Friday, October 31, 2008

A Demon in My View

Here's a little Halloween story for you. My grandmother's family lived for years in an old house that was actually a house within a house within a house. See, the old homestead had originally been a log cabin and then another house had been built on part of the same foundation and still used the original chimney. Then years later the family extended the house by adding on to the second house.
Here's the beginning of the creepy part. When they added on they covered over one of the interior windows, but left the window in place on the outside of the house, so the house has a window on the outside that isn't on the inside. As a child this absolutely fascinated me. They had locked the window and left the curtains and blinds in place when they had walled it up, so you couldn't actually look into the window. Many times I tried, stacking up bricks or boxes so I could climb up and try to see into the room that wasn't there.
Here's where things get creepier. I was talking to one of my second cousins, who had lived in the house when she was a small girl and she told me about an experience she had there. The place was built in an old fashioned style where the front door opened into a wide hallway that led straight to the kitchen in the back of the house and doorways on either side of this hall opened onto bedrooms and such. There was a very narrow flight of steps just inside the front door that led up to an attic. The attic had one of those doors which was flush with the ceiling so you had to push it upwards. I remember going up there a few times as a kid and it was a very dark and spooky place. What little light the room had was supplied by a single naked bulb and one small window at the far end.
Anyway, my cousin said that one Christmas when she was five or six the family was having a party there at the house and she was standing in the doorway of the parlor when she heard a creaking noise from the front of the house. She wandered down the hall and heard the sound again which caused her to look up the stairs to the attic door. The door was open just a crack and she could see some...thing looking down at her.
She described it as 'the devil' saying that it had yellow eyes like a cat's, a mouth full of sharp teeth, and curling horns like those of a goat. What she could see of its body was covered in shiny red scales. The thing was apparently crouched in the attic and holding the door open. She could see the fingers of one clawed hand on the edge of the door. Then the creature brought its other hand into the light from the hall and beckoned to her.
She ran screaming back to the parlor and when her mother accompanied her back to the foot of the attic stairs, the monster was gone. Our memories often play us false, especially our childhood memories, and I figure this was really a dream that my cousin had, though she remembered it as something that actually occurred. Still the details impressed me. Particularly the hand holding the door open so the thing could peer down the stairs. Not the sort of thing you'd expect a small child to invent.
Dream or imagined event it makes for a darn creepy story and somehow in my mind the tale of the demon on the stairs is always linked with that window on the outside that isn't on the inside. Because I figure if there is a demon residing in the old family home, it lives in the room that isn't there. Happy Halloween and pleasant dreams.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Adventure of the Peerless Peer

And speaking of Sherlock Holmes, I finally got a nice copy of one of the stranger Holmes pastiches, Phillip Jose Farmer's The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, a short novel which teams the world's greatest detective with Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan of the apes. I'd been wanting to read this one for years, and I'd sort of read it before, but as Watson would say, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Though considered part of the Wold Newton canon, The Adventure of the Peerless Peer is a bit more tongue in cheek than most of Farmer's other Tarzan related novels. Set during World War I, the basic plot gimmick is a designer bacilli that can be chemically programmed to devour a specific foodstuff. This is kind of goofy. However, since the formula for this ravenous germ has fallen into the hands of Von Bork, the German spy who is the bad guy in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'final' Sherlock Holmes tale, His Last Bow, it's up to the aged Holmes and Watson to take up the chase.
Dispatched by Holmes' older brother Mycroft to Africa, Holmes and Watson share a series of sometimes comic adventures as they are exposed to two unstable American pilots (who will be immediately recognizable to fans of the pulps), engage in a running battle atop and within a Zeppelin, and are finally forced to leap from the damaged Zeppelin into the African jungles, where they are taken prisoner by the Germans.
They manage to escape their captors but are menaced by hista the snake, only to be saved by the timely arrival of Lord Greystoke. The rest of the book involves a lost city, a beautiful priestess, human sacrifice, and the other things one expects from a Tarzan book. There's also quite a bit of humor at the expense of Edgar Rice Burroughs' coincidence laden plots and Tarzan's tendency to lose his memory at the drop of a hat but it's good natured ribbing and show's Farmer's love for the source material.
One thing I did note when reading Peer was that Tarzan, when viewed from an outside perspective, is kind of scary. In Burroughs' novels, the ape man is shown mostly from the inside. His actions may be cruel or violent, but since we are privy to his thoughts, we know why he does what he does. Viewed from Watson's point of view, Greystoke is a man who eats raw meat, communicates with animals, and seems more than willing to kill anyone who gets in his way or simply annoys him. An interesting take on the character.
I mentioned above that I had sort of read the book before. See, Peerless Peer wasn't authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate, and when it was reprinted later in the anthology The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, Philip Jose Farmer rewrote the novel as The Adventure of the Three Madmen, replacing Tarzan with Rudyard Kipling's jungle boy Mowgli. I'd read that one about a decade ago. Both versions are worth reading, since the Mowgli version has some different and additional material, but I much prefer the Tarzan version. But you'd expect that from me, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In Re: Sherlock Holmes

