Friday, January 04, 2019

2019: Moving Forward by Looking Back

Look at that smile!

Since everyone in my writing circle seems to be doing a “welcome to 2019” thing, I figured I might as well do the same. And its a way to do some dusting around here.

The blog has lain fallow for a couple months, but for good reason. I'm working on a Mech Space Opera taking influence from a lot that I've learned (and also un-learned from my academic indoctrination) and putting into practice. Its going to be big. Its going to be sweeping. Its going to come in at a reasonable page count instead of a doorstopper. Its going to be contrary to every major Science Fiction franchise in the West that's devolved into meaningless goo over the last twenty years. Its going to be four books, to start. I'm about halfway done with the draft of book one, and the few eyes that have laid upon it, are stoked. Its like “Red Dawn” meets “Buck Rogers,” but that's just a starting point.

I'm hyping this up because a) I should probably do that some more when it comes to my own work, and b) I'm legitimately excited to write this story. In a lot of ways its a throwback love letter to the 80s sci-fi that shaped me like Star Wars was a throwback to the 40s sci-fi that shaped George Lucas. Its going to be nuts, and once I have more details hammered out after the first draft, I'll start doing lore posts for it.

As for the broader world of science fiction and fantasy? I probably won't be talking too much about that, because it would be beating a dead horse. Doom has already befallen every major franchise under the sun owned by a massive corporation. The video game industry is barreling toward a major crash for the big publishers, and it looks like Hollywood and Music are also going that way. Barnes & Noble is on its last legs, and when it goes, Big Publishing is going to have a reckoning too.

In short, Hell has come to Frogtown.

So what do I think is actually going to arise this year?

Horror. I think Horror is going to get more experimental and weirder as talent flees the sinking ships of mainstream SF/F. Probably more throwbacks, too, but not failures like the Mummy reboot reboot reboot.

Fantasy. Probably going to see a decline as everyone cringes away from Harry Potter. The interesting stuff is going to be in the short story market.

Science Fiction. This is going to be a battleground, and I'll be there. Both Pulp SF and Hard SF (represented by Star Wars and Star Trek, respectively) are in extremely dire straits, and the spoils are ripe for new blood to take advantage of audiences that are starving for optimistic space adventures. Nick Cole and Jason Anspach are doing a lot of great work with Galaxy's Edge, and I expect that series to grow by leaps and bounds, but its a wide-open galaxy out there, waiting to be conquered.

Westerns. I've noticed Westerns have been quietly coming back to book shelves over the last two years or so. I think it'll stay mostly underground, but I think Westerns are going to slowly keep building momentum, especially as Middle America ponders things like national identity and what it means to be an American.

Yesterday on Twitter, I ragged hard on the Battlestar Galactica reboot as being boring, subversive trash that was the root of modern (visual) SF being needlessly gritty with unlikable characters and no payoff to anything. It was a good convo, with some insightful back-and-forth. Over the course of the rant, I linked to a 2004 essay written by Dirk Benedict, the original Lieutenant Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica in the late 70s.

I suggest reading it because Benedict is quite eloquent in it, and every single observation that he lays out is 100% relevant to the state of entertainment in 2019. And this was written fifteen years ago

There's a lot to meditate on there moving forward into the new year.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Geek Culture™ Apocalypse: One Year Later

Last year, I took a look at the state of some of the big pop culture franchises and where they stood. Since it was my most successful blog post by a magnitude of hundreds, why not revisit my apocalyptic predictions one year on?

Ready Player One? It came and went. Nobody seems to have any feelings about it one way or the other. It pushed some nostalgia buttons and was promptly disposed of.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe had a strong year, with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War doing really, really well. Ant Man & The Wasp happened too, which I guess did all right. I don't know, I didn't see it. Kevin Feige's contract is now being reported as being up sometime in 2019 now, so he's at least going to be around until Avengers 4. Beyond that, its looking murkier. They've announced that the Eternals and Shang-Chi are getting movies, which is cool and all, but all the press about it is how the its “The First Asian blahblah” and “The First blahblah of color to direct a blahblah.” This is not how you advertise these projects. You advertise The Eternals as “Jack Kirby Snorts Cosmic Angel Dust And Drew This” and “Shang-Chi Stars In: DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU.”


Meanwhile, Captain Marvel is setting itself up as the wokest superhero movie in town with how the media slavers over how Brie Larson's wooden expression is greatest thing in the world. If/when the MCU begins its death spiral, I'm going to go ahead and predict it'll be a lukewarm reaction to Carol “Can't Keep an Ongoing Series Going” Danvers. And if you don't like it, you're a sexist bigot who hates women and lives in your mother's basement.

Over at Netflix, there is no Marvel presence. The “Marvel Knights” shows (I refuse to call them the Defenders on principal. There's no Namor or Silver Surfer.) came and went with mixed results, but everyone loved Daredevil. Well, now that's canceled, leaving Jessica Jones and Punisher to ride out their season twos. Presumably, this is being done to make way for Disney's own streaming service, but the Daredevil move pissed off a ton of people.

On the print side of Marvel, its still a dumpster fire.

The DC Cinematic Universe crashed and burned with Justice League. Henry Cavill is out as SupermanBen Affleck is out as BatmanJustice League bombed so hard that Warner Brothers reshuffled their movie division.

On the other hand, the Wonder Woman sequel looks solid (but is getting pushed back to a 2020 release), and Aquaman and Shazam! (that's the ORIGINAL Captain Marvel, to you kids) all look promising and are still on track to release next year.

Over at the print division, DC had a good thing going with Rebirth, and they have promptly destroyed that in order to follow Marvel's lead. Following stunt issues that put individual Superman and Batman issues at the top of what sold this year, both series have suffered heavy declines. Marvel big name Brian Michael Bendis jumped to DC this year and was put on Superman, shaking up Clark Kent's family and infuriating fans of the previous Super Sons series. Superman books are down beyond Action Comics 1000. Batman was left at the altar by Catwoman and sales are down in his books as well (though not as much). In the wider DC Universe, “Heroes in Crisis” went with a Shock Event where a bunch of beloved characters like the Wally West Flash (there's a lot I can say about how they've treated Wally over the last decade, but none of it is polite), Roy Harper/Arsenal, and Poison Ivy were all killed. Dick Grayson got shot in the head so bad he don't brain too good anymore and calls himself Rick Grayson.

Star Wars is seeing a massive implosion. The Last Jedi was so bad it created a cottage industry of people talking smack about it. Even now, its sitting at a 45% Rotten Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. Solo: A Star Wars Story, released hot on the heels of the reviled Last Jedi, is the first flop in the franchise's history. Star Wars is in big trouble, and Episode IX, due out in 2019, has to deal with the script and audience goodwill mess left behind by Rian Johnson. The only thing left of the Star Wars cash cow is the moo.

Also, this happened. Maybe don't go off on profanity laden rants when you're attached to a family-friendly all audiences franchise.

Let's look at Doctor Who. HAHAHAHAH. Combined with persistent rumors and denials of lead Jodie Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall leaving the show soon it doesn't look great.

The Walking Dead lurches toward its finish line without any actual plan. Telltale Games, the developer of the successful adventure game spinoff, abruptly closed down this year, leaving the episodic game in a lurch mid-production. Since then, Skybound Entertainment (the brainchild of Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman) has picked up the slack to finish the series

The action game of the series, Overkill's The Walking Dead is apparently a very bad game and sold so poorly that it effectively killed Starbreeze Studios.

Meanwhile, TV villain Negan is coming to the Tekken franchise. For whatever reason

Back over at Disney, they're still hell-bent on cranking out live-action remakes of better movies because they're creatively bankrupt. Reaction to the Live Action* Lion King trailer has been mostly mockery, and audiences seem to be catching on to Disney's blatant grab for their Nostalgiabix. Sentiment seems to be turning against these remakes, finally. 

Can't wait for the live-action Aristocats remake.

