Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Movie Brats (1979).

Not so long ago I had a chance to watch a multi-part series on Francis Ford Coppola.  What the whole amounted to was more or less a career retrospective.  This wasn't one of those professional, well put together productions like the kind you're likely to find on TV by chance if you're flipping through the air waves.  This was an independent opinion piece assembled by one of by now countless vloggers out there on the Net.  I think I have to give the guy in charge of the whole thing at least this much credit.  He knew how to make it all look professional.  His camera work, lighting, editing, sense of pacing, and overall choice of of clips from the back catalogue of footage that has accumulated around Coppola over years demonstrates a decent enough hand when it comes to technical matters.  I think that's also where the praise has to end, at least with me, I'm afraid.  The reasons for that seem to be twofold in nature.

First, there's the simple matter of individual critical perspectives.  It shouldn't have to go without saying, however the evidence that more than two separate human minds can exist on the same globe should stand as a testament the seemingly eternal fact of individuality.  What I mean by this is that the very fact that other people exist seems like its own guarantee that different life outlooks are pretty much a fait acompli.  That's a maxim that seems to apply to the world of the arts, as much as to anything else.  This in itself does not appear to be outside the norm of things.  I think it's just that I find it ironic for the perspectives it winds up leading me to take.  I have no idea if Patrick H. Willems' viewpoint on Coppola, or film in general, is the de facto paradigm for cinematic or general artistic criticism.  All I know is the more I watched his documentary series, the more he continued to talk about the director, the history or question of Coppola's development as an artist, and how it all fit in with the history of the medium of filmmaking, a funny thing happened.  It would be easy to say I came away disagreeing with Willems' take on things.  It's also selling my own conclusions a bit too short.

What happened, instead, was that I kept paying careful attention.  As the documentary series unfolded, Willems would keep bringing up this or that topic in relation to Coppola's life and work.  As he did so, this in turn would keep triggering a developing line of thought in my own mind.  The vlogger would bring up the topic of, say, the classic style of Hollywood filmmaking, and I would be there watching all this and thinking, "Yes, but have you ever stopped to notice this or that element"?  Or Willems would try to provide summaries of his ideas on what this means about cinema as a whole.  As a result, my mind would perk up and think, "Aren't you forgetting or overlooking something?  What about this author's influence on the medium?  Or what about the context of the contributions of auteurs like Orson Welles?  Why leave all that out"?  Yeah, as some of you can probably tell by now, what happened is that a silent debate got started between a pair of lame wad film nerds.  It's the kind of thing that will never be all that important to the majority of people out there.  That's still the only way I can put it, or the terms I  can discuss it in  The best way to say it is that Willems has acted as a very unintentional springboard for my own thoughts on the subject.

The way he did it was simply by bringing up a lot of topics that were important enough to me, at least, to the point where I felt there just had to be more to the subject he was discussing than the vlogger was even aware of.  A lot of it came from what I can't help but regard as a dichotomy between the way Willems discussed and presented Coppola, and the actual facts he seems to have uncovered, while remaining blissfully unaware of them the whole time.  In that sense, watching the retrospective on the director has been something of an eye opener for me, as has helped to clarify a lot of my previous thinking on many artistic subjects.  The perfection of irony in all this is that it really can be accused of all trending in an exact opposite sort of direction from the one Willems was trying to maintain.  He liked to present Coppola as a "bad boy" who "needed to break the rules".  I think it's a sentiment that jumps out a me for the way the rest of the events he depict subtly undermine that premise without his being aware of it.  Instead, his presentation of the director's life and art sort of help burst a lot of the bubble reputations that have gathered around guys like the director of The Godfather.

It doesn't lesson the quality of that film nor a handful of others.  Films like The Conversation and Apocalypse Now will forever have to remain as milestones in the history of cinema.  It's just that Willems has unwittingly helped me to gain a better sense of perspective on them, one that qualifies and tempers some of the more radical sounding superlatives that have traditionally gathered around them over the years.  Willems did this by showing me more or less "the rest of the story", the one that happened after we stopped paying attention.  I'm not gonna lie, it ain't pretty.  Willems tries to present what happened in the wake of Apocalypse Now as a continued example of the "bad boy" finding ways to stick it to the man.  The reality seems to be a lot more of a tragic case of the author either losing his muse, or else it could be something a lot more ironic than that.  It could just be that the career of Francis Ford Coppola is an object lesson of the filmmaker's ambitions running up against his own limitations as an artist.  After the 70s ended, it just seems as if the director had played himself out.  No other film or topic he turned his hand to after that was ever able to recapture whatever it was he had with films like the Corleone Family Saga.  Instead, he wound up as a guest on Saturday Night Live, or working on a children's TV show, and his boss was Shelley Duvall. 

To be fair, it is possible to defend at least some of this later work.  I like what he did with Duvall on her TV series, and even Michael Jackson's Captain EO has its own 80s form form schlock charm.  The rest, however, is too much of a mixed bag to be of any big consideration.  Willems tried his damnedest to paint the director as being in a much better place than any of his other contemporaries.  However, words from Coppola himself tell a far different story.  "In 2015, Coppola stated "...That's why I ended my career: I decided I didn't want to make what you could call 'factory movies' anymore. I would rather just experiment with the form, and see what I could do, and [make things] that came out of my own. And little by little, the commercial film industry went into the superhero business, and everything was on such a scale. The budgets were so big, because they wanted to make the big series of films where they could make two or three parts. I felt I was no longer interested enough to put in the extraordinary effort a film takes [nowadays] (web)".  As a result, I have Patrick Willems to thank for arriving at a very paradoxical conclusion.  With the case of Francis Coppola, perhaps the real truth has always been that we were witnessing the meteoric rise and fall of a proclaimed giant, while the artist himself was always less than he seemed, or was trumpeted to be.  His greatest triumphs being more the product of the Imagination proper, and far less to do with the personality of the artist as a human being or auteur.

It's a very ironic (some might even say heretical) vantage point to wind up at.  If that's the case, it's an irony I then compounded by asking myself how did this apply to the rest of the filmmakers of Coppola's generation?  What about the other directors?  Were they luckier than him, or did they all wind up in the same boat?  Which of them were able to swim on, and which sank like weighted stones?  It turned out to be one of those ideas that, once they enter certain minds, they just can't be left alone.  So, like a diligent enough(?) bookworm, the answer was relatively simple.  All one should have to do is go to the back catalogues, and filmography records, and see what it reveals.  Well, I went looking for answers, alright.  Boy did I ever get it.  The final results have been just more of the same, old irony, if that makes any sense.  What I discovered seems to be a continuation and carry-over from the results of Willems' efforts.  I can no longer just leave it at Coppola.  Instead, what I've looked at has forced me to construct a wholesale reconsideration of the cinematic generation of the 1970s, what it was versus what the critics versus the audience thought it was, and what it all means for the state of the art today.

That's where a book like Lynda Myles' The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation took over Hollywood comes in real handy.  It offesr me a further springboard from which to share what I've learned, while comparing and contrasting it with the initial critical claims, praises, and appraisals that greeted this informal collective of movie buff friends as they first started to make names for themselves.  It's a story that's interesting for the final way it all ends up at this current moment.  It's a tale of hindsight versus whatever aspirations might have been in play at the time.  What the final results have turned out to be may come as a shock to some.  However, perhaps its best if we take our time here.  Let's start with the basic premise of Myles' book.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Skeleton Crew: Here There Be Tigers (1968).

A while back I read and reviewed a children's short story by Phillipa Pearce.  It was called The Lion at School, and I gave it a positive enough review, as I recall.  It's one of those neat little literary staples of childhood, the kind you grab and read through on your way onward and upward.  Then if you're lucky, or curious enough, it turns into one of those dug up relics from your past that you decide to indulge in during an idle mood.  You probably dredge it up out of the mothballs expecting just some light fluff, one of those pieces of doggerel that seemed epic in youth, and just wind up sounding trite to adult ears.  It's the kind of expectation that helps make the surprise all the more pleasant.  What you might discover is that Pearce's story is one of those titles that manages to carry enough thematic weight to allow even the world of grown-ups a few moments of genuine enjoyment.  In my case, it was sort of like mining around for random spare traces of gold, and hitting a small, yet decent enough vein.  At least it seemed good enough to give it a vote of confidence, anyway.  All that happened is I discovered, I read, I thought it was pretty good.  So, I just thought it worth writing down my two cents on the matter.  No more, or less.

In nine out of ten cases, that's usually all there is to it, at least as far as I'm concerned.  For some reason, I'm the type of critic that likes to be as encyclopedic as possible about the stories I like.  Even if I wind up with a bad final product, I tend to prefer to be as thorough and constructive in figuring out why the whole thing didn't work.  What this means, though, is that while I'm sure I will never succeed at it, I always try to discuss as much of the subject as possible.  That's a pretty tall order for any critic, and I'm sure I've not even come close to it once.  There's always bound to be something overlooked, some detail or plot element I forgot to mention or place under the microscope for further inspection.  There are also those exceptions where sometimes a topic seems too big to try and encompass in just one article.  These are the stories and writers that get the lucky break of multiple posts.  It doesn't happen often, yet they're not blue moon occurrences, either.  It's all just part of the gig, really.  Then there are those interesting hybrid moments where sometimes all it takes is for one simple story to spark an idea or association off in my mind, and then I find myself with unforeseen results on my hands.  That's sort of what happened when I got done reviewing Pearce's story.

What I got thinking about was one or two other stories of a similar nature.  Another good way of stating the facts is that Pearce's writing kinda-sorta sparked a simple question: Haven't I read all this somewhere before?  The answer, it turns out, might surprise you.  It's one of those weird cases where I have to say more or less no and yes at the same time.  I think it's a mistake to claim I've read the same story told by different authors.  Each of the other stories I'm thinking of now were written in such a way as to give them their own distinct identities, ones where even a novice would able to tell the differences between all three of them.  It's just that even thought each of these other two stories were like their own beasts, there was also this remarkable level of similarity in terms of both setup, and even characters, to a certain extent.  It's not enough to erase the boundaries that separate each tale.  However, I do wonder if the resemblances might be enough to act as a kind of thematic unity.  I'm not talking about plagiarism at all here, in other words.  What I mean instead is that I'm wondering if three individual authors, each at divergent points on the historical timeline, might nonetheless have had their imaginations sparked by the same archetype, or imaginative moment of inspiration?  

Granted, that is all just one big question, not a statement of fact.  There's also a lot of speculation going on there as well.  The real kick in the teeth is that there's not really anything like a solid account from any of the writers involved on just how they each came to conceive of, and then set down their respective creative efforts.  That leaves the critic with the unenviable task of having to theorize into the void.  I'm not saying it can't be done.  If that were the case, would arts criticism in general even be able to exist?  I just feel obligated to point out that this kind of approach is precarious at best.  It's the literary-critical equivalent of building up your own soapbox flying machine, and then taking off without some kind of established safety net to fall back on.  It's also probably the norm for the great majority of this particular business.  If that's the case, then at least I'm flying no more blind than everybody else in this rarefied air.  For the time being, therefore, let's just stick with this idea of a shared archetype inspiring three otherwise unrelated writers.

I've already mentioned Philippa Pearce.  The first story that wound up sharing an uncanny level of resemblance with her own efforts were Tiger in the Snow, by Daniel Lynn Barber.  We now turn to the final, and last installment in the informal series examining the strange connective threads between stories.  The final offering for tonight was a story that first saw the light of day a long time ago, in a strange place known as the 1960s.  It was a very early effort, and it's author was just some small town kid, really.  I recall correctly, I think his name went something like, Stephen Edwin King.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Nightfall: Welcome to Homerville (1980).

This is something of a cheat.  Those who've been keeping score lately might just feel like they've been robbed of a promise.  Didn't I just say in the last article that I was planning on a reviewing a Stephen King story?  Yeah, guilty as charged, folks.  So what the hell am I doing here?  My reasons for this unexpected little detour has at least one favor in its own defense.  It sort of goes right to the heart of the kind of storytelling tropes we've been examining so far.  Lately I've been preoccupied with a series of independently written stories with a surprising amount of similarities to them.  They each center around the idea of ordinary main characters that somehow find themselves confronted with animals that display behavioral traits that are distinct enough to label them as being pretty much out of the ordinary.  The title figures in Philippa Pearce's Lion at School and Daniel Barber's Tiger in the Snow both somehow manage to come off as something more than just your ordinary Big Cat.  They behave in ways that just don't seem to gibe with your real life specimens.  In fact, if forced to choose, I guess I'd have to say that in both cases, the reader is perhaps dealing with more than just a number of random animal encounters.  Each lead actor in the two literary dramas mentioned above seems to one of those lucky (or otherwise) few who find themselves in encounters with figures whose very nature seems to border on the miraculous, or otherworldly.  I'm not sure of any better words to describe it.

Even if that's the case, there's still the question of how all that can lead me to want to talk about on old radio play?  I think the the main reason is because it just seems to encapsulate the very idea of the basic narrative situation that I've been dealing with for a while now.  In order to demonstrate how that might be the case, however, I think it's best if we take things one step at a time.  As always, the best place to start is with some context.  In his genre study text, Danse Macabre, Stephen King shared his opinion that he didn't see the world of dramatic radio plays as having much of a future.  This is an argument he lays out in his chapter entitled Radio and the Set of Reality.  While the great majority of that section of the books is fascinating, and to this day still remains well worth a read, and containing a great deal of valuable insight.  The inescapable fact is that King's view for the prospects of the audio drama have been proven summarily wrong by the very march of time itself.  Rather than falling into obscurity as he predicted, what has happened is that instead of falling into obscurity (and hence being rendered a sort of curio, or historical artifact) the art of the radio play has been undergoing a constant form of resurgence with the passing years.

If I had to pinpoint any particular reasons for this, then it might hinge around three important factors.  The first factor is also kind of the most obvious.  It shouldn't be at all surprising that when technical innovation reaches a certain level of sophistication, then one of its inevitable fallouts is that it creates a space in which the audio drama can survive and thrive thanks to the availability and affordability of the new technology.  The second factor should really be listed more as a result of the way 21st century tech has also had of creating a greater sense of inter-connectivity, even across borders and oceans.  This has been especially true in the case of America's relation with places such as Great Britain.  What King, and perhaps the majority of Americans didn't realize for a long time is just how much of a powerful juggernaut the popular dramatic radio format has been across the pond.  Not only has the audio drama remained a steady feature of British life.  Unlike here in America, there never seems to have been a time when it ever went out of style.  Instead, the medium seems to have cemented itself as an integral part of the cultural landscape.  And right now it very much looks as if it is this factor to which America is just now starting to catch-up with, meaning the renascence of U.S. dramatic radio might still (with any luck) just be in its infancy.  The third factor seems to come down to a simple question of enthusiasm.  The format had enough fans, and inherent artistic quality, to be able to outfox King's dire prognostications for it, and I think its the Brits who've helped the most in this regard.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this is the kind of influence that extends to other parts of the world as well.

This might be at least part of the case with the Canadian Broadcasting Company's radio division.  It's also here that we begin to approach our main subject for today.  The medium of radio has never been what you'd call a stranger to the idea of the Horror anthology show.  In fact, if you want to get technical about it, the truth turns out to be the reverse of what a modern audience might think.  Before there was ever anything like TV or streaming, it was radio that remained the biggest form of mass communication for a good stretch of the 20th century.  It's also the same place that saw the birth of the type of schlocker programming we now associate with shows like Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Black Mirror.  It's another of those dramatic conceits that are really a lot older than the look, and have enough staying power in them to make the various leaps of transition over the years.  In fact, just as King was starting to set down his gloomy diagnosis for the chances of Horror on the radio, someone further up in the Great White North was sort of unintentionally busy in proving him wrong.  

From what I've been able to find out, Nightfall appears to have been the brainchild of a CBC radio producer named Bill Howell.  From what I can gather, he was a regular producer for the audio wing of Canadian Broadcasting, in particular his greatest claim to fame before then was on the CBC Playhouse, and a cult Sci-Fi serial with the perhaps appropriately pulpish name of Johnny Chase: Agent of Space.  It was sometime around or maybe just before 1980 that he came up with the idea of Nightfall.  He was tasked with giving the CBC's dramatic audio division a shot in the arm, and given a budget necessary for this particular mandate.  I guess he must have thought that the Horror genre was just the ticket needed for making listeners want to come back and tune in once more to the wireless.  Whatever the case, the results of the paper trail shows that by the next time we meet Howell, he seems to have had the basic idea and concept all down on the page.  It was just a matter of getting it on the airwaves. 

The rest of the story seems to have been told best by the good folks over at The Nightfall Project website.  "At the very beginning of the 1980s, the CBC hired Susan Douglas Rubes, veteran actress and founder of Toronto's Young People's Theatre, to re-invent and re-invigorate the Radio Drama department. Almost immediately after her installation as Head of Radio Drama, she was approached by Toronto producer Bill Howell (best known at the time for his work on CBC Playhouse and the popular sci-fi adventure series Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space) with an idea for a new supernatural/horror anthology series that would push the boundaries of what had been heard on CBC Radio before. Though not a fan of the horror genre, Rubes recognized a hit when she saw one and gave Howell the green light for what was to become CBC Radio's most successful — and most controversial — drama series.

began production in March of 1980 and the first episode, Love and the Lonely One by Montreal writer John Graham, aired on Friday, July 4th at 7:30 PM. It was followed by stories like The Monkey's Paw and The Tell-Tale Heart by Len Peterson, the ACTRA Award-nominated Welcome to Homerville by Allan Guttman and Don Dickinson, and the controversial plays The Repossession by Arthur Samuels and The Blood Countess by Ray Canale. Over the course of its three-year run, the series featured episodes in a variety of genres beyond its staple of supernatural and horror stories. Science-fiction, mystery, fantasy, and human drama all found their place as part of the series' life. One episode was even adapted from the folk song Harris and the Mare by Stan Rogers.

But what made such a popular series at the time, and what makes it so popular among radio drama enthusiasts today, was Howell's vision of a show that pushed boundaries. Some episodes were so terrifying that the CBC registered hundreds of complaints and some affiliate stations — ones that carried certain CBC programs to outlying areas in the Provinces, but were not CBC stations in themselves — were forced to drop the series. Episodes like the previously-mentioned Repossession (which featured the sounds of a man tearing out his own heart), The Blood Countess (which aurally portrayed some of the hideous acts carried out by the Countess Elizabeth Bathory during her reign in the 17th Century) and The Porch Light (a tense psychological thriller about a couple trapped in a secluded house and haunted by the spectre of a pajama-clad man standing under their porch light in the midst of a raging blizzard) contributed to the collective nightmares of the listening Canadian public. Despite the controversy, however, Nightfall’s popularity grew and the series went on to run 100 episodes (web)".

In essence, what you've got then is very much an old idea enjoying a new surge of popularity, and it all seems to have been a question of good timing.  Bill Howell had his light bulb moment at the very beginnings of a wave of fresh blood popularity for the Horror genre as a whole.  Books like Carrie and Salem's Lot, and films The Exorcist and Halloween had made a big enough impact so that Horror was now the cool and hip thing to be aware of.  So of course publishers and Hollywood studios jumped on the bandwagon as fast as they all could.  The result was that for a surprisingly long time, lasting perhaps until up around 1994, the genre found itself as a constant billboard presence on the pop cultural landscape.  I suppose this also means the fallout was inevitable.  Looking back on the Horror boom of the 80s, its easy to see where the major mistakes lay.  The first was that publishers and studio execs valued quantity over quality.  Making a good work of Horror is as much a genuine Art, as it is a craft.  It seems you can't just throw a daub of stage blood on a wall and expect people to be frightened of it.  There's a lot more than that involved, a greater level of sophistication is required, more often than not.  This requirement seems to have gotten lost in the scramble for any available box-office dollars.  

The second problem was the mistaken belief that Horror is the kind of storytelling that you can just franchise, and then everything will take care of itself.  The trouble is that we're talking about a genre that works best when everything is a kind of delicate balancing act.  Even if things have to go axe-happy sooner or later, the risk is that if you apply the splatter punk technique, then the whole thing is libel to have audiences rolling with laughter, rather than screaming in the aisles.  It's the sort of creative decision that helps cheapen the genre, and the kind of effect and thematic resonances it is trying to accomplish.  It's also the one decision that the big studios kept crawling toward and falling back on.  A lot of it seems to have stemmed from the conviction that it was the safest way to go about things.  All it did for the genre, though, was one big, prolonged disservice.  Thanks to ideas like that, whenever people think of Horror nowadays, one of the first things they still think of is guys like Freddy, Jason, or Chucky.  Meanwhile, the real Art of Terror got lost in the shuffle.  We seem to be just now in the process of rediscovering the genuine literary qualities of the genre as a whole.

The good news is that this is a pit-trap that Howell's brainchild seems to have avoided.  Nightfall itself seems to follow less in the tradition of 80s gore fests, and gears itself a lot toward the more classical approaches of Rod Serling and Richard Matheson.  That's not to say that blood and guts are absent from the proceedings, far from it.  It's just that you can tell the folks in the writer's chair for each episode know something about the genre and what makes it tick.  This leaves us with an anthology that gives you reasons to care about the fictional characters, even when they're being stalked by an extra in a rubber monster suit.  One of the most interesting ways it is able to pull this off is through the series innate sense of the off-kilter.  Much like The Twilight Zone, Nightfall is not afraid to steer things into the realm of surreal and unexplained.  Even when the audience can see the terrors coming, the writing will often have just the right oblique angle to give the horror a twist we didn't anticipate.  It's a technique the show was able to put to good use.  Nowhere is that more obvious than in tonight's episode.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Tiger in the Snow (1984).

In my last article I made a deliberate effort to draw the reader's attention to the way author Philippa Pearce used the image of a lion, or generalized Big Cat, as a symbol for the fantastic in her story.  The tale is told in such a way that the appearance of this Cat right out of the blue, on a normal city street, is meant to appear enigmatic, and out of the ordinary.  This is easily demonstrated by the way the story handles its titular character.  The human like attributes of Pearce's second main lead mark him out as something other than just a normal lion.  There is always an undercurrent of the odd about this strange talking cat, and it's perhaps to Pearce's credit that she was aware of this in composing her work.  As an artist, she appears to have been able to recognize just how unusual a note her talking cat is able to strike in the reader, along with the other fictional characters surrounding him.  It's a character note the author recognizes, and is smart enough to realize that this is the note she needs to latch onto if her story is to have any chance of success.  That element of the unexplained is precisely where the engine that's driving this peculiar narrative is located.  It's what gives even the most unbelievable elements in her story their gripping power.  As a result, the reader keeps turning the pages, and even when the book has been closed up and placed back on the shelf, it's very oddness manages to stay with you.  There's always this lingering sense of the uncanny emanating from the story, and it still hangs in the air well after the final line.

It almost has to be one of the more unique experiences I've had from going into a story cold and unprepared, yet more or less ready for anything.  Part of my reasons for not calling it the most unusual story I've ever read is because, in the strictest sense, I'm not all that sure that Pearce's story exists in a vacuum.  If a fable such as The Lion at School were a genuine one-off, then it might have amounted to something like a true literary anomaly, the printed-page equivalent of one of those old impressionist landscape paintings featuring a lion crawling up to an unsuspected sleeper in the dunes.  Instead, it turns out I can point out at least two other examples where different writers sort of wound up using the same or similar conceit at the center of their respective, individual works.  The first title is the one up for discussion today, Daniel Wynn Barber's Tiger in the Snow.  The second is an old short story by Stephen King.  By turning the focus onto separate and yet somewhat thematically united works from both authors, the atmosphere begins to take a slight turn.  Philippa Pearce recognized an element of the uncanny in her story, and yet her narrative as a whole is kept light and humorous, for the most part.  When we turn to the efforts Barber and King, however, the uncanny begins to take a firm grip on the genre proper.  Even if there's the possibility that we are still dealing with children's stories, we've nonetheless wandered onto the shady side of the street.  By taking up first Barber, and then King, we've more or less entered the precincts of what Ray Bradbury liked to call the October Country.

This in itself doesn't strike me as all that big a leap of imagination.  If Pearce was able to locate an element of the uncanny in her own story, then all it takes for guys like King and Barber is to take that slightly off-kilter note, and then tip it over into full-on Gothic territory.  This includes bringing the image's potential for all out horror right to the front of center stage.  The contrast may seem jarring to some, though any careful examination of literary history and practice will be enough to show that this sort of thing happens all the time.  What it can't show quite as well is just who the author of today's story is, or where he came from, nor have I been able to learn about anything that he might have done, or written since.  In that sense, Daniel Barber is one of the most interesting types of case for the critic to have to confront.  If writer's like Philippa Pearce are capable of providing just enough material to allow us to reconstruct a working, fact-based biography about them, then Barber is very much of the other kind.  All we have of him is a name on the author's byline space, followed by a blank nothing where all the useful background material should be.  

