Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ace Books' Lurid Heyday

It's sometime in the 1960s, I'm Downtown and I got money in my pocket for a change instead of lint -- I am a very happy boy. Happy not that I have money, or that I rode the bus without getting lost or mugged, or that I don't have parents peering over my shoulder. Nope. I'm happy because I have about thirty bookstores from which to choose, from the hole-in-the-wall shop where the magazines hold the faintly pleasant scent of LSMFT to the venerable three-story Wahrenbrock's to the vibrant Paperback Book Land. Well, maybe I was a little happy about being sans parents, for I could buy the kinds of books that Moms and Dads just don't get. Oh, no, not that kind of book, just a little...lurid:

Ace Books, founded in 1952 by publisher Aaron Wyn, could easily be credited with creating the specialty science fiction & fantasy paperback book market. While there had been small press publishers of speculative fiction for a few decades, they had all been hardback-oriented, chasing respectability; and though other pocket book publishers had issued sci-fi tomes, they were just part of a varied booklist. Even when other publishers, like Berkley, Monarch and Ballantine joined in on the bonanza, Ace still stood apart. Great stories (usually) by great writers (sometimes), but always great covers...wonderfully garish, even with a touch of grand guignol at times, but always delightfully lurid. Ace was bought up by Grosset & Dunlap in 1972, by G.P. Purnam's Sons in 1982, and by Penguin Books in 1996; while Ace retained its distinctive look for awhile, it eventually became a well-behaved corporate stepchild. Unfortunately, its lurid covers and low prices, are now, like everything else good, part of a world now long gone. Pity.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Chase the Whale?

We all have books to which we return on a regular basis, stories that in some way affect us as no other has. The reasons we latch onto a particular book are as various as there are readers, and can be no more complicated than it was a treasured book of one's youth (Go Dog Go or Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel), or teen-years (Catcher in the Rye or the Lord of the Rings trilogy); or that it changed the direction of our thoughts (Atlas Shrugged or In Cold Blood); or simply because it's a darn good read or has such compelling characters (The Moonstone, any of the Sherlock Holmes tales, or A Confederacy of Dunces). Our continual attraction to some books, though, may be a bit more mysterious or complex, confusing even to ourselves. For me, one such book is Moby-Dick, by poor Herman Melville.

Scan of the title page
Every few years, I return to this book, just as Ishmael regularly puts out to sea, and I delve into its mysteries, just as the Great White Whale sounds the dark deeps; and I pursue its meanings just as surely as mad Ahab broods in his cabin ill-lit by whale-oil lamps, charting the pathways of the preternatural leviathan who wounded him so grievously.

There is no other American novel that approaches Moby-Dick in the grandeur of its language. It's a great book to read aloud, sort of like the King James Bible with whales. When we enter the Spouter Inn, it is very comforting to us, and we realize this place is the precursor of all the inns ever portrayed in fantasy fiction, from The Inn of the Prancing Pony in the village of Bree to Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. When Father Mapple preaches from the bowsprit pulpit of the Whaleman's Chapel in New Bedford it really is like listening to the voice of God issuing from the depths of the sea; when I first read the book, I imagined Father Mapple as an Orson Wells figure, even before I saw the John Houston film.

Call me Ismael. Has there ever been a more eloquent opening to a first-person tale? Usually, a writer introduces a narrator through  embarrassing self-examination (Philip Marlowe even tells us of the clocks on his socks in The Big Sleep), has someone else ask after his name and nature, or just ignores character details outside the plot elements (Pronzini's Nameless Detective springs to mind, as does the anonymous spy narrator of Deighton's The Ipcress File [called "Harry Palmer" in the film]). With Ishmael, we have his name in a three-word sentence; we also have something of his character, for names in fiction are not random or coincidental -- he is a wanderer, an outcast, a man with no inheritance other than what he may glean from this world.

