Frisco Beat: Wolf and Greek Go All Primeval

Our pal Morgan “The Morgman” Holmes has a dictum — either the product of his own profound deliberations or picked up over shots of whiskey in a seedy bar held together with vines and rattan somewhere on the outskirts of the Pulp Jungle:

Any work of art is made better by the inclusion of cavemen and dinosaurs.

Yes, any.

On occasion I wonder if Hammett should have tossed a Cro-Magnon or a stegosaurus into The Maltese Falcon, and haven’t doped out how he might have spun it to the betterment of the plot — but either certainly could really jump up a forced read-through of Proust.

Some other San Francisco boys, however, did get in on the caveman action. Jack “Wolf” London and the poet George “Greek” Sterling. (No dinosaurs, unfortunately.)

Recently Vince Emery sent along a copy of Sterling’s Babes in the Wood, first book publication of the poet’s sort-of sequel to Jack London’s Before Adam. In his years as a publisher Vince has knocked out a little bit of this, some of that, an eclectic mix anchored thus far by some intimate connection to the city of San Francisco.

I figured I should look into the original first, and as I poked through London’s primeval tale didn’t pick up any ghost memories of having read it years ago. The framing device was quite familiar, since it heavily influenced Robert E. Howard’s Sword-and-Sorcery yarns involving ancestral memories, such as “The Valley of the Worm.”

A modern man relives past lives in his dreams — in Before Adam specifically the life of a hominid facing a brutal and always dangerous world. The narrator only sees the life of this one time-lost ancestor, but in a touch that makes a writer a world-class figure while almost all his contemporaries are forgotten, in one vivid sequence he joins his ancestor in his dreams, and plunges back and back across life cycles toward the primordial mire. Lovecraftian pre-Lovecraft. A forerunner of what Clark Ashton Smith would do in “Ubbo-Sathla.”

Knowing the mechanics of yarn-spinning, London — while doing what he thought was a realistic portrait of the life of early man — threaded a love interest through the narrative, plus gave his hominid hero an antagonist within his tribe, the violent atavism Red-Eye. More primitive than the primitive.

Sterling stripped that template down to the bone, the love interest more casual, the past-haunted dreamer nowhere to be found. Episode follows episode, encounters with saber-tooth cats and cave bears and more, done well enough I occasionally thought that it was too bad Sterling didn’t try a Tarzan knock-off. He puts his toe into the grassy verge of the Pulp Jungle and swings his ape-men merrily through the trees.

Maybe it’s me, but I may as well note that both London and Sterling seem to be setting their tales in the landscapes of northern California, while using very early hominids as their foils — nothing as sophisticated as a Neanderthal appears. From what we know of the ever dynamic history of such tribes, I was keeping an eye out for anything that evoked Africa. For all I know they may have had abalone in Africa’s coastal waters, but all I could think about was Sterling during his famous stint in Carmel contributing to writing “The Abalone Song.”

The historical introduction by Vince Emery for many will prove the main attraction of this book. His recent research reveals much previously “lost” info on Sterling’s years in and around San Francisco, especially his jobs working for his uncle Frank C. Havens — they made the papers during a financial scandal. And it seems that Sterling used his office to set Jack London up with better homes in Oakland, as he began his career. Those early years in the Bay Area come up for major reevaluation, but the last fifteen years leading up to his suicide remain unchanged, Sterling as romantic poet and womanizer, one of the most famous San Franciscans of his day.

The coolest piece of info mentioned is that London interrupted writing Before Adam to cover the earthquake and fire of 1906, heading into the burning city of San Francisco for a few days. Gives that novel some extra smoky tang.

Vince did a pretty good job with the text, consulting three versions: Sterling’s holograph first draft in Bancroft Library; typed drafts (Sterling hated typing so someone else did those) with the author’s hand-corrections in the San Francisco Public Library; and the 1914 serial appearances of the episodes in Popular Magazine.

I only noticed roughly six typos, such as on p95 (last paragraph, line 2) no perched which obviously ought to be now perched. Or p150 (first paragraph), a women must be a woman. The textual detail that most intrigued me occurs on p120 (second line), in which mammoths assume the stage with “the enormous curved trunks of the males sometimes clicking together” — that’s got to be tusks clinking together. If I know anything about mammoths, and I do, it’s got to be tusks.

The most startling idea that struck me while reading these primordial episodes — and I’d never even considered the concept before — is that George Sterling was quite a sadist. He delights in describing the torture and death-agonies of one creature or primal man after another. If I noticed it — and I’m hardboiled and largely indifferent about such things — it’s pretty rough.

Back to the Stone Age stuff, indeed.

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