Color Out of Space: Horror Comes Home

This essay contains spoilers for Color Out of Space.

It’s been hard to be an H. P. Lovecraft fan the last few years. I don’t mean because of his often-lugubrious prose style, his penchant for unpronounceable names, or his tendency to describe his horrors as “indescribable” (how convenient!): those traits tend to be the source of affectionate ribbing between fans rather than cause for cancellation, or at least come down to matters of taste. But Lovecraft has come under greater scrutiny in recent years for his racist views; whether you believe, as I do, that he underwent some revision of those views in the last years of his life, broadening his perspective, the fact remains that in his private letters and early writings he gave vent to opinions on race that put him in extreme company, even in the 1920s. Nor is this a case where one can easily separate the art and the artist, for his fiction, even some of the greatest of his stories, clearly come from a personal place in which Lovecraft’s xenophobia and fear of miscegenation form the basis of the fantastic horrors he describes (not to mention the more explicit references to the race and ethnicity of his human characters when they do appear).

These criticisms have been a long time coming, and they hardly blew up overnight: indeed, recognition that the “old man” wrote a few impolitic things has been present at least since his stories began to be collected and reprinted for an audience beyond the pulp magazines in which they first appeared. The world of fantasy and science fiction was, like many fandoms, an insular one, and the most influential voices within it tended to be white and, like me, insulated by privilege from feeling truly hurt by Lovecraft’s words. Robert Bloch, in his 1982 essay “Heritage of Horror” (the introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, the paperback collection that was an introduction to Lovecraft for many readers, including me), devotes two whole paragraphs to the charge of racism against Lovecraft, ultimately dismissing it as just one more spurious charge laid against the master by uncomprehending outsiders.

Both fiction and scholarship have, to their credit, attempted to grapple with this legacy rather than ignore it in recent years. On the new fiction front, the subversion or reimagining of Lovecraft’s themes, often written by people of color and tackling Lovecraft’s personal biases directly, has breathed life into a subgenre of horror that frequently consisted of stale imitations. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, for example, is set in the 1950s and centers on a black science fiction fan, captivated by the imagination in pulp stories but acutely aware of the subhuman depictions of black people in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others. What, he asks, do you do when you love a genre that doesn’t love you back? The hero’s nephew, for one, creates a comic book space opera with a black heroine, based on his mother, and that’s one strategy (witness the success Jordan Peele has had creating horror centered on specifically black experiences: expanding representation means new and better stories for everyone).

There’s also the 2015 decision to change the World Fantasy Award trophy from a bust of Lovecraft to something more abstract. For the record, even as a fan I think that’s the right call: as much as it was meant as an affectionate tribute when it started in 1975, in this day and age it’s a little odd to have a trophy representing “World Fantasy” look like any single person, as if it were all their idea, and I can’t blame the minority and POC writers who felt that they were being asked to place their work under the symbolic authority of a man who when alive would likely not have recognized or welcomed them. Finally, it’s a decision that makes it easier to keep the man himself in perspective, as one of many authors and with human flaws, rather than an Easter Island totem, unanswerable and above criticism.

I can’t say that I was directly thinking about these issues while I watched Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s new adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space.” What most struck me was that the film, in which a strange meteorite contaminates and destroys a small New England farm and the family that lives there, feels up to the minute, urgent even, in ways that are present in the original story and feel completely true to it, even as Stanley prunes and updates the text. But as I let the film sink in over the next few days, it occurred to me that it is next to impossible to talk about Lovecraft now without being aware of the discussion around him, and that for many people Lovecraft’s racism has become the sum total of what they know and think about him, particularly if they haven’t encountered him firsthand (and how many will now avoid him, if they think that every story is but a thinly-veiled racist screed?).

Yet here we are with a largely faithful feature film, and one that not only feels relevant but which features a multiracial cast and does so without a major rearrangement of the text. Lovecraft may be a “problematic fave,” but he continues to hang on in public consciousness because of something at the core of his writing, some essential observation of modern life. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Yes, Lovecraft was a pessimist, but there are times when pessimism and realism are one and the same, and reading a bracingly dark vision can be strangely life-affirming. Lovecraft–pedantic, verbose, racist–hangs on because of the clarity of that vision.

In “The Colour Out of Space” (which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1927, one of only a handful of Lovecraft’s stories to appear in a science fiction magazine rather than his usual Weird Tales), an unnamed surveyor visits the ancient wooded valleys around Arkham, Massachusetts (one of Lovecraft’s fictional towns) in advance for a new reservoir that will flood the land. Finding a desolate area called the “blasted heath” by the country folk, the surveyor tracks down a local farmer named Ammi Pierce, who tells him about the “strange days” forty years prior, when the “blasted heath” was the farm of Nahum Gardner and his family. Pierce relates the story of the meteorite that landed on the farm and the glass-like globule or “bubble” at its center: “the colour . . . was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” Over the course of the following year, in Pierce’s telling, the vegetation and animals around the farm go through strange metamorphoses, displaying a vague sense of “wrongness” familiar to readers of Lovecraft, but eventually turning the same unidentifiable “colour” and even visibly glowing at night. The people of the farm, Gardner’s family, become watchful and unhealthy, convinced that something is wrong but unable to leave. The farm’s well, in particular, seems to be at the center of their misgivings. Their transformations become more and more horrible, until the night Ammi Pierce and a delegation of lawmen from Arkham witness the transformation that leaves behind the “blasted heath.” The resolution is as uneasy as the ending of a 1950s monster movie: the danger is passed, but only for now, and it leaves behind the uncomfortable awareness of how dangerous the world really is.

“The Colour Out of Space” has been regarded as a cautionary tale about nuclear radiation and fallout: it was written well before the atomic bomb became a reality, but radiation was already a known phenomenon on a smaller scale, and world-destroying bombs and plagues were familiar in the pages of the pulp magazines long before they hit the front pages of newspapers. The intimations that the meteorite and the unearthly “colour” come from somewhere alien, where the forces of nature are different, place this story within the “cosmic horror” subgenre Lovecraft is known for, but it is essentially a story of contamination: the horror is one of environmental pollution, of body and mind being betrayed and corrupted by the elements around one.

In transferring this story to the screen (and for the record, this is not the first movie adaptation–I’ve even written about another loose adaptation, Die, Monster, Die!), Stanley (with co-writer Scarlett Amaris) wisely eliminates the frame story. The surveyor (now a hydrologist, played by Elliot Knight) is the protagonist, directly visiting the Gardner farm and getting involved in the action, and rather than being set years in the past everything has been updated to the present. Instead of being a yeoman farmer, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) is a businessman who’s made his pile in the city and moved his family back to his father’s farm, living off the land and living the dream. I recognized this person immediately, right down to the alpacas he has added to the farm (“the animal of the future,” a phrase that will come to seem downright ominous). Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson), a breast cancer survivor, continues to work as a stockbroker, the laptop and headset mic she uses to connect with her clients incongruous with the tiny garret that serves as her office. The family, with its three children–Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard)–may have its issues, but it’s basically functional: they can work things out.

