31 March 2008

Sold! “The Sorrowless Thief”

Allow me to take this moment to announce that my science-fantasy story “The Sorrowless Thief” will be published in an upcoming issue of the print magazine Black Gate.

This is my first sale to the magazine, and it is also the first story of my series about the strange continent of Ahn-Tarqa. I am very thrilled about these developments!

I will post more when I know which issue of the magazine “The Sorrowless Thief” will appear in. Because Black Gate is currently very full, it may take a while for the story to appear. In the meantime, I will keep busy with new chronicles of Ahn-Tarqa (there already are a few others completed).

Update: I’ve sold another Ahn-Tarqa story, “Stand at Dubun-Geb”!

Book Review: Night & Fear

The most recent collection of stories by Cornell Woolrich was released in 2004 from Carroll & Graf: Night & Fear. Woolrich’s biographer and estate consultant Francis M. Nevins edited the collection and wrote the introduction and blurbs for each story. Nevins’s purpose seems to have been to select Woolrich stories that had not appeared in print for many years, and he dug up some obscure gems. The collection slants heavily toward tales of what Nevins calls “noir cops,” the near-psychotic tools of cruel justice that pop up throughout Woolrich’s writing. I might say they are over-represented here, but how can I argue with classics like “Detective William Brown” and “Three Kills for One”? Even “The Fatal Footlights,” which I read years ago in an anthology, completely caught me by surprise when I read it this time—don’t cross a cop’s path in Woolrich-land, believe me! You’ll end up crammed into a locked trunk, slowly suffocating to death, or tortured in indescribable ways with a ballpoint pen.

Here is a run-down on the fourteen stories in Night & Fear, presented in the chronological order in which Nevins slots them:

Cigarette (1936)
I’ve already written a long review of this, one of Woolrich’s best early tales. I’d like to think this is an anti-smoking diatribe, but since Woolrich was a life-long smoker himself, I kinda doubt it.

Double Feature (1936)
The first cop adventure of the anthology, although it isn’t a sadist-cop story but a single-location white-knuckler. Detective Merrill, while at the picture show with his girl, discovers a wanted fugitive sitting a few seats away. Merrill tries to bring in the dragnet, but the criminal snatches his girl and holds her hostage so he can slip out of the theater. I love old movie palaces as much as Woolrich evidently did, so the décor of this suspenser is an added bonus.

The Heavy Sugar (1937)
A perfect example of a bleak joke in Woolrich’s world: a down-trodden man on his last dime finds a fortune in a diamond necklace in the bottom of a restaurant’s sugar bowl—then has to run for his life from the criminals who stole it in the first place. Good panicky desperation and Woolrich’s sharp eye for impoverished living make this one memorable.

Blue Is for Bravery (1937)
A hero-cop goes crazy trying to save his wife from the gangsters who kidnapped her in order to force his silence after he observes one of them leaving the scene of a murder. Beat Cop Danny O’Dare tortures suspects and beats up other police officers, but for once Woolrich wants us to root for the nut-cop and we do. However, this is the weakest story in the collection.

You Bet Your Life (1937)
This story reads like a twisted morality fable. Three men enter into a bet that they can make two total strangers try to kill each other within a week. The motivation is two halves of a thousand-dollar bill. This is definitely an odd-ball work, and the cold rationality involved in the deadly game may repel some readers, but it’s one of the collection nicest surprises.

Death in the Yoshiwara (1938)
But here is the collection’s best surprise: a rare gem that’s only been reprinted once (in an obscure men’s magazine in the ‘50s). The action-packed race through Tokyo’s seedy district to save an American woman from being framed for her fiancé’s murder doesn’t have too much depth, but it’s a wild ride and as “fun” as Woolrich stories ever get.

Endicott’s Girl (1938)
Woolrich once called this his favorite of his stories. It’s one of mine as well because of the genuine emotional involved in its misguided love. Noir doesn’t often explore the father-daughter relationship, so this tale of a police detective willing to do anything to keep his daughter’s name out of a murder investigation has a unique poignancy. Watching a man slowly convince himself to his utter horror that his beloved daughter is a murderess makes engrossing reading.

Detective William Brown (1938)
A quintessential “psycho-cop” story. It doesn’t contain much in the way of suspense sequences, and instead works as a character study presented through the eyes of the slow n’ sturdy good cop observing the meteoric rise of the title character through corruption. Woolrich’s writing is stellar and controlled here, as if he knew he was tackling a key piece of work.

The Case of the Killer-Diller (1939)
Here’s the silliest piece in the collection, about a murderer within a swing band who goes insane when he hears Ravel’s “Bolero.” I’m not making this up. It works for me, however, because of its view of swing musicians of the day, which seems obsessively realistic—as opposed to everything else in the story.

Through a Dead Man’s Eye (1939)
Woolrich had a knack for writing from the point of view of children placed in jeopardy. A twelve-year-old kid tries to help his detective father crack a case by tracking down a glass eye he won in a swap. “Kid plays detective” sounds cute, but Woolrich doesn’t play nice with the kiddies either, and the ending is one of the most nail-biting sections in the collection.

The Fatal Footlights (1941)
A dead gold-painted girl… and Goldfinger is nowhere to be found! This murder thriller set against the backdrop of a burlesque theater is plenty seedy, but watching the psycho-cop play games with the two suspects to see which one will try to kill the other first is an even nastier experience. This is the story most likely to blindside you.

Three Kills for One (1942)
One of the oddest pieces Woolrich ever wrote, with a strange structure and a divided reaction that will leave most readers bewildered. It definitely cries for multiple readings. It’s another “psycho-cop” tale, although it doesn’t seem to be at first, and the obsession with justice reaches a level of purest insanity. The machinery of the law is heartless and inescapable here.

The Death Rose (1943)
The most obscure piece in the collection, having previously appeared only in a three-issue pulp magazine, Baffling Detective Stories. A young debutante tries to help her police detective boyfriend find a killer by posing as bait. The coincidences are outrageous, but I can’t argue with the doozy of a climax that Alfred Hitchcock would’ve loved to try. Kids, don’t climb on the roof!

New York Blues (1970)
The prize story in Night & Fear is also Woolrich’s final work sold in his lifetime. It’s abstract and filled with poetic descriptions of loneliness and the coldness of fate. This is one work you won’t easily forget, and as a career capper it’s appropriate.

29 March 2008

Last night’s dance show

Laurel and I performed a Lindy Hop dance last night at the Hot House Improv theater in North Hollywood. Laurel is one of the alumni members of the improv troupe, and the dance number was designed as a way of keeping the audience energized between improv sets. And it succeeded 100% at doing that: the audience started cheering and shouting and clapping once we started dancing. The extremely up-tempo swing version of “Black Dog” certainly helped. (The rather sticky painted floor… well, that was something else.)

Dancing before a seated audience, as the center of focus, is a strange thing… I’ve done very little of it, and for both Laurel and I it was a touch odd. Nonetheless it was fun and everyone complimented us afterwards. (Somebody screamed “Bring ‘em back on!” as we were exiting the stage.) My father, sister, brother-in-law, and good friend (and former dance partner) were all in the audience as well.

My father took these photos afterwards. Laurel looks great here, but I’ve got a really dumb expression on my face. I apologize:

This photo includes Kim, who was my dance partner for about four years. I look much better here:

After the dance, I stayed to watch Laurel’s troupe perform. I was very impressed; improvisational theater always amazes me the same way that watching great jazz musicians jam amazes me. In fact, the troupe performs with a small band that does musical riffs to accompany the stage action. It’s astonishing how much this adds to the craziness on stage as well as the atmosphere. The half-hour set turned into an insane story about Satan-worshipers and a rest home, and peaked with a guitar duel between a man possessed by the devil and Jehovah’s Witness. Laurel told me that strange things start to happen in these sessions, and she wasn’t exaggerating.

26 March 2008

Swing dance performance

This Friday I will actually be doing a dance performance before a paying audience. They aren’t coming to see me specifically—I just happen to be on program as a “bumper” between the sets of an improv group—but it’s still a performance.

