Doc SavageSo I’m reading this book called Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil by Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman. I intend to do a more lengthy review of it presently, so stay tuned. But I just wanted to mention one thing.

The book has a chapter on the pulp magazines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which mentions “Doc Savage.” The Doc Savage adventures were really popular back in the heyday of pulp. They featured the titular square-jawed hero who traveled the world with a cadre of brainy tough guys, putting a stop to various evil-doers.

The author, “Kenneth Robeson,” was actually a rotating stable of writers. I read a few when I was a kid. They weren’t great in retrospect, in the manner of other pulp material from writers such as H.P. Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury. But they were a fun read. And to be fair, that’s no more and no less than what they aspired to.

But the books did have a lasting impact on me as a reader, in the form of one important lesson.

See, when I was about 13, I was reading one called The Sargasso Ogre. It features a scene where Doc Savage is interrogating a couple of criminals.

At one point, one of them defiantly answers Doc Savage’s questions with “Phooey on you!”
As a kid, I thought that was hilarious. This is a dangerous criminal. A very bad man, the story makes clear. And he says “phooey on you?”

When I thought about it at greater length, though, I realized what was really going on. The words “phooey on you” might as well have an asterisk indicating a footnote from the author. And that footnote would read as follows:

“Look. Both you and I know that the guy didn’t really say ‘phooey on you.’ What he said was ‘fuck you.’ But I’m writing this in 1933, and there’s no way in hell I’d get away with writing that. So I’m going to ask you, the reader, to use a little effort and fill in what he actually said in your mind, OK?”

That moment of realization comes back to me whenever I’m reading a book from a bygone era, and the writer has to obliquely hint at what’s going on.

I’m not one of these people who subscribes to the idea that graphically presenting something is akin to bad writing. I find that attitude naïve and a bit childish. Good writing is good writing, whether a faithful film adaptation would merit a rating of G or NC-17. And if the material calls for a lot of F-bombs, by all means get ‘em in there.

Still, there’s something impressive about reading – or watching, in the form of screenplays – writers from the past managing to convey through subtle suggestion what they can’t state overtly.

Case in point. I’m in the process of reading Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898, for the first time. (SPOILER ALERT!) And the scene where Mrs. Grose reveals Quint’s nature as a sexual predator and pedophile is all the more disturbing for her unwillingness – and James’ inability, given the time he was writing – to state it overtly.

It’s all a bit more subtle than “phooey on you” in lieu of … you know. Still, I thank whichever incarnation of Kenneth Robeson penned “The Sargasso Ogre” for giving me that early lesson in reading between the lines.

Just goes to show that you can glean insights into literary interpretation from just about any source. Don’t agree with me? Go phooey yourself.

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