Update, August 10, 2010: Since writing this last spring, I've been in touch with a relative of Stacton's who researched his death in Denmark. She learned that some information about it was very mistaken. I've revised this essay to reflect her findings.
I’d been reading Stacton’s historical novels for several years, but I had no idea how prolific—or strange—a writer he had really been.
Stacton had begun to be reviewed in the late 1950s as a quirky but respectable historical novelist. He wasn’t writing the bodice-ripper historical novels so popular in that era. Instead he wrote about the complicated inner lives of people, from the Pharaoh Ikhnaton to Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth to Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria.
He didn’t try to plunge the reader into some different era in prose full of “gadzooks” and “sirrahs.” Stacton kept a fastidious distance from his characters, and editorialized about them in an almost Victorian manner. It was his detached, epigrammatic style that won him respect in now-forgotten magazines like the Saturday Review of Literature. Time Magazine in 1963 named him one of the top ten new novelists, along with the likes of Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
Intrigued by his good reviews, I started to read him around 1962. I read him while I was in the Army. Then, when I was living in Berkeley, I haunted the university library and found surprising numbers of his books that had been published in Britain but not in North America.
He was certainly an influence on me. Something of Stacton’s ironic detachment affected my portrayal of Gerry Pierce, the time-traveling hit man of my “Chronoplane Wars” trilogy a few years later. Pierce, like many of Stacton’s characters, was highly competent yet utterly at the mercy of forces beyond his understanding.
A discultured hero
One novel in particular affected me in those Cold War days: A Signal Victory is about a real Spanish castaway in Yucatan before the arrival of Cortes. Gonzalo Guerrero adopted Mayan culture and helped to lead the Mayans’ doomed defence of their realm.
I identified with Stacton’s Guerrero. As a kid I’d grown up in Mexico, part of an exile community of American Reds from Hollywood and New York. My own country had rejected us; I wanted to be accepted by Mexico, which regarded me as just another little gringo. Years later I coined the term “discultured” for the predicament that my brothers and friends and I found ourselves in.
Stacton portrayed a similarly discultured man, one who succeeded in finding a new home: “He was one of those men born into the wrong world, who spend their lives searching for the right one.”
That novel also has one of the finest first pages I’ve ever read, and it still stands up half a century later:
If you live close to the end, as today we all do, you want to see the course by which the eagle makes his swift descent. Unlike the dove, he leaves a trail of smoke, somehow, in the air. Not that there will not be a new world, but this is the end of ours. And being selfish, we are concerned with that.
Against the air of Yucatan one sees that trail very well, even after 400 years, for the sky down there is indelible. Nothing that has ever happened under it has ever been erased.
Wandering round those serene ruins, from which the jungle has by science been temporarily protracted, climbing those fatiguing stairs, looking at those toothy and imperturbable processions carved on stone, one finds oneself baffled and anxious, as usual, in civilization’s historic consulting room. Diagnostics, as we know, proceed by parallels. What, then, will the judges of the secret court make of our case?
The ruins of Yucatan impose sobriety. They were a world. They are a world. Like the ruins of Angkor, they have something to teach which no one would be fool enough to learn. And there, often, one cannot help thinking, as the Mexicans sometimes think, of one who went down with them. In our time, for us, that is the only hero we can have: the one who tells how to go.
This appeared in 1960, when we had been living close to the end ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Los Angeles, air-raid sirens went off on the last Friday morning of every month, to make sure they’d work when the Russians came at us over the pole. My generation understood that we could well end our lives huddled under our desks or curled up in fetal balls on the floor of our school gym.
Confronting the judges of the secret court
I understood Stacton’s judges of the secret court: We are those judges, pitiless and unimpressed by the lies we tell ourselves to excuse our failures.
As a young reader and aspiring writer, I took Stacton to be an unusual writer, but not that unusual. He simply taught me that you could write about anything, anyone, and any time. You just had to know a little about the time and place, and a lot about the human condition.
But his death and instant disappearance from literature were hard to explain. A stroke, in his 40s? And why did an important new novelist go out of print and out of fashion so quickly?
Only in the last few years did I learn that Stacton, born in Nevada in 1923 as Arthur Lionel Kingsley Evans, had grown up in San Francisco and Vancouver. He was a conscientious objector in World War II. He had legally changed his name to David Derek Stacton about then.
He had also been flamboyantly gay, once arriving in drag, with eye shadow, for a university job teaching creative writing. But before meeting his colleagues and students he switched to standard male attire, taught the course that way, and then flew home in cowboy clothes.
In the 1950s he had spent time in Europe, writing soft-core gay porn and mass-market murder mysteries under various pen names. The historical novels overlapped with his hack work. Nonfiction, like his accounts of the Bonaparte family and of the fall of Byzantium, had come late in his career.
Stacton was found dead in his rented house in Fredensborg. According to the autopsy, he died of a heart attack, not a stroke.
If he had not died so young, Stacton would have gone on writing. If he had come out in the 1970s, he would have won recognition as a serious and prolific gay writer, comparable to Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, and his novels, poems and nonfiction would still be in print. Younger gay writers would have read him carefully -- not to mention straight writers who would have recognized his power and insight.
I was lucky to be young and looking for models just as David Stacton was writing but about to vanish. Reading him now, I find he hasn't dated in the least. Perhaps, in the age of e-books, he will return to teach another generation.