Monday, October 26, 2015

"Night Watch" ("Check Out at Dawn")

When John D MacDonald’s later day pulp fiction collection The Good Old Stuff was published in 1982 it was met with generally good reviews in the press of the day. Most of them were hedging, warning the reader that although this was very good MacDonald, it was early MacDonald and not up to the literary standard he had achieved by the time the collection was published. And although we JDM fanatics of the era had been clamoring for just such a collection for years and would have purchased it even with universally bad reviews, the more occasional readers of the author were more circumspect. Book critic Patricia Holt, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle enunciated a fairly typical opinion when she wrote:

Most of these stories really are dated… [but] reading the young MacDonald is a fascinating experience… There is MacDonald’s absolute clarity of detail, his obeisance to realism and his attempt to convey what this life represents… The problem (or perhaps the joy) is that in this early work we get both the best and the worst of MacDonald’s first glimmerings of style… If you know MacDonald’s stuff and have an interest in how it all came to be, this “Old Stuff” is pretty good.

“Pretty good” seemed like an insult to me at the time, but as I have aged and read much more of MacDonald’s early output, I think this a fair assessment, at least for someone who doesn’t live and breath the author’s work, no matter when it was produced. But there are exceptions, and if we take the notion that The Good Old Stuff represents the best of the lot, then surely there must be a few transcendent works included with the otherwise excellent stories. I would argue that one such example is the 1950 short story published as “Night Watch" in the May issue of Detective Tales, and included in the anthology under the author’s original title “Check Out at Dawn.” It is a relatively simple tale that is told with such a masterful confidence in the creation of character and atmosphere that it reads more like something that could have appeared in one of the mystery digests in the later part of that decade. The “clarity of detail,” and “obeisance to realism” that Holt wrote about in her review are the strengths of this story, not to mention MacDonald’s conveyance of “what this life represents.” He creates utterly believable characters in an utterly believable situation with utterly believable motivations and flaws, and he does so with writing that is both atmospheric and direct, creating his small little world with both economy and style. And he does it all in 3,000 words.

Note how the opening paragraphs set both the scene and the mood, descriptive yet almost impressionistic:

At five minutes of five the disc jockey topped off his program with a recording by the All Stars. Barney Bigard’s clarinet was sweet and strong, to the counterpoint noodling of Earl “Fatha” Hines. He kept the car radio tuned so low that the rhythm was a whisper, the tune like a memory in the mind. As the piece ended he turned off the radio, cupped his hands around the lighter from the dashboard as he lit another cigarette.

When it was finished he eased the car door open and stood out in the crisp, pre-dawn air, the wet spring-smell of the woods. Four months of waiting and watching. The tiredness was deep in him, and the boredom. A leaden-muscled, sag-nerved tiredness.

Behind the house three hundred feet away, the roosters screamed brawsy defiance at distant hen runs, and lonesome through the dregs of night came the far-off sigh and pant of a train.

The man stepping out of the car is Barry Raymes, an FBI agent (although this is only implied) with two years experience in the bureau. He is on the night shift of a round-the-clock surveillance of a small house in the Georgia woods with a single occupant, a young woman named Marra Allen. She is the girlfriend of one Craik Lopat, a criminal fugitive wanted for robbing a payroll and murdering a guard, and Lopat is expected to return to the house and claim his girl. These are backwoods people and their contrast with Raymes is established beautifully by that introductory paragraph featuring him listening to jazz. But after four months of observing and interacting with Marra (she knows the agents are out in the woods) he begins fighting something he instinctively knows to be wrong.

In the night watch you could think of taking this Marra Allen, with her ignorance and her superstitions and her unlettered tongue, and becoming Pygmalion, because there was no denying that her slip loveliness was more than just an attribute of youth. The bone structure was good, and she would take beauty to her grave… In the long night, you could think of her breathing softly in sleep on her bed and think of how her warm breath would come from lips parted just a bit, probably, and the golden hair spread over the pillow…

The routine has been the same since the surveillance began: relieving another agent at midnight and spending the long night behind a screen of trees. Then, at dawn, once the kitchen light comes on, Raymes knocks on the door and Marra lets him in so he can search the small house to make sure Lopat isn’t hiding there. Then, she cooks a breakfast and Raymes joins her before being relieved by the day-shift agent. After every morning meal Raymes puts a fifty-cent piece under his plate, an unspoken payment that Marra doesn’t remove until after he has left.

