Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2007
Column: Lansdale Unchained #3: Little Boys Unite by Joe R. Lansdale
Recently in this column I wrote an article on Robert E. Howard and his novel Almuric. It got a lot of response, directly and indirectly. I was pleased that so many liked it and were made aware of his work, and I was pleased that it stirred up discussion by those who were less pleased with my comments.
I suggested the idea that Howard was writing for the little boy inside of himself. This premise bent one reader at least a little bit. A very smart and well spoken reader, I might add. But I stand by that comment and add this: So what? That’s not a negative criticism. He appeals primarily to boys and men who still remember what it’s like to be a boy. Those of us who love the idea of being muscular and powerful, swinging a sword and knocking down the villains, living in the wild with nothing more than our wits to guide us, are more numerous than lying politicians.
Truth be known, we got out there in the wild, we would all most likely be eaten by lions and ants within about an hour and a half, even if we spent the first hour or so hiding in the top of a tree.
It is a fantasy, and a beautiful one, and that always appeals to the adolescent in us, no matter how sophisticated the fantasy might be. That’s my opinion, and I hasten to add it’s an opinion, and as I’ve said before, the old saying about opinions is they are like assholes, everyone has one, so take it for what it is: an opinion, not word from On High. I like to think I have enough background to write a reasonable opinion, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. As the detractor pointed out (and I’m sure he is in good company), there is violence and death in the Howard stories, and therefore it’s dealing with real life, but my take on that is how does that make it any less adolescent. In fact, in my view, that’s what seals the deal. Where I grew up, hunting, for example, was part of everyday life. Some could say they hunted for food, and back then, many of us did. But mostly people hunt these days because of the joy of killing something. And if that isn’t so, then switch to hunting with a camera. See if that works for you. These mighty Nimrods like to feel they are close to the “old” days when it was just them in the wilderness. Of course, in the old days, they didn’t have the kind of weapons we have now, telescopic sights, that sort of thing, and they had to hunt or die. But still, it’s a little boy’s impulse to get out there and bring in the game. And instead of wearing the antlers on their heads these days, they mount them on the wall, which strikes me as even stranger, and certainly savage. I mean, shit, if you’re going to take the antlers, at least fasten them to a helmet and wear them on your head, stretch the skins out and tan them and wear them for shoes. Show up for work in that gear. I want to see it.
Nothing like going to bed at night knowing you’ve protected the world against deadly attacks from squirrels, deer, and assorted birds.
Hey, they’re good to eat, and I’ve eaten them. I eat cows and chickens and pigs, etc. Every time I buy meat, I’ve killed something. But frankly, chicken is cheaper than all those bullets and beer and the outfits and the gas and I don’t have to be embarrassed about playing Nimrod anymore. Being out there with nature is part of it, certainly, but there’s something hypocritical in the idea that you’re being one with the universe when you’re blasting the shit out of birds and animals. You can at least say you’re keeping the deer population down. There’s a truth to that. You can say you like venison and they don’t sell it much in the store. And that’s true. I like it too. I like elk as well. But, hey, let’s be honest. It’s killing something that drives the beast. You know it, and I know it. Otherwise, once again, you’d carry a camera, not a gun.
I even know one guy who, when his son killed his first deer, had the boy wipe the deer’s blood on his face. You know, that’s kind of creepy. If it had been a bear and he’d killed it with a spear or a knife, you could maybe understand that. Big balls there, but otherwise…not so much.
Somewhere, Bambi sleeps without a father. Or mother. Or brother or sister. But at least when Bambi lays down he can be assured that somewhere a drunk has sobered up and taken the body of his loved one to be processed, and much of it will, when mixed with pork or beef, make good sausage.
Okay, I’m sidetracked and I’m not through.
I even saw in our newspaper a full page article on a boy who had prayed to god to kill his first deer, and god gave it to him. Had a picture of this religious kid and his dead deer. A big motherfucker with enough antlers to loan a couple of lesser deer. And I thought, shit, this kid should have prayed for peace in Iraq, something along those lines, ‘cause god is getting distracted giving kids dead aim and dead deer when he could do something important, like ending wars, healing sickness, giving me six more inches on my dick and making me twenty-five-years-old again, but given the knowledge I have now. I also wouldn’t mind being a couple inches taller.
All that stuff god is supposed to be able to do, and the kid prays for a dead deer.
This, among other obvious things, assures me that if there is a god he/she/it hasn’t any sympathy for us in any manner shape or form. We’re an ant farm and our owner has gone off to play. More likely, there just isn’t anybody up there. Or he likes seeing deer get shot. Or he likes to make sure good football teams with good looking cheerleaders who show the most ass when they jump get his graces. I mean, think about it. Football players pray not to be hurt before a game, and that’s valid, but they also pray to win. This is true of both teams. They don’t want to get hurt and they don’t want to lose. Some still get hurt, and someone loses. Are they losing because they’re not as good a people as the other team? Does god not like them? If they get hurt, is god saying, “Showed that little cocksucker?” Or is it all…let me see what’s the word I’m looking for…Oh yeah, bullshit? That’s the word.
Yes, is it all bullshit.
And so, Lansdale, as is often the case, strays….
Almuric is a favorite of mine because it reminds me of an author I like even more, Edgar Rice Burroughs. I say this without feeling that I’m out to duel one author against the other. I like them both. Howard was maybe even more grown up about his material (so I give the detractors that), but at heart they both were small boys writing fantasy to keep themselves entertained and to pick up a check. They were both grown men playing with swords, if only in their heads.
