Wednesday, December 30, 2015

There has been a podcasting. Have you felt it?



I haven't talked about The Force Awakens here, but I won't shut up about it out in Podcast Land. You can hear my initial reactions to it on Starmageddon with pals Dan and Ron, then pal Carlin and I interviewed our kids about it on the latest Dragonfly Ripple.



I'm looking forward to getting super in depth about it with the Nerd Lunch crew and Kay on an upcoming episode of that show, but until then, Pax and Kay and I got together for a talk on the books and comics of the Star Wars EU. That was a great trip down Memory Lane and also filled up my reading pile with a lot of recommendations for the future.



Anyway, lots of great Star Wars conversations with more to come. I'm not planning to do a full post on it here, but I'd love to hear what you thought of Force Awakens in the comments below.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Sword and Sorcery Cliche No. 2: Barbarian Bikinis [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I believe the movie was Spartacus (1960) with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. In an early scene, the trainer of the gladiators is showing the new recruits how to kill an opponent. Using a large paintbrush, he dabs on color in three spots, explaining these are the three most vulnerable places on the body. With a cruel switch he cuts at the throat, the belly, and the knees. Why do I mention this? Because if you look at Red Sonja's steel mail bikini you'll see it covers none of these.

Red Sonja was created in 1973, not as an adaptation of a Robert E Howard character, but as an amalgam of Howard's Sonya of Rogotino, CL Moore's Jirel of Joiry, and just plenty of sexy '70s goodness. And who am I to argue with the commercial results of selling sexy babes to fan boys everywhere?

But it raises the question: where did such ridiculous armor come from? Whether it is Sonja's steel attire drawn by Frank Thorne or the equally common fur version for less divine opponents painted by Frank Frazetta? The fur and steel bikini is our second sword-and-sorcery cliché and it has its own history, of course.

The 1960s was a time of expansion, even explosion, for fantasy, whether in print or on the silver screen. It was also a time of changing ideas about sexuality, freedom, and identity. So for every feminist staking out more territory for women there was a paperback with a sexy lady on the cover or a movie with a semi-clad starlet in it. In this way, Ray Harryhausen was one of the first filmmakers to have a beautiful young woman as the centerpiece to the film. Not that he had to animate them. Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC (1966) was quite capable of wearing her own fur bikini. This was not a sword-and-sorcery film, but when Harryhausen would produce later films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) or Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), he was sure to include Caroline Monroe and Jane Seymour in revealing Arabic garb.

In the paperback world, an area of increasing expansion since World War II, artists like Gray Morrow produced numerous fantasy scenes for novels costing only ten cents to a quarter. His work was solid, but nothing compared to the furor that Frank Frazetta would create when he began painting covers for the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs for ACE and the story collections of Conan for Lancer. Here women wore as little as possible, regardless of whether they were on the sands of an alien planet or in the snows of Cimmeria. This sounds as if I am putting down Frazetta's work. Nothing could be further from the truth. To look at a Frazetta is to peer into a frozen moment of action and magic. His work sold as many books as the thundering great words of Howard or Burroughs.

Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) was a classically trained painter. Unlike the goofy-looking SF covers of a decade before, Frank's images were so believable, so real in the moment of time in which they happen. You didn't stop to say, hey, isn't that gal a little cold standing there in the snow as she's about to be eaten by wolves? That was the power of Frazetta's brush. A power so enchanting that Betty Ballentine published best-selling collections of his work. I can't imagine the '70s without those volumes containing his paintings and sketches.

Whether they captured your imagination or not, Frazetta did perpetuate the fur bikini-ism of Harryhausen, as lesser artists jumped on the Frazetta bandwagon. What Frank could pull off in a flurry of excitement, they could not. And so the cheesy sword-and-sorcery gal with the impossibly huge sword became a favorite of artists making their money at SF conventions (along with that other fave, the gal with the incredibly large bust and a smoking laser rifle).

The transition from fur to steel occurred quite by chance. Red Sonja appeared for the first time in Conan the Barbarian #23 (February 1973), drawn by Barry Smith with a full shirt of mail and sexy hot pants. But Smith left after Issue #24, and Roy redesigned the character's attire when simple dumb luck put an image in front of him. This was an unsolicited, single page, black-and-white illustration by Spanish artist Esteban Maroto. Unlike American (or British, if we included Barry Smith) comic artists, Maroto brought a Roccocco flourish to his art. The bikini Red was wearing looked more like something you'd hang on your porch to catch the wind than a suit of armor.

Roy Thomas saw the potential and so the first issue of Savage Sword of Conan (August 1974) bore a Boris Vallejo painting with steel bikinied Red Sonja and Conan fighting a crew of undead warriors. (These Boris Conan covers are oddly important to me for as a fourteen year old I had a T-shirt emblazoned with a Boris decal that declared to the world my status as a sword-and-sorcery nut. I never quite got around to having a Frazetta painted on my van though.) The look had arrived. Red Sonja, wearing steel coins where any reasonable person would want thick leather and metal armor, danced across Marvel publications, sword in hand. Artists like Frank Thorne would draw Sonja in regular sized comics, attend conventions with steel-bikinied fangirls (including Elfquest's Wendy Pini) and even do his own racier version of Red called Ghita of Alizarr in the '80s.

We are stuck with the fur and steel bikinis. They are part of sword-and-sorcery's history. (As is the terrible movie version of Red Sonja starring Brigitte Nielsen from 1985. Strangely, Brigitte never wore the ridiculous steel bikini but a Romanesque leather corset with fur trim. Not sure why this was so. Red's steel attire was part of her draw. Plenty of cosplay costumes proved it was possible to make such a garment. Perhaps Nielson refused to wear it?) I like to think that we can set this cliché aside now, laugh at our simplicity back in the day, and return to something closer to what Catherine Lucille Moore conceived with her Lady of Joiry back in 1933. But if Dynamite Comics, the latest copyright holder of the She Devil with a Sword, is any indication, I'd better not hold my breath.

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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Friday, December 25, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Patrick Stewart (1999)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The TNT version of this scene is anti-climactic for this year's study, because it's just Scrooge walking the final steps to his front door. And the set is even similar to the one from The Muppet Christmas Carol, with Scrooge's entering from a small alley that widens into a courtyard with several buildings around. It's a great set up, it's just not new. Nor is anything else about the shot. It's very functional, only meant to lead into next year's scene.

Thanks for joining me! I know this year's scene was light, but as I said in the comments to an early entry, I was happy for an easy one after all the time I spent on Bond this year. And next year's should be quite in depth as we finally visit with Marley's Ghost.

I'm going to take next week off except for at least one guest post by GW Thomas. Gotta get rested up for January's big countdown of 2015 movies. See you next year!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Michael Caine (1992)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The Muppets reduce our scene to a single shot of the courtyard outside Scrooge's house. Gonzo and Rizzo pull up in a carriage and Gonzo narrates as Scrooge enters from a narrow alley and goes to his door. Gonzo differs from Dickens slightly, mixing the author's description of the house with earlier stuff about Marley's (or in this case, the Marleys') existential state.

"Scrooge lived in chambers which had once belonged to his old business partners Jacob and Robert Marley. The building was a dismal heap of brick on a dark street. Now, once again I must ask you to remember that the Marleys were dead and decaying in their graves. That one thing you must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous."

Nothing new there, but Gonzo does it in a hushed tone (something that Rizzo comments on) to add to the spookiness and build suspense for what's about to happen.

Ghosts at Christmas: Dickens to Davies [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Charles Dickens gets the credit for the idea of a ghost story at Christmas. We all know Scrooge, whether it's Alastair Sim, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, or Fred Flintstone. The only problem is that Dickens didn't invent it. I would even go so far as to say he tried to hi-jack the idea and turn it to his own purposes: making money and instruction. I could be wrong. But Dickens wouldn't be the first person to realize that Christmas is a cash cow.

The telling of a winter's tale, a gory or fantastic story around a merry fire in the depths of the dark, cold season, is as old at least as Shakespeare. He couldn't have written the play The Winter's Tale (1623) if it had not existed. By it's very title, we know the story will not be realistic and offer a happy ending. But old Willy didn't invent it either. The tradition goes back into time wherever there were people living in northern climes and had some form of forced inactivity imposed on them. The last remnants of this tradition in North America is the campfire tale that is so often featured in movies, just before the madman starts cutting up teenagers.

So it's been around awhile. The Christmas version is usually told by a grandmother or a trusted nurse, the tale having a homely feel, but a cold shiver as its ultimate goal. It should be no surprise that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote "The Old Nurse's Tale"(1852), one of my favorite Christmas tales. The author of Cranford (1851) was doing what many women Victorian writers did, penning a ghost story for Christmas (and some holiday cash). Many of these stories were published by Mr. Dickens in his Christmas numbers of Household Words and All the Year Round. In this way Dickens did contribute to the popularity of Christmas ghosts over and beyond Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley. Fortunately for us, these tales take after Dickens' "The Signal-Man"(1866) more than A Christmas Carol (1843). For this was Dickens' other fault besides wanting to sell a lot of copies of a magazine (a sin I understand only too well): his ghosts tend to be lessons or morals dressed up in chains. A Christmas Carol rises above the lecturing because it is so entertaining and it has creepy ghosts. Other Dickens' Christmas stories such as "The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain" (1848), "Baron Koeldwethout's Apparation" (1838), "A Child's Dream of a Star" (1850), and "The Last Words of the Old Year" (1851) are all heavy on message and light on supernatural thrills.

Dickens was the promoter of Christmas and ghosts, but fortunately the man they all turned to for inspiration was J Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu's many ghost stories set the holiday scribes on the right path. "Madam Crowl's Ghost," "The Child Who Went With the Fairies," "The White Cat of Drumgunniol," "Sir Dominick's Bargain," "The Vision of Tom Chuff," and "Stories of Lough Guir" all appeared in Dickens' All the Year Round, usually around December. Others appeared in Le Fanu's Dublin University Magazine. Le Fanu, despite seeing himself as a serious historical novelist, is largely remembered for these and other ghost and mystery stories. The Irish writer drew upon the tales of his country for inspiration, and why not? The winter tale is related to "Marchen" or fairy tales, both being part of the oral tradition of storytelling.

The greatest ghost story writer of them all (my opinion, but many would agree) was Le Fanu's disciple, MR James. The Cambridge and Eton don wrote an annual Christmas story and shared it with students and friends. These yearly treats were much looked forward to and there was even a little prestige in being including in such a reading. The thirty-three stories that James produced over the decades are sterling examples of what a ghost story can and should do. Classics like "Casting the Runes," "Count Magnus," "The Ash Tree," "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," and "Lost Hearts" all begin quietly, usually about an amateur antiquarian on a holiday, but end with a glimpse into the cold netherworlds that lurk near by. James' ghosts are never fun, kind, or even well-defined. They are truly terrible, half-glimpsed, and cruel. How Christmasy!

"Christmasy?" you ask. Yes, of course. The shiver that goes down your spine after a truly effective ghost story is not so much different than the feeling of outré joy that the story of Jesus's birth inspires in Christians. In a way, the whole purpose of the Christmas ghost story is to jump-start your sense of the impossible, a faculty that becomes atrophied after months of going to work, enduring the hum-drum tedium that is life. Here is a small dose of Something Greater. Dickens tried in several stories to create this jump-start from a happy place. He fails. James and his wicked spirits never do.

I understand that the idea of a scary story at Christmas is hard to understand today. I live in Canada, perhaps the most realistic country in the world. We get White Christmases, but not ghostly ones. Robertson Davies, the Canadian author, defined it as "the rational rickets." We are so depleted of fantastic imagination, we think men chasing a small black dot around on ice is fun. (Beer helps.) Despite this, Davies wrote his own book of Canadian Christmas ghosts called High Spirits (1982). It is surprising that the deft wordsmith does not reach for the black depths of MR James (who inspired Davies to tell an annual tale for the enjoyment of his college buddies), but Davies' ghosts are enchanting and humorous. As the title implies, jocularity is the key. Ghosts like "The Ghost Who Vanished By Degrees," the grad student who never received his Masters and PhD and the only way Davies can lay him to rest is to give him more and more degrees. The titles are suggestive: "The Ugly Spectre of Sexism," "The Refuge of Insulted Saints," "The Xerox in the Lost Room," and "Dickens Digested." Davies' ghosts take after the stories of J Kendrick Bangs' "Told After Supper" (1891). If you can't quite manage horrific ghosts this Yuletide, I would suggest Davies or Bangs.

Me? I'll stick to the harder stuff. Perhaps a little Algernon Blackwood, who used to read his stories at Christmas on the BBC. Feeling Victorian? Then there is no better place to go than the Gaslight website. Like a mix of Radio and print? Then the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks will do.

One last suggestion: if you'd like a taste of MR James, try Mark Gatiss's BBC TV version of "The Tractate Middoth"  and his documentary about James. And if you catch the mood, there is a collection of MR James BBC shows.

Happy holidays and enjoy the ghosts!

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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | George C Scott (1984)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Director Clive Donner's version cuts abruptly from the merriment in front of the Exchange where the band is playing and kids are sliding on ice. As Cratchit and Tiny Tim head home from that happy scene, Scrooge has a downright spooky walk towards his house.

The sun has gone down and the fog is rolling in, but that's not the worst of it. Donner goes full out chilling - foreshadowing what's going to happen at Scrooge's door - by having a hearse roll by and a disembodied voice call Scrooge's name before the hearse disappears into the fog. The disappearance is a nice effect, by the way. It looks like the hearse vanishes supernaturally and if you watch the scene closely, that's clearly what it's doing. But it's replaced by so much fog that if you were in Scrooge's shoes, you wouldn't be sure that it hadn't just been obscured by the natural mist.

None of this is in Dickens [UPDATE: It is, but in the next scene, once Scrooge goes inside.], so we have to speculate about what's going on there. The voice calling Scrooge's name sounds like Marley, so Marley must be starting to cross through the veil between his world and ours. He's working up to it. First we get a voice, then we'll get his face on the knocker, and then we'll get the whole ghost. But why the hearse? It could be a vision of Scrooge's future or simply a generic reminder of mortality. I'd love to hear other theories in the comments.

Because of the long, scary walk to Scrooge's house, it does feel withdrawn. In fact, Scrooge's gate is off a grungy-looking alley that's lined with ladders and barrels and a cart. There's no indication that he shares his building with office space, but he's certainly living next door to some. And skipping ahead to Christmas morning, there won't be any traffic to speak of in that alley either. This version does a great job communicating a house that's hiding from the rest of London.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Albert Finney (1970)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Because of how the musical Scrooge reorganizes the scenes, Scrooge's journey home includes the charitable solicitors for a short bit. This is an annoying interpretation of those characters and their clueless dogging of Scrooge through the streets launches him into a song about how much he hates people.

Scavengers and sycophants and flatterers and fools.
Pharisees and parasites and hypocrites and ghouls.
Calculating swindlers, prevaricating frauds,
Perpetrating evil as they roam the earth in hordes
Feeding on their fellow men; reaping rich rewards,
Contaminating everything they see.
Corrupting honest men... like me.

I hate people! I hate people!
People are despicable creatures.
Loathsome, inexplicable creatures.
Good-for-nothing, kickable creatures.

I hate people! I abhor them!
When I see the indolent classes
Sitting on their indolent asses;
Gulping ale from indolent glasses,
I hate people! 

I detest them! I deplore them!
Fools who have no money spend it;
Get in debt then try to end it;
Beg me on their knees befriend them
Knowing I have cash to lend them.

Soft-hearted me! Hard-working me!
Clean-living, thrifty, and kind as can be!
Situations like this are of interest to me.

I hate people! I loathe people! 
I despise and abominate people!
Life is full of cretinous wretches
Earning what their sweatiness fetches,
Empty minds whose pettiness stretches
Further than I can see.

Little wonder... I hate people
And I don't care if they hate me!



There are cuts in the video above where Scrooge interrupts the song to collect money from various vendors. If they can't pay - and none of them can - he offers to sell them a week's extension or else they forfeit their businesses and assets to him. Instead of hitting a tavern for his meal, he also extorts a meager supper from the vendors.

This activity draws the attention of the caroling kids whom Scrooge drove away from his office earlier in the movie, so his song segues into their sarcastically titled  "Father Christmas."

Father Christmas!
Father Christmas!
He's the meanest man 
In the whole wide world,
In the whole wide world
You can feel it.

He's a miser.
He's a skinflint.
He's a stingy lout. 
Leave your stocking out
For your Christmas gift
And he'll steal it

It's a shame.
He's a villain.
What a game
For a villain to play
On Christmas Day.

After Christmas,
Father Christmas
Will be just as mean as he's ever been
And I'm here to say,
We should all send Father Christmas
On his merry Christmas way.

Father Christmas!
Father Christmas!
He’s the rottenest man
In the universe
And there’s no one worse.
You can tell it.

He’s a rascal.
He’s a bandit.
He’s a crafty one.
Leave your door undone;
He’ll move in your house 
And sell it

It’s a crime.
It’s a scandal.
What a game
For a vandal to play 
On Christmas day.

If you distrust
Father Christmas,
It’s as well to know
That I told you so,
‘Cause I’m here to say,
We should all send Father Christmas
Father Christmas, Father Christmas
Father Christmas, Father Christmas
On his merry Christmas way.



Their song done, the boys let Scrooge go and he ends up on a lonely street that the set designers have done a lovely job of making look hidden away from the rest of the city.

Monday, December 21, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Fredric March (1954)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Shower of Stars' adaptation cuts this scene down to almost nothing. After spending a little time with Scrooge's closing up the office, it follows him into the streets, nervously clutching his cashbox. He hasn't even turned the corner before the scene dissolves to the interior of his house. Not only is there no dinner scene, but there's also no exterior shot of his home or - as we'll talk more about next year - even a door-knocker.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Alastair Sim (1951)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The 1951 Scrooge is famous for adding to Dickens' story, but it stays pretty trim in this scene. Cutting away from Cratchit's positively bouncing as he wraps up to leave the office, the movie follows Scrooge into the street. People bustle all around him. They're not really all that merry (no one's wishing anyone "Merry Christmas," for instance); they're just busy. Scrooge moves silently and determinedly through them and there's a funny bit where a blind guy (conveniently labeled with a sign around his neck) is pulled out of Scrooge's way by his dog.

Scrooge's tavern doesn't feel especially melancholy. There are people in the street outside, so it's not in an isolated part of town. And more important, there are people in the restaurant, eating and talking and smiling. The conversations are all quiet, so it's not a raucous place, but it's clear that Scrooge - sitting by himself with a partition between him and the others - is the melancholy element.

The interactions between Scrooge and the server have been silent in the last couple of versions, but it's different this time. In Matthau, Hicks, and Owen's adaptations, the focus is on how stingy Scrooge is. Matthau tips his server with a dirty spoon, Hicks scowls at his as if he expects to be cheated on the change, and Owen actually bites into a coin from his change to make sure it's good. There's none of that with Sim.

Instead, his Scrooge asks the server for more bread and is told that there isn't any extra. Scrooge pouts disappointedly and then barks, "No more bread!" as if it's his decision. That's a perfect fit with the way Sim has been playing the character. [EDITED TO ADD: Reader Gene comments below that I've been hearing the server wrong and I agree. He supports something that Diane has been trying to tell me for years. It doesn't fundamentally change my understanding of Sim's character, but it does make more sense and adds to the reading of Scrooge as petty and miserly.] 

His Scrooge isn't mean and miserly for the sake of being mean and miserly. He's simply got a very small worldview and is irritated, but also continually disappointed whenever it's challenged. He feels entitled to some things. And some of them, like people paying their loans back on time, aren't so unreasonable. But he also feels entitled not to be imposed on for charity and not to be robbed of a day's work by his clerk. These are understandable viewpoints, but they're very selfish and petty. And he reacts to the inconvenience the same way he reacts to getting no extra bread, like it's a personal attack. Every aggravation is further proof that the world hates him and that he's right for despising it. Every day is a bad day for Ebenezer Scrooge.

After dinner, Scrooge heads home. There's no gate or yard in this version; sort of like Scrooge McDuck's house in Mickey's Christmas Carol, his front door is right on the sidewalk. I don't remember that we ever get a look at Scrooge's street during the daytime in this version, but it's a wide street and I imagine that it gets a fair amount of traffic. His house isn't really tucked out of the way at all, but it does feel lonely this time of night with snow everywhere and no one else around.

Friday, December 18, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Reginald Owen (1938)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Like I mentioned last year, the 1938 Christmas Carol follows Bob Cratchit outside, but it's not to watch him slide with the boys. Instead, he gets caught up in a snowball fight and soon begins teaching the lads his technique for a perfect snowball. The kids' lookout lets them know that there's a fellow coming with a top hat, so Cratchit sees an opportunity to continue the boys' education in proper throwing. Unfortunately, he lets fly and knocks the man's hat off before realizing that it's Scrooge himself. Apparently the boss didn't stick around too long at the office.

Scrooge looks positively shocked that Cratchit would behave this way. I've always read that as simple indignation, but after measuring up Scrooge last year, I now either detect or imagine some actual hurt in his expression. My working theory is that Owen's Scrooge sort of sees some promise in Cratchit, but is constantly disappointed by the man's choices. This insult is one step too far and - in a shocking move for those familiar with the story - Scrooge fires Cratchit right there. I used to think he's just being mean, but now I believe Scrooge is acting out of distress. He feels betrayed and responds in his typically nasty way.

The movie continues to follow Cratchit, who's despondent at first, but quickly recovers his Christmas cheer. He's just been paid (minus what Scrooge charged him for the ruined top hat) and it's fun to watch him go on a Christmas shopping spree, collecting the food for tomorrow's feast. Over and over again he announces to a vendor that he's willing to spend x amount, but then increases it in keeping with the celebration. I don't know if he blows his whole payday, but he doesn't seem to care if he does. He's determined that whatever happens on December 26th, this is going to be an awesome Christmas.

This version follows Cratchit all the way home and we get to meet his family earlier than in most adaptations. (Of course, we've already met Peter and Tiny Tim in the first scene.) He doesn't tell anyone that he was sacked; he's intent on their enjoying the holiday without letting Scrooge ruin it.

The film then dissolves into Scrooge's lonely dinner at the tavern where he's reading a banker's book. Like in the Seymour Hicks version, this one communicates melancholy by having Scrooge be the only patron in the place. Curiously, he leaves the banker's book on the table when he leaves, as if it belongs to the tavern. Maybe I misunderstood what a banker's book is (my annotated Christmas Carol and Google don't elaborate) or maybe it's a mistake of the movie, but it's interesting to think of it as possibly not Scrooge's own accounting records, but some sort of publication circulated by the finance industry. Perhaps Scrooge doesn't own a copy himself, but comes to this tavern to read theirs. It's a weird theory and doesn't seem likely, but it's the best I have.

After dinner, Scrooge makes his way home. The streets aren't as empty as in some of the other versions we've looked at so far, but they're lonelier near Scrooge's house. This version has the big gate, but a small yard. Still, the large, old house looks plenty withdrawn and desolate.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Seymour Hicks (1935)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Director Henry Edwards' Scrooge does a lot with our scene this year and it's one of the reasons I wanted to keep it separate instead of rolling into another one. The movie picks up a lot of things that Dickens had earlier in the story and presents them in the time between Scrooge's leaving the office and arriving home. There's Cratchit's joining the neighborhood boys for a slide on the ice, but we also check in on other Christmas celebrants. Fred comes home with loads of packages while Cratchit makes it safely to his place with the holiday bird and sprig of greenery. The music is cheery and all the dreariness of the earlier outdoor scene is gone. Christmas is finally in full force.

There's an especially lovely bit at the Lord Mayor's house, making this one of the few versions to adapt that part of Dickens' text. It's not exactly as written, but we get to see all the preparations for a luxurious feast as guests arrive and the wine-tasters, bakers, and various chefs go about their business. In a beautiful representation of Dickens' primary theme, we also see a crowd of street people looking hungrily in through the window at the bustling kitchen. And it's gratifying when one of the chefs brings over a plate of unusable food to distribute to them. Later, when the Lord Mayor leads his guests in a toast and a chorus of "God Save the Queen," those outside the mansion sing just as faithfully and loudly. Politics aside, it's a touching example of camaraderie and national pride.

All this joy is contrasted with Scrooge as he "Humbugs" his way past well-wishers and enters his tavern. It is quite melancholy, since he's the only patron. The landlord is actually sleeping at a table until Scrooge enters and wakes him up with a rap of his cane on another piece of furniture. After a solitary meal, Scrooge makes his lonely walk home and we get this version's account of the blind man's dog that doesn't like the old miser.

It's tough to figure at what point Scrooge arrives at his house. The scene has him walking through a couple of sets to get there and when he goes through a large gate just before a cut to his front door, I can't tell if that's the gate to his house or just another part of London. If it's his house though, it's impressive. Either way, by having Scrooge go through so many empty sets, the movie does a nice job of expressing how isolated and out of the way his place is.

It also finds a clever way to reveal that Scrooge isn't the original owner of the place. On the front door is a sign with Marley and Scrooge's names on it and - just like the one at the office - Marley's is scratched out. I guess that implies that Marley and Scrooge were housemates, rather than Scrooge's inheriting it from his partner, but it's cool that the sign is right under the infamous knocker that's about to call Marley's existential status into question.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins: Self-Righteousness



No Dickens today, because we would have been covering Thomas Edison's silent version and he skips right over this year's scene even more than most adaptations.

Instead, I'd like to point you towards the Literary 007 blog where they're doing a series on Ian Fleming's idea of the Seven Deadlier Sins. These are evils that Fleming felt were more worthy of punishment than the traditional list. The proprietor of the site asked if I'd like to write an entry and I eagerly snatched up Self-Righteousness. I hope you'll go read as I speculate on Fleming's relationship with the sin, point out examples of it from the novels, and explain why I agree with Fleming that it's an especially odious offense.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Jim Carrey (2009)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Robert Zemeckis' Christmas Carol also skips dinner. It goes straight from Cratchit's sliding adventure to Scrooge's arrival at home. I suppose it's a comparison between the joyful frivolity of the sliders (though everything looks gloomy in this movie so far) and the silent solitude of Scrooge's walk. Like in a couple of other versions we've looked at, there are no other people on the streets in Scrooge's part of town.

His house is a large mansion that stands tall and lonely, separated from the world by a large, brick wall. The ponderous, black, iron gate sounds like prison when Scrooge closes it behind himself. I don't imagine that Scrooge shares this building even with business offices. The whole point of the place is to show how cut off and isolated he is.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Espers in Space: Edmond Hamilton's Legion of Lazarus [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The 1950s was an odd time for Science Fiction. After decades of robots and space travel and time machines and external battles, the struggles went inward. Whether you called them psionics, or espers, or any other version of telepaths, SF became about men who fought with their minds. (The other big theme in the 1950s was flying saucers.)

The most powerful editor in SF was John W Campbell and he lead the charge on Psionics, publishing AE van Vogt's Slan in 1946, and even writing non-fiction articles on mental powers. Astounding became the focal point for psi-fiction as well as other unusual ideas like the Dean Drive. (Life even imitated art as L Ron Hubbard sold a mental SF idea to the masses as a new Science called Dianetics (Astounding, May 1950) and later as a religion that survives today as Scientology.) Readers had become obsessed with the idea of using their minds to do fantastic things.

The classic 1950s psi novel is usually identified as The Demolished Man (1952) by Alfred Bester. Bester wrote the serial for HL Gold at Galaxy, not Campbell. Many decades later Michael J Straczynski honored Bester's contribution by giving his leader of the Psi Police on Babylon 5 the name "Bester" (played by Walter Koenig of Star Trek fame).

But Astounding and Galaxy weren't the only magazines using espers. One of my favorite esper tales was written by Edmond Hamilton for Imagination in April 1956, entitled "The Legion of Lazarus." This 21,000 word novella was written for Ray Palmer (the editor that virtually invented the UFO craze) and its appearance in Imagination was not considered a prestigious event. Hamilton's reputation had lost much of its shine by 1956. He spent most of his time writing Batman and Superman comics for DC. Before that he had written the juvenile series Captain Future for Mort Weisinger (who would later go into comics at DC as well). When Hamilton did write SF in the 1950s he was doing some of his very best work (largely unappreciated) in novellas for Palmer. "The Legion of Lazarus" belongs to this part of his career.

The short novel begins with the idea of a humane penalty for murderers. Rather than kill them, they are put in suspended animation for fifty years. The only problem is this process changes them into espers. Hyrst wakes from his wrongful conviction to find himself in the middle of a power struggle, with Lazarites (his word for espers) in the thick of things. The crime for which Hyrst was put to sleep involved a mining operation on Titan. There, one of his colleagues named MacDonald had stumbled upon a cosmic treasure, a lump of Titanite, a power source so precious it would make him fabulously rich. MacDonald is murdered, the Titanite disappears, and Hyrst is convicted of his death.

The plot follows Hyrst's joining the Lazarites, defying Mr Bellaver, the grandson of the rich man who engineered his arrest, and the creation of an intergalactic spaceship. The Lazarites want the Titanite to power their ship to freedom while Bellaver and his goons want only riches. Both sides want Hyrst to tell them where he hid the Titanite, but Hyrst is innocent. All Hyrst wants is the man who killed MacDonald and to clear his name. The final product is a fast-moving tale (with a chase through the asteroids right out of a Star Wars movie!) with ESP and a mystery and a puzzle to solve. Only Edmond Hamilton could write an esper tale that was also first class space opera. (The Demolished Man author, Alfred Bester attempted this type of adventure-oriented SF in The Stars My Destination, but he lacks Hamilton's verve. I found that novel tedious by comparison, it being based on Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo.)

And that's why "The Legion of Lazarus" is my favorite ESP tale, at least up to 1956. It's not dull. The regular Astounding tale reads like one of Campbell's non-fiction articles. The Galaxy stories, like The Demolished Man, are better, but still focused on sociology or humor first. Only a magazine like Imagination, which had no illusions about winning any Hugo Awards, could have published "The Legion of Lazarus." Ray Palmer wanted excitement as well as ideas.

ESP stories after the 1950s have their own later classics. Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside (1973) or George RR Martin's Dying of the Light (1977) both emphasize the cost of having a gift and the price the protagonist has to pay for the ability. Any idea of a fast-paced ESP tale would have to wait for the movies, in cheesy series like Scanners. Perhaps a better legacy is Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) and the character of Viceroy played by Ron Perlman, an Esper who uses his gift to do harm. Here is a film that Hamilton might have seen a glimmer of "The Legion of Lazarus" in.

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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Scrooge McDuck (1983)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Mickey's Christmas Carol all but eliminates this scene, but still brings in the melancholy aspect nicely. Cratchit goes home and leaves Scrooge alone at his desk until a slow dissolve brings a clock chiming nine o'clock. That's when Scrooge finally leaves the office, but the streets are empty now. Everyone is home and Scrooge only has the sound of a mournful oboe in the score to keep him company. He doesn't stop for dinner and the streets are still abandoned when he gets home.

His house is right on the sidewalk and well lit by a street lamp. Quite the opposite of the withdrawn location that Dickens described. As we'll see on Christmas morning, it gets a lot of activity in front of it during the day. None of that matters right now though. The fresh heaped snow, the gloomy lighting, and the music all make Scrooge and his house plenty sad and lonely.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Walter Matthau (1978)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

After Cratchit leaves the office, Scrooge sticks around to put away the day's earnings. Shaking the container of coins, he thinks it sounds a little light and vows to dock Cratchit for anything that's missing. Tom Bosley's Humbug, who's also stayed behind, gets irritated at this and launches into the show's title song.

The show uses "The Stingiest Man in Town" the way The Muppet Christmas Carol uses "Scrooge" earlier in its storyline. As Scrooge makes his way through the city, townspeople (and animals) sing about what a horrible person he is. And it's reinforced by scenes of his acting out his greediness, cheating and tricking street vendors into giving him free stuff. He does stop in a tavern for dinner, but his newspaper is taken from a trashcan and he stiffs his server on the tip. It's not all that melancholy, but remember that this Scrooge isn't especially sad. He's just mean and wrong.

Here are the lyrics and you can watch the video below:

How can anybody be so stingy?
So stingy, so stingy?
How could anybody be so stingy?
He's the stingiest man in town.

Old Scrooge is such a stingy man
The tightest man since time began.
Oh, he's so tight, so tight I say
He wouldn't give a bride away.

It hurts him so to pay one cent,
He wouldn't pay a compliment,
He uses lightning bugs at night,
To save the cash he'd pay for light!

How can anybody be so stingy?
So stingy, so stingy?
How could anybody be so stingy?
He's the stingiest man in town.

When he goes by the children hiss.
No other man is tight as this.
One day he skinned an alley cat
To make himself a winter hat.

He has a house that's very tall,
With flowered paper in the hall.
And for his mother's funeral,
He cut the flowers off the wall.

How can anybody be so stingy?
So stingy, so stingy?
How could anybody be so stingy?
He's the stingiest man in town.

And when his hearse goes rolling by.
No man alive is gonna cry.
But you can bet his ghost will curse,
Because he's paying for the hearse.

And when it's time for him to go,
His soul will travel down below,
And when he gets there you can tell,
Because you'll hear old Satan yell...

How can anybody be so stingy?
So stingy, so stingy?
How could anybody be so stingy?
He's the stingiest man in town.



The Rankin-Bass cartoon is adapted from a live-action musical special that had aired in 1956 on the NBC anthology show The Alcoa Hour. It starred Basil Rathbone as Scrooge and I just watched it for the first time last year. It's good, but I'm too far into this project to want to try to squeeze it in and catch it up to the other versions. Still, for fun, here's the original version of the song. As you can see, it takes a mocking tone towards Scrooge instead of the righteous indignation of the cartoon.



Back to the cartoon, the scene ends with Scrooge's arrival at home. It doesn't bear much resemblance to the one Dickens describes. It's pretty much just a dark townhouse on a block of similar townhouses. There's a little iron fence around a small yard in front, but nothing about it feels secluded.

The scene does turn spooky though as Humbug narrates, saying that "there was something strange about that night" and suggesting that it was supernaturally dark. He paraphrases Dickens' line about the Genius of the Weather sitting in mournful meditation on the threshold, but changes the personification to Death, foreshadowing the ghostly events that are about to take place.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Alastair Sim (1971)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Richard Williams' animated version also skips dinner, but uses Scrooge's journey home to sneak in some Michael Redgrave narration that Dickens had placed earlier in the story. Specifically, it's the bit about blind men's dogs that would cross the street instead of bringing their masters into Scrooge's vicinity. Williams shows us one such encounter, but the rest of the walk home is done impressionistically in only a couple of shots.

In the first, there's a sketched out street - very grim and murky - with the small, lone figure of Scrooge walking in the background. The second shot has a more distinct Scrooge walking through an empty background that represents fog, with only a hazy spot of light to suggest a window or a lantern. The film goes straight from this nondescript background to Scrooge's door, so there are no details about what Scrooge's house looks like, but the melancholy of Scrooge's situation is very clear.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Teen Titans #13 (1968)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

I covered way too much of this version in the first year of the project, so it's still waiting for us to catch up. Next year we'll have some new stuff to say about it, but in the meantime, here's the Teen Titans investigating the goings on at Scrounge's junkyard.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Graphic Classics, Volume 19: Christmas Classics (2010)



Alex Burrows and Micah Farritor's version is sort of the opposite of the old Classics Illustrated version. Classics Illustrated relies heavily on text, so the drawings serve more like illustrations than true, comics storytelling. I guess that's fair considering the name of the comic. But Burrows and Farritor take the opposite approach, letting the drawings do a lot of the work.

Take this year's scene for instance. It cuts out the dinner part and just follows Scrooge home, but there's no caption to give us the history of his house or who else does or doesn't live there. And honestly, the story doesn't need it. That stuff is flavor, but Burrows and Farritor are challenged with adapting the tale in very few pages and I like their choice of focusing on the mood and the major story beats instead of Dickens' details.

Like Classics Illustrated though,  Graphic Classics uses the scene to remind us how Scrooge feels about Christmas. Farritor draws a lovely panel in which Scrooge is surrounded by Christmas celebrants shopping, partying, and smooching in the road, surrounded by holly and greenery. Christmas is in full force, but Scrooge is having none of it. He's raising one arm as if to strike someone who isn't there and he's frowning as he says, "Humbug." He's not sneering about it though like he was in the office. Possibly that's because no one's paying any attention to him now. Scrooge's hatred of Christmas is genuine, but he might play it up more when he knows he can get a rise out of someone.

The only other panel between Scrooge's office and the supernatural door-knocker has Scrooge standing on the front steps of his place. He's about to go in and we get a quick, closely cropped look at the house. It's colored in a dreary brown and there are mud puddles on the ground and dangerous-looking icicles hanging all over the place. It looks plenty lonely and spooky without a single word of text.

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Saturday, December 05, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Campfire’s A Christmas Carol (2010)



Scott McCullar and Naresh Kumar condense our scene into a single panel. There's no mention of dinner, but the word "melancholy" is kept to describe Scrooge's walk home.

The description of the house is bare, too, saying only that Scrooge lives in the building alone. There's nothing about Marley and the text implies that Scrooge has the whole place to himself. Neither of those are bad things, though. So many adaptations suggest that Scrooge owns the whole building that I'm comfortable with that.

It's a little hard to decipher the depth of the yard in Kumar's drawing. We're quite close to that lantern and the wall behind it also looks near. But the gate on the left looks farther back and I can't tell how close it is to the house. I do like the lines suggesting sleet and wind though and Anil CK's colors are nice, putting Scrooge back in the cold, removed from the soft lantern light.

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Friday, December 04, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | A Christmas Carol: The Graphic Novel (2008)



Sean Michael Wilson and Mike Collins' version uses four panels to show us this scene. The first has Scrooge in the tavern, which - in spite of the caption box that tells us it's melancholy - has a warm, homey glow to it. The patrons are dour enough though, silently staring into their drinks with hats pulled down to conceal their eyes in shadow. In the background, separated from the others, Scrooge quietly accepts a plate from the tavern keeper.

The next two panels show Scrooge on his way home and we get a look at his house, mostly dark and forbidding except for that warm lantern glow that colorist James Offredi keeps including. It's a nice effect; it just doesn't fit the tone the story needs right there. I love Collins' work and especially David Roach's inks in these two panels. Scrooge is dramatic against the backgrounds and I get a great sense of Scrooge's solitude and the spookiness of the scene. I also like how Collins surrounds the house with other architecture. It feels much more claustrophobic than the Marvel version.

The final panel, with a caption about how Scrooge's chambers formerly belonging to Marley (but no mention of the rented offices), has Scrooge at the front door with the famous knocker, foreshadowing what's about to happen.

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Thursday, December 03, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Marvel Classic Comics #36 (1978)



Marvel's version makes a bold choice and has the tavern being not melancholy at all. On the surface, this seems like an obvious fix of Dickens' text. Of course there would be Christmas celebrants at a gathering place. But places have character just like people do and this being Scrooge's "usual melancholy tavern," I expect that part of the reason he frequents there is that there's something about the place that discourages festivity. There's an interesting story behind why the place wouldn't be celebrating Christmas; Dickens just isn't telling us what it is.

But Marvel's not wrong for giving a different take. There's also a deeper story behind why this group of merrymakers chose to invade this particular tavern; Marvel just isn't telling us what it is. But it adds some fun irony to the word "usual" and highlights how withdrawn and pathetic Scrooge is as he sulks and reads in the background. Coloring him a cold blue helps with this, too.

Like Classics Illustrated, Marvel also mentions that Scrooge's home used to belong to Marley. It adds the detail that the other rooms in the house have been rented out, but omits the part about their being offices.

The art does a nice job of communicating the dreariness and seclusion of the place. It's colored in the same cold blue that Scrooge was in the previous panel. The dark, looming gateway in the foreground creates space between it and the distant house. It's a more open space than I imagine when I read Dickens though and gives the impression of a once luxurious mansion. I've always pictured the house being at the end of a long alley and closely surrounded by other buildings. But I don't want to read too much into this one, small panel. It's hard to tell much about the house and its grounds from the angle of the drawing.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Classics Illustrated #53 (1948)



Unsurprisingly, Classics Illustrated cuts the part about dinner and has Scrooge go straight home. It does mention though that Scrooge inhabits a set of rooms instead of a whole house, but not that the other rooms are all offices. It also adds that Scrooge's suite used to belong to Marley.

It doesn't show us much of the building though, simply saying that it's in "a dreary section of the town." Not much room for showing in this comic.

Classics Illustrated does add one thing to the scene and that's a reminder that Scrooge thinks Christmas is a humbug. In Dickens, Scrooge isn't obsessing about the holiday, but here it's still very much on his mind.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Dickens



Illustration by Harry Furniss.

Borrowing from Siskoid's format on his Hamlet blog, as we look at Dickens' text, I'm going to copy the entire text of the section in italics and insert commentary. That'll help identify elements that we want to pay attention to in the adaptations.

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker's-book, went home to bed.

Since Scrooge doesn't observe Christmas (and Dickens uses the word "usual"), we're safe in assuming that this is Scrooge's normal routine. The popular image is of Scrooge's eating his gruel alone in his cold apartment, but we forget that that's a second "meal" for medicinal purposes (come back next year for more on that!). Scrooge doesn't waste money and he's not eating at a fancy restaurant, but he's also not opposed to paying someone else to fix and serve him his meal. Something to watch in the adaptations is whether and how they communicate the "melancholy" of the scene.

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner.

Most adaptations don't care about this, but at least one of them makes a big deal out of it.

They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices.

I don't think any of the adaptations mention that there are offices in the building where Scrooge lives. In fact, most of them imply that he owns the whole place. We won't really see how that's handled this year, but we'll follow Scrooge into the house next year and hopefully I'll remember to come back and talk about it.

The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

We will get to see the exterior of Scrooge's house this year, so something to pay attention to is how it's depicted. Do the adaptations put the house hidden away from the street behind a long yard?

Posts should be shorter this year. We're really only looking for a couple of things:

  • If the adaptation includes Scrooge's dinner, how does it communicate the sadness of the scene?
  • How is the house portrayed? What does this say about Scrooge?
  • If the adaptation adds anything to this section, what's the purpose of that addition?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Robots Can't Lie: SF Mysteries Before Asimov [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Isaac Asimov claims that the science fiction story was never truly married with the mystery story before 1953. Some authors tried, while others danced around the problem, like Anthony Boucher who wrote the mystery novel, Rocket to the Morgue in 1942, about science fiction fans, rather than being science fiction itself. It was Asimov who took this challenge most seriously. In his book Asimov's Mysteries (1968) he wrote of his quest:
But talk is cheap, so I put my typewriter where my mouth was, and in 1953 wrote a science fiction mystery novel called The Caves of Steel (published, 1954). It was accepted by the critics as a good science fiction novel and a good mystery and after it appeared I never heard anyone say that science fiction mysteries were impossible to write. I even wrote a sequel called The Naked Sun (published, 1957) just to show that the first book wasn't an accident. Between and after these novels, moreover, I also wrote several short stories intended to prove that science fiction mysteries could be written in all lengths.
The Caves of Steel and its sequels feature murders that involve robots. Was this an original idea? Hardly. Eando Binder had made robots famous as early as 1939 with his stories of Adam Link, a robot that is accused of murder and faces trial. Asimov's interest is not to turn robots into protagonists, but to explore his Three Laws of Robots (and how a clever murderer might get around them.)

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across "Robots Can't Lie" by Robert Leslie Bellem in a copy of Fantastic Adventures, July 1941. This murder mystery has a man, Tim Kermit, framed for murder by a robot that identifies him as the killer. Because of the way robots record what they see, they are considered infallible witnesses. Tim's only chance of avoiding the Lethal Chamber is to escape and repair another robot that was found broken at the murder scene. In the end the escape and repair are a trick that brings out the real killer.

Bellem tells the tale in his usual loose, noir style with Q-rays replacing .38s and gliders replacing cars. What the author lacks in style he makes up for in pace. Editor Ray Palmer interrupts in Hugo Gernsback fashion (with footnotes) to explain the SF trappings such as the Q-bolt used in the murder weapon, the viso lens of the robot, and the personal radio wave of the autorad, all in pseudo-scientific gooblygook that does nothing to further the story.

Now to go back to Asimov. He never said that no one ever tried to do it, only that it had never succeeded. What strikes me first off, is how similar the mystery ideas are between "Robots Can't Lie" and his Lije Bailey novels. I doubt Bellem was familiar with Adam Link (though he may have been), but Ray Palmer certainly was aware of his competition. Isaac Asimov was also fully aware of the Binders. He had permission to use the title I, Robot from the brother duo who had used it earlier. Was Asimov familiar with "Robots Can't Lie"? He was a bit of an Astounding/John W Campbell snob, so would he have read anything as pulpy as Fantastic Adventures? Unlikely, but his interest in robot stories may have superseded his snobbery.

Does "Robots Can't Lie" work as an SF-Mystery? Better than Asimov might have liked to admit. The robot-witness idea certainly could not happen in a regular mystery. This is one of Asimov's key criteria: a good SF-Mystery can't work as a regular mystery, nor is it simply SF. I'm not going to say you couldn't rewrite this story without SF trappings or robots. Replace the robots with human witnesses and it would work. (There is even a chance Bellem's story was largely rewritten by Palmer, though I have no proof of this.) Bellem was a high production writer, pumping out millions of words a year, and his ploy of trapping the villain is hardly novel. Asimov's novels by comparison could not be rewritten in this fashion. Even if Asimov wasn't the first, he certainly was the best at creating such SF Mysteries.

The other thing that makes me giggle is the 1980s adoration of how William Gibson brought a Raymond Chandler style to Cyberpunk. You want full-bore noir SF, here it is, the real thing from one of noir's cheesier hacks, back when Gibson's father was still reading Thrilling Wonder Stories.

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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

The Christmas Carol Project | His Usual Melancholy Tavern



It's almost December again and time to get back to our annual look at everyone's favorite Christmas/ghost story, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. If you're new to this, the idea is to pay attention to the way Scrooge's story has been interpreted and adapted to other media over the years. I’ve broken the story into scenes (or sometimes parts of scenes) in order to look at their translation to 19 different films, TV shows, and comics.

Here's the list of adaptations in the order I'll take them:

• Classics Illustrated #53 (1948)
• Marvel Classics Comics #36 (Marvel; 1978)
• A Christmas Carol: The Graphic Novel (Classical Comics; 2008)
• A Christmas Carol (Campfire; 2010)
• "A Christmas Carol" in Graphic Classics, Vol. 19: Christmas Classics (Eureka; 2010)
• Teen Titans #13 (DC; 1968)
• A Christmas Carol cartoon (1971) starring Alastair Sim
• The Stingiest Man in Town (1978) starring Walter Matthau
• Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) starring Scrooge McDuck
• A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey
A Christmas Carol (1910) starring Marc McDermott
Scrooge (1935) starring Seymour Hicks
A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen
Scrooge (1951) starring Alastair Sim
"A Christmas Carol" episode of Shower of Stars (1954) starring Fredric March
Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney
A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) starring Michael Caine
A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart

Annual Disclaimer: This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list. I started with my favorites, added some that people have recommended over the years, and then threw in some others that just caught my curiosity. We can talk about the ones I left out, but I will say that the reason Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol isn’t here is because I hate it with a passion. It’s neither a good Christmas Carol nor a good Mister Magoo cartoon. There’s also no Scrooged or An American Christmas Carol or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. When I first started this, I tried to stick to more or less faithful adaptations, but even though I've since added Teen Titans to the list, I'd rather that be a fun exception and not have to figure out where I'm going to draw the line.

This is going to take years. Every December we'll look at one scene, starting with Dickens' version, then exploring individual adaptations of that scene in the days leading up to Christmas. This year's scene is pretty short. One paragraph of Dickens, really. It covers from when Scrooge leaves his office to when he arrives at the front door of his house. As you might expect, a lot of adaptations leave this out and just cut from the office to the famous doorknocker bit. But others take the opportunity to add material here, so we'll keep it separate instead of just rolling it into his meeting with Marley.

The fun starts tomorrow!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Complete, these Nerd Lunch drill-downs are (for now)



The sixth and final (until December 18th) Nerd Lunch Star Wars drill-down came out on Tuesday with me, Kay, and the Nerd Lunch fellas talking about Revenge of the Sith. To no one's shock, it was everyone's favorite of the prequels, but I think we were all a little surprised at how much we enjoyed it. It still has big problems - and we talk about those - but I enjoy it more and more every time I watch it. There's some legitimately great stuff in there and we talk about that, too. Also: Clone Wars cartoons and a truly awesome Star Wars-related Carryover Question.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sword and Sorcery Cliche No. 1: The Ming the Merciless Haircut [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I am currently re-reading John Jakes's entire Brak the Barbarian saga, and I was struck by an odd thought. Why do wizards in sword-and-sorcery always dress like Ming the Merciless? In "The Unspeakable Shrine," Brak meets his nemesis, Septegundus, the Amyr of Evil and high priest of Yob-Haggoth:
And from the black portal silently glided the Amyr of Evil upon Earth...The man was not of overwhelming stature. He was clad in a plain black robe with voluminous sleeves into which his hands were folded. His pate was closely shaven, his nose aquiline, his lips thin. His chin formed a sharp point, and the upper parts of his ears were pointed, too. His eyes were large, dark, staring, nearly all pupil. Very little white showed. He had no eyelids. Evidently they had been removed by a crude surgical procedure. Light pads of scar tissue had encrusted above the sockets which held eyes that never closed.
Septegundus is far from an anomaly. He is the stereotypical sword-and-sorcery wizard. Bald, weird-looking, powerful, with evil eyes. Compare him to Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings:
An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.
Tolkien derived Gandalf's look from the Scandinavian tales of Odin who traveled in the guise of "The Grey God," a man in a wide-brimmed hat dressed in grey. The Ming stereotype is coming from a different lineage, the gothics.

The horror tradition in fiction begins in England with The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole. These novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe, feature creepy houses, lost heirs, fake monsters, and a lot of shocks for shock sake. This tradition would eventually dissolve into other forms of storytelling, including detective and mystery fiction and the psychological horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Do they feature bald-headed wizards? Not really. Though Ambrosio from MG Lewis's The Monk (1796) is certainly the most influential of all gothic characters:
He was a Man of noble port and commanding presence. His stature was lofty, and his features uncommonly handsome. His Nose was aquiline, his eyes large black and sparkling, and his dark brows almost joined together. His complexion was of a deep but clear Brown; Study and watching had entirely deprived his cheek of colour. Tranquillity reigned upon his smooth unwrinkled forehead; and Content, expressed upon every feature, seemed to announce the Man equally unacquainted with cares and crimes. He bowed himself with humility to the audience: Still there was a certain severity in his look and manner that inspired universal awe, and few could sustain the glance of his eye at once fiery and penetrating. Such was Ambrosio, Abbot of the Capuchins, and surnamed, 'The Man of Holiness'.
So how did the bald look find its way into sword-and-sorcery? You can thank Weird Tales. You have to remember that sword-and-sorcery as Robert E Howard created it was half fantasy and half horror. He had to sell these stories to Farnsworth Wright after all, and WT was a horror pulp. In the stories that Howard wanted to sell to Adventure (Stories like "By This Axe I Rule" or "Kings of the Night") he drops almost all the horror trimmings, writing something closer to a Harold Lamb or Talbot Mundy tale. He was a professional and he wanted to crack more prestigious magazines.

So, Weird Tales is the gateway. Howard introduces Thoth-Amon in "The Phoenix on the Sword" (December 1932) and this evil Stygian priest doesn't bear the look (not yet, later in the Marvel Comics and the L Sprague de Camp pastiches he would get the buzz cut.) Even though Thoth-Amon didn't get much description, his activities are similar to another character, Fu Manchu:
Of him it had been fitly said that he had a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan. Something serpentine, hypnotic, was in his very presence. Smith drew one sharp breath, and was silent. Together, chained to the wall, two mediaeval captives, living mockeries of our boasted modern security, we crouched before Dr. Fu-Manchu.
Robert E Howard had written of his own version of Fu named Kathulos of Egypt in "Skull-Face" (October-December 1929):
The hands--but, oh God, the face! A skull to which no vestige of flesh seemed to remain but on which taut brownish-yellow skin grew fast, etching out every detail of that terrible death's-head. The forehead was high and in a way magnificent, but the head was curiously narrow through the temples, and from under penthouse brows great eyes glimmered like pools of yellow fire. The nose was high-bridged and very thin; the mouth was a mere colorless gash between thin, cruel lips. A long, bony neck supported this frightful vision and completed the effect of a reptilian demon from some medieval hell.
Howard, after Rohmer, is clearly working in a tradition descended from Otranto, with men reborn from Ancient Asia, whether China or Egypt, the cradle of mysterious wisdom and evil.

To make this even clearer, there are two major undercurrents in the gothics that truly pin down the evil wizard type. The first is that the underlying plot of gothic stories is about something from the past terrorizing the present. In Otranto, this is the specter of the giant knight who crushes Manfred's heir with a helmet, steps out of paintings, and ultimately destroys him. In later years this can be seen in horror fiction in any story in which an ancient object haunts a family like in "The Stone Idol" by Seabury Quinn, or in ghost stories like MR James' "Lost Hearts." In mystery fiction this is the crime that haunts the perpetrator such as the classic Wilkie Collins story The Moonstone (1868) or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock tale, "The Adventure of the Crooked Man" (The Strand, July 1893). In the noir branch, it's the unknown crime in Cornell Woolrich's The Black Curtain (1941). In sword-and-sorcery (and other forms of fantasy), this is Bilbo's Ring or the ancient snake worshippers of Set, who harken back to the Snake Men of Prehistory. It can be any object, book, knowledge, god, or monster that returns centuries later. And that's our sorcerer buddy. He is either such a person, or works for such a deity, or possesses such an object. They buy into the idea that ancient power can make them powerful now. It is up to the barbarian hero to thwart such ideas.

The second theme that the gothics give us is the idea that old things are evil and new things are our savior. This is immediately evident when you look at the hero, Brak:
The mendicant seemed to hunch in fright cowed by the figure before him: the bigger man plainly was an outlander, a huge, yellow-headed giant whose hair was plaited in a single long braid that hung down his back. A glossy fur cloak and cowl around the barbarian’s shoulders reflected the torchglare dimly. The big man was naked save for this fur and a garment of lion’s hide about his hips.
Brak is young, well-maned, and virile. The female characters are usually voluptuous, fecund, and available. Villains such as Ariane are usually too beautiful, hinting at their deceit, and often prove to be withered crones or monsters when their magic is dispelled. The wizard is the exact opposite to Brak, old-looking, bald, and with eyes that contain evil powers. The baldness is important, for it is a sign of age, impotence and decay. In gothic texts, the authors often suggested that the Roman Catholic religion was likewise decrepit and oppressive; old, but evil. The gothics weren't anti-religion, just anti-Catholic, for the hero (no longer disguised as a peasant, returned to his true lordship) marries the heroine in a good Anglican church, with a bright future ahead. The evil, old dude gets his comeuppance and if he has time says something akin to "And I would have gotten away with to too, if it weren't for you meddling kids." This kind of shorthand works for all kinds of villains and comics certainly have had their share, such as The Red Skull in Captain America.

Lastly, to cement the point, let's consider Elric of Melnibone. Michael Moorcock created Elric as a kind of anti-Conan. Instead of strong, he is a weak albino. Instead of handsome, he is freakish. In fact, Moorcock uses many of the villain characteristics to create his anti-hero. He is haunted by his sword, Stormbringer, who must be fed souls to keep the weak body going. This sword is the object from the past that haunts his present, dooming his future. In many ways, Elric is the image of the sorcerer, not the swordsman. In some ways but not all. Elric is not bald but has a flowing white mane. He is also resourceful, able to have companions, and is capable of love. Moorcock created a hero who is halfway between the two types. This should not be surprising when you consider one of his influences was Mervyn Peake, who wrote the Gormenghast trilogy, undoubtedly the most gothic of the fantasy sagas. Unlike Tolkien, Moorcock is consciously choosing to work inside the gothic tradition, though bending and stretching it to his own ends. This opening of gothic elements helped allow sword-and-sorcery to evolve past the Howardian formula. Series like Gene Wolfe's The Book of New Sun and Samuel R Delaney's Neveryona play with these elements in fresh ways. (Though read any Conan novel by Robert Jordan, Leonard Carpenter, or others and you will find any number of baldies trying to resurrect ancient gods. Even worse, consider Skeletor from The Masters of the Universe! Alas, some like the formulas as is).

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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.



Monday, November 23, 2015

Join me on Letterboxd



I had to let the "7 Days in May" feature slip over the summer as I was getting caught up on Bond, but intended to come back to it. But since I was mostly using that for capsule reviews of things I've been watching, I realized that Letterboxd is a better way of doing that. So I started a page there.

I love the design of the site and how it lets me keep a diary of what I'm watching as well as create lists. Sadly, it doesn't let me track TV series as well, so it doesn't fully replace IMDB, but it's much prettier and consolidates all my activity into a single, easy-to-navigate page. So I probably won't be coming back to "7 Days in May," but if you want to read short thoughts on what I've been watching - and to share your own thoughts on what you've been watching - follow me on Letterboxd and I'll follow you back. I'm still in early days there and would love to add to the people I'm interacting with.

I used to worry about dispersing my content too much over multiple platforms, but now I enjoy having different tools for different jobs. Tumblr works really well for quickly sharing news links and inspirational artwork; Letterboxd is great for movie discussion. Blogging is still perfect for longer essays, so that's what this site has almost exclusively become. There's much less daily content than I used to put up back in the day, but my hope and goal has been that what does show up here will be more thoughtful.

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