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.

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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

My 2018 in Books

This year I didn’t read as many books as in previous years, but several that I did were longer novels that took longer to get through. No matter how old I get or how many books I read, I’ll admit that I sometimes feel a bit of trepidation when I start reading a long book in earnest: will I have the time to dedicate to it, or will I get lost in it, becoming confused and leaving it unfinished? Will it be worth the time it takes to read? What if it just stinks? Oddly, the book that took me the longest to finish this year wasn’t even that long: I don’t usually read more than one book at a time, but this summer I started reading Jane Austen’s Emma at home while also carrying around a beat-up copy of F. Paul Wilson’s horror novel The Keep to read at the pool. As you can see from the log below, I limped along for months with Emma before I finished it; I’m not sure if that’s due to the book itself–I breezed through two Austen novels last year–or the circumstances under which I read it. As usual, I’m not counting single issues of comic books, magazine articles, tweets, etc. If it’s not between two covers, it’s not here.

January

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me, ed. Alfred Hitchcock (probably in actuality Robert Arthur; includes the novel Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham)

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Volume 1: 1954-1982 (Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition), John LeMay

February

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (This was my mother’s copy, which I borrowed)

World’s Funnest, Evan Dorkin et al

Two Women in the Klondike (abridged), Mary E. Hitchcock

March

Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Cathy Gere

Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

April

America vs. The Justice Society, Roy Thomas et al

Wonderful World, Javier Calvo (trans. by Mara Faye Lethem)

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, Edogawa Rampo (trans. by James B. Harris)

Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap, Elijah Wald

May

The Terror, Dan Simmons

I haven’t watched AMC’s television adaptation, but the chatter around it reminded me that I’d had this book on my shelves for some time–enough years that it still had a Borders price sticker on it–and hadn’t read it. Its length and historical detail reminded me of something I heard about the best-sellers of yesteryear being packed with information–about the history of a place, or the details of running a particular business, like the novels of James Michener and Arthur Hailey–so that readers could feel that they were learning something, and thus putting the time spent reading to good use instead of being “merely” entertained.

Mandrake the Magician Dailies Volume 1: The Cobra, Lee Falk and Phil Davis

June

Heartburst, Rick Veitch

The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

July

Red Barry, “Undercover Man” Volume 1, Will Gould (Still waiting for Volume 2)

August

Emma, Jane Austen

Made to Kill, Adam Christopher

September

Paperbacks From Hell, Grady Hendrix

Gremlins, “A Novel by George Gipe Based on a Screenplay Written by Chris Columbus”

Dick Tracy, “A Novel by Max Allan Collins Based on the screenplay by Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr., and Bo Goldman & Warren Beatty”

1941: The Illustrated Story, “By Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch, Adapted by Allan Asherman, Introduction by Stephen Spielberg”

Yes, I spent much of this month reading movie adaptations; I’ve read a few over the years, although they’ve never been a huge part of my reading, even when they were more popular and I was in the target age for movie tie-ins. I had wanted to read Gremlins for a while, having heard that the novelization had added background information and history about the mogwai; there wasn’t quite as much as I had hoped, although part of the story is told from Gizmo’s point of view, which is interesting. The novelization of Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy adaptation also fortuitously came my way; written by longtime crime novelist and Dick Tracy writer Max Allan Collins, the book feels more like a “real” novel than you might expect.

As for the graphic novel adaptation of Stephen Spielberg’s 1941, I had noticed that original copies could still be had for just a few dollars through Heavy Metal‘s online store, so how could I resist picking one up? The graphic novel matches the movie’s irreverent (and sometimes offensive) sense of humor with a free-wheeling collage approach that pairs cut-up posters and ads from the 1940s with riotous, Mad- and National Lampoon-inspired asides and sight gags. It feels like a product of a different time, and the fact that new copies are still available makes me wonder just how big the print run must have been back in 1980.

October

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny (reread)

True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making, Don Coscarelli

Kraken, China Miéville

November

The Great White Space, Basil Copper

The House of Cthulhu: Tales of the Primal Land, Volume I, Brian Lumley

Secrets of the Ninja, Ashida Kim

The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, Stephen K. Hayes

The last two titles listed (as well as a longer book I’ve been reading most of this month) are preparation for an upcoming theme event in January–or should I say, Ninjanuary? Stay tuned!

My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

Constellation.1922

After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

My 2016 in Books

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No, I haven’t read all the books in this pile; that’s my haul from one of several library sales I hit this year (I have read a couple of these, so far, though). I really can’t help it: this year I continued to collect books at a rate faster than I could read them (a common problem, I’m afraid), but I did make an effort to read books that were already on my shelf. Other books I got from the library when I could, including most of the graphic novels listed below. (I debated whether to include trade paperback collections of monthly comics, but in the case of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I decided what the heck: they’re some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of months, and for the record The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! is a graphic novel in the traditional, standalone sense.)

squirrelgirl

In addition to filling some gaps in my comics reading, I followed through on my promise from last year to read more of the pulp and genre novels that have been crowding my shelves for years. Most are quick reads, and some of them tied into other projects I was involved in. Reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was part of my preparation to watch the Buck Rogers serial for a feature in The Solute last spring; novels by William MacLeod Raine and Zane Grey (my first Grey!) continued my exploration of the traditional Western.

buckrogers1

And what about those covers! I love the lush cover paintings Ballantine commissioned for its “Adult Fantasy” line back in the late ’60s, and Ron Walotsky’s cover for Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star in particular is a great example, intensely colorful and reminiscent of Weird Tales great Hannes Bok and Dungeons & Dragons icon Erol Otus. (The book itself was less psychedelic than the art might suggest, an early example of “parallel world” fantasy whose only speculative element was the presence of psychic witches. The Blue Star was originally published in 1952, early enough that Pratt included a prologue setting up the events of the novel as a dream, unable as he was to assume that contemporary audiences would automatically understand the concept of a secondary world.)

bluestar

Then there’s this one, an ironic bit of spy-fi, found in a used bookstore. I only recently found out that The Bamboo Saucer was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. The book was okay. (High Road to China, an aviation adventure set in the interwar years, is another one that was made into a movie; the copy I read is even a tie-in edition with a photo insert of star Tom Selleck, but I have absolutely no memory of the film.)

bamboo1

Other Highlights:

It was a good year for non-fiction for me, and the books on Gary Gygax, Nancy Drew, and Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer were especially fascinating looks into the publishing industry and the creative process. (The Man From Mars also confirmed that the scientist alter ego of superhero The Atom was named after the Ray Palmer, something I had wondered about.) Another fascinating read was A Kim Jong-Il Production, about the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, who were pressed into service making movies for the North Korean dictator, a noted film buff.

I also read quite a few (mostly short) novels, including books by Jack Vance, the last book of Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions (a series I enjoyed very much), and a pair of contemporary (ca. 1970) gothic romances by Susan Howatch (another library sale find: how could I resist a cover like this?).

howatch

Aside from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, comics and graphic novels that I found rewarding were Planetary (I had read the first few issues several years ago, but the Omnibus edition from the library caught me up on the entire series), All-Star Superman (as good as everyone says), and V for Vendetta (unfortunately timely).

Here’s the complete list:

January
Armageddon 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
All the Wrong Questions: “Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?”, Lemony Snicket
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, Paul Fischer
League of Somebodies, Samuel Sattin

February
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, ed. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu
Bulldog Drummond, Sapper
Halting State, Charles Stross

March
Mission to the Head-Hunters, Frank and Marie Drown
All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
The Fighting Tenderfoot, William MacLeod Raine
Cowboys & Aliens, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, et al
Al Williamson Adventures, Al Williamson et al
The Planetary Omnibus, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

April
Heroes of Bear Creek, Robert E. Howard
Big Planet, Jack Vance
The Blue World, Jack Vance

May
The Dragon Masters & Other Stories, Jack Vance
The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, Philippe Druillet
Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, Adam and Dustin Koski
Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, Michael Witwer

June
The Blue Star, Fletcher Pratt
Lone Sloane: Delirius, Jacques Lob and Philippe Druillet
Camelot 3000, Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
The Flight of the Bamboo Saucer, Fritz Gordon
Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson

July
High Road to China, Jon Cleary
Three Weeks, Elinor Glyn
Last of the Duanes, Zane Grey
Marvelman Classic Vol. 2, Mick Anglo et al

August
Cowgirls: Women of the American West, Teresa Jordan
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne

September
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak
This Business of Bomfog, Madelaine Duke
Critical Mass, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis
A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju, Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling and Shawn Pryor
The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, Thomas E. Simmons

October
Monster, 1959, David Maine
Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, Jacques Futrelle, ed. E. F. Bleiler
The Waiting Sands, Susan Howatch

November
The Devil on Lammas Night, Susan Howatch
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. One: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, North and Henderson
The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem (2nd ed.), Myrick Land
Howard the Duck Vol. 0: What the Duck, Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones et al
The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, Roseanne Cheng
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

December
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Two: Squirrel, You Know It’s True, North and Henderson
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Tony Cliff
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Three: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, North and Henderson

Review: Monster, 1959

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

K. leaps into existence amid them all, shark-eyed, snake-tongued reality: misery given form, solid and undeniable and taller than Hell itself. Feathers like a bloodsmear across his thorax, claws lashing furrows in the ground. Gangs of teeth glaring at the crowd over his lipless slash. Everybody screams.

