Showing posts with label Pulps. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pulps. Show all posts

Friday, December 06, 2019

Flashback Friday: Peter Cushing's TALES OF A MONSTER HUNTER Paperback from 1977

Peter Cushing's Tales of a Monster Hunter (1978)

As you might imagine, the Geekerati library is filled with volumes containing tales of Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and not a small amount of Horror. One of the books I am proudest to have in the library is the 1978 paperback printing of Peter Cushing's Tales of a Monster Hunter.

It is unlikely that the volume was actually edited by Mr. Cushing, as the copyright lists both him and Peter Haining and Cushing's autobiographical Preface is written in third person. Peter Haining was an anthologist of horror tales who had a number of volumes printed in the late 70s and early 80s. Setting that aside, there is reason to think that Cushing provided feedback to the selections and even if he didn't the stories collected in the anthology pair nicely with a Cushing/Hammer Films marathon.

Here is a brief overview of the contents of the book.

How I Became a Monster Hunter by "Peter Cushing" is a biographical essay that gives a very good overview of Cushing's acting career and has some nice quotations from Cushing himself.

The Masked Ball by Alexandre Dumas is a very short story that is included in the book because of Cushing's very small role in The Man in the Iron Mask. Like all the stories in this volume, there is some connection between the tale and Cushing's career.

The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley is a reminder that the creator of modern science fiction wrote more than just Frankenstein. Given that much of Cushing's career was spent portraying various versions of Dr. Frankenstein, a Shelley story is a must.

Dracula's Guest by Bram Stoker is an episode that, according to its introduction in Tales, was excluded from the novel due space restrictions imposed on Stoker by his editor. Cushing's connection to Dracula in his portrayal of Van Helsing is well known and it has been argued is one of the inspirations for the Cleric class in D&D.

In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman by Joseh Nesvadba is a Yeti tale that is included due to Cushing's performance in The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. This is not the story that inspired the film, which was a teleplay, but it bears some similarities in tone to the underappreciated film.

The Ring of Thoth by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle connects with Cushing's career in two ways. Cushing played Sherlock Holmes on the big screen in Hound of the Baskervilles and he also starred in a Hammer version of the Mummy story. "The Ring of Thoth" isn't a Holmes tale, but it is a Mummy yarn and one that makes me wonder if Robert E. Howard had a copy on his shelf. Howard's Thoth-Amon sought his Serpent Ring of Set in the first Conan tale.

The Gorgon by Gertrude Bacon is a Victorian tale that makes use of the Greek legend of the Gorgon. Cushing had starred as the villain in the 1964 Hammer film The Gorgon and there are few enough tales of the creature that this makes a nice addition to the book. The Hammer film is much better than its effects and is one of a list of Hammer productions I wish could be remade with the same caliber of performances but with modern effects.

The Man Who Collected Poe by Robert Bloch is the first tale in the volume that Cushing actually performed in an adaptation of during his career. The story is adapted in the film Torture Garden (1967) where Cushing plays the "bibliophile."

The Ghoul of Golders Green by Michael Arlen is only connected to Cushing's career in that he starred in a film called The Ghoul in 1974 which was based on an original screenplay by John Elder. There are few enough tales of ghouls, so the tale fits even if the connection is limited.

There Shall Be No Darkness by James Blish is the final tale in the volume and it is a great story to finish with as it served as the basis for the film The Beast Must Die. A recent Vulture article recommended watching this film before or after watching Knives Out. If you've ever played the game Werewolf, you really should check this movie out as it provides the audience with a short "Werewolf Break" in order for the audience to guess which character is the werewolf. It's great fun.


Monday, June 03, 2019

From the Archives (09/03/2007): The Pulps and Their Modern Legacy -- An Interview with Win Scott Eckert Discussing Barsoom, Hyboria, and Urban Mean Streets.

Listen to this blast from the past as the Geekerati panel discusses Win Scott Eckert's book Myths for the Modern Age and the long lasting legacy of pulp fiction. It's a conversation about John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Doc Savage, The Shadow, French Pulps, and Dashiell Hammett. Who could ask for more?

Win Scott Eckert is one of the leading experts in pulp fiction and one of his major contributions to the continuation of pulp fandom has been his work on the Wold Newton Family and its universe of tales. The Wold Newton Universe was a creation of Science Fiction Grand Master Philip Jose Farmer who asked an interesting question, "What if many classic tales of fiction, literary and pulp, all happened in a shared universe?" Farmer uses the real world occurrence of a radioactive meteor landing in Wold Newton England as the cornerstone event of his shared universe, a universe in which Tarzan, The Lone Ranger, Elizabeth Bennet, John Carter of Mars, Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and many more reside. Our conversation with Win begins with a discussion of his book on the topic, but expand into a conversation about what made the pulps successful and why they continue to inspire creators today.

