Sunday, June 19, 2011

Books and the Doorway to Imagination

Books and the Doorway to Imagination
How Cowboys, Space Operas,
Vampires and the Smell of Pulp Enriched My Life

“He mused upon this mingling of man’s linear dream with the curved earth,
couched in mystery like a sphinx.”

- Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County, page 7

It’s an old book and very musty. The binding is secure and the pages still only hint at the yellow of decay. The book is Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. and this is a first edition from 1948. The dustcover is long gone. The spine is tight, the pages still tight and sweep easily under my roving thumb. So I thumb the pages and let them cascade like a pulp waterfall, all 1066 pages. There on the title page is the book’s heart; a little block of text that reads: “...which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange.” The words pulse like a thick artery, rich with the life’s blood of dear dead Ross Lockridge, Jr. who lives now forever in libraries. 

Ross Lockridge, Jr. must certainly have been influenced by Thomas Wolfe. The scope and dynamics of Look Homeward, Angel and Raintree County are too similar to be a coincidence. Still, Raintree County is no imitation. It is as vibrant and alive as anything that Wolfe wrote. Both books are masterpieces. Both books are not easy to read, but the best books are seldom easy to read for a modern audience weaned on the kinetic fast edits of MTV music videos. You have to slow down, control your breathing and find your own heartbeat before you can read books like these. And if you do, I promise, you won’t be disappointed. In books like these you can smell the sunlight, taste the wind, soar above the summer’s streets with an omniscient viewpoint that places you front and center for the action; and when the action heats up you’ll drift down like a sparrow to eavesdrop on the day’s events.
            Thumb through the books yourself, pause and read a fragment...

            “Americans, the eternal children of humanity! Rootless wanderers, creators of new cities, conquerors of deserts and forests, voyagers on rivers, migrants to westward, they kept eternally in their hearts the fact or fiction of the childhood home.”
- Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County, page 736

“...Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our
 mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.”

Here are jewels of words shimmering like an oasis for the mind’s eye. I am an avid reader; a bookhound and a word fanatic. I won’t limit myself to one genre or style. I read and enjoy everything I can get my hands on. I have fond childhood memories reading Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Mickey Spillane. Today I own four copies of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, including the paperback I read for the first time in High School. I met Ray but once and I’ve been privileged to enjoy a sporadic correspondence with him for many years. During my bohemian early twenties I read Jack Kerouac and L. Ron Hubbard and their books are still my favorites. When I think of great science fiction I think of the incomparable Robert A. Heinlein and books like The Puppet Masters or Farnham’s Freehold. Then there is L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, a book I deem a masterpiece. With Battlefield Earth Hubbard reaffirms his belief that mankind can adapt and overcome adverse circumstances through intellect, reason and hard work.
And then there is Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, or the novels of Arthur C. Clarke. Today there is little of “pure science fiction” as Hubbard referred to the genre in his introduction to Battlefield Earth. The genre has splintered and become a fusion of fantasy and science, thereby creating sub-genres. You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of what’s hot in splatterpunk. steampunk, gothic horror, science fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal romance, military sci-fi, and urban fantasy. There are so many splintered genres that it’s fairly mind boggling.