Until, that is, the night of the meteorite. It’s not really possible to depict a never-before-seen color, but Stanley does make it look spectacular, ladling on the neon pink and purple, lens flares and other prismatic effects, and accompanying the visual flashes with eerie sounds (comparisons to the palette of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy are apt). Even the arrival of the meteorite is a big event, causing computers to glitch and affecting each member of the family differently; the staging implies that the stone’s arrival is as much a psychic event as a physical one, and did it really fall from space, or from an opening to another dimension? Once everyone comes outside to look at it, it looks like a pink, pulsating brain. Later on, as the alien color seeps into everything around it and pink-hued flowers sprout around the farm, it’s as if the landscape is being turned into the surface of another planet (and indeed there are suggestions that that’s exactly what is happening). As the meteorite begins to show its malign influence, the transformations the animal life and eventually the family experience recall John Carpenter’s The Thing, or the ooky body horror of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna.

Unlike some adaptations, Color Out of Space is explicitly set in Lovecraft’s imaginary “witch-haunted” New England: in addition to nearby Arkham, there are references to Innsmouth and Kingsport; the hydrologist, Ward Phillips (one of Lovecraft’s pen names), wears a Miskatonic University tee shirt. Although Lovecraft’s original story predates Cthulhu and his other famous creations, the Necronomicon makes an appearance in the film, but it’s the “Simon” Necronomicon, a mass-produced paperback published in 1977, and it doesn’t provide any answers. The film begins and ends with some of Lovecraft’s own words as voice over delivered by the hydrologist.

By coincidence, less than a week before seeing Color Out of Space I had watched The Last Mimzy for my review of Henry Kuttner’s short fiction: in both films, Joely Richardson plays the mom of a family experiencing an incursion from otherworldly forces. The Last Mimzy is an optimistic film, injecting Kuttner’s story with about 1000% more woo in the form of Deepak Chopra-style speculation about connections between quantum mechanics and meditative states, Tibetan mandalas, and dream visions along with Kuttner’s fourth-dimensional speculations, and it grafts a “children are our future” sense of purpose onto the story. It’s a far cry from the nihilistic horror of Color, and I was tempted to say that the coincidence of Richardson’s casting says something about our national mood then and now. I couldn’t honestly make the comparison, though: The Last Mimzy was released in 2007, post-9/11, in the midst of the Iraq War, and with the culture wars already in full swing. Rainn Wilson’s character in Mimzy, a science teacher, makes the point early on that pollutants, including cultural pollutants (?), can actually change a population’s DNA, corrupting them from the inside. It has a hopeful point of view, to be sure, but the anxiety that the rot is already present is clear.

The same thing is going on in Color Out of Space; the rot is just further along. The color affects each member of the family differently, but the suggestion is that the color is bringing out and corrupting something already inherent in their character. As the mom, Richardson is alternately spacey and shrewish, finally undergoing a sort of inverted pregnancy, drawing her youngest son back into her body. Witchy eldest daughter Lavinia becomes a cosmic priestess of the color, cutting occult sigils into her own flesh. Ezra (Tommy Chong), the squatter who lives off the grid in a shack on the Gardners’ property, becomes a literal burnout; he comes to understand the color and even provides the hydrologist with a vision of the color’s alien home, but that knowledge doesn’t help him escape it.

Nathan Gardner becomes a parody of middle-aged dadhood, berating his family and making tough decisions one moment and settling into his easy chair in the next, watching the static on his TV and surrounding himself with the ghosts of his departed family. (Since this is a Nicolas Cage vehicle, he gets a few good freak-outs, but the build-up is more gradual than in some: unlike in Mom and Dad, he doesn’t seem unhinged from the beginning.) In one scene, Nathan rants about how he followed the rules but everything still went to shit: in context, he’s talking about his crop of tomatoes, tinged with the unpleasant taste of the color, but it’s not hard to hear in it the frustration we’ve all felt, that the game is rigged and that we’re at the mercy of a system we can’t control.

Ultimately, this is environmental horror: the cosmic stuff just gets us in the door, but at its core the fear is real enough. The fact that the mother is a cancer survivor is significant, I think, symbolic of the cancerous growth of the color throughout the Gardners’ farm, but also a reminder that the healthy exterior at the beginning of the film was only an illusion. News clips on television show dead fish and reports about climate change; the hydrologist’s presence on the farm is due to the planned reservoir, a source of manmade devastation. Whatever is in the well at the farm will soon be part of the municipal water supply for a much greater area. Color Out of Space is a vision of an ordinary family destroyed by forces that mankind as a whole has set in motion, and which are as unstoppable as storms, earthquakes, and meteors. “It’s in the water,” the characters tell each other, but there is nothing they can do but drink.

Rediscovering Henry Kuttner

January is Vintage Science Fiction Month, so I’m diving into the short stories of the prolific author Ray Bradbury dubbed “a neglected master.”

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” was adapted into the 2007 film The Last Mimzy.

Henry Kuttner is, for me, one of those authors I saw frequently represented in anthologies of the golden age of science fiction, but whom I rarely had a strong picture of as an individual, someone with a singular set of preoccupations or stylistic tics. One story would be horror, the next social science fiction, and still another might be light fantasy. If Kuttner is today not a household name*, perhaps it is his ability to work in several different veins, and his ability to channel a variety of authorial voices, that keeps the man himself out of focus. (For this article, I read the 1975 collection The Best of Henry Kuttner, but several other stories I consulted were found in scattered multi-author anthologies.)

As an example, I first encountered Kuttner as a younger member of the Weird Tales circle embroidering on H. P. Lovecraft’s growing Cthulhu cycle. “The Salem Horror” (1937) was included in August Derleth’s seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Kuttner’s Weird Tales output also included pastiches of Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery stories.

As Kuttner discovered his own voice, a strain of light fantasy emerged, with concepts from folklore or mythology existing in the modern world, often using the incongruity as a source of gentle (or not-so gentle) comedy. In “Masquerade,” from 1942, a honeymooning couple stumbles on a family of degenerates (who may or may not be vampires) living in a former lunatic asylum, wryly commenting on how cliché it all is (“Look, if I started a story like this, any editor would shoot it back,” the narrating husband tells his wife.)

“Masquerade” was adapted in a 1961 episode of Thriller.

Some of these stories are reminiscent of his contemporaries Robert Bloch (with whom Kuttner sometimes collaborated) and L. Sprague de Camp, or even the earlier Thorne Smith (“The Misguided Halo” is one of these), and had a clear influence on the younger Ray Bradbury. Still other stories fit the description of science fiction as “the fiction of ideas,” with theories of social or technological development, and the question of man’s future, front and center, although the dialogue and characterization are often better than that description would suggest: if, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Kuttner sometimes wrote stories whose sole purpose seems to be making use of a social theory or scientific factoid, Kuttner’s strength was to humanize that impulse, showing the effects of progress and change from an individual’s perspective. In that sense, there is a continuity between Kuttner’s stories and the early fiction of Philip K. Dick. If Kuttner had lived longer (he died in 1958 at the age of 43), it’s possible that he would have made the leap to the more introspective, experimental science fiction of the 1960s. Instead, he foreshadowed it.

