Thursday, July 19, 2018

Harlan Ellison and John D. MacDonald - Gool Old Fashioned Stories

They put the plate in the back of my head and silver pins in the right thighbone. The arms were in traction longer than the legs. The eye, of course, was something they couldn't fix. - Miranda by John D. MacDonald, October 1950, 15 Mystery Stories

Fawcett Gold Medal July 1984
 It hasn't seem like so long ago since my last post but, yeah, it's been a while. I've been out in the world doing that full time gig of copying and pasting spreadsheets that they pay me to do, neglecting the stuff I love doing, like reading these terrific old books and sharing them with you. Last month I took a trip to Wisconsin and brought along a couple of short story collections by writers I really admire: John D. MacDonald and Harlan Ellison. Sadly, we lost Ellison in June. For me, when I hear that I writer I admire has passed, it's like when others hear a favorite rock star, or movie star has died. I never had the opportunity to meet Ellison in person. I probably would have been too intimidated to approach him, if I did. He was that kind of guy. But I love his books, I love his stories, and mostly I love how he always stood up for integrity and respect for "the writer" in this ambivalent world. 

John D. MacDonald is another writer whose passing I remember back in 1986. I grew up in the gulf coast of Florida and had read many of MacDonald's stories set in my home state. I'd read all of the McGee novels up to the point I finished high school, and was discovering his terrific standalone novels along the way. Dead Low Tide was the first of his non-McGee novels I'd read and remains a treasured favorite of mine. Again, another writer I never got to meet in person.

Now, I try to make it a point to go see writers whose work I enjoy when they come to town to promote their books. I let them know that their books are important to me. Too many leave us and I'll say to someone I know, "Did you hear [insert name] died today?" and am often met with a blank look in response and a "Who was that?" It's a drag.

Anyway, back to the books. The Good Old Stuff, published way back in 1982 is a collection of John D. MacDonald's "lost" pulp stories, compiled by Martin H. Greenberg and Francis M. Nevins, Jr. They presented MacDonald with several dozens of stories they felt deserving of finding a new audience. MacDonald then whittled the selection down to about 30 stories he deemed worthy of reprinting and gave his blessing to go forth. In the process, he did something that he admits, in his introduction, many fans might not appreciate. He "updated" several of the stories to make their settings as contemporary as possible. As for me, I would have preferred they remained as originally published in those crumbling pulps. Regardless, they're still crackling good yarns. Good and bad are fully delineated in these stories, and yes, the hero, always wins. But we get some awesome bad guys in the process. And as always, MacDonald's seemingly effortless prose sweeping you along for the action.  "She was a plump blond and she lay dead in the trail on her back. There were streaks of drying mud on the right sleeve of her yellow sweater. There was more mud on her freckled right arm. Death had flattened her body to the ground. Her tweed skirt was pushed halfway up between knee and hip. Her heels rested in the mud and her brown sandals toed in." - Murder in Mind, Mystery Book Magazine, 1949. A year later MacDonald published the remaining collected pulp stories in a second volume named More Good Old Stuff. And yes, it is just as great as the first collection.

They were worshipers at a black mass the city had demanded be staged; not once, but a thousand times a day in this insane asylum of steel and stone. - The Whimper of Whipped Dogs, by Harlan Ellison.

Pyramid Books, 1975, Cover by Leo and Diane Dillon
 Ellison's collection No Doors, No Windows, from 1975 is a real treat for me. Instead of a collection of "Science Fiction" (a term Ellison didn't appreciate in the least, as he makes clear in his introduction to this book) we have a collection of Ellison crime stories from pulps like Manhunt and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, and "men's magazines" like Adam Bedside Reader and Mantrap. These stories are a blast. If you're a fan of shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", you'll totally dig the stories presented here. Like MacDonald, Ellison also did some "editorial cleanup" on some of the stories within the collection. As an added bonus, you get Ellison's wonderful introduction, clocking in longer than any of the stories that follow it. You'll get his aversion to labeling writers the way publishers and booksellers must do, among other things. Always entertaining and enlightening. The collection kicks off with my favorite one in the book, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs", which also appeared in his collection Deathbird Stories. I have that one, and another collection of Ellison's early crime stories called The Deadly Streets.

Griff could hear Ivy's husband moving toward him in the darkness. Only the faintest sound of gravel betrayed his movements. Down here, deep in the gut of the Earth, it was another world. A world in which Kenneth Cory knew well as a geologist. A world in which Kenneth Cory was at a disadvantage. That was why Ivy and Griff had lured him down here. To kill him. - Down in the Dark, by Harlan Ellison as Ellis Hart.

What can I say. These guys were pros. They didn't bullshit around when it came to producing terrific stories. They put their asses to their seats and pounded them out. You should find their books and dig them for yourself.