After the End: Howard & London’s Postapocalyptic Imagery

Print This Post Print This Post

At the grim climax of Before Adam, Jack London’s 1907 novel of “The Younger World,” narrator Big-Tooth describes how he and his proto-hominid kinfolk were hunted into the swamps by the more Cromagnonesque Fire People, who have mastered arson and archery:

We make plaintive querulous noises, look at one another and cluster close together. It is like the meeting of the handful of survivors after the day of the end of the world.

Was the just-quoted passage the ur-version of one of Howard’s favorite reality-heightening similes? Let’s compare:

Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. (“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”)

The survivors stared bleakly and blankly at each other, like survivors after Judgment Day or the destruction of the world. (“Red Nails”)

…until dawn came slowly, sullenly and dimly, and we halted and stared haggardly at each other, like ghosts in the morn after the destruction of the world. (“The Thunder-Rider”)

Now my intent here is not to whittle away at Howard’s artistry. In all three instances he noticeably improves upon the London original. Survivors dematerialize into ghosts, or regard each other “bleakly or blankly,” and the images of “the shambles of a dead world” and a dim and sullen dawn are all Howard. This is just one of many examples of what we’ve known for decades, that London’s work contains whole Klondikes and Yukons wherein Howardist source-hunters can prospect for inspiration-nuggets.

Speaking of the postapocalyptic, congratulations to Cormac McCarthy, the terrible beauty of whose 2006 novel The Road just won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, although I still wonder how readers who take their marching orders from Oprah Winfrey are coping with the roasted-baby-on-a-spit scene.