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Golden-Eyed He Was, And Dark

June 7th, 2012 No comments

Like a lot of other boys growing up with an interest in things science-fictional, I was inexorably drawn to the works of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury wrote a lot about ghosts, rocketships and Martians, as well as the joys and horrors of growing up and growing old. I remember devouring my paperback copy of “R is for Rocket” in the back seat of my dad’s car on our yearly trips out west. To be sure, Bradbury was the biggest influence on my early attempts at short fiction, with TV’s The Twilight Zone a close second.* For many years, I claimed Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favorite novel.

During my year in Los Angeles, I attended the 70th birthday party of sci-fi fan extraordinaire Forrest J. Ackerman. Well, not so much “attended” as “crashed.” Carrying an oversized latex bust of Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. It was that kind of time for me.

Anyhow, there was Ray Bradbury. I stood across the lobby outside the hotel ballroom where the dinner was taking place, watching him talk to whom I presumed to be other sci-fi luminaries. And as much as I wanted to go up and tell the man what a profound impact he’d had on me, I was just too chickenshit to step forward. I greatly regretted the missed opportunity…even going so far as to later draft a “love letter” of sorts that I never actually sent.

Sometime in the mid-’90s, I was watching Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, a TV series featuring an irreverent roundtable of celebrities, experts and comedians. And I was floored by what was coming out of Ray Bradbury’s mouth: vile, sexist talk about women. I’m not certain whether this was the infamous occasion on which Bradbury defended alleged serial sexual abuser Robert Packwood by saying (I’m paraphrasing here) “who hasn’t pinched their secretary?” but it would’ve been around the right time. I was horrified. This was the man who wrote such beautiful, lyrical prose? Who taught me about the eternal rains of Venus and the dangers of stepping on butterflies?

That disillusionment had subsided a few years later when Bradbury arrived in town for a lecture/book signing  at the University of Illinois. After his talk, I was once again in a position to crash the afterparty.** This time there would be no regrets; at a quiet moment, I sat down near him and struck up a conversation. I don’t recall all of what I said. I suppose that I told him about my previous near encounter. I know I asked him if there were any recent sci-fi films that he felt lived up to those he’d enjoyed in his youth (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Here too I found myself wondering whom this Bradbury-shaped person really was. He had veered off onto an anti-technological track, proclaiming at one point that no one ever made a friend via a computer.*** It was unsettling. I thought, “This Luddite is the person who wrote so passionately about tomorrow?”

Somewhere along the line Bradbury took a hard turn to the right, politically.**** He went so far as to vociferously claim that his best-known novel, Fahrenheit 451–the story of futuristic book-burners that has inspired librarians for decades–was never about censorship at all. It was about the dangers of television. Okay, sure, Ray. Please back away from the typewriter.

Ray Bradbury’s death earlier this week was the coda for those who most shaped my love of literary sci-fi, the A, B, C of Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. I wish that I was truly sad about it. I feel that the man whose visions I found so inspirational vanished into the Martian desert years ago.

For the final thing that Ray Bradbury taught me was the importance of never getting to know one’s idols.

*Surprisingly, Ray contributed only one story to TZ, “I Sing the Body Electric,” and it was not one of their better outings.

**Associating with news people doth have its privileges.

***Decidedly not true, in my case. The first time I got laid was with someone I met over a computer. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. She lived in the dorm next door; the computer was how she chose to introduce herself. But I digress.

****Comics writer/historian Mark Evanier’s own obituary of Bradbury offers some similar observations on the unpleasant turn he took in his later years.

Categories: Books Tags: ,

31 Monstrous Failures #6: The Shunned House

October 6th, 2011 No comments

Author H.P. Lovecraft may have been one of the grand masters of horror fiction, but every once in a while his attempts to hint at vast, unknowable creatures from before the dawn of man took a crooked turn into the absurd.

