Monstober 2016

mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown

Mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown


Since for the last couple of years I’ve kept track of my October viewing and written about it, I’ve gotten in the habit of setting aside movies to watch during the Halloween season. I don’t set a strict schedule, since the odds are against me being able to keep it anyway, and I like to make choices as my mood strikes me, but I did have a stack of movies I had planned on getting to in October. However, once things came together to make October “kaiju month,” even those loose plans went out the window and I ended up spending the first half of the month watching monster movies, many of which are only nominally horror.

That’s OK: as I’ve said before, I’m not a “Shocktober” purist, and I cast a pretty wide net to include science fiction, fantasy and genre pictures during this month. But it did make my list pretty monster-heavy, and as you’ll see I ended up waiting until later in the month to get a very consistent “Halloween” vibe going. In any case, I got my fill of movies this month: at 37 films, including only three I’d seen before, I exceeded last year’s total of 31 movies. (It didn’t hurt that the movies I watched were shorter on average than in previous years, many under 90 minutes). This included several classics I was watching for the first time, as well as a few new releases.

1. Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, 1968)
2. All Monsters Attack aka Godzilla’s Revenge (Ishiro Honda, 1969)
minilla
3. Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967)
4. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) *
5. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) *
6. Rodan (Ishiro Honda, 1956)
7. Destroy All Monsters (Ishiro Honda, 1968)
8. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) *, r
9. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)
10. Godzilla vs. Gigan (Jun Fukuda, 1972)
11. Godzilla vs. Megalon (Jun Fukuda, 1973)
12. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
13. Terror of Mechagodzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1975)
14. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)
15. Phantasm: Ravager (David Hartman, 2016) *
16. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, 2016) *
17. It’s Alive! (Larry Cohen, 1974)
18. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
19. The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja) (Chano Urueta, 1962)
20. The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldicion de la Llorona) (Rafael Baledón, 1963)
lallorona1
21. Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) *
22. Dragon Wars: D-War (Hyung-rae Shim, 2007)
23. Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972)
24. Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981)
25. The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears, 1957) r
26. Daigoro vs. Goliath (Toshihiro Iijima, 1972)
27. Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
28. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (Takao Okawara, 1995)
29. The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)
30. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973)
31. How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock, 1958)
32. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973)
33. Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) *
34. Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2015) *
35. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
36. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) r
37. Night Train to Terror (John Carr, Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Greg Tallas, 1985)
night-train

* theatrical screening
r repeat viewing

(Sorry, no elaborate key to themes and images this year–maybe next time.)

david-pumpkins1

I also watched a few short films that don’t really fit on the list: a pair of shorts on superstitions, Who’s Superstitious? from 1943 and Black Cats and Broomsticks from 1955 (both aired earlier this month on TCM); It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (an annual viewing with the family, of course); Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live; and assorted bumpers and trailers, not to mention this creepy Japanese Kleenex commercial.

Best movie: I saw several good films this month, but picking one that stands above the rest is more difficult than in previous years. Two of the films that gave me the most pleasure are rewatches: Phantasm and Carnival of Souls. (As an aside, the similarities between the two films are obvious when watched in close proximity: both obey the non sequitur logic of dreams or nightmares, and both feature protagonists menaced by suit-wearing older men who are apt to pop up at the most frightening moments. Upon seeing Phantasm for the first time last year, I had connected it to the dream-like disconnected narrative of Italian horror, but it seems possible that Carnival of Souls–itself an Americanization of Bergman and other European influences–also informed it. It’s also probably not a coincidence that both films had two of the best scores I heard this month: I’m jamming out to the Phantasm soundtrack right now, in fact.)

I liked most of the Godzilla movies I watched this month, as well, not only the “serious” ones but also the goofier entries with Megalon and the like (heck, I even enjoyed the very silly Daigoro vs. Goliath). I think my favorites were the two Mechagodzilla films, which balanced the campier elements of the Godzilla mythos (robots, space aliens) with the heavier themes of the more serious films: sacrifice, tradition, and kaiju as guardian spirits.

mechagodzilla

Ultimately, my pick for best first-time viewing is Shin Godzilla. Perhaps I was simply primed by all that Godzilla-watching leading up to it, but the experience of seeing Shin Godzilla in a theater packed with fans (the first Godzilla movie I’d seen in a theater since Godzilla 1985–no, I didn’t even get to see Roland Emmerich’s or Gareth Edwards’ films in theaters) was a high point of the month.

Worst movie: I watched a few clunkers this month, partly as a result of my search for the silliest giant movie monsters, but you also just never really know what will work for you until you pull the trigger. Dragon Wars: D-War, which didn’t make the silly monster list (the movie is ridiculous, but the monsters for the most part aren’t), was a famously terrible flop when it was released, but as janky as it was it also held my attention (its worst sins are convoluted, front-loaded exposition and an over-reliance on CGI, as if the filmmakers had learned the wrong lessons from the Star Wars prequels). Night Train to Terror, an anthology, almost lost me completely in its first segment, but recovered in the second and third parts with some charmingly primitive stop-motion monster effects (this short review of the Blu-ray release goes into more detail and explains why it took five directors to make this mess!).

Of the Godzilla movies I watched in the first part of the month, Son of Godzilla was my least favorite, with its emphasis on the uncomfortably squishy “baby Godzilla,” Minilla (yes, I even enjoyed the oft-maligned Attack All Monsters more than Son of Godzilla; at least Attack All Monsters has a definite point of view and some creative staging).

blood-orgy

However, I have to give the edge to Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. It’s a coincidence that I watched my first film from director Ted V. Mikels the same month that he passed away (I had bought the disc last month). As much as I hate to speak ill of the dead, the movie failed to deliver on its awesome title and was not only disappointingly tame, it was, even worse, boring. I’m told that this is typical of Mikels’ work, which is too bad.

Scariest movie: Well, did you see that Japanese Kleenex commercial?

kleenex

But seriously: I’ve written before about how easily scared I was as a kid, and how that’s left me playing catch-up with a lot of classic horror that I probably should have seen sooner. That’s how I ended up seeing The Exorcist for the first time this year, and you know what? After expecting the “scariest film of all time,” I just didn’t find it that scary. How can any film live up to a reputation like that? It probably didn’t help that The Exorcist has been so frequently referenced and parodied that I felt like I had already seen many of its most famous set pieces. Having said that, it was an excellent film, deserving of its reputation. It’s a great drama about faith and loss, with a lot of spooky atmosphere, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really even trying to be the film I had been led to expect. Probably if I had seen it at a younger age it would have had more of an effect on me.

cloverfield_theatrical_poster

So what did scare me this month? “Toby Dammit,” Federico Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead, had some eerie visual shocks, as did The Curse of the Crying Woman (the title character’s eyeless appearance is pretty creepy) and Phantasm II, but I think the most consistently tense and viscerally scary movie I watched this month is director Matt Reeves’ and writer Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster movie update Cloverfield. The immediacy of the found-footage device (a gimmick I’m not usually fond of) gives the audience the sense of being on the ground during a giant monster attack on New York City, the kind of scene that is usually visualized from afar (the story contrives to get the characters briefly onto a helicopter so we can get the kind of wide shot of the monster we’re used to seeing in films like this, but for the most part the handheld camera footage feels very naturalistic). In addition to the scenes of citywide destruction, there are sequences in subway tunnels underground that are extremely creepy, as the characters are stalked and attacked by the spider-like parasites that have dropped from the main beast. Finally, the circumstances by which the camera is recovered imply a government-conspiracy backstory to the events that is anything but reassuring. In fact, you know what? Maybe this is the best movie I saw this month (non-Godzilla category, anyway).

Funniest movie: The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorites, but I was never a fan of its sequel or the spin-off cartoon series. It was pretty much just the first film, a unique blend of irreverent humor and special effects-driven action, and even then it wasn’t scary to me. So I wasn’t offended by the release of the controversial female-led remake this year, but I also didn’t have high hopes that it would recapture what I loved about the original. The new film was, when I finally saw it, quite enjoyable, even if not everything landed. If anything, I found the callbacks and reminders of the first film more annoying than affectionate: the pleasure of seeing the proton packs back in action, wielded by a new generation of characters, should have been enough. However, I won’t deny that it made me laugh; I’m comfortable saying that it is easily my second-favorite Ghostbusters film. (It was also interesting to see the movie, a summer blockbuster like the original, during the fall, and place it in the context of other supernatural “scary” movies: it works decently on that count, especially early on, but like many horror movies it becomes less rather than more frightening as the threat becomes known and it barrels towards the big climax.)

hotel-transylvania

Even funnier, however, was a film that took me by surprise: Hotel Transylvania, an animated film about Adam Sandler as Dracula, faced with the prospect of his daughter growing up and yearning to explore the world of humans, from which Dracula and his monster pals have been hiding for over a century. Nothing about that description, or the ads that were ubiquitous when the movie was released, made me want to see it, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal, laughing at Genndy Tartakovsky’s expressively cartoony animation style and the many sight gags and running jokes, and the story was actually rather touching.

