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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hercule Poirot's Christmas, by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot's Christmas
by Agatha Christie
1939

"Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"

Is there a reason why Agatha Christie is said to be the best-selling author of all time? I'd be willing to bet that there are a few. But more than anything I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that she was really good at what she did and she did it a lot, turning out about eighty works of detective fiction in her lifetime. I'm no expert on Christie and I'd wager that there must be some duds in the bunch, but I have yet to run across them.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas, which was also published under various other titles (Murder for Christmas, A Holiday for Murder), is, for my money, a great example of Christie's mastery. The premise is a fairly standard one for the genre. A wealthy old man who's not particularly likable gathers his dysfunctional family members around him, along with a few others. Not long after he berates them for their perceived failings and threatens to re-write his will, he is found locked in his room with his throat cut.

I'm also no expert on locked room mysteries though I've vowed to read more of them. What I would say about the ones I've read is the word "farfetched" often seems to apply. There's the tiniest bit of that quality to this one but overall I think Christie handles this aspect of the book quite nicely.

Along with everything else, for that matter. By this time in her career, Christie had already turned out about two dozen books and it shows in the relaxed and concise manner in which she introduces the various characters, sets the stage for what's to come, sprinkles clues and red herrings all about and turns Poirot loose to pull everything together. About the only minor quibble I had with the book (a very mild spoiler cometh) is that the identity of the killer seemed to come from out of left field. Aside from that I'd give this one a very enthusiastic recommendation.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Trek Movie Rewatch: The Motion Picture

My peak Star Trek watching years came in the seventies. Those of us who were too young to catch the show when it first aired in the mid-sixties could gorge ourselves on seemingly endless reruns of three seasons worth of shows. It was a far cry from Netflix and calling up any episode any time but we made do.

As the seventies wound down my interest in Star Trek waned and I wasn’t really cognizant of what came along later — four more TV series and a heap of movies. I sought to rectify this in the early years of the new century, watching as many TV episodes as possible and some of the movies, but my intake of the latter was sporadic.

Read more at Black Gate.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

5 Tales from Tomorrow, T. E. Dikty

5 Tales from Tomorrow
Edited by T. E. Dikty
Crest Books (176 pages, $0.35, December 1957)
Cover by Richard Powers

T.E. Dikty edited a bunch of SF anthologies, mostly throughout the Fifties and many in collaboration with Everett F. Bleiler. Aside from Clifford Simak and perhaps one-hit wonder Tom Godwin, the names in this volume are not quite the SF A-list, but the results are mostly not bad.

Read more at Black Gate.

Christmas is Murder, by C.S. Challinor

Christmas is Murder
By C.S. Challinor
2008

"Do you think Henry might have choked on his dentures? He said they were always coming loose."

I read and reviewed one of Challinor's Rex Graves mysteries a while back. I hadn't planned on reading another one so soon but the premise of Christmas is Murder reached out and grabbed me. I have to admit to a special fondness for those mysteries in which the author strands his/her characters in some remote location and turns a murderer loose in their midst.

Challinor does this to great effect in what is actually the first mystery to star barrister Rex Graves. A motley crew is stranded by a blizzard at a remote Scottish hotel and one of the unfortunate characters goes down for the final count before graves even arrives. He won't be the last, unfortunately. There's a fairly sizable body count before it's all over.

The author really lays it on thick all the way throughout with clues and red herrings. Perhaps I'm not so good at sorting these things out because I had to admit that even as the end was nigh I wasn't quite sure what was up. My only minor quibble with the whole affair is that the motivations of the killer seemed a bit shaky. Aside from this point, I give this book high marks.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Underrated Rock Guitarists - Snakefinger

A rather obscure "rock" guitarist, Snakefinger, aka Philip Charles Lithman, was probably best known for his work with The Residents, who have provided the world with a seemingly inexhaustible fount of sonic weirdness for about four decades. He was so closely associated with the eyeball head guys until his untimely death in 1987 that the two entities almost seemed to blend together. While his Residential work, not surprisingly, was decidedly quirky, Snakefinger was arguably less offbeat than his pals and his 1984 live album was devoted solely to blues covers. For an introduction to his work, try the Residents albums on which he appeared or the quartet of solo albums he released on Ralph Records from 1979 to 1983.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Underrated Rock Guitarists - Bruce Anderson

One of the more obscure underrated rock guitarists, Anderson played with MX-80 Sound, once described as "either the most Heavy Metal Art Band or the most Arty Heavy Metal Band". Out of the Tunnel, their 1980 release on Ralph Records, is enough to justify Anderson's inclusion in the annals of the underrated.

The group's second full length album, it delights throughout with Anderson wielding a guitar that sounds like a fistful of barbed wire being raked over the strings. Highlights include the bouncy, loopy Gary and Priscilla, which is catchy and annoying at the same time and which finds Anderson almost at his finest. He peaks on Someday You'll Be King, a mix of avant-weird-power-punk-bubble-gum-whatever, complete with an honest to goodness hook and angular punkish guitar freakouts that still stick in my head decades later.

Scritchy, man.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

How to Deep Fry a Turkey

To deep fry a turkey.
Procure a turkey in the usual manner.
Such as casually approaching one on a street corner
Or in a senior citizen's home
While appearing to gaze at your wristwatch
And then pouncing on it
And stuffing it into a satchel
Or a carpetbag.
Or set a very large mousetrap
In an area frequented by turkeys.
For best results,
The turkey should be dead.
If the turkey is not dead,
Just be patient,
For pity's sake.
Turkeys are not immortal.
Or you can drop the hammer on that little devil,
In a literal or figurative sense.
It's really up to you.
Dynamite is not considered sporting
As a method for snuffing out
The life of a turkey.
And beating a turkey to death with a shoe
May be frowned upon
In some quarters.
But suffocating a turkey with a pillow
Is considered relatively humane.
It is no small feat to sneak up on a turkey.
And please reflect on the irony
Of smothering a turkey with a feather pillow.
Next, dress the turkey.
No one seems to be sure what this means.
But a nice pinafore is considered stylish
In the turkey community
Or a seersucker suit.
Whatever that is.
Never attempt to put a wig on a turkey.
It will only aggravate the turkey
And you won't feel very good about yourself.
Now place the turkey
Into some type of turkey deep frying device
And fry it
In the customary manner.
If the turkey is not quite dead
You'll know it.
For further instructions
See Appendix 2C,
How to Deep Fry a Turkey

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Werewolves, Haunted Castles, and Scottish Legends: Terror By Night by R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Terror By Night
By R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Tandem (186 pages, $1, June 1974)

I’m reasonably familiar with the horror and SF genres, but I have to admit that the name R. Chetwynd-Hayes didn’t ring any bells. But the kind of tacky cover — and the fact that this collection dated from 1974, before the great horror boom of the Eighties kicked in — was enough for me to take this one out for a spin. Chetwynd-Hayes wrote about ten novels and many more collections during his long career, most of them in the horror genre but some leaning more toward SF.

Read more at Black Gate

Children Of The Candy Corn

Old man Burke’s house was off the beaten path, but Jimmy always stopped by each Halloween for a tiny bag of candy corn. It was always tied so nice and neat, with a red ribbon.

This year Burke had replaced the standard kernels with tiny waxy figures. Their sugary bodies had white flesh, yellow clothing and ragged orange hair.

Jimmy eagerly untied the ribbon. The candies were so good. He couldn’t hear the agonized screams or the crunching of bones as he chewed, but Burke could. The old man smiled.

Count Dracula's Commencement Address to the Graduating Class of the Lord Charles D. Razar School for Hemophiliacs

The ageless Count cuts a dashing figure as he walks to the podium, elegant and refined - yes, almost regal. His dark, magnetic eyes scan the room. He clears his throat and speaks. His diction is precise and his thick accent, rather than detracting from his message, only serves to lend it an air of authority.

He speaks eloquently of opportunity and the future and of the patchwork of life that is even now unrolling in front of them like an expensive Persian rug, crisscrossed with an intricate latticework representing an infinite number of possibilities.

They hang on his every word, rapt. There is a minor commotion in front, but most of them are so caught up by his words that they do not notice.

One of the students has lost a small brooch - a family heirloom. She and another student are bent over looking for it. She straightens up - triumphantly clutching the brooch. As she does, she whacks her fellow seeker in the lip with her elbow.

A trickle of blood flows from the split lip. The Count is distracted by the commotion. He spots the blood and falters slightly. He catches himself and continues.

The young man presses the lip with a handkerchief, but of course it keeps bleeding. The handkerchief is soon stained a deep shade of red and the boy's chin is smeared with blood. He excuses himself and slips from the hall, but it is too late.

The Count has become increasingly befuddled and distracted. He stammers and stumbles over his words, mumbling and tugging at his shirt collar. As the boy stands up to leave, he completely loses his train of thought. He stares blankly into the hall, a vacant look on his face. His tongue whisks across his lips. A murmur passes through the audience.

The Count is visibly relieved when the boy leaves. The magic spell he has woven with his words has been shattered, but he manages to gather his thoughts with great difficulty and carries on, just as a thin rivulet of blood trickles from the nose of a girl in the second row.

That does it. The Count slams his palm on the podium, mumbles a halfhearted excuse and stalks offstage, mopping his brow with his sleeve. The crowd murmurs. It is over.

The Werewolf’s Delicate Condition

His father was a mighty wolfman.
And his forefathers before him.
Expectations are high.
When the change comes he can’t wait.
Chases down a rabbit and tears it apart.
And finds himself floored by dizziness and nausea.
It happens every time.
Now he works at the library.
Sees a therapist twice a month and meditates daily.
Adheres to a vegan diet (with plenty of protein and B-12 supplements).
Rarely answers his mother’s calls.
It’s not so bad.
He tells himself.

Remembering When Frankenstein’s Monster Stopped by the Torch and Pitchfork Store

Why would he do such a thing?
He was just asking for trouble.
You’re saying to yourself.
And you have a point.
As you sit there and picture him, lumbering stiffly through the sliding doors, boots clunking heavily on the polished floor.
And that moment of realization as he looks around eagerly, taking in the incredible array of merchandise.
And it slowly begins to sink in.
He freezes and breaks out in a cold sweat.
Yes, he does have working sweat glands.
And it’s all he can do to get out of there before panic overcomes him.
Here’s the thing.
Only then did he realize that Torch and Pitchfork was to be taken literally.
Not a cutesy yuppie store names like Crate and Barrel.

From the Zombie Owners Manual

Bringing a zombie into your home takes a lot of dedication and commitment. But the love you receive will be well worth your time and effort. A zombie may not be easy to love at first, but they are relatively easy to care for. With proper care, you can maintain the health and well-being of your zombie throughout its lifetime (figuratively speaking). Here are a few tips on caring for zombies.

Zombies are surprisingly playful and will love being bounced on your knee, tossed in the air, or playing peek-a-boo.

Never burn any part of a zombie in a wood stove or fireplace.

When first introduced into your home a zombie should be kept in a playpen or crib. Be sure to make your home zombie-proof. One devilish little zombie can make a whole lot of mischief.

Drill a hole in the base of a zombie's skull to release demons.

Only use distilled water to wash your zombie. Use a mild non-allergenic soap. Soaps with perfumes or oils may leave a film on the zombie. To dry your zombie use a soft clean towel. Do not use a hair dryer, as zombies can sometimes be skittish.

Everyone poops - even zombies. Keep their litter box clean and stock up on air freshener.

When bathing your zombie, never leave it unattended. If you leave the bathroom, wrap the zombie in a towel and take it along.

Flesh and intestines are the cornerstones of a healthy diet, but zombies sure do love their treats. Many zombies enjoy toenails, but they are hard to digest and should be given sparingly. Other treats your zombie might enjoy are upholstery, loganberries, drywall paste, cupcakes, mincemeat crepes, and hair.

Zombies sometimes swallow air while feeding, which may make them fussy. Be sure to burp your zombie regularly.

Monitor your zombie for freshness. If it smells "off" or "putrid" or "just plain godawful," remove it from the house.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Defending Children of Dune

When it comes to Dune and the media universe it spawned, it seems there’s not much middle ground. This is more of a perception than a carefully reasoned position with evidence to back it up. But I gather that people like Dune a lot, or they just don’t get what the fuss is about.

I’d put myself in the former camp. I read a great deal of SF in my early years, before drifting away. Somewhere in there I discovered Dune and I read the original trilogy (yes Virginia, Dune was once a paltry trilogy) several times. Near the end of my SF reading days God Emperor of Dune came out and I read it a few times.

Read more at Black Gate

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Essential Sweet Jane I - V.U. & Lou Reed

You could argue that "Sweet Jane" is one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. I would. Never mind that Rolling Stone, in their infinite lack of wisdom, ranked it at 342 on their list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Which puts it one just behind such timeless efforts as Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" and a few notches down from Queen's "We Will Rock You".

In any event, your humble author has travelled to the ends of the Earth (well, YouTube) to find some of the most noteworthy versions of the song written by Lou Reed and popularized by the Velvet Underground. This first installment presents versions by the Velvet Underground and selections from Lou Reed's 40-odd years as a solo artist. Installment two will be devoted to notable cover versions. Stay tuned.

It's all subjective, mind you. If you'd like to nominate a version of Sweet Jane to be added to the list, feel free to leave a comment.

(Dates listed are the dates of performances/recordings, not release dates. )

Lou Reed Lectures on Sweet Jane (2008)
You’d think that 40 years after the fact Lou Reed would had gotten tired of playing "Sweet Jane", something he must have done at least hundreds of times. But even later in life he still found the time to explain to Elvis Costello and the audience of Costello’s short-lived TV show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..., how the song was structured, while demonstrating his points on an acoustic guitar.




1969: The Velvet Underground Live (1969)
The genesis of "Sweet Jane" is not completely clear but it began appearing in the Velvet Underground’s live shows as early as late 1969. Which is when the version immortalized on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live was recorded. Although the album itself didn’t see the light of day until a half decade later. It's a downright laconic version of the song that contains the infamous bridge that fell by the wayside in many later versions. Cowboy Junkies fans will find it all quite familiar.




The Velvet Underground - Loaded (1970)
Founding Velvet member John Cale had moved on by the time of Loaded, the group's fourth album, but three-fourths of the group were still on board, including Lou Reed, who proceeded to give the world a song called "Sweet Jane". The version contained here, the first to be loosed on the world at large, is considerably more lively than the hypnotic version from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live.




Lou Reed - Rock and Roll Animal (1973)
This version was recorded in late 1973 and released the following year on Rock and Roll Animal, the first of a pair of live albums that rolled out during Lou Reed's RCA years. The album opens with a heavy guitar duet by Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who work their way through a lengthy instrumental piece that gives way to a radically reconstructed version of "Sweet Jane".




Lou Reed - Live in Paris (1974)
A half a year later or so and "Sweet Jane" had undergone another transformation, though perhaps not as radical as some others. A few members of the Rock and Roll Animal band were on hand for this version but Hunter and Wagner had moved on. It's less heavy than Rock and Roll Animal and even waxes a bit funky at times, with emphasis on the organ in parts. Watch for the moves from the bleached-blonde Lou Reed, who looks like he's about to break into some James Brown at any moment.




Lou Reed - Live in New York (1977)
Probably my favorite of all the non-cover versions. It was recorded at New York's Bottom Line about a year before the version that's next on the list, the one that made onto an actual live bonafide album release. Heavy, heavy and heavy, but in a slightly different manner than Rock and Roll Animal, and there's even some judicious use of a saxophone.




Lou Reed - Live: Take No Prisoners (1978)
Lou Reed's double live album from his Arista years is something of a mixed bag. The band is great and so are the performances, mostly of classic Lou Reed songs and a few newer ones. The downside is his tendency to derail several of the songs with lengthy spoken asides that are somewhere between monologue and standup comedy. Which is the case with the version of "Sweet Jane" immortalized therein. If it weren't for those asides - which are quite witty, it should be said - it could have been one of the greatest versions of the song ever.




Lou Reed - Acoustic Version on Spanish TV (1998?)
"I do Lou Reed better than anyone" -Lou Reed


Sunday, September 13, 2015

King Arthur - 2004

King Arthur
Starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley
2004

For epic portrayals of the Arthurian legend it's going to be pretty hard to outdo King Arthur, a 2004 movie that may have outdone what's arguably its most epic predecessor - John Boorman's monumental 1982 movie, Excalibur. For me King Arthur hasn't lost anything even though this was at least the fourth or fifth time I've seen it.

The notion of taking Arthur's story and turning it on its ear is hardly a new idea. One of my favorites is a series of about a half dozen or so books by Jack Whyte in which he strips out all of the magical and fantastic elements and leaves the reader with a perfectly serviceable version of the legend. Which is essentially what King Arthur attempts to do.

After a brief opening scene with a young Lancelot leaving home to fight for Rome, we jump forward about fifteen years. The Knights of the Round Table, those that are left, are all Sarmatian (from the region that's now Iran) warriors who are required to spend fifteen years in service to the Romans. If you do the math then you'll realize that it's time for them to fly the coop. But there's a twist, as a bishop Germanus explains to their commander - a Roman named Arthur.

As the Romans are pulling out of Britain, a great Saxon horde is massing to come down out of the north and lay the land to waste. The scenes of the Saxons on the move are pretty ominous stuff, with their war drums, thousands of marching feet (or so it would seem) and eerie chanting. Turns out there's a prominent Roman family living near Hadrian's wall that needs to be rescued. The weaselly bishop informs Arthur that his men cannot have their walking papers until they complete the mission. Though they carp and moan and know that it's nearly a suicide mission, they are a band of brothers, after all, and grudgingly agree to this one last foray. Any resemblance to The Dirty Dozen or The Wild Bunch may or may not have been intentional.

The knights arrive at the Roman outpost not long before the Saxons and make haste in evacuating it, including a number of people found in a grim dungeon of sorts, one of whom is a Woad named Guinevere. Woads in this movie are just another name for the real-world Picts, a painted warrior people who lived north of the wall and wasted no opportunity to harass their neighbors to the south.

As the Saxons move southward it becomes obvious to Arthur that he should put aside his feelings about the woads and accept their offer of an alliance. But not before the small band of knights must face off against a splinter force of Saxons on a frozen lake in a scene that might remind some viewers of the battle of Thermopylae. It's strictly over the top action movie stuff, this scene, but it does keep you clinging to the edge of your seat.

Against all odds, the crew makes it back from their mission almost intact and are given their walking papers after all. They start walking but when they see that their old leader Arthur is apparently going to try to take on the Saxons singlehandedly, they naturally have to rally round him one last time. And I'll say right here that battle scenes in this type of movie have a tendency to be rather dull, but this one was the rare exception. You can almost guess how it turns out but getting to that point's a lot more gripping that in most action flicks.

Given that it's essentially just an epic buddy movie, King Arthur relies pretty heavy on this small band of warriors. There are six of them, plus their leader and they are a fairly diverse group. I have to say I didn't care much for Clive Owen's Arthur, who's prone to speaking in great oratorical flourishes throughout and not much else. As for Lancelot, he just seems to be bewildered most of the time. Gawain and Galahad just don't seem to get all that much to do.

Which leaves it to the other three to carry most of the group scenes. There's Ray Winston as Bors, the hard-drinking, hard-loving family man who says exactly what's on his mind. There's Ray Stevenson as Dagonet, a fierce burly fighter who turns out to have something of a heart of gold and who saves the day in the frozen lake scene. And then there's Meds Mikkelsen as Tristan, the silent, mystical type with a trained raven and a decidedly offbeat way of looking at the world.

Also worthy of note, Keira Knightley as the kick-ass Woad warrior woman - though it's a bit of a stretch to imagine someone so slight whupping big beefy Saxons in hand to hand combat. There's little or no magic or supernatural stuff to speak of here, though Merlin, the Woad leader, is said to be a magician, of sorts. Also worthy of a considerable accolade is Stella Skarsgård as Cerdic, the muttering leader of the Saxons, who, though he's starting to get up there in years, doesn't take any mess from anyone.

Which is about all I've got to say for this one, except for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Little Green Men, Couriers of Chaos, and Miners on Uranus

Things
Edited by Ivan Howard
Belmont (157 pages, $0.50, February 1964)

Belmont Books, publisher of this anthology, apparently thrived throughout the Sixties. Early on it looks like many of their books leaned toward horror, with SF being sprinkled into the mix more as time went on. Things presents itself more as horror (the subtitle is Stories of Terror and Shock by six SCIENCE-FICTION greats) but there’s not much horror content. It’s a short volume that collects six fairly uninspired novelettes and short stories first published in SF magazines in the early Fifties.

Read more at Black Gate.

A Brief Guide to Space Race Documentaries, Part II

I’ve written two articles at this site about movies and documentaries that deal primarily with the Space Race years, which I define as 1957 (Sputnik) to 1969 (first Moon landing):

I thought I’d exhausted the supply of space race documentaries worth mentioning, but alas, I recently ran across two more.

Both are worth noting for the simple fact that they solve two problems I often see with this type of documentary. One is the tendency to cram too much into too little time, which means it’s hard to go into any kind of depth in one specific area. The other is the tendency to rely on footage that’s rather familiar.

Read more at Black Gate.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sitcoms Worth Rewatching - Fawlty Towers


I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the Seventies, when it was still a fairly obscure TV show that aired late on Sunday nights on a local PBS affiliate. I soon became one of those idiots who quote long excerpts from various skits. Fortunately I got over it.

It was a pretty strong ensemble, I thought, without any weak links. But it always seemed that one of the members stood out a bit – that being John Cleese. When the circus left town he went on to co-create, write and star in Fawlty Towers, a British sitcom that was closer to a mini-series in terms of length, airing just six episodes each in 1975 and 1979.

The premise of Fawlty Towers is a very simple one. It pits hotel owner Basil Fawlty against the people who irritate him. Which is pretty much everyone on Earth. Basil is clearly the star of the show but is aided by an able supporting cast who portray the hotel’s staff and guests and his wife Sybil , who is perhaps the biggest thorn in his side.

Some of the key facets of Basil’s personality are his intolerance of just about everyone, whom he feels are beneath him, and the need to ingratiate himself with those few members of the upper crust that he feels are deserving of his respect. Which serve as his motivations and drive most of the plots, which typically start out as calm as a lazy summer afternoon and steadily build to a hurricane of slapstick and silliness.

Most of the 12 episodes are worth a look, although there are a few lesser ones and some really great ones. If you’ve never had the pleasure then you might as well start with The Germans.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Nebula Award Stories 3, edited by Roger Zelazny

It looks like there were 16 works of shorter fiction nominated for the 1968 Nebula awards. Seven of them appear in this collection. Although the Ballard story included doesn’t appear on the ballots I found listed at various reference sites.

In any event, there are some holes in my reading history represented here. I’ve read lots of Ellison over the years and a fair amount of Ballard. As for Leiber, Moorcock, McCaffrey and Delany, not so much. But there’s some great stuff here, by my reckoning, and a few good ones and one that was not so much.

Read more at Black Gate.

Dune & Dune Messiah & Children of Dune

Dune
By Frank Herbert
1965

Dune Messiah
By Frank Herbert
1969

Children of Dune
By Frank Herbert
1976

Given that I've read the original Dune books, the ones by Frank Herbert, a number of times and also given that the first book is nearly fifty years old, I thought I'd forego doing full reviews of each of the three books. I don't recall when I least read the series but I was interested to see how they'd stack up after all these years. Especially after reading six of the sequel/prequel books by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson, books that I became decidedly less impressed with as I made my way through each volume.

I'm happy to report that Dune held up quite well after so many years. I found myself zipping right through it and while I remembered quite a lot of what was coming I was surprised at how much had slipped my mind. I won't go into much in the way of describing the book, as well-known as it is by now, but rather will join those who praise Herbert for creating such an intricate and detailed world with a rather gripping plot playing out against this background.

Then there's Dune Messiah. I didn't remember much about this one either and after reading it again, I'd say I'm not surprised. It's a short volume and the story does actually have a plot with things happening throughout. But in spite of that it feels that not much is really happening, aside from a bunch of the characters moping and a bunch of the others plotting and conspiring and that's about all she wrote. If you've never read these books before I'd almost say you could get away without reading this one. But in the interests of completeness you might as well go ahead.

Children of Dune was just as hazy in my mind as the foregoing, but I was surprised to find that it's my favorite of the three. In my hazy memories I seem to recall that God Emperor of Dune was my favorite of all of the Frank Herbert Dune books so it remains to be seen if that's really the case. Children of Dune, as the name suggests, deals primarily with the preborn children of the emperor Paul Atreides and their preborn aunt Alia, who seems to have come off the rails a bit. As things proceed Leto, one of the twins, begins to make a major transformation that's dealt with more extensively in the fourth book.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Few Surefire Kickstarter Campaigns

Abscess: The Musical
Dan Rather action figures
Remake Lawrence of Arabia with less "desert stuff"
Research study on the word millinery
Slip-proof banana peel
Horse feather beds

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The History of the Other Necronomicon

(With sincerest apologies to H. P. Lovecraft)

Original title, Watdiz Rafaflafla — Rafaflafla being the word used by residents of the greater Pittsburgh area to designate that harrowing sound (made by insects and tiny flying horses) suppos’d to resemble the flatulence of daemons who have been tuned to the key of B flat.

Composed by Haminah Haminah H. Haminah, Esq., a sad clown and learned scholar of the Peoria, in the American caliphate of the Illinois, who is said to have flourished during the early period of the Flock of Seagulls and the A-ha, circa 1983 A.D. He visited the ruins of the Cleveland and he explored subterranean secrets of the Memphis and spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of...

Read more at Black Gate

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Accident Prone Hamlet

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
[steps in a paint bucket]
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
[tries to shake the paint bucket loose]
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
[still trying to shake the paint bucket loose - stumbles - catches himself - bangs his elbow on a chair]
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
[gives his foot a hard shake - the paint bucket flies high in the air - comes down and hits him in forehead]
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
[disoriented - eyes slightly glazed over]
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
[walks into the wall]
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
[very disoriented]
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
[slips on a banana peel - long pause while he gets up and composes himself]
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
[throws his arms wide for emphasis - knocks a vase off the table and smashes it]
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
[picks up the shards of the vase - sticks his finger into a mousetrap]
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
[tries to shake the mousetrap loose and whacks himself in the face]
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
[decides to take a breather - sits on a bear trap that his servant forgot to put away]
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
[leaps to his feet - runs around the room]
That makes calamity of so long life;
[still trying to extricate himself from the bear trap]
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
[finally gets the bear trap loose - steps on a rake - clocks himself in the face]
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
[extremely disoriented now - falls down the stairs]
[decides to call it a day - lies down with a cool rag on his face]

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Brief Guide to Space Race Documentaries

While I liked the space race movies I wrote about here recently, my preference is for documentaries. Fortunately, there are quite a few good examples of this breed. This isn’t a definitive listing, but rather a few of the better known space documentaries that are worth a look.

For All Mankind (1989)
It’s probably no accident that For All Mankind appeared in 1989, exactly two decades after humans first set foot on the moon. It focuses on the Apollo missions that culminated in several trips to the moon and features the usual array of archival footage, along with comments by Michael Collins (Apollo 11), Jim Lovell (Apollo 8/13), and 11 other Apollo astronauts. All of which is set to appropriately spacey music by ambient music pioneer, Brian Eno.

Read more at Black Gate

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Curmudgeon

He is accustomed to retrieving the newspaper at precisely six thirty.

It isn't there.

He fumes. He rants incoherently and jerks and twitches. After about a minute he begins to froth at the mouth.

One minute after that he starts to bark and growl and gnaw at his arm. At three minutes he dumps a pot of hot coffee on his head. At four minutes he yells so loudly that his teeth fly out and stick in the wall and his wig pops off and lands on the cat.

At five minutes he bangs his head repeatedly on the door and stomps on the floor. At six minutes he slaps himself in the face and wrenches his arm so hard that he dislocates his shoulder. At seven minutes he attempts to swallow a boot.

At eight minutes he cuts his nose off. At nine minutes he drives a sharpened number two pencil into each ear. At ten minutes he gouges out his eyes with a spoon.

At eleven minutes he takes a steak knife and begins to peel his skin off.

At six forty-two his brother-in-law walks from the bathroom with the newspaper tucked under his arm.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Trump's Nomination Speech (Edited Version)

I promise I will never be in a bicycle race.
Now I’m not doing that.
They sweated like dogs.
I never saw anything like it.
It was terrible.
I would do various things very quickly.
Nobody builds walls better than me.
Mark my words.
I have so many Web sites.
Hey, I have lobbyists.
They’re killing us.
You have to be hit by a tractor.
Thank you, darlin’.

I beat China all the time.
They beat us all the time.
I like China.
Am I supposed to dislike them?
I love China.
Oh, you don’t like China?
I love the Saudis.
I love my father.
I love what I’m doing.
I love my life.
Thank you. Thank you very much.

They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
That would be a very good thing.
They’ve become rich. I’m in competition with them.
I like them.
They’re wonderful people. I like them.
No, I love them.
Thank you, darlin’.

The sun will rise, the moon will set.
All sorts of wonderful things will happen.
So I announced that I’m running for president.
I don’t think it’s gonna happen.
I’m running.
So be very, very careful.
I am officially running for president of the United States
Not good.
I tell you that.
It’s just not going to work.
It’s a disaster.
They all have jobs.
I just want a job. Just get me a job.
Please reconsider.
Please, please, please.
Thank you. Thank you very much.

I’m really rich.
I don’t have to brag.
It sounds crass.
It’s not crass.
There is so much wealth.
We need money.
I’m proud of my net worth. I’ve done an amazing job.
Nobody knows what I’m worth.
I’m called by all of the special interests.
I know the good ones. I know the bad ones.
Thank you, darlin’.

I think I am a nice person.
Does anyone know this?
Does my family like me?
They don’t know what they’re doing.
They want to be a little cool.
I am a nice person.
I think I’m actually a very nice person.
I really am.
People are tired of these nice people.
They’re not good. They think they are.
Thank you. Thank you very much.

What’s going on?
What are we doing?
We have to stop doing things for some people.
They don’t even have a chance.
I’ll do it.
We have to stop, and it has to stop now.
Don’t do it.
It only makes common sense.
We have nothing.
It’s never below zero.
That’s true. You’re right about that.
Thank you, darlin’.

If I get elected president.
The American dream is dead.
It’s going to get worse.
Really big league.
Thank you, darlin’.
Thank you. Thank you very much.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

There’s Something (Fine) About Larry (Fine)

Oh, no thanks. I don't wear hats. Why would I with a head of hair like this? (Larry Fine)

For many of us, there is a hierarchy of Stoogedom. You may be one of those high-minded types who don't like the Three Stooges and that is your prerogative (though I can’t help wishing a bear driving a car would run over your foot). It’s an acquired taste some never acquire, like crunchy peanut butter.

At the top of my Stooge hierarchy is Curly (Jerome), youngest of the three Howard (Horwitz) brothers. I know it's obvious but I make no apology for it. If you want to make an issue of it I’ll command a mollusk to rise from your soup and clamp onto your nose. After that there’s Shemp (Samuel). He was the first Third Stooge and jumped in again after his brother Curly stepped down. Shemp had his moments but he was no Curly. If you disagree we can step outside (well, I’ll stay inside and lock the door after you step out).

Slightly Dubious Ice Cream Flavors

Baby Liver and Horse Sweat Swirl
Kerosene Delite
Banana Toenail Chip
Moist Old Man
Chocolate Cholera Crunch

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Little Known Proverbs

Absence makes the chickens grow fonder of putting their eggs all in one basket.
Necessity is the mother of Ronald.
The squeaky wheel gets a gift horse with two heads and a stretch waistband.
Better late than dead.
Good things come to those who are extremely lucky.
Keep your friends close and do as the birds of a feather do to the Romans.
Hiding is the greater part of valor.
If you can't beat 'em, pay someone to beat 'em.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Inspirational Quotes That Might Need a Little Work

You were not born a winner, and you were not born a loser. You were born a moron.
Believe you can and you're just postponing the inevitable disappointment.
Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in giving up every time we fail.
When you come to the end of your rope, your neck is about to break.
Instead of giving myself reasons why I can't, I just say the hell with it.
We must become the asshole we want to see.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Up and Coming Amish Rappers

Ghostface Miller
Digable Planters
House of Grain
Hex Clan
De La Soil
DWA (Diggers With Attitude)
Old Dirty Pastor

A Brief Guide to Space Race Movies

You could sweat the details, but it’s probably safe to say that the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union lasted nearly 12 years. The Soviets kicked it off on October 4, 1957 with the launch of the little satellite that could, the one known as Sputnik. The Americans fell behind on nearly every front in those early years but then grabbed the brass ring on July 21, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

Nowadays, four decades after humans last walked on the moon, space exploration fails to stir the public imagination like it once did. Ticker tape parades for astronauts are a thing of the past, and Canadian Chris Hadfield is arguably the closest thing to a “celebrity” astronaut to come along in decades.

Read more at Black Gate

Saturday, June 27, 2015

If the Pope Was More Like Moe Howard

The Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church is carrying a long plank balanced on his shoulder.
The Cardinal Secretary of State calls him.
He turns abruptly.
Whacks the pontiff in the face with the plank.
The Pope closes in on the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church.
Goes for an eye poke.
The Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church neatly blocks it.
With an outstretched hand laid alongside his nose.
The Pope counters with the two-handed eye poke.
A brilliant maneuver.
Takes three steps backward.
Steps in the Cardinal Secretary of State's paint bucket.
Tries to shake it loose.
It's stuck.
Shoves his mitre (cool Pope hat) down over the Cardinal Secretary of State's eyes.
Gives his ears a good twist.
Tweaks his beak.

My Kindle eBooks

Beyond Belief, edited by Richard Hurley

Beyond Belief
Edited by Richard J. Hurley
Scholastic Book Services (188 pages, $0.45, April 1966)

Given that Scholastic was the publisher of this anthology, it’s probably fair to assume that it was aimed at what was once called the juvenile demographic. I was in that demographic when the 1973 paperback edition was published.

However, as the publishing credits reveal, most of the stories are drawn from SF magazines of prior decades. None of which were geared to juveniles, as far as I’m aware. It’s a mixed bag, as anthologies often are, but for me the ups outweighed the downs by a bit.

Read more at Black Gate.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Time the Whore of Babylon Dropped the Kids Off At Soccer Practice

There were a few things she could have done differently.
Like not turning up at the soccer field on a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, and having seven heads and ten horns.
But the Lexus was in the shop for a brake job.
And her outfit - purple and scarlet and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls.
Not everyone can pull that off.
As several of the moms were quick to point out.
And the belly shirt.
Now that was harlotry.
And the golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication and being drunken with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
Sure, they all liked a Margarita or a wine cooler or two.
But that was really a bit much.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Sunset Years of the Star of That Really Popular Cat Video

Miss Tibbles.
An entire wing of the mansion was given over to her some years ago.
Gone to ruin now, drafty and smelling faintly of stale catnip.
Miss Tibbles.
Perches in the dank great room in her tattered red velvet kitty bed.
The grand piano in the corner, mostly unused.
Though just last week she roused herself and ran through a few pieces by Rachmaninoff.
The magic wasn’t there anymore.
Her attendant – Burt – observed.
Though he wouldn’t have dared to say so.
Miss Tibbles.
Yawns, stretches and eyes the silent telephone.
It won’t be much longer.
She’s ready for her close-up.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Movie - Young Sherlock Holmes

Young Sherlock Holmes
Directed by Barry Levinson
1985

So just how did Sherlock Holmes and John Watson get together? I'm no authority on the canon of Holmes but the way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it differs a good bit from how the makers of Young Sherlock Holmes handled it - something they take pains to note at the end of the film.

But what's a little dramatic license among friends? As the filmmakers would have us believe, young Watson meets young Holmes upon arriving at a new boarding school, where his future pal proceeds to do one of those fancy Sherlock Holmes things and tells him all about himself, based on a few subtle clues.

Which is all well and good and to be expected and if things had proceeded in this fashion I might have stayed on board. But as things moved along the movie began to take on a tone that would have been more suitable to Young Indiana Jones (which came along in the form of a TV series less than a decade later) than Young Sherlock Holmes. There's something of a mystery at the heart of all this, with blow darts that cause people to hallucinate wildly and ultimately end up dead, and an Egyptian cult, but it's more about fast-paced, big-budget action and spectacle than deduction.

Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. I didn't mind and it's certainly a well-made film, though the relentless pace became wearying at times. Much of this can probably be explained by considering some of the principals. They include Steven Spielberg, the executive producer, who had just done his Indiana Jones thing a few years earlier and who was producing another YA adventure flick, The Goonies, in the same year.

Writer Chris Columbus would go on to do Home Alone before too long and later took a crack at some Harry Potter movies. Which not so far removed from what he did here, when you think about it but without all that magic stuff. At first I thought Barry Levinson seemed like an odd choice to direct but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. After all, his big score up to this point had been with Diner, a coming of age tale. Which is not unlike what's done here, although with a lot more action.

To summarize, if you're looking for a good Sherlock Holmes movie you should probably keep looking. If you're looking for a good young-adult adventure movie this should do the trick.

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#Pantene

Casually walking around with a bag of hair.
My hair smells so good.
I love my hair.
Damn my hair smells to good right now.
My hair smells so beautiful n feels like feathers.
I love my hair.
At Walmart today, a lady told me I should be in a Pantene commercial.

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The Murders in the Rue Morgue - 1975

The Murders in the Rue Morgue
CBS Radio Mystery Theater
1975

I've got to confess that The Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of the Poe stories I've never actually gotten around to reading. So when I listened to this adaptation made for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater I didn't really have a frame of reference for what I was hearing. Given that, I had to take said adaption on its own merits, rather than comparing it to the original.

Supposedly one of the first detective stories, it's also a locked room mystery, a subgenre of a subgenre of mystery fiction that never ceases to amaze, amuse and irritate those of us who go for that sort of thing. The killings that take place inside this locked room are fairly gruesome, even by today's more relaxed standards, and one can't help imagining Poe writing splatter films if he'd lived a century and a half later.

Of course, one C. Auguste Dupin steps in to take over the investigation and proceeds to put together a few clues and sort everything out. If you're wondering where Sherlock Holmes got some of his mannerisms and personality traits it wouldn't be unreasonable to start your search here. Not a bad tale, all in all, at least based on what i heard in this adaptation, though I'm still up in the air about whether Poe's choice of killers was brilliant or just plain goofy.

But it's another worthwhile episode from the vast archive of CBS Radio Mystery Theater productions. Hard to believe that they turned out one of these every weekday for about ten years but they did.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

My Last Few Fortune Cookie Messages

Your honored mother has the countenance of an ape.
A prosthetic elbow may be waiting around the next corner.
May your pockets always be filled with sufficient carrion.
Beware of anthropomorphic horses who sing too loudly.
Live this day as though it will be your last. It will.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

How Immortals Pass the Time

Bob has been immortal for nearly 417 million years.
The young whippersnapper.
But lately time’s been dragging.
So he rounds up some toothpicks and gets to work.
Before long (by immortal standards, that is) he’s built a full-scale replica of the universe.
Complete with galaxies and Pringles and asteroids and Cleveland.
The other immortals can’t help but admire it.
It’s a pretty nifty piece of work, to be sure.
Until the fire.

Dances With Certified Public Accountants

He is naked except for a loincloth. He has fasted for two days, seated on a rock at the edge of the prairie, when a group of conventioning certified public accountants is inexplicably catapulted one hundred thirty years into the past, along with a disc jockey and an open bar.

The accountants dance all night. They do not get out much. He proves to be quite adept at the hokey-pokey. Marv gets drunk and tries to kiss a coyote.

When the sun rises they are gone. He is seated on the rock again.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

When Homonyms Kill

They slip into the cemetery in the still hour before dawn. They work silently, unsealing the tomb in no time. They take deep breaths, make the sign of the cross and enter.

The air is close and fetid. Two of them slide the heavy lid from the crypt. The other two take their positions. One of them pulls a mallet from his coat. He speaks over his shoulder to the other one.

"The stake."

They look on – aghast - at the choice cut of meat slapped into his palm. There is a stirring in the crypt.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Nicer Post-Apocalyptic Kind of Situation

One day everyone suddenly became quite happy.
Then they grew weary.
Then they quietly laid down and died.
And their bodies went up into the sky.
There were a few survivors, of course.
Their lives were disrupted.
But they didn’t wig out much.
They got on with their lives.
Soon some dead people came back from the sky, alive.
Then more and before long all of them.
Eventually things got back to normal.
And the world ended up being a much nicer place.

My Kindle eBooks

Friday, June 12, 2015

Best Day Ever for Sisyphus

Half an eternity has passed.
Another half to go.
The old buzzard’s been rolling that boulder up the hill.
Only to watch it roll back down again.
Every frigging time.
Yeah, him.
His bursitis is flaring up.
He’s about had it.
When his friend Bob drops by.
As he’s nearing the top of the hill yet again.
Bob disappears into the woods.
Comes back with a small log.
Shoves it under the boulder.
They both step back and contemplate it.
“That oughta hold it,” Bob says.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Kinder Gentler Godzilla

Suddenly, amidst the smoke and flames and screams and clamor of yet another ruined skyscraper, he realizes that the job is no longer fulfilling.
It’s time to follow his bliss.
He leaves right away, skyscraper half-demolished.
Makes his way to Big Sur.
Lives in a small (relatively speaking, of course) cabin in the hills.
Wanders the beaches after high tide.
Before long his driftwood sculptures of kittens are selling at the better gift shops in the region.
And the third anger management class seems to be helping.
Don’t ask about the first two.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Together Again

“Oh, Herm.” Emily fell into his arms. He hugged her hard enough to crush several ribs. It sounded like a bag of chips stuffed under a mattress.

“My darling. I’ve missed you so.” Herm beamed as she stomped on his bare foot, driving her stiletto heel all the way to the floor.

“Not as much as I’ve missed you.” Emily nuzzled his shoulder. He stroked her hair and dug his thumb into her left eye socket, twisting and gouging until he’d worked the bloody orb loose. He ground it under his heel.

Herm led her to the kitchen. “I’ve been saving this for your return. I never imagined it would be so soon.”

He poured two glasses of champagne and proceeded to bash her with the bottle until her face was a mass of bloody pulp.

“I couldn’t stand to be without you another minute.” She rammed a butcher knife into his lower abdomen, jerked upward and stepped aside as his intestines fell out, slopping on the floor.

“What about your job?” Herm asked, driving a ten-inch long spike into her head.

“I told them I’d quit if I had to, but I had to come home and see you.”

She smiled, kissing him gently and tearing large chunks of flesh from his face and upper body with her teeth.

“I’m glad you did.” He tore her arm off and bludgeoned her with it. “Its so good to have you back.”

He ripped out her still beating heart and flung it on the ground. The dog carried it into a corner and gnawed it. He drew her close. She emptied a can of turpentine over his head and lit it. They melted into each other’s arms. Her gaze locked with his.

“I’m so glad we’re together again.”

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Connoisseur’s Science Fiction, edited by Tom Boardman

Connoisseur’s Science Fiction
Edited by Tom Boardman
Penguin Books (234 pages, $0.95, 1966)

It’s a small world. The last story in the last anthology I read (Other Dimensions, edited by Robert Silverberg) was “Disappearing Act,” by Alfred Bester. The next book I read was this one, and the first story therein was “Disappearing Act,” by Alfred Bester. How do you like that? In any event, I didn’t read it again, but copied my remarks from the review at my site to this one.

Read more at Black Gate

One Arthurian Film to Rule Them All

One Arthurian Film to Rule Them All
by William I. Lengeman III

I’m trying to suggest a kind of Middle Earth, in Tolkien terms. It’s a contiguous world; it’s like ours but different.
– John Boorman, on Excalibur

As I began poking around into the history of Arthurian film adaptations, I was surprised to find a lot less of this sort of thing than I was expecting.

Good old Wikipedia lists 36 “relatively straightforward adaptations” made between 1904 and 2009. Many of these are rather obscure, to say the least, and quite a few deal with tangential aspects of the core legend, such as the stories of Arthurian knights, Parsifal, Launcelot, Gawain, and Galahad.

Read more at Black Gate

Hardboiled

Nick Radicks double-parked his battered Buick Regal. He lit a cigarette and walked into the coffee shop, ignoring the No Smoking sign. Benny the Rat slithered into the booth across from him, glancing around nervously.

“Whaddya got?” Nick was cool as an icebox. He blew three perfectly formed smoke rings at the ceiling.

“Whaddya got for me?”

“A size eleven boot. I’ll put it up your ass.”

“Okay, okay.” Benny leaned forward. “Your stiff was connected. Word is he made some people mad, so they set him up for a big fall.”

“So he’s connected. Why didn’t his guys fix it?”

“Dunno. He hooked up with a guy named King. Heavy hitter, but unfortunately for the stiff it came down from on high. When it started to go down, King and his guys couldn’t do anything to put it back together.”

Nick dropped his cigarette in his coffee. He pulled out his wallet and peeled off two twenties.

“Got a name?”

Benny snatched the bills.

“Dumpty. Didn’t get the first name.”

Friday, June 5, 2015

Here Be Dragons (and Lattes)

Bob (who began spelling his name backward a few years ago, after twisting his ankle) grabbed his coffee. He headed for the exit, passing a rainforest mural he’d seen hundreds of times. He mused at how realistic it seemed, with a balmy breeze wafting forth. How odd.

He looked around. No one seemed to notice. Presumably they didn’t notice the dragon either. Which whipped out its long prehensile tongue and snapped the coffee from his hand. Without spilling a drop, it should be noted. It gobbled it up in an instant (including the eco-friendly, free-range, hypo-allergenic cup made from organic, gluten-free hemp by a reclusive tribe of hippies who live in a remote area of the coast of northern California and who collectively spent more years following the Grateful Dead than would be considered average). And just as quickly spewed him with a mix of mediocre, overpriced coffee and dragon spit.

It shouldn’t have surprised him that much more when the dragon spoke and indeed, it did not.

“Hazelnut,” The dragon snarled. “How can anyone drink that crap?”

Thursday, June 4, 2015

In the Workplace of the Immortals

“Congratulations, Bob.”
“On what?”
“On being with the company 21,417 years.”
“Sez who?”
“Says the email that went out this morning. Didn’t you see it?”
“Apparently not.”
(pause)
“I guess I can retire soon.”
Uproarious laughter. Followed by somber realization. Followed by uncomfortable silence.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tastes Like Chicken

Things have been tense since he accidentally killed and roasted her brother Will, serving him at a backyard barbecue. He reminds her that Will had grown a layer of feathers and developed the habit of clucking. She thinks he should have noticed that something was amiss when he began to pluck Will. He has nothing to say to that.

Monday, May 25, 2015

If the Amish Developed More TV Shows

Raking Bad
So You Think You Can Plow
The Growmore Girls
Pimp My Buggy
Friday Night Lanterns
The Hex-Files

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Penguin Pool Murder - 1932

The Penguin Pool Murder
Based on characters created by Stuart Palmer
1932

Funny how simple the answers are when you know them.
(Hildegarde Withers)

Movies starring Stuart Palmer's amateur detective Hildegarde Withers were all the rage during the Thirties and this is the one that kicked things off. Edna May Oliver stars here and in the next two episodes and Helen Broderick and Zasu Pitts took over the role for the last three movies of the series. Though she is a schoolteacher and a civilian, Withers works in tandem with the gruff inspector Oscar Piper to solve crimes and trade mildly disparaging wisecracks. Gleason starred as Piper in all six of the Withers movies.

These movies were not meant to be taken too seriously and The Penguin Pool Murder is no exception. Miss Withers just happens to be visiting the aquarium with her students when a gentleman of the lifeless persuasion is found in the penguin pool. We viewers have already seen some of the background leading up to this murder, but there are various twists and turns that keep things hopping until the no-nonsense schoolmarm finally figures it all out. Piper, as usual, is a few steps behind, but give him an a for effort anyway.

These are not movies that I really watch for the plotting and this one, which gets off to quite a slow start, was more of the same. When Withers and Piper get into crime-solving mode and start pecking at each other things perk up considerably. Recommended, as are the other three in the series that I've seen thus far, as long as you're not someone who takes your mystery movies too seriously.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Minutes of the Monthly Meeting of the Exalted Priests of Yssrygyth

O noble ones,
Who exist to serve our dark and mighty lord Yssrygyth,
Master of all that is seen and unseen.
Arbiter of life and death.
Hearken unto my words.
We gather among the sacred stones under the waning moon on the forty-first day
In the seventeenth year of the reign of our mighty king, Syanshek.

O noble ones,
Ye shall be responsible for keeping thine own abode clean
For it has been brought to our attention that some work areas
Have become the abode of all manner of unclean spirits.

O noble ones,
Foul and unclean spirits will clean up after themselves, particularly in the break rooms.
Ye shall be responsible for the transgressions
Of any foul and unclean spirits you have invoked.

O noble ones,
Obsidian knives are currently on backorder.
Our supplier estimates that they will arrive on the fifty-eighth day
In the seventeenth year of the reign of our mighty king, Syanshek.
We are casting about for a new supplier.
In the meantime, do not place any new orders.

O noble ones,
As noted in a memo, circulated on the three hundredth day
In the sixteenth year of the reign of our mighty king, Syanshek.
Torture chambers must be reserved at least nine days in advance.
There shall be no exceptions.

O noble ones,
When tearing the hearts from live victims
You must follow the procedures outlined on tablet fourteen
Of standard rites and sacrificial procedures, basic - intermediate.
Claims for repetitive stress injuries have risen sixty four percent since last year.

O noble ones,
We are organizing a potluck dinner for our next gathering.
We need someone to supply the following items,
Roasted heart of shammun cat, gryyth crystalworm casserole, potato salad.
If you can help out see Mordhi in accounting.

By William I. Lengeman III © 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Other Dimensions, edited by Robert Silverberg

Other Dimensions
Edited by Robert Silverberg
1974

There's nothing fancy or cryptic about the title of this anthology. The stories, as the title suggests, are concerned with the theme of other dimensions. For my money, some of them worked and some did not. Rather than offer my comments on all ten stories I'll focus on the ones I liked.

And He Built a Crooked House, by Robert A. Heinlein
What happens if you build a house in more than the accepted number of dimensions? Heinlein offers up a rather whimsical account of how it might go. I probably won’t be spoiling it to say this much – not well.

Narrow Valley, by R.A. Lafferty
A quarter of a century after Heinlein’s story appeared, Lafferty took a similar look at the problems of extra dimensions. He too takes a lighthearted approach. His yarn is about a plot of land rather than a house that exists in more dimensions besides the ones we all know and love so much.

Stanley Toothbrush, Terry Carr
I wasn’t aware that the well-known anthologist Terry Carr was also a writer but here he contributes what I thought was the best story of the bunch. In which the protagonist finds that by using the powers of his mind he can cause things to appear or disappear. It’s not an exact science, mind you. This, and the fact that Carr also tends toward the whimsical, makes for a very entertaining story.

Disappearing Act, by Alfred Bester
The military is trying to determine why shell-shocked patients in a secret ward are disappearing. The answer is a fairly simple one having to do with other dimensions. But it's made more interesting by the General in charge, who's rather over the top and constantly demanding another expert to sort out anything he needs to know. Comparisons to a certain Kubrick movie wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Also features stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Alexei Panshin, Carol Carr, John Breuer, Robert Silverberg and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Man Bites God

He is undergoing a series of tribulations that would have made Job cringe.
He raises his eyes to the heavens and curses God. He is surprised and a bit miffed when God curses back.
He flings a pen cap at God. God causes frogs to rain upon him.
He pulls God's hair. God causes his house to be filled with the blood of swine.
He pokes God in the eye. God causes the sky to rain fire and brimstone, totally trashing his lawn.
He hauls off at God and misses. God takes a mighty swing and does the same. Soon they are embroiled in a particularly nasty slap fight in which no real damage is inflicted.
He stomps on God's foot. God casts a pox upon his kith and kin.
He bites God right on the ear.
Well, that does it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 3C – Zeit

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Zeit (1972)
Origin of Supernatural Probabilities
19:34

I mentioned in my last entry that "Nebulous Dawn," the second track on Zeit, was a “monumental” work of space music. I stand by that. The next track, "Origin of Supernatural Probabilities," is also a monumental work of space music, but in a decidedly different way. "Nebulous Dawn" could be described as a free floating assemblage of spacey sounds, with not very much of a rhythmic pulse to it. "Origin of Supernatural Probabilities," on the other hand, has a strong rhythm. It’s one that may or may not actually be made with a sequencer but which strongly resembles the sequencer-heavy works of Tangerine Dream’s so-called Virgin years, which at this time were still a few years in their future.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Early Vampire Fiction – The Vampyre, by John Polidori

Vampires in fiction, film, TV and whatnot don't do much for me. But I thought it might be interesting to look at one of the pioneering works of vampire fiction – some say it may be the first. John William Polidori’s claim to fame, such as it was, derives from the fact that he penned this work – "The Vampyre" – and from the fact that he served as personal physician to the poet, Lord Byron, for several years.

Polidori’s work has been overshadowed by another work that had its genesis at about the same time, a book by Mary Shelley known to most of us simply as Frankenstein. The genesis for both works dates from a cold, rainy summer when Shelley, Byron, Polidori, Shelley’s husband Percy and her half-sister gathered in a Swiss villa, whiling away their time with fantastical stories and challenging each other to write one of their own.

Only Frankenstein and "The Vampyre" made an impact. The latter was supposedly based on a fragment penned by Byron but not much was taken from that original snippet. It first saw publication a few years later, in 1819, when it appeared under Byron’s name, a mistake that was later corrected. Not that it would matter much to Polidori. Like all of the men at the 1816 gathering of literary luminaries, he died young. Byron lived the longest of the three, dying at 36, while Mary Shelley and Claire Claremont both lived to a ripe old age.

"The Vampyre" concerns the exploits of one Lord Ruthven, a cold and aloof sort of fellow. Imagine that. Who happens to cross paths with the young and naïve Aubrey. He, along with his sister, was made quite wealthy by the death of their parents. This mismatched pair take off on the grand tour of Europe that was so common in this day among the “better” classes.

Ruthven is not a very forthcoming sort and so Aubrey takes it upon himself to try to figure him out. Before long a letter arrives from his guardians at home, laying out some of the faults of his newfound companion, who is apparently something of a rake, and urging him to sever ties with Ruthven. Aubrey proceeds to do so, but not before foiling Ruthven's plans to sully the virtue of an innocent young lady.

Aubrey finds himself in Athens next, where he becomes an enamored of a certain young lady, Ianthe. Who, coincidentally enough, regales him with tales of vampires and whose family are horrified to find that he’s setting out on an excursion to a certain dicey locale. He ignores their concerns and goes anyway, only to find himself (planning is not one of his skills) overtaken by the dark of night and a fierce storm.

Before long he finds himself outside a hovel and hears screams coming from somewhere thereabouts. Only to be assaulted by someone with “superhuman” strength. He’s saved by the requisite mob with torches (which probably wasn’t a cliché yet) but the screaming woman is not so lucky. Apparently she’s been attacked and killed by a…you know. Here's one from the annals of sheer coincidence, it’s his beloved Ianthe.

Aubrey lapses into a raging delirium and soon Ruthven, of all people, turns up to serve as his attendant. He seems a changed man, at first, and apologizes for any previous misdeeds, but it doesn’t last. But the now rather melancholy Aubrey has been changed by his ordeal and before long he and Ruthven are back on the road again, exploring various corners of Greece. At one point they are set up on bandits and Ruthven is shot in the shoulder. Surprisingly, Ruthven doesn’t do so well and before long he is dead. The fact that his corpse disappears thereafter probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Nor should it be surprising that he turns up again, at a coming out party for Aubrey’s sister. Which pretty much sends Aubrey off the deep end.

I’ll leave it at that. If you’d like to know the rest try it out at Project Gutenberg. It's not very long - about 8,000 words - though the author's habit of using interminable sentences and paragraphs sometimes makes it seem that way. And, not to spoil it, but if you're looking for a happy ending you're going to come away disappointed.

Old Guy Blathers About Record Stores

It started with Give Us A Wink, by Sweet, probably in 1976 or 1977, in the record department at Korvettes. For those too lazy to Wikipedia I’ll elaborate on Sweet and Korvettes. Sweet (formerly The Sweet) was a British band who started out doing catchy bubble gum hits. They morphed into glam rockers with garishly shiny clothes, platform shoes and awful haircuts somewhere between shag and mullet. This is how it was done in the early Seventies.

By the time of Give Us A Wink, Sweet were probably a (blow-dried) hair past their peak. That came an album earlier with Desolation Boulevard, featuring the megahit, "Fox on the Run." Perhaps you know them from "The Ballroom Blitz," which came earlier. Perhaps you don’t give a rat turd. No matter, since they flamed out in fairly typical rock star fashion a few years after Give Us A Wink. Two versions of the group are apparently touring to this day, each fronted by one of the two surviving members of the original group. Sad. But I digress.

Korvettes was also about to flame out at the time. Korvettes, saith Wikipedia, was “an American chain of discount department stores, founded in 1948 in New York City.” They were well-known for their record departments. I thought maybe it was just me who thought so, but this segment of their business was significant enough by 1964 to merit a profile in a Billboard special issue on record retailing. According to Billboard’s numbers from that issue, record stores were already dwindling, from 12,500 in 1957 to 7,500 in 1963. Which might have raised more alarms if the volume of sales hadn’t tripled during the same period.

As for the nebulous connection between Sweet’s Give Us A Winkand Korvettes, there’s not one, unless you’re me. It was the first album I bought and that’s where I bought it. Korvettes had a deep inventory (at least as I recall it, 117 years later), the prices weren’t bad, and their doorbuster specials were even cheaper. Best of all, for us under-sixteens, you could roam the bins while Mom was off stocking up on doilies, toilet brushes and whatnot.

I bought as many records at Korvettes as my limited budget would allow. A few stand out. Rush’s first live album – All the World’s a Stage – a double album I bought for the criminally low price of $4.38. With the platform shoes, serious bell bottoms, silk shirts and hair that beat Sweet by a long shot, it was a fashion manual for the wasted youth of my era. It included a song called "By-Tor and the Snow Dog." You'll never be that cool, Kanye West.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 3B – Zeit

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Zeit (1972)
Nebulous Dawn
17:56

This is space music. Space music of monumental proportions. Though it should be noted that there’s not much here that sounds like music in the traditional sense that most of us know. Better to think of it as well conceived assemblage of assorted and sundry ambient shards of sound that starts slow, builds to a peak, and then wanes again. I’ve seen this album referred to as one of the pioneering works of dark ambient – whatever that is. I suppose that’s a fair enough description of what’s going on here, if you like labeling things.


Care and Feeding of Your Evil Overlord

Congratulations on purchasing an evil overlord from Unbridled Malevolence, LLC. You now own an evil overlord from the leading brand in sinister oppression. Our commitment to quality and innovation ensures that each evil overlord we produce offers unrivaled vileness. Here are pointers to help you keep your evil overlord in good working order for the lifetime of the product.

Evil overlords are like kittens or skid steer loaders. They require periodic inspections and proper maintenance to continue working properly. An evil overlord should have a regular inspection to prevent problems and keep the owner from suffering consequences such as repair bills or total world domination. Your evil overlord should be inspected once a year by a qualified professional.

Evil overlords are native to parts of Cincinnati and the mountain ranges surrounding Mordor. There are two species of evil overlord, C. badicussmellicus and C. blackheartaie. At birth they range in size from two to five ounces (and are really quite cute). Baby evil overlords are born with demon eyes and will typically shed their fur within the first few weeks of life. Evil overlord pelts were once highly prized and so they were hunted almost to extinction. However, they have now been bred in captivity for nearly half a century.

Although small in size, baby evil overlords are very active. Their cages must have sufficient space to allow movement. They are mostly lovable and cuddly but can tear your throat out in a fraction of a second.

A baby evil overlord's toys should be kept in an orderly way on a shelf or in a closet.

Evil overlords' teeth grow continuously. Incisors may grow up to ten inches annually. This can actually make it difficult for them to rend flesh effectively. Your evil overlord should have their teeth trimmed several times a year.

Evil overlords are nocturnal. They are not social animals and prefer not to be in groups. Most groups would prefer not to have them so it's just as well.

Evil overlords should not be picked up by the ears.

Male evil overlords are prone to urinary tract blockages. They are also prone to attempting to destroy the universe.

An evil overlord's natural diet consists of shrubs, flesh of humans they have ground under their boot heels, lemon vanilla cupcakes and sludge.

Evil overlords may engage in dirt-eating. More rarely they will hoot or slap their knees. They cannot vomit.

By William I. Lengeman III © 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 3A - Zeit

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Zeit (1972)
Birth of Liquid Plejades
19:54

Prior to starting this project I hadn’t ever heard Tangerine Dream’s first album, Electronic Meditations. It did not impress and I doubt that I’ll listen to it again. Revisiting their second album, Alpha Centauri, after a long time, I thought it showed some promise but didn’t quite come together.

Their third album, Zeit, is another matter entirely and showed that they were finally starting to hit their stride. You could argue the point, I suppose, but this is the first time where Tangerine Dream actually begins to sound like Tangerine Dream.

To kick things off, there’s "Birth of Liquid Plejades." Which is a pretty keen title, if you don’t take the time to analyze it much. As far as the track itself goes, it doesn’t work for me as well as the other three on the album, but it has its moments. The group employed some “real” musicians for this one, namely a quartet of cellists. Who dominate the first half of the proceedings with long droning tones that come and go, weaving in and out of the piece, before finally giving way to the organ that dominates so much of early Tangerine Dream.


Neurosurgeon's Correspondence Course

He follows the diagram, carefully cutting in the correct places. He removes the brain and places it in a tupperware container filled with formaldehyde. His roommate slumps forward in the chair.

He is starving. He makes a blt and a can of soup before continuing. He eats quickly. When he finishes, he picks up the brain and pats it dry. He is about to place it back in the cavity when the cat jumps up on the table, spilling his glass of grape juice all over the manual.

It does not go well after that.

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 2C – Alpha Centauri

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Alpha Centauri (1971)
Alpha Centauri
22:04

I haven’t listened to Alpha Centauri for quite a long time but I had vaguely fond memories of it. Which were pretty much dashed when I listened to it again. The first two of the three tracks weren’t exactly bad but they weren’t anything to write home about.

Then there’s the 22-minute title track. The first time I revisited it for this project I had to grit my teeth and bear down just to get through it. The second time I revisited it – just one day later – I found it quite intriguing. Until about the half way mark, that is, and then it started to wear.

On a third listen I was again entranced by the opening, with tones that are so static that they seem like vast sheets of sound. But before long the trippy flute kicks in and kind of spoils things, before fading out and giving way to slightly more melodious droning tones interspersed with freaky sounds of indeterminate origin. Unfortunately, it’s not long before the flute reappears and noodles and doodles along with various other instruments and makes kind of a mess of things. It could have been a contender, as the saying goes, but it never quite coheres.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 2B – Fly and Collision of Comas Sola

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Alpha Centauri (1971)
Fly and Collision of Comas Sola
13:23

A couple minutes of eerie echoing tones in the upper register to start and then, like the first song on the album, the kinda churchy sounding organ takes over. To be joined here and there by some trippy sounding flute interludes and then a bit of fairly frenetic percussion that closes things out. Not so bad, as this sort of thing goes, but I wouldn’t rank it too high on my list of favorite Tangerine Dream tracks.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 2A – Sunrise in the Third System

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Alpha Centauri (1971)
Sunrise in the Third System
4:21

Electronic Meditations, Tangerine Dream’s first album, is one I never listened to before starting this project. Chances are I’ll never listen to it again. Alpha Centauri, their second effort, found them moving in the direction of what they would become. But they weren't quite there yet. "Sunrise in the Third System" has a title that seems intriguing enough if you don’t think about it too hard. But the piece itself doesn’t quite click. It starts with a mix of eerie sounds that eventually blends with a churchy sounding organ and proceeds on like this until just past the four-minute mark.

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 1E – Resurrection

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Electronic Meditations (1970)
Resurrection
3:27

Electronic Meditations is not the Tangerine Dream most of us know. It would take a few more albums before they evolved into that group. But throughout their first album there are a few frustratingly brief hints of what's to come, mixed in amongst so-so instrumentals that are pretty well suited to the waning days of the psychedelic age.

"Resurrection" kicks off like nothing special with a churchy sounding organ and a recitation of some sort, presumably in German. Just as I was about to dismiss it it gave way to a short snippet that offers yet another hint of what's to come. Perhaps the best bit on the album, even though it only lasts for about two minutes.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 1D – Ashes to Ashes

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Electronic Meditations (1970)
Ashes to Ashes
4:06

Yes, Virginia, those are drums on that Tangerine Dream song. It’s a pretty straightforward rocking piece, this one, albeit a little bit trippy, and there’s some organ in the background. But mostly its Edgar Froese on guitar who steals the spotlight here. Not hard to listen to but also not particularly memorable.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 1C – Cold Smoke

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Electronic Meditations (1970)
Cold Smoke
10:38

"Cold Smoke" starts out somewhat like "Genesis," the song that opens Electronic Meditations, with a moody soundscape. Like "Genesis" it also gives way to something else entirely. It's not quite a frenetic as the previous song, with primal drums and organ carrying the day at first and then a heavy guitar lead taking over. But it also is not a track I'll be in a hurry to listen to again.


Tangerine Dream Track by Track 1B - Journey Through a Burning Brain

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Electronic Meditations (1970)
Journey Through a Burning Brain
12:26

This one sounds a lot like aimless noodling and doodling to me. It’s mostly of the guitar-based variety, with a bit of organ thrown in for good measure.

Not that this sort of thing can’t be done well. If you doubt it try "Amboss," a song I only recently ran across. It’s from Ash Ra Tempel’s first album, which came out a year after this one. It’s considerably longer – at about 18 minutes – and yet there’s rarely a dull moment.

Interestingly, these two albums shared a player in common. Klaus Schulze, who played on the first Tangerine Dream album and then did an album with Ash Ra Tempel before moving onto a solo career making music not all that unlike that of his old comrades in Tangerine Dream.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tangerine Dream Track by Track 1A – Genesis

Tangerine Dream Track by Track is a song-by-song, chronological look at Tangerine Dream’s “official” releases.

Electronic Meditations (1970)
Genesis
5:56

Everything has a beginning (with the possible exception of eternity or a circle). When it comes to Tangerine Dream’s recorded output it starts here, for the most part. With the appropriately titled "Genesis," the first song from their first album, Electronic Meditations.

Which starts out in an interesting enough fashion, as a kind of noisy soundscape using instruments of seemingly indeterminate origin. Things evolve quickly over the course of six minutes, adding more conventional instruments and building to a frenetic improvisatory workout that's akin to free jazz with a dash of psychedelia thrown in for good measure.

I’d never heard it before, so it’s an interesting curiosity. But I'm in no great hurry to listen to it again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

About Shakespeare Newbie & Rankings

After realizing that I'd never read any Shakespeare I decided to embark upon the Shakespeare Newbie project, a reading of all the plays from A-Z. I've read 11 so far. Here are my rankings.

1. Tempest
2. Hamlet
3. Antony and Cleopatra
4. Titus Andronicus
5. Cymbeline
6. Coriolanus
7. Henry IV, Part I
8. Henry IV, Part II
9. As You Like It
10. All's Well That Ends Well
11. The Comedy of Errors

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Shambling Robo-Apes of the Lost City of Clarakasta

The Adventures of Shmendril Smith, Interstellar Plumber
#2: The Shambling Robo-Apes of the Lost City of Clarakasta
Reading time: Approx. 19 minutes


Nothing good can come from being in that rarefied state known as shitfaced.

Survey ships operate on a day/night cycle similar to Earth and we'd been up much of the night making merry. Van and Duffy having whipped up a potent batch of liquid refreshment. We supplied our usual customers, turned a tidy profit and had some left. Waste not, want not.

Van suggested we "borrow" a flitter and visit the planet. We cheered this splendid idea. Although our judgment might have been cloudy. I attempted to nip the thing in the bud. But it would not be nipped. We lurched from the kitchen, tittering like schoolgirls and trying not to stagger.

It was a trick to get a flitter off the ship without being noticed but it was the middle of the night and our party included one Randolph Roark, the ship's technology officer. He pulled up a holo-pad, keyed a few commands and before you could say Bob's your uncle (one of Duffy's quaint phrases - no clue what it means) we were off. There would be consequences but the euphoria of liquid refreshment made that easy to overlook.

We slipped out without being noticed - we hoped. Van was a capable enough plumber, of course, though she might never attain the lofty heights of yours truly. Turns out she was also a capable flitter pilot. A flitter could fly itself perfectly well, of course, but Van was one of those hotshots who like to switch to manual and show off.

We were a merry bunch. Van and I are the ship's plumbers - essential personnel, for sure. Then Roark and Duffy Gheems, the ship's second assistant chef. Who was heaving in a most horrible manner into a sock. Lord knows whose sock it was. Mine were still on my feet. Van was steering the ship. Roark slumped in the corner seat, dozing.




I suppose you could cram people into a starship and fling them into a space for a few years and expect them to be teetotalers. I wouldn't want to try it. Even the Interstellar Survey Authority didn't go to such extremes. Survey ships carry a fair quantity of liquid refreshment. I'm not sure of the formula for managing such things - if they exist - but these potent potables are dispensed under stringent guidelines. Which, for some of us, is not an option.

Roark could put it away like no one else - except Vanderbilt. Who was legendary for her ability to drink all comers into the void. To look at her you wouldn't have thought it possible. She was not a girly-girl but she had a spare, petite frame. Most of which was muscle - and she knew how to use it. This was not someone to be trifled with.

Then there was Duffy. Which sounds like puffy or fluffy, terms could be used to describe him. Duffy had little muscle - maybe even none. He could be trifled with and he couldn't drink his way out of a paper bag - which didn't stop him from trying.

As second assistant chef, with access to key items from the ship's stores, he was an integral member of the team. He and Roark actually founded the team. Who came together to savor fine libations and make sure our supply never ran low. Which is a roundabout way of saying we were bootleggers.

Of course, being the kind and generous souls we were we usually bestowed our bounty on like-minded crew members. A cynic might note that that our generosity came with a price tag - albeit a modest one. To which I say pshaw.

I flipped on the nearest screen. The planet loomed, its predominant colors green and blue. We hadn't done any research but had heard that large sections of the planet were tropical. I panned the view to behind us. The ship had dwindled to a speck soon to be indistinguishable from the stars.

I jerked awake. I had no idea how long I'd been out. I must have dreamed that Van was saying "we're screwed."

Roark dozed. Duffy was done heaving and was doing the same.

"Did you say something, Van?"

She fiddled with the controls. No answer.

"Van."

"Yeah, yeah. I said we're screwed."

"Care to elaborate?"

Apparently not. Roark stirred.

"What the hell's going on?" He said. He sat up and groaned.

"We're screwed." I answered.

"Why are we screwed?"

"Ask her."

"Van, what's up?"

She tore herself from the controls. I rarely saw her rattled. But she was now.

"As soon as we entered the outer atmosphere the controls stopped responding. Comms are out too."

"Did you switch to auto?"

Van gave him a look that could have withered granite.

"Never occurred to me. Idiot."

Roark stood, stumbled, caught himself and moved to the controls. It took him less than a minute to come to a conclusion.

"Nothing wrong with the controls."

"It feels like...never mind." Van said.

"Like what?" Roark replied.

"Like something's got hold of us. I know it sounds ridiculous but that's how it feels."

"I don't have anything better." Roark said. He looked at me. "Thoughts?"

I shrugged. "I could check the plumbing. If we had any."

Willow chimed in. "The ship's controls have been taken over by a control beam. I'd give you the details but you probably wouldn't grasp it. They've also knocked out communications."

Oh yeah. There was a fifth member of our party. Willow was an AI and tended to keep a low profile, piping up with critical bits of info like this one or goading Roark, one of her favorite pastimes. How did I come to have an AI with the personality of a 17-year-old girl implanted into my prosthetic leg?

I'll sum it up in four words. Drunken bet. I lost.

We were sobering up fast.

-------------

It's not the fall that kills you but that abrupt stop at the end. Fortunately none of us were killed. We weren't even much worse for the wear. Just rattled. The controls came alive a few kilometers above the surface. Van grabbed them and guided us to a landing. Not a soft one, but far less than catastrophic.

We took stock. My nose was bleeding, one of Duffy's fingers was bent oddly and Roark had a lump on his head. Not so bad, considering.

Readouts showed that the air was breathable. We conferred. Communications were out and the controls were dead again. Duffy and I voted to stay put. Van and Roark wanted to explore. We compromised - activate a beacon and stay within range - about 10 kilometers.

We stepped out, Roark first. Only to be assaulted by a wave of heat and humidity. The ship was on a low rise so we had a good view of the terrain. Which could be summarized thusly - jungle. Thick, nearly impenetrable jungle with trees that towered a hundred meters over us and a thick snarl of vegetation beneath. Vegetation of such a lurid shade of green that it seemed fluorescent.

The sky was sallow and reddish. There was no wind and the rain fell in an almost unbroken sheet. Everything was sodden and dripping. The ground in the tiny clearing was like a marsh.

We broke out the emergency packs. They included ponchos, rain hats and slipover boots. Flimsy stuff but better than nothing. Further discord ensued when we tried to decide which way to go. Every direction looked the same - thick, lurid green, sodden jungle.

It was decided by Duffy. Who listened to the bickering with uncharacteristic silence.

"We'll go that way," He pointed and set out.

Interesting. There are followers and leaders in this world. Most people wouldn't take Duffy for the latter. We were all taken aback. I set out after him - and fell flat on my face. The slippery vegetation made for tough going.

Van struck out next and we soon caught up. Roark fancied himself a leader and he bristled at Duffy taking the lead. He swore not to follow. When I looked back a few minutes later he was there.

As we approached the edge of the clearing we saw a trail leading into the thicket. Duffy set a stiff pace - also unlike him. But he seemed know where he was going and so we followed. The trail was a narrow tunnel of damp greenery. We couldn't see more than a few feet. The rain kept up and our gear did little to protect us.

We trudged in silence, broken occasionally by Roark's grumbling. There was something different about Duffy, a seriousness of purpose that was unlike him. On we went, becoming wetter with each step. Things buzzed and chattered and cawed around us. Any traces of jollity were gone now. Leaving us with dusty tongues, flip-flopping stomachs and pounding heads.

"I gotta stop," Roark said. I couldn't argue though it was surprising to hear it from Roark. I was glad for a rest. Van stopped too.

Duffy kept on. If I had bet on who would take the first rest break I'd have gone with Duffy. We glanced at each other. No one spoke but we were thinking the same thing. It wouldn't do to get separated.

We hustled to catch up. This time it was Roark's turn to go face first into the muck. We didn't break our pace. He caught up again. We slogged on. Finally Duffy came to an abrupt stop, with us piling up behind him.

It was another clearing, a large one. It was full of great stone structures, mostly notably a pyramid that towered in the middle, several hundred meters high. The clearing was a few kilometers square.
Duffy forged on and we followed. It was silent except for the shushing of the rain. The structures must have been impressive at one time. They still were, to some extent. But they were in a state of ruin, so obscured by moss, fungus and vegetation that some were barely distinguishable as buildings.

"Amazing," Van said. That summed it up.

No moss was growing on Duffy. He headed straight for the pyramid. We dutifully followed. The rain kept up. I had a fleeting daydream of a road sign pointing us to a desert.

Van heard it first, about half way to the pyramid.

"What was that?"

"All I hear is rain," Roark said. He stopped and wiped his face on his sleeve - which did no good.

Maybe Van was hallucinating. Then we all heard it. It was between a screech and a roar and it was in front of us. A chill ran through me in spite of the steamy heat. It sounded again, louder. Then again but behind us. Then a flurry from all sides. We had yet to actually see any indigenous life. I had a feeling that was about to change.

"This does not bode well," I said. No one responded.

The roaring continued. They were closing in. We instinctively drew together. I'm not sure why. Perhaps to make it more convenient for the creatures to devour us. Duffy made a sound that was between and shudder and a hiss. He looked around, bewildered.

"What's going on?"

"You tell us," Roark said. "You're the leader of the pack."

"Where are we? Where's the flitter?"

Roark was about to make a pointed reply but stopped. He wasn't a patient guy. But he knew that deceit and trickery weren't in Duffy's arsenal.

"You led us here," I explained. "You seemed to have a clear idea of where you wanted to go. We tagged along."

He looked more bewildered. But we didn't have time to sort it out. The first one appeared from a cluster of low structures to our right. It moved slowly, lumbering along. I couldn't quite make out what it was but it was heading toward us.

Soon I could that it was a simian creature, about three meters tall and yet squat and sturdy looking. It probably weighed as much as all of us. It's long thick fur was sodden (no surprise) and matted and its face twisted into an awful grimace that revealed long wicked looking fangs.

"Jesus M. Christ," Roark said under his breath.

"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," Van quipped. I had no idea what it meant. Van was like that.

"We can outrun it," I said. "I could probably outpace that lug with a sprained ankle."

Just then several more appeared and converged on us.

"What's that they say about strength in numbers?" Roark observed.

"They don't move fast," Van said. "But we need a plan."

"We're surrounded on three sides," Roark said. "I don't see many options."

We proceeded in the only direction not occupied by big hairy apes - toward the pyramid. What we would do when we got there was up for grabs.

"Slow down," Van cautioned. "Conserve your energies."

We had been setting a good pace. Having a dozen or so (but hey, who's counting?) giant smelly apes on your tail could do that to you. But Van was right. We were about a stone's throw from the pyramid when we started seeing bones. We had no time to stop and examine them. But it was clear that some were human - or humanoid.

There was no telling what fate had befallen these creatures. Maybe they'd been eaten by the apes. Another good reason to pick up our pace. As we drew closer the bones grew more numerous.

Our pursuers were slow but they were gradually flanking us. The bones were thicker and we had to slow down to keep from stumbling on them. We picked through, trying to move as fast as possible. The apes had quieted down. Perhaps knowing they had us cornered. Perhaps anticipating a nice feast of fresh human.

We were at the base of the pyramid. It looked even more impressive here, towering over us and blotting out the sallow sky. Ahead was a small space that was clear of bones, about ten feet on a side. We stopped, done in by heat and exertion. Plus we had nowhere to go. The apes closed in standing right where the bones stopped. That should have been a clue, I thought, as the ground opened up and swallowed us.

-------------

It's hard to say how far we fell but it was far enough. As for the landing, good news and bad news. The good news - soft and squishy. The bad news - soft, squishy and godawful smelling. The smell of decay.

The trapdoors swung shut. I dug in my pack for a light. Our lights all flashed on, except Duffy. I thought he'd heaved up all he had earlier but he was trying again. My own stomach rolled and tumbled.

We might have been better off without the lights. It wasn't a nice place to visit nor would I want to live there. I flipped mine off. Van did the same. The power packs were durable but there was no telling how long we'd need them. Roark's light didn't show much but that was probably just as well. It was a dingy pit crudely carved out of the ground - and that was the good part.

Roark shined his light around the perimeter. Our humble abode (which smelled more like a commode) was roughly circular and maybe fifteen meters in diameter. The ceiling was about five meters above and below us, well. It was a conglomeration of various substances - all in varying states of decay. Marinated in just enough water to make a nasty soup. We were shin deep in it.

"It could be worse," Duffy said.

Those who didn't know Duffy might wonder if he was an optimist or a moron. I know that he has a foot in both worlds. No one wasted any energy responding.

"Now what?" I ventured.

"We need to get out of here is what," Roark said.

"That's obvious," Van scoffed. "What's your plan?"

Roark didn't answer. He walked the perimeter. There wasn't much to see. Except a small outcropping of rock along one wall. It wasn't much but it was out of the muck.

We perched there uncomfortably with no room to spare. It was cooler down here than the surface but just as wet. Rain trickled through the trapdoors and kept us damp. We huddled together for body heat. I was fading fast. Roark flicked off his light. Duffy was already snoring, his fat head pressed against my shoulder. There wasn't enough room to get comfortable but I soon dozed.

-------------

I jerked awake, disoriented. I glanced at my wristpad - early morning. I flicked the comm button - nothing.

I heard a sound - a faint thump from behind the wall.. The others were still out, breathing heavily. I had a feeling that someone was awake.

"Van?"

It was a good guess. "Yeah?"

"Did you hear that?"

"Sure did."

A door opened onto a dimly lit tunnel. Four apes were standing there. Oh joy.

They entered calmly, no roaring or shrieking and made straight for us. There was no point in struggling. Maybe a change of scenery would be nice. Until the feast began.

They marched us into the tunnel, none too gently. The tunnel wasn't much but at least it was different. The walls were damp and moldy and the floor was wildly uneven. Wall mounted torches did little to illuminate the grim surroundings.

We seemed to be wandering aimlessly but the apes apparently knew where to go. The tunnel opened to a large chamber with a nice dry stone floor and stone walls.

It was dimly lit, lighting being in short supply hereabouts. The ceilings were high and shrouded in gloom and the decorator had gone for the minimal look. At the far end was a collection of sturdy and archaic looking machinery. I didn't want to know what it was used for. On the other side was a dais and an impressive throne that looked to be made of bronze.

We entered with a flourish, flung headlong by the apes. They lined up against the wall, waiting patiently. A thick cloud of smoke that seemed oddly static hung in the air near the throne. A strange sound came it. Then we realized it was someone coughing.

Duffy moved toward it. "Are you alright in there?"

The answer was unintelligible. The voice was deep, resonant and intimidating.

"Come again?"

"The switch!"

"Which one?"

There was a pause. Whoever it was sounded exasperated. "How many switches do you see?"

The correct answer was one. On the wall to the left of the cloud, a large clunky thing that must have been around since the dawn of switching.

"We found it," Duffy sounded triumphant. "Now what?"

The voice sounded resigned. "You're not too bright, are you?" Another bout of coughing.

"Should we flip it?" Roark interjected.

"I'd have thought that was obvious."

Roark did. The cloud of smoke dissipated immediately revealing a terribly thin little man. He wore an ornately patterned floor-length robe and an amulet on a heavy chain and he was no spring chicken. He surveyed us, looking bewildered - and somewhat unsteady on his feet. He had another coughing spell and fixed us with a withering glance. If his eyes hadn't been so severely crossed this would have been much more effective.

"Who the hell are you?" The booming voice had been replaced by a thin, quavery one.

"You speak English," Duffy observed.

"You must be the stupid one," No argument there. "I speak it fluently. Probably better than you."

"But how?"

He made an impatient gesture. "I repeat...who the hell are you?"

"Who the hell are you?" Roark countered.

"I asked you first."

Van jumped in. "Didn't you summon us here?"

He fumbled in his robe, pulling out several curious objects and a tattered piece of papyrus. He fixed it with a glance and cursed. He fished in the pocket some more, retrieving a pair of spectacles that looked older than he was - which was saying something. He put them on, not realizing they were on upside down. He peered intently at the papyrus - about an inch from his eyes. He muttered under his breath. We waited patiently.

"I don't see anything. No."

He looked up, triumphant over not finding what he was looking for - or not finding what he wasn't looking for. Or whatever. He shoved the papyrus into his pocket, then drew it out and studied it again.

"Ah. There it is. Sacrifice the interlopers...at sunset," He looked pleased. "You're the interlopers then. You'll be sacrificed at sunset."

Didn't bode well at all.

"At the risk of seeming repetitious, who the hell are you?" Van said.

His eyes gleamed. He drew himself to his full height (which wasn't saying much), spread his arms over his head and bellowed. "I am the Evil Lord Agon of Clarakasta."

His words reverberated through the chamber. The room rumbled and shook until we could barely stand up. As it faded away, a large frog fell from the ceiling, landing on The Evil Lord Agon's balding head. He cursed again and grabbed the frog, knocking off his glasses.

"So close." He shoved the frog in his pocket, rummaged around more and withdrew more papyrus. He peered at it and felt for his glasses, seeming surprised not to find them.

Duffy pointed to them. Which did little good, since the old coot couldn't see.

"They're on the floor in front of you," Roark snapped.

"Okay. Okay. No need to be snippy," He replied.

He stepped forward. His eyes went out of focus - more out of focus. The inevitable happened. The glasses expired with a loud crunch.

"What was that?" Quoth The Evil Lord Agon.

"Take a guess," Roark quipped.

He cut loose with another imprecation, grabbed a chain around his neck and reeled up another pair of glasses. These even more outsized and archaic than the others. He read so carefully it was like he was trying to absorb each molecule of the writing into his eyes. Roark cleared his throat. The Evil Lord Agon looked up with a start.

"Who the hell are you?"

He stashed the glasses in his pocket, heedless of the fact that they were still on the chain around his neck. He folded the papyrus with great precision and threw it in on the floor.

"So where were we?" He raised an arm and hooked it on the chain of the glasses, flinging them up and making them career off the side of his head. They came to rest dangling behind his back. "Ah, yes. Sacrifice the interlopers at sunset."

"Has it occurred to you that we might not want to be sacrificed?" Roark asked.

The Evil Lord Agon quietly repeated each of Roark's words, lingering over them, savoring them.

"Well in that case you're free to go."

"Really?" Duffy said.

The Evil Lord Agon glared.

"He's not really that stupid, is he?"

In the interests of solidarity we declined to answer.

"Away with you now. It'll be a slow, agonizing and thoroughly horrible death but then it'll be over - except for the curse on your souls which will enslave you for all of eternity. Have a nice day."

He made a lengthy series of intricate gestures and the apes roused themselves. On the way back to the pit we speculated about the apes. Could they understand us? Were they just mindless, soulless (and none too pleasant smelling) automatons? Willow insisted that they were robots or androids under the control of The Evil Lord Agon. An idea that we ridiculed, which caused her to go off and sulk for a while.

The apes deposited us back in our humble commode. We were quite dejected. A night of merry making, followed by our ill-advised jaunt, a foray through steamy jungle and a night in this sewer had left us feeling none too fresh. Then there was that nagging issue of the sacrifice. We decided to put our heads together and come up with a way out of this mess. That was great in theory but not in practice. To summarize - we were screwed.

Our beloved simian attendants were back in no time. They manhandled us through more dank passages and we ended up in another chamber, this one less spacious. It looked like a dressing room.
It was sparsely furnished, with a few benches and a rack of gaudy clothing, mostly robes. A few large cauldrons fed into a pool in the stone floor. They were heated by coal or peat fires and the room was quite toasty. It all looked older than dirt and the leaky pipes were more like bits of metal held together by holes. Some might not notice this stuff when they're about to be sacrificed. But for me it was professional curiosity.

The apes tossed us in the pool, clothes and all. It was way too hot for comfort but since we'd been drenched for so long it was kind of nice. We bobbed around and the apes each selected a robe and stood by the pool.

I stripped out of my clothes and plopped them on the side. The others followed suit. If we were going to die a horrible death we might as well be comfortable. We tidied up and dressed in the robes. They were white with gold trim. It wasn't my look, but it would have to do.

Freshly scrubbed like little pink baby pigs and freshly attired, we were corralled again and marshaled through even more corridors. Finally we came to a winding stone staircase. The ascent was cramped and the staircase was even gloomier than the corridors.

It opened into yet another chamber, a small one. In the middle was a small staircase leading to a doorway. We were herded through this and into the great outdoors. It was raining.

And there were more apes. We were on top of the pyramid in a space about thirty meters square, with an altar in the middle. It was bloodstained. About fifty apes crowded into the space. They chanted, a low ominous sound in strange guttural syllables. The Evil Lord Agon stood by the altar, leading the festivities. As we were dragged to the foot of the altar he stared, giving no indication that he knew us.

He held a wicked knife with a curved blade about a foot long. No, this did not bode well at all. He stopped chanting. The apes kept on. He pointed to Duffy. Who was hauled up to the altar. Our personal ape brigade presided, laying him on his back and each grabbing a limb. I'd like to say he handled himself bravely but he actually fainted.

The chanting grew more intense and then stopped. The silence was creepy. The apes stood stock still, staring at the altar. Duffy had come around and he wasn't looking so well. I didn't blame him. But I also envied him. He had an idea of what was coming but he didn't know the gruesome details. The rest of us would, thanks to him.

The Evil Lord Agon began to chant again. It was different this time but no less unintelligible. He raised the knife. Duffy whimpered just a bit.

"Duffy, get ready to make a break for it."

It was Willow.

"Yeah, I'll get right on that." Duffy replied.

A bit sarcastic, but he made a good point. The apes had him pinned down.

"Just do it," Willow replied. "Count of three."

The Evil Lord Agon stopped chanting. He looked at Duffy. His hands clenched the knife. Willow counted down. The apes slumped. Duffy tore loose. It didn't take much effort. He rolled away as The Evil Lord Agon struck.

The knife clinked against the altar. True to form The Evil Lord Agon muttered an imprecation and flung it at us. He made a few of those weird gestures but his army of shambling robotic apes didn't respond. He considered this, then stomped his foot and raged some more. I laughed. Which made him really mad. But it didn't matter. He had no power over us now. He knew it and we knew it.

-------------

So that was that. Willow was right about the robotic apes. She had simply disabled the comm network The Evil Lord Agon used to control them. And to disable our flitter and communications. All of which worked and so we headed for the flitter and back to the ship with our tails between our legs. It occurred to me that Willow didn't have to wait until the very last moment to save us. But that was Willow and it was all in the past now.

As for the consequences, they weren't quite as severe as expected. Thanks to a bit of creative storytelling on our part and our privileged position among certain elements of the crew.

We were back in business.

By William I. Lengeman III  © 2015