One of Lovecraft’s tricks was to describe his terrible beasts as indescribable. He’d toss in a few words like “rugose,” “squamous” and “batrachian,” and allow the reader to fill in the picture. Another was to focus on one physical feature, such as the “three-lobed burning eye” of the evil god Nyarlathotep.

It’s the latter that resulted in the less-than-effective big reveal of the beast buried in the cellar of…

The Shunned House!

This is the actual house that provided the location for Lovecraft’s story, and it’s still standing on a street in Providence, Rhode Island.

Its fictional counterpart was more imposing, an abandoned structure with a malign presence that produced strange fungal growths and turned men into monsters. After witnessing the transformation and dissolution of his uncle, the protagonist of the tale decided to dig down to the source of the evil and dump several jars of sulfuric acid on it.

Suddenly my spade struck something softer than earth. I shuddered and made a motion as if to climb out of the hole, which was now as deep as my neck. Then courage returned, and I scraped away more dirt in the light of the electric torch I had provided. The surface I uncovered was fishy and glassy – a kind of semi-putrid congealed jelly with suggestions of translucency. I scraped further, and saw that it had form. There was a rift where a part of the substance was folded over. The exposed area was huge and roughly cylindrical; like a mammoth soft blue-white stovepipe doubled in two, its largest part some two feet in diameter. Still more I scraped, and then abruptly I leaped out of the hole and away from the filthy thing; frantically unstopping and tilting the heavy carboys, and precipitating their corrosive contents one after another down that charnel gulf and upon this unthinkable abnormality whose titan elbow I had seen.

That’s right; the “unspeakably shocking” thing that would haunt this man’s dreams until the day he passed from the Earth was a big elbow.

Oh well, they can’t all be Cthulhu.

We’ve Crossed The Border(s), And We’re Not Coming Back

February 14th, 2011 No comments

Updated (2/16): See below.

I’ve dreaded this development for years: the Borders bookstore chain is headed for bankruptcy. I’ve long been a loyal Borders customer, thanks in large part to the constant reinforcement of cascading discounts. Hardly a week goes by without at least one visit, and I usually walk out with something.

I never fully understood why Borders always struggled in comparison to rival Barnes & Noble. Granted that–here in Champaign, at least–B&N tended to be the better stocked, but Borders handed out free coupons like candy while its counterpart charged $25 a year for the privilege of saving 10 percent. When I had my Borders-branded Visa, I existed in a consumerist spiral of discounted books and DVDs that earned me Borders Bucks that allowed me to buy more books and DVDs at even steeper discounts and accumulate still more points.

I know that I abused the system; despite warnings that multiple uses of a given coupon during its cycle constituted fraud, I might drop by several times in one weekend when there was an especially meaty one. The golden ticket–40% off any item–was a clarion call to let my printer rip.

I may have been part of the problem.

Yet, in my mind, I made up for it in volume. I have bought a lot of books these past few years, and I wasn’t buying them on Amazon.

It’s too early to tell if Borders will go the K-Mart route (still in existence, albeit without a store within 30 miles of my house) or that of Circuit City (going, going, gone). Hopefully, our outlet will escape the purge. If not, we’ll be down to a B&N, a couple of used book sellers and the campus bookstore. Last week, USA Today speculated that small book dealers may make a comeback, but ours–Pages for All Ages–is long dead.

And it’s all the Internet’s fault.

Okay, you can’t assign blame to a series of tubes.* Besides, it’s a specious argument that ignores other concurrent technological and societal changes. But there’s no ignoring that the infinite timesink of the Web, the rise of the tablet computer, the mass acceptance of e-books, and the 80,000-pound cybernetic gorilla that is Amazon.com have combined to make selling slabs of wood pulp out of a locally-operated brick pile an untenable business.

I’m very sorry to see that happen.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my iPad.

Really. I LOOOOOOVE MY iPAD.

