Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
The Shanghai Ballard-osphere
By Andy Best
Take a walk down Panyu (Fanyu) Lu from the Film Art Centre and you will soon pass by the SH508 restaurant. It occupies a slaughtered renovated colonial mansion adorned with a huge neon sign. Unknown to the proprietors, reviewers and most of the customers, this is actually the former family home of British writer J.G. Ballard.
Ballard’s father ran a sweatshop factory in Shanghai and enjoyed the highlife of villas, health clubs and horse racing. Born in 1930, Jim Ballard was left to the care of indifferent servants. He used his relative freedom to explore the city by bicycle, seeing local Chinese starving to death on the glitzy foreign streets. Once Japan invaded in full, his family was interned at the infamous Longhua Camp, now Shanghai Zhongxue.
Canadian Rick McGrath has the largest collection of Ballard first editions in the world. His brilliant online catalogue – The Terminal Collection – is one of the two best Ballard sites available, the other being Simon Sellars’ Ballardian.com. McGrath heard that the Shanghai house was still standing and obtained a letter from Ballard himself. The letter contained a map which allowed him to confirm the location using Google Earth. A pilgrimage was on the cards.
Shanghaiist met McGrath for a stroll around the lanes of old Amherst Road (Xinhua Lu) and finished with dinner at the house itself. McGrath’s stories are great, including the time he couldn’t pass up on visiting Ballard despite a general request for no visits at the time:
“They call it doorstepping. It’s probably stalking. My bad.”
Despite McGrath’s obvious elation at finally making it to the site, he admitted that the Chinese are under no obligation to preserve sites from bitter days of occupation and that all things pass. Ballard himself wrote in the letter that the places are gone in the old sense and commented of the house “a restaurant? Great, better make it a McDonald’s or a KFC.” He also sabotaged his own knighthood, calling it a ridiculous gesture to a non-existent empire.
Photo shows Rick McGrath in front of the old Ballard house.
For a fuller, and completely hilarious, recap, check out Rick's complete travelogue.
(And for even better time travel, sample Rick's collection of his rock star interviews from the early 1970s.
Meanwhile, The Times reports on the sad circumstances leading to Ballard's writing of the latest version of his own story. "Miracles of Life."
"Ballard is courteous and genial in a slightly donnish way. At 77, he takes his time assembling his thoughts, but they remain unflinching and provocative, expressed with the verbal tics of his colonial background. But time, the malleable stuff of his science fiction, is running out. After being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2006, he sat down at his electric typewriter – “The computer age came too late for me” – and rapidly wrote his autobiography."
Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, of course, were fictions. Whereas The Atrocity Exhibition was a work of journalism. Where this will fall on that continuum? You can find out next week by ordering your copy here.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Parric flapped backwards, dodging the bloody rain of body parts. His coils twitched with interest as he took in the eight-legheaded creature with deliberate consideration.
"So," he said at last, "I'm finally catching you up. But just otherwhere are you coming from?"
The thing tramped over Flavius' remains, pawing and gnawing at the ground as if it were trying to snuff the life out of every last cell. It emitted a deep thrumming from its thorax, and radial patterns flushed cyan from its back, radiating along the length of its legheads. It was very much unlike any sort of otherwhereian creature Parric had encountered before.
It took no notice of Parric. A quick check of the perimeter assured Parric that the Obscuring he'd crafted still shielded them from the humans' battle raging just a few flaps away. The Obscuring may well be blocking the otherwhereian's awareness of him as well, Parric reasoned. Still, it attacked Flavius through that same Obscuring.
"You're more of a puzzling to me that I’m expecting. Yes, you’re definitely requiring more studying," Parric said, selecting some cormynt and reesehops from his pouches. "No more leading me on chasings through Cosms for you. No more killings for you, either."
Parric crafted a Holding around the otherwhereian.
It abruptly stopped pawing at Flavius' remains. Four legheads snapped up, alert, each sweeping its ring of eyes in a different direction.
"Oh, you’re feeling that?" Parric said, somewhat surprised. His antennae twitched, focused on the creature. He layered on another Holding, just to be on the safe side.
The four legheads whipped around to face Parric. One by one the mouths opened, the teeth within flexing rhythmically.
Parric instinctively flinched, his featherscales ruffling. "Aren't you full of surprisings. Too many for my tasting, though." Parric added a third Holding.
The otherwhereian took a step toward Parric. The outermost Holding tore. It stopped, considering the invisible bonds holding it. Then it lunged at Parric, shrugging off tattered Holdings in its wake.
Parric shrieked, darting to the side. A massive leghead slammed into the ground where he'd been a moment earlier, the mouth gouging out a huge chunk of turf. Parric’s wings flew into action, the twin sets a sudden whining blur jerking him back from another crushing blow.
Parric shot away, flying low to the ground. He weaved through the choking smoke of battle, in and out among confused Highlanders. The creature galloped after him, disturbingly quick for something so large and ungainly. It trampled any human unlucky enough to get in its way, the gnashing mouths flinging out broken bodies with every step.
Parric zoomed over the Scottish artillery, a handful of cannons with disorganized crew. An instant later the creature smashed through them, sending the guns tumbling.
“Things are not going as I’m planning,” Parric muttered. He'd meant to take Flavius' killer unawares, yet now he was the pursued. This otherwhereian was an order of magnitude more powerful than he’d expected. “Time for escapings.”
Parric's antennae flexed out, searching for Nexial gaps--seams in the Cosm's fabric of reality. Then Parric remembered. The sword.
"Scalesplittings," Parric muttered. "Damn, damn and damning you, Flavius MacDuff, to the deepest wingrottings pit in this vile Cosm of yours."
Parric broke left and back, veering beneath the creature's striking legs. The brute was moving too fast to follow--the sodden ground gave way beneath it, and the creature caromed wildly.
"The sword, the sword," Parric berated himself. "How am I forgetting that wretched sword?"
The battle lines had moved, the chaos of the fight churning the field with blood. Parric darted along, parallel to the English lines. He scanned the ground for any glimpse of the sword. Random shots tore through the air around him, forcing Parric to break from the search to dodge. The English had finally noticed him. More complications.
A silver blade flashed beneath him. Parric pulled up sharply and doubled back, his wings battering away several English too close to his prize. Quickly he scooped the sword up. His antennae fell limp in disgust. It was the wrong sword.
The otherwhereian burst through the smoke, hurling itself at Parric.
“You are full of persistings, too,” Parric said. With a sharp motion, Parric launched himself into the air while flinging the found sword at the beast. The blade tip buried itself nearly a foot deep into one of the tough legheads as the otherwhereian pounced on the spot Parric had been moments earlier. One of the legheads pulled the sword free with its teeth. The injured leg howled a reverberant "Hooon!" then took off in pursuit of Parric once more.
The English weren't making Parric's search any easier, forcing him to continuously dodge musket fire as more and more of the army turned its attention from the routed Highlanders. To make matters worse, they weren't hindering the otherwhereian much at all. Their guns were too weak to pierce its rugged hide, their bodies too small to slow it as it churned its way through their ranks.
Then, below, Parric saw his prize. Amidst great chewed-out gouges of turf lay the muddy claymore with the whortleberry hilt. The otherwhereian was close behind, too close for Parric to chance a landing. Ahead, he spied the English artillery, the cannon crews struggling to turn the guns to face the invaders from otherwhere.
Parric clicked his beak in anticipation. “I’m thinking of surprisings for the teeth-footing beastie,” he said, flying straight at the artillery. Parric slowed slightly, just enough for the otherwhereian to gain on him. When the otherwhereian drew within a wingspan, Parric again broke left. He veered back and down, threading the needle between the massive legheads.
This time the otherwhereian was ready. A hind leghead swung forward horizontally, maw open wide.
Parric screeched in alarm, trying to cut right. The snapping mouth clipped Parric's leading wing, crumpling it. Out of control, Parric collided with another leghead. His momentum carried him past it, and he tumbled through a rank of English soldiers before plowing into the muddy sod.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
"I’d like to organize a Festival of Home Movies! It could be wonderful — thousands of the things… You might find an odd genius, a Fellini or Godard of the home movie, living in some suburb. I’m sure it’s coming… Using modern electronics, home movie cameras and the like, one will begin to retreat into one’s own imagination. I welcome that…"
-- J.G. Ballard, quoted in ‘Interview with JGB by Graeme Revell’, RE/Search No. 8/9, 1984.
In 1984 J.G. Ballard called for a ‘Festival of Home Movies’ and 24 years on we’re happy to oblige: announcing our latest competition, to promote JGB’s forthcoming autobiography, Miracles of Life. Presented by ballardian.com and HarperCollins UK, the competition will utilise ‘modern electronics’ as specified above, of an especial type that Ballard with his prodigious clairvoyant powers came close to envisaging: the mobile phone (or cell phone, for our North American cousins).
As Ballard writes, the minor, continual, subliminal modifications we make to our bodies on a day-to-day basis add up to something else:
"a continuing authentication of [our] physical selves, a non-vocal gossip…that no kinaesthetic language, beyond those provided by the instructions on a deodorant or a lady-shaver, has yet been found to express."
-- J.G. Ballard, ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’, 1976.
Fully calibrated with the user’s personality, the mobile phone sticks to the skin like a third ear, a wearable, affordable prosthesis grafted to the cochlea. It’s as banal and as integrated as his deodorant or her personal lady-shaver, and yet it’s something else again, something even more Ballardian. Moral panics scream that the mobile phone turns people into self-enclosed zombie pods, that it turns its users inwards and against each other. Horror films (and Stephen King) are cashing in on its unseen malevolence. Scientists scream that it causes tumors and brain lesions; it’s the absinthe of technological instruments. And throughout it all, the core power of the thing grows apace as it becomes more and more like a super-powerful micro computer: able to not only receive, beam and transmit, but to record your every move in sound and vision, unnoticed, silent, cloaked.
It’s an unprecedented window into inner space.
+ Shoot a film using your mobile phone’s video function, no more than one minute in duration, and using no post-production or processing — the film must be shot entirely ‘in camera’.
+ The theme: anything at all to do with either one or both of the Collins English Dictionary definitions of ‘Ballardian’:
BALLARDIAN: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (J.G. Ballard; born 1930), the British novelist, or his works. (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.
+ Email your footage to ballardianfilm at ballardian dot com.
+ Closing date for submissions: February 11 February 20.
Entries will be judged by myself and John Rivers from the HarperCollins digital wing.
Selected entries will be hosted on the site and the winner will receive a copy of Miracles of Life along with the forthcoming HarperCollins reissues of Ballard’s Millennium People, The Drought, The Crystal World, The Drowned World and The Unlimited Dream Company.
My sincere thanks to HarperCollins for generously sponsoring this event, and to John Rivers for allowing it to happen. And as always, special thanks to J.G. Ballard for continual and ongoing inspiration.
"Everybody will be doing it, everybody will be living inside a TV studio. That’s what the domestic home aspires to these days; the home is going to be a TV studio. We’re all going to be starring in our own sit-coms, and they’ll be strange sit-coms, too, like the inside of our heads. That’s going to come, I’m absolutely sure of that, and it’ll really shake up everything…"
-- J.G. Ballard, quoted in ‘Interview with JGB by Andrea Juno and Vale’, RE/Search No. 8/9, 1984.
Friday, January 25, 2008
When I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, you really had to work to see stuff on TV that you weren't supposed to see. You had to plan and scheme and connive and possibly hold a ball of aluminum foil in your hand to get a clear signal. It was a quest, a noble and important quest, and that's what made it so fun.
Timing was key. My friend Rafael developed a knack for muting the TV during the parental warning that preceded his favorite Saturday movie program, “or I'd time it so that I turned on the TV just after the warning card, which was at exactly 11:02 a.m.,” he boasts. “I got to be pretty good at it.” And another friend, David, had an intricate scheme to sample the forbidden fruit of “Dark Shadows” that played like a third-grader’s version of “Mission: Impossible.”
The author relates his quest to watch the forbidden "Three's Company," and I experienced flashbacks--my parents, too, forbade the watching of that show, although they never acknowledged the gay element. No, theirs was the more basic "A man rooming with two single women is immoral" objection. My family was of the socially conservative Democratic background that now holds all Bill O'Reilly says as gospel, you see, and bouts of utter ignorance regarding what us kids were watching on TV were sandwiched between phases of draconian censorship. Anything with shootouts or bloody violence was fine, of course, but my mother forbade me to watch broadcast-edited James Bond movies because they were "Rated X." I was once denied when trying to watch the "Battlestar Galactica" pilot/movie on Showtime because it came with a "PG" disclaimer that mentioned "brief nudity" as a possible reason for the rating. Sheesh.
Two friends of mine, both named Jack, were cable porn pioneers, and I'm inspired by their courage and commitment. “Back in early days of cable, we used to get this soft-core channel at 3 in the morning,” recalls Jack M. “It was all static and blurry but if I held a massive ball of aluminum foil in one hand and the antenna in the other, I could occasionally make out a boob or a butt. I'd watch ’til the sun came up.”
Jack P.’s newfangled cable system was static-free, but not bug-free. “You could watch one minute of the dirty movie channel before it would show up on your bill,” he explains. “So everyday my siblings and I would watch one minute. The problem was sometimes you’d watch a minute not knowing that another kid had already watched a minute and then we'd get totally busted.”
The guiding child-rearing principal of my parents in my home growing up was "Ignorance is a virtue." Their thinking was that if they didn't tell me about something (ie sex) then I wouldn't know it existed. And you can't tell kids about sex, otherwise "they'll run right out and try it" (and that's a direct quote). My sheltered upbringing left me extremely vulnerable to malicious manipulation by my peers in school, however, and I soon twigged to the fact that my folks were useless as a reliable source of knowledge. Caddyshack was the first rated R movie I ever saw, and I didn't even have to sneak in--my best friend's mother took us, and my folks never bothered to check and see what was playing. Apart from the language and nudity, it was probably the perfect kid's movie. And the nudity impressed me, simply because it was something my folks worked so hard to shield me from. So I did what every other pre-teen does to learn about sex--I turned to cable.
In the days before parental controls, cable television relegated soft core fare to the late night broadcast hours (after 10 or 11 p.m., if I recall rightly). There was a big push-button converter box on the television, with a long coiled coaxial cable bringing all the forbidden offerings Showtime had to offer to our TV set. I had a small black and white TV in my room, but no Showtime converter box. To get around this problem, I'd wait until everyone else was asleep on the weekends (usually by 11 p.m.) and disconnect the long coaxial cable from the living room TV and run it to my TV in my room. The box in the living room would descramble the signal, and I'd watch it with the volume turned down and my door closed. I'd be more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, cutting off the TV and diving for bed half a dozen times as random sounds both real and imagined. It was in this manner I watched such dubious fare as Two Top Bananas (cornball burlesque from Don Adams and Don Rickles with a few token fan dancers), The Sex Machine (soft core Italian T&A masquerading as social commentary) and Young Lady Chatterly (Holy moley!). Did it distort my concepts of sexuality? Of course it did. But at least I wasn't an easy target for all the older kids anymore, and that knowledge was a much stronger defense than my folks' flaccid directives to "just ignore them."
When it came to monitoring her impressionable youngster's media habits, my friend Holly was in way over her head.
“My 9-year old son, Rylan, had a bunch of friends over, and they wanted to watch the movie ‘The Terminator,’” she told me. “I said, ‘You are not watching that movie! It's rated R and it's too violent.’ And they all looked at me and said, ‘We've already seen it.’”
What pisses me off, however, is the fact that these viewing restrictions apparently only applied to me. I learned quickly to be guarded in what I had on TV during prime time or weekend viewing, lest I get busted big time. Grounded. Maybe even worse. My younger brothers, however, showed no such concerns. Coming home from college one weekend, I was shocked to find them watching "Total Recall" in the living room, unconcerned with our parents (who were oblivious) or my 8-year-old younger sister. She came to me later, quite disturbed by the scene with the three-breasted mutant prostitute, because that obvious something she couldn't ask the folks about (she, being a girl, had to be kept even more ignorant. For her own good, of course). It was quite awkward for me, but I tried my best to reassure her that things like that didn't happen in real life, and the actress was only wearing some convincing makeup. I probably botched the whole thing, but afterwards I ripped my brothers a new one for their cavalier attitude toward what they watched when their sister was around. Not that it made much of a difference in the long run.
Am I being hypocritical here? Maybe, but in my book an 8 year old is much better equipped to deal with the juvenile humor of "Caddyshack" than the über-violence of "Total Recall."
I wonder when--if it hasn't started already--my own children will start trying to watch verboten programming behind our back. The parental controls on the TV and internet seem sufficient thus far to limit their exposure, but I'm not foolish enough to think they're not hearing things at school or seeing questionable fare at friends' houses. Hopefully, we've got strong enough channels of communication open so that we never have a repeat of what happened with my sister.
Strange how society has evolved. What was dangerous, forbidden and tawdry when I was a kid is kind of quaint and amusing now, and that which is now viewed as dangerous, forbidden and tawdry can now earn you a visit from Dateline NBC and a cadre of arresting officers. Innocence isn't so innocent anymore, and ignorance has never been more dangerous.
Damn. I have a sudden, overwhelming need to Netflix "Caddyshack." Gotta love that gopher...
Thursday, January 24, 2008
"Kick the Can" is probably the most famous episode of this batch, simply because it was remade by Steven Spielberg for the 1983 movie version of the series. The original season 3 episode (1962, written by George Clayton Johnson) is a gentle ode to being only as old as you feel you are. There are several easily recognizable character actors from movies and television of the time on camera here, and the story itself is a kind of Little Red Hen/Pied Piper mashup. The Spielberg version went heavy on the saccharine, and this one is pretty frothy in its own right. Still, it never goes overboard and is great fun to watch as the conspiracy to have fun takes root in the retirement home.
"Walking Distance" (1959, written by Rod Serling) has one of the best titles of any Twilight Zone episode, and features Opie Cunningham (otherwise known as Ron Howard) in one of his earliest roles. It's a take on the classic SF "you can't go home again/time travel" trope, in which a man desperate to escape the corporate rat race unwittingly walks back in time to his childhood hometown. The protagonist is a likeable sort, even though he is quite possible the densest human being on the planet, being unable to grasp that he's traveled through time despite running into his 11-year-old self and deceased mother. There's a strong Bradbury-esque vibe going on here, and the wistful mood of the piece almost bogs down in sappy sentiment before pulling out in time for a bittersweet ending.
"Steel" (1963, written by the great Richard Matheson) features Lee Marvin as a former heavyweight prize fighter in one of the most overtly science fictional episodes of the series. In a future (actually, an alternate history from my 2008 perspective) boxing has been outlawed as a barbaric sport, and is now performed by androids. Marvin's character is the owner of a broken-down, obsolete model that circumstance has allowed to land a lucrative fight against a more advanced model. When Marvin's android fighter abruptly breaks down right before the bout, Marvin rashly passes himself off as the mechanical fighter. What follows is a deft revisionist telling of the John Henry story, only in this case, John Henry gets his ass handed to him by his automated competition. A very bleak story, there's no happy triumph for Marvin in the end--he even gets stiffed half his fight fee for not lasting a full round. Good stuff.
My favorite of the disc is "A Game of Pool" (1963, written by George Clayton Johnson) featuring both Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters playing against type in dramatic roles. While there's little overt comedy in this piece about an up-and-coming pool hustler challenging a long-dead master of the game to a winner-take-all contest, there's heavy irony that both of these skilled actors have a field day with. Winters' famously expressive face is especially evocative as "Fats" Brown, and Klugman's angry desperation as Jesse Cardiff--a man who's sacrificed everything to be the best pool player who ever lived--is by turns endearing and disturbing. The contest between them never generates that much tension, as the staged trick shots don't convey the clash of titans they're supposed to, but that's secondary. This episode is really a character study with two well-defined characters on display, and in that sense it delivers in spades. Recommended.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I didn't like Ledger much when I first saw him in that painfully silly A Knight's Tale. But in subsequent work, including the over-hyped Brokeback Mountain, he's shown impressive range and won me over. He even managed to pull off some good character work in Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm despite a lowest-common-denominator script. So sad when such a promising talent with a young daughter is lost at such an early age.
Well, it just gets worse. It doesn't look like Ledger's tragic death is going to derail The Dark Knight too badly. Apparently Ledger had finished filming all of his scenes for that movie, as he'd already begun work on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The curse Gilliam works under continues to grow in strength and flex its evil powers...
Monday, January 21, 2008
Flavius hacked down. His sword caught his attacker across the chest, dropping him to the ground in a gurgle of blood.
Flavius dropped his shield and clutched his belly, pressing hard. His gut throbbed, but he felt no pain--only the hot wet blood running down his arm and legs. The Tommy Lobster who'd stuck him--a boy, really, yellow-haired and no older than William--thrashed on the ground, moaning and pawing at his wound. Icy rain rippled the puddle of Flavius' and the boy's mingling blood on the ground.
Doubled over, Flavius stumbled away from the English line. Shot whipped past him. Bellowing highlanders emerged from the clouds of smoke. Flavius barely heard them. Some charged past him, attacking the English with axes and swords held high. Still more fell to the English muskets. Flavius jabbed his sword into the ground for balance, barely keeping upright. "Yer a damn sorry bastard, Flavius," he muttered to himself. "Lettin' yerself get stuck by a wee lad like that. Why nae let him kick ya in yer bawz while he's at it?"
The edge of his vision pulsed, like a million glowing ants swarming around his eyes. He struggled to breathe. Whenever he took half a breath, ragged entrails slipped from his belly and over his arm. The rain burned like fire where it struck his skin. The stench of powder smoke choked his nose.
Flavius tripped over an outstretched leg, falling to his knees. Colonel McGillivray lay there, sprawled and broken.
"Well. That's that, then." Flavius leaned heavily against his sword. "If I'd known ya planned on getting yerself killed, MaGillivray, I wouldnae taken ya serious about that rallying business."
A strange sound came to him then, the sound of a glass rope shattering underwater. His vision flickered. The next instant, a monster from which nightmares come stood before him.
Flavius blinked hard, but the apparition remained. Twice as long as a man, its body was thick and serpentine, covered in feathery scales that glinted like emeralds with an underside the color of ripe barley. It settled onto the soft ground as its wings flapped to a stop. It had two pair--like a dragonfly--but these were covered in featherscales and had three small fingers at the middle joint of each wing. A row of three faceted eyes lined each side of its bulbous head, and two bristled antennae twitched in an agitated manner. It's mouth was like a puffin's beak turned on its side.
The monster slithered toward Flavius, chittering and kakking, gesticulating wildly with its wing arms. Flavius wrenched his sword from the ground and jabbed it out toward the serpent, holding it at bay.
"Get yerself back to whatever Hell ya sprang from," Flavius said. "Ya'll nae be taking my soul to yer master on this day, ya devil."
It flapped and shrieked in response, rearing up to tower over Flavius. As he followed the beast up with his sword, he lost hold of his wound. Flavius' belly pulled open. Entrails sloughed out.
"Ach!" he cried, falling back over McGillivray's body.
The serpent-thing hovered above him. Flavius waved his sword feebly at it.
"Let me die in peace... ya bastard. D'ya nae... know who I am?" Flavius' breath came in forced wheezes. Words were difficult to form. "I'm descended of the... Thane of Fife himself. Bellona's... Bridgroom."
The serpent coughed once, then made a low hissing sound. It's antennae stopped twitching and lowered to point right at Flavius.
Flavius gasped. His guts began creeping back into him. Those intestines that had been sliced and torn fused back together. Then the great long gash through his stomach closed itself without even the trace of a scar.
"Wha...? What are ya?" Flavius noticed now, for the first time, a row of slender, form-fitting pouches belted beneath the serpent's wings. It slithered backwards, shaking its head. Then it reached up to its back and drew forth a long, gleaming claymore.
"Well. That is a bonny great sword, aye," Flavius said for lack of anything better. "My grandfather had himself one like it." He peered closer. "Damn. That's nae-- are those whortleberries? It cannae be a MacDuff sword... can it?"
A cluster of sliver berries adorned the end of each angled cross-hilt, with embossed leaves decorating the arms themselves. The serpent deftly flipped the sword over, catching the flat of the blade with its fingers. It then offered the hilt to Flavius.
Bewildered, Flavius wiped his brow with a forearm, smearing himself with blood. Around him the battle raged, distant and forgotten. Cautiously, his own sword held ready, he reached his left hand out to grasp the claymore.
A strange sound split the air, the sound of bronze thread being unstitched by a gale. His vision flickered. A shadow loomed across him. The serpent looked up sharply, its antennae in a frenzy. The gleaming claymore dropped into the muck.
Flavius turned, dreading what new nightmare he might see.
The second creature stood taller than a horse on eight splayed legs with too many joints. Each leg ended in a swollen, clublike foot. The body was warty, flat and crablike, the color of hazelnut, with no visible head.
It took two aggressive steps toward Flavius, then lifted the leg nearest him. The foot unfurled and widened like some horrible flower bud, opening into a gaping maw filled with concentric rows of teeth. Piercing black eyes ringed the edge mouth.
Flavius raised his sword to meet the new threat. "Get yerself back to whatever Hell ya sprang from," Flavius said. "I didnae let this other beastie take my soul, and I'll be damned if I let you!"
The creature struck, blindingly fast. It slammed down atop Flavius, swallowing him whole. It reared back, the head-foot undulating with disturbing ferocity. Then the maw peeled open, vomiting bloody gobbets of what had once been Flavius MacDuff across the battlefield.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Before I discuss the individual episodes, is it just me or is anyone else annoyed by Image Entertainment's decision to release each volume featuring a mis-mash of episodes from random years rather than put out the sets in chronological order? The production values sometimes vary wildly from year to year, and to my thinking, at least, first-season episodes are best viewed in the context of the first season, as opposed to the third or fourth. It's great that all the episodes are now available, and the presentation is good, but the bizarre packaging strategy bugs me to no end.
"Time Enough at Last," a first-season entry from 1959, is famous for put-upon bookworm Henry Bemis (deftly portrayed by a young Burgess Meredith) who triumphs over his oppressors only to fall victim to the cruelest ironic ending ever. Yes, the sets look very much like sets, and everyone giving Henry a hard time over-acts with gleeful venom, but this isn't a story that calls for realism. Irony rules. If not for a well-timed nuclear holocaust, this episode (adapted by Rod Serling from a short story by Lynn Venable) could be a prequel to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It remains one of my favorites.
Until now, I'd never seen "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," although I'd heard of it. Starring Sheriff Lobo himself, Claude Akins, it examines the fallout when paranoia grips an isolated suburban community. Part "Leave It to Beaver" and part "Lord of the Flies," the community is just a little too isolated, a little too insular, a little to ready to jump to a panicked bunker mentality. But like "Time Enough at Last," this isn't a story concerned with realism. Instead, it's a parable about McCarthyism and witch hunts, humans' instinctive need to find convenient scapegoats to blame problems on. The premise has been referenced so many times by Hollywood that there's no surprise in the ending, but that doesn't make it any less timeless--or relevant--today.
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a selection from 1963 written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner, is probably the best-known of the episodes here. The remake starring John Lithgow in the feature film is excellent, but the original with William Shatner still sets the bar for claustrophobic paranoid terror. The scene where Shatner wrestles with the temptation of whether to pull back the curtain or not still packs a punch, and the Wife and I still jumped even though we'd seen this one many times. It's just creepy. It has aged well. It's also the source of one of my all-time favorite pop culture gag references. On one episode of "Third Rock from the Sun," Shatner, playing the alien overlord "Big, Giant Head" arrives late to meet with his alien minions on Earth. Apologizing, he explained that the plane he was on was beset by a monster on the wing of the plane. A startled Lithgow (who played the lead alien in the series) exclaims "The same thing happened to me!"
"The Odyssey of Flight 33" is the only disappointment of the bunch. A transatlantic passenger flight in the 1960s gets caught up in some anomaly which flings it back to the time of the dinosaurs. Then they get caught up again, arriving in the 1930s. Low on fuel, the crew decides to chance another trip through the anomaly to reach their home time. Written by Serling, it must've sounded good in concept but doesn't deliver. There are logical inconsistencies throughout, characters that are introduced that have no further bearing on the storyline, and story details that seem significant yet are never explained nor referenced again. In short, the script is a mess, quite probably written on a looming deadline. The actors do their best, but they've got nothing to work with. Not that it matters--with three other powerhouse episodes sharing the disc, "The Odyssey of Flight 33" is one to be easily overlooked.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Shot singed the air past Flavius MacDuff's ear before he even heard the staccato popping of the English guns. It struck somewhere behind him, cutting short the cry of a charging highlander. On Flavius ran over the boggy ground, screaming, tears streaming down his face. Stinging, icy rain sliced through the choking, acrid clouds of smoke rolling over him. It was as if the very bowels of Hell had opened, the gagging smoke so thick he could scarcely see the Macintosh and MacGillivray lads around him, much less Tommy Lobster. He'd lost his nephew almost as soon as the charge began.
"Now you stick yerself close to me, William. Yer mother made me swear I'd nae let nothing happen to ya," Flavius'd said gravely to the callow youth.
William nodded sharply, struggling to keep his teeth from chattering. Rain straggled down his hair into his face as he tried to use his undersized shield as protection from the weather as well as the shot raining down on them as the two sides exchanged cannonades.
Flavius' expression softened, then he winked conspiratorially. "But that's nae something to worry about. Yer descended of Bellona's bridgroom, after all, the great Thane of Fife who slaughtered the Norse and Cawdor, and toppled the tyrant MacBeth! Damned if Tommy Lobster wouldnae turn tail and run--every one of 'em--if they knew what blood coursed through our veins!"
"It's Bellona's bridegrooms we are then, today?" William said, eyes alight.
"Aye, lad. That we are."
A minute later, the charge was ordered and William vanished amidst the surge.
Flavius tripped over a body, barely regaining his footing to avoid stabbing a comrade with his sword. Another barrage erupted from the English cannon, sounding like thunder in his ears. Around him more highlanders dropped as grapeshot ripped through their ranks, some screaming, some silent. Flavius leapt as two fell before him.
Too crowded! Too crowded! The stumbling crush of bodies made it damn near impossible to stay upright, much less swing a sword.
"Hold ranks! Hold ranks ya damned Farquarharson bawbags!" Flavius shouted, shoving the men back with his shield arm. "How's a man to gut some English if we keep tripping over ya lot?"
Through the smoke he caught glimpses of the red-coated English now, close. Very close. Already were highlanders amongst them, disrupting the firing line. Out of the cloud loomed Colonel McGillivray in his blood-stained kilt and blue jacket, his long yellow hair slinging rainwater this way and that.
"Flavius! English guns behind that south wall--our right flank's exposed!" McGillivray shouted. "Rally what men ya can and break that English line now, or we'll nae make it out of this bog alive. Go man, go!"
"How'm I to rally the men when we nae even fought the bastards yet?" Flavius barked after him, but McGillivray was already off. He took a deep breath then bellowed, "For Charlie! For Charlie! The crown for Bonnie Prince Charlie!"
Flavius charged forward, through the smoke and rain, over the scattered corpses into the lines of Tommy Lobster. He blocked a bayonet with his shield, smashing Tommy in the face with the basket of his hilt. He spun and parried a musket, the gun going off inches from his face.
The flash and smoke blinded him. Flavius staggered back, slashing wildly. His sword stuck something, drawing a scream.
"That'll lean ya." He swung his sword fiercely in wide, defensive arcs, blinking as his vision cleared.
He found himself alone amongst the English.
"Well, this is as fine a bag o' shite as ever I've seen." Whatever highlanders had reached the English lines lay bleeding upon the wet earth, now. This wasn't at all like Falkirk. Flavius couldn't even hear the erratic fire of Prince Charlie's cannon anymore--just the clockwork thunder from the English artillery.
A blow hammered his shield. Flavius staggered, throwing up his sword in time to parry a second attack. The attacker's white wig caught Flavius' eye, and at the back of his mind he recognized the man as an officer. A colonel, at that.
"Jacobite filth," the colonel muttered, lunging with his sword. "This will be over quickly."
"That's nae what yer mum said last night." Flavius ducked back to dodge the strike, blocking another footman's bayonet with his shield. With the colonel fully extended, Flavius swung his sword down, severing the sword and hand at the wrist.
The colonel screamed. Blood spurted from the stump. Flavius swung for his head. The colonel threw up his opposite arm to ward off the blow. The blade gouged through the red coat, deep into the forearm and clipping the colonel's brow. The colonel dropped to the ground.
"Apologies, Dobber," Flavius said, lifting his sword. "It were over with quick--aah!"
The bayonet caught Flavius in the side, slicing up and out to open his belly to the world.
To make matters interesting (and to hold my feet to the proverbial fire, since I'm notoriously undisciplined, production-wise) I'm doing it in public, for all the world to see. Here are the ground rules: 1) I've got a week to produce each installment, roughly a thousand words in length. That's setting the bar pretty low, I know, but I've seen online comics crash and burn because they bit off more than they could chew, and didn't want to repeat that mistake. Also, this is a side experiment. I've still got my regular writing projects to attend to; 2) No revisions once posted, other than typos, misspellings, etc. In other words, I can't go back and rewrite scene three to put a gun in the desk drawer if I suddenly realize I need one for scene 28. I'm flying live without a net here, folks, and damn well better get it right the first time; 3) No pre-set length. I don't know where this is going, which is the whole point. It may turn out to be a short story (which I seriously doubt--nothing I write is short) or it could be a novel. Most likely somewhere in between. Or it may crash and burn a horrible, misguided death somewhere between here and there. That's why it's an experiment.
So kick back, pop open a cold one and enjoy the floor show.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Karnak failed to predict that in the future, Gandalf-like mujahideen mind lords would have their own Paul Harvey broadcasts from their secret mountain lairs in Central Asia. Complete, as the keen eyes at Danger Room note, with a coffee cup bearing the logo of As Sabah, the Jihadi answer to The 700 Club. In a world where Blackwater sells its own logoed teddy bears, how long before AQ starts peddling pledge drive tote bags?
Too bad it's not a call-in show, where some crank like me can say, Adam, dude, what about the Black Stone?
(Meanwhile, over at Stratfor, Austin's favorite open source spooks are declaring America has met the victory conditions of this postmodern Avalon Hill game.)
Thursday, January 10, 2008
The Southwestern Writers Collection (SWWC), a part of The Wittliff Collections at the Alkek Library, Texas State University-San Marcos, has acquired the papers of author Cormac McCarthy.
McCarthy’s body of work includes some of the finest novels of our times. Critic Harold Bloom declares Blood Meridian (1985) “the authentic American apocalyptic novel,” stating, “The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable….”
And of course, the film version of McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men" is accumulating awards nominations by the bushel. Those of you keen to find out all the details of this acquisition can read the entire release over at the Texas State University website.
Monday, January 7, 2008
Zurich -- The ability to explore remote worlds in space has been enhanced
through a polarization technique that allows the first ever detection of
light reflected by extrasolar (exoplanet) planets. The study has been
accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
An international team of astronomers, led by Professor Svetlana Berdyugina
of ETH Zurich's Institute of Astronomy, has for the first time ever been
able to detect and monitor the visible light that is scattered in the
atmosphere of an exoplanet. Employing techniques similar to how Polaroid
sunglasses filter away reflected sunlight to reduce glare, the team of
scientists were able to extract polarized light to enhance the faint
reflected starlight 'glare' from an exoplanet. As a result, the scientists
could infer the size of its swollen atmosphere. They also directly traced
the orbit of the planet, a feat of visualization not possible using indirect
What's the over/under on actual photographs of extrasolar planets? I say 20 years, and that may be too conservative an estimate...
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Friday, January 4, 2008
I first saw "The Invaders," a 1962 episode written by the great Richard Matheson, when I was 12 or so. I remembered it being effectively creepy with the miniature alien invaders firing some sort of microwave beams at the old women making her skin blister, and rewatching it did evoke a degree of suspense. But as science fiction it is awful in the first degree. The Wife figured out the "big twist" at the end about a third of the way in once she twigged to the fact that the woman under duress hadn't said a single word, and Monkey Girl, who's exposure to the more surreal side of genre is limited to The Bridge to Terabithia, generally found it terribly funny.
"Nothing in the Dark," a 1962 episode penned by George Clayton Johnson, on the other hand, was more effective overall as a gentle, philosophical examination of death. Mostly a character study of an old woman so afraid of dying she's locked herself away from the things she loves to hide in a crumbling tenement, the piece is enjoyable even though the classic twist is obvious from the get-go. Monkey Girl seemed impressed enough by it, in that she was uncharacteristically silent afterward. The moral: Dying isn't so bad if Death looks a whole lot like a young Robert Redford.
"Night of the Meek" is a Christmas-themed episode from 1960, one written by Rod Serling himself. The great Art Carney plays a skid-row alcoholic who takes the job of playing a department store Santa. There is a liquor-fueled Incident in which he rants about the well-off looking down upon the poor and starving during the holidays as they shop for expensive gifts which gets him fired, naturally enough. It's only a short stumble down a dark alley before he finds a magic sack of garbage that produces presents galore, and before you can sing "Jingle Bells" he's playing Santa for real on skid row. The episode oozes sentiment from every pore, enough to make Frank Capra cringe, but that's balanced by Carney's excellent performance (watch and you'll know where Christopher Lloyd got the inspiration for the Doc Brown character in the Back to the Future films) and the graphic hopelessness and alcoholism in the first half of the piece. It's quite unexpected, really, setting up the viewers' expectations for a bleak resolution, when the exact opposite is in store. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the creators of the Tim Allen "Santa Clause" franchise of films hadn't drawn inspiration from this episode. There are more than a few parallels between the two works, although there isn't a 1:1 correlation. The fact that both Carney's and Allen's characters, who've lost touch with the "holiday spirit" come around when they literally become Santa Claus is fairly striking--particularly Carney's final scene, which echoes almost the entirety of the Allen film. But also the fact that both are locked away by establishment figures who refuse to believe the heroes' newfound status tells me that there's a connection at some level.
They sure don't make 'em like this anymore.