Chief among my favorite fantasy writers was the late David Gemmell who earned his place as the preeminent writer of heroic fantasy. Currently I treasure books by Richard K. Morgan, Kevin J. Anderson, Glen Cook, David Wolverton (AKA David Farland), China Miéville, George Mann, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ian McDonald, Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, Norman Partridge, Neil Gaiman, and Mark Chadbourn. Among the stacks of books in the literati’s den we find the amazing novels of Mark Helprin (and I applaud A Soldier of the Great War as an American classic), Alice Hoffman, Margaret Atwood and Jim Harrison. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck share a long shelf here in my den. I re-read them frequently. A quick glance around my room and I spy The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. Now Pynchon is the writer that other writers dream about. As a self-made recluse he’s made himself alluring by being mysterious. His books intrigue, enlighten, entertain, befuddle and amaze, just as good books should, and don’t we all wish we were as good as Pynchon? When I think of Pynchon I can’t help but think of his friend Denis Farina, long dead and nearly forgotten, Farina’s Been Down So Long should be mandatory reading. John Updike and Irwin Shaw and John Cheever all hold a place of honor in my library.
And then there are the little known masterpieces that thrive with a life of their own long after their authors have parted the veil. Books like Winds of Morning by H.L. Davis or The Rose by Charles L. Harness, and The Cannibal by John Hawkes. I treasure stories by Charles Beaumont and John Collier and the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, W. S. Merwin and Dave Etter.
For swashbuckling fare I recommend Stevenson’s Treasure Island followed by Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, and then reach for “The High Seas Trilogy” (The Wreckers, The Smugglers, The Buccaneers) by Ian Lawrence. Add to this the posthumously published Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton and you’ll be begging for more clashing swords and daring adventure along The Spanish Main. Recently I read a superb swashbuckler titled The Pirate Devlin by Mark Keating.
            And then there are signed books. I own books signed by Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Jack Schaefer, Max Allan Collins, Paul Newman, Don Blanding, James Arness and many more.
I own six signed by Ray Bradbury, five by Mickey Spillane, four by Robert B. Parker, three by Elmore Leonard, four by Jim Harrison, two by Philip Jose Farmer, four by Roger Zelazny (this includes two each of the signed-limited edition of the Phantasia Press edition of Madwand), four by Frank McCourt, six by Lance Howard (AKA Howard Hopkins), and eight by Joe R. Lansdale. But my friend the poet Dave Etter beats them all with a whopping thirteen signed books on my bookshelf.
            But best of all are two books signed by Errol Flynn. One of these is a first edition hardcover of Showdown, Flynn’s 1946 novel, and a copy of Serenade by James. M. Cain, but signed by Flynn. Serenade was published in 1937. James M. Cain is best known as the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity. Cain is known because of his hardboiled style, but he never achieved the acclaim of his contemporaries. In fact, Cain’s prose had a harder edge than Raymond Chandler. Looking over Serenade I thought it read more like 1950s era pulp story by Jim Thompson,  Steve Fisher or John Farris. These are men that wrote gritty crime thrillers and quite often the protagonist comes to a violent end. Happy endings were for romance novelists, not guys like this. Errol Flynn was an avid reader. Flynn gave his copy of Serenade to a producer and when the producer died his estate was liquidated. The book went to a dealer who kept it in storage for many years.
Flynn wrote his name in pencil on the first flyleaf page. It’s a good, clean signature. It was not uncommon for people to write their names in books because loaning books was once a common practice. This is a well read copy. There are small coffee stains here and there, but nothing that really damages the book. The spine is a little loose for my taste. As far as its general condition and collectible value it ranks as a “good” and I’ve been told without Flynn’s signature the book’s value is about $200.00. The story involves an opera singer who loses his voice and gets mixed up with a Mexican prostitute. It seems typically grim and unrelenting, and very well written in that classic hardboiled style once so popular. And its chilling last line resonates long after you’ve read it. When I thumbed through the book I paused on page 181 where a dark, forceful pencil line had been slashed next to a paragraph. I read that paragraph which begins: “Once you start some funny business, not only he, but every other picture man in Hollywood turns thumbs down, and that’s the end of you, in pictures. There’s no black-list. Nobody calls anybody up. They just hear about it, and that’s all.” And at this point in the right margin the pencil mark slashes twice down the side of the page: “I can give you names, if you want them, of bright boys like you that thought they could jump a Hollywood contract, and tell you what happened to them. These picture guys hate each other, they cut each other’s throats, all the time, but when something like this happens, they act with unanimity that’s touching...”

My instinct tells me that Flynn made that pencil mark because the passage intrigued him. And since the book’s provenance isn’t in question, I’m fascinated by that paragraph. Obviously he could relate to the statement. Flynn had attempted to break his Warner’s contract several times, and he was certainly always looking for a better deal. What was going through Flynn’s mind? What was it about that passage that struck a chord with him? We’ll never know. It’s all part of the enigma and mystery of Errol Flynn.

