Archive for the ‘fantasy’ Category

Ursula gets noticed

awizardofearthsea1stedWithin the past two weeks, The New Yorker and The Nation have published long features on Ursula K. Le Guin. They’re following the New York Times back in the summer. One wonders why the house organs of the chattering classes picked now. She’s 87, after all. She’s been published since the early sixties. It may be because the Library of America put out a collection of her work. That’s happened to extremely few living authors. Philip Roth is the only other one alive right now.

The magazines waited this long, I’m sure, because Le Guin’s body of work includes much imaginative fiction (or science fiction and fantasy, if you will). That may be, but The Left Hand of DarknessA Wizard of Earthsea and The Lathe of Heaven are stamped with greatness. They are NOT stamped “literary,” however. Rather they carry the taint of genre. You can even read in the New Yorker’s subhead—”The literary mainstream once relegated her work to the margins. Then she transformed the mainstream”—as an attempt to cover tracks. If she did transform the mainstream, she started doing it waaaaay back in 1968. In our present, I watch as literary fiction continues to swallow itself, searching for, if I understand the purpose of the exercise, the meaning of meaning becoming the meaning. Not the story. Not life lived.

Our grandest publications have finally noticed Ursula in her ninth decade. Her books will be here long after the sum total of all the novels reviewed by the Times and The New Yorker and The Nation this year.

Alternating history


I love alternate histories. They are the greatest of “what ifs.” The biggest trope in this genre: What if the Allies lost World War II? But before it was even a trope, Philip K. Dick wrote the novel The Man in the High Castle. The U.S. is divided by the Nazis in the east and the Empire of Japan in the west and some very mysterious stuff is going on (with Dick you are rarely allowed to figure all of it out).

Whether it’s the weirdness of Dick’s stories or their magnificence, Hollywood loves them. First came “Bladerunner,” based on the novel Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? and ushering in cyberpunk before the cyberpunk authors knew what they were about to do. Dick was the proto-punk, the Lou Reed of science fiction.

Took a few more years for the rest of Hollywood to catch on, after which it seemed movies were being made of everything with Dick’s name on it. Makes and remakes and remakes again (see “Total Recall,” from the novel We Can Remember It For You Wholesale). I’m waiting for one of his prefaces to get turned into a film.

This is not to say I was disappointed when Amazon rolled out a pilot for “The Man in the High Castle.” With Amazon, you watch the pilot and then vote on whether they should make a series. (Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mystery series became TV this way. It premieres on Amazon as “Bosch” this month.) “The Man in the High Castle” pilot was excellent. The mysteries layered on mysteries are there. Nazi New York and Japanese-controlled San Francisco are real in the way alternate history must make you believe what didn’t happened did. Check the pilot out and vote (so I can watch the series).

Update: “The Man in the High Castle” received a full-series order from Amazon, The Hollywood Reporter wrote Feb. 18. THR said Amazon Studios exec Roy Price called “High Castle” Amazon’s “most watched pilot ever.”

One old comic book turns into a time machine

519TGRT5JZLI flipped through one 40-year-old comic book the other day and was suddenly reminded of books I’d read and music I’d listened to way back then.

My time trip happened when I rummaged through the small collection of comic books from my youth to find the handful of “Guardians of the Galaxy” books I’d read in 1975. I was curious  to see how they compared with the film. They didn’t. Not at all.

I did find something  more interesting: reminders of other books I’d read, as well as the “lost” Spider-Man rock opera that really should have been the basis of a Broadway show, not that overwrought thing put together by Julie Tamor, Bono and The Edge.

I turned pages of bright four-color ink on yellowed newsprint. No. 3 in the series officially titled “Marvel Presents.” (The Guardians lasted about six issues in this run. They were never the heavy hitters of the Marvel Universe. Even Howard the Duck did better back then.)

First I came to an ad for the trade paperback “Son of Origins of Marvel Comics.” This was a follow-up to “Origins of Marvel” by Marvel editor-in-chief-of-everything-(still) Stan Lee. I’d devoured both books. I’d started reading Marvel Comics in 1972 or 1973, and felt most definitely late to a party that began in 1961 with “The Fantastic Four.” Stan’s books included anecdotes on how the first Marvel heroes were created, their origin story and another issue from Marvel’s great age of superhero creation. Reading the books then made me feel like I was inside the club rather than a late arrival. They’re still on my book shelf.

weirdheroes1Below the ad for “Son of Origins” was one for “The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar,” with Spider-Man, The Hulk and Captain America trooping with drum, fife and flag. This I did not buy. Here’s what I missed out on: “A glorious, full-color, 12-month trek through American history with the Marvel superheroes. Join The Hulk at Valley Force. Conan the Barbarian at the Battle of Lexington…” You get the point.