Weirdest movie: As mentioned, Phantasm and Carnival of Souls are “classically” weird, and I would also put Halloween III in that category, combining as it does elements of horror and science fiction in a story that touches on many qualities of both fairy tale and nightmare. But there are movies that have weird stories, and there are movies whose entire existence seems unlikely: the weirdness is in their conception, leading not to questions like “what does this mean?” or “wait, was Ellie a robot the whole time, or what?” but to questions like “how did this get made in the first place?” and “how can I make sure I don’t meet any of these people in real life?”

the-baby

Such was my response to The Baby, the 1973 cult oddity about a social worker confronting a family whose twenty-something son has remained in an infantile state, pre-verbal, crawling, and wearing a diaper. Is he genuinely developmentally disabled, or is he being kept from growing by his domineering mother and stepsisters? Does the effect he has on women stem from something missing in their own lives, or is he capable of adult urges? Frequently disturbing, the movie subverted my expectations at every turn, right down to an ending that was head-smackingly obvious but which I still didn’t see coming. If I had to explain this movie, I would say “only in the ’70s.”

Goriest movie: Night Train to Terror (another candidate for “weirdest movie”) was by far the most graphic and bloody film I watched this month, and despite its deficiencies in other areas, I can’t deny that it delivers the kind of macabre violence–slashings, beheadings, and dismemberments, along with more exotic causes of death such as electrocution and exploding head (sorry, “catastrophic head injury”)–one associates with Halloween thrills. I don’t have much stomach for gore, but fortunately Night Train is a pretty cheap movie, and so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously.

That’s it for this year: maybe I’ll keep watching horror movies through November and work through the stockpile of movies I didn’t watch this month, or maybe I’ll end up saving some for next year. But now I have some important candy to eat business to attend to. Happy Halloween!

david-pumpkins2

Any questions?

Advertisements

The Short Horrors of Robert E. Howard

wpid-20151003_155910.jpg

Although in the popular imagination, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) continues to be identified as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a pillar of the sword and sorcery tradition, readers who have explored beyond Conan (or approached Howard from a different avenue, as I did) know that the prolific pulp writer also frequently indulged in horror in a variety of styles. Indeed, horror is a critical ingredient even of Howard’s heroic fantasy, and almost all of his work is streaked with terror.

Consider the foes, both monstrous and supernatural, that Conan and Howard’s other he-man heroes faced in their adventures (the gray ape that silently stalks Conan in a night-black dungeon in The Hour of the Dragon is typical, and it goes without saying that magic in Howard’s stories is rarely benevolent), and it becomes clear why it can be difficult to sort Howard’s “horror” tales from his other output, and why there is so little overlap between different collections.

This article focuses on four different paperback collections of Howard’s horror stories, comparing their contents and taking note of different editorial priorities. They are far from the only collections of Howard’s work, and no slight is meant against (for example) the pioneering paperback collections edited by Glenn Lord. The editions under discussion are, however, either in my possession or readily available, and each is different enough to warrant investigation. (Complete contents of each book are listed at the end of the article.)

My first encounter with Howard’s fiction was through Baen Books’ Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, edited by David Drake. As I have written elsewhere, I actually had a hard time tracking down H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction when I first heard about it as a budding middle school fantasy enthusiast. His “Cthulhu Mythos” had for me at the time the same enchanted, mysterious quality that the Necronomicon had for his characters: something about which obscure references were dropped but which remained tantalizingly out of reach. The Mythos and Kindred Horrors was thus a welcome discovery, and the short story “The Black Stone” which leads off the book was the first proper Mythos story I was able to get my hands on.

Although short, The Mythos and Kindred Horrors remains a fine introduction to Howard’s macabre imagination: as promised, it contains a number of significant Mythos stories, including “The Black Stone,” “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” and “The Thing on the Roof,” but also examples of his dark, violent fantasy (“The Valley of the Worm,” “People of the Dark,” and “Worms of the Earth”) and even a weird Western (“Old Garfield’s Heart”).

The final story, “Pigeons From Hell,” is a truly terrifying slice of Southern gothic, and like the greatest horror stories earns its scares as much from the depths of moral depravity it displays as from atmosphere or shocks (Stephen King named it “one of the finest horror stories of our century” in Danse Macabre). “Pigeons From Hell” was adapted into a 1961 episode of the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology show Thriller, an adaptation that, while effective, shows a clear debt to Psycho, released the previous year. Resetting it in the modern South made the horror more immediate, as if the two guys from Route 66 had stumbled onto the Bates Motel, but the abbreviated runtime strips out the racial element that gives the original story so much of its charge, even removing the final twist.

Pigeons.title

Another volume, and one that specifically includes only Howard’s Cthulhoid fiction (so no “Pigeons From Hell”), is Nameless Cults, edited by Robert M. Price. Presented by Chaosium, publisher of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, Nameless Cults is part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series: Chaosium publishes numerous volumes of fiction to supplement its game and to present the works of Lovecraft, other members of his circle, and contemporary authors in accessible editions; some are organized around a single subject or a specific deity or aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos, others by author, as in the case of Nameless Cults.

The title refers to one of Howard’s own contributions to the Mythos, the “Black Book” Unaussprechlichen Kulten by Friedrich Von Junzt, the author’s answer to Lovecraft’s forbidden tome the Necronomicon. Embroidering on his friend’s growing set of references, Howard added Von Junzt and his book, along with such characters as the “mad poet” Justin Geoffrey and the Great Old One Gol-Goroth, to the Mythos. (Howard’s many pre-historic speculations on Atlantis, Valusia, and other aspects of Conan’s “Hyborian Age” would also be swept into the Mythos by Lovecraft and others in a pattern of mutual borrowing, so one could as easily refer to a “Weird Tales Mythos” as use the more familiar term “Cthulhu Mythos,” which of course was a label added only later by Lovecraft’s literary executor August Derleth.)

Price’s editorial remarks lend extra value to Nameless Cults; in addition to providing detailed information about the provenance of the stories included (some of which are fragments that have been finished by others), Price puts them into context as both a scholar of both Lovecraft and a theologian (Price has edited many of Chaosium’s books, as well as publishing books and articles on Christianity and editing Lovecraftian journals such as Crypt of Cthulhu). The most important insight Price brings is his consideration of the Mythos as a loose collection of themes and references rather than a continuity that must be reconciled and kept free of contradictions (as with fellow scholar S. T. Joshi, much of Price’s work has involved debunking Derleth’s spurious claims on behalf of Lovecraft and his creations, but in general Price’s perspective is more sympathetic to a multi-faceted rather than a purist approach). It’s this freedom that allows writers of different temperaments to make use of the Mythos and gives it the feeling of an actual mythology, scattered and secret but nonetheless organic.

It’s hard to think of a writer more different in temperament from H. P. Lovecraft than Robert E. Howard, at least as revealed in their stories. Lovecraft’s protagonists, to the extent that they are developed as characters at all, tend to be inward-looking scholars or antiquarians, drawn inexorably toward doom by curiosity or forces they do not understand. (An exception is Professor Henry Armitage, the hero of “The Dunwich Horror,” who is able to take charge and push back the demonic entities seeking entrance to our world.) Howard, however, puts the same kind of fearless, action-oriented warriors who populate his other stories into his horror tales (whether in a historical or fantasy setting or the contemporary world, the defining characteristics of Howard’s heroes are hyper-competence and a willingness to take action for what they believe is right, regardless of the cost–still the formula for an action hero today).

