Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pulp Review: The Living Shadow


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

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

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

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

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

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

What follows is pulp as hell.



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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


Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pulp Review: Black God's Kiss


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Respect due.

Essential Reading.

Friday, August 11, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, August 07, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ends up being the wrong one.

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

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

They know.

They know what's coming.

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

Fade to black.

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

Its genius.

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


Highest recommendation. Watch this movie. 


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Geek Culture™ Apocalypse


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just ask Darth Vader.

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

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

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


Its going to be a hell of a ride. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pulp Review: Black Destroyer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that's an essay for another day.


Monday, July 17, 2017

“The bottle is more distinguished than its wine.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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