Near the back of the comic book was, as always, “Stan Lee’s Soapbox,” a must-read for teases on upcoming titles, crossovers and key collectible editions like “Giant Size Man-Thing” (that is, the comic book was giant size). In the column, Stan tub thumps for two Marvel writers, Archie Goodwin and Steve Englehart, who had contributed stories to a paperback anthology Weird Heroes. This really sent memory spinning. I don’t remember reading about Weird Heroes in Stan’s column. I’d discovered the first of the series in Book & Record in hometown Wappinger, N.Y. The cover, seen here, leapt off the shelf at me. In the books, editor Byron Preiss set out to create new American pulp heroes. What were the old American pulp heroes, you might ask? These crime fighters came before comic books or radio and were featured in magazines and books published on cheap pulpy newsprint. They included The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Avenger (pre-dating the Avengers of Marvel or British TV fame). Also the Bat, said to have been an inspiration for a certain Bat Dude. The Spider, said to have been an inspiration… Well you get the point.

Some of the new pulp heroes included Adam Stalker, Guts the Cosmic Greaser and Gypsy. Preiss put out eight volumes, though a renaissance of American pulp heroes never did happen (unless you count three-quarters of Hollywood’s output).

The highlight of this tour through my adolescent media consumption via one little comic was the full-page ad at the back for the record album, “Reflections of a Rock Super-Hero.” The banner at the top called it the “The Biggest Rock Event of the Year.” Don’t know about that, but the LP told Spidey’s tale better than the now defunct Broadway musical. Songs included “No One Has a Crush on Peter,” “Gwendolyn” and “A Soldier Starts to Bleed,” with narration between the tracks by Stan the Man himself. This I also still own a copy of.

One comic book pulled out because of a movie I saw in August, and I stumbled across all kinds of memories. It’s funny where the past finds you.

The Books of Nerd

978-0-7864-6682-5I first discovered McFarland & Co. Publishers many years ago when I bought the book Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1988 by Lee Goldberg. It was a delicious compendium of  TV shows pitched to the networks as scripts or actual pilot episodes that didn’t get made into series. It was nerdy joy. I could look up all the shows Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury proposed but didn’t get on the air. Or find which favorite stars appeared in failed pilots. Or just laugh at the goofy ideas for TV shows Hollywood came up with. Let me tell you, there were some goofy ideas. (Not that goofy ideas don’t actually get on the air.)

Because I bought the book, I started receiving the catalog from McFarland. It is heaven for a nerd like me, or as I like to think of myself, a pop culture vulture. Admittedly, some of the titles can be a bit academic—esoteric even. Take It Happens at Comic Com: Ethnographic Essays on Pop Culture Phenomenon or The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times. Not to mention Myazaki’s Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences

Lest I scare you away, there are many books in the catalog that are accessible. McFarland’s authors cover a wide range of topics in the universe we call genre entertainment, including TV, film, old radio, music and pulp fiction.

Here are a few titles this pop culture vulture would love to add to his groaning physical and virtual to-read bookshelves:

  • Zane Gray’s Wild West: A Study of 31 Novels
  • Anti-Foreign Imagery in American Pulps and Comics
  • Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis
  • Columbia Noir: A Complete Filmography, 1940-62
  • Women of Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance
  • Pulp Fiction to Film Noir: The Great Depression and the Development of a Genre
  • Route 66: Images of America’s Main Street
  • The Flash Gordon Serials: 1936-1940
  • Superheroes and Gods: A Comparative Study from Babylonia to Batman

I could go on. Probably would if I wasn’t agraid of losing, you, the reader. If you don’t see a genre you love, there’s a good chance  McFarland has a book on it anyway.

In fact, even if you never by one of their books, get on the mailing list for their catalog. Readers and writers of what’s termed genre fiction—sometimes derided, sometimes a boast—will love flipping through pages of titles written for the pop culture vulture in them.

Me, I’m about to order A History of the Doc Savage Adventures, about a pulp hero series from the 1930s I discovered in my teens during the 1970s and thought was my special literary secret for the longest time.