The contrast is amusingly illustrated in “The Challenge From Beyond,” a curious multi-author collaboration included in the Chaosium volume. At the end of Lovecraft’s chapter, the protagonist finds that he has been–horror of horrors!–transformed into “the loathsome, pale-grey bulk” of an alien centipede, and faints dead away: a typical Lovecraftian ending. As Howard picks up the thread in the next chapter, however, the hero’s perspective has changed and he begins to revel in the power of his new form, as “fear and revulsion were drowned in the excitement of titanic adventure”:

What was his former body but a cloak, eventually to be cast off at death anyway? He had no sentimental illusions about the life from which he had been exiled. What had it ever given him save toil, poverty, continual frustration and repression? If this life before him offered no more, at least it offered no less. Intuition told him it offered more–much more.

In Howardian fashion, “The Challenge From Beyond” changes from a story of horror to one of triumph, as the protagonist uses the strength of his new form to conquer the aliens and make himself their king, “a Conan among centipedes” in L. Sprague de Camp’s memorable phrase.

The physical bravery and strength that Howard considered so essential to being a hero (or a man, at that) actually tends to prop up the horror effects in his Cthulhu stories, however. The darkness is all the more terrifying when even such specimens cannot hope to defeat it; at best, victory means simply surviving. (It is unsurprising that Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” was a favorite of Howard’s, and its formula of investigation and action would prove a useful model for his occult detective fiction. It’s also, not coincidentally, the Lovecraft story that most resembles a Call of Cthulhu game scenario.)

WeirdTalesDecember1936

The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, edited by M. J. Elliott as part of Wordsworth Editions’ “Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural” series, includes the best-known of Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos stories but also casts a wide net, including other horror and dark fantasy stories that cover a variety of subject matters and styles. Several of these stories, such as “In the Forest of Villefore” and “Wolfshead” (part of a werewolf cycle), are among the author’s earliest published works and show a still-raw talent. The volume also shows the range of genres that Howard explored in search of outlets for publication and introduces some of the author’s recurring characters: occult investigator John Kirowan and detective Steve Harrison, for example.

It also provides examples of Howard borrowing from his literary forebears and contemporaries: one of my favorites, the short novel “Skull-Face” (included in both the Chaosium and Wordsworth editions), is an entertaining pastiche of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels with the fantasy elements dialed up. Instead of the Chinese doctor, the titular villain is a survivor from the ancient past with scientific knowledge so advanced that it might as well be magic. (The hero of “Skull-Face,” Stephen Costigan, is not to be confused with another Howard series hero, Sailor Steve Costigan, but is an example of what Elliott describes as Howard’s “inexplicable fondness for certain character names.”)

If “Skull-Face” is Howard’s version of Rohmer, reading a number of Howard’s stories in close succession makes clearer the influence of other authors, even as in the best of his stories Howard’s own personality shines through. Even beyond its Mythos trappings, with its antiquarian protagonist and dreamy atmosphere “The Black Stone” is clearly modeled after Lovecraft, as Howard acknowledged in his own letters. Similarly, “The Dream Snake” and “The Fearsome Touch of Death” are indebted to Ambrose Bierce, with the implication that it is internal fears, not external threats, that are most destructive.

As Price points out in his introduction to Nameless Cults, the author who influenced Howard’s horror output most strongly besides Lovecraft was the Welsh Arthur Machen. In a number of Howard’s stories touching on reincarnation or racial memory and characterizing the “Little People” of myth as monstrous survivors of a pre-human race, “he has gone back to one of Lovecraft’s own sources, Arthur Machen, and remixed the Mythos, turning up the volume on the Machen track.”

Indeed, the recurring theme that unites both the stories of Conan, Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, and flashes of racial memory with his stories of the Cthulhu Mythos is the long shadow cast by the distant, prehistoric past, “Lurking memories of the ages when dawns were young and men struggled with forces which were not of men” (in the words of “The Little People”). Just as it was for Edgar Rice Burroughs, another important influence on Howard, that struggle against wild nature and subhuman savagery was a defining one for both character and narrative, and as with Burroughs it sometimes manifested in Howard’s work as a racial scheme in which tall, white-skinned, “clean-limbed” Aryans (a term borrowed from the anthropology of the time, but which is particularly regrettable with modern hindsight) swept Westward throughout Europe (and later America), routing the short, swarthy tribes that became the basis for legends of goblins and the hidden races of Machen, Lovecraft, and others. (But as Price points out, Howard was able to have it both ways by making the underdog Picts into heroes pitted against an even older, more secretive and less human race, as in “Worms of the Earth.”)

In these stories and others, the modern reader runs headlong into Howard’s sometimes objectionable racial characterizations: stories set in the deep South and Southwest include epithets for black and Mexican characters, sometimes in dialogue, but sometimes as part of the narration or from the viewpoints of characters who are supposed to be sympathetic. As in my discussion of representation in the serials from the same time period, it is pointless to pretend that such attitudes and words weren’t part of the world of at least some in Howard’s time, and pointing out parts of Howard’s work that haven’t aged well need not imply a disavowal of the strong parts of his fiction.

And perhaps it is simply my modern perspective, but I think it is telling that in general Howard’s strongest stories take a more nuanced point of view, with characters of all races showing both good and bad qualities. As Rusty Burke points out in his introduction to Del Rey’s The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, the interaction of common racial prejudices in Howard’s native Texas with the author’s natural sympathy for the underdog and belief that ultimately a man is what he makes of himself led to some complex characterizations. The flip side of his often-stated distrust of civilization and its stultifying effects, Howard showed great admiration for native peoples who (in his admittedly romanticized view) lived close to nature; one of his wisest characters was the African “medicine man” N’Longa, friend and advisor to Solomon Kane.

ChamberofChills2

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is the longest (over 520 pages) and most comprehensive collection at my disposal, and yet even it omits stories that may be found in the others (“Skull-Face” is the most notable absence, possibly left out because of its length). It does, however, cover the broadest range of Howard’s output, including Cthulhoid horror, sword and sorcery, regional horror (Western and Southern, including “Pigeons From Hell”), and contemporary adventure stories, as well as samples of Howard’s seafaring, boxing, and detective fiction.

The Del Rey volume also includes four unfinished stories, grouped as “Miscellanea,” and there is more bibliographic detail than in either the Baen or Wordsworth volumes, listing first publication (or manuscript source in the case of posthumously discovered stories) and detailed notes on changes in spelling or punctuation made by the editor.

It is also the only volume to include more than a few of Howard’s numerous poems. Like his fellow Weird Tales contributors H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, Howard was a prolific versifier, and like them he remained largely conservative in the face of modernism, sticking to rhyming, metric poems. Most of his poetry has a rough-hewn, deliberately “barbaric” quality, often cast in multi-stanza ballad forms with rhyming couplets: appropriate for his subjects, usually as dark and gruesome as those he favored in his stories. Although it is unlikely that Howard’s poems will ever be popular outside of weird fiction (and heavy metal) fandom, they contain some vivid and concise images, such as the following lines in “Dead Man’s Hate”:

There was no sound on Adam Brand but his brow was cold and damp,
For the fear of death had blown out his life as a witch blows out a lamp.

It is often treacherous to psychoanalyze a writer based on their fiction, but to an extent horror writers invite it: the best are not simply calculating what they think will scare their audience, but are delving into and externalizing their own fears. That’s not to say that horror writers necessarily believe in what they’re writing (crackpot theories that Lovecraft possessed secret knowledge of real-life Cthulhu cults notwithstanding), but their choices can be revealing.

Robert E. Howard’s own tragic story (he committed suicide at age 30 after his mother slipped into her final coma) is at odds with the implacable supermen he created, but even in his stories he often hinted that death was preferable to a life of pain or defeat. Elliott singles out a passage in “Skull-Face” in which recovering opium addict Stephen Costigan ponders drowning himself, “that I should soon attain that Ultimate Ocean which lies beyond all dreams.”

The stoicism with which Costigan considers ending his life is of a piece with the pragmatism and toughness of most of Howard’s characters, but there is another side to Howard that tends to be overlooked, the dreamy, “feminine” side that gave us the “mad poet” Justin Geoffrey. Geoffrey is often seen as a portrait of Howard’s friend and correspondent H. P. Lovecraft, and he does resemble Lovecraft’s typical protagonists, often so removed from this world that their weird art or poetry are perfect channels for the “outside” influences of the Cthulhu Mythos to find their way in. Nevertheless, if, as Lovecraft himself argued, “the real secret [of Howard’s characters] is that he himself is in every one of them,” then Geoffrey is certainly a facet of Howard’s personality. Robert M. Price goes further, saying of Geoffrey,

Here is Howard with a vengeance, the real Howard in a far deeper sense than either Balthus [“a realistic depiction of Howard compared with Conan, the idealized version”] or Steve Costigan. Justin Geoffrey is the archetypal Byronic artist too sensitive for this mortal coil, a frail human funnel for the whirlwinds sweeping down from between the stars.