If you’d told Ten-Year-Old Me that 35 years later he’d be carting around an object that contained hundreds of record albums, a thousand books and all the comics he could ever hope to read; that it would play video games, offer movies on demand and allow him to access the sum of all human knowledge**, Ten-Year-Old Me would’ve said “No fucking way!” Actually, no he wouldn’t have, because Ten-Year-Old Me didn’t talk like that. Ten-Year-Old Me was a good boy. But he would’ve been desperate to get those 35 years out of the way so that he could have the Precious.

Forty-Six-Year-Old Me worries that it’s too much, too fast. It’s not just the book publishing business that’s been affected, but magazines, newspapers, music, movies, radio and television***. And I have a vested interest in that last one. Retirement is an awfully long time off with changes occurring at microchip speed.

The thing is, I have a hard time blaming anyone for the dissolution of the media forms I hold dear. Truthfully, it is faster, easier and cheaper to push bits around. It’s hard to argue for the relative inefficiency of physical offices full of people with insurance policies and pensions, when most of the work can be done from a central location with a small staff.

It all makes sense. Hence comes the fear.

I wonder, when the time arrives and the last of the buggy whip factories close, what are all of these booksellers, editors, journalists, publishers, engineers, etc. etc. etc. going to do? When one person can do the work of fifty, how are we going to keep the other 49 occupied?

And don’t tell me that we’re all better off without the middlemen who got in the way of the creative folks behind the content. The artistic Utopia of self-publishing will only be viable so long as there are people making enough money to afford ephemeral, virtual non-essentials. Maybe you don’t need us to distribute your crap, but you need us to buy your crap.

So, the book stores are closing. The newspapers are shuttering. The broadcasters are next. It’s the end of the world as I know it.

At least, that’s what I read on my iPad.

*At least, not until it attains self-awareness. Which will be soon, meatbags.

**Well, the important pop-cultural parts, anyway.

***And the Post Office. And the printers. And the paper sellers. And the lumberjacks. Why does no one ever think of the lumberjacks?

Updated: Our local Borders survives. So far.

Stephen King Is Paid By The Pound

November 30th, 2009 No comments

It took two weeks, but yesterday afternoon I finished reading Under the Dome, Stephen King’s 1,060+ page magnum opus about a small town which suddenly finds itself trapped underneath an invisible force bubble.

Many articles about the novel have cited its similarity to The Simpsons Movie–in which a glass dome is lowered over Homer’s city of Springfield–but the idea is older than that. In Arch Oboler’s 1966 3-D film The Bubble, aliens sealed a trio of travelers in a spooky community populated by pre-programmed townfolk.

And, when you get right down to it, it’s your basic Twilight Zone concept: trap a group of people under mysterious circumstances and watch them turn on each other. It’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” writ large.

While Under the Dome covers some of that familiar “Maple Street” ground–our tendency to look for enemies amongst our neighbors–it’s really about the cruelty of crowds. A collective may commit atrocities that would never occur to a single person. The specter of Abu Gharib haunts the memories of the book’s lead character, an ex-soldier named Dale Barbara.

The story is set in the near future during President Obama’s second term, but it appears to be looking back to the Bush/Cheney administration. King evokes its incompetence and venality in the personage of Chester’s Mill’s ineffective First Selectman Andy Sanders and the power behind the throne, Big Jim Rennie.

Rennie proves that one need not resort to aliens or vampires to peer deep into evil. A scripture-quoting hypocrite, he studiously avoids bad words (“clustermug” is a favored substitute) even as he sows terror, commits bare-handed murder and operates the largest meth lab in the country. One of his verbal tics is to suggest, with each new death under his watch, that the deceased is now sitting at Jesus’ table eating pork chops and/or peach cobbler. By the end of the book, Jesus needs to add several extra leaves to that table.

Big Jim pursues power without purpose. His drug business has brought him millions of dollars, yet he has no ambitions beyond lording it over his small community. He sees the Dome as an opportunity to make his dominance permanent, backed up by a newly-minted police force composed of the town’s worst thugs.

