the train goes on.

To get back to the problem, our premise was that the titling should permit the reader to read the series in any order he wished, and the titles should be in some pattern easy to remember. Musical terminology, months of the year, varieties of gemstones, days of the week -- all these were discarded and I believe it was Knox Burger who edited all the early ones who suggested colors. I approved and Mac Wilkinson approved. So we drank to Dallas McGee and wished him well.

Yes, that was his name until a dreadful incident in that city gave the name a resonance I did not want. I wrote out twenty names and did not like a one of them. MacKinlay suggested I look at a list of Air Force bases. He said they had pretty good names. And Travis was a good name in California.

I shall not run out of colors. I have yet to deal with cobalt, umber, aquamarine, black, white and cranberry. Not to mention beige, putty and puce.

The decision to do a series might interest some of you. As early as 1952 [Fawcett editor-in-chief] Ralph Daigh had suggested a series, but I had the uneasy feeling that were I to come up with a successful series, I might be stuck with it, unable to sell work of any other kind. I think my hunch was valid. First person writing is limiting. It requires a lot of tricks to make it work. It is a folk dance where you have to invent new steps without changing the basic dance pattern.

In 1963 Herb Alexander, then head of Pocket Books, offered a goodly chunk of money and guarantees to a Fawcett series author [Richard Prather] to switch houses. Said author was in a snit at the time because Knox Burger, his editor, kept taking out references to the author’s strong political prejudices. Knox felt it unseemly, for example, to name a villain Humphrey Huberts. that gives you an idea of the politics.

Knox phoned me and said that since the loss of that author, people were avoiding him in the hallways and at the drinking fountain, and he felt there was a dotted line across his throat, and would I please take a shot at a series. I said I would think about it, and I decided at last to take a run at it, maybe under a pseudonym. I think they are bad policy anyway. The writer is in the business of dropping his trousers in the town square, and it is unfair to wear a mask while so doing.

I took three shots at the first book in the series, trying to devise a protagonist I would be willing to have around the house for six books. I did two complete books and shelved them. Never sent them in. Sent in the third because by then McGee was beginning to come alive, and I halfway liked the chap. Did the next two books in the series and in 1964 they were released one a month for three months and they did right well in the marketplace and now there are 20 books in the series with at least two more to come. But I have not been stuck with doing just those books in the series. I have to have a novel to look forward to where I can move around from person to person, from heart to heart.

From John D MacDonald’s speech at Bouchercon XIV, October 23, 1983.