Thursday, September 27, 2012

More Halloween viewing suggestions

     Halloween is fast approaching, and the best place to see pre-1980s horror films is the Turner Classics Movies cable channel.
     This year they have some worthy classics, plus some fairly obscure ones (many of which I haven’t seen, or sometimes even heard). Here are a few highlights:

     Vampyr (1932): One of the earliest films to feature a vampire. Supposedly it is based upon Sheridan le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” but that must just be where director-screenwriter Carl Dreyer read about a modern day vampire. It’s slow, and the film stock hasn’t aged that well, but there are some genuinely creepy moments in the film. Vampyr has had more names than most films, and this print is titled Not Against the Flesh, but I don’t know what differences may exist between it and other versions. Oct. 7 at 2:30 a.m.
     Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): Of all the versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic short novel ever made – and I think it is probably the most filmed work of literature ever -- this is the  best. Like every other version I’ve ever seen, it abandons the mystery format of the story (in which the reader does not learn that Jekyll and Hyde are two aspects of the same man until both are dead), and it adds the female characters of Jekyll’s fiancé and Hyde’s mistress, but it also adds the strong suggestion that Hyde is a throwback to our Neanderthal forebears. Fredric March stars as the title characters, and received an Oscar for the role. Though broad by our modern standards, back in the early days of the talkies it was an excellent performance and still holds up for the most part. It’s also a little more daring than most pre-1970s versions (the Hayes Act was just going into effect). (The 1943 Spencer Tracy version will also be shown in October; look for it if you must.) Oct. 8 at 6 a.m.

     Dead of Night (1945): One of the first horror anthology films, with at least five stories, plus a framing device. Not all are that good or that scary, but it does contain the first (I think, and probably the best) ventriloquist’s dummy story. One non-scary segment is based on a minor H.G. Wells story, "The Inexperienced Ghost." Oct. 10 at 1:30 a.m.

     The Devil’s Bride (1968): Also known as The Devil Rides Out, this is based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, at one time a very popular British occult novelist, and features Christopher Lee as the Duc de Richlieu, a good magician, facing off against Charles Gray (the criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the evil magician Mocata (an Aleister Crowley-like figure). Some of the special effects are laughable by today's standards, but it has a good atmosphere and plot. Oct. 17 at 2:15 a.m.

     Freaks (1932): The film that turned respected director Tod Browning (the 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and many Lon Chaney silent classics) into a pariah overnight, and which I first saw in a theater when I was in third grade. Freaks (based on the short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins) features circus performers, as had several other Browning films, but in this case he cast real “freaks” in featured and supporting roles. For the most part they are depicted sympathetically, but the whiff of exploitation – not to mention the severe deformities of some of them – was too much for a 1930s audience to stomach. Oct. 30 at 9:15 p.m.

    The Mummy (1932): Boris Karloff continued his climb from monster to great actor with this atmospheric supernatural masterpiece. This mummy is closer to the sorcerer of the recent Brendan Fraser films than the slowly limping, animated corpse of  Universal's kitschy 1940s films, though without the Indiana Jones-style action. A man, mummified alive for stealing the scroll of Thoth (to save the life of the princess whom he loved), is accidentally brought back to life, whereupon he looks for the reincarnation of his lost love. Oct. 31 at 12:30 a.m.  

     The Island of Lost Souls (1935): The first film version of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau features Charles Laughton as a sadistic evolutionary scientist. Forget the Marlon Brando version, the Burt Lancaster version or the various Filipino rip-offs. Although Wells’ hated it, this is the only version of the book (so far) worth watching. Oct. 31 at 3:15 a.m.

     In addition, here are some more films by sub-category:

     "Dracula" films:
     House of Dracula (1945), Oct. 3 at 12:15 a.m., the last of the original Universal horror films, with John Carradine as the Count, and featuring also Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's monster, a pretty but hunchbacked nurse and a mad scientist -- his blood contaminated by Dracula's -- turning him into a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde character.   
     Horror of Dracula (1958), Oct. 17 at 8 p.m., the Hammer classic, with Christopher Lee as the Count for the first time, and Peter Cushing as a more dynamic Van Helsing. It's a bit dated, but worth seeing for a few scenes and the vivid color. 
     Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) Oct. 27 at 10:15 a.m. Lee returns sans Cushing or the ability to speak.
     Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1969) Oct. 27 at noon. Lee again, but now he can't be staked unless you you recite a Latin prayer at the same time (huh?), but with some good visuals. 
     "Frankenstein" films:
     Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Oct. 17 at 9:30 p.m., Cushing as the Doctor, who is  much more evil than Lee as the Creature. This is the first of Hammer's modern horror films.
     Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) Oct. 20 at 10:15 a.m. The first Hammer sequel, with Cushing -- no Lee, alas -- and a better plot than most.
     Frankenstein Created Woman (1966) Oct. 20 at noon. Cushing's back again, this time transplanting "souls" instead of brains, and with a beautiful female creation (a Playboy centerfold, actually). Worth a look.
     Frankenstein (1932) Oct. 31 at 8 p.m. The Karloff original. Nothing more needs to be said.
     Son of Frankenstein (1939), Oct. 31 at 9:30 a.m. Karloff back as the monster, with Lugosi in one of his best roles as the hanged but still living shepherd Ygor.

     Zombie films:
     Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), Oct. 3 at 1:30 a.m. No comment.
     Night of the Living Dead (1968), Oct. 3 at 2:45 a.m.,George Romero's modern-day classic.
     I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Oct. 3 at 4:30 a.m., could be described as the original (uncredited) classic/monster mashup; it's sort of Jane Eyre with zombies.
     The Plague of the Zombies (1966), Oct. 17 at 4 a.m. A Hammer horror film.
     White Zombie (1932), Oct. 31 at 5:15 p.m., one of Bela Lugosi's best roles. He stars as Murder Lestrange, a zombie maker and master. These are old school zombies, mostly just cheap labor, although they commit the odd murder or two. Absolutely no eating of human flesh or brains. 

     A few "curse" films: 
     Curse of the Cat People (1944), Oct. 5 at 10:30 a.m., which features no cat people per se, but some characters from the original Cat People.
     Curse of the Demon (1958), Oct. 5 at 2:45 p.m., also known as Night of the Demon, and based on the story "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James.
     The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), Oct. 5 at 4:30 p.m., another Hammer horror, but with no connection to their earlier version of The Mummy.

Something Gorey for Halloween

     If reading Edgar Allan Poe isn't to your taste this Halloween, here's another, lighter suggestion: Edward Gorey.

     If you're not already familiar with Gorey (1925-2000), he was the writer-illustrator of some of the most demented, macabre but charming pseudo children's books ever published. That is,  they were published in a format resembling children's picture books -- small hardcovers, with little text and deceptively simple line drawings on each page -- but most are also now available in omnibus "Amphigorey" volumes: Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, Amphigorey Also and Amphigorey Again.

     In addition, he designed sets for a revival of the Hampton Deane stage play of Dracula, many greeting cards and the characters for the opening credits of PBS's Mystery series (parts of which may still be seen in the credits for Masterpiece Mystery).

     The books, illustrated in an Edwardian-Victorian style, look innocent until you read the text. One of my favorite volumes is titled The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an ABC book ("A is for ...") which describes the manner of death of 26 children (usually it's the moment just before that is depicted, or sometimes the aftermath). It begins: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/B is for Basil, assaulted by bears."

     Some are more whimsical, eerie but not gross, such as another favorite, The Doubtful Guest, which could be Gorey's version of Poe's The Raven, if the raven was six-foot-tall and wore a long, striped scarf and canvass tennis shoes, and invaded not the home of a lovelorn man bemoaning his lost Lenore, but a family who are more or less annoyed by the mischief it causes. "It came 17 years ago, and to this day/it has shown no intention of going away."
     Other titles include The Beastly Baby, The Pious Infant, The Wuggly Ump, The Evil Garden and The Inanimate Tragedy.
     Before I mostly stopped sending Christmas cards, I would buy a box of Gorey Christmas cards every year. My favorite was "A Future Unremembered Poet of the Seventeenth Century accepts a Christmas Cookie from the Great Veiled Bear," depicting the poet as a small child, with the (polar) bear wearing ice skates.
        Gorey also illustrated other people's books, including a handsome volume of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which I believe was released to capitalize on the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats.

     Broadway actress Tammy Grimes once recorded an LP of Gorey's stories (yes, I own a copy), and some friends wanted to put the stories to  music and perform them on stage.
     His illustrations have also appeared in calendars, and it's in part thanks to two of those that I got to know my future wife.
     (She had a page-a-day Gorey calendar on her desk at The Macomb Daily, and that was the first time I noticed her as other than an attractive presence about the building. Weeks later, I found another Gorey calendar -- featuring the text and drawings for The Deranged Cousins -- slipped into my desk drawer with no note. I was puzzled, but then remembered the page-a-day calendar, and wondered if this were her way of letting me know she was interested in me ... which, upon reflection,  I found an appealing idea. Alas, she hadn't put it there, and I never did learn who had. Still, it planted a seed, so I doubly credit Gorey for bringing us together.)

     The Book Beat (26010 Greenfield at Lincoln, just north of I-696 in Oak Park; 248-968-1190, or has a wide selection of Gorey books across from the cash register, as well as other merchandise (cards, calendars, old and new, and -- at one time, at least -- rubber stamps).

Photo of Edward Gorey from Wikimedia Commons by Christopher Seufert; covers of books and calendar from Barnes and

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Watching Poe

     Halloween is fast approaching, and the best place to see pre-1980s horror films is the Turner Classics Movies cable channel. Here are some Edgar Allan Poe-based films on the TCM schedule in the coming weeks that are worth a look.

      The Tell-Tale Heart (1953): A rare opportunity to see an animated version of the Poe tale, narrated by James Mason. I’ve never seen this, but I shall. Oct. 21 at 11 p.m.

From Wikipedia

     The Raven (1963): Poe’s most famous work, and a large source of his income (it was much reprinted, and he would give dramatic readings of it), but it is still a poem and thus a seemingly odd choice for a film. (It doesn't help that the poem consists of a man asking questions of a bird, who only answers "Nevermore.") But after doing several Poe films, director Roger Corman, screenwriter Richard Matheson and actor Vincent Price wanted to have some fun with the formula, so they made a comedy loosely based on the opening lines of the poem. (The poem’s narrative goes out the door after Price asks the raven if he will ever again see Lenore, and the bird replies not “Nevermore” but “How should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?” in Peter Lorre’s voice). It's not faithful to the canon, but is a lot of fun. Boris Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson also star. Oct. 21 at 8 p.m.

     The Black Cat (1934): OK, this has about as much to do with Poe as a po’boy sandwich, but it’s a creepy, almost surrealistic Satanist classic, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi facing off in an art deco mansion. Karloff’s architect allegedly betrayed his own troops, Lugosi included, then married his presumed widow and built the mansion on the site of the betrayal. There is a black cat, but it's not central to the action. Oct. 24 at 11 p.m.
     The Fall of the House of Usher (1949): A short feature film version of the story. I’ve never see this one either, but it’s on my DVR list now. Oct. 24 at 12:30 a.m.

     The Tell-Tale Heart (1941): Another version of one of Poe’s best, this time a live-action short subject, originally intended to be shown before the main film (presumably before one of the Thin Man films, as it's included on some DVD sets). According to its Wikipedia page (that doesn’t mean it’s wrong) it was allegedly filmed in a style inspired by Citizen Kane. Oct. 24 at 1:45 a.m.

     Spirits of the Dead (1969): A European anthology film based on Poe, and generally about as faithful to the originals as The Raven or The Black Cat (see above). The (English) title is from a Poe poem, but it adapts three Poe tales: “Metzengerstein” (directed by Roger Vadim and starring his then wife, Jane Fonda, and her brother, Peter), “William Wilson” (directed by Louis Malle and starring Alain Delon with Brigitte Bardot) and “Toby Dammit” (also known by the title of the Poe story upon which it is based, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” starring Terence Stamp and directed by Federico Fellini). The second is probably the most faithful to its source, but the third is the most interesting to watch. The first is just cringe inducing once you realize Jane's character is attracted to Peter's character (eewww). Oct. 24 at 2:15 a.m.

     I don't see it scheduled, but if you'd like to go the rental route, I recommend Corman’s 1964 The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price as Duke Prospero. It's the best looking of the Corman Poe films, and sticks closest to the original story, with some additions (notably the plot of Poe's “Hop-frog,” although the character is named Hop-toad in the film).
     If you want to make it a double feature, look for Corman's 1962 Tales of Terror, another anthology film. The sequences based on “Morella”  and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” are nothing special, but the middle story --  which combines the plots of “The Black Cat” with “The Cask of Amontillado” to create a fabulous dark comedy -- is worth of the price of admission by itself. It was the first pairing of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, and could be seen as a dry-run for The Raven.