When discussing themes in Kuttner’s work, one must also acknowledge the author’s long collaboration with wife and writing partner C. L. (Catherine) Moore, whom he married in 1940. I’m a big fan of Moore’s writing, especially her “Northwest Smith” and “Jirel of Joiry” series, both of which appeared in Weird Tales. Untangling who contributed what to stories published under Kuttner’s and Moore’s individual names can be tricky, and many of the stories now attributed to one or the other of them originally appeared under the joint pseudonym “Lewis Padgett” or numerous other pen names. The couple shared a single typewriter and bragged that either of them could pick up the thread of a story where the other had left off without a break. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction holds that all of the stories in The Best of Henry Kuttner were in fact collaborations, so perhaps it would be best to think of “Kuttner and Moore” as a team like “Lennon and McCartney,” with some projects being independent work but always in the context of the ongoing partnership.

Two themes emerge strongly in Kuttner’s mature stories: in one strand, the Lovecraftian concepts Kuttner cut his teeth on are adapted to notions of technological and social evolution. In stories like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and “The Twonky,” the intrusions from other worlds are not the work of sinister alien gods and their cults, but are carelessly scattered artifacts from civilizations at a different level of development, either a future state of evolution or from a parallel reality in which “normal” has a very different definition than ours. “Mimsy” centers on a box of unearthly educational toys that gradually condition their users to life in four or more dimensions; in “The Twonky,” a combination radio-phonograph turns out to be an artificial intelligence in disguise, an in-home butler, watchdog . . . and jailer.

In Arch Oboler’s 1953 adaptation of “The Twonky,” the story’s radio-phonograph was replaced by a television.

These unnerving (and prescient) stories broach the idea that futuristic technologies could rewire human brains, turning their users into geniuses, madmen, or passive slaves. As in “Call Him Demon” (one of Kuttner’s finest tales, a story of cosmic horror told through the lens of recollected childhood), it is only children, their minds not yet set into routine patterns, who can truly pick up on these messages from outside. To adults, the signs are either undetectable or incomprehensible. Ray Bradbury, noting the impact these stories had on himself and others, wrote “I very much doubt that ‘Zero Hour,’ or for that matter ‘The Veldt,’ would ever have leaped out of my typewriter if Kuttner’s imagination had not led the way.” (In retrospect, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time builds on the foundation “Mimsy” established; I would also include C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” as another tale indebted to Kuttner’s concepts, with that author’s own bitterly ironic twist, of course.)

The other prominent thread relates to mankind’s future evolution and the possibility of beneficial mutation. In the humorous Hogben stories, a family of backwoods mutants with incredible mental powers do their best to live beneath the notice of snooping big-city scientists and other busybodies. These are tall tales for the nuclear age, providing fantastical solutions to common problems, as when Junior Hogben jury-rigs a time machine to make cream sour faster in “Cold War.”

In other stories, the implications of human evolution are much darker, and the prospect of a struggle between homo sapiens and homo superior looms. Some of the new breed wish only to live in peace like the Hogbens, but others seek to dominate their merely human inferiors or bide their time until there are enough others like them, realizing that unmutated humans would hate and fear them if they knew that supermen lived among them. Combining nuclear anxiety, metaphors of societal prejudice, and drawing clear comparisons with early humans’ elimination of Neanderthal competition, these stories are instantly recognizable as an inspiration for Marvel Comics’ X-Men.

In stories like “Absalom,” there is a specifically Oedipal dimension to this struggle, and we’re back around full circle to the notion that children are essentially psychopathic, their minds still malleable, buffeted between conflicting influences. Parenting is tough enough, but in a family of telepaths, where does one draw the line? “The Piper’s Son” (part of the “Baldy” series expanded into the novel Mutant) sensitively asks that question, comparing the balance of power within a family to the uneasy search for a growing Baldy minority’s place in a rebuilding postwar society.

Beyond these major themes, there are plenty of surprises. Judging science fiction by the accuracy of its predictions is a rookie mistake, but in addition to Kuttner’s farsighted critiques of technology as an agent of conditioning, one finds, for example, the suggestion of a viral meme (in the form of a catchy song) used to disrupt an enemy’s organization in the wartime tale “Nothing But Gingerbread Left.” In “The Proud Robot,” one sees subscription-based television services more like Netflix than the radio-license model Kuttner seems to have had in mind. Of course, the predictions that ring true are more likely to jump out at the reader–I’m still waiting for the robotic judge, jury, and executioner described in “Two-Handed Engine,” and I’ll probably continue to wait–and whether a prediction comes true doesn’t say anything about the quality of that story. It’s a truism that every story is really about the time it was written, no matter what year it’s supposed to be set in. Don’t we read old science fiction in part for those glimpses of a world that could have turned out differently? In the case of Henry Kuttner, there is still entertainment–and thoughtful observation of humanity–to be had, if we but look.

* Don’t take my word for it: Robert M. Price wrote in his 1995 introduction to The Book of Iod, a collection of Kuttner’s youthful Lovecraft pastiches, “Henry Kuttner’s star shines neither so brightly nor so high up in the firmament as it once did. . . . Today it is sad but safe to say that just about all of Kuttner’s exceedingly clever fiction is the property of literary nostalgia-lovers and antiquarians.”

My 2019 in Books

Another year of reading has come and gone; this year has felt so long that I can hardly believe some of the books I read in the spring and summer were part of the same year as this fall. Well, I guess that’s why I started keeping track–so I could remember and keep my thoughts sorted. For the most part, my fiction reading ran toward the pulpier and bloodier, while my non-fiction choices were all over the map. As always, I’m only including books and graphic novels I read from cover to cover, so individual issues of comics, magazine articles, and other short reading are not included.

January

The Ninja, Eric Van Lustbader

Wicked Wichita, Joe Stumpe

Wichita Jazz and Vice Between the World Wars, Joshua L. Yearout

February

Hot Summer, Cold Murder, Gaylord Dold

I never met Gaylord Dold, but I occasionally shared space with him in the pages of the Wichita Eagle when I was reviewing the Wichita Symphony and he was reviewing books. His series of detective novels starring private eye Mitch Roberts (of which Hot Summer, Cold Murder is the first) caught my attention because they are set in Wichita in the 1950s; following up two non-fiction examinations of my adopted hometown’s history with Dold’s fictional treatment seemed natural. I was amused to discover that Roberts lived across the street from Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Sycamore Street, almost exactly where my friend Bill grew up and still lived when I met him in college. Dold passed away in 2018, and Lawrence-Dumont also saw its last season of baseball before being torn down that year. Thus do fixtures of the present recede into the past before our eyes; Century II, Wichita’s downtown performing arts center (and home of the aforementioned Symphony) is probably next on the chopping block. Sigh.

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, Glen Weldon

Marshal Law, Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, et al

The Tomb, F. Paul Wilson

March

The Touch, F. Paul Wilson

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, Georgina Howell

Reborn, F. Paul Wilson

Reprisal, F. Paul Wilson

April

Nightworld, F. Paul Wilson

I read Wilson’s The Keep last year; this year I followed up with the rest of the author’s Adversary Cycle. It’s clear that The Keep, The Tomb, and The Touch were written independently, but Reborn, Reprisal, and Nightworld do a decent job of bringing their settings and characters together. Nightworld, the conclusion to this epic multi-generational fantasy, is so bizarre that I wonder how it would strike a reader picking it up for the first time without having read the preceding installments. It is Wilson’s take on the apocalyptic theme several genre authors toyed with in the mid-’80s, like Stephen King’s The Stand or (I gather) Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, and the earth plunging into an eternal night, against all known astronomical laws, is just the beginning.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou

Mister Miracle, Tom King, Mitch Gerads, et al

Super Mario Bros. 2, Jon Irwin

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Who is Scorpio?, Jim Steranko et al

Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, Jeffrey J. Kripal

May

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard

Cutie Honey a Go Go!, Shimpei Itoh

I watched the live-action Cutie Honey movie last year and included it in my New Discoveries column, but before that I wasn’t familiar with the character or the manga she starred in at all; this book isn’t the original manga by series creator Go Nagai, but an adaptation of that same live-action film. However, it barely resembles the movie, veering off into a subplot about a sinister girls’ boarding school before returning to the main thread in the last few pages and ending on a cliffhanger. I’ve read plenty of adaptations that depart from the film, either because they were based on an earlier version of the screenplay or because the author seeks to flesh things out in a more novelistic way, but this is something else entirely. In an apologetic afterword, Itoh explains that he had hoped to add elements from the original manga to his adaptation as a tribute to Nagai, but when the serialized strip was canceled he ran out of space and time. “I suck,” he writes. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Doctor Sax, Jack Kerouac

Speaking of adaptations, I first became acquainted with this work in an audio adaptation including the voices of Jim Carroll, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other emeriti of the Beat movement, but I had never read the original book. A digressive, fantastic exploration of Kerouac’s childhood populated by ghosts, vampires, and the enigmatic title character, part Jean Shepherd and part Weird Tales, it’s a reminder that the Beats had roots in pulpier sensibilities.

Die Kitty Die: Heaven and Hell, Dan Parent and Fernando Ruiz

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara

June

The Shepherd of the Hills, Harold Bell Wright

Lady into Fox, David Garnett

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume Three: Century, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, et al

July

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, et al

Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

The Gunslinger, Stephen King

Earlier this year I found almost the entire Dark Tower series at a thrift store, missing only one volume (which I later found at the very same store), allowing me to buy the whole series for less than ten dollars. Having polished off F. Paul Wilson’s Adversary Cycle (see above), I figured it was time to tackle another monumental epic of dark fantasy. I doubt I would have made this attempt even a few years ago, but as I mentioned at Halloween, my opinion of King has done a neat 180 over the years, and I’m not one to turn down a find when it comes packaged so conveniently.

August

The Drawing of the Three, Stephen King

September

The Waste Lands, Stephen King

Original Fake, Kirstin Cronn-Mills, art by E. Eero Johnson

Shoot: A Valentino Mystery, Loren D. Estleman

October

The Monk, Matthew G. Lewis

November

Nightmare Abbey, Thomas Love Peacock

Crotchet Castle, Thomas Love Peacock

December

The Druids, Stuart Piggott

As for what’s next: well, after a break I returned to The Dark Tower and am partway through the fourth volume, Wizard and Glass, but I don’t expect to finish that by the end of the year. Beyond that series, I have plenty of books to choose from; as usual, I’ll let my ever-shifting interests guide me in the new year. Happy reading!

Medleyana, Year Six: The Future of Fates Worse Than Death

I made a key decision when I began Medleyana (six years ago this week!): I gave myself permission to write about whatever I felt like rather than covering a single narrow topic (the blog’s motto, “In praise of the eclectic,” was thus aptly chosen). I could not have predicted, for example, that a good chunk of my time would be spent covering old movie serials. Related to that freedom, and as an antidote to a phobia of leaving any angle uncovered I had developed in grad school, I accepted, even embraced, that I would not always be comprehensive in my discussion of every topic. Building up over time, each article adding to the big picture, the writer I have become has been revealed (to myself, not just to readers) over the past six years. This is, of course, normal for reviewers, who write about one thing at a time, but it was a new way of thinking for me. In retrospect, it was silly of me to think that I could do it any other way.

This is also the sixth year of writing Fates Worse Than Death, mostly during the summers. I originally started the series as a way of motivating myself to watch a few serials I had on DVD (while, at the same time, providing fodder for my blog). I have since bought many more serials for the specific purpose of writing about them, as well as hunting them down online (not to mention the books I’ve bought and checked out of the library to bolster my writing). I feel that I’ve graduated to “aficionado” status, but I wouldn’t say I’ve yet earned the right to call myself an expert. More than 250 serials were produced during the sound era, and I’ve watched and reviewed about 20% of them at this point.

However, I have watched enough that many patterns and similarities have emerged. Originality (as opposed to novelty) was not the primary aesthetic goal of the serials, so evaluating them individually is often a matter of judging the skill and artistry of filmmakers who were ringing changes on familiar formulas rather than breaking new ground. The question I face is this: should I continue writing about the serials in individual summaries, as most of the articles in Fates Worse Than Death have been, or should I condense and consolidate my coverage, while continuing to watch and research the serials? As I have frequently pointed out, I wouldn’t continue to do this if I didn’t enjoy it, and while I sometimes have criticism to level at the serials, I hope that my affection and interest in the genre and the era comes through in equal measure. If I am critical, it is because I am a fan who was been moved to think about what I am watching.

I also feel that I have written enough installments of this series to identify the strengths and weaknesses of my approach. There is a great deal of material already available on the production of the serials: the careers of the actors, directors, and crew members; the box office results and later television revival of the serials; and the places and people that often go nameless in the original films but have been identified over the years by eagle-eyed fans. I do not feel that Fates Worse Than Death is primarily about those things, although I touch on them occasionally. Nor does my work quite fit the nostalgic approach taken by many of the first-generation fans who grew up attending Saturday matinee showings of these films; as I have written previously, my own nostalgia is for the films and TV shows made in reaction to this material such as the Indiana Jones movies and The Rocketeer (I couldn’t really see the serials uncut until I was an adult anyway). Researching the serials (as well as the comics, pulps, and radio shows of the Golden Age) helps me to understand the influences that went into those works, but the serials are ultimately part of someone else’s childhood. On the other hand, I hope that I have more to offer than just snark.

No, I have come to find that my primary interest is in the form itself, in the way the demands of the cliffhanger and the weekly episode shape the story, as well as the way low budgets encouraged economy, from the use of recycled props and sets to the use of in-story flashbacks and that reliable staple, stock footage. One strength of this approach is that I have tried to watch as broad and representative a sample of serials as I could, taking on the serial as its own genre, not just as early film vehicles for my favorite comic-book superheroes or as an embarrassing cousin of the Western, gangster, or science fiction genres.

I also believe that there is room to explore the influences that flowed into and from the serials: the popular crime novels of Edgar Wallace, the fantasies of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the comic strips of Alex Raymond, for example. I’ve mentioned those names many times, and they keep coming up because of the repetitions of formula I’ve mentioned; again, I’m not the world’s foremost expert on popular culture, but I’ve learned a great deal from writing this series, and I hope to continue exploring those elements. (Because of the way I write installments of this series, I generally like to go into each serial as a blank slate, only afterward discovering what other materials I need to fill out my review; a more comprehensive approach would necessarily make research a greater priority.)

