Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Little People: A Fantastic Thread [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

History has a strange way of inspiring horror writers. In the records of the Romans there is mention of a strange race that lived in the British Isles before the Celts. Their name was simply the Picts, meaning "picture," for they were heavily tattooed. "The Picts of Galloway" supposedly intermingled with the Gaels, but to a writer of terror tales the idea that these people, and others like them, should go underground and become the inspiration for "The Little People" of legend is too tempting.

The first to grab onto the idea of this primitive and secret survival was Welsh writer, Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Machen liked to imagine that under the bucolic green hills of Wales, terrible and evil things lurked. Amongst these were savage creatures that once ruled the world. He wrote three stories about them that appeared in the same year. The first, "The Red Hand" (Chapman’s Magazine, Christmas 1895) has Dyson, Machen's occult detective of sorts, exploring a grisly murder committed with a primitive, prehistoric axe that hints at the creatures who wield it:
‘My dear fellow, I am sorry to say I have completely failed. I have tried every known device in vain. I have even been so officious as to submit it to a friend at the Museum, but he, though a man of prime authority on the subject, tells me he is quite at fault. It must be some wreckage of a vanished race, almost, I think — a fragment of another world than ours. I am not a superstitious man, Dyson, and you know that I have no truck with even the noble delusions, but I confess I yearn to be rid of this small square of blackish stone. Frankly, it has given me an ill week; it seems to me troglodytic and abhorred.’
"The Novel of the Black Seal" (The Three Imposters, 1895) provides another artifact, a black rock with weird writing:
We had dined without candles; the room had slowly grown from twilight to gloom, and the walls and corners were indistinct in the shadow. But from where I sat I looked out into the street; and as I thought of what I would say to Francis, the sky began to flush and shine, as it had done on a well-remembered evening, and in the gap between two dark masses that were houses an awful pageantry of flame appeared—lurid whorls of writhed cloud, and utter depths burning, grey masses like the fume blown from a smoking city, and an evil glory blazing far above shot with tongues of more ardent fire, and below as if there were a deep pool of blood. I looked down to where my brother sat facing me, and the words were shaped on my lips, when I saw his hand resting on the table. Between the thumb and forefinger of the closed hand there was a mark, a small patch about the size of a sixpence, and somewhat of the colour of a bad bruise. Yet, by some sense I cannot define, I knew that what I saw was no bruise at all; oh! if human flesh could burn with flame, and if flame could be black as pitch, such was that before me. Without thought or fashioning of words grey horror shaped within me at the sight, and in an inner cell it was known to be a brand. For the moment the stained sky became dark as midnight, and when the light returned to me I was alone in the silent room, and soon after I heard my brother go out.
In "The Shining Pyramid" (The Unknown World, May 15, 1895), Machen finally gives us a vivid description of the humanoids that worship the Pyramid:
It did, in truth, stir and seethe like an infernal cauldron. The whole of the sides and bottom tossed and writhed with vague and restless forms that passed to and fro without the sound of feet, and gathered thick here and there and seemed to speak to one another in those tones of horrible sibilance, like the hissing of snakes, that he had heard. It was as if the sweet turf and the cleanly earth had suddenly become quickened with some foul writhing growth. Vaughan could not draw back his face, though he felt Dyson's finger touch him, but he peered into the quaking mass and saw faintly that there were things like faces and human limbs, and yet he felt his inmost soul chill with the sure belief that no fellow soul or human thing stirred in all that tossing and hissing host. He looked aghast, choking back sobs of horror, and at length the loathsome forms gathered thickest about some vague object in the middle of the hollow, and the hissing of their speech grew more venomous, and he saw in the uncertain light the abominable limbs, vague and yet too plainly seen, writhe and intertwine, and he thought he heard, very faint, a low human moan striking through the noise of speech that was not of man. At his heart something seemed to whisper ever "the worm of corruption, the worm that dieth not," and grotesquely the image was pictured to his imagination of a piece of putrid offal stirring through and through with bloated and horrible creeping things. The writhing of the dusky limbs continued, they seemed clustered round the dark form in the middle of the hollow, and the sweat dripped and poured off Vaughan's forehead, and fell cold on his hand beneath his face.
HG Wells (1866-1946) needs mention here. He did not use this idea of ancient creatures for he had little interest in the past. He was a futurist. Despite this, one of his stories seems to have influenced later writers in conjunction with the Little People idea. The story in question was "The Time Machine" (National Observer serial, 1894) and his underground dwelling Morlocks.