Instead, the closest I've been able to come in terms of a reliable chronological record is this story's publication history, as laid out by the helpful folks at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.  There you'll be able to find out all about the surprisingly long-lasting staying power of Barber's story.  It seems as if his simple efforts have turned out to be the little short story that could.  Tiger in the Snow is not a household tale like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, yet ever since its first appearance way back in 1984, that one effort has managed to stay in print, all the way up to the present day, in fact.  If nothing else, it's a textbook example of the reliability of good writing.  I'm just sorry that I can't find out anything else about the guy who wrote it.  The only other title Barber has to his name seems to be a 1985 effort known as Wings of the Hunter.  Nothing else is forthcoming.  In a way, while that does make the job of contextualization a lot more difficult, it doesn't render the task impossible.  A lot of the reason for that is because even here, Barber sort of conforms to a specific type.  He's one of several anonymous toilers in the trenches who have been able to leave some kind of mark behind, right before they vanish into the literary aether forever, never to be seen or heard from again.  

Barber isn't alone in this type of fate.  The most famous and similar example of this kind of author belongs to that of H.F. Arnold.  He is most known today (if at all) for a short subject known as The Night Wire.  In essence, the tale itself amounts to what has to be one of the first modern examples of apocalyptic horror ever printed.  It comes complete with an otherworldly fog, and what might be the first examples of flesh eating zombies in Horror fiction.  We also don't have a clue as to the life of the man who wrote it.  Dan Barber seems to amount to pretty much the same thing.  He' a name on a page, and his entire mystique stems from the fact that we know positively jack about him.  It's got to be the most anonymous way of gaining fame that exists out there.  You've got to admit, it's a genuine accomplishment of sorts, even if it is a headache for completionists.  The good news is that even if the author has slipped past the microscope lens, there is still plenty in the story itself worth talking about.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Lion at School by Phillipa Pearce.

One of the interesting perks of being a devoted bookworm is having the opportunity of exploring a new talent.  That opening statement is not dishonest exactly, though perhaps it doesn't tell enough of the whole truth.  The writer up for discussion today is no longer qualified as an unknown quantity when I decided to make this my first article on her.  I'd had the luck to discover the talent of a writer like Phillipa Pearce by the time I came to today's topic.  One of these days I really will have to get around to her most famous book.  There's a lot to talk about there, and I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.  That's sort of the explanation for choosing this title to talk about.  Sometimes I find it helps to start out slow and small, then gradually climb to the top of the mountain when the reader is ready and willing for a clear view of the whole panorama.  What I've read from the author so far has left me curious to learn more about her and her type of storytelling.  The curious part is how she's left so little to go on.  It can be frustrating as hell for any critic who wants to present a good snapshot of the author for the reader.  At the same time, I can't deny that there's anything irregular about such circumstances.  The sad truth is sometimes things like this just happen.  It shouldn't comes as any kind of surprise to discover that a lot of genuine talent has an unfortunate habit of slipping through the cracks of awareness and memory.

Philippa Pearce is one of those writers who seem destined to present a challenge to anyone who would like to examine her life in relation to her art.  Some authors, like Dickens, are able to become famous enough for their lives to be presented as more or less open books.  Sometimes, however, you're lucky enough to stumble across what might be called the also rans.  These are the names that wind up as accidental flash-in-the-pans without really deserving such a fate.  Richard Matheson or George Clayton Johnson are two good examples of the kind of writer I'm talking about.  Both are pioneers in the fields of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  Now can anyone tell me who they are?  If the answer turns out to be an impossibility, the sorta good news is you can't entirely be held responsible for something you don't know about.  It's more the fault of a show business model that seems fundamentally designed not to be able to keep track of the very names that helped build it up.  As a result, the Horror genre is dominated by names like Stephen King, yet it never pays attention whenever the very same author makes an open acknowledgement of the debt he owes to the two writers just mentioned above.

The net result is that writers like Pearce, along with Johnson and Matheson wind up as regrettable footnotes when they should probably be at least something approaching solid and respectable brand names, if not outright household titles.  The trouble is that a lot of elements that should be in place for such a preservation process just aren't when the artist needs them, more often than not.  That leaves a certain amount of avid readers out there having to scramble just to uncover anything as basic as a simple author biography.  In the case of Phillipa Pearce, one of the crucial factors that seems key in getting any proper read on her biography has to do with what might be called the importance of place.  Perhaps it should be stressed here that questions of nationality don't enter into it.  Looked at from that perspective, place doesn't stand any sort of chance.  Instead, the phenomenon I'm describing has a lot to do with the psychology of first impressions, the way any well made landscape can impact itself on the artistic imagination in a way that produces creativity, as opposed to ideology.  I can even think of several good examples of what I'm talking about.

J.R.R. Tolkien always liked to say that the first time he ever became aware of his surroundings was in the idyllic countryside of the late Edwardian period.  This was a time when industrialization still hadn't quite chipped away at the local ecology.  It was still possible to enjoy a few green fields of earth, and to any mind with the capacity or talent for artistic creativity, the impressions such a landscape can leave behind might, under the right circumstances, be able to find their way into the ranks of aesthetic immortality.  This is the case with Tolkien, as the fields and pastures of his childhood in Sarehole Birmingham later wound up becoming not just the Shire, yet also a great deal of the secondary world we now know as Middle Earth.  

Stephen King is another writer who seems to have discovered the artistic importance of place.  He's never talked about it as much as Tolkien, and yet if anyone picks up some of his books, one of the elements in them that strikes the perceptive reader is just how good the author is at making certain landscapes come alive and jump off the page, giving that novel's action a sense of immediacy that helps to draw the reader in.  It makes sense to me, for this reason, to think of King as one of the last great, almost pastoral-regional writers in the history of American letters.  There's just something about the old, Gothic, New England landscape that always manages to bring out the best in King's descriptive abilities.  The same process at work in both these authors appears to be in play with the writer under discussion here today.

In the case of Philippa Pearce, one of the first things to note is the place in which she was born and raised.  In her case, that meant the Mill House, down by the River Cam.  It's the kind of setting that manages to have a reputation, and not be well known outside of its own setting, or region.  The reason for that is pretty simple when you realize most Americans, for instance, have no curriculum incentive to learn about other places than their own home.  A place Cambridge, England, however, does at least carry a vague, general sense of familiarity about it.  Don't they have like some sort of famous university going on up there?  Well, as of this writing, that's still the case, yes.  It's also the setting for the location of both the River Cam, and the Mill House, where Philippa grew up.  She wound up as the daughter of Ernest Alexander and Gertrude Ramsden Pearce.  Her father was a miller and/or local flour and corn merchant.  It sort of explains why the whole family was even living at the Mill House in the first place.  Like many residents of certain New England factory towns, the House provided a useful, cheap, and efficient means of housing the local working population (web).  I can't tell for certain, yet this seems to be one of the few cases where the working men and women's accommodations weren't really bad, or degrading for the local morale.  On the contrary, there seems to have been little complaint about a housing complex that appears to have been more upscale and comfortable than the usual fair the working classes had (and in many cases still have) to put up with.

