SMILE when you say that!

"A race of degenerates": a review of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

From Saturday, 5 April through Sunday, 4 May, I read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West (NY: Vintage Books [a division of Random House, Inc.], 1985; 2010; ed.: Kindle edition; 349 pps.).

cover to Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy -- 25th anniversary ed

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West is a dour revisionist western, written in semi-biblical prose, based on the exploits of the Glanton Gang of scalphunters who terrorized Texas, Mexico, and Arizona in 1849 and 1850. Owing to McCarthy's complete and utter indifference to character development, characterization, plot, grammatical conventions (there's nary a quotation mark to be seen here, and far fewer apostrophes than standard English would otherwise require), and English's rules concerning the capitalization of proper nouns ("Mexican" is capitalized, but "Spanish" and "Indian" are not; etc.); his ostentatiously obscure vocabulary, heavy with geological terms; his reluctance to identify who is speaking; his belaboring of motifs of darkness and his continual likening of men to apes; all of these characteristics combine to make Blood Meridian a dreary, wearying slog, notwithstanding McCarthy's flair for describing violence and occasional, vaguely-stirring flights of prose. (This would be true even if you, Dear Reader, did not have the problems with your Kindle while reading it that Your Correspondent did.)

The main character, such as he is, is never identified by any other name than "The Kid"; he is 14 years old when the story opens, and perhaps 15 when he joins the Glanton Gang on their expedition into Mexico to collect Apache scalps for the bounties offered by the local governments, after the group he was previously in, led by a Captain White (who had a half-assed plot to further undermine the Mexican government and incorporate as much of the country into the U.S. as possible; Chapter III: "Sought out to join an army -- Interview with Captain White -- His views -- The camp -- Trades his mule -- A cantina in the Laredtio -- A Mennonite -- Companion killed"), is largely wiped out by a group of bizarrely-attired Comanche. However, Glanton and his not-so-merry band of rogues are not exactly scrupulous about murdering and/or scalping only actively hostile Apaches; in order to maximize their fiduciary gain, they also murder and scalp friendly Indians, Mexicans, and even the occasional American they encounter. Eventually their bloodthirsty double-dealing, as well as their drunken destruction of the little towns they repair to for R&R in between their bouts of officially sanctioned rapine, catches up with them, and the Mexican authorities attempt to capture or kill them.

Egging on the mayhem is the odd, ultimately more-than-human figure of Judge Holden, who is described as being unusually large, both in height and in girth, exceptionally strong (at one point he fires a howitzer while holding it, much as the character Rambo fired an M60 in the movie version of First Blood while holding it; Rambo's action is the more believable one), extensively, even incredibly learned, and bald as an egg, down to lacking even eyelashes (he is also frequently nude). While there is a tenuous case to be made for Holden's historicity, it's reasonably clear -- as clear as McCarthy makes anything here, at any rate -- by the book's end that he is a supernatural entity (and, therefore, Blood Meridian may be considered to be an exceptionally grimy example of magic realism); it's telling that Holden, who is far and away the most intelligent figure in Blood Meridian, uses his intellect in the service of nihilism, urging the Glanton gang on to ever baser acts of depravity and violence. (I would argue that the character of Holden here represents man's basest proclivities -- his nihilistic tendencies -- far more than he serves as an apologist for war, as some critics have held.) While McCarthy gives Holden a bravura -- and mordantly funny -- introduction in the first chapter, Holden soon wore out his welcome with this reader when it became evident just what his game is.

This points to my main frustration with Blood Meridian: it starts out promisingly enough (indeed, I bought it based on reading the first chapter on Amazon's site); but McCarthy soon eschews anything like a more conventional narrative, character development, showing glimpses of even one character's interior life, or even exploring just how common White's imperialist attitudes towards Mexico were (or, more interestingly to my mind, exploring just how much tacit approval the U.S. government gave to White and groups like his) in favor of a jeremiad against the entire furshlugginer human race. I consider myself a misanthrope who is deeply skeptical of humanity's pretensions of goodness in general; but McCarthy's screed here is so bilious and blinkered that I found myself disengaged from the skeletal story even more than he probably intended his readers to be. Anyone hoping for a more literary treatment of, say, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, had best move along; I doubt that "Bloody Sam" himself would've touched Blood Meridian with a barge pole. If any character here, even "The Kid," can be said to have an actual personality or interior life, it has as much to do with the reader's wishful thinking as it does with McCarthy's writing. Ultimately, Blood Meridian comes off as a highfalutin version of The Turner Diaries, with the dubious distinction of McCarthy's apparently not thinking that anybody is worth the powder to blow him to hell, as opposed to Turner's author's fervent belief in white supremacy. (McCarthy makes some effort to show that it's not only the white characters who are murderously misanthropic, as when he has White, in his recruitment spiel to The Kid, tell him that the Apaches are so contemptuous of Mexicans, they "won't even shoot them...They kill them with rocks" [Chapter III; location 529 of 5067 in the Kindle edition].)

To paraphrase Lennon-McCartney, "If you want to write for people with minds that hate / Don't be surprised if you're shown the gate."

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Hercules thinkin' oodles o' swears

The all-devouring darkness.

I've been picking my way through Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), a much-ballyhooed (though after the fact) western or revisionist western based on the exploits of the Glanton Gang of scalphunters in Mexico (and in what would later become Arizona). Unfortunately, I've been picking through it on my Kindle Fire.

I say "unfortunately" because a distressing flaw with my Kindle, first evinced during my reading of the second book of David Wingrove's revised Chung Kuo series, Daylight on Iron Mountain, has been making itself manifest, to wit: my notes and highlights of Blood Meridian disappear. While I'm apparently able to switch from Blood Meridian to the Kindle's browser and then back to the book once, if I do it a second time, the notes and highlights that I made in my last reading session vanish. I've had to redo my notes and highlights roughly half a dozen times.

This phenomenon is not exactly improving my opinion of Blood Meridian. As it is....