I’d originally thought that Under the Dome would be a portrayal of the long-term effects of life with ever-diminishing supplies and a breakdown of the old social order, and I’d still like to read that book. Instead, King’s working under a much-accelerated timeline. Chester’s Mill is a (literal) bomb waiting to be set off, and it takes only days for everything to go to hell.

The story is frustrating at times. Rennie is one of those bad guys with an uncanny knack of being three steps ahead of the good guys. Our heroes are woefully disorganized, with an unfortunate tendency to confront Big Jim one at a time. Not a good idea, especially if he’s in arm’s reach of his golden baseball.

If I have one disappointment with Under the Dome, it’s that there’s never a big showdown of ideologies. We don’t find out how the community at large reacts once the wheels begin coming off Big Jim’s Hummer. This is a story in which good perseveres because it runs for the hills once the shit comes down.

While there aren’t any true monsters here (except perhaps for a few ghosts), there are a pair of hideous creatures. Junior Rennie is unknowingly in the final stages of brain cancer which turns him into a killer and necrophiliac. Then there’s the self-styled Chef who runs the meth factory, a cadaverous character who sees God’s work in every crystal.

There’s also at least one mythical creature among King’s vast cast. The publisher of the town paper is an allegedly dyed-in-the-wool Republican who drives a Prius and appears to value facts and reason over Rennie’s appeals to base emotion. But hey, I guess I can allow the author one completely unbelievable idea.

Don’t go Under the Dome expecting the truly unexpected. When it comes to the nature and purpose of the invisible bubble, King tips his hand relatively early. The answer is one which would’ve seemed familiar to Rod Serling.

That said, it’s an engrossing book. It’s only easy to put down because it’s so damned heavy.

31 Monsters #23: Orcs

October 23rd, 2009 No comments

Hail the Lowly Orc
by David Thiel

Hail the lowly Orc!

Created by Tolkien, a worthy foe
That might make a hobbit dinner
Yet for dwarf and elf
You find yourself
Merely score to prove a winner.

Fell Orc, you are basic currency
Of any fantasy campaign
When horns do sound
In lairs underground
You and yours are swiftly slain.

A complication, an obstacle
Twixt us and fiends of measure
Your possessions few
We will accrue
For our weighty bags of treasure.

So hail foul Orc! You are not much
Minion, lackey, henchman, goon
Yet without your kind
So much maligned
Heroic quests would end too soon.

Categories: Books Tags: , , ,

31 Monsters #9: Lovecraftian Horrors

October 9th, 2009 No comments

As I became aware of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I found that I had a hard time getting past the names of his cosmic horrors. Really, you want me to be afraid of something called Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young?

After my initial childish glee, I began to take a closer look and found that some of his themes coincided with my own philosophy about the nature of reality. No, I don’t think that there are squid-like, alien gods waiting for their chance to descend upon humanity in an orgy of madness and death. But a central theme of what’s been dubbed “Lovecraftian” fiction is that humans are nothing special. We are not the first inhabitants of Earth by a long shot, nor will we be the last. We are insignificant specks in a unfathomably vast, uncaring universe.

But hey, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun while it lasts! So here is my handy guide to determine whether you, the reader, are a Lovecraftian horror.

lovecraftflowchart

Man Of Bronze, Man Of Science

June 1st, 2009 No comments

Recently I’ve been reading reprints of the old Doc Savage pulps. I believe that the last time I did so was in high school, so I’m more or less rediscovering them at this point. I may get into more detail about Doc and his exploits in a future post, but the three things you need to know to appreciate the following excerpt from “The Land of Terror” are as follows:

  1. The year is 1933.
  2. Doc Savage is the pinnacle of physical and mental development. His five assistants are all geniuses in their respective scientific fields, but Doc knows more than all of them combined. 
  3. The author, Lester Dent, constantly fawns over Doc and points out his perfection at every available opportunity.

I’ve long mocked ’50s and ’60s comics for their lousy grasp of science, but here’s a corker from an earlier decade, made all the more ironic because Doc is just so fucking confident about everything he says. 

“I am not sure what the Smoke of Eternity is,” Doc explained. “But I have an idea what it could be. When the substance dissolves anything, there is a weird electrical display. This leads me to believe it operates through the disintegration of atoms. In other words, the dissolving is simply a disruption of the atomic structure.”

“I thought it was generally believed there would be a great explosion once the atom was shattered!” Johnny murmured.

“That was largely disproved by recent accomplishments of scientists who have succeeded in cracking the atom,” Doc corrected. “I have experimented extensively along that line myself. “There is no explosion, for the very simple reason that it takes as much energy to shatter the atom as is released.”

Whew, that’s a relief. Doc Savage’s supreme knowledge of nuclear physics has just saved us from 60 years of Cold War and “smoking mushroom clouds.” Hiroshima applauds you, Doc.

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies And Tedium

May 16th, 2009 No comments

As I reached the halfway point of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it began to dawn on me that I’d been tricked. Oh sure, there were the promised undead and even some bonus ninjas, but I realized that perhaps 95% of the time, I was, in fact, actually reading Pride and Prejudice. The real one. 

It may surprise you that I–a 20+ year public TV veteran–have not only never read any Jane Austen, but never even watched a for-real TV or movie adaptation all the way through. I’m pretty sure that Clueless and Bride and Prejudice don’t count. 

I don’t have a problem with romances. Granted that I prefer a romantic comedy to a straight-up love story, but I’m enough of a lovestruck fool that I can appreciate a bit of sentimentality. Especially if the actress is hot.

What I don’t like are romances in which the obstacles standing in the way of true love are entirely self-imposed. I mean the sort of stories in which the lovers in question could easily find true happiness if only they could get over themselves/their honor/their social class. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent example. Lots of people were swept away by its tragic, doomed relationship. I, on the other hand, was just pissed off. I spent most of the movie mentally shouting, “For crying out loud, just shut up about your damned destiny and kiss her!”

Similarly, I couldn’t stand the ’80s TV show Beauty and the Beast. If you don’t recall that one, it was about a district attorney played by Linda Hamilton who fell in love with a broody, bestial, underground dweller played by Ron Perlman. The title sequence’s tag line went something like “We can never be together, but we’ll never be apart.” See, apparently it just wouldn’t do for a district attorney to be seen with someone who looked like Ron Perlman, only with fangs and a bit of a mane. And so began an endless “oh no, we mustn’t” faux-mance, never mind that Linda Hamilton was living in New York City, where there are plenty of real-life people scarier-looking than Ron Perlman. Really, all they had to do was give “Vincent” a haircut, a manicure, a bit of dental work and a decent tailor, and those two crazy kids could’ve been happily having litters of kittens.

In my view, true love doesn’t let shit like that stand in the way. If you’re really mutually head over heels, you make it work. And if you don’t, or won’t, you need to shut the hell up about it.

Which brings me back to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or, as I think of it, Pride and Prejudice (with zombies). There’s a point about 200 pages in at which it’s very clear that all of the interested parties have realized their mutual interest, and all that’s standing between them and the words “THE END” is an awful lot of yakking about social standing and what the neighbors will think. Hungry undead or no hungry undead, I found myself skimming ever more quickly through the last hundred pages.

I’m certainly glad that if I had to read Pride and Prejudice, it was the zombie variant. It’s just that even the zombies weren’t enough.

Me Of Little Faith: The Not-So-Great Escape

April 11th, 2009 No comments

On a recent trip to Borders, I was surprised to find Escape from Hell, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s newly published sequel to their 1976 novel Inferno. I had greatly enjoyed the original when I read it back in ’86 during my tumultuous year in Hollywood. I was taken with the tale of a science-fiction writer who found himself in a Hell patterned after the one described in Dante’s Divine Comedy

The notion of Hell has always fascinated me. At first it was something I feared, due in no small part to watching too many Twilight Zone episodes. Later I was obsessed with the dissonance of a loving, fatherly God meting out eternal punishment. I came to believe that no earthly sin, no matter how heinous, justified torture for all time. Yes, that includes Hitler.

Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno came to a similar conclusion, as its narrator encountered souls suffering horrible and cruelly ironic fates for what, in some cases, were relatively minor “sins”: for example, an FDA attorney doomed to an eternity of immobile obesity because she banned a sugar substitute. It was she who spoke the line echoed in Escape from Hell, “We’re in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism.” Ultimately, Inferno suggested that Hell must be only temporary, and that even the worst of humanity could be redeemed. Indeed, at the conclusion of that novel, the protagonist watched a reformed Benito Mussolini climb his way out of the pit.

Escape from Hell seemed to promise that it might address some of the remaining questions from Inferno regarding the purpose and nature of Hell*, but opts instead for posing those questions a second time. In fact, it struck me as less sequel and more remake, with its hero being blown all the way back to the beginning and having to make the perilous journey a second time. In a recent interview Pournelle says that the reason he and Niven revisited the setting after so many years was that they “had a story.” I’m not entirely convinced of that. While there are hints of changes in Hell wrought not only by Mussolini’s escape but by real-world events such as the Vatican II council, these never quite boil into a full-fledged expansion of the plot.

What it does allow is for Niven and Pournelle to toss a whole new batch of sinners into the pitch, including Ken Lay, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Carl Sagan. I was disappointed by the book’s handling of Sagan. In the above-linked interview, Pournelle claims a relationship with the astronomer, so I won’t dispute the authors’ reasons for consigning him to the Inferno. I just felt that, pragmatist or not, Sagan came off as too quickly accepting of a Biblical Hell, and too willing to cooperate with its masters.

It also gets a bit talky at times, with the characters frequently digressing into philosophical discussions. Natural enough, I suppose, but I didn’t feel like they were saying much that hadn’t been covered in the first book. Plus, the authors presume that I have as much interest as they do in the life and work of Sylvia Plath. (The poet is a major character in the sequel.) I can assure them that I don’t.

That said, there were some clever bits in Escape from Hell. One of the most striking images is of a post-9/11 Ground Zero in which an endless series of proposed replacements for the Twin Towers rise, each in turn proving insubstantial and collapsing due to a lack of commitment. In moments such as those, Escape from Hell demonstrates that while it’s far from a necessary sequel, it at least has something new to say.

*In our own world, Hell appears to serve several purposes. The threat of eternal damnation is an inducement for “good” behavior. It’s one method by which religious leaders exert control over their flocks and influence over the rest of us. But I suspect that its most important purpose is to allow us some measure of satisfaction over the rampant injustice we see. We know damned well that–despite aphorisms such as “crime never pays”–horrible people do prosper, and all too often they are never held accountable. Hell allows us to believe that even those who go to their death on a pile of money and whores will meet their just punishment in the afterlife.

Vocabulary Fun

March 30th, 2008 No comments

In an earlier post about Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, I mocked the latter’s overuse of such obscure words as “rugose” and “squamous.” (Another Lovecraft standard: “eldritch.”)

One of Howard’s own favorite words, however, was garden variety: “supple.” The one thing Hyborian Age gals (both types: royalty and whores) had in common was the suppleness of their limbs and even their spines. Sometimes they were “lithe”…but not without being supple.

Typical Zamoran street conversation:

“Why, Octavia, you’re looking quite supple today!”
“Of course, silly! Now, how about some whoring?”

Which is not to say that Howard wasn’t fond of enriching his word power. He liked the word “thew,” as in: “Conan rubbed Turanian jojoba oil into his bronzed thews to keep them supple.”

And it wasn’t enough for the Cimmerian to stab someone with a dagger, when a “poinard” was handy.

But if Howard had any word that was the equivalent of Lovecraft’s “squamous,” it was “sward.” The Hyborian lands were simply blanketed with grassy swards. That is to say that they were swarded. You couldn’t toss a poinard without it landing in a sward.

Thankfully, they were not rugose.