Thursday, 25 October 2007

A Nasty Case Of The Vapours

From the BBC website. Why heroines die in classic fiction: a preview of A Nasty Case Of The Vapours, which is on Radio 4 tonight (Thursday, 25 October) at 11.30am on Radio 4. The programme delves into literary forensics: what was wrong with Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, Cathy in Wuthering Heights and the Lady Dedlock in Bleak House? The presenter, Vivienne Parry, asks a number of historical-medical experts about the possibilities: TB, typhus, suicide, and so on. You can listen to the programme by clicking here (launches BBC Radio player).
      I'm pleased to see one of the experts quoted is Professor John Sutherland, Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London. Sutherland has been described as "a sort of Sherlock Holmes of literature" for his astute analyses of obscure topics in fiction. Sometimes he explains obscure references and historical details; sometimes he attempts to find contemporary explanations for authors' mistakes, inconsistencies or anachronisms. For a taster of his methods, see Puzzles, Enigmas and Mysteries in the English Novel: Real Approaches to Fictional Universes (PDF), Sutherland's 1998 Adam Helsm lectue on the topic.
      For example, Charles Dickens appears to have shared a general early-Victorian lack of knowledge about swimming, or he would have known the unlikeliness of Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations, a middle-aged heavy smoker laden down with a legiron, managing to swim several hundred yards in the Thames in winter. (Compare with the modern "50:50:50 rule" for hypothermia onset: the average adult has a 50-50 chance of swimming 50 yards in water at 50 degrees). In the same novel, Sutherland argues, we simply have to assume plot expediency for some details, such as the older Magwitch being under threat of death sentence in a story set some years after the real-world abolition of the death penalty for returning transportees, and Pip (simply because he's the hero of the book) receiving no legal comeback for aiding an escaping criminal.
      With yet other examples, Sutherland attempts to find internal explanations to make a coherent story incorporating such problems, such as finding a far darker story of incest beneath the surface detail of Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

A sampler of the titles:
*Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (Great puzzles in 19th century literature: Why does Dracula come to England? How does Frankenstein make his monsters? Why does Jane Austen describe apple blossom in June? etc).
*Can Jane Eyre be Happy? (32 more literary puzzles: Why does Robinson Crusoe find only one footprint? Where does Fanny Hill keep her contraceptives? How good a swimmer is Magwitch? etc)
*Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (Further puzzles in 19th century literature: Victorian drug habits, railway systems, sanitation, and dentistry).
*Where was Rebecca Shot? (Puzzles, curiosities and conundrums in modern fiction: Trainspotting, Rambo's knife, Piggy's (non)burning glasses, cyberspace, Inspector Morse, A Clockwork Orange, and John Grisham's 1990s The Firm that strangely has no personal computers).
* Henry V, War Criminal? (and other Shakespeare puzzles, co-written with Cedric Watts and Stephen Orgel: Is it summer or winter in Elsinore? Do Titania and Bottom make love? Is Hamlet's father's ghost stupid? etc).
      Sutherland's articles are always worth reading: see the John Sutherland page at the Guardian for an ongoing selection.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Pet Semetary

Nothing to do with the Stephen King book, but a bit of purely local interest: today I visited the pet cemetery (largely a dog cemetery) on the Haldon Hills, near Exeter. It's mentioned in Chips Barber's book Around & About the Haldon Hills as being at grid ref SX877857 (that is, here on Google Maps). The closest landmark is Haldon Belvedere (aka Lawrence Castle), a prominent white folly at the northern end of the Haldons. It's just a few hundred yards from the road junction called Haldon Gate at the foot of the drive from the house. From the junction, follow the southward road signposted Chudleigh uphill through the woods towards Buller's Hill. At the top of this slope it bends sharply to the left; at this bend, on the left, is a small overgrown quarry with the cemetery in the woods adjacent.

The site is completely unofficial. There must at least 100 graves there; those with legible inscriptions all date from the 1980s and 1990s. The memorials vary from simple piled flints with homemade crosses to elaborate ones with brick borders and headstones. A lot of the accoutrements come from garden centres, but there are poignant personal touches: hand-painted signs showing a deal of work, and what appears to be dog's favourite shoe. Not much is known about the cemetery. Chips Barber, writing a couple of decades ago, said the site appeared to be unvisited, with the graves rather the worse for wear. He concluded that the owners must have died or moved away. Nothing much has changed.

A Western Morning News feature on July 3, 2001 reported that it was closed to further burials then by the landowner, the Forestry Commission, due to health concerns about animal disposal (this is a particular issue because the Haldon Forest is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its fauna). Currently the cemetery is surrounded by a barbed wire fence with a locked gate, but a sign by the road gives contact details if anyone wants to tend an existing grave. You can, however, see many of the graves from the perimeter.

Addendum: I've put up a gallery of photos here.

- Ray

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Great War Dust Jackets

Lily has updated the shop window to an autumn scheme: a collection of hardbacks notable for their colourful vintage jackets. In connection with that, Alan Hewer kindly provided us with some background about dust jackets, which didn't come into widespread use until the late 1800s. Nowadays, in book-collecting circles, they're viewed as integral to the book, but this wasn't the case prior to the 1950s, making vintage ones rare (and in many cases worth more than the book itself). There's more on this at Alan's website, Great War Dust Jackets, which focuses on his collection of jackets for books about World War I, often with striking cover artwork, published between 1914 and 1939. I've put a link on our main links page too.
      If this topic interests you, there are a number of other good online collections: for instance, the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery collection of Dust Jackets from American and European Books, 1926-1947, Tom Swift Dust Jackets, classic crime fiction jacket artists, and so on - just Google "dust jackets".
      Jackets are even a matter of controversy. Book buyers have to look out for facsimile jackets, often very well-made - but even with real ones, opinion is divided: is it acceptable that the jacket merely match the title and edition, or must it must be with its specific original book? See Dust-jackets: the debate at the Rare Book Society site.

The Clumsiest People in Europe and other slurs

Via Metafilter, I just ran into the works of Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer. A Norfolk-based evangelical children's author who died in 1878, she wrote prolifically about worldwide travel and culture. The only problem was that she had never been further than Brussels, and appears to have disliked nearly everyone and everywhere. Generally, the nearest she gets to liking something is disliking it the least (e.g. "All the religions of China are bad, but of the three the religion of Confucius is the least foolish"). Her details of local colour are essentially accurate, but seen through a filter of Victorian prejudice - with the faint mitigation that she was a product of her time and suffered from depression, which might account for her jaundiced view of the world.

Todd Pruzan reissued some of her work in 2005 as The Clumsiest People in Europe: Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World after finding a copy in a secondhand bookshop. You can read some samplers at 'The Clumsiest People in Europe' and the The rudest travel book ever written.

Addendum: Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer's original books are now online at the Internet Archive. The pertinent ones are:
- Ray

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Mendal Johnson (part 3)

Continued from Mendal Johnson (part 2)


Although I've not read the book myself, Michael Edwards has analysed the connections between Mendal Johnson's Let's Go Play at the Adams' and Steve Vance's 1989 horror novel, The Abyss.

Kevin cites Adams novel
Steve Vance's The Abyss contains various threads, but one major sub-plot concerns a cult that abducts people and, as part of its ritual, forces each prisoner to confess to any terrible acts they have committed in the past.
      A married couple, Kevin and Pamela Durben, are two of the prisoners. When his turn comes, Kevin tells how, 15 years before (when he was 14) he took part in a murder during a holiday spent with a group of friends. The group, three girls and four boys, had begun reading pornography and thrillers to each other, until...
Kevin says: "I don't know who brought the next book - yes, I do, but I won't say, just like I won't say the title of the novel" ...
      "It was a newly published book, and I don't think it enjoyed any real success, though it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. They didn't like it. To us, however, it was a heavenly revelation. It combined the best elements of The Collector and Lord of the Flies, the only good novel we'd ever been forced to read in school. It had an attractive young woman as the captive and the kids in charge. God, this is so... I'm sorry... yes, yes, I'll go on".
      "The book was about a bunch of spoiled rich kids like us who overpower and tie up their live-in babysitter while their parents are away for a week or two. At first, they do it only as a game, so that they and their friends can enjoy freedom from adult rule for the week, even though the girl was only twenty or so. But things progress, as they always do, and they begin to torture the babysitter and then to rape her. Finally, they realize that they can do what they honestly have always wanted to do and kill her. They wanted this from the start, but they didn't recognize it early on in themselves. So they strangle her, shoot a tramp, and blame it all on him. And, of course, they get away with it. That was the most important part - what Leopold and Loeb couldn't manage".
This is a detailed and accurate plot summary of Let's Go Play at the Adams'. Coupled with the later detail (see below) that the victim is called Barbara, there is no doubt that Vance, via Kevin, is referring to Mendal Johnson's novel.
      (Leopold and Loeb, incidentally, refers to the famous 1924 murder case - fictionalised as Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rope - where two rich Chicago students murdered a teenage boy for no apparent motive beyond showing their superiority in being able to get away with it.)
      Kevin then tells how he and his friends abducted and imprisoned a student nurse, Angie Broughton, and ultimately murdered her, each hitting her with a stone to share the responsibility. He tells the cult that they never intended to kill her...
"... in the other novel, the kids really had wanted to kill Barbara from the first, so they did".
... but couldn't let her go for fear she would identify them.

