This is the type of book that I’m always happy to find and add to my library, a painless general reference or handbook that is enormous fun to peruse and worthy of losing oneself in for an afternoon or the better part of a day. I found it at the Barnes & Noble bookstore by me. Twelve ninety-nine for a thick little paperback—more than 350 pages—with a black-and-white photo of Albert Camus on the cover. It is copyrighted 2005. The Rough Guides series is done in England and distributed by Penguin Books. The back cover of this gem advertises the Rough Guides on Cult Movies and Superheroes; inside, further volumes offered include Cult TV, Cult Football (meaning soccer), and even Bob Dylan, Elvis, and Muhammad Ali, for crying out loud. When I first saw it, because of its modern design, I thought this little book must be a Taschen publication.
Books such as these are as addictive as lists of the ten best this or ten worst that. I picked it up impulsively because one of my former agents years ago suggested, rather dismissively, that I am myself a cult author. I’m not so sure that I have attained even that status—being a guy with a bunch of out-of-print books identifies my station a bit better—but I am happy to be included by at least one person in such a repertory company of “genre benders, beats, gurus, drunks, junkies, sinners, and surrealists.” I’ve never been a junkie and I’m no surrealist, but I’d like to think that I’ve written a few pages here and there that have been worth reading on occasion. Time will tell. Or maybe it has already told. Still, many of my readers whom I’ve talked to agree that they got their money’s worth from my paperbacks.
The usual suspects are here—Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Willeford, Arthur Rimbaud, Hunter S. Thompson, Proust and Mishima, John Kennedy Toole and Ursula LeGuin, Cornell Woolrich and Charles Bukowsky, H. P. Lovecraft and Elmore Leonard. Some of my favorite writers also are catalogued, including Leigh Brackett and Nathanel West, as well as authors that I’ve become aware of only by chance—for instance, John Fante. (I had the collection of letters between Fante and H. L. Mencken put out by Black Sparrow Press, but it was destroyed in the infamous basement flood of September 2001 that ruined dozens upon dozens of bankers’ boxes of books, correspondence, videotapes, and sundry other items that I had foolishly stored in the cellar. I regret the loss of that book and many others, as well as of all my correspondence with such people as Robert Bloch and J. Vernon Shea and my early correspondence with Dick Tierney, Joe Bonadonna, Fred Adams, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Charles Saunders, and many others.) Anyhow, to give you the flavor of the grand talent that this Rough Guide celebrates, it mentions the passage in one of Fante’s novels, The Road to Los Angeles, in which the author’s alter ego, Arturo Bandini, “massacres a group of crabs he imagines have mocked him, while railing against a world that has ignored him.” And haven’t we all been there?
Cult Fiction is a treasure trove of graffiti and trivia, as well as suitably alarming anecdotes illustrating how demented and semiliterate we have become: a discussion of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” quotes an anonymous “reviewer” on amazon.com, who complains that “the paragraphs are all really long and the author tries to throw a lot of ideas at the reader all at once. The main character seems to ramble on and on about things that could have been kept out of the book. There are a lot of symbols for ‘darkness’ in the story.” Wasn’t one of the purposes of education to weed out morons like this?
Any number of the writers profiled are new to me, and this is perhaps the most useful service this book provides, to introduce me to interesting original wordsmiths worth my time and attention. I didn’t know that the excellent television series Homicide: Life on the Streets was based on Homicide by David Simon, a 1993 account of detectives working on hundreds of cases. I’d never heard of Weldon Kees (1914-ca. 1955) before picking up this book; Kees wrote “miserable, bitter, powerful poems” and short stories, and one July day, he simply disappeared. Who knows if he is still alive or is dead? James Crumley (1939-), who called himself “a bastard child of Raymond Chandler,” wrote whodunits featuring “male friendships, whiskey, and guns. The characters zing, the epigrams bite, and the prose has a restless vitality.” I have yet to read anything by Italo Calvino, Gűnter Grass, or Richard Yates, whose Revolutionary Road was recently made into a critically recognized movie; all are discussed. And this list doesn’t even touch on the continental and Asian writers reviewed in Cult Fiction whom I never before heard of.
And then there is an author whom I have indeed read but didn’t recognize. A sidebar in the article on Raymond Chandler discusses Janwillem van der Wetering, who wrote police procedurals set in the Dutch capital city, Amsterdam. Never heard of him or them, I thought—except that van der Wetering lived for years in a Japanese Buddhist monastery and wrote The Empty Mirror based on that experience. I read The Empty Mirror twenty years ago and still recall many scenes, yet I remembered only that the author was Dutch, I thought, or perhaps German or Scandinavian,
Cult Fiction also offers many more bonuses. It doesn’t merely list eccentric, weird, forgotten, or disappeared writers; appended are sections on graphic novels and cult characters as well as oddball sections such as “Mostly Factual” (“trips on roads or drugs; bongo-playing physicists…”), “Readers’ Digest” (including lists of what some authors did when not writing—Philip K. Dick worked as a disc jockey; W. P. Kinsella sold advertising for the Yellow Pages—as well as a catalog of strange deaths—Roland Barthes was run over by a laundry truck; Anton Chekov’s body was delivered home to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car marked “oysters”), and “Lords of the Ring” (literary giants who have also had experience as boxers, including Lord Byron and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
Inevitably, there are titles and authors missing that I thought might have been included, but if a volume such as this tried to be completist, it would be five or six times the convenient size it now is. Still, Ayn Rand is not mentioned. She was a lightweight and her art and so-called philosophy the immature expression of a narcissist, but there is no doubting that she remains a cult author of some concern. I am most familiar with action fantasy writers, so I think that it is too bad that neither Robert E. Howard nor Fritz Leiber is mentioned. Also missing is any mention of First Blood, a terrific novel, and the children’s book Goodnight Moon. I would never have paid attention to Margaret Wise’s Goodnight Moon had I not become a father; now, I can’t get enough of this jewel. It is an endless poem, insightful, beautiful, perfect, as pure as a Zen insight or a finely done haiku. If I could have only one book to keep me company on a desert island, sometimes I seriously consider that Goodnight Moon would be that book.
Then again, perhaps I would opt for Cult Fiction.