Monday, 31 December 2007

Piddock - and an appendix

click to enlarge
A week ago, in the RD&E hospital, Exeter, I was looking at a very nice photo-presentation in the corridor to the Lowman Ward - Tracing the River Lym, by Roger Polley and John Woodman - about the River Lym (or Lim) that flows to the sea at Lyme Regis. It features photo prints spliced together to make panoramic views of the Lym from its mouth in Lyme Regis right up to its source near Cannington Viaduct, Uplyme.

One very interesting detail in the accompanying text (left) by Dr Collin Dawes was the reference to the Romans and a rock-boring mollusc, the piddock (Pholas dactylus). The piddock is of mixed value: it apparently makes good eating (I'll take that on trust, as I can't stand shellfish) but contributes to coastal erosion due to its mechanically boring into soft rock to make the hole where it lives to filter-feed. However, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, mentioned a remarkable property of the piddock:

LXXXVII. Concharum e genere sunt dactyli, ab humanorum unguium similitudine appellati. his natura in tenebris remoto lumine alio fulgere claro, et quanto magis umorem habeant lucere in ore mandentium, lucere in manibus atque etiam in solo ac veste decidentibus guttis, ut procul dubio pateat suci illam naturam esse quam miraremur etiam in corpore.

LXXXVII. The class shellfish includes the piddock. The piddock, named finger-mussel from its resemblance to a human finger-nail. It is the nature of these fish to shine in darkness with a bright light when other light is removed, and in proportion to their amount of moisture to glitter both in the mouth of persons masticating them and in their hands, and even on the floor and on their clothes when drops fall from them, making it clear beyond all doubt that their juice possesses a property that we should marvel at even in a solid object.

- Pliny: Natural History, Volume III, trans. H Rackham, Heinemann / Harvard University Press, Loeb edition (Internet Archive plinynaturalhist017760mbp)

According to this and other accounts, this bioluminescent effect is extremely strong: a number of researchers have studied the effect historically; see, for instance, page 162 of The Edible Mollusks of Great Britain (MS Lovell, 1867.  J Beccaria found that a single piddock "rendered seven ounces of milk so luminous that faces might be distinguished by it", and another researcher, Costa, wrote that "if the flesh is chewed and held in the mouth, the breath becomes luminous and looks like a real flame".

The presentation went on to describe the work of Jan and Robert Knight of Knight Scientific, Plymouth, in elucidating the role of the photoprotein involved, pholasin (aka Pholas luciferin), and its use as a diagnostic assay for white blood cells, antioxidants and free radicals. Essentially it enables the detection of inflammation before it becomes symptomatic. (The Knights featured on the BBC's now-defunct QED science documentary series in 1993). Interesting stuff.

Appendix:  12th January 2012. Five years after posting this, I just had an interesting e-mail discussion with Dr Andrew May, a volunteer at Lyme Regis Museum. and the maintainer of the Lyme Regis Museum blog. Andrew asked about a detail in the original version of this post, which said the piddock shells had been found at the site of a Roman villa by the River Lym. Unfortunately my weblog was the only source findable for this detail.

My first suspicion was that I'd misread Dr Dawes' account, so I took a quick detour on the way home today and rechecked (the presentation is still on the wall in the RD&E). Sure enough, it doesn't say what I cited: it says "thousands of shells" were found at the villa site (the Holcombe site where the Holcombe Mirror was found in 1970) and then goes on to discuss piddock without explicitly making the connection. I'd misread, and conflated the details. I took down the blog post and apologised for the wild goose chase I'd started.

However, very good news. Andrew also investigated the story, and checked with the Devon Historic Environment Service (the site, although near Lyme Regis, is just inside the Devon border). They sent him the mollusca report for the Holcombe dig (i.e. what was found in the shell midden near the bath house area of the villa), as published in Devon Archaeological Society, Proceedings, No 32, 1974. Among land snails and other marine species (like Crassus in the movie Spartacus, the Roman occupants liked both snails and oysters), the dig did indeed find shells of the common piddock, Pholas dactylus.

Andrew and I both have our story! I've updated and reinstated the post.

