Friday, 18 May 2018

Weird Tales and Missing Links (Part II)



As I promised in the last post, here is part two and thirteen more tales to go through. Do they stack up to the first half? Read on and find out.

The second half of the Weird Tales Superpack only contains stories from the original run of the magazine. Unlike last time there are no pieces from any of the reboots or relaunches.

That is just fine with me as, from what I have seen, post-original run stories are not Weird Tales at all but cutesy and comedic farces more in tone with what would run in the pointlessly influential Unknown Magazine by John W. Campbell instead of the genre-mixing and tradition-linking stories the pulps were known to be. It does not mean every story here is great, but it means they try to achieve a similar goal. There is nothing quite like a pulp story, and a weird tale is even harder to get right, but these stories continue in the vein jut as much as the ones I covered in the first part of this series. For the amount of content it offers, this pack is more than worth the paltry price in goes for.

The stories I will be covering here are:

"The Medici Boots" by Pearl Norton Swet (September, 1936)
"The House in the Valley" by August Derleth (July, 1953)
"More than Shadow" by Dorothy Quick (July, 1954)
"In the Dark" by Ronal Kayser (August-September, 1936)
"Dearest" by H. Beam Piper (March, 1951)
"Doom of the House of Duryea" by Earl Pierce, Jr. (October, 1936)
"The Mississippi Saucer" by Frank Belknap Long (March, 1951)
"Mask of Death" by Paul Ernst (August-September, 1936)
"The Ring of Basset" by Seabury Quinn (September, 1951)
"Tiger Cat" by David H. Keller (October, 1937)
"Old Mr Wiley" by Greye La Spina (March, 1951)
"The Long Arm" by Franz Habl (October, 1937)
"The People of the Black Circle" by Robert E. Howard (September, 1934)

Another spread like last time. I am unsure why there is not much taken from the 1940s, but it is what it is. Let's get back into it.

The first story in this piece is The Medici Boots by Pearl Norton Swet. This one is about the titular relics from an old age, a pair of boots with a secret. A young woman tries them on and mysterious things start to happen. She begins to change. It's a bit predictable and the ending just sort of happens, but the whole story behind the boots is fascinating.

Next we have August Derleth's The House in the Valley which is a Lovecraftian tale. I've never read Mr. Derleth's work before, though I have tremendous respect for his contributions to genre fiction. My problem is that I dislike Lovecraftian fiction fully and absolutely. I enjoy Weird Tales. I enjoy horror tales. I enjoy the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I do not like pastiche and I do not like aping of others. The reason is that I read stories because art is meant to connect the reader and creator to something above both parties. That connection is hampered by the creator refusing to follow their own muse. It doesn't mean one can't write a good story with another's parts, it simply means I won't be invested in the makeshift vehicle. Part of that problem is highlighted in this very tale. Mr. Derleth does not understand, like everyone who writes such fiction, that the appeal of Mr. Lovecraft is the clash between reality and unreality, and the certain with the uncertain, all done with high dramatics and an odd understatement, which makes them glorious contradictions of entertainment. Mr. Derleth is simply writing a monster story, and the bolted on Lovecraft parts hurts it. This was an utter bore.

More Than Shadow by Dorothy Quick is next. A shadow the shape of a dog appear on a carpet and soon enough a dog appears that acts just like the shadow did. It takes a lot of skill to make a poodle, of all dogs, eerie, but the author manages it and then some. This was a welcome return to the expected style of Weird Tales after the last story completely broke the pace. I will definitely seek out more Quick to read in the future.

Following on that is Ronal Kayser's In the Dark. After hours at a chemical plant, the watchman and the president are alone. As the watchman does his rounds, the president is leaving a recorded message behind. You see, he has done some terrible, awful things and is falling apart in his guilt. But there was more to it than a simple crime. A lingering ghost clings to him and pries at his consciousness. This was fantastic. I was engaged from page one until the end of this short piece. It sure is nice to get back into the good material again after the disappointment of Derleth's tale.

Then we come to Dearest by H. Beam Piper. An old colonel deals with his relatives trying to put him away. He had taken them in after his brother died, and they now use the excuse of his advanced age to take their share of the inheritance and put him away. Stories like this never really stop being relevant, unfortunately, though there is no preaching about the issue here, thankfully. A voice speaks to the protagonist one day out of the blue and begins telling him things. They strike up an odd relationship that leads to an ending that is quite extreme. Personally, I think it goes on a bit too long after that climax, but the story is strong enough that it didn't bother me.

Following on that is a longer piece by Earl Pierce Jr. entitled Doom of the House of Duryea. A man named Arthur Duryea reconvenes with his father after a twenty year absence. Arthur's aunt warned him of his father's secret: that is vampirism. But it is not the sort of vampirism you might be thinking of. This weird tale ramps up with its eerie atmosphere to an ending that is as creepy as it is horrifying. One of the best here.

The Mississippi Saucers by Frank Belknap Long is next. In this story, a boy named Jimmy rides shantyboat along the river with his sister and uncle. He reads in the paper of what looks to be a monster flying in the sky. Soon enough he finds himself tangled up with forces outside of his control. Isn't it funny how before the '80s one could write a story with a child as a protagonist and not have it classified as an entirely different genre? Because even though being a child affects how Jimmy acts and sees the world, it does not change this from being a Weird Tale like any other one here. It was probably because no one needed a protagonist to look like them to be invested in a story. Would be nice to go back to that again. Anyway, I digress. It turns out the object is a UFO. But before he can deal with that some men come to his uncle's boat to cause trouble. The weakness of this story is that the UFO has to be explained (as does the very hokey and unneeded transhumanist message) which takes a lot of the mystery and wonder out of what was already a strong piece. It also goes on too long. But as a whole it is a fun piece.

We then come to the infamous Dr. Satan. This a story about a mysterious man who has all kinds of knowledge of the occult and uses it to commit crimes while a detective foils his schemes. You see, Weird Tales once tried to have their own pulp "hero" (actually a villain) for the magazine. Those who wrote into the magazine apparently protested, so it didn't last, but at least they gave it a go to try and tap the market. This story is by Paul Ernst and is called Mask of Death. It's a decent mystery, but not very engaging and takes far too long to get going. It wasn't that readers of the magazine were adverse to heroics (Conan made his debut here, after all) but that the story and villain character just are not very strong or engaging. There's more than a little unfulfilled potential in an occult powered villain who terrorizes the innocent. The ending also has everyone sitting around and discussing how the problem was solved which is not very Weird Tales at all and, like the last story, drags the weirdness out. Not a bad story, but definitely not a highlight. This tale just doesn't do it for me.

Thankfully we get back into what we all came here for with the single biggest contributor to Weird Tales' entire 31 year run. That would be Seabury Quinn who wrote 146 tales, and the story included here is The Ring of Bastet. This one star his famous Dr. Jules de Grandin, occult detective. The doctor and his friend are eating at a restaurant when a party comes in and a woman passes out. She's wearing a certain ring which leads things to spin out of control. This story is a lot like the previous story but done far better with smoother pacing and a plot that constantly moves from one point to the next. It is easy to see why the character appeared so much in the magazine while Dr. Satan died off.

David H. Keller's Tiger Cat follows and brings us away from detective stories. A man buys a villa (actually a mountain!) and discovers a door that has not been opened by previous residents. What he finds on the other side is the stuff nightmares are made of. The biggest disappointment with this is the lack of blatant fantastical elements. This could have slid right into a weird menace magazine. But it is still quite engaging to the end.

Old Mr Wiley by Greye La Spina is one of the better known storytellers from Weird Tales even if her work has not been in print for a long time. In this one a boy has grown ill and his great-grandfather gives him a puppy to cheer him up. But because the mother is a selfish person, they have to meet in secret so the boy can see the animal. His nurse plots to make him better without upsetting her employers. This story was a delight with colorful characters and an ending that had me wanting more. One of the the best in the pack. I'll definitely by looking for more of her work in the future.

We then come to The Long Arm by Franz Habl, a more traditional horror piece. The main character meets an old friend who begins to spill his guts about some shady things that happened in the past. Strange deaths and mental abilities are pieces of the dark puzzle that is his friend's story, and leads to an ending that you might not see coming unless you know Weird Tales. It was a good story, but the abrupt ending could have used a bit more meat to it.

