Category Archives: Reading

Sherlock Holmes: I Never Make Exceptions

Once again I’m getting inspiration for a blog post from the quotes on my Sherlock Holmes mug (available via the Philosopher’s Guild).

Holmes states in The Sign of Four that “I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.” Once again, I think there’s useful advice for writers in that (but also some bad advice).

Most obviously, whatever rules you set up for your fantasy world, you need to follow them. If cold iron cancels magic or kills fae, it has to do so consistently. If your hero lives by an oath of nonviolence or non-killing, he has to stick to it (Superman writers in the Silver Age keep forgetting he doesn’t kill and having him blow up enemy spaceships or the like). If you do make an exception you’d better explain it logically. And you have to make readers care: I have a hard time worrying that someone’s violating rules the writer made up, no matter how impossible the characters say it is.

The same principle applies to mainstream fiction. I read a thriller back in the 1990s which went to great lengths to provide realistic detail on bombs,, their effects and how to disarm them. So at the climax having the protagonist caught when the bomb blows off but turn out to be standing just far enough away it simply lifts her off the grounds and drops her unharmed with tousled hair … it didn’t fit.

Similarly, He’s Just Not That Into You annoyed me by setting up a rule — guy doesn’t chase a girl relentlessly, he’s not interested — but then it breaks its own premise in the various romances.

In marketing, I take the quote two ways, one valid for writing and one not. As countless how-to articles have observed, never assume that your manuscript is so awesome that an editor will ignore that it’s the wrong length/genre/style. Even though some people do break the rules, it’s wise not to assume we can get away with the same.

The not-valid is the insistence I also see in how-to articles that whatever genre you’re writing for, you should mimick what everyone else is writing. As I discuss at the link, that’s not always the best idea and sometimes a bad one.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Final Halloween scary covers post

Jon Arfstrom is up first —Followed by A.R. Tilburne—And another Tilburne.One by Matt Fox.And a James Bama cover for Doc Savage.#SFWApro. All rights to covers remain with current holder.

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Farewell Mr. Sekowsky: Wonder Woman #194-6

Mike Sekowsky’s career is a mystery to me, which online research has so far failed to solve. After years as a penciller, he starts writing multiple books at the end of the Silver Age, not just Wonder Woman but Supergirl, Metal Men and the unsuccessful Showcase tryout series Jason’s Quest and Manhunter 2070. Then in 1971, he writes Wonder Woman #196 and after that he’s an artist the rest of his career. I’ve tried researching him online but the reason for this sudden swerve into writing has so far eluded me. That said …

Wonder Woman #194, “The Prisoner,” has Diana vacationing in Europe, sans I Ching, in a small kingdom where everyone’s treating her like royalty — except some goons who make the mistake of trying to kidnap her. It turns out it’s because she looks exactly like Princess Fabiola. Which inevitably means that the princess gets captured and, just like the classic Prisoner of Zenda, Diana has to replace her or the next in line to the throne will use Fabiola’s disappearance as an excuse to seize power. This is really awkward as the princess is getting married tomorrow, but of course Diana sees it through. It’s a departure from the usual spy thriller/neighborhood hero style of this era, but it works.

#195, “The House That Wasn’t,” is another departure. It’s a snowy winter night when Diana and I Ching stop to help some stranded motorists. Unfortunately they’re actually escaped convicts who force our heroes to walk along with them (though if it wasn’t necessary for the plot, either I Ching or Diana could have taken them down). They end up in a small inn along with a writer and a guy who appears to be an embezzler fleeing with his loot, which attracts the convicts. The smiling owner and her son are friendly enough, but I Ching senses Evil and Diana feels something wrong too. One of the cons murders the embezzler, but it turns out he’s just a man running away from his marriage — the briefcase he carries holds travel brochures for the trip he’d hoped to take. But then something kills the convict …

It turns out the owner and her son are ghosts, killing travelers in death as they did in life; the more they kill, the more frequently they can materialize. Despite their ghostly powers, the owner’s son makes the mistake of under-estimating Diana; that and I Ching’s occult knowledge lead to their destruction.

