03 September 2012

Guest post! by Immortal Lycanthropes author Hal Johnson

Since I'm sticking by my "don't review friends' books" code, I can't just tell you Hal Johnson's Immortal Lycanthropes is great--though it is! But I've spent most Tuesday nights over the past couple of years immersed in a Hal-created world, playing a literally epic game of Dungeons & Dragons, based in an alternate tenth-century where all the legends of every country are true. (Turns out Albania has the craziest folktales. Seriously, look 'em up!)

And Lycanthropes, his first YA novel, is similarly wide-ranging, ambitious, and wryly funny--and exactly what it says on the tin. It's the story of Myron Horowitz, a horribly scarred, friendless thirteen-year-old who learns he's part of an underworld of were-mammals--not humans who can turn into animals, but animals who can turn into humans--and that the mystery of who he really is means a lot of people want him dead.

One of my favorite things about the book is the debt it owes to 19th-century "boys' adventure" books, a largely forgotten genre whose patterns and tropes nevertheless echo throughout modern fiction. Hal, who's probably the most well-read person I've ever met, graciously agreed to write up an arbitrarily-numbered list of Five Boys' Adventure Books We Should All Read--so without further ado . . . 

Hi! I’m Hal Johnson, Anna’s Dungeon Master, and she was kind enough to offer me a guest spot here. I wrote an adventure novel coming out tomorrow, Immortal Lycanthropes, that was in part inspired by the boys’ adventure novels I read as a kid. Because I tended to get my books from garage sales and my grandparents’ attics, a lot of them were older, and I ended up with a real affection for nineteenth-century boys’ adventure fiction. So I thought I’d introduce a couple of interesting books of the genre.

The problem with boys’ adventure books is that a lot of them are not very good. G.A. Henty wrote over a hundred books for boys; four of them were adapted into comic books in Classics Illustrated, and they may be better in that form.  So any interested reader may have to suffer through leaden prose and wooden characters; but it’s not a real adventure unless you suffer for it, is it? The books I picked are not necessarily the best boys’ adventure novels of the period (The Coral Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Howard Pyle are notable for their absence), but they’re all pretty awesome. They’re pretty awesome even if you’re not (as we probably all should be) a twelve-year-old boy.

Best of all, they’re all public domain and available for free on the internets!

1. The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1870)

Thomas Bailey Aldrich is one of those writers who used to be everywhere and is now almost totally forgotten. The books he edited, especially The Young Folks’ Library series, or his poetry or travel writing, are always turning up in used bookstores. But his finest work may be the pseudo-autobiographical boys’ book The Story of a Bad Boy, often cited as the first American book to depict boyhood realistically (in this way it’s exactly analogous to the British Tom Brown’s School Days). I say pseudo-autobiographical because some parts of the book are clearly fictional—one reunion in particular would have seemed hoary and implausible even decades earlier in a Dickens novel—but others ring so true that they must have happened, or been remembered, that way.

The plot is episodic, which is to say nonexistent, just a series of events in the life of a boy newly come to coastal New Hampshire. But Bailey establishes, even more than Tom Brown, what would become an axiom of boy’s literature through most of the next century: that the true adventure is not imperialistic warfare (ala Henty) but childhood itself, and that what must first be explored are the woods at the edge of town. Bailey’s account of Fort Slatter—a snow fort, of course—and its heroic defense is written like an Iliad, and all the literature of sea voyages can offer little as harrowing as the voyage of the little rowboat Dolphin. Eliade remarked a hundred years later that children live in a mythical time, and Bailey was among the first to remember this fact into adulthood, and record it. Robert Newton Peck, John D. Fitzgerald, Bertrand Brinley, et al., (not to mention, on a different vector, Jean Shepherd or Robert Paul Smith) would be unthinkable without this innovation.

Although it’s sometimes clunky, sometimes embarrassingly melodramatic, and sometimes, especially near the beginning, unnecessarily racist in the way only old “humorous” passages can be, The Story of a Bad Boy is well worth reexamination, both as a historical record of American boyhood and for its passages of mythic grandeur.

2. In Search of Treasure by Horatio Alger (1894)

Horatio Alger is more known than read nowadays, known for the rags-to-riches archetype, the poor boy rising through “luck and pluck” (his terms) to the middle-class.

In a lot of ways, Alger exemplifies all the worst in nineteenth-century boy’s books, or in fact in nineteenth-century popular literature in general. He’s smug and moralistic, his characters are priggish, coincidence favors the hero so heavily that it can be easy to feel sympathy for the villain. All his plots are more or less the same, so much so that his biography of James A. Garfield can be distinguished only insofar as here the hard-working poor boy grows up to be respectable and then [SPOILER] becomes president and gets assassinated; the assassination of the protagonist doesn’t recur in other Alger books. As he aged, Alger became fonder and fonder of that C19 boogeyman, the unexpected inheritance, so much so that one wag (whose name I’ve forgotten) suggested Alger proves that in America any young man can, through hard work and enterprise, grow up to be the grandson of a billionaire. His books are filled with accidental sexual innuendo, and not only is a minor character in Struggling Upward named Fanny Pratt (ha!), but a major character in several books who searches for orphan boys to adopt as his wards is named Dick Hunter (ha ha!).

