Back in the 80s, I was heavily into music. Mainly heavy metal and classic rock. And when I say heavy metal, I mean bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, The Rods, Judas Priest, Scorpions, and like that. They were the bands we saw as having integrity. They hadn’t sold out the way bands like Mötley Crüe, Bullet Boys, Poison and those glam metal bands had. You wouldn’t find a Firehouse tape in our cassette collections. Crüe was given grudging acceptance—especially in light of albums like Shout at the Devil—but girlie-boys like Poison? Please. It was only later, in the early 90s, that I started getting into the more commercial bands like Poison, Trixter and Slaughter. Of course, that’s also when I learned of Dream Theater, but I think they could take an entire blog post to themselves. Phenomenal band.
Anyway, back in those days, I read everything I could get my hands on that related to the music industry: Circus, Hit Parader, and, later, magazines such as Rip and Kerrang! were my window into that world. Being an aspiring drummer, I also read Modern Drummer, but since I never learned to read music, some of their articles were beyond me. I could name band members like some can name football players.
One of the things I learned from these magazines was that, sometimes, it doesn’t pay to look too closely at those who influenced your favorite bands. For instance, Led Zeppelin was based very much in the blues. So when I’d read an interview with, say Robert Plant, and he’d name some of the people who spurred him into his career, I’d make it a point to go out and find some samples.
That wasn’t always a good thing. I like the blues, but only in limited doses. I get tired of it pretty quick. Heck, I have trouble getting through The House of Blues show on Sundays, and often don’t listen to it at all. And that’s a quality blues show if there is one out there. So finding the music that really got Mr. Plant going didn’t necessarily get me going. And, no matter now classic they are, Mott the Hoople doesn’t do much for me, either, and yet Mötley Crüe touts them as one of their influences, if I remember right.
So it doesn’t always pay to seek out your favorite musical artists’ influences.
The same can be true of writers. For instance, years ago, when I was in the Army, I was devouring everything of Stephen King’s that I could get my hands on. I had come home on a long weekend (I was stationed close enough to home I could do that as long as it was a four-day weekend) and was waiting on the bus to take me back to Ft. Polk. I broused the rack of used books they had there—I’m guessing they were books they’d found when cleaning the buses—when I found a copy of Danse Macabre, Mr. King’s nonfiction examination of horror. In it, he devotes considerable space to The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. Well, in one of those weird coincidences life throws at you sometimes—I don’t believe in “coincidences,” by the way, not in their strict definition—on one of my next trips home, I browsed the very same bookrack and found—you guessed it—The House Next Door.
Needing something to read for the long trip back to base, and since it only cost a quarter or something like that, I figured I’d take a chance on it.
Shoulda saved my quarter for a phone call or something. As far as I was concerned, the book sucked, and I never finished it. I doubt I ever will, either.
And that wasn’t the only one. I mean, we can all agree to disagree about anything, be it a novel, a movie, a painting, or what have you. So, not liking a book that Stephen King does—and he doesn’t exactly give it a glowing review, but he does say it’s good—shouldn’t raise alarms. And it didn’t. But, though I can’t cite examples as I did with The House Next Door, I delved into some of the other influences Mr. King has mentioned, and I’d have to say that many of them made me shake my head and wonder how these writings produced Stephen King.
But, here’s the thing: Led Zeppelin’s unique sound was a product of the individual members. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham all brought different musical tastes to the band, and the result was the mélange that is Led Zeppelin: music that ranges from standard blues numbers, such as “Hats Off to Roy Harper,” and “Living Loving Maid,” to more exotic tunes like “Kashmere” and “All of My Love.”
What’s all this got to do with the price of tea in China?
Well, two of my favorite authors, Robert Crais and Michael Connelly, cite Raymond Chandler as a major influence. I’ve had a couple of Mr. Chandler’s books lying around for a couple years now, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading them. Kept putting them off because of past disappointments. That, and writers from those years tend to gravitate toward short stories, which have never been my favorite medium.
But, after finishing the latest Michael Connelly I’d been reading and finding vast disappointment with the other book (I won’t name it so as to protect the innocent), I went to my box of books and pulled out The High Window.
Want the short review? Go read some Raymond Chandler, if you haven’t already.
His character, Philip Marlowe, has a biting wit, and the story is good. Yes, I’m making a judgment based off of one book, but let’s face it: Mr. Chandler is considered one of the Grand Masters of the mystery genre.
Heck, I even learned something interesting—to me, at least. Gangtas like to use the term “gat” to refer to a gun. I’d always figured it was something they came up with, and I’ve always kept it in mind because I can’t quite get the connection. Usually, there’s a reason a slang term refers to its object, but I’ve never been able to figure this one out.
Well, it turns out the term didn’t originate the term. A character in The High Window uses it to refer to the gun he carries—and this novel is copyrighted 1942. Not many gangstas around back then. But there were gangsters, in the classic sense, and since so many gangstas adopted gangster terms and postures, I’d bet that gat comes from the 1930s gangster era.
What I really enjoy are his, I guess you call them similes (I’ve never been 100% clear on the difference between similes and metaphors, but I’m told there is one). This one, for instance: His smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball. Or: Her hair was as artificial as a night club lobby. Earlier, he describes this same woman this way: From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.
These little turns of phrase are peppered all through the book and, like anything that’s well-seasoned, they’re there just enough that you never get tired of them. They add to the narrative, rather than dominating it, and the whole comes out better for it. Plus, since Marlowe is our narrator, they give us an idea of his personality.
Okay, the story’s 70 years old and, given the way writing standards have changed just in the last few years, you’d wonder if there’s anything to learn from it. But, keep in mind that Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and others like them, started this genre and defined it. And there’s also a reason why modern writers such as Mr. Connelly and Mr. Crais cite men like Mr. Chandler and Mr. MacDonald as influences: they’re good. I have a couple of Ross MacDonald’s books I intend to get to as well.
So, while there are often times when you want to stay away from your influence’s influences, it never hurts to try them out from time to time, either. You never know what rare, dusty gem you might find. And by finding those gems, open up new worlds and find new things to consider in your own writing.