Thursday, November 7, 2019

Super Seventies Movie Month


Like every October, the Luminous Mrs. V. and I watched spooky (But not too spooky this past Halloween season. Her acceptability level for such things is much lower than mine.) movies. This year, she suggested we dedicate November to seventies movies. I quickly agreed. It's the era in which we both grew up and both saw a ton of movies in the theater, though, she way, way more than I. There are so many movies for both of us from that decade that still hold strongly to our imaginations and memories of our childhoods that it seemed like a no-brainer of an undertaking.

Hollywood, in seeming retreat in the face of declining ticket sales and the continued loss of viewers to TV, tried anything and everything - including loosened standards of sex and violence - to win back their audience starting in the late sixties and on through the next decade. On the higher end, this meant giving a host of directors nearly free rein. The result was lots of amazing, practically art house movies. There were huge movies, like the Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir. Arthur Penn) and The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Those same two directors also made less-well known films that are more to my liking; Night Moves (1975) and The Conversation (1974), respectively. 

Hollywood's openness to practically everything, allowed idiosyncratic character movies like The Last Detail (1973, dir. Hal Ashby), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, dir. Monte Hellman), and Badlands (1972, dir. Terrence Malick) to get made. Walter Matthau and Gene Hackman were able to become stars. It wasn't a new golden age for actresses in the same way it was for actors, which looking back pretty much bites, still, some, such as Gena Rowlands, Marsha Mason, Faye Dunaway got to make some solid pictures. Until Jaws and Star Wars taught Hollywood that there was gold in a certain style of summer blockbuster, it seemed like any movie was possible.

The best thing about Hollywood's new found artistic freedom was it seeped into everything. It might have come out of desperation, but who cares? It meant thrillers could be tougher and grittier, like Dirty Harry (1971, dir. Don Siegel) and Prime Cut (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie). Comedies could be blacker than almost anything Billy Wilder imagined, like Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby) and Where's Poppa? (1970, dir. Carl Reiner). 


It meant previously unsought-after audiences got attention, as with blaxploitation films. Sure, many of them were written and directed by white directors, but many weren't, most notably Shaft (1971, dir. Gordon Parks) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970, dir. Ossie Davis). There were also more confrontational movies like Melvin van Peebles' Watermelon Man and (1970) Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971).

That's only a scratch at the surface of Hollywood's output in this period and only of the most notable ones. There are dozens and dozens of films of in every genre imaginable. While we're going to watch some of the movies I've mentioned, we're also going to watch plenty of lesser ones, ones that hold a place in our memories because of when we saw them the first time when we were young, or they hit us in a particular way. Among others, for Mrs. V. this means Heaven Can Wait (1978, dir. Buck Henry & Warren Beatty) and Take Down (1979, dir. Kieth Merrill), and for me it means The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974, dir. Joseph Sargent) and Sorcerer (1977, dir. William Friedkin). Whatever we end up watching, though, good and bad, this is going to be a blast.

Note: I'll be posting everything we watch on my twitter feed, so follow me if you don't already.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Five Short Story Collections That Aren't My Favorites

Horror: (from the OED Online)
A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful. Also in weaker sense, intense dislike or repugnance. (The prevalent use at all times.)
I strongly believe horror, as a genre, works best at the short story level. I've probably expounded on this before, but, wait, I'm going to again. It's a masterful novel that can maintain the suspense, fear, and atmosphere to deliver a good, unnerving chill to the marrow. Unfortunately, while I've read many very good horror novels (see this post), but, man, oh Manischewitz, I've read way more terrible, or just plain crappy, ones.

On the other hand, I've read great stories from mediocre novelists. Like a nightmare, a story only needs a little time to get in there and drive a spike into your brain or leach poison into your soul. No matter how lunatic the setup is, if it only last a dozen pages, it doesn't have to be able to hold up to deep scrutiny. If you want an evil, winking planet, you can do it ("The Tugging" by Ramsey Campbell). Short fiction is where the horror can run its freest and wildest.


In A Lonely Place (1983) by Karl Edward Wagner

It's been some time since I've read all of this nigh-perfect collection, but enough memories of the best stories in remain so I feel confident in writing about it. Wagner is probably best remembered as an editor of tremendous talent and a writer of topnotch swords & sorcery tales. What he also was, was a very, very good horror writer. If you don't believe me, just look up how many times "Where the Summer Ends" and "Sticks" have been anthologized. Wagner wrote more stories than the seven included in this volume, but these are the ones with which to start.






The Inhabitants of the Lake & Other Less Welcome Tenants (1964) by Ramsey Campbell
What can I say, I love this one, it's an absolute blast. Ramsey Campbell, one of the most respected names in horror, began, as most genre writers do, as a fan. Before he was a teenager, inspired by ghost stories he had read he turned his hand to writing his own. Later, as a teenager, he wrote Cthulhu Mythos tales that strove to be spitting images of HPL's own. At August Derleth's suggestion, Campbell rewrote them in an English setting. In 1964, at the age of eighteen, Arkham House published, Inhabitants, Campbell's first collection.

Replete with creepy, inbred denizens of spiritually corrupt towns, unwholesome tomes, and new Mythos deities of his own devising, these stories are an absolute hoot. Lin Carter tried to do the same thing in his Mythos stories, but they are mostly failures. I think the difference is, ultimately, even at a young age, Campbell was just a better writer and Carter never got that it was atmosphere more than demonic genealogies and lists of tomes that make these sort of stories work. Now, these stories are no great works of art, but Campbell knew for them to work their needed to be discomfiting, to be disturbing. The urban decay and moral rot that's a major part of Campbell's later, non-Mythos, writing can already be found in some of these early stories.


Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens (2003) by Manly Wade Wellman

This isn't the first and it probably won't be the last collection of Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories, but it's the one I have. For those uninitiated to the wondrous magic of Wellman's yarns, these are essentially paranormal detective stories. Instead of fog-shrouded cities, they're set among the deep hollows and mountains of Appalachia and are filled with bits of real (and invented) rural folklore.

I have no memory of when I first encountered Wellman and his stories. It might have been the story "Owls Hoot in the Daytime" itself. It first appeared in Kirby McCauley's terrific anthology, Dark Forces, but I can't swear to it. However I found him, I became a fan years ago and find myself dipping back into his stories regularly. I like them all, but it's the John stories I find drawn back to most often.



Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

What can I say except that this is the book, more than any other, which made me a lifelong Stephen King fan? I like many of his novels and collections, but the only one other than The Shining that I've read multiple times is this. I've read it maybe half a dozen times over the years, all at once or in bits and pieces. Including "Quitters, Inc.," "The Children of the Corn," and "Night Shift," this collects more of King's truly great stories than any of the other collections published over the years. Vampires, aliens, Lovecraftian horror, King leaves practically no horror stone unturned and it's a blast.

Looking at the table of contents, I was almost shocked at just how many of the stories in Night Shift have been filmed - eleven as standalone or parts of anthology films or tv-miniseries  and several more as non-professional shorts (the latter as part of a deal where King allowed student and amateur directors license stories for a dollar). Most of the films stink, but I'd be curious just how much King has profited from this single forty-one year old story collection. Whatever, if you aren't a King reader but are curious, this is still the best place to start.


Nocturnes (2004) by John Connolly

I discovered John Connolly through the Kevin Costner horror movie, The New Daughter (2009). The movie is not bad, if not great, still some things about it - the inevitability of its conclusion particularly - lodged themselves in my brain and wouldn't let go. When I discovered the movie was based on a story by someone named John Connolly, I decided to get a copy. A quick search brought me to Nocturnes. Since then, I've read nineteen books of Connolly's, seventeen of them part of a series, and not one has disappointed me.


From the King-like "The Cancer Cowboy Rides Again," to the MR James-like "Mr Pettinger's Dæmon," to the supernatural detective novella, "The Reflecting Eye." this book supplies all the chills and shudders I want from horror stories. Nine of the fifteen stories began as a radio scripts and that shows in their ghost-story-around-the-fireplace feel. I wrote a standalone post about the collection when I first found it that you can read HERE. I only describe the stories above as "like" King or James to give you a sense of what they're like. Connolly doesn't hide his influences, but he is not pasticheur. He writes with an authority and eloquence that verges into the poetic many, many times, and its all his own.

The best thing to come out of discovering Connolly was finding his series character, Charlie Parker. Again, I've written about the books HERE. I cannot recommend them enough.
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I could write a dozen posts about another sixty collections I've loved over the decades, but these five are among the very best and among the ones I've gone back to again and again. Not every story in any of them is perfect. Some are even bad, still each of these contains among some of the very best spooky writing from the last half century.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The New York Frontier in the Revolution

Looking down the Mohawk Valley
Between the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Catskills to the south, the Mohawk River runs eastward for 149 miles to the Hudson River. At its headwaters near modern-day Rome is the Great Carrying Place, a spot where boats could be portaged to the Wood River and gain access to Lake Ontario and the interior of North America.


During the French and Indian War (1754-63), the French capture of Fort Oswego on the shore of Lake Ontario opened the rich farmland of the valley and the homes of the British-allied Mohawk nation to military threat. The valley survived the war mostly intact. It was a very different story twelve years later in the American Revolution.



A Plan to Strangle the Revolution

The Tories said 1777 "had three gallows in it" for the resemblance of the sevens to that means of execution. For a time in the summer of that year it looked as if the British might succeed in splitting the colonies and killing the revolution. 

General William Howe, Commander in Chief, North America, suggested a plan to cut off patriot-heavy New England from the rest of the colonies by marching 10,000 troops up the Hudson Valley from New York City and seizing Albany.  Split along the Hudson, in the regions to the south, starved of patriotic fervor, the revolution might suffocate and die. 

When Philadelphia, the rebel colonies' capital, became too-tempting a target, Howe abandoned this scheme and instead marched south. That decision resulted in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, two of the biggest of the war and the loss of the American capital. What it didn't do was change the path of the war.


Gen. John Burgoyne

The Hudson Valley

About the same time Howe was changing his mind regarding the march on Albany, General John Burgoyne made a similar proposal to sever New England from the rest of the colonies, but from the opposite direction. He would march 8,000 men south from Quebec along Lakes Champlain and George, and then along the Hudson. The goal was the same as Howe's had been: Albany. There the two British forces would join up.
Simultaneously with Burgoyne's expedition, Colonel Barry St. Leger was to march from Fort Oswego down the Mohawk Valley towards Albany. The valley, sparsely populated and split at least evenly between patriots and Tories, was a rich source of food to Washington's army. 


Burgoyne's dreams were broken at Saratoga by an army led on paper by General Horatio Gates, but on the field more by Benedict Arnold. In retrospect, the British operation seemed doomed from the start - thousands of men trekking through the wilderness of New York with only a tenuous supply line back up the lakes to Canada. Expecting to move mostly over water, sufficient wagons for the overland-trek from the bottom of Lake George to Albany and drivers weren't procured until late, delaying the army's march. Ultimately, it took three months to reach Saratoga.

It must have been eerie for Burgoyne's army when it set off down Lake Champlain. While Indians and Europeans had used the lakes to travel for centuries, the region was not far removed from virgin forest. To have been one of 8,000 men moving by boat and then foot, through vast and untenanted wilderness would have unnerved the heck out of me. 

Burgoyne's supply issues were highlighted a month before the first battle of Saratoga, Freeman's Farm, when a Hessian foraging detachment was defeated near Bennington, Vermont. The American victory boosted morale, leading to more militia men joining General Gate's force and the loss to Burgoyne of nearly a thousand troops, half of them regulars.

The Battle of Freeman's Farm on Sept. 19th, ended with the British in command of the field but deprived of six hundred men. By the time of the second battle, Bemis Heights, on Oct. 7th, Burgoyne's army had been whittled down by desertions and sickness while Gates' army had only grown. The second battle opened with a British attack that failed, followed by an American one that captured pivotal portions of the British fieldworks. A week later, Burgoyne surrendered to Gates, and marched his remaining soldiers into captivity. The British surrender, coupled with Washington's continued survival, was what convinced the French to begin serious negotiations with the rebels to enter the war against Britain.

The Mohawk Valley

Johnson negotiates
with the Mohawk
On July 25, almost two months after Burgoyne left Montreal, St. Leger with about 2,000 men - a mixed force of regulars, Canadian and Tory militia and Iroquois left Fort Oswego. The plan was to strike quickly and take Fort Stanwix, seize control of the portage then secure the Mohawk Valley before marching to Albany.

When the Revolution began British control of Western New York seemed a forgone fact. For years, the region had been under the gruff, intelligent command of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern district. A hero of the French and Indian War, he spoke the Mohawk language and lived with Molly Brant, sister of Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant. The Indians, in particular, trusted him. Unfortunately, in the summer of 1774, he died. His son, John Johnson inherited his lands and titles and his nephew (and son-in-law), Guy Johnson, took over his duties as Superintendent. Neither had the old man's skills.

Johnson Hall, Johnson, NY
The Johnson cousins were unable to organize sufficient militia forces to keep control of the region west of Albany. A significant number of the 8,000 settlers in the region were Dutch and Palatinate Germans and the had a strong dislike for the high-handed ways of the Johnsons and their Iroquois friends. Here's an 1877 article by  Harold Frederic from Harper's that presents a detailed look at the maneuvering that took place in the first year of the war that lead most of the loyalists to flee to Canada. Sir John Johnson would return to New York in the summer of 1777, attached as an officer in St. Leger's column.

St. Leger had been lead to believe capturing Fort Stanwix would be easy. Instead, the American forces under Colonel Peter Gansevoort (Herman Melville's maternal grandfather), were stronger and better prepared than expected. Prepared for the British attack, the Americans had already sabotaged the roads to delay St. Leger's march. Gansevoort then hunkered down and waited for reinforcements.

Fort Stanwix was built by the British between 1758 and 1762. Occupied and renamed Fort Schuyler by the Americans in 1776, it burned down in 1781. In the mid-seventies, the National Park Service decided to rebuild the fort. Today, instead of a lonely, wilderness outpost, Fort Stanwix stands in the middle of downtown Rome, NY, an old canal port that saw its best days sixty years ago. Standing on the parapets, if you look into the fort's interior, again, it's possible to imagine yourself two and half centuries back. Then a car honking breaks the spell and it's today once more. 


Fort Stanwix from above
As soon as word of St. Leger's movements spread across Western New York, militia began forming across the region. While a larger body under Benedict Arnold gathered at Albany, 800 men of the Tryon County militia marched to relieve the fort. Under the command of General Nicholas Herkimer they were ambushed at Oriskany on August 6. A bloody mess of a battle, fought at close quarters, hundreds of Americans were killed. It's a testimony to Herkimer's character that, despite being severely wounded, a wound from which he'd die a few days later, he was able to reform his men and eventually get them to the relative safety of Fort Dayton (here's an article on the search for the fort's remains by the Herkimer County Historical Society). 

Oneida warriors vs. Tory militia 
Though surrounded by wood, most of the Oriskany battlefield park's grass is neatly mown and the trees less dense than in 1777. Still, if you walk down to the edge of the ravine where Herkimer's soldiers were ambushed, it's easy to imagine the sound of war cries, musket fire, and the screams of the dying and wounded.


I was there around the same time of the year and it was hot and muggy. It's only about seven or eight hundred feet from where the ambush started to the where Herkimer rallied his men, but it's upward, out of a steep ravine and up a slight incline. Militia during the Revolution had a habit of breaking pretty quickly when they took even light losses. To have made that move under fire, having already taken hundreds of losses, is a remarkable achievement.

Looking east toward the ambush ravine
While the bulk of the British and Indian force was attacking Herkimer's column, Gansevoort seized the chance to strike a blow. Colonel Marinus Willett and 250 men sortied from Fort Stanwix and ravaged the British encampment and destroyed much of the Indian warriors' possessions. The latter event led to many of the Iroquois leaving the siege and returning to their villages.

Ambush!
The siege ended when Arnold arrived with a relief column of 700 men. Insecure in the ability of his force to defeat St. Leger on the field, Arnold sowed disinformation in his enemy's camp leading him to believe there were many more Americans than there really were. With his brother held as a hostage, Loyalist prisoner, Hon Yost Schuyler, along with an Oneida warrior, was sent into the British lines to convince them Arnold led an overwhelming force. On August 22, St. Leger broke camp and retreated to Lake Ontario.


The Burning of the Valleys
After the disaster at Saratoga, the British decided to unleash the Indians and commence a guerrilla war on the western colonial frontier. Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant, and Loyalist irregular commander, John Butler were ordered to recruit soldiers and begin raiding the settlements and farms of the Mohawk, Susquehanna, Delaware, and Upper Hudson Valley. This was war up close and personal. For the Indians and Loyalists, it was a war against the people intent on driving them from their homes. For the Americans it was a fight to hold on to the land they were colonizing. Largely fought by irregulars, it meant ambush and terror were common. Scalping was a common practice by all sides. Where earlier the war in New York had been fought largely by armies facing each other in the field, it was now carried on by small bodies of men ranging killing soldiers and civilians alike.
Joseph Brant

Throughout 1778, forces from both sides raided and destroyed the other's settlements. In May, Brant and a force of nearly 300 men attacked the village of Cobleskill. In July, Butler and the Seneca war chief, Cornplanter, ravaged the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania and killed over 300 Americans. In September, Brant struck again, burning out nearly 700 settlers around the New York town of German Flatts. Finally, in November. a force of Indians and Loyalists attacked the New York village of Cherry Valley. It's come down in history as the Cherry Valley Massacre. The Seneca warriors, it is alleged, particularly targeted civilians, leaving at least thirty dead by the raid's end.

Wyoming Valley
The British actions precipitated drastic responses from the Americans. In October, the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment marched north into New York and burned down the Mohawk villages of Unadilla and Onaquaga. The towns had evacuated ahead of the soldiers' arrival, but the loss of the towns infuriated the Iroquois and helped precipitate the frenzy at Cherry Valley. 

Cherry Valley
By 1779, thousands of settlers had seen their farms burned and been evacuated from the frontier. Regions that Washington relied on to feed his army were devastated. There seemed to be no end to the Indian and Loyalists raids, some reaching as far as Vermont. Seeing no alternative, General George Washington order his staff to organize a campaign against the Iroquois and their allies and take "the war home to the enemy to break their morale."



Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters (Wallace House, New Jersey) May 31, 1779
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.
Sullivan victorious at Newtown
Under the command of General John Sullivan, over 3,000 soldiers marched into the Iroquois homeland in Western New York and burned out at least forty Indian towns, much of their crops, and drove nearly 5,000 people into exile in Canada. The one major engagement, the Battle of Newtown on August 29 was an American victory, but a minor one. Most of the Iroquois warriors had already fled the region ahead of Sullivan's force.

Sullivan's Campaign against the Iroquois

Old Stone Fort - attacked on 10/17/1780
The loss of the Indian villages did not entirely stop Indian raiding through the end of the war. The attacks were less widespread than in earlier years, focusing on the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys. In  August 1780, the town of Minden was attacked and destroyed. In October of the same year, at the Battle of Klock's Field, 1,500 men under General Robert Van Rennselaer defeat 1,000 under Sir John Johnson and Joseph Brant. The victory, though, hadn't come in time to prevent the destruction of a twenty-mile long region between Stone Arabia and Fort Hunter. 



The next year, Marinus Willet, veteran of Fort Stanwix, defeated a force of British regulars and Loyalist militia at Johnstown. It was one of the last battles in the Northern Theater of the Revolution. During Willet's pursuit of the retreating British toward Lake Oneida, John Butler's son, Walter was killed. 

After the War

John Butler
With the death of Walter Butler, one sees the death of the Loyalist fight to maintain control of New York. John Butler would end his life a prominent landowner and politician in Ontario. Sir John Johnson would end up in Quebec and become the Head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Lower Canada. I imagine the greater number of Loyalist settlers remained in Canada as well.

Only Joseph Brant attempted to continue the war against the Americans. He kept fighting in 1782, but by then, the war clearly lost with Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, the British refused to supply him anymore. Eventually, he too, would end up in Canada, an exile vainly attempting to rebuild his New York homeland. He tried to get all the Iroquois emigrants to settle near him as well as his old Loyalist neighbors. 

Brant also tried to forge an alliance between the tribes of the Ohio Valley, land he, and all of the tribes inhabiting it, felt had been unfairly ceded to the Americans by the British. When war finally came in 1785, despite appeals by the Western Indian Confederacy, Brant refused to bring the Iroquois into the war. He knew the British would provide no support so war might mean the end of his people. Instead, he watched the Confederacy, one of the last Indian powers in the northern United States fall in defeat at Fallen Timbers in 1795. Brant himself would live another twelve years, dying in Ontario, hundreds of miles from where he was born.

By 1825, any of the war's participants would have seen a drastically different region from the sparsely settled one they'd fought across. The Iroquois Confederation was no more. Many of its people had fled to Canada. Even the American-allied Oneida tribe saw most of its people migrate to Wisconsin. The Erie Canal had opened, linking the East Coast to the Great Lakes and the interior of the United States. Cities like Rome and Rochester sprang up, bringing people and industry. The original American frontier was gone.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Summer Doldrums and the Leatherstocking Region

Try as I might, reading is just not working these days for me. I'm three-quarters done with The Three Musketeers, but I just can't close the deal. Tim Willocks' Memo from Turner is mocking me, as is still unfinished Holger Herwig book about the First Battle of the Marne. I'm headed into Leatherstocking country for the next week, and even with my four nephews around, I might be able to relax and get some things read. Note: Since I wrote this, I've started Caleb Carr's Surrender, New York and I'm digging it, so I got that going for me.

Venturing into the north, I will definitely get a good dose of frontier history in. We're planning to take a day trip to Rome, NY and hit both Fort Stanwix and Oriskany battlefield

As part of the British plan to sever New England from the rest of the colonies in 1777, an expedition under Barry St. Leger began marching down the Mohawk Valley toward Albany. On August 6th, a militia force under General Nicholas Herkimer, a son of two of the many German immigrants in the region (and one of whose brothers was serving with St. Leger), was ambushed by a mixed force of Iroquois, British soldiers, and local Tories led by New York-born Sir John Johnson. It was a brutal affair, filled with hand-to-hand combat among neighbors punctuated by a thunder storm and ended with over half the American force dead. Foremost among the British commanders were Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant and Loyalist ranger commander, John Butler.

Herkimer at Oriskany
Herkimer had been on his way to help relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix, but was forced to withdraw into the dilapidated Fort Dayton. A relief column under Benedict Arnold later relieved both Stanwix and Dayton. Herkimer would go on to die following the amputation of his leg, done both too late and too poorly.

 Col. Herkimer's position following the initial ambush
 Column marking the final rallying position of the militia after the thunderstorm
Looking into the ambush ravine. In 1777, all of this would have been wooded.

Park ranger at Fort Stanwix dressed as militia ranger giving musket 
           demonstration

 Western ditch of reconstructed Fort Stanwix

Looking at the southwestern bomb-proof entrance and two bunkhouses

Upstate New York was torn by warfare for centuries; between the Iroquois and their enemies, the French and British, and finally the British and the Americans. The Mohawk Valley saw massacres and guerrilla fighting up through the end of the Revolution. The savage frontier warfare served as some of Robert E. Howard's portrayal of the Pictish frontier in his Hyborian tales. I've long wanted to travel to the region and finally I'm getting the chance.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Lot of King and Pratchett and Cook

Between rounds of playing Civilization and emphatically not reading very much, my mind drifted to thoughts about which authors have I read the most books by. It was easy to figure out who they were, but, man, was I surprised when I added up just how many books of there's I'd read (and in many cases reread) over the last forty plus year. Between Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, and Glen Cook, I've read 100 books. Of all of them, the first I read was The Shining, way back in 1978 or 1979. Most of the rest I read as they came out or nearabouts.

Stephen King


Fiction
  1. Carrie (1974) - good with even better movie made from it
  2. 'Salem's Lot (1975) - my favorite vampire book 
  3. The Shining (1977) - his best, with nary a wasted word
  4. The Stand (1978) - two times I tried but couldn't finish. bloated and surprisingly dull in parts. The beginning, though, man, oh, man.
  5. The Dead Zone (1979) - very good - how do you make Lee Harvey Oswald the hero? also, challenge me if you like, but Cronenberg's movie is the best King adaptation 
  6. Firestarter (1980) - disposable
  7. Pet Sematary (1983) - way overrated
  8. The Talisman (1984) w/Peter Straub - good enough
  9. IT (1986) - good parts mixed with very bad parts and waaaay too long
  10. The Tommyknockers (1987) - he can't remember writing this which I think is for the best
  11. The Dark Half (1989) - very good
  12. Insomnia (1994) - goodish but long and a little pat with its human villain
  13. The Regulators (1996) - not good
  14. Bag of Bones (1998) - solid if, again, pat in its villains
  15. Dreamcatcher (2001) - nuts and not really good, but big, stoopid fun
  16. From a Buick 8 (2002) - very good
  17. The Colorado Kid (2005) - infuriating fun about an unanswerable mystery 
  18. Cell (2006) - goodish, but feels like a over-long short story 
  19. Lisey's Story (2006)  - I found it more interesting than good, but decent enough. some very good non-fantastic parts of loss
  20. Duma Key (2008) - eh, but only because I still expect more 
  21. The Outsider (2018) - very good
Collections
  1. Night Shift (1978) - perfect
  2. Skeleton Crew (1985) - close to perfect
  3. Four Past Midnight (1990) - okay
  4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993) - some good stuff 
  5. Hearts in Atlantis (1998) - as a longtime hearts player, I love this
  6. Everything's Eventual (2001) - okay
  7. Full Dark, No Stars (2010) - not bad at all

Nonfiction
  1. Danse Macabre (1981) - important look at horror as a genre 
  2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) - helpful
King is the writer who almost single-handedly turned horror into a marketable genre. It wasn't by accident: his early works mix pulp roots with literary aspirations and eyes wide-open on the bestseller lists. He wasn't the first person to do this, but he was the most industrious and simply better than most of his rivals.

His first five novels (as much as I don't like The Stand, its importance to his career and the genre are undeniable. Most people I know who've read it totally dug it.) and first two story collections are forces that any examination of modern horror has to address. If you read horror and have somehow missed them it's best to rectify that.

There's a definite drop off in quality in the eighties due to addiction troubles (supposedly he has no memory of writing The Tommyknockers, though that just might be wishful thinking). As good as I think some of his later books are, they lack the immediacy and novelty of those first six books. Those early ones, though, man, oh, man are they fun.

PS: I just recently read his last novel, The Outsider, and it cooks. More than any of his other books that I can think of, it feels very much a part of the horror paperback original scene of the seventies and eighties - done really, really well. In these days of glittery vampires and torture porn gore, it's a really standout.

Still, it's not as much of a punch to the gut as his early books. I attribute that to the effect of decades, and decades of horror written by divers hands. When King kicked things off over forty years ago, if not the first explorer, he was definitely the most important conquistador in the lands of horror. The trails he opened and styles he conquered have long since been traveled and done to death. It's incredibly hard for new horror book to strike with the same potency of King's earliest books, even his own.

Terry Pratchett 
  1. The Colour of Magic (1983) - The fun begins...
  2. The Light Fantastic (1986) - and gets intensified
  3. Mort (1987) - Enter Death, resplendent in sable
  4. Equal Rites (1987) - Enter Three Witches
  5. Sourcery (1988) - Surprisingly eh
  6. Wyrd Sisters (1988) - The Witches get better
  7. Pyramids (1989) - Okay standalone
  8. Guards! Guards! (1989) - Enter Sgt. Vimes 
  9. Eric (1990) - Another surprisingly eh entry
  10. Moving Pictures (1990) - And yet another eh
  11. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) w/Neil Gaiman - Not my cup of tea, though I'll watch the movie. I've watched the movie and it's as good as the material allows for.
  12. Witches Abroad (1991) - Terrific
  13. Reaper Man (1991) - Very (VERY) good
  14. Lords and Ladies (1992) - Better yet
  15. Small Gods (1992) - Heartbreaking and beautiful 
  16. Men at Arms (1993) - Great
  17. Interesting Times (1994) - Okay
  18. Soul Music (1994) - My least favorite, and yet it's still a good book
  19. Maskerade (1995) - Grand opera buffa
  20. Feet of Clay (1996) - Brilliant
  21. Hogfather (1996) - Very, very good
  22. Jingo (1997) - Good 
  23. Carpe Jugulum (1998) - My second favorite vampire novel
  24. The Last Continent (1998) - Rincewind in Discworld's Outback
  25. The Fifth Elephant (1999) - Great
  26. The Truth (2000) - Enter William de Worde
  27. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001) - Terrific. Ostensible young adult book that reads exactly the same as his adult ones.
  28. The Last Hero (2001) - Cohen the Barbarian's greatest ride
  29. Thief of Time (2001) - Hilarious retconning of the whole series
  30. Night Watch (2002) - The best City Guard book (which is say a lot)
  31. The Wee Free Men (2003) - Enter Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegles
  32. Monstrous Regiment (2003) - Very good
  33. A Hat Full of Sky (2004) - Tiffany gets better
  34. Going Postal (2004) - Enter Moist von Lipwig
  35. Thud! (2005) - Okay
  36. Wintersmith (2006) - Very good
  37. Making Money (2007) - Moister yet
  38. Unseen Academicals (2009) - I liked this but many didn't
  39. I Shall Wear Midnight (2010) - Tiffany and company go to Ankh-Morpork
  40. Snuff (2011) - The real end. an awful central concept and, I suspect, Pratchett's illness make this a bad book. As such, I thoroughly disliked Snuff and I have never been interested in reading Full Steam, the final book. I also suspect his daughter is the actual author of FS.

At one point (before JK Rowling's advent), Terry Pratchett was publishing between two and four books a year, and ten percent of all books sold in England were by him. Having read thirty-nine of forty Discworld books, I can tell you that there are almost no clunkers. Except for the morally dubious Snuff, the weakest of the series stand way above almost all other fantasy series I've read.

The Discworld books started as parodies of heroic fantasy but quickly developed into something far more ambitious. Unlike most fantasy settings, Pratchett's isn't stagnant, and many of the books follow the Discworld's social and technological evolution. The books aren't just comical. In them he explored some pretty heady ideas, though rarely with heavy hands and never without being extremely funny.


My favorite sub-series are the Guard books. They are love songs to Discworld's great city, Ankh-Morpork, which in turn is a stand-in for all the great cities of the West. They are as much about the dedication and sacrifice it takes to a city running as the sheer joy of living in one.

Glen Cook 

  1. A Shadow of All Night Falling (1979) - Enter Mocker and Bragi
  2. October's Baby (1980) - Things get crazier...
  3. All Darkness Met (1980) - and crazier yet
  4. The Fire in His Hands (1984) - Readable
  5. The Black Company (1984) - Enter the Company. A groundbreaker
  6. Shadows Linger (1984) - The best Black Company book
  7. With Mercy Toward None (1985) - Again, readable
  8. The White Rose (1985) - Good conclusion to first Black Co. trilogy
  9. Reap the East Wind (1987) - Disappointing
  10. Sweet Silver Blues (1987) - Great
  11. Bitter Gold Hearts (1988) - Greater
  12. An Ill Fate Marshalling (1988) - Very disappointing
  13. Cold Copper Tears (1988) - Very good
  14. Old Tin Sorrows (1989) - Best in the series and one of Cook's best
  15. Shadow Games (1989) - Okay
  16. The Tower of Fear (1989) - Very good standalone
  17. The Silver Spike (1989) - Good and bleak - sums up a lot of Cook - people suck
  18. Dreams of Steel (1990) - Alright
  19. Dread Brass Shadows (1990) - Good. At some point, around here, actually, these start to run together. They're still good, but less distinct from one another than the earlier installments
  20. Red Iron Nights (1991) - Good
  21. Deadly Quicksilver Lies (1994) - Good
  22. Petty Pewter Gods (1995) - Good
  23. Bleak Seasons (1996) - Alright
  24. She Is the Darkness (1997) - Alright
  25. Water Sleeps (1999) - Good
  26. Faded Steel Heat (1999) - Good
  27. Soldiers Live (2000) - A good, appropriately, sad farewell
  28. Angry Lead Skies (2002) - Good
  29. Whispering Nickel Idols (2005) - Good
  30. An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat (2008) - Stories; some great, several less so


Looking back at Glen Cook's work, there's no denying he's a very good storyteller.  Drawing on hard boiled writing as much as heroic fantasy, Cook is the writer who brought fantasy down into the dirt for the masses. I like it a lot (obviously). The results are often derided as flat, and against the more deliberately literary style of King and Pratchett's elaborate style, it can look very pale, but when it works, it's good and tough. The first three Black Company books (The Black CompanyShadows LingerThe White Rose) remain as smash-in-the-face brutal today as when they appeared. They also remain the best distillation of his strengths; If you don't like these, you probably won't like the rest of his catalogue, but if you do, you're in luck.

The problem with his work is that a lot of it's part of three long-running series. As with any serial work, it tends to be stretched out, often further than warranted, and its impact diminishes. Rereading the entire Black Company series this past summer did nothing to disabuse me of that. 

Before you tell me most of Pratchett's books belong to a series, let me remind you that within that there are several discrete shorter sequences (guards, witches, Rincewind, etc.). Each only ended up running about five or six books written over fairly long periods of time. 

There are eleven Black Company books, nine Dread Empire, and fourteen Garrett. None of the latter, for example, are markedly bad, but at some point, seven or eight in, a certain degree of blending takes over and it gets pretty hard to keep them all straight. It's not a bad thing - these make no claim to be anything other than - but it does make keep them separate in one's mind a bit of a chore at some point. 

I don't love a lot of the fantasy spawned in the wake of the Black Company. I mean the grim military series that litter the field. The modernisms that Cook popularized aren't so original anymore and just seem lazy and forced. The grim stuff, well, I've written a lot over the years about my boredom with it as its own genre, and, again, it reads lazy and forced. Many of the newer writers may be technically better, capable of finer prose, but I've found few who can match him for visceral storytelling. 

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As I continue to get older - that's code to closer to being dead - I feel a little sad that I've read so many fantasy books and so little literature, or even just some other genres. I'm not denigrating King, Pratchett, and Cook, but it all looks so limited from June, 2019. There are so many books, so much other writing, so many authors, that I should be spending time with. I know there's no prize for doing this, but to miss out on so much seems like winning some sort of anti-prize. I mean, I'm pretty sure I'll never read all of Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire and I'll probably never get to Proust. It's a real mortality-confronter to understand that there are certain books I will just never read. If I want to accomplish anything - readingwise - I need to pick and choose. 

I've been struggling reading these days. It's happened before in my life, usually, like this time, after long periods of reading like mad. For the past five years, I've pushed myself to keep a regular column at Black Gate going and it feels like I've blown some sort of reading muscle. Instead of the fifteen or twenty books I'd have read by now in recent years I've reached a grand total of seven. I think things are getting back on track, but it's been an outright chore to read.  


Right now I'm trying to read that ur-text of swashbuckling stories, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. After it, I might get back to Fathers and Sons and maybe I'll finally pick up Lord Jim or something else dense by Conrad, maybe Nostromo. Oh, and I guess I'll finish Master and Commander. I really like it so far, but I put it down and got distracted and somehow didn't pick it back up straight away. 

I'm going away to the shore for week soon. Since I loathe the beach, I'll hang back in the rental house and read like crazy - ideally. In addition to the books above, I'd love to get to Memo From Turner, Tim Willocks' latest. Also, one or two more nautical books and a Golden Age mystery. Of course, based on my history, little of this will come to pass, I won't read half of what I want to, and I'll just play more games. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Rage in Harlem (1957) by Chester Himes


Hank counted the stack of money. It was a lot of money – a hundred and fifty brand new ten-dollar bills. He looked at Jackson through cold yellow eyes.
“You give me fifteen C’s – right?”
He wanted it straight. It was strictly business.
He was a small, dapper man with mottled brown skin and thin straightened hair. He looked like business.
“That’s right,” Jackson said. “Fifteen hundred bucks.”
It was strictly business with Jackson too.
Jackson was a short, black, fat man with purple-red gums and pearly white teeth made for laughing, but Jackson wasn’t laughing. It was too serious for Jackson to be laughing. Jackson was only twenty-eight years old, but it was such serious business that he looked a good ten years older.
“You want me to make you fifteen G’s – right?” Hank kept after him.

In 1957, after having not found literary success despite writing several well-received novels, Chester Himes tried his hand at hardboiled crime fiction. Ultimately, he wrote nine crime stories set in Harlem, eight of which feature the dynamic duo, NYPD detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. In the first book, A Rage in Harlem, though, they are only secondary characters. The star of this book is Jackson, a deeply naive mortician's assistant trying to rescue his girlfriend Imabelle from a ruthless gang.

His credulity and love of from him the fact that the woman he's pursuing is part of the gang that conned him out of all his money. His complete, and completely unwarranted, devotion to her leads him into acts of criminality totally alien to the good-natured, churchgoing man. Himes' original title for Rage was The Five-Cornered Square, pointing out just how innocent Jackson was. Only the assistance of his twin brother Goldy, a heroin-addicted con artist who dresses as a nun, gives him any chance of success.

The series gets darker and bleaker as it progresses (the final, unfinished, book, Plan B, ended in total race war and Coffin Ed and Gravedigger taking opposite sides). A Rage in Harlem has a much lighter tone. It's a funny book - cynical and packed with random violence - but it's also funny. Much of that comes from black resistance to the arbitrary and capricious power of the white police force. 
The nag moved off in slow motion, impervious to Jackson’s blows. At that moment the junkman looked from the crowd to see if his property was safe and saw Jackson driving off in his cart. He looked at Jackson as though he didn’t believe it.
“Man, dass my wagon.”
He was an old man dressed in cast-off rags and a horse blanket worn like a shawl. He had a black woolen cloth wrapped about his head like a turban, over which was pulled a floppy, stained hat. Kinky white hair sprouting from beneath the turban joined a kinky white beard, grimy with dirt and stained with tobacco juice, from which peered a wrinkled black face and watery old eyes. His shoes were wrapped in gunny sacks tied with string. He looked like Uncle Tom, down and out in Harlem.
“Hey!” he yelled at Jackson in a high, whining voice. “You stealin’ mah wagon.”
Jackson lashed the nag’s rump, trying to get away. The junkman ran after him in a shuffling gait. Both horse and man moved so slowly it seemed to Jackson as though the whole world had slowed down to a crawl.
“Hey, he stealin’ mah wagon.”
A cop looked around at Jackson.
“Are you stealing this man’s wagon?”
“Nawsuh, dat’s mah pa. He can’t see well.”
The junkman clutched the cop’s sleeve.
“Ah ain’t you pa and Ah sees enough to see that you is stealing my wagon.”
“Pa, you drunk,” Jackson said.
The cop bent down and smelled the junkman’s breath. He drew back quickly, blowing. “Whew.”
“Come on and git in, Pa,” Jackson said, winking at the junkman over the cop’s head.
The junkman knew the code. Jackson was trying to get away and he wasn’t going to be the one to rat on him to a white cop.
This isn't a mystery, which constant comparisons of Himes to Chandler might have made you think it was. It's a surreal excursion through a mythical Harlem (Himes spent scant time there and wasn't fond of it), filled with larger-than-life characters fighting to survive in the face of poverty and racism, soap opera-level coincidences, and insane violence. Set against Harlem as a Boschean Hellscape, con artists con, thieves steal, and murderers murder.
Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The farther east it goes, the blacker it gets.
East of Seventh Avenue to the Harlem River is called The Valley. Tenements thick with teeming life spread in dismal squalor. Rats and cockroaches compete with the mangy dogs and cats for the man-gnawed bones.
That they happen to star cops and criminals is a concession to economic demands. They are outraged and funny roars from a writer who felt himself forced to leave his home country for France in order to succeed as a writer and escape prospects limited by his race. 

In 1991 Bill Duke directed a disappointing version of A Rage in Harlem. While Forrest Whitaker is quite good at conveying Jackson's innocence, Gregory Hines as Goldy (and not making him a transvestite) is awful. Robin Givens is great as Imabelle, but none of it matters. While the film manages to walk an adequate line between thrills and comedy, it never rises to the psychotic heights, or depths, of the book.