Author Evan S. Connell would have turned ninety-five years old today. His is a name that perhaps many—if not most—DMR blog readers are unfamiliar with, but I feel that he does rate a birthday blog post. While Connell may have spent most of his years writing about “relevant” topics for the literary cliques, books like The Aztec Treasure House and some of his later works reveal that, deep down, Evan was a spiritual brother to those of us who love exotic adventure, the “bad old days” and the interesting byways of history.
Connell got his first big break in the literary scene with the acclaimed novel, Mrs. Bridge. Check out the link if you’re curious; I have no intention of ever reading it. After several more literary novels in roughly the same “realist” vein, Connell finally found commercial success with Son of the Morning Star, a non-fiction account of the Battle of Little Big Horn and the events leading up to it. With that book, Evan showed he could bring history to life and make it sell. I’ve always been interested in the American West and Native Americans, so this is where I first read Connell. I found it fascinating, as did many others. It became a bestseller and spawned a miniseries adaptation.
Quite a few years went by. In the early 2000s, I happened to see The Aztec Treasure House for sale in a catalogue from Daedalus Books. The detailed description made the book sound right up my alley. That, plus my confidence in Connell’s writing ability, made me order a copy.
The Aztec Treasure House is a treasure trove in its own right. As Evan freely admits in one of his essays, he is hopelessly fascinated by "buried treasure, monsters, ghosts, derelict ships, inexplicable footprints, and luminous objects streaking through the sky.” Connell loved the wild-ass and strange corners of history and he demonstrates that in each essay. The essays, gathered together from over two decades, are written in the same general style as Son of the Morning Star, with Connell following the consequences of, and connections between, various historical events. One could liken it to James Burke’s classic TV series, Connections, only with cooler subject matter.
The first essay, “Olduvai and All That,” discusses everything from Darwin, to possible Neanderthal survivals in Central Asia, to forgeries in Cro-Magnon caves. “Eca Suthi” is about the enigmatic Etruscans. In it is included—as is the case with most of these essays— a cool little anomalous factoid: The (former) Museum of Yugoslavia contains an Egyptian mummy whose linen wrappings are covered with Etruscan liturgical formulae.
Possibly my favorite essay is “Seven Cities,” which recounts the search for Cibola and the Seven Cities of Gold by Spanish conquistadors. While I knew the story fairly well, Connell weaves myriad facts together into a fascinating whole. Both the greed and the sheer toughness of the Spaniards is awe-inspiring. I have to admit that I found the ignominious and grisly fate of the overweening Spanish guide, Esteban, quite chuckle-worthy.
There are nineteen essays in all, every one of them worthy of a read by aficionados of history. Obscure fact after obscure fact is strewn before the reader like dusty jewels. Time and again, I thought, “Howard or Lovecraft could spin an awesome tale out of that one!” The essay that gave the book its title, “The Aztec Treasure House,” deserves mention. In it, Connell discusses his interest in Mesoamerican artifacts. By the end, he reveals that it all started with his boyhood love for Thomas Janvier’s Lost Race novel, The Aztec Treasure House. As I said, Evan, at heart, was one of us.
A couple of other books from Connell’s later years are worth mentioning. One is Deus Lo Volt!, which I bought soon after reading The Aztec Treasure House. It it purports to be a chronicle of the Crusades as written by Jean de Joinville, an actual participant in the Seventh Crusade. Connell does an amazing job of nailing the voice and era of the chronicler. However, since its conceit is that of being a chronicle with no overarching plot, just a recounting of events along with de Joinville’s commentary, it isn’t for everybody. I found it a fascinating window into the period. Plus, there are accounts of combats and battles galore. There are also plenty of cool and obscure facts presented on which to hang a tale of historical fantasy or Mythos horror.
The other book to look at is The Alchymist’s Journal. I haven’t read this one. Judging from reviews, it is similar to Deus Lo Volt! in that it strives for an archaic voice and verisimilitude in regard to the period. I plan on reading it at some point. If nothing else, I’m sure that Connell got his facts straight. Alchemy is something that could be used to great effect in fantasy tales, but rarely is. It sounds as if this book would provide a great deal of raw material in that regard. Also, it’s always good to see a gifted author tackle writing in an “archaic” voice. Too many recent fantasy tales have their characters spouting “I’ll make you my bitch!” or “I got this!” Robert E. Howard didn’t go down that road, nor did Clark Ashton Smith or Fritz Leiber. De Camp did, however, so I guess there’s that.
It’s tempting to wonder what might’ve been if Evan S. Connell hadn’t attended Stanford and Columbia. If he hadn’t studied “creative writing” under the tutelage of teachers who sneered at writing tales of adventure. If he hadn’t been saddled with tutors who urged him to write “natural” stories full of “realism.” Evan was a Midwestern guy who grew up loving the adventures told by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and Zane Grey. Despite that, he ended up spending decades writing “relevant” and “important” snoozefests like Mrs. Bridge. What went wrong? Somehow, I get the feeling that the hoary skull of William Dean Howells is grinning in its grave right now.