Alger’s unflagging faith in America and the middle class are easy to parody (Nathanael West did the best job, in the still-hilarious A Cool Million), but at the same time, his vision of the middle class is the warmest in all of literature, and a breath of fresh air for anyone used to the contempt of a Flaubert or a Stendahl. Alger’s middle class is unpretentious, generous, hardworking, and tolerant of anything except alcohol and billiards. Above all they are not snobs. Snobs (along with kidnappers, of course) are Alger’s true villains. You can almost always pick out the bad guy in town in an Alger book because he’s the one insisting on being called “squire.” Time and again, the good guys stress (in the face of an upturned nose) that any honest work is honorable. Bankers (always good guys here) nod in hearty approval at ditch diggers and street peddlers, while the idle squires are busy tsking. Above all there is the belief that wealth must be used to benefit others, and virtuous tycoons are always willing to give an opportunity to any ”frank-faced” boy; when these boys make it good, they become the benefactors, in later books, to other “frank” urchins. (“Frankness,” along with “pluckiness” and perhaps industriousness are the cardinal Alger virtues.)

But we’re not here to talk about the middle class, we’re here to talk about AWESOME ADVENTURE! Because for all their problems, Alger books are always home to awesome adventure. Often they take place in the streets of New York, but they may well involve a trip to the wild west; and they always involve a boy hero leaving home (if he has one!) and striking off on his own and braving the unknown. Whether he’s facing grizzly bears or grifters depends on where he is, but he’s got to be facing one or the other.

It’s somewhat arbitrary, therefore, which Alger book to feature. I picked In Search of Treasure, just because it’s one of the more adventuresome.  It’s the story of young Guy Fenwick, whose uncle left him clues to a pirate treasure buried on an island in the Indian Ocean. By odd chance, Guy gets a job on a ship sailing to India soon after. Guy learns that the Indian Ocean is really big, though, and instead of going anywhere near his treasure, he finds in Bombay a patron and a job, and has to speed over to England to overthrow the reign of a tyrannical schoolmaster (!).

Alger characters have a tendency to go on a long journey two-thirds of the way through a book, a structural habit few authors have chosen to imitate. In In Search of Treasure, this means that the final third of the book starts with Guy actually setting off on his treasure hunt. There will be betrayal and marooning and benevolent older wealthy men, and of course, back home the town swell, who thought money made him a big shot, needs to get a look at all that treasure.

This is all perfectly ridiculous, I’ll admit, but Alger tells it all with such a straight face that it is irresistible. It’s pure kitsch, but anyone with any kind of fondness for kitsch plus adventure will find a real-life treasure chest in Alger’s oeuvre.

3. The Boy Hunters by Captain Mayne Reid (1853)

Captain Mayne Reid’s The Boy Hunters is in some ways not a very good book, either, but parts are crazy enough to be capital-G Great. The adventure portion, which features three brothers trekking through the western frontier in order to bag a white buffalo to impress some relative of Napoleon’s (!), is fine, when it’s actually happening, but that’s only about a third of the books. Another third is taken up with tedious lectures (often delivered by the brainy middle brother for the amusement and edification of the others) on the life cycles of animals and the industrial uses of plants—as well as strange rants against scientific naturalists and theoreticians in general. Fortunately another third of the book is taken up with NATURE SPECTACLE, and it’s pretty phenomenal. There are quite a few fight scenes, as nature red in tooth and claw grimly acts out a blood-soaked drama for our heroes to watch. This is the real meat of the book.

In one chapter, awesomely titled “Chain of Destruction,” the lads watch a fly get eaten by a hummingbird, which in turn is eaten by a tarantula, which in turn is eaten by a chameleon that is maimed by a skink that is eaten by a snake that is eaten by a kite that is killed by an eagle that is shot by our heroes. “This was the last link in the chain of destruction!” Although the moralistic middle brother helpfully points out that a bear could come along at any moment and form another link in this chain.

There are few chapters in literature that can compare to this one for a combination of pure action, bloodshed, awe in the face of nature, and philosophical extrapolation. Reid wrote over two dozen books, but if he'd written nothing but this one chapter, he deserves to be remembered in the canon

4. Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling (1899)

All right-thinking people hate Stalky & Co. Wells hated it enough that in his Outline of History he spends more space complaining about Stalky & Co. than on the life and career of Abraham Lincoln; and it was this condemnation of Stalky that I absorbed long before I read the book.

It’s not that Stalky isn’t a hateful book. It’s just that it’s an honest one, and if you were in a nineteenth-century boarding school you’d probably be hateful too.  Stalky and his “co.” of M’Turk and Beetle (modeled, apparently, on Kipling’s school-age friends, with Beetle being Kipling himself) get themselves into scrapes and outwit teachers the way modern analogues such as Bruno and Boots, or Harry Potter, do—but everything seems more violent, sordid, and terrifying than you would expect from a book about school. Except that violent, terrifying, and sordid should be the watchwords for any book about school. Stalky may be willing to go further than other schoolboys of literature, but it’s because his world is a darker and more horrible one. It’s easy to forget the boys Stalky ties up and tortures (in the scene that so upset Wells) are being paid back precisely the tortures they have inflicted on other, smaller children. Stalky doesn’t do this to make the innocent world of childhood a fallen world; presented with a fallen world, he leads his co. in an attempt to make it right. (Or sometimes to prank his enemies.)

This is all made explicit in the final chapter, where Kipling (no longer in his Beetle disguise) comes right out and explains how the skills the boys developed fighting against their school have made them expert at imperialistic adventure in their adulthoods. It goes without saying that any nineteenth-century British writer (let alone Kipling) will be more excited about imperialism than we’ll be today, but if you take it for what it’s supposed to stand for here (duty, patriotism, progress, helping society at large) you’ll find one of the most radically audacious proclamations about childhood any major writer has managed to slip through to a mass audience. Childhood is here painted as a Bizarro-world where the same actions that make you a bad boy (as Stalky certainly is) make you a good adult. The very morality of the schoolroom is backwards. No wonder Stalky’s vigilantism was needed to clean it up.

This is admittedly interpretive, and I’m not sure any other reader has ever taken the same message from the book—but I think it goes a long way to explaining why so many people hate Stalky and his Co. H. G. Wells could take or leave bourgeois civilization, and he may even be willing to assert that its values were the opposite if an innocent child’s—but he could scarcely play along with Kipling’s dialectic.

Two cautions on Stalky: Although Kipling is obviously a much better stylist than the three authors above, this book is at times almost unreadable because it is drenched in period slang (“Fids! Fids! Oh, fids! I gloat!”), and assumes a knowledge of “forms” and “fags” the lack of which can make a labyrinth of a simple tale. Also, it is often published, with extra stories added, as The Complete Stalky & Co., but the new stories are mostly unnecessary.

Kipling wrote other boys’ adventure books, varying in quality from Kim (snooze!) to The Jungle Books (awesome!), but none of them hold a candle to Stalky & Co. Very few books can.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

This is the big one, probably the greatest American novel and certainly the greatest boy’s adventure story. It’s also a book everyone knows, and almost everyone’s read. There’s no point “introducing” such a well-known book; but what I want to say about it is that it’s possible to read and love Huck Finn without understanding anything about the larger import or meaning that so often get discussed. I first read it in first grade, and it changed my life; of course a great deal went right over my head, and racial politics and ethical debates were completely beyond my ken, but I understood the idea of floating down a river, completely removed from society, and that was enough for me. It wasn’t something I was ever going to do—I assume rafting on the Mississippi is now illegal, and I assume if I tried it anyway, I’d just end up drowning—but the idea that theoretically one could pack up and run away from it all, was enough to get me through much of childhood, and good chunks of adulthood. Toby Tyler and to a lesser extent The Cruise of the Dazzler offered a similar opportunity, but Huck Finn offered it best.

(Another confusing thing it took me a long time to understand was that “pison” meant “poison.” Through several readings I honestly though that Huck was planning to piss on a dog.)

I’ve read a lot of criticism—the good and the bad kind—of Huck Finn over the years, and I’m glad the book can garner the kind of critical attention it does. But this is the rare book that you can strip most meaning from without crippling it. The spine of the book is a boy (and, paradoxically, a slave) who momentarily are free. I’ve never been free, but I tasted it vicariously, and that was enough. Everything else in the book, and every other analysis of the book, is superfluous.

1 comment:

  1. "I’ve never been free, but I tasted it vicariously, and that was enough."

    Orphaned at age 5, I have the distinction of having been free. That is, my adoptive family, my father's sister and her two children, had little concern for my welfare as they were only interested in collecting my orphan SSI welfare checks. This left me free, to some extent, in any case. But I can tell you only one important thing about the experience. In modern society, it will get you nothing but trouble from the overwhelming number of straights around (self-appointed security guards), who we might call the Teacher's Pet World of Overrated Homeland Security. I understand, however, that this scourge is worse in the USA than at Europe.


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