By Lee Weinstein: I first encountered the Elephant Man in a worn-looking old medical book in the stacks of the Jefferson Medical College’s library in Philadelphia. The year was 1964, I was a teenage student participating in a summer program there, and the Elephant Man was unknown then to the public. While exploring the old library, then in the basement of the research building, a title caught my attention. It was Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, an over 900-page encyclopedic collection of strange, rare and unusual medical conditions. It had been compiled by two Philadelphia physicians, Drs. George M. Gould and Walter L.Pyle in 1896. The sounds of traffic rumbling by on Walnut Street filtered through the windows above, while I leafed through the many strange cases and grotesque illustrations. Under the heading “Anomalous Skin-Diseases,” I found a description of the horribly deformed “Elephant Man”, accompanied by detailed illustrations. The book was fascinating, but I put it on the back burner as I went on to complete high school and enter college as a biology major. I didn’t think about it again until the early 1970’s, when I saw a book in Penn’s Van Pelt library that piqued my curiosity. The title, The Elephant Man, rang a bell and I pulled it out and opened it. The title indeed referred to the same Elephant Man I had read of years earlier and nearly forgotten. The full title was The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923), and it was the collected memoirs of Dr. Frederick Treves about his little-known patients.
Dr. Treves was notable in his own time as a royal physician. In 1900 he was appointed to be one of the Surgeons Extraordinary to Queen Victoria and after her death in 1901 he was appointed to be an Honorary Serjeants Surgeon to Edward VII. But toward the end of his life he wanted to write about the common people he had treated over the years.
I sat down and read the title essay, in which Treves relates how he first met the Elephant Man, whose real name he gives as John Merrick, in November of 1884 who was being exhibited in a Whitechapel storefront. He recounts how he later rescues him from a London train station after his abandonment by his manager in 1886 and with the support of Francis Carr-Gomm, chairman of the hospital, makes him a permanent resident of the London Hospital for the rest of his short life. It was an engaging and well-written memoir and it told a fascinating story. While the information in Anomalies and Curiosities was brief and factual, this read like a short story, ending with Merrick’s tragic death at the age of 27 in 1890. It struck me at the time that it could be adapted and perhaps filmed. Treves’s essay, besides conveying the horrific consequences of Merrick’s disorder, brings the truly human side of Merrick to life, his intelligence and his emotional make-up. Little did I know the essay had already been included in three anthologies of horror fiction, The Fourth Pan Book of Horror Stories (1963), edited by Herbert van Thal,Strange Beasts and Unnatural Monsters (1968) edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, and A Walk with the Beast (1969) edited by Charles M. Collins. It was later anthologized in The Elephant Man and Other Freaks (1980) edited by Peter Haining. Another essay from Treve’s collection, “The Idol with Hands of Clay” has also appeared in horror anthologies, including And the Darkness Falls (1946) edited by Boris Karloff, and Wake Up Screaming (1967) edited by Lee Wright.
But it is the title essay that shows Treves at his most compassionate.
Not long after my discovery of Treves’s collection of memoirs, I found another book titled The Elephant Man (1971) in my local public library. This one was subtitled A Study in Human Dignity and was written by noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu. According to Montagu’s preface to the second edition (1979) Treves’s book had become a great rarity. I hadn’t realized how lucky I was to have come across it in the University of Pennsylvania’s library. Montagu also notes that it was the 1971 edition of his own book that inspired the various adaptations of the story that had blossomed in the late 1970’s. In it he reprints Treve’s original essay and offers his analysis of Merrick’s psyche. He gives Merrick’s full name as John Thomas Merrick and deduces from the available evidence that the cause of his deformities was von Recklinghausen’s disease or neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder causing multiple tumors of the nerves and skin. But Montagu’s basic thesis was that because Merrick had a loving mother during his first few years, he was able to endure and rise above the extreme hardship that defined the rest of his life.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Montagu’s posthumous diagnosis of neurofibromatosis was challenged by Tibble and Cohen, Canadian geneticists who argued that Merrick more likely had an extremely rare condition called Proteus syndrome which wasn’t recognized as an entity until 1979. It results in overgrowth of the bones and overlying tissues, often on one side of the body.
This diagnosis has become generally accepted today.
Meanwhile, in the late 1970’s, a theatrical version of the story by a local playwright appeared in Philadelphia. The actor portraying Merrick remained masked for the entire performance.
Around the same time, the well-known play by Bernard Pomerantz began a run on Broadway lasting from 1979 to 1981. The actor used no makeup. The character’s disabilities were only suggested. When it ran in Philadelphia it was performed at the Forrest Theater, just a few blocks from Jefferson Medical College where I had first encountered Mr. Merrick.
In 1980 a new book on the subject, The True History of the Elephant Man, by Michael Howell and Peter Ford was published. It was thoroughly researched and the authors corrected a basic error. They discovered Merrick’s actual name was Joseph Carey Merrick. It is unclear why he was referred to as “John” by Treves, but that error persisted until 1980. Subsequent editions of this book appeared in 1982 and 1993 and 2011.
In 1980, David Lynch’s first studio film, The Elephant Man, was released to much critical acclaim. John Hurt, in full makeup, played the title role. Three years after the release of his low-budget cult film, Eraserhead, it launched Lynch’s career as a major filmmaker. It received eight Academy Award nominations and was novelized in the same year by Christine Sparks.
Although it didn’t win in any category, the nominations resulted in Best Make-up and Hair Styling becoming a new Oscar category in 1981.
With plays, a film and recent books about him making the rounds, the subject of the Elephant Man was therefore much in the air in 1982 when I was invited to visit friends in London. I’ve always made it a point, while traveling, to visit places and things I’ve read about. In the 1970’s while on the West Coast, I went out of my way to visit, among other things, the “Oregon Vortex” which I had read about in Stranger than Science, and Bryce Canyon and the Skunk Railroad, which I had discovered in National Geographic from 1958.
Similarly, during my nine days in London, I visited Leeds Castle, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, the British Museum, Stonehenge, and a Shakespeare play performed in Regent’s Park, among other things. But also firmly on my agenda was a plan to visit London Hospital in East London’s Whitechapel district where Merrick had spent his last years.
Here, in London, was a chance to see in person what Dr. Treves had written about. In particular, I had read that Merrick’s skeleton was preserved in the hospital’s museum along with other related artifacts.
Not long after my arrival I took the Underground to the district of Whitechapel in London’s East End ( also the site of the Jack the Ripper murders, in the late 1880’s). The tall brick-faced edifice of London Hospital stood on Whitechapel Road across from the row of shops Treves had described.
I entered and told the receptionist I was interested in seeing the medical museum there. After a moment of slight discomfiture she replied I would have to make an appointment with the curator. She gave me his phone number and told me to call him in a day or two.
A day or two later, between other sightseeing adventures, I pulled out the curator’s phone number and rang him up from my friend’s home.
When he answered, I told him I was interested in seeing the hospital’s museum.
I heard a deep sigh. “The Elephant Man?” he asked in a resigned tone that told me I was far from the first person to ask him this
I stammered out that I was visiting from Philadelphia and while I admitted I did want to see the Elephant Man I was also interested in the other exhibits the museum had to offer.
“No, no.” he replied. I’m afraid not. There’s been entirely too much publicity.”
And that was it. I had no real credentials and he didn’t sound like the sort of fellow who would be willing to bend the rules. It was difficult for me to understand why he would shun publicity. Wasn’t the museum there to educate the public? Perhaps if I had been there a few years earlier it wouldn’t have been a problem. But considering Michael Jackson’s attempt to buy the skeleton in 1987, I can’t be entirely unsympathetic to the curator’s viewpoint.
I was disappointed, but nonetheless took some time to explore several bookshops in London’s Charing Cross district to find a copy of Treve’s book, but came out empty-handed. Surprisingly, no one had it.
But I went back to Whitechapel a few days later. In a small bookshop near the hospital I finally found a copy of Treves’s book, a recent paperback edition. Directly across the road was, as previously noted, the line of small shops Treves had described, still bustling with activity. I had with me the address of the vacant shop where Merrick was exhibited in 1888. Originally 123 Whitechapel Rd., the address was now number 259, according to Howell and Ford’s book. I crossed the road and discovered it was currently the home of a cheese shop. I went in, bought some cheese and asked the girl behind the counter, “Did you know this was where the Elephant Man was once exhibited?”
She shook her head with a blank look that told me she had no idea what I was talking about.
While I didn’t get to see the museum, I had seen the hospital and the environs that Treves had described. After leaving the shop I headed for Liverpool Street station where Merrick had returned to London in 1886. There was, of course, no longer a third class waiting room as in Merrick’s day, but the station looked much as it had in those days. And I had a copy of Treves’s book. Later on I also found many of his other essays to be of interest. “The Idol with Hands of Clay” was a moving and tragic story about a surgeon he knew, and in “A Restless Night,” he relates a nightmare he had in India about a patient, which, in my opinion, also deserves to be anthologized as a horror story.
Interest in Merrick didn’t die away. In 1985, another book on him was written by Frederick Drimmer, the author of Very Special People, and as noted, the book by Howell and Ford was reprinted several times. A graphic novel by Greg Houston, very loosely based on Merrick, was published in 2010 and a book on him by Norwegian-Italian author Mariangela Di Fiore was published in 2015.
Today, the seemingly obscure book I saw in 1964, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, remains in print. It may have been in print since 1896. Treves’s collection of memoirs is also currently in print and Lynch’s film can be seen on DVD.
The museum of the Royal London Hospital, as it is now called, was eventually opened to the public some years after my trip there and remained open until 2020. The displays, including a replica of Merrick’s cap and mask, have since been moved to the museum in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, three miles west. The actual skeleton remains within the London Hospital for the medical students.
I made a return trip to London in 1995, but didn’t make another attempt to see the museum at that time. I had become more interested in seeing the village of Biddenden, the home of the first reported pair of conjoined twins.
Step right up ladies and gentlemen, and for the price of one thin dime, see the living, breathing human cyclops, born just the way you see him, like Polyphemus of old!
The eye of the cyclops; the image of the single, symmetrical, central eye, has pervaded popular culture since ancient times. Accounts of one-eyed people stretch from ancient myths and legends to modern fantasy fiction. Cyclopes (plural) have been a staple of science fiction and horror movies, comic books and cartoons, generally used as a metaphor for the strange, alien, and often, dangerous. On the light-hearted side, though, the live-action opening sequence of the syndicated TV series Monsters, (1988-1991) features a cyclopic mother and daughter watching their TV set, and cyclopes appear in such animated cartoons as Futurama (1999-2003), Monsters, Inc. (2001), and Minions (2015). The depictions are usually anatomically incorrect, with a large central eye in the forehead above the nose, or even as a single disembodied eye, as in Tolkien’s depiction of Sauron. Aside from myths, legends and fiction, there have even been reports in modern times of alleged human cyclopes living well past infancy, as we shall see.
One of the earliest examples is the single-eyed giant, Polyphemus, who threatens Odysseus in The Odyssey and its various retellings. Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, (c 700 BCE) wrote of three cyclopic brothers who fashioned thunderbolts for Zeus.
It has been hypothesized that fossilized mammoth skulls, with a large nasal opening that resembles a large central eye socket, were, in part, an inspiration for these myths.
The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) mentions a cyclopic race, called the Arimaspi, in northern Scythia, which was north of Iran and would correspond to parts of Russia and Ukraine today.