Game of Thrones' final season is supposed to come out some time in 2019, but following GRRM's lead, may be delayed

Speaking of GRRM, he's got plenty of time to talk about New York City pizza. He's a busy man, so stop bothering him about when Winds of Winter is coming out.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewand is making money, but performing less than its predecessor and sitting with poor critic reviews and okay audience reviews. Harry Potter fatigue seems to be setting in for real now, beyond the “READ ANOTHER BOOK” chant.

I hate to say “I told you so” but screw it. I called it last year. The bastions of corporate Geek Culture™ are all collapsing before our very eyes like its the ending of Fight Club.

Its beautiful.

*90% computer animated

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Four-Color Fashion: Batman

Superheroes live and die by their visual designs. A silhouette, a stance, a color combination, a great hero design stands the test of time and evolves into a form best suited for the character. Sometimes the creators knock it out of the park on the first try, other times it takes several iterations to get to something iconic, but regardless, a top tier superhero design is visually distinct and unmistakable.

The whole point of this little exercise is to take a quick walk through comic book history by way of visual design to see what works and what doesn't for characters that I feel are important or that I just plain like for some reason. (So if I do a big post on Firestorm: the Nuclear Man, then you know why). I doubt this will be some regular thing, but I love comics and hate to see the garbage fire that is the modern industry, so this is a fun reminder of the better days. I'm going to limit it to actual comic costumes because it would get extremely bloated with various movie, tv and game suits, and also because the roots go deeper than some actor who thinks he's bigger than the mask.

The best place to start? Bruce Wayne, because there's been surprisingly little deviation from the basic design.

First appearing in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, you know the deal with Batman. Rich kid, murdered parents, devotes his life to philanthropy and also dressing up as a bat to fight crime more directly. Uses detective skills and gadgets to win the day. Initially a ripoff of the Shadow and the Phantom, but evolved into his own thing. The original Bat-Man was put together by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and the first version put to paper was an edgier vigilante who used a gun to fight crime, and his design reflected that. Criminals being a cowardly and superstitious lot, Wayne adopted a bat motif, because they fly stealthily at night and tend to scare the bejeezus out of people when they startle them.

The costume reflects that. Gray bodysuit, black cape that kind of looks like wings, a deeply pointed cowl with narrow eyes. Dark blue/black trunks and boots broke up the grayscale, and a yellow utility belt drew the reader's attention to his gadget usage. The palette is set: Gray, black, blue, gold. And then there's the purple gloves. No idea why.

As the Golden Age wore on, Batman's image softened. He ditched the guns and adopted a no-killing rule, he picked up a sidekick in Robin, and he moved to more of weightlifter body type. The bat ears got shorter, the cowl became less severe, and the lantern jaw made it clear that this was a hero. The cape switched from black to dark blue and the purple gloves were mercifully replaced with the iconic “serrated” gloves. This became the template for Batman, where every following variation would build off of.

Here's where it gets complicated because DC Comics loves retcons and reboots. The Golden Age Batman would later become known as “Earth-Two Batman,” occupying a separate continuity from the “Earth-One Batman” of the Silver Age, where he would retroactively “first appear” in Superman #76 in 1952 (an issue written by pulp novelist Edmund Hamilton, the husband of the mighty Leigh Brackett, Queen of Space Opera). Initially appearing much as the 40s version, and following along with the lighthearted camp of the 50s and 60s, this Batman would get a single major costume change in Batman #164 by penciller Sheldon Moldoff: the gold badge around the bat logo. This was the Batman design of Adam West, and as the 60s moved on, the stories in the comics grew less goofy and touched on more serious themes again.

Probably the biggest influence on the Batman design of this era was Neal Adams, who started as a cover artist on Batman in the late 60s and started doing interior pencils in 1971. Adams brought a kinetic dynamism to Batman (and his cape), and made him leaner, slightly meaner, and gave him new threats to deal with, like Ra's al Ghul. Aside from the lengthening of Bats' ears, the costume remained fundamentally the same, the real change was the increase in dynamic lighting and use of shadows to create mood. Gothic horror, film noir, and martial arts elements permeated the Bronze Age Batman titles of the 70s and 80s, and the design could go from the moody streets of Gotham City to hanging out with the Justice League and the Outsiders.

