Monday, December 28, 2015

"No Grave Has My Love"

The history of the pulp fiction magazine is primarily a history of the American pulp fiction magazine, a singular invention that took place and flourished in the United States in the late 19th century on into the Twentieth. But as with many things uniquely American, it was not and had antecedents in Europe going as far back as 17th century in the form of pamphlet fiction. During the heyday of the American pulp, countries such as Britain and Germany had their own pulp titles with their own pulp heroes, and many of these magazines published works by writers who would one day become household names. Britain had its The Story Teller, Hutchinson's Adventure-Story and Hutchinson's Mystery-Story. Germany its U-Boot Abenteuer and Der Detektiv, whose hero Harald Harst was killed off after his author and publisher refused to turn him into a Nazi.

But these examples, as with scores of others in different countries, were parochial affairs, titles that never crossed the borders of the countries from which they originated. The American pulps, on the other hand, like American culture in general, found huge audiences in other countries and the publishers of these magazines were only too happy to oblige by selling reprint rights to overseas concerns. Almost every big American pulp title had a version published in either Canada or the UK (or both) and these issues were not necessarily carbon copies of the US originals. As pulp magazines slowly died in the postwar era and many US titles began including reprints in their new issues (almost a sure sign of imminent death), so too did the overseas versions of these magazines look to other sources for their copy.

A case in point is the British version of that singular detective pulp, Black Mask. The first edition of the UK version appeared in June 1923, three years after the magazine’s birth in America, and it was nearly an exact copy of the American issue of June 15th (one additional story from a previous edition was included). The magazine was actually printed in the United States and shipped to England for sale there. This was the business plan for nearly two decades, and it seems that no issue ever included material that originated the UK (a few stories cannot be traced, so it remains a possibility). In 1939, due to England’s entry in the war, the magazine began being printed in London, and the copy began changing as well. The number of stories reprinted from the American edition dropped to only four or five and the number of pages was reduced as well. Toward the end of the war the magazine began including stories from other American pulps, mainly Dime Detective, and usually only one story per issue. Then, with the July 1950 issue, the UK version began relying more and more on reprints from other American detective magazines, mainly Dime Detective, but also Detective Tales and Detective Fiction.

John D MacDonald had scores of his pulp stories reprinted in British versions of the American magazines. His first appearance in the UK version of Black Mask was a reprint of his “Murder in One Syllable” which was originally published in the May 1949 edition of the American version. The second time his name showed up in the table of contents was in the August 1950 issue, where his novella “No Grave Has My Love” was the featured entry. And like the other stories in this particular UK edition, all of the titles originally appeared in the December 1948 issue of Dime Detective. The UK version even used the original cover art from the American magazine (a practice they continued).

“No Grave Has My Love” is a story bordering on the fantastic, with an aspect of the plot that could nearly be called science fiction, but it’s only used to justify a plot requirement late in the story. The setting is the Meadowbrook Retreat, a private institution for the treatment of the insane, located in the green, bucolic hills south of the city of Benton (most likely a stand-in for Utica, New York). It's a prestigious medical facility, employing some of the finest doctors in the world, and a staff far more skillful than those employed by public institutions. The most skilled of these physicians is Dr. Andre Spence, a brain surgeon who has developed techniques used to treat the insane that are practiced nowhere else. We meet Dr. Spence as the story opens, and it's clear from MacDonald's description of him that he is not the story's protagonist.

The bones of his face were prominent. High, sharp cheekbones, a beaked, high-bridged nose, a lean, hard jaw, thin lips. He seemed not to find it necessary to blink as often as most people, and when he did so, his eyelids moved with exceptional slowness. In three days he would be forty-six. Since he managed to give an enigmatic and ageless impression, he knew that behind his back attendants called him "the lizard."

Spense is shaving as these observations are made, while in the bedroom outside his wife is dying. She is a “mountainous” woman, a dim bulb that Spence married for money many years ago. She has suffered his numerous dalliances with nurses over the years and theirs is a deeply loveless marriage. When Spense diagnosed a heart condition due to her excessive weight, he contrived a means to kill her without drawing any suspicion. He has substituted cold tea in the ampules that were supposed to contain morphine, and a Meadowbrook nurse attending the woman is unknowingly administering the useless concoction.

The nurse, one Marianne Parnal, is also the latest object of Spence’s affections, although his feelings for her are not of the normal lust variety -- he wants to marry her and that is why he has finally decided on killing his wife. And why not? Marianne is the MacDonald paragon:

With the air of a new proprietor inspecting his property, Andre Spence looked on the face of his beloved. She was quite tall, just an inch shorter than Spence, and the tawny lush hair, red-gold and shimmering, seemed to be trying to escape from the severe coiffure. Her head was tilted to one side. He knew that behind the closed lids, her eyes were the changing blue of the sky, seeming to deepen in shade under emotional stress. Even under the uncompromising starch
of the nurse's uniform, he could see the ripe, warm lines of her body, and his need for her was an ache that hurt his chest and made it impossible for him to draw a deep breath. He, Andre Spence, would renew himself in the warmth and purity of her youth. She was love and laughter and a promise of unnamed delights.

Dr. Spence’s medical skills are only part of his repertory. He is skilled at manipulating people, at digging into their psyches and discovering the easiest way to get them to become his worshipful subjects. And once the deathwatch is over with and Mrs. Spence is gone, we see Marianne cleaning up, the narrative voice changes and we realize just how successfully Spence had done his job. MacDonald here sounds like he is channeling a character from one of the Love pulps.

It made her proud and happy to think that she could help, in any small way, a man like Andre Spence... She knew how he worked, how he drove himself. She tossed her head in anger as she thought of the snide remarks she had heard about the private life of Dr. Spence. It was certainly not Andre's fault that a nurse had hung herself from a tree limb a few months before Marianne had reported. They tried to make it sound as though it were Andre's fault Probably the silly girl had fallen in love with him and could not accept the fact that Andre had no time for her.

Could a man like Andre ever learn to love a girl like -- She tried to laugh. She was acting like a schoolgirl. Besides, she was being wicked. Only a hour before the hearse had come for Myra Spence's body.

And yet... And yet... She wondered if she was falling in love with Andre. I'm being a schoolgirl again, she thought. Goodness, he's twenty-three years older than I!... She drifted into a daydream wherein she told Andre that he really should get away for a rest. He then looked at her with those odd dark eyes and said softly that he would consider it only if she were to come with him, as his wife.

Which is, of course, exactly what happens next, much to the consternation of a local Benton psychiatrist named Ralph Bettinger, introduced as “Young Dr. Bettinger,” and here we meet the real JDM hero. Bettinger, once a promising young surgeon whose career was cut short by a piece of shrapnel during the war, has referred several of his patients to Meadowbrook and it was here that he met Marianne Parnal. The two of them have dated, and it is clear that Bettinger’s feeling for Marianne are much stronger than hers for him. Naturally Bettinger hates Spence and suspects him of killing his wife, but he can’t convince the head of the hospital of that.

There is a mix-up with some of the unused ampules, Marianne unwittingly tries to help Spence return them to the dispensary, and begins to become suspicious after witnessing Spence’s strange reaction to her offer. Eventually she becomes deeply suspicious of his guilt, but the all-knowing Spence realizes this and decides he has to put a stop to it. He could murder her, but that would leave him without the young body he so craves, and he then comes up with a solution that only he can bring about: a  lobectomy, a procedure he himself developed that will rid Marianne of the memory of the murder but keep her alive and willing....

Of course MacDonald had used this radical medical procedure before and would use it again. It first appeared in his early thriller “The Scarred Hand” (November 1946) and would be used again, in his February 1950 science fiction tale “Spectator Sport,” and most notably in the second Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink. Indeed, the Dr. Varn of that novel bears a close resemblance to Andre Spence, and Baynard Mulligan’s description of the results of the operation give a better illustration as to the depth to which Spence is willing to go to preserve his “love.”

"It's a minor surgery. It used to be used frequently in cases of acute anxiety, but it has been discredited these past few years. I can only give you my layman's idea of it, of course. Varn used to do a lot of them. They go in at the temples, I believe, with a long thin scalpel and stir up the frontal lobes. It breaks the old behavior patterns in the brain. With a normal adult it has very specific effects. It will drop your intelligence quotient about forty points, permanently. It will make you incontinent at first. They'll shift you over to one of the regular rooms for special care-toilet training, dressing and feeding yourself, that sort of thing. You will have a short attention span, but you will be able to make a living doing some kind of routine task under supervision. It does cure all repressions and inhibitions, McGee. You will become a very friendly earthy fellow. Very strong but quite casual sex impulses. You will eat well and sleep well, and you will have no tendency to fret or worry about anything. If somebody annoys you, you may react a little too violently, but other than that you should have no trouble with society. It will be a pleasant life, believe me… “Most important of all, McGee, you will have just small disorganized memories of all this, and no urge to do anything about anything you do happen to remember clearly."
Talk about a Stepford wife!

Ultimately, “No Grave Has My Love” promises more than it delivers. Its outrĂ© plot isn’t helped by its unrealistic characters, whose actions seemed shoehorned into the plot in order to make it head in the direction of MacDonald’s ending. The treatment of Marianne Parnal is especially sloppy, making her almost childlike in her admiration for Spence, yet asking the reader to give a damn about her outcome. I will say that the ending of this story surprised me, an ultimately unhappy one made glib by Spence’s special procedure. To find out more you’ll have to read the story.

The British version of Black Mask continued until its November 1953 issue, lasting over two years past the death of the American title. Of course, by then the magazine was reprinting stories from other pulps, primarily Dime Detective and Detective Tales. Twelve of MacDonald’s stories were reprinted in the UK version, including “Five Star Fugitive” and “Trap for a Tigress.” Unfortunately it seems as if the UK reprint of “No Grave Has My Love” was the last appearance of the story.


  1. The pulp artist Raphael Desoto once told me that covers with skeletons and pretty girls sold the most copies. This cover uses both and is really eye catching.

    1. Agreed, Walker, but needless to say, there is no such scene in the story.

    2. Plus, that cover will resonate in my subconscious awhile now. Never felt comfortable in hospitals anyway.

      But Desoto was onto something. A survey for one of the newspapers I worked for found that pretty girls and cats sold the most papers.