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


  1. Great detective work that catapults LGPATA into the realm of a modern myth.

  2. The credit on this part goes entirely to Michael.

  3. "
    "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.""
    -Steve Vance

    "The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."
    -Miss Prism in The Importance of being Earnest.
    Are they related?

  4. Thanks for the extra info!