Desperately seeking the author
At the end of The Abyss, Pamela Durben escapes from the cult, minus Kevin.
      Part of the book's Epilogue is Pamela's drug-induced vision where she imagines herself two years after the main action, "on the grey, rainy afternoon of Friday, 17 May, pulling up in a taxi outside a quiet, well-kept house in an unidentified location".
      [Michael Edwards points out that 17th May was a Friday in 1985, 1991, and 1996, the only plausible years. 1991 is a reasonable assumption: two years after the publication of The Abyss].
      In Pamela's vision, she has been tormented by thoughts of the book that supposedly inspired Kevin and his friends to murder Angie, and has sought out the author.
When she could no longer wrestle with the demons of that night and what had happened to her husband and why, she had called the publishing company on impulse to get an address for the author of that cursed book, and ... received an almost immediate reply.
      It was not a recent address, as the publishing company's last contact with the man had been 16 years before, but it was enough of a start ... Naturally, she had wondered why the man hadn't published anything other than that single novel, but she liked to think that what he had done in that single novel had somehow come back to haunt him ...
      The woman who answered seemed to be about 60. She was small, no more than five-foot three, and a touch overweight, as if she, too, had about ten pounds that she continually promised to lose. Her hair was fine, black, and pulled rather severely back by ornate combs. Her eyes were brown and lively ...
Pamela was ushered inside the warm and neat home ... calling the woman Emily (by request) before she could get around to the purpose of her visit ... "Actually, Emily, I've come to see your husband ... Martin ... I want to talk to him about something he wrote that ruined my husband's life and almost destroyed mine."
Then, in tears, Pamela tells Emily the story.
... Pamela said, "I know that Martin is not legally or even morally responsible for what happened. I also have to come to the conclusion that making an author responsible for his fictional creativity would deprive us of more in the way of freedom of thought than it would provide in safety."
      But these logical arguments can't ease my feelings. I have to see the man who thought that writing this," she produced a worn, well-thumbed copy of the novel that had been found in the ruins of the York home in her husband's effects, "in the name of entertainment justifies what it caused a decent and loving man to do."
      Only then did Emily turn to face her, and the woman's expression was an odd mixture of sadness and relief, for she had just learned a truth that had worried her for many years. "Pamela, Martin didn't write that book to cause pain or suffering for anyone," she said quietly. "It was a novel, nothing more."
      Pamela felt the dam filling again, threatening to burst and sweep her away again. "Let *him* tell me that," she said, more sharply than she had intended.
      "He can't. He died sixteen years ago."...
She crossed the room and sat again close to Pamela. "I won't lie to you. I really don't believe that Martin incited the murder any more than did any of those other books that your husband's group read, because though writers can help a person to... to recognize himself, they never create what isn't already there. The man who went on to other murders - Wesley, was it? His personality would have driven him to that had he never heard anything worse than the Bible. But I'll tell you what I *do* believe. I think that you've helped yourself greatly just coming here and telling me this."
      "It doesn't feel that way."
      "Not now, perhaps, but it will. Give yourself time. And you have eased a burden that I've lived with for a long time, too."
Emily then brings out from a drawer a packet of photocopies relating to Angie Broughton's murder.
"We received them in a packet in December, after the girl's body had been identified in November.
      Martin had taken sick three months before, though he seemed to be improving, and he had great hopes that he would fight his way through it. After he saw these, something went out of him. He died the next February."
      [The article] described the discovery of the identity of 19-year-old Angela Leona Broughton, whose body had been found a month earlier in an Ohio forest, and it went into detail concerning the various, unthinkable tortures that she had been subjected to before being beaten to death by a heavy rock found at the site.
      Atop the article and about its margins were the words, "You made me do this!" written again and again in the much younger but still recognizable hand of Kevin Durben. The second sheet consisted of eleven snapshots taken of the girl while she was bound but before she had been wrapped in the tape. There was no doubt as to their authenticity.
      "So, you see," Emily continued, "you had your revenge anyway. I'm certain that knowing that this had taken place contributed to Martin's death, and, just like Kevin, he had his nightmares before the end came. He even mentioned Angie once or twice."
So, in summary, we have a reference to a book that is undoubtedly Let's Go Play at the Adams', written - at least within Pamela's vision - by a 'Martin' who had a wife called 'Emily' (same initials as Mendal and Ellen Johnson). Martin, like Mendal Johnson, wrote this one novel and died in a February shortly after.
      One thing is immediately wrong: Ellen Argo Johnson, unlike the fictional Emily, didn't outlive her husband by 16 years. Mendal Johnson died in 1976; Ellen Argo Johnson died aged 50 in 1983, only seven years after. However, she would have been 58 in 1991, 15 years after his death, so the chronology fits reasonably.
      So what is going on? Why did Steve Vance describe the novel in such identifiable detail? Are these details real; or a fictional background transplanted on to the basics of Johnson's life and work; or somewhere between?

The Explanation
Michael Edwards contacted Steve Vance with these questions, and received the following reply. Vance explains:
"When I first wrote Abyss, it was aimed at the young adult market; the editors wanted it to be bit longer and with a more adult slant. I had read Adams' in the late Eighties after finding a copy in a used bookstore and had been infuriated by the fact that Barbara had been killed and the kids had gotten away scot free, so I grafted in the Durbens and "got my revenge", so to speak."
      "Upon first reading Adams', I attempted to locate Johnson to vent my spleen. The most information that I could come up with was in Contemporary Authors, and it was his obituary, unfortunately. No cause of death was given (the material I included about the "real" kids mimicking the taking and killing of Barbara and then letting Johnson know what they'd done was all invention, my own mean-spirited way of getting back at a dead man). I decided to write to his widow, writer Ellen Argo, only to discover that she had since died, as well.
      "When I decided to weave my reactions to Adams' into The Abyss, I wasn't really sure what the legal ramifications might be, thus the heavy veiling of the original source and the change of "Mendal" to "Martin". The Collector and Lord of the Flies were well-known enough to be included undisguised.
      "I periodically have strong emotional reactions to books or movies that don't treat their more innocent characters as they should (according to me) or end badly (again, according to me), and I frequently try to set things aright in my own work."
My thanks to Steve Vance for his permission to quote his correspondence and the relevant sections of The Abyss.

Michael Edwards Detailed LGPATA, Game's End and Abyss commentaries.

- Ray

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Mendal Johnson (part 2)

Continued from Mendal Johnson (part 1)


Çocuk Oyunu (Turkish edition)
"The author is dead" is the dictum of post-modern literary criticism: that is, fiction is entirely what you read into it, and it is unwise to try to interpret it as a reflection of real events or the supposed psychology and circumstances of the writer. Nevertheless, many novels are demonstrably based on real events and autobiographical elements (the latter is especially true of literary first novels).
      In the case of Let's Go Play at the Adams', the author is literally dead, and unable to confirm or deny any such interpretations. But I find some possible connections between reality and Johnson's fiction striking enough to be worth outlining. I may be mistaken - this is just a personal view. But the fact that Let's Go Play at the Adams' is so open to different levels of interpretation confirms my belief that Johnson was a writer of considerable talent to intertwine these themes and create a novel with such 'deeps'.

The Likens/Baniszewski caseThis, as outlined in the previous posting, was a notorious 1965 murder case in Indianapolis. Gertrude Baniszewski, 38, led a group of teenagers in the imprisonment, escalating abuse, and murder of Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old left in her charge while her parents were away on tour. It's interesting to compare the characters involved.

Likens/Baniszewski case
The victim, Sylvia Likens (16). The convicted perpetrators: Gertrude Baniszewski (38), Paula Baniszewski (15), Johnny Baniszewski (12), Coy Hubbard (15), Richard Hobbs (14).

Let's Go Play at the Adams'
The victim, Barbara (20). The perpetrators: Dianne McVeigh (17), Paul McVeigh (13), John Randall (16), Bobby Adams (12), Cindy Adams (10).

I've been rightly warned of the risk of exaggerating the similarities. The many radical differences between fictional and real cases include: the location, the social class of the defendants, and the characters involved. Baniszewsi's other children and Likens' sister were present in the house. Natty Bumppo of Borf Books (John Dean as was) kindly sent me further information that more children were involved than those convicted - "at least one of the Baniszewski's children, and several neighbours" - and also that Ricky Hobbs was not a friend of the Baniszewski children, but of Gertrude Baniszewski herself.
      However, focusing on those convicted, there are interesting similarities. With the obvious exception of the adult involved in the L/B case, the ages are similar; both sets of perpetrators contain two females and three males; the older female is the ringleader; and both groups contain siblings.
      In LGPATA, Freedom Five torture Barbara with a red-hot iron before finally mõrdering her; Baniszewski's final act before murdering Sylvia Likens was to brand her with a white-hot needle.
      Freedom Five in LGPATA frame an itinerant for Barbara's murder; in the L/B case, the defendants at first attempted to blame Likens' abuse and murder on a gang of boys.
      It may be reading too much into appearances, but photographs of the L/B case defendants show that Gertrude Baniszewski could be described as "bony" or "skinny" (as Johnson describes Dianne, the Freedom Five ringleader); and that Richard Hobbs, who helped Baniszewski brand Likens, wore glasses (like Paul McVeigh, who in LGPATA is prime mover in similarly torturing Barbara).
      There's also an interesting coincidence of phraseology. Johnson's fictional newspaper headline in LGPATA is "Boys avenge baby-sitter's torture slaying in MD."; whereas the title of John Dean's 1966 true crime book about the case is The Indiana Torture Slaying.
      The last point doesn't necessarily mean anything much. A quick web search will demonstrate that "torture slaying" is widespread as USA newspaper jargon for this type of murder (and Johnson's early career was in newspaper journalism). Nevertheless, in conjunction with the other similarities, it could imply that Johnson had read of the case.
      Probably the best Internet account of the L/B case is at the Crime Library. Jack Ketchum's horror novel, The Girl Next Door was based on this case, but he has also said that LGPATA was part of what informed his novel. (See the archive of Philip Nutman's Horror Writers' Halloween Recommendations and Ketchum's comment: "Mendal W. Johnson's LET'S GO PLAY AT THE ADAMS' for anybody who wants to know part of what informed THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and have a damned good read to boot".

Çocuk Oyunu (Turkish edition)
There are a number of connections between Johnson's biographical details and his themes and characters. It scarcely needs noting that the novel presents teenagers and children as unsympathetic and evil (according to relatives, MJ disliked children) but there are further, more specific, connections between MJ and his main characters.
      Johnson had an immediate family member who was "an accomplished pianist, possibly concert", and himself had diverse musical interests. The novel begins with Barbara giving Cindy a piano lesson, the first of several references to Schumann's piano piece, The Happy Farmer. Michael Edwards (also a talented musician) suggests that the style of musical allusions in LGPTA (Barbara's hopes of freedom described as musical metaphor ... "the great A-major majesty of it") implies expert knowledge of the mood effects of different keys experienced by musicians with perfect pitch.
      John Randall is familiar with boats and "casts a sailorly eye" at the weather (MJ was known as "Johnny" and a keen sailor). Dianne McVeigh is tall and skinny, and extremely well-read (MJ was "tall and lanky", with "diverse reading interests"). Paul McVeigh is a severely neurotic boy with steel-rimmed glasses (MJ had "emotional problems" and wore horn-rimmed glasses). And the novel asks "Did she drink too much?" of Cindy Adams in adulthood (MJ suffered from alcoholism).
      At a more general level, Johnson's detailed character descriptions of the ringleaders of Freedom Five, Dianne and John, portray them as well-read, intelligent misfits who dislike others, have a capacity for cruelty, and also dislike themselves. It's hard not to relate this to what is known of Johnson: a clearly intelligent and well-read man, but with a reported tendency to verbal cruelty, and a self-destructive alcohol habit.
      These connections reinforce my feeling that Freedom Five, especially its older members, are not literally children nor even "childish". In my view, they are expressions of the author's own 'dark side'.

Cruz, the Hispanic 'Picker', is an interesting character. Johnson scarcely describes him physically; he is a dim figure portrayed by a few terse lines, his slow calm ironic manner, and how John Randall is scared of him - "they were enemies ... in the Picker, he had seen what men are and boys only hope to be" - and ultimately kills him with a shotgun. Given how tempting it is to identify the boat-loving John with Mendal ("Johnny") Johnson, perhaps Cruz is a description of the father with whom Johnson had "childhood conflicts"? This leads in the direction of a massively Freudian interpretation of the events in LGPATA, especially if (as I suspect) Johnson's mother was the "member of his immediate family" who, like Barbara, played the piano. Then again, the description of Cruz sitting "back solidly against the boards of the tenant house" recalls the rear cover photo of Johnson himself.

One correspondent has pointed out to me that Johnson clearly knew a lot about bondage ("LGPATA includes scenarios and techniques that are staples in bondage pornography, but unknown or glossed over in mainstream fiction and movies") and argued that Johnson even hints at approval for a BDSM lifestyle in the "cryptic reference" to Ted, Barbara's nominal boyfriend.
      At the need of LGPATA, Ted "... wondered what it would have been like to do *that* to her. Simply by having the thought, he changed his own life. He knew himself, and that is a sort of death in itself. He would mave made a good but rather a strange husband for her." I agree that Johnson's implication appears to be that Ted realised he had sadistic tendencies, and that this would have been the 'strange' aspect in his good marriage to Barbara.
         Well, maybe... Authentic detail merely proves that Johnson researched his novel properly (after all, Thomas Harris knows a lot about serial killers, but clearly isn't one!) Even so, as LGPATA includes other autobiographical elements, I'm inclined to wonder if bondage had some personal significance for Johnson. But, I stress, this is on no biographical evidence whatever; perhaps, being a keen sailor, he just knew a lot about knots.

Addendum: Dec 13th 2011 - Mendal Johnson speaks
After all that speculation, I managed to find a newspaper interview in which Johnson discusses his intentions behind the book.
Annapolis novelist interprets his book

For a first-book author, someone just beginning to test the waters of literary endeavor, Mendal W. "Johnny" Johnson is very sure about what he has done, what he plans to do and how he plans to do it.

The author of "Let's Go Play Games at the Adams," [sic] a macabre thriller published last month, is a man who grew up in the newspaper and writing trade but obviously enjoys being on the other side of an interview. A resident of Annapolis since 194? with a love for boating and the sea, the 4? year-old writer set his story in the rural serenity of Maryland's Eastern Shore, a serenity that is quickly shattered by the fast-moving action of his plot. "Games" is a story about -- though hardly for -- children, five children in particular ranging in age from 10 to 17 who chloroform and take captive the captive the 20-year-old babysitter of two of them, perform sexual and mental tortures on the girl and eventually kill her.

It is not a pretty story. For Mr. Johnson, though, "Games" is more than a story. He sees the book as a political allegory with a point that he admits is probably lost on most readers. Barbara, the victimized babysitter, represents the American left, the "dreaming left" who is abused and killed. Adults, who have no part in the action of the plot and never know what happened, are the political right. "And what's left," the author explained, "is the 'great silent American majority' that supposedly runs things in its odd and unpredictable fashion," the American middle that Mr. Johnson thinks of as the "American muddle".

Mr. Johnson chose children to represent middle America "out of purest spite." No one wins in the book: the left gets killed, the right gets duped and the middle, he indicates, the children, will eventually crack as they grow up.
The children all are characterizations of people he grew up with but Barbara was the one who "got to him" in the end. Barbara was never a person," he said. "She was a political image, a totem. But she got to be so real to me that in the end I tried to get out of killing her. "I came close to being a complete alcoholic by the time I finished the book. I couldn't let go of my typewriter, but I didn't want to hear what my typewriter had to say. I wanted to save her, but if I saved her, I couldn't save the story."

Mr. Johnson sees his book as a harmonic blending of various levels of understanding. In addition to the narrative plot level, the suspenseful playing out of the action and the political message, the book is also making a philosophical statement. "If one cannot possibly win the game of life," he said, "there runs a statement of life, a cognizance of a state in which we exist. It runs exactly counter to our Western way of thinking and it hurts like hell." The ultimate message, he added, "is we aren't getting anywhere."

The fact that his theme is lost on most of his readers does not bother Johnny Johnson. "I think the book stands on its own without the allegorical level," he said. "Most people who read the book don't know what it's about. They don't know they' ve been hit and I can't tell them. If I want to hit you with an invisible weapon you've never seen, all you're going to end up with is a hell of a headache."

- Annapolis novelist interprets his book, Randi Henderson, The Sun, Baltimore, Mar 5, 1974
It looks, then, as if Peter Harris is on the right track with his theory that LGPATA reflects the zeitgeist of the time it was written. Nevertheless, an author's conscious intentions, and how they choose to portray a book's intentions in an interview, aren't necessarily the full story.

Continued in Mendal Johnson (part 3).

- Ray

Monday, 1 October 2007

Mendal Johnson (part 1)

23rd December 2007: As part of ongoing work to declutter my web presence, I'm shifting this series of articles to JSBlog, backdated to when the articles were written. They're the product of some collaborative bibliographic work and discussions, mainly with Michael Edwards of Victoria, Australia, about the then largely hidden biography of this cult horror author.

I do appreciate that this author's sole novel is a work of highly misogynistic horror. Nevertheless, I think it's worth documenting because it's a work of extreme power, pitch-black in its view of human nature, that still unsettles and disgusts both male and female readers. It's not pulp fiction, but highly literate in style and characterisation: a book evidently viewed of sufficient merit for publication by a mainstream publisher, Hart-Davis, MacGibbon. And then there's the sheer bibliographic and biographical enigma of Mendal Johnson, who produced a cult novel and then vanished without trace from the writing scene. Let's Go Play at the Adams' is his one book, now long out of print. This series of posts attempts to collate what is known about Johnson and his work.

So what's it about?
Publishers' Weekly explained (and judged):

"It takes a strong stomach to read this one. Mr Johnson has produced a horror tale that will harrow you and haunt you long after you have finished it. Well written with steadily mounting tension, it is so explicit in its sadism that the squeamish may well wonder just what kind of "entertainment" a book like this is supposed to be providing. A likable 20-year-old babysitter is chloroformed by her young charges and three of their friends, bound and gagged and thereafter subjected to a nightmare of cruelty, violence and rape, leading to a terrible finale. The psychology of the vicious youngsters (two are well into their teens) is handled extremely well by Mr Johnson, who certainly knows how to spin a suspenseful yarn, albeit a grim and ugly one." One-free-for-10 to April 1; 25,000 first printing; $25,000 ad campaign; 10% co-op advertising; major paperback sale to Bantam. - PW Forecasts, October 29, 1973

The Bantam blurb was more sensational:

"Barbara, lovely young babysitter, awoke bound and gagged, a helpless captive of solemn twelve-year-old Bobby and his younger sister Cindy. It's only a game, she told herself at first. At first, she wasn't frightened. But then she came to realize that this was no ordinary prank. Her charges and three of their friends were completely caught up in their new-found power, and determined to experiment with it - to its limits. They had in store for their victim a series of ordeals such as only the compassionless childish mind, schooled in today's sophisticated violence, could conceive."

Presumably the "childish mind" bit is to make it more scary; Bobby and Cindy make the initial capture, but the ringleaders are the three older teenagers who are not literally children nor even "childish".
      In my view, the book derives its tension from hovering uneasily between pornographic bondage novel and literary psychological thriller. On the one hand, its scenario is thoroughly misogynistic and draws on many of the staples of S&M pornography. But on the other, Johnson raises it above the trashy with his literate and taut style, his detailed characterisations, and his believable study of the dynamics of collective evil.
      Johnson also breaks the rules by avoiding conventional resolutions; there is no rescuer - nor, unlike Stephen King's Gerald's Game, self-rescue - and no legal retribution for the perpetrators. The result is that Let's Go Play at the Adams' has a cult following as a little-known classic of unsettling claustrophobic horror. It's tempting to draw comparisons with Poe.

Where is it set?
Although Johnson isn't usually credited among the canon of Maryland authors, the setting is a riverside house in an unnamed county of the Eastern Shore of Maryland (i.e. the side adjoining Chesapeake Bay of the Delmarva peninsula). It strongly evokes the atmosphere of this largely rural area in the 1970s: locals, rich 'incomers', itinerant Pickers, and the isolation of the creeks and marshes. As to where exactly the house might be, a character's weather observation gives away that this is the Upper Eastern Shore. It's somewhere inland: Chesapeake Bay itself is never mentioned, only a creek on the south bank of an isolated westward-flowing river. Nearby, Johnson writes, there's a crossing of US Highway and state road, and further away the fictitious town of "Bryce", a larger shopping centre with a High School and Police Department. This could fit various locations, but one of the inland rivers in the vicinity of Easton, the major town of Talbot County, seems plausible.

Let's Go Play at the Adams' was first published in 1974 by Crowell, NY (ISBN 0-690-00193-2) and Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd in the UK (ISBN 0-246-10790-1); it has since been through 17 UK reprints by Grafton Books (ISBN 0-586-04233-4) between 1976 and 1988. Other imprints include the 1980 Bantam edition (pictured above); a Golden Apple paperback in 1984; a Diamond paperback in Australia; a 1975 Mexican edition, Adolescencia diabolica; a Brazilian edition, Quando os Adams sairam de ferias, from Circulo do Livro Press, Sao Paolo; and two Turkish editions, the 1985 Celladin çocuklari (which I think means "The Child Executioners") published by Kelebek of Istanbul, and Çocuk Oyunu ("Child's Play").
      Two screenplays - Spirits (1981) and The Children's Game (1983) - are on file with the Library of Congress copyright database, but so far no movies have been made. Given the scenario and the downbeat ending, it's unsurprising.

About the author
Mendal William Johnson - who was generally called "Johnny" by friends and relatives - was born on May 24, 1928 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He attended Miami High School, the University of Miami, 1946-49, and spent part of his career as a journalist (1953-55, managing editor of Skipper, Annapolis, Maryland; 1956, sports editor of the Brownsville Herald; 1957, night city editor of the Laramie Bulletin). Later he was affiliated with the US Merchant Marine, and worked as a bank consultant.
      Johnson was married twice, first to Joan Betts (divorced, two daughters, Lynne and Gail); then to Ellen Argo, with whom he shared a love of sailing. In later life they lived at 63 Conduit Street, Anne Arundel County, Annapolis: Maryland's historic capital, known as "the sailing capital of the world".
      Johnson's writing work included contributions to maritime magazines such as Popular Boating and Yachting, and the 1974 novel, Let's Go Play at the Adams'. At the time of his death, he had three other novels in progress, Walking Out, Myth, and Net Full of Stars. He died (from cirrhosis of the liver) on February 6, 1976.

An inside view
Beyond the material on public record, a relative who asked to remain anonymous has kindly provided a character sketch that reveals Johnson as an intelligent but troubled man: "Uncle Johnny, as we called him, was tall and lanky, with horn rimmed glasses and short crew-cut hair, and had a razor wit that sometimes cut people's feelings. He had diverse reading interests, from John Updike to Zen Buddhism, and loved diverse kinds of music: classical, popular, experimental, and avant-garde (one of his immediate family was an accomplished pianist, possibly concert). He was a yacht broker for a while and even ran, unsuccessfully, for public office in Annapolis . He suffered from emotional problems, as is usually the case from childhood conflicts with parents. He actually disliked children and was at times psychologically cruel to his [second] wife, having no children together. He also suffered from alcoholism, and this was the cause of his lingering death in Annapolis. It was only after his demise that his wife, Ellen Argo, began publishing her fiction."

Ellen Argo Johnson
Ellen Argo Johnson, who outlived him by seven years, was also an author, who had lived in Annapolis since 1957. Born on July 25 1933 in Fort Monroe, Virginia, she attended Dunbarton College and George Washington University, going on to a main career as a senior administrator and accountant.
      Her books, which she wrote under her maiden name of Ellen Argo, comprise the Cape Cod Trilogy. (Presumably these arose from knowledge of the area; in LGPATA, Mendal Johnson puts Barbara's friend Terry on the beach at Cape Cod). The trilogy is a cycle of 19th century romantic nautical sagas published by Putnam: Jewel of the Seas, 1977; The Crystal Star, 1979; and The Yankee Girl, 1981. At the time of her death, she had in progress The Last King, a biographical novel in a South Pacific setting. She died in Annapolis on June 17 1983.

The Abyss connection
Michael Edwards of Healesville, Victoria, Australia, told me of an interesting connection with Steve Vance's horror novel The Abyss [ISBN 0-843-92767-4, Leisure, 1989].
      In this, one of the characters, Kevin, confesses to his part in a murder inspired in part by a unnamed book, whose description accurately matches Let's Go Play at the Adams' and which even has a main character called Barbara. Later, Kevin's wife has a drug-induced vision of her future, where she tracks down and meets Emily, the author's widow, who reveals that her husband, Martin, died after a serious illness, his condition going downhill following the shock of Kevin writing to say, "You made me do it". "It is interesting to observe," Michael wrote in his review, "that ... The Abyss undoubtedly refers to Johnson's novel at great length."
       In an e-mail conversation with us, Steve Vance kindly provided an explanation for the allusions. They are intentional, but are not (beyond the basic fact of Mendal Johnson's death in 1976) based on the true biographies of the Johnsons. Vance explained that he often works into his own books his reaction to novels with (in his view) unjust outcomes, and LGPATA was one such. For a more detailed analysis, see Mendal Johnson (part 3) following.

This is getting into speculative territory, but it's interesting to note that the characters and events in LGPATA bear a resemblance to those of the notorious Likens/Baniszewski murder case in Indianapolis, which shocked the USA in the mid-1960s (and which was the basis of Jack Ketchum's 1989 horror novel, The Girl Next Door). The five convicted perpetrators (Gertrude Baniszewski, her teenage son and daughter, and two teenage neighbours) collaborated with others in the imprisonment, torture, and ultimate murder of Sylvia Likens.
      Even more speculatively, I believe that LGPATA shows thematic connections with Johnson himself. For instance, well before we confirmed Johnson's diverse musical interests, Michael Edwards had suggested that the knowledgeable musical references in LGPATA indicated that Johnson was a musician at a serious level. But I believe that the connections go very much deeper than this: that at one level, LGPATA can be viewed as a psychological tour de force exploring Johnson's own concerns. In the following post, Mendal Johnson (part 2), I've explored this possibility in more detail.

There are a few unofficial sequels/revisions, findable via the Web, some of them shying away from its bleak ending. One, Let's Go Play at the Adams' Rev. 1.1, treats LGPATA as a flawed pornographic novel, adding another 25,000 words to rescue Barbara before involving her (implausibly, in my view) in consensual bondage adventures. Another, Game's End, by Los Angeles film and video editor Barry Schneebeli, is a full-length sequel and more of a 'trial and retribution' drama, rescuing Barbara and then following her recovery and the trial of the adolescent perpetrators.

But a third sequel, Visiting the Adams - marketed via Amazon Kindle as Let's Go Play at the Adams 2 - is considerably superior. Its author, Peter Francis, has taken up and run with the hints that Johnson left about a possible future for the Freedom Five:

Did Paul crack? That would be a question. And if he began to show signs of it, did Dianne have to take steps to stop it? ... Bobby and Cindy — Cindy with her love of telling things sooner or later — what became of them? ... Cindy, when she became the housewife and silken pussy cat on a cushion she was always going to be, did she drink too much? Did the failing of telling secrets come to the fore? Did Freedom Five ever meet again per se?

As far as I recall from our email discussion a while back, Peter also interpreted a subtext of LGPATA as being to do with the Vietnam War: the national angst in the USA about the atrocities of which well-brought-up young Americans had proved capable. Consequently his highly polished sequel - which recalls Thomas Harris rather than an attempt to ape Mendal Johnson - brings the story up to date against the backdrop of different angsts: the Gulf War, the economic downturn, and modern insights into serial murderers. It tells of the reinvestigation of the Adams case by a world-weary FBI agent (think of a white equivalent of William Somerset); I highly recommend it, and I think it would work well even if you haven't read the original. At the time I wrote to Peter (and he is most welcome to have cited it in the product description):
Brilliant work! I've seen attempts at sequels (one a naff S&M adventure, the other a highly lumpen police procedural - both with revisionist happy endings) - but yours is the sequel as I've always felt it should be done, picking up and running with the very precise suggestions and future characterisations MJ left at the end of LGPATA. The style reminds me of James Patterson with even a touch of Chandler, and I love the characterisation of the world-weary but humane Anders (extremely clever in how his character interacts with the plot - how his liking for women, which seems irrelevant, suddenly becomes horribly relevant in blinding him to the possibility of a woman being involved in the crimes). It's a very worthy successor to Johnson in the way it weaves landscape and more than a little philosophy into the story just as he does, but pinned on the cultural angsts of the USA - government power, and war and its relation to torture - a generation later.
Check out Let's Go Play at the Adams 2.

This biography was compiled from various snippets on book jackets; the entries for the Johnsons in Contemporary Authors (The Gale Group, 1999); the Ellen Argo Johnson obituary in the Washington Post online archive for June 20, 1983; and e-mail correspondence with Johnson's relatives. My particular thanks to go to Michael Edwards for discussions on The Abyss and his general initiative in drawing together the people with pieces of the puzzle; to Barry Schneebeli for the Annapolis clue that led to much of this information; and to relatives of Mendal Johnson who kindly provided information. The Bantam cover scan was kindly provided by 'Mr. Irony' from his gallery of crime/romance covers at Mr. Irony's B/D Library Other book jacket scans by Barry Schneebeli (Freedom Five image) and Steve Joltin for some excellent scans from the Crowell preview edition: ME Warren's photos of Mendal Johnson at an unknown location very like the weatherbeaten "tenant house" described in LGPATA).

I'd be very grateful if anyone else with knowledge or memories of Mendal Johnson would be prepared to add anything to the picture. Information about the novels in progress at the time of his death would be of particular interest.

A number of people have contacted me over the years seeking contacts with Johnson's family to negotiate book or film rights. I'm afraid the trail is cold - I know nothing beyond what I've written here.

Continued in Mendal Johnson (part 2).

- Ray