Monday, December 28, 2009

Sherlock Holmes 2009!

The new movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law opened Christmas Day and I was only able to get to see it today. Now I will be giving a run down on the film, but I will do my best to leave out spoilers. But, dear reader, you have been warned!

Sherlock Holmes of course is the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The character of Holmes originally appeared in The Strand Magazine, then novelizations of those serials and short stories. Later he would appear on the stage, screen, radio, and cartoons. Countless pastiche have been written about Holmes, and it is said that the character holds the record for appearing in the most films.

Doyle himself did not like the detective, feeling that his historical fiction should have garnered the lion’s share of praise and royalties. Even his attempt to kill off Holmes was met with black arm bands as Londoners mourned the fictional hero. The all mighty need for cash kept Doyle writing the pipe smoking sleuth.

Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective, not to be confused with a private detective; a cerebral hero, so great was his deductive reasoning he could solve crimes and mysteries from his sitting room at 221B Baker St. His adventures great and small were chronicled by his Boswell, Dr. John Watson, formerly a captain in Her Majesty’s army in the Afghanistan wars.

In the canon of Doyle’s work Holmes and Watson protected the honor of royalty, brought murderers to justice, and even let some go. They worked as agents of the Empire, averting war, or keeping military secrets out of enemy hands, even facing ghostly hounds upon dark moors.

Sherlock Holmes, the new Guy Richie film, brings these two characters to a new audience, with Downey standing beside a long and distinguished line of men to have played Holmes. Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, Jeremy Brett, and the immortal Basil Rathbone are only a small sampling of well known actors to wear the deer stalker.

The new film takes a fresh look at Holmes and Watson, as each incarnation adds something to the detective. The movie takes place in the late 1880’s based on the character’s ages, and Watson leaving the Baker Street flat to start his marriage. Such events are noted in cannon, as Watson appears to have been married two or three times, having only lived with Holmes early in their friendship.

Events in the film lead Holmes and Watson across a lavishly produced London with its coal smoke and industrial age grime, hansoms clattering along the cobbles. It is a beautiful movie, the period coming to vivid life. The story itself revolves around ritual murder, resurrection, black magic, and an allusion to the Masons.

I found the story engaging, from the mystery to the interpersonal relationships between Holmes, Watson, Irene Adler, and Mary, Watson’s fiancĂ©e. Fast paced and action oriented, this is a Guy Richie film! The action stays within the Victorian realm to me. Holmes martial prowess was noted by Watson in Doyle’s stories, as well as Watson’s own fighting ability. This movie shows the action that Doyle did not think were important elements in his stories. Downey’s Holmes is a methodical fighter tearing his enemy down with well timed blows that are thought out like chess moves. Watson is also a brawler that any military company would like to have in a hand to hand confrontation.

Downey’s Holmes is eccentric and quirky but not distracting or overly comical, many idiosyncrasies falling in line with Doyle’s own work. Jude Law’s Watson is long suffering, but like any true friend he is there through thick and thin, drawn by his own love of the chase and mystery as well as his friendship with Holmes. The story, as action oriented as it is, does not slight Holmes’ investigative ability or his deductive reasoning. The mystery is one Doyle himself might have conceived. (A side note, Jude Law actually had a part in an episode of the Grenada made for TV Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett.)

The only element that I could nit pick, and I think it would be a heated debate among Holmes fans, is Irene Adler’s place in the film. Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams only appeared in one Holmes story: A Scandal in Bohemia. In the film she is the femme fatale, Cat Woman to Holmes’ Batman. I would have to re-read this particular story, but this was not how Adler struck me. She is Holmes’ love interest in the film. In the Doyle story Adler beats Holmes at his own game, earning the detective’s respect. As Watson was to say she was always the Woman. I never took this that Holmes had a romantic inclination toward Adler , but rather one of professional admiration. But McAdams plays an interesting character, and the chemistry between Adler and Holmes is great, so I am willing to let that one slide without too much effort.

This is a great film that is overshadowed by the technological wonder that is Avatar. Having not seen that film yet I could not comment further. I will say a Holmes fan will find plenty of Easter Eggs in the film to make them giddy. Despite reviewers comments this was a great film, not Shakespeare, but I was not looking for that. I got what I wanted, a great escape with one of my all time favorite heroes, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

10,000 B.C. Fang and Spear on the Big Screen

I have been on a pulp movie kick here lately. See my Time Forgotten post. So among the films that I love for the pulp style goodness is 10,000 B.C. from 2008 starring Steven Strait and Camilla Belle; written and directed by Roland Emmerich.

Set in a nebulous pre-history, the story centers around the hero journey of D’Leh, a young hunter who lives under the stigma of being the son of a man that had been the head warrior yet abandoned his people. He is guided by Tic Tic, his father’s friend and the village’s leader. After a mammoth hunt D’Leh kills one of the great beasts by himself, earning the white spear, the mark of the lead hunter, from Tic Tic. But the mammoth’s death was an accident of opportunity, so D’Leh does not feel that he has earned neither the spear nor the hand of his love Evolet.

Raiders come on horses, with iron/steel weapons, and take Evolet and many others as slaves. D’Leh and Tic Tic set off in pursuit, guided mystically by the Old Mother, the village’s shaman. The adventure takes the heroes through the lowlands and encounter giant flightless birds that attack the raiders and pursuers alike. Meanwhile the leader of the raiders falls in lust with Evolet, singling her out for special treatment after a slashing with a whip leaves her with a telling mark.

D’Leh passes a hero test by freeing and friending a saber-tooth cat the indigenous people call Long Spear. Through this friending D’Leah makes allies of the savannah tribes that are encountered. He discovers his father did not abandon his people but rather left to find a better way for the tribe. But he too was taken by the raiders to a great city beyond the desert.

D’Leh gathers warriors to him from the surrounding tribes to pursue the raiders, missing the villains as they board the “red birds” which are red sailed ships that pass up the river. So the gathered warriors pursue their quarry across the vast desert, following what I take to be the planet Venus on the horizon, the Morning Star.

At the head of the river the primitive army discovers a society of advanced builders similar to ancient Egypt, where slave labor and mammoths used as beasts of burden to build what appear to be pyramids. Through stealth and guile D’Leh enters the city and learns of his father’s fate and plans a slave revolt to free his friends and over throw the enemy. Meanwhile the leader of the raiders attempts to take Evolet for his own and is taken by the priests for his treachery. The marks from the whip upon Evolet are noticed by the priests of the city and taken before the leader, for such a mark is prophesized to be the god-like leader’s end. Of course it is her presence that causes his down fall as D’Leh leads the revolt causing massive destruction and ruin to save her.

The adventure ends with the hero’s journey completed, D’Leh returns with Evolet and a bag of seeds provided by his new friends. The seeds will provide a new way of life for D’Leh’s people and fulfilling his father’s quest.

This movie was panned by critics, but in reality, this was a great story and the stuff of the serials. 10,000 B.C. is a fantasy story in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Spear and Fang and many others. You have primitive man, savage yet, noble, and the decadent advanced culture that tries to dominate and enslave them. There is magic and ritual, great action, and the classic hero’s journey as I noted above. It was not supposed to be an accurate depiction of pre-history; it is a fantasy in a fictional past as much as Howard’s Hyboria. The movie succeeded in telling the tale with an underlying complexity.

The city of the builders, who are not really named in the film, seem to be its own architecture, but meant to evoke Egypt or Babylon. To me, it made me think: is this supposed to Atlantis, a remnant of that society after its fall? Regardless, that was the image it created to my mind and took me back into those other stories by Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, and Moorcock.

