Friday, September 11, 2009

The Care and Feeding of Dead People; Doug Clegg

I've always maintained that anything created for the good of mankind will within thirty days be turned into something bad for mankind. Human flight was quickly weaponized. Drugs were used to addict as well as cure. And the internet is filled with so many poisonous websites you feel contaminated just hearing about them.

But one of the many worthwhile things the internet has done is secure the work of writers who have passed on. Even famous writers fade from popularity sooner than some of us wish. Two examples would be Robert Bloch and John D. MacDonald.

Except for Psycho Bloch was never a bestseller as such but he was read and respected worldwide by horror and mystery fans alike. A few years before his death there was some carping about how his time had passed. Irritating as the criticism was it seems in retrospect to have foreshadowed how interest in him seems to have faded. Part of this is simply because he's dead. Writers and their work generally fade after they've passed on. But if you Goggle Robert Bloch you'll see that not only his work but also his life are alive and well on various websites. Now when I try to interest somebody in Bloch I just say Google him.

Less than fifteen years ago this wouldn't have been possible. Lost writers were discussed only in fanzines read by a few hundred people at most.

And it wasn't only non-bestsellers who faded. Read through twenty years of New York Times bestseller lists sometime and you'll see how quickly even big sellers vanish.

Which brings me to John D. MacDonald. I was one of the lucky ones who was old enough to read most his books as they were published. He sold big time in the heyday of paperback originals and when he switched to hardcovers with his Travis McGee series he became and remained for approximately fifteen years an enormous international bestseller. He was feted by some of the world's most important critics and the McGees became a benchmark for a certain kind of adventure fiction.

I don't think I've ever seen a writer's books fade from popularity as quickly as MacDonald's did. The McGees are in print but little else. For those of us who believe that MacDonald's best work was often in the stand-alones he wrote for Gold Medal this is sad news because few if any of them in print today. Even the critical acclaim has waned. He doesn't seem to appeal much to people under forty-five. I understand that the McGees have dated. MacDonald got pretty pontifical and silly about modern life in his speechifying. But when you read End of The Night and Cape Fear (The Executioners) and The Last One Left and many of his other books you're in the hands of a master.

Sez me.

But not enough of other people to bring him back into print. So what we're left with are some good sites that steer us to his books and his very interesting life. Maybe the next couple generations up will rediscover him all over again.

For those of you who grew up with the internet, I'm sure all this sounds crazy. So who didn't know there were a lot of sites dedicated to the work of dead writers? Well, a lot of us actually. I had never heard of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, for instance. I saw a reference to her on a site, ordered a used book of hers and was hooked for life. Her suspense novels walk right on the edge of horror, almost fever dreams. She was so good Raymond Chandler called her "the best suspense writer of (my) generation." I'm told she's about to get a serious website. And maybe some serious new readers, too.

Zombies aren't the only dead people who deserve attention.

-------------FROM DOUG CLEGG


Trying to spread this around, so if there are any friends you can send it to, please share it.

A game was developed from the illustrations for my book, Isis, which comes out in about 2 weeks. And we're within two days of hitting a million players (we're over 860,000 now and it moves from 80,000-110,000 players per day.)

The illustrations -- by Glenn Chadbourne - are stunning.

It's beautiful, fun and fairly easy:


Martin Edwards said...

One of the most exciting things about the internet is the way it enables information about obscure subjects, including unjustly forgotten writers and books, to whiz around the world, giving them a new life - and giving many of us a good many unexpected pleasures.

Fred Blosser said...

Ed, I hate to say it, but I don't think JDM will ever resurface again to any appreciable extent. Maybe at some point one of the Southern university presses will reprint a book or two as regional popular literature. It might have been different if there had been a popular McGee movie series to keep the character in front of the mass audience like the Bond films.

Seemed to me that the McGee books had begun to weaken appreciably after the mid-'70s, as if JDM felt that the culture was changing and he wasn't quite sure how to adjust accordingly.

Bloch wrote what must have been a zillion stories, most of them good but unremarkable. Had it not been for Psycho and his association with the Lovecraft school, he'd probably be as obscure as Paul Fairman, Talmadge Powell, Henry Slesar, etc, even among mystery and SF fans.

Christopher said...

I was always a huge Robert Block fan but came to JDM late. I like him but he never quite captured me the way he did others.

Anonymous said...

I read a library copy of JDM's SLAM THE BIG DOOR a couple weeks back. Pubbed in 1960 by Gold Medal, IIRC, it felt like a Travis McGee with all the philosophical bits and dated view of women. Still the Florida setting was unbeatable and man could he spin a tale. Great post, Ed.

Ed Lynskey

Todd Mason said...

Fred Blosser--

Wow. You really get Bloch wrong.

He did write any number of unextraordinary stories, but he wrote a number of brilliant ones, and more than anyone else except for Fritz Leiber, and more conentratedly than Leiber, he Got what Lovecraft was getting at and picked up that ball and ran with it, writing Much better contemporary horror and focusing on leaner prose and a more grounded sort of existentialism than HPL could muster.

That Slesar is obscure is indicative of what Ed's talking about...almost everyone becomes obscure. JDM outsold everyone in hb except Spillane, I think, or at least of their generation, and is remembered, as Ed notes, too much for McGee only or distantly for the pudding the films made of THE EXECUTIONERS. Paul Fairman is obscure today because almost all his work was intentional dull hack. Some of Powell doesn't age well, even worse than anything by JDM. But Bloch remains in print, albeit spottily, and while PSYCHO is a great hook to hang his name on, that "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" is probably the second-most plagiarized story in English from the last century, after Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," isn't becuase Bloch was merely competent (though that story wasn't his best, either!).

Todd Mason said...

And the mid-'70s was toward the end of JDM's life and he didn't write too many McGees or other things after that...who was it who tagged McGee a "Rotarian's idea of a hippie"?

Anonymous said...

Each generation has the books and films and music that press its buttons, and each regards what went before to be quaint or dull. I tried several times to introduce Casablanca, a film that brings me to tears, to young people, but for them it's merely a curiosity. I don't know that the web can change that; but it is good to know that the forgotten aren't quite forgotten, and the dead don't quite die.

Ed Gorman said...

"Rotarian's idea of a hippie"?

Todd is referring to something I said way back in eighties. I still think that's what McGee was. He wanted to be hip but he has a pious streak that he couldn't get rid of.

Gonzalo B said...

I recently bought a book collecting all six issues of an old '50s magazine called "Satan. Devilish Entertainment for Gentlemen." It was one of those old men's magazines with cool pictures of bachelor pads, photos of scantily clad women, party jokes and, occasionally, quality fiction. The book was a print on demand volume (POD) and relatively inexpensive (the original magazines would have probably cost me hundreds). I had never heard of the magazine before but thanks to POD and the Internet I discovered it. Why couldn't the same thing be done with authors like Prather, Bloch, JDM and others? Is it because their estates will not allow it? If those websites dedicated to obscure authors are getting enough visits, I don't see why reprinting their titles under a POD scheme couldn't turn a moderate profit at least, not to mention exposure to new readers.