Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Tail, er, Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra

     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle peppered his tales of Sherlock Holmes with allusions to other, untold stories, with the implication that he might tell them later on. probably the most famous such reference was in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," in which Holmes explains to Watson a reference in a letter from a client:

     "Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson," said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. "It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

     Many writers have attempted to flesh out these two sentences, none terribly successfully to my mind at being Holmesian and/or "a story for which the world is not yet prepared."
     What's most infuriating to me is that most cannot even stick to the facts contained in those few words, i.e.:
     ~ It involves a ship named Matilda Briggs.
     ~ It involves something that could be referred to as the giant rat of Sumatra.
     ~ It is a story of which Watson was unaware.
     ~ It is a story for which the world is not yet prepared.
     Most attempts at the story have no problem with the first two, but many ignore the latter two. I can understand that they want the interplay between Holmes and Watson, but to ignore the last point is to ignore the very reason we are tantalized by the case. WHY is it a case for which the world is not yet prepared? What shocking secret or grotesque detail makes it so un-tellable?
     If it is a case of which Watson was unaware, some explanation for this must be given. There are two main periods of Holmes professional life that did not include Watson: before they met in "A Study in Scarlet," and during the years when Holmes was believed dead. These seem the most likely times, but a writer could easily find some other times, such as during Watson's marriage(s). To ignore it and insert Watson in the story seems lazy.
     "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" by Richard L. Boyer (Titan), recently reprinted in "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series, ignores the second two points, which is bad, but (despite glowing reviews on Amazon) it also is poorly written and conceived. It is essentially a re-write/sequel to "The Hound of the Baskervilles," incorporating some of the same elements, such as Holmes seemingly sending Watson on ahead while secretly watching him and events; a mysterious animal trained to kill someone for revenge; and (SPOILER ALERT!) the same villain.
    There are other novel attempts and many  short story versions ~ including one in Ted Riccardi's "The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" and Paula Volsky in Marvin Kaye's anthology "Resurrected Holmes" ~ but even the best fall short of creating the sense of mystery Doyle created in two short sentences.
     My favorite "version" is still the Firesign Theatre's comedy album "The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra," a Sherlock Holmes parody that begins with Hemlock Stones starting to tell Flotsam the story, only to be interrupted with a new case that includes a lot of ratty references, including a character named Willard (after the then recent film), who in the end is revealed to be a "Suma-ratran." The jokes and references fly at a fast rate, and some find the humor induces more cringes than laughs, but for the brief period in which Holmes talks about the giant rat, he sticks closer to Doyle's words than many of the other chroniclers. It's available on CD through

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Zombie Nation

     Zombies are taking over, but a 1930s era zombie might not recognize the modern variety. As the popular scholarly book (and over-the-top Wes Craven film) "The Serpent and the Rainbow" established, zombies are supposedly the dead brought back to life to serve the living, but in reality they are living people fed a drug that makes them appear dead, saps their wills, and allows them to more easily be exploited as slaves. Zombies are slow, usually skinny but relentless, making them good laborers but poor killers.
     It's not hard to see why they didn't really catch on, but they did figure in some films, with "White Zombie," starring Bela Lugosi, and  Val Lewton's "I Walked with a Zombie" among the best-known and most highly regarded.
     Then "Night of the Living Dead" came out, and our view of zombies changed forever. Originally titled something like "Night of the Flesh Eaters," the film never refers to them as zombies, and the film's director George Romero said he considered them ghouls, another mythological supernatural creature, albeit one that is born that way and eats not the living but the already-dead in cemeteries. "Living Dead" itself is a generic term for several supernatural creatures, usually vampires. The idea that the victim of a zombie becomes one too is clearly a variation on the vampire and werewolf legends. In voodoo, the zombie is created by a houngan, a kind of witch doctor or priest.
    After NotLD,  numerous other flesh-eating "zombie" movies followed, many in Italian cinema. Romero did a couple of sequels, notably the slightly satiric "Dawn of the Dead," then humorous films with zombies started popping up ("Return of the Living Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead" among them). Variations like "28 Days Later" appeared, although again these weren't zombies but living people infected with a so-called "rage virus." They moved fast, and soon "fast zombies" were running amok, including in an irony-free remake of "Dawn of the Dead." Even non-zombie stories such as "I Am Legend" (a vampire story originally) were re-imagined as "zombie" films.
     Some of the "truest" fictional zombies were assembled in Marvel Comic's "Tales of the Zombie," while new school zombies mix with ~ and eat ~ their super hero characters in the "Marvel Zombies" series.
     Zombies of any type still didn't fill a lot of books though until Max Brooks wrote and published the humorous "Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z," an "oral history" of the "zombie wars." Then someone came up with the idea of taking a public domain book and adding supernatural creatures, starting with "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and including "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim."Now zombies or zombie/flesh-eater hybrids are all over the book store shelves too.

