Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wellman and the Captain

While reading various articles about and interviews with Manly Wade Wellman I kept coming across his time as a comic book writer. Wellman remembered writing quite a few adventures of Captain Marvel (the original Shazam version.) though he didn't recall issue numbers. A couple of the articles by other hands credited Wellman with writing the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures. (Not to be confused with the first issue of WHIZ comics where Marvel first appeared.) However other sources, including the DC Archives reprint of that comic credit the writing to Joe Simon.
See, Captain Marvel Adventures #1 is something of an oddity. Caught off guard by the runaway success of the Captain Marvel character, the publishers at Fawcett Comics needed more Captain Marvel in print and fast. They turned to those dynamos of the comics world, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who reportedly did the issue in under two weeks. Pretty impressive for a 64 page comic. Of course anyone familiar with the legendary drawing speed of Jack Kirby wouldn't have any trouble believing it. However, Simon and Kirby were also writing and drawing Captain America at the same time, so it's even more impressive that they could turn out Captain Marvel Adventures that quickly.
But back to Wellman. Did he write the stories in Captain Marvel Adventures issue 1? I read the comic last night, watching for clues. The comic book contains four stories. in the first Captain Marvel fights a humanoid robot, in the second he goes out West to tangle with cattle rustlers, and in the third he travels to a distant planet to rescue humans from the dragon men who have enslaved them. Nothing here to overtly suggest Wellman's involvement. Though the stories are more text heavy than what I'd normally expect from Simon and Kirby, they aren't that different from the stuff the pair would later do for DC on Boy Commandos, Sandman, etc.
The fourth story, however, is not without its singular points of interest. In Captain Marvel Battles the Vampire there are quite a few indications that Wellman could have had a hand in the story. The first is the handling of the vampire itself. Though the creature has fangs, he doesn't actually drink blood, but rather absorbs the life force of his victims. This is something that the vampires who appear in Wellman's prose stories often do. The big weakness for vampires in this story is garlic. This is a pretty well known defense against vampires, but it's also one that Wellman was particularly fond of. In the story Chastel, the heroes consume a lot of garlic and carry small pouches of it on their persons. In the Captain Marvel story, Billy Batson goes on the air and advises his listeners to "Keep garlic around the your doors and windows...beside your bed. If you go out at night, carry garlic in your pocket." This is just the advice you would have gotten from Judge Pursuivant or John Thunstone in one of Wellman's stories. The story is full of other odd vampire lore, the kind of things one wouldn't encounter reading or watching Dracula, but things a writer of horror would know. The final and most obvious clue is the author of the book on vampires that Billy checks out at the library. Look closely at the panel I provided and you'll see that The Vampire Legend was penned by H.P. Lovecraft! I don't know that Joe Simon wasn't a reader of Weird Tales, but I've never seen it mentioned anywhere. Manly Wade Wellman was certainly familiar with Lovecraft.
So anyway, I can't provide conclusive evidence, but it does seem likely that Wellman wrote Captain Marvel Battles the Vampire, if not the other stories in the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Smile No More

If you're afraid of clowns you might want to approach James A. Moore's new book, Smile No More, with a bit of caution, and if you're not afraid of them, after spending a little quality time with Rufo the Clown you just might be. And quality time it is, as Rufo explains to you, in his own words, just how he became what he is. It's not a pretty story, but one that definitely held my attention.
The structure of Smile No more is ambitious, leaping back and forth between Rufo in the present and Rufo in the past and also to the viewpoints of various supporting characters. Moore handles all of these viewpoints well, gradually bringing all the threads together. An impressive feat. I will admit that I sometimes found myself impatient to get back to Rufo because it's just so interesting to be inside his head.
I don't want to give away too much plot because the slowly unfolding story of Rufo's life, death, and second life is part of the fun of the book. (I made a similar comment about Moore's YA book Subject Seven, now that I think of it. he knows how to string a reader along.) Moore gives you plenty of time to wonder how Rufo got to where he is before dropping the hammer on you and actually showing you. Rufo is the product of a life gone very very wrong and he's got the scars to prove it. Believe me, this is not a clown you want to mess with.
I will mention one of the ideas I thought very cool, that of a missing circus. A ghost circus if you will. Circuses can be darn creepy, as anyone who ever read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes can tell you. What happened to the circus? Rufo knows. And he'll tell you in his own good time. It's not a good idea to rush a pissed-off dead clown who escaped from hell to show some folks the errors of their ways. Trust me on this.

Conan the Inspirational

Wandered through the bookstore this morning and spotted a new Ballentine paperback titled Conan the Barbarian: The Stories That Inspired the Movie. I wondered what stories had been chosen for the collection so I thumbed through to the table of contents.
Some of you may recall that late last year I put up a list of my top five Conan stories. I was glad to see that the editors of this new volume had chosen four of my five, The Tower of the Elephant, Rogues in the House, Red Nails, and The People of the Black Circle, leaving out my fifth choice, Beyond the Black River. They also included Queen of the Black Coast and The Phoenix on the Sword. I can see why they wouldn't want Black River in a book meant to compliment the movie as its frontier background doesn't really fit with the movie version of Conan.
The Phoenix on the Sword is, of course, the first Conan story, so I can see why they used it and the other selections are regarded as classics in the series. I would certainly hand this paperback to a new reader of REH. In fact, I probably will.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

And Afterwards, the Dark

I saw on Amazon this morning that the final book in F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack series is due on October 11th. The Dark at the End leads into the sixth book in Wilson's Adversary Cycle, Night World in which Jack is a character. It's always been one of the weirder things about reading the Repairman Jack books, that I knew what the ultimate end of the series would be, having read Night World before I started the RJ series. However, Wilson says he's doing some pretty heavy revising of Night World for release after the last Jack novel, so there may be a surprise or two yet.
I'm actually one Jack book behind, having saved the penultimate volume, last year's Fatal Error, to read closer to the release date of the final book. I'll probably read Fatal Error soon, so I'll be ready for the Dark at the End. I will note that if you're planning to read the series, you need to start a few books back. The early volumes are stand alone adventures under a longer plot arc, but the last five or so books are so interconnected that a new reader would probably be pretty confused. All the books are highly recommended though, so start at the beginning with The Tomb. (And read The Keep, but avoid the movie at all cost. Jack's not in the Keep, but the book is connected to the RJ series.)
I'll hate to see Jack go, but Wilson has always said that he viewed the Repairman Jack series as a finite thing and he didn't want to just keep writing about the character forever. There are some other folks with series characters who probably should have followed his example. Anyway, Jack returns one last time just in time for Halloween. And afterwards, the dark.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hang Your Head Over

I always think of Manly Wade Wellman as a Southerner. Though he was born in west Africa in 1903 (where his father was a doctor at a British medical outpost), his family moved to America while he was still a child and he attended grade school in Washington DC. He became fascinated with the backwoods culture of the Ozarks around the time he was in college and began traveling and studying folklore, music and legends. This would eventually lead him to excursions throughout the Appalachians and in 1951 he moved to Chapel Hill North Carolina, where he remained until his death in 1986. Since he spent over three decades in SC and since he talked and wrote about and loved the mountains of the South, and since he wasn't technically born in any region of America, I think we can grandfather him in as a Southerner.
While I was doing a little research on the vampire story Chastel, which I reviewed in the previous post, I learned of a Wellman book that I didn't own, 1987's The Valley So Low: Southern Mountain Stories. The title was originally meant to be used for a novel featuring Wellman's best known character, John the Balladeer, but Wellman died before that book could be written. So The Valley So Low became a collection of Wellman's last burst of Southern based fantasy and horror stories (written between 1973 and 1985) edited by Wellman's good friend, Karl Edward Wagner.
If Wagner seems to be popping up at Singular Points with surprising frequency it's because I've been studying his work again recently and the time and people which surrounded it. For a while there, Chapel Hill was home to three writers of the Macabre, Wellman, Wagner, and David Drake. The first two have passed away and the third writes mostly heroic fantasy and Military SF these days but Drake's early career is steeped in horror and sword & sorcery. Shadow haunted Chapel hill was home to a sort of mini Weird Tales revival in the early 1970s.
The Valley So Low contains the last adventures of Wellman's series characters, new and old. Old friends like John Thunstone and Judge Pursuivant show up for final battles against evil, along with newer characters Lee Cobbett and Hal Stryker, who I had not encountered until recently. And of course John the Balladeer is there. Never called 'Silver John' as later editors and anthologists would dub him. To Wellman he was simply John or John the Balladeer.
Many of the titles of the stories are evocative of the South. Along About Sundown. Where Did She Wander. The Beasts That Perish. Owls Hoot in the Daytime.
Some of the stories are folksy. Most are scary. All are worth reading. Like Joseph Payne Brennan, Wellman had a knack for coming up with ideas no one else seemed to have thought of before. The ghosts of sacrificial animals come back for vengeance. Ancient malignant spirits haunt an abandoned textile mill. Something unseen waits and hungers within a discolored circle of grass in a suburban back yard. And through it all runs the music and voice of the mountains.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Master at Work

I'm still working my way through the Year's Best Horror Stories series. Last night I stumbled upon a Manly Wade Wellman story that I hadn't read in Vol VII. The story was called Chastel and it's a well done tale of vampires in a small town. One of the main characters in the story is Judge Persuivant, a series character that Wellman had created many decades before in the pages of the pulp magazine Weird Tales. I also suspect that the now elderly judge was something of a self portrait of Wellman who would have been approaching 80 when he wrote this story.
As I read the story I was thinking that I was watching a master story teller at work. Chastel is a little gem of short story construction. The pacing. The plot. The quickly sketched characters. And it's scary. There's one scene, where the protagonists are trapped in a cabin, with a horde of vampires circling the building, trying to find a way in that the Judge hasn't warded against them, (The Judge being an old hand at fighting supernatural menaces.) that gave me a good shudder, especially when the queen vampire presses her beautiful yet ghastly face against the window pane. Wellman, an underappreciated writer these days, knew how to craft moments of quiet horror.
Volume VII of TYBHS, by the way, was the final volume before Karl Edward Wagner took over as the editor of the series, a position he would hold for the next fifteen years. One of the other early volumes (prior to Wagner's editorship) has stories by Wellman, Wagner, and David Drake, all who were residents at the time of shadow haunted Chapel Hill NC.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Weekend Reading

Whenever I'm working on a particular type of story, I find my mind stays focused better if I only read things in the same genre, or genres as the case may be. So while I was working on Sailing to Darkness I was reading mostly horror and sword & sorcery. Fortunately for me, two books I'd ordered that fit the bill for both genres had arrived on Wednesday night. In an odd coincidence both were short story collections by David Drake. John Hocking had recommended Balefires, a collection of Drake's supernatural fiction written early in Drake's career, when he was working under the influence of Manly Wade Wellman, Robert E. Howard and the Weird Tales gang. The other book, recommended by Jim Rockhill, was Vettius and His Friends, which contains all the historical sword & sorcery stories Drake wrote about the Roman soldier Vettius and his friend, the merchant Dama, as well as some unrelated supernatural historical fiction. There is some crossover, since a few of the Vettius stories appear in Balefires.
I actually managed to read a couple of the Vettius stories before either book arrived, because once Jim mentioned it, I dug back through my anthologies, figuring I probably had some of the stories somewhere. I found three, one in The Year's Best Horror Vol VII and two in Andrew Offutt's Swords Against Darkness anthologies. This kind of thing happens a lot. Back when I was introduced to Karl Edward Wagner's Kane in the Kane/Elric crossover The Gothic Touch, I was able to find several Kane stories in various anthologies I already owned. That's the good thing about owning a lot of books.
I have to admit that I was a little dubious, however, about what I would think of Drake's stories, since my last attempt at reading one of Drake's fantasy novels hadn't gone well. I needn't have worried. Even as I read my first Vettius story, Nemesis Place, I knew I was into some good stuff. Tightly written dark fantasy with a Roman setting. I've read one more since, entitled Black Iron. Both stories were very fine, but I've put the book aside lest I read all the stories back to back. So far the stand-out tale for me in Balefires is Lord of the Depths, a very creepy little tale, which Drake says was inspired by REH's Queen of the Black Coast. I didn't see much similarity, but I guess he meant the overall feel of the story. I still have quite a few stories left however.
I was also in the mood for some Cthulhu mythos stuff, though not for Lovecraft's fiction itself. So I dug out Cthulhu 2000 and The Children of Cthulhu, a couple of anthologies from a decade or so back and reread a few stories from those. Also read some stories in Ramsey Campbell's collection, Ghosts and Grisly Things.
I plan to read James Enge's Morlock story The Red Worm's Way this evening, finishing out my weekend reading of horror, sword & sorcery, and dark fantasy.


Well, I typed 'The End' on the dark fantasy version of my short story Sailing to Darkness at 8:55 this morning. Plan to let it sit for a couple of weeks before editing. This is one of the creepier things I've written, owing more to Karl Edward Wagner perhaps than Robert E. Howard. There's plenty of action, but lots of horror too. As always, I'm pleased when I finish something. Never seems to get any easier. I did write this one so that the Moorcock related bits could easily be removed if I wanted to do something with it later. Honest to gosh Sword & Sorcery still isn't likely to sell anywhere, but I may have enough shorts for an E-book collection soon. We'll see.
In the meantime I'm going to go back and work of the lighter version that was about half finished too. Since it has a completely different plot and characters it can stand on its own, though it is maybe a bit more closely tied to Mike's 'Ship that Sails Between Worlds." Maybe I'll have time to blog a bit more now too. July is turning into my slowest month this year at Singular Points.
But hey, one story's done, so it's a good morning.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Writing Report

So, I'm about 20,000 words into a 10,000 word short story. Yeah, that's how it goes. I can never figure how to start something or what viewpoint I want or anything like that until I get in there and start writing. So I end up throwing a lot of stuff away. I'm working on this year's entry for the Michael Moorcock challenge over at Moorcock's Miscellany. There were two possible themes available this time, something set in Mike's End of Time series, or something using The Ship that Sails Between Worlds. Easy choice for me, since the ship figures in what is probably my favorite Elric book, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate.
So I wrote about 3000 words on an idea and I decided I didn't like the viewpoint character. So I switched to a different character and started over and I wrote about 4000 words and then decided that I didn't like the secondary characters or the plot. So I started again and wrote about 4000 words and decided I didn't like...well, you get the idea. So , at the moment I have two different plots and two different main characters and a big stack of secondary characters and I'm writing both stories at once, and I have about 7000 words of each. I may just finish both of them and submit the one I like best. Or one might take the lead and edge the other one out. Or I might start again. Writing. As the old saying goes it's just one damn word after another...

Saturday, July 09, 2011

More Ki-Gor

And no sooner do I mention Ki-Gor, than Altus Press announces the upcoming release of Volume 2 in their complete Ki-Gor series. More Jungle Lord goodness for all.

R.I.P Barry Robert Wofford

My mom told me today that Barry Wofford, one of my best friends in high school, died last Thursday. I don't know the details and it doesn't really matter. We hadn't been in touch in a long time, but Barry was the guy I hung out with more than anyone else during my junior and senior years in high school. He was a photographer and I was an artist and we just hit it off. Barry was the guy that introduced me to the music of Jimmy Buffet. He and I were both movie buffs and both big fans of the James Bond films. Somewhere I have a picture of him holding my target pellet gun across his chest in his best James Bond pose.
Barry and I spent countless hours driving around in his beat up blue Ford Maverick, talking about our big plans for the future, most of which didn't pan out. The summer before our senior year we were almost constant companions. We had something of a falling out in our early twenties, and though we eventually patched things up, we were never as tight as we had been, and as I said, I'd lost touch with him in recent years. Still, when mom told me the news it was a jolt. A quick, sharp pain in a place I'd forgotten. In some ways no matter how far we travel, we are always close to the people who stood on the brink of adulthood with us, I think.
Anyway, I just wanted to say a few words about an old friend. So long, Barry. We had some adventures, didn't we?

It's a Jungle in Here

In case you haven't noticed, I love comic books. Not just super heroes, but comic books in general. And while I fear that the days of the paper comic book are numbered, I will admit that the digital age has one bright spot, high quality scans of old comics. Various folks have scanned comics dating back to the 30s and made them available on DVD. I've bought a ton of old, public domain comics from various sources, my latest acquisition being a disk of the old Fiction House Jungle Comics.
Fiction house was a publisher of both pulp magazines and comics and the contents often overlapped, probably the best example being my favorite Fiction House comics character Kaanga the Jungle Lord. I've written before about my fondness for the blond Tarzan clone Ki-Gor, who appeared in the Fiction House pulp magazine Jungle Stories and is arguably the most successful jungle lord hero other than Tarzan. Well, Kaanga was the comic book version of Ki-Gor. They were, for all intents and purposes, the same character, with the same origin, same appearance, etc. I've always wondered why Fiction House changed the character's name for the comic book version. Copyright reasons, perhaps. The pulp and comics characters are inextricably linked though. Many Kaanga covers are line drawing versions of painted Ki-Gor covers and the later Ki-Gor pulps used cropped panels from Kaanga as spot illustrations.
Kaanga appeared in the very first issue of Jungle Comics in 1940 (just two years after the creation of Superman) and remained the cover feature for the full run of the comic book, over a hundred and sixty issues, and twenty issues of his own eponymous comic book to boot. So just as Ki-Gor was the second most successful pulp jungle lord, Kaanga was the number two comics jungle lord. (Marvel Comics' Kazar might have caught up by now in sheer number of comic book appearances, but not consecutively.)
The Kaanga stories are usually mishmashes of jungle movies, with lots of lost cities, evil white hunters and scheming native witch doctors, but taken in context they're fun. The artwork runs from very very good to very very bad, and like all Fiction House titles, the pages are full of pin-up style drawings of nubile, scantily clad girls. (In fact, Kaanga's wife Ann, in her leopard skin bikini, was often more prominently featured on covers than Kaanga.) One notable artist was John Celardo who would later draw the Tarzan comic strip for a while. Blackhawk's Reed Crandall did a few issues of Kaanga as well.
Fiction House is long out of business, so Kaanga and all their other comic book and pulp characters (with the notable exception of Sheena, who is still a trademarked character) are in the public domain. As a result any number of folks are selling scans of the Kaanga comics. I picked up mine from some folks I'll give a link to below. Nice quality scans and only $9.99 for almost the whole run of Jungle and Kaanga with a bunch of extras thrown in. They have a ton of other old comic books of all kinds. Fun stuff.

Monday, July 04, 2011

To the Dark Tower

In previous posts I've discussed my mother's fondness for Gothic Romance novels. Not nowadays, mind you, but back when I was a kid she read possibly hundreds of the things, and all of them seemed to have more or less the same cover, a girl in her nightdress running away from a sinister house in the background. Before I could read I referred to them as 'girl running away from house' books, and in fact I often still do. I have remained fond of that cover image over the years and though my actual knowledge of Gothic Romances is pretty small (I've only read a couple) I still enjoy seeing the covers. One of the places where those covers, as well as well thought out reviews of the books, can be found is the blog My Love-Haunted Heart.
I was over there the other day, perusing the covers and I saw something that caught my attention. The latest book being reviewed was called To the Dark Tower, (I assume a reference to the Robert Browning poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. ) and the author's name was Lyda Belknap Long. Now the only Belknap Long I was familiar with was Frank Belknap Long, one of the earliest members of the 'Lovecraft circle' and reportedly the first writer to write a Cthulhu mythos story besides Lovecraft. Reading the review I found that the blogger, Sara, had also noted the Frank Belknap long connection and was wondering who actually wrote the book, since a couple of internet sites referred to LBL as a pen name for FBL, and especially since Lyda dedicated the book to her husband Frank.
So I did what I do when these things come up. I ran a couple of Google searches and then I called Cliff. Cliff was familiar with the book, though he hadn't read it, but he agreed with the various websites about the book and several other Gothic Romances being fully the work of Frank Belknap Long, even though they were credited to his wife. Later I found out that the original release of To the Dark Tower actually had Frank's name on the cover. Later editions and subsequent books all carried the Lyda Belknap Long name, not because FBL was in any way ashamed to be writing Gothics, but because a woman's name on the cover seemed to help book sales.
So of course, once I knew that Frank Belknap Long, author of such Lovecraftian chillers as The Hounds of Tindalos and the Space Eaters had written Gothic Romance novels, I had to get one. I ordered a copy of To the Dark Tower and read it Saturday. I had a lot of fun with it. I could see Long's style immediately, though the fist few chapters seemed a bit stiff, as if long was finding his way, but by the fourth chapter or so, things picked up fast. This is something of a mish mash of witch cults, voodoo (Hex) dolls, and weird, inexplicable occurrences. However it's also a 'Rationalized Gothic' in that all of the seemingly supernatural happenings are explained away. In fact it would kind of work as a grown-up Scooby-Doo plot.
The romance part is serviceable and the twists and turns come fast and furious, but the main thing that Long brings to this book from his Lovecraftian chops is mood, mood, and more mood. He pours it on on every page so that the accumulated creeps continue to build as the book goes on, until the reader is almost overwhelmed by the dark, stifling, mood of the novel. Edgar Allen Poe would be proud. It also has a fairly clever resolution, almost in the mode of Agatha Christie. Things aren't what the reader thinks they are.
Anyway, I had fun reading To the Dark Tower and will probably read some more of Long's Gothics. I did call my mom and ask if she remembered reading any Gothic Romances by Lyda Belknap Long and she said she did. In fact she wanted to borrow this one when I was done.
Check out Sara's review of To the Dark Tower and more Girls Running Away from House books at My Love-Haunted Heart here:

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Lazy Sunday

My cats, Bruce and Amelia, enjoying the sun. They're not as harmless as they look.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Last Quarry

If you read a lot then you know how nice it is to get hold of a book that you simply cannot stop reading. One that gets you by the throat and just drags you along. That happens to me far too infrequently these days. However, I literally just finished one, The Last Quarry by Max Allan Collins. The book is sitting on the desk to my right as I type this. I was just going to read the first few pages and here, several hours later, I'm reviewing it.
This is the kind of hardboiled Noir-fest that would have been published by Gold Medal books a few decades back. Heck, it even has a Robert McGinnis cover.
Quarry is a hit man, and when this one opens he's a retired hit man. Against his better judgment, he allows himself to be brought out of retirement for one last job, and things go horribly tragically wrong. Usually Quarry is hired to kill people who arguably deserve it, (crooked businessmen, bent lawyers, etc) but this time his client wants him to kill a woman who seems to be just an average citizen. A nice, even boring young woman. A librarian. But Quarry is a professional. He doesn't ask questions. You hire him and you get a body. Period.
But...maybe it's the accumulated years of killing or maybe it's just Quarry's age (do hit men get mid-life crises?) but for whatever reason, the cool, calculating pro gets too close to his intended target and that's when things get interesting.
I had read Max Allan Collins' original five Quarry novels back when they first came out, but I hadn't gotten around to the new ones currently being published by that modern Gold Medal, Hard Case Crime. (Hard Case ran into some trouble but they're back.) In addition to The Last Quarry, there are also Quarry in the Middle, The First Quarry, and the upcoming Quarry's Ex. You can also pick up the original Quarry books in new editions from Perfect Crime Books with nifty new covers from Collins' frequent collaborator, Terry Beatty.
The thing about Quarry is he's not a shining hero, not a world weary PI or a cop. Killing people is his business and he takes no pleasure in the hits (Well, not the scheduled ones.) but he is very good at what he does and you do not want to get on his bad side. In some ways he reminds me of Robert E. Howard's heroes in that he's seen enough death that killing someone to solve a problem is always an option. He won't do it if he doesn't have to, but it's always there.
Reading Quarry again for the first time in a long while reminded me of why Collins' has such a firm grip on Mike Hammer. Quarry is equally as deadly as Hammer, but his menace is of a much colder variety. Usually. There is one moment in the book where Quarry's anger boils over and it ain't pretty.
Anyway if you want a hard hitting crime novel with some nice twists and very interesting characters, latch on to this one. I have to go to Amazon now and order all the others.

P.S. Parts of The Last Quarry were rewritten and expanded from a couple of Quarry short stories. One of these stories, A Matter of Principal, was made into a short film, which in turn sparked Quarry's prose return. Collins provides an afterword in The Last Quarry to explain how all this came about. And yeah, I'll be getting the film too. Duh.