The story has elements seen time and again, but it is presented in such a setting that the hero quest is fresh and engaging to me. This movie should not be looked at as prehistory… Clan of the Cave Bear attempted to bring that epoch to life with varied success. 10, 000 B.C. should be viewed with an eye toward fantasy and the enjoyment of a story that unfolds in the best tradition of heroes.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Buck Rogers: Science Fantasy Before Star Wars

I have a list of swash buckling space heroes and none of them ever flew an Apollo mission. Not that these men weren’t heroes, but would they have become those heroes without the inspiration of those that came before them? Just as many scientists and space explorers now give credit to Star Wars and Star Trek for their pursuits, how many were influenced by Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers?

Buck Rogers was given life back in the 1920’s in a pair of stories Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han by Philip Francis Nowlan in Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine that focused on science fiction. 1929 saw John Flint Dille reinventing William “Buck” Rogers for a serialized comic strip and the Saturday Serial soon followed.

Buck Rogers was originally conceived as a fighter ace from the Great War named Anthony Rogers, who was trapped in a mine on Earth, overcome by a gas that put him in suspended animation. He awakens five hundred years later to help save what is left of America from the Han, an Asian aggressor with disintegration rays and anti-gravity technology. His military experience is crucial to the victories over the Han. Only later would he be the scourge of space pirates and fifty years beyond that to make his appearance against Princess Ardala and the Draconian Empire.

Buck Rogers saw many incarnations in radio, comics, movies and television, back in the 1950’s and again in 1980. The constants seemed to be Buck and his lady friend Wilma Deering. Dr. Huer would make his appearance when Buck Rogers was reinvented after Nowlan’s stories. The version of Buck Rogers I grew up with was the one created by Gil Gerard in 1979. This was swash and buckle stuff at its best. The series that followed was of course hugely influenced by the fashions and styles of the disco era and the adventure fun that seemed to be the formula of the 1980’s T.V. programing. Watching the series on DVD now is a guilty pleasure.

Now there is another incarnation of the hero that was so lovingly parodied by Warner Brothers and Daffy Duck; Cawley Entertainment Company is working on a retro-envisioning of the Buck Rogers for the newest media outlet the internet. The teaser has been getting some buzz, showing a sepia sky filled with mocha clouds, a sleek rocket-ship ducks and weaves among the nebulous fluff, the golden tail fins flashing in the defused light. The ship slides into the foreground, giving the viewer a close up of the nose art and the pilot’s name: Buck Rogers!

The beautiful marriage of the Net and the technology to create a series like Buck Rogers with the science fantasy of eighty years ago is not lost on me. A lot of folks on the web are all ready prejudging the series, or claiming that is a fake. I don’t care! If all I get is the teaser trailer, then I am happy. Because the teaser gets it, the promise of space travel before it was even thought possibly. This series, should it come to fruition, is an expression of the imagination from an era lost on most people today. The serials of that bygone era were Star Wars and Star Trek, they were the expression of “imagine if” the rocket ships, the ray guns, and the giant robots. These guys didn’t care about science, they were telling an adventure story. Without those adventure stories to inspire them, how many kids that applied themselves to science never would have?

The speculative fiction of every generation is a reflection of the times: the original stories of Anthony Rogers’ war on the Han to the serials that followed. The social questions raised in Star Trek and the speculation of George Lucas’ message when he created the Star Wars prequels. From a historical stand point these works from the 20’s and even the 80’s hold significant meaning for us. As adventures they are a rollicking good time. I think as long as we need heroic icons like Buck Rogers someone will breathe new life into him.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Time Forgotten! Classic Pulp from the 1970s’!

The 1970s’ saw a resurgence of the pulp/scifi genre. Movies heavily influenced by the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame and Arthur Conan Doyle. Most movies of this sort were low budget and frankly bad enough to make you cringe. But that is why they are classics in my mind. One of the actors that found work in these films with Doug McClure; he starred in The Land that Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core, The People that Time Forgot (as a guest star), and Warlords of Atlantis. Unfortunately this rugged actor died in 1995 at the age of 59.
The movies he starred in were some great examples of pulp science fiction and pulp adventure in general. The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot are two films I just had the pleasure of watching again recently, thanks to a good friend of mine. Knowing my love of the genre he picked up the duo on one DVD and sent them on to me as a gift—thanks Ashy!
The Land that Time Forgot (1975), stared Doug McClure and John McEnery, with the screen play written by Michael Moorcock. Those of us that are fantasy novel readers know Moorcock from his creation of the Eternal Champion, and his most famous character Elric. Moorcock also wrote a series of “Mars” books in the Burroughs vein that I may have review in the blog. So for me, there is a lot of geeky goodness before the film even starts.
The movie is based on a novel by the aforementioned Edgar Rice Burroughs. The movie takes place in 1916 at the height of the Great War. The ocean liner that McClure is a passenger on is torpedoed by a German U-boat. He and a few survivors are lost at sea until they come upon the sub that sank them on the surface. McClure’s character, Bowen Tyler, is from a family of submariners, so he understand the vessel and convinces the surviving ship’s crew to aid him in taking the sub for their own use to reach a safe port. The above elements are staples in pulp fiction: the coincidence of running on the U-boat in vastness of the ocean to the one man to survive is the right man with the skills needed for the job.
The U-Boat is taken by force and guile, but the Germans are not willing to go easy, the executive officer Dietz, smashes the radio which makes it impossible for Tyler to contact friendly forces, and then sabotages the compass, so they become lost.
Lost in the south near Antarctica, the sub is low on fuel and supplies, the group come across a mythical land called Caprona, that the German captain recognizes from the writings of a 17th century explorer. Through expert navigation the sub is threaded through an underground river to the interior of Caprona. There, the ship’s crew discovers dinosaurs and cave men. So the crews both English and German agree to work together to refine crude oil so they can refuel and escape Caprona. During the refining process the German captain and Bowen’s love interest (Susan Penhaligon), both biologists try to puzzle out the mysteries of Caprona, with its dinosaurs of different epochs and cave men from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon, the evolutionary track seeming to follow the river inland becoming more advanced as the one goes deeper into the land.
The mystery is basically solved when the head waters of the river is discovered, where it appears all life originates within its waters. The girl is of course kidnapped by savages and Bowen fights to rescue her. Meanwhile the volcanoes decided that is the perfect time to erupt to destroy the island. McClure’s and Penhaligon’s characters race back but the U-Boat has all ready started to sail, with Dietz taking over. The couple of left stranded and the sub is crushed beneath rocks in its attempt to escape. So the movie ends with the couple heading north in to find a new life, with McClure’s character throwing a canister in the sea with the narrative of the events that had taken place.
The People that Time Forgot (1977) takes place a few years later, starring Patrick Wayne and Sara Douglas (Conan the Destroyer) with Wayne’s character searching for Bowen, a childhood friend. He is accompanied by Douglas’ character who is a strong willed reporter, Wayne’s war buddy, a mechanic, and a British scientist, making up the adventurous group. Once on the island they encounter a native woman who knows English because Bowen has taught her. So the group enlists her aid to find Bowen.
The film is filled with pulp daring do, with cave men taking the heroes to make a sacrifice out of them, to the discovery of a war-like, slightly more advanced race of men. Even the pudgy scientist turns out to be capable in battle, his cane concealing a sword, as any good British adventurer should have! There are daring rescues and fist-fights, with a guest appearance by Doug McClure. The escape from the island is sped up by the volcanoes that are once again erupting to destroy the land.
Both films fall under “low-budget”, models and matte painting supply much of the scenery and vessels used. Puppet dinosaurs make you wish for Ray Harryhausen claymation. (I love Harryhausen just in case one gets the wrong impression.) The stories are what make the films though, lost lands, exploring the unknown despite the dangers; the pulpy goodness of dinosaurs and sword wielding mutant types. The Kaiser’s boys standing in for Nazi’s, with beautiful, smart, tough women and the square-jawed men who love them, are what the best pulp fiction has to offer. The tales revolve around the characters placed in this situation, not the special effect monsters, as I have lamented about so many modern films. In The Land that Time Forgot, there is Captain Von Schoenvorts, played by John McEnery, who has a keen interest in biology. When challenged by Miss Clayton, Susan Penhaligon’s character, and McClure’s love interest, about his service and destruction of a British vessel carrying women and children, when he is such a student of life. The German replies that it is because of his study that his actions are justified, he understands the kill or be killed of survival. He tells her that the vessel would not have blown up as it had if it were not carrying war munitions; munitions that would be used to kill woman and children in his own homeland. The exchange is great—great story telling. In a conversation the German’s motivations are explained, without explanation and he becomes sympathetic, leaving villainy to Dietz the XO.
The action is cliff-hanger style without the fade to black, but the heroes are placed in precarious spots continuously, whether fighting the monsters, the cave men, or the island itself.
To say that I enjoyed these films is an understatement. I would recommend them, but I would caution the viewer: watch the story. Don’t worry about the implausibility of the tale that is part of the fun of pulp science fiction. Ignore the special effects value—or if you must at least laugh at it. This is pure Saturday afternoon entertainment.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Riese the Series: Steam Punk Continued:

This web series created by Ryan Copple and Kaleena Kiff, starring Christine Chatelain dovetails nicely with my previous post on the Steampunk genre. This series has the steam punk elements as well as the pulp feel that I love so!

According the website The true horror of the world is not in how it ends, but what will become of mankind as it fractures. And yet, despite the impending doom, a single beacon of light shines in Riese. A mysterious wanderer, she travels with her wolf Fenrir across this barren land. Branded as heretics by The Sect, Riese and Fenrir will pause to aid those in need as they travel, but they must evade capture at all costs. As she flees, she’ll piece together her past and her destiny, in a conflict that will hold the fate of this world in the balance - and the once peaceful kingdom of Eleysia will be the battlefield.

I am there! This series is only into the second episode and I am already into it. They are ten minutes long, and both have ended on the cliffhanger, so like the old Saturday serials, you come back for more. The series has all ready established the strong feel of peril and pursuit for Riese as well as laying the ground work for the underlying plot, introducing the main villains quickly and seamlessly. For ten minute bites there is a lot of plot and story packed into every image.

The steam punk scenery is very cool. Cybernetics are all gears and cogs, exposed, and primitive looking. The sets are shot ingeniously against real world sites, like simple streets that are turned into something more with just a few well placed crates and barrels. The costuming is much the same, blending elements to give it a unique feel. There is a heavy fantasy feel that accompanies the series, with Riese's animal companion, and the fantastical feel of Asgard, the imperial capital. In a background shot in the capital one sees several airships. The whole taken together creates a setting that is intriguing, making one desire to explore more of it.

I just need to see more out of Riese herself. Admittedly there have been only two episodes, twenty minutes of film at most, with plot and characters to establish. Still, I would like to see more out of the character, she appears wide eyed fearful most of the time to me, which, while appropriate, is not what I want to see out of a hero. She has little in the way of lines so establishing her through dialogue has not occurred yet. I am more than willing to sit and watch several more episodes to see this character develop.

The mystery is established and the plot set, and I am ready to watch. I am looking forward to the next installment. I am excited to see how the series progresses and what will unfold for Riese. This is for anyone who enjoys the steam punk genre or fantasy. Hey this is for anyone who enjoys a good story!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jasper Morello: Steam Punk Animation

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello is a visionary piece of animation that came out of Australia around 2006 and just recently came on my radar, thanks to fellow blogger Shane Mangus.

The story is of a young airship navigator named Jasper from a country known as Gothia, grounded after an error of one degree in his calculations causing the death of another man. This one degree is the focus of Jasper's existence. He is given a second chance on a voyage to set up wireless communication buoys, leaving behind a young wife and a city ravaged by plague. Upon the journey the ship collides with a derelict during a storm with the remains of her crew and the only clue being an uncharted island on the ships maps. Jasper and company investigates the island discovering a terrible race of beasts whose blood actually holds the cure for the plague. From there the tale grows truly dark and compelling.

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello Directed by Anthony Lucas with a screenplay by Mark Shirrefs, is animation done in a shadow or rather silhouette style, which fit the story brilliantly and added a compelling element in of itself. The steam punk element was well rendered with the clockwork airships and modes of transportation. The shadow animation allowed the world and the machinery to be brought to the fore with greater complexity and detail.

The story is compelling, becoming increasingly darker; the score for the animation is perfect accompaniment. The voices used for the charcters fit them creating another level of emmersion for the viewer, with Jasper voiced by Joel Edgerton.

I really enjoyed this short movie for all the aspects brought together in one place. The only issue I could possibly have with The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello is the fact that it is only on DVD in Australia and New Zealand, which means the layering would not play in American DVD players. So one has to watch it here:
Also check out the web site for more interesting tidbits about Jasper's world.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Self-Promotion Time Come on!

Okay time for a little self promotion, then I will get back to writing about other people's stuff. Untold the Game, is a new card based role playing game created by a group of friends of mine called the Wandering Men. These guys are writers and geeks like me. They get the idea of pulp fiction and the importance of story. So they created a game for role playing the story.

Role playing games have been with us all since we were kids. Cops and robbers, House, Tea Parties….not that I ever had tea parties….superheroes for me! And I think everyone has heard of Dungeons & Dragons and many of the games that followed it. Well, Untold is such an animal, but it uses a non-collectable card system to handle character creation to combat to magic with one basic mechanic. Those interested in the game can find it here:

What is great about Untold is the story that surrounds it and the world heroes adventure in. Splintered Serenity is a sci-fi future where three realities, universes are colliding. There is the Apoc-Earth, a dark shadow of our reality some three hundred and more years into the future after what is simply referred to as the Event when a new world rises from the old.... with a humanity far superior to the one that had come before. Churls: giant barbarians with mystical abilities and the High-bred, pure super soldiers trying to revive there lost civilizations and survive this chaos. They are not alone for the races of the other realities now call Earth home, the Klik, sentient mechanicals that look as if they were created by a mad Victorian era scientist, they hail from a place they call the Great Machine, a world of clock work gears and logic. The L'Na, animalistic creatures from Ai, a world of magic have found their way to Earth with their mystical ways and are now experiencing one far different than their own.

So this is the world that needs stories to flesh it out and The Wandering Men were desperate enough to want me to help with it. So the guys have given me an opportunity to create brief back stories for characters like Oru, a L’Na who is at his heart an archeologist, a raging Churl in Helm, and a water-borne protector in Cetacious.

These characters were given artistic form by some very talented people, so that there might be a picture to hang my words around. I have also created monsters for heroes to fight in the form of the Sand Sniper, and fleshed out the lives of other creatures like the Gree Gree.

Sarge’s Tale is a serialized, pulp style novella by me; based on an adventure written by Brannon Hollingsworth and Nathan Ellsworth. The guys were once again desperate for some content so they were willing to let me use their adventure as a blueprint for my own.

So take a look if you want, if you see something you like shout it out. The Wandering Men and I would love if you come by for a visit.

