Kavalier (Not Cavalier), Clay, and REH

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Late last year I was privy to a couple of Emails in which Fred Blosser and Morgan Holmes, Howardists of some repute, expressed skepticism about Michael Chabon, suspecting him of “slumming” in his faux-pulp or neo-pulp endeavors. So I was pleased when Leo relayed (by way of Don Herron) Scott Sheaffer’s report of an REH-mention by Chabon in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He’s on the side of the angels, or at least the akaanas and Yagas, and instead of building a table-barricade in the dealers’ room at Pulpcon and glowering graybeardedly at him we should be grateful for his fond gravitation to the gaudy genres of yore. No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has ever gone over so well with me as that notched by Chabon for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, as indispensable a fictional jamboree about the dawn of the superheroes and the Golden Age of Comic Books as Gerard Jones’ 2004 Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book is a factual one.

Kavalier and Klay rewards the attentive with allusions and in-jokes about pulps and weird fiction on every other page. Luna Moth, a somewhat nocturnal emission of the eponymous creators’ imaginations, battles in “dislocated non-Euclidean dream spaces” against “slavering Elder Creatures readying vast interdimensional armadas of demons.” And what of Luna’s origin?

Know that before my homeland, great Cimmeria, was plunged into eternal darkness, it was ruled by women. All were happy in the Queendom of Cimmeria, peaceful, contented — the men in particular. Then one shrivel-hearted malcontent, Nanok, schooled himself in the ways of bloodshed and black magic, and set himself upon an obsidian throne. He sent his armies of demons into battle against the peace-loving Cimmerians; the outcome was foreordained.

Now a few of the Howard-minded who groped for the smelling salts when the concept of homoeroticism dared to rear its sleek well-coiffed head in a recent issue of The Dark Man might be equally outraged by “The Queendom of Cimmeria.” Me, I thought it was good queen fun–as with the “peace-loving Cimmerians,” that “obsidian throne,” and another reference to “a brand of cigarette, Thoth-Amon, imported from Egypt,” a familiarity with the Conan series was clearly at work, or at play. Doubters might want to take a look at the back cover of Roy Thomas’ Conan: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Savage Barbarian, where Chabon’s blurb begins “Robert E. Howard dreamed Conan the Cimmerian for himself, and set him free to roam the world of his own Hyborian soul.” Conan the Cimmerian, mind you; no Conan the Barbarians need apply (Gratifyingly, fellow blurb-donor George R. R. Martin passes the same test). Chabon has even gone so far as to create his own pulp horrormeister, August Van Zorn, one of whose stories, “In the Black Mill,” he presented in the collection Werewolves in Their Youth. His powers of invention are displayed in the following passage, about the principal outlet Prague √©migr√© Joe Kavalier finds for his detestation of the Third Reich (initially and unwillingly disguised as Zothenia, Gothsylvania, or Draconia) in the pre-Pearl Harbor U.S.:

There were gigantic razor-jawed bear traps, tanks filled with electric sharks. The Escapist was tied to immense gas rings into which his captors needed only to toss a stray cigar butt to incinerate him, strapped to four rumbling panzers pointed in the cardinal directions, chained to an iron cherry at the bottom of an immense steel tumbler into which a forty-ton frothing “milkshake” of fresh concrete was poured, hung from the spring-loaded firing pin of an immense cannon aimed at the capital of “Occupied Latvonia” so that if he freed himself, thousands of innocent citizens would die. The Escapist was laid, lashed and manacled, in the paths of threshing machines, pagan juggernauts, tidal waves, and swarms of giant prehistoric bees revived by the evil science of the Iron Chain. He was imprisoned in ice, in strangling vines, in cages of fire.

Only Alan Moore, in his masterpiece Watchmen, has come close to Chabon’s gift for persuading us to believe in Comic Books-That-Never-Were. And in his nonfiction mode, Chabon has just produced what is easily the best thing yet written on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road. The full review can be savored in the February 15, 2007 New York Review of Books (password required), but here’s the opening paragraph:

Charlton Heston and a savagely coiffed vixen, wrapped in animal skins, riding horseback along a desolate seashore, confronted by the spike-crowned ruin of the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand: everyone knows how the world ends. First radiation, plague, an asteroid, or some other cataclysm kills most of humankind. The remnants mutate, lapse into feudalism, or revert to prehistoric brutality. Old cults are revived with their knives and brutal gods, while tiny noble bands cling to the tatters of the lost civilization, preserving knowledge of machinery, agriculture, and the missionary position against some future renascence, and confronting their ancestors’ legacy of greatness and destruction.

For this blog’s purposes I’d just like to point out that for Chabon The Road is “neither parable nor science fiction. . .not a departure but a return to McCarthy’s most brilliant genre work, combined in a manner we have not seen since Blood Meridian: adventure and Gothic horror.” A paragraph later he suggests that McCarthy has in fact trekked to “the rich storytelling borderland of horror and the epic.” Adventure and Gothic horror; the borderland of horror and the epic — alert readers of this blog will need no nudging to bethink themselves of an earlier writer based in the Southwest. And the review gets even better:

The constant haunting of the protagonist by the ghosts of his own and our collective American past marks the point where the strands of epic begin to blend, as in Blood Meridian, with those of the other genre in which Cormac McCarthy has to be accounted as a secret master, and the rightful heir (but oh how one hates to invoke yet another Great American Writer in discussing McCarthy, who at times has seemed in danger of disappearing in a heavy snowfall of comparisons to Melville, Faulkner, O’Connor, Hemingway) to the American Gothic tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, dark god of Providence, Rhode Island, where McCarthy was born. McCarthy’s early novels are not merely violent; they are almost gaudily so. They trade in necrophilia, perversion, and baby murder, and reading them one is struck repeatedly by the way he displays the bloody-minded glee of the horror writer, the gross-out artist…

Assigning McCarthy a pedigree of Poe and Lovecraft, despite a prose style that started out Faulknerian and became lean, leathery, and Hemingwayesque in the unforgiving glare of the Southwestern sun, is an arresting conceit, strengthened by the Border Trilogy-ist’s implausible New England nativity site (Along the same lines, it delighted me no end when I learned that Rusty Burke was briefly a galvanized Yankee, although in his defense there was little he could do about it, having just been born — in Brooklyn). “It is as a lyrical epic of horror that The Road is best understood,” Chabon goes on to argue:

Horror fiction proceeds, in general, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of mortality, corruption, and the loss of self. The haunted house (or planet), the case of demonic possession, the nightmare journey to or through a charnel house, the transubstantiation of human flesh into something awful and foul, the exposed wolfishness of men, the ineradicable ancestral curse of homicidal depravity — all of them tropes to be encountered, in one form or another, in McCarthy’s work — trade on these deep-seated fears, these fundamental sources of panic, and seek to flay them, to lay them open, to drag them into the light.

Michael Chabon. A writer we’re lucky to have in our corner, a talent of the sort we need to pry Howard from the ham-handed grasp of paperbacks with Ken Kelly cover paintings. Who knows, perhaps he might ultimately prove willing to sign on for something like the interference Joyce Carol Oates ran for Lovecraft when she followed up her review of S. T. Joshi’s HPL biography with the ten-story selection Tales of H. P. Lovecraft in 1997.