A Hero Named Mayhem
Johnny Mayhem, man of a thousand faces, leaping from body to body, putting right things that had once went…no wait! That’s the television show, Quantum Leap, which ran from 1989 to 1993. Never mind. Decades before Sam Beckett went leaping through time, there was another bodiless adventurer doing much the same thing. His name was Johnny Mayhem.
The eleven Mayhem stories ran from 1955-1958 in Amazing Stories magazine. They were written by Milton Lesser (1928 – 2008), under the pen names of C.H. Thames and Darius John Granger. The editors consistently claimed that Johnny Mayhem was one of the most popular series characters ever to appear in Amazing. Curious, I looked into fan letters during the run of the series and this appears to be true. Of course, the editors were selecting which letters they published and that can go either way. They could have been flooded with positive letters and only published a selection or they might have gotten mostly negatives and hyped the tales with a few positive remarks. But the stories were good so I think that, probably, it was as popular as the editors claimed.
Milton Lesser was an extremely prolific writer. He wrote under multiple pen/house names and often had several stories in the same magazine. It’s always interesting to hear fans rave about one of an author’s tales, while dissing another under a pen name published in the very same number. Such was often true of the industrious Mr. Lesser.
The premise of Johnny Mayhem was, if not unique, certainly intriguing. The stories were entertaining and enjoyable. Some fans hoped that Mayhem would become the next “Captain Future” (Edmond Hamilton’s super-scientist space hero). Whether or not the character rose to such illustrious heights, he certainly became a hero worth returning to again and again.
Johnny Mayhem was hyped as the man of a thousand faces. Within the stories, he was an interstellar legend who was at once loved and hated, honest and corrupt, good and evil. He was immortal — yet in constant fear of death.
Mayhem begins as Johnny Marlow of Earth in the future. Five years before the first story opens he’d assassinated the President of Earth. Why? Because he was the only one to realize that the president’s mind had been possessed by an alien sentience. After his possession the president’s values suddenly changed. He began leading Earth from democracy into iron-fisted oligarchy. Johnny knew that without the alien’s interference the oligarchical movement would quickly collapse. Although he tried to convince others of his claims, he was not successful. So, he did the only thing he could, he killed the president himself, hoping that the alien would die with him. No such luck!
Marlow flees to Canopus, Deneb and beyond into the Sagittarian swarm hoping to elude his pursuers. They catch up with him at last giving him a mortal wound. Johnny crashes onto the planet of Knurr where the inhabitants find him and “with science unknown to mankind, with an ancient wisdom which has been lost with the ages… save Johnny’s life.”
His body is found and taken back to Earth, later exhibited to the people who’d adored their slain president. Meanwhile, Johnny is slowly healing among the Knurr in a dead man’s body! They have saved his essence, which they refer to as elan. He is now a bodiless entity who can exist physically in dead bodies, but only for 30 days before the body dies again and his elan is destroyed. At first, realization of how he must spend eternity nearly drives him mad. “His sentience, his elan, would not grow old, only bodies grow old. Thus Johnny Marlow — Johnny Mayhem, as he came to be called — was barred from all phases of normal human existence.” He was a disembodied gypsy who decided to make the most of his new life by offering his services to the Galactic League as a death-defying troubleshooter. He becomes a legendary pop culture hero who helps smooth the way for humanity’s peaceful spread out amongst the stars.
Every colony planet of the Galactic League is required to have a dead human body on ice in case Johnny Mayhem’s unique services are called for. The order is followed as law, although most think it’s ridiculous. Surely, Johnny Mayhem is nothing but a legend?
After his assignments are completed the men at the Galactic Hub beam his elan to the next assignment. When we’re first introduced to Mayhem in “My Name is Mayhem” he’s already a legend. He’s been at the job for five years and has inhabited who-knows-how-many bodies. Mayhem’s exploits force him onto impossible adventures, possessing a series of bodies including a young boy’s and a woman’s. More than once he has to share a body with a living soul, usually a no-no but necessary in instances where no dead body can be found. He’s a prisoner, a slave, a madman in an asylum. You get the feeling you’re only hearing about only a fraction of his adventures, a clever conceit on the part of the writer.
Before getting to my opinion of the stories let’s hear from some readers at the time. My favorite letter came out early in the series—
I’m glad you began the ‘Mayhem’ romances. Entertaining, not overloaded with scientific suppositions, but still within the real of credibility. A real treat for juvenile minds such as mine! All of us can’t be collegians nor often very academic. Ha!
B.L., Amazing Stories, 12/55
I feel like I might have liked this person, don’t you?
“This Planet is Mine” and “World Beyond Pluto” seemed to be fan favorites, although “Mayhem Enslaved” and “Think Yourself to Death” were also mentioned by name. Beyond that, I found fifteen letters with votes of confidence for Johnny Mayhem’s wild adventures. In response to one of them, the editor at the time (Paul W. Fairman, I believe) responded with, “…That guy Mayhem! He’s so blasted busy we can’t make him stand still long enough to give us his autograph.”
For myself, I found much to like in the series. I have to agree that “This Planet Is Mine” was something special, although I also liked “My Name is Mayhem,” “A Place in the Sun” and “A Coward Named Mayhem.” If there was a weaker story in the run, for me it was “Get Out of My World” which came out mid-way through the series. But all were enjoyable. I feel certain that if Lesser had continued to write more Johnny Mayhem stories, fans would have happily kept reading them. Because, you know, a bodiless hero is a great set-up for fun adventures. And, by the way, when Quantum Leap was on the air I was a huge fan of that, too.
Here’s a list of the Johnny Mayhem stories with a snippet of plot, just enough to whet your appetites.
- “My Name Is Mayhem,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, September 1955. Mayhem’s first adventure takes place on the one planet he never wanted to return to — Earth! To make matters worse, he finds himself inhabiting his own long dead body.
- “They Sent a Boy,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, November 1955. Mayhem is used to switching bodies. As long as it’s young and healthy, he doesn’t really care what it looks like. But what happens when the only body available is that of a ten-year-old boy?
- “The Burning Man,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, January 1956. There’s trouble on Mercury’s penal colony and Mayhem’s talents are called for. What he discovers is a lose-lose scenario. He only has thirty days in which to accomplish his mission but he’s in an escape-proof prison in the body of a man whose sentence is for life!
- “Magellan Was a Piker,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, June 1956. On a far-flung colony in the Magellanic Cloud, Mayhem must stop an alien invasion. But how can he do it while wearing the body of a tottering old man?
- “This Planet Is Mine,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, July 1956. Dreamworld is a very special sort of mental hospital, it’s an entire world! Mayhem has had his memory wiped, like all the other inmates. How can he complete his mission now?
- “A Place in the Sun,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, October 1956. The starship, Glory of the Galaxy, is in big trouble. The crippled starliner is falling into the sun’s corona. Aboard her is the President of the Galactic Federation who must be saved at all costs. But there are no dead bodies for Mayhem to inhabit… only living ones!
- “Think Yourself to Death,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, March 1957. On a planet where all outsiders have a nasty habit of committing suicide, Mayhem must discover the real cause of the deaths while inhabiting the body of a beautiful woman.
- “Get Out of My World,” Milton Lesser as by Darius John Granger, Amazing Stories, June 1957. Mayhem awakens in the body of a folk hero who died 400 hundred years before. His assignment…? To get an entire population of xenophobes to leave their dying world before it’s too late.
- “A Coward Named Mayhem,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, January 1958. The Starship, Oberon, has been hulled by meteors. Once more Mayhem must share a body with a living soul, but this time the man is a shivering coward.
- “Mayhem Enslaved,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, June 1958. A brain-washed genius must be rescued from a planet where humans are slaves of unhuman masters. What’s more, he must stop a slave uprising before the genius is killed!
- “World Beyond Pluto,” Milton Lesser as by C.H. Thames, Amazing Stories, November 1958. Mayhem chases a hijacked spaceship carrying one hundred beautiful girls and one desperate killer. He’s got to wrap up the job in less than six days or he’s dead!
If you’d like to read the Mayhem stories without hunting through old issues of Amazing Stories (as I did), you can find some or all of the Johnny Mayhem series in the following collections:
Milton Lesser’s Johnny Mayhem: The Complete Works, collected by Christopher Broschell, Giants of Sci-Fi Collection #5, Library and Archives Canada, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-77724-473-6
The Golden Age of Science Fiction Megapack #8, Wildside Press, 2014. (Includes three “Johnny Mayhem” stories.) ISBN: 978-1-4794-0344-8
SARA LIGHT-WALLER is a writer, illustrator, and avid pulp and vintage science fiction fan. In 2020, she won the prestigious Cosmos Award for her illustrated space opera story — “Battle at Neptune.” She’s published two illustrated new pulp books — Landscape of Darkness and Anchor: A Strange Tale of Time and is a regular contributor to several pulp blogs. Catch up with her at Lucina Press.
Milton Lesser was an interesting character, if not an interesting writer.
He started as a letter hack in Planet Stories in the 1940s, which probably had one of the liveliest letter sections in SF magazine history. As some of the other letter hacks (like Marion Zimmer Bradley) he turned pro, and as mentioned he was extremely prolific. But very few of his stories were ever anthologized, and myself I have not read any of his stories yet.
Later he changed his name to Stephen Marlowe and IIRC he became a poet in his later years
He had a decent reputation in the mystery field with a series of novels that probably represented his best work.
Lesser’s science fiction work was definitely patchy, but his output was impressive and he did produce some good and memorable stories (like the Mayhem series.) I haven’t read much of his work in the mystery field but I’ve heard good things. I think he’s an author worth remembering. Perhaps one day someone will cobble together a couple more Lesser anthologies. *fingers crossed for that*
I’ve never heard of this series but I like how it resolves the core issue re the ethics of what Mayhem is doing. There’s a quantitive difference between finding an abandoned car, fixing it and taking it for a drive – and stealing one.
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