Thursday, December 29, 2016

Noir Reviews: Double Indemnity, April 1944

Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?
After the good but uneven Phantom Lady, we proceed directly to the murky, guilty heart of noir, to Double Indemnity, directed by the great Billy Wilder, whose work we'll be reviewing several times in this series.

If you don't know (and really, you should; if you haven't seen this movie, go watch it right now), Double Indemnity is a murder story told from the point of view of the murderer. He's a likeable insurance salesman named Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, who one day grabs hold of a red-hot poker and isn't able to let go. (Let those who think film noir is all about private detectives take note!) The supporting role of Neff's coworker and mentor, claims manager Barton Keyes, is played by the immortal Edward G. Robinson, who handily steals every scene he's in.
To me, a claims man is a surgeon. That desk is an operating table and those pencils are scalpels and bone-chisels. And those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They're alive. They're packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a, is a doctor and a bloodhound and a – [Phone rings.] Who? Okay, hold on a minute. A claims man is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one.
He delivers a couple of monologues that make me want to stand up and cheer every time, while his final assessment of the case is grimly, delightfully terse: "Walter, you're all washed up." The tableau he and Walter Neff form in the last shot is an icon of of noir tough love.

The femme fatale, on the other hand, is played by Barbara Stanwyck, who can chill you to the bone with a single look. She wears a hideous George Washington wig, a directing mistake retroactively explained as a deliberate artistic decision, and hilariously spoofed by Steve Martin in drag in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. But what a role!

Walter narrates his story into a dictaphone while nursing a cigarette and a bullet wound. His guilt and doom are predetermined from the first moment we see him. That's typical of film noir. There's no emotional hook, no what's-going-to-happen-to-these-characters-I-care-about??? You know from the outset that everyone is damned. In a strange way, that takes the pressure off, allowing the viewer to be engrossed by the mechanics of how, precisely, this damnation occurs. Wilder, who I think understood this very well, later topped himself in having Sunset Boulevard narrated by a dead guy floating face-down in a swimming pool. Your average melodrama, on the other hand, keeps you interested by making you fret about what's going to happen to the people. Its watchability depends on getting your emotions involved, a game that cloys pretty quickly. No one buys a melodrama to watch over and over again. (At least no one I know.)

Double Indemnity is certainly no melodrama. It's not a cautionary tale, either, despite the fact that it's about a crime that doesn't pay. On the contrary, it compels you to connive at a man's murder. You like Walter Neff. The very real love that exists between him and Keyes only makes this all the more poignant. Horribly, you want his plot to succeed and fear his exposure, even though you know it won't succeed and he will be exposed. When he starts befriending the victim's daughter to keep her quiet, you're acutely conscious of what a heel he is, yet you're anxious to keep her quiet, too. Nevertheless, you're aware at each moment of the impossibility of his position and know that an evasion of justice would be intolerable. A lesser movie would either make Walter an out-and-out bad guy or else try to exculpate him in some manner.

Apart from the wig, everything about Double Indemnity is perfect. Though based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was cowritten by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Chandler's influence is felt at every turn. The dialogue is a delight to listen to, abounding in witty repartee and colorful metaphor.
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there's a death mixed up in it, you haven't got a prayer. They'll hang you just as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar.
Chandler makes a cameo appearance sitting outside Keyes' office, looking very much the sourpuss he was. The score, composed by the legendary Miklós Rózsa, perfectly captures the feeling of an exciting, relentless drive toward some predetermined destination. It supports the plot, instead of attempting to comment on it or accentuate it, or (worse still) merely providing background noise, as many of the thundering scores of the period do. (Rózsa, incidentally, also scored Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, one of his final films.)

Wilder's direction eschews studio sets in favor of filming on location. There's a wonderful long take right at the beginning, in a midnight elevator ride from a lobby to a big, empty insurance office inhabited by nocturnal workers. Numerous night-for-night scenes make Double Indemnity a true black film, the most memorable being when the body is placed on the tracks, for which each telephone pole had to be individually illuminated by spotlights. The indoor scenes tend to be barred with light falling through half-open blinds.

For me, Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir.

* * *

I give Double Indemnity a grade of A for awesome on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
High points in Double Indemnity include the opening, Walter Neff's practiced "sales pitch," the body-placement scene, and pretty much every scene with Edward G. Robinson, especially the suicide statistics monologue. Takeaway quote:

"How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"

Friday, December 23, 2016

Noir Reviews: Phantom Lady, January 1944

After touching on The Maltese Falcon in our first episode, we proceed to Phantom Lady, directed by noir veteran Robert Siodmak, whose films The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1948) we'll look at later in this series.

[Films that come between The Maltese Falcon and Phantom Lady that I might return to include The Glass Key (which I personally dislike), This Gun for Hire, and Shadow of a Doubt (which, being a Hitchcock film, I don't regard as truly noir, just because).]

Though it comes at the beginning of the period, Phantom Lady features some of the most beautiful and most expressive photography in film noir. The mildly incoherent plot follows a strange dream-logic, but the film as a whole is a visual poem of urban alienation and societal subversion, with long passages shot in stark blacks and whites and an almost nonexistent score.

The story revolves around a funny hat. The lady who wears it can provide a "perfect" alibi for a civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) whose wife is strangled, but she has vanished without a trace. All vestiges of her are wiped even from the memories of the tradesmen and performers who saw them out together that night. He doesn't know her name and, apart from the hat, can't remember what she looks like. The nuttiness of his story lands him on death row.

The film's first stand-out moment is the quiet, chilling scene in which Henderson returns home to find three detectives and a dead wife. The sense of claustrophobia mounts as the sneering, insufferably smug, gum-smacking cops slowly invade his personal space, until they're fingering his tie and their smirking mugs are right in his sweaty, frightened face, which now fills the screen. "Your wife was strangled with one of your ties," they taunt him. "Yeah, knotted so tight it had to be cut loose with a knife."

The real protagonist is Henderson's tenacious assistant, Carole Richman (Ella Rains), who, convinced of her boss's innocence (and secretly in love with him), sets out to clear his name. The contrast between the two is sharp. While Henderson is laid prostrate by circumstances – weeping when his estranged wife is killed (while remarking that men aren't supposed to cry), scared and irritable under investigation, shrill on trial, petulant on death row, confident and self-absorbed when his position in society is regained – Carole always rises above circumstances. Gender stereotypes are inverted: Henderson's personality is weak, "womanish," while Carole's is strong and manly.

It's pretty plain that Carole is the one who really runs the office from the first moment we see her, striding in to begin a day's work, greeting the mousy secretary, mastering her emotions when she learns of Henderson's plight, and dictating a letter as she smokes a cigarette. This is underscored by an obtuse crack Henderson later makes about keeping bobby pins off the floor and the seams on her stockings straight. He really has no idea.

After her boss's conviction, Carole sets about pursuing the forgetful witnesses. Here film noir takes on almost mythic dimensions as she hounds a barman to death like an avenging Fury. The scene in which she pursues him through the immense, night-black, rain-soaked city might well stand as the epitome of the style.

It's followed by a scene in which she transforms herself into a gum-chewing "hep kitten" to seduce Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a sleazy little jazz drummer. It's hard to convey in words how utterly bizarre, abrupt, and awesome this transition is. She goes from urban professional to strumpet, flashy, vapid, and wanton, complete with painted-on mole, seemingly without effort. After she catches Cliff's eye during a performance, he takes her to a backroom jive session, where she visually mounts him during a crazy orgasmic drum solo. They retire to his squalid rat-hole of an apartment lit intermittently by a flashing sign outside.

