The Dead Men’s Shoes Society

(Extra special bonus bragging rights points for anyone who can identify the source of the title of this post–yes, it is a name that I used in The Book Of Lost Doors, but where did I steal it from originally?)

Lately several things I’ve run across on the Interwebz have come together to give me an insight that is less of a logical if-then-thus-and-so sequence and more of a feeling. So I will begin by apologizing for a lack of rigorous historicity in my examples. I know that there are multiple readers of my blog who have a far more comprehensive grasp of literary history than I do. I beg you to have mercy on me and look beyond my ignorance to my intent.

All right, disclaimers one(1) and two(2) out of the way, let’s skip the foreplay and dive straight into the greasy epistemological meat of the thing. Originality is hard.

No, let’s get a bit more messianic. Originality is unnatural. That is to say that it is not the wonted haunts of man. It is not something that we, as a species, do except in extremis.

Creativity and the artistic impulse are as natural and necessary as breathing, but that isn’t the same thing. One can live a vibrant and fulfilling life as a creative artist without ever having an original thought. Nor, I hasten to add, is this the snooty contempt of a True Visionary Artist Of Whom The World Is Not Worthy. I depend on the commonplace creativity of graphic artists and musicians and chefs and architects and groundskeepers all around me.

Originality, though, is something else. It is the last resort of a soul backed into a corner. We are heirs to millennia of storytellers and flutists and potters who have refined their art over generations. It requires painful levels of hubris to discount that hard-won and grave-deep wisdom. Man, as Chesterton observed, plants his roses in the graveyard.

And yet the drunkard’s walk of progress lurches ever onward at the goading of such lunatics who are driven to stopper their ears against the voice of tradition and prick up to the siren song of the pie-eyed singers beyond the vale.

The just and nigh-Dantean punishment of the iconoclast, however, is that they either die a villain’s death or live long enough to see themselves become the hero.

Allow me to elucidate.

Early in the last century a young man in New England found himself backed into the corner formed by the intersection of the Uncanny and the Understood. Science, it seemed to him, was in the process of whitewashing away the shadows in which the Fair Folk dwelt. As a great lover of the fairy tales of Lord Dunsany he found this situation intolerable. Where was there room for the moon-drenched moors in a world where the moon was just a satellite and the moors simply a microcosm?

And so he delved into the scientific literature of his time in search of wonder. And he arose, dripping with slime, with his hands full of alternate dimensions and other worlds. He invented a new mythology of gods with their feet planted in the preCambrian and their eyeless visages raised to the cold, uncaring stars.

Those who came after him, though, were simply creative and not original. What the commonplace artists took from his work was the tentacles and unpronounceable names and overwrought and polysyllabic prose. That was what became known as “Lovecraftian” while the target he was aiming at–science as the tool of Horror, not its cure–was lost.

Another example. A veteran of the Great War, a poet who had a great love for the romantics prior to his enlistment, found himself back into the corner formed by the elegant drawing room murder mysteries of his day and his own experience with the fragrant corpses left dangling in barbed wire following an artillery barrage. He set out to tell stories that would deal honestly with murder–what he called “an act of infinite cruelty”.

And so was born a detective who made the most modern of cities his home but never forgot the blood-stained stone of Cain and the burden of Nimrod, a man for whom the words of Donne were not an aphorism but a toll paid in his own flesh, who was diminished by the death of any man, even the junkies and reprobates and scofflaws.

From his originality, though, came the mere creativity of “Hard Boiled Detective Fiction” and a genre that embraced the superficiality of pacing and jargon, but turned away from his morality.

Chandler wrote, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” None of his imitators ever came up with a sentence so chilling, because none of them shared his gut-wrenching horror of bloodshed.

Now let’s flash forward a generation and change to a filmmaker who grew up watching his beloved monsters become laughingstocks, playing second banana to the likes of Abbott and Costello. No one was making scary movies anymore. The cobweb festooned old Victorian manse of Vault Of Horror and Lights Out had taken up residence at Disneyland. To reach his audience he had to take a running leap over the proscenium arch and bring the monster home to where they lived, the modern and bright suburban streets.

What he made was wholly original, a new monster who stalked a town just like yours and blended in, no greasepaint or prosthetics, just a simple mask that wouldn’t raise suspicion. Not on Halloween.

Once again, those who came after missed the deep horror, the central conceit that the boogeyman wasn’t restricted to abandoned mansions on dark and stormy nights. “Slasher Films” rapidly became as formulaic and in many instances as absurd as the American International parodies that inspired Carpenter to break the old mold.

A few years later a young man who loved Science Fiction found himself in a similar corner, and found himself making a similar leap. What he wanted was to bring Science Fiction home to main street, to explore how the changes in technology would impact the lives of ordinary people. What “Cyberpunk” turned into was a stylistic movement, the old Campbellian stereotypes given a new coat of paint and the same old stories trotted out with mood lighting and pop culture references.

The pattern in nigh-inescapable. Howard and Burroughs the Elder set out to celebrate the everyday heroism of a good man in a bad time, what the imitators took from them was bare chests and monsters.

What becomes a Genre is today’s writers walking around in the shoes of dead men, trying to imitate the footprints left by giants without looking up from the ground to see where the path is leading and what drove their forebears to tread there. Bruce Sterling had one of the characters in his disturbingly ground-breaking The Artificial Kid describe it thus, “You point at the sun and they spend years discussing your index finger.”

What are you taking from the great inspiring works of the past (however you define them)? Is it the distant horizon, the new vistas opened up by trailblazers?  Are you exploring new worlds outside of the beaten paths?

Or are you just trying to imitate their footprints?



About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, New Wave, On Writing, pulp revival and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Dead Men’s Shoes Society

  1. feralplum says:

    I dunno about the society, but I recognize the zen koan. ‘The man points to the moon – the cat looks at the finger.’

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    There’s a 1940’s film noir called Dead Man’s Shoes. There’s also a classic Twilight Zone episode of that name, which I think was named after the film. I could easily see either of those having inspired you.

  3. Mary says:

    The Lord of the Rings was about throwing away power. How many high fantasies follow it in that?

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I am not that familiar with The Lord Of The Rings, which is why I didn’t use Tolkien as one of the examples. But I do think you have a point, later imitators of Tolkien were more about finding the power and using it, not destroying it.

  4. machinshinn says:

    Originality is over rated and upheld to some great degree for some reason. Taking something that already exists and improving it is just as hard if not harder. Ever heard the phrase “Polishing the Jade”?

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I think sometimes it’s the difficulty of crafting a work that can stand up to comparisons with the masters of the past that makes artists want to make a big deal about being original. It’s very hard to make a Western as well as John Ford made them, it’s considerably easier to “deconstruct” the Western as a genre.

  5. haikufiction says:

    As thought provoking as always. To me this essay highlights E R Burroughs’s genius: he came up with two original ideas: Barsoom and Tarzan. (And yes, the lack of parallelism is intentional. The setting makes the Mars series work. The character makes the Tarzan series work.)

  6. Mr. West says:

    Whoa! This is an amazing post with an awful lot to think about and so many pieces of gold.

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