Technically, “Earth-One Batman” stopped existing after Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, and he was folded into the “New Earth Batman” of the new, unified continuity. This was Batman at his most balanced, the Caped Crusader AND the Dark Knight Detective. A Batman who would take the time to help some kids out, mentor the junior members of the Justice League, and later suffer some of his greatest personal losses like the death of Jason Todd and having his back broken in Knightfall. This was the design adapted for the first couple seasons of Batman: The Animated Series.

In the 90s, the design moved all over the place. Different artists went in different directions; sometimes the cowl and trim are blue, sometimes black. sometimes the ears got shorter, sometimes they got insanely tall with Sam Keith on art duty (but that was a deliberately extreme visual choice).

Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns from 1986 heavily influenced the artists of the 90s, since a grizzled, chunky Batman with dark, muted colors and no cheerful gold badge suited the edgy grit of the 1990s. The thing is, TDKR is an alternate 80s series deliberately stylized to portray an over-the-hill Bruce Wayne operating in a dystopian hellscape where everything's gone wrong. He wasn't meant to be what a “Batman in his prime” looks like. 

That would be more along the lines of Batman: Year One, written by Miller himself and drawn by David Mazzucchelli in 1987.

In 2002, Batman's design seemed to stabilize with Jim Lee's rock-solid design during the Hush storyline: Gray bodysuit, dark blue cowl, fairly short ears, large black bat symbol on the chest, muscular past the point of ordinary people but not a brick wall, and more often than not, a permanent scowl. The Batman of the 00s was serious business. It was all grit and very little of the warmth that balanced out his humanity (and his sanity). Batman's cold “Batgod” personality where he was paranoid to the point of constantly being prepared to take down anybody, be it friend or foe became a cliché. It became a plot point in Infinite Crisis where his paranoid dickishness led to a sentient spy satellite he created to go rogue and create super-powerful killing cyborgs for a government black ops agency. Oops. 

Then he died and came back to life. It happens.

2011 saw yet another massive continuity reboot with the Flashpoint event and the “New 52” ushering in the “Prime Earth” timeline.

Like the new continuity or not (I certainly hated it, but for lots of reasons not worth getting into right now), we got a new, standardized Batman costume. Gray suit, black cowl & trim, black chest emblem with a little bit of gold or white to help it stand out on his chest. Its actually quite good in most ways. Except for two things: The weird little seam lines around the bodysuit feel like needless busywork. I get that its supposed to hint at being armored under there because Bruce is just a guy so he'd need body armor, but this is Batman we're talking about here. Realism stopped applying the moment he looked at a bat and went “That's the ticket!” 

Bat. Batch.

The other problem is the lack of trunks, which you don't realize is a problem until they're gone. Again, I've heard the Realism argument, but he fistfights people dressed like clowns regularly, so no, I reject the validity of that point. They may look silly on a flesh and blood actor, but on the page they go a long way to break up the solid gray of the bodysuit and make it easy to cover up the, uh, Bat Batch. Throw on some black trunks and get rid of the busy lines and it'd be a top ten design.

As it stands, for personal preference I'd have to go with the Silver/Bronze Age design as the best. The gold oval around the logo makes it impossible to confuse with anyone else, and the blue instead of black cape make Batman work in every kind of story, from teamups with goofballs like Ambush Bug to finding Robin's broken body after the readers voted to kill him, because with Batman, the lighting is everything for the type of story being told. 