The Devon Historic Environment Record is quite enlightening to read; the Victorian era took rather a different view of archaeological conservation. In the mid-1800s, Roman mosaics were discovered at the Holcombe site. The record says:

Reference to two mosaics, one bought at auction in 1854 and given to Exeter Museum; and one bought on 05/04/1860 and relaid in his house "The Chancel", Sidmouth. ... Hutchinson, P. O. 1848-1894)

This is the Sidmouth historian Peter Orlando Hutchinson. The idea of a local historian buying up archaeological remains and using them for home decoration is quite astonishing to the modern mindset.

Appendix 2: a spot of geeky medical explanation. This piddock topic was, unfortunately, hard-gained. I had more spare time than I wanted, to read the RD&E wall posters over Christmas 2007, due to keeling over with appendicitis late on Christmas Eve and having an appendectomy in the small hours on Christmas Day.

The story, should it interest/edify anyone: I'd been a bit unwell with intermittent stomach pains and bloating for about three months; I was feeling pretty low with it, as the source was unidentifiable, and nothing seemed to help. There seemed to be a vague correlation with heavy meals and fatty foods, and my GP had been working through possibilities such as peptic ulcer, gallstones, whatever. On Christmas Eve, however, the pain become continuous and over the day shifted to lower right. On the evening of Christmas Eve it was bad enough that we took a taxi to the RD&E drop-in centre, where they prodded McBurney's point, and from my reaction instantly diagnosed appendicitis, near-rupture it turned out, and I was in theatre within a couple of hours. So no Christmas festivities, unless you count some of the team that wheeled me in wearing antler hats.

Once I was over the surgery, the pain and bloating stopped, and have never come back. Clearly the appendix was the problem all along. The history's morbidly interesting in hindsight. I don't blame anyone for not spotting it earlier, as early appendicitis is hard to diagnose, especially with the rather vaguer clinical course of the "suppurative" form I had. I'm in the wrong age group anyway (the peak for appendicitis is late teens), and only around 50% of cases manifest in the classic symptoms. Plus the bowel is bad at localising pain; the appendix is served in a general sort of way by a nerve that joins the spinal cord at the T10 vertebra, which gives a generalised mid-belly pain. You only get lower-right pain when the infection worsens and surrounding structures become irritated (hence the classic move of the focus of pain with appendicitis).

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Puzzles and peculiarities for Christmas 2007

It'll appear on the Guardian website shortly, but if you want a sneak preview, here is this year's General Knowledge Paper (PDF, aka the King William's Quiz) set for students of King William's College, Isle of Man. It's considerably easier with Google to hand, but some make it a point of honour not to use it, and some questions are sufficiently unspecific to be unGoogleable unless you twig the common factor for the section.
Check out also PuzzleMaster, the site for Chris Maslanka, who writes the long-running Pyrgic Puzzles page for Guardian Weekend. It includes archives from Radio 4's Puzzle Panel and Chris's Sydney Mind Olympics, a set of Australian-themed problems that ran in parallel with the 2000 Olympic Games.
Or for a slightly alternative format, also from the Guardian, try the Charlie Brooker festive quiz.

In a different vein, if you want some interesting reading, have a look at Anne T-V's link page for BMJ Christmas issues. Every year, the British Medical Journal publishes a selection of quirky articles. As explained in the editorial for 2000, A pile of strangeness, "The essence of the Christmas BMJ is strangeness. It's our left brain issue. We want everything to be not as it seems." This involves some spoof articles, but also fascinating studies of real but unusual topics: Civilisation and the colon: constipation as the "disease of diseases" (the fairly bizarre history of a malady and its mistreatment), Death and miasma in Victorian London: an obstinate belief (a history of the long-standing belief in disease being caused by, essentially, smelly air), Sword swallowing and its side effects (self-explanatory), White coats and fingerprints: diagnostic reasoning in medicine and investigative methods of fictional detectives, the excruciating You're not going to give me the umbrella, are you? (the persistence of a vivid myth among patients), and a historical murder mystery, The mysterious death of Francesco I de' Medici and Bianca Cappello: an arsenic murder?. So, if you like seasonal but mildly morbid stories, check out Ann T-V's page, which links handily to the contents pages back to 1995. - Ray

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Mountweazels and other fictions