During the Overtime segment, Shawna Benson discusses an unaired pilot for a new Phillip Marlowe show. It is currently available on YouTube if you are interested in seeing whether you think the networks should have picked it up.

In this archive episode, I've re-edited the episode into segments using's functionality. All future episodes will be edited into segments and new episodes (our first one is coming next week) will have distinct segments with unique and consistent introductions.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

SyFy's Mercury Men -- "Skyscraper Saboteurs"

"Skyscraper Saboteurs," the second episode of the intriguing Mercury Men web series, went live this morning. The episode builds on all the qualities that worked in the first episode, and features fewer of the drawbacks. It appears that the series is quickly getting past the sense of "pilotitis" I felt regarding the first episode.

The series takes place in Pittsburgh in 1975 where Jack Yeager (Curt Wootton) -- a character wonderfully inspired by classic pulp figures -- discovers a sinister plan by Venusian invaders, a plan that only he can stop. Lucky for the Earth, Jack is a combination Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, and Blackhawk:

Daring League captain, aerospace engineer, and former US Air Force pilot, Jack travels the galaxy to explore unknown worlds, new alien races, and advanced technological wonders. Always at Jack's side is the LumiƩre, his trusted revolver which fires bolts of condensed light. Jack is dispatched to Earth to investigate the glowing men of Mercury.

Like the pilot, I do have some complements and criticisms regarding the episode, but watch the episode first. It is well worth your time. Join me in discovering the sinister plan of the Mercury Men!


I've got to give the production team at Mercury Men Pictures credit for their focus on sound design. Poor design can really tank a feature, particularly a genre feature, but the MMP crew have added some interesting environmental sound effects that add depth to the feature. I am particularly fond of the "fuzz" sound of the Mercury Men themselves.

The visuals continue to be fairly impressive. I was particularly impressed by the scene where our heroes were on one side of a wall constructed of glass bricks, and the Mercury Men were on the other. The image where we look through Jack's looking glass was also impressive as it included "warping" around the edges and was more than a mere "circular cutout" image. Jack's hologram projector was a nice touch, and a nice effect.

Like the serials that Mercury Men is based upon, the MMP crew use a lot of visual storytelling. When the Mercury Men's plan is revealed, it is shown and not told. Very nice!


I still find Mark Tierno's performance as Edward Borman a little forced. He seems to be acting in a style more akin to silent films than talkies. He isn't bad, but his movements have an odd fluidity that seems natural in a purely visual story. His line delivery is good, but I'm on the fence. If Edward gets blasted by the invaders I won't be overly distraught.

When Jack and Edward are walking down a stairway there is a wipe effect -- a nice homage to the serials -- that goes against the movement of the action taking place. This has the visual effect of slowing down the pace of the story and decreasing urgency. It almost feels as if the action is being rewound. I think wipes should follow movement, not run against the grain. Just a personal opinion.

Now that I've seen the story so far, I am more convinced than ever that I need to lift ideas from it for a short term Savage Worlds or Cortex+ campaign. I will certainly be statting up some of the characters as the show goes on and we learn more about them.

The MMP crew have captured the tone perfectly. This show is obviously done of love of the material and lacks the kind of ironic distance that too often seeps into the gaps and ruins a good story. Let's hope they keep it up. If their website, and their digital props, are any hint I think they will.

I already wish they'd build a flash based game based on their fictional Atari 2600 game.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Agent 13 Returns -- Pulp 2.0 Reprinting Classic TSR Pulp Title

My good friend, and former Geekerati Co-host, Bill Cunningham recently announced that his independent publishing company Pulp 2.0 will be republishing the Agent 13 novels that TSR printed in the late 80s. The Agent 13 character was featured in a trilogy of novels written by Flint Dille and Dave Marconi, in a set of comic books, and in an excellent Top Secret S.I. setting/supplement.

When Bill told me the news, I was extremely excited. I have been a fan of the Agent 13 character for some time and the Agent 13 Sourcebook is one of my prized gamebook possesssions.

I only hope that Bill and Flint will be releasing/licensing new RPG or Boardgame material based on this great character.

You can read the full press release below (I don't normally cut and paste press releases, but Bill covers all the bases).

Pulp Publisher to Collect the AGENT 13 Novels by Flint Dille and David Marconi

Los Angeles, CA - Pulp 2.0 Press CEO Bill Cunningham today announced that the company has signed an agreement to redesign and republish the adventures of the classic pulp character, Agent 13,  created and written by Flint Dille (Transformers G1) and David Marconi (Enemy of the State). This Pulp 2.0 collector’ edition titled The Agent 13 Dossier will be exclusively in print, and will collect all three of the original Agent 13 novels as well as exclusive features disclosing the secrets behind the mysterious Midnight Avenger.

