Remembering from 2018 . . .

Some folks no longer with us.

I meant to comment on Harlan Ellison’s passing. A writer who influenced so many people, and probably as much for his never dull, frequently entertaining personality displayed in many public appearances. I was more of a fan in my teen years than when older, but I always enjoyed his comments and just knowing that he was out there.

And, of course, he wrote one of Star Trek‘s greatest episodes:

Also, Steve Ditko. When I was a whippersnapper, I found a torn copy of Doctor Strange Classics in a comic shop, getting it from a reject bunch for something like four-for-a-dollar along with a beat-up Silver Age Tales to Astonish.  Ditko’s surrealist, psychedelic art was mind-boggling, and led me to further joy reading his original Spider-Man stories in Marvel Tales.

Here’s a book-themed (and groovy) look at the weird wonder of the art of Ditko:

And . . . Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. The voice of otherworldly nineties Celtic pop music, and a band that was one of the best things about the nineties:

Rest in peace.

Stan Lee, Rest in Peace

A big, big part of my childhood and those of so many others.

I know I’m not the only one who read “Stan’s Soapbox” in the Marvel Comics “Bullpen Bulletins” and hung on every word like it was cosmic wisdom, at least up to a certain age.  And there was the narration he did for that Spider-Man cartoon in the early ’80s, and all the other appearances.

Since I was such a nerd about reading credits in the comics, I knew that he didn’t write them all by the time I was reading the comics of the late 70s and early 80s, but he was still this benevolent presence in the background of everything Marvel.  And then I found the reprints of old Amazing Spider-Man and others more interesting at some point, and then really discovered Mr. Lee’s talent for cranking these stories out, month after month.  Anyone who can write at that level–regular, little time in between, always entertaining–is a great writer.

And this video takes me back to those days when Stan was Marvel Comics (and see the very insightful writing question from an audience member at 1:30).  Rest in peace, Stan, and Excelsior!

Best Ever Advice

Rudyard Kipling’s “If” has been raked over many coals for supposedly reeking of class privilege, and for its associations with having an English stiff upper lip.  In truth, it is universal in its message and ignoring its advice would be a perfect way to fail in life.

My maternal grandfather was a rancher and a completely able man in all areas and, when I graduated from high school, I got a card from him with the text of “If.”  With a strong Irish background in his family, I can guarantee that he did not love the poem for its Englishness.  He loved the poem because Kipling distilled goodness and success down to its essence as few ever have.

 

If

by Rudyard Kipling

 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make a heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The Merritt Monster

“And all the valley was carpeted with the blue poppies in wide, unbroken fields, luminous as the morning skies of mid-June; they rippled mile after mile over the path we had followed, over the still untrodden path which we must take. They nodded, they leaned toward each other, they seemed to whisper—then to lift their heads and look up like crowding swarms of little azure fays, half impudently, wholly trustfully, into the faces of the jeweled giants standing guard over them. And when the little breeze walked upon them it was as though they bent beneath the soft tread and were brushed by the sweeping skirts of unseen, hastening Presences.”

merritt

Abraham Merritt was one of the most popular and influential writers of the twentieth century, which goes to show how strange and fleeting fame can be. According to Sam Moskowitz’s introduction in my copy of The Metal Monster, A. Merritt’s books had sold roughly four million copies by the late 1950s, and that does not take into account the incredible success he earlier experienced when his fiction was serialized in the long-running story magazine Argosy. Merritt was so popular that his The Ship of Ishtar was chosen by reader poll to be reprinted in a 1938 series of Argosy issues, beating out Edgar Rice Burroughs and Erle Stanley Gardner, amongst others. A newspaper man professionally, Merritt worked high within the Hearst organization, made an excellent living, and only wrote fiction because he enjoyed it.

And so did just about everyone else in the country enjoy Merritt’s writing, it seems, from how popular he was during his lifetime (the opposite fate of many writers who achieve posthumous fame). After his passing in 1943, his writing continued to sell in book form at least through the end of the fifties but at some point this leveled off. Few writers could have the longevity of Tolkien, and while Merritt is still read now, the audience is smaller and what most seem to notice about Merritt now is his overwriting. The word “tedious” is often thrown around, and it’s true that the man loved to describe. Someone somewhere noted that it’s incredible that he could detail so elaborately, and yet not repeat himself. His command of $100 words is amazing, as I found myself puzzling now and then over a word’s meaning (and in most groups I’m the one who knows the weird vocabulary words without hesitation).

The Metal Monster is not ranked as Merritt’s best by most readers, but it seems that none of his published fiction was actually bad. I went through a phase of picking up all of his books decades ago, largely because references to him in history-of-science-fiction books built him up as a touchstone to the bizarre and wonderful. I’ve yet to get through more than a couple so far, which I hope to remedy in the near future, but a little Merritt goes a long way and it would be hard to read multiple Merritts in a row. (As I’m mostly writing these days, I wish I had time for more reading, period. And I know that writers need to be readers for the sake of their writing . . .)

While Merritt’s style would stick out like a sore thumb among current writers, it’s also true that his style would never have developed today at all. For what made him cross the line from poet to verbal onanist was that he was describing things that no one had seen in the real world, and that probably no one had described in fiction either. With an extremely vivid imagination, he simply put down specifically the bizarre things he must have seen play out in his mind. And writing in a time when fiction was still closer to the elaborate 19th century than the clipped Hemingway style that became the 20th century norm, readers would not have minded. They also likely did not mind as they read his writing in serialized, weekly doses, and lived in a time without TV and where movies mostly lacked believable special effects.

The paragraph quoted above is representative of the Merritt style, with some truly beautiful descriptions and a hint of foreshadowing. But even as the story kicks into gear and its assemblage of adventurers get caught in the hidden world of an ancient kingdom of a godlike being and the living metal creatures that serve her, the sense of awe continues but becomes strained with just too much of it. (Awe-fullness, really.) But as archaic as Merritt’s style is, it’s amazing that he thought of a concept that would still seem radical at the end of the century when Terminator 2 unleashed its liquid metal bad guy. Here, there is a whole exotic land of metal things, composed of basic shapes and combining and recombining in various patterns according to their collective will.

And altogether, the upshot of this experience is that Merritt becomes tedious and yet remains exhilarating and exotic by the end. So without too much future rolling by, I’m going to have to dive into more Merritt and report back here, like one of his recurring characters.

It Came from Best Buy

“After you’ve been working out on the desert fifteen years like I have, you hear a lot of things.  See a lot of things too.  Sun in the sky, and the heat.  All that sand out there with the rivers and lakes that aren’t real at all.  And sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens and talks.”

icfos_3-d_b-r

So saith Ray Bradbury, my favorite writer.

Because I wrote a lengthy book about the making of a very bad but very awesome ’50s monster movie, I’ve seen far too many of these things. But I also have an appreciation for the ones that actually aren’t terrible, and for a few that are actually good. And this is why I’ve seen IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE more than a few times over the years. With Bradbury’s involvement, this 3-D production from Universal in 1953 is one of the best of its kind. The Bradbury in this Bradbury movie was Hollywood-diluted of course, but the movie’s intelligent treatment of contact with alien life makes it unique, as does the sense of mystery and desert atmosphere. The quote above, gracefully read onscreen by actor Joe Sawyer, encapsulates the greatness of this little gem.

So when the news came out that Universal was getting IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE out on Blu-Ray as a Best Buy exclusive, I noticed it was priced like the Wal-Mart bargain bin and knew I had to own it on that basis. It could have been released by Criterion, cost $24.99, and gone into the land of ain’t-buying-because-DVD-is-good-enough. But wiser heads prevailed, despite a lot of trouble going into this release. The 3-D Film Archive did intensive work on the picture and sound, bringing its original three-channel audio to home video for (I believe) the first time.

Old black-and-white movies are tricky for me on Blu-Ray. Some enthusiasts get defensive when someone claims that old movies don’t pop all that much in high definition, the defenders pointing out that 1080p resolution will recreate that silver glow that coats the screen in black-and-white projection. While that is true, I’m not going to pretend. Without color, high definition just doesn’t define that highly to my eyes.

So when I played the disc, I had the same issue I always have with black-and-white Blu-Ray. This looks good, I think to myself, but does it really look that good? But, yes, it does. Comparing it to the 2002 DVD, the Blu-Ray blows it away with significantly more detail and contrast, and an overall brighter image. Atmospheric imagery in a cave late in the movie becomes absolutely beautiful on the new disc, and little visual details like the glittery trail left by the alien shine in a new way.

But having said all that, the audio is just stunning. There is some real channel separation going on, which is a startling thing for my ears to register when watching a movie as old as this one. And the louder moments are downright stunning, like the explosion and musical stab at the beginning.

Extra features to me are extra and not always necessary, but this disc carries a magnificent audio commentary by Tom Weaver from the old DVD. Anyone who has heard a Weaver commentary knows that he not only knows his stuff, but he has specifically prepared it in a pattern that makes sense, and he barely stops talking(!). There’s a good documentary from the DVD too but the commentary is where it’s at.

Based on my limited anecdotal evidence, it seems to be selling. My local Best Buy had three or four copies, and I was surprised to see them sold out later in the week. (Shout! Factory’s outstanding Manhunter didn’t seem to be selling out in the spring.)  Anyhow, I hope Universal goes to the trouble with more classic science fiction. Being me, I have to close with a song, one that sampled this movie: