Thursday, January 05, 2006

Crom, count the dead!

R asked me what book(s) had an early influence on me. I had been meaning to blog this tale for awhile, so here it is.

Reading was never encouraged in my house; in fact, nothing was ever encouraged by my family, so reading was not a part of my early childhood. My mother read all the time, but only Harlequin romance novels which have all the mental stimulation of chewing gum without the benefit of exercise, and she never encouraged us to join. My father openly loathed reading and complained every time he saw her “with her nose in a book,” as he put it. I showed some aptitude for it in school, earning my way into the advanced reading groups starting with the first grade, but I never read at home if I didn’t have to. One day when I was still in primary school, my mother had to take me to work with her. To keep me occupied (read: quiet), she bought me a copy of The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald. She didn’t notice or care that it was part five of a series, but I didn’t care either once I got involved. It was a great book written about a simpler and harder time detailing the exploits of a young boy and his older brother (nicknamed the Great Brain) raised in an atypical Catholic frontier family. I loved reading the stories while learning about a time when toilets were considered a new-fangled invention, young boys were taught to camp and hunt, and a person’s (even a kid’s) word was considered his or her bond. Eventually I managed to get the entire series, seven books in all, although they began to weaken after number five. Sadly, Reforms is no longer in print, although some of the other books in the series are. I recommend that series for everyone, but especially those of you with youngish children, unless little Johnny is a complete moron. I once bought this book for a woman I knew to share with her children, the younger one being roughly my age when I encountered it, the older being about four years my elder. She said they couldn’t understand it, but it was probably because they’re growing up in modern times unlike me. I’m not sure I agreed with her excuse as the 1970’s were far closer to today than the settings in the book (right around 1900).

The Great Brain (an adolescent con artist) was my first influence, but it was Conan the Barbarian who really got me into reading and helped create the man I would become. Okay, technically I’m not towering and muscular and feared by men and adored by women and I don’t carry a sword or wear sandals and a loincloth and travel the world having adventures and…

Well, anyway, when I was twelve my mother dragged me into a Davis Kidd bookstore in Nashville, the largest and most lavish bookstore I had ever seen. While she perused the Harlequins, I wandered away and found myself looking at the cover of a Conan book. A nearly nude woman was depicted as sprawling on an altar in a suggestive pose while a sinister man stood over her brandishing a dagger, preparing to plunge it into her soft flesh. I was immediately aroused. Here was everything I ever wanted in a story – sex AND violence at the same time. Oh yeah, Conan was also on the cover on the lower left, back to the viewer, arms thrown wide to better flex his back muscles, apparently ready to rush in and save the woman just in time to have sex with her. I bought the book with my own money, no small feat considering my allowance was a quarter a week. If my mother had looked at the book cover she likely would have stopped me from buying it. At that age, I wasn’t allowed to watch PG movies. My sister had been allowed to watch anything she wanted at any age, but I’m veering off course again.

I saved my quarters and eventually bought the entire original series written by Robert E. Howard, twelve books in all. When I finished with those, I bought a few by other writers (including Robert Jordan who wasn’t nearly as good – Conan was more fuck and less fight in his novels), but none had the impact of the originals. They were fantasy novels, but with a tough and gritty reality to them. More than anything else, I admired Conan’s strength of character. He was a barbarian, but never a thief or a liar (forget what you saw in the movies – the real Conan never robbed people or took drugs). He was honest and had a sense of honor I’ve always tried to emulate, sometimes succeeding, sometimes coming up a bit short. True, he did tend to kill a lot of people, but they all had it coming so that was alright. I was also intrigued by the writer, especially since he committed suicide while only thirty (although at the time I could understand why nobody would want to live that long).

Sadly, none of the original Conan stories are in print in the US but some were reprinted in the UK a few years back. I’m keeping my eye out for them. They were more than mere adventure stories – they made me a voracious reader, made me realize I wanted to be a writer, and they provided all the ethical lessons my parents didn’t. Plus, it was fun to go through high school cursing “Crom, Mitra, and Asura!” The teachers wanted to bust me for doing that, but it just wasn’t technically against the rules to call upon fictitious gods.


Gib said...

The Great Brain series rocked!

Stacy The Peanut Queen said...

Harlequin books should be banned from every school library on earth. I used to read them (before I fell in love with horror and sci-fi) and they tend to fill a young girls head with a bunch of crap about how someday a "Prince Charming" kinda guy will come along and sweep her off her feet and their lives will end up perfect forever. What a pile of shit THAT was....;)

My first book purchase (with my very own money) was a book I bought off my brother when my parents were having a "Yard Sale". He had a book for sale about giant tarantula-like spiders taking over the world...I bought it (he charged me a dime, I think) and the book scared the hell out of me but I loved it anyway.

Kira said...

I have read some of the Conan books. My brother Ken bought them, and he had quite a few lying around. My family was the opposite of yours in that reading was strongly encouraged, and my mom didn't care what I read (largely). I plowed through a book a night on any evening when there weren't plans to do anything else. I also read some of the Conan comic books too (black and whites AND colors).

Then again, you might remember my red sonja chain mail bikini pic I posted months ago on my blog, so perhaps you aren't surprised I have read Conan :)

Weary Hag said...

Reading was neither encouraged nor discouraged in our house growing up, but I'm the world's worst reader. I like quick things ... newsy articles, blog posts (but of course) and research articles, but when it comes to an actual bound book, I'm such a loser. It takes me forever and I can usually tell inside of the first three pages if I'm ever going to finish it. The single exception to this general rule, for me, has been Stephen King. Back when he was at his writing peak, I could fly through even his biggest books. It wasn't till years after I started reading him that I realized why I liked his style so much. It always felt like he was talking to me - you know - comfy-like.

Generally, I don't enjoy reading and I don't think that's such a horrible thing. I'd rather have a keyboard at my disposal any day.