MICHAEL H. PRICE: What’s A Fishhead?
Continued from last week …
We had left Robert Bloch hanging in mid-conversation last week, speaking of Irvin S. Cobb as a forerunner of the “bizarre pulp” movement in popular fiction.
Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb (1876–1944) was a crony and occasional collaborator of Will Rogers, and a key influence upon Rogers’ droll sense of humor. He can be seen as an actor in such Rogers-starring films as Judge Priest (1934; deriving from Cobb’s folksier tales) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), both directed by John Ford. It was for other works entirely that Robert Bloch remembered Cobb.
“Have you ever read Irvin Cobb’s ‘Fishhead’?” Bloch asked me around 1979-1980. “Well, if it was good enough for Howard Lovecraft to single out as a nightmare-on-paper [in the 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Fiction], then I was ready and willing to tear into it. Which I did. Changed my entire direction, that one story did.”
I can relate, all right. In 1995, independent publisher Lawrence Adam Shell and I set about to adapt as a graphic novel Cobb’s 1911 tale of righteous vengeance, “Fishhead,” in which a swamp-dwelling hermit of grotesque aspect runs afoul of malicious neighbors. If Irvin Cobb had drawn upon regional folklore to lend his title character a gift of supernatural communion with the wildlife, then our crew reckoned we must treat Cobb’s story itself as folklore – subject to sympathetic re-interpretation and elaboration as a condition of respect.
And otherwise, why adapt at all? Cobb would have done a greater service to scholarship than to popular literature if he had contented himself merely with compiling the various old-time rumors about reclusive souls presumed to possess spiritual bonds with the wastelands. The audacious job that Cobb called “Fishhead” backfired at first, accumulating rejections from one magazine after another on account of its unabashed gruesomeness and its sharp contrast with his gathering reputation as a sure-fire humorist. One editor, Bob Davis, of an adventurous magazine called The Cavalier, wrote to Cobb in 1911: “It is inconceivable how one so saturated with the humors of life can present so appalling a picture.”
But after Davis had relented and published the yarn in 1913, “Fishhead” proved a watershed, helping to trigger the so-called “bizarre pulp” explosion that would gerrymander the boundaries of mass-market fiction during the two-and-a-half decades to follow. By mid-century, when Cobb’s lighthearted and bucolic tales had become by-and-large forgotten, “Fishhead” was still reappearing as a magazine-and-anthology favorite.
But as to the matter of adaptation and assimilation of narrative elements: The entertainer and folk-song historian Henry “Taj Mahal” Fredericks has argued that the Southland’s traditional blues and gospel idioms can remain vital only if their modern-day practitioners will resist the restraints of what he calls “arthritic reverence.” Co-author Larry Shell and illustrator Mark Evan Walker and I would be remiss not to address an old-favorite story in comparable terms. (Our re-interpretation of Fishhead is will start on ComicMix Monday, October 8th.)
Robert Bloch also singled out the West Texas writer Robert E. Howard (1906 –1936), as a particularly effective interpreter of folk-tale inspirations: “You remember Bob Howard’s story, ‘Pigeons from Hell,’ from Weird Tales?” asked Bloch. “The one about the birds flocking around the house to capture the departing souls of the newly defunct? Pure deep-Southern folklore, filtered through a good solid melodramatic story-arc.”
While wondering all along why my storytelling Grandmother Lillian Wilson Lomen had neglected to set her wealth of hair-raising folk-tales into writing, I also began to notice the gathering evidence that a good many, and maybe even most, published writers must be tapping a similar vein, whether consciously so or not. And how else to explain such diversified examples as Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales? Or Roark Bradford’s similarly dialect-riddled Ol’ Man Adam takeoffs on the Old Testament? Or the greater body of Biblical lore itself? To say nothing of the legendary hauntings and intrigues that abound in Shakespeare and Mark Twain, and in Margaret Mitchell’s strange and self-contradictory work of affectionate bigotry and stubborn nostalgia, Gone with the Wind.
And then there was the Ike Turner–Eugene Fox recording of “The Dream” (1954) – in which yet another Man Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead, like a zombiefied character from my grandmother’s yarns, barges in upon a tryst between his widow and an amorous interloper. And there came in 1959 a pop-chart hit record called “Stagger Lee,” in which the New Orleans singer Lloyd Price re-enacts a criminal cause celébre of the prior century: “Why, we had a record of that same song on our wind-up Aeolian [phonograph, i.e.], back when your mother was just a little girl,” said my grandmother, alluding perhaps to Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 version. I had pegged Lloyd Price, anyhow, as a vessel of folklore via an earlier recording called “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” – and how many times had I heard that expression, signifying astonishment or dismay, from one or another of my family elders? Nobody in the here-and-now was likely just to make up such declarations out of Whole Cloth; the thoughts must be floating about in the communal dream-stream, waiting for someone to grasp them as a basis of some new and vital concoction. “Where do you-all get your ideas?” – indeed!
Continued next week…
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.