Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Cabinet of Wonders: Harlan Ellison's CAN & CAN’TANKEROUS

Harlan Ellison’s latest short story collection, Can & Can’tankerous, is nothing less than a cabinet of wonders built by a demented magician—a box filled to bursting with carnivalesque impossibilities such as doomed and/or omnipotent homunculi, conquering alien imps who unknowingly help the human race while trying to destroy it, time travelling super models, beneficent rubber ducks, Martian sex slaves, phantom cartographers, the 1948 Cleveland Indians, at least twenty-six different brands of mythological beings, and (thrown in for good measure) the ghost of Satchel Paige.  This collection of ten short stories published between 1956 and 2012 spans an impressive array of genres, time periods, worlds, and emotions.

As with his previous books, such as the classic collections Deathbird Stories (1975) and Angry Candy (1988), Ellison is able to gracefully segue from one genre to another within only a few pages—sometimes within the same story.  For example, the third offering in the book, “Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear,” combines classic science fiction tropes with a heavily noirish atmosphere, creating a hybrid that somehow looks and feels nothing like the parent-genres that breathed it into existence in the first place. 

The centerpiece of the book, a 15,000-word novella entitled “The Toad Prince, or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes,” is a near-impossibility:  an impressive feat of close-up magic that excels at pulse-pounding science fiction adventure redolent of 1950s pulp stereotypes while succeeding in being a satirical deconstruction of those same well-worn clich├ęs.  As I avidly read the planet-hopping adventures of Sarna (Our Hero), a Terran prostitute trapped in a world of sex-crazed Martians, for some reason my brain insisted on imagining this epic as a graphic novel drawn by the late sui generis artist Moebius, who often combined cosmic vistas, blatantly sexual themes, and Golden Age science fiction tropes in his own unforgettable stories.  (Hollywood producers, please take note:  If not a comic book, this novella would also make a wonderful animated movie in the style of such borderline-psychedelic SF films as Fantastic Planet and Heavy Metal.)

For the purists among you who have an inherent distaste for Golden Age retro themes in your genre of choice, rest assured that this collection of stories includes at least four Master Class tales that are as accomplished as the best short fiction produced in America during the past two decades:  “How Interesting:  A Tiny Man” (which won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2011), a wildly inventive—and oddly affecting—twist on the age-old concept of the golem; “Incognita, Inc.,” a melancholy tale about an old man responsible for creating the maps that have led countless generations of adventurers to the lands of myth and legend, a deft parable that can ultimately be seen as a wistful meditation on the death (and, one hopes, rebirth) of the imagination in our overly commodified society; “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” a devilishly clever jigsaw puzzle of a tale that compels you to begin rereading it the second you’ve finished the final sentence; and “Goodbye to All That,” an absurdist fantasy that has the fearless audacity to create a scenario that can only be resolved by revealing the Ultimate Punchline to the Ultimate Joke… and, in the end, despite this ostensibly impossible-to-overcome buildup, somehow manages to be funny

“Goodbye to All That” is also noteworthy in that it expands on Ellison’s ongoing obsession with Lost World scenarios, a type of story rarely attempted these days; in fact, one could say it’s an extinct subgenre.  Ellison’s contributions are unique in that these types of exotic adventures, whether novelistic or cinematic, tend to be epic in nature, e.g., H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) or Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933).  Ellison’s Lost World stories, however, compress such sweeping narratives into only a few pages.  Some of the most memorable tales in Ellison’s 1997 collection, Slippage, played with Lost World scenarios in a variety of fascinating ways (e.g., “Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep,” “Chatting with Anubis,” and “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral”). 

Several of the stories in Can & Can’tankerous flirt with this venerable Lost World concept, e.g., “From A to Z, in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet,” “Incognita, Inc.,” and “Goodbye to All That.”  I suspect “Goodbye to All That” was inspired by a juxtaposition of two wildly different narratives:  James Hilton’s bestselling 1933 novel Lost Horizon, perhaps the most famous Lost World story of the twentieth century (the protagonist of “Goodbye to All That” is named Colman, no doubt in honor of Ronald Colman, the star of Frank Capra’s 1937 film adaptation of Lost Horizon) and Robert Sheckley’s antic 1976 Playboy story “What Is Life?” in which an explorer treks to a mountaintop in the Himalayas only to be confronted by an invisible deity who demands that the intruder provide him with the ultimate answer to the ultimate question.  In “Goodbye to All That” Ellison manages to trump Sheckley’s insanely clever solution to an impossible scenario (I won’t spoil the punchline to Sheckley’s story in case you’ve never read it, but it can be found in his 1978 short story collection entitled The Robot Who Looked Like Me).

Overall, Can & Can’tankerous is a worthy follow-up to Ellison’s Slippage, his last book of “previously uncollected, precariously poised stories.”  The wonders in this particular magic cabinet are just as precariously poised (perhaps even more so), in the sense that they seem simultaneously familiar and unpredictable, graceful and unbalanced, logical and irrational—a genuine paradox, perhaps the greatest magic trick of all.

To order Can & Can’tankerous, visit the publisher’s website by clicking HERE.

Note:  This review appeared originally, in somewhat different form, in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION #335 (July 2016).  

Steve Erickson on BOOKWORM

In case you were unable to attend Steve Erickson's recent book signing at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, click HERE to listen to Erickson being interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on the KCRW radio show BOOKWORM (89.9 FM in Los Angeles) regarding his tenth and latest novel, SHADOWBAHN, published a little over a week ago by Blue Rider Books.

A Thaumaturgical Interlude

Submitted for your approval:  Christopher Kezelos's short 2011 film, "The Maker"....

"Our would-be psychic engineers and human alchemists are well aware of the nearness of midnight in this, their 'low bottom twelve' time-cycle.  They teeter on the brink of the synthesis of the darkest dream of the Kabbalists, a marriage frantically sought, between E. coli bacteria from the colon of man, the genome code and the power of computer automata, for the creation of the Golem."--Michael A. Hoffman II, Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, 1995

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Jon Rappoport's "Is the NSA the Real President of the United States?"

What follows is an extremely relevant excerpt from Jon Rappoport's 2-16-17 post entitled "Is the NSA the Real President of the United States?":

"We think about total surveillance as being directed at private citizens, but the capability has unlimited payoffs when it targets financial markets and the people who have intimate knowledge of them.

"'Total security awareness' programs of surveillance are ideal spying ops in the financial arena, designed to suck up millions of bits of inside information, then utilizing them to make investments and suck up billions (trillions?) of dollars.

"It gives new meaning to 'the rich get richer.'

"Taking the overall scheme to another level, consider this: those same heavy hitters who have unfettered access to financial information can also choose, at opportune moments, to expose certain scandals and crimes (not their own, of course).

"In this way, they can, at their whim, cripple governments, banks, and corporations. They can cripple investment houses, insurance companies, and hedge funds. Or, alternatively, they can merely blackmail these organizations.

"We think we know how scandals are exposed by the press, but actually we don't. Tips are given to people who give them to other people. Usually, the first clue that starts the ball rolling comes from a source who remains in the shadows.

"What we are talking about here is the creation and managing of realities on all sides, including the choice of when and where and how to provide a glimpse of a crime or scandal."

To read Rappoport's entire post, click HERE.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Little Humans and Giant Gods" in THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #70

The latest issue of THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR (No. 70, Winter 2017) was just released yesterday and includes my lengthy article entitled "Little Humans & Giant Gods:  The Extraterrestrial Tiki Art of Jack Kirby," which examines the little-known connections between Jack Kirby's Tiki-themed short stories and the work of ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, author of the nonfiction bestsellers, KON-TIKI (1948) and AKU-AKU (1957). 

This same issue also includes a thought-provoking article entitled "Spider-man:  The Case for Kirby" by the late Stan Taylor, who argues that the primary creator of Spider-man was neither Stan Lee nor Steve Ditko, but Kirby.  You can purchase a copy of THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #70 right HERE or at a well-stocked comic book store near you.

A brief but important correction:  Due to an unfortunate error on the part of the magazine's editor, a crucial sentence was left out of "Little Humans & Giant Gods."  When you read the article, please know that the following sentence should have appeared at the top of p. 21:  "Kirby’s independence when it came to the creation of his comic book stories is explicated by Kirby biographer Mark Evanier, author of the 2008 book, Kirby:  King of Comics, in his introduction to the 2011 archival book, The Jack Kirby Omnibus Volume One."  

Do keep in mind that the first three paragraphs on p. 21 were written by Mark Evanier, not Yours Truly.  Due to the absence of the above sentence, and the fact that the paragraphs aren't formatted any differently than the rest of the article, one might conclude that I'm attempting to appropriate Evanier's words without proper attribution.  So please perform the above editing in your brain when you reach p. 21....

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Steve Erickson Reads SHADOWBAHN at Skylight Books

If you live anywhere near Southern California, I highly recommend making a trek to Skylight Books in Los Angeles on the evening of February 16th to see Steve Erickson reading from his latest book, SHADOWBAHN, perhaps his strangest novel to date (and coming from someone who's read every single one of Erickson's fabulist novels from 1985's DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS onward, that's saying quite a lot).  The plot is almost impossible to encapsulate, but here we go:  Two decades after their sudden destruction, the twin towers of the World Trade Center mysteriously reappear in the middle of the South Dakota Badlands and at once become a tourist attraction for the curious (rather like the poor dead titan in J.G. Ballard's classic short story, "The Drowned Giant," which can be found in Ballard's 1964 collection, TERMINAL BEACH).  This situation is made even more peculiar by the fact that the 93rd floor of the South Tower is occupied by Elvis Presley's dead twin, Jesse.  Jesse's suicidal leap from the rooftop of the South Tower kicks off an Alice-in-Wonderland tumble into a Womackian alternate universe where Elvis never existed, The Beatles languished in obscurity, and a wheelchair-bound JFK was shot by Valerie Solanas at Andy Warhol's Factory in New York on June 3rd, 1968.  Yes, indeed... if you want your brain pulled in multiple directions at once, look no further than SHADOWBAHN. 

Skylight Books is located at 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027.  Erickson's reading begins at 7:30 PM.  For more information, click HERE.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Dan Spiegle, R.I.P. (1920-2017)

Master comic book artist Dan Spiegle passed away on January 28, 2017 at the age of 96.  Spiegle, in collaboration with writer Mark Evanier, produced 26 issues of CROSSFIRE, a vastly underrated comic book series that ran from 1984 to 1987.  The initial idea of the series revolved around the exploits of a thief-for-hire, known to his clients only as "Crossfire," a specialist in committing acts of industrial espionage within the cutthroat community of 1980s Hollywood.  Through a convoluted set of circumstances, the original Crossfire dies and his mantle is taken up by a kindhearted bail-bondsman named Jay Endicott who cleverly exploits Crossfire's dangerous reputation in Los Angeles to fight for justice in the streets of Los Angeles.  As Evanier once wrote on his website, News From ME, Endicott "finds the dual identity handy in righting matters that go unsolved by the police or unpunished by the courts. As darn near everyone figured out, there was a certain level of autobiography to the comic, as I'm a big believer that neither of those institutions (the police, the courts) do what they do in an efficient, justice-for-all manner...."  

Because Evanier grew up in Los Angeles, and has had considerable experience writing for various Hollywood television studios over the years, the entire series carried with it an atmosphere of authenticity that's almost impossible to fake.  Evanier's deft juxtaposition of character-oriented storytelling with tried and true action-adventure motifs made for a unique comic book... and yet none of this would have worked without the pen of Dan Spiegle, whose artistry lent Crossfire's gritty--and yet somehow still hopeful--world a level of realism that positioned the series firmly in the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe detective novels and the cinematic shadow-realm of 1940s film noir.  

Evanier has recently written several posts about his late friend and collaborator, one of which one of which can be found HERE.

Rest in peace, Dan Spiegle.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Tenth Anniversary Issue of THE MAILER REVIEW Is Now Available!

The Tenth Anniversary Issue of The Mailer Review (Vol. 10 No. 1 Fall 2016) is now available for purchase.  The latest issue includes my short story, "Destroy All Monsters" (5,900 words).  Though it can be read as a standalone story, "Destroy All Monsters" is also an excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Until the Last Dog Dies, which will be released by Night Shade/Skyhorse in November of 2017.  

This issue of The Mailer Review includes "The Collision," the first story written by Norman Mailer when he was only ten years old.  In his introduction to this story, biographer and archivist J. Michael Lennon (author of Norman Mailer:  A Double Life) mentions the following fascinating tidbit about another work of fiction written by Mailer at around that same time:  "Working in his second-floor bedroom at 555 Crown Street during the winter of 1933-34, Mailer wrote his most important juvenile work, 'The Martian Invasion,' a 35,000-word science fiction novel which had one root in the Buck Rogers radio show, and a second in the Princess of Mars book by Edgar Rice Burroughs."  The Martian Invasion by Norman Mailer?!?  Throw in a painted pulp cover by Ed Valigursky and the mind truly boggles.  (Some eccentric publisher should definitely release this early work in a lavish hardcover edition, with end pages illustrated by Mark Schultz of Xenozoic Tales fame.)

If you wish to purchase a copy of The Mailer Review Tenth Anniversary Issue, just click HERE.