In the early Sixties, my maternal grandparents stayed in a subdivided Victorian house, the upstairs having been split into two apartments, the bottom story uninhabited and warehousing a portion of some wealthy family’s estate: furniture, rugs, an extensive library. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of books. In the side yard there was a well. You could remove the cinder block and then the plywood and look down at your reflection in water.
Although not an adventurous child, somehow I gained entrance into those off-limit rooms downstairs, the furniture sheeted, the air stale. I’d sneak down there and explore. After repeated visitations and investigating some of the books I could reach on the lower shelves, I started secretly “borrowing” individual volumes of the Complete Works of Edgar Alan Poe.
Each slender volume, bound in red, featured sheer paper sandwiching occasional engravings of ravens, subterranean crypts, rats gnawing on ropes of a prisoner contemplating a pendulum. I’d take one volume at a time, terrified I’d get caught. Into the forbidden first-story space I’d sneak, carefully replace last week’s purloined octavo, surreptitiously flip through other volumes, and choose another based solely on the luridness of the illustrations. I was only nine or so, so most of the prose lay beyond my reckoning, but I could manage lots of the poetry and some of the stories (“The Tell Tale Heart,” for example). Unable to distinguish bathos from profundity, I became completely enamored of the singsong silliness of “The Raven,” devoting several stanzas to memory. “Annabelle Lee” could bring tears to my eyes. Something sinister lay beneath those works, so the whole enterprise smacked of trafficking in pornography – though pornography would not have been in my early Sixties vocabulary.
I’d smuggle the forbidden text and read it surreptitiously in bed because I knew my parents/ grandparents wouldn’t approve of my trespassing and borrowing without asking. I liked the musty smell of the books, the way the pages whispered when I turned them, the way the illustrations lay perversely beneath diaphanous paper. Despite the buxom space sirens who cavorted on the covers of pulpy paperbacks, Sixties sci-fi couldn’t compete with the deep purple sublimations of diseased consciousness that I found in Poe.
As a child, the musty past interested me much more than the disinfected future.
* * *
In those days, at my grandparents’ apartment, in the afternoons, we’d watch The Micky Mouse Club and Flash Gordon reruns. Flash Gordon appealed to me, not because it was futuristic, but because it was old-fashioned, serials my mother had watched as a redheaded girl at matinees during the Great Depression, the stories more or less Medieval, Ming the Merciless versus Buster Crabbe of the hyacinthine locks, a hero who could probably trace his lineage back to Perseus.
Occasionally, on the Mouse Club, we’d visit Tommowland for a glimpse at the wonders that the future might hold – if there was going to be a future. With Kruschev banging his shoe on the table at the UN and third grade atomic detonation drills, you weren’t so sure. Nevertheless, we would sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in the year 2000, calculating our ages when that distant day would arrive with its flying automobiles and uniform-like clothing.
Accurately imagining the future is not an easy task. I’ve written elsewhere about Huxley and Orwell and their relative prowess at prognostication. On the cinematic side, Fritz Lang and Kubrick deserve a nod. However, in my limited exposure to old-fashioned sci-fi and its forays into the future, I can’t recall anyone predicting the vast availability of information we now enjoy, which strikes me as the most meaningful aspect of the difference between yesteryear and now.
For example, if I were a bit wealthier, for a mere $6500 I could purchase that edition of Poe’s Complete Works I described above. Here’s a description:
New York. George D. Sproul Company. 1902. Lavishly bound in Publisher’s Deluxe custom, 3/4 burgundy crushed morocco and marbled boards. Gilt-tooled spine compartments with fleural motifs.Gilt-tooled raised bands. Marbled endsheets. t.e.g. 8vo. 5.5″ x *.25″. The Monticello Edition. This Edition Limited to only 1000 numbered sets of which this is #330. Illustrated throughout with delightful, tissue-guarded monochrome plates Editied by renowned Poe scholar James A. Harrison, the Monticello Edition of Poe’s Works is one of the scarcest of early compilations, with no complete set appearing at auction in more than thirty years.The 17 Volumes are comprised of: (truncated).
The wonder of it all! My cobwebbed memories come to life, a few keystrokes away! Yes, the volumes were red (okay, burgundy crushed morocco) and, yes, illustrated with tissue-guarded monochrome plates. (Looking for suitable illustrations for this topic, I discovered these volumes in a Google search after I had begun this post – the very volumes that I had treasured as a boy). In a sense, the past is at my fingertips because I can conjure its images.
In 2016, if I have a hankering to view a complete set of Flash Gordon serials, I can have Dale Arden and Ming the Merciless streaming through my computer in virtually no time. World classics of the public domain await plundering – in Latin for the scholar, SparkNotes for the slacker.
O, my baby boomer brothers and sisters, the future is now! Water pours automatically as your hand nears the faucet head; toilets flush, somehow knowing you’ve finished. I can talk to my son in real time and watch him sip a beer in Nuremberg as I languish six hours behind in the States awaiting our own cocktail hour. Somehow, the triumph of capitalism has enabled us to get stuff for free – whether it be the Aeneid or Skype.
Yet, the past still strikes me as more seductive, more fecund, as the future both expands and shrinks us, offering us worlds of information and entertainment, but distracting us from the glories of the natural world, the sunlight illuminating in steps your bedroom wall as you lie there not wanting to get up.