Thursday, April 30, 2015

Writers of the Future 31

I was privileged to receive an advanced reading copy of WOTF 31, the annual anthology for the best literary contest in the country. These anthologies are a joy to read each year, and each year I find myself marveling over the wonderful stories, re-reading various passages and generally feeling grateful to see there are so many diverse and talented writers out there.

The first story, Switch by Steve Pantazis, is a fascinating, cautionary tale where the future includes Mindnet, or “Internet of the Mind” made possible by a temporal lobe implant that connects people to banks, retailers, social networks and everything else. Enter into this world a new drug called “Switch” and a cop investigating a homicide, and you’ll discover firsthand why The Writers of the Future contest is acclaimed for discovering new talent. Author Pantazis has written a first-rate science fiction thriller.

The God Whisperer by Daniel J. Davis is a satirical and humorous play on those misbehaving pets we all have. In this case, Jack is troubled by Zu’ar, a pint sized war god. He calls in a “God Whisperer” to straighten things out. The God Whisperer is a fun, short tale. Next was Stars That Make Dark Heaven Light by Sharon Joss. This outstanding tale is about Ettie on Hesperide with cartilage instead of bones which necessitates that she spends at least six hours of day in sunlight. When she learns that lapid, the small alien insect sized creature she is raising, can communicate with her the results will leave you flipping the pages. Another great science fiction tale and typical of the high quality this anthology offers.

In A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration by Auston Habershaw we meet Abe who negotiates possession of a sorcery book from a black marketer, he gets more than he bargained for. A gritty but fun tale. Twelve Minutes to Vinh Quang by Tim Napper a taut, short thriller wherein a smuggler is nearly caught by the sloppy handiwork of an associate. Another hardboiled story that immediately held my attention. In Planar Ghosts by Krystal Claxton you will ask yourself is the ghost real? In this futuristic tale Pup travels with Ghost who is “see-through in places and seems to glow without casting any light or shadow. She is a faint purple, like butterflybush blossoms, and her long hair floats about her as though she is always being caught in the beginning of a breeze.” (p. 195) A great story, and one of the several stand-out tales included here.

Between Screens by Zach Chapman is a tight and compelling piece about some students and the world they live in, while Unrefined by Martin L. Shoemaker is a traditional tale that tackles the idea of responsibility in leadership. Both Between Screens and Unrefined are a study in contrasts. Their uniqueness and differences in their approach to storytelling are yet another reason why I enjoy this anthology every year. Half Past by Samantha Murray is stylistically far removed from the hardcore science fiction that precedes it. This refreshing, magical tale is beautifully written and thought-provoking, which the best stories always are. Then we have Purposes Made for Alien Minds by Scott R. Parkin, another edgy sci-fi story that is the hallmark of the WOTF series. That brings us to The Graver by Amy M. Hughes, an emotionally charged fantasy that holds its own against so many stalwart tales; and then Wisteria Melancholy by Michael T. Banker, a finely wrought exploration of human nature.

Poseidon’s Eyes by Kary English is the final story, and another great one. The WOTF anthologies are now published in trade paperback with color plates of the award winning illustrations. The illustrations will leave you breathless. This year the winning illustrators are Alex Brock, Amit Dutta, Megan Kelchner, Tung Chi Lee, Shuangjian Liu, Michelle Lockamy, Bernardo Mota, Megen Nelson, Greg Opalinski, Taylor Payton, Quinlan Septer, Emily Siu, Trevor Smith, Daniel Tyka and Choong Yoon. Included are several stories by such veteran writers as L. Ron Hubbard, Larry Niven, Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta. Add to this mix of great stories some insightful essays on the creative process by Hubbard, Orson Scott Card and Bob Eggleton and WOTF 31 will keep you reading late into the night. This year the book was edited by David Farland.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Night Passage by Norman A. Fox

I never read this book until years after the 1957 film adaptation starring James Stewart and Audie Murphy had become one of my favorite Western movies. I’ve talked about this film before, and over time my opinion remains unchanged. Night Passage is a good film. Audie Murphy steals the show as The Utica Kid, Stewart is stalwart and appealing, and Dan Duryea turns in yet another outstanding performance as the bad ass. Brandon de Wild plays the kid, Joey, not all that many years after his memorable turn in Shane opposite Alan Ladd, another favorite. I know that both Stewart and Murphy made better Westerns than this one, but Night Passage is special. I think the 1950s was a remarkable period for Western films. Every time I watch Night Passage I can’t but help from singing along with Stewart as he plays his accordion and sings “Follow the River.” Murphy wears black in this one, a color that suited him well. His first appearance in the film is a shot where he’s galloping over a hill with a mischievous grin on his face. That bit sets the tone for his character and sums up Murphy’s incredible screen persona. How can you not like a gunslinger like this? The screenplay was by Borden Chase, no slouch himself when it came to Westerns. The film has a tactile feel to it; like watching home movies of family and friends that are long gone and being happy to see them again. Chalk me up as a sentimentalist. The novel by Norman A. Fox was published in 1955. I own the 1957 reissue that coincided with the film’s release. Fox was a damn good Western writer and Night Passage is a solid book. The story of Grant McLain’s twelve hours of desperate fury as he saves a payroll hijacked from a train is gritty and relentless. The film actually followed the novel’s plot with differences only in some characters and the compression of time. Told in six sections – Sundown, Deep Dark, Moonrise, Beyond Midnight, Before Dawn and Sunup – the prose is mature, the characters fully developed, and the suspense level is high. I’ve read several of Fox’s Westerns and all of them are good. Fox met Murphy on the set of Night Passage and reportedly Murphy encouraged Fox to write a novel about a horse (Murphy loved and raised horses) and the result was Rope the Wind which Fox dedicated to Murphy. That’s a good book, too. Both Rope the Wind and Night Passage are a good place to start if you haven’t read one of his books. Night Passage – both the book and the film – are recommended for you readers and movie buffs interested in something that is traditional but exceptionally well made. An original poster from Night Passage hangs in my den.

Okay, pards, dust off yer guitars and let’s sing!

From the movie "Night Passage"
(Music by Dimitri Tiomkin and lyrics by Ned Washington)

Follow the river,
The river knows the way.
Come to me, I pray,
I miss you more each day.
Follow the river,
Wherever you may be
Follow the river back to me.
Follow the river,
The river knows the way,
Hearts can go astray,
It happens every day.
Follow the river,
Wherever you may be
Follow the river back to me.
Sometimes I feel like I will jump for the moon
And tear the sky apart.
Does it matter how full the moon
When you've an empty heart.
Bring back the great love
The love that once we knew
Make my dream come true
The dream I had with you
Follow the river,
Wherever you may be
Follow the river back to me.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Story of the Phantom by Lee Falk

The Phantom made his debut as a daily newspaper comic strip in 1936. The Phantom is one of the greatest pulp heroes alongside The Shadow, Doc Savage, Superman, The Phantom Detective and The Spider, at least in my humble opinion. Lee Falk, the Phantom’s creator died in 1999. The Phantom, or “The Ghost Who Walks,” was running as a comic strip in 1972 when the first Phantom prose version was published by Avon Paperbacks. The comics continued but the paperbacks added another resource for us die-hard Phantom fans. The cover artwork by George Wilson captured the flavor of the comic book series. This first paperback constitutes the most comprehensive prose version of the Phantom’s origins. As you all know, the story began over 400 years ago when a shipwreck sailor named Kit vowed: “I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice, and my sons and their sons shall follow me.” This, of course, was the Oath of the Skull. Making his home in Skull Cave, Kit, and eventually his ancestors, all donned the mask and costume of The Ghost Who Walks, and so a crime-fighting legend was born. Each generation became The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die, The Phantom. Falk’s series documented the adventure of “The Phantom in our time” whose real identify is known only to the pygmies who still live near the Deep Woods, secret location of the original Skull Cave. The Phantom also has hide-outs throughout the world to enable him to fight injustice. The Story of the Phantom re-tells the story of the twentieth Phantom, from his childhood through the moment he takes his father’s body to the burial chamber and emerges as The Phantom. Subsequent paperbacks recounted individual adventures. The paperbacks lasted for fifteen novels. Lee Falk wrote four, including this first one and The Mysterious Ambassador, Killer’s Town and The Vampires & The Witch. The last paperback, The Curse of the Two Headed Bull, was written by Carson Bingham based upon a story by Falk. The other writers in the paperback series were Basil Copper, Frank S. Shawn and Warren Shanahan but the books were credited to Falk. Most collectors prefer the Charlton Comics incarnation or the mid-60s Gold Key comics. The original newspaper dailies are also available in book form. The two film versions, first starring Tom Tyler in 1943 and eventually the 1996 film starring Billy Zane, are must-haves on DVD for Phantom fans. That really cool Billy Zane feature has become a cult favorite. The Phantom is still being produced as a comic book series, but I ignore them. I’m a fan of Lee Falk’s original series. Meanwhile, these Avon paperbacks are fun to track down while the first five or so are priced high when found in fine condition. The ancient battle against evil is endless – Long Live The Phantom!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

I enjoy telling people that Raquel Welch introduced me to Isaac Asimov. I never met either Raquel Welch or Isaac Asimov, but in 1966 I sat in a movie theatre and watched Fantastic Voyage starring Welch and Stephen Boyd. That awesome film is still a favorite. As an avid reader even at that early age, I made certain I had the Bantam paperback. I eagerly devoured it, and so my introduction to the many wonderful books of Isaac Asimov was underway. The book was based upon the screenplay by Harry Kleiner, adapted by David Duncan and based upon a story by Otto Klement and Lewis Bixby. The story of how Asimov came to write the novel is now a famous one, involving his initial refusal, the appeal of a hefty paycheck, the pulp fiction style allure of the story itself, and the improbable fact that the film would be any good let alone make money, which it did. I’ll leave it to trivia buffs and film historians to sort that all out. I’m only interested in the book and the film because I like them both. I’m looking at this material from the visceral reaction of a ten year old that enjoyed the film’s colorful action, suspense, techno-wizardry and the curves of Raquel Welch. My enjoyment of Asimov’s book is intrinsically tied to the film. The primary additions that Asimov lends the story are his practical and accurate medical or scientific details which lend the book a tone of authenticity. Film fans and pulp fans are required to suspend their disbelief over the implausibility of the human body shrinking to the point of being able to enter a human bloodstream. Once that happens, both the book and the film are a wild ride into a strange universe with perils at every bend in the vein. Asimov’s book is pure action, solid characterization and still enjoyable. For the un-initiated, the story is about four men and one woman who are shrunk to microscopic size and inserted into the carotid artery of a patient with the intent of alleviating his blood clot. Of course, the patient is a man with knowledge that could save Mankind. Off they go into a universe of rampaging cells, and passing through his heart, they must battle the body’s immune system in order to reach the blood clot. Both the film and the book depict the body as an incredible universe unto itself, and therein lies much of the story’s appeal. Sectioned into eighteen chapters, Fantastic Voyage isn’t Asimov’s best, but it’s pretty damn good. I re-read it one afternoon recently and found myself swept along and grateful that I had encountered that film and this book in my childhood. I have no doubt that I would have discovered Asimov’s Foundation series and Robot stories without Fantastic Voyage, but it did accelerate that discovery. Bantam has reissued Fantastic Voyage numerous times. The current paperback sports a nice cover by Enid Hatton.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Windy City by Carl Sandburg

Celebrating National Poetry Month
Carl Sandburg, excerpt from The Windy City (section one):
With photography copyright ©2015 by Thomas McNulty

The lean hands of wagon men
put out pointing fingers here,
picked this crossway, put it on a map,   
set up their sawbucks, fixed their shotguns,
found a hitching place for the pony express,
made a hitching place for the iron horse,
the one-eyed horse with the fire-spit head,
found a homelike spot and said, “Make a home,”   
saw this corner with a mesh of rails, shuttling
       people, shunting cars, shaping the junk of
       the earth to a new city. 

The hands of men took hold and tugged
and the breaths of men went into the junk
and the junk stood up into skyscrapers and asked:
Who am I? Am I a city? And if I am what is my name?
And once while the time whistles blew and blew again
the men answered: Long ago we gave you a name,
long ago we laughed and said: You? Your name is Chicago.

Early the red men gave a name to the river,   
       the place of the skunk,   
       the river of the wild onion smell,   

Out of the payday songs of steam shovels,   
out of the wages of structural iron rivets,   
the living lighted skyscrapers tell it now as a name,   
tell it across miles of sea blue water, gray blue land:
I am Chicago, I am a name given out by the breaths of working men,   
       laughing men, a child, a belonging.  

So between the Great Lakes,   
the Grand De Tour, and the Grand Prairie,   
the living lighted skyscrapers stand,
spotting the blue dusk with checkers of yellow,
       streamers of smoke and silver,   
       parallelograms of night-gray watchmen,   
singing a soft moaning song: I am a child, a belonging.