Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

Harold Schechter

001. And yet, the defects of this book had by no means diminished its appeal to the vast and vulgar reading public. Thus, Crockett’s autobiography was to be found in quantity among the stock of every bookseller in the country, while works of infinitely greater value languished in total obscurity—a circumstance that could hardly fail to chafe at the heart of any serious writer compelled to pursue his high calling under harsh pecuniary…
002. “I’ll be hanged if you don’t sound like a gilt-edged, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering,” he said. “Just listenin’ to you spout off makes a feller’s brain feel as wrung out as yesterday’s laundry. As for me, I may not know all them highfalutin’ words, but I say what I mean.
003. While it is true that pugnacity is somewhat foreign to my temperament, I will not shun a fight when my honor is involved. Indeed, I may say of myself, as the Immortal Bard has the melancholy Dane say, that ‘though I am not splenetive and rash, yet have I something in me dangerous which let thy wisdom fear!’”
004. This salvo produced a most remarkable effect upon Crockett, whose eyes appeared to acquire a dull glaze as I spoke, as if the sheer force of my oratory had staggered him. He looked at me open-mouthed for a long moment before shaking his head and replying:
005. Thus far I had tolerated Crockett’s brazen behavior out of that ingrained sense of courtesy endemic to the well-bred Southerner. To be so insultingly addressed within the precincts of my own dwelling place, however, was a provocation I could no longer endure. Throwing back my shoulders, I replied to Crockett’s bullying ultimatum with the only answer it deserved: I screwed my lips into a withering sneer.
006. “My gracious, Eddie, but you do look peaked. Another bad night?” I acknowledged the accuracy of her observation with a melancholy nod. “Slumber—that blessed but fickle benefactress—withheld her sweet nepenthe from my soul.” She regarded me for a long moment before inquiring, “Do I take that to mean ‘yes’?” “That is, indeed, the signification I intended.”
007. She patted my cheek. “Poor, troubled boy,” she commiserated. “I cannot help but believe that you would sleep more soundly if you spent less time locked up in that stuffy room, brooding on death and premature burial and whatnot. Perhaps you should try writing something … cheerier. Why, look at that delightful poem by Mr. Longfellow, ‘The Village Smithy.’ Surely you could compose something equally charming if you would only put your mind to it.” The earnest, if misguided, simplicity of my dear, well-meaning Muddy elicited from my lips a soft, indulgent laugh—whose tone, however, was not untinged with a rueful awareness that the man of creative genius must ever be misunderstood, even by those most sympathetic to his strivings. “Oh Muddy!” I exclaimed. “Can I not make you see? The true artist must endeavor to give shape to the teeming phantasmagoria of the soul—to those swirling shapes and shrouded forms that spring, like a hideous throng of netherworld-demons, from the dark inner reaches of his own harrowed heart and anguished brain!” Muddy’s eyes blinked several times as she stared at me wordlessly. “Perhaps a nice cup of tea might help,” she said at last.
008. And indeed, though the rains had abated, the sky remained shrouded in gray. Grim, leaden clouds seemed to press down upon the very rooftops of the city. In contrast to the previous evening, however, the unrelieved gloom of the atmosphere found no inner counterpart in my own spiritual condition. Perhaps it was due to the warming aftereffects of Muddy’s salubrious beverage,
009. His appetite for celebrity—to say nothing of his willingness to cater to the crude tastes of the masses—appeared limitless. I need scarcely add that—for all of his pretensions to authorial dignity—such an appetite was in direct contradistinction to the character of the true man of literature, whose glory derives in no small measure from his readiness, not merely to struggle in solitude with the demands of his art, but to endure—often throughout the course of a lengthy career—the utter indifference, if not outright scorn, of a dull and incomprehending public.
010. Here, I reflected dully, is the gruesome confirmation of an all-too-dismal truth: that nothing in the realm of supernatural terror—not the doings of demons nor the depredations of ghouls—can surpass the atrocities visited regularly by men upon their fellow-beings.
011. From the deplorable condition of his sullied complexion, stubbled jaw, and stringy, dun-colored hair, it was sadly evident that an inordinate period had elapsed since he had last availed himself of soap, scissors, razor, or comb. His eyebrows were of a more than wonted shagginess, growing together at the bridge of his nose, so as to form a thick excrescence of hair that bore an unsettling resemblance to a member of that singularly repellent variety of arthropod commonly known as the centipede.
012. Taking a stride in my direction, he encircled my shoulders with one muscular arm and drew me several feet apart from the duster of admirers who had pressed in upon him in anticipation of his impending recitation. Though by nature discomfited, if not actively repulsed, by such gestures of close physical intimacy—particularly from one who was little more than a stranger—I had no choice but to submit to the frontiersman’s familiarities.
013. “Cricket,” he said with a soft, chuckling laugh in whose rippling undercurrent I could not help but detect a note of amused condescension. “If you ain’t a world-champeen gumbeater, I’ll be skinned alive with the blunt edge of a Bowie knife. Take ol’ Davy Crockett’s word fer it—you’ve plumb missed yer callin’. Why, with your amazin’ talent for highfalutin’ palaver, you should be runnin’ for Congress!”
014. So infectious was Crockett’s enthusiasm that I could not help responding with an indulgent half-smile—
015. Though I was, at that instant, entirely unconscious of my facial expression, it must have been of a most remarkable character to have brought the frontiers-man’s soliloquy to such an abrupt halt.
016. My slumbers were fitful in the extreme: sporadic periods of vexed and restless sleep, interrupted by long, dreary hours of wakefulness. Like an injured man who picks compulsively at a scabbed-over wound, my harried brain could not cease from dwelling on the dismaying events of the day just past—or from speculating on the difficulties and perils still to come.
017. My work space—like that of every true littérateur—was fairly blanketed with a wild miscellany of books, writing implements, loose sheets of blank paper, and thick piles of manuscript pages. Balanced atop one of these piles—where it served as an exceedingly convenient paper weight—was a small casket-shaped box of antique mahogany. Extending both of my hands across the table, I removed this object from its perch and placed it directly before me.
018. his attention was riveted on the heavy, iron knocker affixed to the center of the door. This object was of a most singular design, wrought into the shape of a rearing centaur whose brutish face wore an expression of utter, wanton carnality. Clutched in the creature’s arms was a swooning maiden, garbed in such an exceedingly immodest fashion that—I blush to pen the words—the contours of her bosom were revealed in the most flagrant manner imaginable!
019. The general furniture of the room was profuse, antique, and—like the chairs upon which Crockett and I were seated—comfortless in the extreme. In short, the entire chamber created a distinct impression of musty, decaying grandeur—of former opulence and grace now deteriorated into stern, grim, and irredeemable shabbiness.
020. I, struggling to subdue my chagrin at Asher’s blithe unawareness of my own identity. Such, I mused, were the indignities that must ever be endured by the man of true artistic talent, whose rarefied achievements are inevitably overshadowed by the coarse endeavors of those lesser beings who, like Crockett, cater solely to the crude sensibilities of the masses.
021. At this point in our investigations, we had come to a massive bookcase that stood against one wall of the chamber. Examining the rows of dusty, antique volumes that lined the shelves, I was forcibly struck by the degree to which they conformed—in their exceedingly anomalous subject matter—to the unhallowed paintings that constituted Asher’s art collection. Among the many rare and curious editions that filled the towering bookcase, I recognized such grotesque, even sinister, works as the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud; the Malleus Malifacarum of Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer; Robert Scots Demonogly; the Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis of Bernadus Guidonis; and—perhaps most remarkable of all—a small octavo edition of the Virgliœ Mortuorum secundum Chorum Eccksiæ Maguntinœ.

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