A old article I just ran into in the New Yorker: Not a word, the interesting story of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, an American fountain designer turned photographer who died prematurely in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.
      The interesting part is that she didn't exist, but appears in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia as a copyright trap: if her biography turns up in any other reference work, the publishers will know that it has been stolen rather than independently researched. Another example cited is the appearance of a non-word, "esquivalience", in the New Oxford American Dictionary. It's nice to see this phenomenon confirmed, as it has rather an urban myth flavour to it.
      As you can gather from the Wikipedia Mountweazel entry, fictitious entries have varied motives: copyright traps, plain mistakes, hoaxes for fun, and hoaxes for fraud. For instance, the 1880s American Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography has around 200 known hoax entries. In this case, the probable motivation was financial; the contributors being paid by space and with checking only for general style, the temptation must have been too great.
      Similar considerations apply to maps. In 1999 this Telegraph article, AA in £20m battle over 'copied' Ordnance maps, reported how the Automobile Association was caught out as having copied from Ordnance Survey maps a number of deliberate stylistic fingerprints - "kinks in rivers, the addition of minor buildings or exaggerated curves in roads". You can find other examples at the OpenStreetMap article Copyright Easter Eggs - Maps that Lye, and confirm using Google Maps that there are definite discrepancies between the street data and aerial photos, such as The Avenue, Finchley, that's displaced to cut straight through a block of flats. As with textual references, it's a matter of opinion whether many of these are deliberately fake "trap streets", simple errata, or time-related errors (such as road layouts revised by subsequent building, or reliably anticipated ones that never came to be). - Ray

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Monkey's armpit and other insults

Language Log and Languagehat, both language weblogs of the highest reputation and credentials, report a book just released: Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit: Untranslatable insults, put-downs and curses from around the world. It's co-written by Stephen Dodson (who has just come out as the compiler of Languagehat) and Dr Robert Vanderplank (director of the Oxford University Language Centre). Looks fun! - Ray

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Dante's world

Another semi-promotional post: Exeter WEA includes in its Spring 2008 listing an interesting-looking course, Dante and his world. Dante puts various contemporary political figures of his time into Hell, and this course, led by Dr Stephen Bemrose, author of A New Life of Dante, explores the various cultural and historical influences that went into the work. "By exploring passages in translation from Dante's Inferno ... this course offers a way into the mediaeval mindset and the turbulent world of Italian politics on the threshold of the Renaissance".

Its journey format and, to most modern readers, the need for a concordance, makes Dante's Inferno ideal text for hypertext representation, and there are a number of excellent Web projects for accessing the text: Digital Dante, the Flash-based Dante's Inferno, a Virtual Tour of Hell and Danteworlds are just some of them.

The potent imagery of Dante's Inferno has been remarkably productive in the works that it has inspired: see Wikipedia's Dante and his Divine Comedy in popular culture, which covers everything from the classic prints by Gustave Doré to the recent animated film version ("apocalyptic graphic novel meets Victorian-era toy theater"). My current film favourite is the 1935 one starring Spencer Tracy, which is completely unmemorable except for the stunning 10-minute Hell sequence by the designer and painter Harry Lachman. See 1935 Dante's Inferno for an update with YouTube links.

Of the literary works it has inspired, one of the best, in my view, is Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which throws into Dante's Hell a modern science fiction author who attempts to rationalise it in terms of technology. Mary Pat Campbell's Building a Modern Hell is a good critique of it.

Addendum: Dante's Inferno by Sandow Birk looks interesting. This illustrated edition sticks faithfully to the structure of the original, but translates the text into into modern vernacular English, as well as replacing in-references from Dante's time with present-day equivalents

a literary adaptation incorporating contemporary urban slang and references to contemporary events and people, and unsettlingly vivid illustrations based on Gustave Dore's well-known engravings ... Here, the vision of Hell is full of the familiar scenes of contemporary Los Angeles (with some San Francisco mixed in). The ever watchful police helicopters search the Stygian skies, familiar images of the mythic are assaulted by corporate logos and mass-consumption detritus. The Minotaur guards the shawerma stand of the damned, while Greyon, the Beast of Fraud, is transformed into a pollution-belching SUV.

- Ray

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The Gömböc

An interesting mathematical curiosity: the Gömböc (pronounced "gəmbəts"). This is an intriguing object, devised by Hungarian mathematicians Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi, that has the property of self-righting to a single stable position despite being homogeneous, completely convex and not being obviously "flat" or "thin". (That is, this self-righting property is easy to obtain if you allow internal hollows or heavy inserts that skew the weight distribution, as in the Weebles or Balancing Ovoid toys - but not if the object doesn't curve inward, and is solid and the same material all the way through).

