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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Retro-Fortean Crossword

I thought I’d do another crossword puzzle this Christmas, since last year’s seemed to go down well. I assume it went down well, anyway, because it got an above-average number of page-views... but then the annotated list of answers the following week got below-average views, so maybe people just took one look at the puzzle and decided not to bother with it!

As before it’s an old-fashioned non-interactive crossword, so you’ll have to print it out or do it in your head. I originally wanted all the clues to refer to something I’ve written about on this blog in the last 12 months, but once I started filling letters in I realized that wasn’t going to be possible. Still, I’ve tried to stay on-topic as far as possible. I’ll print the answers (together with an explanation of the Retro-Fortean connections) next week.

ACROSS

1. ------- Bierce, who vanished without a trace in December 1913 [7]
5. Generic term for a mystery animal [7]
9. Nickname of Raymond A. Palmer, pulp magazine editor who popularized the Shaver Mystery [3]
10. “The ------- Ruined Dawn World”, short story by Fritz Leiber [7]
11. Secretive organization that Edward Snowden used to work for [3]
12. Fictional country which is the source of Doc Savage’s wealth [7]
13. “---- --- ergo propter hoc”, a logical fallacy popular with some conspiracy theorists [4, 3]
14. A short 16 mm film clip from 1967 purportedly showing Bigfoot [9-6]
19. Village in the South of France reputedly associated with a great mystical secret [6-2-7]
21. Ankh, cross and pentagram, for example [7]
24. A Runic alphabet [7]
27. --- Wein, creator of Wolverine and Swamp Thing [3]
28. Hard to pin down, like many Fortean phenomena [7]
29. Like a UFO, but not unidentified [3]
30. An unexplained event [7]
31. ------- McMahon, X-Files super-soldier played by Lucy Lawless [7]

DOWN

1. Early type of UFO widely reported across America during the 1890s [7]
2. Bigfoot, for example [5]
3. Denny -----, author of The Shadow 1941: Hitler’s Astrologer [5]
4. If the Gunpowder Plot was a False Flag operation, this person may have engineered it [4, 2, 9]
5. A famous Fortean mystery from Barbados [8, 7]
6. Himalayan giant apes (real or imaginary) [5]
7. Enigmatic alien creature in Philip K. Dick’s novel A Maze of Death [5]
8. A type of scientific analysis applied to Bigfoot and Richard III [3, 4]
15. The --- Lost Tribes of Israel [3]
16. The Third ---, by T. Lobsang Rampa [3]
17. --- Levin, author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives [3]
18. First name of JFK’s alleged assassin [3]
19. A water nymph in Slavic mythology [7]
20. Pulp magazine which featured Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier in its first issue [7]
22. Planet ruled by Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon’s universe [5]
23. The Magic Flute or The Flying Dutchman, for example [5]
25. Huge volcanic eruption which may have been responsible for the Atlantis legend [5]
26. Entity from another planet [5]

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Books, plural

I just received my author’s copy of The Museum of the Future from CFZ Press. This is my third book, after Bloody British History: Somerset in 2012 and Conspiracy History last month.

The Museum of the Future is a collection of short stories, most of them with a Fortean theme of one sort or another. I sent the original to Jon and Corinna Downes at the Centre for Fortean Zoology when they started publishing fiction a few years ago, and they’ve made a really nice job of the book. I believe it’s now been published (ISBN 978-1-909488-23-6), but it doesn’t appear to be listed by any retailers yet, so I’ll save the details for a later post when the book is more easily available. To whet your appetite, however, here is the blurb:
Twenty tales of High Strangeness featuring conspiracy theorists, mad scientists, hippies, geeks and miscellaneous weirdos: A group of Cambridge academics investigate a crashed UFO... An outcast scientist discovers the secret of anti-gravity... A paranormal author finds himself prime suspect in the Case of the Purloined Poe... A student has a bewildering vision of the future... Four New Agers are regressed back to their past lives... An engineer invents a new way to spy on the competition... A viewer gets too deeply involved in a TV cop show... A young woman battles the spies, aliens and perverts that only she can see... and a dozen more stories!
More books are in the pipeline, by the way. My mini-biography of Isaac Newton, in the excellent Pocket Giants series from the History Press, is scheduled for Spring 2015, and another title in the same series (which I’m working on at the moment) should follow later the same year. I’m also working on a collaborative book with a fellow blogger, which we’re about half way through – but we haven’t got a formal arrangement with a publisher yet, so I’ve no idea when that one will see the light of day!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Museum Pieces

On three different occasions in the last six months, I came across an object on display in a museum which was virtually identical to something I’ve got at home – having carefully hung onto it ever since I was at school. There’s nothing particularly Fortean about the items in question... but they’re definitely “retro”, so I thought I’d share them here.

Probably the most interesting of the three objects was in the newly reopened Imperial War Museum in London. As you can see from the photograph, they’ve got the nose and cockpit section of a WW2-era Lancaster bomber on display. I haven’t got a Lancaster bomber in my garden shed – but the right-hand picture shows a close-up of the R1155 radio receiver in the cockpit, and I do have one of those.

As a teenager in the 1970s, I already had a nostalgic obsession with anything that contained thermionic valves (aka vacuum tubes). When people discovered this, they were only too happy to unload their out-of-date technology on me! I ended up with dozens of old TVs and radios, and the R1155 was the pride of my collection. It never actually worked (I think the previous owner had cannibalized it for spare parts), but it was in pretty good physical condition when I first had it – certainly no worse than the one in the IWM:
... and here is my R1155 today, looking somewhat the worse for wear after more than 40 years in various sheds and garages:
The second item was a brass field telescope I spotted in the Royal Signals Museum near Blandford in Dorset. This looked very similar, if not identical, to one that got passed down to me when my grandfather died circa 1973. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think the telescope originally belonged to his brother, my great uncle, who spent many years travelling around the world with the British Army (possibly the Royal Signals Corps – I don’t know). This is the one in the museum:
... and this is mine (I probably should have polished it before I took the picture, but I was too lazy):
The third and last item is in the Science Museum in London. I first noticed it some time in the 1970s when I went there on a school trip, and it was still on show when I visited the museum this summer. It’s part of a display of old tools – which isn’t a subject that greatly excited the teenage me, except that I recognized the wooden drill brace as being virtually identical to one in the toolshed at home. It was one of dozens of old tools that came with the house when my parents bought it (the previous owner went mad, and a lot of his stuff was left behind when they took him away).
When I got home I carefully retrieved the drill brace, now that I knew it was a “museum piece”. I’ve still got it, along with various other bits and pieces I’ve hung onto in the naïve hope they will eventually become valuable relics of the twentieth century:

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Ambrose Collector

Just over a century ago, the American author Ambrose Bierce disappeared in war-torn Mexico. On December 26 1913 he wrote “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” – and he was never seen or heard from again. The case remains one of the classic unsolved mysteries, and there are dozens of conflicting theories as to his fate. A recent article describes several eyewitness accounts of his death, all in different places at different times.

There are much weirder theories, too. Many years earlier, Bierce wrote an odd little story called “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, about a man who starts to walk across a field – and suddenly vanishes into thin air. This has led some people (and by “some people”, I mean the makers of Ancient Aliens) to speculate that Bierce stumbled across a secret portal to another dimension... which he described in veiled terms in the story, before eventually passing through it himself.

Not surprisingly, Charles Fort was interested in the case of Ambrose Bierce. He wrote about it in Lo!, and again in Wild Talents. In the latter book he linked the story to another disappearance – that of Ambrose Small in Canada in 1919. The problem that fascinated Fort was “what the disappearance of one Ambrose could have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose”. This led to a characteristically Fortean speculation: “Was somebody collecting Ambroses?”

The bizarre notion of an Ambrose Collector crops up in a novel I read several years ago, and then forgot all about until I was reading about the Bierce case recently. The book in question is Compliments of a Fiend by Fredric Brown, who is best known for the numerous science fiction stories he wrote in the 1940s and 50s. Some of the best of these, such as his novel What Mad Universe, foreshadow the work of Philip K. Dick in their portrayal of counterfeit, mind-created worlds. I mentioned Fredric Brown in just this context earlier this month, in my post about Mad Scientists, Zombies and the Loch Ness Monster.

But Compliments of a Fiend (1950) isn’t science fiction. Fredric Brown was an equally prolific writer of crime novels, and several of them feature a young detective named Ed Hunter and his uncle Ambrose. With a name like that, it was only a matter of time before the pair came up against the Ambrose Collector!

The novel isn’t especially Fortean, and it makes no attempt to explain the disappearance of either Ambrose Bierce or Ambrose Small. But it does have a villain who uses the pseudonym of “the Ambrose Collector”, and the corresponding quote from Wild Talents is referred to several times in the course of the plot. I read Compliments of a Fiend because it was recommended to me by someone who is a big fan of Fredric Brown, so I know at least some people think it’s a great book. As I mentioned earlier, however, personally I found the novel rather forgettable – although it’s a decent enough mystery story, and definitely one for Fortean completists.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

A Saint, a Spy and the Holy Grail

Whitchurch Canonicorum is a small village a few miles west of Bridport in Dorset. At seven syllables, it’s one of the longest place names in England. This may seem a little pretentious, but Whitchurch Canonicorum is no ordinary village. It was founded in Anglo-Saxon times by the most famous Saxon king of all, Alfred the Great, who called it Hwitan Cyrican, meaning “white church”. Nothing remains of the original Saxon church, but the present building – dating from the 12th to 15th century – has more than its fair share of Fortean oddities: the relics of a mediaeval saint, an icon of the Holy Grail, and the grave of one of the most unusual victims of Cold War espionage.

Surprising as it may seem, there are only two places in the country known to contain the mortal remains of a genuine saint. One is Westminster Abbey in London; the other is the church of Saint Candida and Holy Cross in Whitchurch Canonicorum. Candida is the Latin word for “white”, and the saint herself is more often referred to as “Saint Wite”. The only inscription visible on her shrine is a modern one: Hic reqesct reliqe Sce Wite (“Here rest the relics of Saint Wite”) – apparently duplicating the Latin inscription on a lead casket found inside the tomb when it was opened in 1900.

The tomb itself is very plain – some people think that’s why it escaped destruction during the Protestant Reformation, when so many other shrines around the country were destroyed. Its only distinguishing feature is the presence of three yonic-shaped orifices, where people can place prayer cards and other offerings to the saint (“yonic” is the feminine equivalent of phallic – I had to look it up on Google).
With regard to Saint Wite (or Saint Candida) herself, nothing at all seems to be known about her from historical records. According to local legend, however, she was a Saxon wise-woman who was murdered by the Vikings. Whether or not it’s related to the legend, on the outside of the church tower are carvings representing a ship and an axe, which are often said to symbolize the Vikings. Unfortunately the images are so badly weathered they’re difficult to make out, but lower down on the church wall is another, much clearer carving. This depicts a two-handled vessel, traditionally identified as the Holy Grail.

This part of the church dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, when the popularity of the Grail legend was at its height. But although the legend has a Christian theme, it’s not often depicted in church art of the time. So what is it doing here at Whitchurch Canonicorum? If it’s true that Joseph of Arimathea took the Grail to Glastonbury, he may have landed on the Dorset coast and made his way northwards from there. His route may well have taken him through the place that was later to become Whitchurch Canonicorum.
Moving to more recent times, the churchyard contains one gravestone with a bilingual inscription – English on one side, Cyrillic on the other. This is the last resting place of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian journalist who was murdered in London in bizarre circumstances in 1978. One morning he was waiting at a bus stop on his way to the BBC World Service, where he worked at the time. He felt a stinging sensation in the back of his leg, and turned round to see a man pointing an umbrella at him. Four days later he died from Ricin poisoning. The umbrella had been used to fire a tiny sugar-coated pellet into his leg; when the sugar dissolved it released the deadly chemical into his bloodstream.

Phrases such as “worthy of James Bond” or “like something Q might have dreamed up” are journalistic clichés, but in this case they’re entirely justified. It’s tempting to think that a real-life James Bond discovered that Markov was a communist spy, and a real-life Q devised a foolproof method of eliminating him. But if that had happened, knowing how the British authorities normally operate, they would have botched the whole thing and Georgi Markov would still be alive and well today.

In fact it happened the other way around. Markov was murdered by Bulgarian (or possibly Russian) secret agents, because they discovered he was using his position at the BBC to spread anti-Communist propaganda. And the Communists, being super-efficient and entirely non-decadent, didn’t botch anything. Georgi Markov died, and his umbrella-wielding assassin was never caught.

I’m not sure why Markov ended up buried in a Dorset village churchyard, though.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Conspiracy History

Conspiracy History is the title of my latest book, which was published by Bretwalda Books last month. As the name suggests, it’s all about historical conspiracies – a subject that is usually ignored by conspiracy theorists. It shouldn’t be, though, because it really helps their case. The more you look at history, the more you realize that conspiracies are an inseparable part of human nature.

I started thinking along these lines a year ago, around the time of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. There were a lot of articles in the mainstream media about all the associated conspiracy theories, mostly of a sneeringly skeptical nature. The question they never seemed to ask themselves was: “Are there historical precedents for the kinds of scenario proposed by the conspiracy theorists?” When I looked into it, I discovered there were plenty – from the assassinations of Philip II of Macedon and Conrad of Jerusalem to those of Henri IV of France and Abraham Lincoln. Speculation that those powerful individuals were actually killed by members of “the establishment”, rather than by “enemies of the state”, have been around since day one. And it was a similar story when I looked at other types of conspiracy theory. For every seemingly wild suggestion on the internet today, you can find numerous historical precedents.

I tried the idea on Rupert Matthews at Bretwalda Books, and he liked it enough to take the book on. The result, a year later, is Conspiracy History: A History of the World for Conspiracy Theorists. To whet your appetite, here is the table of contents:
  • Chapter 1: A brief introduction to conspiracy theories
  • Chapter 2: False flag incidents
  • Chapter 3: They acted alone – or did they?
  • Chapter 4: Hidden agendas
  • Chapter 5: Convenient deaths
  • Chapter 6: Secret identities
  • Chapter 7: The Illuminati and others
  • Chapter 8: Rewriting history
The book includes a preface written by Nick Redfern, one of the most intelligent authors currently working in the conspiracy field. I’m really grateful to Nick for doing this, and for the very favourable review of the book he wrote for Mysterious Universe. Nick lives in Dallas, Texas – which of course was the scene of that most famous of all conspiracies, the JFK assassination. But Dallas has another claim to fame, especially for people of my generation – the eponymous TV series about the machinations of a bunch of greedy Texas oil entrepreneurs.

The original series of Dallas ran for 14 seasons from 1978 to 1991, and at its peak it was one of the most popular TV shows in the world. A couple of years ago it was resurrected for a new series, the third season of which is currently nearing its end in the UK (it’s already finished in the US). The first two seasons were a bit iffy, but this third one is as near to perfection as TV drama gets, and a worthy successor to the Dallas of the 1980s. One of the remarkable things about the original series – the thing that kept people watching week after week – was the fact that almost every character was a scheming, Machiavellian psychopath, prepared to go to extraordinarily devious lengths in order to get what they wanted. The new series is pretty much the same, except that you can now delete the word “almost”. Even Bobby Ewing is a scheming slimeball these days.

Of course Dallas is fiction, and it exaggerates reality. But few people would disagree with the basic principle – to be successful in business you have to break the rules and get away with it. So why is it so far-fetched to assume that governments – the successful ones, at any rate – operate on exactly the same principle? Even stranger, people only have difficulty with this view when they’re talking about current affairs. There’s nothing controversial about conspiracies if you’re talking about the Soviet Union of Stalin’s time, or the British Empire of Queen Victoria’s time, or the Florentine Republic of Machiavelli’s time.

And that’s why everyone needs to read Conspiracy History.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Mad Scientists, Zombies and the Loch Ness Monster

Earlier this year Nick Redfern wrote a piece for Mysterious Universe entitled The Convenient Monster, about an intriguing-sounding episode of the 1960s TV series, The Saint, based around the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. I discovered later that “The Convenient Monster” started life as a short story by the Saint’s creator, Leslie Charteris, so I started to look round for a printed version of it. I eventually managed to get hold of the book pictured here – The Fantastic Saint, containing “The Convenient Monster” along with five other Saint stories having a horror and/or science fiction element to them.

Leslie Charteris wrote his first Saint story in 1928, when he was just 21 – while the Saint, alias Simon Templar, was portrayed as being not much older. His last Saint stories were written early in the 1960s, by which time the TV series starring Roger Moore was already underway, and Charteris (and presumably the Saint too) was the wrong side of 50. Charteris had retired from writing by the time The Fantastic Saint was published in 1982, although he did produce an afterword for it.

The six stories in the collection span virtually the entire career of the Saint, from the early 1930s to the early sixties. In his afterword, Charteris says he wanted “to avoid the perpetual repetition of a recognizable formula”. That’s just the sort of thing you’d expect the creator of a long-running series character to say... but in Charteris’s case it’s absolutely true. The six stories are all completely different from each other – and at least a few of them are really outstanding.

The earliest story in the book, “The Gold Standard” from 1932, is also the longest of them – and probably the weakest, too. It’s essentially a Mad Scientist story, about a modern-day alchemist – but it can’t really be called science fiction, because Charteris makes no attempt at a technical (or even pseudo-technical) explanation for the gold-making process. That’s only a minor quibble, but it’s worth mentioning because the other five stories are all particularly strong on technical background. In this story, however, the “technical details” border on tongue-in-cheek metafiction – the scientist’s lair is likened to “one of those nightmare laboratories of the future which appear in every magazine of pseudo-scientific fiction”!

I’m glad I read the stories in chronological order, because “The Gold Standard” is the only one that goes into much detail about the background of the characters. At this point in his career the Saint was a kind of English version of the pulp hero the Spider, who made his debut the following year – an independently wealthy, upper-class playboy who fights against evil while being viewed as a dangerously anti-social psychopath by the blunderingly ineffective police force. As the stories progress, the Saint slowly inches his way toward acceptance by the establishment.

The villain of the second story – “The Newdick Helicopter”, from 1933 – is not so much a Mad Scientist as an inventor-turned-conman. It’s a highly amusing tale, but I was puzzled at first as to just what the “fantastic” element was supposed to be. Then I realized that the first true helicopter, capable of vertical take-off and landing, didn’t come on the market until several years after the story was written!

The third piece, called “The Man Who Liked Ants” and dating from 1937, is about as archetypal a Mad Scientist story as they come. As far as the plot goes, it would have been right at home in a B-movie theatre or pulp science fiction magazine of the time. However it’s lifted up somewhat by the fact that, as Charteris says in his afterword: “Before writing ‘The Man Who Liked Ants’, I read three or four serious books about them. Which doesn’t make me an entomologist, but at least gives the story some scientific support.”

Keeping to chronological order (which is not quite the order the stories are printed in the book), the next one is “The Darker Drink” from 1949. Just as “The Man Who Liked Ants” was typical of the naively simplistic science fiction of the 1930s, this one is closer to the sophisticated mind-benders the masters of the genre was turning out just a decade later. “The Darker Drink” reminded me particularly of Fredric Brown, whose novel What Mad Universe?, also from 1949, has a similar tone – as do several of his short stories. But hardly anyone has heard of Frederic Brown today – so a less obscure (if slightly less accurate) comparison would be with the early work of Philip K. Dick a few years later.

I can’t think how to describe “The Darker Drink” without spoiling it, so I’ll just quote the introduction by Martin H. Greenberg: “Simon Templar’s hideout in the High Sierras is invaded by a man called Big Bill Holbrook who claims to be the dream-world creation of a sleeping bank clerk in Glendale, California. It is perhaps the Saint’s strangest adventure, beginning as a screwball send-up of The Maltese Falcon and ending as a nightmare.”

Personally I’d rate “The Darker Drink” as the second best story in the book, after the one that comes next in chronological order: “The Questing Tycoon” from 1954. This is a zombie story – but it’s not THAT kind of zombie story. It’s as thoughtful and well-researched a zombie story as I’ve ever come across, with a discussion of Voodoo in terms of comparative religion which must have seemed quite radical in the 1950s. Again quoting from Leslie Charteris’s afterword: “‘The Questing Tycoon’ was inspired by a visit to Haiti, where I was fortunate enough to be able to witness a couple of genuine voodoo ceremonies – not the kind that are laid on for the tourists. I was also lucky enough to meet a local resident, a lifelong student of the cult and the author of important monographs on the subject: thanks to him, I can vouch that the details and the actual incantation and the song quoted are literally exact.”

This brings us to “The Convenient Monster”, the last of the stories to be published – in 1962, only four years before the TV adaptation described in Nick Redfern’s article. I hardly need to say anything about this one, because Nick’s (spoiler-free) account of the small-screen adaptation is pretty close to the printed version. The order of events at the start of the story is slightly different, and a few scenes and at least one character seem to have been added to the TV version, but otherwise it sounds like a pretty faithful adaptation. I’ll have to look out for it in the schedules now!

Although I’ve known the name Leslie Charteris since childhood – my grandfather had a couple of Saint paperbacks on his bookshelf in the sixties – The Fantastic Saint is the first book I’ve ever read by him. I’ll certainly be looking out for more now – and I’ll have to catch some Saint reruns on TV, too. I used to watch it regularly as a child, and I really liked the Simon Templar character as portrayed by Roger Moore. Probably for that reason, I’m the only person I know (and possibly the only person in the world) who thinks that Roger Moore was far and away the best actor ever to play James Bond!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Science of Bigfoot

In an earlier post this year, Patterson-Gimlin Film: Fake or Fact?, I reviewed one of the ebooks in the Cryptid Casebook series from Bretwalda Books. Most of the titles in this series are written by Larry Jaffer, and – as the name suggests – consist of specific case studies. A couple of months ago, however, Bretwalda editor Rupert Matthews asked me if I would like to write something on “aspects of Bigfoot other than sightings”. I thought this was a great idea, and The Science of Bigfoot was the result.

Here is the book’s blurb:
For many Bigfoot enthusiasts, science has becomes synonymous with knee-jerk debunking. But to ignore science altogether is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If Bigfoot is a real flesh-and-blood creature, and not some kind of paranormal apparition, there is ultimately no alternative to approaching the subject in a scientific way. The aim of this ebook is to explain what that means in simple everyday terms. From anatomy and adaptation, through ecology and evolution, to DNA analysis and the laws of physics – here in one small package is everything you need to know about the science of Bigfoot!
I’m a scientist, and I would really like Bigfoot to exist. I have to admit it’s not very likely, based on the lack of hard, unambiguous evidence. But I get annoyed when skeptics say things like “Bigfoot is a scientific impossibility” – I simply don’t believe that’s true. I don’t think there are any ecological, evolutionary or physiological reasons why a large, bipedal hominid couldn’t exist in the world today.

At the other extreme, it’s not really true to say, as many Bigfoot believers do, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. The more you look for something and fail to find it, the less likely it is that it’s there to be found. But ultimately you can never prove a negative – absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence.

The screaming headline “DNA Study Proves Bigfoot Never Existed” in Time Magazine a few months ago was simply wrong – an ignorant misunderstanding of the scientific method. Proving that a selection of hair samples came from known species merely proves that those specific samples didn’t come from Bigfoot. That’s a far cry from disproving the existence of Bigfoot.

If Bigfoot does exist, why is physical evidence so hard to come by? One possible explanation is that the species has evolved a kind of “prime directive” to stay out of sight of homo sapiens. As a member of the hominid family, Bigfoot is likely to be of comparable intelligence and resourcefulness to humans – possibly even superior in some ways – so who knows what they might be capable of?

As I said earlier, I would like Bigfoot to exist, although I don’t think it’s likely. It’s a subject everyone will have their own views on. But whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, you’re bound to find food for thought in The Science of Bigfoot. It’s available in Kindle format for just $2.99 from Amazon.com, or for corresponding prices from other national branches of Amazon (currently £1.92 at Amazon.co.uk, for example).

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Tales from the White Hart

Pictured above is my copy of Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke. I bought this just over 42 years ago, on Saturday October 7th, 1972 (you’ll see later why I can be so precise about the date). It was brought back to mind last week when a picture of exactly the same paperback edition appeared in Fortean Times – in the latest instalment of Bob Rickard’s ongoing series about “The First Forteans”.

During the 1940s and 50s, there seems to have been considerable overlap – in Britain at least – between Fortean subculture, science fiction fandom and amateur space enthusiasts. Arthur C. Clarke was just one of many individuals who spanned all three spheres of activity, although he’s by far the best remembered today. Meetings were held in various public houses around London – for several years in a place called The White Horse, before moving to the better known Globe.

In his introduction to Tales from the White Hart, Clarke freely admits that the venue was modelled on the White Horse – and the last story in the book sees the characters migrating to “The Sphere”, obviously a thinly veiled allusion to the Globe.

The stories in the book all follow the familiar (and perennially popular) format of the bar-room tall-tale, coupled in this case with a strong hint of P. G. Wodehouse in the narrative style. Most of the tales deal with wacky inventions of one form or another, and while a few of them are inclined to silliness, several of the ideas are really very clever (I mean clever as science fiction, not as proper science!).

Tales from the White Hart isn’t a particularly Fortean book. Without the broader context provided by Bob Rickard’s article, you probably wouldn’t even notice the Fortean connection. The cover image does look rather Fortean (or Lovecraftian, perhaps), but it’s purely symbolic. The giant squid comes from one of the stories told in the White Hart – one of the cleverest of them, actually. At the time the book was written, the giant squid had never been photographed alive. The story, called “Big Game Hunt”, deals with a novel method of enticing one to the surface for just that purpose – explained with the customary more-than-half-convincing Clarkian technobabble.

The most explicitly Fortean of the stories is “What Goes Up”, which starts with “one of the leading exponents of the Flying Saucer religion” gatecrashing the White Hart. The man is thoroughly ignorant and obnoxious (unlike present-day ufologists), so the regulars decide to burst his bubble with a comically far-fetched anecdote about antigravity. But it turns out the visitor is immune to irony – the story appears in the next month’s issue of Flying Saucer Revelations, printed as straight fact!

The paperback edition pictured above (and in Fortean Times) was published in 1972, and I bought my copy that same year. I know, because that’s the only year I ever kept a diary, and it’s there in the entry for October 7th – “Heard Venezuela. Got Galaxy 3, Tales from White Hart”.
“Galaxy 3” refers to the September 1972 issue of Galaxy magazine, which was marketed in Britain as issue #3. This contained the second half of Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, which I mentioned in Literary Name-Dropping (if you look at the cover shown in that post, it has “No. 2” in the upper right corner).

“Heard Venezuela” refers to a hobby called DXing, which was popular with teenage geeks in pre-internet days – listening to short-wave radio transmissions from distant countries. It may have been a commercial radio station or an amateur operator – I used to listen to both. I just had a trawl through my collection of QSL cards, but I couldn’t find anything from Venezuela, although there were several from other countries in South America.

I found something else hidden among the QSL cards – my long-lost U.N.C.L.E. ID card! I mentioned how I’d mislaid it in one of the comments on my blog post about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. earlier this year. I’d already looked for it among the QSL cards, but when I got them out again today I noticed there was something jammed in the bottom of the envelope – and that was it!

U.N.C.L.E. ID cards were incredibly popular in the 1960s – probably millions of people around the world had them, and you can find examples quite cheaply on eBay today. But it’s not the same as having one with your own name on it! I see I was assigned to Section 8, which (having just looked it up on Wikipedia) is “Camouflage and Deception, known more colloquially as the Lab.” Best place for me, I’m sure.

Postscript: In response to overwhelming popular demand (see comments thread), here is the back of the card (this photograph was taken at night with a flash, rather than in natural light, hence the apparent difference in colour):

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Britain's X-traordinary Files

A couple of months ago the publishers of David Clarke’s new book, Britain's X-traordinary Files, sent me an advance copy to review on this blog. That was very flattering, but the fact is my blog has quite a small audience and I thought perhaps we could do better than that. So after discussing with David, I sent the review to Val Stevenson at Fortean Times, and she’s been good enough to publish it in the current issue (as pictured above). But just to close the loop, I thought I’d say something about the book here since that’s what I was originally asked to do!

I’ll try not to repeat myself too much, since I know that a lot of people who follow this blog also subscribe to Fortean Times (and you can probably read a good part of the review by zooming in on the image above). The bottom line is that this is an excellent book, based around a very clever concept. At one level it’s a perfect example of “Retro-Forteana” – a compendium of strange phenomena and unusual occurrences with a distinctly nostalgic flavour. There are familiar tales that can always bear retelling, from the Mary Celeste and the Angels of Mons to the Stone of Destiny and the Loch Ness Monster. There are Victorian ghosts, 1920s death rays and Cold War close encounters. But there’s a novel element too – a Unique Selling Point that makes the book stand out from countless others. The facts are sourced not from personal anecdotes and silly-season press clippings, but from official documents held at the National Archives – including many that were only reluctantly released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

I gave the book a 9 out of 10 rating. Why only 9? Well, from my own personal perspective it’s worth a 10, but then I’ve worked in the Civil Service so I had a fair idea what to expect. I know that “officialdom” isn’t a monolithic, super-competent robot that knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s made up of tens of thousands of individuals who are doing a 9-to-5 job to earn money to pay the bills. Some of them – quite a lot of them, actually – are borderline incompetent. In the old days (before my time, sadly), the British Civil Service was a “job for life” – there was little chance of being fired, and equally little chance of being promoted. People simply weren’t incentivized. They made mistakes, they overlooked the obvious, they frittered away their time, they followed personal hobbyhorses. Some of them believed in ghosts, or dowsing, or witchcraft; others were outright skeptics, while others were practical jokers. In other words, “They” are people like everyone else.

Not everyone accepts this. Conspiracy Theorists, in particular, refuse to believe it. To them, “They” are tireless, super-competent, virtually infallible drones, relentlessly adhering to a sinister agenda set down by the Illuminati centuries ago. It’s inevitable that Conspiracy Theorists are going to be attracted to a book called “Britain’s X-traordinary Files” ... and equally inevitable that they will be disappointed by it. So that’s why I marked the book down to a 9 – because I can see that some readers who consider themselves the book’s core audience aren’t going to like it.

Some people will say the book is just a smoke screen designed to hide the real truth. That’s terribly unfair to David Clarke, who has done a first-class job scouring through masses of almost unreadably dull material to find the gems reproduced here. It’s unfair to human nature, because it paints history as a black-and-white “Them versus us” conflict, when in fact “They” and us are members of the same species, with all the same shades of grey from mindless belief to mindless skepticism, and from super-competence to gross incompetence.

I’m not saying there aren’t any shocking revelations tucked away in secret government vaults, well away from the prying eyes of the Freedom of Information Act. That’s not an irrational suggestion, and I’m sure it’s true. What is irrational is to suggest that any official document that doesn’t contain a shocking revelation (of anything more sinister than government incompetence) is a deliberate falsification designed to conceal the Truth.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Lost Souls of Dorset

I belatedly finished Dark Fall: Lost Souls – another great game from Jonathan Boakes, creator of The Lost Crown. I originally bought it on DVD four years ago, a few months after it first came out. But after playing it for several days, and getting about half-way through, the game suddenly refused to load. Several attempts at uninstalling and reinstalling failed to cure the problem, so I guess I must have damaged the disc or corrupted the licence file or something (there’s also an alternative paranormal explanation, which I’ll get to later).

A couple of weeks ago I saw Dark Fall: Lost Souls on special offer on Steam for just £2.49 (a temporary reduction from the normal price of £9.99). Needless to say I snapped it up – and I’m glad I did. It’s only in the second half of the game, which I’d been prevented from playing, that the high strangeness really sets in (I still had all my savegames, so I could pick up where I left off). I’m not saying the first half is weak, but it’s essentially just scene-setting. Apart from the wonderfully atmospheric graphics and soundtrack, it’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill point-and-click adventure. But once you’ve found your way up to the hotel’s guest rooms (which is the point I’d got to four years ago) the game really comes into its own – Boakesian weirdness at its best.

As with The Lost Crown, part of the attraction of Dark Fall: Lost Souls is its decaying small-town setting, replete with nostalgic reminders of the simpler world of the mid-twentieth century. What makes it even more interesting for me is that it’s set in Dorset, right on my doorstep. The name of the town, Dowerton (which also featured in the original Dark Fall game, which I haven’t played) is fictitious, and doesn’t have an obvious correspondence with any real Dorset location. The town doesn’t seem to have a beach, yet it’s large enough to have an 18-room hotel. The 1947 rail route (see top-right screenshot above) indicates that it was on a branch line of the Great Western Railway from Dorchester, but I don’t believe there ever was such a thing. There was a GWR branch line from Maiden Newton to Bridport, however – and using that as an analog would put Dowerton ten to fifteen miles south of where I live. That’s what I’d like to think, anyhow!

Dowerton is a town that has seen better days. The train station is abandoned, as is the adjacent hotel. The youths of the town have turned to Satanism, and the hotel is reputed to be haunted. Associated with the occult since the 1950s, the place took a nosedive in 2005 with the disappearance of 11-year-old Amy Haven – a disruptive child who had become obsessed with the paranormal.

The action of the game takes place five years after Amy’s disappearance. It’s played from the first person perspective of a retired police officer known only as The Inspector. “Retired” is a euphemism, actually – the Inspector was fired for fabricating evidence against the chief suspect in the Amy Haven case. This was a sleazy middle-aged man named Mr Bones, who had befriended the child and initiated her into the ways of the occult. Bones denied having harmed her, claiming Amy had voluntarily chosen to pass over to the other side.

The Inspector is still driven to discover the truth about the case. Amy’s ghost has been seen lurking around the old station, so one night he decides to go there and investigate. As he does so, he receives a series of anonymous text messages on his phone, from someone or something that clearly knows a lot about the case.

As I’ve already said, the action starts fairly normally – although exploring a disused train station that has been used for Satanic rituals is always going to have its spooky moments, especially in the dead of night. It’s when the Inspector gets inside the hotel, though, that things really start to get weird. He encounters the restless ghosts of various former occupants who died by committing suicide, and he experiences timeslips that take him back to critical turning points in their lives. He is able to change history, thus freeing the ghosts from their torments. But do things like that happen in the real world? Some aspects of the action have a distinctly dreamlike (or nightmare-like) quality, and on a couple of occasions the Inspector briefly finds himself lying on a hospital operating table while medics fight to resuscitate him.

The Lost Crown was open to a whole range of interpretations, and Dark Fall: Lost Souls is no different. One extreme view would be that the resuscitation scenes are the only objective reality in the game, while the rest is a kind of near-death experience (and I do mean near death – the suggestion at the end, to my relief, was that the Inspector would pull through). In this interpretation, the Inspector is driven by his curiosity and feelings of guilt to re-examine the facts of the case in the form of a lucid dream – hence most of the game is nothing more than a hallucination.

In another extreme interpretation, the operating table scenes would be the only hallucinations, while everything else is objectively real. In this view, the Inspector would end up the villain of the piece – a callous murderer – while Amy and Mr Bones would be innocent victims. But that doesn’t accord with the personality of the Inspector as it comes across in the game – the compassionate way he deals with the ghosts, and his genuine desire to learn the truth. Amy, on the other hand, is not a nice child – although a lot of this may be down to Mr Bones corrupting her impressionable young mind. Anyhow, the ghosts all blame Amy’s presence in the hotel for prolonging their suffering.

My own view lies somewhere between these extremes. I think it’s true that the only physically objective reality is the Inspector lying on an operating table in hospital. But rather than a hallucination, I believe he undergoes an out-of-body experience. His astral body really does travel to the hotel, where he really does encounter the spirits that live there, and he really does free the “lost souls” from the torment Amy is holding them in.. At the same time, other aspects of his experience – the SMS messages in particular – are superimposed on events by his own self-doubts.

But that’s just my own view, because – to put it bluntly – I really liked the Inspector and I really disliked Amy and Mr Bones. I’m sure other people will have their own interpretations!

When I resumed playing the game after the lapse of four years, I started a little way back from the last savegame so I could ease myself back into it. And I noticed a really spooky coincidence that may (if you like paranormal explanations) be the real reason the game broke at the exact moment it did.

When the Inspector arrives at hotel reception, he finds his name written in the guest-book together with the date at which the action is supposed to take place – November 5th, 2010 (see the first screenshot below). As British readers won’t need telling, this is Guy Fawkes Night, and in the outdoor scenes you see fireworks exploding in the night sky over Dowerton station. The Inspector’s arrival time is given as 8 pm, and I played for perhaps an hour and a half after that point before the game suddenly refused to load.

And what is the time-stamp on my last savegame? As you can see from the second screenshot below (zoom in on the bottom left-hand corner), it was “5.11.2010, 21:26”. This uses the 24-hour clock, so 21:26 means just before half past nine in the evening. And it uses the British day-month-year convention, so 5.11.2010 was... November 5th, 2010!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Qhe: Superhero of the Seventies


His very name, evocative of Che Guevara, suggests a cultural rebel and style icon. The back cover blurbs portray him as some kind of spaced-out mystical version of James Bond. Qhe is both these things, and much more. He is a master of martial arts, yoga, kamasutra and ESP. He has a degree in Philosophy from the Sorbonne University in Paris. He is the absolute monarch of a small Himalayan kingdom on the borders of India and Tibet. And he fights bad guys.

“If Qhe is so cool,” you may be wondering at this point, “how come I’ve never heard of him?” That’s a good question.

Qhe is the hero of four novels published between 1974 and 1976, under the mystical-looking pseudonym of W∴W∴ (I hope that renders correctly – the dotted triangles are evocative of Fortean favourite Aleister Crowley and the Order of the A∴A∴). In fact, W∴W∴ was the pseudonym of William Bloom, better known today as a non-fiction writer and teacher of New Age subjects.

As far as I know, the Qhe books only ever appeared as paperback originals here in the UK – they were never reprinted in America, which is a shame. In last week’s post I was complaining that very few of Ron Goulart’s novels were published on this side of the Atlantic – now it’s the reverse situation!

The other connection with last week’s post is that the third of the Qhe novels – The Riches (1975) – was another of my purchases in the dealers’ hall at the science fiction Worldcon in August (although the books aren’t science fiction – they’re set firmly in the nostalgic world of the mid-seventies). I bought the first two books 8 years ago, and had been looking for the third and fourth ever since – I’m still missing the final book, The Prophets of Evil (1976).

I bought the first book in the series, The Taming Power (1974), when I saw it in a used bookstore in 2006. I’d never heard of Qhe at the time, although it was obvious from the blurb the character was right up my street. I managed to get the second book, White Fire (1974), from an online retailer a few weeks later.

You might be forgiven for assuming (as I did at first) that the entire novelty of the Qhe books lies in their way-out hero, while the plotlines themselves are hackneyed and hastily written adventure stories. That would explain why they were only ever printed once, and why so few people have heard of them. But that’s not the case at all. It’s true the stories deal with fairly standard-type international crises – but the plotlines are far from formulaic, and the quality of the writing is excellent. If the series flopped, my guess is that was because the material was over the head of the readership the packaging was targeted at, while more sophisticated readers were put off by the lowbrow packaging!

The second novel, White Fire, is the most Fortean of the three I’ve read, with its irresistible mix of sadistic scientists and ancient Mayan temples. The first book, The Taming Power, is a real Cold War nostalgia trip, complete with spies, communists and nuclear missiles. The one I just read, The Riches, is the most overtly Bond-like, with a powerful industrialist holding the world’s mineral resources to ransom.

There are differences, though. James Bond wouldn’t have dealt with a deadly scorpion by radiating waves of unconditional love at the creature, until he’d convinced it he was its best friend. He wouldn’t have taken time out to teach a baby elephant to sit cross-legged and meditate. If a sadistic interrogator stuck an acupuncture needle into Bond’s skull, he might respond by hurling said interrogator across the room – but he wouldn’t do it by suddenly releasing a built-up charge of static electricity inside his brain. And – insatiable sexual athlete though he is – James Bond would probably draw the line at a gang-bang involving a witch doctor, an overweight African monarch, a 70-year-old Hindu sage and twenty-two nubile young females belonging to the Tanzanyaka National Folklore Troop of Dancers and Singers!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Lemurian Conspiracy

As mentioned in a previous post, I went to the Science Fiction Worldcon in London last month. I was disappointed to find very few stalls in the dealers’ hall selling second-hand pulps and paperbacks – I guess nowadays it’s more cost-effective for them to sell such things via eBay. I did manage to get a few interesting items, however, including this 1979 novel by Ron Goulart: Hello Lemuria Hello.

The Fortean connections are obvious right away. “Lemuria” in the title refers to a reputed sunken continent, similar to Atlantis, which featured in a number of esoteric theories including the writings of Richard Shaver – the notorious “Shaver Mystery” of the 1940s. The latter is mentioned in the back cover blurb, as is the almost-as-Fortean “real reason for the death of Elvis Presley”.

There is another Fortean connection in the book’s hero – Jake Conger of the Wild Talents Division. “Wild Talents”, of course, was the title of Charles Fort’s last book. In the novel, the Wild Talents Division is made up of operatives with paranormal abilities – Jake Conger can make himself invisible, while his female sidekick Wizard Wells is an “87 per cent accurate” Precog. This is the last of three books featuring the Jake Conger character, although it’s the first that I’ve read.

The Shaver Mystery is something of a hobby horse of mine, so I won’t get sidetracked into pontificating about it here. Suffice to say that Shaver’s basic premise – involving decadent descendents of “ancient aliens” living in caverns beneath the Earth, and controlling human destiny through mind control and other methods – is also the underlying theme of Goulart’s novel, although Shaver isn’t actually mentioned by name. The most obvious difference is that Shaver, like all paranoid theorists, was in deadly earnest about everything he said. Goulart plays the whole thing for laughs – to much better effect.

There is a character in the novel, a crackpot author by the name of P.K. Stackpole, who broadly approximates to Richard Shaver – albeit a future version of him, since the action is set in 2022. “Hello Lemuria Hello” is supposedly the title of Stackpole’s latest non-fiction book – winner of the prestigious Goofy award at the annual convention of the Crackpot Writers of America (“all sorts of pea-brained yoohoos who specialize in writing about the weird, the occult, the paranormal...”).

The other person name-dropped on the back cover, Elvis Presley, also appears in fictionalized form, as a wealthy middle-aged pop singer named Amos Binky. He doesn’t have that much in common with Elvis – in fact British readers might detect a closer resemblance to the late unlamented Jimmy Savile (“I tell you that girl scout was over twelve. Somebody done falsified her birth certificate or somethin’ to make me look bad.”). The book was published in March 1979, just a year and a half after Presley’s death, so I guess it was a case of cashing in on a still-topical subject. It’s interesting, anyway, that the idea of a “real reason for the death of Elvis Presley” was already part of conspiracy culture by that time.

The book’s setting of 2022 is now just 8 years away – much closer than 1979, which is 35 years in the past. I love reading retro-futuristic stories like this, both for the things they got right and the things they got wrong. The novel is full of smart-aleck robots, automated skycabs, sentient shopping carts and such like... all still very much in the realms of science fiction. On the other hand, everyone still reads printed books and magazines, with no indication there is any electronic alternative.

But Goulart did get some things right. People pay for purchases by putting a plastic card in a slot. They check into hotels by signing their name on a screen with a stylus. They watch mindless garbage on satellite TV. Even more prophetic is the title of one of the bestsellers of the day: “I Blew the President” – clearly a timeslipped reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the mid-nineties!

The portrayal of the conspiracy theorist, P.K. Stackpole, also struck me as being closer to a 21st century stereotype than one from the 1970s. He goes on about how he’s persecuted by Lizard People, and how the FBI implanted a radio transmitter in his rectum. His writings include articles entitled “Here’s a Microwave Threat They Didn’t Tell You About” and “The Government is Building Concentration Camps Again and You are Footing the Bills.” Just the sort of thing you see on conspiracy websites today!

Ron Goulart (who is still alive, as far as I know) was one of the most prolific science fiction authors of the 1970s and 80s. He wrote literally hundreds of novels and short stories, maintaining the cheap-and-cheerful pulp ethos at a time when most of his contemporaries had switched to writing stodgy, pseudo-literary epics. I haven’t read as much of his work as I should have, given that I share his value system – my excuse is that very little of his output saw print on this side of the Atlantic.

I’ve read one of his non-fiction books – Cheap Thrills, a history of the pulp magazines – but he’s written several others, mainly on comic-book culture. I’ve read a handful of Goulart’s short stories in anthologies, and the three of his Vampirella adaptations that were reprinted in the UK. Apart from that, I’ve only read three Ron Goulart novels (all paperbacks imported from the States)... and Hello Lemuria Hello is definitely the best of them.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Master of the Mystic Arts

“Speaking of Marvel, what about Doctor Strange? There’s some interesting occult retro-Forteana for you. Very much a part of the occult and consciousness explosions of the 1960s.” That’s what regular reader Ross wrote in one of the comments to last week’s post. There’s only one thing wrong with Ross’s suggestion: I can’t understand how this blog has managed to exist for three and a half years without it ever crossing my mind to do a post about everyone’s favourite Master of the Mystic Arts.... So thanks for prodding me, Ross!

I did mention Dr Strange a couple of times in my Marvel Age of Comics post last year, in the context of my earliest encounters with Marvel superheroes. As I said then, there was a Dr Strange reprint in the first British black-and-white “Power” comic I bought, Fantastic #54, and another in Marvel Collector’s Item Classics #9 – my first ever Marvel colour comic.

The latter reprint came from Strange Tales #119, when the series was still being drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee. These have to be among the most innovative and ground-breaking comic stories ever written. Eventually I managed to get hold of all but one of the issues of Marvel Collector’s Item Classics (later renamed Marvel’s Greatest Comics) that reprinted Lee and Ditko’s Dr Strange stories. “Beyond The Purple Veil”, “Witchcraft In The Wax Museum”, “The Demon’s Disciple”... you can’t beat titles like that!

Dr Strange first appeared as a short back-up feature in Strange Tales #110, cover-dated July 1963. Like Spider-Man, the character was co-created by Lee and Ditko (although in a letter at the time Stan apparently said “‘Twas Steve’s idea”). Ditko drew the series for three years until he left Marvel in mid-1965, by which time Dr Strange had become a well-established cult figure among the more spaced-out and mind-expanded members of the comic-reading public.

The combination of mystical plotlines with dream-like art, often bordering on surrealism, were foreshadowed in some of the more esoteric tales Ditko wrote for Charlton Comics in the 1950s – which as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before (Giant from the Unknown and The Flying Dutchman in Comics) are now in the public domain and viewable online. Last year I bought a really nice volume called Creepy Presents Steve Ditko, featuring the black-and-white stories he wrote for Warren magazines after leaving Marvel. Again, some of these are distinctly reminiscent of Dr Strange in both theme and style.

It wasn’t just Ditko’s psychedelic artwork that made Dr Strange a sixties phenomenon. There was also Stan Lee’s inimitable way with words. By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! ... By the all-seeing eye of Agamotto! ... By the crimson bands of Cyttorak! ... By the mystic moons of Munnopor! ... By the eternal Vishanti! ... By the seven rings of Raggadoor!

At a comic fair a few years ago I saw half a dozen issues of Strange Tales, from the original Ditko era, at a knock-down price. Admittedly they weren’t in great condition, but I snapped them up anyway. The one pictured above (the open comic) is #126 from November 1964, which was something of a turning point in the series. According to Blake Bell in Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko:
The scope of the series exploded with issue 126. “The Domain of the Dread Dormammu” features Dr Strange transcending the physical barriers of Earth, delving into a dimension ruled by the powerful despot Dormammu, a character Devil-like in appearance and just as ruthless. Here the series makes the turn that catapults Dr Strange into alternate, parallel universes, with Ditko’s craftsmanship and imagination stretching the boundaries of known physical laws and dimensions.”
By the time I started reading Marvel Comics in 1968, Dr Strange had his own title, with the numbering continuing from Strange Tales. The series was cancelled after just over a year, and as far as I can remember I only ever had issue #177 (pictured above), written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gene Colan. A second Doctor Strange series started in 1974, initially drawn by Frank Brunner and then by Gene Colan. I really liked these at the time, because the art seemed much more “grown up” to my sophisticated 16-year-old mind than the usual comic-book fare of the time. Issue #5 is pictured above (a “cents” rather than “pence” copy, connoisseurs will note).

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, Dr Strange is still around and scheduled to get the Marvel Cinematic Universe treatment in 2016. These days he’s a member of the Illuminati, along with Iron Man, Professor X, the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, Black Bolt and Namor the Sub-Mariner. That’s not to say they’re members of the sinister Illuminati I was talking about last week – this is a secret Marvel super-group that calls itself by the same name.

I bought New Avengers: Illuminati on the basis of the title, but I’m not going to pretend I liked it (although I shouldn’t be too critical of modern Marvel comics, because I’m about as far from the target audience as it’s possible to get). To my mind, any group calling itself the Illuminati has to be one that hides in the shadows and pulls powerful strings. They don’t have to be working towards a “New World Order” – in fact they can be doing just the opposite. You might expect a “heroic” Illuminati to be working behind the scenes to maintain stability and preserve the current world order. I think that’s what Marvel’s version of the Illuminati is supposed to be doing, but it doesn’t come across very clearly in the stories. All the crises they deal with (in the book I read, anyway) could have been handled just as well by the Avengers or the Fantastic Four.

But that’s a technicality. The real reason I disliked Marvel’s Illuminati is that – in my crankily old-fashioned opinion – they repeatedly break the first rule in the superhero team rulebook. That states that at some point in every adventure, each team member should use their special ability to achieve something that couldn’t possibly have been done in any other way. That just doesn’t happen in the Illuminati (unless you count Reed’s special ability as “talking a lot”, Tony Stark’s as “being rich” and Namor’s as “having an Atlantis-sized chip on his shoulder”).

I’m probably taking nonsense, of course, because I don’t know anything about modern comics. But things were different 35 years ago, when I did a school project on the subject at the tender age of 11. Among other things, I produced tracings of various Marvel heroes, one of the best of which was a Ditko pinup of Dr Strange. Some time ago (ten years ago this month, as a matter of fact) I made a scan of the tracing and had a go at enhancing it digitally to make it look less like the work of an 11-year-old. Here is the result, before and after:

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Iron Man, the Illuminati and the Holy Grail

For about 18 months now I’ve had work trickling in writing short educational articles for various websites. Essentially the site supplies a title, around which I have to write an article. You can find all the titles I’ve done listed on my website, under the broad headings of Science and History. Most of the topics are pretty mainstream, but a few are distinctly Fortean. Earlier this year, for example, I did an article for Synonym Classroom entitled “What Are the Flaws in the Ancient Astronaut Theory?” (As I said, the titles are supplied by the website – I wouldn’t have worded it so negatively).

More recently, a number of assignments have come in from eHow, rewriting articles which have been on that site for some time but need to be brought up to date. There’s a lot of competition for this sort of thing, resulting in a feeding frenzy every time a new batch of titles appears. Among the half-dozen I’ve managed to grab so far were three I was particularly pleased with – on Iron Man, the Illuminati and the Holy Grail (you see – it wasn’t just a contrived headline to grab your attention!).

I did What Is the Holy Grail? in July, and The History of the Illuminati in August. They’re both archetypally Fortean subjects, although the writing guidelines for eHow are pretty strict so I had to stick to facts rather than speculation in both articles.

Perhaps the most surprising title of all was one I did last week: How to Make Energy Like Iron Man. This was listed in the Science category, not Entertainment, and I’ve always wanted to have a go at one of these “science behind science fiction” articles. To make things even more interesting, the science in this case is Cold Fusion – a Fortean topic in its own right, since it’s a classic example of “damned science”. Nevertheless, all the evidence (from the movies, at any rate) suggests that the Arc Reactor in Tony Stark’s chest plate is some kind of Cold Fusion generator.

I really enjoyed researching the article, but there was one thing I kept coming across that drives me mad. That’s the widespread belief that the character of Iron Man, and/or Tony Stark, was created for the 2008 movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. As I pointed out in The Marvel Age of Comics last year, that’s simply not true. While RDJ’s interpretation of Tony Stark is definitely appealing, it’s nonsense to say things like “he created the role and no-one else could possibly play it” when the character has been around since 1963.

But perhaps I shouldn’t press the point so hard. I recently dug out the T-shirt pictured below, which used to fit me perfectly when it was new (the larger one fits me now). OK, then – if the character of Iron Man was created in 2008, this T-shirt must be newer than that, right? I reckon that makes me about 16 years old (which, by coincidence, is a pretty accurate estimate of my mental age).

Actually the T-shirt dates from 1968 (the iron-on transfer was a free gift in Terrific #1, dated 15 April 1967, but I bought it as a back issue the following year). In those days, of course, no-one had heard of Cold Fusion. The highest level of technology mentioned in the early Iron Man stories was “transistors”. I wrote an article on that subject earlier this year, too: What Is a Transistor and What Effect Did Its Invention Have on Computers?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Retro Terrorism

As regular readers probably know, I’m a sucker for garishly-covered mass-market paperbacks from the 1970s. Whenever I’m looking through a display of used books, those are the ones that jump out at me. That’s what happened at the Yeovilton Air Day back in July, when I spotted the book pictured above.

My immediate thought was that it was a factual account of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center thirteen years ago. With the title 911, and the words “Terror” and “New York” on the cover, that’s a reasonable assumption. The seller must have thought the same way, since she’d stacked the book under “Military History”.

After a few seconds thought, however, I realized that couldn’t be the case. They’d stopped producing covers like that long before 2001 (more’s the pity). The price on the back, 85 pence, strongly indicates an origin in the mid-seventies. After I’d bought the book and taken it out of its plastic bag, I saw that the publication date inside was 1977.

Actually, this is a work of fiction, by an author I’d never heard of before – Thomas Chastain. I’d like to creep people out by saying the novel is a prophetic vision of future events, but it isn’t. The “terrorist” villain is a lone psychopath with a grudge against the city of New York, who plants a series of time-bombs around midtown Manhattan. The title refers to the emergency telephone number (equivalent to 112 or 999 in the UK), where the bomber leaves taunting messages. The book is essentially a police procedural, similar in style to the Kojak TV series – also based in New York – which was popular at the time.

The plot is pretty good, but the novel has far too much padding for my taste. It’s 280 pages long, but could easily be cut to half that length. If the book had been 140 pages (as many novels were in those days), then I’d probably give it a top rating. As it is, I found parts of the book almost unreadably tedious. The last few chapters are absolutely gripping stuff, though.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the book, judged by modern standards, is how cozy it is. Despite the wording on the cover, there really isn’t any “terror” at all. The focus is almost entirely on the police investigation, with very little about the public or media reaction to the bombings. There’s a distinct lack of gratuitous violence, too (no, I’m not disappointed – I’m just saying). Although there are a dozen bombing incidents in the course of the novel, they cause very few fatalities or serious injuries.

In fact it’s almost a case of “gratuitous non-violence”. The clearest example is when one of the bombs is placed under the back seat of a bus. This foreshadows Britain’s own 9/11 – the 7/7 London Transport bombings which killed 52 people in July 2005, half of them on a Number 30 bus that exploded in Tavistock Square. But when the Number 4 bus blows up on Fifth Avenue in the novel, it just happens to be out of service at the time, so there’s no-one on board except the driver. And because the bomb was right at the back, he only suffers from smoke inhalation. Like I said – gratuitous non-violence!

Of course, the world was a much simpler place in the seventies. In those days, the word “bomber” was more likely to conjure up images of a large military aircraft than a homicidal individual. And that reminds me...

Since I mentioned the Yeovilton Air Day in the first paragraph, here are some pictures I took (not great quality, I’m afraid) of what must be the most beautiful bomber still flying – Vulcan XH558, the Spirit of Great Britain. The pilot on this occasion was almost as legendary as the aircraft – Martin Withers, who led the first of the Black Buck bombing raids against Stanley airfield in the Falklands in 1982.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ghost Towns of the Old West (of England)

I wrote about the “ghost town” of Imber, deep in the heart of the British Army training grounds on Salisbury Plain, in a blog post three years ago. On that occasion I used a couple of photos taken by Paul Jackson (who has also written about Imber, and several other ghost towns, on his own blog). I finally got around to visiting the place myself a few days ago – the last week of August is one of the few times of year that it’s accessible to the general public – so here are a few of my own photos.

To recap what I said about Imber last time: “The Army took over the village during the Second World War, because its location and topography made it an ideal place for them to practice urban warfare in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. The residents were forcibly evacuated, with the assurance that they could return when the war was over. Unfortunately, the moment the war was over the Army had to start practicing for the next war... and then the one after that and so on. Seventy years later, Imber is still being used as a training ground for urban warfare!”

Imber is deep in the heart of Wiltshire, a few miles from the infamous 1960s UFO hotspot of Warminster. About fifty miles further south, on the coast of Dorset, there’s another village – Tyneham – that suffered a similar fate during WW2. The village and the whole surrounding area was commandeered in 1943 as an Army firing range. As in the case of Imber, this was originally pitched to the locals as a temporary measure for the duration of the war... but as with Imber, the site remains in Army hands to this day. They use it for live-firing tank training, and again public access is strictly limited. I managed a visit a few weeks ago, and a selection of my photos can be seen further down this post.

Although Imber and Tyneham have similar histories, the atmosphere of the two places couldn’t be more different. Approaching Imber along the access road from Warminster, the frequent warning notices leave you in no doubt that you’re a reluctantly tolerated visitor on government property. In the village of Imber itself there are strict limitations on where you can walk, and none of the buildings except the church is accessible to the public. Even on the “open” day when I went, there were far more trainee soldiers than tourists in evidence.

The atmosphere at Tyneham is completely different. On the days when it’s open to the public there are virtually no signs of army occupation at all, and you can go wherever you want within the village itself. Unlike the “urban warfare” site at Imber (where the buildings remain pretty much intact, apart from being windowless), the army had no particular interest in Tyneham’s houses and other buildings, so most of them have been allowed to fall into picturesque decay. The location of Tyneham is more scenic, too, being less than a mile from Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. You can walk along a footpath to Worbarrow Bay (see last photo below), which is also part of the Army ranges and has a small abandoned settlement of its own.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Man who Helped to Free the World

I had a nostalgic moment last weekend when I saw Robert Silverberg at the Science Fiction Worldcon, which was held in London this year. In the photograph above, he’s on a panel reminiscing about the two previous London Worldcons in 1957 and 1965. Both were before my time, of course! I first got into Silverberg’s writing in the early seventies, as I mentioned in my piece about Dying Inside a couple of years ago.

I also saw Bob Silverberg at the Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005, but the first occasion was way back in 1976 when he was Guest of Honour at the 27th British Science Fiction Convention in Manchester (the cover from one of the progress reports is reproduced below). It made such an impact on me (I was 18 at the time) that I can still recite verbatim at least a dozen things he said! He was only the third “big name” American author I’d seen, after Isaac Asimov (who I met on his visit to England in 1974, as recounted here) and James Blish, who I saw a few months before he died in 1975 (as mentioned in my blog post about Black Easter).

A couple of months after the convention in Manchester, I saw my fourth big name – Harlan Ellison – when he was signing books in the Andromeda Bookstore in Birmingham. I stood there and gawped the whole time he was in the shop (although most of the time I was gawping an the impressively tight and stiff-nipple-revealing T-shirt of Harlan’s nubile female companion... I remember it as if it was yesterday).

It just happens that Robert Silverberg (and Harlan Ellison, too, for that matter) once played a small but important role in changing the course of history. This isn’t as big a deal as it sounds, because this particular change probably would have occurred even if they hadn’t been involved – they just happened to do the right thing at the right time. The incident isn’t as well known as it ought to be, though, and it relates to the subject of censorship which I was talking about last month, so I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the salient facts.

Robert Silverberg published his first science fiction novel in 1955 at the age of 20, and within a few months he was making a healthy living from writing the genre. Then in the late fifties, disaster struck. The market for SF magazines suddenly collapsed. In the grand scheme of things, this was only a temporary glitch – by the early sixties the old magazine market had been replaced by an equally healthy paperback book market. But in 1958, the only paperbacks were sleazy ones, designed for holding in one hand while the other hand was busy doing something else... and that was the market Bob Silverberg decided to move into.

The publisher Bob wrote for initially was called Bedside Books. But then he had a better idea. He knew that another person on the lookout for new opportunities was a man named William Hamling, who had been the editor of one of the SF magazines that had just folded. Hamling had started a Playboy-style men’s magazine called Rogue, which Harlan Ellison was working on. Using Harlan as an intermediary, Bob suggested to Hamling that he should start up a line of erotic paperback novels to compete with Bedside Books.

Hamling liked the idea, and so in 1959 a brand new imprint called Nightstand Books was born. Its very first title, Love Addict, was written by Robert Silverberg under the pseudonym of Don Elliott.

Silverberg was soon joined by dozens of other authors, who turned Nightstand Books into America’s foremost publisher of sleazy sex-novels. Among them were several other refugees from the world of science fiction, including Marion Zimmer Bradley, Avram Davidson, G. C. Edmondson, John Jakes, Donald E. Westlake... and Harlan Ellison, of course. The resulting books weren’t pornography in the modern sense, because the United States had very strict obscenity laws at the time. They were erotic only in the sense that they hinted at sexual activities without describing them in explicit detail.

The world-changing drama began in 1965, when – despite the softness of the material – the authorities in New York decided to prosecute a news vendor for selling obscene materials. The two books in question were both published by Nightstand – Lust Pool and Shame Agent (these weren’t written by Silverberg or any of the other well-known authors, who had moved back to SF by this time).

From the prosecution’s point of view, the case was a disaster beyond their worst nightmares. William Hamling was wealthy enough to afford the best defence lawyers, and they took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. The latter merely pointed out what had been obvious to an impartial observer all along, that any form of censorship is unconstitutional – a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. As the presiding judge observed: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” (which is pretty much what I said last month, about David Cameron’s attempts to reintroduce censorship in the UK).

The end result of the Nightstand case, in 1967, was the complete abolition of America’s anti-obscenity laws. Far from banning the softcore fluff they had targeted, the New York authorities succeeded in opening the floodgates to genuine, hardcore pornography. To quote from the main source I’ve used for this article, an excellent book with the dubious title of Young Lusty Sluts: “Every aspect of human sexuality was covered in every combination of gender and colour, with whole families, their pets and assorted farm animals thrown in for good measure.”

And it all started when the 24-year old Robert Silverberg had a money-making idea in 1959.