Last Updated on Friday, 21 October 2011 17:34 Written by Robert M. Price Friday, 21 October 2011 16:42
The Whole Wide World. Directed by Dan Ireland. Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers.
Starring Vincent D'Onofrio as Robert E. Howard and Renee Zellweger as Novalyne Price.
Produced by Kushner-Lock International.
After two awful celluloid defamations of Conan the Cimmerian wrought by the evil sorcerer Dino Di Laurentis and his grunting, buffoonish henchman Schwartzenegger, we REH devotees have finally been treated to a good, even a great "Conan" film. Banish Schwartzenegger from your mind; this is the real Conan: Robert E. Howard himself as he appears in Novalyne Price-Ellis's biographical memoir of REH, One Who Walked Alone (1987). Who could have guessed anyone would make such a film? Not that the idea isn't a natural, but, given the lunkheads who run the studios, one might have expected that the very naturalness of the notion would have doomed it. But, like the mighty Cimmerian, the film made it past all odds. It is no monument of fan worship (though, if fan-worship is what you want, stay tuned, because you're about to see the most extravagant case of it you ever heard of). It is simply the translation onto film of one of life's real tragedies: that of the star-crossed courtship between Novalyne Price and Robert E. Howard, town eccentric and "King of the Pulps." And it ends, like the ancient and Shakespearean tragedies, with death and disaster spread around evenly: Howard kills himself. And Novalyne Price starts out determined to make it as a writer but finally abandons the idea, probably as a symbol of exorcising her feelings for Bob, and embraces her unsung role of small-town school marm. One Who Walked Alone was her first book, published after her teaching career, and published at all simply because of the connection to Howard.
The characterizations of both Bob and Novalyne are superbly rendered, reflecting the crystalline clarity of Novalyne's on-the-scene reporting. As she explains in the film, and as she actually did, she had transcribed her many conversations with Bob Howard only hours after they had taken place. By so doing, she hoped to gain a feel for the flow of real dialogue, and to be able to reproduce it in her own fiction. What a treasure! If only someone had done the same for Jesus! The story as lived was enough of a romantic tragedy; no studio hack had to justify his salary by souping up the script with violins and moonlight where none had existed. Perhaps two people of a literary bent just naturally live out the archetypes of fiction with style, much as Hedda Gabbler is gratified at her old lover Lövborg's manner of suicide (until, that is, she discovers he has actually shot himself, gauchely, in the belly!).
And speaking of archetypes, the history (and so the story of it) is filled with them. Consider Robert E. Howard himself, whom I am by no means loath to rank alongside Homer, a perfect case of a man indwelt by the Muse. Here he was, in the back of beyond, in rural, remote Texas, the first, as he put it, to raise the torch of literature in his part of the world. It was like the great myth of the incarnate God being born off-center in a Bethlehem stable. It is the scandal of particularity: why here? Why then? As Robert Bloch said in his moving acceptance speech upon receiving the Life Achievement Award (now the Robert Bloch Award) at the first Necronomi-Con in 1993, it was tragic that Howard, along with Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, had not lived to see the fantastic popularity of his work, and the financial independence it would have accorded him. We are reminded of the plaint of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, "If you'd come today you would have reached a whole nation. Israel in four BC had no mass communication."
Like Jesus Christ in the theological masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (in either the Nikos Kazantzakis or the Paul Schrader/Martin Scorsese versions), Howard was not a particularly accommodating host to the Muse. He bucked and bolted, trying to throw the divine rider, but she held on and finally bent him to her will. Howard's obsessive moods and bouts of gun-toting paranoia, his "acting out" by wearing a sombrero and a handle-bar mustache on the conservative streets of Cross Plains, his walking down the street shadow-boxing to get the moves for a Sailor Steve Costigan story right--all these are precisely like Jesus' fits of flailing lunacy in Last Temptation.