Herodotus recounts how the one-eyed Arimaspi were at war with the griffins, who guarded the gold of the region. He obtained the tale from a poem by the semi-legendary Greek poet Aristeas (circa 700 BCE), which only survives today as a few short fragments. Aristeas allegedly traveled north to the Issedones and was told by the people there that yet further north were the Arimaspi, the gold-hoarding griffins and finally the Hyperboreans, but according to Herodotus, Aristeas did not actually travel to these latter places.
Pliny the Elder, noted for his encyclopedic Natural History (77 CE), repeats this story along with descriptions of other rather imaginative races, such as the people with one central leg and a huge foot that they used as an umbrella.
In more recent times, the story of the Arimaspi and their war with the griffins was retold in the YA novel Beyond the North Wind (1993) by American author, Gillian Bradshaw, with Aristeas as the protagonist who endeavors to protect the griffins.
There is also an account of a one-eyed race in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, alongside descriptions of races of people with the one large umbrella foot, headless races with their faces in their chests, and other such oddities evidently derived from Pliny. The Mandeville book, once believed to be a genuine travelogue, was actually a hoax written in the 14th century by an unknown author. Modeled on such real travelogues as that of Marco Polo, the author, incorporating aspects of the Greek myths, relates, that on an unnamed island somewhere south of Java are a race of giants who have one eye “in the middle of the front” and eat raw flesh and fish.
Then are world-wide references in fairy tales, such as the Grimm’s tale about the three sisters, One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes. Two-Eyes, like Cinderella, being the normal one, is constantly abused and demeaned by her freakish sisters.
In the modern era, in chapter one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s second Barsoom novel, Gods of Mars (1913), John Carter encounters cyclopic Plant Men in the northern regions of Mars. They are described as having mouths in their hands, “a single eye,” a hole for a nose and no mouth. The titular gem in the unintentionally hilarous epic, The Eye of Argon, (1970) occupies the central eye socket of a religious idol.
More often, such one-eyed aliens have made their appearance in films and comic books.
Clever use is made of such an alien in a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits titled “O.B.I.T.”
This alien is bent on undermining our social fabric by introducing a machine that can enable people to spy on one another anywhere at any time. The alien’s single central eye can be seen as a metaphor for the all-seeing screen of the spy devices.
These various depictions suggest that belief in living human cyclopes has persisted in different forms over the centuries. Have such people ever existed? Where did the idea originate? Are mammoth skulls a sufficient explanation?
It is a medical fact that babies with one central eye have been born. The condition, called cyclopia, occurs in one out of every 100,000 births, but most are stillborn, or die shortly after birth. Could one occasionally survive?
One persistent account is the intriguing item, “The Child Cyclops,” in Robert L. Ripley’s first Believe It or Not book (1929). The illustration depicts a little girl with bangs and a hairdo framing a face with a single central eye above her nose. Ripley identifies her as the “famous Clement Child,” says she was born in 1793 in Tourcoing, France, was “perfectly normal in every other way,” and lived to the age of fifteen.
Ripley boasted that he could prove every statement he made, and this story has been repeated as true in numerous sources in the years since. He cited volume two of Buffon’s Natural History, as his source. While majoring in biology, I located an edition of Buffon’s work in a campus library. It is a multi-volume encyclopedia representing the life work of the count Georges LeClerc Buffon, whose work in natural history was a major influence the science of biology for many generations to come. There have been various editions and reprints and the volume numbers are not always consistent with the original content, but there is a long section in an early volume entitled “de l’homme” (of mankind) including several pages subtitled “Sur les Monstres” (on monsters), in which he outlines a classification of “monstrous births.” Accompanying woodcuts illustrate a pair of conjoined twins, a piebald child, and, yes, a cyclopic child. However, the accompanying text, translated from the French, tells us that the female infant pictured was born in October, 1766 and lived only a few hours. In fact, the alleged Clement child’s birth in 1793 postdates Buffon’s death in 1788 by five years. Buffon’s work was continued after his death by others, but by scanning online digital versions of the work, I have found no evidence of any other accounts of cyclopic children added later. The posthumus additions to the work chiefly concern the natural history of fish and reptiles.
Babies born with cyclopia, as previously noted, are typically either stillborn or live only for a very short time, usually only a matter of hours, as in Buffon’s case. The condition is the result of a primary failure of the fetal forebrain to divide into right and left hemispheres. This undivided brain produces a single optic nerve rather than two, which forms a single central eyeball. The surrounding tissues of the head develop into one centrally placed eye socket, which blocks the formation of a nose and nasal cavity. This is a fatal blow to these infants, who are unable to breathe while feeding.
In the extremely rare cases where the hemispheres fail to divide, but the face develops normally with two eyes, the child rarely may survive for a time, but such children are afflicted with microcephaly, profound mental deficiency, constant seizures, muscle spasticity, irregular breathing, and poor body temperature control. Some of this is due to the fact that midline defects in the brain interfere with the development of the hypothalamus, which has a critical role in, among other things, regulation of temperature, sleep, hunger and thirst.
Cyclopia can result from multiple causes including genetic and environmental factors. But whatever the cause, the development of the brain is severely compromised.
Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1895), Gould and Pyle’s encyclopedic collection of examples of extreme human anomalies, does not list the Clement Child. The longest lived case of cyclopia they cite lived for only 73 hours.
More recent examples reported in medical journals include a baby born in 1960 who lived for eight days, and another one, with two adjacent central eyes and a single optic nerve, listed in the Opthalmic Registry, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, who lived for an incredible 28 days. No further information was available.
The usual depiction of a cyclops as seen in the Ripley cartoon, representations of Polyphemus, or the character Leela in the animated Futurama TV series, show the central eye above the bridge of the nose. In actual cyclopic fetuses and newborns, if there is a nose present, it is in the form of a non-functional tubular snout which forms above the eye. Slightly more realistic is Odilon Redon’s painting of Polyphemus, The Cyclops (circa 1914), which displays no nose at all.
It is likely that cyclopic fetuses were a primary inspiration behind such legends as the Arismaspi, which may, in turn, have influenced modern day science fiction and fantasy stories and films. That many mythical creatures bear a resemblance to birth defects is probably not coincidental. Thus, the two-faced god Janus resembles a type of conjoined twinning in which the heads are fused into one and there are two faces on opposite sides of the head. Mermaids resemble siren fetuses, another midline fetal defect in which the legs of the fetus fail to separate, resulting in a central limb resembling a fish’s tail. Legendary races of tailed men correspond to babies born with a vestigial tail. It seems likely, then, that legends of cyclopic races may have been influenced by the occasional birth of cyclopic fetuses.
It is safe to say that the girl depicted by Ripley could not have existed as pictured and could not have lived to the age of 15, let alone having been “perfectly normal in every other way.”
But I have never been able to find a single reference to this “famous” child predating the Ripley cartoon, and not for the lack of trying. Because Ripley claimed he could prove any statement he made, there must have been source material that was possibly somehow misinterpreted.
Ripley’s report of a living human cyclops is not unique. Other reports of such people have appeared occasionally and taken on a life of their own.
There is the tale of an adult cyclops, an African-American man, who allegedly worked as a logger in the turpentine forests of Louisiana. I first came across this story in William Lindsay Gresham’s book, Monster Midway (1953). According to Gresham, he was pursued by the sideshow entrepreneur, Slim Kelly, who wanted him as an attraction but was never able to catch up to the elusive man. While the idea of a human cyclops living to adulthood is totally implausible, a variation of the story appeared in Strange People (1961) by Frank Edwards, differing in some of the details, but obviously based on the same individual. In this version, the cyclopic African-American was living in a backwoods community in Mississippi and spent his life avoiding promoters and showmen. An acquaintance involved in sideshow lore told me he had read somewhere that the story had been made up by Kelly, himself, but was unable to remember where.
Some years later, I came across a photo of an ad in the book Circus and Carnival Ballyhoo (2010) by A.W. Stencell. The ad reads, ”Somewhere in the vicinity of Bogalusa [Louisiana] there exists a man with one eye in the middle of his forehead (believed to be a Negro.) Whoever finds him is entitled to a very sizable reward. Contact “Slim” Kelly ℅ Nature’s Mistakes. New York World’s Fair.” This referred to the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was obviously the source for Gresham’s and Edwards’s accounts.
I contacted Mr. Stencell, who, in turn, put me in touch with Bob Blackmar of the Sideshow Newsletter. Blackmar kindly emailed me an issue containing an article about Slim Kelly and his hunt for the cyclopic man. The article, an interview with Kelly, was reprinted from the October 11th, 1940 issue of Sideshow World. Kelly is quoted as saying “[the cyclops] was roaming through Louisiana with a bunch of roustabouts … he was kind of shy and some of his friends sort of sheltered him from the curious. I was right on his trail in Shreveport and a couple of other places, and then he disappeared somewhere near Bogalusa.”
Blackmar also sent along an interview with Kelly from the New York Daily Mirror August 6, 1940, which included a reproduction of the ad I had first seen in Stencell’s book. Under the ad, Kelly is quoted as saying “I ran this ad in a Louisiana paper … a lot of people down there swore this one-eyed man had been seen often, but he was shy and hard to find. You often find your best acts in the backwoods like that.”
Blackmar in a private communication referred to such interviews and press releases as” BS” and ”puffery.” This supported my initial correspondent’s idea that the story had been cooked up by Kelly, himself. At the time Kelly was co-owner of the “Nature’s Mistakes” show at the 1939 -1940 New York World’s Fair.
Somewhat more plausible-sounding were references in several textbooks on ophthalmology briefly alluding to a cyclopic child who lived to be ten years of age. I traced these references back to a 1908 German reference book (Graefe-Saemish Handbook of the Eye) and specifically to a paper in it by the noted German ophthalmologist Eugen von Hippel, a pioneer in corneal transplantation among other things. In “The Malformations and Congenital Defects of the Eye,” Dr. von Hippel makes the remarkable statement that while cyclopic infants tend to die in the perinatal period, there were cases that lived to the ages of 6 weeks, 18 months, and 10 years, respectively. He footnotes this to two sources, by Dr. Matthew Schon and Dr. P.L.Panum. I have, with the help of a German dictionary, and with acquaintances fluent in German, determined that neither of these sources contained such references.
I have been informed by friends fluent in German that von Hippel’s sentence is actually speculative in tone. A librarian friend translated it as “it is said that there were cases that lived to the ages of 6 weeks…etc.” It is not clear why he cited Schon and Panum’s papers.
The paper by Panum is mainly about conjoined twinning, and mentions, in passing, cases in which the heads are fused and there is a central eye between the normal eyes.
The title of Schon’s book, translated from the German, is Handbook of the Pathological Anatomy of the Human Eye (1828). The one relevant passage in it reads, “only one case is known where a cyclops of the male sex became ten months old.” That caught my attention, as no cyclopes to date have been documented as living more than a month. However, further searching revealed his source, Diseases of the Eyeball, (1769) by Jean-Joseph Guerin, which contains a note in Latin from the author Borrinchius in volume one of the Journal of Copenhagen. I was told by a librarian, who translated the note from the Latin, that age in Europe at that time was reckoned from conception rather than birth and a newborn infant was therefore considered to be nine or ten months old. I corresponded briefly with doctor specializing in medical genetics, who confirmed that it was referring to a newborn. Borrinchius describes the cyclopic newborn as “…a male infant about 10 months, it had no nose; & at the place where its root was to be, it had a round orbit which contained a well shaped eye…”
The cyclops man of Louisiana was evidently a deliberate hoax, and the medical journal account of the ten year old was likely the result of a misunderstanding. But what of Ripley’s “famous” Clement child? I had queried Edward Meyer, then archivist at Ripley International, and he told me that the material in the 1929 book was never sold to Ripley International when Ripley became syndicated by King Features and was likely lost to posterity.
