Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hitch Books

Now, long years after the fact, I am not quite at all sure how I came into the presence of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, but I know it was at a very young age. It may have been through his very popular television show which began in 1955; or it might have been through one of his films, on television of course since my parents were never big movie goers (though I attended at least weekly); or it might have been through his self-named monthly mystery magazine, which debuted in 1956. However, I think it a distinct possibility that I came to Alfred Hitchcock by way of one of his many mystery and suspense anthologies, specifically Stories for Late at Night.

Back in those days (this would be 1961), I found books where I could. Comic books, yes, I could get those at the dime store and drug store where four bits bought five comics, and of course the Evening Tribune came daily to the house, but when it came to real books, grown-up books, I scrounged for what I could find. And one of the tomes I "liberated" (and still have today) was a Book Club edition of Stories for Late at Night, and since I was no less silly then than I am now I, of course, read it...late at night.

In that book are several stories guaranteed to keep a young boy's eyes open till the reassuring dawn, but there a few I still recall reading as if it were only yesterday...I suppose that's just the nature of psychological trauma. Jerome Bixby's It's a Good Life is in there, which most people remember from its Twilight Zone adaptation starring a spooky Billy Mumy doing his best to emulate Anthony's "bright, wet, purple gaze." As chilling as that episode is, it has nothing on the written story...don't disagree, else I'll have to think you out to the cornfield. Roald Dahl's The Sound Machine made me wonder about voices on the winds; Evening Primrose by John Collier made me look at stores' window dummies in not quite the same way; and I could not look at tourists without wondering if they were here from he future to see some great disaster after reading C.L. Moore's Vintage Season. All the other stories had their effects on me, to a lesser of greater degree, but the tale that absolutely kept me up was George Langelaan's The Fly, source of the scary 1958 David Hedison film (sorry, but the 1986 remake was just hopelessly silly).

Of course, nowadays, I know a lot more about Alfred Hitchcock than did that silly kid who read under the covers with a flashlight. To him, Hitchcock was just a name on a book, the guy who chose the stories; since then, I've been told by many people that Hitchcock had very little to do picking the stories, that they were ghost-edited for him, but I don't buy it -- I don't know where I read it, and haven't come across it again since I read it when I was in high school, but in an interview Hitchcock said an assistant  helped gather stories for his review, after which he made the final decisions.Even if not true, it still sounds good to me.

Hitchcock's first suspense anthology was titled, appropriately enough, Suspense Stories (1945), which was followed the next year by Bar the Doors! which was also a Dell Mapback. By 1949 Hitchcock had edited six collections, and since they had all done very well it's a bit of a mystery why no others were published until 1957, when Stories They Wouldn't Let Me do on TV appeared. Personally, I think it had much to do with the decline of recreational reading and the rise of television zombification; ironic, then, that Hitchcock's return to the printed page would have a television tie-in. After that, his suspense and mystery anthologies became more-or-less annual events, and starting in 1977 there were anthologies issued by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine on the newsstand racks. 

When the magazine-related anthologies started in 1977, by now wholly edited by Cathleen Jordan, the magazine's editor, something seemed to go out of it for me. Yes, the stories were still good, written by all the best writers, but they all came from AHMM, which seemed, to me, to make the scope much smaller. And with Hitchcock's death in 1980 (no more Hitchcock photos on his magazine covers after that), I no longer had even the fiction of his hand at the tiller. And yet I still bought them, still read them, still have them, still re-read them, because any suspense anthology with Hitchcock's name on it is still better than a suspense anthology without his name on it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sherlock Holmes' Triligual Time Travel Adventure

In 2005, I wrote Sherlock Holmes & the Coils of Time which was published, featuring a great cover by Jukka Murtosaari, by Gary Lovisi's Gryphon Books of Brooklyn, New York, an excellent small press geared to book collectors, crime fiction fans and Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. It details what really happened the night Holmes returned from his supposed death at the hands of Moriarty, and put Colonel Sebastian Moran, the second most dangerous man in London, into the hands of Scotland Yard. What was a matter of hours in Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Empty House," was for me an adventure that stretched from the beginning of time to its end, with a couple of alternate histories thrown in for good measure. If you have not read this book, I urge you to do so, as I feel it is one of my better efforts. The story was told, the book was published, and I thought that was the end of it. As it turned out, not quite...

