Monday, October 31, 2011

Lost and forgotten writers

    Anyone's who's been reading for awhile knows of a writer who has been largely forgotten. They may be a favorite author, or one the reader always meant to read but, when the urge hit, found that author's works were all out of print. Sometimes the writer was obscure already, more written about than read. Sometimes the author had died without a dedicated literary executor, allowing the books to fall out of print. Sometimes the author just fell out of fashion because of prose style, or political correctness. Periodically, they drift back into print for a short time, or become faddishly cult-worthy due to a film adaptation or biopic.
     What prompts this post is an article I just read on the Associated Press about a re-discovered story by Cornell Woolrich. It's a fairly long article about a "lost" story by an author I thought was now pretty obscure. I spot-checked with a few colleagues here, and no one had heard of him.
     It will probably come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that I have long known of Cornell Woolrich, and have several of his books in my library ~ and have read more. His hey-day was the 1940s-50s, when he was sometimes lumped in with writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett as a "hard-boiled" writer. His stories didn't often feature detectives though. He wrote of ordinary people in desperate circumstances, sometimes of their own making or, more often, just victims of fate and dark forces.
     He was so prolific at one point that he also published books as by "William Irish." At one time, his works were regularly adapted for film and television by big name directors including Alfred Hitchcock ("Rear Window") and Francois Truffaut ("The Bride Wore Black"). The last such adaptation I recall was the non-hit "Original Sin," starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie, based on the novel "Waltz Into Darkness." Before that, there was "Mrs. Winterbourne," starring Ricki Lake, a comedy based on the dead-serious "I Married a Dead Man."
     Woolrich's stories ended tragically about as often as they end happily. "In "The Bride Wore Black,"  the title character's husband (or fiance; I forget whether he was killed before or after the vows were exchanged) is gunned down on their wedding day. She determines that one of six people is responsible, and that the other five are either accomplices in fact or guilty by their failure to come forward. So she hunts them down, one by one. There's really no happy ending to such a story.
     Usually there is a deadline. In "The Phantom Lady," a man is arrested for the murder of his wife. His alibi is a woman he picked up in a bar, but no one else ~ not the bartender, the waiter, the cab driver or anyone in the audience of the show they see ~ remembers seeing her or her flamboyant hat. Each chapter is titled the number of days (later hours and even minutes) "Before the Execution."
     And usually there is a twist at the end. It might be that someone you thought was a good guy is really a villain, or that the goal the hero (or anti-hero) has been pursuing is not as worthy as at first it seemed.
    One story for which I have long been searching was adapted for the TV series "Thriller." It had many titles, but the episode was titled "Guillotine." It involves some invented French legal folklore that if the executioner dies on the morning that an execution is scheduled, the accused is set free. In the story, a man sentenced to death arranges for a girlfriend to seduce and poison the executioner. The executioner has been shown to be a not very sympathetic character, the prisoner's crime not revealed, so our sympathies are at first with him.  Then we learn his crime, and he seems a lot less sympathetic. The story ends with the poisoned executioner, aware of what was done to him, attempting to live long enough to complete the execution.
     Of the stories I have both read and seen adapted, the written versions are far better. Truffaut's "Bride" leaves off the last twist. "The Phantom Lady," adapted in the 1940s, reveals the killer far too early.
     I am a little mystified as to why such a long article on an obscure story by a now equally obscure writer appearing in (with all due respect) an obscure magazine. It's not even a never-published story. It was published in a magazine, but it was never re-published in book form. I don't think that makes it unique among Woolrich's works.
     I suppose the writer of the article is a fan of Woolrich, but that doesn't explain why his editors would let him write at length on a subject of not much interest to the general public.
     Perhaps the answer lies in a short paragraph late in the story that says someone is planning to republish his books, in both hard-copy and electronic editions. The author, the magazine publisher, the copyright holder are just trying to create demand. It's commerce, pure and simple. But if the books do come out, I'll be looking to fill a few holes in my collection.
     If you're curious and want to give Woolrich a try, I recommend looking for "The Bride Wore Black," "The Black Angel," "The Phantom Lady" and  "Rendezvous in Black." Then let me know what you think.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Favorite horror movies

     I recently criticized another post's list of the worst scary movies. Without making a definitive claim for worth, here are a few of my favorite horror movies:

Poster from Wikipedia

     ~  The Black Cat (1934), directed by Edgar Ulmer and starring (for the first time!) Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Not long after they made a splash in Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal paired its two horror titans in what was purported to be an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat." You shouldn't be too surprised to learn that although a black cat does appear in the film, its relationship to the story is slight and not at all similar to its role in Poe's classic tale. However it is a demented yet enjoyable film, with stilted but quotable dialogue, art deco architecture and design, Satanism and imagery out of silent German expressionist film. And, a rarity, Lugosi is actually the good guy, or at least less bad than Karloff. Unfortunately, the film doesn't seem to be scheduled on TCM this Halloween season, and it's only available on DVD in a multi-disc collection of Lugosi, of which it's the best item.

     ~ Quatermass and the Pit (1968), AKA Five Million Years to Earth. Strictly speaking, this is science fiction, but it uses science to explain demons, possession, psychic powers and other supernatural phenomenon. A previous version was made for British television, the third in a popular series about scientist Bernard Quatermass, but, since U.S. television never broadcast those miniseries, the big-screen remake was given a different, bewildering title (the fact that there was an American science fiction horror film called "20,000 Miles to Earth" might have been an influence as well). This is also fairly hard to find on DVD and, although TCM has shown it a couple of times in the past year, I don't see it on its schedule at the moment.

     ~ The Wicker Man, (1974) starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. Not, I repeat NOT, the recent version starring Nicolas Cage. A devout police officer investigates a missing child report on an insular island where paganism is still practiced. This isn't jump-out-at-you scary, but increasingly disquieting and disturbing. I don't see this scheduled either, but it's worth looking for.

     And here are a few you CAN find on TV this season:

     ~ The Legend of Hell House (1973), starring Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin and Clive Revill.  A rich old man is dying and hires three psychic investigators to prove or disprove life after death by visiting the titular mansion that has previously repelled all investigators. One is a scientist who believes it's all explained by electromagnetic radiation, a spiritual medium and a physical medium who is the only survivor of the previous attempts.  It will be on at 10 p.m. Oct. 22, 2 a.m. Oct. 23, and 9:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Oct. 31 on Fox Movie Channel.

     ~ The Masque Of the Red Death (1964), 3:15 a.m. Oct. 24 on TCM
directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Loosely based on the title story and another Poe story, "Hop-Frog" (although the character is called "Hop-Toad" in the film). Directed by Roger Corman (with cinematography by future director Nicolas Roeg), it's the most enjoyable of his Poe series.

     ~ The Devil's Bride (1968) 5 a.m. Oct. 24 on TCM, starring Christopher Lee as a good guy. Based on occult author Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, Lee opposes the Aleister Crowley-based evil magician Mocata. One of the classier of Hammer Films' many horror films.
     ~ The Black Room (1935) 10 p.m. Oct. 28 on TCM, starring Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff. That is, Karloff plays twin brothers, identical except that one ~ the good one ~ has a paralyzed right arm. According to family legend, one is destined to kill the other, and ~ surprise! ~  the good one is supposed to do the killing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What makes a bad horror movie?

     Elsewhere on our Web page, there's a list of the 10 worst horror movies. It's credited to "Editor," but I can't seem to find out who that actually is.
     The main purpose of any such list, of course, is to get people arguing. Judging by the comments with some of the listings, I don't think "Editor" has actually seen all of the films in question and picked some them for their titles as much as their poor quality.
     I haven't seen all the films on the list, have never even heard of some of them, but I don't think some of them belong on the list.
     Some were intended to be at least semi-funny, such as "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" and "Killer Klowns from Outer Space." I don't say they necessarily succeed, but the list isn't "10 worst comedies." 
     I could also argue that several could probably fall in the science fiction category too, but there's a long tradition of horror films with science fiction trappings.
     One, "Plan 9 from Outer Space," is such a classic bad film that it was even voted the worst film of all time in "The Golden Turkey Awards." But in Dan Peary's "Cult Movies," he argues that although it is incompetently made with no-talent actors and no budget, it is a far more subversive film than generally credited and thus far better than the worst film of all time. I'd actually prefer to watch Ed Wood's masterpiece than some more recent bigger budgeted films.
     The one film I most vehemently disagree with including on this list is "The Howling III: The Marsupials." Unlike "Editor," I've actually seen the film. It's not a perfect film by any means but it is at least half satirical and at times serious minded. It's not even the worst film in "The Howling" series (which includes "The Howling II: My Sister is a Werewolf," in which werewolves are dispatched not with silver but titanium and B-movie actress Sybil Danning repeatedly rips off her top, and "The Howling IV: The Original Nightmare," a new version of the excellent first film in the series, only without any of the qualities ~ a script by John Sayles, direction by Joe Dante, talented actors ~ that made the first film successful and spawned the series).
     I'd guess it's the "marsupials" part that put the film on the list, and that's probably all down to the director being Australian and thinking it was a novel twist. The film treats lycanthropy not as a disease that can be spread but as a separate evolutionary path. It opens with an anthropologist uncovering evidence of werewolves and an old film of one being burned at the stake. One of the protagonists is a young female werewolf who runs away from her tribe to try to live a normal life. Ironically, she's spotted by a film director (a caricature of Alfred Hitchcock) and cast in a horror movie. She's pursued, which results in werewolves being outed and, eventually, assimilated. It's a little disjointed, veering from comedy to horror, but I liked it.
     The bad movie list phenomenon went big time with the release of "The 50 Worst Films of All Time" and its semi-sequels, but I much prefer the approach of Michael J. Weldon in his defunct "Psychotronic" magazines and the out-of-print books "The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film" (1987) and "The Psychotronic Video Guide" (1996). They're badly in need of reprint and update. Weldon embraced the quirkiness of films that most would consider simply "bad." If you're interested, I think Book Beat in Oak Park may still have some remaindered copies of the "Video Guide."

'In Time' and Harlan Ellison

     A couple of weeks ago I started seeing trailers for a new science fiction film, "In Time," in which time is literally money: a cup of coffee, for instance, costs 4 minutes. According to the commercial, you only get 25 years and, unless you earn more, after that you die. It stars Justin Timberlake. 
     When I heard about the film, I wondered idly if it was inspired by the Harlan Ellison short story classic "
'Repent, Harlequin,' Said the Ticktock Man," which was also about a future in which time was strictly regulated. As I recall, your life was docked by the amount of time you were late, and Harlequin was an anarchic rebel, deliberately disrupting things, most memorably by dumping jellybeans on a crowd.
     Apparently at least one critic who has seen the film, Richard Roeper, assumed the film was based on the story. Now Harlan Ellison is suing the filmmakers, charging them with plagiarism and copyright infringement. He claims his efforts to sell the film rights have been harmed by this unauthorized version adaptation, and he not only wants financial compensation but to have all copies of the film destroyed before it is released.
     (The only example I know of where such an order was given was with F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu," an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Copies of the film survived nonetheless. I can't imagine a judge making such a ruling, and I doubt if all copies would be destroyed if he did.)
     I don't know if "In Time is close enough to "Ticktock Man" to warrant a lawsuit, but I'm positive it doesn't merit destruction of the film.
     Ellison has a reputation, not entirely unwarranted, as an angry and even violent man. He has bragged of assaulting a TV executive who wanted him to make changes to a script for "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." He once engaged in a campaign of harassment against the comptroller of a publisher who had violated his contact by inserting a cigarette ad in one of his books (yes, there was a short time when publishers did that with paperback books; if Ellison is at all responsible for stopping the practice, he deserves much thanks), including sending a Lithuanian "hit man" to threaten him and mailing dozens of bricks and a dead gopher.  If there's a literary character he resembles, it's Howard Roark from Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," who dynamited a housing project he designed when the finished product deviated from his original plans.
     In recent years, his literary output has slowed to a crawl because of age and various health problems. I don't think he's had a book of new fiction published since 1997, and few stories since then either. He's always had difficulty meeting deadlines (hence Harlequin's civil disobedience) but he's also failed to deliver on book contracts. Two of the most famous are "Blood's a Rover," an expansion of his novella "A Boy and His Dog" (of which the film of the same name is an authorized adaptation) and related stories, and "The Last Dangerous Visions," a science fiction anthology he was to edit but which is 40 years overdue. (Many of the writers who sold stories to the anthology have since died.)
     He's had difficulty making money from his impressive back catalog too. In addition to science fiction ~ or speculative fiction, as he prefers to call it ~ he's also written film and television criticism, memoirs, crime fiction and straight fiction (a collection of which, "Gentleman Junkie and Other Tales of the Hung-Up Generation, was positively reviewed by Dorothy Parker). He even did a rock and roll novel. But at least three attempts to reprint almost all of his titles in uniform editions were curtailed midway for one reason or another.
     His greater litigiousness may be an attempt to support himself, though I don't doubt he believes the suits are warranted.
     Maybe that's changing. Many of his books are currently available as e-books and audio recordings (he is a great spoken word actor). Hard copies seem to be available too, but I assume they are print-on-demand editions since I never see them in book stores.
     He seems to believe he will die soon. If he's right, I'd rather he spent his last days creating, not litigating. 
     If you're curious about his work, I'd recommend "Deathbird Stories," "Strange Wine," "Shatterday" for fantasy/science fiction fans, and "Gentleman Junkie" and "Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled" for fans of nongenre fiction.
     For more about Harlan Ellison, read the introductions and story notes in in many of his books, or look for the documentary "Dreams with Sharp Teeth."


