Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pulp Review: The Living Shadow

The origins of the Shadow are an interesting, and appropriately twisting gyre of early cross-media promotion.

Once upon a time, Street & Smith published a pulp mag called Detective Story Magazine. On July 31, 1930, Detective Story Hour premiered on the radio for adaptations of stories from the magazine, and to shill other Street & Smith publications. The narrator of the show was a mysterious voice known only as The Shadow (a clever piece of marketing itself).

It worked, but not exactly as expected. The Shadow's sinister charisma had audiences going to the stands to buy magazines, but they weren't asking for Detective Story. They wanted The Shadow. Which didn't exist.

Street & Smith were smart enough to see a demand hungry for a supply, and hired up-and-coming mystery writer (and former reporter, stage magic afficionado, and crossword puzzle writer) Walter B. Gibson, to create a character whole cloth out of nothing more than a voice.

Under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant, Gibson would go on to write 300 Shadow novels, so it worked out pretty well.

Shadow Magazine Volume 1, issue 1 appeared on stands in April of 1931, featuring The Living Shadow, Gibson's first published Shadow story.

What follows is pulp as hell.

We meet suicidally depressed Harry Vincent on a bridge in New York. He got a letter from his old girlfriend back in Michigan dumping him, and so like a bitch, he jumps.

Fate intervenes in the form of the Shadow, who yanks him back onto the bridge and offers him a deal: Harry's financial woes are forever taken care of, but he has to obey any and every command of the Shadow's. Or they could go back to the bridge and Harry goes over the railing again. Harry's life belongs to the Shadow now, and decides his old life is dead anyway, so he eagerly agrees to become an Agent..

It doesn't take long. Harry is introduced to another Shadow Agent, intermediary Claude Fellows. Harry is sent into a nearly fatal disastrous investigation of a fence operating out of a tea shop in Chinatown. Re-shuffled to a murder investigation in Long Island that's got the police stumped.

Mystery! Investigations! Misdirection! Disguises! Murder! Car Chases! Fistfights! Deathtraps! Crossword Puzzles! About the only thing it doesn't have is estrogen. Margo Lane wouldn't appear in radio until 1937 and in the pulps until 1941.

Anything else would give away the plot, and it takes some very clever turns.

What's more important is that it establishes the Shadow as a character: He has a mysterious drive to punish evil-doers and is fabulously wealthy. He says that he can spend the lives of his agents if he wants to, but goes to great lengths to help and protect them in danger. He is a master of disguise beyond normal physical limitations. He can travel convincingly through shadows and its never made clear if its supernatural or not. He has his trademark laugh. These last bits move the story from a master detective with enough prep-time hax to make Batman blush (makes sense, since Batman's the bastard son of the Shadow) into supernatural fantasy.

What's even more amusing is that at one point, Harry Vincent is instructed to tune into the radio at a specific time and channel to hear his next orders from the Shadow. It is a blatant nod to the the Shadow's real-life radio presence and a brilliant piece of cross-media marketing.

Imagine being a loyal listener of the show and finally reading the Shadow's print stories only for it imply that at any time, you, yes YOU, could hear instructions from the Shadow to help him in his crusade on crime. Really tickles the tympanic membrane, doesn't it?

As an introduction, The Living Shadow succeeds, such that Street & Smith would publish it again in hardcover the next year and there would be numerous reprints over the years. Its not the Shadow and his mythos fully developed, hell, the Shadow's identity as Lamont Cranston or Kent Allard isn't even established yet. Yet there's enough there to be unmistakably The Shadow, and its fun as hell.

Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pulp Review: Black God's Kiss

Its such a common narrative among modernist Sci-Fi/Fantasy pundits to say that the genre was always a boys' club and that women are only now assuming their rightful place at the top of the field. (There's probably an io9 article about the subject right now.)

This is bullshit because it erases women who were writing at the top of their game to great commercial and critical success almost a hundred years ago. Catherine Lucille “C. L.” Moore being among the best and brightest of that group.

An Indiana native, Moore made her first professional sale to Weird Tales in 1933. In 1934, she made the cover story of Weird Tales' October issue with Black God's Kiss. It's weird.

Jirel is the tall, fiery, red-headed, yellow-eyed warrior commander of Joiry, a castle somewhere in France that has just been captured by the arrogant and dashing Guillaume. He takes something of a fancy to her spirited defense of the castle and cavalierly kisses her.

Imprisoned and seething with wounded pride and rage, she escapes her cell and with the help of Father Gervase, she sneaks into a dark, forbidden part of Joiry Castle where a dark tunnel will lead her to a dark place where she might find the means of her revenge.

Gervase's pleas fall on deaf ears. Jirel will have her revenge, even at the cost of her soul, and she descends into a bizarre Hell that isn't like the kind described in Dante.

It would be a crime to spoil what follows, but it entails physical peril, moral peril, spiritual peril, and some very difficult decisions and repercussions.

Jirel is an incredible female heroine: strong and flawed, skilled in battle but with so much growing up left to do. Her battle prowess isn't what can help her, though, and she must use her judgment to reach the end of the story, which arguably moves it away from Sword & Sorcery (where cutting a bloody swath through one's enemies is de rigueur) to the kind of weirdness that marked the beginning of Merritt's The Moon Pool. There's no mistaking that Moore is a female author, though, and her perspective adds another layer to the experiences of young Jirel that wouldn't be found in Robert E. Howard's work.

Less action-packed and more weirdness & wonder, Black God's Kiss is an incredible introduction to an incredible character written by a Grandmaster of the genre who is leagues better than the modern SF/F writers (male or female) who've forgotten her legacy. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Burroughs, Merritt and Howard and deserves to be a household name.

Respect due.

Essential Reading.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Pulp Review: The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (pt 1)

The poetically unimaginative but accurately titled The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is a book of short fiction from 2008 that collects a massive number of short stories from arguably the best writer of the Pulp Era. 

I've been reading the collection on and off for several months now, and while there's a very good reason why Conan is Howard's most enduring creation, this book provides an excellent survey that hammers home just how damn good he was as a writer.

Some of the stories are better than others, with some I would call essential fantasy reading, but there isn't a single one I would say is “bad.” The theme being horror, that's what you end up with: spooky tales, the genesis of the Weird West genre, monster hunters, and eldritch abomination slayers. Action and imagination are the cornerstones of Howard, and every single genre he puts his hand to spins something enjoyable.

Rather than dwelling on a single story, I'll review them in smaller chunks because while they've all been enjoyable, some have more meat on their bones than others.

In the Forest of Villefère (Weird Tales, August 1925)
A traveler named de Montour is passing through a forest on the way to the village of Villefère. He meets a fellow traveler, Carolus le Loup. With a name like that, he's obviously a werewolf and attacks de Montour when the moon rises. A slight tale, but atmospheric with explosive action at the end.

Wolfshead (Weird Tales, April 1926)
The sequel to the above story, this time a new narrator travels to Africa and the fortress of one Dom Vincente da Lusto, a trader and slaver who has carved himself a small empire there. Among the guests there is de Montour, who is himself a werewolf now and tries to lock himself away from others when the moon rises, but of course that doesn't work 100% and a couple people in the castle start dying. Then one of Vincente's courtiers starts a slave revolt as a power play against him and it ends in some literal explosive action. The slavery issue (which makes sense given that its set during the Age of Sail, also Dom Vincente isn't a very good man in the first place) will be a turnoff for some but the action is top notch and an early example of a “heroic werewolf” in fiction. De Montour's desire to lock himself away during the full moon notably prefigures Larry Talbot from the Wolfman movies.

The Dream Snake (Weird Tales, February 1928)
On a warm summer night down South, an old man named Faming explains his horrific dreams of being hunted by a gigantic snake. Every night its the same dream, only the snake gets closer. A short and simple creepy tale.

Sea Curse (Weird Tales, May 1928)
Now we're getting somewhere. The first of the “Faring Town” stories about a small coastal town that suffers from weird incidents. This is about two drunken scoundrels and pirates named John Kulrek and Lie-lip Canool. Kulrek did wrong by one of the girls of the village, and when she died at sea, her old mother, Moll Farrell, places a curse on the two. I'll say no more, since the payoff is fantastic.

Monday, August 07, 2017

"Figure a man's only good for one oath at a time"

Over the weekend I watched John Ford's 1956 Western masterpiece The Searchers. And in calling it a “masterpiece,” in the first sentence, I'm already recommending it. Its great. Watch it.

Its about a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to his brother's farm in Texas to settle down after some probably violent and illegal adventuring after the war. He's a proud man, but damaged, and wants to settle down with his loving kin. Except his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, who would play Captain Pike for the pilot episode of Star Trek before his untimely death in 1969 at the age of 42), who's part-Indian and well-meaning, but kind of a hot-blooded idiot.

The two ride out with a posse of Rangers investigating missing cattle, find signs of the Comanche, and then the Edwards family back home is slaughtered in a raid. Except for the little girl, Debbie, who's taken by the raiders.

This sends Ethan and Martin on a desperate, five-year search for the girl that also turns into a meditation on the nature of vengeance and the toll it takes, both on those that seek it, and the people surrounding them.

Its gritty without being graphic, and doesn't shy away from some pretty harsh themes. The Comanche under a chief named Scar are brutal raiders, but Scar has his own motivation that makes sense without making him too sympathetic. He's also obsessed with blind vengeance. For their part, Ethan and Martin do some pretty rotten stuff too when faced with some tough decisions, and people end up dying because of it.

But what really hammered home the genius of Ford as a director, is the raid on the Edwards homestead. The movie spends the first fifteen minutes or so establishing Ethan's family and hometown as a nice place filled with good and occasionally quirky people. The character actors play their parts well and while they're painted with broad strokes, they're likable. Which is important, because around the 20 minute mark, it all goes down.

The posse establishes that the Comanche are on a murder raid, looking to kill some settlers. Two farms are singled out as possible targets, and the party rides to the closest one first.

It ends up being the wrong one.

What follows is one of the most effective horror scenes I've ever seen in a movie. Its not a spoiler because its the instigating event of the entire movie.

Its evening at the Edwards farm. The sunset casts a reddish glow and one by one the family starts to realize that all is not well. Each time that realization spreads, the tension ratchets up, first with the parents trying to keep calm and lay low, then accelerating when the older daughter, Lucy, realizes what's going on and screams, prompting her mother to slap her to shut her up.

They know.

They know what's coming.

So in their last minutes, they send their youngest daughter, Debbie (played by the Wood sisters, Lana as the younger version, Natalie as a 15 year old) to a hiding place away from the house. Only its not a great hiding place, and we get our first glimpse of Scar as he walks up to her, looks down, and blows the signal.

Fade to black.

The scene tells you everything you need to know about what's going to happen. Their reactions, their resignation, their despair. You don't need to see it on screen because the violence of the moment is in your mind, and I can guarantee that its going to be bloodier than anything the Hays Production Code would've allowed.

Its genius.

I'm not going to bother finding the clip and linking it, because you need that first twenty minutes of setup to provide context. Its probably not my favorite John Ford/John Wayne film (which is maybe Stagecoach, but I need to see more).

Highest recommendation. Watch this movie. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Geek Culture™ Apocalypse

The recent RazörFist rant on the coming decline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is worth a watch) combined with the San Diego Comic-Con trailer for Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One adaptation (which is worth a watch if you think slapping a DeLorean and the Iron Giant and whatever other pre-existing sci-fi/fantasy element you can think of into a bigger budget version of a Seltzerand Friedberg Pop Culture Schlockfest is your idea of good writing) got me thinking about the current state of Geek Culture™ that's existed since about 2007.

Every major multimedia franchise that's been marketed to Hell and back harder than Dante and Orpheus going on a bus tour is exhausting itself. Let's explore.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going strong, but audience fatigue is definitely setting in. What started with 2008's Iron Man has turned into an impressive shared universe of movies building on each other with characters and actors carrying over. Like classic comic book storylines of yore, a disparate group of directors and writers were kept in line by a firm editorial hand, guiding each successive movie to financial success. As a lifelong Avengers fan, I've benefited greatly from it, but entertainment trends last about a decade, and the clock is ticking. After next year's two-part Infinity War, I expect things to change. Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios and the franchise's primary architect of success, has his contract up in 2018. Disney/Marvel would be stupid to let an organizer like that go, but in the off-chance that they don't offer him a lifetime supply of Large Free Bags of Cash or if he decides he wants to do something else, the quality will plummet. Audiences are already starting to get restless, and if the quality drops lower, they'll leave.

The print version of Marvel is in even worse trouble. Since the market crash of the 90s, the comics industry has been hemorrhaging readers at an alarming rate and relying on big crossovers and shock storylines to draw attention but not long-term readership. Right now, Marvel's books are full of bad art, bad writing, no action, and meaningless changes for the sake of controversy, and they the execs are blaming it on the audience “not wanting more diversity.” Because calling your audience racist for not buying your books is a great way to keep them. 

Things aren't that great for DC either. The Justice League cinematic universe, or whatever they call it, is struggling to find its footing. They make money, sure, but the only movie that's talked about with universal approval is Wonder Woman. Worse, they've been trying to rush the JLA movie out the door before the Superhero movie bubble bursts, so it hasn't taken the time to develop characters or the universe well for movie audiences. Its been a rocky ride for them, and there are persistent rumors that things aren't going that smoothly behind the scenes either

In terms of print, DC's been capitalizing on Marvel's stumbles, except instead of running with heroes and villains engaged in big superheroic action, they're poised to follow Marvel's identity politics right into the dumpster with dumb ideas like Batman:White Knight, a miniseries about turning the Joker into a literal Social Justice Warrior and the protagonist. 

Who knows? Maybe it'll be a giant subversion of SJW culture because at his core, the Joker is an abusive, violent psychotic with neon hair who pretends to intellectual depth in order to justify his criminal impulses...okay, so he's basically Antifa already. 

Back at Disney, Star Wars has been making a lot of money through marketing and movies, but its been going as hard and fast as possible, and oversaturation is going to hit back hard. The Force Awakens and Rogue One garnered a large share of manufactured internet controversy touching on the usual “Fans are sexist, racist, etc if they don't like it.” While that's always true for some, it also doesn't change the fact that both movies were competently made but largely mediocre and ultimately forgettable. The Last Jedi is of course, riding on controversy to build its marketing momentum, but depending on how that movie treats beloved characters like Luke and Leia (we already know how TFA treated Han), its going to sour a lot of people off of it. Speaking of Han, that movie's been going through serious production woes, with the initial directors being let go in the middle of filming

Its my own personal opinion, but I think that movie's going to be the point where NuCanon flies off the rails and people start abandoning it and no amount of identity politics controversy is going to put butts in seats. Feel free to quote me on that.

Doctor Who's ratings have been slipping heavily in recent years, and a lot of people I've talked to personally have been unhappy with the slipping quality of the writing for a while. The recent casting of the first female Doctor has again followed the manufactured controversy route, except for the previous show runner calling out the press for doing just that. It remains to be seen whether it'll rebuild its audience, but I kind of doubt it will after an initial bump of curiosity. It didn't work for comic books, why would it work here?

The Walking Dead has been slipping and there's talk of what the end of the series would be like. Outside of Negan and the recent spoilers, nobody's really talking about it. Meanwhile the very successful video game from Telltale Games will be ending its last season in, you guessed it, 2018.

Back at Disney one last time, the House Walt Built seems to be doing nothing but live action remakes of previous successes. Because treading water is easier than drawing, apparently. Pixar (which is independent now, but still close with Disney) can still animate, but they've been moving more and more into sequel territory.

Game of Thrones is currently on its seventh season, and will be ending after the eighth (which will, coincidentally, probably air in 2018-2019). A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's book series that's the basis for the show, still has two books to go with no end in sight, thanks to the glacial pace of Martins' writing.

As for other massively popular fantasy book series adaptations, Harry Potter continues chugging along with the rest of the Fantastic Beasts movies and a Voldemort Origin Movie on the way. Kudos to the fan film team that got the blessing from Warner Bros, that takes moxie, but on the other hand, giving a villain famous for being mysterious and sinister an origin prequel is a good way to neuter said villain.  

Just ask Darth Vader.

All of these are big, big franchises. All of them have a huge media presence. All of them are seeing declining audiences or behind the scenes trouble or relying on manufactured controversy to draw attention. All of them are cornerstones of modern Geek Culturethat have cottage industries of t-shirts, toys, games, podcasts, mugs, etc. built up around them.

My gut tells me that 2018 will be the moment where it all comes crashing down.

The best part is, I don't know what's going to rise up to take their place, which is the first time in a decade where I could say that. 

Its going to be a hell of a ride. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pulp Review: Black Destroyer

Alfred Elton (A. E.) van Vogt (1912-2000) was a Canadian-born author who is more or less forgotten in the modern age thanks to fellow Sci-Fi author and Science Fiction Writers and Fantasy Writers of America founder Damon Knight who savagely vilified van Vogt in the 50s. Which is odd, considering that van Vogt is also credited with ushering in “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” when he sold his first SF story to John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in 1939. (There is, of course, contention about whether the Campbellian period should be considered the Golden Age, but that's a beside the point of this review).

The story in question is Black Destroyer, and it was the featured cover story of its issue of Astounding.

While retroactively crediting it with starting “The Golden Age” of Sci-Fi feels like a stretch, it does feature a lot of elements common to later Hard Sci-Fi stories. A team of scientists travel to another world to conduct research and discover a dangerous life form that they have to survive using their brains. The threat in question is an intelligent, malevolent, cat-like creature called a coeurl with a pair tentacles sprouting from its back as extra appendages that feeds on “id-creatures” by draining all the phosphorus from their bodies. The unnamed world is a dying wasteland filled with Barsoomian ruins and the coeurl is starving, having exhausted all of the food in its territory. The humans show up and its a veritable buffet for the starving creature.

Using guile, the coeurl (no, I don't know how to pronounce that) pretends to be a simple beast curious with the visitors, but then secretly starts killing them off for food and, later, for sheer bloodthirstiness. As the science team learns about the threat, they also learn that the “pussy” they adopted is far more intelligent and powerful than they first thought.

Its simple, but also fairly effective Space Horror, and its DNA is clearly visible in movies like Alien. The coeurl itself has loads of personality despite not being able to communicate with the humans, but in no way is it treated as a sympathetic monster. Its a killer and a barbarian, a degenerated relic of the creatures that once ruled its world, and the coeurl's spite and malice end up sabotaging itself even while it schemes to unite its kin so they can conquer the stars.

The humans, on the other hand, are clearly heroic, if terribly naive. After one of the team is found dead by mysterious means, several of the team suspect the coeurl (its the only living thing they've found) but the captain, Morton, doubts that and allows it on the ship so they can study it more. Its a stupid call that gets a dozen of his crew murdered, and Morton feels really bad about that, rallying his men to find a solution through their collective intelligence (and disintegration guns).

And then when discussing civilizations, van Vogt has the Japanese archaeologist (Pearl Harbor was still some years away) say this:

     “You may ask, commander, what has all this to do with your question? My answer is: there is no
     record of a culture entering abruptly into the period of contending states. It is always a slow 
     development; and the first step is merciless questioning of all that was once held sacred. Inner 
     certainties cease to exist, are dissolved before the ruthless probings of scientific and analytic 
     minds. The skeptic becomes the highest type of being.”

That's heavy stuff, and a thorough rejection of postmodern thought. Its no wonder that a Futurian hard leftist like Damon Knight would hate him enough to try to destroy his career.

A small, fairly simple story, the plot is straightforward but satisfying enough that I can recommend for a quick read. It was eventually “fixed up” by van Vogt for inclusion in 1950's The Voyage of the Space Beagle, but it works well as a stand-alone. The real draw are the ideas at play, from the foundation it lays for Space Horror that still stands today to the interesting dead world, and the coeurl is just a damn cool monster. So cool, that it its the direct ancestor of D&D's Displacer Beast.

But that's an essay for another day.

Monday, July 17, 2017

“The bottle is more distinguished than its wine.”

The best-selling novelist of all time (at least according to the Wikipedia and Infogalactic entries both citing The Guinness Book of World Records), and arguably the most popular murder mystery writer in the history of the genre is Agatha Christie (1890-1976). An absolutely fascinating woman. She acted as a volunteer nurse during WWI, struggled to get published for a very long time, married twice, had a fascination with paranormal and occult themes, and took an active interest in archaeology, often traveling to the Middle East with her second husband to go to digs. She also wrote a total of 73 novels over the course of her life, 66 of them being murder mysteries. Those, along with 165 short stories and 16 plays, cement her as a deeply prolific writer. She may not have been a pulp writer, but damn did she write at pulp speed.

Her most enduring creation is Hercule Poirot, an eccentric Belgian detective with an outrageous moustache and a knack for solving odd crimes. By the time she published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, it was her 16th novel.

I'm laying all this backstory on you because when it comes to 20th Century Female Authors, Agatha Christie MATTERS. She's a BIG DEAL. So when the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) was released, that too was a big deal, especially since she was still alive to see it. She approved of it, but felt Poirot's moustache needed to be bigger.

The plot is deceptively simple. Hercule Poirot is in Istanbul returning to England where he boards the Orient Express train to the port of Calais. A mysterious and dangerous-looking American named Ratchett tries to hire him as a bodyguard. Poirot declines, and the next day, Ratchett turns up dead in his bed with twelve stab wounds and train car full of suspects with motives. He has until the train is dug out of a snowdrift to solve the murder, and discovers that the victim was an important figure in the kidnapping and murder of a little girl five years prior in a case based on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping.

The cast is outstanding. Albert Finney as Poirot, followed by Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York, among others.

Lumet's directing and cinematography are top notch, and aside from a prologue sequence that provides important background on the baby kidnapping case that feels a little long, is grand in its presentation of the luxury of the Orient Express and the tight confines of a train car stuck in the snow. Everything works great and is a deliberate throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking.

I wish there was more I could say about it, but its a murder mystery and it really is worth experiencing for yourself. Absolutely recommended. Its a classic.

There's a remake coming out later this year with another high profile cast and with Kenneth Branagh at the helm. Might be good, even thought its largely unnecessary thanks to the strength of the original. There's also a 2015 miniseries from Japan that I discovered while researching this review. It looks rather charming.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Twofer Review: The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996)

Russell Mulcahy (the director of Highlander) adapts Walter Gibson's pulp hero The Shadow, with Alec Baldwin in the title role as Lamont Cranston. The plot centers around Shiwan Khan (John Lone), last surviving descendant of Genghis Khan, and powerful mystic, arriving in New York with a dream to conquer the world. The plot involves something about a bomb, but honestly that gets lost in the shuffle.

Still, the cast is very solid, with Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellan, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, and a small cameo from James Hong. A solid adaptation of the Shadow, it hits on a lot of character beats and traits like Margo Lane, the network of agents, his dual .45s, even his sinister long-nosed appearance when he's in full Shadow costume.

There's some origin stuff about Cranston being an opium kingpin in Asia at the start before beginning his mystical journey which is completely unnecessary and Shiwan Khan's plot feels like it loses cohesion along the way (I want to conquer the world, but I also want to blow up New York City!). The good outweighs the bad, however, and it hits all the right notes on the Pillars of ADVENTURE.

Crazy pulp elements: Khan's goons wear armor and run around 30s NYC with crossbows and swords. A flying, intelligent CGI dagger with a bad attitude. Shiwan Khan smuggling himself to the US in a coffin just so he can mind control a security guard into killing himself. Actually, most of what Shiwan Khan does. He's pretty fun.

Another 90s adaption of a pulp hero, Lee Falk's hero The Phantom was directed by Simon Wincer (Free Willy, Quigley Down Under, several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles). The plot centers around Kit Walker (Billy Zane) as a two-fisted masked avenger who prowls the African jungles as the Ghost Who Walks having to deal with an American businessman and gangster, Xander Drax (Treat Williams) who's searching for several mystical crystal skulls scattered across the world that will give him unlimited power. And can shoot lasers. Mostly lasers. Knowledge was their treasure, you know.

Again, the cast is very solid, with Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, and Patrick McGoohan in key roles. Pacing is great, location shots are lush, and the physical stunts and effects are pretty incredible. Zane's also really charming in the lead role. It gets a little odd when the Phantom has conversations with the ghost of his dead father that only he can see, but its an excuse to have McGoohan on screen, so I don't mind as much. The Shadow nails the glitzy and grimy aesthetic of 30s New York, but overall The Phantom is a little more fun and the plot holds together tighter.

Crazy Pulp Elements: An all-female squadron of flying pirates. Xander Drax throwing a spear through a man at a meeting in his office. A trapped microscope stabs out a man's eyes. Phantom's horse and wolf clearly communicating with each other to figure a way to get him out of a scrape.

It turns out the pseudo-Pulp revival thing from the 90s was actually pretty good. Both of these movies are solidly entertaining, have heroic heroes, villainous villains, beautiful women, handsome men, exotic locations, tight pacing, and meaningful peril. They're not relevatory or what you might call “modern classics,” but they're leagues better than most modern dreck passing itself off as Action-ADVENTURE.  

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Appendix N Review: A Princess of Mars


A dying world with bizarre life forms, advanced technologies, and people eking out a living as savage tribes.

Into this crazy vision of Mars steps one John Carter; Virginian, Fortune Seeker, Civil War Veteran. After things go bad in Arizona, the method by which he arrives on Mars is vague, but once there, he learns that coming from Earth's higher gravity gives him greater physical strength and agility, putting him on even footing with the native giant Tharks. Earning an uneasy place among the tribe of four-armed giant Green Martians, he soon meets Dejah Thoris, the headstrong princess of Helium, strongest city-state of the dominant Red Martians.

What follows is a love story that conquers worlds.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote this in 1912 (under the pen name “Norman Bean”) and first serialized it as Under the Moons of Mars in The All-Story (one of Argosy's many name changes over its lifetime). It was an immediate success and that same year he wrote the first Tarzan story. In 1917, the story was published in hardcover as A Princess of Mars.

That this is a debut novel/story is staggering. While the prose may be frequently utilitarian and more than a few plot moments happen because Carter is in the right place at the right time (and the means by which he travels to Mars is flimsy as hell), Burroughs' world building is some of the best I've ever read. Barsoom is lovingly described as a beautiful and deadly world. Every chapter has some kind of action or tension or discovery. Martian blood flows freely, whether its Carter beating a white ape to death with a rock or one Green Warhoon gutting another with his tusks.

And yet despite all this savagery, Carter is able to bring the best out of people by helping them and holding true to his own personal code of honor. Thanks to the compassionate Sola and the noble Tars Tarkas, he teaches the Tharks the value of friendship. He throws an arena fight to help a Red Martian named Kantos Kan earn his freedom, who repays that kindness later on. Even Woola, a big ugly dog-like calot, becomes his first and most loyal companion. Yes, I suppose if you step back a bit it seems a little silly, but its so earnest and heartfelt that you can't help but root for Carter to succeed.

Because John Carter is a Hero, and wherever he goes, he makes the world a better place, because that's what Heroes do.