Knowing of my fondness for Sherlock Homes, several people have emailed me, asking what I think about the new Sherlock Holmes movie currently being filmed with Robert Downey Jr. as the great detective. Well as Holmes would say, "It is a capital mistake to speculate before the facts, Watson," and I have very few facts. I have seen a couple of photographs showing Downey in a costume that looks rather like a Victorian street person, but I'm hoping that's a disguise. Holmes was big on disguises.
The director, Guy Ritchie has said that "The movie will be faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories", however he and Downey have also said there will be a lot more action. That's not completely out of character as the early Holmes stories listed Holmes as being an accomplished boxer, and fencer, and later he was shown to have studied ju-jitsu. (Misnamed as Baritsu) I'm okay with action sequences of course, though I do hope that Holmes' brilliant deductions aren't overlooked.
And speaking of deductions, here are a few I can make from the cast list. The cast contains Mary Morstan and Irene Adler. Morstan was the heroine of The Sign of Four and she married Watson after that novel. Irene Adler was the only woman who Holmes ever showed much interest in. So there are your probable romantic leads. Holmes'usual arch enemy Professor Moriarity isn't mentioned in the list so I'm hoping that means he isn't in the film at all. Really tired of Moriarity and every genius who tries to write a new Holmes film always seems to think he has to trot out this character who only appeared in one Holmes story and never actually on stage. He is referred to but never seen.
So anyway, I'm willing to wait and give the film a chance. I thought Downey was great in Iron Man and I've seen him do a British accent before so he can pull that part of it off. Would he have been my first choice for Sherlock Holmes? Nope. That would be Hugh Laurie of House M.D. I think he'd make a great Holmes. But I assume that the makers of the film are aiming at the youth audience so they wanted a cast that would appeal more to the Pirates of the Caribbean crowd. Jude Law is Watson and the two leading ladies are quite the hotties if that gives you any clue.
So my verdict for the moment is wait and see. It could be a lot of fun. And if it bombs, there's always Jeremy Brett on DVD.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tales to Read With the Lights On

Beth has requested Halloween reading suggestions so I am stepping up. Of course if you read back through the last week or so of posts, you'll find that I've been giving a lot of Halloween ideas already. But I got more.
Last year I recommended Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. I'll put that at the top of this years list too, since I consider it one of the top Halloween reads of all time. Next I'll recommend Ramsey Campbell's collection of horror short stories, Alone With the Horrors. There are some gems in there that I guarantee will give you a shudder or two. I'm thinking of a particularly grisly little tale called "Call First."
Now, a little harder to come by, but worth the effort to seek out is Karl Edward Wagner's horror collection, In a Lonely Place. This book is worth owning purely for the short story "Sticks", (which many believe was ripped off by the makers of The Blair Witch Project) but it also contains "The River of Night's Dreaming", ".220 Swift," "In the Pines" and "Where the Summer Ends" which are not only some of the best of Wagner's work, but some of the finest horror stories I've ever read, period. I can't recommend this book enough and it's a crying shame that it's out of print.
Easier to come by and one of the scariest ghost stories I can recall is Barbara Michaels "Ammie Come Home". Not one to read when you're home alone late at night. You can probably find this one at your local used bookstore or even the library. Really creepy.
Oh and I've recommended F. Paul Wilson's "The Keep" before but I'll do so again. And if you want to go with Stephen King, my favorite is "Bag of Bones."
Anyway, those are my suggestions for your Halloween reading enjoyment. Don't blame me if you end up sleeping with the lights on.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Long Halloween

I just learned that Tom Fagan died a few days ago. Fagan, sometimes known as Mr. Halloween, was a comics fan and the man behind the Rutland Vermont Halloween parade. For anyone who grew up reading comic books in the 1970s, Tom was also a familiar face in the pages of the comics themselves. Over the years Superheroes from DC, Marvel, and even Gold Key were involved in Halloween stories set around Rutland and the Halloween parade. Usually Tom would make a guest appearance and often play a role in the plot. I got used to seeing Tom pop up in Batman, Justice League, Avengers, and Thor, he also appeared in Doctor Spector, Freedom Fighters, and various other comics. Probably the one everyone remembers best is Batman #237 because of the amazing art job by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano. I always enjoyed these early examples of meta-fiction and as a young comics fan I wondered who this Fagan guy was and how did he rate teaming up with all those super heroes? Years later I learned that many comics professionals attended the Rutland Halloween parade and knew Fagan personally. I was saddened by the news of Tom Fagan's death. He held a bright and spooky little spot in my childhood. He still does.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

And More halloween Reading

Continuing my Halloween reading, I read William Hope Hodgson's novel The House on the Borderland which is amazingly good since it's like 100 years old. It's a tale of alternate dimensions, astral journeys, and horrible monsters that climb out of a pit to menace a man and his sister in an ancient house. What more do you want? Available online at:

Tonight I read horror short stories by Henry Kuttner, Ramsey Campbell, and Robert E. Howard. And right now I'm about to read an essay about Hodgson by H.P. Lovecraft. The chills continue.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Little Halloween Poetry

"If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be."

Everyone knows The Raven and other standard Halloween poems, so I thought I'd offer something a little different. Long before I knew anything about Stephen King's Dark Tower series, I'd been creeped out by Robert Browning's Poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.' I had thought at one point it might make a good basis for a sword & sorcery story, but after learning that Mr. King had staked out that particular poem for himself I abandoned that idea. But I still love the poem and I still find it eerie and a little disturbing. It's too long to post the whole thing here so I'm supplying a link to an etext.

The Haunted Air

Well as expected I did end up reading F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack novel 'The Haunted Air' over the weekend. This is probably the most complex of the series so far, weaving so many subplots together that I sometimes had trouble keeping track. The main plot seems to be about two fraudulent spiritualists hiring Jack to find out who's trying to ruin their business and possibly kill them. But when Jack and his girlfriend Gia show up at the spiritualist's mansion, Jack's involvement with 'the otherness' causes something to awaken within the house, an angry spirit who has sinister plans for Jack, Gia, and their unborn child.
But wait. There's more. Jack takes a side job watching out for a man who's brother is afraid "he might do something violent' under a new moon. And this being an F. Paul Wilson novel, neither the man nor the brother are exactly what they appear to be. Wilson skillfully works all of these characters together as it slowly becomes apparent that all of these events are connected and all of them aimed at bringing Jack into the vengeful grasp of the otherness. There are call backs to previous novels, both in the Repairman Jack series and the six volume 'Adversary' series. Molasar or Rasalom or whatever he's calling himself these days isn't on the scene but his influence is felt.
As usual, Wilson ratchets up the suspense as the book progresses, bringing things to a slam bang and satisfying conclusion. There are enough ghostly happenings to make this a fine book for the Halloween season. There's one particularly creepy scene that takes place in the mansion's cellar where...but the would be telling. I can't recommend the Repairman jack series enough. I'm amazed it took me this long to find the books and I'm really having trouble not reading them all back to back.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ain't it Funny How Time Slips Away

I went up to my brother's house today for my nephew Zack's 16th birthday party. Hard to believe he's 16 years old. He can look me in the eye now. Probably be taller than me next year and I'm 6'2". Of course his dad is 6'5".
Anyway I remember when he was born because I actually had to take his mom to the hospital. I was working at home back then writing Chinese comic books for Jademan Comics and my brother was many miles away at his job when his wife went into labor. He called me on the phone and told me to get his wife and get her to the hospital and he'd meet us there. No pressure.
So though I have no children I have made that ride that all father's dread to some degree. We made it just fine, but I had to turn around and head right back home because someone had to teach two classes that evening at the Karate dojo I ran with my brother. So when my nephew was being born I was actually teaching reverse punches. Anyway, Zack is quite the young man now. He'll be able to drive down and visit me on his own now. The mind boggles.

Monday, October 13, 2008

More Gothic Goings On

A friend of mine asked for help with a plot for a Halloween role playing game she was running and I obliged with a 6000 word short story of a plot based on my recent readings in the Gothic literature of the 1700s. I threw in every Gothic trope I could think of. A partially ruined castle. Ghosts. Secret passages. Dungeons. The living dead. Family secrets. Hidden identities and mysterious prisoners. Plus my usual swashbuckling fights and a couple of nasty villains.
As I was working through the plot though I found that I was basically using a structure I'd learned from mystery writer Ross MacDonald, the creator of Lew Archer and the author of many novels including The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die, Find a Victim, and my personal favorite, The Sleeping Beauty. As his fellow mystery writer Lawrence Block once pointed out, MacDonald really only had one plot. Sometime in the past, someone did something really bad, and years later it catches up to him and/or his children and destroys them. And really, that is the basic plot of many of the famous Gothic Novels. I'd heard MacDonald's work referred to as "American Gothic" in the past, but I never really got it until I plotted my own bit of Gothic fiction.

Halloween Reading

I like Halloween. I get a kick out of all the ghostly goings on. I like to watch scary movies and to read ghost stories and horror stories during October. Got things off to a good start with F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack novel Conspiracies. I know, I know. I promised I wasn't going to tear through all of Wilson's Jack books, but darn it, they're just so much fun. I've read um...five of them so far. And I must admit that I'm likely to read one more before Halloween because the next one in sequence, The Haunted Air, is about a ghost.
Anyway, in Conspiracies, Jack is hired to track down a missing woman who was due to give a speech at a convention for conspiracy theorists. He figures the Con is the best place to start so soon Jack is caught up in the world of UFOs, Bigfoot, Kennedy assassinations, Satanists, and all manner of conspiracy theories. Most of the people seem harmless enough, but a couple have enough screws loose and enough connections to the missing woman to draw Jack's attention.
Of course being a Repairman Jack book it doesn't take long for real supernatural occurrences to pop up. There's the brand new rope ladder halfway imbedded in unbroken and very old cement in a suburban basement. There are the inhuman twins dressed all in black who seem willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. And there's Professor Salvatore Roma and his demon monkey. And of course, if you're familiar with Wilson's work the name Sal Roma should tip you off that things could get very bad indeed.
This is a mile a minute thriller and one of my favorites of the Repairman Jack books so far.
Next I moved to some horror short stories by E.F. Benson. Benson was an English novelist who published several books in the early 1900s and who turned out an amazing group of creepy short stories. I first discovered him when I read his eerie tale 'Caterpillars' in a collection of horror stories a couple of years back.
H.P. Lovecraft was a fan of Benson's work, particularly of the story 'The Man Who Went Too Far'. I read this one last night along with 'The Thing in the Hall.' Couple of real chillers. Most of Benson's ghost storied are available in books and as PDF files online. If you want to give him a try, go to the link at the bottom of this post for links to Etexts. This is Benson's page at The Literary Gothic website. Plenty of other ghostly, ghouly authors available there too.
Finally I re-read Robert E. Howard's 'The Black Stone', which is probably Howard's best horror story after 'Pigeons From Hell', and is definitely his best Cthulhu Mythos tale. Worth tracking down. Figure I'll read some more shorts by Howard, Benson, Poe, and maybe Lovecraft before Oct. 31st arrives. And yeah, probably another Repairman Jack book too.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wild and Wooly

I was talking to Cliff the other day about the current state of the Fantasy/Science Fiction book market, and how it seems that the sheer imagination and sense of wonder has just been leeched right out of the genre. The days are gone when people would write books where a 200 year old time traveler turns out to be Tarzan or where an alternate reality version of Adolph Hitler writes sword & sorcery novels or a college professor finds he can enter the worlds of fiction by the use of symbolic logic and so on and so forth. Instead in the SF world we seem to have an unending string of "Military" SF novels and vampire detective books.
Next door in the fantasy room we get endless Tolkien clones and thinly disguised romance novels about dragons and more vampires. I guess it's the feeling of sameness that bugs me. Fantasy and SF used to be a dangerous place. A wild an wooly place. Guys like Farmer and Moorcock and Ellison and Spinrad and Lieber were getting their dreams and nightmares down on paper. It wasn't a safe place but it wasn't a boring, predictable place. Maybe I'm just looking at the wrong authors these days but Fantasy/SF just seems like a cozy place where nothing strange or new is likely to happen. What should be the most wide open of all genres seems to be controlled by publishers. As Cliff noted, rather than finding new books and authors and looking for readers for them, now publishers seem to have a narrow list of categories that they want writers to fit into. So I keep digging through old books to find "something rich and strange."

Monday, October 06, 2008

Introducing Kellax

This weekend was a double XP (experience points) weekend in the Lord of the Rings Online. Since Kharrn the Barbarian has reached level 50, the highest level in the game (At least until the release of the Mines of Moria expansion) I decided to get an alternate character up and running. So meet Kellax, also a barbarian, but this time a Guardian Class instead of a Champion Class. Guards can't deal as much damage as Champs but they can take a lot more damage, so while Kellax can't kill stuff as quickly as his older brother, he can stay alive a lot longer. Guardians are the preferred tanks in most groups because they can get out front and take the heat while the other players do what needs to be done. (Though a champ with good armor can do much the same.) Anyway, I got Kellax up almost to level 18 over the weekend. It's taking a little getting used to, since I'm used to the monsters dieing much more quickly, but on the other hand, it's nice to have those extra hit points when things get hairy.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Welcome to the WNU

I've blogged before about Philip Jose Farmer's 'Wold Newton Family' but in case you missed that one I'll explain again. Wold Newton is a spot in Yorkshire County in England where a meteor struck in 1795. (A true event.) At the time that the meteor landed, two large coaches, containing fourteen passengers and four coachmen were passing by. (A fictional event.) The radiation from the meteor changed the genetic structure of these passengers who went on to be the ancestors of most of the fictional supermen of the next several decades, including Tarzan, Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Captain Nemo, and many others. Thus most of the pulp characters and heroes of popular fiction are related and owe their super human mental and or physical abilities to the Wold Newton event. This has become a sort of huge game played by writers and artists ever since Farmer introduced the idea. For more about it, see Win Scott Eckert's exhaustive Wold Newton site.
Beyond the Wold Newton Family there is the Wold Newton Universe. This parallel reality includes all the fictional characters who aren't necessarily part of the WN Family but who exist in the same reality. For instance Jonathan Dark, the protagonist of Lin Carter's Jandar of Callisto novels. While I was doing the research I mentioned below on Farmer's Tarzan related work, I noted the bit on Win's page about Jandar. Now since a parallel universe version of myself had met Jandar of Callisto in Secret masters of Callisto, my novella sequel to Carter's series, I wondered if that meant I had joined the Wold Newton Universe. I emailed Win, and he said, yep, I'm in the WNU. And if you've ever appeared in one of my stories, so are you.

Time's Last Gift

When I was a kid I read a lot of Science Fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Herbert, the usual suspects. Once I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard I made the jump to reading more fantasy than SF (never never Sci-Fi) but I still enjoy reading the occasional SF novel or story, particularly if it deals with my favorite SF subject, time travel. Among my favorite time travel stories are Richard Matheson's Bid Time Return, L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder, and my all time fave, Jack Finney's Time and Again. (Hmmm, I should put a list together for Julie.)
To the upcoming list I'm adding Philip Jose Farmer's 'Time's Last Gift', one of the best time travel yarns I've read in a long time. I'd been aware of the book for some time, having read quite a bit of Farmer's fiction over the years, but I'd never run across a copy in all my wandering through used bookstores. I was reminded of the book again the other day while researching Farmer's Wold Newton family (Something I'll talk about in a later post.) and I promptly jumped over to Amazon and ordered a used copy, as well as an anthology called Mother Was a Lovely Beast, edited by PJF. Time's Last Gift begins with a time traveling craft called the H.G. Wells I arriving in 12000 B.C. from 2070 A.D. Aboard are four scientists, chosen as the best of the best to make the first trip into time. The scientists are in the past to study our ancestors, the 'cave men' living in what will eventually be Europe.
The experiment gets off to a good start with the crew finding a small tribe of aborigines and gradually earning their trust. However things begin to take a strange turn when the leader of the team, a British doctor named John Gribardsun begins to go increasingly native, wearing nothing but a loin cloth and hunting along with the tribe using a spear and flint knife. The other scientists grow more and more dismayed as John proves to be faster, stronger, and a better hunter than any of the tribesmen. At one point he kills a rhinoceros with a spear and also downs a mammoth by attacking the creature's weak points. The doctor seems to be more savage than the savages. That's all the review you need. The next section of this review contains a major spoiler, so stop here if you plan on reading Time's Last Gift and wish to be surprised.

Still with me? Okay. Clues about the mysterious John G begin to mount up. John is six foot three inches tall with dark black hair, sun bronzed skin, and most telling, gray eyes. He is described as having the body of an Adonis and his physical abilities are more than human. Once he goes native he eats his meat raw. In snatches of conversation he reveals that he grew up in Africa and that he wasn't raised by human beings.
In case you're not picking up on this, John G is apparently actually John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan of the Apes. Farmer never comes out and admits it, but there are other things, such as John's opinion of Hyenas that are drawn directly from the Tarzan novels. This is possible of course because in one of the later Tarzan books, Tarzan ingests an elixir (actually pills if memory serves) that makes him immortal. So he definitely could be hanging around in 2070, waiting to travel through time. At the end of the book, when the other scientists return to the present, John slips out of the H.G. Wells I so that he can remain in the past in a world he is more suited to. This also paves the way for Tarzan's appearances in the two Opar novels that farmer wrote where he is known as the "gray-eyed god". Farmer's fascination with the ape man seems endless and Tarzan or pseudo Tarzan appears in close to a dozen of Farmer's books, including one authorized Tarzan novel, The Dark heart of time. And speaking of time, the final clue to the identity of John Gribardsun may lie in the title of the book itself. The initials of Time's Last Gift are the same as Tarzan Lord Greystoke. A little last gift for the Tarzan fans out there.