23 June 2020

Arthur Mayse: The Gift of His Extraordinary Life


At ten, The Beachcombers consumed a steady portion of my week – one half-hour each Sunday evening – and yet Arthur Mayse's name meant nothing to me. Truth be told, I never paid much attention to the show's credits. Mayse wrote four of the early episodes; they followed more than sixty short stories, novellas, and novels published in Liberty, Argosy, Collier's, Maclean's, and the Saturday Evening Post. They also followed three novels, including 1952's Desperate Search, a Post serial and Sears Book Club selection, which was adapted to the screen in a film starring Howard Keel and Jane Greer. IMDb has the trailer.

Arthur "Bill" Mayse was a Manitoban, born amongst the Swampy Cree to Baptist missionaries, though he lived most of his life in British Columbia, the province in which most of his fiction is set. A newspaperman, Mayse wrote for the Vancouver Sun, the Province, and was for thirty years a columnist for the Victoria Times-Colonist. His obituary appeared in the same edition as his final column.

I moved from Montreal to Vancouver not long after Arthur Mayse died. In my fifteen years in British Columbia – eight of which I served on the Executive of the Federation of BC Writers (two as Vice-President, two as President) – I never once heard anyone mention his name.

How can this be?

Arthur Mayse lived a most remarkable life. This early part of his Vancouver Sun obituary (25 March 1992), penned by son-in-law Stephen Hume, gives a sense of what we lost in his passing:
He knew Cowichan shamans, Sointula pukka fighters, tame apes from the A-frame camps, Chinese laborers, unrepentant Wobblies. More than anything, he knew and loved the country. He lived it, breathed it, fished it and sometimes despaired at what was being done to it in the ignorant clamor called progress.
      He was an ace reporter for The Province from the day he was hired out of UBC, a prize-winning poet one course short of graduation. He'd been freelancing pieces at space rates until the managing editor noticed he earned more from his column-inch scale than reporters did on full salary and hired him to save money.
     In 1933, covering the first ascent of Mount Waddington, highest peak in the Coast Range and a notorious killer of climbers, he packed carrier pigeons to the high base camp. Hawks picked them off at the treeline, so he did a solo descent through brutal terrain, bushwhacked his way to tidewater, cat danced the log booms and sweet-talked a tugboat skipper into taking him downcoast to file his exclusive story.
It ends:
When word of his death came, we went outside and looked into a night sky blazing with stars. The Big Dipper wheeled down toward the horizon, the same constellation Bill watched from Cowichan Bay in his dugout canoe (heisted for him by shaman Cultus Tommy) as a boy so long ago. It seemed right that he should escape weary age and sorrow at the hinge of the year. He died just before dawn. It was equinox, the first day of spring. We took his two-year-old granddaughter to a sea-run cutthroat beach –  a child he loved, a place he loved – and gave thanks for the gift of his extraordinary life.
Extraordinary indeed.

It wasn't until this month that I'd read anything by Arthur Mayse. The strength of that work, his debut novel Perilous Passage, sent me off on a tear through the short stories he published in Maclean's. It's sad to think that they came and went with each new issue – none were ever collected – and yet I can't help but appreciate a time in which fiction featured in our best magazines. And I can't help but admire the artists who provided illustrations for his stories.

15 February 1940
1 April 1945
15 May 1945
15 September 1945
15 October 1946
15 March 1951

Does "The Hex-Man of Croacker's Creek" have anything to do with "The Hexman," one of Mayse's Beachcombers scripts?

The question might be addressed in the introduction to a collection of his short stories.

Is the publication of such a thing not overdue?

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  1. It is always astonishing to see what writer got paid for stories in the magazines too.

    1. Indeed! According to the US Inflation Calculator, the $15,000 Mayse received for the serial rights amounts to roughly $161,700 today. A few years ago, I was thrilled when Reader's Digest paid me $2,500 for a piece. Still am.

  2. Wow, great to get more history of this guy. You know I'd line up to get a collection of his stories. 'Perilous Passage' is one of those I'd like to lend out, but will hold back until I have a backup copy.

    1. You were right in thinking that Perilous Passage might make a fine addition to the Ricochet series. True, its not got much in the way of urban grit, and Canada doesn't much figure, but it's a fine example of rural noir. And so well written! Let's see if I can't get you a 2021 Ricochet edition as that backup copy. In the meantime, I'm hoping some BC publisher will pick up the idea of a "selected stories."