Burroughs lived longer, and perhaps being more of this world, with a family and a mortgage, lost some of his love for the work, and therefore some of his appeal. He was successful enough to live pretty well, so he didn’t need as much of the fantasy. The books became repetitive and about as inspired as summer camp ashtrays.
But… He wrote some doozies. A Princess of Mars is my sentimental favorite novel of all time, while my favorite in other ways is To Kill a Mockingbird.
You couldn’t find two books further apart. Yet they are both about childhood in a way. Burroughs was writing from the inner child, and Harper Lee was writing directly about a child and how a child sees things and becomes an adult. Loss of innocence is a theme I’ve always loved, and have explored in a number of my own fictions, but I believe on some level, though we may lose innocence, we never lose our yearning to have it back.
Sometimes, springtime in East Texas I’ll come out of the house, on the way down to my study, which is the bottom floor, and unconnected to the rest of the house, and smell on the wind some springtime scent, and I will time travel to when I was a young boy in East Texas sitting out under a shade tree reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, or I’ll remember another time when I was lying in bed in front of what we called a window fan, which was cleverly called that because it was pushed up tight in a window, and had straw in the back of it, and there was a hook up to the water hose that was supposed to feed the straw with water and make the stirred air cool. The little hook up never seemed to work, but we would take the water hose and wet down the straw at the back of the fan, and that would last for hours, and it made our tall ceiling house cool and wonderful and I would read, and I would be John Carter.
Later, as a young man, divorced, visiting a friend in Berkley, CA, trying to find a job, finally doing day labor with winos and drug addicts, odds and ends type of work, I would end the day by going by a bookstore on Telegraph, if memory serves me. And there, with a few spare coins, I would buy used copies of Conan books. I had read Howard before this, while living in Tyler, Texas, going to the University, newly married (that marriage already dissolving and me not wanting to believe it), trying to go to the university (never finished), and so I knew Howard and I knew his ways. In Berkley, divorce papers served, living on pot pies and a desire to write, I read every one of these Howard books I could get my hands on. When I left to go back to Texas, I was ready to toss out clothes just to get those books back home. And I did, though over the years a few of them got kidnapped by someone here and there.
But I loved them. I loved Howard. I still do.
Still, he was the little boy writing about his idea of a grown man. He may have been a grown man, but the stories came from the child about the idealized man. Hell, Howard even dressed up in cowboy outfits when he was full grown and swung swords against weeds.
I worked hard physical jobs when I was young, and for a long time. I know what it’s like to keep your brain alive by visiting places that don’t exist. By using that little boy impulse to set your mind free.
On one level, I’ve never grown up. Even though I write about some pretty realistic things from time to time, the impulse is no different than when I write wild and fantastic things that come from a more obviously adolescent place. Writing is dreaming on paper, and trying to figure out a way to not have to work for anyone and still pay the bills.
Howard never grew up.
Writers never grow up.
Readers wouldn’t want them to.
Be it Hemingway telling us about Nick Adams, or Twain telling us about Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn, it is always about the inner-child, and note, when I say inner-child, I’m not talking about that pop psychology shit about the inner-child. This is simply that impulse we have to connect with our imagination when it was fresh and buck wild and it allowed us to sail away to some place other than math class. Since I mentioned Huckleberry Finn, and am, as you have seen, not afraid to digress, I’ll add that Huckleberry Finn, though about a child, is not a children’s book as some think. It is a dark and sometimes disturbing book, and though about childhood, it is also about real things, which Howard seldom was. There are no social issues in Howard’s work, and if there are, they are minimal. I add that not as a slight, but as something that seems obvious to me. Howard was even more about childhood dreams than the rest of us. This is an obvious reason for his success. He can do what a lot of writers cannot. He can give us our dreams back. And I should also note, childhood dreams are not all sweetness and light, and in fact many of them are dark as the pit and deep as Pellucidar. Shadows crawl there. Urges collide.
Howard was a fine writer of exciting tales. He was a kind of Texas Jack London. He was a force of nature. Not all he wrote was wonderful. His Elkins stories are overrated, from my point of view. Vultures of Whapeton is so bad it makes my back teeth ache.
But man, when he was on with Conan and Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane and Kull and his horror stories, his other creations, including the flawed but highly enjoyable Almuric, he could make the heart flutter.
(Must pause here to add a side note: Many believe Almuric was finished by someone else. Maybe so, but I haven’t seen any solid evidence of this, and until I do I consider the book Howard’s. Otis Kline is one of the suspects, and it’s certainly his type of story, very Burroughsian, but…again, until the evidence surfaces.)
Poor Howard, if his chemistry had been different, he might have lived on for many decades. He killed himself because of events on the ground, but these events were those many others would have weathered. He couldn’t. He was always the little boy and the little boy needed Zoloft, yet to be invented, or some drug of the type, and without it, the real world, the adult world, fell down on him like boulders. Even his broad shoulders couldn’t carry the weight.
Poor Howard. He had to have been like something nailed down and squirming in pain, as the old line goes. Living in a place and time that didn’t understand him. Having ambition that was far beyond anything even he could understand. He wanted to be like the other tough guys around him, the Texans who worked in the oil fields and boxed and did hard labor and had a clear and simple view of right and wrong. At least on the surface he wanted to be that way.
But he was different.
He was an intellectual in work khakis, and maybe on some level a little ashamed of it, or at least constantly aware of it.
Bless him. For he gave us much to read.
Curse him, because he killed himself.
Bless him, because it’s doubtful that he could have done much else. The chemistry boiled inside of him and exploded and at the same time life threw him one too many curveballs to catch.
In the end, he wasn’t Conan.
He was Robert E. Howard.