I suppose all of us, except, perhaps, the most sedate of society's wards, knows the pain of Ishmael, the descending gloom that makes us follow funerals, the fermenting anxiety that so unsettles us that we either have to take off  for parts unknown or knock people's hats off. But these days we are not as fortunate as was Ishmael -- there are no "parts unknown" anymore, no setting off to sea on a whim, not even the opportunity to make a fresh start where no one knows your name and you can introduce yourself as, "Call me ________." All-pervasive governments, a world where one's "papers" better be at hand, and a general and quite justified xenophobia have put an end to that kind of outlet. Perhaps that's the reason why people today simmer in their misery, become obnoxious activists on a jihad to change society, seek the blinding euphoria of chemical or electronic distractions, or simply go postal. Today, Ishmael would be a Bartleby in the dead letter office, a homeless wretch or a body in the morgue, so Moby-Dick becomes a passport to a freer time, when people were not slaves to society or the law except through choice; I suppose in future editions of Moby-Dick, students might have more difficulty understanding the concept of Ishmael's Dilemma ("personal choice") than readers do now wrestling with the Calvinistic concept of predestination.

And then there is Queequeg, Ishmael's boon companion as they seek to go whaling. This tattooed "son of Satan" is really a simple man, whose life is controlled by gods and fates, who really can see what's coming his way through a roll of the bones. In a sense, he's the prototype of "the other," that dark companion to the white protagonist who has always been a part of American literature, even before Jim and Huckleberry Finn rafted lazily down the Mississippi; we still see it today in that most popular of modern diversions, film -- Riggs and Murtough, John McClain and Zeus Carver, Detective Carter and Inspector Lee. There is a kind of envy we have of Queequeg: while Ishmael has to prove himself to the owners of the Pequod and settle for the tiniest of percentages, all Queequeg has to do is throw a harpoon, securing for himself a master harpooner's share. Oh, if life were as simple for us as it is for unlettered Queequeg -- roll the bones, be a friend to Ishmael, and harpoon the whale.

Of all the characters in Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is the most familiar, and the most frightening. We either know or we are him. He is the scheming supervisor who watches us as we work, the boss who sits behind the closed door of the corner office with his arcane flowcharts as he pursues the profit that will either raise him to godlike status or destroy him. Or maybe he is you, pursuing some goal you cannot explain, not even to yourself. Ahab's pointed and pointless quest not only destroys himself but takes everyone down with him -- Bernie Madoff comes to mind, as does Goldman Sachs, Muammar Qaddafi and Barack Obama. Under Captain Ahab we always think we're pursuing something worthwhile, but then discover we have a whale by the tail and just can't let go.

And that brings us to the fourth character that takes me back to the novel time and again -- Moby-Dick himself. Even though the big fellow does not appear until late in the story, and briefly, his presence is felt from beginning to end. Other people obsessed with Moby-Dick have described the whale as fate or God, but I think I look upon him as a long-suffering soul who has finally reached the end of his patience with his tormentors. He is the faithful employee who has always been there for the boss, who has always allowed everyone else to live off the fruits of his labors; he is the worker who always does everything right and yet is ever vilified with unfounded charges of wrongdoing; he is the competent servant who who is always the target of the psycho human resources malefactor eager to make a name for himself. Ultimately, Moby-Dick turns, rams the ship and takes nutty Ahab to the fate he so richly deserves.

While I'd like to be able to say, "Call me Ishmael," or solve my problems like Queequeg throwing a harpoon straight and true, or even have Ahab's illusion I am the master of the ship of my life, the captain of my soul...I think, more often than not, I may be the Whale, and not in the Vegas sense. Still, as taken as I may be with this novel of mirth, madness and predestination, I can take a measure of comfort there are others whose obsession makes mine seem a casual interest...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Diary of a Hypnophobic Logophile Suffering From Egersis

Sleep and I have never been the best at getting along; many times it seems we simply cannot coexist in the same being. Recently I have been having more trouble with sleep than usual and, to make it worse, I’ve been hyper-aware of my poor sleeping habits. Between the hours of 1 and 4 am, there are not as many distractions and most of my friends are blissfully asleep. Darn them and their ability to sleep! Sorry, sometimes I get a little jealous. The point is, with no distractions and the early morning, otherworldly quiet, I have a lot of time to reflect.