Simplicity is king with this design. Its the Batman for all seasons, and you can't go wrong cribbing from masters like Neal Adams, Alan Davis, Norm Breyfogle and Jim Aparo.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Pulp Review: Tarzan of the Apes

A Princess of Mars put Edgar Rice Burroughs on the map, but it was the second story he published in 1912, Tarzan of the Apes, that solidified him has an adventure story writer. Tarzan was also serialized in the All-Story, then later published as a novel in 1914. It was a smash, and Burroughs would go on to write over twenty novels in the series. 1918 would see the first two silent movie adaptations of the character, and Tarzan movies would appear in every single decade since up to now. (It makes sense. For Tarzan all you need is a muscular guy on a jungle set instead of the special effects bonanza that is Barsoom)

The story begins with an Englishman, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, sent to Africa in the 1880s to investigate claims of abuse of black natives by another European colonial power. Accompanied by his wife, Alice, the humanitarian mission never begins, since a mutiny on their ship leads to the couple being marooned on the western coast of Africa. Eking out a living, they give birth to a son, but tragedy takes both parents away. As fate would have it, the baby, also named John, would be adopted by Kala, a she-ape of the tribe who's chief, Kerchak, killed the elder Greystoke. They're not gorillas. The book makes it clear that they're more of a missing link species that has developed its own rudimentary language.

Named Tarzan by his adopted tribe, the boy grows up to become an apex predator. Weaker than the apes, but stronger than any normal man, Tarzan's greatest weapon is his clever mind and the eventual discovery of his parents' beach hut, where he slowly begins to learn using tools and even teaches himself to read English.

A tribe of cannibals, driven deeper into the jungle by colonialist firepower, settle near the area and one of their hunters kills Kala. Tarzan avenges her and begins to raid their village from time to time for supplies and pranks, as they think he's some kind of jungle spirit.

As he grows to maturity, another group of explorers is marooned at the same beach. A professor Archimedes Q. Porter has led an expedition to discover lost gold, succeeded, and the crew turned pirate on him and his family. Among the marooned are Jane Porter, the professor's lovely daughter, and William Cecil Clayton, Tarzan's cousin and heir to the Greystoke estate. Stunned at seeing other people that look like him, Tarzan's attraction to Jane draws him away from his simple jungle life and into the affairs of mankind.

There is a LOT going on under what is, on the surface, a straightforward tale of jungle adventure. The beginning taps into the same vein of classic adventure stories like The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Captains Courageous. As Tarzan grows, Burroughs frequently meditates on nature vs nurture themes, and how even removed from any human contact or experience, Tarzan's human qualities set him apart from everything around him. He is the noble savage; clear of mind and decisive, clever but needlessly cruel, a peak physical specimen, uncorrupted by the needless complications of civilization.

As for the topic of race, Tarzan's antagonism toward the cannibal tribe comes from a personal place: they killed his adopted mother. Esmeralda, Jane's black servant, frequently falls into “Lawdy lawdy” stereotypes, but she's also one of the few who understands the danger of the situation. Professor Porter and his colleague Samuel T. Philander are even worse stereotypes: the bumbling academics who are too stupid and oblivious to function in real danger. The two of them wander off into the jungle one night, get hopelessly lost, and argue about the merits of Moorish civilization while a lion patiently follows them around until Tarzan rescues them. Its played for laughs, but hammers home their uselessness. 

William Clayton isn't a bad man, but he's something of a fop and a soft fellow who wilts when real pressure arises. Civilization has made him weak. The only people, white or black, who aren't treated as weak or villainous are Tarzan, his dead parents, Jane Porter, and Lieutenant D'Arnot, a French officer who shows up later in the book to help Tarzan enter into Western Civilization.

Action sequences remain a highlight of Burroughs' style, with a believable escalation from Tarzan killing a gorilla with a rusty knife at the age of 10 to driving a car and swinging around Wisconsin in the middle of a forest fire. That happens, and the road to how Tarzan gets from point a to point b is a roaring good time, and it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger.

If it were just a solid action-adventure story, it would be worth it, but Burroughs works in some deep thinking as well that adds another dimension to the story.

Absolutely recommended.