Here is the beginning to Sarge’s Tale:

Chapter 1

The sun, a white ball in a steel blue sky scorched the parched earth, creating a shimmering haze in the distance. Sergeant Alisa McGraw scanned the hardpan that became the broken mesas and small canyons that served as the seat of Base LANS. A seat of science and military might before the Apoc, LANS was now one of the cells of High-bred civilization spread across the blasted continent.
"What is it, Sarge?" asked Corporal David Miguel, a dark skinned massively muscled man that dwarfed her by almost a meter. The sergeant suspected her second of being a Churl. He wore a helmet with a polarized visor over his close shaven head. Though standard issue, the helmet was too claustrophobic for McGraw to wear over her own tightly braided red hair.
The sergeant lowered her electron-binocs, her blue eyes squinting, unprotected by the flare-compensators. She looked to her second and back to the ten man patrol under her command. The feeling of dread that gnawed at her spine would not abate, only increased as she took in the no-man's land before her once more. Scrubby brush, large boulders, and smaller rocks broke up the washed out browns and grays that merged with the colorless blue horizon. Something was out there waiting for them. What it was or where? That was the question that made her pause. She handed the binocs back to the corporal. "Not sure, Miguel, but lets take it by the numbers, skirmish line, ten meter spread, covering fields of fire."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

ZOMBIES IN SPAAAAAACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Well it happened, with the rash of zombie sightings in recent years from Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland, it was only a matter of time for Star Wars to get in on the action. Star Wars: Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber is a new offering for the Star Wars universe. Set in a nebulous point just prior to New Hope, the novel is takes place on the prison barge Purge making its way to the edges of known space.

The novel itself has the basic tropes of the horror/zombie genre. The few remaining survivors: Jareth Sartoris, the captain of the guard with a sadistic streak for inter-group conflict. Kale and Trig Longo, small time con-men, grifters, brothers for the family/emotional investment; with the doctor, Zahara Cody to help them all understand what is going on. The creatures are of course all blood thirsty cannibalistic fiends.

The book is pretty descent for a shared world piece of fiction, but it misses some opportunities. Sartoris is a claustrophobic sadist, who has been in space too long; he kills the father of the two boys just prior to start of the novel. We spend some time with this character setting him up, but when his redemption moment comes it passes in a blink, having no substance. The reader shrugs and says: ‘oh well’. For the investment of back story on the guy he spends little time on stage, or is that impactful to the overall tale.

There is little investment to be had in the main players because of the introduction of cannon characters that I will not name for spoiler purposes. Once introduced, I half-expected that they would be the only ones to survive. So I unconsciously disconnected from the other characters, which was unsatisfying because there was investment with their back stories at the outset.

I know Star Wars is a commodity, just like any other, but something that put a hitch in my enjoyment of the book was the same as the distractions I had with Patterns of Force, both books were written to drive video games. Death Troopers seemed written to slide directly into the advertisement at the back of the book for Star Wars Galaxies, a multiplayer computer game.

I picked up Death Troopers sight unseen. I was not sure what to expect beyond a horror style adventure on a derelict Star Destroyer, I did not know if it would something along the lines of Alien or even Predator, but zombie plague caught me sideways. I think I never expected Star Wars to venture into the flesh eating horror of George Romero.

I love Star Wars. I was there in '77 and on, after all the original Star Wars trilogy was THEE Saturday Serial, and with comparatively the same kind of budget that Flash Gordon had back in the 30's and 40's! The book was a fun one to read. The core characters added to the Star Wars feel of the book, which to a fan is cool. In Schreiber's defense one didn't spend so much time with them that it was meant to short change the characters that were supposed to be the focus. For me they did. The Star Wars universe has been expanded to encompass so many more heroes than those that were present at the Battle of Yavin that their introduction was not necessary.

Schreiber is a good writer, and did well with the Star Wars material, balancing it against the zombie lore added to it. A blaster does nasty things to zombie flesh! The book, except for the most hardcore of fans with disposable income, is not worth the hardcover price tag. Its light for a hardcover novel, with about 220 pages, I figure roughly 70,000 words, with a preview of another Star Wars novel as filler.

Now Darth Vader versus a horde of flesh eating zombies….oh yeah, I would pay good money to read that! This is not one I would come back to later to read if I had the time for such things. To sum up though: if you are a Romero fan and a Star Wars geek, you will like this book!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Frakenstein: The Monster, the Myth, the Legend

For Halloween, my favorite holiday, I decided I would watch some of the classic monster movies that Universal put out in the 30s’ and 40s’. I love these old horror movies and one of the best is Frankenstein. It was released in 1931, starring Colin Clive as Victor Frankenstein and the immortal Boris Karloff as the MONSTER; based on Mary Shelly’s book and the play by Peggy Webling.
Now I can do a whole series of posts on Frankenstein and his monster, whose name incidentally was Adam, after the first man: just something for that Trivial Pursuit game. But I want to focus on the film, so just a quick contextual review. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818. The tale is one of vengeance perpetrated by the monster for his very creation and the suffering he endured at the hands of his creator and humanity at large. The tale does not focus on the creation but rather the effect of such creation. Personally, I found the monster in the actual novel too whiny to be sympathetic.
The movie is fun Saturday matinee stuff, I remember this film as a little kid when the Saturday afternoon creature feature would come on T.V.—thanks for the therapy Mom! This, among others scared me as a kid. I know this seems almost laughable today with films like Saw, or the current faire on the Sci Fi channel. But that’s the point; this film was scary without gore, or huge special effect. The studio warned people that it would be shocking! Women actually fainted in the theater. It was atmospheric and creepy with haunting sets; filmed in black and white as all good horror movies should be.
This film built tension from the start: with Victor’s obsession to create life; lying in wait for a body to be placed in the ground so they could dig it up fresh. The hunch back Fritz cutting down a hanged criminal, but that corpse being useless because the neck had been snapped. (Note: Fritz was played by Dwight Frye, who also played Renfield in Dracula and Wilmer Cook in the Maltese Falcon) The cut scene showing the concerns of his friends and fiancĂ© adds depth and a grounding element to the tale.
Then there is Fritz destroying the “normal brain” and taking the “abnormal brain”, the audience knowing that this is the brain that shall govern the creature being created. Later in the film when the monster encounters the young girl playing by the water side we know what is going to happen. The child’s death is only hinted at; the impact is later during Frankenstein’s wedding party when the grieving father carries his daughter in among the revelers.
The underlying complexity of the creature comes forth when the audience witnesses the abuse it endures at the hands of the sadistic Fritz. We also witness Victor viewing his creation as a mere experiment rather than a sentient being; a view shared by Dr. Waldman (played by Edward Van Sloan who was Van Helsing in 1931’s Dracula). Waldman intends to destroy the monster by dissection but is killed himself by the creature. The monster is sympathetic, you feel sorry for the poor creature; more so, in my opinion, than the book. One sees the creature trapped and dying and feels saddened by that death.
The climax is pure horror gold with the villagers chasing the monster with baying hounds, torches, and pitch forks. The creator and monster locked in a struggle at the end, with the creator pitched from the top a burning windmill. Then the creature is trapped for an ambiguous death scene that will allow it to appear in a multitude of sequels.
The movie is a classic for reason; there is a well woven plot, tension, and story. It may seem quaint by today’s standards, but that is part of that classic nature. It holds up because it is a compelling tale. It has spawned so many more interpretations over the years from comic books, Young Frankenstein, and a very good book series by Dean Koontz and Kevin J. Anderson in which the first book even mentions the burning windmill. The story was started by Shelly, but Karloff gave it life.
See: for more on this wonderful actor.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Black Jack Justice! Justice Served Cold!

This is a radio style pulp detective story. The mp3 can be found on Decoder Ring Theater. This is a fun radio show because the characters Justice and his partner Trixie Dixon both speak in the first person to tell the story, so one gets the perspective of the hard boiled detective and his partner's with all her 40's moxy!