In Wells' story these white-skinned cannibals are the future of the suppressed proletariat, living in their machine-run depths. Wells is careful to describe the Morlocks only in snatches, making them more mysterious. “A pair of eyes, luminous by reflection against the daylight without, was watching me out of the darkness... I put out my hand and touched something soft. At once the eyes darted sideways, and something white ran past me. I turned with my heart in my mouth, and saw a queer little ape-like figure, its head held down in a peculiar manner, running across the sunlit space...” The man from the present plumbs their dark tunnels and just barely escapes their cold, wicked plans. This image of the man trapped in the dark, armed only with a light and a solid metal bar has fused with Machen's vision of evil survivals.

Robert E Howard (1906-1936) was the writer who really brought these two together, though he was not the last. Howard's first venture into the world of the Little People was an open pastiche of Machen called "The Little People" (Coven 13, January 1970). This early tale, written in the 1920s, suffers from poor mechanics. The hero, tells his sister the lengthy history of the Little People, after perusing a copy of "The Shining People" by Machen. Later these very creatures invade their home where the narrator gives this description:
"Now I was almost upon those who barred my way. I saw plainly the stunted bodies, the gnarled limbs, the beady reptilian eyes that stared unwinkingly, the grotesque, square faces with their inhuman features, and the shimmer of flint daggers in their crooked hands..."
The narrator dives in for a Howard-sized fight, but the creatures find and attack his sister. Only the sudden appearance of a white-bearded druid saves them from the Little People. This tale contains many of the elements that will later appear in the much better constructed tales of Bran Mak Morn and Conan.

"The Children of the Night" (Weird Tales, April/May 1931) sets up several of Howard's themes for his Little People stories, the first being degeneration and the second: reincarnation. One of Conrad and Kirowan's friends, John O'Donnell, has a strange vision while visiting the occult investigators. He sees himself in the past as Aryara of the Sword People, an ancient Celt, who encounters the Little People and falls fighting them. Upon waking, O'Donnell attacks Ketrick, one of the guests, for he has Serpent blood:
But Ketrick: to me the man always seemed strangely alien. It was in his eyes that this difference showed externally. They were a sort of amber, almost yellow, and slightly oblique. At times, when one looked at his face from certain angles, they seemed to slant like a Chinaman’s. Others than I had noticed this feature, so unusual in a man of pure Anglo-Saxon descent. The usual myths ascribing his slanted eyes to some pre-natal influence had been mooted about, and I remember Professor Hendrik Brooler once remarked that Ketrick was undoubtedly an atavism, representing a reversion of type to some dim and distant ancestor of Mongolian blood–a sort of freak reversion, since none of his family showed such traces.
Howard's dated racism can be offensive today, but within the context of the story O'Donnell would prefer any human of any color or creed over the few humans who still carry the taint of the Little People.

Howard would return to his version of the degraded half-breed creatures in several stories, the best of which was "The Worms of the Earth" (Weird Tales, November 1932). To make things even more interesting, Howard has the Picts, dark warriors living under the Roman radar as well as these even earlier creatures that the Picts displaced. Howard's Worms are half-human hybrids with the evil Serpent Men of ancient times, another lost race that once ruled the world. Bran Mak Morn, the king of the Picts, enters the Worms' tunnels (shades of Wells) to steal their sacred relic and force them to do his bidding:
And he came at last into a vast space where he could stand upright. He could not see the roof of the place, but he got an impression of dizzying vastness. The blackness pressed in on all sides and behind him he could see the entrance to the shaft from which he had just emerged--a black well in the darkness. But in front of him a strange grisly radiance glowed about a grim altar built of human skulls. The source of that light he could not determine, but on the altar lay a sullen night-black object--the Black Stone!
Howard wrote of the Worms again in "Valley of the Lost" (Magazine of Horror, Summer 1966), a tale set during the Texas feuds of the 19th Century. Little John Reynolds is fleeing the McCrills when he takes refuge in the valley where the Little People hide. He spies the strange inhabitants:
It was not their dwarfish figures which caused his shudder, nor even the unnaturally made hands and feet–it was their heads. He knew, now, of what race was the skull found by the prospector. Like it, these heads were peaked and malformed, curiously flattened at the sides. There was no sign of ears, as if their organs of hearing, like a serpent’s, were beneath the skin. The noses were like a python’s snout, the mouth and jaws much less human in appearance than his recollection of the skull would have led him to suppose. The eyes were small, glittering and reptilian. The squamous lips writhed back, showing pointed fangs, and John Reynolds felt that their bite would be as deadly as a rattlesnake’s. Garments they wore none, nor did they bear any weapons.
Reynolds flees the weird caverns, blowing up the door that leads to the outer world, then takes his chances against human enemies, his hair now stark white.

