Monday, January 27, 2020

Book Review: The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O'Meara

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O'Meara

336 pages

Published March 5th 2019 by Hanover Square Press

Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for History & Biography (2019)

As a huge horror nerd, I admit that I had never heard of Milicent Patrick or her role in one of the all-time classic monsters - the Creature from the Black Lagoon. On the surface, this book is about Milicent Patrick who was an interesting woman who worked as an actor and make-up artist in all timey Hollywood. That is a key and important story but much of this book is a detective story as it is a biography. The sleuth in the middle of this tale is the author and major monster nerd, Mallory O'Meara.

I was surprised at first but you have to understand part of the issue at hand here is just how hard it was to get information on Milicent at all. She was a cool lady that had an interesting childhood and provides a personal window on the old days of Hollywood. What really interested me about that was her point of view. Mostly we here about the golden era of Hollywood through the eyes of the biggest stars and celebrities of the era. We don't often get the view of a woman who worked mostly as an extra who transitioned into special make-up effects.

Milicent Patrick is interesting but honestly, Mallory O'Meara had an uphill battle trying to fill a whole book about her. It is not the author's fault the information just doesn't exist. So in a very smart and entertaining way, O'Meara puts her wit and investigation front and central for much of the book. It wouldn't work if O'Meara didn't have a clear and entertaining voice. Throughout the book, she points out that she had to call on her fellow monster nerds.

Monster nerd-dom is huge in this book. As a fan of author David J. Schow, I enjoyed reading a chapter all about Schow and O'Meara nerding out over tiny details of Milicent Patrick's life. So that is the thing if you are a monster nerd this book is fun because it is like hanging out with one of your peeps. That is really the best thing I can say about it. I am not sure it is essential reading for everyone but if you are a monster nerd or a fan of classic Hollywood it sure is.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Book Review: Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany

Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany

Hardcover, 368 pages

Published December 1984 by Bantam Dell Publ. Group (NY) (first published 1984)

Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee for Best Novel (1987)

James Tiptree Jr. Award Nominee for Special Mention - 20th Anniversary Republication (2004)

Oh boy, where to start here. Let me start by saying that I think this is a masterpiece but I am not entirely sure. This is the kinda science fiction novel that you just have to accept that you are not going to get every single aspect of it and just go along for the ride either way. On our best days that is what the women and men behind the genre should reach for. This experience was mind and universe expanding. Absolutely what you want in a Science Fiction epic.

Samuel "Chip" Delany is one of the most important genre authors of the 20th century who is thankfully still with us in his late 70's. I believe he was the first openly gay major sci-fi writer made more poignant by the fact that he was a black man before the civil reforms of the late '60s. With lots of award nominations, his classics NOVA and BABEL-17 won him early acclaim before his classic novel Dhalgren explored themes of sexual freedom.

In this novel, his last outright work of space opera SD explores those themes in a book that is a very serious gay romance. Inspired by the relationship the author was in at the time, and sadly he never wrote the planned sequel. The word is that when the inspiring relationship ended SD lost the drive to finish it. The sad thing the author believes his long-time publisher Bantam lost the nerve to complete the story when the AIDS crisis exploded. We know fellow Bantam sci-fi author Norman Spinrad struggled to publish the Journal of the Plague Years a novel directly about AIDS. (That novel is reviewed here on this blog and a special episode of the Dickheads Podcast)

This novel has many levels and provides empathic readers with many feelings. There were times I thought I was reading a straight romance, other times it felt like the gay Dune. This novel, however, has the same kinda cultural and anthropological feeling that Leguin is best known for. Entire sections of the novel address macro issues of how gender and culture interface with information and I think that is the main heart of the novel.

“...in a universe where both information and misinformation are constantly suspect, reviewed and drifting, as they must be (constantly) by and between the two, a moment when either information or misinformation turns out to be harmless, must bloom, when surrounded by the workings of desire and terror, into the offered sign of all about it, making and marking all about it innocent by contamination.”

Consider that this novel was written in the early 80s. Far in the future humanity is spread through thousands of stars and interacting with a wild universe. In the longest prologue ever we are introduced to Rat Korga a pock-marked slave who was genetically engineered to accept his role as a slave. At the moment his world dies he is rescued by Marq Dyeth who is heir a high data fortune. Marq essentially frees his mind and the reason why is simple. Korga might seem uneducated and ugly but the web informed Marq that Korga is his perfect match.

Through the lens of their travels to various worlds and romance, we are introduced a variety of planets and cultures. SD has a lot to say the themes of globalization, sexuality, gender, and information. All these themes are thrown at the reader in massive handfuls. I don't think it was possible for me to catch them all. If you get 50% of it you are probably having a deeper experience than many of the science fiction novels out there.

That said it is easy to get confused take gender issues...

“In Arachnia as it is spoken on Nepiy, ‘she’ is the pronoun for all sentient individuals of whatever species who have achieved the legal status of ‘woman’. The ancient, dimorphic form ‘he’, once used exclusively for the general indication of males (cf. the archaic term man, pl. men), for more than a hundred-twenty years now, has been reserved for the general sexual object of ‘she’, during the period of excitation, regardless of the gender of the woman speaking or the gender of the woman referred to.

Who is a man or who is a woman in this novel? Does it matter? It is not really supposed in the way you are cultured to believe and less you are able to leave that stuff behind the harder reading this book will be. I am sure entire essays could have or have been written on the fascinating gender issues in the book. Much like Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness this novel is ahead of the times exploring these important issues.

One other theme that really hit me were the themes of Cultural fugues. This novel is set in a far future when humanity is so stretched out that old few kinda sorta remember the Earth. Many diverse and widespread cultures exist on many worlds some mixed very alien species. It is not that unusual for worlds to rise and fall like empires. When Rat Korga is talking to others about the destruction of his world the first question is often "was it natural or cultural?" The novel certainly seems to suggest that many self-destructive human cultures have wiped out more than one world.

Themes aside how is the writing? SD is a fantastic writer but his style is dense. It is not for everyone Dhalgren, for example, is a challenging read. This starts off challenging as well. The first 60 pages is basically one of the longest prologues I have ever read. For me this part was a slog compared to the rest of the novel. After that first chunk, the rest of the narrative is more breezy and exciting with shorter chapters. I am glad I stuck it out.

This book has some really fun sci-fi elements like the aliens called XiV. They are from a gas giant and on one page SD does some really fun world-building. Later in the novel Korga goes on a dragon hunt that has a high fantasy feel. There is a lot to enjoy in this novel. I think in many ways it is a masterpiece I just can't give a full five out of five because the prologue didn't work for me personally.

Samuel Delany is an important voice in the history of the genre and this is a towering achievement that deserves to read by anyone who takes either LBGTQ genre fiction or diverse sci-fi seriously.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Book Review: On the Night Border by James Chambers

On the Night Border by James Chambers

Paperback, 218 pages

Published September 2019 by Raw Dog Screaming Press

One of the books I most looked forward to this last year was this collection of short stories by James Chambers. I first met James at the 2011 Borderlands boot camp for writers in Maryland. There were many great writers many of them with great published works but James was the one whose work most impressed me then and continues to amaze me. The man has gone on to win a Stoker award and been mentioned in Ellen Datlow's respected year's best horror list so he doesn't me to validate his amazing work.

Let me start by saying this book is a short story collection that doesn't sell as well as novels in general. I am not sure why I have to convince people to take that extra step and read a collection but this is a good one to read. On the Night Border is a great sampler of Chambers's strengths as a writer. That is what you hope for when you read a collection.

In different stories, Chambers plays with different narrative styles and tones. Some are more tricky than others like the second person narrative that is hiding the fact that it is really a first-person all along. Chambers is very inventive about how he reveals plot and character. One thing you know reading his work is that he knows the genre and takes seriously the tiny details that make horror stories tick. He builds tension and suspense with deliberate choices that require skill and attention to detail. I think that is one reason his fellow writers will really love this book.

Nine of the fifteen stories had lives in various anthologies and magazines and yet they work together as they were planned to piece together. Several stories have Lovecraft and mythos vibe if that is what you're into that. The best examples are the opening story that mixes Jack Kerouac and Lovecraft and the Dagon story Odd Quahogs.

My favorites in the collection were Lost Daughters and Mnemoncide. That said all the stories worked for me on some level those two were just my favorites. Lost Daughters has the feel of a horror classic with a great opening section that sets the creepiest tone of the whole book. The story goes on to deliver. Mnemoncide is the second-person story and the most experimental piece in the book. I liked Chambers going weird and would really enjoy reading him stretch those muscles more.

There are very few negatives for me, in fact it is pretty nitpicking but probably the only thing I didn't like was the modern setting of the Kolchak the Night Stalker story. Either he is super old in the story or he was moved into a time where he would make references to the internet and Donald Trump. I think Kolchak should stay in the 70's. My opinion.

On the Night Border is a top-notch collection by an underrated author. I say that knowing he has already won awards for his writing. The best thing I can say about James Chambers the story-teller is that every word on every page is engineered for effect and you are in great hands.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Book Review: Divine Invasions (A Life of Philip K. Dick) by Lawrence Sutin

Divine Invasions (A Life of Philip K. Dick) by Lawrence Sutin

Paperback, 352 pages

Published 2005 by Carroll & Graf Publishers (first published 1989)

You know this will be an interesting review because I am going to stray from the book a little bit and talk about the reason I re-read this book after fifteen years. Almost two years ago now my writing partner Anthony Trevino suggested that we along with our buddy Langhorne J.Tweed start a podcast called Dickheads. He was surprised that no one had done a podcast about this author with this name before.

Between Novel breakdowns, (we have already covered his prolific first 10 years of novels) Story Vs Film, Dick Adjacent and various interviews we have built a catalog of 50 plus episodes. I am proud of the content we have produced and feel we have added to scholarly pursuit not just of PKD's work but the genre in general.

Through-out the podcast I have been diligent in researching the nitty-gritty details of what was going into Phil's life as he wrote each of the novels we were breaking down. I have gotten to know much more about his editors Don Wollheim and perhaps his most important early mentor Anthony Boucher. What you might notice on the show is some times when we got into the biographical details where he was living, which marriage was going on or ending I got a little more lost. I decided after our second season doing this I wanted to have the details more straight.

I decided not only did I need to re-read Lawrence Sutin's amazing biography of Philip K Dick, but I needed to have it in the studio every time we record. Divine Invasions for better or worse paints such an amazing detailed picture of the writer's life it is pretty impossible to not feel like you know Phil. From his childhood to his speed fueled early days pumping out totally bananas pulp sci-fi to his pink laser beam from god. I am not sure if scholars and podcasters knowing his life in this detail would creep out Phil but there is also an android built to act like him. Lots to chew on there.

As a podcaster devoted to the study of this man's career and output, this book is a godsend. In many ways, I can tell Sutin thinks like me wanting to know how his life and moments influence the tiny moments of his novels. It is also fascinating the in's and outs how he worked with his agents and editors.

Just as fascinating is how Phil was a husband, father, and friend. These stories are so rich and deep in the book because Sutin went crazy deep writing, researching and interviewing important and minor figures in the man's life. This time reading the book as a (digital) scholar of PKD I was just floored at the view of the man's life.

This book is not just important it is a gift. That is not to say it was all roses. While not as problematic as some of the Science Fiction genre forefathers and mothers (remember the loathsome Marion Zimmer Bradley was in PKD's circle of friends)there are lots of not so flattering moments in the man's life. The tweaker years after Nancy took Isa and left are super hard to read about even if it inspired one of his masterpieces in A Scanner Darkly. As a movement the science fiction community is coming to grips with the past and that is sometimes hard. Asimov groped hundreds of women, L Ron Hubbard started a cult, Marion Zimmer Bradley abused her children. Lovecraft and Campbell have had their faces and names stripped from awards.

I am sure that Isa Hackett and the Dick estate may cringe at the honesty of this book at this point. Warts and all I am thankful for this book. I mean Phil Dick himself and his interviews you couldn't trust. It was in part his sense of humor and playfulness, his weird memory and outright pranks that made his statements often contradictions. It is fascinating to listen to his famous 1977 speech in France, but even more so when you know that he barely made it on the plane, that it caused an uproar.

Do some of the events in PKD's life warrant canceling him as a towering figure in the field of 20th-century fiction? I would say no. I may be biased but I believe warts and struggles of this artist and many others add a wonder to what they created. When masterpieces came out of his typewriter like Man in the High Castle, Three Stigmata or others it was a wonder. The fact that he was writing in a hovel he was forced into is apart of the story. In the case of Three Stigmata, it was super important. Even his lesser works like Game Players of Titan makes more sense when you understand that he was seeing a giant mechanical god judging him each time he walked before writing.

This book is essential for fans and scholars who want to KNOW Philip K Dick, not understand him as I am not sure that is possible. Just be warned that Sutin did incredible work and many will not like what they say. If you don't like knowing your heroes you might be better off sticking to his fiction.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Book Review: Tetra: A Graphic Novel by Malcolm Mc Neill

Tetra: A Graphic Novel by Malcolm Mc Neill

Paperback, 136 pages

Published July 2018 by Stalking Horse Press

"Tetra was a late 70s proto-cyberpunk transreal skin-mag SF epic serialized graphic novel starring a naked woman with no hair and a penchant for running-dialog wisecracks. The art is lovely, and language play of the alien characters is worth the price of admission alone." - Rudy Rucker

My first read of the year down is a lost classic graphic novel that was originally serialized in the post Star Wars late 70's in the adult magazine Gallery. I have only ever heard of Gallery before because I knew Stephen King was somewhat embarrassed in retrospect that so many of his early stories were published there. I was interested because James Reich and his press Stalking Horse has yet to fail me, and it also had the above blurb from Rudy Rucker whose opinion I trust.

I know in the wake of Star Wars and the crazy blockbuster that it was that lots of creative forces were trying to capitalize on the craziness. NBC did Battlestar, and Corman had Battle Beyond the Stars. I shouldn't be surprised that even a skin magazine would want to ride the massive space opera wave at the time.

Enter Malcolm McNeil the talented young artist who had just spent eight years working with genius surrealist William Burroughs (Naked Lunch)on a project. The idea was a space opera comic strip. McNeil just scratched the surface getting canceled after about 70 pages. This book includes a detailed back story, concept art and various promo materials he made.

The art alone is breathtaking when you consider the amount of work he put in, including hand drawing each panel he went as far as to sculpt the aliens. The story is equally bizarro and worth checking out. The inverse of many Campbellian hero's journeys Tetra is a subversive piece of space opera.

The main character is drafted by a living cyrstal starship into chosen one status after being born into a race of "pleasure pets" she has never had clothes or hair for that matter. She has planets to save and adventures to be had. She travels the universe looking for the elusive title object. The thing is she doesn't want to be the chosen one, she just wants to prove she is not the savior.

Look the feminist that I am could have done with the nudity, but hell it is the concept and I just went with it. The sad thing is that the concept got sold short by the short run. It sounds like the demands of the project were brutal for McNeil so he might not have been bummed that it got canceled.

This is a really neat project for bizrro and weird sci-fi readers. It is a really strange and awesome project that should not have been lost to history. In that sense, I gotta thanks Stalking Horse press for saving it. Super worth check it out.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

My Favorite Retro Reads of 2019! W/ Podcast episodes

I got a request for this list. Here it is. I am not happy with how little diversity it has. Mostly American white dudes. Anyways I suggest Lisa Yaskek's Future is Female which is all old school but since was a new anthology got released in new releases.

10. Martian Time-Slip: My fellow Dickheads didn't like it as much as I did but I love Martian Time-slip which pairs nicely with James Reich's new novel The Song my Enemies Sing.

9. Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov: Space noir.Part of the charm is the simple premise, but for a novel written in 1954 it has fantastic sci-fi world-building. That is not a surprise for Asimov readers, his world-building has never been a problem. It is at the core of this story because the massive over-populated earth which has turned to crowded domed cities is constantly in conflict with the Spacers, the people spread over 50 worlds with an economy that depends on robot labor. What helps this stand apart from the other books in the Asimov catalog are the characters. That aspect is often a weaker part of Asimov stories. Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw are both excellent characters and their interplay is very rewarding to follow.

8. The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man Jung: oldest school as this was published first 1689. Centuries before Philip K Dick wrote pulp science fiction that poked at our relationship with the concept of reality or Neo pondered taking the Red pill a courtesan in Korean wrote this novel. The Nine Cloud Dream is a Korean Inception written hundreds of years before Christopher Nolan was a thing. Really cool book.

7.Way Station by Clifford Simak:Way Station is a thoughtful and charming piece of midwestern science fiction that doesn't tell a hero's journey in a traditional sense. Enoch Wallace is a man who is over 100 years old, a Vet of the Civil War who returned to Wisconsin and appears to have never aged past his 30's. That is interesting enough of a mystery that gets a great set-up involving military spies, who are a bit underused in the rest of the novel. But it does get political and galactic in scope.

Podcast recorded to be released. Although I was already on Hugos There podcast to talk Way Station and that is available.

6.Dune by Frank Herbert: The skill with which it was written is only outmatched by the impact it has had on the genre as a whole. World Building, adventure, mysticism, environmentalism and politics. The Themes are not over-explained but perfectly woven into the story. Dune does all these elements with skill that has few peers before except Lord of the Rings and maybe The Foundation books. A reader in this day and age might recognize many of the elements here, they may be tropes now, but remember Star Wars and most of the Space Opera you have read in your life came after Dune.

Podcast is recorded To be released.

5. Beyond Apollo by Barry N. Malzberg: BO is like a slightly harder sci-fi take on similar ideas that Lem explored in Solaris. He keeps it in the solar system and takes advantage of early 70's free love attitudes. I mean there is lots of adult language and tons of sex that feels very out of place and a bit awkward. Check out the podcast I did with James Reich on the book:

4.Journals of the Plague Years by Norman Spinrad: A Sci-fi novel was written during the worst days of the AIDS crisis.I can see why many publishers were afraid to touch this. The conclusions and ideas contained in this novel are by their nature confrontational and at times scary and gross. It is in the tradition of political science fiction like the Handmaid's Tale that takes extreme paths of speculation to make a point. It is a pessimistic novel that also sees the drug companies suppressing a cure, and a congressman with a plan to nuke the free-love Bay area. Super proud of the podcast we did about it.

3....And the Angel With Television Eyes by John Shirley: Once it gets weird is when you see why John Shirley is an underrated master. That is when the novel goes from good to great. Max discovers that there are beings that live in the subatomic particles who are struggling to free themselves called plasmagnomes. These creatures are cast-off shed particles of our souls created by our fantasies. The Plasma world is in trouble because the increased technology in the form of electromagnetic energy is disrupting everything.

2. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.: No matter how you slice it this novel is one of the towering achievements of Science Fiction in the 20th century. It is not hyperbole to say this is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. It is the second-best of the 60’s Hugo winners have read so far. The only one better so far was Stand on Zanzibar. Oh yeah... read that in 2018.

Podcast recorded and soon to be released.

1.The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick: Re-read this one for Dickheads, I consider this to be one of PKD's best novels, but I admit the first time much of it went over my head, not this time. I feel like I understood what was happening much clearer than 15 years ago. The story of a bad acid trip, religious paranoia, and Alien Invasion. Absolute weird masterpiece.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Book Review/Podcast episode: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Paperback, 296 pages

Published March 2010 by Harper Voyager (first published 1967)

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1968)

Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (1967)

Let me be straight right off the bat. This book is not for me. I understand that this is a genius work of science fiction but much of it is over my head. I am assuming that if I had a more intense knowledge of eastern religion I would have been blown away by this. I probably would not have finished this book if not for the reason I did. This was the 11th and final book I read for the Dickheads podcast series on the Hugo award-winning novels of the 1960s. So the deal was I had to finish the book, no choice. Eventually, we will be doing an episode about both Zelazny Winners this one and This Immortal which shared the award with Dune.

Lord of Light is the second book in series maybe, I have read conflicting reports. The plot of the novel was really hard for me to follow. The Earth has died and refugees have made it to a colony world, only a few have the technology and they use it to impersonate classic eastern goods, following Buddhist and Hindu traditions. This is a method they use to hold people back from Progressing since they fear a repeat of the disasters that killed the earth. Thematically, of course, this means the novel is like a reverse of A Canticle for Lebowitz.

Unlike that novel, this story didn't work for me. I was bored and confused for most of the pages since I was really lost trying to figure out what was going on. If I knew more about Siddhartha and Mashasamatman and the mythologies I am sure I would be more impressed by what was happening. My problem was that most of this novel relies on parallels with these mythologies and honestly, this stuff bores me. In the small moments when the novel touches on more traditional SF elements, I would get excited but those were very few and far between.

In the last pages when the gods talk about the colony getting a printing press was one of my favorite scenes. I wish the book was more direct like in those moments. I understand that this is probably a masterpiece but it is not for me. I will take A Canticle for Lebowitz any day.

Dickheads episode recording soon featuring Ivan Zoric and Mark Conlan. Will add the link here when it is live.