Agent 13 was originally published in 1986 by TSR in a trilogy of novels - The Invisible Empire, The Serpentine Assassin and Acolytes of Darkness.  The character spawned a set of graphic novels drawn by artist Dan Spiegle (with covers by Jeff Butler) as well as a role-playing game and comic. Kidnapped as a young child in 1907, a gifted boy was brought to The Shrine, the hidden headquarters of the ancient organization known as The Brotherhood. His past memories were erased, he was assigned the title Agent 13 and trained as an assassin and agent in clandestine operations. He became the best disciple and would have risen high in the ranks of the Brotherhood, until he discovered its true evil nature under its cadaverous leader, Itsu - The Hand Sinister. Fleeing The Brotherhood he is hunted by their ninja-like agents, and begins a deadly cat-and-mouse contest against the organization. He fights back, forming his own group of allies against the Brotherhood who dare to plunge the world toward war.

“Agent 13 is Dille and Marconi’s love letter to the pulps, cliffhanger serials and comics. We at Pulp 2.0 are ecstatic to present our readers with these great pulp adventures in an exclusive collector’s print edition,” said Pulp 2.0 CEO Bill Cunningham.  “I remember reading... okay devouring these books when they first came out, and I’ve always loved the world and characters that Flint and David created.  To be able to design a new edition to share these rare novels and the secrets behind Agent 13 is an honor.”

“We were sitting in Flint’s living room one day, and we started jamming ideas back and forth. Flint was a big fan of the pulps and he showed me some of the old materials he had. He had a book featuring the old pulp covers that we looked at that was very inspiring. I had just written some screenplays for Warner Brothers and had good relationships there, and said that if we came up with an interesting story/pitch about this stuff, we can possibly set it up as a screenplay to write.’ So we originally developed AGENT 13 as a studio pitch to set up as a film, and spent quite a lot of time developing the story and characters as we pitched it around to the various producer/buyers around town,” said co-creator David Marconi.

“Then, when the movie wasn’t getting set up as quickly as we hoped, but the story had progressed to the level where we had all the characters and everything else worked out, we decided to just write the book. Flint  had access to Random House through Gary Gygax and TSR, so we were able to get a publishing deal, and dove straight into Agent 13 novel world. Which at the end of the day, was more fun in that it allowed us to go much deeper into the characters and backstory which can’t be explored in great detail in a 2 hour script format.”

More details will be forthcoming as the project progresses. The Agent 13 contract was negotiated on behalf of the creators by Howard Bliss of Union Entertainment.

About Flint Dille:

Flint Dille is a living embodiment of Transmedia. His career started by turning toys into TV Shows with G1 Transformers, G.I. Joe, Inhumanoids and Visionaries.  He has designed games with Gary Gygax and written movies for Steven Spielberg. Flint has sold game design documents as feature films - Venom  (Dimension 2006) and Agent In Place (Lionsgate 2010).   Flint directed the interactive movie Terror T.R.A.X., Track of the Vampyre which became a television pilot for Fox as well as Dragonstrike, one of the first hybrid film projects.  

Flint has twice won 'Game Script of the Year' (Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (with JZP) and Dead to Rights and was nominated for Ghostbusters and Dark Athena.  He has worked on crown jewel franchises including James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Tiny Toons, Batman: Rise of Sin Tsu (Guiness Book of Videogame Records for creating the first Batman villain outside of the comics), Superman, Dungeons & Dragons, Teen Titans and Scooby-Doo.

He has a degree in Ancient History from U.C. Berkeley and an MFA from USC.  Currently, Flint is teaching a class on Alternate Reality Games at UCLA.  His follow up book to The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design is about Transmedia.

About David Marconi:

A native of Highland Park, Ill., Marconi was passionate about film making from an early age.  After winning several high-school film making competitions, Marconi was awarded an Alumni Merit Scholarship to attend the University of Southern California's Film School.  Upon graduation, landed his first job as Francis Ford Coppola's assistant on The Outsiders.  

Working closely with Coppola, Marconi "cut his directing teeth" watching Francis direct both The Outsiders and Rumblefish. In 1993, Marconi wrote and directed his first feature, The Harvest, (Columbia TriStar).   The film premiered in the 'official selection' of the San Sebastian Film Festival and went on to win numerous awards in International Film festivals.

The success of The Harvest brought Marconi to the attention of  Simpson/Bruckheimer who commissioned Marconi to write his original screenplay Enemy of the State (Disney) starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman.  Marconi continued  creating tent-pole action films for the major studios; (which served as the basis for the Die Hard sequel; Live Free or Die Hard ) (Twentieth Century Fox,) Perfect Suspect for Chris Rock (Twentieth Century Fox,) and the high-tech., science fiction epic; No Man's Land.  (Dreamworks.)