Reading it now, I can't help but notice that this is essentially ground zero for 20th Century Science Fiction/Fantasy. 26 years before Superman, John Carter was jumping over tall buildings. D&D's Dark Sun setting is a love letter to Barsoom, right down to every living thing being telepathic at some level. Robert E. Howard's tough heroes with rigid codes of honor and loyalty have kinship with Burroughs. A. Merrit's epic love stories and wild world building seek the same lofty heights. Even Carl Sagan loved the series so much growing up that he apparently had a map of Barsoom hanging outside his office at Cornell.

This is a book of wild imagination, larger-than-life heroism, and unbridled adventure.

This isn't simply recommended reading for understanding the history of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is essential, and a damn fun read. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Appendix N Review: The Ship of Ishtar

I'm beginning to come around to the idea that A. Merritt deserves to be considered one of the Grandmasters of fantasy.

The Moon Pool was an imaginative, brilliant, wild adventure of a first novel that lingered a little too long in places before finding its footing for a rip-roaring conclusion.

The Ship of Ishtar is his third book, originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1924, begins simply enough: New York historian John Kenton receives a mysterious block of stone dating back to the reign of Sargon of Akkad and within it finds a beautiful miniature ship made of precious metals and ornaments.

Touching it transports him to a strange world outside of time where the ship is real, endlessly sailing on a sea, where divine mandate demands the two factions of the ship endlessly vie for control of it. Klaneth, the evil priest of Nergal and Sharane, priestess of Ishtar.

The two sides are divinely prohibited from crossing over to the other side, except Kenton, which makes him a desirable ally. Only, its not much of a choice, since Klaneth is so cruel and evil that Kenton immediately rejects his offer of alliance and he then falls in love with Sharane.

Periodically Kenton is flung back to New York, where the events of the book take place over one night. Only in the world of the Ship, months can pass between returns to NYC. At one point he is chained to an oar as a galley slave for a long time, honing his body to a physical peak. Those physical changes come back to the modern world with him. Injuries too.

Despite this, Kenton continuously charges back into the world of the ship, either to explore the mystery of its existence, seeking vengeance against Klaneth, repaying the loyalty of the friends he's made there, or (increasingly) out of his love for Sharane.

I'm not doing the book enough justice. There's so much going on. Action, magic, ancient Babylonian gods, a superhumanly strong drummer named Gigi, a badass redheaded Persian warrior named Zubran, and a Viking named Sigurd who swears blood brotherhood to Kenton and Zubran.

In true adventure fashion, the stakes keep raising and the action keeps ramping up. Kenton is a two-fisted kind of hero, quick to action when he makes his decisions. The romance between him and Sharane starts off rocky. She thinks he's an agent of Nergal when he explains that centuries have passed in the outside world, so her handmaidens chase him out with spears. He then swears to avenge his pride by conquering the ship and then her.

Like I said, a rocky start, but it evolves into a beautiful love story where the two complement each other extremely well.

The situations are deeply imaginative, the prose is often lovely, the action is visceral, and Merritt displays a well-rounded understanding of ancient civilizations as they would have been understood in the early 20th century (Cuneiform had only been reliably translated in the mid-Nineteenth Century, some seventy years before Ship of Ishtar's publication). The culture clash is not as much as one might expect, as Kenton more or less accepts the simpler (but often more brutal) norms of the ancient people he finds himself among.

For instance, the Ship is rowed by galley slaves. Kenton himself is made a slave before freeing himself. After he takes over the ship there is no emancipation. Its a bit odd, considering how the heroes in The Moon Pool are more keen to bring modern values to the underground world, but you have to consider this: The person from a time period closest to Kenton is a Viking from the 9th Century. Everyone Kenton meets comes from a civilization that, yes indeed, took and used slaves. The modern man is outnumbered, and good luck trying to convince a bunch of non-modern people that slavery is bad.

Ultimately its a minor quibble that is handwaved away. Its not important to the story at hand because in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh its also not important, and that is the kind of thing Merritt is tapping into.

Where was I?

The Ship of Ishtar is good. Damn good. Read it. And when you do read it, keep an eye on Zubran, because the arc he undergoes is subtle but amazing. 

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

My music is for Phoenix. Only she can sing it. Anyone else who tries, dies!

Phantom of the Paradise is a 1974 camp horror/fantasy/comedy/penny dreadful rock opera by a young Brian De Palma who was just getting off the ground. His big breakout film, Carrie, would come two years later in 1976 and the rest is history, as they say.

The movie's nuts. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a sensitive singer/songwriter type common in the 70s, and is working on a concept cantata adaptation of Faust. He tries to approach Swan (Paul Williams), the mysterious producer who runs Death Records and the biggest name in the music biz. Swan wants to open up a concert hall called The Paradise and Winslow wants to get signed.

Well, Swan likes the song but not Winslow, so he has his assistant Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) feed him a line about signing him and steals the song, which Winslow believes for a while, but after hearing dead silence for a month, returns to see what's happening and finds a bunch of women auditioning to sing the song he wrote. One of them, Phoneix (Jessica Harper), catches his eye and they have a moment, but Winslow is thrown out (multiple times) and Swan has him put away for life on trumped up charges.

After a rough time, Winslow escapes, smashes up Death Records a bit and disappears after an accident involving a record press, presumed dead. Then musicians start ending up dead, killed by a grotesque, deformed Phantom who haunts the Paradise. Swan, though, is more than he seems, and has sinister plans for the Phantom and Phoenix.

Oh yeah, and there's a crazy Glam rocker named Beef (Gerrit Graham) who's in the movie for a short while but steals every scene he's in.

Visually, the movie is a technicolor-soaked acid trip with plenty of surrealistic camera tricks that often work to unsettle you. If you haven't noticed from the character names above, we're in Allegory Town, and not reality, so the more stylized the world becomes the better.