Justin Geoffrey would die “screaming in a madhouse,” a fate that Howard possibly predicted for himself, and to which he found suicide preferable.

An even more revealing self-portrait can be found in the unfinished story “Spectres in the Dark,” included in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. In this fragment, unseen forces hiding in the shadows drive otherwise normal individuals to commit murder. One such unwitting killer is Clement Van Dorn, an artist who finds himself accused of killing his mentor. Visiting him in jail, Van Dorn’s friends find him in a pathetic state:

Clement nodded but there was no spark of hope in his eyes, only a bleak and baffled despair. He was not suited to cope with the rough phases of life, which until now he had never encountered. A weakling, morally and physically, he was learning in a hard school that savage fact of biology–that only the strong survive.

Suddenly Joan held out her arms to him, her mothering instinct which all women have touched to the quick by his helplessness. Like a lost child he threw himself on his knees before her, laid his head in her lap, his frail body racked with great sobs as she stroked his hair, whispering gently to him–like a mother to her child. His hands sought hers and held them as if they were his hope of salvation. The poor devil; he had no place in this rough world; he was made to be mothered and cared for by women–like so many others of his kind.

That Robert E. Howard’s career was cut short by suicide, just as the author was developing his voice and was about to see his work published outside of the pulps, is a loss for readers. That he felt so compelled to end his own life was a tragedy for him. Perhaps the most fitting conclusion is in the words of David Drake, editor of The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, among the first words about Howard that I encountered:

Robert E. Howard had the personal misfortune to spend most of his life in a place where black hatreds ruled everyone; where currents of violence so closely underlay the surface of ordinary existence that a snub, a woman, or the ethnic background of a chance acquaintance was apt to bring a lethal outburst; where a man’s only path to respect was through strength and his willingness to use that strength.

Drake is referring, of course, not to West Texas, where Howard lived, nor even the fictional Hyboria that Howard set down on paper, but the interior of Howard’s mind, “a grim, dark place,” from which writing tales of adventure, fantasy, and even horror allowed Howard to escape . . . for a time.

Appendix: Contents of editions under discussion (titles in italic text indicate poems)

Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors
Edited and with an introduction by David Drake (Baen Books, 1987)

Arkham
The Black Stone
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
The Thing on the Roof
Dig Me No Grave
Silence Falls On Mecca’s Walls
The Valley of the Worm
The Shadow of the Beast
Old Garfield’s Heart
People of the Dark
Worms of the Earth
Pigeons From Hell
An Open Window

Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard
Edited and Introduced by Robert M. Price (Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction, 2001)

The Black Stone
Worms of the Earth
The Little People
People of the Dark
The Children of the Night
The Thing on the Roof
The Abbey (w/ C. J. Henderson)
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
The Door to the World (w/ Joseph S. Pulver)
The Hoofed Thing
Dig Me No Grave
The House in the Oaks (w/ August Derleth)
The Black Bear Bites
The Shadow Kingdom
The Gods of Bal-Sagoth
Skull-Face
Black Eons (w/ Robert M. Price)
The Challenge from Beyond (w/ C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, and Frank Belknap Long)

The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales
Compiled and Introduced by M. J. Elliott (Wordsworth Editions, Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural, 2008)

In the Forest of Villefore
Wolfshead
The Dream Snake
The Hyena
Sea Curse
Skull-Face
The Fearsome Touch of Death
The Children of the Night
The Black Stone
The Thing on the Roof
The Horror from the Mound
People of the Dark
The Cairn on the Headland
Black Talons
Fangs of Gold
Names in the Black Book
The Haunter of the Ring
Graveyard Rats
Black Wind Blowing
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
Pigeons from Hell

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Introduction by Rusty Burke; Illustrated by Greg Staples (Del Rey, 2008)

In the Forest of Villefère
A Song of the Werewolf Folk
Wolfshead
Up, John Kane!
Remembrance
The Dream Snake
Sea Curse
The Moor Ghost
Moon Mockery
The Little People
Dead Man’s Hate
The Tavern
Rattle of Bones
The Fear That Follows
The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux
Casonetto’s Last Song
The Touch of Death
Out of the Deep
A Legend of Faring Town
Restless Waters
The Shadow of the Beast
The Dead Slaver’s Tale
Dermod’s Bane
The Hills of the Dead
Dig Me No Grave
The Song of a Mad Minstrel
The Children of the Night
Musings
The Black Stone
The Thing on the Roof
The Dweller in Dark Valley
The Horror from the Mound
A Dull Sound as of Knocking
People of the Dark
Delenda Est
The Cairn on the Headland
Worms of the Earth
The Symbol
The Valley of the Lost
The Hoofed Thing
The Noseless Horror
The Dwellers Under the Tomb
An Open Window
The House of Arabu
The Man on the Ground
Old Garfield’s Heart
Kelly the Conjure-Man
Black Canaan
To a Woman
One Who Comes at Eventide
The Haunter of the Ring
Pigeons from Hell
The Dead Remember
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
Fragment
Which Will Scarcely Be Understood

Miscellanea:
Golnor the Ape
Spectres in the Dark
The House
Untitled Fragment

Adages, Aphorisms, and Analects

“One machine may do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” –Elbert Hubbard

According to conventional wisdom, newspapers are in a fix because instead of reading them, everyone is getting their news from the Internet. One attempt to make the newspaper experience more interactive is the “Opinion Line,” a section of the editorial page made up of short, anonymous comments provided by readers who send them in or (ironically enough) leave their comments on the newspaper’s website. No longer is the writer required to lick a stamp or even sign their name to have their view printed, and the Opinion Line often becomes a partisan tug-of-war, full of snide put-downs of the Other Side.

There are many to reasons to be dismayed by the comments of the Opinion Line, but one that never fails to vex me is reading a joke or aphorism that has already gone around Facebook or Twitter days or weeks before, and is more than likely already played out, gone from original to viral to cliché, with the Opinion Line—a paper Twitter feed for the elderly and out of touch—as the final, senescent stage of its life cycle.

last_great_act_of_defiance

Memes have always been around, even in the pre-Internet days when pictures, signs, and jokes would circulate like chain letters in offices and schools. Classics like the mouse flipping off a hawk, its outlines fuzzy through multiple generations of photocopying, or signage reading, “I can only make one person happy per day; today isn’t your day, and tomorrow isn’t looking so good either,” were ubiquitous, a lingua franca of the workplace, a passive-aggressive way of saying, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here . . . but it helps!” Although the passing around of in-jokes has largely migrated to the electronic ether, first through the e-mail forwards that you likely still receive from a few older friends or relatives, and then to Facebook and Twitter, such slogans can still be seen on coffee mugs and other gift items in actual physical space. Memes will find a way.

insanity.mugs

I was reminded of those old photocopied proto-memes when I uncovered a copy of Baxter Lane’s Scrapbook of Famous Quips & Quotes that I had purchased as a kid. The contents of this 64-page booklet are exactly what the title promises: a collection of pithy sayings, some attributed and some anonymous, on such universal subjects as work, marriage, and politics (the latter without much of a partisan edge beyond “How about those clowns in Congress?”). Although Famous Quips & Quotes is slim, it was of a piece with the dictionaries, trivia collections, and other miscellanies I could spend hours flipping through as a young reader. Along with such classics of browsing as The Guinness Book of World Records and Tom Burnam’s immortal Dictionary of Misinformation, collections of aphorisms were a favorite pastime. You just never knew what tidbit you might find, and many of the sayings and factoids I read back then have stuck with me.

BaxterLane1

Such collections are still published, of course, including standbys like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. In fact, the Baxter Lane Company is still in business, at least according to the online Yellow Pages: they don’t appear to have a web site of their own. Good for them. Located in Amarillo, Texas, Baxter Lane is listed as a “souvenir” or “gift shop” business: I’m sure I picked up my copy of Famous Quips & Quotes at a Stuckey’s or Nickerson Farms, and I could probably still find a Baxter Lane edition at my local Cracker Barrel. The back cover of the booklet even has “FROM” and “TO” address spaces and a square for third class postage, so you can send it in the mail as a postcard. “IT ISN’T NECESSARY BUT YOU CAN SEAL HERE WITH SCOTCH OR GUMMED TAPE IF YOU WANT TO,” reads a helpful caption along the edge.

