Friday, June 24, 2016

There are three podcasts in your life. One to take you... one to love you... and one to kill you.



On the most recent episode of Hellbent for Letterbox, Pax and I bring noodles and meatballs to the campfire with our first Spaghetti Western episode. It's the Sergio Leone classic, How the West... no, wait... Once Upon a Time in the West. We keep getting those confused. This is the one with Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson.

Pax also shares Western reads To Hell on a Fast Horse and the two Rawhide Kid mini-series, Slap Leather and The Sensational Seven. Then I talk a little about the weirdness of the Shirley Temple short, Pie-Covered Wagon.











Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Close to the Edge: Albums for Science Fiction Fans [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I think the first sign that you're "getting old" is you start wishing everything was the way it "used to be." In most things, I can stop myself and ask, "Now is this really any worse?" You have to remember I survived disco. It helps you keep your perspective.

There are a few things from the past that I think younger people are missing out on though. One of these is fantasy album art. Beginning in the 1960s, with covers like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, album art took off in directions that have become iconic.

Now that old square of cardboard (which housed a Long-Play album, or LP for you youngsters) could show photos of the singers or a moody landscape, but the best were the ones that featured science fiction, fantasy, and horror themes. These images in turn inspired the bands to produce music that was even more "far out." Certain artists found their fame painting those covers (and some came after they were famous). We all have our favorites, but here are my picks:

The king of them all, none better, is British artist, Roger Dean (1944-). Dean's covers for Yes and Asia are icons of those bands and their success. Roger Dean is the master of the fantastic landscape, with floating landforms and airbrushed colors that fade off into the horizon. For example, his cover for Yes's Relayer with its weird mushroomy landforms and two rattlesnakes is one of my favorite wallpapers on my computer. Other covers include Uriah Heap's Demons and Wizards (1972) and The Magician's Birthday (1972).









Another Brit I always enjoy is Patrick Woodruffe (1940-2014). His best known cover is Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny (1975), but he also did covers for The Strawbs, Greenslade, and Budgie. Woodroffe is more colorful than Dean and goes for strange, surreal combinations of forms. He is like fantasy's Hieronymous Bosch.



Lying somewhere between Dean and Woodroffe is another Brit, Rodney Matthews, who combines strange landscape with bold, fluorescent colors and weird creatures. His work is often inspired by the novels of Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, or Michael Moorcock. His best covers were for Nazareth's No Mean City (1978) and Asia's Aqua (1991), as well as covers for Bo Hansen, Arena, and Archiva.







All through the 1960s and '70s the greatest vehicle a fan could own was a van with a version of Frank Frazetta's "Silver Warrior" airbrushed on the side. It was Frank's death dealers that brought sword-and-sorcery and heavy metal together, though oddly not on the covers of albums. Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) is the American grand-daddy of modern fantasy artists. Frank set all the records and has yet to be truly surpassed. He did not start off in album art, actually came to game late, but did recycle some book covers for albums for Molly Hatchet and also Nazareth's 1977 album, Expect No Mercy with its odd paradox of "how is he going to swing that sword down with those horns in the way?"





Frank's first successor was Boris Vallejo (1941-). Peruvian born, and skilled in figure painting, Boris did covers for Ted Nugent, Ozzy Osborne, and even a portrait of the band for Molly Hatchet. Boris (and later with his wife, Julie Bell) brought a sexuality to album covers that had not been there before.



Ken Kelly (1946-) was a student of Frank Frazetta (as well as his nephew) and had his first success on album covers. Kiss's Destroyer (1976) was a big album, but Ken Kelly's art can take part of the credit. He also painted the four musicians for Love Gun (1977).





HR Giger (1940-2014) became famous as the artist who designed the acid-for-blood creature in Alien (1979), but he also did some album artwork for Blondie's Debbie Harry and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery (1973), as well as for Danzig, Celtic Frost, and many others. Where the other artists mentioned have gone for images with a Tolkienian or Howardian feel, Giger is more often associated with the horror of HP Lovecraft.





Other album covers of note include, Hawkwind's Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975), Lenny White's The Adventures of the Astral Pirates (1978) with cover and illustrations by Mike Kaluta, Jethro Tull's Broadsword and the Beast (1982) by Iain McCaig, and the Canadian band Klaatu that featured a mouse hidden in all of their fantastic covers. Also of note was the 1978 rock opera, War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne that featured Wells' killer Martians by Geoff Taylor, Mike Trim, and Peter Goodfellow.