Having discovered, while researching another project, that the oft-repeated cases of the “four-eyed man of Cricklade” and two-faced “Edward Mordake” both originated in an 1894 newspaper hoax, I reasoned that the Clement Child may have had a similar origin. Newspaper hoaxes were quite popular in the late 19th century.
The researcher who provided Ripley with much of his material was a man named Norbert Pearlroth who spent all day every day in the New York Public Library searching for odd facts for Ripley. I tried accessing the newspaper databases at New York Public Library, but to no avail. I even contacted Pearlroth’s grandson via email. He told me he had an old trunk in storage that had belonged to his grandfather. It sounded promising. However, when he checked the contents, it contained nothing relevant.
I decided to cross-check an equally unlikely Ripley story from the same volume. This one was about Jean-Baptiste Mouron, allegedly a French prisoner who was condemned to be a galley slave for 100 years and a day. When his ship was taken out of service, he was kept chained to his bench, in the ship’s bowels. He supposedly lived to be finally set free at the age of 117 years. The reader is referred to an autobiographical account by another Frenchman who was a galley slave during the same period for 17 years. There is no mention of M. Mouron. It occurred to me that the source was cited merely to verify that men were condemned to be galley slaves there at that time period. It then followed that Buffon’s encyclopedia was cited similarly to verify the fact that cyclopic children actually exist, albeit briefly
While the databases in New York turned up nothing, I gave it one more go with the databases in the Free Library of Philadelphia. I never found a reference to the Clement child, but I did turn up something equally interesting.
I discovered an article titled “A Human Curio” which appeared in the Pendleton East Oregonian and was copied by several papers including Chicago’s Daily Inter Ocean for November 27, 1889.
It reads: “Not long ago there was seen in Pendleton a human freak which knocks the spots off any living skeleton or Chinese giant as a natural curiosity. It was an Indian child of the Nez Perce tribe with but one eye, situated in the center of its forehead like those of the fabled Cyclops. The child was able to see with ease and ran about with as much freedom as any of its two-eyed companions.”
The article goes on to say that some local parties were about to negotiate to secure the child when the Indians left for the mountains on a hunting expedition. The mother of the child explained that she had looked at a “one-eyed cayuse” shortly before the infant’s birth.”
A distant cousin of the Clement child, perhaps? “Cayuse” is an archaic term for a small, low-quality horse. The mother (or rather the journalist) is invoking the now obsolete theory of “maternal impression;” that a pregnant woman’s experiences can “mark” a developing fetus. Thus, also in the 1880’s, the famed Elephant Man believed his condition was the result of his mother having been frightened by an elephant while pregnant. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the news item was never followed up. Newspaper hoaxes rarely were.
By Lee Weinstein: One would have to look hard and long to find someone somewhere today who hasn’t heard of The Three Stooges. Their images are iconic and their comedies are never off the air. But few today realize that they came out of a sub-genre of film comedies that had their heyday in the 1930’s and 1940’s. They are virtually the sole survivors of an entire genre of comedy short subjects, featuring various stars, and produced by a number of different studios including Columbia, RKO, Hal Roach, Educational Pictures, and others. They typically ran for about 18 minutes on two reels of film, and therefore were often known as “two-reelers.” Typically shown in movie theaters before the main attraction, often along with movie serial chapters, cartoons and newsreels, they were an important part of the program, sometimes even advertised on the theater marquee.
While most of these non-Stooge series have been virtually forgotten, there are a few exceptions. Laurel and Hardy made about 40 sound shorts before going into feature films, and the Our Gang (aka Little Rascals) comedies, 132 in all, have managed to survive in a limited way.
Some well-known comic actors starred in a few. W.C. Fields made five short sound comedies between 1930 and 1933. Buster Keaton made 24 sound shorts between 1934 and 1941 for Educational Pictures. Of course, these are footnotes in the careers of men far better remembered for their feature films.
Of the majority of the stars, few today know of Charley Chase, Leon Erroll, Andy Clyde, Edgar Kennedy, Vera Vague, and many others, who were quite popular in their day.
I became acquainted with them from a Philadelphia-based children’s TV show when I was about ten or eleven in a segment called “The Big Rascals.” I didn’t encounter them again until the era of videotape and DVD rentals, and YouTube.
They were in a real sense the forerunners of modern situation comedies, although unlike them, they were purely character-driven. For example, the Three Stooges retained their distinctive personalities from one film to the next while the situations varied quite a bit. They might be mechanics in one episode, plumbers in another, and Civil War soldiers in a third, while still being themselves. The same mostly holds true for the other stars.
One exception is the RKO series starring Edgar Kennedy which was closer to an actual sitcom. These 103 shorts were produced on a regular basis for 17 years, from 1931 to 1948. Bald, middle-aged and grouchy, Kennedy lived with his obnoxious brother-in-law, always called “Brother,” and his interfering mother-in-law, “Mother.” The situation remained fairly consistent, although the supporting actors sometimes underwent a change. Several actresses portrayed his wife at different times but “Mother” was always portrayed by Dot Farley. Two actors portrayed “Brother.” Kennedy’s forte was the “slow burn” as he would get increasingly frustrated by the circumstances, finally wiping his hand over his face in exasperation.
Hal Roach studios, which produced the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals) comedies, produced other series as well. One series that still holds up well is the one featuring Thelma Todd (1906-1935), possibly best remembered from the Marx Brothers feature films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. She was initially paired by Roach with fellow comedienne Zasu Pitts (1894-1963) in an attempt to create a female version of Laurel and Hardy. While not Laurel and Hardy, they are still quite funny. There were occasional guest appearances by such actors as Spanky McFarland, Sterling Halloway, Billy Gilbert, and others. After 17 episodes, Pitts left Hal Roach in 1933 for feature films in other studios and Todd was subsequently paired up with Patsy Kelly for an additional 21 episodes. Whereas Pitts played an often befuddled victim, to Todd’s straight woman character, Kelly was more of her cynical, wisecracking sidekick. While also quite amusing, the untimely death of Todd in 1935 sadly put an end to the series.