BaxterLane2

“You can make the people follow the Way, but you can’t make them understand it.” –Confucius

In looking for online traces of Baxter Lane, I uncovered evidence of other booklets they have published over the years: many are cookbooks, but collections of aphorisms and folk wisdom are prominent (including a second volume of Famous Quips & Quotes). One of them, Honorable Confucius Says by Herb Walker, was published in 1977; also 64 pages in length, it is said to contain “authentic Confucianisms as well as words of wisdom from other sources,” so it is, in other words, probably not too different in character from Famous Quips & Quotes.

Needless to say, almost any clever-sounding or cryptic aphorism you could think of has been or could be attributed to the Chinese sage K’ung Fu-Tzu; some of them, such as the famous curse “May you live in interesting times,” are as recent as the twentieth century. That’s not even mentioning the many uses of Confucius to set up a pun or dirty joke (there’s a lot more where this one came from), a tradition predating the Internet:

Confuciussay

Jokes aside, Confucius and his sayings are the subject of The Analects, a volume I discovered a little later in life but recognized immediately as a more sophisticated example of the browsable collections I had grown up with, comparable in its significance to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, a similarly deep collection of teachings and sayings. In the words of scholar and translator Lin Yutang,

The Analects is generally regarded as the Confucian Bible, being a miscellaneous, unclassified and unedited collection of the remarks of Confucius on various occasions, mostly without any suggestion as to the circumstances in which the remarks were made, and certainly torn from their context. (Yutang, The Wisdom of Confucius)

Given my tastes, how could I resist such a collection? The lack of context was both a pro and a con: the book is easy to dip into, but there are many head-scratchers. For every clear and simple lesson, there is another tangled in history or symbolic meaning. On the subject of context, Yutang continues:

It is illuminating, for instance, to read in the Analects the remark by Confucius that “I have never seen people attracted by virtuous scholars as they are by beautiful women,” and then to learn from Szema Ch’ien that he made this remark after he had paraded the streets of Wei in a carriage with a beautiful queen, and found the people looked at the queen but did not look at him. The text of the Analects itself does not mention the circumstance, and actually puts it in the form of a more abstract remark: “I haven’t yet seen people who love virtue as they love beauty.”

That is a favorite example of mine, not because it deflates Confucius, but because it humanizes him; it teaches us something about vanity, although perhaps not the lesson Confucius thought he was imparting.

A little healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing when reading such sayings. The best aphorisms provoke thought; memes substitute for it and are deployed to shut down arguments. One of the worst offenders in this regard is the “Condescending Willy Wonka” meme, its popularity based on Wonka’s well-known views in favor of Second Amendment rights:

WillyWonka1

Or wait, was Wonka in favor of gun control?

WillyWonka2

Like Confucius, Willy Wonka is now merely a vessel, a mouthpiece for whatever views we choose to attribute to him. The only difference is the speed at which memes can be generated.

Strange Games: Comic Books Confront the Apocalypse

Recently, DC Comics published a trade paperback collection under the unwieldy title Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights. I don’t intend this essay to be a review, but I will say up front that if mid-century visions of nuclear war are your bag, there’s no reason not to pick this up.  If you’ve read any volumes of Showcase (or Marvel’s similar Essential series) before, you know what to expect: more than 500 pages of black-and-white reprints (of stories from the 1960s through the 1980s in this case) on cheap paper at a low price.  They don’t call ‘em “phone books” for nothing.

GreatDisaster.cover

I was eager to get this volume (it had been previously announced several years ago and then delayed) for a few reasons.  First, I was a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction when I was younger, and comic books were no different from other media in exploring that theme.  Second, although I had read some of the stories included, many were unfamiliar to me, and this would be a good way to fill in some gaps.  Finally, the focus on a central event (and one which had been interpreted many different ways by writers over the course of decades) makes this volume a little different from the typical Showcase that either follows a single character or collects completely unconnected stories (like the anthology title House of Mystery).  Some effort was made to arrange contradictory material into a single chronology, and that kind of editorial undertaking is always of interest to me.

Does it succeed?  Eh, sort of.  On one hand, the title tells you a lot about what’s in the volume: several cycles of stories centered on the destruction of civilization as we know it.  The Atomic Knights, in a series of stories by writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson that began in 1960, travel the wastes of post-World War III America, surviving with the help of their suits of medieval armor (discovered in a museum and possessed of miraculous radiation-shielding properties).  The only other continuous series represented in this volume is Hercules Unbound, but there are a number of stand-alone stories (many under the umbrella title “The Day After Doomsday”) as well.

On the other hand, the Great Disaster doesn’t have the instant name recognition of a superhero, nor was it the title of an ongoing book (the Atomic Knights, for example, were found in the pages of Strange Adventures; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were added to the title of this book so that at least some character would be named on the front cover).  In fact, the Great Disaster isn’t even synonymous with World War III in DC continuity, but you have to dig pretty deeply into the book to figure that out.  The Great Disaster is (or was, pre-Crisis) a conveniently vague apocalypse in the background of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, involving weapons of mass destruction as well as natural disasters, taking place at some point after WWIII.

(Not included in this volume)

(Not included in this volume)

The most distinctive legacy of the Great Disaster in the world “A.D.: After Disaster” was the release of a mind-altering chemical (“cortexin”) that caused ordinary animals to become intelligent, as well as gaining upright posture and opposable thumbs.  In the wake of the Great Disaster, most humans had become mute and animalistic.  Essentially, Kamandi’s world is one of reversed roles like Planet of the Apes, but with anthropomorphic dogs, tigers, and rats in addition to gorillas and other species (not to mention numerous mutant monsters and space aliens that defy categorization), all mixed up together in the ruins of a futuristic civilization.  The last point varied pretty widely: sometimes it seemed like the Great Disaster hit America in the 1970s, but it never stopped Kirby and his successors from throwing in robots, spaceships, and other high-tech devices left behind by the “ancients” if a story called for it.  (Eventually, Kamandi’s world was linked to “The World That’s Coming,” the setting of OMAC, a short-lived—and even weirder, but definitely futuristic—science fiction series Kirby had also created.)

Aside from Planet of the Apes, the world of Kamandi bears a close resemblance to the campaign setting of Gamma World, a role-playing game from TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons.  In transposing the adventuring-party model to a post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting, the game designers gave players the option of playing as a “pure strain” human, (humanoid) mutant, or mutated animal.  From one angle, the title character of Kamandi (“the last boy on Earth”) and his companions, the superhuman Ben Boxer and dog-man Dr. Canus, could be player characters in a Gamma World game, and their travels from one wonder to another, piecing together the fragmented history of their world and facing down monsters and villains, are not unlike an ongoing RPG campaign.

GammaWorld

Alas, Kamandi does not appear in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster. The material reprinted from Kamandi #43-46 is a backup story focused on Urgall, a gorilla whose liberal ideas (extending respect not only to non-gorillas but to humans, and even female gorillas!) put him at odds with his tribe. (Another “tale of the Great Disaster” that appeared in Weird War Tales #51-52, featuring warring English and Scottish dog-men, is not included, which is too bad, as it is superior to the story of Urgall.)  I’ve gone into detail about Kamandi because I’m a fan, and having collected (I believe) all the pre-Crisis appearances of Kamandi and OMAC, it’s hard for me to not bring that context to the present book.  As of this writing, the only collected reprints of Kamandi are more lavish and expensive than the Showcase series, but the title is worth seeking out and is really more essential than anything in this book (but if you’re reading this, you already knew that, right?).

When I first read the Atomic Knights stories (about fifteen years ago), they struck me as more than a little silly: in addition to the conceit of medieval armor protecting against radiation, the stories were burdened with outdated gender roles (the “littlest knight,” Marene Herald, mostly stays out of the way, awaiting the day that team leader Gardner Grayle will propose to her) and too many convenient “scientific” solutions to problems.  Although the war is said to have occurred in October, 1986, the Atomic Knights’ roots in the early 1960s remain obvious.