My dance partner, Laurel, belongs to a North Hollywood improvisation theater called The Hothouse. They do shows every Friday night, and between the sets they like to have material (called a “stall”) designed to “cleanse the palate” of the audience. Call it a form of psychological re-orientation, or just a way to keep the audience paying attention while the actors get back into place. Laurel suggested to the troupe that she and I could dance Lindy Hop for the stall. And so it came about.

We batted around a couple of song ideas, at first going with “Another Day in L.A.” by Indigo Swing, a defunct band from San Francisco that we both love. But eventually we decided that maybe it wasn’t energetic and fast enough to jolt the audience. After tossing around a bunch of suggestions, we settled on a swing cover of “Black Dog” (yes, the Led Zeppelin song from their fourth album) by the Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra. This was my second choice because I’ve always loved the song, know it note-for-note, and the familiarity of the tune combined with the incongruity of the musical setting will amuse first-time listeners (“What, is Benny Goodman jamming with Page and Plant?”). Plus, its energetic without being insanely fast.

We aren’t doing a choreographed routine—this is an improv theater, after all—but we did do some work on a few combos and moves until her downstairs neighbors asked us to stop pounding on the floor. They probably thought we were building a shelf in the middle of the room.

Have I ever mentioned that Laurel is the best dancer I have ever cut the rug with? Probably not. But it is the damned truth!

20 March 2008

No, Ms. Griffith is not in right now...

In the mildly humorous everyday world…

Today our firm received a fan letter addressed to Melanie Griffith. Okay, that’s odd, considering that we’re a commodities brokerage firm. The author noted that he and his son are big fans, and would she please sign the enclosed card and send it back in the SASE so they can add it to their autograph collection.

I didn’t want to disappoint, so along with a letter notifying them that Melanie Griffith’s talent agency isn’t located here (apparently a management company was on this floor ten years ago), I had the firm sign the card and send it back.

This guy should be thankful that I picked up the mail today. There are certain people in this office who would have pretended to be Melanie Griffith and written a long salacious letter back to him. But I was nice; I didn’t try to deceive him, and I added to his autograph collection.

Always here to help.

19 March 2008

Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008)

Arthur C. Clarke has passed Jupiter and gone Beyond the Infinite, at the age of 90. The venerable science fiction author died in Sri Lanka, where he had made his home since 1956. He was a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Chancellor of the International Space University, a Knights Bachelor, and most important, a Grand Master of Science Fiction.

Clarke was one of the most influential science-fiction writers, and he also had a large impact on the space program (he developed the idea of using geosynchronous satellites for telecommunications) and film (he co-authored the greatest SF film ever, 2001: A Space Odyssey and wrote the companion novel). He was a visionary beyond the page, and his influence will be felt in the space programs of the world from now until we finally meet the folks who built Rama face to face (or whatever they have as an equivalent to a face).

Like any science-fiction reader, I’ve gone through a hefty share of Sir Arthur’s work. Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End, and the story “The Nine Billion Names of God” are my favorites. I’ve never had much affection for 2001, however, principally because I adore the film so much and prefer the visualization of the story over its text version. I do love the story that inspired 2001, “The Sentinel.”

Of Clarke’s “Three Laws,” the third one has had a large affect on my writing: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is the guiding principle behind a certain science-fantasy series of mine, as you will soon discover. (Hint that there is further news forthcoming.)

18 March 2008

How to make answering the phone at work more interesting

The company for which I work, PFGBest, has issued mandate for all employees across the nation regarding answering the phone: the official greeting is now, “PFGBest, this is (Your Name).”

Fine. But nobody specified in which language to answer the phone. Loophole time!

From now on—or at least until somebody catches me—I’m answering the phone thusly:

“PFGOptimus, hic est Ryanus.”

Just in case any Roman Senators call. You never know.

John Ford is #1

MovieMaker.com has posted a list of the 25 Most Influential Directors of All Time. As with any list of this sort, it’s designed to spark argument and get people defensive about the choices and the ordering. And, yeah, I’m going to argue—but not get defensive. (It’s only a list, anyway.)

John Ford is high on the list, at #5.

John Ford should be at #1.

Maybe directors today might say they were influenced by Hitchcock, but really, they’re imitating John Ford. Watch any John Ford film, and you’ll think, “Wow, this is what everybody tries to do.” When a director tries to avoid emulating another director, he just ends up emulating John Ford (only not as well).

Howard Hawks should be higher than #18, by the way.

Say what else you want about the list, but its more perceptive than the cultural myopia that strikes the moment you look into the comments from users:
Where the hell is Quentin Tarantino. His movies are icons. Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Resivour [sic] Dogs. He is more then worthy for this list.
If he wanted to make an argument for Anthony Mann, I would understand. But it seems today that too many viewers’ cultural memories don’t extend past the earlier ‘90s. I would put Tarantino on a list of “most influenced” directors, but not the other way around. The other commentators immediately lay into the “Where’s Tarantino?” silliness, and someone else brought up Sam Peckinpah… an excellent choice. His impact on action aesthetics is unquestionable.

15 March 2008

Cornell Woolrich’s Short Story Masterpiece: “Three O’Clock”

Cornell Woolrich’s greatest short story is “Three O’Clock,” which was first published in the October 1st, 1938 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and has been reprinted many times since. To put it bluntly, this story is sheer agony. The level of suspense it maintains could drive a person bonkers. Woolrich packed his own overriding neurosis about death into these thirty pages and makes the reader live with it through feverishly subjective prose that turns the “death wait” into mental torture. Woolrich frequently wrote “races against the clock” tales, but this story and the novel Night Has a Thousand Eyes work this theme into its primordial form: the ticking clock’s quintessence, the horrible feeling of watching life slipping away second by second, with the exact moment of the end staring you straight in the face.

I don’t want to explain the story’s plot—the above should give you all you need to know—because I want people to read it fresh. However, this excerpt of the text gives an idea of how Woolrich delves into a mind facing the prospect of death, and the way he uses everyday minutiae to measure a fading life:
Eleven past two. Forty-nine minutes left. Less than the time it took to sit through the “A”-part of a pictureshow. Less than the time it took to get a haircut, if you had to wait your turn. Less than the time it took to sit through a Sunday meal, or listen to an hour program on the radio, or ride on the bus from here to the beach for a dip. Less than all those things—to live. No, no, he had meant to live for thirty more years, forty! What had become of those years, those months, those weeks? No, not just minutes left, it wasn’t fair!
Try to imagine twenty sustained pages of this.

13 March 2008

The Black Angel is returning

“Good News” and “Cornell Woolrich” are terms that rarely co-habitate. But I can now say without any irony that there’s some good news about Cornell Woolrich.

Yesterday I wrote an email to Pegasus Books, the independent publisher that last year released trade paperbacks of Manhattan Love Song (its first paperback printing ever) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. I was curious if Pegasus planned to do more from my favorite American author, and offered my suggestions for which books I thought were the most overdue for new printings.

I got a response back in the evening that, indeed, Pegasus will be releasing a new Woolrich edition in December of this year… and it happens to be one of my top two suggestions, The Black Angel. This is the favorite Woolrich book of Francis M. Nevins, the advisor to the author’s estate and author of Woolrich’s biography, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a hand in pushing this title. I don’t adore The Black Angel as much as Mr. Nevins does—I place Rendezvous in Black, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and Black Alibi (my other choice for re-publication) above it—but it’s a classic roman noir and shows Woolrich operating at or near the top of his game. It also led to one of the greatest film adaptations of any of the author’s work, which is now available DVD.

And, come December, you won’t have any excuse not to read it. Let’s hope that Black Alibi is around the corner somewhere, lurking with bared claws and slavering fangs.

(Now, would some enterprising DVD company please release The Window, the riveting adaptation of the story “The Boy Cried Murder”/“Fire Escape.”)

Update: The book is now available for pre-order, but the date has gotten pushed back January 20th.

06 March 2008

Movie Review: The Mechanic

The Mechanic (1972)
Directed by Michael Winner. Starring Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Keenan Wynn, Jill Ireland, Frank DeKova.

I’ve previously posted about Michael Winner’s 1978 film version of The Big Sleep, which surprised me with its quality. Relative quality. I don’t have much affection for Winner as a director—although I steer clear of the obvious ironic value of his name—and have never loved anything he’s done. He was an important genre force in the late 1960s and ‘70s, and directing 1974’s Death Wish cements him forever in the pop-culture portrait gallery, but I find his work usually flat and limited, never willing to go the extra level of entertainment value. Films like Chato’s Land and Lawman just sort of sit there, taking up time and not giving back much. Yes, even Death Wish falls into that category for me: the reactionary shock value it once had has worn off, and the other controversial films about violence that came out in the early ‘70s—A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and Straw Dogs—far exceed it in artistic merits.

Looking over Winner’s film catalog, I think his best work is another Charles Bronson suspenser, The Mechanic. If made a few years later, Richard Fleischer probably would have directed it. The Mechanic is typical of the “action movie” fare of the time that played in theaters for one week engagements before moving on to the next grindhouse. The genre of “action movie” didn’t yet exist; instead there were thrillers, adventure films, and tough guy pics, and The Mechanic does a bit of all three. Bronson plays a hit man who specializes in kills that look like accidents or natural causes, so there are a number of suspense sequences watching him set up the kills. Two genuine action set-pieces break out in the second half of the movie: a motorcycle chase through southern California hills, and a shoot-out on a twisty Naples road. But most of the film centers on Bronson’s clipped and taciturn performance as philosophical killer-for-hire Arthur Bishop and his tense relationship with young protégé Steve McKenna, played by Jan-Michael Vincent. Vincent is sometimes wooden up against Bronson, but he does portray a hip nonchalance and immorality that contrasts with Bronson’s professionalism. Ultimately, the movie delivers the goods on their relationship in a finale that make the whole experience—slow parts and all—worth it. The last ten seconds really make the flick. And I do mean the last ten seconds: credits were a fast experience back then.

Winner seems to take some risks in the filmmaking, which isn’t his usual style. The opening sixteen minutes unspool completely without dialogue as we watch Bishop set up one of his kills. It’s one of the best planned sequences Winner has done.

Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland pops into the film for one scene. She nearly made a career of appearing in Bronson films, and once remarked that the reason she did so many movies with him was because no other actress would work with him. Her scene here is a strange one, but it does say a lot about Bishop.

The score comes from frequent Winner-collaborator, Jerry Fielding. Fielding also had strong working relationships with Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, and the score here has some similarities to his score for The Wild Bunch. Some of the motifs sound almost the same. Not that I’m complaining... Fielding is always robust and thrilling, and he died too young so I’ve learned to treasure any score from him.

By the way, Michael Winner directed his last film in 1999, and is today a popular London restaurant critic.

04 March 2008

Gary Gygax is Gone

Now my old-fashioned geek creds can finally come out:

Gary Gygax, co-creator of the first tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, has died at age sixty-nine.

I can credit Mr. Gygax to giving me my first introduction to high fantasy and sword-and-sorcery at the young age of nine when my friends and I started playing—or attempted to play—D&D. I don’t play the game any more, and don’t think much its system of any of the d20-based games (when I play RPGs these days, which is rare, I play rules-lite systems like Fudge), but I owe Gary some serious weregild for giving me that early fantasy boost.

I read one of Gygax’s novels last year, The Anubis Murders, to review it for Black Gate. The review hasn’t appeared yet, but I’ll keep you informed when it makes its debut. Sorry to say, I didn’t enjoy the novel that much. Gygax was a better game engineer than a novelist, it would seem, and he had a knack for bringing together disparate fantasy writers into one gaming environment. Tolkien, Moorcock, Anderson, Vance, Leiber, and Howard are just the writers that I can name off the top of my head that influenced Gygax in creating D&D.

I’m going to go dig up my polyhedral dice and have a moment of remembrance. All geeks lost a friend today.