Lastly, we reach another piece by Robert E. Howard to bookend the collection. This one is known as The People of the Black Circle, and is one of his most popular. As one would imagine, this is a Conan story. A princess begs for help after being tormented by sorcerers and having her brother, the king, killed. Of course she comes upon Conan who is more than willing to take up the task and slay any sorcerer scourge. There is much else aside from the main plot, multiple character motivations, and plenty of action to go around to end this Weird Tales pack off right. Howard was one of the best for a reason.


One odd thing about these stories is not just their strangeness, but their general uniform intent. If I had not known better I could have sworn they were all written for this anthology, all at the same time, and all following a very vague theme. You would not know these 20+ stories all spanned a thirty year range otherwise as these authors are all following a tradition going back to at least Edgar Allen Poe and are all doing so while letting their own individual talents and interests filter their attempts. This linked tradition is what hold them all together to form a greater whole which is probably why Weird Tales garnered such a readership that was so loyal at its peak and why it is the most fondly remembered pulp magazine.

But I will add one note. This only happened after I had read most of the stories here, but it became very noticeable to me. I noticed a shift in latter entries.

The later stories contained more mundane settings and resulted in less fantastical elements aside from a monster or two. Even the more realistic settings are not given quite the wondrous touch the earlier stories gave. Something had definitely changed with Weird Tales. The stories edited by Farnsworth Wright (pre-1940) had fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all in weird and wondrous locations that were just as fascinating as the strange problems the protagonists found themselves embroiled in. It felt like fantasy that was one step from being real. A large chunk of the post-1940 stories all take place in cities or suburban areas and have a tendency to over-explain the mysterious element. They read more like normal horror stories. The fantastical settings are almost entirely gone, as well.

Now, this doesn't really hurt quality, as some of the post-1940 stories are better than the earlier ones, but it is a noticeable shift. I'm not sure if this can be blamed on the editor change, but I think it has more to do with shifting tastes of the authors writing. A number of the same people who wrote in mundane settings would go on to write for John W. Campbell's Unknown which specialized in muddying up wonder and imagination to water down fantasy itself. And Unknown was never popular with readers so it clearly wasn't an audience choice for this shift.

Nonetheless, just about every story here is more interesting than the mainstream short fiction anthologies of today. If you want to know why the popularity of short stories dropped off, this shift from the way Weird Tales did it might have had a lot to do with the problem. But that has nothing to do with this release.

There is nothing but storytelling here. No preaching, no nihilism, no attempt to inform the reader of a truth that their ignorant brains haven't yet comprehended, no perfect vision of the future spoon fed to the audience (aside from one hokey story), and no snarky irreverence to reality itself. These were written for one purpose: to entertain. And that's exactly what they do.

Are these tales dated? That depends on what weasel-word terminology one uses to define their claim. They were written in specific eras which means the characters speak in dialects common to those time periods. As they should. I don't know when the ridiculous charge of "dated" meant that authors should have psychic abilities that let them understand terminology and phrases that arose after their deaths, but I also do not understand why certain critics have the need to punish them for these "problems" the writers could not have foreseen. In that aspect, they are timeless.

The writers were attempting to link to a tradition older than themselves. Regardless of time or space, these tales go beyond a simple charge of being irrelevant because they aim for greater things than speculating on science that might be proven wrong in a few years or a social fad everyone will be laughing at even sooner. They hit on eternal truths and are focused on a form of entertainment made to pass down through the ages, regardless of fads or trends. This are timeless.

If there's a reason they are dated it is because we no longer allow ourselves to link to traditions or generations older than our own. We are focused on stories that exist as mirrors to reflect back on us instead of ones that exist as windows to a potentially bigger and greater world than the one we live in. If there's a reason they are dated it is because we have lost our imagination. If there is a reason they are dated it is because we have no link with those who lived before us.

If that is the case then we have bigger problems to worry about than an inability to enjoy old fiction.

Because only the old can stand the test of time.



I write Weird Fiction of my own, though in the Action Adventure genre. Want to follow an ex-punk as he battles mud monsters from Hell on a dying world? I've got you covered.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Book of Thirty-Three ~ A Review of "Wonder Tales" by Lord Dunsany


Who is Lord Dunsany?

There was a time when that question would be absurd to any Fantasy fan, but that was in a time when his work was more easily available. It's hard to believe now, but Lord Dunsany was the king of Fantasy literature. There was a time where he was the most imitated writer in the field and was considered one of the fathers of modern genre fiction with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt. His name was synonymous with Fantasy. But that was a long time ago. His influence is still felt today, though not in the ways one would think.

The 18th Baron of Dunsany was an Irish writer named Edward J. M. D. Plunkett. He was a storyteller of considerable talent and most certainly the single most influential Fantasy writer of the last century. He inspired just about everyone from J. R. R. Tolkien to H.P. Lovecraft to Jack Vance to Michael Moorcock to Clark Ashton Smith and beyond. Not only was his influence immense, but so was the quality of his work. He wrote fantastical and wondrous weird tales and did it in a space that would put most modern writers to shame.

This is a review of his most easily accessible work, Wonder Tales.

Wonder Tales is a collection of two books. The first is The Book of Wonder (1912) and the second is Tales of Wonder (1916) which combine together for 33 short stories. Despite that high amount, the book itself only comes out to 158 pages. The reason? These stories are compact.

Reading Dunsany is an alienating experience to anyone weaned on modern Fantasy gunk. While he might be long on description, he is also direct and to the point. He rarely relies on dialogue. He doesn't need 1200 pages to tell a complete story. He doesn't need meandering subplots or dozens of characters. He expresses an untold number of ideas in a mere three pages of story. He evokes wonder with simple and carefully chosen words in lush passages. He is everything Fantasy is currently not. This is so far away from where the genre is today that it is almost sickening reading these tales now. Every single problem with modern Fantasy is completely absent in these 33 tales.

As previously stated, this is a release containing two books. To assess it honestly is to say the first books is the stronger of the two. Dunsany's stories are better the shorter they are, and the stories in the first book are shorter and sharper. From a story about a centaur as he captures his bride to a piece about thieves that come across an ineffable terror that would make Lovecraft jealous to one about a terrifying race of Gibbelins, these are stronger as a whole. Not to say the second book is bad, but it is not as strong a whole piece as the first. Every tale in The Book of Wonder is 5 stars. If you were to find Wonder Tales it would be worth it for this half alone.

The second book is not as fantastical as the first. Settings are more modern and there is more of a Weird Tale approach. Don't get me wrong, it is still plenty fantastical and has mystery and action to spare, but the settings are (for the most part) more mundane and straightforward and the longer pieces drag and are too stretched out. The better stories are, once again, the shorter and more direct ones. In other words, the stories least like modern fantasy are the ones most worth reading. The tale of the outwitted giant, the one about a wizard plotting underneath the modern world, and the very Weird Tales-like The Exiles' Club are by far the highlights here. You also can't go wrong with well regarded classics like The Three Sailor's Gambit, The Loot of Loma, or The Three Infernal Jokes, either. It is mind-blowing how good some of these are to read nowadays. Despite not being quite as great as the earlier book as a whole, there is much excellence to be found here.

This is the sort of thing all writers of the fantastical should be handed to get their feet wet. Reading this makes it clear just how far off the mark fantasy has come since Dunsany was writing about Thangobrind the Jeweller and his unfortunate journey. There is no bloat, there is no grey sludge, there is no obsession with scatology, and there is no religion of the new. There are only imaginative locations filled with large characters who exist to paint pictures in the reader's mind. They were all written to inspire and instill wonder and delight the reader.

This is Fantasy.

This was Fantasy. This is not what traditional publishing puts out now.

The archivists of classic genre fiction have failed newer generations quite handily. Finding Lord Dunsany's work in print is not so easy. This release by Dover is easily the most common and easy to find release but even it is mostly unknown. Considering his influence on the most important writers of the twentieth century (though he is one as well) it is inexcusable that it is not as easy to find The Book of Wonder as it is to find something like A Wizard of Earthsea.

This goes for much of the best fantasy literature and how the industry has deliberately hobbled creativity and imagination by keeping classic material out of their hands for modern muck that only exists to smear mud in reader's faces and keep them miserable. Where fantasy now is nowhere near Dunsany. It's in the toilet and deeper into the sewer..

But just because they failed does not mean we can let their mistake remain. It is time to rediscover the classics.

Lord Dunsany is one the most best writers of wonder you will ever read. If you are a reader of Fantasy, a lover of adventure, or a writer of the wondrous, then this is essential reading. You will not find much on Dunsany's level. There is not much in the genre better than this, and certainly nothing from traditional publishing.

Give it a try and realize what you've been missing.

Highest recommendation.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Future To Fantasy: Ruminations On Retrowave

Full-sized version Here (Thanks to the Outrun Reddit)


I've posted before about the odd phenomenon of Retrowave (or Synthwave) music and how it has taken the underground music world by storm over the past decade, but I wanted to make a special post dedicated to the music and less to just the scene aspect. This is partially because I have been listening to it more and more and partially because it's rise is quite fascinating.

As has been pointed out by many, there weren't any real musical movements that came out of the '00s that weren't '90s derivatives, but there was one style that began taking shape there before finally blooming into an original style in the Year of Our Lord A.D. 2010 and has so far only improved in scope and quality every year since. That would be Retrowave (or Synthwave, but I prefer the Retrowave label for being more descriptive) which only grows more by the day. The '10s were the decade of this music.

There were always groups before this genre existed like Daftpunk that used '80s synths but there wasn't a uniform style. In the '00s, some artists like Kavinsky, Makeup and Vanity Set, Lifelike, Chromatics, and College, used '80s film scores as a basis for their electro music and planted the first seeds for what would later be a full blown style. This happened in 2006/2007 but didn't trend right off the bat. Slowly, however, it began to grow. Those that heard this new/old style took it a step further and by 2009 and 2010, FM Attack, Lazerhawk, and Miami Nights 1984, among others, came out with their debut albums that pretty well knocked the door of its hinges. Throughout the '10s the style grew tremendously in popularity and was found in just about anything.

You had it in video games like Hotline Miami and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and in movies like Drive and even in TV series like Stranger Things. This raised its profile considerably. The genre has only managed more and more popularity over the years without wavering from its core goal or audience. This is no mean feat.

But what was fascinating was how different all the branching styles became. Early synthwave from the late '00s all more or less had a very similar sound. When the genre really solidified, more possibilities showed themselves. And sure enough, the subgenres followed.

In the chart above you can see the names given. You have Outrun, Darksynth, Vocal Synthwave, Spacewave, Dreamwave, and Cyberpunk, as the six main subgenres. There are groups that crossover effortlessly and some who stick to their lane, but all tend to have excellent works that spill over to become general audience favorites. If you'd like suggestions for any of them I suggest the image above as it is filled with quality material, but I would like to focus on some albums I think deserve credit on their own. But that can wait.

First let's talk about each subgenre.



Outrun

Outrun is the name of Kavinsky's album which is in turn named after the classic arcade game and Sega racer. Outrun's soundtrack is well known to gamers as being a sunny, poppy, and atmospheric ride that instills feelings of adventure and wonder with hooks that always have you coming back. Magical Sound Shower, anyone?

This style is the one that gets most people into Retrowave, including those who might otherwise dismiss it as gimmick music. This is because Outrun is essentially the Action Adventure of the subgenres. Songs typically vary in tempo and length as well as mood at the drop of a hat to get the blood flowing and the listener energized. Outrun is about wonder and adventure. Would you want a style to get started with, this is the one to choose.

My personal favorite of this style include Tokyo Rose's The Chase: Last Run, Meteor's Inner Demon, Miami Nights 1984's Turbulence, and just about anything by Wolf & Raven.



Darksynth

Essentially where the metalheads congregate, Darksynth has a horror bent with heavy and more aggressively abrasive sounds. If you're a metal fan who wants to understand why this whole synth crap is taking off, then this is for you. Darksynth is all about eerie atmosphere and throwing the listener into the dark. Dance With The Dead really kicked this off with their atmospheric, yet rocking, tunes of monster busting goodness though even artists like Lazerhawk dabbled in it. It's all about rocking out.

Of course this specific aim also means its probably the least accessible style for an outsider to get into. But if you enjoy metal, cheesy horror, and/or blood, then this might scratch the itch. I personally have a harder time finding preferable material in this subgenre the most, but your mileage will probably vary from me.

My personal favorites in this style include Dance With The Dead's Out of Body, Mega Drive's 198XAD, and VHS Glitch's Evil Technology.



Vocal Synthwave

This is the most easy subgenre to understand. Vocal Synthwave basically amounts to artists attempting to recreate '80s pop music in the framework of Retrowave. Instead of just writing a Michael Jackson tune, one writes a tune that would match a dreamlike interpretation of the era and use lyrics to evoke a specific feel. It's not just a Synthpop tune that happens to have a singer. The lyrics tend to be far more ethereal and haunting than a typical pop song from the 80s would be.

The problem comes in how vocal artists coalesce with the other subgenres. Adding vocals fundamentally changes the game and makes it harder to stick apart from what is on the radio. In fact, a lot of what I've heard in this subgenre sounds closer to Owl City than it does to FM Attack, which is a downside to me. But there are artists that can knock it out of the park and make their vocal work match and merge flawlessly with the instrumentals. If you just can't get into purely instrumental music then you'll probably need to start here.

My personal favorites in this style include The Midnight's Nocturnal, Kristine's self-titled, and Sunglasses Kid's Graduation.



Spacewave

Another hard genre to talk about. This might be considered the opposite of Darksynth as Spacewave concerns itself with open and wide sounds and distance that put across an image of soaring through space itself and across metal monstrosities and steel-capped spaceships inside towering ancient cities on long forgotten planets. It's like prog rock without the aimless noodling and far more atmosphere.

The feeling of weightlessness and distant faraway hope crashes hard against heavy sounds in this subgenre. It's not the most popular style, but it is quite the favorite among many. Would you like to hear the soundtrack to your space opera epic? You'll find it here.

My personal favorites include Dynatron's Escape Velocity, Tommy '86's Outer Space Adventurer,  and anything by Volkor X.



Dreamwave

Probably the most well-known and liked style overall, Dreamwave prides itself on being a like a living dream where reality and the unknown crash in on each other on an empty city street at night. This subgenre encapsulates the feel of Retrowave best of all from its dreamy soundscapes and pop hooks to its remarkable use of 80s synth in surprising ways that would not have happened in the '80s proper. If you've ever heard a Retrowave song before you ever knew what the genre was then it was probably Dreamwave.

Of all the styles this is the one I think I've spent the most time listening to as it is remarkable for writing inspiration or just a pick me up. It offers by far the most variety of sounds of all the subgenres and is the one style most likely to be frequented by listeners of any of the others. It's the most straightforward style.

My personal favorites include FM-84's Atlas, D/A/D's The Construct, and Kalax's self-titled.



Cyberpunk

I don't know what it is about Cyberpunk that attracts so many, but of all the subgenres I think this is the most unique. Imagine a bleak cityscape punctuated by moments of beauty that slip through the darkness to remind you of something higher than where you are. The world is crumbling, but there is something beyond it that prevents you from also doing so. Cyberpunk differentiates itself from Darksynth in that it can have a sense of hope if it desires to and it differentiates itself from Spacewave in that it can get down and dirty if the situation calls for it. Its a bit of a bridge between the styles in that area.

I do think my opinion on this style might vary from others because my favorites are not what gets talked about much in this subgenre, but then my taste in Cyberpunk itself is much different than many others as it is. There is a sense of the transcendent and the loss of the ineffable that pervades in the genre like a good Gothic Horror story. I enjoy the fight against ever increasing odds in a world gone mad, and I also enjoy hope that is almost, but not quite, extinguished. This Cyberpunk musical style fits the bill better than most Cyberpunk fiction actually does.

My personal favorites include Noir Deco's Future To Fantasy (or anything by them), LeveL-1's Motherbrain, and Mega Drive's Futurescape.



As you can well see there is a lot of variety in these styles. There is a very clear reason why Retrowave grew to the height it has in a mere decade. You have a very good case for it still improving and growing, as well. While a lot of the kooky, so-random appeal has worn off, the artists continue to work and put out great music on what feels almost like a near monthly basis. It's quite impressive. There's something good almost every day now.

To finish this post off, I'd like to leave you with a final list. This is my list of my personal top 10 Retrowave albums without using more than one entry per artist.

You can use this as you like, maybe to find a new favorite for yourself, but you would hard pressed to find fault with any of them. This is some good stuff.



1. Miami Nights 1984 - Early Summer


I've said it before, but this was the album to get me into the genre. I'd listened to pieces of other albums like Lazerhawk's Redline, but they didn't stick. They had good tracks, but nothing that gelled as an album. This one got itself trapped in my head and listening to it for years at this point. For me, this is THE Retrowave album that describes the whole appeal better than any other.

Dreamy images of the summer, past, present, and future, and all it entails grip the listener through every piece. From the ethereal title track to the end, this is back to start greatness. If you want a single album to listen to to get you into Retrowave, I'd say this is the one to go with. The perfect summer album.

Thankfully you can find this classic (with a far less cool cover) on bandcamp.



2. The Midnight - Nocturnal


This one came out of nowhere for me. Most people had been singing these guys praises for years now, but I always thought they were just okay with some great songs. A lot of their vocal songs sounded more like Owl City than Retrowave. But with this album they hit it out of the park with all killer and no filler tracks and more sax than you can shake a stick at. The lyrics paint a very vivid picture, as do the layered sounds. Dark streets, forgotten corners, empty alleys, and a way to a better tomorrow. This is by far the best vocal synthwave album I've come across.

Fortunately, since they're pretty well known, their material is easy to find. The album is on their bandcamp.



3. Noir Deco - Future To Fantasy


Someone clearly likes Blade Runner. But beyond that clear influence, Noir Deco's Future To Fantasy is a soundscape that crawls through a destroyed future into a fantasy world beyond the ruins of the old one. It merges the utter despair of a soulless existence with the eternal hope of something far beyond it, and it progressively makes its way with each new track as it goes. This album blew me away the first time I heard it as it is the first to really get that feel that most Cyberpunk just doesn't get right that I like most from it. Danger and wonder rolled into one. This album is pretty close to perfect.

Noir Deco is truly unlike anything else in the genre, and their material being hard to find doesn't help them stand out like they should. But you can get all the tracks on this album in the compilation release they put out at CD Baby.



4. Mega Drive - Futurescape


Not his most well known work by any stretch, but by far my favorite. This album is only 6 tracks that get progressively longer but also expand in sound and scope. By the end you feel like you've been through a real futurescape. Most of Mega Drive's work is more driving and hard, but this one is subtle and airy. It slowly works its hooks into you.

I like this for much the same reason as Noir Deco's stuff, but this album has a much sharper and abrasive sound that makes it a good companion piece. If you want something more accessible, you might also prefer his excellent album 198XAD, but this is still my favorite piece he's done. It's sharp and to the point.

You can get this easily on his bandcamp page.



5. Tokyo Rose - The Chase: Last Run


Essentially a compilation of much of their early work with some remixes and brand new songs, this album is the complete package. From the first notes of the intro, you know what you're getting, and it doesn't let up from there. Top notch Outrun Retrowave with plenty of wide open roads and skies where there is no limit. Every track on here is perfectly picked and all are worthy of inclusion on any compilation you might want to toss on. Simply put, this album has no bad songs. It is one of the best in the genre.

It also runs a bit of the style gamut being that there are also Vocal Synthwave, Darksynth, and some Dreamwave tracks to go with the main Outrun style. This might actually be one of the best Retrowave albums to start with just for its breadth.

Thankfully this one appears to have been a big hit as it is easily available on the NewRetroWave bandcamp itself. Well deserved.



6. FM Attack - Dreamatic


This is the earliest album I've included on here, and I hope one doesn't get the wrong impression of FM Attack. This does not mean their only good work was their original as that is definitely not the case. Go listen to Deja Vu or Stellar to get even more excellent work. I'm only focusing on their first album because it is my favorite. This was the album to really sand the genre down to its core parts and that makes it endlessly re-listenable.

This is the first album to really nail it down. Each song fills the quota for dreamy yet driving synth that really gets the imagination going. You can't go wrong with this one.

It's easily available on FM Attack's bandcamp here.



7. Kristine - Kristine


It might seem like I'm including a lot of vocal artists on this list, but it is only that the ones I included are about all I really like. It's really that simple. Their inclusion here only testifies to how good the ones I included are. I've already said that this is the hardest subgenre to get me into because it's so difficult to hit right compare to the other ones. Kristine, however, gets it right. This was the second vocal synthwave album (after Nocturnal) to get me on the first listen.

Catchy hooks, old and new sounds merging effortlessly, and dreamy lyrics that hit the essence of what makes the genre work. You won't find much better than this album in the vocal style.

Unfortunately, she hasn't put out much other work, but this album is easily found on her bandcamp page here.



8. D/A/D - The Construct


This one is the hardest inclusion to explain. D/A/D manages to include such spare instrumentation yet has a very emotional undercurrent flowing through every track. I couldn't describe what really makes this album click so well for me compared to the others as this is just an album that works on a gut level. And I'm listing it here exactly for that reason.

I got this one lodged in my brain after a single listen. This album is one that is a lot less known than it should be, but it is engaging from the first note until the end.

Like a few other artists here, he doesn't have that much material available, and this is his only album. That said, it is at least readily available on his bandcamp page here.



9. Sunglasses Kid - Graduation


This album is a masterwork of popcraft that throws in everything but the kitchen sink to make an album that celebrates an era long ago. Sunglasses Kid clearly is a fan of cheery 80s movie scores, because he nails that feel throughout. This is the definition of a summer album. You'll be cranking this on high.

The ONLY blemish on this great album is the absolutely terrible rap included on the third song that ruins the positive vibe of the rest. The rapper wrote some awful lyrics and they really should have been rerecorded or scrapped. There is an instrumental version that I recommend seeking out instead. That aside, Graduation is a great summer album with great grooves and fun beats that will get a smile on even the most jaded jerk.

I'm kind of surpised this album isn't more well known as it has everything genre fans dig. You can even easily find it on his bandcamp page.



10. Dance With The Dead - Out of Body


I guess it's fairly obvious that I'm not the biggest Darksynth fan. My list is conspicuously missing many artists subgenre fans live for. Sorry. It's just not my bag. But there is some great material in the subgenre I like, and this is the best of them all.

Dance With The Dead plays some hard hitting yet very atmospheric pieces that stick with you long after the song's over. Good for inspiration, good for chilling, and good for rocking out, this album hit all the marks. If there is a single Darksynth album I'd recommend first it would be this one. It's the one I listen to the most.

These guys are no unknowns in the scene. You can easily find this on their bandcamp.



And that's all I've got for you today! I wanted to get together a post for the genre that was slightly more in depth than my last one, and I hope I succeeded. This music should definitely be talked about more than it is.

Retrowave (or Synthwave) is the best musical genre to emerge in a long time, and has a lot of places left to go. Here's hoping it will stick the path and continue to delight old listeners and draw in new ones for awhile to come. The genre deserves it.



Sign up for my mailing list to get a short story for free or you can get it on amazon for a dollar. It's a good old vigilante tale of superheroes and dark magic.

Also, if you're looking for good old 80s style action, there's always my most recent book. Join an ex-gang member as he finds himself up against mudmen from some place darker than Hell!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Shinobi III: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made



It has been a while since a video game post. Strap yourselves in because this week I'm gonna talk about something cool. The originator of '80s cool: Ninjas.

Coming back to the subject of video games, I once again turn to the classics. This time I want to talk about the Shinobi series, particularly the best and most underrated entry in the franchise. This is about Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master.

Sega has dropped the ball on many of their classic series since leaving the hardware market, but few did they let down more than this one. Essentially huge in the arcades, Master System, and the Genesis/Mega Drive, this series was well known in the early '90s. Shinobi stars a mysterious ninja named Joe Musashi as he saves the world from demonic beasts and beings who threaten the innocent and hope to drag the world into Hell.

This is actually the last game in the series starring Joe as future entries would star different characters unrelated to the original protagonist (though one game starred his father) and they went on to have different focuses in gameplay and atmosphere. But the original series peaked with Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. And it was quite the peak.


What makes Shinobi III (Super Shinobi II in Japan) so different from the rest of the series, and in my opinion puts it far above the others, is a combination of factors from the atmosphere, controls, and level design. There isn't really another game like this one, and most Sega fans go for the much stiffer and overly difficult Revenge of Shinobi instead, so it isn't really given its due. But it deserves so much more.

The first is how good the atmosphere is. It captures the solitary feel of a lone man out to stop a malevolence just out of sight of the normal world. The story is essentially about Joe Musashi finally cornering the last of his ancient enemies all alone on an abandoned island that houses dilapidated military bases, buried experiments, and enemies hidden in plain sight. It feels like an endgame for a ninja. This entry is very quiet in its mood with ninjas flipping and jumping everywhere with sudden spurts of violence punctuating the empty spaces and culminating in a final battle that is out of this world.

I'm not sure how to describe how this game makes you feel like a ninja better than any other does. You're not out in the open like Ninja Gaiden. You're not anime edge cool like the 3D Shinobi games or Naruto. You're not immortal or overly powered like every other '90s action series. You're the embodiment of every cool 80s ninja piece of fiction: you have the tools but you're still not invincible.

Shinobi III comes together with its aesthetics to make you feel like a warrior, and a cool one, but not a ridiculously over the top one. Of course you still ride horses, wall jump, throw projectiles, and surf, like the best '90s games, but the context you do it in makes all the difference.


The controls too are really tight. The Sega Genesis had a disadvantage over the Super Nintendo in that it only had three face buttons (later six, but it was too late to make a difference for most gamers) to the SNES's select button, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. This meant a lot of games shared between the systems needed control adjustments for players. Sega's first party games rarely suffered from the problem and Shinobi III is one that excelled with only three face buttons.

For the most part.

Joe can jump, throw kunai, and use ninja magic (ninpo) as his base attacks. He can also run, jump kick, high jump, throw a wheel of kunai, slash his katana, wall jump, and block attacks. He does all this with only three buttons. The amount of variety is insane and allows you to deal with enemy encounters in a variety of ways--such as trying a no kunai run for extra points and a high score or learning how to use invincible frames with the running attack or attempting to combo enemies and juggle your position with jump kicks. There is a lot to do and far more than any previous Shinobi game or ninja game period.

Of course this also comes with a downside. Because of the limited button real estate you can't always do what you want without inputting the wrong command. For instance, the katana is short range and requires being close to use, but it deals FAR more damage than throwing a kunai does. Risk Vs. Reward. But they are mapped to the same button. You can only use the katana if you are right beside an enemy or out of kunai altogether which can sometimes lead to the wrong attack being used. And there is no option to change the controls to change the mapping. They are always tied to the same button.

Late ports like the 3DS version allowed players to remap throw kunai and katana to different buttons which makes accidentally using the wrong one impossible, but the base Genesis game gives no option. It's quite annoying to lose out on bonus points because the wrong attack came out.

The high jump is also finnicky, requiring precise timing to master and makes a late stage level much harder than you'd think at first, but that's true for a lot of old platformers. It's about skill and mastering the controls. Once you do you'll hardly notice the timing, and it will become like second nature. There is just a learning curve to using it.

Nonetheless, these controls are tight.


The level design is even better, taking the player from gorgeous forests and mountains through empty plains and hidden bases in the underground to dark mansions and flying airships, and the designers take full advantage of each setting. You jump and swing through small labyrinths of metal, you platform on falling boulders, and you battle with monsters and robots that have really inventive patterns and attacks to master. These levels are tight.

The designers take advantage of advanced tactics, too. You can frequently learn to jump kick combo into hanging on the ceiling, or figure out the best places to wall jump to get better time through the levels. You can take them slowly, or learn to use the run and time your way through enemy attacks like a real boss ninja. The game rewards you for learning by making you look cool. This is key for an action game.

About the only tricky spot is, as mentioned earlier, learning the high jump, but that only really becomes necessary in the late game. By the time you get there, it should almost be second nature to have it down. If not then you can replay earlier levels until you have it down. You have much space and time to learn.

Also, the final boss is incredibly difficult compared to everything else in the game. He's not Ninja Gaiden hard (nothing in this game is) but he is an obvious spike in challenge that can frustrate with multiple forms. It did not feel like he was as fine-tuned as the rest of the game was. He is quite the beast.

But you still have to make it to him to make any complaints, so this is a minor quibble at best.


All these pieces come together to make one of the best action games of the 16-bit era. And since we're talking about the era with the two best video game systems ever made that says a lot. Shinobi III is up there with the 16-bit Mario and Sonic games, Mega Man X, Super Metroid, Contra III and Hard Corps, Rocket Knight Adventures, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Gunstar Heroes, and the other greats. If you haven't played it you really missed a gem.

It is a shame that this series was buried by Sega's incompetence, because it does deserve to be one with higher fame than it currently has. After one entry on the Saturn (with Mortal Kombat style graphics), it was resurrected on the PS2 with a 3D action game that had little to do with the originals and more to do with jumping on the Devil May Cry edge bandwagon. The sense of scale and adventure of the original games was totally lost by focusing only on combat in small arenas. After a spin-off/sequel of that game and one more sidescroller years later on the 3DS, Shinobi just vanished. It never got a Dreamcast entry like it deserved. It never got so much as a mention outside of a cameo in the last Sega racing game with the likes of Ristar and Skies of Arcadia. It was as if it just disappeared.

And maybe that's how it should be. Ninjas come and move in the shadows, disappearing when the task is done. Joe Musashi came, thrilled us all, and left back where he came from. The man did his job and vanished. Isn't that just like a ninja?

But Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master remains one of the best games ever made released on one of the best systems ever put out at the peak era of console gaming. Not even the passage of time and the forgetful game press could rob it of its title, try as they might.

Play it, enjoy it, and beat it. Shinobi III is a masterpiece.



In other news, Silver Empire has a giveaway going on for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film. If you're into superheroes, I highly suggest checking it out. There are quite a few prizes involved! It's free so check it out.

And if you like action stories, I have one of my own. A distant planet. Dames. Gangs. Fist-fighting. Mud Men. What else could you want?

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Ghost Still Walks ~ A Review of the First Phantom Novel by Lee Falk


This has been some time coming. I read the first Phantom novel a while ago and wanted to review it, but never quite had the chance. But since I'm currently in the middle of several other writing projects, and without the time to write a more in-depth post, I figured I should finally write about it. The book deserves the attention, especially with all the pulp talk going on.

In 2016, Hermes Press got together and decided to reprint the original 15 novels starring the pulp icon of The Phantom. For those that don't know, The Phantom is a legendary hero who operates in the fictional country of Bangalla in the deep jungle. He has no superpowers but has trained his whole life to be strong, swift, and smart, with the ingenuity of his ancestors. You see, this Phantom is actually the 21st to bear the name as it is a title that passes from father to son. This gives the impression of an immortal hero to those who whisper his name. The Phantom lineage actually goes back 400 years of men who look eerily alike. Kit Walker is the protagonist of the majority of the stories and this novel is the story of how he assumed that mantle of his ancestors.

The first book was written in 1972 based on the comic strip that started in 1936. It is difficult to tell that so much time has passed when reading this. The Phantom is actually one of the first line of superheroes that came from the pulps with the likes of The Shadow and The Spider, only he originated in comic strips.

Avon Publication decided, back in the early '70s to create a line of novels based on the character. This run lasted until 1975. They are all based on Lee Falk stories, though Falk himself only wrote the novel version of four or five of them. The rest were done by the likes of Basil Copper, Frank S. Shawn (pseudonym of Ron Goulart), Warren Shanahan, and Carson Bingham. Alfred Bester was originally approached to write novels, but passed and recommended Ron Goulart instead. While it would have been nice to see what Bester could have done, what we got was a series of high spirited adventure novels with one of the most exciting heroes of the the pulps. The Phantom translates perfectly to prose form.

This first story of The Phantom is about a boy named Kit Walker as he grows from an infant, describing his odd upbringing as a baby in the jungles of Africa to his education and budding romance of his teenage years in America, up to when he realizes it is his turn to become the legendary hero he sees in his father. As such, this is not so much a superhero novel (though there are heroics, and some excellent stories of heroes contained within) but a coming of age story that is surprisingly innocent and pure in intentions.

The story was clearly written originally in the pulp days as there are no graphic descriptions of violence or sex, there is no amorality, and the book is free from a cynical view of the world. It feels like an old pulp novel. Simply put, Earth is a place with good people and bad people, and things are better when good is allowed to roam unmolested by darker forces. Good is good; bad is bad. When he is called to do the right thing, Kit does so because of his upbringing and what he learned from his father. In the end he also makes a decision to abandon something that would personally benefit him in order to instead do what he should, and he is not rewarded in any way for doing so. This ends the story on not the chipper and irrationally optimistic view one ascribes (incorrectly) to Golden Age hero stories, but on the realization that heroism is sacrifice and bloodshed, and a battle between good and evil that will never end on this Earth. And yet the hero must keep getting up again regardless.

On a personal level, I found myself absorbed in reading this novel. Lee Falk's description of The Phantom's lineage, Bangalla's fascinating culture itself, and Kit's adventures learning to be a man, paint a vivid world of adventure where peril peeks around the corner, and good is overwhelmingly preferred to evil despite its lack of obvious material benefit. It's not a long read, but it hits quite well and is a good reminder as to why The Phantom is one of the defining pulp heroes even now so far removed from his creation. Pure heroes are hard to resist even for the most cynical human. This first book is a great origin story and place to start with the character.

Now for the negatives. I would say this revolves around Hermes Press's edition in particular. The covers are all reproductions of the original art from George Wilson, but they are rather washed out despite the great pulp-era illustrations. Another issue is the actual text is not Justified for reasons I cannot imagine. Finally, the release dates for every novel so far has been wrong and delayed from its supposed release leading me to get several of them months behind schedule. I have no clue as to why Hermes Press does these things, but they are issues and they should be mentioned. The book itself has no real negatives to it other than the short length which might perturb some.

Nonetheless it is nice to see pulp works get reissues like this. The original 15 Phantom novels are short and punchy but haven't been easily available in a long time. The character presents a moral, yet harsh, worldview of the sort modern heroes mistake for emptiness. The prose is snappy and paints quite the picture for being written in the 1970s and feel far more like the character's original 1930s origin point. There's little else to say, it is a fantastic read.

All in all, if you're a pulp or superhero fan then this is for you. Lee Falk does not let his audience down.

Recommended.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Friday



Be prepared for an awkward post. I wish I knew what my point was in writing this. For some unfathomable reason the posts I have backed up and the ones rolling around in my head just don't feel right for this week. So I'm going to go back.

Way back.

When I first started writing seriously years ago, before starting this blog or buckling down into creating stories, things were much different than they are now. This would be around 2010. Retrowave had just gotten off the ground, Superversive and the Pulp Revolution were still far off realities, certain customer movements had still not been prodded to life, the internet hot not yet become a competitor for television, and the pendulum was still swinging in one direction. Eight years is a long time, and yet so much has changed. Remember that this is the same decade we are currently in.

I first started writing because I wanted to read stories nobody was creating anymore. Heroism and villainy had been muddied up, stories of wonder were sneered at, and the types of tales that inspired me as a boy to dream had been canned for bland and safe subversion meant to dumb down tastes. Writing was always an activity I liked to do in my spare time, but I'd never taken it seriously because I didn't think I would have a way of sharing what I wrote. Remember, the indie and small pub explosion hadn't happened yet back then. My impression of a writer was the one every bad teacher foisted upon me: the tweed jacket wearing nihilist who spat on tales of wonder for the dead end of realism. It was all about "realistic" stories of pessimistic urbanites crying into their pillows about sexual dysfunction and their worthless lives. Real literature! There was no room for fun, and traditional publishing made it extra clear with the morally sick and tremendously dull door-stoppers they were putting out. So this is the climate I started writing in when I was a youngster tucking papers into binders.

But this isn't about just me. Thankfully. I'm going back further here, so bear with me.

When I was a child, I was by far the least creative among my friends. We lived to play, talk about, and absorb ourselves in adventure tales: stories off far off (and close!) places of wonder where monster and men brought terror across the land and it was up to the heroes to save it. No setting was off limit, and no one cared if there was a difference between a lightsaber or a dragon. It was all the same. I even remember one game where MacDuff and Lennox from MacBeth were involved in stopping a kidnapping that spiraled into taking down a conspiracy to overthrow the king. I didn't say we were normal kids. We were all like this. But despite all that, writing was just something I did for fun. After all, I could still walk into a comic shop or rental store to get a story I wanted and I still (somehow) had in my head that real writers didn't write that fun stuff anyway.

Things change. Rental stores came and went, comics are on the way out, no one goes to the cinema anymore, and TV cables are being cut more and more by the day. Those I grew up with didn't seem to notice. Of all of them, I'm the only one who writes or talks about this subject now even though most of us did at one point. I don't hold a grudge or say this to hold my head high, I merely point it out because things change and so do priorities and people. I started writing more because I noticed the change, and wasn't happy with it. Who would be? I know I wasn't alone in that assessment, but finding anyone who wanted to do anything about it was a fruitless endeavor. So I just started writing my silly stories and scrambled to get better.

And then something happened recently that had me rethinking everything.

On Good Friday I lost someone very important to me who really liked my little fun tales. Pray for her, please. She always pestered me for the next story no matter how much I told her it was coming. I've since been rethinking why I'm writing at all. Am I still the same boy who wants adventure, or am I a man who wants to spread that sense of wonder to others? Am I writing just to prove a point? No, that isn't it. If I wanted to prove a point I would invest in writing essays. Then I could focus on a thesis more clearly than in these posts. Writing is about connecting. I connected with her and made her day a little brighter with the story of a kid who can transform into a magical knight. Did that make it all worth it? I think it did, if even slightly.

I'm not writing into a void. There is a whole world of people hungry for wonder and adventure again. It's no longer about teenage me writing into binders and wondering if any of this is even worth it. If I stopped today, there would be many others taking up the pen regardless. Things have changed.

So now that happenings on the cultural level are improving again does this mean I can just hang it up and go back to the way things were? After all, people are very much creating stories I like again. Those that destroyed all I enjoyed as a child are now suffering heavy losses in the market and from customers who are sick of their games. Every day there's a story of someone else deciding to take matters into their own hands. Nothing is saying that I have to keep going. Surely I don't have to write the stories I want to read anymore.

But I do.

You see, the secret with writers is that they can't stop. Once you put in the time to finally get off the ground and people unrelated to you tell you you're doing okay and getting better it is already too late to pump the brakes. It's too tough to stop. I will write one thing and two more unrelated ideas will sprout up. They don't stop. I also get excited reading old authors and new works and planning how I might be able to tackle certain ideas myself. Writing is a spiderweb for flies like me. One you're in you don't get out again.

The fact of the matter is that there's still work to be done: work that probably won't ever be finished. I'm writing and editing at least three different novels and five different short stories, and awaiting on news of other projects to see where to proceed with those. I'm not at a loss of things to do. The train keeps rolling.

It is like Friday every day. I'm sure you understand my meaning. Friday is the best day of the week, just before the weekend, when anticipation of what is to come hits fever pitch and the possibilities are endless. Everything you worked toward is just ahead and waiting for you. This is the general mood. It's a great time to be doing what I'm doing.

I doubt the younger version of me could imagine quite what's going on right now. This is a whole different world now, and it's still changing.

But some things never change. Adventure and wonder still retain their timeless draw. That is a truth that will always remain the same no matter how much certain types wish to exterminate it.

Does it mean things are perfect? Not even close. There's much to work on, much to polish, much to learn, and much to do. But it's not all in vain. Eventually the weekend will be here and we can go home.

I look forward to it.



Reminder that if you join my mailing list you'll get a short story for free. This tale of a super-powered vigilante fighting dark magic can be acquired there or on amazon for a dollar. Please check it out. It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope you enjoy it just as much.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Sword & Wonder! ~ A Review of "Swordsmen in the Sky"



I've gone on about pulp many times on this blog to the point that most are probably sick of it. By now you're either well aware of how good it is or you're rolling your eyes and stubborn in your unwillingness to read anything from before 1980. Either way you've heard me bang on about it a lot. But there is one book I wanted to review to really drive home how great this old stuff is.

So here is a perfect example of what is great about those old adventure stories condensed into one tiny 200 page paperback. Released by Ace Books in 1964, edited by Donald Wollheim, cover by Frank Frazetta, and with stories by Poul Anderson, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and Otis Adelbert Kline, this small anthology is the entire package. It is also available for cheap on amazon. If you want a good sampler of pulp's best, you can't get much better than Swordsmen in the Sky.

Here you get stories centered on the core of wonder and excitement. It is like Edgar Rice Burroughs never left us. The stories are all uniform in intent and style,  with clear protagonists and antagonists, marvelous settings and fantastical sights, and all feel as if they could have been written at the same time.

But they were not.

Whereas it is painfully easy to tell stories released in the '80s, '90s, '00s, and (especially) the '10s apart from other eras, pre-1960s fantasy all has uniform love of the good and beautiful, and hatred of the ugly and evil, with an eye on Higher Things. These works have a stronger feel of timelessness to them than stories meant to cater to current trendy lingo and political trends. Each one of these five stories was originally released between 1933 and 1951, and the near two-decade gap really doesn't show to a new reader. They all feel very much as if they could have been written specifically for this anthology. It is an impressive feat that Mr. Wollheim accomplished here.

Genre doesn't matter. Sword & Sorcery, Science Fantasy, or whatever meaningless category you want to shoehorn these stories into, is irrelevant. They are pure adventure and are focused on one thing: delighting and uplifting the audience to higher places. These were all written in the clear style and influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs which means plenty of wonder, romance, and action, to go around. This style predates any pointless genre gulags that were invented later. It's all about the action and adventure.

Enough about that. It's time to talk about the stories.

The first story is also the newest. Swordsmen of Lost Terra by Poul Anderson, released in 1951, is a story about Celtic-like tribes battling each other for supremacy in a world where the planet doesn't rotate on its axis. It eventually turns into a tale not too dissimilar from Burroughs with derring-do and evil schemes to thwart the heroes. There's also a magical (or is it?) bagpipe and more blood and carnage than you can shake a stick at. I have been repeatedly impressed with everything I have read by Mr. Anderson and am floored at how easily he could flow between meaningless genre boundaries as if they didn't (and they don't) matter. His thought process is one to consider for one writing action and adventure tales. I believe this originally ran in Planet Stories. If you like John Carter, and I can't imagine why you would't, this is for you and is a great piece to begin with.

Second in the anthology is People of the Crater by Andre Norton, from 1947. A pilot joins and Antarctic expedition during peacetime, which seems simple enough. What starts as a mere investigation soon becomes an adventure of alien technology in a forgotten world. This was the author's first published genre work and it is easy to see why she soon became as popular and beloved as she was. Even if not typical of what would make her popular, this story shows a deep understanding of the sort of romance and wonder that Burroughs perfected and illustrates perfectly why it came to dominate so much of popular entertainment over the past century. Even now so far removed from its creation this story shows just how much was lost when wonder was ejected from genre stories for "realism" and screwdrivers. They literally don't make 'em like this anymore.

Leigh Brackett's The Moon That Vanished, originally published in 1948 in Thrilling Wonder Stories, is next. It's a Venus story with plenty of action to go around! This one starts out in a dive where a man named David Heath is drunk out of his gourd and wishing he was dead. Heath has lost his love and is killing himself over it when he is given a task to guide a temple maiden and her guard to the Moonfire. The Moonfire is a place Heath had been to once before: a mysterious location that can apparently turn mortals into gods. So why didn't Heath take it for himself? Oh, you'll see. This is the best story in the collection and one of the best pulp stories I have ever read. Action, adventure, fantasy, and romance fill this story's relatively short length. There's also some terrific character development to had and an ending that is very powerful. It goes up there with Black Thirst by C.L. Moore as one of my personal favorites, and I would recommend this collection for this story alone. It's that good.

Following that comes the shortest story in the collection, A Vision of Venus by Otis Adelbert Kline, which had first been put out in 1933. I've heard this described as a slight effort, and while it does not compare with the other stories in the collection, it fits in perfectly with the purpose of the anthology. In seven short pages the author goes through every beat of a Burroughs tale filled with fantastical adventure, wonders, and romance, and doesn't miss a step. Only a professional could manage to encapsulate that much in such short a space between much longer tales. The story is what the title says: Dr. Morgan gets a vision of a far off place of fantasy beyond his world and finds something far beyond him. As a piece of adventure, this story wildly succeeds and is a perfect fit for this anthology.

Ending off is a story from the World Wrecker himself. Edmond Hamilton's Kaldar, World of Antares which came out in 1933, is an adventure like only he could do. A man named Merrick is transported to a new world where he instantly becomes leader of a race of men on a planet with multiple red moons (and one green) where Spider-Men from beyond the mountains threaten to destroy the people. He is their prophesied savior, and falls into the role in a way that surprises even him. One of the weapons Merrick uses is a sword that happens to be powered by light that destroys whatever it slices. It's a light-sword of some kind. Now that's a weapon for a pulp! The story is lightning fast with a fascinating world and a scope that only a someone like Hamilton could muster in such a short length. I was a bit disappointed that the story ended: I wanted more! As the last story here, it is the perfect choice to end the anthology.

What is fascinating about these stories is how hard they are to put in a box. I've seen some try to state that they are fantasy... until a certain magical device is "explained" and then it instantly becomes science fiction. I have seen the exact reversal applied to other stories as well. This is silly. Instead of attempting to classify and straight-jacket tales of wonder and excitement with genre labels that clearly don't fit it is easier to see that these stories are part of a tradition. These are older than John W. Campbell's influence--even the ones written when he was gate-keeping!

Here's a bit of truth: none of the stories here were advertised as Science Fiction or Fantasy. You will not find those words in any of the product descriptions for this anthology. What they are advertised as are "sword-and-wonder adventures" from "expert writers of interplanetary derring-do" which is incredibly accurate to the breathtaking tales included within. Some version of the word "adventure" is used five times to advertise this to the buying public. The only time Science Fiction appears here is in the biographical entry for Donald Wollheim. Fantasy is not used a single time. Not even as an adjective for the many uses of adventure.

So then what are these stories? Surely they have to be called something. Easy answer: they are Adventure stories. What else would they be? Action & Adventure is a genre without boundaries where any exciting thing can happen and wonder is paramount. These stories epitomize that freewheeling spirit Burroughs made his own.

Each of the five tales attempt to encapsulate big and all-encompassing themes of mystery, ineffable terror and danger, romance, wonder, adventure, and whiplash motion, all in a short length. Burroughs had attempted to plug into those gigantic feelings and notions at the same time he is looking into the face of concepts and beings way bigger than our simple small worlds. These are stories that attempt to bottle that awe and excitement for an audience that can get just as excited reading about it as the author does writing it. These are stories of the gigantic, tales that can't be contained.

And that joy is infectious.

I would be hard pressed to find anyone who read a collection like this and didn't find themselves inspired and excited by the end of it. Unless they are dead inside, or expecting more from fiction than to uplift and instill wonder, then this should brighten even the darkest cynic's day. This is exactly what pulp has always meant to do, and maybe that's why some people just don't like it. Maybe this is why they tried to bury it.

Regardless of that, Swordsmen in the Sky is one of the best and most exciting anthologies out there. If you have not these stories before, you could do far worse than reading them here. This is the type of book that could start a revolution of the imagination.

What else is reading for?

Highest recommendation.



In other news, I have released a short story for free for readers of my newsletter. It is the tale of a vigilante in a superhero world who comes across dark forces beyond powers. You can sign up and get it for free, or buy it for a buck on amazon. Your choice. Either way, thank you for reading this post and I will see you on the next one!

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Pop Has Eaten Itself


I had the misfortune of watching the first episode of a new Netflix show with a friend. I didn't particularly want to watch it, but was told it was incredibly embarrassing. Not being one to enjoy such things I brushed it off. Until he told me what happens. Then I had to watch it.

The program was called Everything Sucks! and is supposed to be a Wonder Years or Freaks and Geeks of the 1990s. For those that don't know it is a look back into the height of a now dead era using the lens of that same time period to connect it to modern audiences. Only this one is being made by Millennials, so you already know what you're getting. On top of it, they show a clear lack of understanding of the time period. They set it in 1996, the year before the decade fell off a cliff, and used writers that clearly were either stoned their entire teen years or were never actually alive during the decade. Because the '90s were not like this.

Everything Sucks! is painful in every area, but above all it was the accuracy to the time period that grated on me. The series displays how serious it takes its concept within the early moments. It barely tries to connect to the audience.

First example: it was so accurate to the year 1996 that the very first song played in the very first minute of the series was not released until 1997.

And it goes downhill from there.

The 1990s were a fairly dull decade, but it was also very faddish. Trends flashed into existence in the blink of an eye and were gone just as fast. You can't have kids wearing flannel, messing around with Gak, referencing the "new Star Wars" re-releases, listening to the "new" 1995 Oasis album, and playing with slap bracelets as if they all happened at the exact same time. Because they didn't. But you can pretend they did if you're just using the 1990s as a cover for your terrible and extremely predictable hacky Current Year drama in between shallow 1990s "I clapped when I saw that!" references.

Because that's all this show is.

The series is not funny, is entirely obvious and full of tropes that were played out when the last over-hyped forgettable Netflix drama came out, and even the camera work is the same stale Arrested Development aping that won't go away already despite coming on two decades old. Oh yeah, and it was not a style used in the 1990s. It was a '00s invention. But hey, I already showed how seriously they took their own concept. Accuracy was not going to happen.

It definitely doesn't look like the era, but it doesn't sound like it either. The characters are exactly what you think they are at first glance with story arcs you can see coming from a mile away because they're the same ones Hollywood has been peddling for nearly 25 years now. There's nothing here. Nothing is new, but nothing is a throwback to what it was like to live at the time, either. If anything, this series just shows how bad entertainment has gotten since 1996. Every bad trope here was one introduced in the late '90s that has been hammered into us relentlessly since. If you meant to appeal to those who miss the way things were, then this is definitely not the way to do it.

Everything Sucks! is a belly flop of nothing meant to sucker in people who lived in the 1990s but might not actually remember them fully. Possibly it is meant as revisionism to give the audience a version of the decade that "should" have existed. But they underestimated how much Gen X and Y remember from the '90s that Millennials never could. I was half expecting to see someone wearing parachute pants while mentioning going to a 98 Degrees concert. Because it was that likely to happen. It reads like someone who just grabbed any cliche they could and threw it in a blender.


Not even close, Boomers.

This series is about as accurate as the terrible Simpsons episode based on the 1990s where Homer is in a popular grunge band at its peak at the same time he is looking at a billboard featuring the Sonic Adventure designs of Sonic the Hedgehog and Amy Rose. If you were alive at the time then you know why that scene above is wrong, and you know how little thought was spent writing it. Amazing for The Simpsons, a series that was in its height during said decade, to get this so wrong. But this seems par for the course for Baby Boomers and Millennials when it comes to the '80s and '90s.

Stranger Things worked with the 1980s setting because it was baked in to the plot. This was crucial for the series to work. It needed to be set in that era for the plot beats, style, aesthetics, and character archetypes to work, and it failed when it shied away from it (such as the 1990s tough girl character of Max that broke canon with the style) meaning that the choice of year was crucial to how the story had to work in order to stay consistent. The Duffer Brothers clearly respected the decade enough to do it justice. There is a reason Stranger Things was a hit.

Everything Sucks! couldn't even bother to learn that there were two songs released in 1996* that they could have used for a theme song that were both called Everything Sucks instead of a grunge era song used that doesn't fit at all. But the song was popular at the time, so maybe someone will remember it and clap! That's all the thought that was put into it. Even the logo looks more like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Juno than it does any actual '90s logo. Because that's the audience they're going for, and not who they pretend they're aiming at. There is no effort here to try and understand that long gone era and how it might differ from this current crap one.

They want to cash in on '90s nostalgia without doing the work to understand what people clicked with in that time. It's disrespectful to the era and those who lived in it. But it was never about connecting to those people. It was always about shallow pandering.

A lot of this has to do with the propping up of Nerd Culture, which is, thankfully, on the way out.

I highly recommend this entire series

Shows like the above are no longer about the original purpose of art or entertainment: to connect to your fellow man. Pop culture is now about masturbation. It is now about little more than useless trivia and empty references for a small niche group. There is no more relating to the majority of those around but about glorifying the self (and their "like-minded communities") over others. Connections to those unlike yourself are no longer important: thinking inward is. Propping yourself up is. Making sure you feel good and have high self-esteem is. It's all about the self and how everything relates to you: not how you can relate to others.

It is all about eating yourself.

But empty nostalgia over setting is the point. They have nothing else. Hollywood can't stray from the bad habits they've developed. They have no stories to tell except being wistful for a youth that was apparently just as terrible as the present they are currently living in. There is no semblance of hope to escape their prison of misery.

It reveals a very ugly view of life that is becoming more obvious with each passing flop of a drama they release. It's really no wonder why audiences are checking out of these sorts of stories and leaving Hollywood behind. No one wants to see this narcissistic group of creators talk about themselves and only themselves and their tiny worlds. Hollywood does not have much else.

This is all pop culture is now: a decrepit and fat anaconda devouring itself until there's nothing left.

Unless you weren't alive at the time, you would have to be a moron to not know what the second poster is talking about. Hollywood is banking on you being a moron.

My recent speculation that we have reached the end of pop culture is well on its way to being true. Creators have lost the urge to connect with their audience and are set with rehashing the same stale slop while trying to gussy it up by playing with the audience's longing for a time when their pop culture wasn't this unabashedly terrible. But putting lipstick on a pig doesn't change it into a beautiful woman. Hollywood thinks tricking the audience into swallowing the medicine is enough to get them to keep taking it. They don't appear to be aware that the audience is quickly seeing this for what it is, and they don't like it.

There is no attempt to correct the ship, and that's why they're going to die.

They have nothing left to add, nothing to tell or say that hasn't been said hundreds of times. They rehash the same character archetypes without any sense of knowing why they exist, and continue to mindlessly subvert their own tales into meaninglessness. Self-reflection is possible only through explicit sex, pointless offensive language, and references to a childhood that is remembered as well as a fourth grade play.

Shows like Everything Sucks! only prove how little the "important" people Hollywood have left to say. There is no acknowledgement of the different ways those who lived in that era thought or how they believed and lived: it is all filtered through (post)modern thought with a thin veneer of past paint to make their barge look like a sailboat. But there is no sailboat, and there never was one. They could have built a sailboat instead, but they refuse to, and they're never going to.

This is all they have left. Dated messages from a quarter of a century ago and references to decades long past in an attempt to squirrel money out of the few audience members who accept mediocrity out of the thought that it is either this or nothing. Hollywood think this is good enough.

The decade where pop culture died.

It's well beyond narcissism and has fallen straight into parody. It's one thing to think they're the smartest and most progressive idiots to ever live this pointless existence, but it's entirely another to think the past is so worthless that they feel the need to smear their own fecal matter all over it in order to drag it down to their pathetic level. Material like this doesn't even rise to narcissism. They're too self-obsessed with infecting the past that they don't realize that instead of making the past look worse they make themselves look stupid and the present worse. Disrespect for the past tends to blind one to preventable gaffs.

Entertainment has devolved past narcissism into pure nihilism. Narcissism is looking in the mirror and wondering how that handsome devil got to be so gorgeous. Nihilism is looking in the mirror and wondering how to make that handsome devil ugly while still desperately insisting he's handsome to anyone who will listen. Not only is it nonsensical, it is locked in the karmic wheel of stupidity without a way out. The same mistakes are repeated over and over ad infinitum. You can see this with any piece of media out now whether a remake of something old (tweaked for modern sensibilities, of course!) or a new franchise with the same "fresh" characters and subversive plot out of 2003. Pop is eating itself.

Actually, it's way past that point now. Pop has devoured its tail and is busy slurping down its own stomach. And it expects you to call it brave, progressive, forward thinking, and art, while it whores out the same tired tropes audiences were sick of in 1999. Ironic.

Well, no. (Post)Modernism is dead and has been a rotting corpse for some time now. All that's left is to say the last rites and give it a burial . . . or a bonfire. We've already walked away, so let's put the body where it belongs, and leave it in the cold ground. No one cares about navel gazing into the abyss, so leave them alone to do it. All that's left is for them to eat themselves into the void.

Then finally we might be free of pop culture's self-obsession and can build something new in its place. It's about time, don't you think?



*In case you were wondering, these are the two songs I meant:




But everything doesn't suck. The pulp revolution is still in full swing. Give my entry in the movement a try. It's definitely one of the most action packed works you will find.