Monday, February 15, 2016

Plant Monsters: The Stories [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The first stories of killer plants were written by two Americans. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "Rappacini's Daughter" in 1844 and showed us that a father's wish to protect his daughter's virtue can become almost pathological. Rappacini infuses the girl with plant poison, making her the precursor of Batman's Poison Ivy. The second story was twenty-five years later and written by the mother of the American family story, Lousia May Alcott, who penned Little Women (1868). Her story has the Gothic title of "Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy's Curse" and is the first real killer flower story. Seeds from a mummy's treasure grow into a large blossomed plant. When worn, the flower sucks the vitality from the wearer.

The idea of plant monsters really caught fire in the 1870s after botanical discoveries of large drosera and other flesh-eating plants were found and reported in the illustrated newspapers. These lead to fake reports which then lead to the storytellers of the day creating the first man-eating tree stories. These include A Conan Doyle, Julian Hawthorne, Phil Robinson, Grant Allen, and many lesser known writers. HG Wells reinvigorated the idea in 1894 with his blood-sucking orchid tale, "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid." I always used to think Wells invented the idea, but he comes to the part twenty years late. It was Frank Aubrey's The Devil-Tree of El Dorado (1896) that scores a hit in novel form. The Victorians would go on writing about killer plants all the way into the pulp era.

Weird Tales and the other pulps explored the idea with varying amounts of innovation. The Unique Magazine featured twenty-three killer plants (that I have discovered so far. I am sure there are others), beginning with "The Devil Plant" by Lyle Wilson Holden (May 1923) to Donald Wandrei's "Strange Harvest" (May 1953). May is significant, for I noticed, especially with the comics, that plant monsters tended to appear in that month as if the allergy season drove the concept of hostile plant life. Amongst the Weirdies to pen a plant story are Clark Ashton Smith (7), Edmond Hamilton (3), David H Keller (3), Howard Wandrei (2), Jack Snow, A Merritt, Seabury Quinn, Carl Jacobi, and Mary Elizabeth Counselman. The genres range from science fiction to horror. Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seed From the Sepulchre" and Jack Snow's "Seed" would be imitated (knowingly or unknowingly) in Scott Smith's bestseller The Ruins (2008). For this is another thing I have noticed, plant monster stories haven't really changed much, even after a hundred and forty years.

More modern times saw one story in particular pull the plant trope in a new direction. This was John Wyndham's blockbuster, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Unlike most plant monsters, Wyndham's triffids are not found in a jungle (or come from space as in the 1962 film), but are created specifically by men. Wyndham uses their nastiness (as well as the blinding of humanity) to comment on human ills (a la the Cold War). Other novels that explore plant monsters in a new way include Brian W Aldiss's fantasy Hothouse (1962), in which all the characters and setting are plants. Others like Susan Cooper's Mandrake (1962) and Frank Herbert's The Green Brain (1966) would predate James Lovelock's 1970s Gaia Theory, in which the entire Earth as a living organism fights back against humankind.

Fantasy has always featured supernatural trees in the form of dryads, sylphs, and mandrakes. L Frank Baum had fighting trees in The Wizard of Oz (1901), though they were reduced to talking trees in the film. JRR Tolkien would write about Old Man Willow and Treebeard the Ent in The Lord of the Rings (1954-56), while his friend, CS Lewis would use (to a much lesser degree) similar creations in his Narnia books (1950-55). Sword-and-sorcery of the 1970s would offer up new versions of the killer tree for the barbarians Conan and Brak to fight. And in most recent years, JK Rowling gave us the Whomping Willow of the Harry Potter series.

Modern horror hasn't lagged behind. While chasing Stephen King and Jaws-sized success, some less talented authors would write 1980s horror novels featuring killer vines, none worthy of particular mention. More interesting were the anthologies of older stories such as Vic Ghidalia's The Nightmare Garden (1976) and Carlos Cassaba's The Roots of Evil (1976). Many modern horror writers have created single, short exertions into plant monsterdom including Kit Reed, David Campton, Brian Lumely, and Jeff Strand. More often though, as from the very beginning, the majority of such tales were written by less well-known or even obscure writers who produced few or no other stories.

Scott Smith surprised the world of publishing with his novel The Ruins in 2006. While I gritted my teeth and held my tongue when mundanes thrilled to "the novelty," I can't say anything against Smith's book. He wrote it in a style that elevates it above mere pulp. While the flesh-eating vines are not new, his prose has a dreamy quality to it that lulls the reader into a sense of quiet before the monsters are unleashed. I heard the film version criticized as "just another 'let's watch a group of twenty-somethings get eaten' film" and I can understand this. The film lacks Smith's dreamy prose quality, though its CGI plants are quite frightening.

I haven't gone into a lot of TV or movies here, and no comics at all (for the comics always followed, never setting trends), because there simply isn't room. The only video productions that had anything really new to add were the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), especially the musical version in 1986. "Feed me, Seymour!" the bulbous Audrey II cries, and in that moment, as the large-toothed mouth hovers over the insignificant Seymour Krelboyne, the final version of the plant monster has arrived at last. For every twelve-year-old kid who bought a Venus Flytrap to feed flies to, for every hunter lost in the bush, feeling like the forest was his living antagonist, for every allergy sufferer (I feel your pain!), here is the image of plant as hostile. We forget that they too are living, moving, evolving, struggling organisms. And it takes the occasional plant monster to remind us every so often. Has the final plant monster story been written? I hardly think so. Like dandelions springing up on your lawn, the plant monster isn't going anywhere soon. Check out the database at gwthomas.org.

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, February 12, 2016

Introducing: Hellbent for Letterbox!



And here's the other one! In addition to Mystery Movie Night, I'm also joining Nerd Lunch's Paxton Holley to start Hell Bent for Letterbox, a podcast devoted to Westerns. As the title suggests, we'll mostly focus on movies, but we're certainly leaving ourselves open to TV shows and even books and comics.

The first episode is about the origins of the show, from our formative years with Westerns to why we both needed to talk about them on a podcast that neither of us actually has time for. I hope that excitement and passion comes through in the discussion. This is something we kind of have to do. We've even recorded Episode 2 already, in which we dig into our first movie, and that will be up in the next week or so. After that though we'll move to a monthly schedule.

We've started the process to get it searchable in iTunes, but in the meantime you can listen below or by subscribing directly through iTunes using the feed http://hellbentforletterbox.libsyn.com/rss. If you like Westerns even a little bit, I hope you'll give it a listen. This is gonna be fun.




Thursday, February 11, 2016

Introducing: The Mystery Movie Night podcast!



So the podcasting bug. I've caught it bad.

In addition to Dragonfly Ripple and Starmageddon, I've helped start a couple of more shows and there's talk about a fifth. And then that'll be it, I promise. I'm tempted to give you details about shows Four and Five, but I'll hold off until those are ready. One of them will be very soon.

Show Three though is done and the first episode available. It's called Mystery Movie Night and it features myself, my pal Erik Johnson (who created our awesome logo and that marquee above), my brother Mark, my brother-in-law Dave, and my son David. The concept is that one of us picks three movies that all have a secret element in common. It could be anything: an actor, a character, a prop, etc. We discuss all three movies then try to guess the common thing. That's the Mystery, and there's even a way for listeners to play along, but really it's just an excuse to share and talk about movies.

This month, we watched Stagecoach (1939), She's Having a Baby, and Star Trek (2009). And I realized how nice it is that we have such a broad range of ages on our panel. You have old farts like me, slightly younger farts like Mark and Dave, fresh young bucks like Erik, and a bona-fide whipper-snapper in David. That gives us some different perspectives and we'll try to diversify even more down the road by adding some guests once we know what we're doing.

It'll be an every month or so thing and I'm pretty excited about it, so I hope you'll give it a listen. You can do that below or by subscribing to http://mysterymovienight.libsyn.com/rss on iTunes. I'd love it if you did that second one. This is gonna be fun and that way you won't miss an episode.




Monday, February 08, 2016

Dreamer's World: A Tribute to Normal Bean [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Edmond Hamilton wrote seventy-nine stories for Weird Tales and amongst them are several classics including "Thundering Worlds," "Day of Judgment," and "He That Hath Wings" (all included in The Best of Edmond Hamilton). Farnsworth Wright and Dorothy McIlwraith, the editors of Weird Tales, never rejected a Hamilton story, nor did they push or prod him in any particular direction. Hamilton had free rein to work within the science fiction to fantasy to horror range. This freedom resulted in some of 1940s fantasy's best experiments.

Ed worked in what is now known as "portal fantasy" a decade before CS Lewis took us to Narnia. A portal fantasy is one in which a person from our world goes to another realm of the fantastic. Perhaps the most famous in Weird Tales were Nictzin Dyalhis's "The Sapphire Siren" and CL Moore's "Joirel Meets Magic" and "The Dark Land." Hamilton's portal fantasies included Brian Cullen going to the land of Celtic myth in "The Shining Land" (May 1945) and "Lost Elysium" (November 1945), also "The Shadow Folk" (September 1944), "The Inn Outside the World" (July 1945), and "Twilight of the Gods" (July 1948). Like the Harold Shea series by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (1940-1954), Hamilton liked placing everyday people into mythic situations. Unlike those Shea stories that appeared in Unknown, Hamilton's agenda is not ridicule-oriented humor, but adventure.

Amongst his Portal tales, there was one that stands alone. This was "Dreamer's World" (Weird Tales, November 1941). This story uses a similar device, a man of our world perceiving another realm, but in this case Hamilton changes the game by having the main character, Henry Stevens, a dull and ordinary man living his office-working life, only seeing this world. Henry has a plump wife named Emma and a boss named Carson who abuses him. He does nothing unusual except that when he sleeps every night he lives another life: that of Khal Kan, prince of Jotan, a sword-swinging adventurer who is everything Stevens is not.

Khal Kan, with his buddies Brusul and Zoor, go on mad adventures, like sneaking into the camp of nomads to see if their princess, Golden Wings, is truly the most beautiful of all women. Of course, she is. And when she captures Khal Kan, she has him flogged to see if he is truly husband material. So different from Henry, who thinks he must be mad, watching this exciting life take place every night. He seeks out Doctor Thorn, a psychiatrist, to figure out if he is real or Khal Kan. As the story progresses, even Khal Kan, who dreams Henry's boring life every night, wonders the same. Which of them is real?

Henry explores this at great length, but ultimately is too powerless to find out. It is up to Khal Kan to put it to the test when the Bunts, the savage villains of the piece, attack Jotan. Khal Kan and his friends (now with his new wife, Golden Wings) face the green hordes and win. Only Kan dies from a poisoned blade and we find out at last. Which was real? Khal Kan dies on the plains of Thar... and back in our mundane world, Henry Stevens dies at the same time.

Dr. Thorn tries to explain it:
"Suppose," Thorn went on, "that Henry Stevens was a unique case of that. Suppose that his mind happened to be in rapport, from the time of his birth, with the mind of another man—another man, who was not of Earth but of some world far across the universe from ours? Suppose that each man's subconscious was able to experience the other man's thoughts and feelings, when his own consciousness was relaxed and sleeping? So that each man, all his life, seemed each night to dream the other man's life?"
What Hamilton has done is use portal fantasy to pay homage to an author he admired and read as a young man: Edgar Rice Burroughs. Not to imitate him, as he does in "Kaldar-World of Antares" (Magic Carpet, April 1933), "The Snake-Men of Kaldar" (Magic Carpet, October 1933), and "The Great-Brain of Kaldar" (Weird Tales, December 1935); this series of scientific romances is clearly a pastiche of Burroughs. "Dreamer's World" is something more. It is not an homage to ERB so much as it is one to Normal Bean, the guy who wrote that first story "Under the Moons of Mars" in 1912. Burroughs had chosen the pseudonym to imply he wasn't crazy, that he had a "normal head." An editor corrected the "error" and "Norman Bean" became the author. Burroughs, disgusted at the change, used his own name after the original publication. Hamilton latches onto this early rendition of Edgar Rice Burroughs: the quiet, normal-seeming fellow, who failed job after job, dreaming away about Barsoom, and sword fights, and green, six-limbed monsters called tharks. Hamilton takes that man and calls him Henry Stevens and tells us of an alternative Burroughs who may have lived his own stories.

If you doubt me, Hamilton leaves us bread crumbs to follow. The names in the story are particularly interesting. Stevens' wife's name is Emma. Burroughs' first wife's name was also Emma (and yes, she was plump). His boss is Carson, possibly a reference to Carson of Venus. Khal Khan's name is like most of those found on Barsoom amongst the human characters: Ban-Tor, Kantos Khan, Ghan Had, Pho Lar, etc. The city to which Khal is prince is Jotan, the name of the Martian chess that Burroughs created, rules and all, for The Chessmen of Mars (1921). And if you need even more proof, the baddies, the Bunts, are referred to as green-skinned: "The Bunts are in Galoon! Hell take the green devils..." repeatedly though there seems no reason for them to be any color at all. Like Burroughs' tharks, they are the wild tribesmen of the dreamer's world. (The name Galoon is most likely a friendly joke for Hamilton's friend, Raymond Z. Gallun (pronounced Galoon), who wrote part of the story jam "The Great Illusion" in 1936 with Hamilton and others.)

Hamilton's desire to commemorate Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom series is easily understood these days. In 1941, ERB was still alive, writing short stories for Ray Palmer at Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories. The man who had created Tarzan had fallen from the earlier days of the weeklies, but he was still "a name" in science fiction circles. He had been active in pulp publishing since Hugo Gernsback hired him to write The Mastermind of Mars especially for Amazing Stories Annual 1927. The attack on Pearl Harbor was only weeks away from the release of "Dreamer's World." Burroughs would give up writing to become a war correspondent, effectively ending the active part of his SF career. He would die in 1950. Not until the Burroughs boom of the 1960s would his name be big news again. Hamilton's homage would be forgotten even quicker, but we can enjoy it again today. For all the young men and women who thrilled to thark armies clashing over waterless plains, the sound of the radium rifles firing. and the growls of white apes in the ruins of Mars, the reason for this story is obvious.

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, February 05, 2016

My 20 Most Anticipated Movies of 2016

Just for fun, we'll do this backwards and count down towards Number 1. Only four of my 10 Most Anticipated 2015 Movies made it onto my Top 10 for the year, so let's see if I can predict greatness any better. This year, I'm including 20 films, just because there are a couple in the bottom 10 that I really wanted to mention.

20. X-Men: Apocalypse



Except for a brief thrill at seeing Bald James McAvoy, the trailer doesn't do it for me. Some of it is the smug way that Rose Byrne suggests that Apocalypse is the inspiration for world religions, but mostly it's the feeling that I've seen all this before. Still, I tend to enjoy these movies and I'm hoping that Oscar Isaac's immense charm shows through the layers of effects used on his character. I'm also excited to see how some of the new cast do, especially Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner, but also Kodi Smit-McPhee.

19. Warcraft



Never played the game and I don't love the character designs, but I likes me a big fantasy movie and appreciate that the orcs have real personalities. My expectation are low, but I'm hoping to be surprised.

18. The Nice Guys



The red-band trailer promises more of the old ultra-violence than I'm ready for, but I love both these guys and it looks like an entertaining relationship.

17. The Jungle Book



I'm cynical about all of Disney's live-action remakes of old hits, but then I remember the late-90s/early-00s and all of those sad animated sequels from The Return of Jafar to Cinderella III. It could be worse. Besides, Disney's at least picking some excellent directors to head these up and I'm encouraged by Jon Favreau's involvement.

On the other hand, I can't help feeling like we've already been down this trail.

16. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows



I totally skipped the first Michael Bay TMNT movie and had no interest in the sequel until I saw the trailer. This thing is going all-in on stupid references to toys and the first cartoon series. I mean, Rocksteady, Bebop, and the van that shoots manhole covers? Hoping for a Krang reference, at least as set up for the third one. Might be a lot of fun.

15. Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur



I mentioned that I still love Guy Ritchie, right? As dumb an idea as a Round Table Cinematic Universe sounds, I'm ready for Ritchie's take on Camelot.

14. Kubo and the Two Strings



I always like Laika movies. I never go completely ga-ga for them, but they're consistently entertaining and this looks like a good one.

13. Ghostbusters



I really enjoyed the first Ghostbusters movie, but the sequel and cartoon killed any idea of it as a sacred object. I'm for a film-maker like Paul Feig - who has a spotless record as far as I'm concerned - taking this and doing whatever the heck he wants with it.

12. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back



Jack Reacher was a pleasant return to old school action movies with a likable, lone, mysterious hero solving a mystery and saving some people without the entire world having to be at stake. I like my epic superhero movies as much as the next person, but I'm also very into more of this.

11. Bourne 5



We're finding out the title this weekend during some sporting event, but they can call it Bourne Again for all I care. Damon's back and I'm excited.

10. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them



This is one where "anticipated" doesn't exactly equal "excited about." I'm skeptical about this endeavor, but also extremely curious and nervously hopeful.

9. Underworld 5



I love these movies. Huge fan of Beckinsale and the White Wolf role-playing games these are not based on, no sir, we promise you they are not.

8. The Legend of Tarzan



I'm still waiting for a movie that's at all faithful to the first novel, but this'll do in the meantime. Not a great fan of those pants, but everything else looks pretty good. And I need some live-action Tarzan in my life right now.

7. Captain America: Civil War



The Civil War comics made me hate Tony Stark. Robert Downey Jr made me love him. Matter and anti-matter are about to collide. Maybe that's why I'm not more excited about this than I am. Still, it's the next, big, epic Marvel movie and I'm a fan of the series.

6. Doctor Strange



I mentioned in my movie rankings for 2015 that I like the epic Marvel movies better than the "smaller" ones that explore other genres. But then I go and decide that I'm more interested in Doctor Strange than Cap 3. That's a lot because of Cumberbatch, but I think it's also because I've always wanted to like Doctor Strange comics more than I have. There's a lot of potential for some cool, spooky, magic realism in that concept, but most of the comics I've read have tended toward trippy fantasy. I was probably reading the wrong ones, but I'm hoping that - like with Iron Man - the Marvel movies are able to give me the version of the character that I've been craving.

5. Jane Got a Gun



As I'm writing this, I'm planning to see Jane Got a Gun tonight. I'm a fan of Natalie Portman and an even bigger fan of Westerns. This is part of some other plans to watch more Westerns in general. More on that later.

4. Moana



A young woman and a demi-god played by the Rock search for a fabled South Seas island. Hollywood is getting my letters!

3. Hail, Caesar!



I'm always interested in the Coen Brothers, but the films that I most adore from them are the ones like Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? where humor is a major focus. It's been a while since we had one of those and I can't wait for this one.

2. Star Trek Beyond



Justin Lin rescued the Fast and the Furious series and I have complete faith that he can do the same for Star Trek. Not that Star Trek really needs rescuing. It just needs to recover from Into Darkness which was a horrible misstep, but not a complete disaster. Even that had its moments and the new series has some great DNA that worked super well in 2009. It just needs someone like Lin (a confessed Trek fan who just so happens knows how to make exciting movies) to help it take its next step.

1. Rogue One



I'm not as pumped about this as I was about Force Awakens, but I'm still pretty excited. I don't care as much about the filling in of continuity holes as I do about a diverse cast of rogues trying to avoid Imperials while pulling off a heist. Sounds totally fun and a I'm hoping it proves that there are many kinds of great stories that can be told in the Star Wars universe.

2015

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Manly Wade Wellman's "Lee Granger, Jungle King" [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Manly Wade Wellman has many feathers in his cap: famous Weird Tales writer, a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Edgar Award for True Crime, a Pulitzer prize nomination for non-fiction, and the notoriety of appearing in court during the famous Fawcett vs. DC trial of 1948 (which Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood parodied in "Superduperman" in the fourth issue of Mad Magazine, April-May 1953.) Manly spoke from the stand of how his editors had encouraged him to steal freely from Superman for their comic, Captain Marvel Adventures. It was a strange place to end up. But where did it all begin?

Manly Wade Wellman decided to try writing comics after his friend and fellow Weird Tales author, Frank Belknap Long, had ventured into the world of "squinkies" as Manly called them. By March 1941, Manly would be writing the very first Captain Marvel tale "Captain Marvel vs. Z" in Captain Marvel Adventures #1. But before that he sharpened his pen on a few other comics including "Lee Granger, Jungle King" for Slam-Bang Comics (March-September 1940).

Slam-Bang was a Fawcett title that ran for only seven issues, but Manly and Granger appeared in them all. Beginning with issue #1, Lee Granger got the last nine to ten pages of each issue. The scientist-explorer sets out on a mission to fly over a part of unknown Africa. His plane is sabotaged by Arabs who are conducting illegal slaving in the unmapped territory. Granger saves himself when his plane explodes by using his loose clothing like a parachute. He is discovered by pygmies and accidentally wounds their chief with a poisoned spear. Granger saves the man's life and becomes friend to the entire tribe. As the pygmies' leading light, he teaches them science, helps them build a brick town, and even captures a lion and alters its brain. This is Eric, the talking lion, who is Granger's best sidekick.

In later episodes Granger defeats the invading Arabs, a race of flying demons called the Djinns, helps scientists who struggle to find the lost ruins of the Gelka (guarded by savages and gorillas), and fights the usual greedy white hunters bound to steal Eric away. He also encounters the queen of the giant ants, a woman raised by insects. The longer, ten-page format allowed Wellman to expand his story where many jungle characters had to make due with only five pages. The art was most likely drawn by Jack Binder in his usual serviceable but crude style.

Granger meets many beautiful woman, from rich debutantes to scientist's daughters, but they always leave, asking if they might meet again. The best of these was Kate Bond, who enters the hive of the ants, carrying a gun, which she is not reluctant to use on the queen herself. You have to remember these are pre-Code comics! Beautiful and deadly, she might have made a queen to Lee's king if the comic had continued.

What strikes me most about this strip is first off that Lee Granger is not a Tarzan wannabe. Only once does he use vines to swing down on foes. Usually he uses his superior understanding of science, making him more of a jungle Doc Savage than a Lord Greystoke. Secondly, Wellman's scenarios are usually not too typical of jungle stories, having a more fantastic element to them. I especially liked Issue #3 that has the feel of Robert E Howard's "Almuric" to it, with winged foes and sword fights (both that story and issue #3 appeared in May 1939 so it might have been Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pirates of Venus (Argosy, October 2, 1931) or Howard's "Wings in the Night" (Weird Tales, July 1932) that inspired him just as easily.

The source for the giant ants could have come from any number of pulps (which Manly knew, for he was in them) such as "The Master Ants" by Francis Flagg (Amazing Stories, May 1928), "The World of the Giant Ants" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Fall 1928) by A Hyatt Verrill, or "The War of the Great Ants" by Jim Vanny (Wonder Stories, July 1930). And of course, the jungle ant classic, "Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson (Esquire, December 1938).

Wherever Manly got his ideas, they were better than most of the jungle crowd. Only once does he stoop to overt racism in the strip, when he claims he must save the scientists because they are white. Such narrow-mindedness seems odd from the man who flew in the face of convention with his debut "When Planets Clashed" and wrote of space war from both sides of the conflict. His work as a whole speaks of a love for all humankind. It was this deep compassion that made stories like "Song of the Slaves" (Weird Tales, March/April 1940) memorable, or his work on the Civil War worthy of Pulitzer consideration. And it was this sense of honor that directed Manly to tell the truth on the stand in 1948. Manly was always, first and foremost, a gentleman.

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.

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