Hal Roach Studio’s biggest star, however, after Laurel and Hardy, was Charley Chase (1893-1940). He was not only a comic actor, but also a writer and director under his real name, Charles Parrott. In his films he appeared as a dapper-looking gentleman with slicked-down hair, dark mustache, and wire-rimmed glasses, who always seemed to be getting himself into embarrassing predicaments. In “The Pip from Pittsburgh,” when he is fixed up on a blind date, he makes himself look like a slob, hoping to get out of it. Then, to his great embarrassment, he meets his date, who turns out to be the beautiful Thelma Todd. In one of his funniest shorts, however, “The Heckler,” he played a loud, obnoxious baseball fan. It was later remade as “The Noisemaker” with Shemp Howard in the starring role.
Chase starred in 79 short comedies between 1929 and 1940 and had a hand in directing and writing numerous others. When Roach went to feature films, Chase changed studios and migrated to Columbia where he continued a successful career.
Harry Langdon, another former vaudevillian, made the transition from the silents to sound in 1929 and went on to star in 43 shorts, ending in 1945. His character was that of a helpless innocent, which he had originally developed in Vaudeville, and used successfully in silent films, but arguably less so in his talkies. Later in the sound era he later created a second persona as a henpecked husband.
Leon Erroll (1881-1951) was a versatile Australian-American comedian who starred in some 98 two-reelers between 1933 and 1951. Most were released through RKO, although he did a few for Columbia and Paramount. Already 52 at the start of the series, he was a short, balding man who was and a good physical comedian who could still do his famous rubber-legged impression of a drunk from earlier days. His comedies often involved his getting into trouble with a jealous wife, getting drunk, hiding from his boss, and other misunderstandings.
Andy Clyde (1892-1967), a Scottish-born American comedian, was one of the most prolific rivals, having starred in some 146 short comedies between 1929 and 1956. He started with Mack Sennett and later went to Educational Pictures and finally Columbia. Although he started out as a young man, he always portrayed his “old man” character in his short comedies and elsewhere. As he aged he needed less makeup, and as one critic put it, “grew into his character.” Afterward he would occasionally appear as a character actor on tv series.
A short series which started at Fox studios featured the antics of vaudevillians Clark and McCullough. Bobby Clark was a fast-talking, cigar-smoking, nonsense-spouting guy with painted-on eyeglasses who has been compared to Groucho Marx. His partner, Paul McCullough, was his quieter sidekick who assisted him in the mayhem. It is rumored that McCullough was the comic at the beginning of their career, but Clark eventually became the dominant force. The one surviving Fox film seems to bear this out. Sadly, the rest have been lost. But the pair went on to make 21 shorts for RKO between 1931 and 1935, until the tragic death of McCullough. Fast-paced and surreal, they provided a different approach to comedy.
Vera Vague, a character created by comedienne Barbara Jo Allen, starred in a series of 16 short comedies between 1943 and 1952 for Columbia. A late-comer to the genre, she was hired by Jules White, who directed many of the Stooges comedies. Her character is usually described as a somewhat shrill, dowdy-looking spinster. Unlike most of the stars of these shorts, who mostly came out of vaudeville and the silents, she came out of radio, where she had created the character. A couple of the shorts were nominated for Oscars.
Shemp Howard, before he rejoined the Three Stooges after Curly’s stroke, starred in his own series of nine two reelers for Columbia between 1944-1946.
Columbia, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, also provided a home for other vaudevillians, including El Brendel, who portrayed a rather befuddled Swedish character. Others were Gil Lamb, Harry Von Zell (the announcer for Burns and Allen), Joe de Rita (who eventually became a Stooge), Hugh Herbert, and others in the twilight of their careers. Columbia’s shorts were low-budget, but had a stable of actors, writers, and directors that gave their product a consistent quality.
With the advent of television the two-reel comedies were superseded in the early 1950’s and actual sitcoms took the stage. However, ironically, it was also television that gave the Three Stooges the boost to their popularity that kept their films alive for generations to come.
Why did the Stooge shorts survive, but not the others? Possibly, the shorts of the various other comics were comparatively more sedate. The Stooges took slapstick and cartoon violence to a level not seen in other two-reelers. They were over-the-top. Another factor might be that they were a threesome, whereas the others were either solo acts or twosomes.
In 1991, as a tribute to these forgotten short comedies, Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest created a half hour “mockumentary” TV series in which Reiner introduced the “rediscovered” films of the fictitious comedy team of Morton and Hayes. Chick Morton (Kevin Pollak) and Eddie Hayes (Bob Amaral) portrayed an Abbott and Costello-like duo, supposedly active in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Six episodes were aired on CBS in July and August of that year. The shows were quite clever, even if they lacked the humor of what they were parodying.
A book on the subject, The Great Movie Shorts by film critic Leonard Maltin, was published in 1972.
As for the films themselves, beside infrequent airings as filler on Turner Classic Movies, a number have surfaced on YouTube, and some have even been resurrected on DVDs.
For those interested, it would be worthwhile to search them out.
By Lee Weinstein: Atmospheric disturbances are creating worldwide turmoil. Buildings collapse as hurricanes and floods rage, while scientists heatedly argue about the cause. No, I’m not referring to the current effects of climate change. These are the disasters visited on earth by Ming the Merciless in the 1938 movie serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars.
The second film in Universal’s trilogy of Flash Gordon serials, it is the longest, at 15 chapters, and a favorite of many. It’s the only one to contain magic mixed in with the science fiction and the only one not set on the planet Mongo. Some critics have preferred this 1938 sequel to the 1936 serial, noting its futuristic look, more coherent story structure, and the more proactive role Flash and his allies take against their enemies.
The original Flash Gordon comic strip was inspired by the Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoomian novels, with Flash standing in for John Carter, as is evidenced by Flash’s physical prowess in various fight scenes. This was reflected in the 1936 serial where he is forced repeatedly to fight for his life, often with swords, against soldiers, ape-men and monsters. But in the 1938 Mars serial, Flash is more dependent on ray guns and cunning than on brawn.
The original germ for the story was a sequence in Raymond’s Sunday strip about Flash’s encounter with Azura, Queen of Magic, who tries to lure him from Dale with an amnesia drug called lethium.
Note that this sequence, like the rest of Raymond’s stories in his strip, is set on Mongo, not Mars.
The serial’s Azura (Beatrice Roberts; not to be confused with the same-named showgirl who married Robert Ripley) differs greatly from her comic strip inspiration. She is more mature, has little romantic interest in Flash, and wields actual magical powers. While her comic strip predecessor employs potions to get what she wants, the film Azura uses a magical talisman, in the form of a white sapphire, to enable her to vanish in a cloud of white smoke and materialize elsewhere. It also gives her the power to transform people into living clay before teleporting them, with a wave of her hand, to the Clay Caves.
The serial’s vision of Mars differs from contemporary popular conceptions of the planet. There is no mention of Martian canals or moons. Instead we see desolate rock formations, caverns of living clay men, forests of gnarly trees, and most significantly, Queen Azura’s scientifically advanced domain. The soundtrack, largely from Franz Waxman’s score for Universal’s The Bride of Frankenstein, fits extremely well to the action.
Chapter One, “New Worlds to Conquer,” literally picks up where the previous serial left off, with the major actors resuming their roles. Our protagonists, Flash (Buster Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), and Dr. Alexei Zarkov (Frank Shannon), are still on the rocket ship speeding back from the planet Mongo, although Dale’s hair color has somehow changed in mid-flight from blonde to brunette!
However, it is not long after their return home, that Earth is again under attack from space. Zarkov traces the threat to Earth to a mysterious beam of light originating from outer space, and destroying our atmosphere. As in Flash Gordon, two years earlier, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov fly off to find the source of the threat and put an end to it. This time they are accompanied by newspaper reporter Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr), who has stowed away on the ship and provides comic relief, to the chagrin of many critics
Flash and his companions crash land on Mars, where the beam originates, in the aptly named Valley of Desolation, seek shelter from Azura’s “Death Squadron” in the Clay Caves, and encounter the Clay People, who, in a visually memorable scene, accompanied by Franz Waxman’s “Danse Macabre” from The Bride of Frankenstein (1932), materialize out of the cave walls.
They soon encounter Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), even more satanic than before, who has escaped a fiery death on Mongo. He has a new ally in Queen Azura, who, with him, is using a huge elaborate-looking mechanism, a “nitron lamp,” to project the destructive beam to earth. The result is atmospheric mayhem as the apparatus drains our atmosphere of a substance called “nitron” (doubtless an early form of “unobtainium”). While Azura wants to use the extracted nitron to wage war on the Clay People, by employing its explosive properties, vengeful Ming is only intent on destroying the earth.
Each subsequent chapter begins with a synopsis of the previous one, presented as cartoons on a televisor screen, in a nod to the characters’ comic strip origins by Alex Raymond. The artwork is not Raymond’s, though, and was apparently sketched from stills taken from each previous episode.
The storyline is more well-integrated than the one in 1936, with Flash encountering and re-encountering the different Martian kingdoms. The Clay King (Montague Shaw), at first seemingly an enemy, turns out to be quite sympathetic. Shaw gives a touching performance, even from behind the rubber mask he wears. The king of the Fire or Tree people (Anthony Warde) is himself unmemorable but the bleak, labyrinthine forest of twisted trees is unforgettable.
The Tree People possess the black sapphire that counteracts the queen’s powers. Flash and his associates discover that despite their primitive appearance, they have offensive weapons in the form of ray projectors. While there they meet Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), an old ally, formerly of Mongo.
Although this serial’s budget was about half that of its 1936 predecessor, it has a more polished and coherent look. While the first and third serials have a rather historical appearance, based on Alex Raymond’s drawings, in Trip to Mars the sets, costumes and backdrops of Azura’s palace and power house have present a futuristic vision with their sliding panel doors, ray machines, and imaginative matte paintings of a Martian city. Despite the crude special effects, it all manages to invoke an unworldly sense of wonder.
Light beams of all sorts occur throughout the chapters. From the nitron beam, to the light bridge to Azura’s palace, to the disintegrator rays used by the Tree People and by Ming, they provide a kind of leitmotif (pun intended). Even Azura’s throne is illuminated by sunbeams coming in through a high window.
As in the previous serial, the plot follows the classic “hero’s journey.” However the stakes are quite different. In the previous serial, Flash’s main objective was to protect Dale from Ming and escape from Mongo. Here, he must save the earth from total destruction. In addition he must remove Azura’s curse from the Clay People and restore them to their normal bodies.
Flash and his companions do not remain passive prisoners, as in the previous serial, but take a more active stance throughout. Even Dale, at one point, commandeers a stratosled and uses it to save Flash.
These low-flying, rocket-powered “stratosleds” were not in the original strip, but do resemble Burroughs’s Barsoomian “fliers.” They are another part of the setting and visuals that set it apart from the previous serial and also the third one (1940’s Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe).
A major question is why the screenwriters moved the locale to the planet Mars. It is a common misconception that the reason was to capitalize on the panic following Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio show in October of 1938. When they take off for Mongo, Zarkov is surprised to discover, near the end of the first chapter, that the nitron beam is actually coming from Mars, resulting in a last minute change of direction. This may have suggested to later audiences and critics that the change hadn’t been planned in advance.
