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

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