Reading them again, however, I’m more sympathetic to the earnest tone: the Knights are at the vanguard of rebuilding democracy, and the stories often end on a didactic note, preaching the need for cooperation, compassion, and emphasizing reason and the rule of law.  Many of the menaces they face will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction: problems of supplying food and energy when nothing will grow; human populations regressed to caveman-like savagery; would-be dictators such as the fascist “organizer” Kadey and the self-proclaimed King of New Orleans; and non-human threats either produced by radiation (a Triffid-like strain of mobile, intelligent plants) or opportunistically filling the void left by the collapse of humanity (a race of underground mole people who plan to permanently darken the sky so that they can take over the surface world; scavenging space aliens searching for precious metals).  That the Atomic Knights continue striving and are able to keep their humanity as they do so is, in its own way, optimistic.

strange_adventures#144

In fact, the suits of armor the Atomic Knights wear aren’t an anomalous detail: sometimes the comparison to knights of old is made explicit.  In the first story in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, “The Year 700 After the Bomb,” the post-war society resembles feudal Europe, right down to the Robin Hood-style costumes, royal titles, and pseudo-Old English dialect.  One could attribute these details to lazy writing, but it also reflects a view of history with definite evolutionary stages: just as civilization climbs upward over generations, it can also slide downward, and in such stories the image of a new “Dark Ages” is made literal.  (This can probably be laid at the doorstep of H. G. Wells, whose view was long enough to envision a day when humanity, too, is extinct, and whose film Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies, portrayed a post-war English village ruled by a petty medieval warlord.)

It was when the Atomic Knights encountered warriors from the legendary island of Atlantis, time-warped into the future by their own scientific catastrophe, that I was able to put my finger on the story-telling mode. Replace “radiation” with “magic,” and a story in which armored knights battle Romanesque soldiers from an ancient island could be part of any fantasy novel from the last hundred years.  Specifically, the discovery of “Atlantides” (as the islanders are called in this story) fits neatly into the “lost world” genre: as practiced by H. Rider Haggard, A. Merritt, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, there was always the possibility of a remote valley, cave, or island that history and evolution had passed by, leaving a population of dinosaurs, ancient Romans, or other living relics to be discovered.  The lost world genre was mostly finished off by World War II, as the empty, unknown spaces on the map were filled in; wiping the slate clean with a global catastrophe allowed writers to open those spaces up again, and fill them with mystery and adventure.  In these stories, the lost world was our own.

Perhaps that is one reason they continue to be popular: although seemingly pessimistic, this strain of post-apocalyptic fantasy, showing places and objects of the present through the eyes of later generations, provides for a kind of reenchantment of the everyday.  We gain perspective when we imagine a bustling city full of skyscrapers as empty and crumbling; more importantly, we can appreciate how marvelous our technology is when we picture later generations trying to make sense of it.  In the Gamma World game, there was a mechanism for player characters to puzzle out the use and meaning of “artifacts,” meant to prevent players from using out-of-game knowledge to identify, say, a rifle as a weapon rather than an emblem of office.  Similar misinterpretations are a staple of the genre: picture the subterranean mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes worshipping a nuclear missile as a god, or a young shaman trying to divine omens with a vinyl record in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Likely inspired by real-life cargo cults, the projection of superstitious beliefs onto modern goods allows writers to remix old and new cultural symbols, comment on our relationship to technology, and—that standby of science fiction—map contemporary political concerns onto fantastical stories.

AtomicKnights

It should go without saying that the stories of Kamandi and the Atomic Knights don’t have anything to do with the likely horrors of a real nuclear war (or whatever the Great Disaster was supposed to be), and the longer their stories continued, the more fantastical and obviously escapist they became.  In the final story included in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, no less a DC eminence than Superman himself encounters the Atomic Knights, only to discover that their entire history is the dream of Gardner Grayle, placed in a sensory deprivation tank as part of a military experiment.  Grayle’s unconscious mind has taken over the computers running the simulation and threatens to launch an actual nuclear strike in order to make real the fantasies in which Grayle has played the hero for years.

The premise, and the lesson that Grayle imparts after awakening at the last minute (“The task before mankind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!”), owe much to WarGames and the similar lesson the supercomputer WOPR (“Joshua”) learns in that film (“A strange game: the only winning move is not to play”). “It was all a dream!” is obviously the king of lame cop-outs and, in cases like this, the last refuge of a writer whose story has gotten away from him.  I think it actually works, though: in 1983 the “survivable” nuclear war was an increasingly untenable premise, and the quaint early stories of the Atomic Knights had become hopelessly snarled with the continuity of Hercules and the world of the Great Disaster in the pages of Hercules Unbound.  (I haven’t commented on that series, but suffice to say that even the titular demigod couldn’t bear the burden of reconciling the combined histories of the Atomic Knights, Kamandi, and OMAC and telling his own story in an intelligible manner.)

I think it’s a little much to criticize escapism, however, when the target audience has so little power to change the situation from which they are escaping.  It’s one thing to indict military planners running simulations with potential real world consequences, another to criticize something as obviously fanciful as the Atomic Knights or Gamma World.  Speaking as a cold war baby who was ten years old in 1983 and absolutely terrified of nuclear war, the only other alternative was denial: I could hardly watch the news without having a panic attack, and I had no desire to subject myself to The Day After when it aired (I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the even grimmer Testament and Threads at the time).

Nuclear war was also frequently on Superman’s mind in the 1980s: most fans today remember Superman IV and the Man of Steel’s quest to rid Earth of nuclear weapons, but in the comics Superman often stood aside as an observer, willing to admonish mankind but not make the hard decisions for us.  Visions of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction haunt him: a Superman who does nothing to prevent a holocaust is not super in any way, but were he to take the choice out of our hands he would become a god rather than a man.  This version of Superman as advocate and guardian challenges the view of comic book readers as naïve simpletons waiting to be rescued.

(Also not included in this book)

(Also not included in this volume)

As I said initially, I eventually became an avid consumer of comics, games, books and movies that explored life after the bomb.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? I don’t recall thinking it was realistic to expect survival in the event of a war, much less high adventure, but it was a comforting daydream. Certainly there was plenty to choose from, and I know there were a lot of guys in my generation who shared the same fantasy.  (One of the most believable details of last year’s The World’s End was that arrested adolescent Gary King would end up as a wandering gunslinger in the wasteland, loving every minute of it: for me it was a striking moment of recognition.)  Just about everything you need to know about this phase of 1980s masculinity can be found in the video for Tom Petty’s song “You Got Lucky.” It’s all there: guns, guitars, cowboy-chic dusters, and a sweet arcade in the middle of the desert.  (Petty obviously liked the milieu enough to make an appearance as himself in the 1997 film adaptation of David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman.)

TomPetty

The focus in popular culture changed after the passing of the Cold War; although the apocalypse has never been far from our entertainment, the end of the world can come from almost any direction nowadays: terrorism, climate change, pandemic, just to name the more realistic possibilities.  Free-floating dread has replaced the pointed terror of “Mutually Assured Destruction;” chaos is more feared than ideology, and it’s reflected in the zombie hordes and rampaging kaiju of current film.  Still, the stories I grew up with haven’t been forgotten: perhaps it’s driven by ‘80s nostalgia, but remakes or reboots of Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and even WarGames have either been made or are in production.  Gamma World has been through seven editions, the last in 2010, although I haven’t played in years.  The intoxicating cocktail of sword-and-sorcery among the ruins of modern civilization is still with us in such programs as Adventure Time.  Earth A. D. is still a place that many of us like to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

AdventureTime

When Stock Footage Roamed the Earth

“Why, if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage!” exclaims Johnny Depp as the title character in the 1994 film Ed Wood as he examines film clips of explosions, military maneuvers, and stampeding buffalo.  Although Wood never went quite that far, later filmmakers would take up that challenge, and the scene illustrates just how much movies in the black-and-white era depended on footage of stunts, special effects, and locations culled from other sources in the studios’ extensive libraries to cut costs.  (Even into the 1970s and ‘80s it wasn’t uncommon for low-budget directors to build films and TV episodes around footage of car crashes and stunts, matching the actors’ clothes to the pre-existing clips.) As a kid in the 1980s, I was indirectly exposed to a great deal of older movies and television by the flood of repurposed stock footage on TV at that time.

Certainly it was more common to find old movies, shorts, and black-and-white shows on television as part of cheap daytime syndication packages (I watched Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Little Rascals after school—can you imagine that today?) and the “late late show.”  Sunday afternoon was reserved for the “Creature Feature,” a phrase that in my naiveté I thought the local station managers had come up with themselves.  Creative editing into new formats such as music videos, commercials, and interstitials was just the next step for this material, much of which, before the explosion of cable channels and the revival of TV shows on DVD, was considered nearly worthless.