She seems amused by the four-month watch and the daily search of the house, but is generous and hospitable to Raymes and willingly serves and eats with him. She calls him “mister” and Raymes calls her Marra. But they share a table and nothing else, although wisps of Raymes’ growing fondness are revealed obliquely.

They ate in silence, and as on every morning, she lowered her face almost to the plate for each forkful. In another woman it would have amused and partially revolted him. In Marra it seemed oddly pathetic. It seemed as though a girl of breeding sat there, intent, for some strange reason, on playing this part that had been given her. And in the depths of her gray-blue eyes he saw the deadness, a nothingness, as though a part of her had been dead -- for four months.

But Raymes, on this particular morning, takes things a step too far and reacts in a way that breaks the unspoken truce between them. And on his next visit everything changes…

The ending of “Night Watch” is a surprise, almost right out of left field, but when one rereads the story it is obvious that the pattern is established in nearly every seemingly random description of the characters. That MacDonald did not broadcast this climax earlier in the tale is a testimony to his growing skills and his mastery of understatement and economy. It reminds me a lot of his later short story masterpiece of atmosphere and character, “In a Small Motel,” and recalls to mind Geoffrey O’Brien’s observation of the author’s singular talents:

MacDonald proved himself from the start the kind of storyteller who makes other aesthetic considerations irrelevant. To read him is to hear a spoken voice -- pausing, digressing, joking, all the while drawing you into the yarn. It’s not that the story is so remarkable; you've heard something like it before, you may even recognize chunks of it from another of his [stories], and after a while, it will blend into all the others. The anecdote may be utterly banal. It’s the voice that grabs you, the sure rhythms with which it measures out the story.

Reading “Night Watch” also recalls to mind another contemporary review of The Good Old Stuff, by Henry Kisor in the Chicago Sun-Times, where he wrote, “[These stories] show us not only that [MacDonald] has come a long way, but also that his enormous talent was always there.”

The May 1950 issue of Detective Tales not only contained “Night Watch” but two other MacDonald stories, one of which was “Breathe No More, My Lovely,” the introduction of the author’s third series character, Park Faulkner. That story also made the cut for inclusion in The Good Old Stuff, making that particular issue especially collectable. “Night Watch” appeared under one of MacDonald’s house names, Scott O’Hara, while the third, “The Long, Red Night” was “written” by John Lane.

One final note on “Night Watch.” As most JDM readers know, MacDonald updated the settings for several of the stories collected in both of The Good Old Stuff anthologies, ripping the time and place out of postwar America and placing it into the 1980s. This unfortunate practice, which all but ruined a couple of the stories, is mercifully absent from “Night Watch,” even retaining that opening paragraph with the protagonist listening to Earl “Fatha” Hines on his car radio. (On AM, since I doubt if there would have been many radio stations in rural Georgia playing jazz in 1950.) And even though MacDonald asserted that he made changes in all of the stories in The Good Old Stuff, I’ll be darned if I can locate a single one.

The Good Old Stuff is readily available as a used book, and the eBook version is currently “in print.”

Monday, October 19, 2015

"School for the Stars"

In September 1964 John D MacDonald wrote an article for The Writer titled “How to Live With a Hero,” where he recounted his long-fought and grudging agreement with his agent and publisher to create a series hero. It’s a fascinating account of the whys, hows and wherefores of MacDonald’s reluctance, gradual acceptance and difficulties in inventing a form and a character he could “live with” over many different titles. This was, of course, Travis McGee, and I think most of us will agree that we can live with him just fine.  But nowhere in the article does MacDonald mention that McGee was not his first attempt at a series character. He had done it before, not once, not twice, but three times before giving up on each attempt.

It began all the way back at the end of the first year JDM was published, in the December 1946 issue of Doc Savage. At the behest of that pulp magazine’s editor, Babette Rosmond, he created Benton Meredith Walters, a war vet who quits his dull bank job and takes on an improbable career as a cold war spy. Walters’ physical appearance and background are interesting for what they would presage: six-foot-two, 200 pounds, can handle himself in a fight, played football in college and one year in the pros… But after the second installment of this series MacDonald quit, writing Rosemond, "Honest to God -- I'm never going to start another series. They are limiting and I hate them."

