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?