Friday, March 17, 2017

Stay Out of the Woods

If there is anything I've learned from a lifetime of watching films, it's that very few good things take place in the woods. From being stalked by the Blair Witch to attacked by blood-drinking Druids to running into the Jersey Devil, bad things happen in forests. The deeper you venture into those dark woods, the worse the dangers become, till the very trees themselves turn against you and try to suck your life force from you...that was a British film. The point is, you don't have to be named Hansel or Gretel to come to no good end when ancient/forbidden/cursed/haunted woods are involved. And it's not merely a modern motif. Storytellers have been warning us to stay out of the woods for at least four thousand years...obviously we are slow learners. In Beast of Robbers Wood, third book in the DCI Arthur Ravyn Mysteries, I add my own voice to those warning of dangers lurking among those seemingly peaceful sylvan settings.

Just outside Midriven village, in myth-haunted Hammershire County, is the vast, mostly unexplored tract known as Robbers Wood. The forest acquired that name through the depredations of notorious highwayman Ned Bly, who made his living by taking purses and heads along the Old Road. Even though his neck got stretched by Jack Ketch in 1837, his spirit still gallops the road. As if that were not reason enough to stay out of the woods (not to mention avoiding the lane that skirts the woods), there is an even older legend going back at least to the time of the Druids. A nameless Beast occasionally awakens from its slumber ("when the stars are right" of course) and takes victims back to its lair in the heart of the woods. Personally, I'd move to another village. When a girl vanishes from Midriven (only the first of several) it falls to DCI Arthur Ravyn and DS Leo Stark to investigate. None of the village old timers are betting on the detectives to survive, much less solve the baffling mystery -- what chance do two country coppers stand against the Old Gods?

If you're interested in a preview of the book, please click below:

Although Midriven and its legends are central to the mystery, it's really the characters that propel the story. We learn a bit more about Ravyn's past, as well as the crisis that has assailed Stark's life since we met him in Murder in the Goblins' Playground, but each person we meet in Midriven has a story to tell, and perhaps a destiny to meet. I hope you enjoy this and the other books as much as I enjoy writing them. Currently, I am working on the fourth in the series, Murderer in Shadow, which will center around the theme of solitude and loneliness...and, of course, murder.
To be taken to the series page on Amazon, please click here

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

We Were Hunting a Monster

There were three of us crammed into an old yellow VW Beetle hurtling at breakneck speed through black woods. It was the early Seventies, and we were being chased by monsters.

I've written elsewhere in this blog about being a UFO investigator for the UFO Research Bureau (UFORB), but I don't think I mentioned that we worked out of office space leased by an organization called the World Truth Institute (WTI). It was quasi-religious but mostly philosophical, the sort of thing that's called New Age nowadays. It's founder, Warren B. Knox, had written a book called Moroni's Message, a kind of adventure novel with religious overtones, the sort of thing that would become popular years later when Raiders of the Lost Ark was a box office hit.

Like us (me, Steve & Gary), Warren was a Chula Vista guy. When his book was published, it got a nice write up in the 26 April 1973 issue of the Chula Vista Star-News, for which I was at the time still writing book reviews. I did not, however, review Warren's book. Mine was an actual book review column, called Etc, and the publisher, Lowell Blankfort, wanted Warren's book to be reviewed and him interviewed by the Religion editor because of the religious and metaphysical aspects of the book.

Warren was a smart fellow, but his concerns were so esoteric that we at times hardly knew what he was talking about. As UFO investigators, we were mostly concerned with lights in the sky whereas Warren was looking quite a ways beyond. We really didn't get involved with WTI or its work. What we appreciated was that WTI sub-leased back office space from a realtor in a set of old stucco buildings (built circa 1930) at the southwest corner of Third and H Street, and that we got to use that space to store our files and to have our meetings on Wednesday evenings. As I wrote, we were investigating the UFO Phenomena, each of us coming at it from our own particular points of view, but that didn't stop us from going off on a tangent now and then, especially if we could tie it, even tenuously, to Flying Saucers. One such tangent was Bigfoot. While Steve held firmly to Donald Keyhoe's machines-from-outer-space theory and that the Ufonauts were likely gray, green or blond-haired Nordic aliens, Gary thought it was more than possible that the Flying Saucer pilots, at least some of them, were Bigfoot (Sasquatch) creatures and that sightings of the hirsute monsters were actually UFO sightings misinterpreted.

Gary was not alone in this idea and one of its proponents was writer John A. Keel (author of, among others, The Mothman Prophecies and Our Haunted Planet), whom all three of us idolized. If Keel thought a Bigfoot alien was a possibility, we really couldn't mock Gary for believing it...well, we mocked him a little. As I wrote, we usually did not involve ourselves with WTI affairs, but Warren was always on the lookout for things that might interest us lads, and he had contacts with people in San Diego County that we, being mere callow youths, did not have.

One Wednesday evening, Warren showed up for one of our meetings, not unheard of, but unusual. He told us about a man he knew who lived in the East County, which back then was mostly undeveloped. The man, Dr John Bador, had written Warren a letter (he gave us a photostat for our files) that told a very strange story. Dr Bador, a retired medical man, owned a ranch up in the mountains that was fenced in around his ranch house, a step he took because of the large packs of coyotes that roamed the area at the time. On several nights, he observed a tall (7-8 ft) creature approach his fence and observe his house. He described it as being covered with thick fur except on its hands, feet and face...and, yes, the feet were big. Monsters, whether they were aliens or Missing Links, really did not fit into Warren's world view, but he thought we might be interested, especially since the East County had long been a UFO hot spot. We were interested, some more than others. That was how we came to be careening wildly through the dark in Gary's yellow VW Bug hunting for monsters. or being hunted by them.

I should point out that none of us were strangers to monster lore. As long-time Chula Vista residents we had heard about the Proctor Valley Monster all our lives. Just what was the Proctor Valley Monster? Nobody really knows. Some claim it was goatish or like a bull, others more humanoid, but there was no dissension about its reality. Well, maybe a little from some quarters, who unwisely mocked the PVM.  Proctor Valley was due east of Chula Vista. It has since been conquered and annexed by Chula Vista, part of the extensive Eastlake Development, but at the time it was wild and undeveloped. A drive along Proctor Valley Road was a journey into mystery and danger, especially at night...and, yes, we had made the trip at night in Gary's VW Bug. No monsters though. Having hunted for it, we thought ourselves well qualified to tackle this new monster. We were determined to find Dr Bador's monster (or Gary's UFO pilot). The only thing we did not consider in our impetuousness was what we would do if we actually caught the creature. Yes, we had much in common with dogs who chase cars.

Late one Saturday afternoon we set out for the East County, planning to enter the brush not far from Dr. Bador's ranch. The good doctor had been warned by Warren we would be in the area, just so he would know not to call the Sheriff or to shoot us. We had everything needed for a successful monster hunt -- tape recorder, camera, map, flashlights, sodas, candy bars and beef jerky. We entered the brush following a barely passable track. When we reckoned we had reached a good spot from where we could hike down to within view of Dr. Bador's place and still keep the car hidden, we waited quietly as darkness gathered around us.

Slightly after midnight, we heard something (maybe a lot of somethings) moving through the woods. They were not approaching the fence, but rather were closing in on Gary's car. Nervously, we made our way back to the Bug, rolled down the windows and listened to the movements of things we never saw. I should point out here that all three of us were City boys. I had been a Boy Scout, but sleeping in a tent at a Boy Scout camp, surrounded by the amenities of modern camping, is much different than sitting in a car, surrounded by totally dark woods with monsters closing in. We were so concerned about keeping quiet that none of us even bit down on a Hershey Bar, lest the snap of the chocolate give us away. The sounds in the woods grew fainter. Then something massive and dark crashed through the brush and landed very close to the car. There may have been some growling involved.

I don't want to say that any of us panicked. I know I was not panicked. Even though more than four decades have passed since that night, I'm pretty sure I was calm and cool during the entirety of the startling intrusion. But I can't really speak for the others. There were screams, but I'm pretty sure mine was not among them. Let us merely agree that there were screams and that some level of panic was involved. I don't want to point fingers, of course, but I will mention that Gary was driving and that 1.5 seconds after the advent of whatever-it-was we were in motion, jouncing at perilous speeds along trails we could not see, After maybe ten minutes of blind flight (we were certain we heard sounds of pursuit) we burst into the midst of a ranch. Unfortunately, it was not Dr Bador's place and this rancher had not been warned to refrain from firing his shotgun. With the boom loud in our ears, we zoomed up the ranch's access road, hit the main county road, and didn't slow down till we reached the familiar streets of Chula Vista.

Our report, which we shared with WTI, indicated that after extensive research, including an on-site inspection, we did not find any conclusive evidence of either Bigfoot or UFO visitation. We came to the conclusion Dr Bador was either the victim of a hoax or had misinterpreted natural phenomena, something we often came across in our investigations. We marked the case CLOSED. That was our story, and we stuck to it.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Winston SF

Graduating from Lauderbach Elementary and moving on to Castle Park Junior High, now, alas, known as Castle Park Middle School, was a time of changes for me. I went from being the shortest kid in my class to being one of the tallest...the bullies went in search of littler fellows though I was still fair game for taunts from skinny classmates. The sudden summer growth spurt was accompanied by not-unexpected awkwardness, though it also turned out I needed glasses. I went from spending the whole day in one classroom to switching rooms for every subject, trading one teacher for seven...I also learned that not all teachers were older married women. Let's not even consider what I was exposed to in Gym class for the first time. Ugh!

One of the few bright spots in junior high was the library. I was getting deeper into science fiction at that point, thanks to magazines of the time, but Lauderbach's selections in the genre were limited mostly to series such as Tom Swift Jr, Brains Benton and Digg Allen, and kid's books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron and Mr Twigg's Mistake by Robert Lawson. While they were great books upon which I look back with fondness, they were not as demanding as I wanted my books to be. At the time, I was reading more complex mysteries by John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and others, so I suppose it was only natural to look for the same sort of sophistication from science fiction books. It was during that search in the new school's library that I came across a series of books called the Winston Science Fiction Library. It come into being in 1952 and was starting to wind down as I discovered it, but it was all new and exciting to me. I knew I was in for something different when I opened the first book and saw the endpaper art by Alex Schomburg.

Kids looking at them now might think the images a little hokey, and certainly the art style has been superseded by more photorealistic paintings. Still, as I look at it now, through a prism of more than a half century, the painting retains the ability to stir memories in me. The illustration (which was used for the endpapers in every book) promised a story different from the ones I was used to. The most sophisticated stories I'd read up to that time was Heinlein's 1947 book, Rocket Ship Galileo. These new books seemed to offer even more.

The first book I read in the series was The Year When Stardust Fell. Of all the books in the series, this book had the most effect on me and is the one I remember most. It concerns a worldwide catastrophe, the end of mechanization and the struggle between superstition and science. Recently, I had the opportunity to re-read the book. Often, when we go back to the items of our youth, we find things not the same, that older eyes see differently than younger short, you can't go home again. Happily, though, it was a pleasant experience and again I found myself caught up in the story. It was a little dated, perhaps, mostly in the mid-century mindset of the characters, but not terribly so.

Another influential book for me from that period was The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald A Wollheim, who went on to be an editor at Ace Books, then to found his own publishing company, DAW Books. It's a great adventure novel that takes the reader from an archaeological dig at an ancient Incan city in the Andes, to a city on Mars, to Venus, to a space battle with forces from the planet Pluto. Well, things have changed quite a bit since the novel was written -- neither Mars nor Venus are abodes for life, intelligent or otherwise, and some people claim Pluto is not a planet (I still believe!). Re-reading this one fifty years later, I was surprised how easily I was able to set aside modern astronomy and accept all the old planetary descriptions. Of course, that may have been because of Wollheim's writing skill, but there's also the possibility that I accepted them because they were more desirable to me than today's harsh scientific realities...I suppose the scientific ones are not the only harsh realities people have to deal with these days.Whatever the reason, I was glad that the book had not lost its charm for me.

The books in the series are a little difficult to find now in good condition and in the original dustjackets, but they can be tracked down at the usual suspects...EBay, ABEbooks, some third-party sellers on Amazon, and in the backs of dusty used book stores...if you still have any around you. Lately, some of the titles have also appeared in e-formats. For those who want to join the hunt, here's a check list of titles, authors, artists and years to help you out. I've highlighted my favorites.

  1. Earthbound by Milton Lesser, cover by Peter Poulton (1952)
  2. Find the Feathered Serpent, Evan Hunter, cover Henry Sharp (1952)
  3. Five Against Venus, Philip Latham (Robert S. Richardson), cover Virgil Finlay (1952)
  4. Islands in the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  5. Marooned on Mars, Lester del Rey, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  6. Mists of Dawn, Chad Oliver, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  7. Rocket Jockey, Philip St. John (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  8. Son of the Stars, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1952) – Clonar, book 1
  9. Sons of the Ocean Deeps, Bryce Walton, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  10. Vault of the Ages, Poul Anderson, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  11. Attack from Atlantis, Lester del Rey, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  12. Battle on Mercury, Erik Van Lhin (Lester del Rey), cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  13. Danger: Dinosaurs!, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  14. Missing Men of Saturn, Philip Latham, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  15. The Mysterious Planet, Kenneth Wright (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  16. Mystery of the Third Mine, Robert W. Lowndes, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  17. Planet of Light, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1953) – Clonar, book 2
  18. Rocket to Luna, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover by Alex Schomburg (1953)
  19. The Star Seekers, Milton Lesser, cover Paul Calle (1953)
  20. Vandals of the Void, Jack Vance, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  21. Rockets to Nowhere, Philip St. John (Lester Del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  22. The Secret of Saturn's Rings, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  23. Step to the Stars, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1954) – Jim Stanley, book 1
  24. Trouble on Titan, Alan E. Nourse, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  25. The World at Bay, Paul Capon, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  26. The Year After Tomorrow, eds. Lester del Rey, Cecile Matschat, and Carl Carmer, cover and interior illus. Mel Hunter (1954) – anthology of nine short stories
  27. The Ant Men, Eric North, cover Paul Blaisdell (1955)
  28. The Secret of the Martian Moons, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1955)
  29. The Lost Planet, Paul Dallas, cover Alex Schomburg (1956)
  30. Mission to the Moon, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1956) – Jim Stanley, book 2
  31. Rockets Through Space, Lester del Rey, cover and interior illus. James Heugh (1957) – Special Companion Book (nonfiction)
  32. The Year When Stardust Fell, Raymond F. Jones, cover James Heugh (1958)
  33. The Secret of the Ninth Planet, Donald A. Wollheim, cover James Heugh (1959)
  34. The Star Conquerors, Ben Bova, cover Mel Hunter (1959)
  35. Stadium Beyond the Stars, Milton Lesser, cover Mel Hunter (1960)
  36. Moon of Mutiny, Lester del Rey, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961) – Jim Stanley, book 3
  37. Spacemen, Go Home, Milton Lesser, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961)