Monday, December 4, 2017

Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour

Though the cover features a katchina
dancer, they never really come up in the
book. I've read that the katchina cult,
which seems strongest among the modern
Hopi, is something of an innovation. At
any rate, it has its own complicated and
little-known history.
I just did something I thought I'd never do: I read a Louis L'Amour novel.

Louis L'Amour, if you don't know, is arguably the all-time most popular writer of westerns. He wrote 89 novels in all, a number of which were turned into films and television shows. His presence, though increasingly tattered and faded, was inescapable for someone growing up in Texas in the eighties and nineties, which I did. But I've had an aversion to westerns as long as I can remember, and I was never tempted to crack open one of the zillions of L'Amour paperbacks underfoot back then.

(Perhaps my aversion dates from the time we got free 3D movie glasses from the county courthouse to watch a 3D John Wayne movie on the local UHF station. I think it was Hondo, which is based on a L'Amour story. Our county seat happened to be called Hondo as well...! Anyway, I remember looking over at my family, all gaping at the TV screen with big grins on their faces, and silently removing my own glasses, content to watch the movie in overlapping red-and-blue, which gave me a headache. But did I really need John Wayne's horse's nose popping out of the screen at me?)

Anyway, recent events have conspired to soften my old contempt, the primary one being my ill-considered decision to begin writing "Weird Westerns" myself. So I'd already been toying with the idea of picking up a L'Amour novel or two when I learned that L'Amour himself had written a science fiction novel set in the Four Corners area!

Haunted Mesa, which came out in 1987 and appears to have been the author's last novel, combines the parallel universe conceit with elements of modern Puebloan and ancient Mayan mythology to explicate the mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi1 from cultural centers like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Since I've taken my own stab at that sort of thing, and have driven and camped around the Four Corners region too many times to count2, I headed over to our beloved county library and checked it out.

The novel tells the story of Mike Raglan, a middle-aged professional debunker-of-mysterious-claims, who's called to a remote mesa in Navajo country by the frantic summons of his friend Erik Hokart, an eccentric but wealthy inventor. Hokart has been living on the mesa with the intent of building a house there, but the discovery of mysterious ruins, including a well-preserved kiva with a strange window, has precipitated events resulting in his disappearance. It gradually unfolds that he's held prisoner in a parallel universe, the Third World from which the ancient Anasazi emerged into our world, the Fourth World, and to which they subsequently returned. Raglan spends the first two thirds of the novel investigating the disappearance on this side of the veil, and the last third in his rescue attempt on the Other Side.

All in all, Haunted Mesa was an enjoyable novel that kept me turning the pages. Unfortunately, it has more plot holes than interdimensional portals, and more loose ends than desert jeep trails. I won't bore you with the details, but if you're someone who notices things like that, they'll jump out at you on every page. Just one example: the story begins with Raglan reading Hokart's journal, which takes him right up to the very instant Hokart was abducted from a cafe. If we pause to reflect on this, we're forced to picture Hokart leaning over the cashier's counter, writing, while shadowy forces are seizing him and firebombing the building.

Incidentally, the novel's opening chapters remind me strongly of William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. Come to think of it, the discovered journal in Borderland also ends with an absurd account of the writer's last minutes. Here's to dedicated diarists! In Haunted, though, the atmosphere of mystery and doom is quickly dissipated by a night at a resort condo.

L'Amour was a veteran writer, and I assume that issues like the ones I describe above don't represent his best work. Did he have a hard time transitioning from westerns to something set in the modern world? That can't be it. After all, he also wrote plenty of well-regarded crime stories. He died of lung cancer the very next year, so perhaps he was simply suffering from ill health. It's possible that the bulk of the book was drafted much earlier, and that he simply put together what he had to get it out there while he still could. That's just speculation, of course.

There's a lot of historical exposition, mostly consisting of the kinds of things you might have heard from a Mesa Verde park ranger circa 1987. (I camped at Mesa Verde in 1991, 2001, and 2017, and the ranger talks were different every time. Not so much in facts as in assertions and interpretations.3) These digressions are fairly repetitive and sometimes last through multiple pages. They often begin, for no discernible reason, right in the middle of the action. It struck me that a little critical editing could have made the narrative considerably tighter.

One thing I appreciate about Haunted Mesa is how conscious it is of place. Settings are described with vivid, concrete details. The plot unfolds, not against some vague southwestern backdrop, but at specific geographical locations. Actually, most of it reads like L'Amour took a trip to the area, stayed at a certain resort near Cortez, Colorado, drove (or had himself driven) up and down certain roads, and plotted his story around what he saw, which...I'm pretty sure is exactly what he did. Still, it's not a bad effect.

I took the contour map inside the back cover and (because I'm old-school like that) compared it to my folding AAA Indian Country Map, locating all the roads and landmarks mentioned in the text. Then, because I'm not an absolute luddite, I found it all on Google Earth. In case you're curious, the novel begins on a disused dirt road paralleling No Man's Mesa and passing through 37° 10' 1" N, 110° 29' 27" W; the coordinates of the haunted mesa itself are 37° 14' 30" N, 110° 31' 58" W, though I think L'Amour conflates it with the neighboring Nokai Dome when it suits him. Are all his novels that specific, I wonder? Maybe I'll find out. Or maybe not.

Without a doubt, the best part of the novel is the last third, when Raglan finally ventures into the Third World. I don't mind a bit that L'Amour took so long to get him there, because I think these things are best when nicely built up. There he teams up with a female Anasazi leader, a grizzled but genteel old cowboy trapped in the Third World for decades, and various other characters, encountering unknown technologies, a "modern" Chacoan city, a mysterious, giant-lizard-infested ruined city more ancient than Egypt or Babylon, a vast labyrinth / government palace / temple complex / library filled with traps and armed enemies, and an impending "spacequake." Pretty awesome.

So, yeah, despite the issues which a bit of good editing could have taken care of, I'm going to give Haunted Mesa a two-thumbs-up.


But hey, since we're on the topic of the Four Corners region, how about some pictures from my latest vacation??? We made a big counterclockwise loop, beginning with Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which lies at the end of thirty miles of rough washboard road.

Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon. It's famous for the its "sun dagger"
which appears to have been used by ancestral Puebloans to
mark the equinoxes and solstices. The site has shifted due to hordes of
people tramping
up there to see it, and is now closed to visitors. Another
casualty of the Cultural Uncertainty Principle.

A great kiva in the Casa Rinconada complex in Chaco Canyon. Nowadays it's
theorized that the canyon served as a kind of center for ceremony and trade.

A famous view in the Pueblo Bonito complex, the largest and most intricate
of the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon. It was inhabited for about 300 years
before being abandoned in the twelfth century.

I've read that Pueblo Bonito was carefully oriented according to the solar
cycle. You can get a better idea of the grandeur of the structure from this
aerial view.

Chaco Canyon at sunset, looking toward Pueblo Bonito from Pueblo del

A reconstructed great kiva at the incorrectly named Aztec Ruins National
Historic Site, which lies between Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. This is
something like what the ruined kiva above might have resembled.

Mesa Verde from Balcony House. Though mostly famous for its cliff dwellings,
Mesa Verde is just as remarkable for its geology. It's a giant table of rock,
tilted toward the south, with immense cliffs along its western edge, where it
towers over the desert. From its highest point you can see Shiprock in New

Cliff Palace, the most famous of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, abandoned
sometime before 1300.

Mesa Verde, looking south along Navajo Canyon.

Canyon de Chelly, which is in the Navajo Nation, in Arizona. The Navajo
still farm and herd at the bottom of the canyon, which is mostly closed
to visitors. The cliffs are sheer and tower 600 to 700 feet.

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. The canyon was home to ancestral
Puebloans before the coming of the Navajo.

El Morro, a site frequented by travelers in northwestern New Mexico since
prehistoric times. Visitors came for the water, but left records of their passage
in the form of inscriptions on the walls. The ruins of a pueblo occupy the top,
and the Ancestral Puebloans left the earliest petroglyphs.

The waters of El Morro.

The oldest Spanish inscription, left by Juan de Oñate, conquistador and first
governor of New Mexico, in 1605. He's famous mostly for his massacre of
Acoma Pueblo, in which 800 Acoma were killed, and after which all male
prisoners over the age of twenty-five were sentenced to have their right foot
cut off.
Oñate was later banished from New Mexico and exiled from Mexico
City for his use of excessive force.

Modern pueblos I've visited include Taos, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Santo Domingo, Jemez, Zuñi, and Shongopavi (on the Hopi Reservation). The first and last mentioned are among the oldest continuously inhabited dwellings in the United States. Someone I talked to on the Hopi Reservation told me that, according to their traditions, their villages existed contemporaneously with the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, and that they absorbed some of the subsequent diaspora. Their kivas are square-shaped.

1 Nowadays the term ancestral Puebloan seems preferable to Anasazi, which is a Navajo term. The "disappearance" L'Amour talks so much about, and which was mentioned quite often when I toured the area in 1991, is now typically ascribed to migration. The modern pueblos are held to be at least partially descended from the "Anasazi" cultures, an explanation that seemingly wasn't taken seriously back then, but is now.

2 Actually, it's not too many times to count. I think it's eight.

3 Listen, everyone! Tour guides are not experts! I repeat, tour guides are not experts! They are friendly people who've memorized a number of facts and know how to answer silly questions while keeping tourists from climbing over things. That applies to most park rangers!

Friday, November 10, 2017

World Fantasy Convention 2017

I attended the World Fantasy Convention last week. It was held in San Antonio, my hometown, which I still live not too far from. I didn't stay at the hotel, being too cheap/poor, but fortunately a good old friend of mine had a spare bedroom to offer in the next town over. He was out of town most of the time, but me and his house rabbit (he has a house rabbit) kept each other company.

The convention got off to a bad start for me when, like the moron I am, I saw the picture of the Lila Cockrell Theater on the web page and just assumed, without further inquiry, that the convention was thereabouts, that is, somewhere on the grounds of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. (Henry B. Gonzalez himself once visited my Cub Scout meeting once when I was a kid. When he was leaving, I shouted, "See you later, navigator!", having just seen Flight of the Navigator. Not that you wanted to know that.) Despite not having much common sense, I know downtown S.A. pretty well, and drove straight there and parked and wandered around the empty, enormous, terrifyingly silent corridors of the convention center like Keftu in the Tower of Bel before I figured out my mistake. Why do I always do stupid things like that? I hated to waste my parking fee, so I walked all the way across downtown to where the convention actually was, passing along the way the spot outside the Gunter Hotel where my grandpa had his picture taken when he ran away from home as a teenager. It was Dia de los Muertos, too. By that time I was all steamed up, because November in Texas.

I went to the convention with pretty low expectations, not because I thought the programming would be lacking (and it wasn't), but because I know people go to these things to network, and I'm not exactly good at that. However, although I expected (dreaded) something like the various conferences I've attended in academia, I was pleasantly surprised. The format was similar, sure, but the atmosphere was completely different. Constructive and collaborative rather than competitive. There were lots of writers of various stripes, both obscure people like me and Big Names, people I've rubbed elbows with on the Internet, artists and illustrators, scholars, librarians, and knowledgeable readers. Not a bad mix.

Because I'm vain, the first high point was running into Adrian Simmons in the dealers' room, and seeing the new Heroic Fantasy Quarterly anthology for sale, with two awesome illustrations by Yours Truly, including the following depiction of a naked warrior astride a giant lamprey, which I could imagine gracing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, if Michelangelo had painted naked warriors sitting astride giant lampreys.

From "The Worship of the Lord of the Estuary" by James Frederick William Rowe.
Actually, I was going for a "fannish" look when I drew this, having enjoyed pictures from some of the old fanzines I've seen floating around the Web. I also picked up a copy of Skelos #3, which has a cool story by my friend Scott Cupp, who stopped by my art show in September and encouraged me to go to the convention; he also has a story in Issue 1, a fact I'd somehow overlooked before now. Small world. The Robert E. Howard Foundation had a table, too, with copies of the good new REH biography Blood and Thunder by Mark Finn, who was also at the convention.

Panel discussions I especially enjoyed included ones about keeping Texas weird (and it is a very, very weird place, and not in the ways you might think if you only know it from afar), westerns and fantasy (which touched on many of the themes that have come up in my Tashyas stories), pulp-era influences (before now, how many times in my life have I heard someone who wasn't myself refer to A. E. van Vogt? answer: none), the writings of Lord Dunsany (with three excellent readings by professional narrators), and, best of all, the secret history of the Hyborian Age (secret from L. Sprague de Camp, that is).

Looking back on the convention, I kind of see two sort-of distinct populations. One includes people who game a little, read things like Black Gate, Skelos, and HFQ, and think Robert E. Howard is a masterful writer and aren't afraid to say it. The other, well, I won't go into detail because I don't want to seem like I'm throwing rocks. I went to panels across the spectrum, though, and I found that in some I was like, what are you people even talking about? Actually, it was kind of surprising that there were so many sessions on things I dig. Is that always the case at these?

There were also some really good art talks, the best of which was Gregory Manchess's account of his own long career in illustrating. He went into detail on technique, which I really appreciated. He's recently written and illustrated his own book, Above the Timberline. Another panel featured Manchess and a few other writer-illustrators who are experimenting with telling their own stories instead of illustrating others'. That put a few ideas in my head...

In the dealers' room I picked up an old copy of Philip K. Dick's Now Wait For Last Year. I read it a long time ago and somehow lost my copy. It's not Dick's most well-known novel but it's always stuck with me. It's got a kind of slow sad haplessness that I like, and a stomach-churningly awful marital relationship, and a flatulent dimension-spanning world dictator fighting a grudge-match against stuck-up humans from another solar system. A good book for bad times. I spent a lot of my free time reading it.

All in all I'm definitely glad I went. Let's end on a high note, with my other HFQ illustration (apologies to Gustave Dore).

From "Crown of Sorrows" by Sean Patrick Kelley

Monday, October 23, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Big Sleep, August 1946

I've been stalling in my rain-soaked, smoke-stained traipse through film noir because I've gotten to what's probably the second most well-known noir (after The Maltese Falcon, of course): The Big Sleep. In short, The Big Sleep is simply too big for me to cover. I mean, it's a Chandler adaptation, written by Leigh Brackett (!) and William Faulkner (!!), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Bogart & Bacall! So, instead of "reviewing" it, I'll just pontificate on what's struck me about the movie down through the years.

The Big Sleep was one of the first noirs I ever saw. This was long before I read the novel, which I've now read many times. Reading the book has, unfortunately, diminished my enjoyment of the movie considerably, but I'll come back to that in a moment. Back when I first saw The Big Sleep I became obsessed with it. I watched it numerous times, trying to capture something that eluded me. That something was an understanding of the plot. To put it simply, I loved the movie, but found it incomprehensible at the same time.

Now, I can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to the humans and their motivations, but I've come gradually to realize that my lack of comprehension wasn't altogether my fault. This is for two related reasons:
  1. The Big Sleep speaks in what we might call "Hays code," a language I didn't understand at the time.
  2. The Big Sleep does not, in fact, make a great deal of sense.
Let's look at each in turn.

I remember reading the description of The Big Sleep on the back of the box before watching it for the first time. Pornographers were mentioned. Pornographers! Imagine my disappointment when I got to the Bogie-and-Bacall cigarettes smoldering in their shared ashtray at the end with nary a hint of these sleazy, soulless pornographers having passed before my eyes. I watched and rewatched the movie. I even asked third parties. Nothing. In the end (I'm embarrassed to admit this now) I concluded that the "pornographers" were just a figment of marketing hyperbole.

And then I read the novel, and I was like, O-o-o-o-oh.

But listen. I grew up in the eighties and nineties. If a director wanted to show us something, they showed it. None of this implicit stuff. But so much that goes on in noir isn't stated explicitly. It has to be inferred. I can think of a reference to abortion in They Live by Night, for instance, or to make-up sex in Criss Cross. In a way, movies these days, with all their box-checking and point-counting for MPAA ratings, might go far beyond Hays code films in isolated F-bombs and nipples, but never come near the alienation, the raw cynicism, and the savage moralism of film noir.

All that said, The Big Sleep leaves so much to inference that the plot suffers. Carmen Sternwood, instead of being stark naked when Geiger is killed, is fully clothed, as she is when Marlowe finds her in his apartment. If the games Geiger plays with Carmen amount to taking pictures with a weird Buddha head while she's high on laudanum, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. There's the whole play with the books, of course, but so much is removed from the narrative that there's hardly even a hint left. (Though perhaps a part of the problem is that I've grown up in an era when porn is a lot easier to come by.)

A few other plot elements that get washed out for one reason or another include Carol Lundgren's characterization as Geiger's young male lover, the transformation of the novel's Vivian Regan (the wife of the man whose murder Marlowe is unwittingly investigating) into the Vivian Rutledge of the movie, and Carmen's almost terrifying depravity.

The film's incoherence doesn't end with all that, however. The dialogue goes in circles from scene to scene. Clues mysteriously appear and disappear. For instance, in one scene, Vivian brings up Eddie Mars voluntarily, telling Marlowe that Shawn Regan ran off with Mars's wife. Later, during that famous horse-race sexytalk scene (which is delightful), Marlowe asks Vivian whether she knows that Shawn Regan ran off with Eddie Mars's wife. "Who doesn't?" she nervously replies, apparently forgetting that she's the one who told him.

Immediately after that conversation ends, Marlowe telephones Mars from the restaurant and makes plans to meet him at his gambling house. Mars tells him to come on up at once, and he does. When he arrrives, he finds that Vivian has somehow beaten him there, despite (apparently) having stopped somewhere to change into a completely new outfit, and is now ensconced with the band as though she's been there all night. (It's a little sad that the gambling house is everything Chandler mocks in Hollywood gambling houses.) And then he goes and talks to Mars and starts making perceptive guesses about...Mrs. Mars and Shawn Regan! After which a scene is staged to convince Marlowe that Mars and Vivian have no connection, although she's the one who told him about the "bond between Eddie Mars and the Sternwoods" in the first place!

To be fair, the horse-race scene, and, to some extent, the resulting incoherence, is the result of a re-shoot aimed at emphasizing the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. And some confusion comes straight from a plot hole in Chandler's novel. But I think that what really mixes the movie up is the fact that someone, somewhere, decided that Vivian Regan Rutledge had to be the damsel in distress, whereas the novel makes it clear that Carmen is the princess who must be rescued – Carmen, the vicious, unintelligent little-girl-in-a-woman's-body who poses for high-class smut and pulls the wings off of flies. In contriving to have Vivian become central to the plot, the script is forced to minimize Carmen's role and have Vivian continually pop up where she doesn't belong. I mean, why on earth would she be hanging out at a hot car drop with Mona Mars?

Obligatory Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid reference. Carl Reiner gets it.
So the displacement of Carmen spoils the plot's dark irony and violates Chandler's maxim that the private investigator loses his integrity by settling down with a love interest. Somehow, though, the ending remains undeniably cool, comparable in a way to the dynamic and uncertain ending of Blade Runner (in the director's and "final" cuts, of course).

* * *

I give The Big Sleep 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
Yes, it's nonsensical, which just goes to show you that movies don't have to make sense to be awesome. High points include pretty much every moment of dialogue, but perhaps especially the hothouse scene, the horse-race sexytalk scene, and the tough-guy scene with Elisha Cook, Jr., plus the two cigarettes at the end.

Takeaway quote from The Big Sleep:

"Get up, angel, you look like a Pekingese."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost WeekendGilda and The Lady from ShanghaiThe Stranger ***

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

The original Blade Runner is what first got me into film noir. It evokes noir's guilty heart where other attempts at "future noir" only get the trappings right. Rick Deckard isn't what you'd call a hero: compelled by self-interest, he's hunting down escaped replicant-slaves whose only crime (so far as he's concerned) is their presence on earth. Though he tries to hide it from himself, he's fully conscious of their humanity and fear as he blows them away, as in that slow, sad scene where he shoots a terrified female replicant in the back as she flees into a department store. It's Roy who "earns" his soul at the end, who, with his crucified hand, saves Deckard's life and possibly his soul; we're never quite sure whether Deckard is even really human.

Blade Runner also has a poignant but seriously messed-up love affair, another noir element ratcheted up almost to the intensity of myth. The vast dark urban abysses (reminiscent of night scenes in Phantom Lady and others) and mountainous decayed buildings (like the Bradbury, where the classic noir D.O.A. also ends) meld seamlessly with the iconic score and the plot's moral grayness and lack of resolution.

And, as with noir, I've somehow also found Blade Runner a solace when going through bad times. I can remember one period in my life when I watched it once or twice a week. I think a lot of people would say something similar. And there's not all that much to the plot. It's more of an immersive audiovisual mood experience than a movie. So there's probably a lot of other people who think it's okay but kind of dull. They're mystified by people like me, to whom it means so much.

All of which is to say, Blade Runner 2049 has a lot to live up to. Well, I went and saw it at the $4.00 matinee this weekend, and I...think it kind of succeeds. For me, at any rate. Not quite, of course. How could it? But it continues the story, adds to the background, and deepens the world without doing any violence to the thrust of the original, all while maintaining its own narrative independence.

I have to say, I went into it with pretty low expectations. I've been less than impressed with Ridley Scott's attempts to rekindle the Alien magic, and as for Harrison Ford's reprising the roles that made him famous, well, um, yeah, same thing. So I'm very excited that Blade Runner 2049 proved so much better than I'd expected.

I don't want to say too much, because it's got a good plot with plenty to spoil. But I will say that it's another true noir, with a written-off protagonist, a bizarre love story, and an ambiguous ending. What we see of Deckard (not much, thankfully) does little to explain or humanize him. Like the original, it's elliptical and rather sad. The city is the same, down to the now-retro-futuristic Atari signs. The texture is as rich, too, though perhaps a bit contrived in places, and not quite as authentic feeling. We get to see the world outside L.A., including a protein farm and a humongous waste dump, and it's a beautifully unlovely place. The CGI is some of the best I've seen, though, for me, nothing could ever quite equal the practical effects of the original.

There are some interesting allusions. The protagonist, a replicant Blade Runner, is called K, seemingly a reference to Kafka's bewildered protagonists. One of the short "prequel" films that came out in advance (Blade Runner 2048: Nowhere to Run) centers on a copy of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, a novel about a hunted priest – a broken "whisky" priest – in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. The parallel is obvious, and, given the film's preoccupation with the nature of the soul, fitting. Other religious and mythological allusions abound.

In the end, I think it's movie that I'll have to rewatch once or twice to decide what to make of it, but it's passed the first test so far.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Warbles and Bots: Out of the Hive


What happens to humanity when it "adjusts" to hive living? 

Some writers write to earn a living. Others write because they've got to get something out of their system. When it comes to science fiction, I've learned to be leery of successful commercial writers. Not because they're bad, necessarily, but because I'm almost sure to be bored by them. My favorite authors tend to be the ones who wrote themselves out fairly quickly, expending their visions in an explosive spurt, leaving behind rich mines for more conventional writers to exploit. Their work might be naive or outre, but to me that's just part of their charm.

It was a different time. A time when sci-fi
still brought terror, wonder, and arresting
strangeness to the reader. A time when a
publishing company could proudly decorate
its books with Magritte-esque parades of

schlubby naked nebishes, and people would,
apparently, still buy them.
I'd say that Thomas J. Bassler, M.D., who wrote under the pen name T. J. Bass, sits squarely in that category. I was recently reminded of his work by Fletcher Vredenburgh's review of Half Past Human over at Black Gate. I'd never that novel before, but I had enjoyed The Godwhale a long time ago.

Bass's career spanned only six years, lasting from 1968, when he sold his first story, until 1974, when The Godwhale was published. He wrote only the two novels I've mentioned. Both take place in a far-future earth in which the vast majority of humankind's teeming trillions live in a global subterranean society called the Hive. I can't really compete with Fletcher's review, which I think captures the spirit of the books perfectly, and I urge the reader to go take a look at that if interested. Instead, as usual, I'll just natter on about what strikes me about them.

Part of what makes Bass unique / bizarre is his habit of describing everything, from sex to warfare, in medical terms.
When he flashed his helmet light down, vertigo gripped his cardio-esophageal junction. (Half Past Human, p. 96)
Perhaps this is just a reflection of his day job, but it has the effect of making his characters seem like rats in a gigantic, not-very-ethical experiment. Overall, Bass writes with the air of a physician conducting the examination of a patient, gently squeezing pustules and prodding necrotic tissues with a cool detachment. His outlook isn't grim or moralistic, and the weird, disgusting scenes he describes are often quietly amusing as well. In general, Bass isn't so much sounding an alarm as saying, more or less cheerfully, "Hey! Let's see what happens if we extrapolate this trend in our society!" Which, in a way, ends up being much more disturbing than the hysteria of other entries in eco-science fiction.

It's hard to select a favorite passage. Many stand out in one way or another. So let's just look at the scene quoted above, in which a Hive inhabitant goes "ratting" in the dark, dusty world of 'tween walls, hoping to score some extra "flavored calories."
He dust-waded along the top of a large pipe. It was hollow. Voices and and shuffling vibrated. It was a crawlway. The larger rats became more numerous – and bolder. They remained stubbornly in his path until he nudged them with his toe. They wouldn't be too tasty. The sweet stink of the nests hit him. Moist and dripping, the huge cool sphere of the membrane filters loomed ahead. The city's sweat condensed and trickled down the sphere's outer sphere – providing drops of drinking water for the rodents. [...]
Selecting a large nest he thrust in his hand. Expecting mother-with-food, the soft young rats swarmed onto the glove. He pulled out three handfulls and squeezed them through the sphincter of the anoxic bag. Their squirming and squeaking ceased. (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The hunter goes on to have his catch pressed into moist wafers. He shares them with a friend, who savors "the salty fluids, tangy viscera, and iron-rich muscle and blood" (HPH, p. 99). They go on to discuss his friend's devotion to Dabbing ("'Dirt, adobe, and bamboo – DAB'"), a stress-reducing quasi-religious practice.
"The most important thing [...] DAB protects you from is suicide. That is the number one killer. Inappropriate Activity – old I.A. Without DAB your ectodermal debris sensitizes you. All your skin scales, hair and skin oils get into the house dust and feed the mite, Dermatophagoides. The mite acquires ectodermal protein antigens. As you live with the mite and breath [sic] in dust – mite fragments – you build up antibodies against them. Antibodies against your own ectodermal antigens. When the titre gets high enough the antibody cross reacts with your own neuroectoderm – your brain. Hence the logarithmic correlation between crowding and I.A. Between house dust sensitivity and suicide. Humans who nest with rugs, drapes and stuffed furniture have the highest suicide rate. Humans who live with dirt, adobe and bamboo the lowest." (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The "erotic" scenes retain a certain tenderness, despite being described in the same oddly technical terms.
"I am going to enjoy living with a man who is good with his hands," she said. Taking his wrists she moved his trembling hands over her tunic. Her soft erogenous zones radiated warmly. His autonomic synapses struggled with the increasing excitement. Passion flared somewhat erratically, and then, abruptly, faded. While he stood there, the heat in his loins faded away – leaving fatigue. [...]
"You have just recently polarized," she consoled. "Your meld reflexes need time to synchronize. We will work on it, and it will improve." (Half Past Human, p. 18)
Half Past Human takes place in and above the Hive's vast subterranean network of shafts, tubes, and cubicles, following the intersecting lives of large class of characters: artificially prepubescent nebishes, polarized males and females, paleolithic warriors and wizards, ageless wanderers, earnest mecks, and, of course, G.I.T.A.R. and Olga. The Godwhale, on the other hand, takes place mostly in the ocean. The main character, if it has one, is Rorqual Maru, a lone cyborg whale-ship plankton harvester bent on aiding humanity.

But the story begins much earlier in time, following the adventures of the hapless hemihuman Larry Dever, who starts his career by getting cut in half in a singularly stupid accident. Thanks to medical advances, he doesn't die, but his quality of life isn't what it was.
Larry turned on his refresher and grasped a ceiling rung of his horizontal ladder. The mannequin walked away slowly, pulling flexible tubing out of his various surgical stoma. Sucking  sounds. Drops of urine and feces soiled the meck's breastplates with yellow and granular brown. Larry progressed across the monkey bars to the hot shower, where he emptied his visceral sacs down the drain. (The Godwhale, p. 23)
Life isn't so pleasant for Larry without his lower half, despite his talking prosthesis.
"This is great! It feels like I am really running. It's the lactate you're putting in my Blood Scrubber. Now if you can just give me back my sex life."
Mannequin shared and updated with distant Library. "That too can be arranged; a mechanical penis for me and midbrain electrodes for you. Meck sex can be pleasant with a wired reticular system."
Larry grinned, assuming that he was the object of a very funny robot joke. (The Godwhale, p. 16)
Larry eventually enters suspended animation, hoping for a future "cure" that doesn't involve raising and harvesting a clone of himself. He awakens instead in the decidedly unpleasant world of the Hive. He escapes, coming into contact with Rorqual Maru, a spunky little meck named Trilobite, and a race of humans adapted to life underwater, teaming up with his latter-day genetic progeny: a gargoyle Tweenwaller named Big Har, and a bio-engineered superman known as A.R.N.O.L.D. (Augmented Renal Nucleus Of Larry Dever) who becomes King of the ocean and sometimes thinks of himself as a chicken.
"BACK OFF!!" shouted ARNOLD, riled to the point of hearing "cluck, cluck" in his subconscious. (The Godwhale, p. 167)
I read The Godwhale back when I was in college. Then I went to grad school and purged my shelves of such oddities. But now it's back. Rereading it has been a bit strange, because I'm realizing that I must have internalized more of it than I'd thought. Taken together, Half Past Human and The Godwhale amount to the most bizarre, disgusting, wonderful stuff I've read in quite a while.
A hundred miles up-sump the sewer conduits sang with pneumatic belches of dead city gases: incoles, skatoles, methane, ozone, and carbon monoxide. [...] 
Their mold-flecked dinghy drifted sideways, its bow wedged into a raft of nondescript, floating debris. Hemihuman Larry hunkered down, swatting flies. The blackness and echoes told them nothing. Their progress was marked by aerial mycelia which swept across the boat's wet ribs and snagged in their hair. Persistent swarms of sucking botflies hovered over them. Their throbbing backs sponged-out with bots and warbles – the cutaneous abscesses that contained the vigorous fly larvae. 
"The damned itching is getting worse," complained Larry. "A new crop must be maturing." He wiped his hand across his scaly, lumpy back, breaking open pus pockets and catching the wriggling, bristly maggots as they emerged. "Damn!" He rubbed at the pasty crusts of pupa cases, wings, legs, and dermal scales. (The Godwhale, p. 78)
They're both a bit hard to follow, partly because they bristle (sorry, bad word choice) with technical terms, but partly also because the action jumps around a lot, leaping across years in fits and starts, hopping from character to character without any kind of clear direction. But, that comes with the territory. And they certainly don't shy away from questions of human sexuality, bioethics, philosophy, and religion, posing quandaries without providing solutions. What is humanity? What is the individual's meaning and worth? You could say that the books are a prolonged and poignant evocation of the anxiety of anonymous, post-religious Man and the terrifying, faceless masses that surround him.

The little I can find about T. J. Bass himself raises more questions than it answers. Who was he, really? What was he trying to do with these novels? Did he accomplish it? How did his writing fit in with the rest of his life? He died in 2011, having written nothing else but a diet and exercise book, and that was in 1979. That's a long time ago! Did he try and fail to get published again? Or did he just move on with his life? For that matter, can you imagine a scientist, mathematician, engineer, or physician in our own time, with little or no experience in fiction, penning an eccentric novel laden with precise technical knowledge and actually getting it published? Such a thing would be relegated to an online discussion board somewhere, to be skimmed by a few people and then forgotten.

Times have changed.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Death, Destroyer of Worlds"...Reviewed!

My most recent story, "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," or IABDDOW for short, was favorably reviewed by Fletcher Vredenburgh over at Black Gate last week!
As can be expected from an Ordoñez story, what follows is a fusion of swords & sorcery, poetry, and mad visions. His version of the Southwest, a collision of the mythical, historical, and invented, is equally forbidding and enchanting. He is one of the truly original voices writing fantasy today, and I’m glad HFQ has provided a berth for these stories.
Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews fame also gave it favorable mention.
[Carvajal] is an outsider, which means that he is an invader himself. I like how the story faces that, regardless of how benign he might seem, any foreign intrusion into these lands changes them... The action is intense, the tone a mix of horror, fantasy, and humor, and the ending a bit muted and gray. Things change, but that doesn’t mean that everything is destroyed. Another great read!
Both reviewers mention a very special Easter egg contained in this issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, which I think is more fun to discover for yourself. Mr. Vredenburgh is elliptical, but you should wait to read Mr. Payseur's review if you want to enjoy the full effects of your resultant nerd-out.

Please make sure also to check out the other HFQ offerings this month, including Evan Dicken's "Between Sea and Flame," a sequel to his Central American tale "Mouth of the Jaguar." Obviously I'm not the first one who decided that What the World Needs Now is Pre-Columbian / Mesoamerican / Spanish American sword-and-sorcery, and that's not a bad thing! Other delights in the issue include "Rakefire" by Jason Carney and three cool poems.

I'd also like to point out an excellent Black Gate interview with Scott Andrews, editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which has published many of my stories. I've been working with HFQ on my Carvajal stories because I've gotten the impression that it's everyone's favorite go-to for the old-school S&S you feel kind of guilty for reading, but BCS is, I think, unique and irreplaceable, and it's interesting to learn about what goes on behind the scenes, both practically and philosophically.

And while you're at it, don't forget this interview with Adrian Simmons and David Farney of HFQ.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Arts and Crafts in Four Dimensions

She returned the smile, then looked across the room to her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and to their father, who were deep in concentration, bent over the model they were building of a tesseract: the square squared, and squared again: a construction of the dimension of time. It was a beautiful and complicated creation of steel wires and ball bearings and Lucite, parts of it revolving, parts of it swinging like pendulums.*
Madeleine L'Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet
I wrote a couple of months ago about four-dimensional geometry. Today I'd like to continue our progress through transdimensional gulfs and sinister alien geometries by discussing the 120-cell in some detail, and also describing the workflow I used to print the three-dimensional sections and net shown below.

As usual when trying to understand the fourth dimension, it's easiest to proceed by way of analogy with lower dimensions. Imagine a two-dimensional creature, like A. Square of Flatland, existing in a planar universe. Such a creature would have an essentially one-dimensional field of vision, much as our field of vision is essentially two-dimensional (like a painting or a television screen). How would we describe a dodecahedron, that is, a polyhedron formed from twelve regular pentagons, to such a creature?

(Click to read more; I've got a lot going on in this post.)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds" at HFQ

My most recent Tashyas story, "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," is live at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. You might call it a story version of my New Mexico musings. It features an illustration by yours truly (profuse apologies to Georgia O'Keeffe):

Though I've continued to work on the third installment of my Enoch books, I've felt it necessary to slow down and step back a bit so that I can see the lie of the land with fresh eyes. Hence my excursion into sixteenth-century Tashyas, a region broadly defined as the land between the Rio Grande and the southern Mississippi. This most recent story takes place among the pueblos near modern-day Santa Fe.

There's been a lot of talk lately about cultural appropriation. I guess these stories are my contribution to the debate / exacerbation of the problem. I can understand why a people would object to seeing part of their culture crassly replicated and accessorized, even in a well-meaning way. Then again, maybe not everything labeled as cultural appropriation actually does that. The world is a strange, confusing, and sometimes horrible place. We're all in it for a limited amount of time. We have to get through it as best we can, using whatever tools come to hand.

The Greek part of my family immigrated to America through Ellis Island. My great-grandfather, a baker from Mykonos, continued to ply his trade in Illinois. I'm told that the sourdough culture he brought with him still thrives in a bakery owned by some relatives. Families tell you lots of things like that. Maybe it isn't true. It would be cool if it were. Seems like a good metaphor, at any rate. I'll leave it as an exercise to draw the application.

(My mother's cousin also tells me that Mary Robeson, a.k.a. "Moldy Mary," acquired the moldy cantaloupe from which researchers cultivated the first strain of penicillin for mass production at a grocery owned by another branch of the family in Peoria. There's a bad pun here somewhere, but I'm not going to make it.)

Being one of my well-rounded readers, you know about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Basically, what you can know about a particle's motion is inversely proportional to what you can know about its position. There's no way to observe a system without altering the system. And the smaller the system is, the more true this is.

I went camping in New Mexico and Arizona a while back. As usual, I visited a few pueblos, mostly looking to buy pottery. At one point I spent an hour talking to a shop owner on Second Mesa in Hopi. His wife sold my boy an arrowhead and a leather pouch (at a discount, because he's an ingenuous kid) and filled it with blessed cornmeal. I bought a kachina doll. It's in my living room now. Maybe it's just the way our floorboards bounce, but the doll always mysteriously rotates to face the northwest, no matter how many times we put it back in its original position...

The Hopi pueblos have been inhabited for a thousand years. They were too far out of the way to be troubled by explorers and missionaries much, and their culture shows fewer marks of outside influence. The people seem friendly but reserved, and not too keen on strangers poking around. Not the kind of place you take pictures.

It's the Cultural Uncertainty Principle. You can't observe a system without perturbing it. They're well aware of that fact. So by what right do I go there? By no right, maybe. I try to be respectful. I contribute to the economy. But perhaps it would be better to just mind my own business. I'm writing this because I don't know the answer. Probably I'll just keep doing what I've been doing.

If you were to look back in my own family tree, you'd find Bohemian farmers, Greek islanders, Berbers from the Canaries, Spanish colonists in Puerto Rico, West African slaves, and Taino Indians. I'm descended from both conquerors and conquered. Should I be apologetic, or resentful? Clearly it would be silly for me to be either.

So, I guess I'll just try to lighten the burden of living, for myself and hopefully for others as well, by writing a few more Carvajal stories with blithe unconcern.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Stranger, July 1946

Our last noir review took in a 1947 Orson Welles film; moving back in time, let's look at his lesser-known movie The Stranger.

Welles himself plays the villainous main character, Franz Kindler, a clockwork-obsessed high-ranking Nazi fugitive who has somehow already gotten himself a job as a prep school teacher (alias Charles Rankin) in one of those irritatingly picturesque New England towns you see in movies. What's more, he's engaged to be married to the daughter of a Supreme Court justice! Their wedding takes place in the first few minutes of the movie, right after he murders his former right-hand man Meinike and buries his body in the woods.

Edward G. Robinson plays the investigator who tails Meinike into town, hoping the little fish will lead him to a bigger fish. Loretta Young plays the wife who gradually discovers that she's married to a monster.

The plot is fairly suspenseful. For someone like me, though, who enjoys noirs for their skewed morality, there's not a lot going on here. The villain is indubitably wicked and portrayed without an ounce of sympathy. He's not even interesting. The investigator is a stolid, righteous man bent on bringing an evildoer to justice. The wife is good and kind, and carefully absolved of psychological collusion. Her deadly coolness at the end does a lot to redeem the movie. For the most part, though, it's unworthy of its director.

Still, The Stranger does have some nice touches. The garrulous checkers-playing drugstore owner (Billy House) steals every scene he's in, even when he shares it with Edward G. Robinson. A couple of scenes move fluidly from the street into the drugstore, and there are some other subtle long takes.

Apart from a bizarre, impassioned anti-German speech intended to throw the investigator off the scent, Kindler's ideology doesn't play a big role – he could have been any kind of criminal, really – but the film does make use of some actual death camp footage, which is a bit shocking even at this distance and must have been much more so at the time. Now that's moral grayness for you: using one of the greatest atrocities the world has ever known as fodder for a trite thriller not two years after Auschwitz closed.

Nietzsche isn't mentioned by name, but I suspect that Welles tried to make his character resemble the famous photo portrait of the philosopher.

Nietzsche has been widely blamed (somewhat unjustly, I believe) for having inspired the Nazis. He adulated Frederick the Great, as the Nazis also did, and Kindler is shown delivering a lecture on Frederick to his prep school students.

The Stranger is in the public domain; you can watch it here.

