The Black Hole: (1979) A Very Weird Disney Movie

the-black-hole-01Okay, let’s roll the clock back to 1979 to take a look at Disney’s first PG rated film: The Black Hole.

Star Wars had come out two years earlier and every studio was scrambling to find their niche in the science fiction boom.  Science fiction adventure films were, for the first time ever, considered an ‘A-list’ commodity.  Every studio wanted their ‘own’ Star Wars. The results of this boom were rather a mixed bag, much like The Black Hole.

First, let’s talk about Disney’s state in the 70s.  They were not in terrific shape.  They’d had a string of mediocre animated and kids’ movies and were struggling to stay afloat and/or relevant since Walt kicked the bucket in 1966.  Their bread and butter consisted of re-releasing old Disney classic animation every few years.  Their main claim to fame at this point was the consistent G rating of their movies.

Then comes The Black Hole.  May seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but the idea of a PG Disney movie was radical at the time.

the-black-hole-03Critics ripped the movie and Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave it infamy by saying it has the worst science in a movie of all time (although one wonders whether Neil has seen The Core.)  To be honest, it’s not a terrible movie.  The visual designs are pretty damn good.  Costumes are decent and sets solid.  The robot designs are interesting (although a bit too cutesy with VINCENT and BOB.)  The antagonist robot Maximilian is especially sinister.  The characters are mostly forgettable, the dialogue is soap-opera-cringeworthy and yes, the science is terrible.

The gist of the plot is that the exploratory space ship USS Palomino finds the long-lost ship USS Cygnus in orbit around a black hole. ( I assume it’s named Cygnus as a nod to the black hole of Cygnus X-1, although this is mere speculation on my part.)  On board is the-black-hole-04the scenery-chewing Maximilian Schell as the kooky commander of the Cygnus–Dr. Hans Reinhardt.  He’s got a crew of robot soldiers and android workers but apparently no other human survived.  He manages to hit every mad scientist note, including having a monstrous flunky robot named Maximilian (as a nod to Schell?)  Dr. Kate McCrae (played by Yvette Mimieux) has a personal stake in the fate of the Cygnus, as her father was one of the crew. Dr. Alex Durant (played by a luckless Anthony Perkins) is the cliched naive scientist who falls under Reinhardt’s sway.  Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) is the square-jawed captain hero.  Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) is the impulsive young hero.  Harry Booth (a criminally-underutilized Ernest Borgnine) is the craven, weaselly crewmember.  Those highlights are literally all I remember about these characters.  They have as much depth as a puddle.

The other ‘actors’ are the robots VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell) and BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens.)  Like Maximilian, they are hovering robots instead of walking ones.  I assume Disney did this because it looked interesting and allowed them to mimic the-black-hole-02the ‘cuteness’ of R2-D2 to some extent.  Their eyes, though, are more like anime or cartoon eyes, giving them a bit more goofiness than I think they were going for.  Maybe they were trying to balance the kind of melodrama depressing tone of the movie?  Dunno.

Anyway, turns out Dr. Reinhardt is nuttier than a fruitcake (who could have known?) and wants to go into the black hole.  Also turns out his ‘android workers’ are the lobotomized human crew of the Cygnus.  When this is discovered, Maximilian kills Durant as he tries to the-black-hole-05escape with Kate.  The rest of the crew comes to her rescue except Harry, who does the craven move and tries to escape on the Palomino and instead crashes into the Cygnus. 

The rest of the movie is the crew escaping from the haunted castle spaceship by getting on the probe ship used by Reinhardt to examine the black hole.  They try to fly off, only to discover the probe ship is locked onto the black hole.

What follows is a weird, surreal, eschatological series of scenes with Maximilian and Reinhardt merging into a Satan-like figure and the crew flying through a heavenly the-black-hole-06cathedral.

Or something like that.  It’s not as weird as the end of 2001, but it’s pretty damn weird.  The ship ends by coming out the ‘other side’ in some unknown solar system.

Again, this isn’t a terrible movie.  Mostly it’s just a lot of misfires.  There were decent ideas in it and moments of interest.  I suppose the annoying part is that there was a great deal of unused potential.

Still, it’s worth checking out at least once.




Piers Anthony: Apprentice Adept

Piers Anthony is a best-selling fantasy author who most people associate with the apprentice-adept-01pun-filled Xanth books (of which there are 39!)  However, he’s been prolific for several other science fiction and fantasy series, such as the sci-fi/fantasy series called Apprentice Adept.

Piers is an oddball writer.  I’ve read a lot of his books and his tone ricochets all across the emotional and intellectual spectrum.  The Of Man and Manta series is a quasi-nihilistic and psychedelic experiment, while the Xanth series is a pun-filled goof.  As strange as Piers gets, he is typically entertaining.

The Apprentice Adept series takes place in two parallel worlds.  The science fiction world is a barren mining world called Proton.  The fantasy world is called Phaze.  The two can be crossed over at certain spots and there are parallel social systems on apprentice-adept-02each world.  Both are essentially a kind of feudal system.  On Proton, the worlds are controlled by the Citizens, who rule over the serfs.  Wealth is measured in the rare mineral called Protonite.  The serfs are in a form of indentured servitude but can win a kind of Olympic game called the Tourney and become citizens.  Serfs are unable to own anything on Proton, including clothing.

On Phaze, there are super-powerful Adepts (wizards) who rule over all the lower classes.  The Adepts each have a unique form of magic and a color they’re identified with (which seems to have little connection apprentice-adept-03with their unique magic.)  The magic of Phaze is powered by a rare mineral called Phazite (which reminds me of Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away.)  The two worlds are (for the most part) unaware of one another.

The main character, Stile, is a serf who discovers a plot against his life in Proton.  With the help of a female robot named Sheen, he escapes through a portal to Phaze.  There, he discovers that the other ‘him’ on Phaze is the Blue Adept.  He inherits Blue’s magic on Phaze, which allows him to cast spells by rhyming (which isn’t actually as goofy as it sounds.)  He discovers that the plot against him extends to Phaze as well.

The plot jumps back and forth from Proton to Phaze as Stile unravels the scheme against apprentice-adept-04him with the Adepts on Phaze and the Citizens on Proton.  There’s a meta-plot involving Stile entering the Tourney so that he might become a Citizen.  The individual competitions in the Tourney are actually pretty enjoyable and eventually becomes an integral part of bringing down the Red Adept (who is his primary nemesis.)

The series is an enjoyable middle ground between Piers’ experimental nihilism and his silly puns.  The story never flags and the characters are quite likable.  The science of the science fiction setting is somewhat soft but not too silly.  The magic of Phaze has a decent level of continuity and the fantasy elements aren’t played for laughs like in Xanth.  I recommend the trilogy apprentice-adept-05without reservation.

* – For disclosure, I’d like to mention that I only read the first three of this series and wasn’t even aware there were more books.  I do know the first three are a tight, well-written trilogy and am, frankly, afraid to read the rest.  I know what happened after the first three (pretty apprentice-adept-06solid) Xanth books.  (Hint: they became awful.)

Jack L. Chalker: River of the Dancing Gods Series

dancing-gods-01Jack L. Chalker was a prolific and fascinating author, best known for his Well World series of science fiction novels.  I definitely remember the Well World series with fondness, but I also remember his lesser-known Dancing Gods novels.

These books are a queer duck mix of straight fantasy mixed with Christian mythology and parody of the fantasy genre.  The story goes that after God finished with creation, all the stuff ‘left over’ got dumped into a corner of creation, where it formed another world, only without concrete rules.  Wizards got together and wrote out a Book of Rules to stabilize everything.  However, after they got finished making the important rules, they started making more and more trivial ones.  This is how all the cliches and oddball behavior of so many fantasy characters is explained dancing-gods-02in the series.

Rules like: (and I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember the exact rule) “Good looking men and women will, when not otherwise called for, dress as little as possible.”  This is how bare-chested and bikini-clad heroes and heroines are explained.  Other rules are how magic items are always of certain shapes and types and dragons are always guarding them.  There are a lot of extremely silly rules and it gets pretty funny.  There’s even one saying: “All fantasy novels must be trilogies.”

(I think my favorite is the magical sword named “Irving”.)

The struggles come from heaven and hell fighting with proxies in the Dancing Gods world.  dancing-gods-03While constrained on Earth, rules are more lax on the Dancing Gods world.  Demons are typically influencing events and heaven keeps out of it because they don’t cheat.

Jack’s specializes in having his characters go through transformations and having to adapt to them.  This series is no exception.  Joe and Marge (the main protagonists at the beginning) are transformed at least a half-dozen times.  Joe starts out as a barbarian warrior and ends up as a fairy princess.  Marge has a similar story.

The books are very entertaining and even occasionally veer into serious territory about responsibility to family, dancing-gods-04gender roles and the like.  Chalker is too somber a writer to go with goofiness all the time like Mythadventures.  Most of the humor comes from the self-aware humor involving fantasy and horror tropes.  The characters are sort of ‘in on the joke’ but that’s explained by the Book of Rules.

Jack also like the characters to have to perform some kind of ‘impossible task’.  They have to break into somewhere impossible to break into or destroy something that can’t be destroyed.  Picture the vault break-in scene from the first Mission Impossible movie, only done with fantasy trappings.  This is pretty standard, but also awfully entertaining when written well (as Chalker does.)

If you don’t mind amusing fantasy with self-aware tropes, this series is amazingly dancing-gods-05entertaining.  Give it a shot.

Obscure But Good Indie Comics: Buck Godot

buck-godot-01Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire came out in the early eighties from the wondrous and hilarious comic artist/writer Phil Foglio.  Most people are familiar with his phenomenal webcomic Girl Genius.  I was first exposed to his work in Dragon magazine around the same time where he did the What’s New comic strip.  I became addicted to both his humor and his art style immediately and have loved it ever since.


Phil and Kaja Foglio. Sexy thangs.

Buck Godot started out in the comic anthology Just Imagine before the strips were collected in a Starblaze trade paperback.  Most of the action and situations take place on the planet “New Hong Kong” where there are no laws.  Buckminster “Buck” Godot is a mercenary/private investigator/bodyguard from a heavy gravity world, meaning his strength and endurance are far above human normal.  He’s very competent, despite being a borderline (or more) alcoholic.

The action and dialogue are fast and hilarious.  The pattern of jokes buck-godot-03reminds me of Marx Brothers, although with more of a bite.  Phil’s artistic style is . . . unique.  It’s cartoony, both in basic layout as well as the dynamism of animation.  Several people have aped his style since, although they never quite succeed.  I actually did an assignment at the Joe Kubert School where we were supposed to imitate an artist’s style.  I did a Stanley and His Monster strip in Phil’s style, just because I enjoyed the shit out of it.

Putting aside style and dialogue, Buck Godot has some sharp science fiction writing.  He has an entire universe of fascinating races and technologies.  One of the more interesting ideas is a race of robots called The Law Machines.  These robots declared laws across all human planets, which were voted on by the inhabitants, making some planets more buck-godot-04restrictive than others.  The shtick about New Hong Kong is that a hacker got into The Law Machines’ system and had one law: there are no laws on New Hong Kong.  As you might imagine, this makes it a bit of a wild west.

New Hong Kong is the setting for most of the action until later in the series where Buck travels to The Gallimaufry as a bodyguard for the Madame Louisa “Lou” Dem Five.  The Gallimaufry is a city-sized space station that acts as an embassy/United Nations for all races.  The first two parts of Buck—Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire and buck-godot-05Psmith–are good, but The Gallimaufry is great.  Buck must solve a galactic conspiracy involving The Winslow, which is a McGuffin/creature which Phil introduced many years ago based on a stuffed animal(!)  It’s sentient, unique and indestructible as well as being quite silly.

The Gallimaufry is dense.  Phil packs a lot of information and plot into 8 issues of a comic buck-godot-07while putting in a lot of jokes and sight gags.  The final joke is side-splitting, but I won’t spoil it.

Hard copies of volumes #1, #2 and #3 are difficult to find these days but they have been available online in the past at and hopefully will be again.  Otherwise you’ll have to scour eBay or Amazon to find a copy.  If you can find copies, snatch them up and enjoy.

The Borderlands: A Good Lovecraft Movie

the-borderlands-01The Borderlands is a creepy little piece of cinematography out the United Kingdom from 2013.  The alternate title it was released as was Last Prayer.  I saw it a couple of years ago after it was recommended on a Lovecraft site or social media group (I don’t recall which.)

(Fair warning: this is technically a ‘found footage’ movie, but a pretty good one.  If this sub-genre annoys you, this one is still worth your time.)

No, I don’t mean the unrelated video game.  And before you correct me, yes, I know H.P. Lovecraft never wrote it.  When I say “A Good Lovecraft Movie” I mean a movie with Lovecraftian elements or themes.  The Borderlands definitely qualifies, although it’s not immediately apparent, but by the end of the movie you can’t escape those themes.the-borderlands-02

The premise starts simply enough.  Three investigators from the Vatican travel to a small town in the British countryside where a priest has recorded what he thinks is a miracle in his old church.  There’s a skeptical old priest named Deacon (with obvious unresolved issues with his faith,) a technician named Gray (strictly there for tech support and to film the proceedings,) and a somewhat obnoxious and overbearing older priest named Amidon (with past the-borderlands-03conflicts with Deacon.)

This trio investigates both the town and the church in question.  Right from the start there’s something just off about the townspeople.  Not hostile, per se, but standoffish and paranoid, even beyond the normal reticence of backward villagers.  Everyone is defensive about the church.  At one point the locals burn some livestock alive near where the trio is staying.

Meanwhile the church is displaying some odd behaviors, but nothing that proves or disproves the local priest’s claim.  The priest eventually commits suicide after a low-key creepy scene.  Investigating further, they discover that the church is incredibly ancient and the land is mentioned in several old, ominous legends.the-borderlands-04

The movie has some nice, unnerving scenes in it that reinforces the feeling that something here is not quite right.  That—and the climax which I won’t spoil here—make this a movie Lovecraft would have approved of.

I’m unsure if the writers/producers meant the title to echo The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson (a writer followed by Lovecraft.)  There are some eerie elements which overlap, so this might be a deliberate nod to that otherworldly book.

the-borderlands-05The movie isn’t perfect.  It has a slow, deliberate pacing which might put off the less-dedicated watchers.  Some plot elements are a bit contrived and the characters occasionally veer towards the clichéd.  Trust me, however, unlike other ‘found footage’ movies, there’s a definite, horrifying pay-off.

Go dig up a copy and give it a chance.


The Resurrected: A Good Lovecraft Adaptation

Original cover

Original cover

Back in my army days in the early 90s, I stumbled upon an H.P. Lovecraft VHS movie at the PX called The Resurrected.

I noticed it was an adaptation of a Lovecraft novella called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (previously adapted as The Haunted Palace in 1963.)  Most of the Lovecraft adaptations I’d been previously subjected to had been hideous–and not in a good way.  Still, I recognized Dan O’Bannon’s name as the director and was intrigued.  I snagged the copy and killed a Saturday afternoon at the barracks to watch it.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad.  I had read the original novella many years earlier but only vaguely recalled it, so I wasn’t sure how close to the original it was.The Resurrected 02  The movie had a strength that none of the previous movies had–it was written and directed with respect towards the original author’s work.

The novella was set in the 1920s/30s and a lot of the elements were updated to the 90s.  The first actor I noticed was John Terry from the famously cheesy fantasy movie Hawk the Slayer circa 1980 (I movie I plan on talking about later.)  John plays the private investigator protagonist John March.  The second actor I noticed was the amazing Chris Sarandon (from Fright Night, The Princess Bride and Child’s Play) who played Charles Dexter Ward/Joseph Curwen.

The Resurrected 03


Chris owns  this role and is easily the best actor in the movie.  John Terry does a passable job, but the rest of the acting is a bit uneven.  Might have been O’Bannon’s unfamiliarity with directing, as he was primarily known as a screenwriter.  Chris plays both roles to the hilt and takes pain to be gloriously and theatrically evil as Curwen, but never overplays his hand, even as he drifts close to scenery-chewing.

The Resurrected 05The basics of the plot are that the scientist Charles Dexter Ward is acting insane and his wife hires John March to investigate his activities.  Charles found an old trunk from a distant ancestor known as Joseph Curwen from 1771.  Joseph passed down some ‘ancient scientific knowledge’ (pro tip: in anything by Lovecraft, ‘ancient knowledge’ is generally bad news.)  They also find a The Resurrected 06painting of Joseph Curwen and he’s the spitting image of Charles.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, as spoilers abound.  I will mention an amusing side note about the production I remember reading about in the early 90s.  During a shooting next to a river, one of the prostheses of a mutated body got away from them and floated downstream. It was found by locals later, where it scared the living shit out of them (yes, these things amuse me.)

The Resurrected 07I re-read the novella a few years later, and to be honest, O’Bannon’s screenplay is superior.  Even without the updated elements, the novella is clunky and not Lovecraft’s strongest.  This tightens it up without losing the tone.  If you like Lovecraft, do yourself a favor and dig up a copy.

Wendy Pini: An Artist Who Needs More Love

Wendy Pini 02Back in my youth in the early eighties, I ran across an indie comic at a science fiction convention.  It was called Elfquest.

I had never seen a comic like this before.  It was in a larger format, was detailed black & white and didn’t have superheroes or any characters I was familiar with.  The style was also . . . well, it drew me in as soon as I looked at it.  It was done by a husband and wife team named Wendy and Richard Pini.  I snapped up the first issue, went to a quiet corner and read through it.  Then I went back and grabbed all the issues I could afford (#1-6.)  I read through the first six issues over and over for the next few months, wishing I could get my hands on the following issues (this was before the rise of comic shops throughout the country.) I started drawing obsessively by copying her art.Wendy Pini 03

A couple of years later I found a new, local comic shop (B&D Comics) and found the rest of the issues up to that point.  I was astounded yet again at not only the artwork, but the writing and storytelling.  Keep in mind that at this point, independent comics were in their larval stage and anything other than Marvel and D.C. were considered ‘odd’.  I entered the D&D addiction around the same time and Elfquest and D&D went together like bullets and guns.  For a couple of years I was elf-crazed.

Moreover, all of this was done by a girl.  A girl!  Hell, I was only vaguely familiar with females at the time, and in a purely theoretical fashion.  I was incredibly shy and introverted and in Middle School–a hellish combination.  Here was one of these mythical female creatures doing amazing writing and drawing in a genre I loved.  What sorcery was this?

Wendy Pini 04Other Elfquest books started appearing on regular bookstores in malls during this period.  Not only were they pretty and glossy, but were in color.  A few years later and Marvel Comics starting reprinting the comics in a standard comic book format.

(The story goes that Wendy and Richard went to Marvel and pitched Elfquest to them and were turned down flat.  Years later after they had exploded in the indie market, Marvel approached them to allow them to reprint Elfquest in their Epic line of creator-owned comics.  I can only imagine how satisfying that felt.)

I digress, however. Elfquest is amazing, but I want to talk primarily about Wendy.  As the years passed, I picked up more information about her.  About her “Law & Chaos” project, for instance.  She had tried to put together an animated movie of an Elric story, all by herself.  For those unfamiliar, Elric was the brooding, elvish anti-hero of Michael Moorcock. The project failed, as you might have imagined due to the massive efforts required to make even a short animated film, but does show the awesome level of commitment this woman had to her artwork.

Wendy Pini 05What truly shows her dedication to her craft is the flawless narrative artwork she has.  Her primary goal in her artwork is to tell a story–and she does it flawlessly.  One of my biggest beefs with newer comic artists is the lack of clear storytelling.  Sure, they can put together pretty pictures, but you often don’t understand the story without the dialogue.  A good artist should be able to tell a story without a single bit of dialogue.  Wendy could do it and make it look easy.

Wendy Pini 06

A page with virtually no dialogue from EQ issue #5

That kind of narrative art is rare these days.  The comics look great but too many artists are so busy making gorgeous illustrations that they neglect to tell a clear story, wherein you never doubt where the characters are or what they are doing.

Despite the success of Elfquest, Wendy gets little recognition from the comics industry.  When I was in the Joe Kubert School, I showed some of her artwork to one of the instructors.  He looked through it in astonishment and said something to the effect of “This is great!  Who is this person?”  My jaw dropped.

You can drop names like Todd McFarlane, John Byrne, or Jim Lee and you’ll get tons of fanboy recognition.  Wendy Pini?  No, not so much.  Not sure why.  Because she’s a woman?  Maybe.  Or maybe because her unconventional subject matter, including the Masque of the Red Death.

Wendy Pini 01On a more amusing note, I found out just a few years ago that she used to dress up like Red Sonja for a show she did with Frank Thorne at conventions called “Sonja and the Wizard”.  Amazing how much the woman captured the part!

Do yourself a favor and read through her works and give her some support.  She’s earned it a dozen times over.





Stephen Fabian: An Artist Who Needs More Love

Stephen Fabian 01Many years ago, while stationed in Wildflecken, Germany, I bought the 2nd Edition AD&D new boxed set of the Ravenloft  role-playing game campaign setting.   I was exposed to artwork from an artist heretofore unknown to me: Stephen Fabian.  These were in the days where game companies couldn’t really afford to get much in the way of color interior artwork.  All of it was, with rare exceptions, black and white.  This didn’t mean there weren’t some damn fine artists putting out illustrations, but most game designers were smaller companies who didn’t have a stable of artists who could paint interior illustrations on a whim (and computer illustrations were purely theoretical.)Stephen Fabian 02

Along comes Stephen Fabian.  He had done illustrations for TSR (the creators of D&D before being absorbed by Wizards of the Coast,) but the Ravenloft setting allowed him to really shine.  For those unfamiliar, Ravenloft is a world setting for D&D that is essentially a combination of dark fantasy and Gothic horror.

Stephen Fabian 04Most of the other artists employed by role-playing games came from a more comic-book tradition.  Fabian, on the other hand, was very much a pulp illustrator.  He did very little line work, and instead he used solid whites and darks with gorgeous gray washes.  Where washes weren’t used, he would use stippling instead of hatching.  The moody and dark tone worked perfectly with the setting.

I had never seen anything like it before and fell instantly in love.  I snapped up every Ravenloft supplement I could find, and Stephen’s illustrations were a big reason.

Stephen Fabian 03 Stephen set a new standard in an era of very little experimentation in rpgs, as did the Ravenloft setting (most younger gamers have no idea how much Ravenloft shaped a lot of monsters they’re familiar with, especially undead–but that’s another subject.)  Stephen’s stark,eerie style struck just the right note.  He was also fond of graphic flourishes, such as stylistic borders and icons relevant to the subject material.  It turned mere game books into pieces of art.  He even did the illustrations for an entire deck of cards in the Tarot tradition called the “Tarokka” deck.

I discovered later that Stephen was no newcomer to the illustration field, and had been doing illustrations to fantasy and science fiction since the sixties.

Stephen Fabian 05He’d done illustrations for various pulp writers, such as Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt and older writers such as William Hope Hodgson.  I dug up whatever artwork I could find and ordered an art book from Bud Plant.  His scope of work was impressive and he had been favorably compared to Virgil Finlay.  Virgil’s influence on Stephen was apparent and it definitely fit with his pulp style.

I haven’t seen many new projects since his memorable run on the early Ravenloft products.  He’s been nominated for a Hugo Award and in 2006 received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement.

Stephen Fabian 06If you’re at all a fan of classic illustrations styles, pulp styles/subjects and an eerie, ethereal style, you should check out Stephen Fabian’s artwork.






Stephen Fabian 07 Stephen Fabian 14Stephen Fabian 08 Stephen Fabian 10Stephen Fabian 09 Stephen Fabian 11Stephen Fabian 13

H. P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror and ‘Getting’ Lovecraft

Dunwich Horror 01H.P. Lovecraft has achieved a modern cult status among horror fans through several sources.  I find a great deal of the people who talk about him, haven’t actually read his original material.  They’ve been exposed to the whole Cthulhu Mythos from other media.  Pop culture has created an entire Cthulhu brand name.  Just this evening I discovered that there are “Cthulhu Mints” at a local candy store.  I’m sure plenty of people have seen Cthulhu plush toys.

To be fair, Lovecraft isn’t the most accessible writer.  His style is ponderous, verbose and filled with arcane adjectives.  I can sympathize.


His horror fiction isn’t really ‘scary’ per se (with a couple of exceptions.)  What he does excel at, however, is creating a disturbing mood.  A feeling of uneasiness that he crams down your throat by seeing the events through the eyes of another character, who is often willfully ignorant of weird events, because they’re unable or unwilling to acknowledge the events.  They go through mental gymnastics to escape the awful truth.

His strongest works, in my opinion, are The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Dunwich Horror.  I tend to enjoy Dunwich the most, since he takes the ‘unseen horror’ to a new level.  It, like Colour, it takes place in a backward, rural society in New England.  The claustrophobic nature of this insular society is a staple of Lovecraft.

Dunwich Horror 02I, like many people, got my first education in Lovecraft via role-playing games.  In the old 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Deities and Demigods books there was a set of the Cthulhu Mythos, illustrated by Erol Otus.  The mythology was put into an AD&D product for some reason, even though it doesn’t really fall into the ‘high fantasy’ or ‘heroic fantasy’ line of fiction.  Although, interestingly enough, the Conan sword and sorcery series does technically take place in the same universe as Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.  This is actually not as strange as it sounds, as there was a definite aura of nihilism and dark horror in the original Robert E. Howard books.  The two authors were actually pen pals and swapped ideas.

In any case, Lovecraftian fiction mixing with Tolkienesque elves, dwarves and halflings doesn’t work easily.  It certainly didn’t give me a decent understanding of Lovecraft, nor was it easy to find copies of Lovecraft’s stories at the time.  Ergo, I ended up with a distorted view of his works until many years later when I actually read them.  Even then, I didn’t start to ‘get’ Lovecraft until I read The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror 03Lovecraft has two great strengths that were brought to the fore in Dunwich: establishing a disturbing background and keeping the horror hidden for most of the time.  In this case, it was impossible to see the final horror and its worst aspects are seen through its deeds in a slow, increasing fashion.  Even throughout its rampage, Lovecraft keeps building on what else is worse out there.  There are terrible things out there and they’re quite literally incomprehensible.

If you take Lovecraft’s monsters out of their element, they don’t work nearly as well.  Is a shoggoth horrifying?  Sure, but not nearly as much without its build-up in At the Mountains of Madness.  Lovecraft’s setting and mood sells them, the same way he sells Wilbur’s brother in Dunwich.  When I put down the book, Lovecraft’s ‘package deal’ clicked.  I got it.

Sadly, I only see a minority of fandom out there who ‘get’ it.  Modern fans are used to seeing the horrors in great, High-Definition, 3-D detail.  Lovecraft understood that the human mind will always come up with a worse horror without seeing a thing.  Once you see the horror, no matter how awful, at least you know what you’re up against and can try to deal with it.  The unseen, cosmic horrors of Lovecraft are beyond that.  You simply can’t deal with them because you only catch glimpses of them.  The horror comes from what they do or (more often) what they suggest about the nature of reality.

Dunwich Horror 04Lovecraft isn’t for everyone.  If you have a low tolerance for a kind of fatalistic nihilism, you’re liable to avoid Lovecraft.  There aren’t any heroic efforts or happy endings.  The best the protagonists usually do is merely escape the ancient horrors that still lurk within the outer dark, or a brief pause before the ultimate doom wipes mankind from the face of the Earth.

It’s also difficult to translate Lovecraft into Hollywood movies.  They’ve been mostly quite bad, with such crap as Die, Monster, Die!, The Haunted Palace, The Necronomicon and–unfortunately–The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror MovieIt’s worth seeing–once–at least for the oddball nature of Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee in a Lovecraft adaptation.  It’s not a completely terrible movie, but it’s definitely a terrible Lovecraft movie.

There have been better Lovecraft movies, but I plan on talking about them in a future post.

The Lords of Dus by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Lawrence Watt Evans BasiliskThe Lords of Dus were the first fantasy novels I ever read by Lawrence Watt-Evans–way, way back in the early 80s.  I’d seen the four novels sitting on the rack at Waldenbooks for a while and finally decided to give the first one, The Lure of the Basilisk, a try.

Lawrence hooked me right from the start.  He had a way of making even the mundane interesting as his inhuman protagonist “Garth” tried to navigate a human world.  (Apparently he named the character “Garth” because he had only slits for a nose like the character “Simon Garth, the Living Zombie” from Marvel Comics.)  The character is far different from most fantasy antagonists up to that point, as he was entirely inhuman–an “Overman” that had been created by magic as soldiers in ancient wars.

What truly hooked me, however, was that unlike most of the fantasy epics I’d read before, Garth didn’t have some mystical ‘gift’ or ‘insight’ that allowed them to pluck a magic sword or toss a magic ring.  No, he just cobbled together solutions out of whatever makeshift plans or ideas he could come up with.  He got things done, but it was usually messy and haphazard.  Like Indiana Jones’s line from Raiders of the Lost Ark: “I’m making this up as I go.”  It did turn out later that Garth had a mystic ‘destiny’–but the destiny kinda sucked and it was completely unwanted.

This was the norm for Lawrence’s characters.  Courtesy of stumbling and seeking, they found their ways through tough situations by improvisation, stubbornness and wits.  The solutions usually weren’t perfect, but they would get them done.  This is what endeared me to him, and still does.  He has definitely influenced my style of writing and character development.

Lawrence Watt Evans Altars Lawrence Watt Evans Sword Lawrence Watt Evans Book The series incorporates a lot of fantasy cliches but manages to turn them on their head in most respects.  Mystic destiny?  Yes, but it’s mostly an unwanted curse that will kill a lot of people.  Rescuing a maiden?  Yes, but as an Overman, Garth has zero romantic interest in her.  Great quests?  Yes, but they’re never what they seem and wreak havoc on innocents.  A powerful wizard as a patron?  Yes, but he’s an apathetic nihilist.  Etc., etc.

If you crammed together elements of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Moorcock’s Elric, and some wry snippets of L. Sprague de Camp’s characters, you might get a rough estimate of what this series is like.

It’s well worth reading.  If you like these, you’ll enjoy the Ethshar series by Lawrence.