More than that, the look of the Phantom himself is fantastic. Tight black leather, cape, black lipstick, metal teeth, electric voice box on his chest, obvious scarring on half of his face and bizarre mask that's either creepy or goofy depending on the angle. He's like Darth Vader's Gothic rock opera cousin, only three years before Star Wars.

The acting goes full ham, or, Beef, as the case may be. Beef is a prancing, pill-popping glam prima donna who still manages to be one of the most sympathetic characters. He's a head case who's in over his head at the Paradise, but largely innocent.

Phoenix is probably the most grounded character, which makes sense as the plot pivots around her (whether she knows it or not). She just wants to sing and be famous, and her willingness to do anything for that goal helps escalate things.

Winslow/The Phantom starts off as a nice guy goofball who wants to be famous but isn't sure how to break into the industry. He gets taken for a ride and his work is stolen (not uncommon, if you know anything about the early music industry) and he flips out. As Winslow, Finley plays him a bit close to being too over the top to be sympathetic, while as the Phantom he dials it up even further, which makes him more sympathetic. Weird, maybe, but it works really well.

Swan's the most fascinating character, and largely because of Paul Williams. Williams was/is a very successful songwriter who penned a large number of 60s-70s hits, songs for films, and frequent acting roles. You might recognize him as Little Enos in Smokey and the Bandit or the voice of the Penguin from Batman: The Animated Series.

Swan's riveting because his voice is smooth, his demeanor is calm, and he's got an unassuming baby face that gives him a youthful innocence. Which juxtaposes perfectly with how much of a manipulative asshole he is. Swan's evil. Unquestionably, unrepentantly evil. And he revels in it, which is itself a joy to watch.

Williams ends up being the cornerstone of the movie, writing the songs for the soundtrack as well. They're unified by themes of dying for art and selling one's soul for fame, from the doo-wop style teen tragedy song that opens the film right on through to the haunting “The Hell of It” that rolls over the end credits.

Those same themes carry through the script, written by Brian De Palma and an uncredited Louisa Rose, and it also draws heavily from classic horror. Faust being the most obvious, of course, but also The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, PsychoThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Picture of Dorian Gray. If you're going to steal ideas, might as well go whole hog. It works well here and the movie never bogs down like, say The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which was released a year later in 1975).

It is, I would say, a much, much better movie than Rocky Horror, but that's subjective taste speaking. I think the songs are better, the characters better defined, the conflict more interesting, and the underlying themes tapping into a more mythic vein. Its been years since I've seen Rocky Horror, but once I got past the “wow, Tim Curry in fishnets is shocking and outrageous” it was a vast stretch of “wow, this is really boring.”

Is there Action? A modest amount, but its all practical effects and explosions, which is nice.

Adventure? Not really. The Paradise is a bubble of Swan's ego, but its in America.

Romance? Quite a bit, but twisted. Winslow's love is what keeps him going once mere revenge is out of the question.

Ideals? This is more of a cautionary penny dreadful tale, but yes. Despite being an unhinged murderer, Winslow ends up fighting for something other than himself.

Mystery? Not a whole lot. The plot is fairly straightforward.

Wonder? Not immediately apparent, but the supernatural abounds and the Faust connections are more than just symbolic.

Phantom of the Paradise is too classy for grindhouse, too weird for mainstream and too good for “cult” movie status. Totally recommended. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Three Pillars of ADVENTURE!

So, I've been thinking about story structure a lot today (a 10 hour shift will do that), specifically ADVENTURE! stories.

A lot of this comes from the above image from Darwyn Cooke's revival of Will Eisner's The Spirit (which is a good, pulpy read, by the way)

Action. Mystery. Adventure.

Those are great criteria, but I'd like to tweak it a little bit for heroic ADVENTURE! stories since “adventure's” already in there.

Action. Mystery. Romance. Those are my three pillars of ADVENTURE!

This is the meat of the matter. Fisticuffs, shootouts, missile dropkicks, swordfights, car chases, dogfights, dudes jumping away from exploding buildings. Stuff happens. Exciting stuff. Stuff that the hero consciously chooses to partake in. Heroes and villains take actions. Even traveling to an exotic location counts here as a conscious choice because that often triggers a bunch of other actions. Indiana Jones choosing to go to Egypt is an action that leads to all kinds of crazy events. The exact opposite is inaction, which is how you end up with low budget 50's Sci-Fi movies where you get 20 minutes of screen time (or more) spent sitting around in a room talking.

Mystery is what the hero has to solve or deal with. How do we blow up the Death Star? Where's One-Eyed Willy's treasure buried and how do we get there? What's magic and how do you becomes a wizard? This is where Wonder comes into play, because mystery doesn't have to be the plot itself, but also plot devices. Magic items, alien technology, arcane lore, forbidden rituals, secret societies. Not all mysteries are solvable, but the hero needs to be curious enough to investigate it.

At the surface level, this involves smoochin', but its so much more than romantic love (or the kind you clean up with a mop and bucket). I mean Romance closer to the chivalric sense. These are the ideals that the hero and others hold dear. Yes, love for a man or woman, but it can also be the love for their memory and a search for justice against their killer. It could be love for a dream or country that drives someone to self-sacrifice in atonement for betraying someone. If you don't care about (or at least understand) the hero's motivation, you're not going like the hero. If you don't like the hero, you're going to hate the story.

These are deliberately broad terms that aren't set in stone for me yet. After all, its entirely possible for a story to have all three pillars and still leave me flat, like James Cameron's Avatar (it comes down to the execution of the material, but that's an analysis for another time), and I think its entirely possible for a movie to be deficient in one or all of the categories and still be great. (The Producers is one of my favorite movies of all time and there's very little ADVENTURE! to be had at all).

Still, I think this is part of why there's a sudden interest in the old pulp masters like Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett. Because those stories are filled to bursting with it. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Heroes, Failures, and The Force Awakens

I wasn't planning on going on another tear against Star Wars NuCanon, but I think I figured out what bothered me the most about The Force Awakens.

Its not the uninspired soft reboot of A New Hope.

Its not the emotionless impact of major, even world-destroying, events or the abysmally small sense of scale of the film.

Its not even Rey's lack of character development and Mary Sue red flags.

Its the fact that it reduces the heroes of the original trilogy to failures in order to prop itself up.

Lando Calrissian goes from shady gambler to respectable business man to baron-administrator to treacherous coward to redemption seeking friend to noble general willing to risk his life for a greater cause. In old Canon he somewhat retires from his military rank to pursue grand financial adventures, but retains close ties to the New Republic. (Yes, I'll be using examples from Legends continuity, deal with it). He's nowhere to be seen in TFA, presumably off doing low-level gambling stuff and business ventures again.

Leia Organa goes from a driven diplomat, senator, warrior and leader, royalty times two: first to Alderaan and to Naboo (as goofy as its executive branch may be). She's a crack shot and a sharp wit who never gives up and would become instrumental in the formation of the New Republic. In Legends she became a mother of three powerful Jedi (hey, Jacen was an adult when he fell to the Dark Side) and was able to successfully juggle between spending time with them and with her duties as Chief of State of the New Republic, and having galaxy-spanning adventures AND training in the use of the Force and got her own lightsaber.

Here? She's in charge of a rag-tag military front called “The Resistance” using cast-off military hardware to not look like a New Republic operation. She's reduced to a crackpot former Senator trying to warn people Ron Paul style about how the Empire wasn't really finished yet, and yet her Resistance is unable to prevent a massive terrorist attack that destroys the solar system that the New Republic government is in. “But she's a General now! That's so much more badass than a Princess!” A) That's debatable, especially since by rights she should be a Queen and B) She failed to steer the New Republic in a better direction and she failed to protect it from an outside threat. Her life's work, the Alliance to Restore the Republic? Failure.

Luke Skywalker goes from a wide-eyed farm boy and bush pilot to military officer to brash Jedi trainee to moody mystic to becoming the big damn hero of the galaxy through his ability to forgive the sins of his father. From there he continues in a military capacity for a while before rediscovering Jedi documents and re-opening the Academy and training a new generation of Jedi Knights. He eventually finds love and starts his own family. Sure there were some bumps along the way, but the New Jedi Order endured as a shining beacon of light in a violent galaxy.

NuCanon? Less than thirty years after the destruction of the second Death Star, one of his own students turned on the academy and wiped out the next generation of Jedi. In response, Luke goes off into seclusion, abandoning his friends, family, even droids after a single disaster. This is the man who stared down the Emperor and refused to kill him. This is the man who clung to the bottom of a floating city after having his worldview shattered by the revelation that his nemesis was his father. This is a hero of supreme willpower and perseverance who goes into hiding because wannabe Darth Vader and his Ginyu Force killed his students. His life's work, bringing balance to the Force and restoring the Jedi Knights? Nothing but ashes.

Han Solo probably gets the worst of it (if only because Luke has a grand total of seven seconds on-screen in TFA). He starts as a smuggler, gambler and rogue for hire. Courting danger and the next payday he looks out for himself and Chewbacca because that he has. Then he runs into a crazy old mystic and his apprentice, then a space princess, and then discovers something greater than just getting paid. He discovers friendship, loyalty, love. Good people worth fighting for. A woman worth sacrificing himself to risky carbon freezing for. An evil government worth overthrowing. Out of all the original trilogy characters, Han's easily the most likable thanks to Harrison Ford's raw charisma, but also because he has the strongest character growth out of anyone. There's never any doubt that Luke or Leia will succeed, but Han's always got that cloud of potential failure over him. In Legends, he stays a general longer than Luke. He's still running off on crazy adventures, only this time he's doing it for the New Republic and for his wife, the Chief of State. He's a loving father of three kids. All while still managing to step on the toes of authority whenever he can and rubbing elbows with his old smuggling buddies. He's reached a fulfillment to his life that he never thought possible.

NuCanon has Han regressing back to being a lowlife smuggler bumming around the galaxy as a deadbeat dad. Then he picks up some dumb young kids and gets caught up in their adventure, awakening his long-dormant heroism. He tries to pass some knowledge on, and then gets killed by the son he very obviously never connected with. An Everyman hero without Space Magic getting by on his wits and courage losing every good thing he ever attained (including the Falcon) before one last gasp at heroism and a pathetic death at the hands of his own failure of a son. His failure is the most depressing of all because its the most complete.

I'm sure there's something to be said about cultural mores and so on in regards to the difference between what the Expanded Universe did with the characters in the 90s-00s compared to now. There's also something to be said about how everybody wants to write about a plucky group of rebels overthrowing an evil government to replace it with a good government, but nobody ever seems to write about a plucky group of heroes fighting against incredible odds to protect the good government that the previous rebels installed.

This piece is already long enough, so I'll leave you with this: look at the last shot of Return of the Jedi. Now think about everything that these characters have achieved amounting to nothing.

Leaves a bad taste, doesn't it?


On the bright side, at least they didn't drop a moon on Chewie this time around.