The film makes real this incarnation of the Muse in Bob Howard by showing him sitting at his lamp-lit desk in his humid box of a house (and it actually is Howard's house!) in mid-nowhere, busy at his old manual typewriter, pounding at the keys as if he were the machine, not it, speaking the story aloud as he wrote it, mispronouncing "sword," saying the "w." When Howard rhapsodizes about his trips to Mexico with his beer-drinking buddies and extols physical pleasures over intellectual ones, we get the feeling he must be pulling our leg; but no, this was the real Bob Howard, all right. It was just the mortal, human side of him. But there was another side to him: Conan the Raconteur. Remember how REH once explained that, in writing the Conan tales, he felt as if he had the giant Cimmerian standing at his shoulder relating the yarns of his exploits, as Conan might have regaled his son Conn beside the fireplace of his palace in Tarantia. That was the guise of the Muse. Howard was the channeler of Conan. Want proof? Catch the astonishing scene in the movie, where Bob, beginning to explain his Conan character, hops off the hood of his car where he'd been perched alongside Novalyne, crouches down, back against the fire-lit cornfield, and is transfigured into himself, Conan the Cimmerian. It is unforgettable!
Howard was the channeler of Howard. He was James Allison--crippled modern (a redundancy for Howard) reincarnation of mighty heroes of prehistoric days--in person, as if it weren't already obvious from that handful of neglected tales. Or, to return to my Howard-worshipping theological terms, Howard was like Jesus as Nestorius understood him: somewhere in there, there was the divine Logos and there was a human soul, but the two were not too tightly wrapped up together, sort of like Billy Batson and Captain Marvel or, better yet, Dr. Don Blake and the Mighty Thor. Nestorian Christology was deemed unsatisfactory ("heretical") perhaps in part because it might be taken to imply Jesus was some kind of schizophrenic, but think again of The Last Temptation--maybe that's the best way of viewing him, the most religiously serious.
Remember the issue ofThor in which Thor petitioned Odin to transform Jane Foster into an Asgardian goddess--and it didn't work? Or the second Superman movie, in which Superman foolishly decides to renounce his Kryptonian powers in order to marry Lois Lane (I guess he had read Larry Niven's tale, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex"!). It just didn't work. (And how about the Oedipal hints there: Kal-el [the suffix being theophoric, "Kal the god," just like Thor] defies his mother Lara's advice to marry Lois but finally leaves Lois to return to mom.) Or think of Stanley Weinbaum's brilliant novel The New Adam, where Edmond Hall, the Darwinian-Nietzschean Superman, marries a mere Homo Sapiens gal, and it destroys them both. This is why Robert E. Howard abruptly cut off his relationship with Novalyne on the very evening they grew closest. We see Novalyne's face freeze when Bob suddenly blurts out that he's not a marrying man!
They're in the front seat of his car, heading home, when this revelation emerges. So it is strangely reminiscent of Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep," where, on the auto trip back from Chesuncook, Edward Derby seems suddenly possessed by an intrusive alien consciousness which rears up menacingly like a knife-wielding hijacker hiding in the back seat. Ed himself is being hijacked by his (marriage-)altar ego, Asenath. What spirit was it that suddenly supplanted the consciousness of Robert E. Howard behind the wheel? Like Derby, who would remember nothing of "his" actions once he recovered, Bob Howard seemed astonished at Novalyne's subsequent emotional cooling. Later, he could never understand why she had withdrawn from him. His own natural affections had been over-ruled by the Muse, a harsh taskmistress, a jealous and possessive bitch.
We may compare Howard with another pulp Christ figure, Norman Bates. Norman's occasional healthy romantic urgings were swiftly and bloodily overruled by Mother. Even though Mother was long dead. When Mother, Norma Bates, died (with a little help from her boy), Norman perished with her. Both were resurrected inside Norman's vacant skull. We usually think of Norman as haunted by a ghost generated by his own guilt, that when he hears Norma's voice he is talking to himself. But I wonder if the reverse is not closer to the truth: whether possibly it is Mother pretending to be Norman every once in a while. Norma had supplanted Norman, just as Asenath, after Derby murdered her, supplanted his soul and usurped his body. And recall how the young and naive Derby was essentially (s)mothered by the older woman he married. Howard, too, had an obsessive Oedipal relationship with his mom. And when she died, so did he. Robert E. Howard=Norman Bates=Edward Derby. Mrs. Howard strictly governed the social life of her son. She wouldn't even let Bob know Novalyne had phoned him. We can almost hear from Mrs. Howard's mouth the cracked tones of Mother Bates: Get that slut out of my house!
