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.

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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 http://www.studiofoglio.com/ 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.

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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.