Four years later the author created Park Falkner for Detective Tales. A fabulously wealthy playboy and resident of his own island off the coast of west Florida, Falkner relieves his constant boredom by digging into the pasts of people he believes have done some great wrong and are hiding it, then devises a clever and complicated ruse to smoke them out. But like Benton Walters, Falkner appeared in only two stories before disappearing forever.

Falkner was MacDonald’s third series character. Between him and Walters, there was a second attempt, one that was unknown to me and, as far as I can tell, has never been written about before.

Back in January of 2010 I wrote a piece on a MacDonald science fiction short story titled “Dance of the New World,” which originally appeared in the September 1948 issue of John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. “Dance” takes place in a future where the men and women of Earth are beginning to explore areas of space outside of the solar system. Venus has been colonized and its ant-like people forced into slavery working the vast plantations of corporate herb farms. Shane Brent, an investigator and recruiter for the Central Assignment section of Space Control, has been sent here to try and convince a reluctant pilot to sign up for the agency's next exploratory mission to an Earthlike planet four light years away. Shane is eventually successful in convincing the pilot to join the mission and they celebrate the decision by heading out to a nightclub where a particular female dancer performs, one the pilot hopes will agree to accompany him on the long flight through space as his wife. Shane is instantly smitten by Caren Ames, and [SPOILER ALERT] when the pilot collapses into a drunken stupor, it is he who is successful in getting her to join up, travelling together as husband and wife.

Five years after posting my piece on “Dance of the New World” Trap of Solid Gold reader Eric Gimlin submitted a comment to the essay which contained what was, to me, a major revelation. Eric, who has an expertise in science fiction of the period far superior to mine, and who has aided me greatly filling in some of the gaps in my JDM collection, wrote the following:

I'm re-reading all of JDM's Science Fiction in order right now. One thing you don't mention: This story is the debut of one of MacDonald's rare early attempts at a serial character. Shane Brent pops back up in the very next issue of Astounding in "School for the Stars", which is set about a month after this one and continues the preparation for Project Flight 81. Taken together they feel like the first two parts of a much longer story about Flight 81 that never got any further.

The reason I didn’t mention the subsequent story in the article was because I didn’t own a copy of the October 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and had never read “School for the Stars.” Heck, I didn’t even own a copy of the issue where “Dance of a New World,” appeared, but wrote from the version that eventually appeared in MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. “School for the Stars” didn’t make the cut for that collection, so I had to wait until I was able to purchase a copy of the original magazine before making its acquaintance.

(Before discussing the early portions of the plot of “School for the Stars,” please note that since it is a followup to “Dance of a New World,” I will, by necessity, be revealing the outcome of that earlier story. If you try to avoid SPOILERS, you can skip to the end of this essay before reading it. And while Other Times, Other Worlds is one of the very few JDM books that has not yet made its way to eBook form, used copies of the original paperback are cheap and easy to find.)

In “Dance of the New World,” field representative Shane Brent, while recruiting on Venus, made several reports via closed circuit telescreen to his superior at Central Assignment, a man by the name of Frank Allison, and we meet him in person in the early paragraphs of “School for the Stars”. We are back on Earth, on the campus of Central Assignment, which consists of  "three blond stone buildings scattered with random care among the soft folds of the Hill Country seventy miles northwest of San Antonio, and fifteen miles east of VME Triangle Port 8.” Allison, who started out as a recruiter for CA, is now the executive in charge of the Requirements Section of Colonization Projects. As such, he is the person responsible for deciding who goes on the flights and who stays home. He is a small man with a florid face and a headful of gray hair, a testimony to the many years he has spent with Space Control. He is going through paperwork on the personnel for Flight 81, which is set to take off for its destination in sixty-two days. Hiram Lee, the pilot Shane was sent to Venus to recruit will man the helm, a man by the name of Walker Howe is the Commanding Officer, and Shane, accompanied by his bride of two weeks, will fill the position of Executive Officer.

Allison has been working tirelessly on Flight 81 for many months and it is getting to him. With all of the positions now filled he agrees with his secretary that he take a week off before beginning the work on Flight 82, and at her behest heads back to his apartment for some rest. He is walking along the dusty streets of the compound toward his one-bedroom apartment (also on the campus) when he stops suddenly in front of another residential building. His "face oddly slack, his mouth open slightly," he turns and enters, no longer conscious of what he is doing, "the last shred of volition disappearing as he walked down the hall." He enters a room, sits in a chair facing a blank wall and hears a "soft masculine voice" instructing him to "give technical details of Flight 81."

In a flat dead tone Allison said: "Project Flight 81 from VME Triangle Port 8 to Planet L. Target planet is .9663 Earth weight, mean temperature approximately 1.14 times that of Earth. Circle's a sun rated Class G on Harvard Spectral in a 521 Earth day orbit. Hoffman Identification proves an oxygen atmosphere and probably plant life of a low order. Distance 4.91 light years."

After being instructed to give the technical details of the flight and the specific flight plan, the voice pauses for a moment before stating: "Here are your instructions--" Then Allison is back on the street in front of the unit.

He wavered and touched his hand to his forehead, looked uncertainly at the setting sun. Just dizzy for a moment or two, he thought. I really must be bushed. That sun seems to have gone down pretty fast. Warily he walked to his own unit, up to his room, yawned as he undressed, and, in a few minutes he was sound asleep.

The scene shifts to the quarters of happy newlyweds Shane Brent and Caren Ames, now Caren Brent. Their meeting and courtship on Venus has taken all of a single night. After saving her from a drunken patron at the club where she was dancing and, managing to get her to come to his table for a drink, the initially icy Caren began to open up to Shane (especially after the drunken Hiram Lee was taken away). She reveals to Shane her reasons for living and performing on a distant planet: at nineteen she married "a very rich and very weak young man," and after two years "life became impossible." After divorcing, the vindictive ex-husband managed to get her fired from every dancing job she was able to get. Since the man had a weak heart and was restricted from space travel, Caren left Earth and found employment where the man could no longer reach her. As their conversation turns to deeper things, they take a walk through the darkened city and come to realize that “it just had to be.”

In their apartment Caren is studying for the flight ahead and having difficulty retaining it all. Their exchanges are of the typical JDM mock-seriousness he uses when a man and a woman are comfortable in each other’s company.

She turned around suddenly, her face full of mock woe. "I hate you, Shane."

"And I hate you too, darling. Why the sudden rush of affection?"

She hit the book with her small fist. "The trouble is to get what's in here," she said, "into here." She tapped her forehead with her knuckles. "I trained to be a dancer, honey -- not a colonist. Can't Central Science think of some better way to do this than by studying?"

He grinned at he. "You haven't got much to learn. A little botany and nutrition so that you can cook for me. A little medicine so that you can take care of me and yourself and the dozen or so kids we'll have. A few handicraft items. Weaving and stuff like that."

She looked at the ceiling. "Why, oh why, did I let myself be talked into marriage?"

He laughed. "I thought you talked me into it."

When they serious up Caren offhandedly mentions that she saw her ex-husband on the compound. He is working in the Education Branch of CA and knew all about Flight 81 and that both Shane and Caren were to be onboard. She says she told him to keep away from her but the information arouses Shane’s jealousy.

The next day Shane meets with Allison and is told that Walker Howe, Flight 81’s commanding officer, is being replaced by another man. No explanation is given and Allison is uncommonly abrupt with his friend and subordinate...

Frank Allison gets zapped
Although it takes several pages to be established, Shane Brent is definitely the protagonist of this story, so one has to wonder: was MacDonald writing these stories with the intention of establishing a singular series character, or, as Eric surmised in his comment, was this the second installment in a longer, closed-ended story that MacDonald intended to carry forward onto Planet L? I think the later is more likely, although it is uncertain just how far the author was prepared to carry this saga. Just as he clearly established the character of the ex-husband (in absentia) in “Dance of a New World” before having him appear him in the second story, so too in “School for the Stars” does he seem to prepare a bit of background for the couple’s time on Planet L  And of course there was  the four-plus years living aboard Flight 81 where he could have come up with some interesting business to carry the story forward.

