Saturday, February 06, 2010

On Three Authors

There are three authors who have had a very formative impact on my life, and I feel like I should be giving them credit – or is that blame?

I was considering doing these in three parts, counting down to the number one, but given my relatively sparse update schedule, I am going to touch on all three in this post.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, most commonly known as H.P. Lovecraft is one of the original masters of the horror tale. No less than Steven King called him, “the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale." Other authors who speak of his influence on them include two of the greatest comic book authors ever, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.

The way Lovecraft wrote was amazing to me. His sentence structure and vocabulary were so precise, so deliberate; he was my first introduction to an author whose sentence structure said as much as the words that made up those sentences. I remember reading these stories, in the days before the internet, not being able to look up words like noisome, or squamous until I got home, and having to intuit the meaning of these words from the context. Other words, I would work through their origins and try to think of similar words that I did know… I think that helped my vocabulary mature and expand more than any of my other reading. Between that vocabulary, the time the books were written, and some of his more obscure references, I recommend the annotated versions of his works for those who are just getting started with his them.

Lovecraft had a dark view of the world his was a world where humans were insignificant. Not even where we irritants to the things that lived here before us, and slept dreaming inconceivable dreams, but instead, we were insignificant, and even understanding our role in the universe could lead to unending madness.

Movies have been made based on Lovecraft’s work, though I know of no good ones. One of the things about Lovecraft’s work is that many of the things are described are inconceivable to human minds – non-Euclidean geometries, things with too many or too few dimensions, or things so utterly alien we cannot understand them. These things cannot be well portrayed on film, which doesn’t stop many people from trying.

Philip K. Dick is one of the most admired science fiction writers ever. In fact, there is now an award recognizing excellence in the genre called the Philip K. Dick award. His tales share some characteristics with those of Lovecraft. The worlds of Dick are dark, with the average or common man being oppressed in many cases by megalithic corporations or authoritarian governments. He used these as a statement on the dangers of letting things reach these points. In this way, he is very different than Lovecraft, who seemed to embrace some of the ideas he wrote about.

Dick, instead, used his writings to explore sociological and political themes. Indeed, I think the two authors would have very much not gotten along had they ever had the chance to meet. Lovecraft was in many ways buttoned-down. He prized the stiff upper lip of the English, and saw people who didn’t as week. Dick described himself as “a flipped-out freak.”

Dick’s stories often deal with the nature of reality, as do Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft’s stories centered around the idea that we can’t even conceive of reality, or that our minds cannot tolerate it if we do. Dick’s tales in many cases deal with the idea that reality is subjective, or perhaps that it is layered. Equally, they deal with personal identity – an area where they diverge greatly from the majority of Lovecraft’s works.

I keep comparing the two, because I find that both have a similar and singular effect on me: if I read too much of either of these brilliant authors, I can actually feel my own view of my universe starting to slide. I see things a little differently after finishing a collection of Dick stories.

Like Lovecraft, movies have been made of, or based on, many of Dick’s work. The difference here is that many of these have been artistic, commercial and some even critical successes. Blade Runner is based on Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Minority Report is based on the short story of the same name. Philip K. Dick has quite a list of credits on the Internet Movie Database. Unfortunately, most of these movies were made after Dick’s passing. Dick suffered with financial issues for most of his life.

The last of the authors I who have influenced me over the years is James Ellroy. The “Demon Dog of American crime fiction.” A dark man who tells dark stories. His own past is colored – he admits to breaking into homes to sniff panties in his misguided, drug-addled younger years – and it shows in his writing.

A fascinating man, he has a public persona that he relishes, and it is unclear how much of this is really him, or even derived from him. From the Wikipedia page linked above, here is Ellroy’s own public introduction:

"Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin' family, if the name of your family is the Manson Family."

He is a character, possibly even more so than the deep (and deeply flawed and human) characters in his books. Ellroy’s stories are at the same time dark and hopeful. Good people exist, and can make a difference, but the status quo is corruption. His writing is a fast and furious style, short sentences, like a boxer’s jabs. He frequently uses alliteration to give that jab-jab-jab even more emphasis. These tendencies make this style almost tiring to read. It demands to be chug-a-lugged and not sipped. It’s a shot of whiskey, not a sip of Chardonnay. Combine all of this with the use of setting- and time-appropriate slang, and an amazing vocabulary use to support all of the above, and you have one of the most distinct voices in literature.

The first of his L.A. Quartet, The Black Dahlia, is a personal tale for him from one side – his mother was raped and killed when he was young, and the crime remained unsolved, much like that of the real Dahlia. This book has many of the usual features of a James Ellroy novel – cops struggling against and with corruption, balancing one view of the “right thing” against another, and being forced to choose which way to tip those scales.

Ellroy’s books are almost impossible for me to put down once I have started reading them. One of my favorite movies of all time is L.A. Confidential – in fact I watched that movie before I ever read one of his books. It was a good adaptation in spirit although it, understandably, had to take some deviations from the book.

The Black Dahlia was a less successful movie adaptation. But there are still more on the way. Ellroy is not for the faint of heart – reading his introduction of himself above should tell you that. But if you can enjoy an unflinching look at the dark side of American society, I highly recommend his works.

These three authors have given me hours of enjoyment and have expanded my vocabulary, my mind and the way I look at the world around me. There are many other great authors out there, and this list is not meant to be a slight against any of them. Really, I just hope that everyone keeps reading, and we never lose sight of the pleasure that can be found in a good book.

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