Savage Doc

Over the past several years I’ve written quite a lot about childhood books.  Despite my ambivalence toward the internet, it has made it easier to find books from years ago.  Since one of my Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge categories was a book from my childhood, my thoughts went to Doc Savage.  I haven’t written much about the Doc on this blog.  I think I can understand why now.  Doc Savage, I suspect, was one line of inspiration for Indiana Jones, although the latter was much more of a hapless sort of adventurer.  Kenneth Robeson was a pseudonym mostly for Lester Dent, the author of many of the pulp fiction stories about Doc.  As a forerunner of the superheroes that were shortly to appear, Savage was a “Mary Sue”—a literary character with no faults.  The stories were originally written in the 1930s and ‘40s.

As a child I read many of these novels, beginning in sixth or seventh grade.  I recently found a used copy of Brand of the Werewolf, which I read as part of my challenge this year and I was embarrassed by what I found.  Not that Doc’s perfection came as a surprise.  No, my embarrassment was at the racial stereotypes that were so blatantly on display.  This particular story caricatures African-Americans, American Indians, and Spaniards.  It does so unselfconsciously with an air of entitlement that made me ill.  Sure, all characters suffer by comparison to Doc Savage, but those who aren’t “white” (or bronze, in context), are throw-away characters.  Unless, of course, they are pretty girls.  If so we’re reminded every time that they are pretty.

No wonder our culture remains so intolerant of difference!  Here the default human being is the white male.  Even Doc’s female cousin (pretty, of course) doesn’t really help at all.  The entire scandal is uncovered and resolved by the white man.  I realize that I might be putting too much stress on a pulp that just can bear much weight, but I do wonder about how such stereotypical messages, repeated decade after decade, blend into the cultural stew in which we all soak.  I was by no means the only tween reading these books in the 1970s, some three or four decades after they’d been published.  A friend of mine got me started on reading them, and they were still popular books at the time.  We need, it seems, to be aware that our prejudices will live on in our words after we’re gone.  And after all that there wasn’t even a werewolf in the book.  Childhood memories are sometimes unclear.


False Memory

One of the reasons our recent loss of books hit me so hard is that each volume contains memories.  Among the more disturbing developments of memory studies in recent years is the fact that what we remember has a tendency to be unreliable.  In other words, our narratives about ourselves contains a good deal of fiction that we remember as fact.  Even if we write down our impressions shortly after an event, such scribbles are just that—impressions.  Lee Irby explores this dynamic in his novel Unreliable.  Now, since the narrator may be the most unreliable I’ve ever read, I don’t want to give away too much.  Irby knows what it’s like to be a professor (something that some of us share with him) and he has a good sense of Edgar Allan Poe.  It’s one of those books that touched on a number of things in my own life.  I think.

First of all, this was an impulse buy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York.  I soon discovered why they stocked it.  Edwin Stith, the narrator, teaches at a fictional college in Ithaca.  The story, however, is set in Richmond, Virginia, where Prof. Stith has gone for his mother’s second wedding.  With characters compellingly drawn, he meets his new step-family, runs into an old-girlfriend, and tries to both avoid and hook up with a student of his that he’s dating, more or less.  He claims from the start, however, that we shouldn’t believe him.  The largest part of the story takes place over one feverish day following a very late arrival in town, with plenty of Poe references sprinkled throughout the tale.

Apart from the Ithaca and former professor connections, the book also mentioned, rather spookily, meeting a girl from Slippery Rock University—a rather obscure school from my old neighborhood.  I had dated a Slippery Rock co-ed who’d proved about as unreliable as our narrator, so this single, brief reference managed to jump-start some of my own memories, reliable or not.  Our pasts, along with the books we read, make us who we are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of a scene I’d supposed I’d forgotten from a book I’ve read years ago.  Just the other day I recalled, completely out of of the blue, apropos of nothing, a scene from a Doc Savage novella I’d read as a tween.  Was it a reliable memory?  I have no way to judge, I guess.  And that’s the scary part, as I’m sure Poe would’ve agreed.


A Dusty Return

dustreturnedThe fiction author who had the most influence over my formative years was Ray Bradbury. Wait—let me qualify that a bit. I read of number of series aimed at juvenile, male interest (Doc Savage, Dark Shadows, and such) but these weren’t really intended as “literature.” I also read quite a bit of Poe, and his influence may certainly have rivaled Bradbury. The thing was the latter was still alive and producing books, mostly of short stories that tickled my imagination. Despite my reluctance to let books go, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve had to sell off my collection (this is the mindset of the non-affluent) and all of these childhood collections went, except for Poe. Now that I’m a more reflective adult, so I’m told, I have found a renewed interest in some childhood classics, and Ray Bradbury books are seldom expensive. When I found From the Dust Returned in a used book shop for a steal, I said “why not?”

