Friday, September 30, 2016

Strangely Enough! By C. B. Colby

Another Scholastic Book from my childhood, this is the 1967 edition, an abridged version of the 1959 original edition. I loved this paperback as a kid. Included are 91 short one or two page stories about incredible happenings, buried treasure, oddities of science and nature, tales of ghosts and witches, flying saucers and other weird things. Black and white illustrations by David Lockhart add some mood. Taken from a wide variety of un-credited sources, author C. B. Colby repeats some well known tales, such as the legend of treasure on Amelia Island, or the lost city of Machu Picchu, interspersed with little ghost stories or modern tales of flying saucers. I recall one of my childhood favorites was a story titled “The Balls of Clay.” It’s a bout a traveler who wanders into a Florida cave and discovers a cache of small clay balls about the size of a small bird’s egg. Taking a handful, the traveler thought it might be fun to skip the balls across the water as he walked along the beach. Later, this traveler hears a story that pirates centuries past hid precious gems in balls of clay. Remembering that he has one clay ball left, the traveler cracks it open to discover a small blue-white diamond. Had he thrown away a fortune? Another favorite was “The Man Who Fell Forever” about a sailor named Curly who, upon visiting an abandoned lighthouse, wraps his lucky coin in a kerchief and tosses it over the edge. After losing sight of the kerchief, Curl himself decides the fastest way down is to jump, and so he does. But Curly’s body is never found. All that’s left is the kerchief with Curly’s lucky coin also missing. The story ends with the line, “Perhaps that too, like Curly, has vanished on the way down.” There’s nothing too detailed here or gruesome, just mysterious capsules to wet your appetite and fire up your imagination.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Boris Karloff Horror Man by Peter Underwood

Boris Karloff-Horror Man was first published in England in 1972, and I bought my copy that very year from the Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood. A later, American edition was published with a different cover. Peter Underwood wrote the first major biography on Karloff and it has stood the test of time, as does Karloff himself. What distinguishes this biography from later retellings of the Karloff story is the fact that Underwood knew Karloff and respected him, perhaps even idolized him. Further, Underwood understands the craft of filmmaking and he understands acting. He was a member of the British Film Institute and published numerous articles on film, psychic activity and extra-sensory perception. He was also president of the famed Ghost Club and an investigator into paranormal activities. In short, Peter Underwood was a fascinating whirlwind himself. Boris Karloff-Horror Man offers a precise and factual account of Karloff’s life and career, accentuates the major film accomplishments, and adds the necessary details regarding Karloff that demonstrate his love for the stage, his dedication to acting, and his humble nature. Included is a bibliography, filmography and discography. A middle-section of photographs highlights Karloff’s many roles. The book covers Karloff’s early struggles in England, his efforts to find work in Canada, and his luck in traveling to Hollywood in 1917. From that point on his luck would change, albeit a tad slower than he might have preferred. Karloff was broke by 1923 and desperately trying to land a job. He took a job as a lorry driver which led to some contacts that resulted in several film roles. This in turn resulted in Karloff slowly building a reputation as a capable and reliable actor. He eventually made the transition to sound films in 1929 with The Unholy Night directed by Lionel Barrymore (filmed under the title The Green Ghost). His eventual casting as the monster in Frankenstein is the stuff of legend. Perhaps the crucial aspect of this book belongs to the fact that Underwood documented Karloff’s feelings about being typecast as a “Bogey Man” for the remainder of his career. In fact, Karloff was more than an armchair student of thrillers and ghost stories. He embraced his roles with relish, worked studiously at each performance, all of which were far removed from his own gentle personality. The portrait of Karloff that emerges here is one of a highly intelligent, caring and modest individual who quite simply loved being an actor. An excellent biography, and in my opinion, the only Karloff biography you need.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Superman: The Dailies, 1939-1940

This 1999 Kitchen Sink Press paperback reprints the historic first year of the Superman newspaper strips. I re-read this volume right after reading the first few issues of the DC Comics “Rebirth” titles. The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that Clark Kent and Superman were always meant to be one and the same. They have two distinctive personalities, and it’s NOT the glasses that differentiates them. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster depicted Kent as a straightforward, sometimes brash reporter intent on doing a good job. He was at times timid, and that stereotype would develop continuously throughout the series. For Siegel and Shuster there was never any danger of Kent’s Superman identity being uncovered because they followed a logical pattern of development for both characters. Kent was exactly what a reporter should be in 1939; he was patriotic, fair-minded and possessing of those qualities that embody the ideology of truth, justice, and the American way. By comparison, Superman was more like a carnival strongman in a gaudy costume, but equally fair-minded and patriotic. Superman’s curl is akin to Samson’s long hair, a symbol of his masculinity, and the “S” shield on his chest shining like a policeman’s badge. Superman and Clark Kent are believers in the American Dream, but go about embodying that dream’s reality in opposite ways. The idea that the two could be the same person would appear far-fetched to everyone – except, of course, the readers. Both Siegel and Shuster and their loyal readers were all willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the roller-coaster adventures printed here in Superman: The Dailies, 1939-1940, or in the pages of the comic books themselves. These early Superman strips are a goldmine of vital Superman history. Superman’s origin on the planet Krypton was embellished here, providing his father a name, Jor-L, later revised as Jor-El. Lois Lane is here, and The Daily Planet under editor George Taylor. Perry White had yet to arrive on the scene. The cover artwork on this collection is by Peter Poplaski.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet by Carey Rockwell

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was created by Joseph Lawrence Greene who also created Dig Allen, Space Explorer for Grosset & Dunlap publishers. Of the two, Tom Corbett was the more popular character. Corbett was played on television in the 1950s by actor Frankie Thomas. Green wrote eight Corbett books under the name Carey Rockwell, and six Dig Allen books. I think I encountered the Dig Allen books first. My interest in juvenile science fiction from the 1950s routed me to the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series. The television show ran from 1955 to 1959 and Tom Corbett’s adventures immediately became a point of nostalgia. Green was originally inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet. The Tom Corbett books hold up better than the television series which seems dated today. Nostalgia can add a warm glow to just about anything. Grosset & Dunlap publishers were in their glory days when they produced these books (Greene was employed as an editor for G&D) and the colorful hardback covers and imaginative endpapers added to the allure. Looking at any of these books now, including other characters such as Tom Swift and Rick Brant, and I realized how important space exploration was to the reading public. How many future astronauts were inspired by these books? The prose is masculine, but toned down for young readers. There’s a lot of sneering, grimacing, and exerting of muscles going on, and a playful use of their inquisitive young minds. I think my favorite was # 3, On the Trail of the Space Pirates. The back cover says it all: “Calling all boys and girls to Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and all points in outer space – You, too, can be a part of the group of daring adventurers from the Space Academy who travel to mysterious lands in outer space on dangerous and exciting missions…” Today the focus is on fantasy, sword and sorcery and steampunk, which is a fusion of fantasy and science fiction. The hardcore science fiction out there now is aimed at adults, and there is nothing for young readers, however, these books are available on Kindle.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Born Free by Joy Adamson

Remember the song? The song was everywhere in 1966 when the film version of Joy Adamson’s best-seller was playing in theatres. I wonder if we would remember Joy Adamson and her book if not for that film and the song by John Barry with lyrics by Don Black. Born Free was published in 1960 and included photographs of Adamson in Kenya with Elsa, the lioness. This is not Hemingway’s Africa. This is the Africa and the natural world the flower-children of the 1960s wanted to believe in. Born Free is a practical, fact-filled piece of non-fiction, not overly sentimental, but a rather straightforward account of raising the lion cub Elsa and training her for release later in the wild. It works as a piece of journalism. Adamson tries hard to be objective, and the story is compelling. The over 100 photographs make up for any shortcomings in the prose. Adamson’s husband George plays a key role in the narrative. Born Free may not be a great book, but it’s a great story, told as well as one can expect. The 1966 film version starred Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers and provided a color pallet to the black and white images that helped turn the book into a best-seller. I recall vividly seeing the film upon its release and within a year I owned the paperback. I have not seen the film since, and when I hear the song occasionally on the radio I turn it off. Joy and George Adamson both came to a sad end. Both were murdered in separate incidents. Joy Adamson was murdered in Kenya in 1980 by a laborer; George Adamson was murdered in 1989 by Somali bandits. Joy Adamson’s follow-up books include Living Free: The Story of Elsa and Her Cubs (1961), and Forever Free: Elsa’s Pride. Gorge Adamson wrote Bwana Game: The Life Story of George Adamson (1968) and My Pride and Joy (1986) an autobiography.