"The People of the Dark" (Strange Tales, June 1932) is a rewrite of sorts of "The Little People" with the narrator, John O'Brien, coming to Dagon's Cave to kill Richard Brent, his rival for Eleanor Bland. Howard has the characters thrust back in time using reincarnation as a method to change O'Brien into a Gaelic warrior, Conan of the reavers. Brent becomes Vertorix, a Briton, and Eleanor a Briton girl named Tamera. All three face the Worms, but only Conan survives; Vertorix and Tamera plunging to their deaths rather than succumb. O'Brien wanders the caves, finally making his way out. He encounters one last denizen of the deep, the snaky remains of the Worms in our time:
Before the Children had vanished, the race must have lost all human semblance, living as they did the life of the reptile. This thing was more like a giant serpent than anything else, but it had aborted legs and snaky arms with hooked talons. It crawled on its belly, writhing back mottled lips to bare needlelike fangs, which I felt must drip with venom. It hissed as it reared up its ghastly head on a horribly long neck, while its yellow slanted eyes glittered with all the horror that is spawned in the black lairs under the earth.
O'Brien shoots it with the revolver he had brought to kill Brent. Brent and Eleanor know they are eternal soul mates and O'Brien lets them go for he too now understands.

Karl Edward Wagner would write further of Howard's Worms in Legion From the Shadows (1975). He added little to Howard's vision, but did combine elements from several different stories, having Serpent Men, Worms, and even the Crawler from the Conan stories. His Serpent leader looks thus:
The figure was as tall as Bran, and of skeletal leanness—although little else could be discerned through the voluminous folds of his robes. The arms that protruded from the flaring sleeves were covered with the pallid scales of some ancient serpent, taloned with long, black nails. The skull above the narrow shoulders was curiously flattened at the temples, and rose to a high peak. That peaked, hairless skull was encircled in a golden band, set with sullen gems of murky hue. His ears were pointed, the nose flared and pitted as a viper’s snout, the face little more than a pallid mask of scales tight across an inhuman skull. Bright and pointed fangs made a double row along the grinning jaw. Those yellow ophidian eyes mirrored a soul of elder evil that had looked unblinking across the expanse of centuries.
Thus the Worms once looked before the long road to degeneration. Wagner would create his own race of subterranean dwellers in his story ".220 Swift" (New Terrors, 1980), borrowing the idea partly from Manly Wade Wellman and his Guardians of the Ancients from “Shiver in the Pines” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1955).

Gerald Kersh (1911-68) was a sophisticated writer of weird tales and mainstream novels, but even he ventured into the world of the Little People in "Voices in the Dust" (1950, for Judith Merrill's Shot in the Dark). An adventurer in a future world (after World War III) goes to the dead city of Annan in an area of ash and stones. Here he discovers a race of white-skinned, large eyed people:
...The light paralyzed it: the thing was glued in the shining, white puddle—it had enormous eyes. I fired at it—I mean, I aimed at it and pressed my trigger, but had forgotten to lift my safety-catch. Holding the thing in the flashlight beam, I struck at it with the barrel of the pistol. I was cruel because I was afraid. It squealed, and something cracked. Then I had it by the neck. If it was not a rat it smelled like a rat. Oh-oooo, oh-oooo, oh-oooo! it wailed, and I heard something scuffle outside. Another voice wailed oh-oooo, oh-oooo, oh-oooo! A third voice picked it up. In five seconds, the hot, dark night was full of a most woebegone crying. Five seconds later there was silence, except for the gasping of the cold little creature under my hand.
Kersh gives a long explanation -- we've heard it before -- about how the Picts had been the source of the fairies in places like Wales. The explorer follows the Little People into their subterranean tunnels, like Wells' Time Traveler, but falls and breaks his leg. The people of the dark do not threaten the man but feed him. Unfortunately, their medical skills are so primitive that the man can do nothing but sit in the darkness and wait for death. Kersh takes his inspiration from Machen and Wells, (though probably not Howard) and adds his tale to the history of the Little People. Who will be next?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hellbent for Letterbox | The Wild Wild West

I forgot to post about it at the time, but on the most recent Hellbent, Pax and I went deep into the Wild Wild West TV show starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. We go through the stars, the villains, our favorite episodes, and just what it was that made the show so awesome.

Then on a special Hitchin' Post episode, we strolled into the two reunion movies and the 1999 film starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline.

Monday, July 24, 2017

7 Days in May | Planet of the Apes and Noir Galore

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Wanted to rewatch this and Dawn before seeing War. I'm still amazed by how much this works. Which is to say that it works completely and wonderfully, fully connecting me to its characters regardless of species. And what a great, cathartic finale as everyone gets their comeuppance. In the best Planet of the Apes movies, I should always feel conflicted about where my loyalties are and this is probably the best at accomplishing that in the history of these movies.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

I still care about the humans in Dawn - especially Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Smit-McPhee - but they're ultimately MacGuffins in the movie's real conflict between Caesar and Koba. It's a brilliant clash of ideologies and what I love most about this trilogy is the battle between compassion and hate. Which leads directly to the third film...

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

In Dawn, the compassion-hate conflict is between Caesar and Koba, but in War it's within Caesar himself. His conflict with the human Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has led Caesar down a dark path and threatens the beliefs that he holds most dear. War handles this in a beautiful, emotional way and it's a great conclusion to what's easily my favorite science fiction trilogy of all time (at least until the current Star Wars trilogy is done... fingers crossed).

Grease (1978)

Rewatching Back to the Future for an upcoming Mystery Movie Night got me in the mood for something else from the '50s. And this has been on the list for a while since a couple of shots from it are in that great 100 Movies Dance Scenes Mashup video that my family and I can't stop watching.

And it really is all about the music in this one. The story is mostly bunk and I don't like Danny, Sandy, or really any of their friends except Frenchie. The ending is stupid. But dang those are some great songs and I always forget how awesome Olivia Newton-John's voice is.

The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)

Trying to clear out some room on my TiVo. I recorded this on a lark, because there's a John Denver song with the same title and I'm nostalgic for John Denver. That's a dumb reason to watch a movie, but I also like Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon, so what the heck.

I love this movie so much. Oberon plays a wealthy, young woman named Mary Smith whose widowed father is trying to get a Presidential nomination. Mary's not especially troublesome, but she's under especially tight scrutiny, so her dad sends her to the family's house in West Palm Beach to get her away from the New York paparazzi. There she cute-meets a rodeo cowboy named Stretch (Cooper), but she's pretending to be a lady's maid at the time and... well, you've seen a romantic comedy before, so you know how that goes.

There are some modern romcom tropes, but I found that refreshing in a '30s film. And I love that the story is told from Mary's point of view with Stretch being the love interest. The movie also has some nice things to say about the value of people, with both Mary and Stretch needing to adjust their ideas about what kind of people they're interested in.

Five Came Back (1939)

This one popped on my radar because a bunch of people crash in a jungle. And it's very early Lucille Ball and I'm always interested in her serious roles.

I love this one, too. It's sort of a proto-Lost with a varied group of passengers on a downed plane trying to survive until they can rescue themselves. There are three airline personnel, a young couple in love, an elderly couple in grumpiness, a bounty hunter (John Carradine) and his prisoner, a man escorting a young boy for mysterious reasons, and Lucille Ball's character: a beautiful, but ostracized woman.

What's great is that every one of these characters finds themselves challenged and changed by the ordeal in the jungle. Some for the better, and some not so much. As the title spoils, not all of them make it out, but that's a fascinating and touching story, too.

It was remade in 1956 as Back from Eternity with Anita Ekberg and Rod Steiger, so that also just went on my list.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

I'm a huge fan of The Big Sleep, both the Raymond Chandler novel and the 1946 movie based on it. But I'm enough of a fan of the movie that I haven't been that interested in seeing other actors in the role of Philip Marlowe.

And here's another thing: my love of the novel is all about the mood and the dialogue. Chandler's an awesome writer, but - at least in The Big Sleep - he's not an awesome mystery writer. There are huge dangling plot threads and red herrings that don't make sense. Maybe he fixed that in subsequent books, but I haven't read them yet to find out. If Murder, My Sweet (based on Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely) is faithful to its novel, though - and I understand that it is - I still have concerns. For most of its run time, the story spins around without going anywhere. It relies on all the things I like about Chandler (mood, dialogue, and Marlowe himself) to keep me going, but the central mystery is kind of dull.

Phantom Lady (1944)

After enjoying The Web, I started looking for other Ella Raines movies to watch and this is a big one. She plays another secretary, but this time her boss is the one who's in trouble for murder, not the one trying to cover it up. And she's great in it, but neither her boss nor the story itself deserve her. The villain is easy to deduce as soon as the character is mentioned, but then the movie still confirms it way too early. The villain's motivation is super flimsy, too, and the scheme to cover their tracks is even shakier. This is a classic only because of Raines herself and an unforgettable scene with a ridiculously lewd drum solo.

Frontier Gal (1945)

Before she was Lily Munster, Yvonne De Carlo had a prolific film career. She made a lot of Westerns, so I wanted to check some of them out. I shouldn't have started with Frontier Gal, though, because hoo boy. Her character's unlikability in this movie is only surpassed by her co-star's.

Rod Cameron plays an outlaw who visits a saloon run by De Carlo. He takes a liking to her, but she insults him, so he kisses her against her will. She slaps him, so he kisses her again. She slaps him again, so he kisses her again. Repeat several times until she falls in love. And that sets the tone for the entire movie, which might as well have been called No Means Yes.

I'll watch more De Carlo Westerns, but yikes... this one.

Spellbound (1945)

One of my favorite Hitchcock films, partly because I love its two leads, but it's also a great story that keeps turning into something new. Showed it to David this viewing and he wasn't that interested to begin with. I asked him to give it 15 minutes and then decide if he wanted to keep going. We kept going.

That awesome dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali is a highlight, but it's the central mystery and the plot twists (and Bergman and Peck) that make Spellbound so rewatchable.

Shock (1946)

Phantom Lady wasn't the only movie I watched this week inspired by The Web. I wanted to see some more Vincent Price noir, too, so that's where Shock comes in. Price plays an adulterous psychologist who accidentally kills his wife. Unfortunately, he's seen by a woman (Anabel Shaw) who's already under a lot of mental stress. Watching the murder sends her into a catatonic state. When Price is called in to minister to her, he discovers that she's a witness to his crime. Under pressure from his girlfriend, he realizes that if Shaw never recovers, he's off the hook.

It's not my favorite kind of Price role. He's still great, but he's too much a victim of circumstance and his girlfriend to thoroughly relish his performance. Give me wicked and conniving - or at least charmingly caddish - any day.

Song of the Week: "Seagulls! (Stop It Now)" by Bad Lip Reading

This doesn't just crack me up; it gets stuck in my head for a week and I don't even complain.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Southern Charm | Rodney Crowell, Southern Manners, and Pimento Cheese

In the latest episode of Southern Charm, Jody and I talk about country musician Rodney Crowell, his new album Close Ties, and the interview with him in Texas Monthly. Then the conversation turns to etiquette and the differences between Southern manners and what's considered polite in other parts of the country. Ma'am/Sir, holding doors, handshakes, and eye contact all come up. And finally, we close with Jody's recipe for pimento cheese and I get some homework.

Intro Music: "Kill Jill" by Big Boi, featuring Killer Mike and Jeezy

Outro Music: "Good Enough" by Molly Tuttle

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Nerd Lunch | Star Wars Panel: Ewok Movie Drill Downs

Pax put the Star Wars panel back together this week to cover the two, made-for-TV Ewok movies. I'm glad he did for a couple of reasons. First, we hadn't gotten together since talking about Rogue One and I'm glad not to have to wait until Last Jedi for our next get-together. I love talking Star Wars with this crew.

But also, I'd never seen the Ewok movies and this was the push I needed to finally do that. As I explain on the episode, I missed them when they came out and would have been too old to enjoy them anyway. It was fun to finally see them; especially Battle for Endor, which I liked more than the rest of the group did. It's not a great movie, but I see its charm, especially for people who were kids when it came out. Caravan of Courage is a whole other story, though.

So we talk about that and weird fan theories and where these fall into continuity and Burl Ives and Wilford Brimley and all kinds of other stuff. It's a fun episode.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Dragonfly Ripple, Episode 15 - Bone and Alpha Flight

The most recent episode of Dragonfly Ripple is all comics Comics COMICS! Carlin and I start off talking about how we got into collecting comics, what we imagined it would be like to pass our collections on to our kids, and whether or not that's really how it's going. Then Annaliese and David join in to talk about Jeff Smith's Bone and John Byrne's Alpha Flight. In the Jetpack Tiger segment, Dash and Carlin cover The DC Comics Encyclopedia, then we all wrap up with a dinner table discussion in which we create regional superhero teams for Florida and Minnesota.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Introducing the 'Casting Off podcast

This is gonna have to be the last one, but I needed one more podcast in my life to talk about nautical and island stuff. Movies mostly, but probably some TV shows, books, and comics, too. This one is just David and I, so scheduling will be super easy. It'll still be a monthly show, though.

In the first episode, we talk about the difficulties of choosing a name for the show, our fondness for oceans and islands, and then dive deep into Disney's classic adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Oh, and even though this is the last podcast to squeeze onto my plate, it won't be the last new one you'll hear about. There are a couple of others brewing that haven't been announced yet. I'll have a total of eight.


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