Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Extended Essay - Part Three


I’m not sure the two were related, but my epiphany of The Bloody Woman roughly coincided with a growing interest in writing. From a very early age, drawing had been my main creative outlet. It was probably no coincidence that the comic books I drew were Westerns. Their hero was a character named Buck Duck, a bizarre conflation of Disney’s Donald Duck and—who else?—Roy Rogers. Buck wore a cowboy hat like Roy’s and carried two six-guns just as Roy did and even wore spurs on his little webbed feet. Strangely, though, Buck Duck hardly ever followed Roy’s wholesome habit of shooting the guns out of the bad guys’ hands; he tended to shoot the bad guys dead, usually multiple times.

Buck’s homicidal tendencies actually predated The Bloody Woman and even Robert Mitchum. They troubled Mother. While she praised my artwork, she was aghast at its bloody content. She’d exclaim, “Oh, Charles, you draw so well! But I wish you’d draw stories about Jesus instead.” But compared to my murderous duck, the meek and lowly Savior didn’t stand a chance.

What’s a puzzle, as I look back, is why Buck Duck was so violent. Maybe he served as a vehicle for vicarious revenge. As a kid I was a gawky, skinny weakling, with no skills in any of the sports and games boys were expected to excel in. My classmates made fun of me. They had a name for me—Grass Chicken. Neither I nor they knew precisely what a grass chicken was, but somehow the term conjured up an image of a scrawny little fowl scampering through the grass that perfectly suited my nerdiness. It’s possible Buck Duck was a surrogate avenger, mowing down my tormentors.

But I suspect there are better answers, or perhaps better questions. Had a vestige of the evil that I knew stalked the outer world somehow wormed its way into our sanctuary of domestic security and insinuated fear into my childish being? Had I known all along that evil couldn’t be kept at bay, even by all the concentrated love there was? Did Buck Duck foreshadow Robert Mitchum, who I would soon come to suspect knew better than Roy—or Jesus, for that matter—how to deal with all that was dangerous in life? After all, what was religion, what was church, what was the Redeemer Himself, but a reminder of the evil we faithful were pledged to fend off? Was Buck Duck my talisman, protecting me from the powers of Satan?

But, as I say, sometime in the mid-1950’s the desire to tell a story in words rather than in pictures came over me. I scrawled some rudimentary yarns inspired by my other juvenile interests—World War Two fighter pilots, medieval knights on crusade, the Civil War, all themes, please note, having to do with various forms of mayhem—but my favorite topic remained the Old West as informed by The Bloody Woman and my fleeting memory of a lethal Robert Mitchum, which meant that what I wrote tended to up the ante on whatever indwelling fiendishness had spawned Buck Duck.

Inevitably, writing my stories led to more and more reading—I had a natural desire to learn as much as I could in hopes of making what I wrote sound as convincing as possible; and naturally if one is to learn, one must read—reading being the soundest way to master the art and craft of writing.

Up to this point the books I’d read, like Vestal’s, had all been plucked from the shelves of the public library. We lived in the propertyless, nomadic condition thought by the Western North Carolina Methodist Conference to be the properly mendicant condition for a pastor and his family. There was no disposable income for the purchase of books. Mother, a passionate reader, checked out armloads of volumes weekly and consumed them at a pace that would’ve shamed a graduate of an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course.

But I longed to own books. For me it wasn’t sufficient to dwell for a few days in whatever kingdom of the imagination a certain book had invited me into; no, I wanted to experience its delights again and again without the inconvenience of having to return for renewal my priceless vessel of mind-travel or, worse, learn to my dismay that someone else had reserved and would claim it—steal it from me—forcing me to bide my time in tortured impatience till they returned it.

My desire to own, not borrow, books sprang up about the same time I discovered the wonders of cheap paperbacks. By browsing through the wares of the corner drugstore I learned that an abundance of Western fiction was available in such editions, usually selling for as little as twenty-five cents apiece. But here again I encountered a maternal barrier. Mother nursed an unshakable belief that any book bound in paper had to be pornographic. Even to leaf through one at the drugstore would be to wallow in carnal mischief and imperil my soul. Buying one was out of the question.

Having already perused several in defiance of her injunction, I knew her to be mistaken. The books were, by and large, simple morality tales. Good sheriffs and cowboys went up against bad outlaws and bested them. There seemed little to choose between these stories and those of Roy and Gene, save in the paperbacks one got more of a sense of the real time and place of the Old West and, yes, there was some killing—though nowhere near as much as in one of my Buck Duck comic books. One might encounter an occasional “damn” or “hell.” And naturally there was a romance, but always a chaste one.

I was empowered. So strong was my wish to be an owner rather than a lowly borrower, I did the unthinkable: I bought a paperback Western with my lunch money, carried it home to Mother unread and asked her to study it and tell me if she though it sinful. Though I’m sure she must’ve chided me for disobedience, to her everlasting credit she accommodated me; and overnight her bias against paperbacks evaporated. In fact, she became just as addicted to paperbacks as she was to her usual clothbound fare. She read them avidly till the day she died.

How I wish I could remember the title of that book! I’ve ransacked my memory but for the life of me I can’t recover it. I do remember it was published by Pennant Books, an imprint of Bantam, and it cost me a quarter. Its hero was a part-Indian cowboy named Jim Embree and its villain bore the improbable name of Muley. The plot had to do with a range war arising from the greed of Muley the wicked cattle baron. More than that I cannot say. I’m ashamed to confess it. I owe my whole subsequent literary life to that little volume, and I don’t even know the name of its author. Ingratitude, hide thy face!

In this way I was introduced to the fiction of that marvelous but now mostly forgotten generation of Western writers of the‘40’s and ‘50’s that intervened between the romanticists Zane Grey and Max Brand and the facile, shallow, unjustly popular Louis L’Amour—Frank Gruber, Dorothy Johnson, Frank O’Rourke, Paul Wellman, Vardis Fisher, Will Henry, Luke Short, A.B. Guthrie, Alan LeMay, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Tom Lea, Ernest Haycox, Oakley Hall. What a feast of fine writing is there! I also fed my raging hunger with paperback titles by the giants of Western history writing—Vestal, J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, Eugene Cunningham, C.L. Sonnischen, Mari Sandoz, Wayne Gard, Glenn Shirley, Dee Brown, and many more.

I retain but a single book original to that period, one of my first few purchases—a 1952 Pennant paperback edition of Stanley Vestal’s Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns. I couldn’t own the hardback edition I’d found that day in the library, but I could own this. It’s worn and shabby now; the glue along its spine has deteriorated; if I open it, it will probably fall apart. The last time I opened it was about nine or ten years ago, when I transcribed the passage about The Bloody Woman into my computer, for safekeeping.


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