Even when I was young, I was never one to “go gentle into that good night.” I had horrible nightmares and, as a result, developed a fear of sleep. My dad helped me with this problem by telling me about the Dreamlands and introducing me to S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands. The artwork is by Mark Ferrari and is absolutely beautiful. I remember my dad telling me that everyone I want to meet could be found along the paths of the Dreamlands; I could meet Edgar Allan Poe or H. P. Lovecraft or any resident creature I wished to find. I didn't know it at the time, but my dad was giving me my first lesson in lucid dreaming.

The Field Guide was the book I borrowed any time I couldn't sleep and whenever I had a bad dream. The book came with a flow chart asking yes or no questions and eventually there would be a page number for the creature. I would trace my finger along the paths, trying to find the creature I had met or the one I hoped to meet or the one I wanted to avoid such as the fellow on the right here.

Now that I’m older (and pretending I’m not afraid anymore) I no longer use creatures to get myself to sleep. The creatures of my youth have been exchanged for words and that is where The Insomniac’s Dictionary by Paul Hellweg comes onto the scene. It has all the words you didn’t know you wanted to know but are so glad once you find them. Long and short words, words with no vowels, groups of animals, manias, killing words, and, of course, words on sleep (as well as the inability to do so.) This is the book we would never let my mom read because she was just too good at Scrabble; my dad and I felt this book might be our salvation against my mother’s skills. That hope has long since been dashed; she is simply too good. Originally this was my dad’s book, but through excessive borrowing, it became mine. And as I prepare for my night of egersis (intense wakefulness) I will keep this tome close at hand and will surely pick it up in the wee hours of the morning.

And so, I bid you sweet dreams, my fellow bibliophiles.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Doc Savage: Arch-Enemy of Evil

The time: the middle part of the last century.
The place: A swap meet in a small town hard upon the western sea.
The mission: To boldly discover brave new worlds.

A much younger version of me searched for books that day so long ago. Since paperbacks cost a whopping 35-45 cents each, it made sense to haunt swap meets, used book stores and charity shops. Though I was not as far from the cradle then as I am now (which, unfortunately, now puts me closer to the gave), my reading habits were not any less catholic. I was too young to have been poisoned by a government education system that stigmatizes great writers by labeling their works "literature" or "classic," surely the kiss of death; by the same token, I was too young to scorn "trashy" or "hack" novels...though I did have the good sense not to leave I Walk the Bloody Boulevard or Murder Most Foul where my mother would stumble across them. In my search I encountered a novel featuring a painting so photorealistic I did not at first realize it was a painting, but it was the subject of the painting -- the most extraordinary man I had ever seen -- that held my attention, mesmerized me even as I handed over a Mercury dime. The book was The Phantom City, and the man was Clark Savage Jr, otherwise known as DOC SAVAGE!

I had found an adventure of pulp hero Doc Savage, whose exploits began began in 1933, in an eponymous Street & Smith magazine, which endured 181 issues. This was not the magazine but a reissue by Bantam. Doc Savage of the pulps (right) differed vastly from the book cover painted by James Bama, but to the shortest, roundest kid in class both images were godlike. In the story Doc penetrated the Arabian Desert by submarine (!): non-stop action, exotic characters and not too much mushy romance. More exciting was the number "10" on the front cover -- there were at least nine others to track down. I found those nine, but I also found much more.

Although written under the pen name Kenneth Robeson, most of the stories appearing in the monthly magazine were the work of prolific writer Lester Dent (1904 - 1959), and it was he who created Doc Savage and his five assistants, the "brain trust" that helped him save the world, solve mysteries and smash crime. In a time of lawlessness and chaos, when bullets and blood filled the streets of America, when dictators were rising all around the world and we had a chance of getting our own (i,e, America as usual), Doc Savage was just the hero for the job. The advantage held by those who lived during that long ago government-caused Depression over those who now endure a government-caused Depression is, they still believed in heroes who were heroes; still believed in law and order, and the possibility of justice in the legal system; and also in the existence of good and evil (as opposed to appropriate and inappropriate), as well as the triumph of the former over the later. The cynical sophisticates of the 21st Century put up with none of that old-fashioned flummery and naivety. Modern heroes, such as they are, are just badder-assed versions of the bad guys. So, how to explain the continuing popularity of a relic like Doc Savage?

I think it's because hope is not entirely dead in American society, even now. We know superheroes cannot exist in our world (despite antics in Seattle and New York City) but they still remain a popular fixture, and a lucrative one, in print, electronics and film. Because Doc Savage was, and is, a literary hero, he has lagged visually behind those who sprang directly from the graphic world. The one successful attempt to bring Doc Savage to the big screen was the economically disastrous Doc Savage: Man of Bronze in 1975, starring Ron Ely and produced by George Pal. The film could have been much better, but all funding collapsed, and Pal had to rely on anything cheap or free; it's amazing it was finished at all, though some have unkindly claimed it would have been better if it had not. The main trouble, for me, was the portrayal of Doc Savage, but what can you expect when you rely on actors? And here the actor gets no help from tights, cape or mask. He must have muscles, attitude and presence. Pity the poor actor. Besides, Doc's fans already had an image, and it was not Ron Ely. Sorry, Ron.

Well, George Pal and Ron Ely got the shirt right, more or less. That torn and tattered khaki shirt was vintage Doc Savage (below-right) and  artist James Bama reused it (left) for the first Bantam reissue, The Man of Bronze, in which the origin of Doc Savage, his fabulous wealth and his organization are explained; it's also where Doc goes a little berzerker on the murderers of his subsequent stories Doc doesn't kill his enemies, though they are quite often hoisted on their own petards, with survivors usually ending up in Doc's upstate hospital where a little brain surgery rids them of their evil tendencies. Bama's model for his mid-century visions of Doc Savage was actor Steve Holland, who, among other roles, played Flash Gordon on television. With Bama's image in mind, bolstered by Dent's rousing text, it's easy to see why Ely fell a bit short. On the other hand, Doc Savage did quite well on radio (theater of the mind) and in comics.

Of all the many pulp heroes birthed in the turbulent social and economic era of the Great Depression, only The Shadow can claim to have experienced the same sort of enduring fame as Doc Savage. It was the success of the Bantam editions of the Savage stories that caused Pyramid Books to reissue adventures of The Shadow under the pen name of Maxwell Grant (aka Walter Gibson). Though Pyramid's books did not have the same success as Bantam's, they did better than other attempts to resurrect Depression-era heroes: others made the mistake of trying to "modernize" the heroes, a fatal error. Recently, though, another hero, The Spider, is making a comeback in oversize omnibus volumes, and, wisely, the flavor of the era, warts and all, is being retained.

While catching up with the volumes already published by Bantam, I also started purchasing the books as they came out, or tried to...sometimes I missed them, but more often I just could not afford them. Unfortunately, when the government sets minimum wage at less than a dollar an hour employers have no incentive to pay more. I guess I could have told my employers I needed more so I could buy Doc Savage books, but I really don't think the compassion (or the raise) would have been forthcoming. As people grow up, priorities have to be set, and my life was no different. Much later, I lucked out when I lost my job as an editor of nuclear submarine tech manuals at a naval architecture firm...the luck came not in being fired (they say "laid off" but we all know what it really means) but in having a guilt-ridden managing editor; included in the boxes of books he gave me was a mostly complete run of the Bantam Doc Savage.

Guilt is a wonderful thing! Anybody with a mother already knows that, but it's nice not to be on the receiving end for once. Between what I already had and what I was given, I had it all.  "On top of the world, Ma, on top of the world!" Now, years later, I also have new novels by writers other than Lester Dent, comic books (b&w and color editions), radio programs, magazines, the film, new audio productions, fan publications, and lots more. I also have something you don't usually get for a fictional character, a biography, this being Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. The book is by science fiction writer Phillip Jose Farmer, and in addition to telling the stories of Doc Savage and his men, he also links Doc Savage to other literary lives, such as Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Wolf Larson. It is a great read in itself, even without reading a single novel.

Though the Bantam books are now out of print, they are not at all hard to find, and they are definitely worth collecting because of the Bama covers. New editions of Doc Savage's pulp-era adventures are currently being published by Nostalgia Ventures, two novels in a single oversized volume. Not only do you get the full text of the stories, but also articles about Lester Dent, Doc Savage, pulp magazine publishing and the times which gave birth to such a larger-than-life hero. In many ways, Doc Savage is more popular now than ever.

Maybe Doc Savage still inhabits the imagination because we still need him. Government fails us at every turn, not just because our leaders have feet of clay and serve "principalities and wickedness in high places," (Ephesians 6:12) but because governments are best at's what they do, and do well. And real-life heroes reach an apex for only a moment -- after rescuing someone from a fire there is the day after, and the day after that, the tedium of life that does not tolerate heroics; or the hero is corrupted by money or fame. We need heroes to be heroes day after day, and incorruptible. I think that is why Doc Savage remains popular enough for writers and editors to devote lives and fortunes to ensure the fantastic adventures remain in the public eye; and it's why people still plunk down their hard-earned dough (by the way, minimum wage still sucks, and government should stop holding people back) to obtain the books, magazines, artwork, recordings and fan publications. Have no fear, Doc Savage is here!

The Code of Doc Savage
Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Hate to Love Umberto Eco

Illustration by William Medeiras
Umberto Eco is an Italian semiotician who is also a novelist.
I love his work.
I hate his work.
I love to hate his work.
I hate to love his work.
Umberto Eco is an infuriating writer.

He wrote an historical murder mystery, The Name of the Rose, (1983) which I loved and hated. William of Baskerville, a monk, and his companion travel to northern Italy to take part in a conference about a religious controversy. As the English monks arrive, the monastery is disturbed by a suicide, the first of several deaths. The Abbot asks William to investigate. As a reader of mysteries and a student of theology, I connected to the novel on several levels, but it was very dense prose, not the light flummery we expect from mystery writers. Still, it was a wow of a first novel.

His next, Foucault's Pendulum (1989), almost made my head explode, as in the film Scanners. Three underemployed editors, bored with work and with a penchant for whimsy (been there more than once myself) invent a conspiracy involving the Knights Templar, lost treasure, world conquest and myriad secret societies. The intricate plot required a large measure of disbelief suspension, but what drove me to distraction were the characters. In one instance, an editor begins playing with his word processor, treating us to page after page of wordplay, nonsensical letters exploding like out-of-control carcinoma. The jest achieves both comic and cosmic proportions as all hell breaks loose, quite literally. In a climax of chaotic cacophony, everybody makes an appearance, even Cthulhu, and I can't be sure I wasn't there too. I was lucky to escape the book alive, at least I think I did. I made the mistake of loaning the book a friend, and his head did explode; even before that happened, though, I swore I would never crack open an Umberto Eco novel ever again.

Then Eco made me a liar with The Island of the Day Before (1995). It's a simple enough plot -- a chap is marooned in the 1600s on an island near the International Date Line, wants to get to the island on the other side of the line, but can't swim. So he spends the entirety of the book obsessing about his life, especially his evil twin who may or may not exist. Of course, none of it might exist at all, at least in a metafictional sense, because it's not the narrator actually telling us the story, but a 20th Century editor who claims to possess the papers but he may be even more fictional than the shipwrecked nobleman. It's all very maddening  So why did I wade through it? I could not help myself. Even in translation, Eco's language is engrossing, hypnotic, alluring; to reject it is like refusing a silk Italian feels so good. But, still, I sensed he might be playing me for a fool. After all, as a professor of semiotics he knows all about signs and symbols and probably doesn't play fair with readers, and that was why I decided to let this third book our departure point.