That glorious Neal Adams cover art from the 70s deserves its own showcase. Wowza.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Sad, Slow Death of Playboy

Its like the stars aligned to find the perfect cover for this essay

So Playboy is going to a quarterly format

Its been interesting seeing the slow decline of the once-mighty sultan of smut over the years. Failure to adapt to the rise of high-speed internet sealed its eventual fate in the 00s; but then the company went private in 2011; founder Hugh Hefner became less and less involved with the company as he grew older and older; the investment team that helped take Playboy private, Rizvi Traverse, bought up 60 percent of the stock while Hef was alive; then made the decision to remove nude models from the magazine in 2015 to “focus on hard-hitting journalism and ground breaking interviews.”

That was a disaster that drove away long-term subscribers and in early 2017 Playboy reversed that decision, but didn't go back to full frontal. 

Hefner died in 2017 and Rizvi Traverse bought out the rest of the company's stocks.

At this point, the value of Playboy is as a Brand. A logo that can be placed on merchandise and sold. Nobody really seems to care about the magazine itself anymore, and the first article linked above says that it sells a paltry couple hundred thousand copies per issue. But if nobody cares about the product itself, nobody's going to care about the Brand.

Say what you will about the moral value (or lack thereof) of the King of Nudie Mags, but it was a success story dating back to when Eisenhower was president. It found an audience and catered to it, and expanded to an instantly recognizable brand. It was smut for men who wanted to feel sophisticated, and the photo layouts reflected that. Would-be rivals like Penthouse and Hustler rose up to cater to men who wanted more explicit photos, but Playboy itself continued on with its mystique of glamour.

Glamour was key to Playboy's lasting success. Sure it had interviews, articles and short stories that drew praise here and there, but the core of it was selling the idealized vision of the female body. From the lighting to the costuming to the hair to the makeup to even the airbrushing, Playboy tried to elevate its pictorials to more than the sum of its dirty parts. What it sold, was the dream of Beauty. It was what your dad and your granddad would “read.” It was an American institution, and a time capsule of what men found attractive over the last half-century. “Entertainment for Men.” It was spelled out right on the cover.

Its no surprise that the standard-bearer for the Sexual Revolution would lose its loyal audience when it covered up its centerfolds. Its also no surprise that its struggling to stay alive or even just relevant when the internet offers whatever nudie pics you could want, even glamorous softcore inspired by Playboy itself. Penthouse has gone through several bankruptcies and buyouts over the years (and produced Caligula), but its still committed to its identity as the racier version of Playboy, and will probably outlive it.

Oh hey, its Norm Macdonald. He's having a rough week too.

What is clear is that Playboy itself is effectively dead, and has been for a while. The guy in overall charge of it, Ben Kohn “was never a fan of the magazine.” That makes about as much sense as making someone who never liked Star Wars in charge... of... Lucasfilm

Its almost like there's a pattern here

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Pre-Tolkien Fantasy: The Abominations of Yondo and The Voice in the Night

Finishing up the Pre-Tolkien FantasyChallengeI'm going to roll the last 2 reviews into because the stories are quite short.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was considered one of the Big Three writers of Weird Tales (the others being his friends Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft). Despite outliving either of them, he's fallen into relative obscurity, despite his contributions to both Lovecraftian Horror and Sword & Sorcery.

The Abominations of Yondo was published in April, 1926 in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, a California-based magazine with publication going back to 1868. It had published such authors as Mark Twain, Bret Harte (who was its Editor in Chief during its early years), Willa Cather, Jack London and John Muir. In short, it was respectable.

The nameless narrator of Abominations finds himself released into the desolate wasteland of Yondo by the cruel Inquisitors of Ong. Having been tortured for an unknown blasphemy, he narrates his journeys through a strange desert and his encounters with weird creatures, broken ruins, and horrifying monsters until his resolve breaks and he flees back the way he came.

This is mood piece, and a strong one at that. We have no idea who the narrator is, nor what his crime was. Ong is described as a lion-headed god, but that's all we learn about him or his Inquisition. The occupants of Yondo are even weirder in this wasteland at the literal edge of the world. Who they are, what they are, and why they are is all left to the reader's imagination as the narrator flees through this nightmare world.