All these artists had as much of an influence on the 1970s' love of the fantastic as did the musicians who wrote the songs. I can remember sitting in my tent in the backyard reading The Sword of Shannara (1977) with its Brothers Hildebrandt illos and listening to Yes, Jethro Tull, Klaatu, and Steeleye Span. Enjoying that all-too-short time between being a kid and becoming a working-slaving-tired adult, and thinking of elves and dragons and wizards to the sound of Steve Howe's guitar, the oddly enchanting voice of Maddy Pryor, and the jazzy, rocking flute of Ian Anderson. Days long fled, though I can still watch those images flash across my screen as I wander to the kitchen for another cup of coffee before I go to work.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A podcast 65 million years in the making



In the second episode of Mystery Movie Night's sadly Erikless summer, we're joined by special guest Siskoid of Siskoid's Blog of Geekery. Mark leads the discussion of brachiosaurs, brownies, and broken fingers. Have a listen as we go over the films, then see if you can guess the secret connection between all three.





Then beam over to Starmageddon where Dan gives his report on the Star Trek Beyond event and talks about his impressions of not just the shindig, but also the exclusive footage that he and the other attending fans got to see. After enjoying IGN's Karl Urban interview, we jump to Star Wars for some speculation about the Rogue One reshoots, before finally making our wish lists of some of the Trek and Wars merchandise coming just in time for Comic-Con International. Listen at the Starmageddon page or on your favorite podcast platform.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Planet Stories: Swimming Against the Tide [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

By the 1950s, adventure science fiction was seen as an embarrassment by those who had once written it for the Clayton Astounding and Amazing Stories. Under the banner of John W Campbell's Astounding, the new order in the 1940s was to shed the pulp past and move on to that logical, shining, serious genre known as Science Fiction.

But then there was Planet Stories, that little quarterly magazine published by Malcolm Reiss and Love Romance Publications. Stories set on other worlds where heroic men and women face terrible monsters. It was all too Edmond Hamilton for the snobs. (Oddly Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, the two writers who crafted space opera in the 1920s and '30s never appeared in Planet Stories. Hamilton was writing Superman comics and was pleased to leave Planet Stories to his wife. Jack Williamson was one of the old pros who could satisfy the new rules of SF and was part of that Age of Campbell.)

So was Planet Stories all that bad? Certainly it featured plenty of space opera and sword-and-planet action. Many of the best of Leigh Brackett's stories appeared in Planet Stories, including her classic Eric John Stark tales of Mars. In fact, she was instrumental in carrying on the vision of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars as a world of strange wonders. This in turn gave Ray Bradbury a place to grow his Martian Chronicles with stories like "The Million Year Picnic," "Rocket Summer," and "Mars is Heaven," standard texts in classrooms and libraries as serious literature. Some of Raymond Z Gallun's finest work of the 1950s can be found there too with "The Big Pill" and "Asteroid of Fear." Like all magazines, it was a continuum of good to bad.

Looking at the contents lists of Planet Stories is quite revealing. The names of the authors break up into four categories:
  • old pros 
  • slumming stars 
  • new writers who would go on to better things 
  • the forgotten
Campbell and his crew dominated the 1940s. The markets for older-styled writers were shrinking. Astounding was setting the bar high and some were never going to make it. Writers like John Murray Reynolds, who had written for Weird Tales, wrote the very first story, "The Golden Amazons of Venus." Ray Cummings, Ed Earl Repp, Carl Jacobi, Ross Rocklynne, Fredrick A. Kummer Jr, J Harvey Haggard, E Hoffman Price, Otto Binder, Charles R Tanner, Otis Adelbert Kline, Neil R Jones, and Hugh B Cave were some of the earliest SF writers for Hugo Gernsback in the 1920s and '30s as well as other magazines like Weird Tales. For these writers, Planet Stories was a final stopping place before oblivion (or jobs in the fledgling comic book industry).

The slumming stars were Campbell-worthy writers who needed another market, had a story or two that Campbell would never buy, or simply enjoyed the adventure thing as well as hard SF. These included Clifford D Simak, Fredrick Pohl, Fletcher Pratt, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredrick Brown, Manly Wade Wellman, Malcolm Jameson, and Laurence Manning. Some chose to hide behind pseudonyms; some did not. The usual reason for using a nom-de-plum was having two stories in the same issue. Poul Anderson used AA Craig, not out shame (he published 13 stories in the magazine between 1950 and 1955), but because that issue also featured "Tiger By the Tail" by Poul Anderson.

New writers (who would later become famous) include many big names as we know them today, though back in the late '40s and early '50s they were earning their reputations. These included Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Philip K Dick, John Jakes, Leigh Brackett, Basil Wells, James Blish, Jerome Bixby, Robert Sheckley, Jack Vance, Milton Lesser, and Stanley Mullen. For some of these writers, they were waiting for HL Gold to begin publishing Galaxy, or Anthony Boucher with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. There were soon to be quality magazines that featured un-Campbellian SF.

The editors of Planet Stories balanced their issues with old pros and new up-and-comers, but about half of the names are writers whom I've never heard of, though some have large numbers of stories to their credit. (A few were the editors of the magazine as well.) Mostly they are writers of one or two stories, names that live on only in Planet Stories. These include John Wiggin, WV Athanas, CJ Wedlake, Lloyd Palmer, HF Cente, and on and on. At least ninety of them. They are the forgotten souls who tried their hand at the task, but have since faded from memory. Only one gained a small bit of fame. That was Keith Bennett, who wrote "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears." The story was selected by Leigh Brackett for the Best of Planet Stories, Volume 1. (Sadly there was no Volume 2 and 3 and 4...)

Planet Stories published seventy-one issues, most quarterly, from 1939 to 1955. It never won any awards, but it was fondly remembered by readers. It was a final volley into the second half of the century. The fun story of interplanetary adventure would disappear for a short time, existing in comics and on television, but by 1977, with Star Wars, the top grossing film of the 20th century, the cry for adventure SF would be heard again, loud and clear.

And even to this day, with the turmoil at the Hugos, we see that SF still has two camps: one that wishes to drive SF towards literature and another that simply wants to feel the wonder of the stars over head, a smoking laser in one hand, and a laser sword in the other, as hideous bug-eyed monsters do unspeakable things to sexy young space maidens. (Modern readers demand much less silly versions of this, but the spirit is the same.) Sadly the genre never split into two separate things, with two different names. If it had, say "Speculative Fiction" for the literary types and "Planet Stories" for the rest, how fitting that would have been...

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1930

Anna Christie (1930)



My first Garbo film and she's very good in it. But as rough a life as her character has, the hardest thing for me to watch was her falling for a big bohunk as dumb and childish as Charles Bickford's Matt. She's committing herself to literally the first guy who's even vaguely nice to her.

Free and Easy (1930)



Buster Keaton's first talkie and that is not the voice I was expecting. It's better, actually, with a bit of a Southern accent and a tinge of Jimmy Stewart.

It's a fascinating movie just for getting to hear him talk. And it's fun for all the appearances by other MGM directors and stars (the movie takes place at MGM Studios as Keaton's trying to help a young woman break into the movie business). Robert Montgomery is always likable and recovers quickly from a caddish moment involving Keaton's protege. Keaton, on the other hand, is especially clumsy and even dumb, so I actually found myself hoping that the girl (Anita Page) would end up with Montgomery instead of our star.

I'll have more to say about the stupidity of Keaton's talking characters when I cover Allez Oop, one of his short talkies, but as much as I enjoy Keaton's voice, I don't think the sound format did his schtick any favors.

The Blue Angel (1930)



About halfway through The Blue Angel I wondered if Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola was the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She seems to exist mainly to draw stuffy Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) out of his shell.

But if that's the case, the film does something very different from the way the trope is commonly used today. It takes a super dark turn (unfortunately, as the result of some crazy bad decision-making by both Lola and Rath) and becomes a cautionary tale about marrying people you don't really know. It ends in a heartbreaking way that's also oddly lovely, so while I'll probably never watch it again, I'm glad to have seen it this once.

Murder! (1930)



Hitchcock moves closer to the genre he'd eventually settle into with this murder mystery, but it's not a good story. It's sort of like an episode of Law & Order that becomes 12 Angry Men before morphing into Murder Most Foul. It opens with a murder, shows a brief police investigation, then a woman is put on trial and quickly convicted. A member of her jury is a respected thespian who intuits that the defendant is not guilty, but lets himself be pressured into a guilty verdict. After the sentence is passed though, he reconsiders the case and sets out to prove the woman's innocence.

There are some great twists, including some very Hitchcockian moments, but the mystery is too easily pieced together once the woman's guilt is questioned. It's also a problem that the true murderer's motive is nothing that can be figured out based on any of the clues.

Animal Crackers (1930)



Not quite as memorable as The Cocoanuts, but still very funny. I have no idea what the title refers to, though, since the plot is (loosely) about shenanigans around a famous painting and a couple of copies. David noticed some similarities to What's Up, Doc? and he's right.

