Monday, June 12, 2017

Appendix N Review: The Ship of Ishtar

I'm beginning to come around to the idea that A. Merritt deserves to be considered one of the Grandmasters of fantasy.

The Moon Pool was an imaginative, brilliant, wild adventure of a first novel that lingered a little too long in places before finding its footing for a rip-roaring conclusion.

The Ship of Ishtar is his third book, originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1924, begins simply enough: New York historian John Kenton receives a mysterious block of stone dating back to the reign of Sargon of Akkad and within it finds a beautiful miniature ship made of precious metals and ornaments.

Touching it transports him to a strange world outside of time where the ship is real, endlessly sailing on a sea, where divine mandate demands the two factions of the ship endlessly vie for control of it. Klaneth, the evil priest of Nergal and Sharane, priestess of Ishtar.

The two sides are divinely prohibited from crossing over to the other side, except Kenton, which makes him a desirable ally. Only, its not much of a choice, since Klaneth is so cruel and evil that Kenton immediately rejects his offer of alliance and he then falls in love with Sharane.

Periodically Kenton is flung back to New York, where the events of the book take place over one night. Only in the world of the Ship, months can pass between returns to NYC. At one point he is chained to an oar as a galley slave for a long time, honing his body to a physical peak. Those physical changes come back to the modern world with him. Injuries too.

Despite this, Kenton continuously charges back into the world of the ship, either to explore the mystery of its existence, seeking vengeance against Klaneth, repaying the loyalty of the friends he's made there, or (increasingly) out of his love for Sharane.

I'm not doing the book enough justice. There's so much going on. Action, magic, ancient Babylonian gods, a superhumanly strong drummer named Gigi, a badass redheaded Persian warrior named Zubran, and a Viking named Sigurd who swears blood brotherhood to Kenton and Zubran.

In true adventure fashion, the stakes keep raising and the action keeps ramping up. Kenton is a two-fisted kind of hero, quick to action when he makes his decisions. The romance between him and Sharane starts off rocky. She thinks he's an agent of Nergal when he explains that centuries have passed in the outside world, so her handmaidens chase him out with spears. He then swears to avenge his pride by conquering the ship and then her.

Like I said, a rocky start, but it evolves into a beautiful love story where the two complement each other extremely well.

The situations are deeply imaginative, the prose is often lovely, the action is visceral, and Merritt displays a well-rounded understanding of ancient civilizations as they would have been understood in the early 20th century (Cuneiform had only been reliably translated in the mid-Nineteenth Century, some seventy years before Ship of Ishtar's publication). The culture clash is not as much as one might expect, as Kenton more or less accepts the simpler (but often more brutal) norms of the ancient people he finds himself among.

For instance, the Ship is rowed by galley slaves. Kenton himself is made a slave before freeing himself. After he takes over the ship there is no emancipation. Its a bit odd, considering how the heroes in The Moon Pool are more keen to bring modern values to the underground world, but you have to consider this: The person from a time period closest to Kenton is a Viking from the 9th Century. Everyone Kenton meets comes from a civilization that, yes indeed, took and used slaves. The modern man is outnumbered, and good luck trying to convince a bunch of non-modern people that slavery is bad.

Ultimately its a minor quibble that is handwaved away. Its not important to the story at hand because in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh its also not important, and that is the kind of thing Merritt is tapping into.

Where was I?

The Ship of Ishtar is good. Damn good. Read it. And when you do read it, keep an eye on Zubran, because the arc he undergoes is subtle but amazing. 

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

My music is for Phoenix. Only she can sing it. Anyone else who tries, dies!

Phantom of the Paradise is a 1974 camp horror/fantasy/comedy/penny dreadful rock opera by a young Brian De Palma who was just getting off the ground. His big breakout film, Carrie, would come two years later in 1976 and the rest is history, as they say.

The movie's nuts. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a sensitive singer/songwriter type common in the 70s, and is working on a concept cantata adaptation of Faust. He tries to approach Swan (Paul Williams), the mysterious producer who runs Death Records and the biggest name in the music biz. Swan wants to open up a concert hall called The Paradise and Winslow wants to get signed.

Well, Swan likes the song but not Winslow, so he has his assistant Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) feed him a line about signing him and steals the song, which Winslow believes for a while, but after hearing dead silence for a month, returns to see what's happening and finds a bunch of women auditioning to sing the song he wrote. One of them, Phoneix (Jessica Harper), catches his eye and they have a moment, but Winslow is thrown out (multiple times) and Swan has him put away for life on trumped up charges.

After a rough time, Winslow escapes, smashes up Death Records a bit and disappears after an accident involving a record press, presumed dead. Then musicians start ending up dead, killed by a grotesque, deformed Phantom who haunts the Paradise. Swan, though, is more than he seems, and has sinister plans for the Phantom and Phoenix.

Oh yeah, and there's a crazy Glam rocker named Beef (Gerrit Graham) who's in the movie for a short while but steals every scene he's in.

Visually, the movie is a technicolor-soaked acid trip with plenty of surrealistic camera tricks that often work to unsettle you. If you haven't noticed from the character names above, we're in Allegory Town, and not reality, so the more stylized the world becomes the better.

More than that, the look of the Phantom himself is fantastic. Tight black leather, cape, black lipstick, metal teeth, electric voice box on his chest, obvious scarring on half of his face and bizarre mask that's either creepy or goofy depending on the angle. He's like Darth Vader's Gothic rock opera cousin, only three years before Star Wars.

The acting goes full ham, or, Beef, as the case may be. Beef is a prancing, pill-popping glam prima donna who still manages to be one of the most sympathetic characters. He's a head case who's in over his head at the Paradise, but largely innocent.

Phoenix is probably the most grounded character, which makes sense as the plot pivots around her (whether she knows it or not). She just wants to sing and be famous, and her willingness to do anything for that goal helps escalate things.

Winslow/The Phantom starts off as a nice guy goofball who wants to be famous but isn't sure how to break into the industry. He gets taken for a ride and his work is stolen (not uncommon, if you know anything about the early music industry) and he flips out. As Winslow, Finley plays him a bit close to being too over the top to be sympathetic, while as the Phantom he dials it up even further, which makes him more sympathetic. Weird, maybe, but it works really well.

Swan's the most fascinating character, and largely because of Paul Williams. Williams was/is a very successful songwriter who penned a large number of 60s-70s hits, songs for films, and frequent acting roles. You might recognize him as Little Enos in Smokey and the Bandit or the voice of the Penguin from Batman: The Animated Series.

Swan's riveting because his voice is smooth, his demeanor is calm, and he's got an unassuming baby face that gives him a youthful innocence. Which juxtaposes perfectly with how much of a manipulative asshole he is. Swan's evil. Unquestionably, unrepentantly evil. And he revels in it, which is itself a joy to watch.

Williams ends up being the cornerstone of the movie, writing the songs for the soundtrack as well. They're unified by themes of dying for art and selling one's soul for fame, from the doo-wop style teen tragedy song that opens the film right on through to the haunting “The Hell of It” that rolls over the end credits.

Those same themes carry through the script, written by Brian De Palma and an uncredited Louisa Rose, and it also draws heavily from classic horror. Faust being the most obvious, of course, but also The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, PsychoThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Picture of Dorian Gray. If you're going to steal ideas, might as well go whole hog. It works well here and the movie never bogs down like, say The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which was released a year later in 1975).

It is, I would say, a much, much better movie than Rocky Horror, but that's subjective taste speaking. I think the songs are better, the characters better defined, the conflict more interesting, and the underlying themes tapping into a more mythic vein. Its been years since I've seen Rocky Horror, but once I got past the “wow, Tim Curry in fishnets is shocking and outrageous” it was a vast stretch of “wow, this is really boring.”

Is there Action? A modest amount, but its all practical effects and explosions, which is nice.

Adventure? Not really. The Paradise is a bubble of Swan's ego, but its in America.

Romance? Quite a bit, but twisted. Winslow's love is what keeps him going once mere revenge is out of the question.

Ideals? This is more of a cautionary penny dreadful tale, but yes. Despite being an unhinged murderer, Winslow ends up fighting for something other than himself.

Mystery? Not a whole lot. The plot is fairly straightforward.

Wonder? Not immediately apparent, but the supernatural abounds and the Faust connections are more than just symbolic.

Phantom of the Paradise is too classy for grindhouse, too weird for mainstream and too good for “cult” movie status. Totally recommended.