Sunday, July 31, 2022

Xo Orpheus: The Sisters (2013).

Not too long ago, I did a review on a book edited and published by Kate Bernheimer.  It was one of those simple, under-the-radar type fantasy anthologies that you can easily find anonymously dotting the bookstalls of your local Barnes and Noble.  One of those obscure publications that probably doesn't deserve to be left collecting dust on a back shelf somewhere, in other words.  It's almost a commonplace of literature, and what it amounts to in practice is a sometimes great way of stockpiling curious volumes of forgotten lore for rediscovery at a later date.  I first heard of Bernheimer's anthology through a chance review of it on the Truth Inside the Lie blog.  It's one of those brief overviews that always manage to be handy enough to build up an interest in even the casual reader.  The merest description of the contents of the Xo Orpheus book were enough to one day get me to knuckle down and pick up a copy of my own.

The first result of these efforts were published a while ago, like I said.  It may even be possible to level the charge that I what wrote doesn't even amount to a review so much as an informal essay critique, one limited solely to Bernheimer's introduction to the entire collection.  My only defense for going that route was based on the fact that I still think Bernheimer's thoughts on the current state of myths in contemporary life is flawed at its core.  She seems to think that its impossible for anything so ancient to survive in whatever the modern scene happens to be, that all myths are doomed to oblivion in the inevitable march of progress.  Or at least that's what I took away from her editorial introduction.  My own take on that is pretty much the opposite, however.  I think all the best myths have a way of maintaining their own staying power.  It's like they one day take on a life of their own, and live on in the imaginations of new generations.  It appears to be a form of pop-cultural osmosis that is able to transfer all these old legends down through the ages, regardless of era, or zeitgeist.  If that weren't the case, then the content of Bernheimer's own anthology would probably never have been published at all.

What that says to me is that the main reason the figures of Greco-Roman or Norse folklore are able to survive and thrive in the 21st century is because more than anything else, they've managed to find universal forms of expression.  What I mean is something like this. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King once opined that what a good work of Horror fiction is looking for are what he called the "phobic pressure points" of the audience (4).  It's that innermost place where you live, and the good work of Horror is meant to play on those pressure points like a well tuned harp.  I think it's just possible to argue that a similar, yet differing process plays out in the case of all the classic myths.  The difference is rather than anything "phobic", what myth in general plays upon might be referred to, in a Jungian sense, as "perrenial pressure points".  These are the rest of the stock responses to be had in any well told story.

It's the part of our mind that responds to hopes, dreams, wishes, and wonders, in addition to the occasional shock of horror.  These "pressure points", or responses, are so universal as to permit the myths that create them an easy level of translation and understanding from one generation to the next.  It's a phenomenon that guys like Jung, Joseph Campbell or J.R.R. Tolkien spent their whole lives studying.  Sure it classifies them as a bunch of hopeless nerds, and yet that just begs the question.  How come everyone remembers their names, along with all or most of the myths they either helped create or translate for future readers?  I think a better way to explain the current state of myths in the contemporary scene is that all of them are there, on the table, for the asking.  The key thing that determines which myths receive the most prominence at any given moment depends on the particular direction the zeitgeist, or culture, is headed, or rather where it directs its perceptual lens.  It's a process that always seems to be a little all over the place at once.  Hence Bernheimer can get her collection of reworked mythological motifs published, and Dave Lowery can win acclaim with The Green Knight.

In that sense, Bernheimer's concerns about the health of myths in modern society seems greatly exaggerated.  The good news is that none of this really matters for the actual contents of her anthology.  If Bernheimer is wrapped up in questions of the sustainability of myth in her duties as editor, the writers who have agreed to be a part of her collection are burdened by no such identity crisis.  Each of them to an artist has enough experience under their belt to realize that myth is a constant source of inspiration for their work.  As such, all they have to do is sit down at the writing desk, and then start digging for treasure.  That's why I get the sense that contributors like Sabina Murray have a much clearer view of things, and as a result are having a lot more fun with this gig than Bernheimer seems capable of.  I don't know what to say to any of that, other than to note an irony when I see it.  That just leaves us with Murray herself, and the work of hers that is on the docket for review.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury: Little America (2011).