I'm not immune to the charms (such as they are) of postmodernism or textual experimentation. (If I were, I'd have to forswear my intention to someday read Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.) However, McCarthy's arbitrary adherence to the rules of English punctuation, specifically of the capitalization of proper nouns, is driving me absolutely doolalley. Within a sentence, or even within the same sentence, one finds "indian," with a lower-case "i," and "Mexican," with an upper-case "m." Other times, one sees "mexican," with a lower-case "m," or "apache," with a lower-case "a" (and this does not refer to Caucasian street urchins in London or Paris, as one might find in stories written or set in the 19th century). If McCarthy had a rationale for his use of capitalization, I'm afraid I'm too dim to discern it.

McCarthy's prose in Blood Meridian has some bravura flourishes, as one might expect from his reputation; however, said flourishes are beginning to pall, as they become ever more self-conscious, to say nothing of pretentious and ostentatious. (If I never read another passage alluding to the primordial darkness through which an ape-like man must make his way, I'll not be sorry; unfortunately, I'm only in the midst of Chapter XII, so I fear I've at least another couple hundred pages of such codswallop to bear.)

McCarthy does have a facility for describing horrific violence; however, constant repetition diminishes the effect, and, with almost no characterization, it's demmed difficult to give a toss about the victims (or the perpetrators). And with characterization all but wholly absent, and with McCarthy's "more Leonard than Elmore Leonard" penchant for minimal identification of speakers (to say nothing of McCarthy's eschewing of quotation marks; at least Leonard didn't go that far), it's also demmed difficult to figure out who's talking at any given point, or, more importantly, to care.

Also not looking forward to encountering, in print (as opposed to, say, in the film adaptation of No Country For Old Men or in McCarthy's first produced screenplay, The Counselor), McCarthy's penchant for ending things in media res. But I suppose I'll soldier on, as long as my Kindle lets me.

PLEASE., Bitch

Zeitgeist: the Bullshit.

Finally watched Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007) via Netflix; it had been recommended to me a few years ago by a co-worker from Eastern Europe who, while not normally beholden to conspiracy theories, has enough ethnic, national and religious hatreds (to wit: Roma -- whom he refuses to dignify by that name; he insists on calling them "gypsies" -- Hungarians, Russians, French, subcontinental Indians [who he says remind him of "gypsies"], Chinese, Japanese, Jews, blacks, Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, and at least half of his own former countrymen) that he found Zeitgeist's arguments compelling.

Meh. I'll grant that the man behind this movie (and the subsequent installments in what has become a series), Peter Joseph, assembled a good-looking video on a minimal budget; however, anyone who's done any kind of reading in its central arguments -- "Christ-as-myth," 9/11 "truth," and / or the insidious illegality of the Federal Reserve and U.S. income tax -- isn't likely to be as impressed by what Zeitgeist lays out.

As regards "Christ-as-myth" and the parallels between Christianity and Horus worship among the ancient Egyptians, Zeitgeist doesn't hold a candle to, say, Barbara G. Walker's A Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, and appears to be an extremely dumbed-down summation of Kersey Graves's The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors, or Christianity Before Christ. (Zeitgeist was also way off-base in its comparisons of Horus to Jesus: it wasn't Horus who was resurrected, but his daddy, Osiris; also, it's disingenuous to say that Horus was a virgin birth, unless one stretches a point and says that his mother, Isis, in conceiving Horus with either the severed penis of her husband, Osiris, or a gold model of same attached to his reassembled body, is still technically a virgin. One wonders that Joseph didn't mention that the early Christians adopted Egyptian iconography of Isis suckling the infant Horus for their cult of Mariolatry.)

Some of the 9/11 stuff -- which Joseph seems to have largely culled from other 9/11 "truther" screeds, such as Loose Change (the second edition) -- was disconcerting and seemingly reality-based enough to give me pause (such as the number of people at the World Trade Center who heard a loud bang before the first plane hit; then again, there have been several cautionary notes sounded over the years regarding the unreliability of eyewitness testimony...); however, the main arguments, seemingly advanced by engineers, were that the World Trade Center towers shouldn't have been able to have been collapsed, particularly in "pancake fashion," by the crashing of two jumbo jet liners into them, echoed the arguments against a single truck bomb doing all that damage to Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on 19 April 1995. (One shouldn't be automatically overawed by someone's assertion of engineering expertise; keep in mind that a prominent Holocaust denier, associate professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University Arthur Butz, insists that the Holocaust couldn't have happened because he finds no evidence that Auschwitz was equipped with poison gas chambers, based on his engineering background.)

But the reedits that Joseph did to Zeitgeist didn't entirely efface the anti-Semitism inherent in much of his gold bug, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-income tax arguments. (Ask Wesley Snipes how much traction that not paying your income tax due to its perceived unconstitutionality will get you in federal court.) While I'm as much a fan of Major General Smedley Butler as anybody, I note that Joseph only cited him for his pearls of wisdom regarding financiers (chiefly from his 1935 book War is a Racket, reprinted in 2003 by Feral House), and was conspicuously silent on Butler's outing of the so-called Business Plot, the abortive planning in 1933 by several high-rollers to oust FDR in a coup and appoint Butler as an American Il Duce, wholly subservient to them, of course. This might've been done for the sake of retaining a relatively cohesive video; but it is a little peculiar, given how Joseph explicitly, through juxtaposition of audio, video and still photographs, likens the administration of George W. Bush ("Bush 43") to that of Adolf Hitler, and how he pointed out two examples of American financial entities' support of the Nazi regime.

Still, I think that dubbing Zeitgeist as agitprop is more than fair; it pretty much held my interest throughout, with a few dull spots, but I've no real interest to watch the rest of the series.

a jaded mandarin

It's a Han's world: a review of the 1st two books in Wingrove's revised Chung Kuo series.

From Saturday, 8 March through Friday, 14 March, I read David Wingrove's Son of Heaven (London: Corvus [an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.], 2011 [ebook / Kindle edition published 1 Sept. 2012]; ISBN [ebook]: 978-0-85789-169-3; 376 pps.); from Friday, 14 March through Monday, 31 March, I read David Wingrove's Daylight on Iron Mountain (London: Corvus [an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.], 2011; ISBN [ebook]: 978-0-85789-432-8; 360 pps.).

cover to Kindle ed of Chung Kuo Son of Heaven by David Wingrove

cover to Kindle ed of Chung Kuo Daylight on Iron Mountain by David Wingrove

I was a huge fan of David Wingrove's original Chung Kuo series, an eight-book (an "octology"? an "octet"?) sequence whose individual novels were all, save for the last, well over 500 pages long, about China's rule over the entire world, after their conquest of same: their annihilation of all blacks (whether African, Afro-European, Afro-American, or Australian Aborigine), all Japanese, all Indians, all Pakistanis, all Bangladeshis, and all Semitic peoples (at last! peace in the Middle East!), and their subsequent, massive rewriting of history to show that China ruled the Earth from the time when, in reality, outposts of the Han Empire and the Roman Empire made tentative contact around 200 A.D. (All of this has already happened when the series opens, in the 22nd century C.E.) Six continents are covered by seven gigantic, miles-high Cities, made of a super-strong, super-light polymer compound called "ice"; Asia is covered by two Cities, while North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia each have one City encompassing them. The combined population of these Cities is roughly 40 billion people. The Cities aren't built flush to the ground; the areas beneath the Cities, forever occluded, containing the wrack and ruin of the officially non-existent civilizations that the Han didn't want to salvage and rebrand, are called Clay, and those people unfortunate enough to be left to eke out a brutish and scant existence in the Clay have reverted to troglodytic conditions and apish mien, with their average life expectancies being thirty-five years. The Han are dominant, but a faction of wealthy Caucasians (or Hung Mao in Mandarin -- "redheads," although the sense is usually more accurately translated as “redheaded barbarians”) gradually rises that attempts to wrest control from them; a genius rescued from the Clay in what used to be Cornwall named Kim Ward, discovers an ultra-secret compilation of documents showing Earth's true history, called the Aristotle File, and thinks long and hard about disseminating this to a wider audience, for fear of pushing the world into chaos even faster than it's already hurtling.

The thing that made Chung Kuo so compelling, so much more than a wheels-within-wheels, big budget dystopian epic, was how Wingrove peopled it with characters who actually, honestly developed, as in believably changed, over the course of the series; how he was unafraid to kill off likable characters who were major players; how he turned readers' expectations on their heads, so that the characters you would normally expect to root for -- the people fighting to promulgate the true history of the Earth and to overthrow Han control -- turn out to be the major shits of Chung Kuo, and that the T'ang, the emperors or Seven (each T'ang controls a City) who rule Chung Kuo, or the "Middle Kingdom" (Chinese rulers traditionally considered China itself to be the Middle Kingdom, as it lay, in their minds at least, between Heaven and Earth; in Wingrove's series, all of Earth is the Middle Kingdom since all of Earth is ruled by the Han, or Chinese), are actually not (or at least, not all of them) the rotters, bounders and maniacal dictators that you would suppose.

Unfortunately, Wingrove's publisher lost faith in the series due to declining sales figures, and told him that, instead of the previously agreed-upon nine books (I'd read that he was supposed to be allowed ten books), he had to finish the series in eight, or forever hold his peace; in any case, he wasn't paid so much as a shilling for the eighth book, The Marriage of the Living Dark, which was apparently never published in the U.S. (The edition that I finally purchased, through in the late 1990s, was published in Canada.) As a consequence, the eighth book satisfied nobody, perhaps least of all Wingrove himself, given that he had to cram the main events of two books into one volume of under 400 pages in trade paperback, IIRC. Though I was disappointed with The Marriage of the Living Dark, I still thought that it contained passages of superb writing that any self-respecting author would've been proud to claim as his or her own. Certainly parts of it towered head and shoulders above most of what gets labeled science fiction.

Imagine my delight then when I learned, around 2010, that Wingrove was going to reissue the series and rewrite parts of it, expanding it, and bringing it to proper conclusion, instead of a hasty, half-assed leave-taking à la the Americans leaving Saigon in April 1975. And when I learned, a year or two later, that he would be expanding Chung Kuo to a whopping twenty books, I was gobsmacked, and a little apprehensive: as difficult as it would be for him to rewrite even the last two books in the series as published, and resist the temptation to endlessly revise "just this bit here and that bit there," how in the hell could the series possibly retain its interest, its narrative drive, its cohesion, if Wingrove opened it up that bloody much?

The answer, provisionally at least, after reading the first two, prequel novels in the revised series -- Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain (both published in the UK in 2011; while Wingrove's Wikipedia entry states that the eighth book, The White Mountain, was published in March of this year, it is not available through Amazon's U.S. site) -- is, "Not entirely."

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a pervert fr beyond space & time!

Have you heard about this lonesome loser? -- a review of Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates.

From Monday, 31 March through Saturday, 5 April, I read Joyce Carol Oates's novel Zombie (NY: HarperCollins; 2009 [originally published in 1995 by Dutton]; e-book edition [Kindle edition]; 196 pps.; ISBN: 978-0-061-960116) on my Kindle.
cover to Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie is the first person journal narrative, complete with crude Magic Marker drawings, of a registered sex offender turned serial killer named Quentin P____ (one of whose aliases is Todd Cuttler), who prowls the lower peninsula of Michigan (primarily the fictional university town of Mount Vernon, near Lake Michigan, although sometimes he ventures as far afield as Lansing, Detroit, and Ann Arbor) in search of "love" -- really, sex slaves -- in the persons of various, largely non-white, teenaged boys and young men; Quentin P___'s journal documents, in more or less linear fashion, his progression from an inept "kiddie fiddler" to an impulsive, obsessive serial killer in his late thirties as he attempts to create a "ZOMBIE": a lobotomized sex slave (to this end, he visits the dentist at his mother's urging, and steals one of the dental picks there since he sees it as an ideal tool to perform a transorbital lobotomy on his victims) who will obey his every command:

"A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying 'Yes, Master' & 'No, Master.' He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, 'I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master.

"& so it would come to pass, & so it would be. For a true ZOMBIE could not say a thing that was not, only a thing that was. His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing. & nothing behind them thinking. Nothing passing judgment.


"A ZOMBIE would pass no judgment. A ZOMBIE would say, 'God bless you, Master.' He would say, 'You are good, Master. You are kind & merciful.' He would say, 'Fuck me in the ass, Master, until I bleed blue guts.' He would beg for his food & he would beg for oxygen to breathe. He would beg to use the toilet not to soil his clothes. He would be respectful at all times. He would never laugh or smirk or wrinkle his nose in disgust. He would lick with his tongue as bidden. He would suck with his mouth as bidden. He would spread the cheeks of his ass as bidden. He would cuddle like a teddy bear as bidden. He would rest his head on my shoulder like a baby. Or I would rest my head on his shoulder like a baby. We would eat pizza slices from each other's fingers. We would lie beneath the covers in my bed in the CARETAKER's room listening to the March wind & the bells of the Music College tower chiming & WE WOULD COUNT THE CHIMES UNTIL WE FELL ASLEEP AT EXACTLY THE SAME MOMENT."

-- Chapter 15

The model for Quentin P___ is Jeffrey Dahmer; while Zombie is a short novel and a quick read, it's not without intellectual interest, particularly in Quentin's references to current theories in physics (such as dark matter), and in passages that recall the work of the so-called godfather of the Beats, William S. Burroughs:

"BIG GUY lived maybe fifteen hours I think dying as I was fucking him in the ass (not in the tub, in my bed) to discipline him as a ZOMBIE & I only comprehended he was dead when during the night waking needing to take a piss I felt how cold he was, arms & legs where I'd slung them over me & his head on my shoulder to cuddle but BIG GUY was stiffening in rigor mortis so I panicked thinking I would be locked in his embrace!"

-- Chapter 19

Come to that, the whole of Zombie is more than a little reminiscent of a distillation of much of Burroughs's work, given its obsessive, drug-and-alcohol-addled, deeply misogynistic protagonist with a narrow band of autodidactic learning, a tenuous grasp of reality, a bottomless well of rage alternating with inanition, and a perverted sex drive wholly wedded to a taste for violence and domination; add some psychic, giant, transdimensional centipedes, gunslinging boy-whores from the Old West or New York City's Lower East Side c. 1920, orgone projectors, dubious and absurd covert organizations, and an incompetent, junkie surgeon (paging Doc Benway...), and you'd have a full-blown Burroughs pastiche.

Zombie does have a fair share of acidulous, mordant humor, but it is by definition not to everyone's taste. Gore crows seeking another Michael Slade or Dexter or Hannibal Lecter are likely to be disappointed in Zombie, finding it too highfalutin and not nearly bloody enough (and, possibly, too "gay"); readers looking for more obvious literary merit are also likely feel let down by Zombie, finding it too lowbrow and too pulpy for serious consideration.

While I respect Ms. Oates's career and mostly admire her as a critic (although I think she is misguided in her evaluation of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce), from what little I've read of her fiction thus far, I find that I admire her more than like her; her fiction seems almost wholly intellectually-driven, like Graham Greene's (he of the machine-tooled prose): it lacks that ineffable spark of life that characterizes my favorite works. In the end, Ms. Oates's fictional creations don't quite convince; they are cleverly crafted constructs, puzzled out at an emotional distance that prevents them from inspiring in their readers that frisson of truly great works.

Keeping these caveats in mind, Zombie is by no means a waste of time; I suspect that it is not truly representative of Ms. Oates's fiction, but it is an interesting oddity for all of that.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Rising of the gamer geek?!

Checked out the first three hardbound collections of Marvel NOW!'s Avengers (technically, Avengers Vol. 5) from the library; the first eleven issues were written by Jonathan Hickman, but #12-17 were co-written by Nick Spencer.

While I was pleasantly surprised by Hickman's run on Fantastic Four and its spin-off FF (which technically stands for "Future Foundation" instead of merely "Fantastic Four"), his run on the latest reboot of Avengers actually makes me miss Brian Michael Bendis's run -- and I'm pretty ambivalent about Bendis's work as a whole. (However, I did enjoy his work on Alias and The Pulse, which featured his character Jessica Jones, currently the wife of Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man; but it's best not to inquire after Jessica Jones's first two, less than daunting superhero names...) At least Bendis can write snark and sarcasm better than Hickman, and Bendis has a much better handle on Spider-Man's personality than Hickman does, as evinced by Spidey's appearances here.

While I loved Shang-Chi in Master of Kung Fu (he was originally created as the son of Fu Manchu, but his origins have been obscured since Marvel lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer character), I've been less than happy over his resurrection (first as a member of the X-Men's seemingly endless circle of acquaintances and allies); he's a full-time Avenger, not a Secret Avenger, here, which obviates the conclusion of MoKF, where he finally renounced covert (and overt...) action for the "games of deceit and death" that he saw them to be.

Fine, whatever; maybe Iron Fist, Marvel's other premiere martial artist hero, was busy.

What left me gobsmacked, however, was how Adam Kubert, in Avengers Vol. 5, #6 (April 2013), drew Shang-Chi to look like Gabe of Penny Arcade. An absurdly ripped and butch Gabe, but Gabe nonetheless.

First, page 3 of Vol. 5, No. 6; pay particularly close attention to the last two panels, which feature an atypically grinning Shang-Chi offering a baked treat to the latest incarnation of Captain Universe (originally a supporting character for another licensed comic book that Marvel published in the 1970s and 1980s, The Micronauts):
Marvel Now Avengers no 6 pg 3 by Adam Kubert

Next, check out page 7 of Avengers Vol. 5, No. 6, especially the first and third panels:
Marvel Now Avengers no 6 pg 7 by Adam Kubert

For comparison, check out this drawing of Gabe from Penny Arcade's Wikia entry for him:
headshot of Gabe fr Penny Arcade on PA's wikia -- retrieved Sun 30 Mar 2014

Here's a strip that Mike Krahulik ("Gabe") and Jerry Holkins ("Tycho") posted on on 10-24-05:
Gabe & Tycho re Gabe's blog in Penny Arcade -- retrieved Sun 30 Mar 2014

In case you've forgotten what Shang-Chi originally looked like, here is the cover to Master of Kung Fu Vol. 1, #19 (August 1974), whose cover is drawn by Gil Kane (pencils) and Tom Palmer (inks); the opponent he's fighting is none other than the mindless muck monster Man-Thing, whose heyday was in the early 1970s (the interior features an uncredited guest appearance by a descendant of Caine, the character that David Carradine played in the 1970s TV show Kung Fu):
cover to Master of Kung Fu Vol 1 no 19

Below is a close-up of Shang by Mike Zeck, who would go on to celebrated stints on Captain America and The Punisher; the cover is for Master of Kung Fu Vol. 1, #86 (March 1980):
cover to Master of Kung Fu Vol 1 no 86 by Mike Zeck

I dunno; comic book artists are notorious for putting swipes and Easter eggs in their pages, and usually that adds to the charm of reading comic books; but depicting Shang-Chi, the "Master of Kung Fu," as the overly excitable, borderline psychopathic Gabe from Penny Arcade is a bridge too far for me.


Ructions on the range: a review of Bar-20 by Clarence E. Mulford.

From Wednesday, 5 February 2014 to Friday, 21 March 2014, I read Clarence E. Mulford's Bar-20 (NY: Forge [a Tom Doherty Associates book], 1992; 2006; ISBN: 978-0-765-35737-3; 284 pps.; includes an introduction by Jackson Cain and a 3-chapter [33 pps.] excerpt from the 4th novel in the series, Hopalong Cassidy [Bar-20 is only 246 pps. long]), which is the very first Hopalong Cassidy novel.

cover to Bar-20 by Clarence E Mulford

Hopalong Cassidy is one of the most famous -- if not the most famous -- Western heroes in the world. Created by Clarence E. Mulford, the first Hopalong Cassidy novel, Bar-20 (whose full title is Bar-20: Being a Record of Certain Happenings that Occurred in the Otherwise Peaceful Lives of one Hopalong Cassidy and His Companions on the Range), appeared in either 1906 or 1907 (although the Library of Congress lists two 1907 editions, one of them, from The Outing Publishing Company, is currently missing), appears to collect a group of stories first published in 1904, but the character would go on to greater fame in a series of 66 movies, as well as his own radio and television programmes.

There is precious little in the way of character development in Bar-20: the characters associated with Hopalong are scarcely distinguishable from one another (indeed, Hopalong's -- he's never called "Hoppy" here, unlike in his other media appearances -- closest friend, Red Connors, is distinguishable from Hopalong primarily by his preferred weapon: a rifle, as opposed to Hopalong's partiality for the six-shooter; both men are redheads), although one might be better at roping steers and another might be better at "broncho" busting, while the foreman of the Bar-20 ranch, Buck Peters, is slightly less impulsive than the brawling, yowling, over-grown schoolboys he rides herd on much as they ride herd on the ranch's cattle due to his age; in terms of personality, there's not a hair's difference between most of them (although the lugubrious Billy stands out as the Eeyore of the group), and thus it's difficult to form a preference for one over the others. Here Hopalong is a 23-year-old who acts more or less how one would expect an actual twenty-something male in the late 1800s to act in his milieu, to wit: he curses (these are largely elided, save for the occasional "damn" or "hell;" more common are semi-humorous, sometimes esoteric, euphemisms, such as, in Chapter XI ["Holding the Claim"], Hopalong calls a calf a "'trellis-built rack of bones'" [p. 112] and his friend Red a "'pie-eating doodlebug'" [p. 113]), smokes, drinks, uses his ferocious skill with firearms to kill when necessary (and sometimes, perhaps, when it's not strictly necessary), and willingly makes the acquaintance of ladies of easy virtue; this is in marked contrast to his other media appearances. Thanks to William Boyd, a white-haired actor whose previous claim to fame was having proposed marriage to his co-star Elinor Fair while filming the 1926 movie The Volga Boatman (she accepted, although they divorced three years later), Hopalong became "'a veritable Galahad of the range, a soft spoken paragon who did not smoke, drink or kiss girls, who tried to capture the rustlers instead of shooting them, and who always let the villain draw first if gunplay was inevitable,'" according to Time magazine. Boyd became so identified with Hopalong Cassidy that he frequently wore his all-black cowboy outfit (Mulford makes no mention of Hopalong being clad entirely in black) in public; he was shrewd enough to buy the rights to the films and novels, and he licensed the character and his image to numerous child-oriented products, while NBC edited the films down to episodic length, making Hopalong Cassidy the first television western series. Indeed, Mulford himself revised his earlier work so that Hopalong and his friends were more consistent with their onscreen portrayals; Hopalong here has no very great regard for the finer points of the law, as when he dismisses Buck and Frenchy's cautionary tale of the sheriff of Topeka requiring all firearms to be turned in to the bartenders before their owners can be served with a rousing, "'To blazes with th' law!'" (Chapter IX: "The Advent of McAllister"; pps. 98-99).

There appear to be four or five stories comprising Bar-20; beyond dividing the stories equally into named chapters, with no other demarcations (such as "Part I," "Book I," or the name of the original stories) to indicate where one story ends and the next one begins, there is no other attempt to convert them into a seamless novel. The first five chapters are the most awkwardly written, with the stiff, formal, Victorian-style prose of the omniscient narrator sitting uneasily side-by-side with the more modern, though stylized, colloquialisms of the dialogue (the characters cannot usually be distinguished by their speech patterns); Mulford doesn't seem to find his voice until the sixth chapter ("Trials of the Convalescent"). (Another oddity: the hats worn by the cowboys are called sombreros, which was apparently what cowboys called any broad-brimmed hat instead of the specific headgear associated with the vaqueros and banditos of Mexico.) After roughly the halfway mark, the writing markedly improves, to the point of implying far darker deeds than Boyd or the Hays Office would ever allow: the conclusion of Bar-20's strongest episode, an all-out range war against a gang of exceptionally crafty rustlers who have successfully preyed upon half a dozen different ranches, strongly implies that one of the supporting characters, Frenchy, tortured and/or mutilated one of the chief rustlers before administering the customary "frontier justice" meted out to rustlers (i.e., hanging; see Chapter XXII: "The Showdown"; p. 213). This tantalizing hint of what Bar-20 could've been -- something more interesting than the gory and obvious Peckinpahesque revisionist western that most obviously suggests itself -- was enough to make this reader grind his teeth in frustration.

The violence in Bar-20 in the early chapters is cartoonish, reminiscent of a parody of the 1980s TV show The A-Team: characters who are fatally shot die immediately and bloodlessly, while characters who are wounded, even to the point of having been shot in a limb, are able to continue fighting without impediment until the fight is over. One only has to have read a couple of H. Rider Haggard's books published twenty years prior to Bar-20 to realize that Mulford didn't have to write his action scenes this way. While the violence never quite rises to the zest and pungency of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard at their best, it does improve over its earliest appearances.

The provenance of Hopalong's byname is explained Chapter VII ("The Open Door"), where it is revealed that Hopalong "had received the wound that crippled him [really, left him with a slight limp] in saving the sheriff [of Albuquerque, Harris] from assassination" (p. 61); "..from this episode on the burning desert grew a friendship that was as strong as their own natures" (ibid). Mulford ascribes some of the characteristics to Harris that Boyd would claim for Hopalong -- "No profane word had ever been known to leave his lips, and he was the possessor of a widespread reputation for generosity" (p. 62) -- but, two pages after he's introduced, he's killed off, obviating the potential for the portrayal of an odd-couple friendship between Hopalong and Harris.

The appetite for new Hopalong adventures was such that a young pulp author named Louis L'Amour was commissioned to write four of them, under the house name "Tex Burns," by Doubleday in 1950; these were originally published in bowdlerized form in keeping with the portrayal of Hopalong in film, comic books, radio and television, but were posthumously republished with L'Amour's original "adult" writing restored.

If one has a keen interest in the development of the western serial hero, or if one is interested in a slightly more nuanced version of the goody-two-shoes character portrayed by William Boyd, then Bar-20 is worth a read; for the mildly curious reader, such as myself, it's less certain that further perusal of Mulford's work will offer greater rewards than a deeper dive into, say, the work of Rider Haggard, Howard, Talbot Mundy, or Harold Lamb.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

You ain't NEVER had a friend like ME...

Shop till you drop (someone else): a review of Stephen King's Needful Things.

From Sunday, 26 January 2014 to Wednesday, 5 February 2014, I read Stephen King's Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story (NY: Signet [published by the Penguin Group, Penguin Books USA Inc], 1992 [copyright 1991]; mass market paperback edition [movie tie-in edition]; ISBN: 0-451-17859-9; 736 pps.]), with illustrations by Bill Russell.
cover to Needful Things by Stephen King -- movie tie-in ed

Needful Things purports to be the last story set in Stephen King's fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine (and explicit reference is made to events that occurred in it in previous books: The Dead Zone, Cujo and The Dark Half being the most prominent), even though it has continued to be referenced in several subsequent books and stories, the latest of which is the much-ballyhooed sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep. It has an irresistible premise: an urbane, courtly gentleman going by the name of Leland Gaunt opens a store called Needful Things in the dying, if not dead in all but name, downtown of Castle Rock, which proves to be quite a bit more than the usual Lovejoy-like New England antiques store designed to separate the summer tourists and leaf peepers from their disposable income; though relatively little merchandise is actually on display, Mr. Gaunt shows himself to be capable of supplying simply anything material that a body desires, no matter how esoteric or how specific the item is to one's own past. His prices seem more than fair, as he does not empty out the townsfolks' bank accounts or max out their credit cards the way they suppose he would some pushy tourist's; the main thing that Mr. Gaunt demands in return for an otherwise priceless item is a practical joke, a prank, á la the MTV series Punk'd, played on another town resident, always one with whom the customer has a minimal connection.

Only a very dim or inexperienced reader would fail to note the ominous and alarming foreshadowing with which King paints Mr. Gaunt; Gaunt and his store recall, in a way, Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao (the basis of the 1964 George Pal movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Bradbury's Mr. Dark in Something Wicked This Way Comes, while the whole ambiance of the town and the townsfolk suggests an updated, even more cynical version of Sinclair Lewis's parochial characters. What is more interesting to even the occasional horror fan is the fact that King explicitly references the Lovecraftian mythos -- Gaunt tells a newly recruited stooge named Ace Merrill that the cocaine that he's given him comes from "the Plains of Leng," which lie "[o]ver the hills and far away" (Chapter Twelve, Section 10; p. 372; the same page has Ace thinking that this nose candy had "that vague banana-lemon taste that really good cocaine always seemed to have," which almost piqued my curiosity enough to actually try some -- almost), and later sends him to a garage in an insalubrious part of Boston that has a graffito reading "YOG-SOTHOTH RULES" spray-painted on its back wall (Chapter Fourteen, Section 2; p. 409) -- which is doubly interesting given that King has said that Lovecraft's writings were the single biggest influence on his own writing. Thankfully, for this reader, King's style is usually much more felicitous than Lovecraft's, and he seems to evince far fewer of Lovecraft's fears and prejudices, although a few characters here, as in It, do talk smack against those of French descent, which was another of Lovecraft's bugaboos, and certain of the female characters -- particularly those besotted with Elvis Presley -- and the homosexual characters are bit too prejudicial in their presentation for me to say that Needful Things is wholly free of the shadow of Lovecraft's misogyny and homophobia. (As a side note, one might well make a case for Mr. Gaunt being an incarnation of Nyarlathotep, given his physical appearance, the fact that he's been around the block a time or three, and his provenance in one of Lovecraft's dreams, which he described in a letter to Reinhardt Kleiner in 1921 [cited in the Wikipedia entry on Nyarlathotep]: "Don't fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible — horrible beyond anything you can imagine — but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed....Nyarlathotep was a kind of itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in public halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions. These exhibitions consisted of two parts — first, a horrible — possibly prophetic — cinema reel; and later some extraordinary experiments with scientific and electrical apparatus.")

The main characters in Needful Things are Sheriff Alan Pangborn, last seen in The Dark Half -- he's not nearly so skeptical here as he was there (for reasons that should be blindingly obvious to anyone who's read The Dark Half, but which should be easily surmised by anyone who hasn't, even if they have only a nodding acquaintance with the general tenor of Stephen King's work), and he's given an interest in stage magic that I didn't recall him having in The Dark Half -- his love interest, Polly Chalmers, who owns a dressmaker shop in town, and an 11-year-old boy named Brian Rusk, who has a crush on his speech therapist and is Mr. Gaunt's first customer in Castle Rock. While I found myself drumming my fingers with impatience during the first two hundred-odd pages of the novel as King introduced the various townies and their interpersonal conflicts, my quasi-boredom was soon relieved by a Tarantinoesque duel on a residential street corner; I can honestly say that, as with Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, a few hundred pages of near-boredom is absolutely essential for the effectiveness of the payoffs in both books. (A quibble: King should've introduced the breadth and depth of the decades-long feud between the Baptists and the Catholics -- which reminded me a bit of a funhouse mirror version of the conflict between the High Church [Anglican] and Low Church [a more evangelical and explicitly Protestant style resembling that of the Methodists and the Baptists, though still a part of the Anglican Church] in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers -- far earlier, in order for this conflict's becoming overt to have a greater impact.) The finale manages to scratch several itches at once: violent spectacle, gross-out horror, and awe, wonder and fright at supernatural happenings made explicit; if I was most incredulous, at the end, over how quickly the survivors of Mr. Gaunt's influence returned to reasonable semblances of their former public selves, well, I have to admit that I was almost as mentally tuckered-out by all the wild wowsers as said survivors were. I mean, hell, fun's fun, but it's gotta end sometime, or else it ain't fun anymore, eh?

Though I've yet to read any further in King's The Dark Tower series than the first volume (I read the originally published edition of The Gunslinger, not the wholly rewritten version published in 2003), I have a sneaking suspicion that, even though he wrote Needful Things between October 24, 1988 and January 28, 1991, he was loosely tying the events of Needful Things's zippity-pow climax into the larger tapestry of The Dark Tower. (The second volume, The Drawing of the Three, came out in 1987, while the third volume, The Waste Lands, was published the same year as Needful Things.)

Ah, but what mischief could Mr. Gaunt wreak today, with the internet as a tool, for all that he likes to give his business that personal, face-to-face touch....

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

SMILE when you say that!

"'I never took the legal stuff too serious'": a review of Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa.

From Friday, 24 January to Sunday, 26 January, I read Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons [published by the Penguin Group], 2005; ed.: 1st ed., hardcover; 276 pps.; ISBN: 978-0-399-15277-6); this is the first book in the Cole-Hitch quadrilogy. This was the first book that I started and finished in 2014, and the first book of fiction that I read in 2014.
cover to Robert B Parker's Appaloosa

Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa is the first book in the Cole-Hitch quadrilogy (it's followed by Resolution [2008], Brimstone [2009], and Blue-Eyed Devil [2010], which was published posthumously; a fifth book, Robert B. Parker's Bull River, published on 7 January 2014, was written by Robert Knott, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation for the 2008 movie with actor / director Ed Harris); it's a western set in the early 1880s about a pair of itinerant lawmen-for-hire ("town tamers" is the term usually applied to them) named Virgil Cole (a borderline psychopath who adheres to written laws -- even if he writes them himself -- to rein in, more or less, his own murderous impulses as much as he does to restore some semblance of law and order to the towns whose sheriff or marshal he serves as) and Everett Hitch. In this installment, they are hired to defend a sleepy copper mining town in the New Mexico Territory named Appaloosa against the ravages of a rancher named Randall Bragg and his gunnies. Complications ensue with the arrival of a widow named Allie French, who secures employment as a piano-player in the saloon of the town's hotel, largely on the strength of her looks; she certainly doesn't obtain employment based on her piano-playing skill.

This is a cookie-cutter premise, but the interest lies in what Parker does with it. Parker's style here is spare and terse, almost laconic to a fault; people who dislike detailed descriptions of scenery, clothing, equipment, and characters' personal histories should rejoice, for they are wholly absent from Appaloosa. Parker's prose here puts one in mind of a bullion cube: everything is distilled down to its bare essence, such that one wishes for some water to thin it a bit in places. You may have to force yourself to slow down a bit so the whole thing doesn't fly by in a dreamlike blur; still, there is no grandiose bloviating about What it Means to be A Man, in the manner of Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, or Owen Wister, which is a definite plus to my mind. That said, readers who are averse to too much "modernity" in their westerns may want to think twice before reading Appaloosa: though the prose and dialogue can in no way be described as florid (á la the dialogue in HBO's late, lamented Deadwood series), f-bombs (and c-bombs...) are lobbed, bodily functions and anatomical parts are described plainly, even bluntly, and women of easy virtue are not shielded with a variety of genteel euphemisms.

For the reader willing to surrender to Parker's rhythms, Appaloosa does offer better than pulp-fictional pleasures: Everett Hitch is an agreeable first person narrator who harbors few illusions about his own abilities or motives (he prefers work that will allow him the greatest scope for using his gun -- preferably a shotgun -- which is one reason why he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army) who recounts, in a brief flashback, how he met and was pulled into the orbit of Virgil Cole, an almost superhumanly gifted gunfighter who continually picks his way through books -- Clausewitz's On War is a particular favorite -- to improve himself; as a consequence, he is prone to uttering malapropisms as he attempts to use words he has recently learned (many of these pass unremarked by Hitch; it's left to the reader's discretion as to whether Hitch himself is aware of all of them or if, in the manner of one half of an old married couple, he simply elides over much of his partner's speech in the interest of continued accord). There is also some rather pungent and, ultimately, dispiriting symbolism regarding an Appaloosa stud, residing rather far afield from the breed's native range, and his harem of mares. And the climactic showdown in the final chapter is a jaw-dropping exercise sure to take its place in creative writing textbooks as an exemplar of how to write violence, right alongside Fitzgerald's scene of domestic violence in The Great Gatsby.

While I read Appaloosa five years after seeing the movie based on it in the theatre, the book is sufficiently different from the movie -- the points emphasized in the novel are different from those underlined in the film -- that it can be enjoyed on its own merits. The minor drawback of seeing the movie first is that the reader is apt to picture Ed Harris as Virgil Cole, Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, Renée Zellweger as Allie French, and Jeremy Irons as Randall Bragg; this isn't entirely a bad thing, as the actors are mostly well-cast, although I could quibble with how Irons stacks up with the impression of Bragg given in the book, and one could wish for an actress a bit more alluring than Zellweger to play the femme fatale Allie French. (Although the biggest miscasting, to my mind, is of Lance Henriksen as one of Bragg's main gunnies, Ring Shelton: while Henriksen is by no means bad here, he's not a comfortable match for Parker's description of Ring.) The movie omits one instance of Virgil Cole's horrific propensity for violence that casts a long shadow over his character in the novel; I prefer the novel's portrait of Virgil, but the movie is a worthwhile way to spend two hours. (One way in which the movie trumps the book: the song that plays over the end credits, sung by Ed Harris in a style reminiscent of a tanked-to-the-eyeballs Unknown Hinson, "You'll Never Leave My Heart," which essentially sums up the events of the movie, in a salty cowboy fashion; Harris co-wrote this number with his composer, Jeff Beal.)

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Hercules thinkin' oodles o' swears

Fuck Fimbulwinter.

This year, I've been forced to give a hard rethink to my former quasi-enjoyment of winter.

I had to buy a new battery for my car (a 2003 Kia Spectra) on Friday, 3 January, as it was "dead, Jim!" Went to work a little over two hours late as a result.

The metro Detroit area got clobbered with between 7 and 11 inches of snow and subzero temperatures on Sunday, 5 January and Monday, 6 January (the city where I live got eleven throbbing inches; it dipped to forty below). Missed work that day: impassible roads, my trailer park was indifferently plowed, plus I had some sort of gastro-intestinal complaint.

The area roads were lousy but drivable on Tuesday, 7 January, so in to work I went; took me roughly twenty minutes longer than it normally does.

When I went to leave work that night, however, the car wouldn't turn over, despite having a new battery installed in it four days previously. (It also had an oil change the Saturday after Christmas.) I'm obliged to park by a freeway at my office complex. This means that, whenever the accursed "polar vortices" or "Alberta clippers" or whatever ridiculous name the weatherpersons are calling our windstorms these days, are blasting our way, there's no windbreak to even partly protect my car.

So: my car started in the morning of Monday, 6 January and ran for half an hour or so as I dug it out, and it started in the morning of Tuesday, 7 January; it did not start in the night of Tuesday, 7 January. My eldest had to pick me up before he went to work on the midnight shift.

I took my wife's van to work on Wednesday, 8 January, but, as we'd gotten more snow and the various road crews (county and local municipalities) hadn't yet really tackled the latest precipitation, my commute once again took me twice as long as it normally does.

My eldest and my wife drove out to my office complex during the late afternoon of Wednesday, 8 January, to attempt to revive my car; as it started right up, my wife drove it home.

Come the morning of Thursday, 9 January, I had to crank the starter five or six times that morning before the motor would turn over; the car is partly protected by our house, which is doubtless the only reason it deigned to start at all.

On Tuesday, 21 January, I awoke to discover that we had no running water. We did have water when I went to bed at 3:30 a.m. Monday night / Tuesday morning. I called the offices of our trailer park, the city's DPW maintenance and the city's DPW billing, to no avail: they assured me that the problem wasn't on their end, even though the missus looked at our water pipes behind the skirting and reported that they appeared to be fine. I dropped just under twenty bucks on twelve gallons of purified water and two flats of 24 16 oz. bottles of spring water to give me and my family a potable (and washable, and flushable; c. 3 gals. to flush a toilet to a semi-clean state after, uh, "heavy use," FWIW) water supply. I'm afraid that I didn't exhibit manly (or British) self-restraint and equanimity this day. Missed work, trying to resolve this crisis.

Called the park-approved repairmen on Wednesday, 22 January; before I did so, I inspected the main water pipes myself, and discovered a cone of ice beneath the pipe nearest the shut-off valve, connected to a break in the pipe by a finger of ice perhaps half the width of a standard pencil. (How the missus overlooked this is beyond either of us; I suppose I should've stuck my head under the house the previous day instead of merely standing next to her, holding the skirting panels that she'd removed.) The total bill was a bit over $700; the park-approved repairmen informed us that our water meter and crock weren't properly installed -- the water meter was underground, when it should've been above it -- and, what is more, we were lacking something called a "freezer plate," which is doubtless why the one pipe burst and froze, or froze and burst, whichever. (Will these park-approved repairmen say the same thing to the site managers of the park? Very doubtful. Am trying to cajole the missus, who abhors anything to do with normal business, to try to convince the park managers to at least partly compensate us, since the break wouldn't have happened if they had installed the water meter and crock on our lot correctly in the first place. She doesn't work, so theoretically she should be better able to wrangle with our park's office than I am.) Went to work nearly two hours late; had to take a shower at a neighbor's. (They weren't home the previous day, nor were the other neighbors we're on friendly enough terms with to allow us to cadge the occasional emergency shower.)

When I went to leave the office on Friday, 25 January, my car once again wouldn't start, owing to another wintry blast that brought the windchill or "real feel" temperature to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. My eldest was obliged to pick me up, but at least he didn't work that night. This afternoon, he and my wife picked up the car, and, once again, it started right up. I was able to run errands with it after she drove it home.

The missus, and her van, will be out of town this upcoming week, which sharply curtails my options should my Kia once again fail to start, either at work or at home; we're supposed to have more high winds and sub-zero windchills, if not actual temperatures, by next Tuesday. I wish that I could plunk my magic twanger and whomp up a sable coat for my car's motor; but I also wish that Kias were better able to handle sustained arctic winds in the first damn place. (And, seriously, why would a car designed and originally manufactured in a country with as frigid winters as South Korea's be so laughably unable to function in the cold??)

But, really, Old Man Winter? Jack Frost? Snow Miser? Whatever the hell you're calling yourself? You need to hit the road. Don't let the door smack you in the ass.