Thursday, October 10, 2013

4. Not Getting Old in the Old West

“A livin’ thing in a dead thing is opposed to nat’er.”

These almost immortal words of wisdom come from Old Joe Garfield, who certainly ought to know.  Garfield is a veteran of the last of the American Indian wars fought on the western frontier near the end of the nineteenth century.  He does not look a day over fifty, even though decades have passed.  He never seems to age. 

The narrator’s grandfather may know why.  He tells his disbelieving grandson how he first met Joe Garfield back in 1870—the latter was one of the first white men to settle in Lost Knob, Texas.   They once fought together against a band of Comanches.  In the fight Garfield was run through with a lance, suffering a fatal wound in his chest.  Just before he was about to die, a strange old Indian friend of Garfield’s takes him behind a clump of mesquite, and performs a mysterious Native American ritual.  Garfield soon revives, and then ceases to grow older.  “He don’t look a day older now than he did the first time I saw him,” says the grandfather.

This is the back story to Robert E. Howard’s Old Garfield’s Heart, originally published in the December 1933 issue of Weird Tales.  It appeared along with Monkeys, by E.F. Benson, and The Lady in Gray, by Donald Wandrei.  H.P. Lovecraft did not appear in this issue of Weird Tales, but around this time he published The Other Gods, and the more familiar classic, The Dreams in the Witch-House.

Old Garfield’s Heart is an odd and untidy mix of western and horror genres.  There are several bar fights, knifings and shootings, as well as swindles involving horses and cows.  The fact that Joe Garfield is being kept preternaturally alive by heart tissue transplanted from an ancient Indian deity seems beside the point.

When the story opens, Garfield has again been mortally wounded, this time after trying to break in a young horse. “He’s all smashed up inside.  He won’t live till daylight,” says the doctor.  But Garfield survives again, his body healing rapidly through the power of the borrowed heart that beats inside him. 

More is learned from Garfield about the origins of this heart, and the conditions under which it must be returned.  He makes the doctor and the narrator promise that they will return the heart to its owner if his body is damaged beyond repair.  Otherwise, “as long as it beats in my body, my spirit’ll be tied to that body, though my head be crushed like an egg underfoot! A livin’ thing in a rottin’ body!”

They promise.

A subplot involving murderous retribution between the narrator and a swindler named Jack Kirby culminates in a drive-by, well…gallop-by shooting.  But Kirby hits Garfield by accident, blowing most of his head off zombie fashion just as he is well enough to get up out of bed.  Kirby gallops off on his horse but rings his neck on a low hanging branch.  This is often an occupational hazard for escaping bad guys in westerns.  By the end of the story, everything is put back where it belongs.

Few westerns contain words like these from a stricken cowboy:  “I can’t die…Not so long as my heart’s in my breast.  Only a bullet through the brain can kill me.  And even then I wouldn’t be rightly dead, as long as my heart beats in my breast.  Yet it ain’t rightly mine, either…” 

Old Garfield’s Heart contains plenty of frontier western style characters and violence, and all the action moves the story along, just as it does in a movie Western.  But the presence of the supernatural seems intrusive and disconnected—and does not appear to make a difference in the end anyway.  Violent cowboys die violently, as always.  At least the Indians, when they are not busy defending their ancestral lands from rampaging Texans, are decent and helpful.

Old Garfield's Heart may be found in an excellent collection The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, (2008, Del Ray).

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