This middle act is one of the great passages of film noir. It's almost as though Carole is trying on female archetypes; given the deaths of the two witnesses she goes after, we might wonder what became of the poor cabby, whose fate isn't treated on screen. The film transitions to the final act with Carole's visit to Henderson in prison. The image of Carole talking to Henderson across the bars, both bathed and blackened by light streaming down through smoky darkness, is a noir icon.

But the third act is more like a Hitchcock thriller than a true noir. For me this knocks the film out of the top tier. It keeps up its subversive probing of female roles as the murderer (Franchot Tone), a narcissistic sculptor with undertones of the stereotypical homosexual woman-hater, takes center stage. He despises Carole, the police, and most of all Henderson, whose community-planning projects he derides as an obsession with drainpipes. Much of his screen time is spent in contemplation of his large, expressive hands, which are frequently lit with bright white light, in an almost masturbatory way.

The film closes with what I take to be intentional (though understated) irony. Henderson, back in the office, busy and self-confident, leaves Carole some dictaphone instructions that end by informing her that she's having dinner with him that night, and the next night, and the next night… The film actually concludes with this phrase "next night" repeated over and over again on the skipping belt. Are we getting a glimpse of Carole's future?

Like many noirs, Phantom Lady seems to operate on two levels. On the surface we have a seemingly happy ending with everything restored to the way it should be. But underneath that, we see a resourceful, masterful woman sent back to the prison of her traditional role, happily submitting to a man who will always take her for granted. What's true of the ending is true of the movie as a whole. The more you pick up on subtleties, the more twisted it gets.

* * *

I give Phantom Lady a grade of B for bueno on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
High points in Phantom Lady include the tie scene, the platform scene, the jive orgy scene, and the visitation scene. Takeaway quote:

"What a place! I can feel the rats in the walls."

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Noir Reviews: An Introduction

This post marks the beginning of a series about my favorite films noir from the forties and fifties. I'm an enthusiast, not an expert, but I have about a zillion titles on DVD that I watch over and over and over again. I've actually thought about making a separate blog for noir reflections, but then, knowing me, I'd just stop posting here, so I'll just dump these with the rest. Keeps me out of trouble, at any rate.

So, what is film noir? That itself is a matter of controversy. Is it a genre? A style? A period? Or some combination of the three? My approach will be to take it as a fuzzy set, defined by a few films that I regard as definitively noir, and measured by proximity to those. Some of the elements commonly regarded as central, e.g., private detectives, voice-overs, and femmes fatale, I regard as inessential, though such things do often appear in the films I intend to cover. Speaking a posteriori, I would say that films noir tend to involve detached or alienated elements of a fragmented society chained by the relentless logic of guilt and futility, using low-key lighting and visual abstraction to create an atmosphere of moral and emotional detachment. The settings are generally seedy, the scale is small, and the characters are bit players on the world stage. Films noir sometimes stray into this or that genre, such as that of science fiction (Kiss Me Deadly), the police procedural (The Big Combo), the spy film (Pickup on South Street), the western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the heist film (The Asphalt Jungle), and the prison film (Brute Force). What binds them together is not subject matter but approach.

I plan to proceed in chronological order, more or less, unless my whims direct otherwise. However, I intend to skip the seminal entry, given how famous and well-known it is. Of course I'm referring to The Maltese Falcon, that is, the 1941 version directed by John Huston, which was the third (!) time Hammett's novel had been filmed. There's not much I can add to what's been said about it. But let's at least list some key elements:
  • use of low-key lighting
  • odd, often low camera angles
  • a weird assortment of colorful characters who inhabit a perverse world outside the boundaries of normal life
  • a mean, hard protagonist whose only moral ethic is a strict professional code that he follows for reasons he doesn't understand, whose every act is calculated, even the outbreaks of his violent temper, his sneering, casual beat-down of a homosexual, and his prolonged humiliation of a "gunsel" (catamite)
  • a plot-mover that's ultimately a nonentity and, indeed, a metaphor for the futility of all things human
  • an ending that's both as satisfying and as utterly unsentimental as they come
It seems fair to call this a watershed moment in Hollywood. The Maltese Falcon ushered in the film noir era.

What appeals most to me about film noir is the detachment referred to above. There's never a sense that you have to like or empathize with the protagonist; you identify with him or her without becoming emotionally involved or hoping that it will come out all right in the end. The focus is objective rather than subjective. Somehow, because of this, I find films noir oddly satisfying, or even comforting; there's nothing better after a tough day at work than coming home, plopping down in a musty old armchair, and watching Double Indemnity or The Asphalt Jungle.

Strangely enough, though, despite the restrictions of the Hays code, I also find film noir much bolder and edgier than most anything you see coming out today. With rare exceptions, you won't see a movie about a thief or an adulterer nowadays that doesn't make some attempt to exculpate the protagonist in the viewer's eyes and give them some kind of happy ending. But true film noir takes the approach of portraying a culprit with all their good points and bad points rolled into one, and slowly but inexorably leading them to their doom. Visually, the film may make use of stark contrasts, but, morally speaking, there are no white hats or black hats. That makes the modern viewer queasy. Aside from the occasional farce, biopic, or gangster film, modern movies about "black hats" tend to reassure the viewer that, deep down inside, the protagonists are really white hats.

Because I have a tendency to be long-winded, I'm going to limit myself to 1000 words per review. Like I said, I'll go in chronological order, limiting myself to DVDs I own and films that I don't own but like well enough to include. If I ever get done with my list, I'll go on to neo-noirs and tech-noirs that approach the style with varying degrees of success. But it's my contention that a self-knowing noir is probably not really a noir at all.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Keftu Dissected

The greatest height of heroism to which an individual, like a people, can attain is to know how to face ridicule; better still, to know how to make oneself ridiculous and not to shrink from the ridicule.
— Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life
Being halfway completed, my Enoch novels are undergoing their midlife crisis. Where are they coming from? Where are they going? Should they shave their head and get a sports car?

Since my blog is the place where I write about things I want to think about, my lucky readers get to glimpse some writerly musings in the next few posts. Today let's begin with Keftu, my protagonist.

Keftu is of a sanguine temperament. He would never write a post like this, unlike melancholic-phlegmatic me! He's also a bit of a fool, as my other characters remind him from time to time. He owes a lot to Percival, the bumpkin-turned-quest-knight whose innocence and stupidity allow him to be used by God. Whether Keftu is useful to the abscondent gods of Enoch remains to be seen, of course.

Like Daedalus, he makes his own wings, but he really has more in common with Icarus. My depiction of him with only one wing on the back cover of Dragonfly is meant to suggest Paul Klee's The Hero with the Wing, which depicts a tragicomic figure who has injured himself in his idiotic attempts to fly.

Quite a few other figures from fable, myth, history, and romance are present in Keftu's DNA, both positively and negatively. He is Gilgamesh (seeker after immortality), Cain (wanderer) and Abel (sacrifice-offerer), Noah (ark pilot), Nimrod (mighty hunter), Abraham (visionary) and Jacob (dream-traveler), Moses (seer of the burning bush), Tobias (vanquisher of demons), and Christ (harrower of hell). He is Prometheus (fire-giver), Hermes (argus-slayer), Theseus (maze-runner), Perseus (gorgon's head-bearer), Bellerophon (steed-tamer and chimera-slayer), Heracles (monster fighter), Orpheus (singer of the dead), and Odysseus (trickster). He is Solon the Lawgiver and Pompey the Great. He is Beowulf and Siegfried. He is the Continental Op and Gilbert Gosseyn. He is Batman, Superman, and Luke Skywalker.

In addition to all of this, I consider Keftu an ironic antitype of Frodo Baggins. Frodo's quest is more or less handed to him. You know where he's going from the first chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The drama lies in the spiritual cost of his continued adherence to this goal. But what if he'd been driven out of the Shire – driven into the arms of the quest, so to speak – without ever having heard of Gandalf, Sauron, or the One Ring? Gandalf is busy elsewhere, with no time to spare for Hobbits; Sauron himself couldn't care less about them; there never was a Ring to wrap incarnate evil up in a neat little package. Frodo has no high destiny but, cut off from his past, finds himself unable to live without one, and therefore invents it for himself. Nevertheless, not a day goes by in which he doesn't look into the abyss and think: what if I'm only deluding myself?

Who in our time hasn't experienced this anxiety? I've gone through phases when I imagined myself acting on a divine mandate. I'll bet that just about everyone, even thoroughgoing materialists, try to see some kind of pattern or logic in the events of their lives. It's part of being human. But, for me, it's always been undercut by a nagging doubt that I'm just talking to myself. After many colorful disappointments, I've come to decide that, if there is a divine agency guiding us to some appointed end, then its action is dark and mysterious, not a voice booming on a mountaintop. It's something that acts from outside time, and therefore in a way that's not really comprehensible to us, and is much less concerned with "geography" than we are.

I attempt to capture some of this in my description of Keftu's songlines, which I adapt from the worldview of the Indigenous Australians, combining it with the mnemonic palace of Sephaura inspired by the method of loci developed by Simonides of Ceos. Keftu's greatness, if he has any greatness, lies in that he knows that he does not know. But his world is littered with grand failures, with persons, human and otherwise, who think they know but do not.

One such is Vaustus, whose character is a composite of several pastors and missionaries I encountered back in my wild college days. The episode that lost him his leg actually happened to someone I knew, except that my friend was unsuccessful in his amputation, which he attempted, naked, with a handsaw in a stranger's open garage. (There, doesn't that make you want to read my book?) But we were all a bit like that.

You'd think that a person, when faced with the cosmic contradiction to the divine mandate they've claimed as a guide for their personal actions, would be forced to admit that they've been acting under a delusion. But you'd be wrong. Their entire ego and worldview are wrapped up in a particular vision of themselves. So, instead, they go a little bit crazy. They revise the past, reinterpret the prophecy, attempt to see what isn't there. Every time this happens, they go a little bit crazier. Deliberately short-circuiting your ability to see reality isn't good for your psychic integrity.

My point is, life is a frightening, painful, messed-up experience ending in death. We all desperately want it to have some kind of meaning. A quest fantasy is comforting because it seems to present life as a logical progression of events with a clear and definite end. But real life isn't like that. Attempts to live like it is only result in madness and despair, or else boundless fatuity and narcissism. Sword-and-sorcery, as opposed to epic fantasy, seems to take what we might call the cynical view. At any rate, it's not particularly concerned with overarching narratives. That's what I like about it.

Still, we are all on a kind of journey, aren't we? It's just that we're making the quest up as we go along. We're more like Don Quixote than the Redcrosse Knight. The joke's on us. Perhaps there is a path, but, if so, it's not like the road to Rivendell. We go blindly, trustingly or not, choosing as seems best at each moment, never quite knowing whether we do well or ill. The climax of our journey is otherwise than we imagine it, and what we regard as most insignificant is possibly quite the contrary.

Come to think of it, though, that could be applied to Frodo's journey. At no point is he altogether certain of his means. The goal is never really in question, but all responsibility is laid on his shoulders. Even Gandalf and Elrond refuse to advise him. And, in the end, he fails! Or would have failed, had not Gollum intervened. In fact, you could argue that, far from being Winnie-the-Pooh for adults, The Lord of the Rings is way more cynical (or mature) than the Elric Saga. So I find that my characterization of Frodo's quest doesn't do justice to the text, though it does describe your cookie-cutter mass market quest fantasy.
Still, it's true that Keftu has no Gandalf, as is pointed out in the passage quoted at the top of Fletcher Vredenburgh's kind review of my most recent novel. He's on his own in a way that Frodo never was. He has no goal but what he sets himself.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Of Hippogriffs and Cocadrill-Serpents

The world didn't ask for it, but it's coming anyway: a new wrap-around book cover for The Worm Ouroboros. Here's the progress I've made so far:

It's a stylized landscape showing Koshtra Pivrarcha, Koshtra Belorn, and the Lake of Ravary. In the distance we glimpse the Bhavinan and Morna Moruna. The Lords Juss and Brandoch Daha stand before Sophonisba; poor Mivarsh Faz is about to become dinner for a cocadrill-serpent. I've purposefully incorporated images from Keith Henderson's illustrations, including this hippogriff:

The style is somewhat inspired by Persian miniatures. I don't do justice to the tradition, of course, but I'd like to try my hand at adapting it again in the near future. At any rate, the Iliad and Icelandic sagas are often mentioned in connection with The Worm Ouroboros, but I've always detected something distinctly Oriental in it as well.

Mivarsh's legs echo Brueghel's painting of the fall of Icarus, which I've always found humorous:

A giant landscape, with the purported subject represented by two tiny legs kicking in the corner. Poor Icarus! And poor Mivarsh! Who told us that he was destined to be devoured by a crocodile, and then was devoured by a crocodile.

Monday, November 28, 2016

West Texas, the USSR, and Reprehensible Reading

This is the kind of post I write when I have things floating around the pelagic zone of my head but no single topic to focus on. I seem to be emerging from one of the phases of isolation I pass through whenever I've been overstimulated or taxed by too much interaction. Ugh.

I have been keeping busy with my Texas stories, my next novel, and a painting for The Worm Ouroboros, however. That's the key to being productive. When you're tempted to look the gorgon in the eye, just keep working. The stuff you bring to light at the end of the tunnel will be about as strange as what you'd expect a blind painter to produce, but there just might be a certain aureole of beauty about it as well. You can't tell while you're still in the pit. You just have to keep going and hold on to all the shards until you're competent to judge them.

Still, I think anyone who produces in isolation is apt to go at least a little bit insane, and not necessarily in a good way. I'm a great admirer of William Blake, as readers of my blog know, chiefly for his early poetry and his lifetime output of paintings and prints. I have to admit that I find most of his "prophetic" books unreadable, as I think most people do. But he wrote what he felt he had to write, in utter isolation, in the face of decades of neglect and incomprehension, and he's my hero for that.

Nevertheless, when I consider how much he warmed up to even the smallest token of appreciation for his work (as, in the evening of his life, he became the center of a circle of young artists), I wonder how much his outrageous, elliptical style owed to the scorn and amused indifference his works tended to arouse. Perhaps, if he'd found himself placed in slightly more congenial surroundings, or his education or personality had been slightly other than what they were, then his life's work wouldn't have forced down such eccentric channels, and he would be a Universal Man like Goethe or somebody instead of a kind of "cult classic" of English letters. Then again, maybe he wouldn't have done anything memorable at all.

I went to that West Texas con a few weeks ago and gave a slideshow talk about the Ballantine series. Four people attended my talk. Ouch. This owed partly to personnel changes just prior to the con. But the room also cleared out before I got up, so I think it's more that the topic and speaker were too off-the-wall for common interest. That's too bad (for them), because I really put together a spanking good slideshow (festival of wrap-around covers and all) and gave a brilliant talk. (I'm better at speaking in public than you might suppose, despite my almost total inability to navigate small talk; after all, I make my living giving lectures on abstruse topics to persons of varied backgrounds.) Anyway, it was kind of a bummer. I don't take it personally, though I did write down who left the room before my talk. (Just kidding.) The episode just underscores how very isolated I am out here. Without the Internet, I could never survive as a writer-artist guy.