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Whoever said brevity is the soul of wit wasn’t being paid by the word

     Whoever said brevity is the soul of wit wasn’t being paid by the word.
~ Kyle Baker, "Why I Hate Saturn" (Piranha Press, 1990)

     Fiction can be long or short. As a reader, I like both short stories and novels, but as as a writer and editor, I'm suspicious of longer books and multi-volume series. In general, it's easier to write long than short, so I wonder if the length was determined by subject matter or laziness. Most books deal with events that are less momentous than a war, and encompass less time than a human life, yet single novels have covered both in their entirety. Is every weekend in the life of Sookie Stackhouse really deserving of a separate volume?
     (I don't mean to pick on Charlaine Harris, but a fan-computed timeline has calculated that the first nine books in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series span less than two years.)
      Previously I've praised J.K. Rowling for planning her Harry Potter series from the beginning and sticking to the plan. I also appreciate that she spaced out the books fairly evenly, not making her fans wait a decade between books, as have some other authors.
     Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" series started well with two volumes back-to-back in 1971, with a third and final volume resolving the series' mysteries promised within a year. It was more like six years, and then it was more like a reboot than a sequel, which set the stage for a fourth and final volume. (Three years later, however, Farmer wrote a fifth book, but it doesn't address the central mysteries.)
     Farmer originally wrote the Riverworld saga as a single volume, but when he couldn't find a publisher, he broke it up into smaller pieces. And that's OK with me. The concept ~ an idyllic garden planet where every sentient Earth human, from cavemen on up, has been resurrected for some initially unknown purpose ~ is certainly big enough for multiple books.
     The other problem I have with long, drawn out series is that a writer's style often changes over time. More than a couple of years between volumes, and the parts no longer match. In the case of Riverworld, Farmer's concept of the books also changed. Rather than start over again from the beginning, he made a massive mid-course correction that irked me. Among the new characters who are introduced ~ most of whom die by the end of the book and and disappear from the series ~ are a couple of devotees of Sufism, which suddenly has a lot to do with the reasons behind the Riverworld. I wish he had completed the series as originally intended and then explored other characters and aspects of Riverworld in other volumes.
     Another series I loved at first was Kage Baker's "Company" ~ a science fiction series about immortal cyborgs and the limits of time travel ~ that began with "The Garden of Iden." I thought it went offtrack when it started to resolve the mysteries it had established by introducing a non-cyborg, non-immortal who had none of the time-travel limitations imposed on the other characters. In effect, he could do anything the author wanted, and resolved all the problems as if he were God. He was even a "trinity" of sorts, working with his two clones.
     While I sometimes get irritated by multi-volume sagas ~ trilogies and longer ~ I do enjoy a good series. A series gives an author more room to develop characters and explore the setting.
     One of my favorite series characters is Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, whose adventures fill 47 books written over a period of 41 years. I can't say the principal characters changed or grew much in that time ~ they barely aged, though the world around them advanced from the Prohibition era to the days of Watergate ~ but the interaction of Wolfe and his assistant/narrator Archie Goodwin make the books endlessly entertaining and re-readable to me and many other readers.
     (Apparently Stout never got tired of writing them either. After a few other novels early in his career, he didn't write anything else.)
     A&E tried a Nero Wolfe TV series for a couple of seasons with a repertory cast. Many of the same actors would recur every week, usually playing different characters or sometimes more than one character in the same episode. With some reservations, I enjoyed the show (it's available on DVD if you're curious), but I prefer the books. They're being reprinted again, two at a time in single volumes and as eBooks. I highly recommend them.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

'Something Wicked This Way Comes' to Meadow Brook Theatre

     It's almost Halloween, and so it's the perfect time of year for a Ray Bradbury play. Although he's probably best known for his science fiction books "Fahrenheit 451' and "The Martian Chronicles," more of his work falls into the supernatural, dark fantasy or simply "scary" category. Case in point: "Something Wicked This Way Comes," a 1962 Ray Bradbury novel about a sinister carnival that comes to small town that opens Oct. 8 at Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester Hills.
     As a plot device, it's not exactly original or unique. In the recent book "Johannes Cabal, Necromancer," a man makes a deal with the devil to gather souls for Satan by operating such a circus, with a half dozen possible literary or cinematic "franchises" considered, including one based on "Something Wicked." Still, I enjoyed Bradbury's book when I first read it back around 1974 and I'm looking forward to the play.
     The book opens with a lightning rod salesman telling two boys that one of their homes will be struck by lightning and then giving them a lightning rod for free. The two boys are the main protagonists, along with the father of one of the boys, a janitor at the library as I recall, who discovers a similar carnival has come to town periodically ever since it was founded, and he eventually figures out how to defeat it.
     There was a film version in 1983, but I didn't much care for it. The movie ignored Bradbury's elegant solution, eliminated one of the carnival's two owners, made the Dust Witch young and sexy and elevated the Lightning Rod salesman from a quirky character to ... hero.  I hope the play is better.
     I'm seeing it this weekend. Stay tuned.