And then came Baudolino (2001), set in the known Christian world of the Middle Ages. No, not just the historical venue of the late 1100s/early 1200s, but the actual world as it was known to Christian scholars, the sailors whose maps read Here there be dragons, and the unlettered masses to whom every rumor and tall tale was as real as a television news report is to us. The world was populated by men with the heads of dogs, people with faces in their stomachs, flying carpets, white civilizations in Africa ruled by Prester John, and Grail quests. Because I am a student of history, cartography and the early church, my hand moved of its own volition toward the book; additionally parts of the story were set in Constantinople (now it's Istanbul, but that's nobody's business but the Turks...and maybe some dancing mice), one of my favorite cities of antiquity. I really had no choice but to read it, even though I knew Eco was playing with my mind, in subject matter and venue, in sign and symbol. I let him have his literary way with me in Baudolino, but no way was I going to let Eco sucker me into another frustrating, fascinating, facinorous, fulgid tome. It was definitely my last foray into the finical fiction of Umberto Eco.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005). "Sigh." I see the book at Borders (of blessed memory), sitting sardonically on the lower shelf, mocking me. Though it has his name along the side in letters slightly smaller than those of a billboard, it also has Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, cartoon explosions, an engraved stamp from who-knows-where, and other images of the pulp fiction era to which I am addicted. I realize you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can't ignore it either; I could no more leave this book untouched than could I a Doc Savage novel, a tale of The Shadow or the Spider, or a compilation of Flash Gordon's or Buck Rogers' Sunday comic strips. Eco's lack of fair play continued as I flipped through the book -- I encountered image after image from the pulp magazines and comic strips of the 1920s and 1930s; and then I encountered Yambo, an eccentric bookseller from Milan whose memory is episodic, who tries to recover his lost past through magazines, books, newspapers and comic books. Eco knows not only the secrets of signs and symbols, but apparently lots of things about me...minus all that stuff about Mussolini. I put it off nearly forever, but, eventually, I bought it; I read it, hated it, loved it, was frustrated and fascinated.

Umberto Eco is poised to strike again, this time with The Prague Cemetery, a thriller set in the monstrous and mysterious year 1897, where secret agent and adventurer Captain Simone Simonini is investigating strange events which will affect the future of Europe and world Jewry. As usual, Eco mixes fictional and historical characters with reckless abandon; this time he even brings in one of my ancestors, Diana Vaughan, a descendant of Welsh alchemist and philosopher Thomas Vaughan. Although the book has already been published in Italy, and become a wildly successful bestseller in Mexico, Argentina, Spain, etc., the English language edition won't be released till 8 November 2011, so I still have time to brood: To buy or not to buy, that is the question. Curse you, Umberto Eco! Luv ya, man!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wanted: Good Bad Guys

The measure of any good guy in mystery, adventure or spy fiction is the caliber of his opponent. Ian Fleming's James Bond was bedeviled by Goldfinger, Doctor No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Scaramanga, Emilo Largo and sundry agents of SMERSH. Without his oh-so-memorable villains, 007  would have been just another grey,  underpaid, faceless fellow going in and out of Thames House and getting his teeth kicked from time to time for Queen and Country. Sherlock Homes without the spectre of Professor Moriarty? Quiller or Harry Palmer without their neo-Nazi revivals and cold war boffin brokers? Nero Wolfe without the ruthless Mr X? The Saint without either The Tiger or Chief Inspector Claude Eustus Teal? Doc Savage without John Sunlight, or The Shadow without the mob bosses of Chicago and New York? Dennis Nayland Smith without the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu? Jack Ryan without the KGB and various Islamic dictators? Without proper bad guys to bring out the best in them, our literary heroes are just gumshoes, keyhole peepers and civil servants. Today, though, a good bad guy is hard to find.

Doctor Fu-Manchu, great criminal mastermind of London's East End, based upon a real Chinatown crime lord named Mr King, was not really popular beyond the 1950's, by which time he had transformed into a quasi-ally in the fight against Communism. Yes, the avatar of the "Yellow Peril" became the foe of the "Red Menace" -- I hate it when a bad guy goes good (except Superman #164, where Lex Luthor had a...moment). The deadly doctor became one of the first victims of political correctness, surviving only in the silly mustache named after him...which is odd because he was clean-shaven -- to a master of disguise, a mustache is a handicap.