The Mill House of Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, was the first home Philippa ever knew.  Because of its more upscale living conditions, her childhood seems to have been able to be one of decent enough comfort and stability.  She seems to have been able  to enjoy the best of both worlds, as she came of age in a setting that combined elements of the metropolitan with the green and cozy enchantment of the Cambridge countryside.  It's almost as if she was given an interesting sense of options.  A turn in one direction would take you into a normal, thriving, civic population.  Just a few more turns of the corner, however, and you could find yourself in the midst of Geoffrey Chaucer country, with the rolling hills, and the steady quiet noise of the rivers and waterways.  It's easy enough to see how this strangely harmonious, and organic mixture of the urban and the English countryside could find a way to form a positive shape in the mind of a young future artist.  Tolkien, in that sense, was perhaps a bit less lucky than Philippa.  In addition to an equanimity of setting, she seems to have benefited from her specific sense of place in another way.  Philippa Pearce's educational history is sketchy, at least to start with.  Her schooling didn't really begin until she was eight years old.  The reason for that appears to have stemmed from a temporary on and off again childhood illness.

Nonetheless, I sort of have the impression that she suffered very little from what could have been a real setback in any other location.  It is just possible that the young Philippa entered her first day of school with a lot (if not all) of the academic ammunition she needed in order to get by tucked under her arm as she walked into class for the first time.  My reason for thinking this is because while normal class hours might have been denied to her for longer than usual, the same can't be said for any available reading material within reach.  As is the case with family settings like those of Tolkien or J.B. Priestley, Philippa seems to have been encouraged to take an interest in whatever it is that draws a reader to the words and worlds found within the pages of a book.  There are two reasons why they did this, one practical, the other less obvious.  The first is just plain common sense.  If you're a parent, and you know that school is on the horizon for your young pitcher, then I suppose it can at least make a kind of sense to encourage them to start taking to literature in the hopes of doing well in class later on.  That seems to have been part of the logic at play in Philippa's parents allowing her easy access to the world of books.  The second reason is a bit more interesting, as it has to do once more with the occasional importance that place can have on a developing mind.  

It's been established that the author's hometown was located in Cambridgeshire.  Since not everyone lives there, it probably takes more than just a few mental beats to realize that means Philippa was born, grew up, and spent a great deal of her early life never too far from the same University that has long since helped put Cambridge on the map.  The was a place that was long established before her time, way back in 1209 as it turns out.  That means it's had more than seven centuries to it; more than enough to time for the University to help set its stamp on the land surrounding it.  What few seem to realize (perhaps because this is a facet so fundamental as to be almost primal in its general lack of awareness) is just how much of a difference an academic setting can make to any society that is able to grow up around it.  It helps set a tenor, or specific character note to not just the landscape, but also the kind of people who are born, raised, or find themselves drawn to such places.  

Perhaps its a mistake to call such settings a Republic of Letters, however, on the whole, there does tend to be a certain sense of deference to learning and the Liberal Arts in places like Cambridge or Oxford than you tend to find elsewhere, even in most big cities.  This can sometimes result in households where the written word and the people who make it are held in a greater sense of regard than, say, places like Las Vegas.  This seems to have been the case with Ernest and Gertrude Pearce, as they gave their daughter ample opportunity to soak up the truths buried under various imaginary lives.  It takes perhaps a beat or two more before the full truth of the matter starts to sink in.  The reality seems to be that Philippa Pearce owed her skill with books to the fact that she was the ultimate product of a University setting.  She was, in effect, a College Town girl.  It doesn't seem to have hurt her chances, in any case.  Beginner's, Elementary, and eventually even College doesn't seem to have presented her with much of a challenge.  On the contrary, the final results tell of someone who thrived in an academic setting.  Again, luck of the draw, at least in terms of birthplace, seems to have been a good determining factor here.  

From there her professional career is best described as an admirable mixture of the remarkable and the pedestrian.  She seems to have had not much in the way of any personal drama, which might make her a boring subject for the contemporary biographer, yet is probably more of an accomplishment because of that.  Instead, she found herself a steady employment, first as a civil servant, then as a writer and producer of BBC radio programs for school kids.  In addition, she seems to have managed the job of children's editor for the Oxford University Press on the side.  Not a bad record, all things considered.  There's still the question of the stories, and where they might have come from.  I can't even begin to hope to find that kind of an answer in just a simple review article.  Still, it is sort of the ultimate question you have to ask if you want to get at the very heart of literary criticism.  What I think works best is to start out small, and then just keep building on from there as best one can.  That's why I decided to start out with a relatively light piece from her collection of works.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Grey Ones (1952).

He is one of those names that slip through the cracks.  I'm not sure whether that's because there's something forgettable about him, or because he just wasn't that much of an expert on leaving a lasting impact.  I hope the latter isn't the case, because what I've read of John Bertram Priestley, so far at least, sounds pretty good.  There's still the matter of popular unawareness to deal with, however.  The trouble with guys like Priestley is that everything has to be a first introduction.  However famous he might have been in his own day, that was then and this is now, as the saying goes.  That always means making a new acquaintance is in order, even if the name is very old.  The good news is that there are some out there who are willing to help break the ice.  John Baxendale is one such host.  He does a decent (if not perfect) job in granting the newcomer a good overview of his subject in the introduction to That Other Place and Other Stories.

"J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) was one of the most celebrated and prolific of English writers of his time.  Over thirty novels, as many plays, and a continuous stream of essays, journalism, film-scripts and radio broadcasts kept him in the public eye from the 1920s to the 1970s.  Priestley's novels such as The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930), or Bright Day (1946) explore large themes across a broad canvas teeming with characters.  His more concentrated and focused ideas usually became plays.  Short stories were perhaps his least favorite literary form, but he never lacked ideas, and over the years some of them ended up in this form.  Reissuing (That Other Place, sic) in the 1960s, Priestley's publishers gave it a new subtitle, Stories on the Edge of the Marvellous", and that is what they are, thoughtful entertainments with more than a touch of the supernatural.  Priestley once said of the painter Pieter Bruegel that lurking behind the sharply-observed detail of his pictures of peasant life is a "fairy-tale country...poised on the edge of marvels and miracles...feeling a trifle haunted", and the same could be said of these stories: their tales of the uncanny and downright impossible are...set against the sharply-observed detail of ordinary post-war English life, and this is one of their pleasures (v)".

