Tuesday, February 27, 2018

James Ellroy: grimmer than grim, darker than dark

Spurred on by nothing in particular, I watched the movies made from two of James Ellroy's gonzo LA Quartet novels, The Black Dahlia (1987) and L.A. Confidential (1990).

The former is an expensive and elaborate failure, starring the usually solid Aaron Eckhart and the often too-stolid Josh Hartnett. The rest of the roles are taken up by good people suffering under a bad script: Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Fiona Shaw, and a host of talented character actors. 

Its failure, I believe arises from two main points. The first is Brian De Palma, a director given to highly stylized shots and who approached the material in ways I find sterile. Nothing feels alive; things are too shiny, too clean, too new. The music is more emphatic and on the nose than is good for the film. There are several of De Palma's patented slow-mo shots. That's something that almost never works in a movie, and it doesn't work here. It only drags out a scene of a killing robbing it of the vicious intensity it deserves.

The second is its attempted fidelity to Ellroy's original material. Yes, De Palma seriously edited the film and that might have made it a little less coherent that it could have been, but I think there's something else going on. Ellroy's books are weird and effed up. To call them over the top is way beyond understatement. De Palma attempted to channel Ellroy's madness into the movie. I think he actually achieves a certain degree of success with that, but the material overwhelms. It's like Stephen King dialogue. It reads great on the page but sounds terrible when spoken out loud. Ellroy's books achieve levels of outrageousness that are so extreme and unbelievable that seeing them acted out by real people only points out how ludicrous they are. Even if Hilary Swank was the best actress ever, I don't think she could pull off some of the lines or scenes she was given. 

As I rewatched the movie, I found didn't hate it as much as I did the first time. Sure, De Palma made lots of mistakes, from the look, to the casting, to the script, but in the end, the biggest flaw seems to be the near impossibility of bringing Ellroy to the screen without setting aside so much of what makes his books such a roar of feral insanity.

L.A. Confidential strips Ellroy's story down to the barest of basics. Gone are the crazy serial killer, the unsavory Walt Disney stand-in, and a host of other things. Ellroy said the movie eliminated 5 out of the book's 8 plots and focused on the three protagonists' attempt to redeem themselves. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe are powerful as the two main leads, Ed Exley and Bud White, and the lamentable Kevin Spacey is perfect as the sharp-dressed, publicity hungry Jack Vincennes. James Cromwell is terrifying as Dudley Smith, one of the greatest literary villains of all time (side note - a friend of mine thought the perfect casting for Dudley Smith would have been John Wayne, and I hesitate to disagree). All those directorial mistakes I said De Palma made, Confidential's director, Curtis Hanson made none of them. Even though both were shot largely in Los Angeles, only Hanson makes it look like a real place, not some highly polished, model-precise recreation. If you've somehow escaped seeing it and have a taste for tough-minded noir give it a try. I'd be curious to hear what any first time viewers think about it.

So far, I've been writing assuming a knowledge of Ellroy and a familiarity with his writing. In case I am wrong (what's the chance of that?), James Ellroy is author incredibly dark and violent crime fiction. From a life of petty crime, extreme poverty, and drug abuse, Ellroy dragged himself up and turned himself into a writer. A major element driving his fiction, appearing in one slightly altered version or another in many of his earlier works, was the 1958 murder of his mother (about which he wrote the book My Dark Places and writes about here as well).

Ellroy's prose can verge into deeply purple territory, but it is often magnificent, capable of exposing the still-beating hearts of his characters and exposing the gory infections that lace our world. His stories are built of violence, often against women, often against the innocent. His characters speak in profanity, hurl racist epithets, steal, murder, undermine the law, and still, some of them are redeemed. Never, though, does the brutality of Ellroy feel glib or cheap.

They can be hard books to read and I know several people who were repelled by them. I was moved by these stories of broken men trying to find a way out of the Abyss as well as caught up by velocity and excitement of the of the insane  plots. I'm about to begin a reread of the L.A. Quartet, and as I do, I'll let you know my thoughts on them now nearly thirty years after I first encountered them.

The way I discovered Ellroy was completely by accident. I read something about the actual Black Dahlia case and suddenly remembered seeing a book with that title in Barnes and Noble. Not the other, but the cover. I had to scan a bunch of the shelves before I eventually found it. I took it home and finished it within a day or two. Two tough cops, both with dark secrets, become obsessed with the horrific murder of Betty "the Black Dahlia" Short in 1947. Around them swirls a maelstrom of corruption - moral, political, and physical.

It's a work built on a vision of the world as black and rotten as seen by an arch-moralist. There is good and evil, and sometimes, even bad men can lift themselves up to fight it. No matter the cost to their careers, even their lives, the need to avenge certain wrongs becomes the driving force in their lives. It's melodramatic noir with a bleak view of mankind but with an allowance for glimmers of hope, even if they are fleeting.

The next day I started tracking down everyone of his books. Within a few weeks I read the sequel to Dahlia, The Big Nowhere (1988) and the sort of prequel, Clandestine (1982). The Big Nowhere is claimed by some to be Ellroy's masterwork. I haven't read it in ages so I don't feel up to addressing that, but it does have one of his few truly good characters and a serial killer disemboweling his victims with dentures made from wolverine teeth. Clandestine is even vaguer in my memory, but what lingers is a less controlled and less satisfying tryout of the themes and styles that would materialize in The Black Dahlia.

A short time later, I was reading Ellroy's first novel, Brown's Requiem (1981) and the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy. Requiem involves golf caddies, something Ellroy did for a time, and the Hopkins books are about a brilliant but ultra-intense LAPD detective. The first book in the trilogy, Blood on the Moon (1984), was filmed as Cop, and starred James Woods and Lesley Anne Warren. It's ok, no great shakes, but it's ok. The next two books, Because the Night (1984) and Suicide Hill (1986) are dark thrilling tales, but contain only the barest hints of what was to come a few years later in The Black Dahlia.

At some point, I read Killer on the Road (1986), a thoroughly disgusting and disturbing story told from a serial killer's perspective. It takes its lead from his creepy childhood to his plans for self-willed death in prison. I read it during my lengthy obsession with serial killers, but I've never felt the slightest desire to go back to it. Even when the worst of the worst stuff happens in other Ellroy books, there's bound to be some big lug looking for a way to achieve redemption. That is not the case, in any way whatsoever, in Killer on the Road.

Right after I finished my mad dash through Ellroy's catalogue, the third LA Quartet book, L.A. Confidential, was released. I bought on my last day in Albany for my first year of grad school and read half of it on the train ride home. It's a brutal and brilliant book, and waiting the two years for the sequel, White Jazz, was painful. It was worth it though. Instead of the sprawling three-protagonist template he'd employed in Nowhere and Confidential, Ellroy presented White Jazz as the diaries of a corrupt speed-freak cop. It's like burning phosphorus on the page, burning with an intensity and a passion that isn't easily shaken or forgotten. 

I even got to meet Ellroy briefly right around the time White Jazz came out. He was hocking his books personally at a stand at New York is Book Country. He was exactly how you might imagine: wild eyed and talking non-stop. I had stopped to look at his table and realized I had everything already. When I told him I wasn't going to buy anything because I owned them all, he offered to sign my friend's balloon. In wiry letters, he wrote:
She kept that balloon for years.

With L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, Ellroy broke into the big times. He was writing magazine pieces, there were interviews with him all over the place, and there was even a documentary made about him. It's also the time I started to fall out of love with him.

First there was the short story collection, Hollywood Nocturnes (1994). All that outrageousness that made his previous novels so great had become clichéd and too outrageous. Singer and actor Dick Contino hunts for a serial killer and tries to restore his reputation. I don't doubt Ellroy found some serious inspiration in the real Contino, but the results feel forced and predictable in their deliberate extravagance. 

His next novel, American Tabloid (1995) was the start of a new series, something that came to be called the Underworld USA Trilogy. It's a massive tome that purports to tell the real story of the corruption that undergirds America, rotting away political institutions, bending the public sector to the will of organized crime and business - though there's no real delineation between the two. I liked it at the time, digging it as a wild ride, but it struck me as a little hollow. In piling so many things on - Jimmy Hoffa, the hunt for commies, the Bay of Pigs - it was hard to really care about the characters as people. So many things happen, it's way too easy to get lost in the endless welter of Ellroy's hyper-detailed storytelling and inability to walk away from a subplot or digression. Even though I sort of like the book at the time, somehow I knew I was done with Ellroy. By the time the sequel, The Cold Six Thousand (2001), came out, I knew I was never going to read it.

Eventually, I gave my cousin my copy of Hollywood Nocturnes, American Tabloid, and a book of non-fiction pieces called Crime Wave (1999). I kept the rest, though. First, I had acquired hardcover first editions of the LA Quartet and liked the way they looked on the shelf. The paperbacks of his earlier books looked nice too, and I think I had somewhere a notion I'd read, at least, the Lloyd Hopkins books again.

I was first tempted to go back to the L.A. Quartet a few years ago when he published Perfidia (2014). It unfolds over 23 days, starting on Dec. 6, 1941. Dudley Smith and several other characters from the L.A. Quartet are among the protagonists in another complicated tale of crime and corruption in the City of Angels. For whatever reason, I didn't, neither rereading The Black Dahlia and the others, nor buying Perfidia. Now, I'm ready. I've got a copy of Perfidia winging its way towards me in the mail and have started The Black Dahlia. So far, it's still able to grab me in its dark embrace.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Gahan Wilson: some words and a bunch of cartoons

Recently, I listened to the most excellent folks at Sanctum Secorum talk about Roger Zelazny's fun homage to the Universal monster movies, Sherlock Holmes' London, and HP Lovecraft, A Night in the Lonesome October (1993). You can (and should) listen HERE. The three hosts - Bob Brinkman, Jen Brinkman, and Marc Bruner - were delighted by the book and have a lot of fun discussing it and how it could be used to inspire RPG adventures. 

The funny thing is, unless I missed it (which we all know is entirely probable), they didn't mention one of the coolest aspects of the book: each chapter is illustrated by Gahan Wilson. Wilson is one of the greatest contemporary cartoonists, with a special love for the creepy and bizarre. His cartoons were long mainstays of Playboy and the New Yorker (they might still be for all I know). I grew up reading them in the cartoon collections my dad owned. Later I bought my own books. 

Snuff, hero of A Night in the Lonesome October on the lookout

He also drew a comic for National Lampoon called Nuts. It told the adventures of a young boy called only, The Kid. It's less overtly creepy than most of his work, but it's just as fun, and even a little melancholy sometimes, as any honest examination of being a kid will be.

Wilson is also a writer of some very good weird short stories as well as two fun novels. Many of his stories can by found in the 1997 collection The Cleft and Other Odd Tales. The first novel, Eddy Deco's Last Caper (1987) mixes a noir detective, Lovecraftian monsters, and art deco architecture. In the second, Everybody's Favorite Duck (1988), stand ins for Holmes and Watson face off against stand in for Fantomas, Fu Manchu, and Moriarty during the late 80s. All three books are terrific, playing with all sorts of genre tropes and archetypes, playing with them completely straight as much as flipping them around, as well as featuring more of Wilson's cool comics.

The thing for which most fans today probably know him for is the recently, lamentably, retired Word Fantasy Award HPL trophy. Argue how you will over the appropriateness of HPL as an award, it's a much cooler looking one than the crappy moon and tree they came up with.

What he will be remembered for most, more than his stories, more than his sculpture, are his cartoons. Unlike the more reserved, Gothic-inspired work of Charles Addams, Wilson's are more grotesque, gorier, more in-your-face. He draws on mid-century sci-fi movies, HPL, classic monsters, serial killers, whatever he needs to give you a good, creepy chuckle. His style is also more exaggerated, with weirdly wrinkled skin, piggy eyes, and all sorts of other oddball characteristics that make his work instantly recognizable as well as what makes it so cool looking. Even his straightest looking characters are off in some way and look like they've stepped out of some stranger, weirder world just to the left side of our own. 

Now, some really good cartoons.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Revisiting Children's Books

 If you're not following along with me over at Black Gate (what, you're NOT?), I'm excavating my parts of my childhood and revisiting some of the fantasy that was important to me before the age of sixteen that isn't by J.R.R. Tolkien. I just read Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three (1964), I'm presently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), and next week I'll pick up Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time (1962).

   It was the death of Ursula K. Le Guin which triggered me to do this. As I wrote recently, the Earthsea books were incredibly important to me and my friends. After the Lord of the Rings, they were easily the most-read series among us. I think we had all read them well before we started playing D&D, so their influence went straight into our playing. True names, familiars, wizard colleges, shape changing, it all got thrown into our early games. Of the three authors just mentioned, she was the only one all of us read.

   Everyone I knew seemed to have read A Wrinkle in Time, but I don't know anyone else who read Alexander's books. L'Engle's books don't lend themselves as easily to gaming, but Alexander's do. I definitely included a dozen or so Horned Kings in my games over the decade. My penchant for adding Celtic stuff to my campaigns came from my love for the Prydain books and Moorcock's Corum books.

   You can't always go back home again. When I tried to read de Camp's The Fallible Fiend a year or two ago I couldn't make myself do it. Where once I found wry satire of humanity, I now only found bad jokes. Like with The Tritonian Ring, which I managed to finish and review, there's a great central conceit to the novel but the execution is poor. I was very surprised when I listened to the Sanctum Secorum podcast on The Fallible Fiend and they all pretty much dug it (and they mostly didn't like Three Hearts and Three Lions - what is this world coming to?). (But then they love Zelazny's Night in the Lonesome October, which is great, so maybe they're okay. It's very confusing.)

   I am very happy to learn, sometimes you can go home. The Book of Three was as good as I remembered, A Wizard of Earthsea far better than I hoped for, and a few chapters in, A Wrinkle in Time remains absolutely delightful. I read other fantasy and sci-fi as a kid, but, again, other than Tolkien's, little of it made as much of an impression on me.

   Leaving aside Alexander, they also helped form a common language between me and my friends. For us, there was no such thing as fandom (looking at what fandom's become now, I can only say "Thank God.") to connect us to some wider world. At some point, you realized you liked sf/f and started keeping an eye open for it or other people who read it.

   Contra a thread on Twitter recently, being a consumer of this stuff was not good for social acceptance. It also didn't make you someone given to excluding other people. Everyone needs friends, and someone who was into Elric and Lord of the Rings was a better prospect for friendship than a jock, regardless of class, race, or religion. Later, when I started playing D&D, we didn't keep out girls. If we knew any girls who wanted to play, we would've said "Yes!" very loudly. That many us didn't know many girls, and that they would've scared the heck out of us, was one of the reasons we had so much time for gaming in the first place. Sf/f fans were exactly social outcasts, but there was more than a hint of the nerdish to us.

   Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. Le Guin are books woven from the same basic threads, as far as I'm concerned. The Book of Three and A Wizard of Earthsea are both largely about a young man maturing and learning the weight of his actions and the necessity of taking responsibility for them. Simple lessons, but ones that have probably more value today than fifty years ago. Aside from something as mundane and extra-literary as relevance, the books remain good stories told well.

   They're very different, stylistically. Alexander writes more prosaically, keeping things fairly simple. Even with its dark moments (wicker men full of people set ablaze for example), The Book of Three has moments of humor, both verbal and slapstick that keep things light - even as Alexander is slowly building up serious themes. There's little to no humor in Le Guin's book, which, overall, has a more serious and somber atmosphere than Alexander's.

   Le Guin's book is written in a more consciously archaic and poetic style. I don't have a lot of patience for that these days (writes the guy who's working his way through The Night Land), but she does it very well, never becoming too stiff.
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.
That's the opening paragraph, and it's wonderful. She tells you outright that Ged is a mighty wizard with great deeds to his name, but now she's going to tell you the truths behind how he came to be that man. It's the perfect intro, promising great things, which Le Guin then goes on to deliver. The novel is by turns exciting and introspective. Ged's magical repulsion of the Kargish raiders and his battle against the dragons of Pendor are rousing, and Ged's journey to the evil Court of Terrenon on Oskill is wonderfully dark and creepy. Ged's coming to terms with the cost of his pride and his responsibilities as wielder of tremendous power is presented flowing from the story and not just from Le Guin's desire to lecture.

I'm sorry this piece isn't more coherent, but it's serving as a bit of a kickstarter for getting me writing here again as well as an opportunity to ramble around the corners of my memories. I'm only just now recalling that the same friend, Karl H., pointed me both to A Wrinkle in Time and A Wizard of Earthsea (he also gave me James Blish's Black Easter, a very different sort of book).I got to Alexander from the inclusion of an excerpt from The Black Cauldron in my second grade reader. I can still remember the illustrations of Gurgi, and the three witches. It wasn't until a year of two later that I found the series on my neighborhood library's shelves.

I'll stop there. How do you remember the sf/f books of your youth? What books were they? Any of these?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Andre Norton - Witch World Covers

If you haven't followed me here or at Black Gate for very long, you might not know I'm a fan of Andre Norton's sci-fi/swords & sorcery mashup series, Witch World. The first book, titled just Witch World, came out in 1963. It was followed by an immediate sequel, Web of the Witch World in 1964. I reviewed the latter here.

The following trilogy - Three Against the Witch World, Warlock of the Witch World, and Sorceress of the Witch World, tell the adventures of the three children of the original novels' heroes. I reviewed all of them at Black Gate and found them, if not as good as Witch World and Web, at least interesting and occasionally quite creepy.

The most interesting thing about these is the lack of artist continuity across the series and editions. I get not keeping with the first design for Witch World, but I would have kept it, emphasizing the pure pulpy goodness of the book. The later Jack Gaughan covers, more impressionistic, are excellent advertisements for the sort of monster-killing and spell-casting pulp inside.

I'm torn between saying the Philip Castle covers are bad and saying they're good. They are surprisingly connected to the actual stories, something covers are known for NOT doing many times. On the other hand, they're done in a really unremarkable airbrush technique that's both bland and garish at the same time. Every time I want to defend the aesthetics of the 70s, something like this comes along. Who at Tandem ever though those colors said "Pulp adventure inside?"

I love the Breslow art and wish he'd done covers for the whole series. He did a few others for the High Hallack Witch World books, but not all of them.

The Jeff Jones and Davis Meltzer covers are not bad, but a little bland and not especially specific to the books. The less said about the Jack Pound cover the better.

                            Jack Gaughan      J.H. Breslow      Philip Castle

                            Jack Gaughan      Davis Meltzer   Philip Castle

                            Jack Gaughan    Harry Borgman  Philip Castle

                           Jack Gaughan     J.H. Breslow      Philip Castle

                               Jeff Jones        John Pound        Philip Castle

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Ursula K. LeGuin - Earthsea covers

There's been plenty written about the recently departed Ursula K. Le Guin, all of it far more knowledgeable about her and her work than anything I could add. Aside from the Earthsea series, my encounters with her work were never to my liking. While I didn't read either of her big books (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), I read The Lathe of Heaven plus assorted short stories. Too often, politics, for want of  a better word, intruded badly or were so far from my own, I found myself completely disappointed. I doubt at this stage I'll get to either of those two works, but I'm pretty sure I'll reread the Earthsea books, at least the original three, again before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

In my rambling post at Black Gate the other day, I described how my friends and I passed each other fantasy books like contraband. If one was a scifi/fantasy fan one constantly scrambled to find the next book to read. There was only so much an eleven year old could find one his own. Even more than the library, new books came from my dad and my friends. I can't quite remember whether it was Karl H. or Jim D. who first gave me A Wizard of Earthsea, but both were huge fans of the trilogy. Both of them must have told me nearly every detail in that book, - the wizard school, true names, the otak - if not the entire plot. Whomever it was, I wanted to read it right away. Not unexpectedly, my local library had it (Thank you, Ms. Herz), and within a week or two I'd read all three.

A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book, is the best. There are exciting scenes of magical battling, a hero forced to face the damage brought on by his pride. It's a coming of age story as well as a travel guide to Le Guin's unique setting.

The Tombs of Atuan was pretty disliked by me and my friends when we first read it. Returning to it in college, I found it my favorite of the three. True, Le Guin expands on the villainy of the white-skinned Kargish people, which feels too-on-the-nose point-making, but it's a good book. Basically, it's a Gothic, starring an essentially orphaned girl, haunted environs, and a mysterious man.

The final original book, The Farthest Shore, is more interesting than good. It explores more deeply the magical system of energy and balance set up in the first book, which is done well, but it's all a bit of a slog for a book that only comes in at about 200 pages.

Jeffro Johnson has a piece explaining why he believes these books don't belong in Appendix N. I understand his perspective, and I don't disagree. Le Guin's goals and interests in writing these books were quite different from Robert E. Howard's or Fritz Leiber's, and they don't mesh with D&D, especially when it was first rolled out. Le Guin wasn't definitely not writing pulp or heroic fantasy. But to say she wasn't writing fantasy is a bit extreme.

She had definite ideas about race, the sexes, and spiritual balance she wanted to explore. These would become more burdensome to the stories as time went on, but in the first three books, especially as a kid, I didn't find them annoying. Instead, she used the trappings of what was becoming an increasingly tropified genre to tell the stories she wanted to and it kept me and pretty much everyone I knew captivated.

So, here are some covers. The first, by Ruth Robbins, were on the hardcovers I took out from the library. The next, by Pauline Ellison, were on the softcovers most people I knew actually owned. The last are by Yvonne Gilbert and are the best of the newer (meaning after 1975) covers.