     The best way to enjoy Poe is, of course, to read the original stories. There are hundreds of editions available. I recommend “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Masque of the Red Death” for starters.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Steampunk in real time

Review: Angelmaker
By Nick Harkaway

     Nick Harkaway's second novel, Angelmaker, is clearly science fiction, but it's being marketed as a mystery/suspense/thriller. One reason, I suspect, is that Harkaway is the son of John Le Carre, a suspense thriller author of some note. Another reason is that it takes place in the present and on Earth, not in the future and on an alien planet. Nevertheless, I argue that it's science fiction at least, and possibly steampunk. Why does a label matter? Because if someone picks this fine book up expecting it to be a spy thriller such as Harkaway's dad writes and wrote, they're going to be very disappointed and write a scathingly negative review on Amazon.
The British, left, and American covers from Nick Harkaway's blog

     Look, the book features science beyond what we have today, and I daresay beyond what we may ever produce, beginning with the title device, which features mechanical bees that are part of a larger device that could possibly end the world as we know it by giving us too much truth. It also features a steampunkish cult named after art critic and socialist John Ruskin, who have built various super scientific but retro devices (lots of brass), and a Fu Manchu-ish villain who wants to destroy the world in order to become God; to this end, he has imprinted his personality and thoughts on other people so that he might survive his own death, sort of.
     Does that sound like a conventional suspense thriller?
     I mentioned the steampunkish cult. Clockwork devices also feature prominently, and the names of Brunel and Babbage are dropped. So, for those of us who care, is it steampunk?
     Yes and no.
     Arguing against, Angelmaker takes place in the present, with flashbacks to the early 20th century. Steampunk almost always takes place in the past, or in a present or future much altered by steampunk science in the 19th century. Steampunk science, if that is what is in Angelmaker, is a case of parallel technological evolution.All the usual technology also exists, and the steampunk tech is hidden.
     But that's esoterica, of interest to me and a few geeks. Is Angelmaker a good book?
     Yes, although I'd thought it was going to be a great book, on par with The Windup Girl or Perdido Street Station. It's not that good, and where it falters is in the end.
     The plot follows the travails of Joe Spork, a gangster's son who instead followed his grandfather into the clockwork gadget business. One day, a friend brings him a disassembled vintage clockwork device on commission, a sort of moving book that runs on punchcards, and he manages to put it back together. Then strange government thugs come looking for it and Joe, obstinately, tries to return it to the client's address. Then it's turned on, and all hell breaks loose.
     There are long flashbacks to the origins of the device, its purpose and what went wrong the first time it was turned on; to a young female secret agent who knew Spork's grandparents; and the aforementioned villain. These are entertaining and the most steampunkish parts of the book.
     Alas, in the end it turns into an action-packed battle to stop the villain. I was a little disappointed. But it was so incredible up until the last 50 to 100 pages that I'd still recommend it highly, and I'll still be looking for Harkaway's first book, The Gone Away World, which is post-apocalyptic. I haven't looked at it yet, but from the description, I'm going to call it science fiction as well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Forgotten Detectives: Mongo the Magnificent

Cover image from

     Even when I enjoy an author’s book(s), I don’t always keep up with what new books they might be writing, or even if they’ve died. I was sad to learn that George C. Chesbro died in November 2008. I hadn’t read anything by him in 15 years or more, but 20 years ago I loved several of his books. Most were about a dwarf criminologist, Dr. Robert Fredrickson, who paid his way through college performing in the circus as Mongo the Magnificent, an acrobat. Many of his friends still call him “Mongo,” and the books were identified on the covers as “A Mongo Mystery.” 
     Peter Dinklage (“The Imp” on HBO's Game of Thrones) was once announced as cast to play Mongo in a film adaptation, but that was in 2005, and nothing’s come of it yet, so I presume it’s a dead project.
     Chesbro’s Mongo books often included a fantasy or science fictional element and sometimes government conspiracy. They are narrated by Mongo and include his wry observations. Mongo's 6-foot-plus police detective brother, Garth, is in all of the books, I think, and features prominently in several. Other characters from one book sometimes appear in a later one. 
     I didn’t read or like all of Chesbro's books, but a few of my favorites were:
  •      Shadow of a Broken Man, the first published Mongo novel, in which one of the characters is revealed to have ESP-related mental powers.
  •      Beasts of Valhalla, another Mongo mystery, is pure science fiction, with a mad scientist attempting to regress mankind to pre-homo sapiens in order to save the world and give it a second chance. Mongo and his brother may hold the genetic key that allows him to do this.
  •      Two Songs This Archangel Sings adds Veil Kendry, a character from a standalone Chesbro mystery, Veil, to the Mongo series. Although Veil takes place first chronologically, Two Songs is more suspenseful if read first.
  •      And Bone, a non-Mongo mystery, involves an amnesiac homeless man, found holding a fossilized human bone, who may be connected to a serial killer of homeless people.