As with many other shapes with useful mechanical properties, this self-righting behaviour has already been achieved in nature in animals such as the Indian Star Tortoise. More on this at the Mathematical Intelligencer article Mono-monostatic bodies: the answer to Arnold's question (PDF).

A gömböc is, incidentally, Hungarian for a round thing, which may apply to dumplings or the sinister pork haggis in the Hungarian folktale A kis gömböc that hangs in a cottage attic and eats a family.

Compare the rattleback or celt, an object of no discernable application, but one also with unusual dynamic properties: in its case, a preferred direction of spin.

- Ray

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Dr Johnson as he really was

This is pure trivia, but I was struck this week by what a good casting Alfred Molina would make for Samuel Johnson. His picture, left, from the 24th November Radio Times shows a striking resemblance to Johnson as portrayed in the Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait, circa 1769, NPG 1445 in the National Portrait Gallery. You can see a bigger version on the cover of this CDC publication, and a different version of the same portrait here.

 Less trivially, much as I admire Robbie Coltrane's memorable portrayals of Johnson both in the Blackadder episode Ink and Incapability and the serious 1993 drama, Boswell & Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles, we have yet to see an attempt to portray Johnson as he truly was. The central omission is Johnson's documented mannerisms. This Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine paper, Doctor Samuel Johnson: 'the great convulsionary' a victim of Gilles de la Tourette's syndrome, provides extensive contemporary documentation, by Boswell and others, that Johnson suffered from a wide variety of tics and strange physical mannerisms, along with complex rituals and repetitive behaviours, consistent with Tourette's syndrome. This syndrome is also associated, in many cases, with creativity and quickness of thought consistent with Johnson's reputation for wit and clever disputation.

Even if you disagree with this specific diagnosis, the descriptions are clear enough to show that the standard portrayal of Johnson - stolid, pompous, with no abnormality of mannerism - is simply way off the mark. It would be interesting to see some production attempting to accurately portray this aspect of Johnson, which was fundamental to his personality and how others viewed him. It would require a tour de force of acting to do so, but not an impossible one (compare Daniel Day Lewis's engaging portrayal of Christie Brown in My Left Foot). The problem would be that going against a stereotype always carries the risk of being unbelievable.

- Ray

Saturday, 17 November 2007


On Wednesday Joel Segal Books hosted the launch of Richard Bradbury's new novel Riversmeet, a book which provides a fascinating focus of topics. Riversmeet is primarily a fictionalised account, told via correspondence, of the 1848 British tour by the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
      A former slave, Douglass become one of the leading voices for abolitionism in the 19th century; in 1845, to pre-empt any suspicions of lack of bona fides, he published an autobiography of his early life (a risky act as revealing his identity opened him to re-enslaved: even in northern states that didn't practise slavery, he could be recaptured on grounds of theft - of himself). Richard Bradbury has also written a play about him, Become a Man. He later spoke up for women's rights too, and was a powefully radical voice, whose message on changing the status quo is as relevant now as it was in his time.
      Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
      At one level Riversmeet is an account of 19th century British culture, told through the standard vehicle of an outsider narrator, in a time of growing radicalism and social upheaval. The real-life Douglass knew the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell, and in the book Douglass' story is interwoven with that of another fugitive, Eamonn MacDonagh from Ireland, and touches on the Chartist movement, and the role of displaced Irish immigrants in events that eventually led to Irish independence (Douglass was in Britain at the time of the Irish Potato Blight, in the year of the Young Irelander Rebellion).
      The book is published by The Muswell Press, an independent publisher set up by Ruth Boswell, the TV producer behind the classic Timeslip TV serial, initially to publish a collection of the art of her late husband, James Boswell. Riversmeet's subtext fits well with Boswell's work; as "unofficial war artist", he produced now highly acclaimed work (see the Tate and the James Boswell Home Page). His politics and anti-establishment stance, however, probably prevented him getting official status; he was in the Communist Party pre-WW2, and his work often has an anti-establishment flavour, such as his Fall of London prints depicting what appears to be a revolutionary war in a ruined London. His sketchbooks produced while serving in Iraq are hardly typical war art, taking the form of dark and surreal fantasies that sprang from rage-inducing boredom (see the Tate archive special, James Boswell).
      Riversmeet, by the way, takes its title from the location and house of that name in Topsham, where the Clyst meets the Exe. The location features in the book, the meeting of rivers allegorical for the confluence of major social forces. The cover design is a photo of Riversmeet, one of a number by Annie Pomeroy.

Addendum, 3rd December 2007: Socialist Worker has just published an informative review, Frederick Douglass and Riversmeet: connecting 19th century struggles, that goes into more detail about the historical context.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007


Current reading: Edwin Abbott Abbott's 1884 classic Flatland (subtitled A Romance of Many Dimensions); it's available online here and elsewhere. Flatland is a curious book, early science fiction set in a two-dimensional universe whose inhabitants are polygons. However, apart from being an adventure within this scenario, it's also a satire on class and gender roles, and also tackles meetings with creatures living in different dimensions, particularly when a Sphere appears and convinces the square Flatlander narrator of the existence of a third dimension. The narrator, enlightened, tries to spread the word, but is viewed as heretical, and even the Sphere is closed to the possibility of four and higher dimensions, but is unsuccessful. Abbott was a theologian, and the religious allegory of this is fairly overt. Nevertheless, Flatland is very readable and has been highly influential in inspiring adaptations, including a 2007 animated film (with slight cultural updates). If you don't mind mild spoilers, see The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a detailed American Mathematical Society review by AK Dewdney, and there are more references at Wikipedia.

Addendum: see also More from Flatland, which looks at Dewdney's The Planiverse.

- Ray

Sunday, 11 November 2007


I remember from years back encountering some purportedly French poems and their translations. For instance: Reine, reine, gueux éville / Gomme àgaine, en horreur, taie (Queen, queen, arose the rabble / Who use their girdles, horrors, as pillow slips). Some obscure rhyme from the French Revolution? No, it comes a 1967 book by Louis d'Antin van Rooten, Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames, which is a compilation of a supposed "d'Antin Manuscript" - actually English nursery rhymes translated into French spelling and accompanies them with scholarly notes (see some examples here).

The always excellent Language Log, a weblog written by professors of linguistics and closely related fields, mentioned this book recently, and took an excursion into the whole territory of this cross-language play. See Autour-du-mondegreens: bunkum unbound. "Mondegreens" are mishearings of song lyrics; the name derives, as Mondegreens: A Short Guide explains, from the Anerican writer Sylvia Wright hearing a line in the folksong Lord Moray as They had slain the Earl of Moray / And Lady Mondegreen (actually they laid him on the green).

Language Log looks at the phenomenon when the source is in another language. While such mishearings can be spontaneous, there's also a popular genre in deliberating deconstructing songs into pseudo-English for comic effect. One Tamil choreographer, actor and film director Prabhu Deva Sundaram, is now widely known in the West as "Benny Lava" after such treatment of the vid of his Bollywood-style song Kalluri Vaanil (there's a somewhat out-of-synch proper translation here). Some of the English words are non-accidental, songs in Indian films being generally macaronic; the song comes from a movie featuring a love story between medical students, hence the words "stethoscope", "scanning" and "operation".

- Ray

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

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Laurence Oliphant ... Victorian with a difference

Normally I'd take a cover blurb of ...
Traveller * Writer * Wit * Secret Agent * Diplomat * Mystic * Entrepreneur ... There was no stranger man in the Victorian era
 ... to be an excess of hype, but this introduction to Anne Taylor's 1982 biography of Laurence Oliphant isn't far off the mark. Oliphant (who lived from 1829-1888) divided his life between the highly mainstream (as a novelist and member of parliament), world travel (partly as diplomat, partly ... ostensibly ... dilettante), and religious mysticism (he spent time at the commune of the American prophet Thomas Lake Harris, and was an early strong proponent of Zionism).

Biographies of Oliphant aren't difficult to find. For instance, Electric Scotland quotes the 1895 Dictionary of National Biography. But modern ones such as Taylor's are rather more enlightening in not airbrushing out that his early work was in the capacity of secret agent (his travels and documentation of the local scene, with vague government endorsement, systematically took him to all the world trouble spots of the time). There's also more context about his involvement with Harris, a Swedenborgian: an interest in mysticism (whether Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Theosophy, etc) and proto-Socialism in various forms was very common among Victorian liberal reformers. Harris, however, was a charlatan, and Oliphant and his wife took this involvement to a self-destructive extreme.

