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Author: Thomas Parker

A Poisoned Bouquet: Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier

A Poisoned Bouquet: Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier

Fancies and Goodnights (Bantam Giant, 1953). Cover by Charles Binger

Fantasy, this genre that we love so much, is in reality not one genre but many; that’s one reason we love it. Any form that can accommodate the cynicism of Glen Cook and the lyricism of Patricia McKillip, that can hold the clarity of Robert E. Howard and the ambiguity of John Crowley, that can contain the brutality of George R.R. Martin and the hilarity of Terry Pratchett… well, there’s nothing it can’t do. Fantasy contains multitudes.

There’s a problem with being a member of a multitude, however — it’s easy to get lost, easy to be pushed to the back of the line by the ever-swelling mob of new books, new writers, new modes, easy to be misplaced or forgotten. It’s happened to many worthwhile writers. It’s happened to John Collier.

John Henry Noyes Collier, who died in 1980 at the age of seventy-eight, specialized in “slick” fantasy stories, “slick” because they generally appeared in “slick-paper magazines” as opposed to the cheap-paper pulps, upscale publications like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, or Esquire. Characterized by modern, urban settings, a sophisticated, often satirical tone, and the irony-laced employment of traditional figures such as witches, genies, angels, devils, magicians, and ghosts, slick fantasy flourished during the twenties, thirties, and forties, and manifested itself in many different media. The humorous supernatural novels of Thorne Smith such as Topper (1926) and The Night Life of the Gods (1931), plays like Noel Coward’s breezy mix of marriage farce and spiritualism, Blithe Spirit (1941), and films like René Clair’s screwball comedy, I Married a Witch (1942, and itself the progenitor of one of the most popular television series of the 60’s, Bewitched), are all examples of this effervescent mode. John Collier may have been its greatest prose practitioner.

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Slapdash Slapstick: Ron Goulart, January 13, 1933 – January 14, 2022

Slapdash Slapstick: Ron Goulart, January 13, 1933 – January 14, 2022

Ron Goulart in 2009

Contrary to popular opinion, comic science fiction didn’t start and end with Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The humorous mode has a long and honorable history, exemplified by writers like Stanislaw Lem, Harry Harrison, R.A. Lafferty, Frederic Brown, Robert Sheckley… and Ron Goulart.

Ron Goulart, who died on January 14th, a day after his eighty-ninth birthday, was an insanely prolific science fiction and mystery writer, especially in the 70’s and 80’s, when he wrote over one hundred novels, many of them pseudonymous entries in various “copyrighted character” series such as The Avenger, Flash Gordon, Vampirella, and The Phantom. These productions are about what you would expect — professional, work-for-hire potboilers written at high speed for the sole purpose of keeping the refrigerator stocked and the gas and electricity on. Hack work, in other words.

He was also William Shatner’s ghostwriter on the actor’s TekWar books; what would you give to have been a fly on the wall during their story conferences? “What do you think of this idea, Ron?” “It’s dead, Bill.”

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Conan’s Father: William Smith, 1933-2021

Conan’s Father: William Smith, 1933-2021

William Smith

We all have our end-of-year rituals, those small ceremonies that prepare us to ring out the old year and ring in the new. For me, one of the most important is watching the current TCM Remembers, the annual short film with which Turner Classic Movies bids farewell to the film people that we’ve lost throughout the year. It’s always beautifully done, and it always makes me tear up, usually no more the thirty seconds in.

Some of its subjects — the more famous ones — come as no surprise, as I heard about their deaths when they occurred during the year. There will always be many people, though, that I only find out about when I watch the video, late in December. This year one of the people that I didn’t know was gone was William Smith, who died July 5th at the age of eighty-eight.

William Smith? Who was William Smith? Oh, you know him — I guarantee it. To say that he was a prolific actor is to greatly understate the case. He has two hundred and seventy-five movie and television credits listed on IMDB, the first a miniscule part in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein when he was nine years old and the last in 2020, in the Steve Carell comedy Irresistible.

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Living in the Labyrinth: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Living in the Labyrinth: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi


Piranesi
(Bloomsbury paperback reprint, September 28, 2021)

I stopped apologizing about preferring old books over new ones a long time ago. One of the best things about reading, after all, is that it’s a kingdom over which you are an absolute sovereign. You alone can confer the Order of the Garter; only you can shout, “Off with their heads!”

Nevertheless, while consistency is required of lesser beings, it need not be considered by monarchs, and so I decreed that the first book I read in 2022 would be Susanna Clarke’s fantasy Piranesi, which was published a little over a year ago, in September 2020. In this I was merely keeping a promise I made a few years ago here on Black Gate when I rhapsodized about Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I said then that when Clarke finished her next book, I would line up to read it the day it was published. I think I came reasonably close; that I missed it by fifteen months I can always blame on COVID. Why the hell not?

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Indecent Exposure: The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Indecent Exposure: The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark

Everyone is looking for something, and the things that most people are seeking are the easily identified, common currency of life, everyday ambitions like love, security, peace, wealth, happiness. But a certain select few are looking for… something else. That something else is the subject of the Scottish writer Muriel Spark’s 1970 novella The Driver’s Seat.

Someone once described being guillotined as experiencing “a short, sharp shock.” Leaving aside the question of how anyone could possibly know, that phrase is a perfect description of Spark’s novels and stories, each of which is as brief and cold and merciless as the nip of what the French once called the National Razor.

To name just a few examples, in Memento Mori an aging group of silly, self-obsessed men and women receive a series of mysterious phone calls in which an unfamiliar voice says one simple thing before hanging up: “Remember you must die.” Eventually some of them come to believe that their caller is not a prankster or a blackmailer, but is in fact Death himself.

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My Robert A. Heinlein Problem

My Robert A. Heinlein Problem

Robert A. Heinlein. Art by Donato.

Do you know someone — a friend, a coworker, a family member — whom you esteem for their many good qualities… and yet whose extreme and undeniable character flaws can sometimes make you want to banish them from your life forever? Of course you do. (Humility and the law of averages should also make you acknowledge that for someone else you know, there’s a good chance that you are that person.)

For me, that problematic individual is Robert A. Heinlein. Dominating the science fiction field from the moment his first story, “Lifeline,” appeared in the August, 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction to his death almost a half century later, Heinlein was arguably the most important writer in the history of American genre sf. In 1974 he was the first writer named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America and was the winner of four Hugo Awards for best novel (and seven “retro” Hugos for works published prior to 1953). Invoking his name can start a passionate argument even now, and he’s been gone for thirty-three years.

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The Storyteller’s Voice: Arch Oboler’s Drop Dead! or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Chicken Heart that Devoured the World but Were Afraid to Ask

The Storyteller’s Voice: Arch Oboler’s Drop Dead! or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Chicken Heart that Devoured the World but Were Afraid to Ask

Drop Dead! front cover

As anyone who reads old comic books can tell you, the cheesy ads in the back pages are often more fun than the actual stories. Warren magazines like Creepy and Eerie were especially good in this regard, aimed as they were at a slightly more adult audience than comics like The Flash or Sub-Mariner were – or if Warren readers weren’t that much more mature, they probably at least had a little more money in their pockets than their slightly younger, allowance-dependent brethren did.

For instance, the last fifteen pages of my copy of Creepy #59 (January, 1974) consist of nothing but ads for such treasures as Planet of the Apes Hobby Kits (“TEN MILLION FANS ASKED FOR IT!”), Vinyl Movie Monster Masks (“NEW! FROM HOLLYWOOD!”), 8MM reels of stop-motion action scenes from Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (“A FEAST OF FEARFUL IMAGINATION!”), EC Comics reprints, and pages and pages of paperback books and “Monsterific LP Record Albums!” The latter were mostly a mixed bag of ancient radio shows, “spoken word” renditions of Poe and Bierce stories, movie soundtracks, and those compilations of haunted house sounds that the copywriters assured us would be “great fun for parties!”

The album that always caught my eye (and that’s all it caught – $5.98 wasn’t easy for me to come by in those days) was called Drop Dead!

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First Impressions: Tim Kirk’s 1975 Tolkien Calendar

First Impressions: Tim Kirk’s 1975 Tolkien Calendar

Gandalf and Bilbo

How does the old saying go? “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It’s often true that the first encounter has an ineradicable effect, whether the meeting is with a person, a work of art, or a world. It’s certainly true in my case; I had my first and, in some ways, most decisive encounter with Middle-earth before I ever read a word of The Lord of the Rings. My first view of that magical place came through the paintings of Tim Kirk, in the 1975 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar, and that gorgeous, pastel-colored vision of the Shire and its environs is the one that has stayed with me. Almost half a century later, Kirk’s interpretation still lies at the bottom of all my imaginings of Tolkien’s world.

There had been two Tolkien calendars before Kirk’s. The 1973 and 1974 editions used Tolkien’s own illustrations, some of the same ones that Ballantine (which also published the calendars) used on the covers of the “authorized” paperback editions of the novels, the ones that were carried around like books of Holy Writ in high schools and colleges during those years when fantasy felt like a secret and the news of what it was and what it could do had yet to spread very far.

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Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: The Art of Darkness

Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: The Art of Darkness

The Night Gallery on DVD

Few things in life are more trying than playing second fiddle to a sibling whose charm, poise, good looks and dazzling achievements you can never hope to match. Just ask Night Gallery, forever standing in the shadow of one of the most legendary and beloved of all television shows, The Twilight Zone. (At this point I am morally – if not legally – required to disclose that I am a spoiled youngest child who got every freakin’ thing he ever wanted, at least according to my sister.)

In case you need reminding, Night Gallery was an outré-story anthology show hosted by Rod Serling that ran for three seasons on NBC, from 1969 through 1973. Each hour-long episode featured two, three, or even four separate stories (at least until the third season, when the show’s running time was cut back to a half hour), which Serling, in his role as the curator of a museum of the macabre, would introduce with a painting (or occasionally a piece of sculpture) illustrative of the tale, hence the series name.

Night Gallery shares many qualities with its predecessor, but several things distinguish it from the earlier show. Like Twilight Zone, Night Gallery was created by Rod Serling and he wrote some or all of over half of the episodes, but he did not produce the series. This was a big change and it meant that he had far less authority over Night Gallery than he did over his previous creation. (As the creator and face of the show, he thought that his wishes would be respected even without the producing title, but it often didn’t turn out that way.)

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When Worse Comes to Worst: The Black Hole and Saturn 3

When Worse Comes to Worst: The Black Hole and Saturn 3

The Black Hole (Disney, 1979)

Stephen Spielberg may have said that “the arc of the cinematic universe is long, but it bends towards quality,” but that’s a crock. (Actually, he didn’t say that. No one did. But I need to establish something here, so cut me some slack, will you?) Much as we may wish otherwise, cinema history, like the other, capital H kind, isn’t linear or progressive – it’s cyclical. This means that there will be times when things are trending up and times when they’re heading down, periods of boom and periods of bust, seasons when excellence commands the stage and epochs when utter crap towers so high over everything that it blots out the sun. Perhaps no film genre demonstrates this inevitable ebb and flow better than science fiction.

Never was this more evident than during the late 70’s and early 80’s, a low end of the bell curve era if there ever was one. For every Star Wars or Alien, there was a Metalstorm or a Spacehunter. Actually, given the iron logic of Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crap”), for every Empire Strikes Back there were nine (!) Laserblasts. In fact, you could argue that this arid stretch invalidates the law altogether – by proving Sturgeon wildly optimistic. Ninety percent? Anyone who spent time in the mall multiplexes during those years could be excused for thinking that the offal percentage was closer to ninety-nine than ninety.

(By the way, if you think I’m being unduly hard on these films, we can easily talk about some of the era’s other cultural products. How about music? Where shall we start – Martha Davis and the Motels? A Flock of Seagulls? Loverboy? Yeah… that’s what I thought. Back to crappy sci-fi movies it is.)

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