It sounds like science fiction, and in strict terms, it is. The plot is the most familiar element of David Maine’s 2008 novel Monster, 1959–explorers discover an extraordinary monster on a remote Pacific island, and after restraining the beast they transport it to America to put it on display, after which eventually everything goes to Hell–but the novelty of the story isn’t really Maine’s concern. Monster, 1959 is the kind of novel that applies probing psychological realism to genre material, finding unexpected complexity beneath the surface of broadly-sketched stock types. What Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love did for Freaks and its body-horror descendants, Monster, 1959 does for King Kong and the monster movies of the 1950s.

If so many of the alien-invasion and monster-rampage stories of the Cold War were metaphors for political anxieties, postwar social displacement, and the catch-all term “future shock,” Maine is concerned with re-literalizing those metaphors, making sure that his fanciful monster mash takes place in a world that includes not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, but also the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the eviction of Palestinians from newly-formed Israel. Maine’s omniscient shifts in focus from close-ups on the main characters to the wide shots of world events is reminiscent of the intriguing book Welcome to Mars by Ken Hollings and Erik Davis, which also shares Monster, 1959‘s year-by-year structure in making connections between seemingly disparate strands of history and popular culture.

In Monster, 1959, the main characters are the giant chimerical monster K., for “Kama ka,” the name given to him by the islanders who worship him as a god (but perhaps also standing for Kong, or kaiju, or in reference to the monogrammatic protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial); Betty, the white woman whom K. first abducts and then finds himself strangely bonded to; and Johnny, the square-jawed man of action and Betty’s husband/rescuer. In retelling this age-old but highly specific beauty-and-the-beast tale, the members of the central triangle (and numerous characters who enter their orbit) are given shading and moral ambiguity, and of course relevance beyond the single story.

The novel’s most winning creation is K. himself, and Maine effortlessly relates events from K.’s perspective: animalistic, responsive to direct stimuli, and without much imagination or sense of the past or future. Despite the limitations inherent in writing from this point of view, Maine sketches a believable (and believably mysterious) persona. It’s common for audiences to partially identify with King Kong or Godzilla, but Maine is interested in what it would really feel like to be such a creature. While there is a fair amount of action in the story (“some sci-fi monster violence,” as the MPAA would have it), for all his size and power, K. is not the bloodthirsty predator one might expect; in fact, he’s a vegetarian. K.’s reactions to the humans invading his domain, the strange effect that Betty and her singing have on him, and his confusion at the series of entrapments and enclosures that he endures convey both how alien K.’s mentality is, and how alienating the modern world is when seen anew. Like the greatest movie monsters, K. is fearsome but ultimately sympathetic.

K., chained and transported in a custom box car, drugged and put on display in one roadshow after another, isn’t the only character who is trapped. There’s Doug, the seven-foot-two circus performer whose freakish height has come to be just as much a prison, and to whom the duty of administering K.’s sedatives has devolved. “It would be falsely melodramatic to say,” Maine tells us, “When Doug injects K., he feels as if he is injecting himself.” All the same, he does become disenchanted and disgusted enough to begin passive-aggressively slacking off, a decision that makes K.’s dramatic escape from confinement while performing at Madison Square Garden as inevitable as the failure of Jurassic Park’s electric fences. Life finds a way.

Betty, whom K. abducts all over again in New York, is not just a damsel in distress, but a woman of her generation whose deepest urges tell her to “throw herself into” her marriage and to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt. This extends to playing along with their friend Billy’s scheme to take the monster on tour, reenacting her abduction as a modern Romeo and Juliet story for paying audiences, against her better judgment. Johnny, over the course of the novel, finds that his experience in rescuing Betty has awakened a taste for adrenaline and alpha-male displays of prowess, a search for ever-greater highs that is ultimately his undoing. Ultimately it comes down to sex in forms as polymorphous as K.’s own mismatched body. “By now,” Maine writes after a particularly perverse episode, “you might be forgiven for wondering: Are there any normal people in this movie? It’s a fair question. To which the only possible answer would have to be: Are there any normal people in the world?

