Skip to content

The Legacy of A.E. Housman: Roverpack

March 1, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

It’s amazing that a single line of text published in 1896 would go on to inspire three generations of writers.

On June 25, 2018, Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s A Rover was published by Subterranean Press, and strangely went immediately out of print. The book is the long-promised expansion of the literary legend’s 1969 Nebula-award winning novella A Boy and His Dog, and contains a 1980 introduction from anthropologist and sci-fi writer Chad Oliver, who authored a 1952 short story with the same title.  “Back in the Paleolithic, I wrote a story […] entitled Blood’s A Rover,” Oliver wrote.  “I extracted the title from a poem by A.E. Housman. Harlan Ellison has now performed the same feat of literary archaeology.” Tragically, just three days after Blood’s A Rover was published, Ellison would die at his Los Angeles home at the age of 84.

chad oliver note to harlan ellison

Chad Oliver note to Harlan Ellison

In September 2009, James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Literature, delivered the epic conclusion to his monumental Underworld USA Trilogy… a massive novel of American History from 1968 to 1972 also titled Blood’s A Rover.

As Oliver noted, the title derives from A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s 1896 collection of 63 poems that explore the problem of change and specifically a search for some kind of permanence amid such relentless transformation. With a melancholy tone that could serve as a template for a thousand noir plotlines, the poems tell us that life is brutal, yet mercifully brief. People should expect neither equality nor satisfaction, as misfortune is, Housman contends, a constant human burden.

A Shropshire Lad’s fourth poem, “Reveille”, named for the signal sound for waking armed forces, is a call to action in the face of approaching death. The phrase “Blood’s A Rover” appears in the final stanza, and urges vigorous participation in life while remaining conscious of death’s inevitability…  In other words, don’t waste a moment of your youth, because time waits for no one. This wake-up call, delivered to me with the publication of Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover, was just what I needed… At the end of 2009 I was at the bottom of the most cavernous rut of my life, after an addiction-addled run of disastrous events that saw me lose my job, house, and health, followed by a brutal and seemingly endless insomnia.

As Ellroy would tell the Birmingham Mail in 2010, he’s never read A Shropshire Lad…  “But I read a page once that had that quote [Blood’s A Rover] on it, and I know a good quote when I see one…  It was 30 years ago, I don’t even remember what I was reading.  I just remember my reaction.  I said ‘that’s a fucking good title for a novel.’”

Harlan Ellison’s Rover chronicles the grim misadventures of Blood the telepathic dog, his boy Vic, and a tough young woman named Spike as the trio struggle to survive in a post-World War IV apocalyptic wasteland.

In a setting that likely inspired Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Vic, Blood and Spike navigate a scorched and degraded world of marauding gangs (called “Roverpacks”) scavenging through the ashes of civilization. Hollywood has exhausted this scenario today, but in the politically paranoid 1950s and 60s, the idea was extremely popular among science fiction writers, as people actively feared nuclear war.

With division and disintegration all around them, Blood alone knows that cooperation offers their only shot at survival. This mutant mutt strives with courageous defiance to find meaning and purpose amid such wanton destruction, more than once mentioning belief as a necessity for survival.         

Ellison’s Rover is assembled from the prolific writer’s files using revised and expanded versions of “A Boy and His Dog”, along with material developed for Richard Corben’s 1989 graphic novel adaptation and an aborted 1977 NBC television series.

For decades, Ellison spoke of wanting to write a lengthy sequel to “A Boy and His Dog.”  However, Ellison’s countless other projects always interrupted. Ironically, it would be the greatest interruption of all—Ellison’s failing health—that would spur Ellison (with assistance from editor Jason Davis), to cobble together all of the surviving material, producing consequently the most coherent rendition of Ellison’s original intention.

It’s hard to imagine this exhaustive reconstructive process without being reminded of Don Crutchfield, the voyeuristic narrator of Ellroy’s Rover, and specifically the window-peeper’s lifetime of scholarship, comprised of “massive paper trails… stolen public files, and usurped private journals.”

A Shropshire Lad is distinguished by its fixation on the loss of innocence and the quest to recover such purity.  The heavily maternal connotations here should remind any Ellroy reader of the orphaned Crutchfield’s quest for redemption, as his “sum of personal adventure and 40 years of scholarship” piece together the shards of the past.

Harlan Ellison is too skilled a writer to mention it directly, but his characters are haunted by the same struggles as Housman’s Shropshire Lad:  The longer you progress on your journey, the more devastation you witness, and that destruction fundamentally alters who you are. Don Crutchfield also learns this grim truth, as such trauma constitutes for him “a dear and savage price to live history.”

Published in the May 1952 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, Chad Oliver’s Blood’s A Rover details the challenges of applied anthropology as a technical assistance team known as Process Planning indelibly alters the way of life for a tribe of nomadic farmers on the underdeveloped planet Sirius 10. Among Process Planning’s ranks is respected sociologist Conan Lang, who learns that the Oripesh natives of Sirius 10 are migratory because the Ricefruit crop they grow renders soil infertile for the following year. Lang gifts the tribe a modified Ricefruit that does not damage the soil, and immediately earns the angst of the village mystic, who quite prophetically calls Lang evil for damaging the tradition their egalitarian society is built around.

Upon returning to Sirius 10 three years later, Lang sees the disastrous effects of his catalytic gesture:  The once nomadic Oripesh now have embraced a horrendously inequitable capitalist class structure based on land ownership. With a king at the top, and slaves at the bottom, Lang immediately draws a parallel with the plight of Earth, whom he views as woefully unprepared for an impending intergalactic invasion. Like Sirius 10, Lang concludes that Earth’s only chance for survival lies in the ingenuity and initiative of its people.

In Ellroy’s Blood’s A Rover, the Demon Dog’s characters adopt Housman’s battle with relentless transformation, and even try to impose permanence (and sometimes false permanence) on such endless change through journal writing. Don Crutchfield’s career-cataloging of such a turbulent time represents the motherless window-peeper’s own retroactive grasp at permanence. In a labyrinthine tale that weaves together multiple narratives, shifting loyalties, and more than a few curveballs, tragedy first scars Ellroy’s players, and later moves them to astonishing—and quite revolutionary—exploits.

A.E. Housman’s depiction of disenchanted or unrequited love, and denouncement of life’s injustices comprise the bulk of A Shropshire Lad’s romantic melancholy mood. It’s a tenor that also prevails in the works of Ellison, Ellroy, and Oliver. Any reader of the Demon Dog knows that Ellroy’s tales of bad men obsessed with unattainable women have always featured a romantic melancholy essence. In Ellison’s Blood’s A Rover, melancholy is a constant companion as Blood, Vic and Spike traverse an America reduced to radioactive waste. There’s even a melancholy quality to Oliver’s Rover, as Conan Lang ponders extensively the crippling price of human apathy.

None of the three works actually mention the phrase “Blood’s A Rover” in the text. Only Ellison’s book comes closest, as Blood, the telepathic dog, is quite literally a rover.  Towards the end of Ellroy’s Rover, narrator Don Crutchfield evokes Housman’s famous phrase more than once, saying “I roved…” Large blocks of Chad Oliver’s text are occupied by Conan Lang’s mental soliloquies about the necessity of boldness while avoiding the cancer of complacency, thus conjuring Housman’s call to action: “Up, lad:  When the journey’s over, there’ll be time enough to sleep.” Ellroy also espouses this notion in his Rover’s repeated phrase “your options are do everything or do nothing,” something the Demon Dog would return to retroactively during a pivotal moment in his 2014 novel Perfidia.

I’ve never asked Ellroy if he met Harlan Ellison, but I wonder if the science fiction legend was a fan of the Demon Dog…  Ellroy’s Rover concludes just before the Watergate scandal, with the seeds of that blundered break-in indicated toward the novel’s end.  Ellison’s Rover seems to provide a subtle hint, as the very last page closes with Blood the telepathic dog giving an oral history lesson about the Watergate scandal.

Jason Carter

 

Advertisements
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig McDonald permalink
    March 2, 2019 10:55 pm

    From that title, Blood’s A Rover (let’s remember, Harlan Ellison blurbed The Black Dahlia in Mysterious Press hardcover “…It’ll hang you out to dry.”), to the comic book and sci-fi references in early works including Silent Terror, to his use of a Steve Erickson quote as a touchstone for L.A. Confidential, I’ve long thought there’s some serious work to be done in exploring some of Ellroy’s reading outside the crime fiction realm. And from informal conversation, it’s very clear he reads a great deal of poetry and much more contemporary fiction (which he can critique in devastating and short takes) than he’s clearly willing to cop to in interviews or on the record.

    • March 3, 2019 1:02 am

      Absolutely, Craig. As you know all too well, Ellroy’s interests stretch far beyond crime fiction… And placing the Demon Dog among Science Fiction masters isn’t far fetched at all. As writer and newly minted Ellroy fan Wayne Sheldrake (https://www.amazon.com/Wayne-K.-Sheldrake/e/B003GBCHGK%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share ) recently said, “I think I am one attuned to trauma just enough to hear/feel exactly Ellroy’s bloody voice. Spot. On. Stuff. Which scares me to the bone. This Mofo is breathing the truth. In the Raw. And BTW, he’s not just historical. He’s Fucking-Biblical. Ellroy’s one of those prophets who, by looking back, is telling us the future. I’m damn near classifying him as Sci-Fi. He’s invading (and exposing) our national dream.”

      — Jason Carter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: