regrettable supervillains

regrettable supervillains Jon Morris’s The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains is a natural sequel to his The League of Regrettable Superheroes. Let’s face it: Without anyone to fight against, the superheroes are just a bunch of folks running around in funky spandex underoos. Let’s also face that very few supervillains will have the gravitas of Magneto, the moral certainty of Thanos, or the creepy menace of the Joker. Morris is here to once again tell us about all the also-rans who didn’t let their deficiencies stop them.

No matter the shape, size, or strategy of the four-color finks gracing these pages, every one of them had the potential to join the ranks of comicdom’s icons of iniquity. It was only poor sales, inopportune timing, and occasional overshadowing from bigger baddies that consigned so many of these scoundrels to the scrapheap of comic book history. Until now!

***

Morris documents a remarkable assortment of semi-menacing figures that are very much the products of their times. The thirties and forties saw an awful lot of gangsters and confidence men–as well as Mother Goose, Satan, and Captain Black Bunny–before the comics went to war. The fifties and sixties ushered in a bunch of do-badders like Cat Girl and Tino the Terrible Teen, who would fit comfortably in a Batman episode. The seventies and beyond took both oddly concrete and weirdly conceptual turns, with Generic Man, Captain Law, and Uzzi the Clown all serving up exactly what their monikers promise.

regrettable supervillains
MODOK, as lovely as ever

Several of these menaces to society did go on to have fairly (by Regrettable standards) long careers. Batroc the Leaper hassled Captain America over multiple issues. The Human Flying Fish caused trouble for Aquaman, on and off. Swarm stuck around to threaten Black Widow, Ghost Rider, and a few lesser X-Men. And MODOK became the go-to adversary for Marvel, taking on Ms. Marvel, Deadpool, Iron Man, the Hulk, and a slew of other A-list superheroes.

***

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains offers an evildoer for every taste. These are a few of my favorite also-ran bad guys:

From the Golden Age of comics (1938-1949):

  • Nazis: Captain America wasn’t the only Nazi-puncher of the Golden Age. Nazis were a favorite–and obvious–target for pretty much everybody in the 1940s. It’s not like Captain Murder, the Human Fly, and Mister Banjo didn’t deserve it.
  • The Jingler: “The Jingler (aka “the Jingler of Death”) begins his career not as a vile poet, but merely a pretty bad one.”
  • Reefer King: “One Mary Jane-laced menace is the so-called Reefer King, a shady dealer of ‘funny cigarettes.’ (At no point in this story are the illicit cigarettes referred to as marijuana or cannabis.)”
regrettable supervillains
Mod Gorilla Boss–stylish and surly

And from the Silver Age (1950-1969):

  • Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man: “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral…it’s all three! That’s some good science.”
  • The Human Flying Fish: “a villain so remarkable he deserves two adjectives in his nom du crime.”
  • Mod Gorilla Boss: “We never learn his name, nor how he discovered his transformational fluid, or even why he was into mod fashion. In fact, the story sheds absolutely no light on the backstory of this bizarre villain.”

And lastly from the Modern Age (1970-present):

  • Ghetto-Blaster: “Ghetto-Blaster hearkens back to a trend in comics when writers clearly named the villain after something sitting on their desks or stored in the hall closet.”
  • The Golden Fuhrer: Proving that Nazis never go out of style for punching–“Who knew that the reanimation of Nazi corpses could be such a good career opportunity?”
  • Tapeworm: “Tapeworm would be one of the most unnerving supervillains in existence even without considering that apparently he smells terrible.”
***
regrettable supervillains
Good ol’ reliable Nazis

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains relishes the inherent silliness of these awkward bad guys, but it comes across to me as less gleeful than Morris’s earlier book on superheroes. The tone may be unavoidable, though, since villains are not generally known for their fun-loving ways, and their roles are by definition dark. But there are still plenty here who are not so much wicked as just cranky and misguided. There are even a handful who occasionally turn good. Morris’s snarky descriptions of the unlikeliest criminal minds continue to be a fun read.

Overall, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains serves up some truly remarkable examples of how polite society’s fears get translated onto a comic books pages. It’s an interesting, four-color peek into the back pages of history.

of-dice-and-men

Revisiting another blast from the past

 

 

Of Dice and Men

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It

David M. Ewalt
Scribner: 288 pp., $26

 

 

 

 

Back in 2013, when David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men came out, I had not played Dungeons and Dragons in probably twenty years. I had no expectation of ever playing again, and only picked the book up out of nostalgia for my misspent youth. But by the time I got around to reading it, I was back in the game and stumbling my way through a new campaign, bolstered mightily by the mercy of some friends who had never stopped playing. Let’s face it, David Ewalt speaks true when he says that “the system encourages long-term engagement, and its one reason why D&D fans are particularly devoted to their hobby” (96). Somehow, despite growing up and assuming our adult responsibilities, a great many of us cannot say a permanent goodbye to D&D.

“The people you play games with become your clan.  They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world.” –David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men

Ewalt describes a similar trajectory for himself, and uses that as the peg to hang his narrative on. A substantial amount of the book is illustrated with passages describing Ewalt’s reintroduction to the game, his fellow players (including both their real-world jobs and their characters’ professions), and his current, ongoing campaign. Much like Shakespeare, these passages play a whole lot better than they read. This is not his fault, nor is it a criticism. D&D, no matter the version in use, is meant to be lived.

Ewalt’s style is light, quippy and a little snarky (“D&D scenarios are the microwave dinners of the role-playing world” (100)), but he covers a lot of ground. He starts his journey with a brief history of chess and that game’s evolution into progressively more elaborate war games—from strategy-based systems to miniature-fueled reenactments. He outlines the development of a scattered historical gaming community brought together at conventions. And then he introduces us to the young Gary Gygax, who was deeply into historical gaming before he discovered the joy of gaming and turned it into his life’s work.

Ewalt also gets into the politics behind the scenes of the game at TSR, the personal and business conflicts, the royalty issues, the copyright infringement cases (both by and against TSR and Co.), and the creep toward mainstream popularity and mass-market merchandising that might ring a little strangely for the hard-core among us. He includes the financial mishandling and collapse of TSR, Gygax’s death, and the survival of D&D through its purchase by Wizards of the Coast. Of course, all this is all related in the same adventurous tone as his campaign recollections. It goes down easy.

He even touches briefly on live-action role playing, but until he needed to research it had never done it, and sees it as something ‘other’ than a traditional RPG. The friends I had who were involved in LARPs did not do tabletop games, so Ewalt may be on to something, there.

And because you cannot discuss D&D without it, Ewalt reviews the dark time in the nineteen eighties when the game and its players became synonymous with the seduction of black magic and insanity. This particular slice of awfulness was served during my prime playing days, when Tipper Gore and other parental McCarthyites became determined to save us all from the overblown, misunderstood, and purely imaginary dangers that RPGs and heavy metal music were blamed for promoting.

As a player himself, Ewalt understands very well the group dynamics that are the heart of the game. He describes familiar personality types that just don’t fit anywhere, even in the odd assemblage that is a gaming group. But he also describes quite vividly the emotional bonds that hold even the prickliest mix of players together: “even when a game is over, the bonds that have been created persist…The people you play games with become your clan.  They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world” (119).

To sum it up: Of Dice and Men is a light yet reasonably comprehensive read written by a person who loves Dungeons and Dragons and always has. Ewalt hits most of the major points of the game, its major contributors, and its development without ever bogging down or preaching it. If you want a refresher course in why you also love playing D&D, this may be exactly the book for you.

The League of Regrettable Superheroes

Revisiting an oldie but goodie

Some comic book superheroes make you think, and some make you wonder. Guess which ones show up in Jon Morris’s The League of Regrettable Superheroes?

“More sophisticated storytelling, including such high-profile critical successes as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, encouraged a new generation of innovative writers and artists to invent some of the most fascinating, thoughtful, well-crafted superhero tales ever produced. We won’t be talking about them, though…”— Jon Morris, The League of Regrettable Superheroes

This labor of love appears just in time for Antman to hit theaters, and reminds us that there were plenty of other righteous crusaders out there who were even more awkwardly conceived of than he. Like Bee Man. And Doll Man. And Nature Boy. There is a great spirit of throw-them-at-the-wall-and-see-who-sticks to many of these comics, and a cheerful disregard for logic and continuity. It’s hard not to feel some affection for these guys once we get to know them.

And we do get to know them, through all the profiles of poorly-conceived and coolly-received superheroes stretching from the thirties into the nineties. Some of them simply missed the mark. Many of them seem to be full-out messing with us (Mother Hubbard? Really?). The whole thing is an extremely amusing snark-fest, but it has to be. Some of these characters are so ungainly the only other option for them is tragedy. For example, there is one benighted creature called Brother Power the Geek, a hybrid hippy/Pinnochio who straggled through two issues before being put out of his misery by the publisher.

Morris, who also runs the comic blog Gone and Forgotten, shows us how all these heroes fit into the grand scheme of things. He provides us with a concise and witty history of the evolution of superheroes in the comics, and the various cultural fashion trends that they followed on the way to their flame-outs. Heroes may be more than merely men, but they don’t exist in a cultural vacuum, after all. All of them arise to face the main threats of their particular days. The early Golden Age years had gangsters and Nazis to battle, the fifties and early sixties had rogue atomic power and the Cold War, and the seventies, eighties and nineties had, well, other stuff—more Russians, and some angst.

Morris breaks his chosen heroes out alphabetically by era for ease for reference. And he does pad his catalogue a little bit by including a few characters that were actually advertising gimmicks or product tie ins, like AAU Superstar and NFL Superpro. But these shills did actually appear in comic books, making them superheroes in a very broad sense.

There are quite a few female superheroes documented here, too, ranging from the humanly heroic Pat Parker to War Nurse to the ghastly Fantomah to the happily married Pow-Girl and the cheerfully odd Squirrel Girl. They are, like their male counterparts, representative of their eras. However, in one unexpected and disturbing illustration, the 1976 character Captain Ultra shoves to the ground a female superhero who dares to flirt with someone else. I didn’t think the seventies were still so cavalier about casual dating violence, but I guess I was wrong.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The illustrations are generous, with at least one full page of each entry devoted to a cover or a representative inside page from the comic. The art, in all its four-color glory, is frequently familiar. Many of these titles came and went by way of Marvel and DC, and more than a few big names have been involved in these misfires. Even such giants as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, and Stan Lee produced some less-than super heroes in the giddy rush of the early days and in the quest to stay relevant in the following decades.

In my humble opinion, some of the more colorful superhero failures from each era are, to begin, these three from the Golden Age (1938-1949):

  • Atoman: “If Atoman’s origin isn’t the first in comics that directly references Albert Einstein, it’s certainly the only one that makes mention of Nobel-snubbed physicist Lise Meitner.”
  • Doctor Hormone: “Apparently, eternal youth and half-animal soldiers could take Doctor Hormone only so far.”
  • Madam Fatal: “Resembling something like a mix of the films Taken and Doubtfire, Madam Fatal represents one of the truly unique characters in comics.”

And three more from the Silver Age (150-169):

  • Dracula: “he ended up clothed in a skin-tight purple bodysuit, with a broad red belt and some sort of bat-eared bonnet.”
  • Fatman the Human Flying Saucer: “a plump but athletic character.”
  • The Sentinels: “In their civilian identities, they wore domino masks as part of their musical gimmick, like a really toned-down KISS.”

And a final sextet from the Modern Age (1970-present):

  • Assorted lesser X-Men: Snot, who does exactly what you think he does; Maggott, “whose power is ‘being infested with parasites’”; and Beak, “He has light bones and weird feathered limbs, but he can’t really fly; his only offensive power is pecking.”
  • Skateman: “one of the few street-level vigilantes in the history of comics to have taken justice into his own hands while wearing pristine white booty shorts.”
  • Thunderbunny: “All Bobby must do is concentrate, clap his hands, and he is transformed—into a giant pink rabbit clad in Spandex!”

As Morris points out early on in The League of Regrettable Superheroes, the overwhelming majority of superheroes have bizarre origin stories—and many of the characters he profiles here are no more or less unlikely than Superman, Spiderman, or the Flash. Many he includes aren’t really that bad at all, despite being variously irradiated, immolated, and reconstructed by aliens. Some of the “regrettable” titles were even modestly successful in their time. Surprisingly, several of the characters he pegs as failures were, by his own admission, interesting and had fairly decent runs. Some have even been revived at least once. They just didn’t strike the same chords with the American public as the ones who became the big guys did, and so fell by the wayside rather than striking gold in reboot and retcon heaven. Some of these heroes may even be worth tracking down and getting better acquainted with through the rather colorful resources of the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus.

As always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

 

lovecraft country

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country starts with a fascinating premise–what would it be like as an African-American to battle the forces of darkness while also battling the rampant racism of 1950s America? Matt Ruff gives the idea a good run in his episodic 2016 novel. The interconnected stories are well-paced and well-told, and open-ended enough to justify the anticipated television series based on the book. But there are some issues with what is actually delivered.

***

Lovecraft Country is fast-moving and full of action, but spends precious little time in Lovecraft country proper.

Atticus Turner, an African-American  Korean War veteran, travels from Florida to Chicago at his father’s request, only to find Montrose Turner is gone. With his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus follows his father’s trail to a haunted New England town. The trio rescue Montrose from the clutches of one wizard, only to have the wizard’s son continue to trouble them and their families long after they escape back to Chicago. As if that continuing menace weren’t enough, all this happens under the long shadow of Jim Crow.

The plot is loaded with mystery and threats, and each chapter focuses on a single character as part of the larger story. The individual experiences use familiar horror and science fiction tropes from Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and leaven them with touches of sarcastic humor. The world is a strange place. Might as well laugh.

***

However, the characters are less well-drawn than I had hoped. Atticus is the brave hero, Letitia the spunky sidekick, Montrose the prickly, righteous father, and Braithwhite the slick, heartless wizard. Wives, children, and friends have similarly distinct attributes, without great depth. The only ones I felt had adequate development were Letitia’s sister, Ruby, and Atticus’s Uncle George. The others all move briskly through the action without making a huge emotional impact. As an ensemble, they work extremely well, and are believable in the bounds of the story. But they are not characters for the ages.

***

And, much to my disappointment, Lovecraft Country has only the barest hint of Lovecraft in it. Ruff dwells on the occult, rather than the weird, and the mystical goings-on do not tap into any especially cosmic sense of horror. At one point, Ruff touches on the inhumanity behind canonical Lovecraftian weirdness–

“…when you invoke the language of Adam, you’re addressing nature, and nature doesn’t care, it just does what it’s told. If you garble your instructions–transpose a letter, stress the wrong syllable–you’ll get what you ask for, but it might not be what you want.”

–but he fails to capture it. The supernatural pushes in through ghosts, potions, and spell-casting. With the exception of a couple of interludes in another dimension, the tentacled horrors and amoral other gods simply aren’t here. And if Lovecraft taught us anything, it’s that there is plenty of room for cosmic dread and racism in the world.

***

Lovecraft Country is as fun a read as a horror novel about grossly racist Natural Philosophers can be–which is, oddly enough, very. But perhaps it’s a reflection of Ruff being white while his characters are not that the closing scene of Lovecraft Country seems too pat, like the conclusion of a Very Special Episode of a sitcom. And for a novel with such ambitious ideas, the tidy wrap-up sells the whole grand, entertaining plan just a little short of where I wanted it to be.

harlan ellison

harlan ellisonHarlan Ellison died last week at the age of 84. He was a genuine legend in science fiction, by all accounts larger than life and twice as abrasive. I never met the man, but he has still been a part of my life for decades.

When I was around eleven years old I found a paperback copy of Again, Dangerous Visions stuck on the basement shelf where unwanted paperbacks ended up. It was the sequel to his transgressive 1967 anthology–and it was enough to suck me in and show me how sharp science fiction could be. Later, I read the man himself–the glorious I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Deathbird Stories.  I watched the supremely 70’s film version of A Boy and His Dog on VHS. I learned the empowering mantra “Pay the writer”.

Over the course of his long career Ellison published more than 1700 works, ranging from short stories to screenplays to essays, from comic books to literary criticisms. He was recognized with multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar awards for works that changed the face of science fiction on page and on screen. He earned the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers Association and by the World Horror Convention, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters if you don’t read him.

Unfortunately, it often takes the passing of a major author to inspire people to discover, or rediscover, their work. So it is with Harlan Ellison. Even though he continued to write prolifically, his heyday was the sixties and seventies when he was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction with his dangerous anthologies and subversive short stories.

These are a few of his works that I consider essential:

dangerous visionsStories
“A Boy and His Dog”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“Soft Monkey”
“Jeffty Is Five”

Collections

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Deathbird Stories
Shatterday
Angry Candy
The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective Revised & Expanded

Nonfiction
The Glass Teat

Television episodes
The Outer Limits   “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”
Star Trek   “The City on the Edge of Forever”
The Starlost “Voyage of Discovery”
Masters of Science Fiction “The Discarded”

As editor
Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions

Graphic novels
Phoenix Without Ashes

There’s plenty to say of Harlan Ellison as a person, good and bad–and it’s all out there for the googling. But as I mentioned earlier, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I had only his vast body of work to judge him by. And by those lights, he was a star.

trade yer coffin

trade yer coffinTrade Yer Coffin for a Gun by Mer Whinery is one truly weird Western. It reads like a mash up of From Dusk Till Dawn, High Plains Drifter, and Zombie–this is a big, bold, B movie of a book that revels in its inspirations. Let’s face it: any tale that brings in references to Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci right from the start is going for a certain tone. And it achieves it.

A Wild and Witchy West

The story follows Jubilee “Sugar” Bava, her twin brother Cutter, and their elder brother Micah–mercenary gunslingers collectively known as The Haints. Orphaned and driven out of their home town of Coffin Mills by corrupt officials, the trio are lured back to battle a supernatural threat to the town’s children. Of course, the opportunity for bloody revenge has something to do with it, too.

Did I mention that Sugar Bava is also the Witch of Fulci Holler? And that there are not one, but two monstrous horrors to defeat? And that another witch shows up to help?

Over the top is an understatement. Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun has vampires, witches, ghouls, zombies, prostitutes, gunslingers, necrophilia, black magic, white magic, Satanism, and a little Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. There is so much packed into Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun that a lot of potentially interesting details get pushed to the side from sheer lack of space. Micah’s tragic marriage, one monster’s connection to another, Sugar’s need to drink blood–all are dropped into the story without context. They left me wondering, and wishing for an explanation.

Riders of the Purple Prose

Whinery does a solid job of evoking the bleak, haunted North Texas where Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is set, describing scenes in cinematic detail. All his characters speak in a thick television Western dialect, where guns are irons and the sheriff is the law, adding nicely to the atmosphere. Everywhere, his use of language is enthusiastic, and his prose incredibly, abundantly purple. For example: “It ventured a step further toward Sugar, reaching out an emaciated, sore-riddled arm, a root-like latticework of black veins squirming beneath the cemetery of its skin.” Or,  “Its corrugated surface glistened with an oozing pink slime and was lit from within by a sinister orange fairy fire, phantoms and forms fluttering clumsily inside the nimbus of the illumination.”

Despite the overall overstatement, there are some quieter, finely tuned descriptions among all the gore: “The sort of quiet that came before carefully chosen words”, and “The town of Coffin Mills went bad that day, and never knew the Grace of God again.”

However, the sloppy editing throughout the book interferes with the raucous action and undermines the atmosphere-building. For example, the first chapter heading promises a cold October night, but twice in the following pages we are told it is spring. Sugar Bava rides a pure white mare that several pages later has a chestnut mane. And littered throughout are overlooked typos that make the characters’ dialect harder to read than it should be.

Trade Yer Coffin for a Copy

After all is said and done, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is an entertaining page-turner for those with a taste for horror and gleefully excessive  gore. I don’t know how well it would stand up to a second reading, but the first time through was good, old-fashioned, gross-out fun.

figures unseen

figures UnseenFigures Unseen: Selected Stories, the latest collection by Steve Rasnic Tem, is a master-class in weird fiction. The circumstances in these thirty five stories are disturbingly familiar, the settings uncomfortably domestic. Tem’s flawed and damaged characters struggle to hold on to some semblance of normalcy as their lives come apart. They become monsters, but they do not mean to. They misunderstand. They make poor choices. They fail each other the way we all do, at some point. It’s no surprise that reading Tem’s work in Figures Unseen is in many ways like coming home.

***

Steve Rasnic Tem knows his craft. He has published seven novels and more than four hundred short stories over his decades-long career. With his late wife, Melanie Tem, he wrote Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing.

His language is beautiful, tactile and vivid, shot through with descriptions like ”She bought Julie a doll on her way to the airport, a floppy thing with huge, aimless eyes” and “rising with the orderly progress of the flames, set free into air and light, and they all, all of them stopped their lives that day to watch”.

Yet there is so much ugliness happening inside the beautiful descriptions. Human weaknesses and failings. Selfishness. Greed. Fear. Tem can twist a strange occurrence into a catastrophe with a single well-turned phrase, to peel back the skin of normal conduct and reveal the worms beneath it: “He felt sorry for her, but he also felt scared for himself. The woman he had loved had been gone for years, and now he was left with this. He wasn’t a good enough person to handle something he hadn’t signed up for.”

***

I personally find his shorter works sharper and more visceral than his longer ones. These selections in particular stand out for me:

“City Fishing”, is a bizarre coming-of-age tale reminiscent of both Dante’s Inferno and classic zombie fare.

“Houses Creaking in the Wind” provides a grim, brief summary of a man who has lost his wife and children, and may be dead himself.

“An Ending” is a particularly nasty piece about a helpless, bedridden couple dependent on their daughter for their care.

“Little Cruelties” chronicles the disintegration of a man whose attempts to control his wife and son are demonstrated through the rationalized, titular cruelties.

***
Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem

Tem also explores some of the more traditional monsters. But in his hands, what is monstrous is the responses to them, the attempts to normalize them, the desire to make them fit into a rational world or to bend the world to fit them.

Two stories here can be identified as vampire tales: “The Men and Women of Rivendale”, and “Vintage Domestic”. Neither fits easily among the common tropes. “Rivendale” offers vampirism as both an inherited disease and a cure for boredom, while “Vintage” phrases it as a desperately private family matter.

“Miri” and “Preparations for the Game” can be called ghost stories, but their hauntings are as much conscience as spirit. The protagonist in “Miri” left part of himself behind when he left his troubled girlfriend, while the main character of “Preparations” is trapped in a constant replay of his own sins.

His werewolf story, “Grandfather Wolf”, places the predator within the context of family resemblances, responsibilities, and love, without ever dipping into sentimentality.

Tem also includes a single Lovecraftian piece, “Between the Pilings”, sad and skewed and effective. In it, Innsmouth becomes a crumbling seaside resort town where the narrator is driven to recapture a lost part of  his youth.

***

The unifying theme of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Figures Unseen is, ultimately, the binding power of the family. These stories are driven by the pain of what fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends do to each other, and for each other. It makes Figures Unseen intimate, disturbing, and hard to forget–because when we strip away the weird and supernatural trappings, we are still left with ourselves.

 

Hammer Films
Hammer Films

Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio delivers what it promises. First published in 1996, this compendium details every film put out by Hammer studios–165 full length films over forty three years, as well as shorts and television shows. While there are a slew of related titles out there, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography stands out. The writing is workmanlike and occasionally repetitive as the authors strive to provide a thorough description of each film. But this is a labor of love, honest and earnest and more fun for it.

The House that Hammer Films Built

Following a foreword by the late, great Peter Cushing, and a brief overview of the studio’s history, the authors delve into the real story of Hammer Films. Hammer began turning out movies in 1935, and, except for a pause for World War II, did not stop until the studio folded in 1978. Over the decades they made comedies, dramas, war dramas, and thrillers. But in the fifties and sixties Hammer decided to focus its energies on monsters, space creatures, and supernatural threats to the point where, to this day, Hammer is synonymous with horror.

Hammer is probably best known for reviving the Universal monsters–Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman–and turning Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into international stars. These films cemented the studio’s reputation for solid, well-made horror–which, unfortunately, Hammer took too far. Hammer also churned out an interminable number of questionable sequels to their blockbuster monster movies, losing quality and audience interest.

Along with its horror mainstays, Hammer produced a number of iconic entries in the science fiction field. The Quartermass Xperiment, X–The Unknown, and Five Million Years to Earth all stand as classics of fifties alien-invasion movies. Hammer also branched out with a few monsters of their own invention, like The Gorgon, and  Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde. They dabbled in the occult with chillers like The Devil Rides Out, and To the Devil…a Daughter. And they went for jungle adventure and stop motion dinosaurs with She, and One Million Years BC (which is legendary for Raquel Welch’s fur bikini, not the special effects).

The Devil is in the Details

The authors present the films in chronological order, and include any posters, stills, or promotional shots they could get. Each entry contains the release date, length, filming location, producer, director, screenplay author, editor, photography director, and U.K. certificate rating, cast list, any other titles the film may have been released under, and a complete synopsis of the plot. Additional details and anecdotes are sprinkled in, such as the career arc of an actor, quirks with sets or props, or what the country’s mood was when a film was released. The authors also note how well a film was received, and where it fit in Hammer’s general business plan. Although the entries are formulaic, taken as a whole they provide a fascinating glimpse into both the personal and business workings of Hammer studios.

The good, the bad, the groundbreaking, and the ill-conceived are all here, researched with a fan’s affection. There are far slicker, more polished books on Hammer out there, but Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography has so much affection for its subject it should be a staple of any collection. I understand the fondness; Hammer films are what I think of when I hear “old-school horror”, and I’m not alone in that.

So keep your Freddy, Chucky, and Jason. I’ll take The Horror of Dracula any time.

nightbird

Nightbird by David Busboom is an entertaining, richly written debut novella that I wish were a full-length novel. The language is evocative, the premise interesting, and the plot straightforward without being predictable. Isaac, the first-person narrator, describes his deflowering by a mysterious woman, and what becomes of his life because of her. There are no shocking twists, here, just a steady journey into darkness.

nightbird
Lilith

Nightbird shares its predatory feeding and psychic enslavement with traditional vampire fiction. But Nightbird’s titular monster is not truly a vampire. She is Lilith, the sexual demon of Biblical legend, now a red-haired predator hunting in modern day Illinois. Busboom incorporates a trove of Lilith lore into his tale, from the early Babylonian legends to modern artistic interpretations of her attributes. He also includes an impressive amount of cultural references–Theda Bara, H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lang and Tod Browning, among others–that hint at Nightbird’s background mythology.

The novella is full of wonderful imagery, as when Busboom reveals one of the supernatural beings that plague Isaac: “He wore a mask of uncanny whiteness, gleaming like an oval of ice”.

Busboom also has a knack for visceral description that is vividly. beautifully gross:

“A pale, warty body sparsely covered in gray-blue hair…Thick, webbed fingers clenched and unclenched with a slow, trancelike rhythm. The horrible round eyes were open, but vacant. From its slackened mouth snaked a long, forked tongue, the prongs of which were embedded deep in the right side of my chest. The creature pressed and bulged against me…”

These living, breathing descriptions are the strong points of the novella. Even something as simple as a roast beef sandwich is compelling.

nightbird
An older Lilith

Which is why I wish for a longer version where the many mystical elements had been expanded on with more description. The motives behind some of Isaac’s actions would have come across more effectively, for me, if certain background details had been fleshed out to give a better sense of the mythic structure beneath the story. In particular, occasional specifics of Isaac’s quest for knowledge would have gone far in establishing the ancient threat. The details we are given seem like a gloss:

“In my final year of high school…I’d been in communication with college professors and visited the campus library. A close survey of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Arslan Tash amulets had supplied terrible clues to her nature, methods, and desires, but talks with several students of archaic lore in town—and correspondence with many others elsewhere—had made it difficult to determine what was true, what was legend, and what was outright conjecture or manipulation.”

Isaac may have understood what was going on, but I didn’t feel the character shared enough of his knowledge with the reader. Not that blunt exposition is needed, but a sprinkling of well-placed hints would have given additional depth to the narrative and additional urgency to the plot.

So what is the take-away for Nightbird?

Get it. Read it. It’s worth it. My criticisms come from wanting more. Nightbird is a strong story, full of dark ideas, dramatic imagery, and fantastic use of language. David Busboom’s skill as an author is clear, and I look forward to seeing him hone it further.

The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle

A year ago I reviewed the first season of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. Now, with the premiere of season two, I’d like to look at the source material. While I enjoyed Amazon’s version of Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning alternative history, the novel The Man in the High Castle is contemplative and tentative in ways that few TV series are equipped to handle. The two versions are complimentary, but not truly comparable.

***

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was both published and set in 1962, and supposes a diametrically different outcome to World War II than we know.  In this world the United States fell in 1947, and was carved up between imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The Reich is a grasping power, and its relationship with Japan is strained and distrustful. Europe and Africa are ravaged by huge environmental and humanitarian deprivations. There is space travel, and nuclear weapons. There is also a haunting sense of instability. The world order is unsustainable.

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Unlike its television interpretation, the novel The Man in the High Castle does not need bold action to move it along. Although many things do happen, they are small more often than dramatic. The novel relies largely on character development for its propulsion. Dick’s characters are more circumspect versions of their series alter-egos, and to varying degrees uncertain of their paths.

What is to me most striking about The Man In The High Castle is the finely-tuned tension running through it because of the characters’ uncertainties. The entire novel takes place in the through between sweeping political events, and is told from the points of view of people who are not aware that they can have any influence on the course of history–yet. That possible future influence fills the novel with potential energy as characters come to terms with the circumstances of their lives, and finally make the decisions to steer them rather than merely drift.

A map of PKD's alternate world
A map of PKD’s alternate world

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Also altered in translation are the importance of two books that form the thematic backbone of Dick’s original work.

The first book is a novel within a novel, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy—an alternate history to the alternate history it exists in. While Germany has reason to dislike the future envisioned in the subversive book, their banning of it does nothing to stop its popularity, or its influence on German citizens and subjects: “What upset him was this. This death of Adolf Hitler, the defeat and destruction of Hitler, the Partei, and Germany itself, as depicted in Abendsen’s book…it was all somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world. The world of German hegemony” (133).

The second book is the philosophical guide The I Ching, which most of the characters use to decide the potential outcomes of their actions. It is an exercise in ambiguity and delicate moral complexity, of what may be and what might have been. Everything is open to interpretation, each throw of the sticks leads to a subtly different reading of the associated lines. Nothing is certain until action is taken, nothing is clear until it is in hindsight.

Under the influence of either or both of the two books, the characters decide their paths and reinvent both their places in this world and their ability to change them. Few of those changes are on a grand scale. Like so much else, they are incremental until the balance tips.

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The man behind The Man in the High Castle
The man behind The Man in the High Castle

I recall a shrine in Hiroshima wherein a shinbone of some medieval saint could be examined. However, this is an artifact and that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained. (185)

Unlike its serial adaptation, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle is a story of transitions both personal and cultural. It is the story of characters coming to an understanding of where their lives have taken them so far, and what possibilities are open to them now. It is not merely an alternative version of the history we know. It is also an examination of how history is made, of the tiny components and the commonplace characters that are as much a part of its making as the men in power.

Lest we forget.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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