Sometimes you don't know what to say.  That's just the way it goes, or so it seems.  It's difficult to tell where to begin with a name like Ray Bradbury.  I think there might be a number of reasons for that.  Part of it, of course, is to due to good old fashioned cultural amnesia.  Life itself seems to be moving at a pace where its a wonder if the man on the street is even aware of the town or city he lives in, what it's history is, or where it came from.  What in hell is an Alamo, for example?  Another, more complex reason is the way the reputation of certain ink stained wretches can sometimes grow to impossible seeming proportions over time.  We're not talking about your run-of-the-mill Mid-List fiction writer here.  The kind of authors I'm thinking of have left behind legacies that tower and dwarf over your Don DeLillo's and Sue Grafton's.  These are the simple scribblers whose works have become monoliths with the passage of time.  Something that turns them all into giants whose shoulders sometimes prove impossible to get a purchase on.  It's the case with writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, or J.R.R. Tolkien.  It's also the truth about Ray Bradbury.

When he first got started way back in the day, pounding out a dollar a word for himself on whatever typewriter he could afford, spewing out copy for whichever pulp magazine would give him something for his next meal, he was nothing special.  There was very little to distinguish this near dirt poor hayseed kid from Waukegan, Illinois amongst the other toilers in the trenches of the yellow rag press.  It was a setup as far from the New Yorker as you could get.  We're talking dubious periodicals here, with names like Black Mask, or even something as generic as Thrilling Wonder Stories.  They dealt mainly in cheap thrills interlaced here and there with scatterings of work that might just show tell-tale trace elements of quality on occasion.  In other words, there was a lot to like about all of it.  Though you wouldn't suppose that this was the breeding ground for all of the major popular genres as we now know them.  More to the point, there was no way anyone could guess that some four-eyed hick from Illinois would wind up playing anything like a pivitol role in all of this.  You just have to laugh at the idea.

It also doesn't change the facts of history.  What the evidence reveals to us today is that if you have to look for any one writer who can be said to have helped set the definitive mold on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, then Ray Bradbury is your best candidate.  This is where the difficulty comes in, because when you talk about the artistic achievement of someone like Bradbury, what you're really trying to discuss is the way all the modern forms of popular Fantastic entertainment took shape, and were given the final forms, or stamps of identity by which we know them now.  What we're dealing with, then, is tall order, one that would take a whole book in order to do it justice.  The best anyone can do in a limited amount of space like this is to offer the faint suggestions of a first outline of Bradbury' accomplishment.  Right now, the best way I know how to describe all that is to say that it all came down to two or three crucial ingredients.  The first was that of finding the right, contemporary voice.  The other two were locating the right sort of stage setting, and the proper creative imagery to go along with it.  What this means in practical terms is that Ray gave a voice and home for a lot of old myths.

If you want to get technical about, there was nothing all that new about the stage in which Bradbury set all of his fiction.  So far as I can tell, it's little more than the same one guys like Shakespeare used way back in the day.  All Ray did was stumble upon it while looking for story material, saw some potential in the old, discarded grand edifice, and found all he really had to do was apply a few new coats of paint, and then he was pretty much in business.  He might have done little more than give the forms, themes, and plot devices of ancient myth a surface makeover.  Yet the key thing to note is that in finding a working modern expression for a lot of hoary old tropes, Bradbury didn't just wind up writing a lot of good stories.  He created art in such a way that everything he wrote would go on to set the kind of basic standard for everything to do with either lands far away, worlds located in other galaxies, or else all those dark corners, lanes and byways that he would later designate as "The October Country".