      I was prepared to lament that the books are out-of-print and unavailable, but it turns out that before Chesbro died, he regained the rights to almost all of his books and republished them. You can find a list and ordering information, along with a cover image gallery, interviews and more, at his official website.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

'I Am Legend': An reviews object lesson

     In a recent post about American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, I quarreled a bit with several of the novels selected, arguing that they weren't even the best work of the 1950s by the author.
     One I quarreled with was The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson, which I suggested wasn't as good as his novel I Am Legend, the basis for the recent Will Smith film. I also took a couple of pot shots at the film, pointing out that it didn't closely follow the book, even to its choice of monsters.
     A friend agreed on Facebook, with a few sharper comments on the filmmakers. But I got to thinking: If I saw the movie and, out of curiosity, picked up the book, I would be in for quite a surprise. So, I decided to check out Amazon reader's reviews and see what they thought.
     I thought if I went to the one-star ratings, I would find what I was looking for, and I was right. Many of these reviews (a minority of the total reviews of the book, which were overwhelmingly positive) hated the book for a couple of reasons: One, the hero wasn't anything like Will Smith; two, the story is dated and boring; and three, the book not only contains the (short) novel, but a bunch of unrelated stories by Matheson.
     Several of these latter readers, apparently not familiar with the concept of the anthology, kept reading and expecting more adventures of Robert Neville despite his imminent death at the end of the novel (I suppose that's a spoiler, but then the character dies in every film version of the novel, so if you didn't know that, you should have) and the lack of a chapter heading.
     Of the first group of one-star raters, some considered the book's Neville a wimp who squandered the extra life he had been given. They were upset that he wasn't a scientist and that he had to self-teach himself science in an attempt to destroy the monsters (who were vampires in the novel, by the way, not something resembling a fast zombie or someone infected with a rage virus), and that he had spells of self-loathing, depression and wasn't, in fact, a HERO.
     Of the second group, I guess it's understandable that a novel written in 1954 isn't exciting to a  contemporary audience, except that I read it in the 1970s, maybe the 1980s, and found it enthralling. I already knew the general plot, having seen the Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth (which you can watch online for free here) in the 1960s. Plus, I read Dracula by Bram Stoker, a far older novel (1897) when I was about 12 years old and, despite a few boring spots, found that riveting, too. On the other hand, in an interview Richard Matheson has said that he thinks the book is dated and that Hollywood should give up on trying to film it. (The same website also has a variety of English and foreign covers from the many editions of the book.)
     I don't like all so-called "classics" (for example, I feel that The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is less engaging and important as a piece of literature than a random episode of HBO's Boardwalk Empire; that The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is a failure as art and entertainment, while the short story upon which it is based -- Williams' own autobiographical tale, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" -- is both; and that Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is only interesting if you view it as the story of how Monsieur Bovary is almost destroyed by his frivolous, stupid and immature wife, who deserves not a jot of our sympathy or interest in of herself), but I like Legend. A lot.
     As for anyone who prefers the Will Smith version to Matheson's original: That's your prerogative, but you're comparing apples and oranges. The two have little in common (the film is closer in plot to the 1971 film The Omega Man, which replaced the vamps with albino mutant cultists; Matheson wasn't sure why they credited his novel in the first place) that it's possible to like both. Why the latest film version was the first to use the title despite the almost total lack of plot detail is puzzling.
     There was another film, I Am Omega, that seems to be based on the book and/or films, though without credit, that was a low-budget film meant to capitalize on the publicity for the Will Smith film. It debuted on DVD, and has been on the SyFy channel.
     To see the book adapted right, look for Steve Nile's graphic novel version. It's had numerous editions, all of which may be out of print, but Amazon lists used copies for sale. You can see the first six pages here.

Brunel + Babbage = Brabbage?

     In my earlier post on "A Pre-Steampunk Novel," I asked "Who is 'Brabbage'?"
      I noted that in A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison, mention is made of  a "Brabbage engine," which sounded suspiciously like Charles Babbage's difference engine and/or analytical engine, often referenced in steampunk novels. "So," I wrote, "my question is did Harrison simply misspell Babbage’s name? Is this just a typo in the edition of the novel I bought? Or did Harrison deliberately change the name for some reason?"

      Then, while reading another book with a steampunk slant (Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway which I shall review soon. It has some similarities and affinities to K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, as well as the works of China Mieville), I saw reference to "Brunel and Babbage." In Transatlantic Tunnel, the father of Gus Washington's fiance and the former chief engineer on the tunnel project is named Isambard Kingdom Brassey-Brunel.  An earlier, historical Isambard Kingdom Brunel is an important and innovative engineer who, among other things, tried to build a tunnel beneath the Thames.
     Brunel (1806-1859) was a good deal more practical than Babbage (1791-1871), and it seems possible that Harrison was suggesting that if the two men had worked together, Babbage's computers might have become reality, or that later engineers and scientists could have looked to both their inventions and come up with a hybrid or combination of them to produce working computers. In either case, the resulting machines might have been dubbed "Brabbage" engines in their honor. It's a possibility, at least. If anyone has any thoughts or facts, please let me know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A pre-Steampunk novel

Review: A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
By Harry Harrison
(Tor Books)

Cover image from Macmillan Books website

     I had long wanted to read this book, but kept putting it off. With the death last month of its author, I decided I had waited long enough.
     A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! is science fiction in the Jules Verne vein, and a tale from an alternate history (for details on the thought processes that went into the writing of the book, visit the author’s official website). It features trains, submarines, a mixture of archaic and futuristic road-not-taken technology and a love of brass. As such, it can also be considered “steampunk” or perhaps “proto-steampunk,” though I agree with other reviewers who maintain it is more of an homage to Verne.
     The plot, as the title suggests, concerns the construction of a transatlantic tunnel between the U.S. and England (the “Chunnel” writ large), which would be a stupendous enough feat in our time, but Harrison has set it in a world where the U.S. is still a part of the British empire, our revolutionary war failing with the execution of “the traitor” George Washington. In the then present 1973 (yes, this is a fairly old book, though recently re-released), an engineer descendant of Washington is given responsibility for constructing the tunnel as a kind of stimulus to revive the economy. He faces problems of professional jealousy (his fiancee’s father was the head engineer on the project before him and doesn’t want to give the post up), sabotage and the technical problems of such a project. There’s a little action, a little (Victorian-style) romance and a few in-jokes (a detective Richard Tracy; characters named after fellow SF authors).
      All in all, I liked (but didn’t love) A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, but I have one burning question that no other reviewers or commentators have addressed: Who is “Brabbage”?

     They were now in a laboratory of some sort with wires and electric apparatus on benches, all dominated by a mass of dark-cased machinery that covered one wall. Through glass windows set in the mahogany front of the impressive machine, brass gears could be seen, as well as rods that turned and spun. Clarke patted the smooth wood with undisguised affection.
     “A Brabbage engine, one of the largest and most complex ever made.”
-- A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, p. 125, TOR, 2011

     “Brabbage” sound suspiciously like Charles Babbage, whose prototype computers feature prominently in many steampunk works, including William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. So, my question is did Harrison simply misspell Babbage’s name? Is this just a typo in the edition of the novel I bought? Or did Harrison deliberately change the name for some reason?
     Also, why has no one else noticed this? In 1973, sure, it might have been missed, but not post-Difference Engine. C’mon!

Postcript on "Brabbage":

      While reading another book with a steampunk slant, I saw reference to "Brunel and Babbage." In Transatlantic Tunnel, the father of Gus Washington's fiance and former chief engineer on the tunnel project is named Isambard Kingdom Brassey-Brunel.  An earlier, historical Isambard Kingdom Brunel is an important and innovative engineer who, among other things, tried to build a tunnel beneath the Thames. He was a good deal more practical than Babbage, and it seems possible that Harrison was suggesting that if the two men had worked together, Babbage's computers might have become reality, or that later engineers and scientists could have looked to boththeir inventions and come up with a hybrid or combination of them to produce working computers. In either case, the resulting machines might have been dubbed "Brabbage" engines in their honor. It's a possibility, at least. If anyone has any thoughts or facts, please let me know.