But how many of us have underlined passages  that resonated with us? A storyteller will always discover that he shouldn’t limit himself. So I have turned to the writing of westerns, a genre that people keep telling me is dead. I won’t limit myself to westerns, but for now that’s where I’m at, and tomorrow will be something different. Making the effort to tell a good story is a privilege. After all, I’ve been blessed to be a reader. If I need inspiration, I look up at my crowded bookcases and there I’ll find the answer to everything.
I look to Ray Bradbury who took me from Green Town, Illinois to Mars and back.
I look to Edgar Rice Burroughs who took me from Mars to the deepest jungles of Africa with Lord Greystoke.
I look to Ian Fleming whose dour and tight-lipped civil servant named James Bond taught to me to stand tall when the odds were stacked against me.
I look to Arthur Conan Doyle who dazzled me with the brilliant deductions of his steadfast Sherlock Holmes.
I look to Roger Zelazny who made a kingdom in Amber the most wonderful and frightening place of all.
I look to Ernest Hemingway who regaled me with tales of bullfighters and boozers, his sad soul writing in a Paris loft of his lost Michigan youth, his father’s shadow never far from his side.
I look John Steinbeck and his travels with Charley or his many fine stories and novels.
I sing the praises of these writers because that is what all avid readers should do. These books are as vibrant and as meaningful as if they were living, breathing entities. And perhaps they are. A book’s influence lives beyond the moment we read the words that comprise its pages. Avid readers are for the most part highly skilled readers, and they don’t shy away from long books or those deemed “challenging” by the faux aristocracy that passes itself off as “commentators” on the Internet. Hemingway is equally as appealing as Zane Grey; Jim Harrison makes a nice bookshelf companion for Mickey Spillane. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder and a skilled reader will not allow himself to become confused by labeling or academic categorizations that demean various genres.

Books are not simply products that are sold by publishing firms with an eye on a profit, although the business end of publishing, i.e., making money, is something every writer should familiarize himself with; but rather they are part of our collective souls. A books touches us at both the intellectual level and the spiritual level, and the very good ones resonant for our lifetimes. We internalize what we read; we consume the words and feed from them for this is the stuff that nourishes our minds. Reading requires enthusiasm and rewards us with its resonating ideas.

My life has been defined by reading and writing. Words have a rhythm and resonance like music. The effect words have on me linger like a beautiful song; I have the ability to recall great lines the way musicians recall tempo changes and intricate chords. All of these years after first encountering him I can recall Wallace Stevens’ opening lines from his poem Sunday Morning:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

And so from this place on the blank electronic page, the computer humming softly, I have lead you into my den where lurk strange characters in the flickering candlelight. Machen’s Great God Pan is here and high on the shelf where the air smells of salt the whisper of something old that once lived in the Sargasso sea and made William Hope Hodgson shiver. Blink and the fabric of Time opens like a curtain and see this cowboy ride against the blood red sun as it cools sinking down into the vast blue bowl of night; riding into a forest where dragons feed on giant mushrooms and a glimmering stainless steel spacecraft stands like a bullet in a pasture of purple flowers. Gnarled trees lean into the wind with limbs like the arms of witches burning at the stake. The White Rabbit is here and Alice is still lost in Wonderland. Peter and Wendy and the Lost Boys and Arthur and his sword all linger in the background waiting to be rediscovered by a reader. Classic characters like Long John Silver, Tarzan of the Apes, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, James Bond, and Douglas Spaulding in Green Town all await you.
Picture yourself wandering lost through an immense primordial forest until you encounter a large mansion. You approach the mansion’s solitary door cautiously. The doorway before you is cut from oak, sealed with iron slats, forged by a master carpenter. The doorway that you and I find ourselves standing before can only be unlocked with our imagination.
            Anything is possible.
            And that’s just the first chapter....

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