Most recently, Marconi was a featured guest speaker for IADC, International Attorney's Defense Council, and the Department of Defense Cyber-Crime Conference where he lectured on his film Enemy of the State and how it relates to privacy concerns and cyber-warfare in a post 9-11 world.  2011 will mark Marconi's second foray behind the lens as a writer/director with his new feature film; INTERSECTION, a gritty thriller currently in pre-production being produced by Luc Besson, the director of THE PROFESSIONAL, FIFTH ELEMENT and Europa Corp.  Holding duel citizenship for the US and EU (Italy,) Marconi divides his time between Los Angeles and Europe.

Friday, July 15, 2011

[Blogging Northwest Smith] -- Black Thirst (Reprise)

The following is a reprise of my second "Blogging Northwest Smith" series, this time discussing "Black Thirst." Looking back on the older post, I find that I ought to have mentioned how the focus on beauty does mirror some aspects of Planetary Romance tales like the John Carter series. I didn't point it out in the past because I don't think Moore is writing strict Planetary Romance, she's doing something more.

In the last installment of "Blogging Northwest Smith," I discussed how C L Moore's tales of Northwest Smith included elements of Space Opera and Weird Horror and pushed the envelope of what constituted a Science Fiction tale. By Space Opera I am referring to the earlier "Space Opera equals Space Westerns" description often used during the early days of the genre.

I am far from the first to notice that Moore incorporated elements of Weird Horror into the tales of her space faring anti-hero, Lin Carter noticed her inclusion of these elements and thought it likely they were added to garner publication in Weird Tales. Whatever Moore's reasons for including Weird Horror elements, as she did with her adaptation of the Medusa into "pleasure vampire" in "Shambleau," she was deeply enough tied to the Lovecraftian circle that she was one of the co-authors (in fact she was the jump start author) of a Lovecraftian "shared world" tale entitled The Challenge from Beyond (more on this in a later post).

For the modern fan of Science Fiction, the incorporation of horror elements into a Science Fiction narrative seems perfectly natural. Everything from the Atomic Horror films of the 50s and 60s to Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien (based on A.E. van Vogt's 1939 Astounding story "Black Destroyer" which was included as chapters 1-6 of The Voyage of the Space Beagle) to Joss Whedon's Firefly demonstrate how deeply saturated film and television are with the SF horror story. But for fans of "Space Westerns," Foundation, or modern Space Opera, the shift in suspension of disbelief from hard SF to Weird Horror SF isn't guaranteed.

When I read "Shambleau," I was struck by how much the narrative followed the format of a classic Western and by how the monster/alien of the tale was Lovecraftian in nature -- tentacles and all. "Black Thirst" takes the combination of Science Fiction and horror a different direction than "Shambleau." Where in "Shambleau" the tale was one of Weird Horror overlaying a Western, "Black Thirst" is a tale of Gothic Horror that contains no small elements of the Western and Weird Horror genre.

Our tale begins with our protagonist, Northwest Smith, leaning against a warehouse wall in some unfriendly waterfront street on Venus. He soon encounters a woman, immediately recognizable as a Minga maid, who begs Northwest to visit her in the Minga stronghold in order to provide her some sort of aid.

Moore spends some time describing the Minga palace as a building that pre-existed the majority of civilization on Venus, describing how the stronghold was already built by the time some great Venusian explorer had sailed the seas in search of new land. The Minga maids themselves are as mysterious as the palace from which they are sold, they are "those beauties that from the beginning of history have been bred in the Minga stronghold for loveliness and grace, as race-horses are bred on Earth, and reared from earliest infancy in the art of charming men. Scarcely a court on the three planets lacks at least one of these exquisite creatures..."

Establishing the mysterious origins of the stronghold and the maids, Moore quickly establishes the dangers associated with attempting to "lay a finger" on a Minga maid. It is a danger with no appeal as "The chastity of Minga girls was proverbial, a trade boast." The purpose of these beauty slaves seems not to be a sexual one, and this is reinforced later when the real purpose of the breeding of the maids is reveals, but a purely aesthetic one. The women are bred for their beauty, in form and manner, and the price paid is for these things alone.

The concept of a stronghold of courtesans, trained in the art of charming men, combined with the similarities between Malcolm Reynolds and Northwest Smith leave one wondering if Joss Whedon had read this tale before creating Firefly. Not to imply with any certainty that Whedon was directly influenced by Moore, but it is hard for me to visualize anyone other than Nathan Fillion playing Northwest Smith in a movie -- and if he did Whedon fans would cry foul that Northwest is a direct Mal ripoff.

As the Minga maid, named Vaudir, leaves Smith she does so with a warning. She warns Northwest about the evil that is the Alendar and hints at his origins when she discusses there are "elemental" things that don't sink back into the darkness from which they came if a civilization develops too swiftly. "Life rises out of dark and mystery and things too strange and terrible to be looked upon." Here she hints at the history of the Minga and the Alendar and Moore incorporates imagery from Weird Horror. The concept of elemental evil is one of Weird Horror and it is the type of horror that is used to describe the Alendar.