Similarly, as the 1930s and ’40s recede further into the past every year, details from the serials that contemporary audiences took for granted become more obscure. A work that delves into those details, that separates fact from fiction and provides a clearer picture of everyday life in that era, the better to appreciate the flights of fancy, strikes me as overdue (Christopher Miller’s book American Cornball, which explains to modern audiences what used to be so funny about castor oil and other jokes that turn up in old cartoons and movies, is a model I have in mind here).

In short, I put it to you, dear reader, especially those of you who have stuck with Fates Worse Than Death this far: what would you like to see going forward? Would you read a longer work, partly an explainer about the serials and the world that produced them, partly a guidebook with selected reviews of individual serials? Or are the reviews themselves compelling enough that you would prefer to keep reading them? Are there specific serials or related subjects you’d like me to write about? I intend to keep watching them, but I don’t want the article format to become stale, for myself or for readers. If you’ve followed this blog or read Fates Worse Than Death (all available here), let me know what you think: comment here, or drop me a line through the Contact page or on Twitter. As always, thanks for reading!

Fates Worse Than Death: Haunted Harbor

Captain Jim Marsden is in trouble: his schooner Dolphin disappeared with a million-dollar shipment of gold bullion, and he’s deep in debt. To compound the suspicion, Vorhees, the man Marsden owes, has been murdered, and Marsden was discovered with the body. Before dying, Vorhees gave Marsden a name and a location–“Carter . . . Haunted Harbor”–but it won’t do him any good if he hangs for Vorhees’ murder.

Broken out of jail by his crew and offered a place out of the law’s reach by a businessman friend, Marsden makes for the island of Pua Mate to run the trading post and investigate Haunted Harbor. On the way there, he and his crew rescue an injured doctor and his daughter stranded by a storm. Once on the island, Marsden and his new friend Patricia Harding search for the identity under which Carter hides: is it Dranga, the assistant at the trading post? Or Kane, who operates a gold mine? Or is it . . . well, actually we know right away that it’s Kane, and there really aren’t very many other suspects, but it takes a while for all of this to come to light. In the mean time, in addition to the danger and double-crosses that come from his search for Carter, he attempts to solve the mystery of Haunted Harbor, which the natives fear to approach. Are the two cases related? I think you know the answer to that.

As Patricia Harding, Kay Aldridge has Big Hermione Energy.

Despite its Pacific island setting, Haunted Harbor is stylistically similar to Zorro’s Black Whip, which would immediately follow the same year. Aside from leads Kane Richmond (Spy Smasher) as Marsden and Kay Aldridge (Perils of Nyoka) as Patricia, it shares a few cast members with the other serial, as well as both directors (Spencer (Gordon) Bennet and Wallace Grissell). Most notably, George J. Lewis, who would play the hero of Zorro’s Black Whip, plays the duplicitous Dranga, a role apparently more typical for him. The most prominent side characters are Marsden’s crewmen and friends Yank (Clancy Cooper) and Tommy (Marshall J. Reed), and Kane/Carter’s chief henchmen, Snell (Bud Geary) and mine foreman Gregg (Kenne Duncan). (In typical serial fashion, Kane/Carter works his evil through his henchmen for as long as possible to keep Marsden from suspecting him: at one point Marsden even turns Gregg over to Kane, believing that the foreman is Carter.)

Stuntmen Dale Van Sickel and Tom Steele also appear in the casts of both films, a sure sign of energetic fisticuffs to come. As in Zorro’s Black Whip, the fight scenes–and there are many–are chaotic brawls, full of leaps and falls, taking place on sets crammed with breakaway furniture and loose objects that can be thrown or scattered around (the interior of the trading post is trashed several times, but is always straightened up in time for the next bout!). Of course, the men’s hats stay firmly on their heads, the better to disguise the use of stunt doubles.

Patricia mostly gets knocked out during these struggles, and she gets tied up more than once; I haven’t yet seen Perils of Nyoka (it’s on my list), but stills from it suggest that being bound was an Aldridge specialty. Typically, Patricia is the only female character, and while it’s a foregone conclusion that she’ll end up falling in love with Marsden (“Jim don’t need any help now,” Galbraith tells Yank after everything has been wrapped up), any potential chemistry is sublimated through the cinematic power of terrified screaming on her part and take-charge masculine problem-solving on his. Solve the mystery of Haunted Harbor, and you have solved the mystery of the human heart.

There is also gunplay, but most of the time when someone gets the drop on another character and says “hold it right there,” their quarry is able to twist the gun out of their hand, or kick some object into them to knock the gun loose–moves that would surely get someone killed if they weren’t very lucky–and the scramble starts all over again. (Of course, when the plot dictates that a character’s time has come, the bullet is suddenly very accurate.) It’s worth noting that Kane/Carter (played by career heavy Roy Barcroft) has one of the most gruesome comeuppances of any serial I’ve seen, but it occurs just off screen, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks with their imagination.

The most distinctive feature of Haunted Harbor is the location that gives the serial its name: the natives have stopped working to harvest copra* for the plantation (owned by Galbraith, the same man who owns the trading post Marsden manages), frightened off by demons and sea monsters. (The natives are mostly an abstraction, talked about more than seen, although one chapter takes place in the natives’ village.) It takes Marsden a while to get to the harbor to investigate for himself, but when he and Patricia take a boat out onto the water, the surface is disturbed by a horrible-looking sea serpent spouting steam from its nose. It sinks and pops back up in several locations, never attacking but looking menacing nonetheless. Marsden fires at it, but the bullets have no effect (his rifle had previously been loaded with blanks by Dranga, covertly working for Kane/Carter, but Marsden doesn’t know that). Real, honest-to-God monsters aren’t too common in the serials, especially those that aren’t otherwise science fiction, but the Haunted Harbor sea serpent is a memorable and well-designed creature, a candidate for a “deep cut” when discussing the sometimes quaint beasts that haunt old black and white movies. (The Lydecker brothers, Theodore credited and Howard uncredited, are responsible for the serial’s many effects shots, but I’m not sure if they actually designed the creature’s appearance.)

* the dried kernel of the coconut, from which oil can be extracted–see, I’m learning stuff from this!

Other than appearing in title cards at the beginning of each chapter, the first glimpse the audience gets of the sea serpent is at the end of Chapter Five (“Harbor of Horror”), where its appearance and Marsden’s attempt to fight it form the cliffhanger, and then we don’t see it again until the last few chapters. It’s not hard to see why: as cool as the design is, the creature barely moves, its rigid expression frozen in place, relying on surprise and superstition to scare off the unwary rather than a real physical threat. As anyone who’s seen an episode of Scooby-Doo might guess, the sea serpents are fakes, mechanical monsters controlled from a remote switchboard and placed in the harbor to scare the natives away, allowing Kane/Carter to carry out his real scheme undisturbed. Although he doesn’t say so right away, Marsden clearly suspects this, but it isn’t until he can get a diving rig and crew to the harbor that he can prove it.

Like most of Republic’s output, Haunted Harbor goes down easily: it’s slick and entertaining, and the story is so straightforward that there’s not much risk of the audience getting confused. Transplanted to television, the narrative formulas established in serials like this would continue for decades (in particular, the “man on the run” aspect of this story foreshadows series like The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk, and it is episodic enough that one could imagine it being much longer, stretching out Marsden’s search for Carter in order to clear his name). It’s worth noting that Haunted Harbor was based on a novel by “Dayle Douglas” (a pen name for screenwriter Ewart Adamson) and was the last direct serial adaptation Republic made (although there would be a few more Zorro titles, presumably original stories licensing the character).

What I Watched: Haunted Harbor (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video (The title card on the tape version actually calls it Pirates’ Harbor, the title under which Haunted Harbor was rereleased in 1951.)

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Crucible of Justice” (Chapter Fifteen)

Best Cliffhanger: Republic in the mid-’40s seems to have rediscovered the element of sex appeal that had been toned down in some of their earlier serials. A “damsel in distress” bound, gagged, and in immediate mortal peril is a common shorthand for the serials, and while the ubiquity of this device is frequently exaggerated, there are nevertheless examples that justify the image. In Haunted Harbor, Patricia Harding is often on the receiving end of such treatment, nowhere more graphically than at the end of Chapter Nine, “Death’s Door.” In this chapter, Patricia has been abducted by Carter’s men and is held hostage in exchange for Dranga, whom they suppose to be injured and at risk of spilling Carter’s true identity. While the henchmen wait for Dranga to be delivered, they tie Patricia to a post in Kane’s mine and aim a powerful air drill at her, its trigger tied to the door so that if anyone enters the machine will fire its (loosened) bit through her skull. As in most cliffhangers, the threat is established, and then we are reminded of it via crosscutting between the outside room (where Marsden, having disguised himself as the actually deceased Dranga, is fighting it out with Carter’s henchmen) and Patricia at the post, quaking with fear, her eyes bulging. It’s a strong image, the kind of thing that makes an impression and looms larger in the memory than the more numerous prosaic scenes: no, women weren’t being tied up all the time in the serials, and this is just one cliffhanger out of many in this specific serial, but I can see why it tends to be remembered over other, less primal, scenes. (This was the era of Wonder Woman, after all.) Of course, once Marsden has finished mopping up the bad guys, he goes to the door and pulls it open: the air drill comes to life, and the bolt is fired. . . .

Best Resolution: At the beginning of the next chapter (“Crimson Sacrifice”), when Marsden opens that door, activating the air drill, Patricia simply ducks, sliding down the pillar so that the bit drives into the wood just above her head.

No offense, but that’s kind of anticlimactic. It means she wasn’t really tied that tightly in the first place, doesn’t it? My favorite resolutions tend to display the characters’ (and writers’) ingenuity in finding surprising ways out, but this is a bit of a shrug. In any case, as the story continues, Marsden gets into trouble for presenting the chief of the natives with a radio, a radio that has been hooked up with an explosive by Carter’s men so that it will take out the chief and make Marsden look bad. Sure enough, after the explosion of the chief’s hut, Marsden is accused of witchcraft (“You brought the devil box here to slay our chief!”) and immediately seized; in no time at all, he’s been tied to a platform suspended over a raging funeral pyre. The chapter ends with the flames surrounding him and the platform collapsing into the bonfire.

But wait! As resolved in the next chapter (“Jungle Jeopardy”), Patricia, who has been forced to stand by and watch, grabs a gun from her captors and shoots the ropes that bind Marsden (through a wall of flames and at a distance, the kind of one-in-a-million shot that serial heroes routinely make), then covering his captors so that they can both escape. Now, that’s more like it.

Sample Dialogue: “Haunted Harbor certainly seems quiet and peaceful enough. . . . A sea serpent!” –Patricia Harding, Chapter Five (“Harbor of Horror”)

What Others Have Said: “[Roy] Barcroft played many minor parts in serials until 1944. That year he took the lead villain’s role in Haunted Harbor at Republic, and launched an amazing career. For the next ten years, he played a succession of bad guys probably unequalled by any other actor in the field–pirate, outlaw, gangster, crooked cop, spaceman, renegade, crooked sheriff, saloon keeper, politician–you name it. He was Republic’s top villain for those ten years, and the man the fans ‘loved to hate.'” –William C. Cline, “Good at Being Bad” from Serials-ly Speaking

What’s Next: I’m taking a slight detour from my “summer of VHS” to examine a late Universal serial, Lost City of the Jungle!

Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja

There had been a man. Miyamoto Musashi. Perhaps Japan’s greatest warrior. Among other things, he founded the Niten or Two Heavens school–or ryu–of kenjutsu. It taught the art of wielding two swords at once. Another aspect of musashi, known as Kensei, the Sword Saint, was that he used bokken–wooden swords–in actual combat–claiming that he did so because they were invincible.The Ninja, p. 114

As American audiences were first introduced to the ninja (at least those who weren’t already delving into the martial arts cinema of Japan and Hong Kong), a common narrative ploy was to hook the audience’s identification with an American or European initiated into the ways of the shadow warriors, learning about them along with the reader or viewer. Stephen K. Hayes’ non-fiction book The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, published in 1981, starts from a similar premise, laying out the basic philosophies and some of the techniques of ninjutsu while describing Hayes’ own search for a teacher who might admit him into the inner circle. Starting as an American black belt, he is humbled by the recognition of how little he knows, but his journey toward mastery is shared with the reader; it’s a heady formula and one that would be repeated throughout the 1980s.

Nicholas Linnear, the protagonist of Eric Van Lustbader’s 1980 novel The Ninja, plays a similar role as both an audience identification character and an insider who can access secret teachings and relay their meaning to American readers. We first encounter Nicholas as he leaves a high-powered advertising career, although looking back from the vantage point of the book’s end, it’s hard to imagine him putting up with such a job. Born and raised in Japan, Nicholas feels adrift in America, its ways still alien to him, but after his years there he feels that it has changed him, buried his true self beneath layers of foreign ways of thinking and feeling. In Japan, as we learn in copious flashbacks, parallel to the present-day story, he was treated as a different kind of outsider. The son of a British colonel attached to the postwar occupation (who was also Jewish, so he too felt alien in his own culture) and a widow of mysterious Asian extraction (possibly Chinese or Japanese, but possessed of an incredible family legacy), Nicholas excelled in everything he did, including the study of bujutsu, and yet still felt there were mysteries he had not penetrated, among them the political intrigue represented by his uncle Satsugai and the sexual mysteries of Satsugai’s ward, Yukio. So far, so good.

More than anything else, he needed a challenge, with women as well as with all the interests in his life. For he felt quite deeply that nothing in life was worth possessing without a struggle–even love; especially love. This too he had learned in Japan, where women were like flowers one had to unfold like origami, with infinite care and deliberateness, finding that, when fully opened, they were filled with exquisite tenderness and devious violence.  –p. 36

Having retreated to a life of meditation in a Long Island beach house, Nicholas’ soul-searching is interrupted by a chance meeting with a neighbor, Justine, an artist whom he had briefly met in his advertising career. Instantly, there is a bond between them that explodes into graphic, lovingly-described sex. There is a lot of sex in this book, all of it graphic, enough that the paperback cover characterizes Van Lustbader as a “master of the erotic and terrifying thriller.” I’m not sure there’s actually more sex in The Ninja as a percentage of its pages than in the average Stephen King book, but I don’t recall him being characterized as a “master of erotic horror.” In any case, it is certainly true that sexual attraction and obsession is a driving force for many of the characters, and it fits with the general characterization of the East as alluring, unknowable, and ultimately maddening.

Of course, neither Nicholas nor Justine can be truly happy until they conquer their inner demons: Nicholas in the form of his memories of Yukio, whose fate is gradually unfolded in flashback, and Justine in her need to escape from her domineering tycoon father and her own desires to be dominated by the men in her life. At the same time, a strange killing in their beachside community–the killing that actually caused Nicholas and Justine to cross paths–hints at macabre business. The first death could be mistaken for a heart attack, but for the tiniest sliver of a shuriken found in the victim’s chest during the autopsy, coated with a rare poison that takes the local examining doctor back to his own memories of the Pacific front during World War II. Brought into the case as an expert on such things, Nicholas knows instantly that there is a ninja in the area. Sure enough, more killings follow.

The Ninja has more in common with the works of Stephen King than its thickness and the presence of some NSFW subject matter. Like many of the popular horror novels discussed by Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks From Hell, The Ninja borrows a concept from a foreign culture, emphasizing its most lurid and threatening aspects, and sets it loose in modern America to kill some yuppies. The ninja behind the killings is treated like the monster in a horror movie for much of the book, until his identity is gradually revealed, at first striking from the shadows, so that its first victims don’t even realize what has killed them. When the ninja is seen and described, he is wordless and implacable, an unstoppable killing machine in the vein of Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Plenty of characters are on hand, as well, to establish the ninja’s deadly threat, first walk-ons who only get a page or two of background before being killed, but the ninja works his way through those who are more established in the narrative and whose deaths make a real impact on the reader. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it ultimately comes down to a contest between the ninja and Nicholas, the only man in the area–possibly in America–who really understands what he’s up against.

“You know, Linnear, for those two stiffs being your friends you certainly aren’t broken up about it.”

Nicholas sat perfectly still. A pulse beat strongly in the side of his neck; a cool wind seemed to blow through his brain. There were haunting echoes, as if he were hearing words of his ancestors carried to him through the corridors of time. Beneath the table, his fingers were as stiff as knives, his thigh muscles like steel. He required no blade, no concealed weapon. There was only himself, as deadly a killing machine as ever was created in any country at any time.

Croaker was staring into his eyes. “It’s all right,” he said softly. He gestured with the tines of his fork, laced with running yolk. “Your food’s getting cold.” He went to work on his own and never knew just how close he had come to being killed. –p. 191

The Ninja takes place in that phase of the early 1980s when it was still the 1970s in a lot of places: in additional to the frequent casual sex, the fact that Justine is described as spending a lot of time at the disco sets the period. Another temporal marker is that New York City is a hellhole, full of noise and crime, as we are reminded every time Nicholas or Justine grudgingly ride in from Long Island (Van Lustbader was a lifelong native of Greenwich Village, so his descriptions of the city in all its terrible grandeur ring true). In addition to Nicholas, the shifting viewpoint frequently turns to Lieutenant Croaker, the kind of policeman who ruffles feathers but dammit, he gets the job done (he’s the cop who didn’t know how close he was to being killed in the excerpt above). One of the ninja’s killings even takes place in a grimy Times Square porno theater.

Very much a New York character is Rafael Tomkin, Justine’s father, a wheeler-dealer type with a sprawling family estate on Long Island but who is almost always at his under-construction high-rise headquarters or in his private limo. A thin-skinned control freak, he keeps tabs on his estranged daughters (Justine’s older sister Gelda also figures in the narrative) and hires Nicholas to supplement his bodyguards when he realizes how skilled he is. It’s natural in this poisoned time to see every such caricature of the egotistical blowhard businessman as a portrait of Donald Trump, and it’s possible that Van Lustbader had Fred Trump in mind (Donald would have still been one of those youngsters filling up the discos with Justine at the time The Ninja was written), but I’m sure Van Lustbader had plenty of potential models for both Tomkin’s duplicitous character and his unhealthy interest in his daughters’ sex lives.

The ninja are not bound by the Way, Kansatsu had said, and that was correct. Yet ninjutsu was more complex than that and, as in bujutsu itself, there were many types propounded and taught. Good and evil. The black and the red. Kansatsu himself had shown it to Nicholas before he had left Tokyo. Of the red, he had said, far and away the most dangerous, the most virulent ryu is the Kuji-kiri. “It is the Chinese word for the ‘nine-hands cutting,’ the basis for much of the ninja’s real or imagined power. It is said by many that these hand signs are the last remaining vestiges of magic in this world. As for me, I cannot say, but as you yourself have come to understand, there are times when the dividing line between imagination and existence can disappear.” –p. 382

The Ninja strongly reminds me of the paperbacks I remembered my parents reading when I was a kid–Stephen King, yes, but also the popular novels of Danielle Steel or historical epics like James Clavell’s Shogun.  Sometimes I would read the “adult” novels that were lying around the house if I got bored enough and didn’t have anything of my own to read, gleaning what I could of my own preferred subjects in between the subplots about divorce or real estate or whatever. (I did read some Stephen King in middle school, but as I’ve mentioned before, I had the bad luck of getting into his work during a particularly weak stretch of books, so I wrote him off and didn’t reappraise him until I was an adult.)

A good example is Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, a novel that has become an infamous example of the anti-Dungeons & Dragons panic of the 1980s (and the source for a risible Tom Hanks TV movie); as a D&D-playing kid I knew that Jaffe wasn’t on my “side,” but I still read her book in the hopes that she might have some original ideas about fantasy. She didn’t, and it quickly became clear that she didn’t have much exposure to the actual game or the way it was played, either, but for some reason I got sucked into the drama of rich, disaffected college kids and their addictive pastime.

I didn’t read The Ninja as a kid; if anyone in my family did, I don’t recall seeing it, but I probably would have at least looked into it if I had. I have more appreciation now for the personal drama that fills novels like this–in this case, not just the hero caught between two worlds, but a great deal of soap concerning Justine’s father and all of his family and business problems–but would I have found enough about, y’know, ninjas to satisfy my ten-year-old imagination? I think I would have: aside from being a better book than Mazes and Monsters (faint praise, I know), The Ninja is dense with research, so reading it one learns about the philosophy and technique of many kinds of armed and unarmed combat, and some terminology to go with it; the mindset and methods of the ninja as he undertakes his mission; and the history and mythology of Japan, both in the middle ages and the twentieth century, with at least the pretense of presenting insights into the differences between the Japanese and Western mindsets. Later in the 1980s, when Americans were terrified of being passed up by the ascendant Japanese economy, businessmen were said to be reading Miyamoto Musashi’s classic Book of Five Rings in order to understand the mindset of their opponents. The Ninja, with its mixture of ancient philosophies and modern economic realities, is likewise concerned with bringing Japanese ways of thinking to Western audiences (it’s even divided into five parts in direct imitation of Miyamoto’s work).