There was a bit of a silver lining to the whole experience, however. A local seller of vintage comic books saw my talk on the schedule and donated a stack of Ballantine paperbacks to hand out as visual aids. He even let me keep the leftovers for proselytization purposes. We chatted a bit, and he told me that he's collected (and sold) the entire series twice over. Now that's impressive. So, by going to the con, I discovered that there's at least one other person (and probably only one other person) between San Antonio and El Paso interested in what I'm interested in.

In other news, my intellectual life seems to be coming up against Soviet Russia for some reason. It began with my decision to begin reading John le Carré, most famous for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I've enjoyed what I've read immensely. It calls to mind both Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, two of my favorite authors.

Then I acquired the first part of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago from the county library book shop for $0.25 and read it straight through. I'd read a couple of Solzhenitsyn's novels back in school, and had then perused the Archipelago, but without really delving into it. There's nothing I can say about it that won't sound trite, but it's a book that I think everyone should read at least once.

Last but not least in my encounters with the USSR, I recently attended a seminar by a now-nonagenarian friend of a friend of mine, a journalist who spent the bulk of his career (through the late 1970s, I think) as a war correspondent, covering such conflicts as Vietnam and visiting a total of 120 countries. Last fall when he was in town (our mutual friend brings him for a series of public talks every year at Veteran's Day), we all split a six pack of Spaten Optimator in a hotel lobby. His stories about intrigues and death on the Russian borders of Red China came immediately to mind when I read The Honourable Schoolboy, which centers on the community of foreign correspondents in 1970s Hong Kong.

But his entire life is almost unbelievably storied. He started out as a child actor, his parents being vaudeville performers in New York. He was a cast member in the original production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which went on to win a Pulitzer. During World War II, his family performed for troops around the country through the recently founded USO. He enlisted once he was old enough and fought in the Battle of Okinawa. After the war he went to college.

As a journalist, he became an enemy of communism, and he counts among his greatest achievements his having been labeled a "very dangerous man" by the KGB. He was actually escorted out of Russia by the KGB, and subsequently refused reentry until after the fall of the USSR. (In later years he managed to get a glimpse of his old case file through a contact in Moscow.) He lost none of his energy with retirement, and used to appear on CNN's Crossfire among other things. He still travels to France, Russia, China, and elsewhere, giving talks at universities and meeting with State Department officials. Did I mention that he's 90? A gentleman of the old school, a hell of a speaker with a biting sense of humor, and a principled professional. Quite a person to have had a beer with.

Getting back to John le Carré and Solzhenitsyn, I've started to realize that it's not very good for me to read fantasy while I'm engaged in writing fantasy. Reading Lord Foul's Bane over the summer made me pretty cranky, but I would probably have gobbled it up if I were writing spy novels. That's how I've always been. I can't do my job well as a math professor if I don't paint at night, and my painting suffers if there's no math or logic going on. I think it's just that I'm very immature, and most productive when I feel like I'm getting away with something by working on a project that the little voice in my head says is the opposite of what I should be doing.

So I recently read Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury, another little item I picked up at the library bookstore. It was enjoyable enough, I suppose, but also quite moronic. It made me think of Raymond Chandler's soliloquy on lurid pulp stories and the apocalypse:
Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning how to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.
I've always loved Robert Altman's incoherent noir apocalypse, Kiss Me Deadly, which skewers the Mike Hammer character, but I'm big enough to appreciate both satire and subject. So there are two more Spillane rocker-shockers in the hopper.

Speaking of reprehensible reading, I may venture into Gor in the not-so-distant future. I've never read (or been tempted to read) a single Gor novel, though it's been hinted that I work coded references to the series into my stories. People tell me that they start out okay, but get sicker and sicker as you go on. However, under a humorous post on the subject over at Black Gate last month, a commenter linked an interview with John Norman so straight-facedly bizarre that I kind of want to read a few now. After all, as authors, we have quite a bit in common, being otherwise-obscure academics who write pseudonymous sword-and-planet stories set in the counter-earth. Actually, given some of the things I've written about, it's not terribly surprising that someone would assume I'm a fan.

But I'm not, of course, and don't suppose I ever will be. It's kind of strange, though, that those who would normally speak out against censorship are perfectly okay with keeping people from reading stuff they think is really bad. And maybe the Gor books are really bad! But everyone who tries to ban something thinks that what they're banning is bad. Otherwise they wouldn't ban it. If you say you're against banning as a general principle, you have to be against the banning of any book, even "bad" ones; otherwise you're just a viewpoint advocate with a penchant for moral posturing.

You can argue, as a commenter at the Black Gate article does, that John Norman's excommunication from the mainstream publishing world isn't an example of censorship but of free-market capitalism. To be honest, that's what sounds most likely to me. But people like Michael Moorcock did advocate "strategies which marginalize" John Norman's output, and his output has in fact been marginalized. In my opinion, the specific action Moorcock suggested (placing the books on the top shelves to keep them out of the hands of young adults) is perfectly reasonable. But some books celebrated during Banned Books Week have faced far less opposition. So what's the difference?

I don't have much of an opinion either way. It's just something I've thought about.

Well, I guess that's about it for now. I may start a series of short reviews of my favorite films noir. I've got about a zillion titles on DVD that I like to watch and rewatch. It'll be a good thing to keep me posting on my blog while I devote the other parts of my brain to my ongoing writing projects and other things.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Vast Active Living Intelligence System

I've never been much of a science fiction reader. My attempts at writing it have been pretty unsuccessful, too, at least to my mind. Sometimes this embarrasses me. When a "real-life" acquaintance finds out I write, and they ask, "Oh! What sorts of things?" I stammer a bit, and say, "Oh, you know, sci-fi fantasy stuff." But that's not quite honest, is it? It's just that, if I come right out and say, I write fantasy, people don't seem to know what I'm talking about. Maybe it's just where I live. It sounds like I'm confessing to writing, you know, fantasies, as in the "fantasy suites" down at the Ramada Inn. But sci-fi they understand, and it gets the basic idea across.

Me, I like the prose laid on thick, as in Conrad or Melville. That's probably obvious to readers of my books. But you don't find many gothic edifices or thickets of purple prose in the science fiction field. Descriptions are terse and often rather vague. Everything is done by suggestion. My eye just glides right over it. I'm not particularly intrigued by fictional advances in science or technology, either. Maybe I spent too many years studying spin geometry and quantum field theory.

Leaving aside romancers of the cosmic future like Herbert and Wolfe, whom I personally consider to write a species of fantasy rather than science fiction, what I find when I look at the authors I most enjoy (A. E. van Vogt, Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick) is a preoccupation with philosophy, religion, and psychology.

What brings on this little soliloquy is the fact that I've just read (or listened to, at any rate) Philip K. Dick's VALIS yet another time. I find myself reading Dick whenever I go through a particularly severe bout of depression and isolation. His books tend to be about people who are depressed and isolated, of course, but I find them strangely consoling for that very reason. He's a humane writer with a sympathy that never becomes sentimental.

Though possibly his most idiosyncratic work, VALIS is one that I've returned to again and again. It's Dick's hilarious yet deeply sad semi-autobiographical account of one seriously fucked-up (as Dick would put it) person's (or is it persons'?) slightly brain-fried search for God (or whatever) in paranoid post-Nixon 1970s California. Unlike a lot of Dick's fiction, drugs play only a peripheral role. Religious experience has taken their place. I remember my mother once telling me that, to her, it seemed like the Jesus People of the seventies had merely traded one drug for another (that is, dionysian ecstasy). Maybe that sums up Dick's experience.

The milieu described in a number of Dick's drugs-and-religion books bears a disturbing resemblance to a certain phase of my own life, when I spent all my time with card-carrying prophets, traveling evangelists, drug addicts, professional bead-necklace-making drifters, hippies living in station wagons, cell group leaders, paranoid schizophrenics, Hare Krishnas, recovering vampires, and undercover missionaries. I was scared out of my mind, autistic without knowing it, and, for a while, on the verge of homelessness and utter ruin. But that was my world, and the only thing I could do was try to find meaning in it. My general situation was, like Horselover Fat's, fucked up. Actually, it was just after I'd divorced myself from that world that I first started reading Philip K. Dick, starting with And Now Wait for Last Year. What I'm trying to say is, Dick's whacked-out religious novels hit close to home.

You might call VALIS an exploration of lowercase-g gnosticism, that is, salvation through special knowledge (or "information," as Dick puts it). The Exegesis runs all through it, with frequent citations from the New Testament and the pre-Socratic philosophers. What's strange is that it seems to call into question the very concept of saving knowledge, reaffirming John of the Cross's path of negation. A message is only as reliable as the messenger. Sensory impressions, interior locutions, and emotional experiences can always be questioned. Maybe they come from a divine source, or maybe someone's just playing with microwave transmissions. Maybe you're speaking to an incarnation of the pleroma, or maybe it's just a little girl rigged with wires and speakers. Looking in from the outside of Dick's universe, it seems to me that a god whose communication of himself takes place solely on the plane of "information" will always turn out to be a resident of some star system or other, that is, a being more powerful but commensurate with human beings.

It strikes me as ironic that Fat's friend David, a Catholic (and, apparently, a stand-in for Tim Powers), always tries to bring C. S. Lewis into his theodicy. Lewis was himself a gnostic, in that his descriptions of faith, in both his fiction and his apologetic works, amount to a kind of secret knowledge. The heaven described in The Last Battle is a thoroughly gnostic heaven; both Dick and Lewis routinely cite Plato. I wonder how much Lewis Dick had actually read, if any. The David character resists, but ultimately accepts the import of Fat's revelations and the significance of the Eric Lampton film. But then it all just fizzles out, gets explained away (if one can call it that) as the operation of mundane technology and delusion...

I think I'll read The Divine Invasion sometime soon. No doubt I'll have more to say then.

Some other posts on Dick-related material that you might enjoy:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Incredible Shrinking Man

I recently watched (for the second time, I think) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The screenplay is by Richard Matheson, the writer to whom we owe the novel upon which it is based, as well as I Am Legend (1954), Hell House (1971), and What Dreams May Come (1978). Amazingly, he also wrote the screenplays for that best of Poe adaptations, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), as well as two other Roger Corman productions, namely, the memorable but somewhat inferior House of Usher (1960), and the ridiculous but entertaining The Raven (1963); he wrote the famous Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"; the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"; The Legend of Hell House (1973), which I talked about earlier this year; the made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror (1975), whose little doll continues to pursue me through my worst nightmares; and numerous other things.

Anyway, The Incredible Shrinking Man. It's one profound movie. An ordinary man starts shrinking, more or less inexplicably, becoming a tiny bit smaller each day. He undergoes humiliation, alienation, and, finally, cosmic isolation. His resentment becomes tyrannical petulance, then terror, then utter loneliness. His white-collar insecurities gradually crumble before Pascal's fear of the eternal silence of the infinite spaces. In the last act, the basement-hell to which he finds himself consigned stretches before him like an alien landscape in which he must fight like an insect to survive. More so even than the protagonist of I Am Legend, he finds himself marooned in an inimical new universe. He triumphs over the spider, only to go on shrinking smaller, and smaller still.

But despair turns to acceptance and finally hope. The film ends in epiphany, as the protagonist wanders out through the grating, looking up at the stars, soliloquizing, as the viewer receives flashes of distant galaxies:
I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!
Profound words, but merely quoting them fails to convey the feeling they give me when I watch the movie. It really brings tears to my eyes, because it captures so well what has tormented me all my life. That is, the terror of the senseless cosmos.

What people miss when they talk about how insignificant man is in the universe is the fact that man is also gigantic. The truth is, man hangs suspended between two extremes, the infinite and the infinitesimal, a fact that the mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal, mentioned above, wrote about at some length:
Let man [...] contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things... 
Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature... What is a man in the Infinite? 
But to show him another prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature's immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. [...] Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption. 
For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret, he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. [Pensées 72]
So you see, the universe is considerably more terrifying than your rather unimaginative New Atheist types generally realize. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a profound exploration of that terror, and a moving attempt to answer it. But it's also a gripping film apart from its philosophical implications, with wonderful sets and meticulous attention to detail in its depiction of the protagonist's rapidly growing world. And the battle with the giant spider toward the end is very cool.

Truly one of the great science fiction films of all time.

Friday, October 21, 2016

It's Like A Whole Nother Country

Guess what? I'm going to have a table at my first comic con next month. What prestigious, world-famous convention am I going to be attending, you ask? Well, I'll tell you: it's the second annual Big Bend Comic Con, held in the bustling (pop. 5905) town of Alpine, Texas, where the tumbleweeds roll right through downtown and the university has its own cattle brand.

Alpine. One of my many pictures of run-down buildings.
From their Facebook page:
The Big Bend Mini Comic Con will promote literacy of comics and graphic novels and provide a sense of community with the cities across the Big Bend Region.
Okay, so it's a mini con, but you have to start somewhere. My writing and art are so highly in demand out there, they practically begged to me to come. (Actually, I work for the university hosting the con, and they can't keep me away.)

The university and town, an image from the school website.
Statistically speaking, it's pretty unlikely that any of my readers reside in the area. The Big Bend region, of which Alpine is the metropolitan hub, covers 12,000 square miles and encompasses approximately 12,000 people, setting the population density (if I'm doing the math correctly) at 1 human being per square mile. Plenty of elbow room. But, if you happen to be one of those 12,000 fortunate people – a resident of, say, Marathon, or Marfa, or Terlingua, or Presidio, or Fort Davis, or Balmorhea – I hope you'll come on over and say hello. I'll have a stack of my books to sell at a discounted price; I'll even autograph 'em for you.

Downtown Alpine. Did you think I was joking about the tumbleweeds?
Despite working for the university, I only visit the main campus once a year or so these days – I'm a circuit-rider, as my bio says – but my familiarity with the area goes back to when I was a kid, camping at the state and national parks and spending Thanksgivings at Indian Lodge. To me it's just about the most beautiful region on earth, especially in the fall.

In the nearby Davis Mountains, looking from the state park toward
McDonald Observatory.
And you could spend a week just seeing everything: McDonald Observatory, the Fort Davis NHS, the Chihuahuan Desert Visitor Center, the Museum of the Big Bend, the Marfa lights, Davis Mountains State Park, San Solomon Springs at Balmorhea State Park; and we haven't even gotten to Big Bend National Park and all there is to do down there. Alpine itself is a mighty fine town, with a good used bookstore that carries a number of Arkham House editions in excellent condition, and plenty of art galleries.

Note the beaming visage of Hoss Cartwright, an alumnus of our fine university.
Still, I reckon I'm more at home where I live, down on the border, in the humid subtropical Winter Garden region, amid cabbage fields and onion fields and vast tracts of guajillo savanna, where the bees make honey as clear as water.

Speaking of guajillo (spelled variously; pronounced wah-HEE-yah), my sword-and-santeria story, set in and around the site of the aforementioned Bee Capital of Texas, is slated to come out in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly next February. I'm really excited to be appearing in HFQ, given its staying power and the quality of the stories it's featured. This is a branching-out for me, and I hope it's the beginning of more good things to come. 
HUAJILLA. This is a very important honey-plant, or tree, rather, in Texas, for the dry arid portions where there is little or no irrigation, and where nothing, in fact, grows except mesquite, catclaw, sage-brush, and other desert plants. The fact that it does not depend on irrigation, and needs only a scanty amount of rain early in the season, makes it most valuable to the bee-keeper in those regions where it grows and yields large quantities of beautiful water clear honey. Indeed, it is the finest produced in Texas, and is so nearly water white as to be almost as clear as pure water. It is at its very best in the region of Uvalde, Texas. The leaves look like a small delicate fern, and partake somewhat of the nature of the sensitive plant, for when touched they immediately close. [The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A. I. Root & E. R. Root, 1910]
Since we're on the topic of local things, let me hasten to point out that my residence in Uvalde is not the only brush the town has had with fame and glory. Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte II, the grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, a graduate of West Point, resided here in the 1850s, when he was stationed at the fort that then guarded the San Antonio - El Paso Road. In the 1890s, Pat Garrett, the man who shot Billy the Kid, settled here with his family, becoming friends with John Nance Garner, who went on to become vice president under Franklin Roosevelt. Ashmun Upson, the ghostwriter of Garrett's book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, is buried here.

(Can you tell I've been researching local history lately?)

Vice President Garner retired to Uvalde after leaving office, and his home is now the site of a museum; Harry S Truman once spent the night at the house next door to mine, which was then owned by the Briscoe family, most famous for Texas governor Dolph Briscoe. Dale Evans, the western singer/actress and wife of Roy Rogers, was a Uvalde native, and we're also the home of Los Palominos, a Grammy award-winning Tejano band.

The Bottle 'n Bag, Uvalde's one-stop shop. [source]
The first sight that greets you on the way into town.
Last but not least, we have Uvalde native Matthew McConaughey, whom you may remember from such films as Dazed and Confused and Angels in the Outfield. Mr. McConaughey apparently visits town incognito from time to time. Last year his disguise was blown when the ladies in the Chamber of Commerce building saw him taking pictures across the street. They begged him to come in, which he agreed to do, provided they lower the blinds and keep mum on social media until after his getaway. Of course it was front page news that Sunday. The event was touted as the crowning glory of the Chamber at the banquet last spring, which I happened to attend, competing with the keynote address by the amazing Bob Philips of Texas Country Reporter fame.

Well, maybe Mr. Philips will read this and do an episode about me.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Yet More Hauntings

Our leisurely ramble through the haunted houses of yesterday and today continues! Previous posts on the subject include:

The Haunting of Hill House

First, I've finally gotten around to reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. I was deeply impressed with the Robert Wise film, which I discussed here earlier this year, and had been meaning to read the book ever since. The film is, for me, the definitive haunted house movie; but now that I've read the book, I can offer the movie no greater compliment than to say that it faithfully and sensitively represents the spirit of the book, which is easily one of the best things I've ever read.

It's not so much a ghost story as a bad place story, which I'm beginning to think is really what a good haunted house story is all about.
"You will recall," the doctor began, "the houses described in Leviticus as 'leprous,' tsaraas, or Homer's phrase for the underworld, aidao domos, the house of Hades; I need not remind you, I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden – perhaps sacred – is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, for whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then; whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer. Naturally I hope that we will all know a good deal more about Hill House before we leave. No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted."
There are various supernatural occurrences, though their ultimate cause is left unsettlingly ambiguous. The house's geometry is disturbing, misanthropic, hateful. It was designed by a sick, demented man. But what's truly terrifying is that the house is itself a monstrous and voracious organism. It's never made clear what order of "intelligence" (which is too anthropocentric a term) the house represents, however.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Jackson's supreme mastery of style is exhibited most surely in her ability to convince you that, whatever is going on, it's much more worse than you imagine. A classic haunted house story, paranormal investigator and all; a delicate, sensitive exploration of a repressed soul; a humorous satire of heavy-handed spiritualism; a bone-freezing read for the small hours of the morning: The Haunting of Hill House is all these and more.

The Shining

If a good haunted house story is one that uses subtle brushes of style to build up an ineffable atmosphere of dread, an atmosphere that clumsy delineations and explanations would tear to shreds, then Stephen King can safely be said never to have written a good haunted house story. Still, The Shining is clearly a good story; the laws of inference therefore indicate that The Shining is not principally a haunted house story.

For me, it's really the story of a father and husband destroyed by his own small-mindedness and inner demons. There are a few creepy moments, but King simply doesn't know how not to explain every supernatural occurrence in precise detail by the end. That's okay, I think. The truly disturbing events are those that occur entirely within Jack's sane mind, when he soliloquizes on his own life and doggedly lies to himself about who he is and what he has done. The ghosts' making him into a monster is merely a reflection of what he had done to himself and his vision of reality, freely and willingly, before ever setting foot in the Overlook Hotel. As a father and husband with his own inner compromises, I found that it all hit a little close to home. It got under my skin, which, I suppose, is what a good novel does.

It had been a long, long time since I'd read any Stephen King. Like Fletcher Vredenburgh, I got into him when I was in junior high; I read The Stand first, I think, and then moved on to various other things, such as Carrie, Misery, The Eye of the Dragon, The Dark Half, and The Dead Zone. I recall being unimpressed with King's portrayal of good and evil, his plot resolutions (in his longer novels), and his frequent conflation of seaminess with wickedness. He has a way of reducing people to ugly, brutal caricatures, and at the time I found it so dehumanizing that I eventually decided – as a fourteen-year-old! – to leave it aside for a future date. Well, I suppose that date has now come.

I find myself kind of wanting to read Dr. Sleep now. If it shows up at the county library, I just might! I've also been wanting to read his Dark Tower books for some time. A buddy of mine has them, so that's probably next on my list.

The Shining

Of course, I haven't been looking for haunted houses in books alone. For years I've been meaning to watch Kubrick's version of King's novel, and for years I've refrained from it, as I wanted to read the book first. Somehow I managed to hold out all this time, despite being a great admirer of Kubrick's other films, and despite somehow becoming aware of the entire plot, down to numerous scenes, by subconsciously absorbing it from the universal cultural Id.

I can see why King doesn't like Kubrick's vision. It is, nevertheless, sublime. The members of the Torrance family are reduced to opaque archetypes enacting some kind of horribly eternal play in a snowbound universe that they alone inhabit, out of space, out of time. It reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey more than any of Kubrick's other films. It also makes me think of Ingmar Bergman's surreal horror film, Hour of the Wolf, and Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Perhaps the less I say about The Shining, the better. If you're looking for a psychological thriller, a scary ghost story, or a point-by-point adaptation of a King novel, you'll probably be disappointed. If you're looking for a quiet, unsettling island universe existing unto itself and violating conventions of time and space like a cosmic M. C. Escher design, you've come to the right place, my friend.

The Conjuring 2

I suppose I should mention this one, too. Yes, I watched it, and, yes, I thought it was okay, though not quite so good as the first one, which I also thought was okay but not great. This one committed the exact same errors as the first installment, but more so, and with fewer memorable scenes (like that clap scene, brrr). It's genuinely scary, with good production values, an intelligent script, a realistic texture, and an ending that's actually kind of positive and inspiring. Oh, and toys. Creepy, creepy toys. (What is it with creepy toys these days? The real Annabelle was a Raggedy Ann doll.) Anyway, it's a good Halloween movie, but nothing to compare with The Haunting or The Shining.

This is neither here nor there, but the aftermath scenes in both Conjuring movies make me think of the little picnics and gatherings they always ended stories with on Rescue 911.

Local Hauntings

A couple weeks ago I discussed The Haunting of Hill House with a friend of mine, a psychology professor. He told me of a house in town that he'd been told is haunted. Bad things happen to people who live there, he said, and no one stays there long. This is all hearsay. But it's up the street from where we both live, so I went to check it out on the way home from work. It's a small, rather run-down one-story house with an oddly convoluted floor plan. Is it haunted? Hard to tell from my pick-up truck.

My own house, which was built around 1901 and actually bears some resemblance to the house in the first Conjuring movie, has a filled-in well in the back corner of the lot. The spot is visible merely as a pit of soft earth. I've always found it a bit unsettling.

There's a small pioneer cemetery at the end of the block, within sight of our upstairs windows, inhabited mainly by nineteenth-century casualties of arrow wounds and bullet holes. I've been told, however, that there are graves sprinkled here and there around the entire block...

Speaking of arrow holes, my best friend from the town where I grew up, a few towns over from where I now live, has an ancestral family member who was killed by arrows...and his family still has the shirt. It's a white shirt with little bloody arrow holes. His grandmother, who was born in the nineteenth century and lived to be well over one hundred, resided practically next door to us, and one day I was taken into a small, slightly stuffy back room of her house to see the family artifacts. Old photographs stared down on us from the walls. That was an unsettling place.

Last But Not Least

In conclusion, while we're on the subject of paranormal investigators and creepy things, I'd like to mention that John Linwood Grant of greydogtales fame, together with Sam Gafford and Travis Neisler, are starting up a quarterly print (print? yes, print!) magazine called Occult Detective Quarterly, a revival of the kinds of stories that feature William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki and his various relatives and descendants. You can check out their Kickstarter campaign here.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Release the Kraken! Eighties Fantasy Schlock

A while back I wrote about the dearth of true fantasy in film. At the time, I was searching for a Tolkienistic sense of Recovery, for mythopoeic wholeness translated into cinema, which might or might not involve what are typically thought of as fantastic elements. At least, that's what I think I was looking for. I'm still not quite sure.

What my search necessarily left by the wayside, of course, was the golden age of fantasy schlock: the 1980s. But not because I'm not fond of it! And certainly not because I'm not familiar with it. After all, it's what I grew up watching. When I went to the tiny video rental place up the street, with its tinted windows and brown shag carpet and rows of little cardboard circles hanging on hooks, I almost always walked away with a fantasy movie, usually one I'd already rented multiple times. And I never failed to watch them when they came on the local UHF station, either.

But, fond though I am of it, eighties fantasy isn't what you'd call fine cinema. Most entries fall into the category of cult favorites, which, as far as I can tell, means that they're too hokey or peculiar to be universally popular, but remain likeable in some weird way nonetheless. To watch them now, you have to be willing to take them as they are, stiff acting, laughable dialogue, synthesizer score, and all. For a while I found them unwatchable, but, now that the patina of age is settling in, they seem more like primitive insects preserved in amber. They've acquired the distinctive beauty that only the passage of years can give. In fact, it's only in hindsight that I've come to regard eighties fantasy as a thing in and of itself. I would go so far as to claim that it forms its own time-bound genre, like the film noir of the forties and fifties, that can be harked back to but never truly replicated.

I suppose the birth of the genre (if we can call it that) was sparked by the success of Star Wars, as well as the rise of fantasy as a commercial literary genre. It's hard to draw a hard line between kids' fare and films aimed at adults; it also bleeds at its periphery into science fiction and horror. The major entries (in my book, at least) include:
  • Star Wars (1977)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Flash Gordon (1980)
  • Excalibur (1981)
  • Dragonslayer (1981)
  • Clash of the Titans (1981)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • Conan the Barbarian (1982)
  • The Beastmaster (1982)
  • The Dark Crystal (1982)
  • The Return of the Jedi (1983)
  • Krull (1983)
  • Conan the Destroyer (1984)
  • Sword of the Valiant (1984)
  • The Neverending Story (1984)
  • Red Sonja (1985)
  • Legend (1985)
  • Ladyhawke (1985)
  • Brazil (1985)
  • Labyrinth (1986)
  • The Princess Bride (1987)
  • Willow (1988)
and, too late to be in the eighties but still clearly belonging with the rest,
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Stop-motion animation and practical effects like puppetry, models, and matte paintings reached heights of realism never before attained. It seemed like the sky would soon be the limit. And then, just like that, digital effects swept away everything else, and, with a couple exceptions, fantasy disappeared from the big screen until the rise of the turgid big-budget multi-volume epics of the naughts. It has always deeply frustrated me that George Lucas felt the need to digitize the original Star Wars trilogy. He turned the pinnacle of the eighties fantasy period into a patched-together Frankenstein monster, in which we're forced to watch a sideburned Harrison Ford chatting with a digital Jabba the Hutt, a shaggy Mark Hamill piloting a slick computerized X-wing. Like an aging actor who's gone in for extreme plastic surgery, Star Wars has merely lost what made it truly itself, visually at least.

Fortunately, the other entries on my list don't face that kind of temptation. They still smell of the dim, stuffy video rental place. A few have aged very well. Most might be described as flawed gems. And a few are indisputably terrible, but irreplaceable nonetheless. Clash of the Titans (which I've seen too many times to count) is, despite being Ray Harryhausen's swan song, quite awful in the special effects department, and further marred by horrendous acting, a ludicrous plot, and unintentionally hilarious dialogue. But can it be denied that it has a canonical place in pop culture? Does anyone need to be told what "Release the Kraken!" comes from?

For me, many of these movies derive considerable charm from their trashy / awesome pop soundtracks. The most memorable is undoubtedly Flash Gordon, with music composed and performed by Queen ("Flash! Ahh-ahhhh!"), but the Neverending Story song is up there, too as are the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for Legend, and the delightful (and slightly unsettling) performance David Bowie gives as the singing, dancing goblin king in Labyrinth.

I wrote all this after watching Krull the other night with my kids. I find it emblematic of the era. It has many good points. It's stunningly beautiful. It features a rousing score by James Horner, a beautiful princess (whatever happened to beautiful movie princesses?), battles with lasers and swords, a cyclops, truly awesome stop-motion creatures, and big, weird, surrealistic sets. The plot is...okay. It's not bad. But the script. And the acting. Even Liam Neeson (in an early role) is bad. I blame it on the director.

But, so, there you go. Cult material. It's a movie you can be fond of. It's a movie you could watch a bunch of times, unlike a lot of supposedly "great" movies. It's just not a movie you can really defend as good. That's eighties fantasy all over. It may not be cinematic mythopoeia, but I like it.

Now what does this remind me of?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Library of Enoch

If you're a reader of my novels, you might want to check out my Library of Enoch page. I use a mix of Greek and Hebrew terms in translating from the nephelic tongue (the sole language spoken in Uradon of the cosmic antipodes), together with various coinages, many of which apply to the Paleozoic plants and animals that inhabit it. The books are intended to be read without specialized knowledge, of course, but some might find it helpful to read explicit definitions and see pictures of the wildlife. It's a work in progress, so don't be surprised if it changes from day to day.

And if you're not a reader (yet!), both volumes available from Amazon, in print and e-book form:

Buy it at Amazon

Buy it at Amazon

They're enrolled in the Kindle MatchBook program, so the purchase of a print copy will get you the e-book for free.

Related posts:

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

In the Year 1977

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Tolkien fans, that is.

1977 saw the publication of The Silmarillion, which critics apparently hated, I guess because they wanted some happy novel about hobbits. But 1977 also saw the appearance of the two titans among Tolkien clones: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. Each might be described as The-Lord-of-the-Rings-with-a-twist: the first replaces the prehistoric past with a post-apocalyptic future, while the second replaces the merry band of doughty halflings with a cynical, s**t-head leper.

