There are a number of writers and artists who share a birthday today, July 24. I’m going to focus on four of them, although there are others such as Alexandre Dumas, Barry Malzberg, Gordon Eklund, or Travis S. Taylor, whose work has either been significant to the field or work that I enjoy (or both).
I want to focus on these four because they’ve had a major impact on my reading and writing habits and/or have had lasting influence. I”ll discuss them in the order of their births.
The first is E. F. Benson (1867-1940). For a time back in the 1990s, Benson was best remembered for Mapp and Lucia, a series of domestic stories that had been dramatized on PBS. The books were in print, and from what I recall concerned upper crust British society. I’m not sure if they were dramas or comedies. I think the latter. What they weren’t, though, were ghost stories. Fortunately in the late 90s/early 00s Ash-Tree Press began reprinting Benson’s ghost stories. This is where he really shown. They’re all available now in electronic format.
E. F. Benson was one of the greatest practitioners of the classic English ghost story. His reputation has been somewhat over shadowed by M. R. James and H. Russell Wakefield, but he was every bit as good as they were. I first encountered Benson’s work in an anthology I found at my grandparents’ house. The book was Ghosts and Things, edited by Hal Cantor. Benson’s story was “Caterpillars”, and if you don’t like squiggly things, the creep-out factor might be too high for you.
Some of Benson’s other well-known tales included “The Room in the Tower”, “Mrs. Amworth”, “Negotium Perambulans”, “The Face”, and ” ‘And No Bird Sings’ “.
Next, we come to Lord Dunsany (1878 – 1957). Dunsany probably needs no introduction to anyone reading this post. He was one of the greatest fantasy writers of the 20th Century and had a profound effect on H. P. Lovecraft. Dunsany tended to write at short lengths, with many of his stories being what would be called flash fiction today. Many of his stories are set in a mythical land called Pegana.
He did write a few novels, with The King of Elfland’s Daughter being the most highly regarded. I certainly liked it a lot.
Dunsany also contributed to the “club story” genre, a type of story that is, with the exception of de Camp and Pratt’s Gavagan’s Bar stories, almost an exclusively English form. The general format is a group of men in some type of club sitting around telling tales, some of which stretch the limits of believability. They can run the gamut of exaggerated mundane stories (P. G. Wodehouse wrote a number of these) to the out and out fantastical. Dunsany’s Jorkens stories fall into this category.
Our third birthday isn’t a writer, but an artist, Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981). Coye illustrated a number of books by such authors as H. P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, and Hugh B. Cave. His work was noted for his frequent use of perpendicular arrangements of sticks. He said he discovered an abandoned farmhouse while hiking in a remote area of New York where someone had laid boards out in such an arrangement. He never discovered who had arranged the boards that way or what purpose they served. The farm was destroyed by a flood. Karl Edward Wagner based his most famous story, “Sticks”, on Coye’s experience.
Coyes’ work isn’t as well remembered as it should be. Coye was mainly self-educated and spent time observing surgeries and autopsies as part of his study of human anatomy. His style is unmistakable, and those sticks he includes can be really creepy.
Finally, we come to probably my favorite of the writers who have birthdays today, John D. MacDonald (1916-1986). MacDonald wrote a number of science fiction stories for the pulps in the late 1940s and 1950s before turning to crime novels. He also wrote three science fiction novels, the best known being The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything, which was made into a movie. To the best of my knowledge, he never wrote any fantasy. While some of his short fiction has been collected in Other Times, Other Worlds, that book was published in 1978 and is long out of print. An omnibus of his science fiction is long overdue. (Paging Mr. Haffner…)
Of the authors I’ve focused on in this post, MacDonald is probably my favorite. You could argue that a birthday post about him would be more appropriate at Gumshoes, Gats, and Gams. I’ve chosen to include him here because he has had an impact not only on me, but on a number of other writers, not the least of which is Stephen King.
MacDonald’s prose is lean and not a word is wasted. MacDonald wrote with a pulp sensibility that contained a depth of character beyond what usually showed up in the pulps. Writers who want to see how things are done can learn a lot from MacDonald. Today he’s remembered, if at all, for his Travis McGee thrillers, but some of his best work was in his stand-alone novels. If you can find them, they’re worth tracking down.
So these are four writers who I think need to be remembered today. Hopefully you’ve found someone whose work you’ll find a read.