This particular book came from long after I’d sold my Bradbury collection. I had never seen nor heard of it before. As an adult, interestingly, Bradbury doesn’t seem scary at all. From the Dust Returned, like many other Bradbury collections, is a somewhat novelized set of stories. This one is set in a haunted house where, in his usual descriptive style the storyteller offers artful prose and painterly writing, but no real scares. As we are coming upon Banned Book Week, however, I did note one of Bradbury’s common themes—the lack of belief leads to the death of characters. I’d read some of his stories where this took place before. Still, this time he goes a bit further. Tapping into things just ahead of the rest of us, as he had a talent for doing, one of his characters laments the loss of belief in religion as well as creepy, Addams-esque characters. People are no longer believing and it causes ghosts pain.

Part of Bradbury’s appeal is clearly to the young imagination. I’ve promiscuously read hundreds of authors since my last Bradbury book. My tastes have evolved. I find the same is true when I go back to the Dark Shadows books that were so cheaply had at my neighborhood Goodwill. I still go back to these early writers, however, and there is a kind of innocence about them. These were stories I’d read before I’d learned that Poe was certainly not as macabre as real life could be. “Marilyn Ross,” “Kenneth Robeson,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Ray Bradbury may not feature of lists of banned authors. Some of them aren’t even whom they seem to be. They did instill a childlike belief in reading, in my case. Even if they’re now on the bargain shelf they will still receive my admiration for starting a lifetime of reading.


Heroic Gestures

It seems like superheroes have been around forever. They are really, however, the product of comic books from the 1930s on. Adapting well to the big screen, a generation of kids is growing up that may have had their first taste of caped crusaders on the silver screen. I haven’t seen Batman V Superman, only the latest of a long string of the recent procession of such movies. Even so, the character of Superman—among the first superheroes—is less than a century old. Since the meme was conceived, however, it has mushroomed out into all kinds of outsiders offering deliverance. Superheroes are clearly about salvation. Even the anti-heroes. Otherwise they’re a hard lot to classify. Some have super powers. Others have only a lot of money and highly honed physical abilities. Or exceptional intelligence. The one thing they all offer is some kind of salvation. You might have to look for it, but it’s there.

Comic books in general, and superheroes in particular, have recently gained academic credibility. The ivory tower is often a location from which to look down on popular culture—the unwashed crowd—and seek more rarified topics of investigation. Superheroes, however, have proven resilient enough to this academic kryptonite to garner some attention. Comic books can be works of art. More than that, if a meme won’t let go, well, that itch should be telling us something. Sociologically, in a world of near constant uncertainty (who’d have guessed Trump would ever be where he is today?) superheroes seem to offer a stability that daily life lacks. Call it escapism, but what is salvation if not a form of escape? Let somebody else don the cowl and take care of the dangers we never even knew existed.

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Like many kids, I grew up making my own comic books. I invented a couple of superheroes that never found any adoring audiences, but the process taught me something. Looking back at those times in my life, they were periods of extreme crisis. My own superheroes were coping mechanisms. We couldn’t afford a lot of comic books, but once I started working, during junior high school, I started buying Doc Savage novels and consuming them like popcorn. I was trying to get through difficult times. I’ve seen editorials suggesting that the era of superhero movies is dwindling. I doubt that it is. They may eventually fade from the silver screen, but they will still lurk in the graphic novels and recesses of the internet. We need our heroes. We need deliverance.


Dusting the Lilim

Having grown up on a literary diet of comic books and Doc Savage novellas, I have always had an appreciation for the fantastic. Since our town was relatively dull, it helped to have flights of imagination within the price range of those with humble means. I discovered Neil Gaiman (it seems that many profound writers are named Neil or Neal) through the machinations of one of my Rutgers students. After reading American Gods, which was an obvious starting place for someone of my erstwhile profession, I have sampled a bit more of his fare. I long ago gave up on comic books since I prefer the pictures I make in my own head, although I must admit that the few graphic novels I’ve tackled have required considerable thought. So it was that I came upon Stardust, a graphic-turned-prose novel.

Stardust serves up a number of folklore themes with the charm and wit that Gaiman generously doles out. It is a story replete with witches, fairies, and storm gods. A figurative smorgasbord of the mythical. What particularly arrested my attention was Gaiman’s use of the title Lilim for his witches. Lilim (or lilin) are mythical creatures of Semitic pedigree related to the (in)famous Lilith. Some traditions make the Lilim her children, and it has been suggested that they also put in an appearance or two in Mesopotamian mythology. Gaiman’s portrayal is fairly accurate here with the Lilim being selfish thieves of the night, but not entirely evil.

Beyond the escapism of relatively happy endings, this mix of evil tinged with the helpless inevitability of aging speaks paradigmatically of mythical ambiguity. Many modern-day religions tout the answers, but mythology parades the possibilities. The mythology of old continually returns to us in new forms. Using a mix of fantastical creatures from various eras of human story-telling, Stardust is a gentle fairytale for adults. Like the book of Ecclesiastes the story has a fatalism to it, no real happy ending but no hair-rending tragedy either. Turning the classic quest for the father into an unwitting search for the mother, the novel offers seemingly endless potential for hope. Although penned a few years ago, that message is still desperately needed today.