Stacking the deck: Twilight Zone’s “Miniature”

So I wrote a couple of weeks back about the way writers stack the deck to make their point: that life is fair/isn’t fair, that God is good/shitty, that violence is/isn’t the answer, that the legal system can/can’t be trusted. Watching the Twilight Zone episode Miniature, it occurred to me we stack the deck in our stories on a personal level as well.

The story is part of the show’s fourth season, when it jumped to hour-long episode and most fell flat on its face (I think the ratio of good to bad is at best, 1/3). But it had gems and Charles Beaumont’s Miniature is one of them. Robert Duvall plays Charlie, an introverted guy who just doesn’t fit with the world. His boss fires him because he doesn’t like to hang with his coworkers and that’s bad for morale. His mother obsessively takes care of him. His sister (the most likable of the supporting cast) tries to fix him up with a girl but Charlie’s not at all comfortable with her. And everyone assumes he’s the problem. Being in the Twilight Zone, of course, he has an escape hatch: a beautiful, elaborate dolls’ house at the local museum. Gazing into it, he fantasizes the young woman of the house is alive, and as lonely as he is … if only he could be with her, she’d be a woman he could connect with. If only … Of course everyone tells him it’s a delusion but guess what? It isn’t (yes, you probably guessed that). And two lonely people end up finding each other.

It didn’t move me as much as it did first go-round, probably because, like Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five, I got past the point where I was inclined to withdraw from the world into fantasy. It’s still well executed, with a great performance by Duvall. But it got me thinking about how stories stack the deck in regard to characters’ lives, as well as the big picture political/economic stuff.

Serling did a lot of stories about people desperate to escape into fantasy. Into their past, or their youth or some other world. But unlike a lot of writers who wallow in that (Jack Finney was particularly fond of rejecting the present for what he imagined was the wonderful 19th century), Serling knew it could be a trap. In Trouble With Templeton, the protagonist learns to stop living in the past and get on with his life. Jack Klugman in Passage for Trumpet is bitter and miserable about life, but learns “it can be as rich and sweet as the music he plays — if only he will listen.”

Stacking the deck is how Serling (and writers on the show such as Beaumont and Richard Matheson) show us which is the right outcome. Is the problem that the protagonist needs to embrace life instead of hiding from it? Or that life really sucks, as for the frustrated nursing-home residents in Kick the Can? Is love a possibility if you reach out, or have they lost the big chance already? Does the hero need to change, or is it other people? The answer is whatever the story tells us or shows us.

Of course sometimes I just don’t buy what it’s showing. Ida Lupino in Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine seemed to me like someone who needed to embrace the world, but she gets a retreat into fantasy instead. That’s the risk of stacking the deck: if you’re not plausible about it, it won’t work. And it’s hard to stack the deck if the audience really wants it stacked the other way. I can’t get into stories where the happy ending is the protagonist becoming a happy recluse because for me that’s a sad ending (the whole withdrawing thing).

But that’s the risk we take with writing.

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Spin doctors of doom

When the DEA saw the pharmaceutical industry catering to the opioid epidemic (one pharmacy was ordering more than it could physically store), they cracked down hard. A big PR and lobbying campaign by big pharma defanged the watchdogs.

Hungarian leader Viktor Orban is a right-wing authoritarian whose party leaders say “When our girls give birth to our grandchildren, we want them to regard it as the defining moment of their self-realization,” and whose political campaigns began the demonization of George Soros. Nevertheless, American right-winger Rod Dreher says he’s “energetic, fiercely intelligent, funny, self-deprecating, realistic, and at times almost pugilistic in talking about defending Hungary and her interests.” Because as long as you’re entertaining to talk to and a really nice guy, you can’t be that bad, right? Yes, actually. But I’m sure if you’re as right-wing and anti-gay, anti-Muslim and anti-woman as Dreher, Orban’s just what the world needs.

Similarly, the White House pretends anti-gay Mike Pence can’t be anti-gay because he meets with gay politicians. Meetings with anti-gay activists as well? Uh, look, a chicken!

The MIT Media Lab was quite happy to let Jeffrey Epstein improve his image by giving them money.

Lisa Bloom, I gather, has worked as an attorney for women victims in many sexual harassment cases. So she told Harvey Weinstein she knew how to destroy Rose McGowan in the media along with other women accusing him.

Sean Hannity flaks for a doctor who claims he can give you the miracle cancer cure Democrats are keeping from us.

““Now if ‘university’ means by definition you grant degrees and you are accredited by whoever accredits universities to be a degree-granting place, then we’re not a university,” conservative Dennis Prager said before going on to explain that he considers Prager University a university anyway.

So Ohio gave a very generous bailout to its power companies, paid for by surcharges on customers’ bills. One political group is trying to gather enough signatures to put a repeal of the bailout on the 2020 ballot so bailout supporters are painting it as a Chinese conspiracy to steal personal information and take over Ohio’s power grid.

I’ve seen liberals (certainly not all) criticizing discriminatory policies against Muslims since the second Bush administration. Nevertheless, Bari Weiss insists that we don’t care about Muslims unless we can use them to attack Israel.

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Superheroes, slaves and undertakers: books and graphic novels

BATMAN: The Golden Age Omnibus Volume 5 is another fun collection with many striking stories: elaborate schemes by the Joker, Catwoman and Penguin, crime dramas and human interest. It also gives us some of the trends that would make the 1950s Bat-stuff anathema to fans later (though not to me): formulaic crime schemes, more SF (this has Batman’s first trip off-world to fight crime on another planet), and lots of one shot gimmick villains (the Human Key and the Match, though both stories are good). As I have V.5 already, you can tell I’m not discouraged.

I remember looking at the Invincible comic when it came out and not being impressed; reading the first hardback collection of INVINCIBLE: Ultimate Collection Volume 1 by Robert Kirkman (yes, the Walking Dead guy), Ryan Ottley and John Rauch I don’t find myself any more impressed. It does have a good twist near the end of the first 13 issues but otherwise it’s an unremarkable story about how the son of Omni-Man (the Superman analog) becomes a teen superhero himself when his powers manifest. The teen hero stuff isn’t as interesting as Spider-Girl and it lacks the meta-elements of Astro City so I really don’t get the appeal.

There’s a part of me that still thinks of the Civil War as two groups of white people fighting while black Americans stand passively by. THE FIRE OF FREEDOM: Abraham Galloway & The Slaves’ Civil War by David S. Cecelski is a good corrective showing how black Americans often worked independently of the Union and did not, in fact, have the identical agenda: Galloway (a runaway slave turned Union spy, orator and later North Carolina elected official) and his allies are focused on emancipation and then full equality (particularly the right for black men to vote) and on being paid fairly for their service to the Union armies (General Butler, who did treat the liberated slaves fairly, was an exception) among other issues. A very good look at the Civil War from a different perspective.

A DEATHLY UNDERTAKING: The Undertaker Chronicles Book I by Crymsyn Hart, introduces us to the world of “undertakers” — no, not the regular ones but the experts who see to it that vampire and werewolf corpses stay dead. Protagonist Darria is an apprentice until her boss is murdered by a necromancer, forcing her to step up to the top spot and cram on her profession fast. This probably shouldn’t have worked for me as it’s almost all set-up and world-building, but the characters and the series mythology kept me interested and entertained. Although Darria’s lecherous sidekick’s constant come-ons get old fast, I look forward to getting the next volume eventually.

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From Mystery Island to Mauthausen and all points in between: movies

MANHUNT OF MYSTERY ISLAND (1945) is a fun serial from Republic Pictures, despite Richard Bailey’s ineffective performance as ace criminologist and nominal hero Lance Reardon. To make up for that we have veteran serial villain Roy Barcroft scowling as Captain Mephisto, who’s imprisoned a brilliant scientist on Mystery Island to steal the secrets of his invention for broadcasting electrical power wirelessly. On the good guys’ side we have Linda Stirling (who appeared the year before in Republic’s Tiger Woman), who’s not only more fun than the hero, she’s extremely capable, saving him a half-dozen times and proving she’s a crack shot even with her arms bound. Like many serial villains Mephisto has a secret identity, created by using a “transformation machine” to change back and forth from one of the owners of Mystery Island (some sources refer to this as reincarnation or time travel but no, it’s just a physical change by pseudoscientific gobbledygook). Definitely fun if you’re into old-time serials. “It’s dangerous — but we’re all in danger, every moment that man lives!”

DRESSED TO KILL (1947) wraps up Basil Rathbone’s run as Holmes (horrifying fans at the time) with a reasonably ingenious mystery. Patricia Morrison plays a female schemer strangely determined to collect three music boxes by fair means or foul, but what secret do they contain that she’s willing to kill for? This has some nice touches like Morrison setting a trap for Holmes by leaving her distinctive cigarette at a crime scene (“I’ve read your monograph on distinguishing 140 types of tobacco.”). “So fearfully awkward to have a dead body lying around, don’t you agree Mr. Holmes?”

TYG recently bought the DVD of DADDY’S DYING … WHO’S GOT THE WILL? (1990) which I’d vaguely assumed was a lowbrow Southern comedy. It’s actually a well-done dramedy about a family (wild child Beverly D’Angelo, frustrated Tess Harper and abusive jerk Beau Bridges) showing up at their dad’s deathbed alongside various partners (most notably Judge Reinhold as D’Angelo’s hippy boyfriend). I don’t like it as much as she does, but I did enjoy it. “I don’t think it’s God’s will you have six husbands before you’re 40.”

Alfred Hitchcock again — EASY VIRTUE (1927) is what The Hitchcock Romance would classify as an ironic romance, in that the obstacles triumph over the lovers. A beautiful divorcee (another example of Hitch’s Innocent Accused trope, in this case accusations of adultery) finds new love only to have it slip through her hands due to the hostility of her husband’s family turning him against her (it’s already doomed by the time her past comes to light). This filmed adaptation of a Noel Coward play interested me even less than The Lodger but the heroine’s relentlessly hostile mother-in-law is very much the forerunner of countless nightmarish mother figures in Hitchcock’s later works. “We married because we loved one another — no explanations were necessary on either side.”

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF MAUTHAUSEN (2018) is a Spanish docudrama set a Nazi-run camp for Spanish communists shipped there by Franco. One of them becomes assistant to the camp photographer relentlessly documenting the brutalities around them; when he realizes the Nazis will want to destroy the evidence someday, the assistant sets out to preserve as many photos as possible. Effective at showing (as the director Ernst Lubitsch once put it) that it no more takes sadism to run a death camp than it does a laundromat; the callousness with which the Nazis deal with their charges is chilling. “The party is paranoid and it needs to clean up its mess.”

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I short-changed my fiction again this week

Trouble is, it’s just so much easier to work on Leaf articles — they take a lot of research, but they’re straightforward stuff — or on Sexist Myths/Undead Sexist Cliches. The book is at the point where the structure of each chapter feels kind of self evident. It still takes a lot of work rearranging and tidying up the writing to fit the structure, but much less creative thought than rewriting my short stories.

However Leaf is wrapped up until October so for the next couple of weeks I can devote mornings to fiction, afternoons to writing about sexism. That will be less profitable but it should be much more productive for fiction (and my personal nonfiction too).

I did check up on one story I’d submitted; it had gotten lost in the email pile but they said they’d get back to me by next week. Another market had problems opening the document so I re-sent it in the body of the email. Getting more submissions out will be another activity I catch up in the next couple of weeks.

McFarland also responded to my Space Invaders proposal suggesting my plans were ambitious — they’d need a much larger book than I proposed — and would I be interested in scaling them down? I think that’s doable but I’m going to go over the specifics of their suggestions before saying yes.

Work on Sexist Myths went well. I redrafted the two chapters on rape into a solid shape, but didn’t finish adding all the footnotes. I added so many examples and moved so much stuff around it would have been pointless. I also had the dubious thrill of reminding myself of how ugly rape apologists can get, like Warren Farrell claiming that for men, paying for dinner and getting turned down for sex is as traumatic as date rape. (short answer: no it isn’t). And that if a woman says no to sex while she’s kissing the guy, well you can’t blame him for trying to turn “no” into “yes” just like heroes in romance novels do (“He might just be trying to become her fantasy.”). Yes, actually you can. Even if he really thinks her no means yes, the guy is still committing rape. And Farrell is signing off on it.

Next week will hopefully be a productive one, despite a dentist appointment on Tuesday (tooth hurts. Might be nothing, but my gut says it’s something). Even if that takes me down for the whole day (it won’t. If nothing else, I have some research reading I can do), next week will be awesome! You heard it here first!

For eye candy, here’s a striking cover by Gervasio Gallardo. #SFWapro, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Filed under Personal, Short Stories, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

Updates on the Wisp

So after we caught Wisp for the vet, she was initially very needy, then became quite skittish. Didn’t show up much. Only took petting as a kind of prequel to getting her dinner (“See, I like you, now feed me!”). Which I couldn’t blame her for, of course; getting trapped and shut up couldn’t have been pleasant.

But the past week or so, things seem to be getting back to the normal they were before we trapped her. She’s showing up more regularly, and usually wanting lots of petting even if the food is out there. She gave me the belly roll one evening and got petted accordingly.

Of course she’s still a wild cat; even given plenty of space she won’t come very far into the house. But she made it through last winter living outside in our heated shelter, so hopefully she can do it again. We’re going to work with her, not against her.

Oh, and I bought a small catnip plant but so far Wisp has been uninterested. Contrary to every cat cartoon I’ve ever seen, apparently the appeal is not universal.

Next challenge: putting heartworm meds in her food (shouldn’t be hard) and rubbing flea meds on the back of her neck (that’s supposed to be all it takes). Wish us luck …

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Politics: quotes with links again

“He discloses American intelligence to deflect attention from unflattering stories, suck up to people he wants to impress, or simply on a whim. He treats it, as he treats everything else in American government, as a private tool of self-gratification.” — Michelle Goldberg on Trump’s wrecking our intelligence assets.

“He should go back to China because they are for that and if he loves socialism, then why not go to the country that he came from and push socialism with the people that like socialism?” — right-wing bigot Jesse Lee Peterson on Andrew Yang, who was born in New York state. Oh Peterson also thinks Yang’s a “beta male” which is his default insult.

“at a solemn ceremony marking the collapse of the South Tower, a man paused from reading the names of victims, one of whom was his mother, to launch an attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar and Democrats, calling out “the squad” for their apparent failure to recognize that 9/11 was an assault on “our Judeo-Christian values.””

“While many of their Democratic counterparts were attending a 9/11 memorial event, Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives took the opportunity Wednesday to override the governor’s veto of the state budget”

“We are in a very extreme period in U.S. political history because of the radicalization of the GOP and the apparent willingness of virtually all of its officeholders, candidates, and big donors to go along with authoritarian and anti-democratic measures of many kinds, not just presidential power grabs but legislative and judicial steps to curtail voting and organizational rights of opponents, in essence rigging future electoral contests in a very minority rule direction.”

“Contemporary appeals to land and indigeneity have provided fertile ground for a return to racist lifeboat ethics. Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people around Oslo in 2011, insisted that the rhetoric of indigenous rights was ‘an untapped goldmine’ for white nationalists”

” Ultimately, I blame Republican voters, because nothing of this nature ever stabs at their conscience.”

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Doc Savage hunts some McGuffins: The Ten-Ton Snakes, Cargo Unknown and Rock Sinister

Like a lot of adventure heroes, some of Doc’s stories center around a McGuffin, that thing everyone is determined to find or possess. Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the term, said the McGuffin was irrelevant, but as I’ve written about before, sometimes having a cool McGuffin helps. Which leads us to these early 1945 (pre -VE Day) stories —

THE TEN-TON SNAKES opens with a well-written description of American veteran Bob French, focusing on his medals (“The years and terrors of a man’s life, worn over his heart.”) before he goes and asks Renny for help. Bob’s brother Tucker has gotten him tangled up in something involving a shipment of snak eskins, and people are trying to kill Bob as a result. When Renny calls in Doc, Bob fakes an assault on himself and leaves. It turns out his brother is a draft dodger, so Bob’s worried how Doc will take that (it shows the change of generations that to me draft dodger isn’t at all a bad thing). Doc, Renny and Monk (unusually without Ham) begin investigating, find the box of snake skins and discover they’re impossibly heavy, just like the title says. Complicating things are two female adventurers: Grace, stunningly beautiful, and Bill, who has a voice like a bull fiddle and can punch Monk hard enough to hurt. I figured she’d turn out to be a man in drag, but no (of course, Dent wrote muscular women into Fortress of Solitude so it’s not without precedent). Everyone goes off to South America where it turns out Tucker has discovered a white dwarf star meteorite (not that they call it that exactly). Unusually the bad guys don’t have a way to exploit it as a doomsday weapon: they plan to carve off bits and make a fortune selling it to physics lab, then take smaller bits and sell them as novelty items to the public (the pebble that weighs like a boulder!). It’s a solid story, though Doc’s unease in the middle doesn’t really pay off.

Next, Monk, Han and Renny are assigned to take a submarine trip to protect a CARGO UNKNOWN, sealed inside one room of the sub. Unfortunately a slick crook named Clark wants what’s in the room, infiltrates his men into the sub (he’s been working for several years to figure out how to do this if he ever needed to) and sinks it. Clark and his men get off, Renny barely escapes and Monk, Ham and the crew remain down there. With 12 hours of air left. And after a fisherman rescues an unconscious Renny and takes him to shore, Renny has no idea where to locate the sub. He calls in Doc, but do they have enough time?

Given the suspense about the sub’s sealed room, I was disappointed to learn the contents were just a big pile of Nazi gold, being shipped to the U.S. before anyone in Germany could make off with it. But that’s a minor flaw in a nail-biting story, a race against a ticking clock where it seems impossible even Doc can pull it off.

There’s quite a bit of technical detail about flying and diving (both of which Lester Dent had learned to do) but it doesn’t hurt the story. It’s a very good one, and Clark’s scheme comes off more plausible than Terror in the Navy.

ROCK SINISTER has two beautiful redheads, Abril and Kathy, traveling to see Doc from Bianca Grande (which Dent emphasizes is only a pseudonym for a real country — Rick Lai suggests Uruguay). They’re seeking Doc’s help because of a killing spree centered around a stone Mayan codex; the artifact has been destroyed, but the bad guys want a museum’s photos of it. Doc, however, knows the artifact and that it’s not even remotely remarkable. So what gives?

It turns out that what gives is the current president’s yearning to become a Hitler/Mussolini type fascist. He’s created a baffling mystery he’s confident will draw Doc to Bianca Grande, then he’ll set up Doc as the ringleader behind the killings, an evil tool of American imperialism (pointing out he’s already worked to shape Japan’s post-war government in Jiu-San). Fighting back against America’s supposed attack on Bianca Grande’s sovereignty will give him cover to seize dictatorial powers. In this case, the McGuffin really is meaningless, but that works for me.

As is common for this period, Dent offers opinions on Doc and on his own earlier writing. In Ten-Ton Snakes Doc suggests that his itch for excitement comes out of being denied a normal boyhood; if his years of training hadn’t warped him, he’d probably be a married, bridge-playing suburbanite. This doesn’t fit his view in Invisible Box Murders that his yen for excitement is a separate thing and kept his training from driving him nuts but it’s quite possible Doc’s entertained different views of this over the years. Renny similarly reflects here that he and the other guys have been warped by their own enthusiasm for thrills — here they are, middle-aged with no family, no kids, just each other. Is that just more of Dent’s more realistic approach or does it also reflect the emphasis on getting back to normalcy that became a thing in the post-war years?

Then in Cargo Unknown, Dent has some metacommentary about the tech Doc used to use, mocking it as ridiculous “pseudo-scientific ubelievable” nonsense.

Minor continuity glitches include Doc’s bulletproof office windows now being normal glass and Monk going from dead broke in Ten-Ton Snakes to back in his penthouse apartment in Rock Sinister, which gives Habeas his last appearance (in the fancy, tile-lined hog wallow Monk set up for him.).

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Why don’t I have more time to write well-thought-out posts?

Well, a little extra dog care this weekend, for one thing. So covers it is!

One by Bergen. I’ve been told the book is excellent.

Another by JH Breslow

One by Lehr.

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David Brooks and other odious people

David Brooks has written about how he believes the old WASP elite ran the country better than today’s meritocracy because they imposed social structure and forced everyone beneath them to cling to common standards and rules. So there’s more than a little projection when he believes one of the driving forces of extremism is “I yearn for order. Blunt simplicities.” Because that’s his own approach.

Also, because Brooks can’t actually come out and say how bad the right is (they are, after all, the extremists doing almost all the killing), he has to explain this is the mind of extremists on both sides. And by implication that anyone who blames anyone specific is an extremist and potentially dangerous because smart people like Brooks know things are really, really complicated. And “Did you really think you could raise me on gourmet coffee and yoga pants and I wouldn’t find a way to rebel against your relativism and materialism? Didn’t you observe the eternal pattern — that if you try to flatten a man to the bourgeois he will rebel by becoming a fanatic?” is some really, really bad writing.

In other matters:

Trump’s campaign manager predicts Donald Jr. will follow his dad and form a political dynasty. As No More Mr. Nice Blog notes, not a chance.

A court decrees that it’s morally wrong cops can steal $200,000 in the course of its search, but even so, “the law was not clearly established” that this crosses a legal line.

The political hacks running NOAA warned its staff not to publicly question Trump’s “Dorian threatens Alabama” claim.

A Brazilian mayor tried to block the sale of Marvel comics featuring a gay male kiss on panel.

The movie Satan’s School for Girls? According to crackpot preacher Jesse Lee Peterson, it’s a documentary — educated women serve Satan! The sexist turd also believes Brett Kavanaugh isn’t a real man because he has daughters.

Speaking of Kavanaugh and sexist turds, right-wing misogynist Josh Bernstein says obviously Christine Blasey Ford was a slut who came on to Kavanaugh and when he turned her down, she decided to wait 20 years to get revenge! Yeah, that’s really plausible (it’s even dumber and nastier in detail).

Following Brett Stephens’ freakout over being insulted on Twitter, Slate looks at the history of Stephens and other NYT columnists being special snowflakes.

“Tour was all about how hard it was for the slaves,” according to one review of a plantation tour that discusses the realities of slavery.

Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw says universal background checks would be bad because he couldn’t lend guns to friends who couldn’t pass. He is, very, very upset that anyone should think this means his friends shouldn’t have guns. Because nobody ever uses a borrowed gun to — oh, wait. And wait again.

Alaska’s attorney general is working hard to destroy public sector unions.

The pastor of a Tennessee Catholic school has banned Harry Potter from the library because the spells are real (spoiler: no, they’re not!).

To end on an upbeat note as I like to do, North Carolina Republicans’ racist gerrymandering has been thrown out by a state court (based on the state constitution so it doesn’t clash with the Supreme Court’s federal ruling). Republicans have thrown in the towel, though I won’t be surprised if they have more tricks up their sleeves.

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Filed under economics, Politics, Undead sexist cliches