I first ran into Oliphant in a different context: as a main character in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, an alternate-history SF novel set in a 19th century where Charles Babbage's ideas on computing were fully realised in his lifetime, making mechanical computers as ubiquitous in the mid-1900s as electronic ones are now. The Difference Engine is meticulously researched literary SF, and incorporates many contemporary real and literary figures. Oliphant is there, as are Sybil Gerard and Charles Egremont (both characters from Disraeli's real-world novel Sybil); Disraeli in the book is merely a hack writer, and Keats a 'kinotropist', an operator of mechanical cinema. Events are set against the backdrop of the Great Stink of 1858 London.

There's a nice online concordance, The Difference Dictionary, which
even if you haven't read the book is a good taster of Victorian technical-cultural local colour. The ever-useful Internet Archive finds an interesting essay by Elisabeth Kraus , Gibson and Sterling's Alternative History: The Difference Engine as Radical Rewriting of Disraeli's Sybil, that explores the literary comparisons in depth, and there has been a deal more academic comment on the book: for instance, Herbert Sussman's Cyberpunk Meets Charles Babbage: The Difference Engine as Alternative Victorian History in Victorian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, Autumn, 1999 (unfortunately not online). 

The Difference Engine is, incidentally, a good example of the 'steampunk' genre: the Victorian equivalent of 'cyberpunk' (the latter generally concerned with dystopian futures where social breakdown goes hand-in-hand with rapid technological advance). Victorian London was remarkably similar. This was an era of the expansion of a global empire, linked by telegraphy - the 'Victorian Internet' - yet with a level of poverty, as documented by Henry Mayhew, that made London similar to a modern Third World megalopolis.

I had the good fortune to attend the Birmingham launch in 1990, where Gibson and Sterling made the comparison with Victorian times explicit. Sterling said, "The Victorian age was a great, but frightening, period, with the roots of the same ambivalence to technology that we see today". Gibson added: "And it's the only period in history comparable to what we're going through now. The only time that the rate of change was so traumatic". Sterling continued: "The intention of the book is social anaylsis, more or less ... an attempt to look at the roots of the industrial and cybernetic revolution."

Addendum: there's an update at Bessemer Saloon and other experimental ships.

- Ray

Friday, 14 September 2007

Bizarre historical affectations

I filled in at the shop for the end of this afternoon and, glancing at one of several nice books of Edwardian and Victorian photography, was reminded of the strange story of the "Alexandra limp". In the 1860s Alexandra of Denmark (then the Princess of Wales, later Queen Consort of Edward VII) developed a knee problem from rheumatic fever following childbirth. For several years, ladies at court and in high society affected a similar limp. This kind of emulation wasn't uncommon in royal circles: Professor Christie Davies' article Have recent Tory leaders lost elections because they were bald? at the Social Affairs Unit blog mentions various courts that imitated the royal hairstyle. Even more strangely, when Louis XIV had an operation for an anal fistula, courtiers went around with their bottoms bandaged to show sympathy for his pain.

Creeping to royalty is one thing, but many such affectations seem to have had little reason but fashion. The forward-stooping Grecian Bend in women is well-known, if only because it gave rise to the term "the bends" for decompression sickness (the connection being that the stooping pained posture of 19th century caisson workers - "sandhogs" - resembled that fashion).

There are many lesser-known ones. The Roman Fall of the late 1860s (satirised in a music hall song) was a pseudo-military stance in men, with shoulders thrown back; it was especially popular in England, apparently borrowed from a compulsory stance required of French military officers (see Passing Passing English of the Victorian Era, James Redding Ware, E. P. Dutton & Co, 1909). The "kangaroo droop" (or kangaroo drop) in women, apparently a consequence of straight-front corsets, involved holding your hands and arms like those of a kangaroo (see A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, John Stephen Farmer, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1921). Slang dictionaries of the time also mention the "Italian wriggle", though they don't explain this one.

Is there some reason for it all? Maybe. Posture gives a message. George Bush, for instance, has attracted attention for his "power walk", copied by Tony Blair, with its unnatural knuckles-forward stance that purportedly conveys some kind of alpha male status. Ultimately, postural fashions may come down to our chimpy side: see Primate Gestures May Be Clue to Human Language, which reports "In the chimpanzees, we have one group, just one group, where the chimpanzees hold hands together above their heads when they groom each other with the other hand," de Waal says. "It's a very strange posture. It was developed by one female named Georgia, and she introduced her family members to it, and now all the chimps in the group are doing it". It's not so different from limping because the Queen does.

- Ray