This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

SAGA Entry 1 - 'The Door into Fire' by Diane Duane

Sword and sorcery fiction has had a rough time of it since its rise to prominence in the pulp magazines of the 20s and 30s. The works of the likes of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner fell into obscurity as the pulp magazine vanished due to wartime paper shortages. After the war, the 1950s obsession with flying saucers, martian invaders and radioactive annihilation put paid to any hopes for a sword and sorcery revival.

But then, in the early 60s, a small but talented group of writers founded an informal gathering called SAGA (The Swordsmen and Sorcerer's Guild of America). Including such genre giants as Lin Carter, Poul Anderson, L. Sprague De Camp, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, the group was largely responsible for redefining sword and sorcery fiction (Leiber in fact coined the term in 1961) and bringing it back to the public eye.

Each member was admitted to the group based solely on their sword and sorcery output. Moorcock was in for his 'Elric' tales for example and Fritz Leiber for his 'Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser' yarns. Several other authors were admitted in the late 60s and 70s, one of them being Diane Duane for 'The Door into Fire'.

Published in 1979, 'The Door into Fire' was the first novel of the New York-born author. It tells the tale of Herwiss, a man with the potential to become a great sorcerer, possessing the power of 'the flame'. Desperate to harness this power and focus it into the blade of a sword, Herwiss decides to seek a castle in the wastelands which contains many doors to other worlds.

Making the main character of a sword and sorcery novel bisexual and spending a good deal of time focusing on his homoerotic relationship with his best friend was a pretty bold choice for a genre that is famous for being about as heterosexual as possible. I mean, look at that cover. The classic dominant male pose instantly recognisable on a glut of sword and sorcery covers.

But the book itself is far from orthodox. Mixing Celtic mythology (the concept of the triple Goddess is used here expertly) with Germanic cultures, and the divided loyalties of the protagonist (would he rather continue in his quest for power or sacrifice it to aid his lover in reclaiming his crown?), the book reaches a much higher place than the more generic entries in the genre.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Movie Review - Dr. Strange (1978)

My goodness, superhero movies were a different breed back in the 70s. Here we have Marvel's Dr. Strange in a made for TV movie which was aired September 6th 1978 on CBS. Unlike most superhero movies these days, there isn't a single building demolished, car tossed through the air or suspension bridge torn up. In fact its all pretty low-key, gradually building up through character development and exposition to quite an abrupt ending.

I'm not familiar with the comic books, but after reading a bit about the character, I get the feeling that this movie doesn't stick too closely to its source material. Here, Morgan Le Fey (she of Arthurian legend, who originally appeared in the Marvel universe as a nemesis for Spider-Woman) is sent forward in time to the present day (well, 1978) to destroy the Sorcerer Supreme who is an old man called Mr. Lindmer (Merlin, presumably). Possessing a young woman called Clea Lake, Morgan has Lindmer tossed off a bridge into oncoming traffic.

Enter Dr. Stephen Strange, a playboy type who works on a psychiatric ward. Witnessing the apparent murder of the old man via a psychic dream, Strange is surprised to see Clea Lake admitted to his ward in a state of confusion. As he tries to uncover the mystery surrounding her, Mr. Lindmer (who survived his fall at a great cost to his powers) contacts Strange and tries to convince him to join forces against Morgan Le Fey.

Stephen Strange has the potential to become the next Sorcerer Supreme (and even has the inherited ring to prove it). As Lindmer attempts to explain the existence of magical forces, Strange realises that the battle between good and evil must be played out on a different plane of existence.

Low budget to be sure, Dr. Strange isn't all that bad. Originally devised as a pilot for a proposed TV series ala The Incredible Hulk, the film was unfortunately shown at the same time as a re-run of Roots. Such stiff competition meant that Dr. Strange received little attention and the movie (and any hopes for a TV series) drifted away into obscurity.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Chris Carlsen's 'Berserker' Trilogy

I love me a bit of sword and sorcery. These books, published in the late 70s, were really designed to cash in on the 'Conan' craze of book covers depicting mightily muscled warriors swinging improbably large axes against a backdrop of slaughter and nubile female forms. Although the Conan movie would not be released until 1982, Robert E. Howard's mighty Cimmerian was at the top of his game in the 70s with the popularity of the Frazetta-illustrated Lancer paperbacks and the Marvel comic book incarnation of the character.