Lex Luthor is such a good bad guy, I suppose he can be allowed a moment of weakness.
The Nazis were always good bad guys for adventure and suspense novels. Nobody liked them and a writer could shine the worst light possible on them without being sued. Political correctness was not the enemy here, but time. After the war, Nazis popped up as malefactors more often than the Reds. As time went on, we had aging Nazis, reinvented Nazis, and sons of Nazis. Valentine Williams ended his nemesis Clubfoot's life while in service to the Nazis in North Africa; in Frederick Forseyth's The Odessa File, we have Germans hiding a Nazi past; and by the time we get to Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil, we have to clone the bad guys. Except for period pieces like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Captain America, if you want a novel with the best bad guys of all time, it's going to be set in a rest home or hospice.

Not so scary anymore

If only true...
they were such good villains.
The Soviets were excellent foes in their time. In fact, during the Cold War (of fond memory) the agents of the KGB, the NKVD, Stasi and SMERSH were so good as bad guys they existed almost in a genre of their own. What happened to them? "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Well, the Wall fell, so did the "evil empire," and there went the bad guys. Russian terrorists are still around, Russian mafia and the Russian Federal Security Service, but they're just small potatoes, just a patch to the KGB. For great thrillers you need great bad guys. True, shirtless Russian strongman Vlad Putin is trying to resurrect the bad old days, but, trust me, it just won't be the same.

I suppose that among the best of fiction's villains, we must include General Zaroff of Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game, who had the vision to consider humans as big game animals long before the Predator came from the stars to hunt the governor of California, and Wisconsin's chief executive for that matter. Unfortunately, the bad general appears only in that story, and his opponent (Sanger Rainsford) is not so much a "good guy" as just the better hunter.

More in the running for best bad guy of all time must be Cthulhu, cosmic creation of  fantasist H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Cthulhu was one of the Elder Gods who ruled the Earth before the coming of mankind and before they were banished to the Dark Dimensions. Cthulhu is said to reside in the underwater city of Ryleh, where he has a call-in talk show and dreams of a time when "the stars will be right" and he and the other Elder Gods will return to wreak havoc in the universe and devour humans like Pringles at a frat party. The main problem with Cthulhu is that he while he's the ultimate bad guy, he has no contentious hero to vex him -- all his opponents either die or go stark barking mad...very frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that Cthulhu has apparently given up his traditional methods to destroy the world for a more efficient path -- politics.

So what bad guys are left as foils for the modern aspiring novelist to use who wants to raise his hero above the common herd of action figures? North Koreans? Dear Leader is a lunatic, but we don't want to offend the people, and they are oriental. Iranian terrorists? Possible, maybe, just don't mention they're also Muslim. Mafia? No, that's just an urban myth, and I'm sure the good-fellows with Sicilian surnames aren't bad-fellows at all. Gang-bangers? Maybe, if you're writing about "mean streets" and not aiming for grand crime fiction. for they are all petty pathetic punks. Evil geniuses and mad scientists? No, unfortunately they all work for the government now or have tenured university positions; besides, the world is in such sorry shape, do we really need a Doctor Evil to destroy it?

Yep, times are tough for the dashing hero who wants to save the world and make it safe for truth, justice and the American way. Where have all the villains gone?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Golden Age of Reading

The more I consider, the more strongly I tend to believe the Golden Age of Reading was 10. At that point in my life, I had all the mental tools needed to read any book, the inquisitiveness to search out the meaning of what I did not quite yet understand, and the quality of vision to be equally dazzled by the old and the new, for to me they were the same thing.

Of course, I write here of another time, another culture, when schools actually taught the reading skills needed to excel, when books and magazines of all sorts were easily available with even the most modest allowance (mine was very modest -- I haunted thrift stores where old comics were a nickel and pulps a dime), when parents could purchase a set of encyclopedias without having to sell the first-born (lucky for me, but selling the second-born would have been okay), and the youth of the time had so few other distractions -- just sports, trouble-making and that flickering silvery screen called television.

