July 17th was the 6th anniversary of the death, at the age of 88, of Mickey Spillane, one of the bestselling authors of all time. The Mick was an unpretentious, even anti-pretentious, writer of hardboiled crime stories, with emphasis on the "hard"--hard-hitting, hard drinking, hard-headed, and pushing the envelope with regard to sex and violence in popular fiction damn hard. His most famous creation is Mike Hammer, and to the extent that the character was Spillane's fantasy version of himself--and it's probably fair to assume this was largely the case--it doesn't speak well of him, but Spillane was an extraordinarily talented pulpster. Their often reprehensible aspects aside, his tales sold so well because they're damn good. I was a fan.
Upon hearing the news he'd died, I spent an hour or two writing a sort of obituary in a rough counterfeit of his style, with several twists on some of his more memorable lines. I've never really done much with it. I came across it a few weeks ago, decided I sort of liked it, and, entirely by coincidence, the sixth anniversary of his death was approaching, so I thought I'd post it here (then forgot about it until a few days after the anniversary--sue me):
The old man coughed and sputtered, tossed in his bed and cursed whatever gods made him old, made him weak, made him sick. "God must be a woman," he grumbled, and maybe the thought made him feel a little better. As tired as he was, he was still a tough old bastard, but as he sensed his end upon him, he knew Death was one rap he wasn't going to beat.
"Fuck you," he growled. "I got one more story to finish, and you can't have me 'till it's done."
Hauling himself off the bed and over to his desk took nearly everything he had, but he managed it, flopping into his chair with a grunt, wheezing, trying to catch his breath. His old Smith-Corona--"Betsy," he called her--was there, the paper already spooled and ready to go, carriage poised where he'd left it earlier. He'd banged out a lot of tales on the old girl over the years. All the blood and thunder that had made him one of the best selling pulp writers in human history had spooled though her on the way from his mind to the book-shelves. Beatings, rapes, murders, all the tools of the hardboiled trade--she'd seen it all.
He didn't have a lot of time left, now, though, and he knew it. His next story was nearly written. His last story. For weeks, as he'd felt Death creeping up on him, he'd worked on it like a madman, devoting his every waking hour to it, correcting as he went along. It was put-up or shut-up time. Get it in the can, or forever hold your peace.
And he desperately wanted to get it in the can. Of all the lousy luck, he'd been hit with some first-rate inspiration right here in the last few days of his life. "With me it always has to be the hard way," he thought, and the curse he spat at malevolent fate filled the room, as he glanced at the page to remember where he'd stopped, paused a bit to put himself in the moment and try to get the swimming feeling out of his head, and started typing it out.
This wasn't just hack-work, his last story. He'd done hack-work, and he knew the difference between it and the real stuff, even if he made a show of never giving a damn one way or the other. That's why he wanted to get this new story done--it was the real stuff, and it was really good. It was the best damn thing he'd ever written. He had to get it on the page.
He'd known how it was going to end before he'd started, and, after working through it in his head for a few weeks, he knew it was nearly finished. He even had a pretty good idea of what the last paragraph would say--it would be a big reveal, and a big blowout ending. It was just a matter of getting it there. "Best damn thing I've ever written." The thought drove him. As he typed along, he was fading, though, no way around it. He was numb, his eyes getting heavy. He had the story by the balls, but his fingers flew over the keyboard more and more slowly. For an hour, he kept himself focused, kept himself together, hammered away at it at best speed.
Finally, he'd nearly licked it. He'd broken himself, but it seemed he'd outrun death after all. He was down to the end, the big finale. It felt good, a weight off his chest. He was ready to put his much-contemplated final paragraph into place and call it a wrap. He knew roughly how he wanted it to go; he'd turned it over enough in his head. He definitely knew the last line. He paused to think it out. It had to be perfect--it would be the last paragraph of the last story he'd ever write. The last paragraph of the best story he'd ever written. He leaned back in his chair, eyes closed, breathing deeply and mulling it over until he had it cold perfect, every word in line in his head. He cracked his knuckles, and a smile crossed his lips. As he opened his eyes, he noticed, through his window, the first rays of the dawn sunlight peaking over the Carolina horizon. "Quite a sight," he thought, and he suddenly went lightheaded. "Goddamn it," disgustedly. He never felt his head hit the typewriter.
He was outside his body, a soul or a spirit or some damn thing. He could see himself lying in a pile slumped over his typewriter and knew his big finale would never be written. He shook his head, offered another disgusted "goddamn it." Beside him stood a figure in a black robe with the face of a corpse.
"Death, right?", he asked the visitor.
Corpse-face nodded his head.
"Y'know, I was almost finished with that," pointing to the typewriter.
"I know." Spectral, creepy voice.
The old man looked surprised. "You knew?"
Corpse-face noded again.
"Then... how could you?!" The old man thundered incredulously.
Corpse-face smiled wickedly at the old man. "It was easy."
* * *
To the extent that he was his characters, the Mick was a reactionary, a sadist, a misogynist, a scumbag, and there's not a whole hell of a lot good you can say about that.
He was a hell of a writer, though. And sometimes, that hell is enough.
Mickey Spillane died today, at 88 years of age. He'll be missed.
17 July, 2006
A few extra notes: Spillane died of pancreatic carcinoma. At the time this was written, I didn't know that. It's years ago, of course, but as I recall, the press reports just mentioned an illness, and I made him sort of generically ill. Also, my comments about his character at the end could be taken as pretty harsh, if not read carefully. People who knew the Mick said he was actually a good fellow, and if that's true, I'm glad to hear it.