Smith agrees to help the maid and approaches the stronghold as she told him he should. What follows is a series of scenes reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula in which our hero plays, a much braver version, of Jonathan Harker. Smith wanders the hallways of the palace sensing, but not seeing, the great evil that awaits him. He arrives at Vaudir's room, but it is not long before he encounters the Alendar him/itself. The Alendar is a manlike creature possessed of great psychic powers, powers which overwhelm our protagonist and could kill him in an instant. But a quick death is not to be for Smith as he possesses something of value that the Alendar desires.

The Alendar, it seems, is -- like the Shambleau -- a kind of vampire. Unlike the Shambleau the Alendar does not feed on sexual/physical pleasure, instead he/it feeds on beauty. For the Alendar beauty is a tangible thing, an objective thing that provides real nourishment. The only way in which beauty is subjective regarding the Alendar's hunger is in its "form." What is beauty for a human female isn't beauty in a human male, which is why the Alendar has spared Smith. Smith possesses the quality of male beauty which must be fully developed before the Alendar can feed on him. As the Alendar describes his method of nourishment, Smith is given glimpses of unimaginable beauty -- beauty that can cause madness.

How the tale unfolds from here I will leave for you to discover on you own, but I would like to spend some time discussing some of the interesting concepts Moore threw into this story.

She is quite obviously writing a tale about slavery and presents human trafficking as a horrible affair, but she is also presenting a discussion of beauty and what constitutes true beauty. The Alendar describes beauty as follows:

"Beauty is as tangible as blood, in a way. It is a separate distinct force that inhabits the bodies of men and women. You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women... the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else...

For beauty, as I have said, eats up all other qualities but beauty."

The beauty that Moore has the Alendar describe is in itself horrifying, yet it is also an interesting spark for discussion. Vaudir -- who has asked Smith for assistance and led to his current state of danger -- is beautiful, but she possesses something more. She possesses and intelligence and free will that make her more desirable to the Alendar than her beauty alone would demand. Smith too possesses this combination of independence and beauty, a combination that the Alendar seeks to use in order to overcome the boredom which results from the consumption of his current fare of pure beauty. Moore is simultaneously critiquing the "cult of beauty" and proffering an alternative -- a beauty that combines intelligence, independence, and appearance. There is a strong feminist spirit underlying the story and it is this spirit that separates this tale from a run of the mill narrative.

As before, Moore combines elements from a variety of literature in this piece in a manner that is fluid. The discussion of elemental evil has ties to Weird Horror. The Alendar, his stronghold, and the equation of beauty itself with the horrific echo Gothic Horror. The manner in which Smith is encountered and the stories resolution are straight from a Western, one could easily see "Black Thirst" as an episode of Wild, Wild, West. With all that Moore combines genre elements one might expect to become lost in some residual narrative clutter, yet that never occurs. Moore has a story she wants to tell, of a vampire who consumes beauty yet seeks something more, and it makes for quite an entertaining ride.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Late Christmas List for the Pop Culture Geek (2009)

I try to get out a post highlighting some great gift ideas for pop culture fans each year. This year posting was delayed by a number of different life events, but we still have a week of shopping left and most of the gift ideas I will be offering are either readily available or older classics.

Gift Idea #1: Amazon's Kindle 2

This device is a wonderful addition to any book lover's inventory. The Kindle Wireless Reading Device is lightweight, has a decent amount of memory, and Amazon has a lot of books available in digital format for the device. Additionally, sites like have a large catalog of public domain books available in Kindle format. Is your favorite geek an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan who has been trying to hunt down a version of The MuckerThe Outlaw of Torn? Look no further than The Kindle also has a pretty well kept secret. It's also a nice little 3G internet browser, with no monthly fees, where you can surf and even tweet. The internet fuctionality isn't on the par with an iPhone, but it's pretty good and keeps getting better.

Gift Item #2: Stephen Jones Edited Anthologies

I have in mind here three excellent anthologies edited by Stephen Jones that are a wonderful addition to any fan of weird fiction's bookshelf. The first two are H.P.Lovecraft's Book of Horror and H.P. Lovecraft's Book of the Supernatural: Classic Tales of the Macabre. The Book of Horror contains Lovecraft's seminal essay on Supernatural Literature and a selection of stories based on Lovecraft's recommendations. It is a great companion piece to any Lovecraft library and contains many of the stories that inspired Lovecraft himself. The Book of the Supernatural lacks the essay, but continues the exploration of tales that inspired Lovecraft. Between the two books, you have quite a wide sample of early weird fiction.

I would also recommend The Mammoth Book of Wolf Men, which was re-released this year in the hopes of riding on the wave of interest the upcoming WOLFMAN movie should generate. This anthology collects some excellent werewolf stories by authors like Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Hugh B. Cave, and Manly Wade Wellman.