Now, don't get me wrong. Back when the dinosaurs ruled the earth (as my children and their children believe) was not an idyllic time for the prolific reader. No time has been -- hey, don't get your nose caught when you close that book; you have to forgive my son but he swallowed a dictionary when he was young; we have an odd number of people, so to make the teams even why don't you go read a book; you're book-smart, but dumb at everything else. As today, the reader has to persevere against all sorts of unkind remarks from friends, family and jackasses...some thing just don't change.

People do not change, and are just as good and evil as they have ever been, but society has changed around us. Some, like me, are not very good at adapting ("change is bad"), but most other people seem to the proof from which Darwin always searched. Nastiness, duplicity, mendacity, sloth, irresponsibility and brutality are now survival skills; so, also, are manual dexterity, multitasking, memorization of processes, and an ear for technical jargon. Me? I just read and write, and I'm not bad at arithmetic, problem solving, and connecting the dots -- not exactly the survival or advancement skills they used to be in business and civic life.

Not only has reading taken it on the chin due to social changes, but reading just for the sheer pleasure of reading has  been kicked in the jewels by all the distractions of the modern world -- television is now in color, hi-def, 3D and has 900 channels; computers and the internet can consume literally thousands of hours of your time and give very little in return; social networking can give you 5,000 BFF, all who want your attention; the death of faith and the rise of fear causes many people to engage in endless vapid social rituals; rather than read, people zone out with i-pods in their ears, like the ubiquitous shells in Fahrenheit 451; and  the would-be reader is not even safe from the government as Michelle Obama and other intrusive do-gooders urge you to get up and dance your fat away. 

As a kid and young person growing up when all the obstacles to having time enough at last to do all the reading I wanted, the ultimate wish-fulfillment episode of the original Twilight Zone was the one in which Burgess Meredith happened to be down in the bank vault (reading during lunch hour, of course) when The Bomb hit. No more boss, no more wife, no more co-workers, no one at all to keep bank clerk Henry Bemis from engaging in that one activity that made life bearable -- reading. Not even the death of civilization could stop the little man from rising to the top of the evolutionary heap; suddenly, when all else had been taken away, reading became the one activity which could keep Mr Bemis sane, keep him from putting a gun to his head. In a nuclear flash, Mr Bemis was transported to a golden age of reading and he had the enthusiasm and vigor of a ten year old. I was shocked speechless when he broke his glasses, and felt such pity for the abject little man such as I have for no other person, before or since. Now that I have big thick trifocals I think I identify with poor doomed Mr Bemis more than ever.

When I think about how the golden age of reading was 10, at least back in that age before others felt they knew best how to live my life, I wonder about the readings habits of the contemporary youngster. Is he reading? Possibly not, but if he is, it may be little more than required reading at school, the sort of didactic stories and essays chosen by committee, the "right" sort of reading designed to produce a more tolerant, more malleable child. Books are being yanked right and left from school libraries by officials who are as well-meaning as they are fearful of responsibility, and political action groups such as CAIR are seeking to remove books from private ownership. Take out A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, because it might offend Mormons; remove Little Black Sambo to keep from offending Jesse Jackson, never mind that tigers come from India, not Africa; destroy all the books by Joseph Conrad (colonialism), Edgar Poe (morbid!), and the writings of the Founding Fathers (dangerous). Instead, give that ten year old books like the execrable Skippyjon Jones series, the tolerant Bernstein Bears, and The King Who Wanted to be a Queen. Golden age? Not of reading or anything else it seems.

The Golden Age of Reading is no longer 10.

Today's youth do not read for pleasure, only by assignment, and only from approved books.

The encyclopedia has been supplanted by Wikipedia, dictionaries by, and big books by little screens.

By the way, folks, Kindle is evil.

And change is still bad.
(first posted on "The Hopeless Bookaholic")