The two voice actors: Christopher Lamont and Andrea Lyons were fun. Justice is the hard boiled dick of the Chandler/Marlowe model; cynical and moral at the same time. Trixie had the clipped sharp edge of the strong female lead of the period. The exchange between the two was great, fast and witty.


Justice: "You ready?"

Trixie: "I have the Berretta in my handbag and a .38 strapped to my inner thigh if that's what you mean."

Justice: "No, but thanks for the mental pin-up."

Unfortunately the client sounded like she was reading her lines directly from the script and the character's story was way too flowery in its prose. I mean exactly like she was just reading off the script. Once her exposition scene was done though it improved immensely and it flowed more naturally.

The imagery that was woven into the rest of narrative was seamless with a good smattering of hardboiled slang to make me laugh out loud. Not because it was corny but because it was so invocative of what the character's point was. Great stuff!

I was happy to come across this website because I love the old radio shows with Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, and others through out the years. I look forward to trolling through the rest of the site and I will be listening to the rest of the Jack Justice series!

The rest of the website looks good; pretty basic, simply, easy to troll through. So I will be spending some time here. They have paypal donation and subscription buttons to help defray the cost of running the site. But they offer their content for free. So give it a listen.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Aiden5-Pulp Web and Noir Goodness


In my small little world of compartmentalized definitions I consider Noir a genre by itself but also a sub-genre of pulp. Noir: crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings. This according to Merriam Webster, but my definition evokes images rather than words: grainy black and white settings, shadowed alleys with Bogart as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, painted women with knuckles pressed to their parted lips in a silent scream, and there is always a body.

Aiden5 by Room 101 Productions is what I call pulp/noir. A web series created by Tim Baldwin and John Jackson, written by the same along with Ben Bays; directed by John Jackson. Aiden5 stars Bryan Michael Block as Aiden a detective who must solve his own murder….repeatedly. Aiden was cloned as part of his job with his other selves working in the department as detectives and analysts. Now some one is killing him off, leaving taunting messages with the corpse. The first webisode ends with the classic cliffhanger.

Aiden5 premiered at Gencon this year to a great reception and with good reason. This serial has the classic elements with the protagonist doing his voice over (which I thought was AWESOME, by the way, in the original Blade Runner), the black and white old school feel, and the hero's world weary persona. But what this series lacks to its betterment is a budget. All volunteers and the sets are a green screen. The entire background and objects in the movie from the rooftop to the desks is pen and ink sketch art. I love this! It gives it a surreal, gritty feel to the whole production, but within moments you are not seeing the art but the story. Great stuff.

Obviously this is far from the first pulp/scifi production to do this and I could do a whole run down from Spider-Man on The Electric Company (yeah all you people my age know what I am talking about) to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But it shows innovation in its own right because it fits the story so well.

The acting is fun, because you have Block playing Aiden in several different personas with exchanges with himself. Block and the others that appear in the first episode are great because they are playing true make-believe with the sets drawn in later.
The series has only posted one episode in the fifteen episode arc. I am anxiously waiting for the next. I want to see if I am as clever as I think I am…..
Go check it out:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

James Rollins: Science Pulp at its best!

Photo by David Sylvian

James Rollins, is a veterinarian turned adventure/pulp novelist. He has, along with guys like Dan Brown and Clive Cussler, helped usher in a new era of pulp adventure. James Rollins is an adventure himself, enjoying outdoor pursuits like spelunking and scuba diving. He brings those adventures and their visceral reality to his writing. It's not surprising that Rollins (real name James Czajkowski) cites influences such as Doc Savage stories and the author Edgar Rice Burroughs on his web site:

Rollins has written novels that take place from deep in the Amazon to Antarctica. His recent series has focused on a scientific investigative branch of the United States government called SIGMA. Think commandos with PhD's. These guys and gals are the best of the best and will beat you at Jeopardy to boot!

The stories start with a bit of history, much like Clive Cussler's novels. A historical prologue is often presented to give context and clues throughout the rest of a Rollin's novel. Then a dash of science, all of it wrapped up in a whole lot of action and suspense.

Science is the underlying theme of Rollins' adventure novels. He takes current scientific issues and applications and questions where they could go, and should science even go where it is. This is far from dry stuff; rather, the story is wrapped and woven so skillfully that it makes sense and in some cases frighteningly plausible. Some examples in these novels range from evolution, red tides, and genetic modification of both animals (including humans) and plants.

The stories that Rollins writes (including his fantasy under James Clemens) grab the reader and like any good pulp serial keep you coming back for more. My advice to anyone sitting down to start a James Rollins novel is to make sure you have the time to kill, because you will not want to put this guy down once you start. I've done many a short night's sleep because I was staying up too late to finish "one more chapter".

Rollins presents well fleshed out heroes and villains with real world issues and agendas. Of course many of the villains, like any good pulp bad guy, are twisted and often die because of their nefarious pursuits.

James Rollins is also on the short list of writers along with a couple of my other favorite authors R.A. Salvatore and Terry Brooks that have written novelizations of screen plays by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. In Rollins's case: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; a novel that was better than the film.

Here is a list of the adventures that have been penned by James Rollins: Subterranean, Excavation, Deep Fathom, Amazonia, Ice Hunt, Sandstorm, Map of Bones, Black Order, The Judas Strain, The Last Oracle, and The Doomsday Key.

I have enjoyed them all immensely, I almost like the stand alone novels more than the SIGMA Force novels because they seem just a little more fantastic in a Journey to the Center of the Earth/Lost World kind of way, a little less grounded and more pulpy.

So if you enjoy fast paced novels that read like a mega-budget summer block buster, or you're like me and enjoy all things Indiana Jones and Saturday Serial, then pick up any of the James Rollins novels, they all can be read as a stand alone adventure without any other back ground. Or for the younger reader there is a young adult series that he has just started: Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gabriel Hunt: The New Pulp Star

A new book series cropped up recently and with a little help from my friends: okay, they showed me the cover…. I bought what appears to be the first book. Hunt: Through the Cradle of Fear by Gabriel Hunt, which is to say Charles Ardai wrote it. But the idea is that the authors are ghost writing for the adventurer.

Readers can check out all the action so to speak at .

Here is the rundown: Gabriel Hunt is a latter day Indiana Jones, who, along with his brother Michael head up the Hunt Foundation, part philanthropic group part adventure club. Gabriel spends his time slashing his way through steaming jungles and crawling through ancient tombs while his brother provides support back in Manhattan. The series is being written by numerous authors through out the rest of this year and into next.

Through the Cradle of Fear pits Gabriel Hunt against an evil Hungarian sword master named DeGroet, you can almost see the guy without any descriptors, bald, hawkish features with a thin villain's mustache and a monocle. There is a hidden chamber within the Sphinx of Giza (see my previous O'Connell post) which leads Hunt and DeGroet to Greece and Sri Lanka in pursuit of an ultimate weapon.

Through the Cradle of Fear offers some wonderful pulpy daring do, beautiful women that fall all over our hero, and villains that you want to hiss at. The book offers some light escapism without too much science or explanation to get in the way. The characters don't have the answers so there is no need to explain it to the reader. What you do get is plenty of action; bare knuckle, bullets blazing kind of action that rolls through your mind's eye like a rocketing Saturday Matinee.

The characters are broadly drawn, but enjoyable, none are plagued with heavy emotional baggage, and their motivations are straight forward. It was nice to sit down and polish off a novel in an afternoon, instead of working through a 600 page thriller which is a great read, (As I recommend James Rollins for scientific pulp action) but takes two weeks of hour lunch breaks to read. This first book seems to be appropriate for twelve and up readers. The language is tame, the sex off screen as it were, and the prose light. So I hope this will turn younger readers towards the fun of pulp fiction as Harry Potter and Eldest did for fantasy.

