Monday, March 19, 2018


Startling Stories was one of a handful of the great science fiction periodicals of the last century. Begun in January 1939 by Better Publications it ran until 1955 and published 99 unique issues, most all of them featuring “a complete novel” (read: novella) along with four or five standard-length short stories -- this at a time (the late 1930’s) when virtually no science fiction was being published in book form. From 1939 to 1943 the magazine was published as a bi-monthly, then, until 1946, as a quarterly, then back to a bi-monthly until 1952 when it went monthly. It finished out its run as, again, a quarterly.

The early years saw Startling Stories veer decidedly toward the juvenile segment of the reading audience and much of the content was of the “space opera” variety -- “rocketships, ray guns, and bug-eyed monsters,” as author Lee Server put it. Then in late 1945 editor Sam Merwin took over the editorial duties and gradually turned Startling Stories into a first-class science fiction magazine. Before he arrived, however, another long-standing relationship had begun, this time between the pulp and artist Earle Bergey. Perhaps more than any other person it is he who is most closely associated with Startling Stories, producing some of the most… well “startling” artwork for covers ever seen in pulps outside of Norman Saunders in the mystery pulps. His covers were summed up well by Malcolm J Edwards in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia: “The characteristic Bergey cover showed a rugged hero, a desperate heroine (either clad in a metallic bikini or in a dangerous state of déshabille) and a hideous alien menace.” But Bergey’s work contained graceful lines, perfect composition, beautifully rendered faces, eye-popping color and an overall mise-en-scène that, while not unique, was certainly as good or better than any of his contemporaries.

John D MacDonald wrote eight science fiction stories that appeared in Startling Stories, including the novella “Wine of the Dreamers” that went on to become one of his earliest novels. His first entry was the oddly-titled “Shenadun,” which was published in the September 1948 issue and was written when he was living in Clinton, New York, just before the family relocated to Mexico. It’s fairly standard science fiction and only-average JDM, running 7,200 words and published with MacDonald’s original title (which was pretty unusual in the pulps, but not in Startling: all eight of his stories appeared with his original titles intact). It is marked by some fairly unusual writing and characterization: in fact, when I began reading this I was convinced that it was the work of another author.

The protagonist of the tale is a Brit, so perhaps MacDonald’s odd, flowery, sometimes-archaic language is a product of that, the author attempting a style that was not really his own. He’s Gowan Mitchell, a 39-year old mountain climber, independently wealthy (thanks to an inheritance) and conqueror of many a tall peak. As the story opens he is high up the slope of Shenadun, a fictional mountain in the Himalayas, “sister of Everest.” This is his second attempt: the year before he had tried and failed, breaking his shoulder in the attempt. But now he is nearly at the top, his American climbing partner thirty feet below him.

As, buffeted by the wind, he threaded the rope through the eye of the piton, he thought of other tears and other mountains. Peaks in the Swiss Alps, the Canadian Rockies. But those had been tears of joy, tears to express the deep, throbbing emotion that had always filled him when he stood, alone and free on the tip of a mountain. The first hill, for it was but a hill, he had climbed had been in Scotland when he was twelve, twenty-seven years ago. That had been the beginning of the disease...

Shenadun! Stranger than Everest, stronger in the superstition of those who lived in the tropical valleys and watched the big bitter shoulders of the Himalayas!

... The conquest of Shenadun will give me immortality among those who climb, [he thought]... But he knew that he would continue to climb until at last he died. There could be nothing for him in the cities of men. His mind and his heart would always be fixed on the high places. The cities of men were drab small places, overrun with life. For him there could be only the clean cruel wind of the ceiling of the world, the aching slow progress up a chimney of rock, the clink of an ice axe, the thunder of the avalanche.

But as he nears the peak his partner slips and falls to his death, leaving Mitchell alone facing certain death, for there are sections of his descent that he cannot possible traverse by himself. He ascends to the summit, certain that he will reach his goal and die there.

The summit of Shenadun is an even, circular area around 200 feet in diameter. Mitchell plants his flag, buries a cylinder containing his name and the name of his dead companion, and readies himself to die, there in the freezing, blowing winds, without any equipment other than his ax and his oxygen. But as he walks around he notices a crack in the floor of the summit, with an icicle-like stalactite leading down into the unseen depths, with faintly warm air emerging from it. He uses his ax to make the hole large enough for him to fit and proceeds into the darkness.

Unable to see, he lights a match and faintly observes that he is in a cylindrical room with metal walls.

Oxygen starvation was making his mind giddy and foolish. He laughed aloud. It was absurd! He, Gowan Mitchell was the first to climb Shenadun! This was a mirage. No one could have been here before him, burying metal monstrosities in the ice.

Eventually he finds another hole in the metal wall which leads to a large area with a gently sloping ramp. Unable to see he slowly descends into whatever it is he has entered, and walks, and walks, and walks, for what seems like days. Eventually he reaches an enormous room with lights and… coffins?

Side by side, in two parallel rows, with a wide aisle between them, were huge, coffinlike objects. To steady his reeling brain he counted them. Exactly thirty... Up to the level of his eyes, they were intricate with odd dials, tubes, wiring, marked with symbols similar to those on the handles of the levers in the small room halfway to the top of the mountain. Above eye-level were the rounded, transparent tops.

And inside the bulbous tops were stretched the figures of men and women. But they were men and women such as he had never seen before. The fact that each was lying down made height difficult to estimate. It seemed that they were fifteen feet tall, each of them. Tall and blonde and dead…

There’s little mystery as to why “Shenadun” was left out of MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. It’s wordy, overly-long and, as I mentioned above, written in a style more reminiscent of pulp writing of the early twentieth century rather than that of the postwar period. (It has to hold the record for the number of exclamation marks in any JDM work.) The science fiction in the last third of the story is interesting, if not original, and MacDonald’s attention to the detail of mountain climbing is expert, as usual. In fact, the first third of this story could have easily fit into an issue of Fifteen Sports Stories.

The word “Shenadun” seems to have been made up out of whole cloth by the author. I can find no other use of it in a Google search, outside of its later-day adoption for a character in a video game. Perhaps it was his corruption of a Hindi word he picked up while stationed in India during the war.

The story was never reprinted or anthologized, although a quick web search will pick up multiple instances of scanned and transcribed versions of the story available to read for free.


  1. I've always had a soft spot for this one, in no small part because it was one of the first actual pulps I ever owned, and I think the very first JDM story I ever found in a pulp. It also has a trait common to much of JDM's science fiction... it doesn't read like most of the SF of the era. So even lesser JDM stands out from the crowd in this magazine, even if it doesn't stand out relative to other JDM stories.

    Also, welcome back to blogging! I just now figured out you had started posting again.

    1. Thanks Eric, it's great to hear from you again.