In each case, without ever really meaning to, Bradbury created an artistic mold, or paradigm in which later arrivals such as George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry, Neil Gaiman and Steven Spielberg, or John Carpenter and Stephen King could find room to thrive and carry on where the old Waukegan Martian left off.  Indeed, it could be argued that all King did was to find his eventual way into Ray's October Country, and then set up a permanent office space there.  Just recently it even looks as if King's son, Joe Hill, is more or less poised to take over the management of the Old Country for future posterity.  This then is just a preliminary suggestion of the myriad legacy that was left behind by Ray Bradbury.  It's an accomplishment whose effects aren't lost on the likes of Sam Weller and Mort Castle.  It's the main reason they banded together to help create Shadow Show, an anthology of short fiction dedicated to and inspired by the work of Ray Bradbury.  If I had to take a guess, then it's Weller who started the idea.

He's no stranger either to Bradbury's work, or the author himself for that matter.  Weller spent a great deal of time interviewing Bradbury during the final years of his life.  It was a brief yet impactful meeting of two minds.  At the end of it, Weller had come away with enough of an understanding on who Bradbury was to later give us a full-length, published biography way back in 2006.  So far it remains the standard introductory text to Ray and his particular brand of Gothic Science Fictionalism.  With this knowledge in mind, a collection like Shadow Show takes on an air of inevitability.  Odds are even it's possible that Weller felt the need to give a little something back in return for the writer opening his house and home to him for such a gracious period of time.  So together with Mort Castle, Weller canvassed a list of some of the best names in the Fantastic genres, and this is the final result.

In his introduction to the anthology, Weller lays out the main premise better than I can, really:

"In Shadow Show, this celebration of Ray Bradbury, artists who have been profoundly influenced by him pen their own short stories in homage, stories that through image, theme, or concept are either ever so obviously or ever so subtly "Bradbury-informed."  From the lyrical magic of Dandelion Wine, to the shifting sands of Mars, to the roiling mist of The October Country, Bradbury's literary achievements in all their scope are honored by a host of today's top writers.  Shadow Show presents our most exciting authors, who, like the honoree, are not contained or constrained by category or locale, as they touch the Bradbury base for inspiration to explore their own singular, wildest imaginings.The stories in this volume are niether sequels nor pastiches but rather distinctive fictive visions by writers inspired by a single common touchstone: the enduring works of Ray Bradbury (4-5)".

It's a book I think I caught in passing, is all.  Like maybe it was a title that caught my eye as I was running my gaze over the list of titles in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of a local Half-Price Books, or something.  I didn't snatch it up then and there.  However, it seemed like something that could maybe be worth keeping an eye on.  Sooner or later this idea turned from a lingering possibility to a promise more or less kept.  I think what might have cinched the deal for me was a positive review I caught of it from the Truth Inside the Lie blog.  The result was the same, either way.  I knuckled under, paid the ticket, and took a ride.  What follows is a review of the first carnival attraction I took on the Shadow Show.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

War of the Worlds (1953).

We almost could have had a Hitchcock version.  Let that sink in for minute.  This would have all happened a long time ago.  Some way back during the 1930s, or so I'm told.  What I've heard is that old "Hitch" once went so far as to track down the author of the original, 1897 Sci-Fi novel, The War of the Worlds, just so he could get his permission to adapt it into a feature-length film.  This is information I picked up from within the pages of Bill Warren's massive, encyclopedia length survey of Science Fiction films from the 1950s, Keep Watching the Skies (878).  As far as I was concerned, I'd never had a clue that ever happened.  It's one of those pieces of trivial information that doesn't matter much except to a small sector of the world known as either bookworms, or various genre geeks and aficionados.  To the vast majority of the world, such information has no choice except to come off as unexpected, and confusing.  That reaction is pretty much the same for biblio and SF cinephiles.  The difference in our case is that rather than just giving a shrug of the shoulders, that kind of information can't help but sound incredibly cool to our ears.  It sort of explains why we're a minority, and yet there's no apologizing for it.

For guys like me, the fact that an auteur genius like Hitchcock would turn out to be enough of a fanboy of the prototypical alien invasion story gives the old Hollywood legend this strange sense of humanity that goes a long way toward making him seem less aloof, cool, and detached as his now famous public persona.  It suggests the image of this young kid growing up on the outskirts of London, and rather than a pint-sized version of the dapper, sadistic Master of Suspense, he's like this walking cliche of geekdom.  The sort of kid you might expect to find making his way home from school in suspenders, with maybe a bottle of soda pop in one hand, and either a newspaper comic, a dime novel purchased off a drugstore rack, or maybe the latest issue of The Strand Magazine tucked under one arm, hoping against hope that Arthur Conan Doyle might have found his way back to Baker Street one more time.  

The information provided by Warren allows us to imagine a further variation on this image.  Instead of an Across-the-Pond equivalent of a Pulp Crime serial, its one of those early periodicals that were making their first tentative stabs at Interplanetary fiction, just before the advent of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories helped launch the genre's much touted Golden Age.  The picture of a young nerd immersing himself in the Fantastic genres is as cliche, and dime a dozen as they come.  Nor was it anything like an isolated incident even back then.  The proverbial woods, as the saying goes, was and is still "full of 'em".  What comes as a shocker is to find out that a guy like Hitchcock counts as one of the tribe.  In retrospect, I guess that knowledge shouldn't come as too great a surprise.  Hitch would never have been the artist he became if didn't have an understanding and sympathy for the popular forms of storytelling.  I think it's just the way he presented himself in public, and the style he infused into his best work always manages to give off this sense of class, and taste.  He makes you feel as if you're watching a type of cinema for sophisticates.  Realizing he was a Sci-Fi nerd is a left field surprise.

What Warren's information tells the astute reader, more than anything, is just how much of an impact H.G. Well's Martian novel has left on artists and fans throughout the world.The best way to describe a phenomenon like that is to label it a template setter.  It's the sort of thing that, like Mt. Everest, just happens  every now and again.  Some artist comes along, and either by the purest dumb luck, a burst genius, or most likely a combination of the two results in one of those stories that manages to burrow its way into the unconscious zeitgeist of the culture at large.  This seems to have been the fate of Wells's space yarn, and it's shelf life in the public consciousness appears to be guaranteed for quite some time.

It appears to have left enough of an impact on the mind of someone like a young Hitchcock to such an extent that the man who would later leave a definitive stamp on the Mystery genre still felt compelled to hunt down one of the main shapers of Speculative Fiction all the way in Nice (ibid), and try to ask his permission to make a movie out of it.  It's one of those great what-if moment that history like to tease us with.  Because: reasons.  It means at one point, we could have had an early, big screen, Invaders from Mars epic from the same director who brought you Psycho, and quite possibly featuring Orson Welles himself in the starring role.  None of that ever happened. And it's at moments like these when it's possible to understand how people keep asking the question: Why can't we have nice things?

Wells doesn't seem to have shown any reluctance to Hitchcock's film proposal.  The one monkey in the wrench, as Wells pointed out, was that the rights for the novel were then locked up with Paramount studios, and Hitchcock was still a young novice at the time.  His star was rising, yet even though his career would soon be on the make, it was still at that point were he was considered "Little People" by the moguls running Hollywood at the time.  That's got to be one of the sharpest kicks in the teeth history had in store.  What makes it worse is that it was lying in wait for such a long time, and still you never see it coming.  So, the movie rights to the book languished away, possibly in some studio vault, way out there in the Paramount lot in Hollywood.  There the rights to the novel sat, and waited, with all the time in the world, and nothing to do.  Hitchcock became a film legend, and still no one bothered with the property.  H.G. Wells himself, the man who first brought Mars down to earth, shuffled off whatever we think these mortal coils are supposed to be, and the rights to his work stayed right where the were.  A carbon copy paper version of the Sphinx, and just as inscrutable.  Nothing important happened with them for the longest time.  And then Hungarian producer George Pal took them up.