My complaints of the book are minimal at best and picky at worst. I was actually hoping that the series was set in the nebulous golden era of Rick O'Connell and Indiana Jones, between 1920 and 1945, but is set in the modern era, without any harm to the story. I also wonder how the series will look and move forward with numerous authors penning them. I hope they all can keep the same voice and tone of Cradle of Fear.

The best thing I can say about this Gabriel Hunt series is that I am looking forward to picking up the next one.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rick O'Connell: Underused Pulp Hero?

Rick (Ricochet) O'Connell, played by Brendan Fraser in three films: The Mummy (1999), The Mummy Returns (2001), and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), is, in my humble opinion, one of the most underused pulp heroes since Indiana Jones. At least Indiana had different adventures…..

Rick O'Connell was underused because of the potential stories that were not told. Let's look at a quick recap of the three films, and I will further explain what I mean. In the Mummy, (one of my favorite pulp movies) Rick and crew fight a mummy. Plenty of daring do, with a smart female lead Rachel Wiesz as Evelyn Carnahan, and awesome sidekick Jonathan Carnahan played by John Hannah. The trio reappear in the second movie, taking place ten years later, adding a lil' O'Connell to complicate the adventure. But the film was nearly as bad a frame by frame remake akin to the Star Wars Prequels…. But still fun filled daring do. The third deals with a Chinese mummy, and the now grown son of Rick and Evelyn; more original than the second film but some sameness. The disconnect here for me is Rick and Evelyn looking a little too fresh for folks pushing into their fifties (O'Connell would have been 48 in the film against Fraser's young 39), Maria Bello was a poor choice to replace the soft sexy of Rachel Wiesz, and the tired father/son rivalry that at least seemed less forced with other films; though all in all enjoyable as popcorn pulp.

As this is not a review of the movies but of O'Connell, we won't need to go any deeper than that for this article. As I stated Rick O'Connell is underused. This is a character, played with wonderful charisma by Fraser that could have been so much more than a mummy chaser. I feel the focus on the mummy aspect of sequels took away from what they could have done with the character. A soldier of fortune in the era that was the golden age of pulp is something that is almost too good to waste. I think the writers and Universal may have limited them selves on the potential. They stayed with a formula instead of using it as a spring board for further adventures.

The potential for plots were endless, without EVER touching on Jones territory. The films could have led to all the pulp destinations: Atlantis, Hollow Earth, the Orient, not just to fight Jet Li. With a two fisted adventurer like O'Connell, he could have fought the Tongs in Chinatown San Francisco and Nazi agents on the Empire State Building. With the movie time line roughly 1923 to 1947, there was a lot that could have been explored.

The Mummy even set O'Connell up for future plot devices and contacts. If he and Evelyn had fallen out, there is the reconciliation because he needs her expertise for a particular adventure. Jonathan, as he was in the Dragon Emperor, could be running a night club and Rick needed his help. Then there is the vast array of characters that Rick O'Connell could know from his past. With Rick being an orphan, his very parentage could have been a movie spring board (as it was retroactively shoehorned into the second Mummy film, but better).

Staying with the Egyptian archeological theme would have worked as well, as the second movie's opening demonstrated. Other legends of the vast ancient kingdom could have been explored without Imhotep ever coming back on the scene. The hollow Sphinx theory, the lost library of Alexandria, Troy, or ancient technologies that must be kept from Das Fuhrer would have been within the sphere of influence established in the first film.
The pyramids could have held even more secrets. Contact with other cultures like the Phoenicians could have seen a chase for treasures and glory all the way back to America, north and south.
With the void left by the inaction of Spielberg to capitalize on the popularity of Indiana Jones for nearly twenty years, I think Universal could have had a solid run at the box office for more than three films if they had not tried to make a trilogy of films based on the mummy premise. Not that the three movies did not make their money back and then some! In my opinion I think they, like most franchise style movies, got lazy, and went with what worked before.

The character of Rick O'Connell was one of the best pulp heroes of any age, ranking up there with Allan Quatermain , and almost every guy Humphrey Bogart played from Sam Spade on. Locking O'Connell into the mummy killing role took a huge potential away from the character. Rick O'Connell was the character that could have stereotyped Brenden Fraser. I mean that in a completely good, pulpy kinda way!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review

The Affinity Bridge: A Review
The Affinity Bridge is a novel by George Mann, set in an alternative London in 1901. Queen Victoria’s life has been preserved by the use of a clock-work respirator, airships fill the skies, and steam powered hansoms careen along the cobbles. This is the steam-punk world Mann gives us.
Enter Sir Maurice Newberry, an agent in Her Majesty’s Service. He is part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones, and part John Steed. He is the very image of proper English gentry, with the prerequisite dark secrets. (In his case laudanum addiction, and a practitioner of the arcane arts.) He has a female partner, Veronica Hobbes, that is part Emma Peel and not Watson-like in any respect, except for her dependability and willingness to jump into the fray.
The plot consists of intertwined events surrounding a zombie plague in the East End, a zeppelin crash with a young Royal on board, a ghostly blue faced police man murdering random people by strangulation, and the disappearance of Sir Maurice' secretary's brother, Jack Coulthard.
The zombies are actually called plague revenants, they are disease induced: infected with a virus that rots their flesh, makes them impervious to all but the most devastating of wounds, and gives the victim a ravenous, bestial hunger for human flesh before they burn themselves out when the virus turns their brain to goo. So…zombies but with new, inventive trappings.
The story ranges from the East Side to a well fleshed out air ship construction yard owned by Chapman and Villiars, central players in the drama, who also dabble in the construction of automatons: clock-work men. From the back rooms of gentlemen clubs to the inner sanctum of Queen Victoria, The Affinity Bridge touches on many of the aspects that make foggy old London a very cool, very pulp setting.
That is what is great about The Affinity Bridge, the familiar trappings of steam punk and gas light action, but giving them just enough of a twist and new flavor to make them fresh. Sir Maurice and Miss Hobbes are written with convincing chemistry and well fleshed out, each with their own motives and desires. Though I think Mr. Mann cheated a little bit with Miss Hobbes by not showing all her cards.
The story is well paced, the case laid before the reader logically, allowing them to see the mystery unravel, unlike Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's detective, who played it close to the vest with Watson and the reader. The action is the stuff of Saturday Matinees: daring do, near misses, cliff hanger delights, and heroic confrontations. You can almost see the action on the silver screen, either in black and white or Technicolor, though black and white is always creepier…..
Overall I found The Affinity Bridge to be fun and enjoyable reading. My only complaints about the story were some of the repetitiveness of the very daring that I enjoyed and what I felt were missed opportunities in story telling and fleshing out the very world being presented. Though it read well, I felt as if Mr. Mann had to make his story fit in a certain page count/word count for the publisher.
These a very minor complaints when the story is taken as a whole and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is a lover of pulp, Sherlock Holmes, or the gas light mystery, with all the steam punk goodness mixed in. 3 out of 4 stars for me. It didn't blow me away, but The Affinity Bridge was a great bit of entertainment that held my interest so that I burned through the book in a couple of sittings.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Fox and the Hound

I decided to keep with the War for American Independ- ence theme for another week by providing the beginning of a story that I wrote about a pulp hero of my own creation. So I will introduce you to Elias Jericho Kirby. A young privateer and smuggler for the rebellion. A man with a bit of magic and a whole lot of luck on his side. That is until he runs on a British sea captain that has the same gifts of Sight and Power!

The Fox and the Hound

AD 1777

The fog was an impenetrable wall of white mist, so thick that even the pink of dawn could not pierce it. Through the ancient gold coin embedded in the tiller arm beneath his palm Elias Jericho Kirby could sense the shifting currents and sand bars that made travel through the islands and shoals of Carolina's coastal waters so hazardous. The rigging of the main sail groaned no more than an old floor board. The men, even Rume, who was working the lead, were still. They were specters manning a ghostly schooner upon a shadow sea; slipping through a dream reality past the blockading British.
Elias’ mismatched eyes were slit in concentration that had nothing to do with trying to see beyond the prow of the Fox. He was feeling the world around him through the spells his Gran had taught him. He sensed the blockade vessels through the life energies of the men who manned them. With these magics, unknown to those that served under him, for they would see him dead for it, he had the reputation as the canniest smuggler ever to tread the deck of a ship.
The young man’s eyes flew open wide. The blue one, the one gifted with the Sight, saw the warlock as clearly as if the man stood across the deck from him. And the smuggler knew that the spell caster saw him too! “We are spotted!” He leaned the tiller hard to starboard, nearly throwing half his ten man crew overboard.
“Captain, how can they?” Egelbert, a portly man, who had been a merchant until the British took his own ship as a prize the previous year, asked his eyes huge behind his misted glasses.
“There!” cried Rume, the big sailor had escaped a British frigate after one too many lashes from the cat and had no desire to be taken.
She loomed out of the fog, a sleek, shallow drafted sloop of war; ten guns at the most. Well suited for chasing prey in these treacherous waters. She was prow on and would have drove the schooner under her keel had Elias not taken evasive action.
The two ships were so close that the cannon of the sloop could not bear down on the Fox; for the smaller ship sat lower at the free board. The enemy vessel let loose a thunderous broad side as the Fox bore away. The cannon were loaded with round shot and the six pound balls flew harmless among the rigging.
Elias felt the men of the British ship running about through the magic he possessed. “Marines!” came the order and the shadowy soldiers were at the rail. There were bright flashes in the white accompanied by the thunderous report of a dozen muskets firing almost in unison. The warlock was the captain of this vessel and the young Bostonian was sure he was a very successful hound for King George. Rounds zipped and whined smacking into the deck. Egelbert, his glasses blasted off his face, fell as an unlucky ball smashed him between the eyes.
“All sail!” Elias cried as he drew his flintlock his belt. As he pulled the hammer back his thumb brushed a silver stud among the diamond shaped cluster of brass studs on the grip. Whispering a word of power, the pistol bucked in the captain’s hand and the man who had killed Egelbert flew back mortally wounded. The silver stud now resembled the brass about it and only a few silver studs remained on the whole of the grip.
The men of the Fox flew about; setting gaff and foresail speed now outweighing stealth. Elias made for the open sea, hoping to tack back up the coast after loosing the enemy ship in the fog. He had little hope to accomplish that if the warlock had any kind of power or knowledge of these waters. Without sight the Hound could still follow him to his lair, sniffing out the trail of magic.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The American War for Independence: Pulp Fiction?

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

I am reading a book right now called Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. It occurs to me that The Revolutionary War is a pulp story that even the best writers could not imagine: one that if written as fiction today would have been rejected by publishers as simply trite with too many coincidences to aid the heroes. But it happened; we are a nation today because of unbelievable circumstances combined with determined men and women that stayed the course to make independence happen.
Anyone who knows me knows my passion for this period and those that created this nation. But this is not a blog on history or politics and none of this information is new, Joseph Ellis and many others have written numerous volumes on the Revolution. I was just thinking of what to post it occurred to me that I need to write pulp adventures set in the Revolution. This is actually not a new idea; there are several novelists who have written fantasy and romance in this era. I could compile quite a list.
Let's take the figures that are most prominent: Washington and Franklin.
George Washington: Commander and Chief of the Continental Army, first President of the United States, and pulp action hero. No? Many have called him America's First Action Hero long before me. Think of the man's life, Louis L'amour could have written this character! He was the right man at the right time, with the right experience and skill set to see this war through.
George Washington was a big man, standing at about 6'4", immensely strong, active, and sat a horse as if he were a centaur. As a young man (seventeen years old) he was a surveyor in the wilds Virginia. At twenty-two with the Virginia militia he fought in the Seven Years War, taking in French strength in the Ohio frontier. He took command of troops that had been routed through the inept leadership of General Edward Braddock. He had two horses shot out from under him and afterward found four bullet holes in his uniform coat, but had come through without a scratch!
After his brother's death he inherited wealth and land, securing his position in society with his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, adding her wealth and land to his own holdings. He was a brilliant business man, cunning in his political dealings, and had the uncanny ability to lead men. During the war he showed time and again, despite interference from Congress, he knew that the war would be won by wearing down the stronger, larger British army. He knew too that he needed victories, such as Trenton when his forces crossed the Delaware on that fateful Christmas.
Like true pulp fiction, a convergence of events aided Washington's victory as well as ramped up the tension which left success in doubt; from the mud and wet that bogged down Washington, to the storm that hit as he was trying to cross the Delaware trying to hamper his attack, putting the pre-dawn timing in question. This storm aided Washington because the weather kept the Hessians from posting the sentries that would have been on duty. As well as the British continental style of battle called "Winter Quarters". Howe having a mistress in New York helped hamper pursuit of Washington's army as well, but that is another story.
The battles that immediately followed were just as harrowing, from the Battle of Assunpink Creek to Princeton where Washington fought with guile to beat General Cornwallis. These battles were turning points of the American Revolution, giving Congress the confidence they lacked in Washington since the losses in New York. It also made the French take notice, helping bring that nation to the aid of the rebels.
Like a true action hero Washington laid down command (taking no pay while acting as Commander in Chief) when the war was over, refusing to lead an officer backed coup to set himself up as king. He was then asked twice to sit as President of the United States.
Ben Franklin was the cerebral hero of the pulps. In many tales of fiction he is mad inventor, a wizard, and spy. Reality is just as pulpish. He was an inventor, author, politician, ambassador, schemer, and sage. From his early printing days to creating the first public libraries and volunteer fire departments, he was always thinking. His greatest pulp adventures occurred when he was overseas in London then France. At first he fought hard to preserve America's ties to England, a warm fraternal affection should exist, but as time passed he saw that "an island cannot rule a continent". In France he used cunning and guile to persuade the French to give aid, money, and eventually troops to America. So great was his presence in that country that he was idolized like a rock star, including the sales of memorabilia. He was there to sign the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It seemed that Ben Franklin, almost through happenstance was present at ever major turning point that began the history of the United States.
Both Franklin and Washington had events in their lives that were the "calls to adventure" that drew them into giving their full fledged support to independence, when initially neither man were looking to break from England.
For Washington it seemed matters of honor, pride, and finance drove him to the new adventure. I think too, a drive to be a part of history. During this period the British military model had it own aristocracy; as a colonial, Washington, no matter his wealth, could not be a part of it. The most he could hope for was a commission in the militia, which would be subordinate to British officers, of even inferior rank. This left a bitter taste of second-class citizenship in the American aristocrat's mouth. Second were the taxes being levied by England to pay for the Seven Year's War, as an importer of finery and merchant, he was plagued by the unfair tax practice. And lastly, Washington saw himself as a military man. When he would order his clothes from England, he would order them in sizes that were actually too small for his robust frame because he was "outsized" to how a gentleman should be built. But his military uniforms, those were tailored to fit.
For Franklin his initial drive was to preserve the ties that bound America to England. He tried every diplomatic avenue, but the turning point for him was when he addressed Privy Council and was verbally humiliated. He had obtained letters of Governor Hutchinson's, proving that there was little serious consideration on England's part for peace. He left England and threw his efforts into the cause of Independence.
These two men were first among many, like Paul Revere, the Swamp Fox Francis Marion, even the vilified Benedict Arnold. They all were larger than life, living adventures that kept children wide eyed in the telling. These adventures were too wild for fiction.
History is rife with events and personages that create the stories that would otherwise be taken as heart stopping fiction, a lesson Jeff Shaara learned well when he wrote Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, and has further followed the same formula with The American Civil War and both world wars. Pulp authors have looked to history for their inspiration for events and characters. Robert E. Howard and Arthur Conan Doyle are just two who did so to thrill and entertain.
So my suggestion is that you hit a wiki or better, the library, and read the real pulp fiction of our nation's founding and beyond.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Shadow Kingdom

In Augusts 1929, eighty years ago this month, Weird Tales introduced its readers to King Kull, in The Shadow Kingdom, by Robert E. Howard. The Kull stories, in general, many unpublished in his life time, were not Howard’s best, but this story, I feel, belongs in the top ten of Howard's stories. This story is one of those that hit on all cylinders for me, from story, to prose, to action, and emotion.
A quick synopsis of The Shadow Kingdom: (yes there are spoilers)
The opening of the tale introduces the reader to Kull; an Atlantian barbarian has ascended the throne of Valusia, a decadent and crumbling empire, through strength of arm and steel. The Tiger of Atlantis must face foes with courtesy and guile rather than brawn and axe. There are factions within the nation that want the barbarian off the throne; others find the infusion of such blood into the ruling line as a revitalization of the Land of Dreams.
Kull is asked to attend Ka-nu, the Pictish ambassador from the Western Isles who warns the king of plots and offers him an ally in the coming battles in the form of Brule Spear-slayer. Kull, never trusting of his races’ ancient enemy is reluctant. When Brule does come to him he reveals to Kull the plot by a race of ancient serpent-men, who through dark magic can mask their form to appear as anyone they choose. The serpent-men wish to assassinate Kull as they have done to strong Valusian kings of the past, replacing them with doppelgangers. Brule reveals to Kull the phrase: ka nama kaa lajerama, the meaning of the words are lost, but their effect was not, no serpent-man can utter them, because their mouth and jaw cannot form the shape of the sounds. A defense for mankind in his ape-like days when he did battle the beast races of the young world.
The pair battle serpent-men guised as advisors, members of the court, and Kull himself. Finally, the pair is triumphant with Kull swearing a war of extermination on the serpent-race.
On the surface The Shadow Kingdom appears to be a string of brawls that would do Howard’s other barbarian Conan proud. It is, but so much more.
The story is a perfect blend of plot, conflict, and introspection. The tale runs 15,000 words or so, and in it Howard blends layers of conflict and world building. He creates images of a world before Atlantis rises to her cataclysmic height, even further back; establishing the serpent race to be as old as the age of dinosaurs. This he does with poetic prose without loosing the thread of the main tale.
The two barbarians, as Howard said: Like rival leopards turning at bay against hunters, these two savages made common cause against the inhuman powers of antiquity. Brule and Kull’s races were mortal enemies, and Bruel proclaimed no love for the king, but it was a matter of alliances and the bidding of Ka-nu to consider. For his part Kull did not trust the Pict, even going so far as keeping his blade pointed at Brule’s back so that he would at least die before Kull if he turned treacherous. There is no petty bickering or name calling to show such distrust or some proclamation of trust that comes later, but rather actions like that note above and when: ….but Kull heard Brule’s breath hiss through teeth and was reassured as to Brule’s loyalty... and when Brule is described as the power beside not behind the throne; again woven through out the tale effortlessly.
A final, deeper layer is Kull’s self-doubt. Kull is troubled as any king, but more so because there is an underlying sense that he doubts his ability to rule a civilized nation, this is a theme that prevails throughout the Kull tales, he is introspective and probing, even at his own failings, these things make him vulnerable, both as a character, making him more real, and as a device to challenge the hero. In the final act he sees a double of himself on the throne and wonders who the true Kull is, momentarily questioning his sanity; but like a true pulp hero he ignores these doubts that threaten to make him inactive, to strike at the usurper.
For me, the above elements strike the core of what makes great pulp fantasy known as sword and sorcery. The ancient, evil sub-human race bent on subverting humanity; warriors that face the evil unflinching, and eventually defeating magic with steel and courage; with world building done subtly so you are reading good fiction and not a dull, detail laden travel log to a mythic place.
The only thing missing, and it is not truly missing is the female element. So much of the sword and sorcery includes the damsel in a dress, rather a flimsy negligee or chain-mail bikini. This tale does not require it, nor is it shoe-horned in by some manner. Dark Horse comics recently did an adaption that did include the feminine element. (Which I will review at a later date.) Howard would learn and use the value of the damsel in a dress in story sales, but this story shows a purer writing for Howard, one though driven to sell, not driven by sales. The Shadow Kingdom is essential Robert E. Howard, exemplifying the elements that made Howard’s style his own. It glorifies the noble barbarian over the decadent civilization, the ability of men to face horror and evil to win out through strength and determination, all with bold prose and red action

Friday, August 7, 2009

It begins......

Well I am finally launching the blog! So I think I should give readers an idea what to expect. This is to be a place that I can share my love of the old adventure serials, pulp fiction, and the adventure cartoons of my fondest memory. And what ever else comes to mind in that vein. Story reviews, movies, and even self-serving snippets of stories that I write. If I had grown up in another era, I would have been one of the kids with the sling shot in his back pocket, slouch cap, and trailing dog running along a dirt track trying to find glass cola bottles to exchange for nickels so I could go catch the matinee.
I was pretty close, and like many other of my generation the first “pulp” action-adventure that thrilled me in the theater was Star Wars, closely followed by Indiana Jones and Conan. At home, the old Errol Flynn and Bogart movies would come on Sunday afternoons and I was hooked. Captain Blood and Maltese Falcon respectively, in case you were wondering. Saturday morning cartoons didn’t help with Johnny Quest and later, Thundarr the Barbarian.
Somewhere in there I started discovering the mental stimulation of reading. The first real primers I remember were, again Johnny Quest stories for really young readers, and then my father made sure we went to the library in the summer and stacks came home with me. As my tastes matured so did the subject matter and I discovered Robert E. Howard, Raymond Chandler, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The list could go on forever with Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Vern and so many more that I hope to explore later.
Where does this love come from for any of us that are fans of these action adventures? Is it the wish to be the hard boiled PI or rapier wielding Warlord of Mars? To have those hair raising, death defying adventures without actually risking our necks, or legal entanglements? To be that clever, that strong, or that resourceful?
I think part of it is the fervent wish that such men and women did exist somewhere out there, doing those things that only they could do; righting the wrongs only because the cosmos or fate had chosen them to do it.
Yeah, that too.
There is also a love of the art form, the turning of phrase, the poetry and cadence. As beautiful as the story telling traditions of Homer’s Illiad or the Saxon Beowulf. The innovation and imagination that brought such adventures to life in the era of the first moving pictures with stop motion special effects to the talkies and the vibrant color of the Wizard of Oz. In the case of the original Star Wars movie, the creation of special effects to bring that galaxy far far away to life as envisioned back in 1977. The lurid covers of the ‘30s pulps so epitomized by Rafael de Soto, J. Allen St. John, George Rozen, and many more; to the color and life brought to the pages of favorite comic books, which has become a literary art form itself with “graphic novels”.
I hope to explore all these and more as I ramble on about these things that I love that I have such a passion about.
So that is the beginning of this particular story. And like the old serials, there will be installments. My goal is to post as the title suggests, on Saturdays. Because that was when that kid in the slouch hat got his nickel and sat in the dark to dream with his eyes wide open.