Gift Idea #3: The Collected Captain Future

What's that poster you see on the wall of Sheldon and Leonard's apartment every week on "Big Bang Theory?" Who is this Captain Future: Wizard of Science guy, and what does he have to do with the joys of reading science fiction? Your favorite geek will be able to answer these questions and more after you buy him/her a copy of The Collected Captain Future Vol. 1 by Haffner Press. Captain Future was the creation of Edmund Hamilton who, along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, was a key member of Farnsworth Wright's talented pool of writers during the heyday of Weird Tales magazine. The Captain Future stories were eventually converted into an anime series by Toei. The only question your favorite geek will be asking after reading this wonderful collection is, "does that poster belong to Sheldon or Leonard?"

Remember when Little People were bizarre looking utilitarian representations of what humans? Remember when Little People were just the right size to fit into your mouth and chew on? Remember when Little People cowered in fear of the "Dread God (Insert Your Name Here)? John Kovalic and the good folks at Dreamland Toyworks certainly do. The My Little Cthlhu "action figure" is a wonderful blend of Kovalic's elegant cartoon style, and the design of the older -- now changed -- Little People series of toys. Any geek who wants to being introducing his/her children to weird tales and the joys of "The Mythos" absolutely must own one of these wonderful figures.

Did I mention that Dreamland also makes "victims?"

This November, Fantasy Flight Games released their much awaited, and much debated, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition game. The game is an interesting combination of mechanics drawn from narrative games, traditional roleplaying games, card games, and video games -- combined in a way to make the game easier to learn while maintaining a depth of play experience. If purchased at your "Friendly Local Game Store," the method I most recommend as FLGSs are what truly sustain the gaming hobby, the game comes in at a hefty $99.95 (you can buy it from Amazon at the above link for 37% less). The price seems costly at first, but like most role playing games Warhammer 3 has the potential to give quite a lot of entertainment bang for the entertainment dollar -- given the number of hours of play and the number of players supported by one box. The graphic design of the product is excellent, the rules mechanics are easy to learn but robust, it supports both narrative styles and "hack n slash" style games, and FFG has a lot of interesting support products in the pipeline.

On a side note, while the rules set was created specifically for the Warhammer "universe," I believe that the mechanics could be used for a wide variety of game settings. Translating the rules from one genre to another would be a bit of work, likely too much work for a GM to do in his/her spare time, but the underlying system would work wonderfully with a Superhero themed setting.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: The Phantom

One of the oldest costumed superheroes, and arguably the first to wear the ever present skin tight costume, is Lee Falk's 1936 creation The Phantom. The Phantom, as a character and narrative construct, helped to establish the basis for the modern superhero tale. His origin, though it included some elements likely inspired by Burrough's Tarzan, can easily be seen as the model which has dominated the genre.

The 1996 film, starring Billy Zane as The Ghost Who Walks and directed by Simon Wincer, was produced during a time where Hollywood wasn't quite sure which direction to go with comic book characters. The films of the era -- Batman, The Shadow, and The Phantom (to name a few) -- were simultaneously serious and campy. Hollywood hadn't yet reached the point where it could trust that superhero narratives on the big screen could be presented "straight." One would think they would have learned the lesson from the Superman franchise, which had two excellent entries -- neither of which were particularly campy -- and two awful entries -- both of which were campy.

Of the three films mentioned above, Batman (directed by Tim Burton) was the least campy, but it did have its moments of campy awkwardness that seemed to clash with Burton's moody expressionist representation of Gotham. Burton's Batman is a great Bruce Wayne film, but it isn't a great Batman film.

The Shadow, though campier than Batman, is almost a perfect representation of the title character -- it's so close that fans can see what the film would have been if it had been serious. It would have been a great serious movie, but it is also an entertaining campy movie. The reflexive ironic jingoism of Alec Baldwin's character is wonderful, as is Margot Lane, leaving only the over the top Tim Curry (who I usually love) lessening the enjoyment of the film. Well...Tim Curry and the weird prosthetic makeup that Baldwin wore as the Shadow are what are wrong with the picture. Still it is an entertaining piece.

All three of the "transition" films were entertaining, and that includes The Phantom. One doesn't have to look past the one sheet to realize that the film falls more on the campy side of things than to the straight, which is a shame. Treat Williams and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa would have been excellent in a straight version of the film. They are entertaining here as well, but by deciding not to update the look of The Phantom's costume, the film doomed itself to campville. As camp, the movie is a fun ride with some genuinely entertaining action sequences. It's also fun to run around shouting "Slam Evil," as my friends and I did while displaying our collection of Phantom rings (the promotional item used to promote the film).

Enjoy the film, but enjoy imagining what might have been as well.

RHI Entertainment, who brought us the excellent Tin Man and the horrible Flash Gordon, are working on a new television version of The Phantom -- the preview is below -- which looks promising. The RHI series looks like a combination of The Phantom, TNT's Leverage, and Remo Williams, but that could be fun...and at least they updated the costume.

Monday, September 14, 2009

One Who Walked Alone: Solomon Kane Preview

If you were to take a random sample of Americans and ask them to name a hero created by Robert E Howard, arguably the creator of the Sword and Sorcery genre, their most likely answer would be Conan the Barbarian. For the past forty years, since Lin Carter and L. Sprague De Camp resurrected the hero for mass consumption, Howard's man of gigantic mirth and gigantic melancholies has appeared in a wide variety of media for public consumption. People have encountered Conan, or some approximation, in film, video games, comic books, television shows, and numerous pastiches written by more recent authors. Never mind the fact that the Conan of popular culture bears only passing resemblance to Howard's barbarian, the character has become a deeply ingrained part of the American Mythos.

From time to time some devoted soul, will attempt to resurrect another of Howard's heroes in the hopes that they too will become a part of the American psyche.

A little over a decade ago we saw the release of Kull the Conquerer starring Kevin Sorbo. Kull was a proto-Conan and the first published Conan stories is a re-writing of a Kull tale. The film meandered between the swashbuckling stylings of a Harryhausen Sinbad film and the camp of the Batman television series, and in doing so failed to capture the character or any real audience.

There have also been attempts to bring Howard's dour and deadly Puritan, Solomon Kane. In the 70s, Marvel Comics released a number of Solomon Kane comics, recently Dark Horse has done the same. In fact, Dark Horse is publishing the reprint trades of the Marvel books. In the 90s, Baen Books released a collection of Howard's Solomon Kane stories with and introduction by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell also used the Bael edition as an opportunity to "collaborate" with Howard in a manner similar to de Camp and the Conan tales. Del Rey released a beautiful edition of the Solomon Kane tales, with wonderful artwork by Gary Gianni, in 2004 -- an edition still in print -- that collects all of the original tales with a few exclusive story fragments. The Del Rey edition is Kane as Howard wrote him. Solomon Kane has even been the subject of the excellent The Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane role playing game by Pinnacle Entertainment.

Kane is among my favorite Sword and Sorcery heroes. His combination of a forthright pursuit of justice and his unforgiving personality makes for an interesting take on the "religiously motivated" hero. Howard describes him as, "a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan...A hunger in his soul drove him on an on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things...Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect -- he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane." Like so many of Howard's heroes, Kane was -- like Howard himself -- One Who Waled Alone.

Kane's star is certainly rising in the popular psyche, but how great a place the Puritan will hold will greatly depend on the upcoming film starring James Purefoy as the title character. If the preview is any indication, the character of the film will not be Howard's character "made flesh," but Purefoy's Kane might just be Howard's character in spirit.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cinerati Book Review: The Mall of Cthulhu by Seamus Cooper

In the movie My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), in quoting another actor, claims that "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." While the origins of the quote are relatively unknown -- being attributed to several sources -- the spirit of the quote is none the less true. It is very difficult to write an engaging work of comedy of any length. Nowhere is this more evident than in comedic Science Fiction and Fantasy writers.

While there are those like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Ernest Bramah who have written what many consider to be consistently high quality SF/F books of a humorous nature, the majority of genre humor writers fall into a trap that Jo Walton succinctly describes in a blog post on her love hate relationship with humor fiction. Walton argues that the majority of humor writing tries to hard to be funny and doesn't let the humor rise organically from the material, and she finds this very frustrating as a reader. As she puts it, "I hate things that are trying to be funny, rather than letting the humour bubble up from underneath." I agree with her sentiment, and I agree that this is a pratfall that too many writers fall into too easily.

It is a pratfall that Seamus Cooper risked falling into in his recent novel The Mall of Cthulhu. The novel, published by Night Shade Books this past June, attempts to use comedy to synthesize the mystery procedural with weird fiction.

The book's plot is relatively simple. Ten years ago, a college student named Laura Harker was saved from being turned into a vampire when a geeky folklore student named Ted charged into the vampire's den -- the Omega Alpha sorority -- and slew all of the undead occupants therein. This act of heroism shattered Ted's sanity, and led Laura to pursue a career in the FBI. Ted now works at a chain coffeehouse named Queequeg's hoping that the mind numbing routine of a service job will help him remain sane, and allow him to lead a normal life. Alas, Ted's fate -- and Laura's -- is not destined to be one of day to day doldrums. Ted has accidentally stumbled upon a group of modern day Cthulhu cultists who wish to use a shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island as a nexus of power to summon the Old Ones to wreak havoc on the world.

As the back of the book describes it, "[Ted] and Laura must spring into action, traveling from Boston to the seemingly-peaceful suburbs of Providence and beyond, all the way to the sanity-shattering non-Euclideian alleyways and towers of dread R'lyeh itself, in order to prevent an innocent shopping center from turning into...The Mall of Cthulhu.

The book is an entertaining read that hits all of the right plot points for a first novel in a series of comedic weird tale procedurals. The two main characters, Laura and Ted, are extremely likable and Cooper's writing has us empathizing with them as real people in relatively quick order. Especially engaging, for me, was Cooper's ability to convey just how mentally damaging slaying an entire pack of vampires might be -- particularly when the person doing the slaying is an everyday kind of guy. Laura is also affected by the night of mayhem. Nearly being turned into a vampire by someone she was attracted to has had lingering affects on her ability to form long term romantic relationships -- she has a hard time trusting the women she meets.

As a procedural, the story works its way through the mystery at a nice pace and we get to see how Ted's impulsiveness -- and laziness -- interacts with Laura's trained professionalism and adherence to routine. It makes for some nice narrative tension when Ted gets into trouble and Laura comes running to help. Is she too late? The only real problem with the underlying mystery is that it opens feeling like a grand conspiracy and ends as what feels like a few guys with a chip on their shoulder acting out. I understand that mass conspiracies are implausible and unsatisfying, but so is a small group who don't seem capable of some of the tricks they pull early in the plot. I didn't need a huge conspiracy, but one that was a little bigger would have been beneficial. With that small complaint, the book's procedural elements were interesting enough to keep the reader engaged.

The book has a good pace, likable characters, and is an entertaining procedural. it funny or does it fall into the trap of trying to hard to be funny? The short answer is both. At times Cooper has me laughing inside my head at one joke or another. It's pretty amusing to read about a character so disturbed by the mind numbing timelessness of R'lyeh that he begins kicking Cthulhu in the head in the hopes that the Old One will awaken. It's also funny reading about someone sitting in a dumpster, using a milk filled garbage bag as a pillow, while reading a version of the Necronomicon through the eyes of a character in a Sims-like video game. The book also avoids an over-abundance of puns. There are "easter eggs," to be sure, but Cooper refrains from making every other line of the book a pun.

The comedy does break down a little bit in three distinct ways.

First, there are both too many, and not enough, internet porn references in the book. Had Cooper used only a couple such references, they would have remained funny. Had Cooper tossed one out every couple of pages, they would have become funny again. Sadly, Cooper used them to the point where they lose comic value, without using them enough to where they become funny again -- though the foot fetish porn comment was in itself amusing.

Second, the commentary about Lovecraft's racism, and his "ambiguity," became tiresome. No one who has read any Lovecraft can walk away from his fiction without the strong feeling that Lovecraft had some peculiar ideas about race -- and likely eugenics -- but readers don't need to be reminded every chapter. Cooper attempted to use this conversation, as well as a couple of rough asides about role playing games, as witty banter -- banter that also served as an important connection between Lovecraft and the cultists -- but it gets a little over played. It might have seemed less overplayed if Cooper had included more specific examples of Lovecraft's racism by including quotes from stories where Lovecraft's racism really shines through. This is a place where it would have been nice to have been shown rather than told. Give the reader a couple of passages from Dunwich Horror and have your characters talk about how disturbing they were. The same can be said for the mocking of Lovecraft's use of "indescribable." Though it should be noted that Cooper does have a good comedic moment in R'yleh which is only made possible due to previous complaints regarding Lovecraft's prose. Once again, it would have been nice to get some more actual Lovecraftian passages. The purple prose might have been comedy enough all by itself.

Third, Seamus Cooper's attempts at political humor largely fall flat. The best political comedians skewer both those they agree with and those with whom they disagree fervently. Cooper's political jabs can be summed up as simply as Republicans underfund paranormal defense and Democrats fund it appropriately. Their was one gem of a joke where the post-94 Congress wanted to restrict a certain agency to using only "Biblical Based Defenses." Anyone who has read a Chick tract should get a good chuckle from that conversation, but by and large Cooper misses a couple of real opportunities for humor. For example, why wasn't Nancy Reagan's use of an Astrologer included? One can easily imagine a dozen jokes stemming from that concept alone.

What if Ronald Reagan, after he fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers, had the replacement military controllers have planes fly paths prescribed by the Astrologer? And what if those paths corresponded to a particularly dangerous summoning ritual? One could have a field day with that, as one could also have had a field day with Clinton needed a special anti-Succubus Secret Service Agent, or how Tipper Gore's anti-D&D statements in her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society led to some D&D obsessed "occultists" using a ritual they thought was fake against her? There is no limit to where these jokes could go.

Were I Cooper's editor, I would have had him unpack a lot of the political comments and have him transform them into more specific jokes. There's a lot of humor, on both sides of the aisle, to toss around and the book would have been better for it.

These complaints aside, The Mall of Cthulhu was exactly the book I needed when I read it. The book is an enjoyable and light-hearted yarn where underfunded, and under-powered, good guys have to fight against larger than life enemies -- including a hundred plus year-old sorority member vampire priestess named Bitsy.