Tuesday, September 30, 2014
A Biography in Books
I didn’t read a lot when I was a little kid.
Scratch that—I didn’t read a lot of books. I read comics, that was what I did. I’ve mentioned in other posts how much comic books shaped my life, even as an adult, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that comics actually taught me how to read. My mom took full advantage of my bizarre obsession with dudes in tights and capes running around beating up bad guys by making sure I never ran out of comics to read (they were super-cheap in those days). And so, through them, I learned about story structure, conflict, character development (as miniscule as it was) and all those other things that go toward making a story work.
At about ten years old, I began casting around for other heroic tales to put myself into, and that’s when actual books started playing a role. We started studying Greek mythology in school, and I fell in love, devouring Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton. I discovered the exciting and bloody tales of King Arthur via Mallory (no, I didn’t read Le Mort D’Arthur at ten years old, but rather an illustrated children’s version). Basically, these were like super-hero stories, except that the teacher didn’t seem to judge them as harshly. Perfect.
But my first actual adult reading occurred pretty much by accident: stumbling across this short story collection hidden away in the basement, something my mom had apparently forgotten. It was called HAUNTINGS. It had this gorgeously creepy cover by Edward Gorey, and stories by Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, John Collier, and a bunch of others as well. The cover sparked my morbid little imagination, and I sat there in that dark basement and read three or four in a row and everything—I mean, everything—changed for me. It would never be the same again.
Heroics fell by the wayside for a while then, to be replaced by an overwhelming need to have the shit scared out of me.
Through my teens and even well into my twenties I was a horror nut, reading every horror novel I could find and becoming quite the little expert on the genre. I especially fell in love with Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories. This all coincided with the so-called “horror boom” of the eighties, so it worked out pretty well.
Not to say that I never read anything but scary shit. There were books we read in school that I actually quite liked. The usual stuff, you know: Lord of the Flies (which is still one of my favorites), Huckleberry Finn, Call of the Wild.
I also got hold of some old Doc Savage re-prints then, great heroic stuff if not exactly brilliantly written. The Shadow followed (to a lesser extent), and Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan and Solomon Kane.
At fifteen or so, on a whim, I read a couple Mack Bolan Executioner books, by Don Pendleton, and absolutely lost my shit. Ultra-violent, non-stop action. The perfect thing for removing an awkward young man from a world he had no control over and giving him some "realistic" heroic fantasy to cling to. At that time in my life, I needed the well-crafted escapism that the Executioner books provided, and within two months I’d read every single book in the series up ‘til then (which was somewhere around fifty, I think).
Anyway… the finest (and occasionally trashiest) of horror, along with the bloody campaigns of Mack Bolan, sustained me throughout my teenage years. There was other stuff, granted, but that was what made up the bulk of my reading then.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that my reading habits took a monumental turn and opened right up. Books and writers that I still read now, and that had an enormous influence on my own writing.
I read Hammett, then, and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
But it really started with Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson.
The Black Lizard re-prints of classic paperback original stuff from the 50's were just coming out then, and I can't really over-state what an impact they had on me. I've talked elsewhere about how Pop. 1280 changed things for me, and on the heels of that one I discovered Charles Willeford, Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe, Day Keene, etc.
I started seeking out similar writers, stumbled across John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith.
If I had to boil it down, the "noir" writers had the biggest impact of all. I still loved other genres (and still do), but those paperback original writers who slaved away in relative obscurity made a permanent mark on me like no one else.
In my early 30's I started developing a taste for Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, and discovered that, tonally, they read very much like the noir writers.
For a while, I flirted with a lot of modern speculative fiction, and was particularly blown away by James Morrow, Tim Powers, and George Saunders (who, honestly, is some kind of genius).
All of this varied reading wound up informing the story and structure of my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, which, for good or ill, defies categorization.
Lately, I've been reading a lot of Westerns. One more genre thrown in the mix, right?
The thrill of discovering new writers and new kinds of stories never gets old. With any luck, it will never stop happening.