I read a stack of Terry Brooks novels back in the nineties, when I was a teenager, both his Shannara series (the first seven, I think) and his Magic Kingdom of Landover series (the first four?), checking them out one by one from the town library and devouring them. The Landover novels in particular I remember with fondness. But I recall going into Waldenbooks one day (this is when malls had bookstores) and seeing the next Landover installment on the shelf (Witch's Brew, I think), and suddenly realizing that the series was, in fact, an open-ended commercial venture. Shocked to the marrow, I turned my back on popular fantasy then and there, and began my Gollum-like transformation into the lurking curmudgeon I am today.

Anyway, it was the Shannara books I read first. Their shortcomings, which were obvious even to my tenth-grade-level literary acumen, have been pointed out many times, and I needn't dwell on them matter here. I genuinely enjoyed them. I don't know how I would feel upon rereading now. But there's no denying that the publication of The Sword of Shannara was a seminal event in the evolution of fantasy into the commercial genre we know today.

Now, I never encountered Stephen Donaldson back while I was still a happy Smeagol splashing by the banks of the Great River. But he's come to my attention a few times in recent years, and his darker take on Tolkienism interested the writer in me. So I picked up Lord Foul's Bane about five years ago...and promptly put it down when I encountered That One Part.

Let's get that out of the way before we move on.

The protagonist, toward the beginning of the novel, rapes a teenage girl, the daughter of his hosts. He's a leper. A moral leper, that is. Now, I defend the right of an author to write whatever accords with his or her artistic vision, and I'm not one of those people who think that everything a novelist writes about is some statement of their personal beliefs. Nevertheless, I put the book down at that point. It disturbed me. I didn't feel like reading a book where such things happen. Or rather, I didn't feel like reading such a book written by an author lacking the psychological profundity needed to write about such things without trivializing them. And I wasn't convinced that Donaldson had that profundity.

The strength of my disturbance, I think, owes to the identification I felt with Thomas Covenant, which was quite visceral due to the graphic depiction of his leprosy. (And this depiction is one of the novel's strengths, in my opinion.) I felt as though I were leering with him, first at a girl in the telephone company office, then at the sixteen-year-old Lena. The rape scene itself sent me down a well of vicarious guilt and horror.

[Aside: The cover of The Sword of Shannara sports a picture by the Brothers Hildebrandt. I like a lot of their work, despite the fact that it's dated and a bit goofy. The cover of Lord Foul's Bane features a lovely painting by one S. C. Wyeth, about whom I can't find any information. Is he related to N. C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth? The style recalls the elder.]

Maybe it's that I feel genre fiction to be too frivolous, written too much for pure entertainment, to justify the inclusion of such elements. Or maybe it's more a matter of style than anything else. I mean, if you're going to have your protagonist commit an unspeakable crime, then the plot sort of needs to be about that. It can't be one element among others. It's almost inconceivable that a mother would travel for weeks in the sole company of her daughter's rapist, however cogent the reasons, and the fictional depiction of such a journey should be a descent into an emotional hell. What we get, though, are descriptions of scenery.

I suspect, however, that we aren't meant to view Thomas Covenant in quite that light. The rape scene is presented as though we're supposed to imagine that he commits the act because he thinks he's in some kind of fever-dream or coma, and also because he's overwhelmed by the unexpected return of his lost virility. But if he's really the Unbeliever he always claims to be, why does he go through his VSE (visual surveillance of extremities) on every page? Why is he always reminding everyone that he's a leper? I mean, maybe I could accept the fever-dream excuse on a literary level if the presentation of the plot were consistent, if (say) he went on a febrile, Maskull-like odyssey of crime and depravity through the Land, but it's not. Covenant's supposed conviction that it's all a dream comes off more as an occasional pose. Which, I repeat, is a matter of style, not of morality.

And then there's the scene later on in the book when he lusts after another underage girl, and suddenly feels remorse for what he did to Lena, and basically decides to send her an annual present. Dude. That just makes you twice as creepy and despicable in my eyes. Which is fine if that's what the author intends, but here I don't think it is. Because it's presented as a climactic moment beginning Covenant's reconciliation with the Land and his opening up to friendship with his companions. So, ramifications continue to be felt, etc., but, to me, it all comes off as slightly phony.

Well, anyway, that's enough of that. It's a point reasonable people can disagree on. My own (purely stylistic) assessment is that the rape scene is presented so as to shock the reader's sensibilities, but that its inclusion isn't supported by the novel's subsequent meandering quest-plot. Still, there's something to be said for Covenant's moral numbness, the numbness of his leprosy, and his identification with Lord Foul, and I'll admit that there may be more to it all than I've seen at my first glance. On the moral side, I can see why it bothers people, but I'm going to suspend my judgment until I finish the trilogy.

As for the rest, well, I don't feel that it's worthwhile to comment much on the story until I've read the next installments. (Or maybe I'm afraid to throw rocks, having just published my own novel.) Instead, I'll talk about what struck me on every page of Lord Foul's Bane: the extent to which it draws from The Lord of the Rings. Just to name a few items, we have:
  • Tolkienesque place-names like Mithil Stonedown, Kiril Threndor, Trothgard, and Glimmermere.
  • People with sturdy, earthy, Anglo-Saxon names like Treeroot Branchtwig (okay, I made that one up). 
  • A long journey to a big info-dump of a Council, which takes place midway through the book.
  • Mysterious liqueurs that magically refresh you.
  • Woodsy retreats and way stations.
  • Slow, friendly giants who practically hoom-hom while they complain about the hastiness of their companions.
  • Elvish-sounding exclamations like Melenkurion!
  • A super-important gold ring that someone tries to bite off at the end.
  • A city carved in a mountainside with a layout almost impossible to comprehend.
  • Dark forests with angsty, anti-biped trees. 
  • Geologically fanciful mountains.
  • Horse People.
  • A Dark Lord who returns after a long vacation but remains offstage.
  • A volcanic climax. 
I could go on and on. It's got the potential of being a commentary on or deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, what with its s**t-head leper of a protagonist and its opening in the Real World, which might be kind of cool in a way. And I say that as a Tolkien fan. But, in the thick of things, Lord Foul's Bane just becomes a somewhat shallow retread of something that had already been done, with a twist to make it seem original. For me, the Land remains mere artificial "scenery" (to quote a word from an ironic conversation in the novel); it doesn't come to life and make me long to enter it, like Middle-Earth.

It's no coincidence that books like The Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul's Bane were published the same year as The Silmarillion. For whatever reason, people were starving for more Tolkien, and there was simply no more to be had. So they had to settle with uneven compilations of his unpublished backstory material and new novels that mixed and matched his stylistic tics. It's taken a long time for the commercial genre to outgrow that. And maybe it never quite has. Certainly the fracking of Tolkien's unpublished works "goes ever on and on."

But I'm still struck by the narrowness of the adherence to Tolkien's vision. What, in fact, do we want when we want to read Tolkien? What is the real hunger that The Lord of the Rings whets without satisfying? I ask this as a writer who consciously (and probably unconsciously) adopts elements from Tolkien. What's really essential about his work? Is it something material, or something deeper, something hidden under the surface? When are you producing something truly new, and when are you just making a direct-to-DVD mockbuster?

There's not a simple answer to this, I suppose. While reserving my final judgment on Lord Foul's Bane until I finish at least the first trilogy, I'll just end with William Blake's pithy paradox:
The difference between a bad Artist & a Good One Is: the Bad Artist Seems to copy a Great deal. The Good one Really does Copy a Great deal.