And remember how it turns out in "The Thing on the Doorstep"? "Asenath" herself turns out to be a much more ancient Entity possessing not only Asenath, but her father Ephraim before her, and who knows how far back before that? The implication, if any, is that Azathoth is that Entity. That, implicitly, was the way Derby, an immature but artistically sensitive man, had the inside facts about Azathoth that found expression in his notorious poem of the same name. Of Ed Derby, Lovecraft tells us that he was the friend of the similarly mad poet Justin Geoffrey, an in-joke salute to HPL's pal, REH. But let's eliminate the middlemen, shall we? Ed Derby is Justin Geoffrey, who, in turn, obviously is Robert E. Howard! So who was the spirit who ruled Bob Howard, exacting the price of a healthy life in return for the literary gift of prophecy?
We already know: the Muse. And, for Howard, the Muse took on the external form of his mom. She was, as Howard says in the movie, the chief inspiration for all his work. And this, of course, is why Two-Gun Bob had to gun Bob down when his mother died. His inspiration had flown, the Muse had died. Not that Howard consciously had this in mind (though his last typed words suggest it). He didn't need to. It was as intuitive as his intuitive apprehension of the Muse's presence (sometimes in the form of Conan) had been.
At the end of The Whole Wide World, Novalyne, off studying at LSU, is hoping for a letter from Bob, but instead she opens the envelope on a note informing her of his suicide. “I can't remember if I cried, when I heard about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.” What had happened to Bob Howard? What had happened to Bob and Novalyne? Had her rejection somehow led to his death? No, Howard's loss of the other woman, his mom, the Muse, had prompted it.
His brief dalliance with Novalyne was a flirtation with the life of another man, an ordinary man, a normal man with a home and a career, a wife and a life. But in the end he couldn't do it, any more than Jesus could in The Last Temptation of Christ. And for the same reason. He had a divinely ordained mission, and it entailed his death. If we want to understand this, we must travel in the company of Denis de Rougemont (Love in the Western World). He traces the Western idea of Romantic Love back to the allegorical veiling of the medieval Catharist-Gnostic yearning for the supramundane Dame Sophia, the Enlightened Soul's True Mate. Once the interdicted doctrine had gone underground, it laid itself open to popularization, vulgarization, bastardization. The pneumatic eros of the Gnostic for that which overcomes the world, the oneness with the Wholly Other, became the romantic ideal of Courtly Love, and then degenerated into the outlaw love of adulterous affairs, meetings of lovers in lunchtime motel rooms (like Marian Crane and Sam Loomis), a passion whose flames are fanned by the ever-threatening danger of discovery. Even without the original metaphysical underpinnings, the central experience of the thrill of a love that transcends the socio-biological norm by transgressing that norm retains its truly spiritual dimension, since it seeks an ecstatic reality greater than the world, and thus it tends to, points to, finally leads to--death, the only way one may leave the world.
Romeo and Juliet knew where they had to end up, Antony and Cleopatra, too, and the Glenn Close character in the director's cut of Fatal Attraction. This is possibly the root of the attraction of Anne Rice's vampire novels: they exist in that raw-edged, thrilling shadow-world outside the bounds of boring mundanity, and the name of that world is death. It is the fulfillment Frank is seeking in Hellraiser when he bargains with the Cenobites for a trip to heaven, otherwise known as hell. Significantly, Clive Barker's original title for the novella version was The Hell-Bound Heart. Score another one for de Rougement.
(Howard? Linked with Cathar mysticism? What do you know? For some years I've been mulling over the idea for a tale of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, the most fanatically Howardian of all Howard heroes, in which he fights alongside the Catharists, under siege in their mountaintop fortress Monsalvage by the heresy-hunting Crusaders. Cormac, seeing the inevitability of defeat, volunteers to escape through a secret passage, taking their chief treasure, the Holy Grail, to safety. I guess maybe it wasn't so far out!)
Camile Paglia, inspired by Aphrodite, or maybe Dionysus, correctly sees the absurdity of well-meaning Christian attempts to legitimate homosexuality by domesticating it into more-or-less conventional marriage but with two grooms on top of the cake. In her incisive essay "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex" (in her collection Sex, Art, and American Culture) she skewers the patronizing pretension of Politically Correct Protestant Liberals, the finger-wagging whiners who are willing to allow Gays to retain the form of homosexuality while denying the power thereof. Paglia maintains that Gay sex is wholly a matter of rebellion, of sexual-moral outlawry. To erase its interstitial, liminal-transgressive character, is to erase its volatility, its very raison d'être. It is no coincidence that occult groups often practice sexual perversion. And don't soften it by thinking it judgmental to call it "perversion"-- that's why they're doing it! Don't you see? Aleister Crowley wouldn't have done any of that stuff if he hadn't made himself the Great Beast, the enemy of the old morality. It is all for the thrill of transcendence, transcendence via transgression. For perhaps the ultimate outworking of the theme, of the instinct, see Angela Carter's shocking The Sadean Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. In fact, read that and de Rougement together.
All stories about the thrill of illicit love (thrilling precisely because it exists outside the limits of hearth and home and numbing security) end either in death or in irony, since if the lovers finally marry (and this is why adulterous men always promise their paramours that they will get a divorce and marry her instead, but never do), the thrill is gone at once. Think of Charles Swann in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past: he makes the worst kind of fool of himself through his obsession with the call-girl Odette. Finally he persuades her to marry him if only to extinguish the agonizing flames of desire. And that does the trick. But then he begins to fade and die for real. Or think of Meatloaf's great ballad Paradise by the Dashboard Light. "So I swore before my God and on my mother's grave that I would love you to the end of time. Now I'm waiting for the end of time, that's all that I can do. I'm waiting for the end of time so I can end my time with you." Again, only death will provide a return to the thrilling otherness of "real life," against which mundanity seems but an illusion, because that "real life" is death.
What Howard was doing was to flirt with the idea of a life within the bounds of the ordinary. But his love for the Eternal Female, the Muse, She Who Must Be Obeyed, would not let him. It was she who enabled him to transcend the sleepy, air-tight "life" of Cross Plains by proudly transgressing its conventions (e.g., making his living as a writer), and the only alternative to falling back to earth was to steal away with her in the ultimate escape. Like Sophia, who in the biblical tradition found but a cold shoulder among men and so packed her bags and returned to heaven, the Muse suddenly left Cross Plains for some far-away Valhalla, and her disciple, her slave, her lover, Robert E. Howard followed her. Perhaps, in fact, Howard's Muse was none other than a Valkyrie who sang sweet songs, battle lays, to him as he typed, simply as a prelude to seizing his soul to bear it away to the origin of all those tales, where ancient heroes laugh and brawl. Novalyne Price belonged there no more than Jane Foster did. Her feelings for Howard were natural and innocent, but doomed nonetheless, just as Mary Magdalene's longing for Jesus, though innocent, could never be fulfilled. Jesus would have rebuffed her with his fearsome rebuke: "Get thee behind me, Satan! For you mind not the things of God, but only the things of men!" That's why Satan appears to Jesus in the desert (in Last Temptation) in the form of the Edenic serpent, whispering with Magdalene's sweet and husky voice.
Jesus had to end up on the cross, or he would have forfeited being the Son of God. After his dream of being God's Prodigal Son, slinking away from the heaven-reaching cross to live as a comfortable carpenter and family man (this is the eponymous "Last Temptation"), he calls on God to forgive him and finds himself relieved to awaken back on the cross, as if rousing suddenly from a bad dream, which, as mundane life, it was. And equally, Robert E. Howard had to end up slumped over that steering wheel. He had briefly strayed away from the Hyborian path of destiny, coveting for a brief moment the lives of mere mortals, but he realized he had no business playing Balthus; he was Conan, like it or not, and he had to fight his way deep into Stygia. No Belit or Valeria or Novalyne could detain him for long. So he slammed the car door and drove off.
Robert M. Price