Through Gary Lovisi, I was introduced to a German literary agent who asked me to sign a simple agreement and to send him my Sherlock Holmes tales. I did, and promptly forgot about it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I receive a check and a copy of Sherlock Holmes I Zavojnice Vremena (Sherlock Holmes and the Coils of Time). Yes, I suddenly found myself translated into Croatian, published by Zagrebacka Naklada, a book publisher in Zagreb, featuring an eerie cover by Tihomir Tikulin that depicts Sherlock Holmes encountering some of the cannibalistic Morlocks in London's foggy East End. One note about this book is that it contains a second story wedded to the end of the first...a sort of "joining" story I wrote when I contemplated an omnibus edition of all five novels, a framework that would link all the novels into an episodic whole. While I was pleased with being published abroad, I was even more pleased by the reception of the book by readers in Central Europe.

And lightning strikes a third time for Coils of Time, this time in German as Sherlock Holmes und die Zeitmaschine, published May 2012 by Blitz Verlag. The cover is by designer Mark Free. It's being marketed as a collectible book, limited edition, and billed as the "First German Edition." I am very pleased with the reviews that have been published, and, more, that a new audience is being entertained by a story that was so satisfying to write.

Whenever an author finishes writing a book, there is a sense of satisfaction and completion, but also a tinge of sadness and depression, especially when so much has been invested in it -- for Sherlock Holmes and the Terror Out of Time I spent hundreds of hours researching Victorian and Edwardian London, but for this book I did at least triple that, for I had to knit together the lives of various real and fictional characters into my own story of Morlocks in London. When a book actually sees print, there is a leap of excitement...and then you move on. I count myself lucky, and privileged, to have experienced three leaps of excitement, with the same story. Thanks, Gary, and thanks, Uwe.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Book as Carrot, Book as Stick

"The Carrot"

When the Kid and Kidette were young (so many years ago) they looked forward to spankings; not in the sense that they enjoyed them, but in the same way felons look forward to prison -- no big deal. They knew I felt an obligation to spank them for misbehavior because it was the way I was raised, but they also knew I had neither the heart nor the hand for a proper spanking. In fact, I think there was a somewhat sadistic streak in my angelic children that wanted me to hurt my soft hand on their hard bottoms. However, parents are not always as stupid as their kids expect them to be, so it did not take more than a single trip to that well to figure out what's what.

The Wife (AKA she-who-must-be-obeyed) is much smarter than am I, and it was she who figured out that while the punishment need not necessarily fit the crime, it had to be based on what was important to the evil-doer. Put a convict in what? But take away his Oreos or his fruit cup or his legal-tender cigarettes, and -- by God! -- he's speed-dialing the ACLU zombies because you're trampling on his civil rights!

The Wife not only cut to the heart of the matter, she stabbed the knife right in and twisted it a little, just for good measure. Want to act out? Fine, no books!

No, Mom, no!!!

You stay in your room. You can watch television, you can listen to music, you can play a game...but no reading!

Please, Mom, spank us!
Yeah, Mom, tell Dad to spank us!



Who knew the Wife could do such a good mad scientist laugh?

I have to admit that this sort of discipline would not work with many kids...I was surprised, actually, that it worked with ours, but, as I wrote, the Wife is much smarter than me. The reason it worked, of course, is that books were (and are) important in our household, right up there with eating and breathing...maybe a little higher even. Sadly, most households do not hold books in high esteem at all. In elementary school, the Kidette's teacher gave a lesson in estimating, and asked the children to estimate the number of books and magazines in the house; as you might expect, the answers were depressingly low...until she came to the Kidette who guessed 30,000. It was a good guess...low, but a good try for a sixth grader.

"The Stick"

While the Wife used the absence of books as a way to modify behavior, I wondered about the use of books as a tool for aversion therapy. It was not that I wanted to subject my kids to the literary equivalent of water-boarding, but my mind kept flashing back to my own summer of hell and my father's inspired attempt to hoist me on my own petard.

I don't want to go into my own transgression in great detail. I think it sufficient to note that if you use the name written in your mother's Bible as a template for forging her signature on a teacher's note, you really can't be too surprised when the wrath of God falls on your head. I was a bit surprised, however, when my father sentenced me to write "I will not forge my mother's name" 10,000 times. That is a lot of writing, and I used the opportunity to practice different styles of handwriting: "Yes, Dad, I did that all by myself." While it did not accomplish quite the epiphany for which my father hoped, it did give me an idea for my own recalcitrant children.

Whenever the Kid and Kidette had school-related problems, I assigned copying exercises. Poor handwriting? Copy passages word for word until the handwriting improved. Causing a disruption in class? Copy passages word for word until the teacher reports improvement. Losing homework assignments? Copy passages word for word until the homework starts showing up on the teacher's desk. And they did not get to chose the books -- the Kid was sentenced to Early Kingdoms in Madagascar 1500-1700 and the Kidette was banished to The Fall of Constantinople, Being the Story of the Fourth Crusade. Cruel and unusual punishment? I stand guilty as charged. Effective? Yes, very.

Scars? Well, maybe. One day, when the Kid was in High School and his days of copying passages were years behind him, he walked into the house and found me reading Early Kingdoms in Madagascar. All the blood drained from his face, his breathing became rapid and shallow, and he looked a little faint...until I assured him I was reading only for my own enjoyment. The old maxim is evidently true: "One man's poison is another man's Early Kingdoms in Madagascar."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Slipcase Gems

Back in the days when it was a treat to go Downtown, when it was filled with department stores, lunch counters, discount clothing shops and more bookstores than it was easy to keep track of, I always made sure I visited Wahrenbrock's Book House, on Broadway, between Seventh & Eighth avenues, San Diego. Actually, my first trek alone into the urban jungle was solely to visit this bibliophile's dream. It was a time when most men still wore hats, women wore elegant dresses as they sipped cocktails, and a decent allowance could buy a decent number of books. Wahrenbrock's was a three-story building, and just outside the window on the third floor was a once-lit, once-revolving sign that read BOOKS, and I often thought to myself that if I ever slipped into an alternate dimension (I think everyone yearns for that sort of escape from time to time), I'd want to end up in a world where the sign was still lit and still turned.

But this post really isn't about Wahrenbrock's, the better times of past eras, the daydreams of a boy alone in the naked city, or even how I really needed a much bigger allowance to feed a habit that, even then, was something of a monkey on my back. No, it's about some of the books I started collecting via the Book House after I started working Downtown in 2000, and until the store closed (a black-letter day) in 2009.

The front area of the second floor, entered after a steep climb up the book-stacked stairs, was devoted to history, travel, anthropology, ancient writings and warmongers; but the rear area of the second floor was given over to general literature, science fiction, mysteries, children's books, drama and poetry, and that was my usual haunt. It was here that I discovered the slipcased gems of The Heritage Press and the Limited Editions Club. And, as they say, there went my lunch money...

The Limited Editions Club was founded by George Macy (1900 - 1956) in 1929, something of a miracle when you consider it was the year of the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression, a period of economic disaster that, thanks to government intervention, lasted twelve years rather than two or three. When millionaires are jumping out of buildings and others are reduced to eating in soup kitchens, what sort of a cockeyed optimist starts a publishing company dedicated to producing luxury editions of Western classics limited to 1,500 copies and available only by paid subscription? A fool, obviously, but the kind of fool the world needs more of.