* * *

I give The Stranger a grade of C for commonplace 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
It's not a bad movie, but it's more of a Hitchcock-style thriller than a true noir. Film noir is about good, ordinary, decent people being guilty, not about evil monsters being guilty. High points in The Stranger include the strangulation scene, the drugstore checkers games, and the clock tower confrontation.

Takeaway quote from The Stranger:

"Good night, Mary. Pleasant dreams."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost WeekendGilda and The Lady from Shanghai ***

Monday, July 31, 2017

Noir Reviews: Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai

The first was released in February 1946; the second, in December 1947 (France) and June 1948 (United States). Both star the unbearably sexy Rita Hayworth with a singing voice dubbed by Anita Kert Ellis. Both take place at least partly in exotic locales. In each, a rich and powerful but impotent older man hires a virile younger man to watch over his seductive younger wife, leading to trouble of the femme fatale variety. I'm therefore going to take the liberty of reviewing them together. A little compare-and-contrast.

In Gilda, Glenn Ford plays small-time gambler Johnny Farrell, who uses cleverness, knavery, and machismo to become the right-hand-man of swordstick-toting Buenos Aires nightclub owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Mundson likes to talk about his "little friend" (the swordstick):
Mundson: It is a most faithful and obedient friend: it is silent when I want it to be silent, but talks when I want to talk.
Johnny: Is it that your idea of a friend?
Mundson: That is my idea of a friend.
Johnny: You must lead a gay life.
There's a their relationship. How intentional it is I don't know. But it's definitely there.

Before long, though, Mundson acquires a trophy wife, a nightclub performer named Gilda (Hayworth) with whom Johnny happens already to be acquainted. Hayworth's kittenish head-toss must be one of the most memorable entrances in movie history. When I first saw Gilda, I racked my brain to remember where I'd seen it before, and then it came to me: it's the shot used in The Shawshank Redemption, which is a movie a lot of people like and I hate.

Johnny and Gilda very clearly still love one another, but it's a sick kind of love that expresses itself in hate. They're obsessed with punishing and destroying each other. There are some rather improbable happenings involving tungsten mines and plane crashes. I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say [spoiler alert!] that the movie stabs the viewer in the back by letting the principals off with a sentimental happy ending when they clearly should have killed each other or something. Hey! Didn't someone tell me this was a film noir?

Now, if the plot of Gilda is improbable, then the plot of The Lady from Shanghai is utterly bonkers. This seems to be at least partly an editing issue. It was directed by Orson Welles, who ran into the production problems that plagued his entire career. What we have of The Lady from Shanghai is magnificent, if bizarre and nonsensical; I don't suppose we'll ever know what it might have been.

The sturdy young man, Michael O'Hara, is played by Welles himself. He's hired by a disabled defense attorney named Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) to serve aboard his yacht and keep his wife Elsa (Hayworth) company as they sail from New York to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. Bannister's weird, slightly unhinged partner Grisby comes aboard partway through the journey.

Michael finds himself increasingly entangled in the Bannisters' depraved, world-weary emotional intrigues. An atmosphere of fever, madness, and apocalyptic gloom hangs over it all. Even apart from Grisby's ravings, there's an overarching sense that things are coming apart, that the world is ceasing to cohere. Soon bombs are going to start falling; already men are feeding on men. At a grim picnic on a torrid tropical beach Michael observes:
Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts to to eating each other.In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse...until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.
That monologue, incidentally, appears to be based on a chapter of Moby-Dick, a book that fascinated Welles throughout his career; he later explored it with a play, and himself played Father Mapple in John Huston's film.

What a beautiful, unsettling movie The Lady from Shanghai is. True, I've never been able to make head or tail of the murder plot. Who was supposed to shoot whom and why? Who was fooled and by whom and for what purpose? I'm still not certain. Maybe the film was just cut too deeply in the editing process. On the other hand, it does end in a surreal empty funhouse, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for the movie as a whole. It's crazy, so you just have to surrender yourself to it and gaze at what you see in wonder.

So, if you want a decent, reliable movie with a happy ending, watch Gilda; if you want the deeply flawed yet enigmatically beautiful work of a genius, watch The Lady from Shanghai.

Wait, what's that? You just want to look at Rita Hayworth for an hour or so? Well, my lowbrow friend, if you want to see the long red hair she's famous for, watch Gilda. If you settle for The Lady from Shanghai, be prepared to see her locks cut short and bleached blonde. Welles and Hayworth were going through a divorce at the time.

Me? I'll take The Lady from Shanghai on both counts.

* * *

I give Gilda a grade of C for commonplace and The Lady from Shanghai 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 Gilda include Hayworth's entrance and her "Put the Blame on Mame" performance (which is dubbed over, though she sings it on her own later in the movie). High points in The Lady from Shanghai include the dreary tropical picnic, the hall of mirrors shoot-out, and every time Grisby says "tarrrrrr-get practice."

Takeaway quote from Gilda:

"Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven't you noticed?"

From The Lady from Shanghai:

"It's a bright, guilty world."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost Weekend ***

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Two Deicides and a Church

My latest painting, El Santuario de Chimayó, a 5" x 4" watercolor, depicts a church located in the western foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe. It's a curious site with possible links to Precolumbian religion; I wrote about it last year.

Amusingly, I happened to listen to H. P. Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark" as I finished it. It'll appear in my exhibition on the university campus in Alpine during August and September. I'm trying to do a number of small, fairly spontaneous pieces to round out the show. The scan is not terribly faithful, unfortunately; I think I need a new scanner.

I've also continued to attempt pen-and-ink illustration. Here we have an illustration to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Coming of the White Worm," which forms part of his Hyperborea cycle:

Of course this depicts the moment Evagh the warlock plunges his bronze sword into the unclean worm, releasing "a sudden torrent of black liquescent matter" which ends his life and melts the iceberg wherein the worm resides. Note the heaps of eyeballs, which drip from the worm's empty sockets to form "two masses like stalagmites, purple and dark as frozen gore," upon the ice-floor.

Finally, an image from what may be my very favorite Klarkash-Ton tale: "The Demon of the Flower."

Here Lunithi the priest-king attempts to end the Voorqual's tyranny with a poisoned blood-offering. I've been working on a digitally-colored version, and will post it here if I ever have the patience to finish.

You know, it hadn't occurred to me before now, but the two illustrations have a common theme, don't they? Both depict attempted assassinations of weird Klarkash-Tonian gods.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Vulcan's Glory and Other Relics

When I was nine or ten, the local UHF station showed Star Trek every night at 6:00. I never missed it. Willingly, that is, as dinner often interfered.

My two best friends and I sometimes assumed Star Trek roles while playing together. Our parts were permanently assigned: they were Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy, respectively, and I was Mr. Spock. We had a cloaked starship in a corner of the schoolyard, a la Star Trek IV, and amused ourselves by telling incredulous fellow students about it.

When we exchanged gifts at the great Christmas sleepover of 1989, one of my friends gave me several Star Trek novels, which in those days could be acquired via the rotating rack in our small-town grocery store. Stop a moment and reflect on that. In 1989, you could walk into a tiny Super S Foods in rural South Texas and buy a stack of novels based on the series canceled in 1969. Hard to imagine, isn't it?

But I digress. The Christmas gift included Vulcan's Glory by D. C. Fontana, one of the best writers of the original series. I still have it in my possession, a bit tattered from riding around in my backpack for weeks, perhaps, but intact nonetheless.

I reread Vulcan's Glory this week, having gotten it out to show my kids. That's a scan of my copy above. We had just watched "Amok Time" and "Journey to Babel," two of my favorite episodes; Vulcan's Glory is in some ways a prequel to both.

The book isn't what you'd call high literature or original science fiction, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. It takes place during Christopher Pike's tenure as captain of the Enterprise and fills in some of Spock's backstory. Fontana is credited as the writer for "Journey to Babel" and numerous other episodes, and contributed to many more; she seems responsible for much of the subtlety of character and cultural depth in the original series, especially in Mr. Spock, for whom she appears to have harbored considerable affection.

I've always been drawn to Spock. He's supremely logical but also deeply contemplative, and his character makes clear how naturally the two qualities go together. He's straightforward to the point of awkwardness, sternly self-disciplined, reserved but full of deep feeling, capable of love and self-sacrifice, and, despite his Vulcan gravity, possessed of a dry sense of humor. He's a person of mixed race species, accepted neither on Vulcan nor among humans, at home only in Starfleet. Though acutely conscious of propriety and tradition, he rebelled against his father by joining Starfleet, yet deliberately pushes himself to be more Vulcan than full-blooded Vulcans. In a way, Spock is Star Trek. And we owe him largely to Dorothy Christine Fontana.

The trouble with reading a Star Trek novel is that the narrative liberties and cost-saving shortcuts taken by a fifty-minute show become glaringly obvious in a long written work. It's a little odd, for instance, to encounter a carefully written, meditative novel premised on the ludicrous notion that persons of different species, from different planets, could have a child together. They don't even have the same anatomy, for crying out loud! And then there's teleportation. The plot hinges on a lost Vulcan relic which is discovered on a desert planet and taken aboard the Enterprise. Maybe this is just the Catholic in me talking, but I suspect that a real Vulcan would find the the notion of "beaming up" a relic deeply repugnant. It would disrupt the object's physical continuity, which is what makes a relic a relic in the first place. And that only makes me start thinking uncomfortable thoughts about the philosophical implications of teleporting persons.

Fortunately I read the book in about three sittings, so these misgivings didn't have time to lessen my joy.


Part of what sparked our renewed interest in things Star Trek was our visit several weeks ago to the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, where we whiled away the afternoon after White Sands got too hot. They had a lot of model rockets and whatnot, and that was all great, I guess, but what really delighted us was their collection of Star Trek memorabilia.

Here, for example, we have the spears used in "The Galileo Seven":

And here's the original letter from producer Robert H. Justman regarding the donation:

Next we have what appears to be Donald Trump's hairpiece:

But guess again! It's a tribble!!!

They also had the model of the Enterprise used in "Catspaw":

Not something I'd go out of my way for, I think, but it was fun to see some (unbeamed) relics in such an unexpected place. I'm also happy to report that my horde of brainwashed Trekkies whom I shall one day release upon the unsuspecting world beloved children recognized most of the episodes on display.


Among my old books I also found The Three-Minute Universe, another Christmas gift. It was my very favorite thing to read for a while, as you can tell from the tattered quality of my copy to the right. I used to have more original series books bought with my own money, but I suppose I just kept these two for sentimental value and discarded the rest long ago.

My buddy also gave me a Next Generation novel, but I naturally got rid of that thing long ago. Ugh! I just never did hold with that upstart series. My other buddy now speaks highly of Deep Space 9. Back when it came out I found it profoundly boring, but maybe I'd enjoy it now.

Anyway, I'll probably try reading The Three-Minute Universe again sometime soon. I look forward to the pleasurable mix of guilt and enjoyment.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Lost Weekend, November 1945

Billy Wilder, the director responsible for three of the best noirs (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole), claimed that he made The Lost Weekend in order to explain Raymond Chandler to himself. Portraying the anatomy of an alcoholic's binge in excruciating psychological detail, it's regarded as one of the best depictions of addiction in film.

Ray Milland plays a washed-up writer named Don Birnam who, despite the best efforts of his long-suffering brother and girlfriend, remains a hopeless, self-loathing drunk. The film follows him over the course of the titular weekend, from the ebullience of his first drinks down through an inferno of desperation and humiliation to the uttermost nadir, the horror of delerium tremens. His backstory is told in flashbacks, portraying him, not as a promising writer who fell prey to alcohol, but as a precocious hack who turned to booze as a crutch for his inadequacies. He's painfully honest with himself about who he is, roasting perpetually in shame and self-hatred.
Don't wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning.
Playing the faithful girlfriend Helen St. James, is Jane Wyman, who went on to become Ronald Reagan's first wife. (Did you remember that he was divorced?) Don treats her like dirt, of course, and her almost maniacally bright and hopeful face as she forcefully cares for him and forgives him again and again almost gives me the creeps. Am I just a cynic, or is this intentional? You almost want to take her by the shoulders and shout, "What are you thinking? Get out while you still can!"

More to my warped taste is Gloria, a barfly and "escort" who has a liking for Don. She's a relatively minor character, but I like the way she's drawn. The half-fascinated, half-disgusted bartender Nat is another nice touch. The two actors (Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva) also appeared in The Blue Dahlia.

The film ends [spoiler alert!] on a hopeful note that I find a bit jarring. Don's binge is portrayed as just the latest in a series, but it resolves itself with the promise of a new beginning. In fact, Don appears to have been "cured" by Helen (who never finds out about his dalliance with Gloria, fortunately). He plans triumphantly to tell his inspirational story in print and thus become a true writer at last. The thing is, I don't think it's ever as easy as that.

Maybe Wilder intends us to imagine this happy ending as just another false hope, the final act in a drama that repeats itself endlessly, and will replay in about two weeks, when Don is once again mischievously hiding bottles from his brother while promising that he's still on the wagon. That would certainly make The Lost Weekend the perfect noir. And yet I don't get the feeling that this is what Wilder intends. Which, alas, forces me to view The Lost Weekend as lying somewhere on the periphery of film noir.

* * *

I give The Lost Weekend 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
Remember, I'm rating films as films noir, not as films. A great film may be a lousy noir. Despite being a gritty, realistic, psychologically grueling depiction of addiction, and an excellent movie in its own right, The Lost Weekend ends in a way that keeps it out of the dark, guilt-sodden heart of true film noir.

High points in The Lost Weekend include the dancing coats and the horrid bat-attack. Takeaway quote:

"Delirium is a disease of the night. Good night."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue Dahlia ***