So much for a general outline of the book itself, for the moment.  What about the author?  I think a lot of help in answering that question comes from examining the social background Priestley was born into.  His parents lived their lives in Yorkshire.  What's notable about it that it's almost like an anomaly in its own setting.  Yorkshire was one of the few English townships with an established, and long ingrained liberal tradition running through it.  That meant the author was born and raised in what might be called a germinal open society.  He seems to have been lucky in terms of home life, as well.  His parents seem to have gotten along, and there is no real record of any of the usual details of marital strife, and/or the agonized contest of wills that results from piss-poor parenting.  On the contrary, his folks seemed to have encouraged their son.  As a result, Priestley burgeoning interest in the written arts all stems from an environment capable of fostering such a creative outlet without ever once encumbering or curbing it.

Priestley's Yorkshire background had one other effect on his thinking as an adult.  I have called his social atmosphere a liberal one.  That seems to be true so far as it goes, though just how much of an influence it held over some of the authors political outlooks is perhaps a matter of opinion.  What it all boils down to is the way that some of Priestley's life and thoughts falls into a surprisingly familiar pattern.  In fact, it you were to place him alongside a much more famous writer such as George Orwell, then there is a sense in which you could say it was almost like seeing double.  Both men grew up in a climate where they found themselves first drawn to the allure of Communism, followed by a gradual, growing sense of political disillusionment as the reality of the situation kept pummeling each of them into an acknowledgement of the difference between truth and fantasy.  What's interesting is that they also found themselves turning to the fantastic genres as a means of expressing what they had to say.

In Priestley case, the main ideas that occupied him for the rest of his life are, out of the ordinary, to say the least.  The one flaw in Baxendale's introduction is that he insists on seeing Priestley's life and writings through an ideological lens which the author himself had pretty much given up on by the time the 1950s got off to a start.  Instead, the shedding of one concern seems to have turned his attention to concepts that are perhaps a bit more esoteric and existential.  They were the sort of thoughts that lent themselves easily to the creation of fairy tale countries.  It's a career path of the author's that is never able to sit quite right with the critic.  One gets the sense of Baxendale wishing that Priestley would drop all this romantic tosh and go back to toeing the party line.  If this is the critic's desire, then the obvious irony is that he is several decades too late.  In any case, even if he could have confronted Priestley, I'm sure Baxendale would have come away empty handed and disappointed.  The nature of political disillusionment such as the one John Bertram experienced is very much a concrete illustration of what people mean by such phrases as "burning out the dross".  It is a change of mind, yet what guys like Baxendale seem to have difficulty grasping is that its also like shedding a disused and dangerous skin.

In Priestley's case, there seems to have been a great deal more compensation waiting from him on the other side.  He may have lost his sense of ideology, though I see no evidence that he ever lost his liberalism, which is very much something else.  It also seems to have been a more profitable ending than the one Orwell wound up with.  Priestley seems to have found a second lease on life with his other passions.  I don't call them newfound, because they seems to have been there from the start, even before getting mixed up in what some people refer to as politics.  I have described them as esoteric, and that is because the way Priestley expresses these ideas in his stories is remarkable for their level of familiarity.  In order to give the best idea of what I'm talking about, perhaps it'll help if we take a moment to look at one of these Stories on the Edge of the Marvelous, and see for ourselves just what was it about that Undiscovered Country that Priestley liked to explore so much.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ray Bradbury Theater: The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone.

The Horror Genre found itself in a weird place during the 80s.  Another way of putting it is to claim that the species found itself in the middle of an interesting sort of crossroads at the time.  A lot of it had to do with the seemingly natural ups and downs the genre has found itself mired in over the years.  It's very nature as a home for ghosts rattling chains, flesh eating zombies, and the like has meant that its fortunes will probably always be relegated to a strange, popular outsider status.  The public at large tends to view it like a very exotic form of cobra.  It's form, patterns, sometimes even its very appearance can prove alluring.  At the same time, there's this sense that it's probably not all that healthy to hang around this particular specimen for too long.  It's got teeth, and it can bite you with them any time it damn well pleases.  The unspoken assumption seems to be that once you let that kind of poison into your system, you can pretty much kiss your sanity good night at some point down the line.  Will the last functioning brain cell please turn out the lights before your go.  Such is the perennial reputation enjoyed by the gothic format throughout its long history. 

I suppose that means its not too much of a surprise to discover that its precisely a bad rap like this that tends to draw in all those curious enough to see if it really is as dark and twisted as its critics contend.  This is one of the keys to the genre's staying power.  A lot of what keeps it going is the kind of anxieties and social fears that exist just underneath the surface of our daily existence.  Fictional horror exists, it seems, at least in part as an outlet for these psychological misgivings.  It's an idea that tends to hold a great amount of weight with scholars and students of the genre.  Digby Diehl, for instance, in a book-length history and examination of EC's Tales from the Crypt lays what seems to be a convincing enough pictures of the kind of social petri dish out of which the genre tends to spring, and from which it is able to find its most potent inspirations.  "Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera had sprung from the nightmare conditions of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  Horror comics of the 1950s appealed to teens and young adults who were trying to cope with the aftermath of even greater terrors - Nazi death camps and the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Fifties kids came of age in a booming, button-down America during an era punctuated by outbursts of national paranoia.  School duck-and-cover drills nourished the fear that at any moment a nuclear attack could send us into shelters to live on Ritz crackers for years.  As high school graduates were getting shipped off to Korea, the McCarthy hearings and the Rosenberg spy trial reinforced the idea that America's enemies were everywhere...It was difficult for adolescents to deal with these deep-seated fears for survival, rational or otherwise...Millions of young Americans, who had no frame of reference to judge how far the times were out of joint, were whipsawed by the dichotomy between mortal terror and creature comforts (28)".  It didn't take those same kids long, however, to discover just how disjointed their own world was.  When the year 1963 rolled around, the children of the 50s had been molded and primed into becoming the shapers and makers of the 1960s.  Their looming, unconscious fears had created a sense of threat in need of addressing.