In 1937, Macy founded The Heritage Press with the intent of reprinting the books of the Limited Edition Club, but for a somewhat wider audience. Again, we had the formula -- slipcase, limited edition, by subscription only, commissioned illustrations, and high production standards. Included with each book was a copy of Sandglass, the Heritage Club's newsletter, which carried the epigraph:
The classics which are our heritage from the past,
in Editions which will be the heritage of the future.
For a Heritage Press book to be complete, it must include the issue of Sandglass that subscribers received with their monthly book. The newsletter was an important adjunct to the book in that it gave biographical information about the author, the background of the artist chosen to illustrate the Heritage Edition, and details of the typeface chosen by the book designer. For example, in the Sandglass accompanying my copy of Poe's Antarctic tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, it starts with "To Go Poe":
"If you should be taken into Uncle Sam's Army, it is likely that you would be told to perform for Uncle Sam the kind of task you trained yourself to perform in civilian life. If you are a radio technician, it is likely you would be sent to the front line with a walkie-talkie strapped about your shoulders. If you are an architect, it is likely that you would be told to go to a mobile printing-truck, there to draw maps of the battle. If you are an accountant, it is likely that you would be told to sit at a desk and keep Uncle Sam's books. If you are a plumber, it is likely that you would be told to go plumb.
But what if you are a poet? Is there any likelihood that you would be told to go poe?"
Around the time this edition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published (1930), it had been 100 years since Edgar Allen Poe's disastrous West point adventure, yet another disappointment to his foster father, John Allen. Poe's biographer in the newsletter covers Poe's early life, hits all the literary highlights, paying special attention to Poe's only novel, and touches upon the  controversy of his turbulent life, but, unfortunately, repeats many of the lies and misconceptions that taint his image to this day -- in reality, he died of a brain tumor, not alcoholism. But, all in all, the Sandglass entry is a competent and concise biography.
"The decorations for the book were done by Rene Clarke. When we once made up a list of the foremost illustrators in the land, we approached all manner of authorities for their opinions as to the illustrators who should be in the list. Without exception, each authority included the name of Rene Clarke.
After he had read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, he came to the conclusion that one kind of illustration was inevitable. The climax of the story lies in the dread of the black people for anything white. The book, then, concluded Mr. Clarke, must dramatize these colors by using black ink on white paper. He made a whole series of designs, with pen, in solid blacks above thin white lines."
The illustrations by Clarke are dramatic and tremendously effective in illustrating Pym's voyage southward in the Grampus; the Sandglass narrator writes that the drawings are "...directed toward a modern feeling...could obviously be done by an artist only in this century," but to me they look like woodcuts, though with a sort of deco touch. Clarke (who was inducted into the Art Director Hall of Fame in 1972) was a good choice for the tone of Poe's tale, which itself stands as between two worlds, the animistic world of the past and the era of science then emerging around Poe, but similar care was taken in choosing the artists to illustrate each classic tome; in the few books without illustration, they were signed by the designer or typographer, and in the case of Ulysses the books (200 of them) were signed by James Joyce.
"It was obvious that, to carry out Mr. Clarke's dramatization of black and white, a dead white paper would be required. Such a paper was especially created, for this book, at the Ticonderoga Mills in Upper New York State. It was shipped to the revered offset-printing shop of Kellogg & Bulkeley in Hartford.
"The type selected by Mr Anthoensen is Scotch. This is known to typographers as a modern face, even though it was originally designed more than one hundred years ago. Probably designed by S.N. Dickinson of Philadelphia in 1837, it attained its first prominence when the type foundry of Alexander Wilson in Glasgow announced a new "Modern Roman" in its catalog.
"The binding has been done by Frank Daniel Fortney in New York. A white linen covers the back of the boards, stamped with the title in black leaf. The sides of the boards are covered with a hand-marbled paper, which we persuaded Putois Freres, in Paris, to make especially for this book: in black marbling on white paper!"


I've quoted at length from the Sandglass that came with my The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but only as an example of the level of detailed information that was provided to each Heritage Club subscriber. All of the Sandglass issues have been compiled, in two volumes, by famed Heritage Press collector Michael C. Bussacco. While the publishing details might make some people comatose, true bibliophiles will find it a feast, reason enough to track down these two volumes, both of which are available through Mr Bussacco is also the author of a checklist and price guide of Heritage Press issues.

Why do these editions appeal to me, as well as thousands of others? Really, it's hard to say, but I think it has something to do with the care that went into each volume, the idea that each book is as handmade as a 20th Century object can be, even more of a rara avis now that we have moved into the faceless and apocalyptic 21st Century, where even paper books are on the endangered species list. There is a bond between the author, the publisher, the artist, the typographer, the paper maker, the bindery workers, and the reader, and it all comes together in a Heritage Press book -- we are all taking time and effort to share a story as we sit around the campfire that is our sun, co-operating to create a fictional world that, if only for a moment, is more real and more understandable than the physical world, which...
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.