As with any craze, there were a lot of crap imitations. And as always, there were a few gems too. The Berserker trilogy is one of them. Chris Carlsen was a pseudonym for Robert Holdstock whose reputation would later reach more lofty heights as the author of 'serious' fantasy like Mythago Wood and the excellent Merlin Codex. As with nearly all of Holdstock's work, the Berserker books depict a grim, gritty world full of bleak landscapes and earthy, dirty people. They are also brutally violent and contain more than a few scenes of rape.

Dealing with the theme of reincarnation, the books use an interesting timeframe. Rather than living one life after another as we might expect, the protagonist (Harald Swiftaxe, a Viking warrior cursed by Odin) finds each life taking place before the previous one. Put simply, the first book takes place during the Viking Age, the second several hundred years earlier in the world of Arthur and the Saxons, and the third even earlier during Roman Britain where a certain Boudicca is making a nuisance of herself.

I really love these books and intend to read them again soon. Holdstock... sorry, Carlsen, certainly knows his Norse and Celtic mythology and blends them well. The protagonist is an anti-hero to the full definition of the term. He is not a nice guy. But the world surrounding him isn't particularly nice either, which kind of makes his actions alright, I guess.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Movie Review: Torture Garden (1967)

As well as being the name of a fetish nightclub in London (I don't know why or how I know that), Torture Garden is also the title of a 1967 horror film by British studio, Amicus. I already said in my post on Hammer Horror, that Amicus was one of the studios (along with Tigon) that were keen to cash in on Hammer's success with colourful gothic horror films, and Amicus put a new spin on them by crafting 'anthologies' of several stories based on a theme. Torture Garden was the second of these with 1964's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors being the first.

Written by none other than Robert Bloch (he of Psycho fame) and helmed by veteran Hammer director, Freddie Francis, Torture Garden is one of those films which probably had a name before it had a plot. At least that is the only explanation I can think of for the film includes neither a garden, nor much in the way of torture. Instead we have Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith), who runs a circus sideshow. Drawing in customers, he promises to show them unspeakable horrors relating to their futures. All the customer has to do is stare into the shears of a doll-like woman whilst Diablo murmurs hypnotic humbug, causing the person to see future events unfolding...

First up is Colin, who has a sick old uncle with a large stash of loot hidden somewhere in his house. Upon the old man's death, Colin frantically begins searching for the treasure and finds it buried in the basement, along with an old cat that seems to have been buried with it. Pretty soon things take a turn for the worse and Colin begins to suspect that his old uncle buried the cat for a reason.

Next is Carla, an attractive Hollywood socialite who starts dating a big shot movie type. When her new squeeze is shot and thrown from a moving car by a couple of hoods, Carla assumes that he is dead. But she didn't count on the brilliant Dr. Heim who can seemingly bring people back from the dead.

Following that is Dorothy's story. She's a reporter who interviews a pianist. Now this young man has a rather special piano which was a present from his dearly departed mother. As Dorothy develops a more intimate relationship with the young musician, she begins to feel that the piano doesn't like her one bit.

The final segment features Jack Palance as Ronald Wyatt, a fanatical collector of Poe memorabilia. Upon meeting fellow collector (Peter Cushing), Ronald is shown perhaps the most complete collection in existence, including several unpublished manuscripts written in Poe's own hand. But where this mysterious collector got such treasures is a dark and frightening secret.

Of course the whole narrative is wrapped up in the dark doings of Dr. Diablo who reveals himself to be more than a mere circus trickster. Torture Garden isn't a bad piece of 60's British horror. But nothing particularly stands out as brilliant from any of the segments and Amicus would go on to make much better anthologies in the years to come.