There is absolutely nothing comparable to “standard” Tolkien-derivative fantasy within it, but the monsters are maddeningly Lovecraftian, while the cult of Ong would fit right in with Howard's Hyborean Age.

Finding a good cover of this specific issue of Blue Book was not feasible, so here's the Toho movie poster instead. 

The Voice in the Night was published in the November 1907 issue of Blue Book Magazine (essentially Redbook's cooler sibling that ceased publication in 1975, and a competitor of Argosy). Its author, William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was an adventurous figure in his own right. Sailor, bodybuilder, and photographer, he returned to England and enlisted during World War I and was killed in action at the Fourth Battle of Ypres at the age of 40.

Like many of his short stories, The Voice in the Night is set at sea, where land-based humans are especially vulnerable. In it, the crew of a schooner in the North Pacific are hailed by a rowboat begging for food. When the narrator tries to shine his light out, the rowboat paddles out of view. Promising to put away the light, the captain of the schooner sends out a box of foodstuffs. The mysterious rower returns, and relates his sad story.

He and his fiancee were abandoned by the crew of their ship and forced to make a raft. Coming upon an island covered in strange gray fungi, they also find a derelict ship moored there. The fungus grew on the ship in tall piles, but they were able to survive on the ships' stores for a while. Until the fungus started growing on them. Whenever they clean it off, it grows back. Fleeing to a patch of beach untouched by the fungus, but overcome by hunger, both eat some of it, and find it difficult to resist eating it.

Realizing that they cannot ever return to civilization because of how contagious this stuff is, they resolve to quietly meet their fate on the island, and the rower commends the crew of the schooner to God for their generosity toward him and his fiancee. In the morning light, the narrator on the schooner catches a glimpse of the rower as a covered in gray fungal growths and barely recognizable as human.

Addictive gray fungus with unstoppable growth that ultimately consumes whatever it grows on is horrifying enough, but there's a deep layer of Christianity that gives the doomed couple dignity. When approached by the ship, the man actively avoids coming into contact with them, to avoid contamination. When the fiancee is infected, she knows they can't leave the island for the good of humanity. Rescue is impossible, but the two face their impending deaths with a signature British stiff upper lip and belief in the ultimate mercy of God.

Just imagine anything like that getting released through a major traditional publisher these days.

Curiously enough, The Voice in the Night would serve as the basis for the 1963 Ishiro “I Created Godzilla” Honda movie Matango.

Liberties... were taken.

What's been most interesting to me about this exercise has been in how the lines of what is "Fantasy" get blurred the further back in time you go. Weird fiction, horror, ghost stories; those are all integral parts of what Fantasy is. Tolkien certainly knew this when creating Middle-Earth, but he wrote The Lord of the Rings in a conscious effort to create a quintessentially English Epic (in the Beowulf sense). Magic was weird and rare in his works, but the dwarves and elves and hobbits and orcs are, basically, people. They have histories and cultures, songs and art. They're funny-looking humans, in a lot of ways. 

That's fine, because Tolkien was a smart guy and knew that what he was doing was the exception, and not the rule. Fantasy itself is a no-limits kind of genre. Everything is possible within it, if its presented convincingly enough. 

The problem arises from those who wanted to be the next Tolkien. Ponderous doorstoppers with twenty book series that lie unfinished at their creators' deaths, Dry and dusty histories of the world and long names with gratuitous hyphens and apostrophes chained within them. The elves, and the dwarves, and the orcs, and the hobbitshalflings are all pretty much the same as how Tolkien wrote them but without the weightiness. And with Tolkien undergoing the slow process of erasure by the Modernists that poison the genre, the way forward isn't through the evolutionary cul-de-sac of Epic Fantasy that would like to forget its own founding father for the sin of being Catholic. 

It needs to reclaim horror from the ghetto of jump scares and generic serial killers. Fantasy needs to start telling more ghost stories and unexplained just-so stories. If Fantasy is to grow, it needs to get WEIRD again. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Pre-Tolkien Fantasy: Rip Van Winkle

Classics Illustrated because the actual first edition was from a time before cover art

Alexandru over at Barbarian Book Club posted a challenge on his blog: Review three fantasy short stories from before Lord of the Rings' publication date of 1954 and spotlight the similarities and differences in them. (And share the challenge, which I'm doing with you right now.)

My recent deep dive into pulp literature has me reading tons of pre-Tolkien SFF, so rather than dust off another Robert E. Howard story so soon after a bunch of Conan and Solomon Kane, I figured I'd dive deeper. Regress even harder, if you will.

So I went to the Nineteenth Century.

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was a short story and essay collection published in serial format between 1819 and 1920, a full century before Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing his early John Carter and Tarzan stories. Written under the pseudonym “Geoffrey Crayon” the book was the first international blockbuster for Washington Irving (1783-1859).

Essayist, historian, author, traveler and diplomat, Irving was a cultured man who harbored a deep love for the Hudson River Valley of New York State. The Sketch Book features a varied collection of stories, fictionalized real-life events, travelogue essays and so forth that are written in a smooth, easygoing style that rolls off the pages with endless charm. However, only a few of the stories within qualify as fantasy, and they are two of his most famous pieces.

Written under the literary conceit of being “discovered” by a (completely fictional) historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow have become fixtures of the American literary folklore, but they're both complete fantasies, made up, as far as I could determine, by Irving himself.

Rip Van Winkle tells the story of the eponymous Dutch-American colonist living in a sleepy village along the Catskill, err, Kaatskill Mountains. Rip is a kind and gentle man, but lazy. Always willing to help other people out with stuff, but never able to get his own affairs in order, his condition isn't helped by his formidable harridan of a wife, who scolds and scolds and scolds him endlessly.

His only real companion is his dog Wolf, and his only real escape is to run away into the mountains to hunt or fish. On one such hunting trip, he gets high up into the mountains one autumn day, and as the sun begins to set, he hears his name being called. A strange man in outdated clothes is carrying a keg up the mountain, and beckons Rip to help him. The two carry the keg to a clearing where several more men in similarly outdated clothes are playing a serious game of ninepins, their stern leader resembling famed explorer Henry, err, Hendrick Hudson. Silently drafting Rip to be their bartender, he eventually gets into the booze himself, and quickly falls asleep.

Henry Hudson, Catskills Ninepins Champion: All Year, Every Year

He wakes to find his musket rusted, his dog missing, and his joints aching. Working his way back down the mountain, he finds the village completely different. Buildings are changed, the portrait of King George over the village inn is replaced with someone called George Washington. After some confusion, Rip learns he's been asleep for twenty years and he missed the entire Revolution.

Its not all bad for him, though. He's reunited with his grown children, learns his wife died years ago, and he's now reached that age where sitting around the local inn as a town patriarch telling stories and drinking won't get him in trouble.

The story has mythological antecedents with tales of the King Under the Mountain popular in the German Alps and with countless stories with similar plotlines going back as far as ancient Greece of a mortal man stumbling upon a magical revelry and then losing years of his life. Much like Tolkien, Irving was dipping into history and myth and bolting it on to his story. Also like Tolkien, he used poetry to add texture and mood to his pieces.

Unlike Tolkien, there isn't much of a conflict here. Rip Van Winkle is told as a folk tale, an episode in the life of a small town. There is no great conflict (aside from Rip's shrewish wife). Rip is merely living his day-to-day life until chance draws him into the Weird and it changes his life forever. The stakes are very small here. Most adaptations of the story, like Will Vinton's 1978 Claymation version, have to add some kind of conflict to wring out a runtime. 

Come for the fairy tale, stay for the prog-rock acid trip

Like Tolkien, the simple pastoral life is elevated, and Rip himself would fit right in with the good folk of the Shire. Irving goes to great lengths to describe the Hudson River Valley in loving detail that settles over the reader like a warm blanket. Its folksly and very, very comfortable.

Rip Van Winkle is a charming, incidental story that has a lot of small details going on under the surface of what is seemingly a lost folktale. Its short, and absolutely worth your time.