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..