But he didn’t, and the reason is anybody’s guess. He probably just got bored with the characters and couldn’t come up with anything new that interested him. And he probably knew what every reader of “School for the Stars” knew: it just isn’t a very good story. Even excepting the obvious and clich├ęd mind-control scene summarized above, the ending and motivations by the bad guy are something straight out of Operator #5. It’s not MacDonald’s finest moment, and he probably knew it, and if he didn’t then Campbell surely did. Maybe it was Campbell who pulled the plug on the Shane Brent “series”. After having four stories published in the magazine since February of that year, MacDonald didn’t appear again in Astounding until August of the following year with the excellent novella “Trojan Horse Laugh.”

The MacDonald family was living in Clinton, New York when “School for the Stars” was written, and they were in the process of packing up some belongings to head for Mexico following the death of Dorothy’s mother. A year and a half earlier they had made their first trip south, leaving Utica to spend the winter in Texas. Initially headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico, they only made it as far as the hill country of Texas, seventy miles northwest of San Antonio, where they spent a very happy winter. Exactly where MacDonald would later place the campus of Central Assignment in “School for the Stars.” (You can read MacDonald’s account of that season in my post JDM in Texas.)

“School for the Stars” has not been reprinted or anthologized, as far as I am able to determine. It was also the only JDM story published in Astounding that was not reprinted in the magazine’s British edition.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Love, Inc."

Most of the nearly 400 short stories and novellas written and published by John D MacDonald during his 30 year career appeared in the pulps. This market was his gateway into the world of fiction writing and it also became his classroom, where he learned, made his mistakes, and developed his singular style. But MacDonald didn’t start out wanting to be a pulp writer. He had higher, and by his own admission more pretentious yearnings to write “serious” fiction. Much of his early writing attempts were stories of this ilk, and not surprising for a novice writer, none of it sold. He “lowered his sights” and concentrated on the market that would buy his work, pulp fiction magazines.

But the early portion of MacDonald’s career is peppered with a few sales to the slicks, sporadic instances of earning a little better money while getting his name and work in front of a more mainstream audience. A little over a year after he started writing full time he sold a short story to Esquire magazine, a tale of a mean little trumpet player who got away with his anti-social behavior by playing a jazz trumpet that was “high, wild, sweet and true.” It was obviously something never intended for a pulp and may have been a piece left over from his early attempts at mainstream acceptance. A month later he sold a comic fantasy story -- something that may have been aimed at a science fiction pulp -- to the weekly Liberty. His first sale to Cosmopolitan, a magazine that would go on to publish more JDM than any other slick, was something he wrote thinking it would end up in a detective pulp, but was good enough to dare and send for submission a little higher up the literary food chain.

MacDonald’s last story to appear in the pulps was published in July 1953. It was his 295th short story sold, and of that number, only 40 were slick magazine sales. After that they were all slick magazine sales (excepting the occasional digest such as Manhunt or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) because, well, because there were no more pulps.

What was MacDonald trying to do with these particular forays into modern American culture and relationships? According to his own assessment of these works, he was trying to find “some theme or approach which [did] not require [him] to affirm one of the sentimental myths of our culture.”  He felt he succeeded when he was “sufficiently sly and nimble to find little areas between the myths where there is room to edge through without having to jettison a little burden of honest intent.” Many of these works are simple escape pieces, wryly comic stories of suburban families confronting simple misunderstandings or dealing with personality differences. (See most of his early stories in This Week.) Some were crime stories, the literary genre the author became famous for, tales that perhaps would have appeared in the pulps had they still been around, but were now appearing in tonier titles such as Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and The American Magazine. Others were serious attempts at dealing with relationships between man and woman, often seemingly broken beyond repair, delving into the pain and regret and observing the first steps of reconciliation. This latter group includes several stories I have written about on The Trap of Solid Gold, such as “The Cardboard Star,” “What About Alice?” and “Forever Yours.”

Which brings us to “Love, Inc.” a short story that appeared in the November 1949 issue of Today’s Woman. It’s a kind of a combination of the first and third group detailed above, a tale of a marital relationship that isn’t quite working, not because of infidelity or cruelty, but because one member of the partnership is focused elsewhere.

Jean and Chris Lewis have been married for all of six months and things are not going well, at least for Jean. As the story opens, Jean is standing in the driveway watching Chris drive off to work. It had been a late night. The day before Chris met a man at the barber shop and discovered he was a boat salesman. Having always been interested in owning a boat, Chris invited him home for dinner and stayed up late with him, so late in fact that the salesman had to spend the night. Had this been a onetime thing Jean would not have minded, but for Chris this was business as usual.

Jean is "a fireside girl... a quiet kid" who wants to "curl up and be loved." She's "a bit shy and hard to know... not unfriendly, just reserved." Chris, on the other hand, is another type entirely.

He was like a big, friendly puppy, the kind that wags its tail so hard that everything wiggles except the tip of its nose. And he was just as easy to hurt as a puppy. Chris adored people, all sorts of people. He was the perfect listener, his face alive with appreciation and unbounded love. She and Chris couldn't take a walk without being stopped every fifteen feet or so by one of Chris's devoted pals.

It began on their honeymoon, as they were driving on their wedding trip. Chris stopped to pick up a hitchhiking sailor, and instead of dropping him off a few miles down the road he invited him to dinner and drove eighty-four miles out of the way to drop him at his home. Of course they had to go in and and drink coffee at the kitchen table for several hours while the sailor's mother talked endlessly about what a fine boy she had. And that was only the beginning, because that's just the way Chris was.

Guides and elevator boys and bankers and restaurant owners and hardware salesmen flocked around Chris. There was one insurance salesman who had called one evening and had stayed as a house guest for two days.

And six month into it Jean is beginning to feel the wear on her. The house is a mess from last night's guest, as it always was, and she is fatigued from being up so late. "If she could have just a few days of rest, without people..." So she does something she has never done before, she calls up Chris at work and tells him a lie. She instructs him not to come home for lunch that day, as she is meeting an old school friend. The wisdom of her move is immediately apparent, as a disappointed Chris tells her that he had met his own old friend, his college roommate, and wanted to bring him along for lunch. Jean tells Chris to buy him lunch in town and immediately begins enjoying her day to herself: a nice hot bath and a nap. But she sleeps so soundly that she is startled to find Chris shaking her awake. And sure enough, his college roommate has been dragged along, for dinner and probably another late night…

“Love, Inc.” (which MacDonald originally titled “Popularity Contest”) is a slight tale, a typical example of the kind of fiction that was appearing in women's magazines of the time. The author tackles a marital problem, but one not serious enough to cause anything more than moderate unhappiness on the part of one spouse, who realizes that this is the way things are going to be. MacDonald wraps it up with a bit of a surprise and a happy ending, nothing too weighty or disturbing. It’s similar to his first Cosmopolitan sale “Pickup” and to one he would write a few years later for This Week, “She Tried to Make Her Man Behave,” both featuring oddball husbands and the wives that have to put up with them. MacDonald would mature into a better writer, not only stylistically but in the subject matter he dealt with., just as the magazines he wrote for would do the same. Compare the “dysfunctional” marriages in any of these three early stories with that of, say, 1955’s “The Bear Trap” to see how far he had come in a very short period of time.

All but forgotten today, Today’s Woman was a fairly popular magazine of its time. It was published by Fawcett, which also published Cavalier and was, of course, the publisher of the Gold Medal series of paperback originals where MacDonald began his career as a novelist in 1950. Begun in 1945. Today’s Woman lasted nearly ten years and, by the time “Love, Inc.” was published, boasted a circulation of one million issues a month. The magazine was geared to younger women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, which explains the protagonists of the two stories MacDonald had published there. (See my piece on the other story, “Mr. Killer.”) It leaned heavily toward fiction over nonfiction, although it featured both, and at the height of its popularity was receiving over ten thousand unsolicited stories a year from freelance writers. (That seems like a lot until you learn that The Saturday Evening Post was receiving between sixty and a hundred thousand a year!) The magazine’s popularity began to wane in the fifties and gave up the ghost in 1954. Now it lives only on ebay, when a few odd issues are put up for auction now and then.

“Love, Inc.” has never been reprinted, as far as I can tell.