Madame Satan (1930)



This was pitched to me as a pulp story, so I was disappointed to learn it's actually a morality play that just happens to have some fun elements. There's a huge set piece with a zeppelin and a masked, mystery woman, but the focus of the movie is entirely on the woman's troubled marriage.

It tries hard to offer believable motives for the husband's cheating and the wife's methods in bringing him back, but those motives are ultimately trite and I ended up not really caring if they got back together or not. Some amusing bits throughout, though.

The Big Trail (1930)



Has a lot in common with The Covered Wagon in that it's about dissension in the leadership of a massive wagon train headed to Oregon. Both movies also have a plot about two men - one "civilized" and one a frontier scout - who are interested in the same woman who's a settler.

The Big Trail has young John Wayne as its frontiersman though and that's a big bonus. He's laid-back, charming, and easy to root for. He also has a cool side-plot in that he suspects a couple of the trail-bosses to have murdered one of his friends.

But while there's plenty to drive the story, the film gets sidetracked with long sequences that explain how difficult wagon train life was. Whether it's crossing a river, getting down a cliff, or navigating snowy mountains, the scenes are all educational and powerfully harrowing, but also extended and I began to resent their distraction from the characters' stories.

Morocco (1930)



I was all geared up to like this. I loved Gary Cooper in The Virginian and was encouraged about Marlene Dietrich's wounded-but-strong character early in the movie. Even when she inexplicably falls in love with Cooper's cad, I reminded myself that love often is inexplicable. And I even relished the complications around her feelings for Cooper and the millionaire played by Adolphe Menjou. The latter guy is debonair and much more stable, but sadly just doesn't do it for Dietrich like Cooper does.

Her having to choose between these two men (and the geographical location the movie takes place in) could make Morocco a spiritual companion to Casablanca, except that unlike Casablanca, I hate the ending. Dietrich and Cooper's characters are both so damaged that the only way they're going to get together is for one of them to drop their guard and trust the other. That's a great message and I applaud it, but I really wanted it to be Cooper who gives in first.

Dietrich's doing it makes sense with what the movie reveals about her, but it also shows that neither she nor Cooper have really learned anything. He's still a cowardly cad and she's still putting her trust in a man who doesn't deserve it. Fingers crossed that it works out for them, but there's not much in the movie to suggest that it will.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Down the Jaxxon Hole with Nerd Lunch



This week I got to do two of my favorite things: talk about Star Wars and be on Nerd Lunch. One of my favorite Nerd Lunch features is when they go "Down the Rabbit Hole," where people suggest a couple of topics, then the group tries to link one with the other through a series of Wikipedia pages. It's spontaneous and always fun. This week, it was the Star Wars version of that, so Kay and I got to join CT and professional Rabbit Hole spelunker Jeff Somogyi in trying to get from...

Well, I'll leave that for the episode.


Monday, June 06, 2016

June 6, 2016: Predictions and Predilections [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

On Valentine's Day of this year we had a weird moment when some smarty pointed out that the replicant Pris from Bladerunner (played by Darryl Hannah) had the incept date February 14, 2016. Science fiction is plagued with titles and references to dates. Which, of course, come to pass and are completely wrong. The classic example is 1984. I remember that year. Prince sang "Purple Rain," Ghostbusters and The Terminator were on the big screen, and I probably had a mullet. Not exactly George Orwell. He got the title by reversing the date he wrote the book, 1948. He wasn't really trying to predict what 1984 would be like. But again, with science fiction, we have this idea that SF is supposed to predict what is to come. Blame HG Wells with his Things to Come!. Today's writers insist that SF tells more about when it was written than what will be.

A good example of all this is the story "June 6, 2016" by George Allan England. The story appeared in Colliers on April 22, 1916, a little over a hundred years before the titular date. And as with titles of this sort, it is a prediction of what the world will be like in a century. Was it truly predictive or did it tell us more about what people were worried about in 1916? Things that concerned them included World War I grinding away in Europe, though the US wouldn't enter for another year. Women's suffrage was four years away in the US. Marconi's radio broadcasted about the maritime rescues of the Titanic in October 1912 and again with the Lusitania in May of 1915. Despite these obvious topical elements in the story, England also proposes some new ideas. How accurate is his guess? We'll see.

The plot of the story is pretty banal. Ellsworth Stanton has been asked to marry by his fiancée, Alice Haynes, who plies him with flowers and candy. Since the coming of equality, women can do the wooing. Ellsworth's father is repelled by this since he is old fashioned. Ellsworth takes a job with another firm to get out from under daddy's finger, and goes to meet his wife-to-be. The father pursues in the hopes of talking some sense into the boy, and finally meets Alice. To his surprise, she is perfectly lovely, so he recants his objection and the two will marry. Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke this ain't! England did write a number of early SF classics including the post apocalyptic trilogy collectively known as Darkness and Dawn. In fact, the author that England is most often compared to is his contemporary, Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I think of some of the jungle-bound love stories old ERB wrote, I can see it. Burroughs wrote his own predictive novel in 1916 called Beyond Thirty, in which he visits a Europe destroyed by war. There is plenty of kissing amongst the cavemen and lions as usual.

What is more interesting than the plot is certainly the gadgets and predictions England suggests. As with all early SF the characters point these innovations out with plenty of pokes at the silly people a hundred years ago. These include disposable clothes, dishes, and bedding. All clothing, blankets, and bedding are made of papersilk. "No stupid, unsanitary, costly laundry work now hampered the daily changing of linen. These papersilks, despite their elegance, were now so cheap that everybody threw them into the municipal incinerating tubes, after one wearing..." All the incinerated items are converted into a gas, which fuels the lighting and heating. The dishes, which also go into the tubes, remind me of our disposable society with its paper plates and cups and the wrappers on fast food. In Ellsworth's time, there is no kitchen at home, but large, public cafeterias suggesting a mild form of socialism that would not have been alarming before the Russian Revolution. (England works in two mentions of Fletcherizing, a popular health idea of the time, requiring the eater to chew 33 times for every bite, including liquids!) Perhaps this lack of a home kitchen lends itself to the use of disposable dishes.

There are a number of new inventions such as a washing gel that eats away your beard, walls that provide perfect ventilation and comfort, electric tooth brushes and hair clippers, a new beverage called krava to replace coffee, holographic photos, self-lighting cigars, age-rejuvenating baths, neometric measurements, controlled weather (with the resulting rain tax), 210-story buildings, and irradiation of disease and environmental noise. But the biggest developments seem to be in transportation and communications. Ground vehicles have not been replaced entirely, but travelers can also use pneumatic subway tubes and trains that allow you to switch without stopping. There are also slidewalks, public use of submarines, and flying cars. Stick-in-the-mud daddy still owns a ground car, of course. In the world of communications, the newspapers have all died out because people can get their information instantly with television (England doesn't use this word, but "telelectric.") There is also the "audiphone" (something like Skype) though it doesn't have a portable cell phone version and a "telemitic dispatch" that sounds more like a telegram than an email.

So how close was George Allan England to predicting the world of today? What strikes me as most interesting is how the correct predictions don't feel correct. Even though the women have equal rights we still see the paradigm of male boss and female employee at daddy's business, though there is a female police officer and it is woman who offers the son a new job. The wife-to-be offers and pursues marriage, but at the end Ellsworth mediates this to "they asked each other." England isn't quite modern enough to leave it alone. He mentions that Ellsworth and Alice have passed the Eugenics Board requirements for having children, but doesn't tell us who will raise the children. Do they have daycare? Will Alice give up her career to do it? Eugenics was another turn-of-the-century idea that would have seen governments selectively breeding away crime, political dissidence, and the mentally and physically handicapped. Scary as it was, it did have supporters, including Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Venus novels!

England's prediction of the death of newspapers is still in progress and anyone working in that industry can tell you how real this is. I think England was actually predicting that TV would kill the newspaper industry, but we all know this did not happen. TV and newsprint existed together for over fifty years. It is in fact the Internet and digital technology that are the cause of today's media upheavals. England's version of TV has live coverage of a sinking ship, something similar to watching the Lusitania go down. When you consider how we watched the fall of the Twin Towers you can glean how close England was. What he couldn't imagine is the impact of the Internet and forty million cat videos. But to be fair, neither did Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke or anyone else.

In the end, this story is a quaint look at how a turn of the century writer might see the future. The entire plot and feel, despite the cool new gadgets, is still mentally and spiritually stuck in 1916. It feels Edwardian despite its attempts to be futuristic, just as watching old Star Trek episodes will make you laugh at the Space Hippies, an obvious late 1960s fad. If you truly want to read a story of the future that doesn't suffer from present day influences, I'd recommend Frederick Pohl's "Day Million." It, too, is a love story of the future, but doesn't feel like 1966. It feels like nothing you could have imagined. And as for England's version of June 6, 2016? I want a flying car, dammit!

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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