(Disclaimer: I have absolutely no connection financial, publishing or otherwise with McFarland Publishers or its authors. I just think the company is putting out cool little books on—to me—cool big topics.)

What pop culture are you a vulture for?

Time Town

I’m fascinated by time and memory and how they wind round each other. That’s probably why I’m writing a historical mystery series set in the mid-Seventies, and why I’ve got a middle-grade time travel story in the works.

Earlier this summer, I visited the Lake George area of upstate New York for the first time since I was child. Several stops along the way gave me the feeling I was visiting the past—or at least bits and pieces of it.

burleighsDowntown Ticonderoga has its fair share of boarded up shops and closed buildings. The present day reality for the town is the recession hasn’t been very good for the tourist grade. But it also has Burleigh’s Luncheonette, a place that truly deserves to be called luncheonette, emphasis on “ette.” Half of Burleigh’s is taken up by the classic luncheonette counter, really two U-shaped counters built to maximize seating. One row of booths runs along the wall opposite. The place is what it always has been, but also recognizes that it is retro. There are old bikes hanging from the ceiling, copies of hand-typed menus from decades ago and a jukebox loaded with singles. Unlike restaurants dressed up to play the old-time part, Burleigh’s has been presiding over downtown Ti (as locals call it) for a very long time.

Oh, and the food was as good as you’d expect.

Outside the town, Fort Ticonderoga represents the typical time travel available to mere mortals—a fort preserved from the era of the French and Indian Wars, with warriors in replica gear firing muskets and narrating the story of the place. We never visited the fort when I was a kid, though it was in my collection of brochures back then. “I really want to go dad.” I finally got there this summer and discovered my own odd temporal link with the fort. I live in the Town of Pelham next to the Bronx. Thomas Pell founded the town in the 1650s. Almost two hundred years later, the Pell family, with a summer home on Lake George, acquired the fort, which had fallen into ruin. It would be another hundred years before the Pells could begin real reconstruction work in 1909. That is why the huge star-shaped fort is now in excellent condition, run not by the National Park Service but a non-profit foundation.

Why fuss about such an obscure connection? I don’t know. It’s these little ties across time and space that interest me. I live in a town founded by a man whose family saved a place that has fascinated me since I was a kid.

storytownThe last stop on this trip was Great Escape and Splashwater Kingdom, a Great Adventures theme park outside the Village of Lake George. This was like visiting an archeological dig of my own childhood. You see, Great Escape was built on top of Storytown USA, which, in turn, was a homely little amusement park opened in 1954 (pre-dating Disneyland by a year). My family visited Storytown during the seventies. It was our trip to Disney. If you look carefully under the roller coasters and other new rides, you’ll see signs and scenes from the original park left in place to keep the connection. I took the steam train ride—it also looked unchanged—and chugged by a storybook house, vintage Storytown USA signs and  a smiling purple dragon.

I headlined this post “Time Town” not just for its topic, but in memory of a Lake George amusement park that is long gone. The area once had a number of other parks besides Storytown: Frontier Town, Gaslight Village. One of the last to be built when I was a kid was Time Town, essentially a knock-off of Epcot offering attractions on the space and the future. Damn the brochures looked good. I so badly wanted to go there. And was so baldy disappointed when we did. Real-life mosquitos big enough to have traveled forward in time from the Jurassic era were the feature I best remember. The book Amusement Parks of New York mentions it just once, on a list of “gone but not forgotten” parks.

It wasn’t forgotten by me, time and memory winding round each other.

Cover reveal for ‘Chronicles of Kerrigan’

rae of hope Fellow writer W.J. May is taking the great leap into the wild world of independent publishing. I’m pleased to be part of her cover reveal this weekend. Blogs across our great nation are publishing the new covers for the novels in her YA fantasy series “Chronicles of Kerrigan.” You’ll see here the covers for the first two, “Rae of Hope” and “Dark Nebula.”

“Rae of Hope” was put out by a traditional publishing house, but W.J. decided the best bet for her would be to “republish” the first book herself and then self-publish the next three in the series. I’m excited to see what will happen. Indie publishing couldn’t be hotter right now. Think Kindles. Think ebooks. Think you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a media reference to “Fifty Shades of Gray.”

“Rae of Hope” and “Dark Nebula” are coming out right now in ebook and soon in print.

Here’s W.J.’s description of “Rae of Hope:”

“How hard do you have to shake the family tree to find the truth about the past?

nebulaFifteen year-old Rae Kerrigan never really knew her family’s history. Her mother and father died when she was young and it is only when she accepts a scholarship to the prestigious Guilder Boarding School in England that a mysterious family secret is revealed.

Will the sins of the father be the sins of the daughter?

As Rae struggles with new friends, a new school and a star-struck forbidden love, she must also face the ultimate challenge: receive a tattoo on her sixteenth birthday with specific powers that may bind her to an unspeakable darkness. It’s up to Rae to undo the dark evil in her family’s past and have a ray of hope for her future.”

You can reach W.J. on her website, Facebook, Twitter: @wanitajump and her blog.


Stalking memories

castLet’s face it, before the DVD and Amazon, if you had fond yet hazy memories of a four-decade-old TV show, they would stay just that, particularly if the show only lasted a season. I just learned that can be a good thing.

One of my TV touchstone memories was of the 1974-75 series “Kolchak: The Nightstalker.” I can honestly say—though probably should do so with some embarrassment—that watching “Kolchak” was the event that made fourteen-year-old me want to be a newspaper reporter. Not the exploits of Woodward-Bernstein. No way. I wanted to be Karl Kolchak. This reporter in rumpled twill suit and straw hat didn’t pursue the President. Nope. He went after real stories: the vampires, mummies, zombies and aliens haunting Chicago.

Armed with a giant cassette recorder and Instamatic camera, Karl chased the stories believed by no one else, including his hard-bitten (naturally) editor at a third-rate wire service with offices next to the El tracks. (Journalistic footnote: Kolchak’s employer was likely modeled on the late lamented City News Service, though the real one never got near vamps or witches, covering only simple murders and robberies.) To my teenaged mind, here was newspaper reporting. Imagine my disappointment when my first zoning board meeting didn’t turn out to be the zombie board meeting. I wanted Karl’s suit. I wanted his hat. And I never reconciled any of this with the fact the show scared me behind our rec room couch every week. I’d always be the first one running screaming out of the haunted house.

Eager to return to those memories, I bought the series on DVD to watch with my 11 year old. It scared him. Some. Okay, a little. And me not at all. The stories were slow, the frights not frightening and the effects oh so cheesie. Watching the DVD erased my golden memories of the series. Damn the digital world!

But give credit where it’s due. Shows that scare us now, or did recently, owe a huge debt to one-season-wonder “Kolchak.” All the series set in a realistic world but actually about monsters and the paranormal—”The X-Files,” “Fringe,” the whole urban fantasy genre. The one thing I still enjoyed about the series was Daren McGavin’s sharp portrayal of Kolchak. He delivered the cynical reporter lines with real panache. And it was a sweet twist that though he was cynical, he believed in things that go bump in the night. He was Fox Mulder’s great uncle. And I still want that suit.

‘…book paper catches fire, and burns’

I failed to do my job that night. Didn’t even try. I was supposed to be chasing scraps of gossip and bits of deal news that HBO executives might dole out to a neophyte reporter from a C-list trade publication. That was not my excuse for not trying. No, mine was three amazing hours spent talking to the late Ray Bradbury.

I was at something called the television critics tour, an odd little meeting where TV critics from the nation’s newspapers assemble in one place to interview network executives and the stars of upcoming series. The acceleration in coverage of entertainment news, even back in July 1984, meant that beat reporters like me were along in the hopes of the scoops and tidbits that might leak (or be planted).

HBO hosted that warm night in Phoenix. The A-list critics and columnists sat with HBO chief Michael Fuchs and his court of executive vice presidents. This was at a time when Fuchs was being called “The Man Who Ate Hollywood” by Esquire magazine because of his company’s massive spending on movie rights.

A junior publicist led me to a table far from that crowd and sat me next to Bradbury. He was supposed to tub-thump for his new HBO series “Ray Bradbury Theater.” As you know, I was supposed to find a way to track down the scoops being given out several tables away.

Instead, Bradbury and I talked. And talked. We had several glasses of white wine. I fawned. And he was generous, so generous that I didn’t feel like I was fawning, but chatting about something we both loved—story. I don’t remember exact dialogue, but under that clear desert sky we covered Martians and things wicked this way coming and a house destroying itself after its family is itself obliterated by nuclear fire. We talked about his great short story “A Sound of Thunder,” a tale that presages every other change-the-past, change-the-future time travel story. Step on a butterfly hunting dinosaurs and your own present is altered completely.

And, of course, we talked about “Fahrenheit 451.” We had to, for the dystopian novel of firemen burning books was and is my favorite Bradbury story. Read it again. It holds up far better than the bad futures dreamed up by the so-called literary writers—George Orwell’s “1984,” Adolous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Government doesn’t take away books from people; people give up on books as they immerse themselves in interactive soap operas that play on the four walls of their living rooms. (In 2009, Amazon deleted “1984” from thousands of Kindles because of a rights dispute, so really, we’re almost there.)

The setting that night was even perfect. The Arizona Biltmore was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and could easily have been a building on Bradbury’s Mars. His Martians, like Wright, created structures that fit into their arid world by making use of landscape and light.

Bradbury was wonderful company. That too should have been no surprise to me. The Times quoted him in its obituary: “I have fun with ideas; I play with them. I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring. My goal is to entertain myself and others.”

Entertain me he did. That assignment—ignoring the real assignment—was the best of my varied but not-so-storied journalism career. Some interviews came close. But only close. And many events I reported on would be considered bigger, more important, even more interesting by most anyone else. They are welcome to them. A three-hour conversation in the desert with the master tops them all.


As postscript, I’ll leave you with a link to the obituary the Economist did on Bradbury. It’s great for the form they chose and the stories they touch on.

I’m a writer. I am

Pretentious and preposterous. That’s how this line reads: I’m meeting my agent. It’s not so much name dropping, as noun dropping.  Like, did I mention my sports-car repairman stopped by? Hold on, the art dealer is calling. Oh, and I’m meeting my literary agent this afternoon. But I am. I’m going to spend this whole weekend playing at writer. I don’t mean the solitary, banging-your-head-into-the-keyboard part of being the writer. That’s the real part. I’m going to enjoy the public part, where you get to act like a writer.

Journalism taught me long ago you don’t say you have a story until it is for real, in print, ink on newsprint. I found it hard not to take the same stance when defining what I now do. I swallowed the word “writer” when people asked how it is I spend my days. After all, no book. Proof and the pudding and all that. I finally settled on saying, “wannabe writer and stay-at-home dad.” There’s no oversell in that.

But today I am meeting with my agent, Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency. Getting to this point has been a long time coming—a lot of words under the bridge, tens of thousand in fact. I’m still a wannabe, but I’m a wannabe with an agent who also wants me to be. Tomorrow, we head to the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. We’ll meet some of her other writers, some with actual books out. I’ll check out conferences on publishing and ebooks and marketing and meet authors (the real kind) and walk around the place in my writer pose.

I’ve even brought a special T-shirt. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In celebration, Philosophy Football created the Dickens XI shirt, with Dickens characters shown in each of the 11 positions on a soccer team. Too esoteric to put soccer and writing together? Maybe, but the writer pose is all about the eccentric. Anyway,  imagine Pickwick anchoring the midfield and Chuzzlewit storming forward at center forward. It’s a mash up and we love those.

In between meeting my agent—said it again—and swanning around the fest, I’m sneaking into a late matinee of “Hunger Games.” I’d planned on the midnight show last night, but the travel logistics didn’t work. My next book is for young adults. I do not have visions of “Hunger Games” or Potterworld dancing in my head. I wish the movie well because I wish writers well. I hope Suzanne Collins becomes a squagillionaire. (Based on the movie theater parking lot outside, I think she’s got a shot.) When stories fascinate, writers have a chance, even the guy playing one for the weekend.

The theater of the mind

In a hotel near Newark airport, set between railroad tracks and spaghetti-piles of New Jersey highway, the Friends of Old-Time Radio will sit in meeting rooms for the last time this weekend, asking and answering the question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” The friends will no longer meet after their 36th convention, reports David Hinckley in the Daily News. They will go as silent as the medium they love.

Old radio fans celebrate the days when radio was television, and fllled the airwaves with crime shows, dramas, comedies, variety and news of a great war and the massive changes that followed. If you’ve ever heard of “The Shadow” or “Dragnet” or Jack Benny or Edward R. Murrow or a dummy named Charlie McCarthy, you’ve heard of the programs and the stars of the Golden Age of Radio. The radio you listen to now, the tunes and talk, is what we were left with once television took over the world.

read the rest of my column at Ink By The Barrel: Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? – Pelham, NY Patch.