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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.)
Elidor (Del Rey, July 1981). Cover by Laurence Schwinger
One of the best things about starting a book is that you can never be sure exactly how you’re going to respond to it, and those responses can range all the way from hurl the damned thing across the room hatred to toe-curling bliss, with all of a million subtle shadings in between. Every once in a while, though, a book breaks through even the upper ranges of enjoyment and appreciation and just absolutely knocks you flat, a reaction that’s especially powerful when you aren’t expecting it. That’s what happened to me when I reached onto the summer reading pile and came away with a book that I’ve probably had for twenty years or more without ever getting around to, Alan Garner’s 1965 fantasy novel, Elidor. It’s ostensibly a children’s book, but I’ve rarely had a more adult dose of fantasy.
Garner’s contributions to the genre have been few but intense, consisting of the Adderly Edge trilogy (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and Boneyard), Elidor, The Owl Service, and (depending on your definition of the fantastic) Red Shift. The first of these books appeared in 1960 and the last in 1973. (The exception is Boneyard, which was published in 2012, almost fifty years after the second book in its group.) Since the mid-seventies, Garner has abandoned fantasy and devoted himself to essays, memoirs, and works based on English history or folklore. His fantastic fiction is a testament to the proposition that you don’t have to keep on doing something if you do it right the first time. (He has said that he resisted pressure to turn each book into a series because to crank out automatic sequels “would render sterile the existing work, the life that produced it, and bring about my artistic and spiritual death.”)
When is this going to end? Will it ever truly be over? I certainly don’t know and I don’t know of anyone who does. Neither can I claim that I was prepared when the COVID era suddenly leaped out of the ground and threw itself at our throats like Ray Harryhausen’s murderous skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, though I do like to think that we science fiction readers were taken just a little less by surprise than most folks were.
Before this happened, we’d at least spent time (in the literary sense) with people who have foreseen disasters like the one we’re living through. Perhaps no theme is more common to the genre, and any science fiction fan worth his or her salt has whole shelves full of books that describe the human race wrestling with apocalyptic attacks that come out of nowhere and change everything. (I know you were hoping the science fiction that would be realized during your lifetime would be contact with a benevolent alien civilization or antigravity cars or an endless power supply that you could carry in your pocket, not this. Me too.)
Maybe that’s why the opening of H.G. Wells’s great book (and the granddaddy of all such end-of-the-world nightmares), The War of the Worlds, has been much on my mind lately.
Who was the most influential person in the history of the American fantastic imagination? Was it a founding father like Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, or Nathaniel Hawthorne? Or could it be a golden-age great like Robert A. Heinlein or Isaac Asimov or the editor who shaped their early careers, John W. Campbell? Certainly, the big three of Weird Tales, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, have set the pattern for countless imitators down to the present day. Perhaps it was a pure pulpster like Edgar Rice Burroughs or a more literary type like Ray Bradbury, or someone who came to the fore later, like Frank Herbert or Poul Anderson. Maybe it was someone less traditional, like Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, or Samuel R. Delaney.
It’s a fun question to contemplate and a tricky and enjoyable argument to make, whoever your choice is. For myself, I don’t think any of the worthies I’ve mentioned had the widespread, long-term influence of my nominee(s): William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. (But then, if asked to name the single greatest work of American fantasy, I’m likely to blurt out that it’s the 1964 Rankin-Bass TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.)
In the six years that I’ve been writing for Black Gate (Mr. O’Neill says that my basement cubicle will be ready any day now and I’ll be able to stop working out of my car – oh, wait a minute… I just got a memo that says that due to the current crisis, not only will I be staying in my car, now I’ll be working from the trunk), I’ve written about a lot of books, and when selecting a volume to blather about I’ve had only two simple rules. When I write about a book, it must be one that I like, and it must be one that I have actually read.
I will admit to once or twice breaking the first rule; it can be a lot of fun teeing off on a bad book, seeing just how witty you can be at its expense. By and large, though, the Black Gate mission is a celebratory one. I think we all keep coming back here to find new things to love, not new things to hate, which are already being thrust upon us every minute of our lives.
As for the second rule, that might seem so obvious as to not need to be stated, but haven’t we all finished reading a review of some work we happen to be familiar with and thought, “There’s no way that reviewer can have actually read that book!” (That never happens here, of course.)
My friends, today you are privileged to be present at a historic event. I am now going to break both rules. I don’t like Varney the Vampire, and I make this judgment without having read it – or not read it completely, anyway. My Wordsworth paperback edition runs to 1,118 pages and my bookmark currently rests at page 541. Fine, you say; just push on and finish the thing and then say your peace. Well… I can’t. I just can’t.
The other day the nice man from UPS brought me something that I had been looking forward to receiving for quite a while: a Blu-ray of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, which I had pre-ordered months ago on the first day it became possible to do so. I had seen it three times in the theater and wanted to be able to watch it again with minimal delay. (It’s only the third movie I have ever seen that many times as a paying customer, the other two being Raging Bull and Magnolia.)
I have very contradictory feelings about Quentin Tarantino. He’s an acknowledged “major director” – one of the few we have left – whose excesses can make every film feel like a guilty pleasure. A technical master who too often displays the emotional maturity of a fourteen-year-old, at his best Tarantino can still be a dynamite filmmaker, and I enjoyed Once Upon a Time more than any movie I’ve seen in years. I think it’s Tarantino’s strongest work since Jackie Brown.
Set in Hollywood in 1969, the movie follows semi-washed up TV western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his buddy, stunt double, and factotum, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they try to keep Rick’s head above water in the wake of the cancellation of his series, Bounty Law. (At one point Rick and Cliff spend a short time in Italy making spaghetti westerns, and in true Tarantino fashion, we get to see posters and footage from these epics, along with pitch-perfect clips from fake episodes of Bounty Law, Lancer, and The F.B.I. The last two were real shows that Rick was doing guest shots on.) During the course of these efforts, this entertainment industry duo crosses paths with another group emblematic of 1969 LA, those ultimate devils of the 20th Century American imagination, the Manson Family.