It’s the kind of book, still popular even as Jonathan Franzen complains that the Internet has devalued thorough research, that doles out history lessons between sex scenes and moments of intense violence, so that you could feel that you were learning something while being entertained. Its pulpy mixture of action, mystery, sex, and history promises something for everyone, and although I could quibble with the details of Van Lustbader’s style–he frequently chooses inelegant words in his hurry to get on with the story–he keeps the pages turning. As its status as a bestseller (and its several sequels) demonstrates, Van Lustbader knew what readers were looking for, and in The Ninja he got in on the ground floor of a trend that was set to explode in popularity.

I Am Curious (Ninja)

“To be a Ninja, indeed even to contemplate the Silent Way, one must be a hunter. This means that he knows the ways of his prey. He studies their habits, patterns of movements, and routines. In this way, he can strike when they are most vulnerable, or trap them in their own habits.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Welcome to Ninjanuary! This month I’ll be exploring and revisiting movies and other media centered on that mysterious figure of stealth and danger, the ninja! I plan to update on Mondays and Thursdays, with a mixture of capsule reviews and longer articles.

Variously translated as the “art of secrecy” or “art of invisibility,” ninjutsu originated in Japan in the tenth or eleventh centuries (or perhaps earlier–fittingly for such a shadowy tradition, there is no single point of origin, but a coalescing of practices originating in China and elsewhere, coming together in the mountains of Japan). As opposed to the rigid, honor-bound code of the samurai, ninjutsu was entirely practical, focused on results, and with an emphasis on acting and escaping with as little trace as possible. Espionage, sabotage, and assassination were the specialties of the ninja, whether working as spies infiltrating an enemy base or as commandos in open warfare. Using sleight of hand and psychology, it was said that ninjas could cloud men’s minds, appear and disappear at will, or even become completely invisible. (The more sober accounts of ninjutsu downplay such fanciful notions, but Ashida rightly points out that if a ninja truly possessed such a power, he would hardly demonstrate it on command for the curious.) Given some of the feats attributed to master ninjas, it is no wonder that the ninja was often perceived as having supernatural abilities, a mystification that only served to hide the truth further.

“To be a Ninja, an invisible assassin, one must be a warrior. This means that he accepts responsibility for his actions. Strategy is the craft of the warrior.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninja techniques and skills were closely-guarded secrets, held by the ninja clans who passed their wisdom down from father to son, only rarely taking on outsiders (note that there were also female ninjas, kunoichi, who plied their trade disguised as geishas, musicians, or courtesans). While the earliest ninjas saw themselves as defenders of the common people, living amongst them secretly as farmers or tradesmen, later ninjas were mercenaries and key players in the struggles between competing warlords. With the opening to the West, ninjas declined in power and influence in Japan, but by then the ninja had entered folklore and popular culture. A few families and ryu (schools) kept the traditions alive, but the glory days were in the past.

“To be a Ninja, one must be a wizard. This means that he can “stop the world” and see with the ‘eyes of God.’ This is the essence of Mugei-Mumei No-Jitsu, which is translated to mean, ‘no name, no art.'” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninjas had long been a staple of Japanese entertainment: in addition to appearing in stories and comics, there was a popular cycle of ninja films in the 1960s; in the West, one of the most prominent appearances of the ninja was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice in 1967. But it was in the early 1980s, following on the heels of the martial arts craze of the 1970s, that ninjas became a full-fledged fad, assuming a seemingly permanent place in Western pop culture. When I was a kid in the 1980s, ninjas were everywhere: I was hardly aware of the long history of ninjutsu or the subtle combination of philosophy and pragmatism that guided the ninja in his own culture, but there sure were a lot of kung fu fighters wearing black pajamas and carrying short swords and blowguns in the low-budget movies I saw on basic cable and on the shelves at the video store.

“‘Lew,’ Nicholas said, ‘slide over. I want to talk to you before the crowd comes.’

Croaker turned to look at him as he slid over to the passenger’s side. Far off, they could hear the wailing rise and fall of a siren. It could have been an ambulance.

‘I know who the ninja is.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

The ninja was a perfect addition to the roster of character types found in action movies: the story could focus on a single ninja at the center of the action, or use ninjas as faceless goons, henchmen to be mowed down by the hero. The ninja’s pragmatic embrace of fighting techniques and spycraft from multiple sources made him usefully versatile, and filmmakers had fun one-upping each other with increasingly weird skills and powers for their ninja characters. TV shows and comics that weren’t focused on martial arts could make room for a one-off character (and even established characters suddenly “remembered” a trip to Japan in their background, where they learned the secrets of the shadow warriors). It wasn’t just on TV, either: as Bart Simpson discovered, you had to take an awful lot of karate lessons before you learned how to pull a man’s heart from his chest, and “ninja stars” were quickly banned from schools everywhere as untrained kids got their hands on cheap knock-offs of the ninja’s iconic weapons.

“Hatsumei Sensei looked at me curiously. ‘This knowledge is not for the public. In any case, no one would believe in these abilities unless he had seen them in action.’ He handed me a copy of one of his children’s books. It was illustrated with pictures of skulking figures in black outfits that resembled jumpsuits. They were engaged in various types of combat with an incredible assortment of weapons. ‘This is what the public think ninjutsu is, so we humor it. The real secrets that have been handed down through the generations are not for publication. They are for the knowledge of a chosen few.'” –Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art

It should be clear from the above that I am not a particular connoisseur of martial arts cinema, and certainly not an expert on the real thing, but I hope to fill in some gaps by writing about them. As with some of my other series on Medleyana, part of my goal with this theme month is to explore the roots of this fad and reexamine a part of the pop culture landscape I took for granted when I was younger. When you’re a kid, everything is new, so it’s not always clear when something is genuinely new, or newly popular. In hindsight, the ascendancy of the ninja was a moment, one with a beginning, high point, and end. Eventually, like all fads, the ninja craze faded, becoming first a cliché and then a joke, but ninjas have never really gone away. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally a spoof of the decade’s (and particularly comic writer Frank Miller’s) obsession, are themselves now a venerable institution, such that kids today don’t even realize they were meant as a joke. Scott Adkins has starred in a pair of well-received ninja movies in the last decade. And presumably the real practitioners of ninjutsu are still out there, and if they are anything like the mythic figures shown in movies and comics, I doubt they’ve revealed everything they know. The ninja has proven a durable figure, and like the real warriors on which the fictional version is based, hard to pin down.

“Nicholas gave him a wan smile as he shook his head. Time to go, he thought. ‘I am prepared for it. I’ve been prepared for a long time now.’ He climbed out of the car. Every muscle seemed to ache and his head throbbed as if it were in a vise. He leaned in so Croaker could hear him as the blue-and-white drew up, followed by the ambulance. The street lit up red and white, red and white like the entrance to an amusement park.

‘You see, Lew,’ he said with infinite slowness, ‘I am a ninja, too.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja