Search This Blog


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Tarzan versus Doc Savage

In my post about Jane Gallion last month, I mentioned in passing that the “pornographic” Essex House imprint published several novels by Philip José Farmer in the late sixties. By coincidence, on my visit to London a week later I saw one of these – A Feast Unknown – on sale in a second-hand shop. It was only a couple of pounds, and according to the blurb it featured a character based on my favourite pulp hero, Doc Savage, so I snapped it up. This particular copy is a mass market paperback from 1975, with no content advisory or age restriction, so I guess it’s heavily expurgated compared to the original Essex House version. Nevertheless it’s a really good novel – and quite a Fortean one too, with an unusual variation on the “Secret Rulers of the World” theme.

The book is set in the swinging sixties, when it was written. The first-person narrator is Lord Grandrith – an English aristocrat dividing his time between estates in Africa and the Lake District. He’s supposed to have been the “real-life” person on whom Edgar Rice Burroughs based the fictional character of Tarzan, who flourished circa 1912 – 1940. The name that Burroughs used was Lord Greystoke, but in A Feast Unknown Lord Greystoke is merely a near-neighbour of Grandrith’s estate in Cumbria (there is an amusing scene in which Grandrith accidentally demolishes a huge statue of Tarzan, which the locals have erected as a tourist attraction in the village of Greystoke, by crashing an Aston Martin DB4 into it). Although Grandrith is almost 80, he looks 50 years younger – and is likely to stay that way for thousands of years to come – thanks to a Faustian deal he made with a shadowy group of near-immortals called “The Nine”.

The deal involves being given regular shots of an “Elixir of Life”, in return for carrying out various tasks on behalf of the Nine when ordered to do so. At any given moment the Nine have hundreds, if not thousands, of such servants working for them – others include Grandrith’s wife Clio (presumably the inspiration behind the “Jane” of fiction). The Nine are master manipulators – not just of world history but of their servants too. At the start of the novel, Grandrith is deliberately put on a collision course with another servant of the Nine – one Doctor Caliban, the “real-life” inspiration behind Doc Savage (“A writer of pulps had somehow learned something of his strange rearing and training, his extraordinary, perhaps unique, qualities and abilities… The writer had used Caliban as the basis for a character, under another name, of course, in a series of wild science-fictional adventures, most of which were the result of his imagination.)

The oldest members of the Nine are supposed to be at least 30,000 years old, and to have given rise to various legends of pagan gods and goddesses. This may sound like a hackneyed idea, but Farmer’s version struck me as distinctly different – and very clever – in one important way. Normally these manipulative, all-powerful, long-established Illuminati-type groups are assumed to be either (a) extraterrestrials, (b) terrestrial but non-human (e.g. shape-shifting reptilians) or (c) survivors of some ancient but highly advanced civilization from Atlantis or Lemuria. All these theories take a far-fetched idea and convolve it with something even more far-fetched. Farmer’s brilliant twist is to start with that one far-fetched idea (a 30,000-year-old secret society) and combine it with the mainstream academic picture of what Homo Sapiens was like 30,000 years ago.

To palaeontologists and anthropologists, that was still the Palaeolithic era, or Old Stone Age. In spite of anything misty-eyed New Agers might want to believe, human society in those days was intensely hierarchical, patriarchal, ignorant, superstitious and brutal. In other words, pretty much the way Illuminati-believers imagine “They” would like it to be today. So put that way, Farmer’s set-up makes a lot of sense. The most shocking scene in the book (one of the most repulsive scenes I’ve ever encountered in a mass-market paperback novel) involves ritual genital mutilation and cannibalism. Yet if there were secret rites dating back to Palaeolithic times, that’s probably the kind of thing they’d be.

The narrative adheres to the time-honoured “crossover” formula, whereby the two heroes spend most of the novel fighting each other, before finally realizing they ought to team up against their common enemy (who set them up in the first place). Because it’s told from Grandrith’s point of view, that means that for most of the story the “Doc Savage” character is presented as a bad guy. His very name, Caliban, is taken from the monstrous villain in Shakespeare’s Tempest (for a comic-book version of which, see my post from two weeks ago). Nevertheless, Farmer does eventually explain how such a villainous name got attached to someone who is essentially a “Super Boy Scout”.

The shop where I bought A Feast Unknown was 30th Century Comics in Putney. My next stop was The Book and Comic Exchange in Notting Hill, where I bought a reduced-price replica edition of the first Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze (pictured below). Although I’ve read more than a dozen Doc Savage books, I’d never got round to reading this one – until now! The plot revolves around a hidden city in Central America, where the inhabitants speak the all-but-dead language of the ancient Maya. Thanks to Doc’s enormous erudition, though, he’s able to converse with them in that language. Impressive as that may be, in A Feast Unknown Lord Grandrith (who has a PhD in linguistics from the university of Berlin) goes a step further – he can understand “Ursprache, the parent language of the Indo-Europeans”, as spoken by the 30,000-year old members of the Nine!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Case of the Little Green Men

I found another book to add to my Charles Fort in Fiction list. The last addition was Anthony Boucher’s 1942 murder mystery Rocket to the Morgue, and this new one is another murder mystery – The Case of the Little Green Men by Mack Reynolds. Originally published in 1951, it’s now available as an ebook – either from the UK Kindle store, where I got it, or from the US Kindle store, and probably other places as well.

Like Rocket to the Morgue, The Case of the Little Green Men is set against a backdrop of science fiction fandom – which was significantly larger and better established in 1951 than it was in 1942. Boucher’s novel included a passing mention of the third Worldcon, held in Denver in 1941 and attended by just 90 people. The latter part of The Case of the Little Green Men – including the second of its two murders – takes place at the tenth Worldcon in 1952, which was still a year in the future when the book came out (the actual 1952 Worldcon took place in Chicago and had 870 attendees). Any murder set at a sci-fi convention is bound to involve cosplay, and this one is no exception. The villain is dressed as a six-limbed purple Martian – “the godawfullest costume of the convention”.

The Case of the Little Green Men isn’t science fiction. The novel’s title comes from the fact that it starts with the first-person narrator – a private detective with a reputation for mediocrity – being hired to find evidence of extraterrestrials living among the human population. “Little Green Men” is a pejorative term used by the hero and other skeptical characters, but the actual idea is that the aliens are shape-shifters who can make themselves indistinguishable from humans. The investigation was never meant to be taken seriously – it started out as a joke item for the convention. Nevertheless, some people do seem to take it seriously… and after a while it provides our protagonist with a good excuse to stick his nose into the murder case (there’s a nice touch of realism in that, unlike most fictional private eyes, he wouldn’t dare investigate a murder openly for fear of antagonizing the police).

The reference to Charles Fort comes when one of the more serious of the UFO-believers is trying to persuade the hero that there really might be extraterrestrials on Earth:
He came back with a heavy book and handed it to me. I looked at the title: The Books of Charles Fort. “What’s this?” I asked him. “Isn't Fort the screwball that tells all about the rains of frogs and that sort of crap?”
“That's hardly a proper description of Charles Fort,” he said stiffly. “Fort has gathered material for decades in an attempt to show that modern science is too smug, too hypocritical – and too ignorant. He made a hobby, a lifetime work, of gathering evidence of phenomena that modern science has as yet been unable to explain.”
Not surprisingly the novel also includes references to quite a few SF writers, including four who are particular favourites of mine: A. E. van Vogt, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown and Eric Frank Russell. The last-named is perhaps best known for his explicitly Fortean novel, Sinister Barrier. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m the proud owner of the original issue of Unknown magazine (March 1939) in which Sinister Barrier first appeared. I paid £25 for it – considerably more than the cover price of 20 cents. Apparently that’s always been the case! Here is another excerpt from The Case of the Little Green Men, where the protagonist is trying to blend in with the real fans in the dealers’ hall:
I picked up one of the publications and thumbed through it. It was pretty well worn, the date was 1939, the cover was gruesome, and the title of the magazine was Unknown. I asked “What’s the price on this?” reaching in my pocket for some change. I figured that I’d look more authentic wandering around the hall if I was carrying a magazine with me.
”Three dollars,” he told me.
I glared at him indignantly. “You batty? This magazine is falling apart; it’s more than ten years old.”
He took it from my hand with as little gentleness as was consistent with the magazine’s condition and glared back. “That’s the issue in which Sinister Barrier was first –.”
”All right, all right,” I cut him off. “Keep it.” I got on to the next table before he assaulted me.
All in all I really enjoyed The Case of the Little Green Men. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Mack Reynolds, although over the years I’ve read quite a few shorter works by him. When I scoured my bookshelves a couple of days ago I found eight stories by him in various anthologies and magazines. The most Fortean of these is a short-short called “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, which takes the form of a conversation between two undercover aliens, from different planets, who bump into each other in a café in Morocco.

All the other Reynolds stories I’ve read are Cold War thrillers, with a strong focus on the Communist-Capitalist battle of wits, sometimes with a science fiction twist. One of them (illustrated below) even has aliens in it! It’s called “Combat”, and I read it in the February 1961 issue of Analog magazine (British edition). It’s not a great story, but it makes nostalgic reading if you hanker after the simpler world of the Cold War period. The essence of the story is that the aliens choose to land their spaceship in the middle of Moscow, which confuses the heck out of the Americans (who assumed they would land in the world’s most advanced country).

Although the story is dated in many ways, some of its sentiments are as valid as ever. Here is a striking quote from the second page of the story: “The best men our universities could turn out went into advertising, show business and sales – while the best men the Russians and Chinese could turn out were going into science and industry. The height of achievement over there is to be elected to the Academy of Sciences. Our young people call scientists eggheads, and their height of achievement is to become a TV singer or a movie star.”

After 55 years, the depressing thing isn’t that things haven’t changed – but that they have changed. What applied to the United States then applies to pretty much the whole planet now!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Department of Fortean Events

In a blog post last year I mentioned that issue #12 of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD featured a character named “Robert Rickard”, in a deliberate homage to the founding editor of Fortean Times – who was a friend of the comic’s creators, Steve Parkhouse and Barry Windsor Smith. In the comment thread, reader B. Smith (presumably not the same B. Smith) pointed out that a “Doc Rickard of the Department of Fortean Events” also appeared circa 1990 in a Judge Anderson story called Shamballa, by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson. This was reprinted in Judge Anderson: The Psi Files volume 02, which I finally got round to buying last week when I saw a reduced price copy in Forbidden Planet.

Doc Rickard is the old man seen talking to Judge Anderson in the excerpt above. She seeks his assistance after the world is hit by a sudden spate of Fortean events – including stigmatics in Rome, phantom hounds in London, a Manticore in Jakarta and a Bunyip in Australia. There are references to Doris Stokes, the Turin Shroud and the Tower of Babel, while Anderson herself witnesses a “pre-Columbian meteorite” break apart to reveal a living a toad entombed inside it. The villains of the story are called “deros” – degenerate human beings who live in underground caves and tunnels. The word “dero” is an obvious reference to the Shaver Mystery, although Shaver’s deros were huge, obese and sexually decadent, whereas the deros in the comic are more zombie-like – dressed in rags and physically emaciated.

There are several other stories in the collection besides Shamballa, including another very Fortean one called Childhood’s End. This has no connection to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name, but it does have the Face on Mars, ancient aliens and references to Zecharia Sitchin’s theory of Anunnaki and Nephilim. And the art, by Kevin Walker, portrays a much sexier-looking Judge Anderson than Arthur Ranson’s version.

Although I found the stories interesting, I can’t say I really enjoyed them. I was never a big fan of Fleetway comics – for some reason they always struck me as gloomy and political (even when they weren’t). It’s all a matter of personal taste… and as far as comics are concerned, personal taste usually boils down to what you thought was cool when you were 15 or 16. Which brings me to another purchase I made in London last week – the first issue of a black-and-white horror anthology called Devilina, from Atlas-Seaboard comics.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Atlas-Seaboard comics. They were only active for a few months during 1975, but that just happened to coincide with the peak of my interest in comics fandom – and the new company created a huge buzz at the time (the whole story of Atlas-Seaboard is a fascinating one – here’s an excellent article on the subject). Most of their output consisted of colour comics aimed at challenging Marvel (which were the ones I bought at the time) – but they also produced a few black and white titles to rival Warren magazines such as Creepy, Eerie… and Vampirella, which is where Devilina comes in.

Having finally bought it 40 years after it came out, I really enjoyed Devilina #1. It’s fairly typical of horror anthologies of that vintage, both in terms of stories and artwork. It has its share of Fortean themes, too, with a story about people being reincarnated in animal form, another about a man who becomes convinced his life is controlled by aliens, and a nice moral tale about a mermaid taking revenge on a group of sailors who gang-raped her (and then saving the man who saved her). And as shown below, there’s a neat adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest (probably his most Fortean play – see my short ebook Paranormal Shakespeare).

Sunday, 1 November 2015

A Very Odd Picture

It’s not every day you see the founder of a major world religion working in a comic book studio, so imagine my surprise when I saw this picture in the British Museum yesterday, which depicts not one but two of them doing just that. The caption reads: “Nakamura Hikaru (born 1984): Buddha and Jesus drawing manga, cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 10. This artwork for the front cover of a manga book depicts Buddha creating his own manga, helped by Jesus.”

I know almost nothing about manga comics, but Nakamura Hikaru is described as a “young and very popular manga artist who specialises in comedy.” Apparently Saint Oniisan is her best-selling title, with weekly sales around 30,000 (which would have been a relatively low figure back in the heyday of comics in the mid-20th century, but much higher today when fewer people read comics). As far as I can tell, the series deals with the comic adventures of Jesus and the Buddha as they attempt to pass themselves off as ordinary people in modern-day Tokyo. The caption goes on to say “The playful depiction of the founders of two world religions as youthful men on holiday in Japan has achieved cult status. The two divine beings negotiate the ups and downs of their life together in a humble flat in suburban Tokyo. The series explores dilemmas in everyday life with visual gags, puns and word play.”

The current display in the British Museum focuses on the work of three manga artists of different generations, Nakamura Hikaru being the youngest. As well as the cover image, several black and white pages from Saint Oniisan are also on display (see example below). There is also a short interview with Hikaru in which she says “I was surprised by the positive reactions to my manga. I received letters from religious specialists, university professors, Buddhist priests and Christian clergy. I have also had requests to use my manga in universities for teaching purposes.”

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Going Down… Beneath the Bermuda Triangle

I’ve just read two stories – a longish novelette and a shortish novel, both dating from the 1970s – by an author I’d barely heard of, called Jane Gallion. Previously I’d only seen her name in the context of a notoriously violent post-apocalyptic novel called Biker, which dates from 1969 and is still banned in the UK. But the two stories I did get hold of are quite different in tone, and it’s a shame they’re not better known. They’re both clever, well-written and interesting, and the longer of the two is bordering on a masterpiece.

To start with the shorter story – it’s called “Beneath the Bermuda Triangle” and it was published in the June/July 1979 issue of Galaxy magazine. This was a few years after the Skull the Slayer comic series I mentioned earlier this year, and it’s just as wacky a take on the Bermuda Triangle mystery. It’s got jewel-smuggling hippies, malevolent aliens, survivors from Atlantis, underwater pyramids and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

As far as I can tell, “Beneath the Bermuda Triangle” is the only story Jane Gallion ever wrote that doesn’t have any sex in it (apart from a couple of indirect references to Tantric Sex). But there is a tenuous connection to the world of erotica. The stand-in editor for that particular issue of Galaxy was “Hank Stine” – an alter-ego of Jean Marie Stine, who used the same byline on one of the avant-garde erotic novels published in the late sixties by the short-lived Essex House imprint (see my post about The Geek by Alice Louise Ramirez). Jane Gallion’s Biker was another Essex House novel – and according to an autobiographical note, she also worked as an editor there. At the same time, she seems to have been active in science fiction fandom – see this photograph of her (there were other links between Essex House and science fiction – Philip José Farmer also published several novels with them).

The novel I just read, and found so impressive, is called Going Down. In her autobiographical note (which dates from 1990), Jane Gallion says the book was written for Essex House but never published (partly because it broke two of their house rules – “no humour” and “no politics”). However, it was eventually published as an ebook in 2001, two years before the author died.

Unlike Biker (which is available as an ebook in America but not in Britain), Going Down is listed on the UK Kindle store, which is where I got it. I don’t think the listing does the book any favours – there’s no cover image or preview, the blurb is misleading and it’s classified as erotica, which it isn’t really – it’s a dystopian SF satire in which sex (or the suppression of sex) plays a significant role.

Going Down is written in the kind of avant-garde literary style that was popular in the early seventies – all in the present tense, and with no quotation marks around dialogue. In that sense, and in other ways, I found the style reminiscent of Barry Malzberg, who was one of the big name writers of the time. Thematically, on the other hand, the novel is closer to Philip K. Dick – all about a sharply stratified future society in which information is tightly controlled, and the government knows more about you than you do. The book’s structure is also reminiscent of PKD, with the point of view alternating between three different characters – one high up in government, one at the very bottom of society, and one who is a major figure in the (ultimately fruitless) rebel movement. Also, like both Dick and Malzberg, the novel has a strong undercurrent of humour, even though it’s basically a very angry book.

I mentioned science fiction portrayals of the future last week – and Going Down is one of the most prophetic I’ve come across. The society it describes is ultra-capitalist and ultra-puritanical. The government has electronic spying machines everywhere, ready to pounce at the first hint of subversive or “perverted” behaviour. Giant corporations charge people (who are always referred to as “consumers”) for absolutely everything – including having sex and going to the toilet. If you try to avoid paying for something, it’s a serious crime because it “damages the economy”. Also prescient (given recent headlines) is the utter hypocrisy of the ruling class, who impose puritanical laws on ordinary citizens while indulging in the most disgustingly obscene behaviour themselves.

Although Going Down was originally written in the early seventies, I’m not sure if it was revised for its ebook publication in 2001. If it wasn’t, then it contains one amazingly prescient reference. I can’t remember anyone back in the 1970s worrying about Genetically Modified crops, but one of the characters in the novel does. It’s in a scene between a high-ranking member of the government, named Hennering, and his boyfriend Penrod (“a slender lad of eighteen”). Hennering wishes to deep-throat a certain part of Penrod’s anatomy after said anatomical part has been thrust up a chicken’s backside:
The pullet had been organically raised. Penrod refused to have anything to do with a chicken exposed to genetically engineered or chemically adulterated food. He was afraid it might give him high blood pressure or possibly a rash. There’s a lot of that around. But Hennering made sure the bird was clean before he gave it to Penrod. Heavens to Betsy, he couldn’t have Penrod catching anything, could he?
This scene struck me as doubly prophetic – not just the reference to genetic engineering (and pathological aversion thereto), but also the way a conservative politician indulges in behaviour that’s so perverted it wouldn’t even cross a normal person’s mind. Remember this news story from a month ago?

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Back to the Future

The “future” in Back to the Future Part II equates to 21 October 2015 – only 3 days in the future as I write this. People tend to focus on the way things didn’t happen the way they were supposed to (e.g. we have Facebook and touch-screen smartphones instead of flying cars and hoverboards) – but there is another aspect I find just as fascinating. What would it be like to suddenly find yourself 30 years in the future? I suspect most readers of this blog are old enough to remember 1985 pretty well, so you can ponder the question as well as I can.

You don’t even need to invoke time travel. The same thing would apply if you were stuck in a block of ice for several decades, like Captain America. When I first encountered Cap in 1968, the story was that he had been revived in 1964, after just 19 years on ice. I don’t think the culture shock in that case would have been too difficult to deal with. Planes were faster, cars were more streamlined, TVs were bigger and radios were smaller… but those were just continuations of trends that Steve Rogers would already be familiar with: evolution rather than revolution. The sociological changes of the Swinging Sixties would probably have been as confusing as the technological ones, as indicated in the panel above (originally from Captain America #122, dated February 1970, but this scan is from Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium by Reitberger and Fuchs – the first book about comics I ever bought, way back in 1973).

It’s different now, of course. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cap was frozen not for just under 20 years but for almost 70. His “contemporaries” are not people in their 40s, but people in their 90s. He missed the entire duration of the Cold War, the era of 33 rpm records, transistor radios and VHS tapes, the Moon landings and the Space Shuttle. He not only has to get to grips with a new present – everything from cell phones and social media to hypersensitive political correctness – but a whole new past too. Personally I don’t think this would be possible in the timeframe portrayed in the movies, even for someone with the super-soldier resilience of Steve Rogers.

What started me thinking along these lines wasn’t Back to the Future or Captain America, but a first-person video game in which the player hops between four different time periods. I mentioned a year ago that I’d finally got a working version of Dark Fall: Lost Souls by Jonathan Boakes. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went on to play the two earlier Dark Fall games. The second of these, Dark Fall: Lights Out, is the time travel story. It dates from 2004, and it already has something of a retro feel. The graphics are 800x600 resolution, the user interface and gameplay are fairly basic, and it doesn’t have the depth of characterization and atmosphere you get in Jonathan’s later games. But in terms of storyline, it’s one of my favourite games – so much so that I played it through again last week.

The action starts in 1912. The playable character is a young cartographer of that period, who is sent to investigate an inexplicably abandoned lighthouse off the Cornish coast. In the role of this character, you spend a while exploring the small rocky island and the deserted lighthouse. Hidden in one of the rooms, you find a hand-drawn map showing the location of a small cave. You follow the directions to the cave – in the gloomy light of a full moon peering through cloud cover – and go inside. There isn’t much to see, so you go outside again… to find everything changed. It’s daytime, the sun is shining – and it’s 2004, the year the game first appeared.

On both occasions I’ve played the game, I found this genuinely disorientating. You’re so immersed in the world of 1912 that “the future” seems strange and confusing. The lighthouse is now a tourist attraction (albeit one that appears just as mysteriously deserted as its 1912 predecessor). Depending on which way you turn when you first exit the cave, you either come to a Discovery Centre featuring a historical display about WW2 (which is still pretty futuristic from the point of view of view of your character), or a café and public toilets. Then there are the steps up to the lighthouse, which are noticeably more health-and-safety compliant than they were in 1912. At the top, the entrance to the lighthouse has changed completely (see the picture below). What would the young cartographer from 1912 make of all this? Would he realize he had slipped into the future? After a while this becomes obvious, once he gets inside the reception area of the lighthouse and reads some of the books for sale in the gift shop. But how does he get through that glass door? Would he realize the buttons form some kind of combination lock?
If you go back down the steps a short distance, you come to a viewpoint with a touch screen display. The display is blank, though, and there is no indication the screen needs to be touched to activate it. For someone from 1912, there is no precedent for dealing with this. Technology in those days consisted of telephones, phonographs, box cameras and silent movies. Nevertheless, if you do accidentally touch the screen and bring it to life, you would probably grasp its workings pretty quickly. But before long something really unexpected happens – the computer crashes and an error message pops up (in all the 20th century fiction I’ve read about futuristic computers and thinking machines, no-one ever predicted the annoying instability of windows-based operating systems).

The error message is pretty cryptic, including the phrase “Current Entry Code / Last 2 Pin: ##64”. The modern-day player may realize this is the second half of the combination needed to get into the lighthouse, but I don’t think our man from 1912 would – not right away, anyhow. If he goes back down to the bottom of the steps, there’s a landing stage and ticket booth for incoming tourists – much more comfortably familiar to early 20th century eyes. Pinned to the wall of the booth is a handwritten note, which shows a sketch of the door buttons and the first two digits of the code. Our character would probably understand the significance of this – and maybe, if his wits were really sharp, he’d put two and two together over the cryptic error message.

So thinking like someone from 1912, it’s hard enough just to work out how to open the lighthouse door! Once you’re inside things get even more bewildering. In the gift shop and museum, you discover that you’ve gone down in history as a triple murderer. You’re not quite the only person in the lighthouse – there’s also a female paranormal investigator, but she’s gone into hiding because she thinks you’re a murderous ghost. You find portals to two other time periods, one further in the future and one in the prehistoric past. Eventually you do manage to solve the mystery of just what the heck is going on… but you solve it using a 21st century mindset, not one of 1912.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

More Oddities of the Jurassic Coast

The latest issue of Fortean Times (FT333) has just gone out to subscribers, and will be in the shops next Friday. If you turn to the back of the magazine, the regular Fortean Traveller feature consists of an article by Paul Jackson and me called “Oddities of the Jurassic Coast”, based on excerpts from our new book Weird Wessex. Due to space limitations the article only includes a few of the places on the Jurassic Coast (or the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site, to give it its less exciting official name) that are mentioned in the book. So here are a few more…

The picture at the top of this post shows Monmouth Beach in Lyme Regis. Today it’s a popular spot with holidaymakers and fossil hunters, but back in June 1685 it was the place where the Duke of Monmouth landed with his distinctly unimpressive “invasion force” of 82 men. Monmouth was the illegitimate son of Charles II, who died 4 months earlier. When the Crown passed to the unpopular James II, Monmouth decided to try to seize it by force. After recruiting a few followers in Lyme Regis he proceeded northwards, gathering more “troops” along the way – mainly young farmworkers armed with sickles and pitchforks! Monmouth’s haphazard rebellion came to a bloody end a few weeks later at the Battle of Sedgemoor (also described in Weird Wessex) – the last full-scale battle fought on English soil. After the defeat, twelve of the rebels who had been recruited in Lyme Regis were publicly executed on Monmouth Beach.

By the early 19th century the area to the west of Monmouth Beach was packed with market gardens, orchards, sheep and pig farms and hazel coppices – all perched on top of the towering Jurassic cliffs. Then in the space of a few hours on Christmas Day, 1839, the whole thing came crashing down in one of the biggest landslides in recorded history. An estimated 8 million tonnes of rock and earth collapsed into the sea, along a stretch of coast about four miles long.

All that carefully cultivated farmland was lost forever. In its place was a rocky, barren landscape the like of which had never been seen before. Within weeks, people were travelling from miles away to view the scene. The local farmers, sensing a way to cut their losses, quickly began charging visitors sixpence to enter their fields! The ultimate cause of the landslip was underground water loosening the clay on which the upper rock strata sat. Some geologists at the time realised this, but many ordinary people believed it was an earthquake – possibly even the wrath of God!

The area of the landslip, which became known as the Undercliff, was too unstable for human cultivation. Since the middle of the 19th century it has been left in the hands of nature, resulting in the closest thing to a jungle that it’s possible to find in modern-day England. The 800-acre site is now a National Nature Reserve, only accessible from two points, about five miles apart, that are joined by a long, winding footpath. It’s difficult to take photos that give a sense of the huge scale of the site, but here is a montage that attempts to give a flavour of it:
In 1859 a commission set up by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, recommended that a sprawling complex of fortifications should be built along the English coast to deal with a possible invasion from France. These are collectively known as Palmerston’s Follies, since by the time they were finished the threat of a French invasion had long since vanished. Several of Palmerston’s Follies are featured in Weird Wessex, including Brean Down Fort in Somerset and the Portsmouth sea forts in Hampshire. But one of the most impressive is to be found on the Jurassic Coast, on the Isle of Portland. It’s called the Verne Citadel, located 500 feet above sea level at the highest point of the island. This has been a strategically important site since the Romans built their own fort there. Its Victorian successor is a monumental edifice – 56 acres in area, surrounded by a deep moat and designed to house a thousand troops, with heavy artillery pointing out to sea on three sides. It was later converted into a prison.

The Verne Citadel was built from local Portland stone – the same building material used in Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. In the case of the Verne, even though the stone didn’t have far to travel, a huge amount of it was needed. The free-standing rock pillar known as Nicodemus Knob (pictured below) shows the extent of the quarrying that was required – all the surrounding stone was cut away for use in Palmerston’s fortress.
A few hundred metres from the Verne is the High Angle Battery, built in the late 19th century as an additional defence for Portland Harbour. The complex also incorporates an underground laboratory, a large bombproof shelter and a network of tunnels – the latter reportedly harbouring a number of ghosts!

This is just a small sampling of the many strange facts contained in Weird Wessex. You can get your copy (as a paperback or Kindle ebook) from Amazon UK, or at the special price of just £10 direct from CFZ Publishing.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Pulp Sleaze

A few weeks ago I received a gift code to spend on the U.S. Amazon site, so I decided to buy something archetypally American in the form of a replica edition of Vice Squad Detective from 1935. This is arguably the sleaziest pulp magazine ever published. According to the FictionMags database, “it is believed that most copies were seized by police prior to distribution” (I assume this was the work of the vice squad, operating with or without deliberate irony). There’s nothing Fortean about the magazine’s contents, but since I’ve run out of blog ideas and it’s definitely retro, I’ll go ahead with a brief review of it.

The archetypal sleazy pulps were Spicy Detective, Spicy Adventure and Spicy Mystery (as you can see from the photo above, I’ve already got replica editions of one issue of each of these). The basic concept was to combine traditional pulp genres with large quantities of female nudity (or near nudity) – on the covers, in the interior artwork (of which there was a generous amount) and in the stories themselves. Spicy Detective first appeared in April 1934, and the formula proved so popular with readers that it was soon followed by other Spicy titles from the same publisher (aptly known as Culture Publications), as well as competitors with titles like Sizzling Detective Mysteries. As the popularity of such magazines grew, they inevitably came to the attention of people who hate to see other people enjoying themselves – resulting in police raids, prosecutions and calls for increased censorship. As Peter Haining wrote in The Classic Era of the American Pulp Magazine, by 1938 “nudity was being cut out and the bras were going back on”.

Reading Vice Squad Detective today it’s not obvious where all the moral outrage came from. The police are always portrayed as heroes, while drug dealers, pimps and gangsters are portrayed as villains. Descriptions of female nudity tend to be short and vague, not long and detailed. Descriptions of sexual intercourse are likewise brief, and only ever a background activity observed by a POV character. Protagonists do their fair share of kissing and anatomy-squeezing, but they never get as far as actual shagging. Characters who indulge in violence against women invariably end up dead. Women are never portrayed as nymphomaniacs – all the villains, whether male or female, are motivated by greed rather than lust. Two of the stories contain seemingly “sinister” ethnic stereotypes, but in both cases the character in question turns out to be one of the good guys, and the real villain is a white male. Vice Squad Detective may not be Sunday School material, but it’s a lot less morally objectionable than a lot of low-end fiction today.

The magazine contains 12 short stories, all about 10 pages long. In terms of quality, it’s comparable to any other pulp of this period – approximately a third of the stories are really quite good, a third are OK and a third are pretty awful. My favourite story also happens to have the best title – “The Amazing Case of the Blonde Dope Queen”, by J. P. Carroll. It’s a well written story, with interesting characters and a nice twist at the end. Other decent stories (also with good titles!) are “The Nudist Gym Death Riddle” by Jack Gray, “The Call Girl Murder Mystery” by Peter Abbott and “Marijuana Vice Trap” by L. S. Worth. This last one is rather clunkily written, but makes a very strong point. The rich college kids who indulge in all-night sex and drug orgies may be doing it for kicks, but the middle-aged men who sell them the drugs, photograph them in compromising situations and blackmail them into stealing from their parents aren’t interested in kicks at all – just in making money.

Possibly “Marijuana Vice Trap” wasn’t considered a particularly offensive story anyway, because it was reprinted as the cover story of another magazine, Pep Tec Tales, in April 1937. The following issue of that magazine has another of the Vice Squad Detective stories on the cover – “The Pajama Party Killer” by Don Lawrence.

The last story in Vice Squad Detective is “The Beach Racket Murder” by Tom Pennell. On the penultimate page of that story, I was interested to see the hero refer to the villain as “deader than the Republican party”. In hindsight that’s not a particularly good choice of simile, but it does provide food for thought. Wouldn’t the world be a different place if Nixon, Reagan and the two Bushes had never made it into the White House?

Sunday, 27 September 2015

A Weird Offer!

As mentioned last week, Weird Wessex: A Tourist Guide to 100 Strange and Unusual Sights by Paul Jackson and me (*) has just been published by the CFZ Publishing Group. Lavishly illustrated with over 200 full-colour photographs, the book takes you on a journey across the counties of Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Berkshire in search of some of the weirder and sometimes little known sights waiting to be discovered.

For a limited time, you can order your copy of Weird Wessex direct from the publisher for just £10 – a massive discount of 18% on the recommended retail price of £12.50. What’s more, for customers in the UK postage is absolutely free, and the first 16 copies sold will include a bookplate signed by both Paul and me (*).

So what are you waiting for? It’s the perfect opportunity to add to your “Weird” collection (mine is pictured above). For full details, click here to visit the CFZ Publishing website.

You should also be able to get Weird Wessex (ISBN 978-1-909488-35-9) from any other book retailer, such as Amazon UK, or as a Kindle ebook.

(*) Until a week ago I would never have written “by Paul and me”, but “by Paul and myself” – which sounds more elegant, more polite and more grammatical to my ears. But when I used that phrase on Facebook, someone pointed out to me that “myself” is a reflexive pronoun. That means it can only ever be used in a sentence where the subject is “I”. You can say “I wrote the book myself” but you can’t say “The book is by myself”. You have to say “The book is by me”. Putting another person in the mix doesn’t change things – so “The book is by Paul and myself” is equally wrong. I will probably forget this almost immediately, but at least I got it right in this post.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Weird Wessex

The latest book to feature my name on the cover is a collaboration with Paul Jackson of the
Random Encounters with the Unusual blog. It’s called Weird Wessex: A Tourist Guide to 100 Strange and Unusual Sights. Here is the blurb:
At its height, the Saxon kingdom of Wessex sprawled across Southern England, encompassing Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset and parts of Devon and Berkshire. Even before the Saxons arrived the area had a reputation as a weird place, with Stonehenge and its Druids, Glastonbury and the Holy Grail, the bizarre chalk figure of the Cerne Giant and the reputed location of King Arthur’s Camelot. In more recent times the tradition of weirdness has continued, with flying saucers sighted over Warminster, intricate Crop Circles popping up around Alton Barnes and hordes of spaced-out hippies converging on the mystical hubs of Glastonbury and Totnes.

This book is a tourist guide with a difference. It describes 100 of the weirdest sights in Wessex, ranging from world-famous places like Glastonbury and Stonehenge to hidden oddities that may even surprise the locals. Divided into ten thematic chapters, it is lavishly illustrated with over 200 full-colour photographs.
The ten chapters, each featuring ten sites, are arranged thematically as follows:
  • Weird Archaeology
  • Weird Buildings
  • Weird Constructions
  • Weird History
  • Weird Landscape
  • Weird Legends
  • Weird Religion
  • Weird Science
  • Weird Secrets
  • Weird Tales
In terms of content, the book is pretty close to a 50:50 collaboration. Paul lives towards the eastern end of the area, on the border of Wiltshire and Hampshire, while I live further west near the Somerset-Dorset border. So it was quite easy to divide the legwork between the two of us!

The book is published by Jon Downes at CFZ Publishing, under the Fortean Words imprint (although most of the sites are “quirky” rather than out-and-out Fortean). The book is in full colour, 200 pages long, with an average of one photograph per page. I’m amazed, and very pleased, that Jon has managed to keep the cover price down to £12.50 (it would have been more like £18 if we’d used CreateSpace).

There are several ways you can get hold of your copy of Weird Wessex:
  • You can buy it from Amazon UK (or any other Amazon site). The book is print-on-demand, so don’t worry if Amazon says “out of stock”. As soon as you order it, the printer will run a copy off for you.
  • You should also be able to order the paperback through any other book retailer – the ISBN is 978-1-909488-35-9.
  • The book is available in a Kindle edition, though unfortunately not in any other ebook format.
  • In the near future (probably about a week from now) the CFZ website will be running a special offer on Weird Wessex. If you order the book direct from the publisher it will cost just £10 plus p&p, and include a bookplate signed by both authors (wow!)
  • People in the local area who cross paths with either of the authors can order a copy direct from us. We will be happy to sign it for you, and may even offer a discount (depending how generous we’re feeling).

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Pound-Shop Forteana

Here are two DVDs I bought for just a pound each (obviously) in a Poundland store last week – The Dyatlov Pass Incident and Skinwalkers. Both movies are based on true events of the Fortean kind. I first heard about Skinwalker Ranch at a talk by Ian Simmons at the Fortean Times Unconvention in October 2004, while the Dyatlov Pass incident made the cover of FT245 in February 2009. Both films were released in 2013, so the fact they’re already being sold at a massive discount suggests that perhaps they’re not very good. In the case of Skinwalkers that’s true – it might have made an enjoyable video game, but as a feature film it’s simply atrocious. On the other hand, The Dyatlov Pass Incident is a brilliant, five-star, film – the best low-budget horror movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Both films take the form of “found footage” following the disappearance of a team that set out to investigate the mystery in question. In the case of Skinwalker Ranch it’s essentially a modern take on the “haunted house” theme – with the usual ghosts, poltergeist phenomena and spectral hounds joined by UFOs, ancient aliens and animal mutilations. In the movie the ranch is being investigated by a group of professional paranormal researchers, and one of the few positive things I can say about it is that the entire cast looks the part (i.e. unattractive social misfits with no discernable personality). Their behaviour is anything but professional, though – the film belongs to the visceral school of horror, with large amounts of screaming and very little in the way of ratiocination.

The Dyatlov Pass Incident is a different matter altogether. To start with, the central mystery is far more intriguing. Instead of a rambling mashup of subjective phenomena occurring over an extended period of time, it’s tightly focused on one specific incident that left real physical evidence (nine dead bodies, to be precise). The aforementioned Fortean Times article, from 2009, began as follows:
The story sounds like something out of a low-budget horror movie: nine young students go on a skiing holiday in Russia’s Ural Mountains but never return. Eventually, their bodies are discovered – five of them frozen to death near their tent, four more bearing mysterious injuries – a smashed head, a missing tongue – buried in the snow some distance away. All, it seems, had fled in sudden terror from their camp in the middle of the night. [...] At the time, seemingly baffled investigators offered the non-explanation that the group had died as a result of “a compelling unknown force” – and then simply closed the case and filed it as “Top Secret”.
The incident took place in February 1959; the FT article coincided with its 50th anniversary. There are several factors that make Dyatlov Pass one of the 20th century’s most intriguing Fortean mysteries. What was the “compelling unknown force” that caused the students such terror? Why did the deaths from hypothermia occur before – not after – the deaths from crushing physical injuries? Why did several of the bodies show signs of radiation damage? What were the mysterious orange lights seen in the sky around the time of the incident? Most intriguingly of all – why did the Soviet military (this was during the Cold War, remember) stamp the case Top Secret and close the area off to civilians?

The film follows a group of American students who attempt to follow in the footsteps of their Russian predecessors – only to suffer the same fate. This is a much more cerebral film than Skinwalkers – with intelligent, educated characters who think things through and don’t do very much screaming at all. It has a strong plot – unexpectedly so for this type of film. The viewer is presented with a number of obvious choices (Was it a UFO encounter? Was it a Yeti-like creature? Was it a natural accident that has morphed into something more sinister through folklore and misinterpretation?)... and then – culminating in one of the most perfect twist endings I’ve ever seen – the movie comes up with a completely different, even more satisfying, explanation of its own. There’s a fine line between whetting the appetite and spoiling the plot, so I’ll just say “Philadelphia Experiment” and leave it at that.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Jill Trent and the Flying Saucer Mystery

Jill Trent, Science Sleuth was a golden-age comic book heroine who appeared as a back-up feature in Wonder Comics #8-14 between October 1946 and 1947. Those comics are now all in the public domain, and can be read online (the Jill Trent stories start around page 16 in each issue). The character herself is also in the public domain, and last year I saw an online competition to write a 5-page script featuring the character. The winners (of which there were several) had their stories drawn by artists and published. Sadly my entry didn’t make the cut – presumably because it won’t make sense to anyone who isn’t an aficionado of Retro-Forteana.

I couldn’t help noticing that Jill’s career overlapped with the Kenneth Arnold sighting and the start of the Flying Saucer mystery, so I took that as my cue. To make the story visually attractive I set it amid the science fiction fandom of the time (Yes, they did have cosplay in the 1940s – see Anthony Boucher’s description of the 1941 Denver Worldcon in Rocket to the Morgue: “They had a costume party on the last night. Come as your favourite SF character. Berni wanted to go as Dale Arden, but I’m afraid it was an overambitious project.”).

I thought the script came out OK, but unfortunately it’s way beyond my artistic abilities to take it any further (the cover above is a paste-up job using public domain images). So I decided I might as well post the whole thing here...


Full page splash. A bustling street scene with people converging on a large big-city hotel, possibly Art Deco style. Vehicle designs indicate this is the late 1940s. There is a large banner on the hotel: “SCIENCE FICTION CONVENTION”. On the sidewalk, there is a newsstand with the headline: “FLYING SAUCERS SEEN OVER CITY”. Most people are in 1940s cosplay – think Buck Rogers, Startling Stories etc. Lots of brass brassieres and impractically skimpy spacesuits. JILL and DAISY, however, are in regular clothes of 1947... and getting a few strange looks as a result.


DAISY: They all look like loonies! What on Earth made you agree to demonstrate your latest invention at a convention full of wackos?

JILL: Take it easy, Daisy, everything will be fine!

JILL (continued): I do feel a little overdressed, though...


JILL is at a stall inside the convention, looking at a dealer’s display – “SPACESUITS $2.95”. The spacesuits look more like metallic bikinis and fetish gear (some of the kinkier accessories may only become apparent in later panels).

CAPTION: A few minutes later...

DAISY is looking at something a little more flattering for her fuller figure – e.g. a nylon see-through Space Princess gown.

JILL and DAISY head to the Ladies’ Restroom with their purchases.

DAISY: And you’re sure this is a good idea, right?

JILL: When in Rome...

They change into their costumes, looking like something straight off the cover of a 1940s science fiction magazine.

On stage in an empty lecture theater. DAISY poses in front of a big old-fashioned TV camera. JILL tinkers inside a large retro-futuristic TV receiver.

CAPTION: Before the audience arrive, Jill and Daisy give their equipment a final test...

DAISY: This new color television of yours will really impress those freaks!

JILL holds up a small, blackened vacuum tube (a kind of fancy light-bulb). She looks pissed off.

JILL: Darn it! The 3K55 triode has blown! We need to get a replacement – and quick!


A street with a storefront labeled “GOVERNMENT SURPLUS”. JILL and DAISY are running toward it (still in their sci-fi getup). There are various 1940s-era gadgets in the window.

Inside the store, JILL rummages through a box of vacuum tubes.

JILL: 3K55... Got it! I’ll pay for it and we can get back to the hotel!

Silent close-up of the vacuum tube. The reader sees it is actually marked 3K55X, and has “EXPERIMENTAL” stamped on it.

Wide view of the street outside the Surplus store. Clearly a sleazy part of town – adult theaters and massage parlors etc. A pair of provocatively dressed hookers stare at our cosplay-clad heroines as if they are unwelcome competition (nothing too explicit – just enough to raise the blood pressure of any budding Fredric Werthams out there).

Close up of one or both of the hookers suddenly looking up at the sky in alarm. A strange sound is coming from there.


Close up of JILL and DAISY also looking up in amazement.


JILL: Look – a flying saucer!


Full page-width image of flying saucer hovering over the street, projecting a bright beam of light downward. It looks really sinister, but doesn’t actually do any noticeable damage.


JILL and DAISY pull their weapons from their holsters and aim them at the UFO. They may not realize it in the heat of the moment, but the reader can see they are only toy ray-guns that came with their sci-fi costumes.

They pull their triggers to no great effect.

SFX: Klik! Klik!

JILL: Darn it, these are just the toys that came with our costumes!

DAISY: We left our real guns back at the hotel!

They gaze back up at the sky. There are no sounds coming from there now.

DAISY: The flying saucer is gone!

JILL: Never mind that now! We need to get back to the convention or we’ll miss our time slot!


Wide view of the lecture theater, showing the audience of 1940s-era sci-fi geeks. JILL and DAISY are on stage with the TV camera and receiver.

CAPTION: Back at the hotel, Jill and Daisy are just in time for the start of their demonstration...

Closer view of JILL speaking on stage, with the TV receiver next to her. DAISY is off to one side, looking into the TV camera.

JILL: The black-and-white television you’re all familiar with will soon be a thing of the past!

JILL (continued): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the future... welcome to color TV!

The image on the TV is in color all right, but it shows the flight deck of the flying saucer with two men in 1940s-era flying suits. JILL and DAISY look gobsmacked.

VOICE FROM TV: ...Mission accomplished! Flying Saucer #1 returning to base...

DAISY: That’s not me! The TV is supposed to show me!

Same angle, closer view of JILL.

JILL: It’s because we used the government surplus tube! It’s picking up a government frequency!

JILL (continued): So the government was behind the flying saucers all along! They won’t get away with it now we’ve blown their secret!

Full page-width image. Wide angle view showing the audience – everyone is laughing and applauding. They think it’s all a big joke – just the thing for a sci-fi convention! Daisy sweeps her arm toward them.

DAISY: So why do I get the feeling no-one believes us?


Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Number of the Beast

Over the years I’ve read a dozen or so books by Robert A. Heinlein, including novels and short story collections, but I wouldn’t count myself as a Heinlein fan. And The Number of the Beast – a huge, 556-page novel he wrote when he was over 70 – is really a book for die-hard fans only. It’s got a reputation as a dull and slow-moving novel, overloaded with Heinlein in-jokes and self-references. On the other hand, its basic premise is pretty fascinating – so I picked up a second-hand copy for a couple of pounds when I saw it in a bookshop earlier this year. I just got round to reading it – and while I can’t pretend it was an enjoyable experience, it was thought-provoking enough to be worth a blog post (plus I can’t think of anything else to write about this week).

The idea of “the number of the beast” – 6 6 6 – comes from the Book of Revelation. It’s one of the few things in the Bible that even non-Christians (and Satanists, for that matter) agree is quite cool. It’s normally rendered as “six hundred and sixty-six”, but in Heinlein’s novel it’s “six to the power of six to the power of six”. Written like that it’s mathematically ambiguous. 66 is 46656, but there’s a big difference between 466566 and 646656. Heinlein makes it clear that he means the first of these, which he multiplies out as 10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056. That may look like a big number, but the second number is MUCH bigger. It starts with 223,872 followed by another 36,300 digits. I guess the reason Heinlein didn’t go for that one is because it would have taken at least 20 pages to write out in full!

In the novel, the significance of 6^6^6 comes from a six-dimensional theory of space-time developed by one of the four main protagonists. It’s supposedly the number of different universes “possibly accessible to us either by rotation or translation”. That’s pure technobabble, of course, but it’s an excellent starting premise for a science fiction novel. Unfortunately, however, Heinlein’s narrative doesn’t go the way most SF readers would expect it to.

That much was science – now for the philosophy. I like playing with words just as much as I like playing with numbers – especially if they’re really big words. There are three lovely big words on the back cover of the book – “Multiperson Pantheistic Solipsism” (that’s one of the reasons I had to buy it). Solipsism is the philosophical theory that the human mind creates its own reality. Pantheism, strictly speaking, is the theological belief that God is all-pervasive throughout the universe. But coupled with solipsism I guess you could substitute “the human mind” for “God”. The third big word, multiperson, is self-explanatory – the relevance here being that the book has four protagonists who are very much in tune with each other. Putting it all together, “Multiperson Pantheistic Solipsism” means that a whole universe can be created as a mental projection by a group of like-minded people.

This still sounds like a good idea – although closer to fantasy than science fiction – but again Heinlein doesn’t handle it the way most people would expect. I’d read in several places that the “universes” the characters create are based on pulp fiction, which immediately creates certain expectations in the reader’s mind. Even Wikipedia says “The novel lies somewhere between parody and homage in its deliberate use of the style of the 1930s pulp novels”. Having read the book I have to say that’s just plain wrong.

At its peak in the 1930s and 40s, pulp fiction encompassed a whole range of genres. The most popular of these were hardboiled crime (as typified by Black Mask magazine), supernatural fantasy (typified by Weird Tales), the “hero” pulps (e.g. The Shadow and Doc Savage) and the nascent genre of science fiction (pioneered by Amazing Stories, followed by various similarly titled magazines such as Astounding).

Near the start of The Number of the Beast, the protagonists do get into a brief discussion of pulp magazines – including Weird Tales, The Shadow, Black Mask and Astounding. But that’s pretty much it. When they start visiting “fictional” universes, only one of them has its roots in a pulp magazine. That’s a fairly brief episode involving E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman characters, who originally appeared in the pages of Astounding. As for tough-talking private eyes like Race Williams or Dan Turner, Robert E. Howard’s Conan of Cimmeria, Doc Savage and his trusty aides... there’s no sign of any of them.

The fact is, regardless of what Wikipedia says, The Number of the Beast isn’t even close to being a parody of 1930s pulp fiction. Instead, the dominant thread running through the fictional universes is children’s literature – classic books like The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Princess of Mars and Gulliver’s Travels.

They may not be pulp fiction, but these books are still essentially escapist adventures, with some very basic tropes in common. First and foremost is the idea of conflict. Typically this means protagonists versus villain – either the protagonists are desperately trying to stop the villain doing something bad, or the villain is trying to prevent them doing something good. Even if the story doesn’t have a human villain, it needs an impending natural disaster or other impersonal force to provide the same impetus and sense of urgency. The protagonists shouldn’t have time to catch their breath, let alone do any of the trivial little things you and I spend most of the day doing. If there’s a romantic subplot, then its course can’t be allowed to run smooth. That bit about living happily ever after comes at the end of the story, not the beginning.

Heinlein turns all of that on its head. If you think about it, in a universe governed by Multiperson Pantheistic Solipsism, he pretty much has to. I mean, if you created a universe out of pure thought, you’d give yourself an easy time too, wouldn’t you? Consequently the book is devoid of any sense of urgency. It’s the only novel I’ve read where the protagonists spend most of their time cleaning their teeth, taking a bath, deciding what to wear, eating breakfast, getting a good night’s sleep... and having long conversations in which everyone agrees with everyone else. They carefully plan what they’re going to do next, then do it in their own sweet time. On the rare occasions they come across anything resembling an obstacle or hindrance, they deal with it in half a page, then get back to eating, sleeping and agreeing with each other.

The result is a long and boring book, in which the protagonists thoroughly enjoy themselves but the reader doesn’t. That’s the exact opposite of a traditional escapist novel – it’s more like peeking in on someone else’s daydream. Maybe it is all a dream, in fact. The first two sections are called “The Mandarin’s Butterfly” and “The Butterfly’s Mandarin” – presumably a reference to a story told by the Chinese philosopher Chuang Chou:
Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither... conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Rocket to the Morgue

While I was writing last week’s post about L. Ron Hubbard I suddenly remembered a novel called Rocket to the Morgue, in which one of the characters is based on Hubbard. I bought the copy pictured above (second-hand, as you can tell from the condition) in 2008, and was impressed enough to write about it at the time. It should have featured in my post about Charles Fort in Fiction, since it belongs to the select group of novels that mention Fort by name, but I managed to miss it out. So I thought I’d rectify the omission now.

Rocket to the Morgue was written by a man named William White, and originally appeared in 1942 under the pen-name of H. H. Holmes. White is better known by another pseudonym, Anthony Boucher, which he used on a number of classic short stories including “The Compleat Werewolf” and “The Quest for Saint Aquin”, and as founding editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The paperback reprint of Rocket to the Morgue has the name Anthony Boucher on the cover.

The novel is essentially a murder mystery, although that’s secondary to the real interest of the book. The action takes place against the backdrop of science fiction fandom – and prodom – as it existed at the time the book was written. No real-world authors make an appearance, but even Wikipedia acknowledges that many of the characters are based on real people. Most of these will be pretty obscure to modern-day readers – the main exceptions are Robert A. Heinlein (who features as “Austin Carter”) and L. Ron Hubbard (“Vance Wimpole” – described by one of the other characters as “an eccentric, a madman if you will”). Somewhat confusingly, there is also a passing reference to another writer named “René Lafayette”, which as mentioned last week was a pseudonym used by Hubbard.

As an aside, it’s worth emphasizing just how different the world of 1942 was. L. Ron Hubbard was a pulp writer, pure and simple. Scientology and Dianetics still lay in the future, and Hubbard’s name would have meant nothing to the general public. Science fiction fandom would have been equally obscure. There were no blockbuster sci-fi movies in 1942, and the cutting edge of the genre still lay in the pulp magazines. Although the novel is full of characters who conform to the modern stereotype of the science fiction geek, that stereotype would have been unknown to most readers when the book first came out.

The most Fortean character in the book isn’t a science fiction author – he’s a rocket scientist. His name is Hugo Chantrelle, and it’s a mishap with one of his rocket tests that gives the book its title (and is illustrated, in stylised form, on the cover). But Chantrelle is more than just a scientist: “The time-dreams of Dunne, the extra-sensory perception of Rhine, the sea serpents of Gould, all these held his interests far more than any research conducted by the Institute. He was inevitably a member of the Fortean Society of America, and had his own file of unbelievable incidents eventually to be published as a supplement to the works of Charles Fort.”

Surprising as it may seem, Chantrelle too is based on a real person – Jack Parsons, who was one of the founders of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Like his fictional counterpart, Parsons was no ordinary scientist. He was on friendly terms with the real-life L. Ron Hubbard, and with the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. One of my all-time favourite Fortean Times covers (FT132, pictured below) described him as “Playboy, antichrist and missile messiah”. Here are a few selected passages from the article about Parsons in that issue:

  • Before each test launch, he was in the habit of invoking Aleister Crowley’s Hymn to Pan, the wild horned god of fertility. Parsons was an active member of the California Agape Lodge of the sex magical group Ordo Templi Orientis, and in letters addressed the Great Beast as “Most Beloved Father”.
  • He practised “sex magic” but was so lacking in occult disciplines that his early workings more resembled early free-love orgies than anything else. Outside of these “religious” activities, Parsons was an incorrigible womaniser, who also blithely styled himself the Antichrist.
  • In August 1945, on leave from his less than spectacular naval career, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was introduced to Parsons. Jack was impressed by Ron’s exuberance and energy and wrote in a letter to Crowley: “I deduced that he is in direct touch with some higher intelligence... He is the most Thelemic person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles”.
  • In January 1946, the two commenced a long and complex magical ritual called the “Babalon Working”. This was intended to create nothing less than an elemental being. As far as Parsons was concerned, the invocation worked. The elemental turned up two weeks later in the form of the beautiful blue-eyed, red-haired Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron.
  • In April 1946, Parsons, Cameron and Hubbard, acting as scribe, attempted the second part of the Babalon Working, which was intended to raise a “moonchild” in the manner described in Crowley’s novel of the same name, with Cameron the vessel for Parsons’ magical seed. The mundane world intruded, however, and the tricky Hubbard, despite his intense and apparently sincere involvement with the Babalon working, vanished with $10,000 of Parsons’ money.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Pulp Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard is most famous (or notorious) as the founder of the Church of Scientology. People may also be aware that he wrote a series of blockbuster sci-fi novels called Mission Earth in his later years. What is less well known is that between 1935 and 1950 he was a prolific writer of escapist adventures for various pulp magazines.

Over the years I’ve read ten of Hubbard’s pulp stories – three short novels, one novella and six shorter works – most of which originated in Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown Worlds. Hubbard’s contributions were well below the best those magazines had to offer (which came from the likes of A.E. van Vogt, Henry Kuttner, Isaac Asimov and Eric Frank Russell)... but on the other hand they’re not the worthless trash that Hubbard’s detractors might expect. Interestingly, in light of his subsequent career, none of the stories I’ve read had any philosophy in them (which may seem an unusual thing to expect in pulp fiction – but it was Astounding magazine that first published van Vogt’s Null-A novels, which are replete with references to Korzybskian General Semantics).

The particular book which prompted this blog post was Slaves of Sleep (top left in the photograph above), which was one of my one-pound purchases at the Bookbarn shop a few weeks ago (see Old Books of the Fortean Kind). The paperback dates from 1967, but the story originally appeared in the July 1939 issue of Unknown. This makes it the earliest long work by Hubbard that I’ve read, and it also struck me as the weakest. It’s basically the sort of blank-check wish-fulfilment fantasy that any starting-out writer might try their hand at. The protagonist is a weedy young nebbish who suddenly (thanks to a genie being let out of a bottle) finds himself transported to an astral dream-world in the persona of a powerful, all-action hero. It’s one of those archetypal themes that every writer is going to handle differently, but I don’t think Hubbard made as much of its potential as he might have ( L. Sprague de Camp did much better justice to the same basic idea in his novella “Solomon’s Stone”, which appeared a few years later in the June 1942 issue of Unknown).

Continuing chronologically (in the order the stories were written, not the order I read them) the next in sequence is Typewriter in the Sky, which appeared in Unknown in two parts in November and December 1940. In one sense this is very similar to Slaves of Sleep – insofar as the protagonist finds himself suddenly transported to a swashbuckling life on another plane of existence – but in another sense it’s far more interesting. Instead of the “other plane” being a dream-world (yawn), it’s a fictional narrative that’s being churned out in real-time by a friend of the hero, who happens to be a hack writer. He is desperately pounding away on his typewriter in an attempt to finish his latest trashy novel, Blood and Loot (the one the protagonist is trapped in), in time to meet the publisher’s deadline. This makes Typewriter in the Sky one of the few examples of pulp metafiction!

Besides these two short novels, I’ve read one other story by Hubbard from Unknown Worlds – a novella called “The Case of the Friendly Corpse”. It originally appeared in the August 1941 issue, but as you can see from the photograph I read it in the British reprint edition for Spring 1947. Yet again this has the protagonist miraculously transported to another plane of existence. In this case it’s a wacky parallel world where he’s a student – not of Ancient Languages as he was in this world – but of Satanic Sciences! Unlike the two previously mentioned stories, this one is played for laughs – and I found it by far the most enjoyable of the three.

Of the various short stories I’ve read by Hubbard, the most memorable were the ones featuring a space-travelling medic called Ole Doc Methuselah and his alien assistant, Hippocrates. These stories (of which I’ve read three) were published in Astounding between 1947 and 1949, under the pseudonym René Lafayette. The only one that made the cover was “Plague” in the April 1949 issue, pictured bottom right in the photograph.

Next in chronological sequence comes the science fiction novel Return to Tomorrow. The paperback (pictured in the middle of the bottom row) was published in 1954, but the novel originally appeared as a two-part serial in Astounding in February and March 1950, under the title “To the Stars”. As space adventures go it’s depressingly downbeat stuff, but it’s notable for one thing in particular. Unlike most science fiction it acknowledges the existence of relativistic time dilation, even including the mathematical formula for it: Tv = T0  1 – v2/ c2 , where T0 is Earth-time and Tv is ship time. In fact this equation is the whole point of the novel (and the reason it’s so downbeat) – the crew travel so close to c that each time they return to Earth (a few months later subjective time) everyone they met last time is either dead or senile.

As I said at the start, Hubbard is best known as the founder of Scientology, which has its roots in a non-fiction book he wrote in 1950 called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. To coincide with its publication, Astounding magazine ran a 40-page article by Hubbard called “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the May 1950 issue. My copy, which is pictured bottom left in the photograph. was purchased a dozen or so years ago in a London shop – for around 4 pounds, if I remember correctly. Last year I saw a copy of the same magazine on one of the dealer tables at a science fiction convention for ten times that price. Maybe the dealer was a scientologist!

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Cambridge Oddities

Cambridge is one of the few tourist hotspots that it actually makes sense to visit in August. There are crowds of tourists, of course, but that’s offset by the fact that there aren’t any undergraduates (and if you stay in your old college, you don’t have to share the lavatorial facilities with half a dozen barely housetrained students). That’s why I decided to spend a couple of nostalgic days there last week. Here is a quick rundown of some of the more unusual sights in the town:

One of the oldest buildings in Cambridge, dating from circa 1130, is the Round Church opposite St John’s College. Round churches are often associated with the Knights Templar (as with the Temple Church in London), but this one seems to have been built by a lesser known order, active at the same time, called the “Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre”.
As I mentioned a few months ago in Isaac Newton and me, I spent my undergraduate years at Trinity College – as did Newton himself. Standing outside his old rooms in Great Court is an apple tree, pictured below. There probably wasn’t an apple tree there in Newton’s time (it’s clear from his account of the falling apple that it took place at his home in Lincolnshire), but Newton did keep a small private garden on this plot of land. He also had a large wooden shed which he used as a laboratory for his alchemical experiments – it may have been here, or inside Great Court itself.

(For more about Newton and alchemy, see my book Isaac Newton: Pocket Giants).
Sometimes erroneously associated with Newton, but actually nothing to do with him, is the Mathematical Bridge at the back of Queens’ College. The present bridge is the third to occupy this site, all using same timber-framed design. The first was built in 1748; this one dates from 1905. The mathematical nature of the bridge lies in the ingenious way the wooden ribs are arranged so that “each member is in compression with little or no bending moment”.
Cambridge has seen more than its fair share of scientific discoveries, and even one of the pubs claims to have played a part in one of them! Outside the Eagle in Bene’t Street there is a plaque that reads:
DNA Double Helix 1953: “The Secret of Life”. For decades the Eagle was the local pub for scientists from the nearby Cavendish Laboratory. It was here on February 28th 1953 that Francis Crick and James Watson first announced their discovery of how DNA carries genetic information.
One of the newer oddities in Cambridge is the Corpus Clock, dating from 2008 and belonging to Corpus Christi College. It stands at the end of Bene’t Street right opposite King’s College, giving it one of the highest tourist footfalls in England. The clock is unusual for several reasons: it has circles of LEDs instead of hands, and it only tells the correct time every five minutes (the rest of the time it runs erratically fast or slow). It also has a monstrous, animated insect called a Chronophage squatting on top of it.
It was somewhere near Corpus Christi College, back in the 16th century, that a man named Thomas Hobson used to rent out horses from a large livery stable. Although he had dozens of horses, customers always had to take whichever horse he wanted to hire out next. This gave rise to the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” – still used today to mean “no choice at all”. In his old age, Hobson helped to set up a new water supply to the town, which became known as “Hobson’s Conduit”. Cambridge doesn’t seem to have a monument to Hobson’s Choice, but it does have one to Hobson’s Conduit – on the corner of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Street:
From a Fortean point of view, the Haunted Bookshop – tucked away in a narrow alley called St Edward’s Passage – sounds highly promising. I had visions of shelves packed with occult and paranormal books – or horror fiction, at the very least. Unfortunately, however, the stock turned out to be predominantly antiquarian children’s books. The name comes from the fact that the building (previously an alehouse) is supposed to have its own ghost in the form of an occasionally glimpsed “White Lady”.
Cambridge has numerous free museums, of which by far the largest is the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street. The quirkiest thing I spotted there was a pair of paintings by William Hogarth called Before and After, dating from 1731. At first sight they look innocuous enough – partly because the eye (my eye, anyhow) tends to be drawn to the girl rather than the bloke. But the latter is worth a second look in both pictures. In Before there is the distinct hint of a “bulge in his trousers” (I’m quoting from the official blurb), while in After “the man’s unbuttoned breeches reveal a tuft of pubic hair and his penis, chafed red from its exertions”. Sleazy stuff for the genteel 18th century!

Here’s Before...
... and After: