Dead authors, live horrors: anthologies by Aickman and Matheson

Richard Matheson

Of the two men, an American is more likely to recognize the works, if not the name, of Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013), because so many have been adapted to the screen. For example, there is that classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner . . . and 15 other episodes! And yet, in many ways, the stories of Robert Aickman (1914 -1981) are deeper in a literary Twilight Zone, even though he never wrote for the series. In this review, I’m going to talk primarily about two anthologies of their stories that I’ve read.

A Matheson novel that made it to the the big screen: Hell House

The Penguin Classic The Best of Richard Matheson (2017) demonstrates that Matheson was comfortable ranging all over science fiction as well as horror, and did good work in both. Often, of course, they overlap. For example, “Shipshape Home” spins a yarn about humans who become afraid that their apartment building is host to aliens. And there is humor, sometimes to be found in what otherwise would be dreadful places, as in “The Funeral.” But what drives a Matheson story is a normal person confronting the abnormal, or occasionally an abnormal person dealing with the normal world. A man confronts a killer truck in “Duel” (the basis for Steven Spielberg’s first TV movie) or suddenly find himself learning the knowledge in whatever he passes by in “One For the Books.” A boy wants to become a vampire in “Blood Son,” or a man realizes he’s a robot (or is he?) in “Deus Ex Machina.” “The Last Day” is just about how people react to the very last day.

What I found amazing is that all of these stories still seem fresh, even though many are foundational in sci-fi/horror pop culture. Critics used to joke that much early sci-fi was written in a very plain, simple style (think early Asimov, for example). But Matheson’s work shows that  a plain style can be versatile and memorable. Tell your story, tell it cleanly, make it memorable. That’s a Matheson story.

Robert Aickman

To judge from the anthology Compulsory Games (2018), Aickman was similar to Matheson in concentrating on how ordinary people confront the abnormal. But what distinguishes Aickman’s stories is how reality goes off the rails, as it always does. Aickman’s stories might be horror, they might be fantasy, but one cannot be sure. His characters live in surreal worlds, in which they may notice a river that wasn’t there before, or see humans manipulated as if they were mechanical contrivances. In Matheson stories, what is real is rarely in question; we know what elements are fantastic. But in Aickman stories, it is much harder to find the line between reality and unreality. It’s as if his stories don’t enter the Twilight Zone — they begin there.

The problem with such stories, to judge from this anthology, is that they can be very effective, but they can also simply be puzzling, and sometimes seem downright trivial. “The Coffin House” sets up a truly surrealistic situation, but resolves it in such a lame fashion that passes for mysterious that I was more annoyed than interested. And yet, hard though it may seem to believe, Aickman can make a perfectly gruesome and surreal story out of government indecision, as he does in “Residents Only.”

I’m happy to have read The Best of Richard Matheson and recommend it. Compulsory Games I’m less happy with. Maybe it’s the editor’s choice of stories. I’m interested enough to go look for some other collection of his stories. This one I’d recommend if surrealistic horror in a minor key is your cup of tea.

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The Coldest City for an Atomic Blonde

My partner is a cartoonist. So we take a particular interest in movies that are based on comics. For example, no sooner did we see The Death of Stalin, then she was on the phone to France, asking a friend to pick her up a copy of the French comic book it was based on.

But this post is about another comic book turned movie: The Coldest City (2012), which became the movie Atomic Blonde (2017). I saw the movie, unaware that it was based on a “graphic novel,” as we now call square-bound comics of some length. Since then, we’ve picked up said graphic novel and watched the movie together.

The premise of the graphic novel is that it’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to fall, and a crisis has hit British Intelligence (MI-6). There’s a list afoot which contains the names of every spy in Berlin. MI-6 dispatches agent Lorraine Broughton to get that list. Her contact in Berlin is the chief British agent there, Perceval, who’s thought to have “gone native.” Berlin turns out to be a snake pit of intelligence operatives, none of whom can be fully trusted . . . not even Broughton, as it turns out.

Broughton goes from brunette to blonde, because it’s Hollywood

Surprisingly, given the known proclivities of the director and the star’s role as a producer, the movie actually adheres fairly well to the novel in terms of atmosphere and general shape of the plot. Oh, there are twists: neither Broughton nor the list turn out to be quite what they were in the novel. And, given the track record of the director, it is no wonder there is much more physical action in the movie than in the novel. Still, one can trace the influence of the novel on the film very clearly.

The movie did only modestly well, although the are plans for a sequel. I suspect it’s because the plot in some respects is even more byzantine than in the novel. There’s a key plot point in the movie when the CIA agent passes a newspaper to Broughton. Understanding what Broughton learns from this is key to interpreting her motivation for her actions for the rest of the movie. But you don’t learn that until the very end of the movie. Even the graphic novel only hints at the issues, because this is one of the points at which the novel and movie diverge. In many ways, the movie is plotted more like an old Agatha Christie murder mystery, in which anything might be a clue, and your job as a viewer is to figure out which ones are significant. Fail, and the movie is in many ways unintelligible.

The acid test for understanding the movie is this question: can you figure out Broughton’s motivations in wanting to save Spyglass once Satchel’s cover is blown? If you can, the movie makes sense. Otherwise, you’ll wonder if the screenwriters were too clever by half.

Given all this, which is better? Once I could answer the question above, my answer is the movie. The movie’s plot is more unified than the novel’s. And the soundtrack, for someone who lived through the 1980s as I did, is gorgeous. On the other hand, I have to admit that the novel is more intelligible at first read, and can help in understanding the movie. And it does not pander to Hollywood conventions about glamorous women and happy endings, as the movie does.

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The arrival of summer

Who wouldn’t want Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania?

People argue about when summer begins. Is it when school lets out? Memorial Day? The summer solstice? The Fourth of July? No doubt in other parts of the world (especially in the southern hemisphere!), other dates are considered as well.

For me, the summer begins the evening of June 23: Midsummer Night’s Eve. For many years, I have sat down with a potable beverage and a copy of Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This year, I joined a group reading while drinking a bottle of hard cider. It was an appropriate choice: summer should be about nature and living things, and cider connects us to apples and orchards, one of the characteristic landscapes of New England, where I live.

Merlin had to have been beguiled in the summer!

Summer is the proper time for magic and fantasy. Hot, warm, lazy days, followed by nights when one can stroll about without needing a coat: it’s a time to be outdoors. The mind can drift where it might, mixing the trivial and the profound, the ordinary with the wondrous. The “Twilight Time” segment of the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed album captures the mood.

As a child, I spent summers watching lightning storms over a lake, wondering if I’d encounter Mary Stewart’s version of Merlin emerging out of some small thicket, sitting in a spruce tree far above everyone else while reading a book, or traveling on my bicycle to a state park with that great wonder, a waterfall!

The year I turned eighteen, the summer ended with a great transition: I went off to college, living away from home for the first time. There was magic at the end of that summer, the promise of adventures to come, a future opening up before me, and even a song about a “magic man” to listen to on the radio.

The landscape in the thermally active region is simply weird.
Credit: Wikipedia/Carl Lindberg)

As an adult, I once turned winter into summer. I went off on a vacation to New Zealand in February. I saw another country’s wonders. I hiked through a rain forest, visited thermal springs, and climbed a volcano, all the while reading of Maori legends and imagining other fantastic adventures. (There’s even a story on this blog that was an offshoot of that trip.) True, I never imagined someone filming Lord of the Rings there, but that has added yet another layer of magic in retrospect to the trip.

Most of us tend to lose much of our sense of wonder, of adventure, and of magic, as we grow older. I’ve been feeling it ebb myself for some years. Prosaic reality seems relentless. But this summer, I’ve decided it is time to recreate some of that old magic and fantasy. Exactly how, I’m not yet sure. But stick around the blog, and I’ll let you all know how it turns out!

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Still among the living

Well, I perpetrated short fiction again, this time with a horror theme. Presumed Dead is a short story I wrote in response to a challenge. It’s brought to you by the folks at Sci-Fi & Scary: Sci-Fi & Horror Reviews, News, and More, and yes, the blog is exactly what it says it is, sometimes serious, sometimes snarky, and where do they go those illustrations?

I’ve done surprisingly little straight horror on this blog, as my longer stories don’t usually quite fit that description even with horror elements in them, the vampires of Martha’s Children being one example. But some short stories qualify as horror. Dead Cellphone is a tasty little bit of supernatural and psychological horror. Death and Professor Appleton is a more traditional horror story, while On Huckman Causeway is in tone spiritual kin to Presumed Dead. And the shorter The Day After Halloween  and longer When the ghost came in from the cold are fair horror humor stories.

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I’ve not been writing fiction for the blog in recent months due to family and professional commitments. Not that I haven’t wanted to; this has been frustrating for me. So I’m happy to point you all to a very short story I wrote about alien life on another planet. It’s called “The Saturnian Rings of Life,” and you may find it here.

It’s brought to you by the blog Sci-Fi and Scary: Sci-Fi and Horror Reviews, News, and More. I’ve been watching this site grow into its name, with its emphasis on covering independent and small press authors and books, commenting on movies, and posting occasional simple silliness. So after you’ve read my story on their blog, mosey around a bit on it to see what else they have to offer, see if there is anything you like.

If you’re coming from that direction, because you want to check out my fiction, you might want to check out some of my shorter horror fiction, “The Day After Halloween” for humor, “Dead Cellphone” for horror with a bit more angst. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are several novel-length stories listed under the blog’s header. Summer of the Netherfield Witch is quite different from either of the short stories, and not a bad place to start.

Not those rings, though!
Photo courtesy of NASA, and isn’t it gorgeous!

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Walking the line between fantasy and reality: two films from the 1920s

The first seduction — Flesh and the Devil

I was recently teaching a course on the Roaring Twenties in the United States. To do this properly, I ended up watching a great many more silent films than I’d ever seen before. Along the way, I stumbled across two films from that era that had a great deal in common, including skirting the borderline between fantasy and reality. There two films are Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Pandora’s Box (1929).

Never heard of either of them? But I’ll bet you’ll recognize the name of the female lead in Flesh and the Devil: Greta Garbo. The female lead in Pandora’s Box is less well known today, but she does have a devoted fan following. Her name is Louise Brooks. Flesh and the Devil made the Swedish-born Garbo a star in Hollywood, while Brooks abandoned Hollywood for Germany to make Pandora’s Box (German title: Die Büchse der Pandora).

Must look like a sorrowful widow when I go on trial for killing a man — Pandora’s Box

The femme fatale was a much beloved character type of the 1920s, not just in the movies, but in literature as well. Ideally, she was mysterious, seductive, promiscuous, and destructive. Garbo’s Felicitas and Brooks’s Lulu fit the ideal. Felicitas begins by seducing a young man, only to be caught by her husband. Lulu is an older man’s mistress who thinks nothing of seducing the man’s son. Naturally, men die for these women, although the women will torment them first.

There’s a whiff of the supernatural about both women. Felicitas’s death leads the two men fighting over her (this time) acting as if they’ve just been released from a spell they’ve been under. We are left to wonder if Felicitas was supernatural, a witch or demon. While Pandora’s Box up front lets us know we are dealing with mythological themes, as well as being a double entendre for Lulu’s femininity. Yet another legendary figure enters the story after Lulu has unleashed a great many evils, just like Pandora, although Lulu’s evils specifically affect those who lust after her.

So are we going to kill each other over Garbo, like sensible men? — Flesh and the Devil

Most of the silent films I had seen before preparing this course had featured actors being overly dramatic in gestures and facial expressions to compensate for their inability to convey their feelings directly by speaking. So it was a revelation to see how subtle Garbo was as Felicitas, able to convey a wide range of emotions with just her face, and an even wider range when we could see her body. In contrast, in Pandora’s Box, it’s not the range of emotions Louise Brooks conveys, as her ability to portray a woman who is seemingly innocent, but in reality far, far from it. Both women are mysteries: Garbo’s Felicitas lures you with hints of hidden emotions, while Brooks’s Lulu presents men with a facade too easily mistaken for her real personality.

It’s heresy to think so, but I think Louse Brooks does a better job at acting in her other German 1929 film, Diary of a Lost Girl.

Are the women just normal, albeit mysterious, seductive, and destructive? Or are they somehow supernatural? One can watch the films and interpret them either way. It’s easy for me, as a man, to see these films as men trying to interpret how women affect them, and realizing they don’t fully understand female sexuality and its effects on them. But one could view these films from a more feminine perspective as the difficulties society throws in the way of women who want to unleash their sexuality. Considering the fates of both Felicitas and Lulu, the movies do not offer a comforting moral for women.

Garbo would go on to hit after hit, easily making the transition to talkies, and being nominated for three Academy Awards in the 1930s. Brooks would make two more well-regarded films in Europe before returning to the United States, where she was never again able to secure a starring role in a major picture. Despite their quite different careers in the 1930s, neither would act in films after 1941. Garbo would become a famous recluse, dying in 1990, age 84. Brooks would be all but forgotten for decades, but be rediscovered and actually become a film critic-historian in her later years, dying in 1985, age 78.

If either of these films sound at all interesting, I’d suggest tackling each paired with another film by the same actress. If you watch Flesh and the Devil, see Garbo in a talkie, maybe the more lighthearted Ninotchka (1939). For Brooks, I’d recommend pairing Pandora’s Box with her other German film, Diary of a Lost Girl. Critics seem to think it a weaker film, but it gives Brooks a wider range of character and feeling than Pandora’s Box, and is thus to me a bit more satisfying.


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Six books I have read so often that they are falling apart

William Shirer

I have a lot of books. I read a lot of books. And yet some books I keep coming back to, time after time, until their bindings crack and they are candidates for replacement, or, oddly enough, the recycle bin. So I thought I’d go through my library and see what qualifies.

Right at the top are two history books, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970) by David Hackett Fischer. One could say Nazism is a historical fallacy, but the connection between these two books for me is a lot deeper than that. Shirer’s book was my introduction to a realistic political history, demonstrating how people, institutions, and customs interacted, often in unexpected ways, to create and destroy Hitler’s state. While Fischer’s book is a serious look at how historians, professional, classical, or amateur, go off the rails with what often sound like plausible arguments.

David Hackett Fischer

Both books are outdated now. I know Shirer got some things wrong, and Fischer often used examples from academic controversies of the 1960s to make his points. Yet I often wish more people read Fischer’s work, because I see his fallacies crop up in social media all the time. And Shirer’s lessons about how informal power structures shape history as much as the formal ones are worth remembering.

Turning to fiction, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is the book I read when I’m depressed in the wee hours of the night and need some snappy dialogue and cheerful thoughts. While The Heritage of Hastur (1975) by Marion Zimmer Bradley impressed the hell out of me at the time, thanks to its exploration of both politics and sexuality in a science fiction setting. MZB’s reputation has taken a nosedive because of allegations of extensive sexual abuse by her and one of her husbands, which raises the difficult question of how much we separate the writer’s work from the writer. I respect the novel; I am disturbed thinking about what human costs contributed to it.

J. Frank Dobie

Finally, there are heirlooms. My father passed along some books to me over the years. The very first was a book about legends of buried treasure in the American Southwest, J. Frank Dobie’s Coronado’s Children (1930). Dobie told wonderful stories, and introduced me to a very different part of the world. I wanted to go off and dig for buried treasure! While The Literary Digest 1927 Atlas of the World and Gazetteer showed me that there were many strange places in the world, and that people of that time did not fully understand the history that was being made right before their eyes. There’s a lesson to keep one humble about one’s own place in history.

Again, both books are in different ways obsolete. (That does seem to be a common feature of non-fiction with historical dimensions.) While his liberal politics once cost him his position at the University of Texas, Dobie’s attitude toward Blacks and Hispanics as expressed in his book seems condescending now. And not only is the Atlas long out of date, but its parent publication, the Literary Digest, folded not long after famously predicting the wrong winner of the 1936 Presidential election. It turned out the Digest‘s polling technique was disastrously flawed, being seriously biased to the well-off, which is why it predicted a Republican victory. Instead, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his third term by taking every state except Maine and Vermont.

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