     If you're looking for some zombie lit, be sure to visit to the horror section of your local bookstore, or search your favorite online store. I've got one on my reading list: "Handling the Undead" by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of "Let the Right One In/Let me In," upon which the recent films were based). "Hater" by David Moody looks worth a look too.

' ... Faces as Unfinished as Their Minds'

     "What monstrosities would walk the streets were some people's faces as unfinished as their minds."
~ Eric Hofer, "Reflections on the Human Condition," 1973

     I first read that quote not in Mr. Hofer's  book but in an essay by Harlan Ellison. I don't recall in what context Mr. Ellison used the quote, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately as I hear our political leaders and aspirants speak,  and as I read the letters to the editor, blog posts, emails and Soundoff calls. The sad truth seems to be that we don't think before we speak or write, nor do we edit before we post or send. 
     Even books ~ which one would hope are read and re-read multiple times by many people from the time they leave the author's hands to  their final printing ~ often have significant errors, from misspelled or omitted words to entire missing paragraphs. Sometimes these errors aren't even corrected by the time they are reprinted in paperback. 
     Not to pick on any one book, but I recently finished reading The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Ted Riccardi (Pegasus, 2011). This was the paperback edition, which came out eight years after the original hardcover edition, but I still found spelling errors and textual mistakes. They weren't on every page, and they didn't affect how well I liked the book ~ I'll probably review it soon ~ but I found it disturbing and disappointing that in eight years no one had noted the errors and/or bothered to correct them for the reprint.
     With eBooks now being posted directly by the author to Amazon and other sites, such errors are likely to keep occurring and probably increase. But I think later corrections may also be easier and quicker. If I notice errors on this blog, I can go back and correct them.  That's a little scary in that we may all be able to function like Winston Smith in 1984, retroactively changing our history. I could change my opinion about a book, or delete a politically incorrect statement as well as fixing a spelling error.
     I'm sure readers of The Macomb Daily find errors there occasionally, but I think such errors are more understandable in a daily publication of timely information than in a bound edition intended for a long life.
     I and the the other copy editors at The Macomb Daily do our best, and I promise to try harder in my professional and personal editing. 
     The next time you write a text, email or blog post, read it through before hitting "send" or "publish." There are enough monstrosities out here already.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The quiet brilliance of Neil Gaiman

     Neil Gaiman has a soothing voice. I've just been listening to the audiobook of his fantasy novel "Stardust," read by the author, for at least the fifth time. The book was adapted for film a couple of years ago and fairly well reviewed, but I didn't care for it. It was loud and cliched, not soothing.
     Both as book and film, "Stardust" takes place in the village of Wall, which has a stone wall that leads into Faerie, and in Faerie itself. It's hero is a young man who enters Faerie looking for a fallen star. The young lady with whom he's smitten has said she'll marry him if he brings her that star. Along the way he meets many strange people and creatures, some of whom he befriends and some of whom befriend him. There is drama and comedy, conflict and pratfalls, but Gaiman usually avoids the cliches, and when he can't, he makes them his own.
     Unlike the film, there is no dramatic conflict with the evil witch in her lair at story's end. Instead there is cleverness, resourcefulness and the end result of machinations begun before he was born. Even if you've seen the film, the book is different enough that you may be surprised by the plot differences, and I believe it's worth reading for the prose alone.
     It's also worth listening to. Gaiman has recorded several of his books and short stories. Many are available for download to iPhones, MP3s and Kindles. Another favorite of mine is "Coraline," also adapted to film, but far better in prose and as read by the author. It's a fairy tale suitable for younger readers, but adults can enjoy it too.
     Gaiman is also the author of "Neverwhere," which began as a TV mini-series for BBC and has been adapted as a graphic novel, "American Gods," "Ananszi Boys," "The Graveyard Book" and several collections of short stories. His first novel, "Good Omens,"  was written in collaboration with Terry Pratchett. He's also authored some picture books for children and the comic book series "The Sandman," the entire run of which is available in graphic novel form and is worthy of your attention.