An appetite for old film clips excerpted from their context began to develop in the 1970s with the emergence of full-length “docutainment.”  The pioneer of the nostalgic clip movie was That’s Entertainment!, a celebratory look at movie musicals made in 1974 to commemorate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s fiftieth anniversary.  In addition to editing together highlights from both classic and obscure MGM musicals, That’s Entertainment! brought together a large number of the stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to talk about their experiences filming such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and reminisce about the good old days.  (A recurring theme of both the film and its marketing was that this would be the last time so many stars would be gathered in one place—although there would be two sequels—and even the trailer emphasizes its escapist quality in the Watergate era, ending its ballyhoo with a hilariously downbeat “That’s Entertainment! Boy! Do we need it now.” Ah, the 1970s.)

That’s Entertainment! is a film that I’ve returned to several times over the years, but 1982’s It Came from Hollywood was more my speed at the time: comics Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong introduced clips from dozens of science fiction, horror, and cult movies, ranging from cheap B movies and serials to the monster classics of the 1950s and focusing on such niche categories as drug panic, juvenile delinquency, and even musicals.  In addition to the skits setting up each category (which also included “Monsters,” “Gorillas,” “The Brain,” and “Aliens,” among others), they offered a running commentary, often razzing the cheapness or tastelessness of the films in a manner that echoed the audience participation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the mockery of The Golden Turkey Awards (in fact, Golden Turkey winner Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the subject of his own segment in It Came from Hollywood, the only filmmaker so “honored”) and anticipated the format of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It Came from Hollywood is doubly nostalgic for me now, hearkening back both to an era of drive-in double features and Saturday matinees I only experienced second-hand, and to the early 1980s heyday of the hip comedians (younger at the time of filming than I am now, and two of them sadly since passed away: seriously, did anyone in 1982 think that of all these comedians, Cheech Marin would have the strongest career in 2014?) I considered the height of cool back then.  Unlike That’s Entertainment!, It Came from Hollywood didn’t bother to name most of the films it excerpted (except in a long list during the end credits), lending a dissociative, dream-like quality to the proceedings (and often leaving me unable to place a particular image for years, until the internet made it easier to find such information, not to mention the films themselves).

Another film that must have had a considerable influence on me was 1977’s Gizmo!, produced and directed by Howard Smith, which, unlike my two previous examples, drew most of its footage from films that purported to be true (or were at least staged for publicity: mostly Depression-era newsreels, from the look of it).  Many of the clips are of gadgets and contraptions made to solve the petty problems of life—a dog-powered washing machine, a self-rocking cradle, and a spaghetti fork mounted on a hand-held drill so as to twirl automatically—in the truest Rube Goldberg spirit.  Gizmo! casts a wide net, however, including many examples of “self-invention” as well, people with strange talents or driven by obsession: human flies and high wire walkers, a “human camel” drinking gallons of water and washing it down with kerosene, feats of strength and endurance.

Obsession and invention come together in the numerous doomed-to-fail flying machines, each presentation inevitably preceded by the delusional inventor’s proclamation that “what we are about to see will change the world.”  The succession of disastrous ornithopters, “triphibians,” rocket planes, and bat-winged flying costumes fizzling, burning out, or simply tumbling off the ends of their take-off ramps was probably the inspiration for a similar passage in Airplane! (1980) in which former pilot Ted Striker suffers the most pathetically hilarious flashback in all of film.

failed-flying-machines-o

In fact, the Airplane! sequence is just one of many examples of footage that was insinuated into public consciousness through its reuse: while it may not have been the first film to revive them, Gizmo! contains many images that have become iconic, such as performer Frank “Cannonball” Richards being shot in the belly point blank by a cannon.  If they didn’t see Gizmo!, viewers in the 1980s might have seen this image in numerous other contexts such as commercials or music videos; it was ubiquitous enough that when The Simpsons parodied it in “Homerpalooza” they could assume that the majority of their audience would get the reference.

cannonball

As it happens, I did see Gizmo! several times: in addition to appearing on HBO (like both of the other films I’ve mentioned), it was a favorite of my middle school shop teacher, good old Mr. Lundquist (who would often joke that he couldn’t use a typewriter because he had lost his “typing finger” in a bandsaw accident—he was truly a shop teacher of the old school).  Whenever we had an inactive day (for whatever reason), Mr. Lundquist would pop Gizmo! into the VCR for us to watch, on the pretense that we might glean some insight into mechanical engineering from it: I must have seen the damned thing at least half a dozen times in school.

Although now mostly forgotten, Gizmo! (along with other docutainments) led to such programs as That’s Incredible! and Real People with their mix of weird talents, record-breaking attempts, and magazine-like pieces on strange subjects, kicking off a brief “reality TV” craze twenty years before Survivor.  In a more serious vein, the obsessed oddballs of Gizmo! are the forefathers of Errol Morris’ subjects in the similarly anthology-like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

It was on basic cable that stock footage became almost a medium in itself, continually reshaped and recombined by editors, filling in the cracks in programming and propping up commercial messages like the media equivalent of duct tape.  Rick Prelinger, collector and curator of countless educational and industrial films, was one source, financing his more serious preservation projects by supplying film clips to cable channels and other buyers.  Nickelodeon and the Comedy Channel frequently ran old shorts in the late 1980s when their own programming was thin on the ground. And it’s a cliché by now to complain that MTV no longer runs music videos, but what I really miss are the incredible variety of cult films and the kind of sponsored films that Prelinger specialized in: safety, hygiene, and civil defense films from the 1950s and ‘60s, presented uncut but ironically juxtaposed with the rest of the channel’s programming.

Black-and-white footage was especially felicitous for film collage: just as the low-budget filmmakers of the time had reused stunts to cut costs, counting on the consistency of the film stock to hide discrepancies, modern editors could draw on a vast body of film to assemble an original world from spare parts: in It Came from Hollywood, the invaders of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers could share the screen with the alien masterminds of Mars Needs Women and the ape-like Robot Monster could trade places with the gorilla from The Perils of Nyoka, making the visuals as archetypal and interchangeable as the storylines.  Later filmmakers could, and would, go much farther in assembling collages (the work of Craig Baldwin, for example, deserves a write-up of its own, to follow at a later time); the uniformity of black-and-white film bears comparison to the Victorian engravings that Max Ernst turned into the surreal graphic novel La Femme 100 Têtes, the consistency of the illustration style allowing for a greater suspension of disbelief than more typically disjunct visual collage.*

ernst18

In fact, my memory of the 1980s is so colored by the reuse of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley routines, death-defying stunts, and proto-steampunk flying machines set to new soundtracks, that they largely run together in my mind.  For example, I had completely forgotten that Gizmo! has a voiceover, yet the announcer talks over the clips almost continuously.  I wonder, too, how much effect this had on other members of my generation: I was beguiled by these hints of an older world, touched by both history and fantasy, and I eventually had the opportunity to dig deeper, to watch complete films.  But the emphasis on dippy inventions and quaint habits of the past might have equally fueled the perception that old movies (and even the world they represented) were uniformly corny, boring, and dumb—an attitude that can be hard to overcome.

Similarly, the use of editing to present only the highlights—a pattern that is already evident in That’s Entertainment!, but which would accelerate with each passing year—both artificially juices the excitement level and misrepresents the more leisurely pacing that was the norm in old films.  (That’s not to say that editors of the 1930s and ‘40s never used quick cutting—they did—but over the length of a feature intense and exciting passages were generally balanced with slower sequences.) From a modern perspective, one of the most interesting sequences in That’s Entertainment! edits together the numerous examples of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the so-called “Backyard Musicals” series, saying “Let’s put on a show!” (or a dance band, or a rodeo) in rapid succession, a predecessor of the supercuts that now thrive on YouTube.

Perhaps like any fad, the use of stock footage on television began to fade; by 1994, Turner Classic Movies was on the air, providing a more respectable home for both feature films and ephemeral short features that could be presented original and uncut.  Likewise, many of the original sources from which features like Gizmo! drew are available online now and can be easily seen; it isn’t as necessary for them to be edited together for general viewers.  What is needed is context, and curators like TCM or Criterion are able to provide that.  With the availability of this footage has come easy-to-use editing software, so that anyone can create the kind of collage that was once trendy on television.  As for the low-budget producers, they are now more likely to lean on the crutch of CGI for their features, which may not be any more believable than stock car crashes or explosions, but can be quickly produced and can be tailored to their specific needs.  And MTV?  Well, everyone knows they don’t show videos any more, anyway.

* In this connection, the most intriguing example of this from the 1980s is Tom Schiller’s 1984 film Nothing Lasts Forever, a black-and-white homage to Golden Age Hollywood that uses stock footage to lend authenticity to the trippy journey of a young would-be artist.  More popular was Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a film noir parody in which Steve Martin played the detective, interacting with characters from classic movies through the magic of intercutting.

I’m very pleased to announce that my adaptation of the classic video game Legendary Wings has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming anthology The Lost Worlds of Power, edited by Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter.  My story will be one of twelve novelizations of games for the Nintendo Entertainment System™ written in, er, homage to the original Worlds of Power series, which often had little to do with the games that were being adapted.  The anthology will be available as a free eBook when it’s done: I believe I’ll be able to host it here, but I will definitely include links if not.  More information, including a release date, will be forthcoming as it develops.  I’m very excited to be included, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in the volume.  The complete announcement can be found here.

Christmas with the Doctor (No, not that one!)

Now that Thanksgiving is past, it’s time for the Christmas decorations to go up, and the Christmas music to come out!  In my family, one of our favorite Christmas albums is Holidays in Dementia, collected by the one and only Dr. Demento.  I’ve been a fan of the good Doctor since I was in middle school, although my interest has waxed and waned over the years as with so many youthful obsessions.  Holidays in Dementia was a gift to my wife on our first Christmas as a married couple (I know, but hear me out), in part because I remembered some of the songs on it, and knowing that she was a fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic and similar “demented” humor.  It’s since been played every year during December and has been the source of a number of inside jokes.  Holidays in Dementia was the 1995 follow-up to 1989’s Dr. Demento Presents The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All-Time, both released by Rhino.  The contrast between the two albums is interesting:

DOCTOR DEMENTO XMAS

The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All-Time

  1. The Chipmunk Song: The Chipmunks with the Music of David Seville
  2. All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth: Spike Jones & His City Slickers
  3. Jingle Bells: The Singing Dogs
  4. The Twelve Gifts of Christmas: Allan Sherman
  5. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas: Gayla Peevey
  6. Nuttin’ for Christmas: Stan Freberg
  7. A Christmas Carol: Tom Lehrer
  8. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer: Elmo & Patsy
  9. I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas: Yogi Yorgesson
  10. Twelve Days of Christmas: Bob & Doug McKenzie
  11. Green Chri$tma$: Stan Freberg
  12. I’m a Christmas Tree: Wild Man Fischer (Duet with Dr. Demento)
  13. I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus: Kip Addotta
  14. Santa Claus and His Old Lady: Cheech & Chong
  15. Christmas at Ground Zero: Weird Al Yankovic
  16. Christmas Dragnet: Stan Freberg & Daws Butler

demento.holidays

Holidays in Dementia

  1. The Twelve Pains of Christmas: Bob Rivers Comedy Corp
  2. It’s So Chic to be Pregnant at Christmas: Nancy White
  3. Gridlock Christmas: The Hollytones
  4. It’s Christmas and I Wonder Where I Am: The Bob & Tom Band
  5. Santa Claus is Watching You: Ray Stevens with the Merry Melody Singers
  6. Santa’s Lament: Father Guido Sarducci
  7. Rusty Chevrolet: Da Yoopers
  8. Christmas is Coming Twice This Year: The Hollytones
  9. Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses
  10. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: Joseph Spence
  11. A Terrorist Christmas: James & Kling
  12. Stop the Cavalry: Jona Lewie
  13. The Pretty Little Dolly: Mona Abboud
  14. Hanukkah Rocks: Gefilte Joe & The Fish
  15. Hanukkah Homeboy: Doc Mo Shé
  16. Happy New Year: Spike Jones & His City Slickers
  17. New Year’s Resolutions: Scary Gary Alan

There are a few differences between the two discs: whereas Christmas is right in the title of the first collection, Holidays in Dementia also includes songs dedicated to Hannukah and New Year’s Eve (according to his introduction, the Doctor had intended to represent the winter holidays equally, but there weren’t many non-Christmas songs to choose from).  I wouldn’t argue against any of the songs on The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD; most of the songs on it earned their place through years of airplay.  The downside is that you’ve probably heard them all before.  It’s like having a friend whose favorite rock songs are “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hey Jude”: they’re classics, but not very interesting or surprising as choices.  Still, these are all songs you would want in your library of Christmas novelty songs (doesn’t everyone have one of those?), value added by Dr. Demento’s scholarly liner notes (scholarship genuinely arrived at, I might add: in his civilian identity as Barry Hansen, Dr. Demento has a degree in ethnomusicology, as well as being a crate-digging record collector of the first order, much like his predecessor Harry Smith).  It does cover a wide historical range, from songs that predate Dr. Demento and his influence (you can’t go wrong with Tom Lehrer and Spike Jones, for example) to artists like Demento discovery “Weird Al” Yankovic and others whose primary distribution was through the Doctor’s radio show.  (Incidentally, I had no idea the original Singing Dogs record appeared in 1956.)

If it sounds like I’m putting down The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD, I don’t mean to; it just doesn’t have the same personal connection for me as Holidays in Dementia, and the songs it includes are widely known and available, so even though I like them, I don’t think of this album specifically when I listen to them.  Going through the track list for Holidays, however, I’ve realized there are several that I skip when I listen to it (“A Terrorist Christmas,” a flat recitation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with weapons replacing the traditional gifts, doesn’t work for me; unlike the equally dark “Christmas at Ground Zero,” there’s neither wit nor musicality).  But the songs I like, I really like: if a novelty song is going to be a perennial, it either has to be as funny on the hundredth listen as the first (a high bar for any comedy record), or it has to work as a song that just happens to have witty lyrics.  Most of the songs on both CDs fit one category or the other, and some fit both; surprisingly, there are few direct song parodies (“Jingle Bells” turns into “Rusty Chevrolet,” for example; Kip Addotta’s “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus” rewrites a song that was already a novelty to begin with) outside of the numerous takes on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (four between the two discs, five if you count its inclusion in “Green Chri$tma$”).  Most of the songs are original.

Perhaps what I respond to in Holidays is the specificity of the songs: both CDs prick the commercialism, sanctimony, and hassle of Christmas, but Bob Rivers’ “The Twelve Pains of Christmas” dissects the misery of the season so expertly, and draws such indelible characters with only a few lines, that it feels universal.  Selected lines have become the standard reference when sending cards (“I don’t even know half these people!”) or putting up lights (“One light goes out, and they all go out!”) in our house.

On the flip side, we might not all be able to relate to the expectant mother of Nancy White’s “It’s So Chic to be Pregnant at Christmas,” the harried single girl of The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” or the children of divorce from the Hollytones’ “Christmas is Coming Twice This Year,” but they evoke times and places as clearly as a short story.  So many Christmas songs are narratives to begin with, the line between “seasonal” and “novelty” is fuzzy at best.  The Hollytones’ “Gridlock Christmas” is one of my favorites, and one of the songs I sought out when buying Holidays in the first place: it came out in 1988, and must have been new when I first heard it on Dr. Demento’s radio show.  The tale it spins of motorists making the best of it while stuck on the freeway is ironic but with a core of sincerity: “I’m having gridlock Christmas / With people I don’t even know. / Though friends and family can’t be here / We’ll have good old Christmas cheer / With carols on the car radio.” The song combines a laid back, two-beat country accompaniment (complete with slide guitar) with a jazzy clarinet, and singer Floyd Elliot’s crooning delivery (complete with a Johnnie Ray-style catch in his voice) brings together the contrasting musical elements in the same way strangers are drawn into fellowship in the song.  Is it a testament to the resilience of the holiday spirit, of the way we can turn anything, even nuisances and frustrations, into traditions?  Perhaps, but it’s also just a terrific song.

BONUS VIDEO: In case you felt misled by this post’s title, here’s another Dr. Demento favorite from 1988: “Doctorin’ the TARDIS” by The Timelords/KLF, a mash-up of the classic Who theme and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” complete with a music video featuring authentic special effects from the classic series (I kid, I kid):