Finally, Monster, 1959 is no mere pastiche or stylistic exercise. Like the best environmental horror, it’s a warning, with K., the troubled child of the atomic bomb and master of an island of mutated terrors, returning like a bad dream to the country that created him and had hoped to forget him. Just as in a movie, the monster may be dispatched, but audiences know the fears that created it are still out there, and the monster can always come back.

THE END . . . ?

My 2015 in Books

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As the year draws to a close, it’s time for another post to summarize my activity in the past twelve months. As I did last year, I kept track of the books I read this year (I’ll look back on films I watched this year tomorrow). As before, I’ve only listed books I read from beginning to end (that’s why only one of the Robert E. Howard collections I wrote about in October is listed, the others having been read before). All were first-time reads (although I know I had read parts of American Humor before, but apparently not the whole thing), and I managed to keep my resolution to read more than I did last year, including some classics (hey, it turns out Moby Dick is a pretty good book!).

How does one summarize a year of reading activity? I don’t read by working through a list: I have books in mind that I want to get to, and I own a lot of books I haven’t read yet, but in general I let the last book I finished help me decide what to read next. Sometimes I continue along a certain track (several threads appeared in my reading this year, including books about the art and craft of writing; Wonder Woman and the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of her creator, psychologist and sex researcher William Moulton Marston; non-fiction on a variety of subjects; and several novels and collections of fiction).

After reading so much about Wonder Woman, the opportunity to pick up a set of reprints of her contemporary Phantom Lady made for a useful comparison. For one thing, it’s interesting to observe how much bondage and role-playing is in the wholesome Wonder Woman as opposed to the supposedly racier Phantom Lady; the difference is largely in that Moulton’s Wonder Woman presents its themes of domination and restraint from a playful perspective, and Harry G. Peter’s simple illustrations don’t draw quite as much as attention as Matt Baker’s famous “good girl” art (although in Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. makes a strong case that Baker drew much less Phantom Lady than he is usually credited with).

At other times, after spending time in a particular headspace, I’m ready for a change: I was eager to part company with “Walter,” the narrator of the Victorian sexual diary My Secret Life, after nearly 600 pages (and the original work was published in eleven volumes!). “Walter’s” escapades are by turns titillating, horrifying, and deeply sad, the book itself a mixture of Victorian letters to Penthouse, inadvertent social history, and pre-Freudian psychosexual analysis. Even abridged, it’s “everything you wanted to know about Victorian sex but were afraid to ask.”

That made Edmond Hamilton’s The Valley of Creation, a short and breezy pulp novel, a welcome palate-cleanser. I used to read such short novels frequently; although I enjoyed most of them, I also thought of them as research, fleshing out my picture of the pulp era and stocking up on plot and character formulas for future reference. I still have many on my shelves that I haven’t gotten to (many of them were boxed up until this year, when I got some new book shelves and was able to unpack them), so perhaps 2016 will be a year to renew my acquaintance with the diverse output of the pulps.

ValleyofCreation

January
Danse Macabre, Stephen King
Ghost Story, Peter Straub
On Writing, Stephen King
Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor, Blake Atwood
The Juggler, Rachilde (trans. Melanie C. Hawthorne)
Wonder Woman: the Life and Times of the Amazon Princess, Les Daniels

February
American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Constance Rourke
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore

March
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

April
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume One, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter
A Year with a Whaler, Walter Noble Burns
Wonder Woman: Feminism and Bondage in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky
Revival, Stephen King
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Two, Marston and Peter
Cities of Dreams, Stan Gooch

May
Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers

June
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed. Sean Wallace
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, John Taliaferro
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Three, Marston and Peter

July
Classic Phantom Lady Volume One, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Three, various
Ladies in Distress, Kalton C. Lahue

August
The Pentagon: A History, Steve Vogel
The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Jim Bell
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, David Tripp

September
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss
The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, Robert E. Howard

November
The Log of a Cowboy, Andy Adams
All the Wrong Questions: “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, Lemony Snicket
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

December
My Secret Life, Anonymous, ed. James Kincaid
The Valley of Creation, Edmond Hamilton

So, readers, I ask you: what did you read this year? Did you meet any reading goals, and what do you look forward to reading in the new year?