For Sekowsky’s last story, “Target for Today,” we return to espionage and intrigue. A dying military intelligence agent collapses in the room, begging I Ching to get a message to the man’s employer, Gen. Stuart. I Ching knows the general, having worked for him too — which seems odd, as we know I Ching was a monk who left his contemplative life when Dr. Cyber wiped out the monastery. Then again, we don’t know what he was doing before he entered the monastery, so why not?

The message involves the ambassador from Koronia being the target of an assassination plot. While I Ching goes to the general, Diana bodyguards the handsome ambassador, saving him from a gunman and a glass of poisoned champagne. When Gen. Stuart informs Diana that her Army intelligence discharge papers include terms allowing him to reactivate her, she’s not happy, but as she’s protecting him anyway …

After another assassination attempt, the ambassador finally gets to meet President Nixon — but at the last second, Diana realizes he’s an imposter: his real mission is to kill the president, blowing himself up in the process. With no proof he was a ringer, the government will be thrown out of power and the bad guys will take over.

I’d have liked to see more of Sekowsky’s work, but it wasn’t to be. With the next issue Denny O’Neil returns, Don Heck replacing Sekowsky on the art (followed by Dick Giordano the rest of this run). It wasn’t a change for the better.#SFWApro. All covers by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holders.

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And the triffids shall inherit the Earth! One book, one movie

Until I rewatched it for Alien Visitors, I had no idea the 1963’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS was in color. But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the book it’s based on, which I read for the first time this week.

John Wyndham’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (yes, the Midwich Cuckoos guy) is set in the near future (of 1951) marked by orbiting satellite weapons (a popular worry of that era, figuring in both The Space Children and Invaders from Mars) and by triffids. ambulatory carnivorous plants. Their origin is unknown — the thinking is some kind of Soviet experiment — but while vicious, they’re easy enough to manage and the oil they produce is incredibly useful in industry (I’m not sure if it’s purely industrial or also used to replace cooking oil). Our protagonist, Bill, is a biologist who works with triffids. Having recently been splashed with triffid venom he went into the hospital temporarily blind. In a very effective opening, Bill notices the hospital is silent. Nobody moving, no nurses rushing up and down the corridors. Something’s wrong. There’s no traffic noise outside.

It turns out Bill got a lucky break: the light from the meteors burning up has stricken everyone who watched the meteors blind (Bill later speculates this is actually the result of an orbiting satellite weapon). With the vast majority of Brits (and the world) now blind, society collapses. Bill meets up with Josella, a young novelist notorious for her racy first book and together they navigate the increasingly nasty environment. People are looting, killing, raping or trying to launch a new society as a dictatorship. Bill feels torn between the impulse to help the blind and the realization he can’t keep them alive long; all he’ll be doing is making it harder for himself and Josella to survive. The triffids further complicate things. They were easy enough for sighted individuals to manage — fire is obviously effective — but now? They’re cutting loose from the triffid farms, reproducing rapidly and killing.

The triffids are the coolest thing in the book. They come across as (possibly) intelligent but extremely alien, both physically and in whatever passes for their mind. There are lots of them, their poison sting can kill a human easily but shooting and stabbing don’t do much good against them. And unlike the film, they’re not hamstrung by special effects. The human threat is much more conventional, familiar from lots and lots of post-apocalypse stories, before and after this book. It’s serviceable though.

The worst part of the book, like Cuckoos, is the sexism. Josella and Bill fall in with one group of survivors that declares that every woman who joins their group will have to bear children (men can earn their keep by labor, but not women), Josella assures Bill it’s no problem. All women want to be mothers, just like the women of Midwich didn’t mind being impregnated by aliens without their consent. That’s just what they’re like.

While it’s a much less irritating point, even though one group includes a busload of pre-meteor blind people, it never occurs to Wyndham they’d have good advice for the formerly sighted on how to deal with the crisis.

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1963) simplifies things by having triffids dropped on the Earth by the same meteor shower that blinds everyone. Howard Keel as the hero recovers his sight in time to find, as in the book, chaos, panicked blind mobs and suicides; accompanied by a young girl he rescues, he sets off to find some sort of safe haven. People are a threat, but the triffids here are worse. Meanwhile a married pair of scientists in an old lighthouse besieged by triffids work desperately to find a solution.

This is a fun film, but suffers from me seeing it right after the book; for all its faults, the book is better. The movie is much more conventional, a straight 1950s monster film, right down to the heroic triffid-fighting scientists and a solution out of H.G. Wells — seawater kills triffids! Earth is saved! The book ends with confidence we’ll reach that point eventually, but it’ll be a long time. Here we end with the menace effectively finished, and a lot more sighted survivors than in Wyndham. I actually find that more plausible, but it also lacks some of the drama.

#SFWApro. Cover art uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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A long time ago, I went to a drive-in movie

They had one close to our house and our family went and caught a film there, though I don’t remember which one. Later they switched to exploitation movies, so we didn’t go; I didn’t have a car or a girlfriend to make out with in a car, so I never went (though I sure fantasized about some of the films).

I can’t help thinking that if a scene like the Dick Dillin cover below had happened at our drive-in, I’d have gone a lot more often. Because that looks pretty cool.

#SFWApro. All rights to the cover remain with current holder.

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It’s still the month of Halloween, so why not more scary covers?

William Teason gives us a weird cover for Shirley Jackson’s tale of madness.Matt Fox contributes a Weird Tales cover.As does Margaret Brundage — And A.R. Tilburne. Jules de Grandin was the most popular series in Weird Tales though he’s largely forgotten now.Then we have a sword-and-sorcery cover by Steranko —And a Powers cover for a tale of terror—And Doc Savage facing the Squeaking Goblin.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Magic, more magic and then the end: books read

LORE OF THE WITCH WORLD is a collection of short stories from various anthologies so they’re almost all stand-alones; “Sword of Unbelief”brings back Elys and Jervon from Spell of the Witch World and “Toads of Grimmerdale” got a sequel written especially for this volume. The character dynamic is familiar from earlier Witch World books (outcast woman paired up with not-quite-as-outcast man) and the stories are enjoyable, more so for being slightly outside the core story arcs. That makes the Witch World a place where anyone can have amazing adventures, not just the Tregarths or Kerovan (of Crystal Gryphon). Good if you’re into Norton.

MAGIC BY THE LAKE brings back the family from Edward Eager’s Half Magic, now vacationing at a lakeside cottage with their new stepfather when they accidentally make a wish that turns the entire lake to magic. Before long they’re dealing with pirates, mermaids, teenage Romeos, the Forty Thieves and hungry cannibals (unpleasantly racist characters, but watching them see through the kids’ efforts to impress them with modern technology is pretty funny). This was even more in the style of E. Nesbit than the previous book, with the grumpy turtle assisting the kids very much in the mold of Nesbit’s magical mentors. Rereading these is proving a good decision.

THE MIGHTY SWORDSMEN was a 1970 anthology of sword and sorcery ranging from very good (one of John Brunner’s Traveler in Black tales and Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River,”) to the mediocre, in the form of a non-Howard Conan yarn  by Bjorn Nyberg and one of Lin Carter’s Thongor stories. While it wouldn’t have bothered me at the time, the heroes are all men and the cast mostly so; the women who do get noticeable roles are smothered by sexism (why is the hot girl penetrating a forbidden castle to find her brother foolish while Thongor doing the same from curiosity is heroid?).

WORLD OF TROUBLE: The Last Policeman Book III follows Countdown City to wrap up Ben Winters’ trilogy. At the end of the last book, Hank had settled in with his new girlfriend to spend the end of the world in comfort. Now, though, he heads out to find his missing sister: has her secret organization found a way to avert the asteroid impact after all? If not, just what are they up to? It turns out things have not being going well to Nora, pushing Hank back into cop mode. With only a few days to the impact though, can he get to the bottom of things? A downbeat but satisfactory finish.

#SFWApro. Cover by Michael Whelan, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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The Diana Prince Years: Wonder Woman vs. tyranny and tragedy

Welcome back to my on-going look at the white pantsuit era of late Silver Age Wonder Woman. Following Diana’s trip to China, Sekowsky’s last seven issues were all over the map: horror, sword-and-sandal adventure, a Prisoner of Zenda knockoff as well as stories in the styles he’d already established, with Diana defending her neighborhood and dealing with international intrigue. If Sekowsky wanted to show the series could do more than just spy stuff, he succeeded.

Detour in Wonder Woman#190 launches a three issue sword-and-sandal tale, though #191 was actually a reprint with a few new pages added as a framing sequence (Diana’s companion asks who she is and how she came to be, so she recaps the transition from Amazon to Ordinary Woman). Diana goes to visit Paradise Island in its otherworldly home again, but a dimensional storm blows her and her guide Leda off-course, landing them in the world of Chalandor. The local queen’s forces capture Diana for the arena — she doesn’t go down easily, of course — and she ends up thrown in a dungeon with the barbarian prince Ranagor. Diana, however, has some of the spy gadgets she acquired during one of her previous adventures and busts her chains using a button that conceals a powerful acid. She and Ranagor escape … but their getaway path just leads the to the arena. The queen unleashes her nastiest beast, the reptilian gnarth, but Diana finds a way to beat it, then she and Ranagor bust out.

The duo find Ranagor’s father’s army, which lays siege to the queen’s Castle Skull. It goes badly for the besiegers until Diana mixes up some gunpowder to make small rockets and even then the fortress is able to hold out. After a duel with the queen fails to resolve things (the queen cuts and runs rather than admit defeat), Diana hits on the idea of blowing up the castle gates with a whole lot of gunpowder (shouldn’t that have been an obvious option?) and the fortress falls. Leda shows up with the Amazons, too late to help but they do provide Diana a way home. It’s a mixed bag. “Hey, I know how to make gunpowder” is a resolution I’ve seen in god knows how many adventure tales of heroes trapped in lost cities and the adventure as a whole is too stock to work for me. Sekowsky’s art, however, is great and the story shows off Diana’s formidable abilities at their best. This time out, she doesn’t need a man, not even I Ching, to do the heavy lifting.

Angela brings Diana back to her current neighborhood. When Tony Petrucci disappears, packing his gun, his Mom reveals to Diana that three years earlier Tony’s sister Angela went into a coma after someone spiked the food at a party with “funny seasoning.” Eddie Dean, Tony’s buddy from ‘nam was at the party and Tony accuses him of being the culprit, given his history of practical jokes that went wrong. Eddie denies it, pointing out he got sick from the stuff himself. Mrs. Petrucci explains that Tony has never given up searching for the person responsible; his increased frustration has led to him lashing out and beating up the local homeless population simply as a convenient target. Now he’s found a fresh lead and his mother is terrified, with good reason obviously, that he’s going to cross a line.

Diana investigates which immediately generates blowback. Hoods try to scare her off; when she slaps them around, they tell her a local lowlife named Runty Sneed hired them. Diana finds Runty dead, but pretends he gave her a dying message, figuring that will bring the bad guys after her again. Sure enough, there’s another hit, which gives her the clue she needs: Eddie’s behind it. She arrives at his upscale apartment to learn Tony’s already figured it out and has dragged Eddie up into the girders of the under-construction skyscraper next door.  She climbs up after them to find Eddie has a slight edge in the fight, but not once Diana shows up. After she decks Eddie, Tony wants to finish him off but Diana disables him temporarily, then the cops show.

It’s almost a great story of revenge and redemption, but not quite. For one thing the plot is confused: Eddie’s simultaneously a stupid practical joker — he tried to spice up the food with hot sauce, unaware the bottle he found was the maid’s container for cleaning fluid — and a drug dealer who thought getting the guests high would help him find a new batch of customers. That second reveal comes out of nowhere, and I imagine the autopsies would have established “drug overdose” was the cause of death three years earlier if that had been the case. Similarly, Tony pegged Eddie as the culprit because he’d pulled a joke like that once before and because Tony figured out Eddie’s lifestyle was financed by drugs. Its like Sekowsky considered two explanations and went with both of them.

And then at the end, we have a too-convenient happy wrap-up when it turns out Angela’s doctor has finally brought her out of the coma, and not only that he wants to marry her. Much as I enjoy a good eucatastrophe, this one was a little too miraculous.

#SFWApro. Covers by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holder.

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It’s Halloween, so let’s have some spooky covers

Virgil Finlay kicks off with this memorable cover.While this one by H.E. Bischoff treads the line between  mystery and supernatural tale well.Peter Kuhlhoff gave us this bit of grotesquerie.While the art on this one, alas, is uncredited.

This one by Boris Dolgov isn’t exactly horrifying but it feels like it fits somehow.And I’m happy for any excuse to reprting this old Gervasio Gallardo cover.To say nothing of this Nick Cardy piece.#SFWApro. All rights to covers belong to the current holders.

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Penultimate Doc Savage: The Swooning Lady, The Green Master, The Return From Cormoral

Given my general dissatisfaction with the post-war Doc Savage series, it’s a pleasant surprise that the three I’m reviewing here — three of the last four in the series —were mostly fun, and none were awful.

THE SWOONING LADY kicks off with a beautiful Latina putting on a swooning act when men dressed a certain way come near. Monk fits the description but when he tells her he’s not “Roxborough” and still tries to make time, she throttles him with his own tie. Realizing she’s clearly Up To Something, Monk calls in Doc and Ham: what’s her game, and who is Roxborough? Doc’s on board, of course, though he’s still PO’d at Monk’s lechery getting them into trouble in The Angry Canary.

A well-placed bug reveals the woman is one Dannie Morgan, an unemployed actor working for tough South America crooks Juan and Jolla, trying to lure Roxborough into a trap. They’re putting her up at an expensive hotel and paying $40 a day for the gig, so Doc realizes this is something big. Juan and Jolla proves themselves smart and tough and evade capture. Monk tracks down Roxborough, though, who turns out to be a wealthy businessman in town checking up on business associates he claims are cheating him. The swooning Dannie, he claims, is a pawn of his partners to entangle him in a scandal; then when notoriously prudish Latin American millionaire Señorita Oristezza shows up to do business and learns he’s a sleazeball, she’ll ruin him.

It turns out that the señorita and Dannie are one and the same. She suspects Roxborough of making off with a $2 million diamond shipment of hers, came up here to investigate and much like the disguised Doc in The Freckled Shark, let the role unleash her wilder side. Dannie is easily the most interesting thing in the story, a self-made millionaire in a male-dominated culture; the rest of the story is competent but minor (Juan and Jolla are tough, but they’re not strong enough to be the lead villains). It turns out Roxborough did make off with the diamonds and the elaborate scheme is designed to cover that up and make him look like an innocent. Several details were left out of the Bantam version which chopped off the last few paragraphs of exposition in the finish. I can’t say I’m on tenterhooks about it.

This was, by the way, the end of Doc Savage, Science Detective as a title and the end of the digest-sized magazine (Will Murray’s Writings in Bronze has details on the editorial decisions of the era).

THE GREEN MASTER is a much stronger story. It opens with Monk discovering multiple blonds, mostly men but one beautiful woman, pursuing him despite their bafflement at life in the city (they don’t know how to avoid traffic, how to hail a cab, etc.). When Monk confronts one of the guys, he suddenly finds himself agreeing with everything the man says and answering all his questions about Doc’s current work (though Monk doesn’t know much, which he feels ashamed about). Ham has the same reaction later. The man implants a story in their heads he figures will send Doc off on a wild goose chase, but at Doc’s offices they touch a green stone that arrived in the mail — something the man asked about — and immediately regain clarity.

Tracking the blonde clique and bugging their hotel room reveals they’re here on a mission; Auca, the woman, warns the others that one of them is betraying the others by reaching out to Doc. The investigation gets  complicated when a Westerner named Swingles (I don’t think the name, which is never explained, would have had the sex connotations then that it does now) shows up and tries to keep Doc detained while his confederates go after the blondes. Swingles tells Doc that Auca is the one who sent him the green stone, while setting her cohorts against each other.

Eventually “Jones,” the leader of the blondes, puts the whammy on Doc, Monk and Ham (Monk’s faking it — he has the stone hidden on him). Doc is terrified to realized he’s completely powerless to resist whatever power this guy has. Auca later explains the power lies in the green stones, which somehow energize the leaders of her people to mesmerize others, though the stone held in other hands provides a counter-spell. Doc is forced to fly to the lost city in the Andes, besieged by Swingles’ gang, who it’s implied are working for Sinister Foreign Powers (this was a bigger part of Dent’s story proposal but the editor said Terror Wears No Shoes proved political intrigue didn’t sell). Not that the lost race are the good guys: they’ve enslaved dozens of local tribesmen who wander into their city and used them as slaves. Doc manages to obtain enough of the green stones to free the slaves, and with their help takes down Swingles’ gang. The story ends with a U.N. commission moving in to sort things out, study the power and see that the blondes don’t take more slaves.

The series’ last Lost Race story is a good one all around. It also has a nailbiting scene where Doc has to land a plane under difficult conditions: Dent had acquired his pilot’s license at some point and he puts his knowledge to good use here.

Macbeth Williams (again, no explanation of the name) and three other scientists RETURN FROM CORMORAL a rocky Atlantic island they’ve been stuck on since the research foundation funding their expedition went belly up. Fortunately a tramp steamer found them and took them back to Miami. Macbeth’s girlfriend, Carlie, meets them and we learn she’s a little frustrated because her beau is tentative and doesn’t have confidence in his judgment — not the sort of man she wants for a husband.

But things have changed. On Cormoral, Williams somehow acquired the ability to make uncannily accurate predictions. He can’t do it if he concentrates but if he just does it without thinking, he’s almost always right. Has he become precog? Is his judgment better than he thought? Is it finally time he assume control of his half-billion inheritance instead of leaving it to financial managers?

Williams is unsettled enough to contact Doc by telegraph; as someone kills the telegraph clerk right afterwards (but not in time to stop the message) this was obviously a wise call. Doc discovers that Williams ability — psychic or just intelligent as it may be — is real, but why would that drive people to kill him? And why is it the foundation that stuck the scientists on Cormoral doesn’t seem to exist?

It turns out that the entire thing is a scam and the other three scientists are part of it. They’ve discovered rich deposits of uranium on some of the land Williams has inherited but haven’t been able to get the managers to sell. If they can convince Williams to assume control, he’ll probably be more cooperative as the land’s apparently worthless. The trip to Cormoral and the aftermath are part of a Big Con to convince Williams he has the gift or the judgment to manage all that money and property.It’s a fluffy but fun tale.

Next month, we wrap my long, long reread up with the final novel, Up From Earth’s Center, and In Hell, Madonna, which didn’t come out until the late 1970s (it was slated for the issue that became The Green Master).

#SFWApro. Top cover by Walter Swenson, next two by George Rozen, all rights remain with current holders.

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