This turned out to be one of several internal triggering mechanisms which allowed more than a few artists to vent these collective social fears into short stories, books, and films that were able to capture those anxieties in a gothic guise, and more or less preserve them forever in the literary and celluloid amber of those decades.  By the time the children of the 50s had becomes the adults and parents of the 80s, this self-understanding of their own fears had matured, at least to a considerable enough extent.  Now they had names and faces to place on the elements (both external and internal) that went bump in the night side of their own minds.  It was this nascent sense of development that seems to have been the key factor in helping the twilight terrors of our imaginations to find an mostly unremarked second life on the small screen during the Reagan years.  John Kenneth Muir gives a neat summation of the mindset that helped launch the second spring of Horror on the small screen as part of his encyclopedic work, Terror Television.  

For Muir, it's important to understand that a lot of the surge in popularity that the genre experienced during the 80s all tended to have its roots a bit back in the 70s.  "It is important to recall that the early 1970s...represented an epoch in which television violence was, by some standards, considered excessive.  Although positions soon changed, and the networks cleaned up their acts...early 1970s programming...somehow escaped drastic censorship and showed much more violence and intensity than previous series had.  The fun, brightly colored, action-packed, and optimistic TV visions of the 1960s, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) and Star Trek (1966-69) were (in the first half of the 70s) superseded by violent, dark, grim programming such as Night Gallery and Kolchak.  Many of these new series were actually lensed at night, so they were not merely dark in the philosophical sense, but in the literal sense as well.  The turn toward darkness was a shift in the national mood due, at least in part, to the shocking and graphic news footage coming back from the Vietnam War.  It was as if for the first time Americans were aware of a darker world, and television reflected that shift in perspective.

"Conversely, but not necessarily in contradiction, horror programming of the '70s also provided, as it always has, a catharsis and escape from real life dilemmas.  So, while Vietnam was a morass which inspired moral controversy at home, the "evil" vampires, werewolves, and monsters of these early 1970s shows offered viewer a world very unlike the real one.  On TV, monsters and other supernatural villains could easily be identified and dealt with.  The dark, disturbing reality of life was mirrored in the anti-establishment...philosophies of these shows, but such grim ideas were also subverted and made "acceptable" by their presence on the tube in what amounted to entertainment formats (12)".  I think Muir's take on things is both informative and incomplete by turns.  I'm not for a minute going to doubt that the fallout of Nam caused the great majority of Americans to believe their own government might not always have their best interests in mind.  Nor is Muir incorrect when he says this is reflected in a lot of the Gothic oriented programming of the years following the close of what amounted a misguided national embarrassment.  The real trouble is the lingering sense that the critic has narrowed the focus in just a bit too much.  As a result, the actual big picture is in danger of getting lost in the shuffle.

The real truth of what was happening not just in television at that time, but also cinema, literature, and the arts in general, is really quite obvious when given a bit of thought.  The simple fact was that the student hippies of the Nam years were starting to come of age.  That meant you were seeing a lot of former attendees of Monterey Pop, or Woodstock, slowly begin to invade the hallowed halls of respectability.  The trick to the whole development is this.  Though they may have stashed the tie dye shirts and peace medallions out of sight, their output on the creative front indicates that a lot of the philosophies, the thoughts, ideas, and above all the music and goals that made them turn on, tune in, and drop out were still very much in the forefront of their minds, guiding their actions to produce some of the iconic films and shows of that decade.  In addition, a widening of the lens reveals that the success of films like the original Star Wars, combined with the continuing success of Gene Roddenberry's efforts on the same big screen, all seem to point toward a greater sense of continuity than Muir is willing to credit.  It's a shared cultural ethos that I tend to think unites even those artists who are normally not considered in the same space. 

The 80s incarnation of the Twilight Zone might not be the same thing as John Carpenter's They Live, and that movie is the polar opposite of Spielberg's E.T.  The one thing each separate entity shares in common is the same, continuous, counter-cultural strand of thinking which sought (and perhaps still seeks) to challenge the abuse of authority in all its forms.  It's the one uniting element to be found in just about all of the Horror programming from that decade, and I'm convinced that it helped shape the kind of stories that a lot of the televisual and cinematic artists of the period had to tell.  There's a lot of soul-searching going on, a lot of trying to think forward as well.  The net result of all this combination and coagulation of elements was a TV network field in which the regular walls and boundaries had been knocked out, leaving the playing field a bit more open to experimentation (of the genuine kind) and risk taking.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I'm not sure when the next one will come, if ever.

The curious part in all this is how it allowed one creative voice in particular to have a platform for the kind of stories he had to tell.  I guess what makes it standout so well against the pack is that his was an older voice that nonetheless managed to make the transition across the generation gap.  The main reason for this seems to have been a combination of luck and timing  It was impossible for Ray Bradbury to not be impacted by the events and social upheavals of the decade in the same way as a lot of his younger readers, many of whom were just fresh-faced college kids with a lot to worry about in their future.  The result is that when books like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles hit the drug store racks, these same readers found a voice that spoke to their situation.  Bradbury seemed to share a lot of their concerns about the state of the post-war world at large, and was willing to share his thoughts with others.  In doing so, he seems to have helped a lot of others find their own voices as the times kept a changin'.  The ripple effect from such humble beginnings wound up making Ray into a kind of global icon by the time executives from the fledgling USA network approached him with the offer of manning his very own TV series.  

The result was known as The Ray Bradbury Theater, one of few 80s anthology shows to survive getting dropped by its original network.  Each episode would open with Bradbury taking a somewhat iconic elevator up to his writing room office space.  The camera would follow Bradbury as he slowly leads us into his his inner sanctum.  It's one of those self-made nerd's paradises where all the walls are plastered over with old movie posters, stills of the stars, and various old masks and knickknacks.  The bookshelves, meanwhile, are stuffed to the gills with the sort of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore that would make book-dealers and bibliophiles itch just knowing they're there.  Bradbury would then inform us that this is the place where he gets his ideas.  I'm pretty sure the truth was a bit more complex than that, however it makes for a killer opening.  It's not as high rated as the ones found on the Zone, Outer Limits, or Tales from the Darkside.  However it helps to set just the right tone for the kind of stories Bradbury has to tell.  While he's mostly remembered today as a Science Fiction author, Ray was more like a genre fiction polymath.  He was the sort who was just as much at home in either a haunted house, or somewhere among the stars.  His anthology provides a showcase for this variety.

One episode in particular contains this opening narration.  "I'm surrounded by file after file of ideas, stories, poems, and fragments of novels, put away over some forty years.  I go through them constantly, and whichever story, poem, or play cries the loudest to be born gets written.  But I've often wondered.  If someone said to me, "Your stories or your life", would I save my life, or my stories?  And so, "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone" was born".