Archive for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine

Florida Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2021 by dcairns

I first read John D. MacDonald’s stuff in short story form in the pages of those neat paperbacks “edited” by Alfred Hitchcock, culled from his Mystery Magazine (I’d love it if such publications were widespread and cheap today). He wrote great little minimalist Marlowe knock-offs. Now I’ve started on his Travis McGee novels, of which there are plenty. They’re all very short, very snappy, very loosely plotted (MacDonald seems to embody the same traits Donald Westlake found in Jim Thompson: his novels, Westlake said, have moments when you sense he needed to go back and fix something to make it all come out right, but he didn’t have time. The first four McGees came out in 1964, and MacDonald was writing other stuff too).

I only realised later that MacDonald also wrote The Executioners, which became CAPE FEAR, twice.

All the McGee novels have colour-coded titles, many of them absurd: Bright Orange for the Shroud features a villain transparently a version of CAPE FEAR’s Max Cady, ported in, renamed, and described as having a Robert Mitchum quality.

McGee is a beach bum who lives on a houseboat won in a card game, and specialises in “salvage” — getting things back for people who’ve been robbed. His fee is half of whatever it is. It’s a clever variant on the private eye set-up, and an added wrinkle is that often the victim/client has been robbed in a way that’s basically legal, and McGee extracts reparations in a way that isn’t.

Given the Floridian setting I was on the alert for signs of wingnut tendencies in the author and his character. McGee is a self-aware white knight, an anachronistic romantic, and that probably chimes nicely with how right-wingers see themselves. Lefties of the modern era are perhaps less likely to see themselves as romantic heroes. In fact, MacD and McGee sometimes speak, with their one voice, about the harm done to Florida by crazy rightwingers, but on the other hand there’s an unpleasant vein of homophobia that surfaces only occasionally but enough to creep me out. And he one time refers to “the war between the states” which is a big red flag (with a blue X and white stars).

This bigotry dates the books more than any other aspect — the attitude to women isn’t too far off-base, racial questions are curiously absent so far (itself a faint warning sign?). McGee usually gets laid at least once, but he’s nearly always in love with the girl; some contrivance will prevent him “getting” her in a permanent way at the novel’s end. And he unfailingly gets horribly injured once per book. There’s a format, but the variations MacDonald executes are impressive.

Another amusing aspect is most apparent in Nightmare in Pink: MacDonald was writing science-fiction stories for the pulps, like Westlake, at the same time as his early thrillers, and the SF bent of his mind comes through in unexpected places. In this one, McGee, in New York to help a friend’s sister, finds himself musing on the city and his thoughts are more those of a science-fictioneer than of a “salvage specialist” — he regards the hostility New York’s citizenry and speculates that “New York is where it is going to begin, I think,” running a scenario in his head that plays like a zombie apocalypse fuelled by anomie. Relaxing in his soulless modern hotel room he imagines the room piping happiness directly into the guests’ brains in the not-so-distant future. Best of all is this bit about poodles:

“You could almost hear the dogs sigh as they reached the handiest pole. There was a preponderance of poodles.

“This is the most desperate breed there is. They are just a little too bright for the servile role of dogdom. So their loneliness is a little too excruciating, their welcomes more frantic, their desire to please a little more intense. They seem to think that if they could just do everything right, they wouldn’t have to be locked up in the silence — pacing, sleeping, brooding, enduring the swollen bladder. That’s what they try to talk about. One day there will appear a super-poodle, one almost as bright as the most stupid alley cat, and he will figure it out. He will suddenly realize that his loneliness is merely a by-product of his being used to ease the loneliness of his Owner. He’ll tell the others. He’ll leave messages. And some dark night they’ll all start chewing throats.”

Nightmare in Pink‘s plot hinges on psychiatric abuses involving LSD, and this was written in 1964 (the year Trav first appeared in print), which suggests MacDonald was pretty switched on. His anxiety about social change, undoubtedly tinged with conservatism, also seems genuinely alert — The Quick RedFox, which was the first TM I read, plays like countercultural 1968, but was published in ’66.

If you’re looking for 270-page potboilers, I recommend John and Travis. I haven’t seen the TV movie with Sam Elliott but the feature film with Rod Taylor, DARKER THAN AMBER, is impressively vicious, although it does FEEL like an installment in something, rather than a standalone film. Which is a drawback, and probably what stopped it becoming a bigger hit, and thus a series. Perhaps they should have started with the first book. James Bond is the only movie franchise to get away with starting on the wrong book, isn’t it?

Everything Else

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2018 by dcairns

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.