But the serial was released months earlier, in March of that year, long before the radio broadcast. The confusion may in part be due to the release of the quickly edited feature length version to capitalize on the Welles radio drama, shortly after the radio broadcast. This feature version was titled Mars Attacks the World. But that doesn’t explain why the previously released complete serial was set on Mars in the first place.
Some have suggested it was done so the movie-going public would not think it was a re-release of the first serial under a new title. Or possibly the change of setting was to enable the designers to depart from Raymond’s visuals and enable them to do something quite different and futuristic looking.
Then again, the answer may lie in the success of a serial that came out in 1935, a year before Flash Gordon. Much of the imagery may well have been inspired by the Mascot serial, The Phantom Empire with its “scientific” civilization of Murania, 25,000 feet underground.
Like the other Flash Gordon serials, Buck Rogers, TheUndersea Kingdom, and for that matter, The Wizard of Oz,The Phantom Empire was a product of the Great Depression, and movie audiences were being treated to such fantasies set in imaginary worlds.
The costumes and sets of the “scientific city of Murania” were quite visionary. Murania featured televisor screens for remote audio-visual communication and a futuristic cityscape of spires, domestic bridges and roving searchlights. There were robots, ray guns, a 25,000 foot tubular elevator and a “radium reviving chamber” even capable of reviving the dead. It was ruled by the disdainful Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie). Her royal guard or “Thunder Guard” were garbed in long cloaks, helmets, and lightning bolt chest emblems.
Unlike the primitive, historical-looking sets and costumes in 1936’s Flash Gordon, Trip to Mars similarly features futuristic cityscapes, high-speed tubular subways, televisor screens, paralyzing and disintegrating rays, and a healing chamber, which restores a wounded Happy Hapgood back to health. The arrogant Queen Azura, like Tika, has a royal guard or “death squadron” who also wear long cloaks, helmets, and lightning bolt chest emblems. Gene Autry had a couple of comic sidekicks in Phantom Empire and it may not be coincidental that in the Mars serial, Flash acquires a comic sidekick, for the first and last time.
In both serials the ruling queen, who had been the chief enemy of the protagonists, exhibits a marked character change toward the end, as each sacrifices herself to save others. Tika saves Gene Autry and his companions from the out-of-control destructive ray machine set in motion by her traitorous chancellor, Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman). As Murania literally melts away, Tika insists Autry and his companions leave her and go to the surface. She watches on the televisor until they reach the entry cave, and opens the secret entrance to allow them to escape. Despite Autry’s pleading with her to escape to the surface with them, she insists on remaining behind to die with Murania.
Similarly, as Azura lies dying, the victim of her own death squadron sent by Ming, she gives her magical white sapphire to Flash and instructs him how to lift the clay curse. Despite Flash’s pleading with her to come with him, she insists on remaining behind to die.
Interestingly, the ray machine that destroys Murania was set in motion by Lord Argo, played by Wheeler Oakman. At the end of Trip to Mars, Ming is presumably destroyed in the disintegration chamber by his chief minion Tarnak, also played by Wheeler Oakman. Coincidence? Typecasting?
Some critics have charged that the serial’s last few chapters are padded, but that is arguable. Most serials have their conflicts resolved in the final two chapters, but that’s not the case here.
The nitron lamp is disabled by chapter nine, and with Azura’s death in chapter thirteen, the Clay People are restored to flesh and blood. Flash and his cohorts have achieved their goals but their victory is temporary. The diabolical Ming, now insane with anger and intent on destruction, is still at large and threatens to repair the lamp, attack the Clay people and destroy the earth.
Whereas the Phantom Empire essentially ends with the death of Tika, Trip to Mars continues to a second climax with the defeat of Ming in the final chapter. On the way, there is a moving scene in which the clay curse is finally lifted. Subsequently, one of Azura’s soldiers recognizes his brother, who he had believed to be dead, now restored to his normal body. With the help of this Martian soldier, Flash is able to disrupt Ming’s coronation as the new King of Mars. And when an enraged Ming threatens to destroy Mars as well as earth, in retaliation, Tarnak turns on him and forces him into the disintegration room. It’s the end of Ming, until, of course, his unexplained return in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe! But that’s a story for another time.
If Trip to Mars reflects themes and images from the Phantom Empire, its imagery, in turn, can be seen reflected in media science fiction down through the decades. The direct parody, Flesh Gordon (1974), concerns the effects on earth of a “sex ray” from Mars. The X-wing dogfights in Star Wars and its sequels recall the air battles between the Martian stratosleds. Futuristic sets with sliding doors can be seen in numerous films and shows from Space Patrol to Forbidden Planet to Star Trek. And a close look at the Martians reveals the inspiration for Spock’s eyebrows.
Flash Gordon continues to fly on in popular culture. But our current problems in the real world with heat, hurricanes, and floods come from here on earth, not from Mars.
People writing about the issues they care about is what keeps this community going. It’s a gift and privilege for me to be continually allowed to publish so many entertaining posts rich in creativity, humor, and shared adventures. Thanks to all of you who contributed to File 770 in 2022!
…Thinking about Jules Verne, with the new TV version of Around the World in Eighty Days about to start, I just bought the Wesleyan edition of Five Weeks in a Balloon, translated by Frederick Paul Walter – after researching what the good modern translations of Verne are. Verne has been abysmally translated into English over the years, but there’s been a push to correct that….
… It was on FaceBook where I first saw friends’ posting about Opening Ceremonies. According to what was posted, some of the musical selections performed by students from the Duke Ellington School spotlighted the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday.
My immediate reaction was that this was not an appropriate part of Opening Ceremonies, especially since, as far as I know, the religious aspect of the performance was not contained in the descriptions in any convention publication. The online description of Opening Ceremonies says, in its entirety: “Welcome to the convention. We will present the First Fandom and Big Heart awards, as well as remarks from the Chair.” The December 9, 2021, news release about the choir’s participation did not mention that there would be a religious component to the performance….
Whew! We made it. We made it to Issue 100 of the Grantville Gazette. This is an incredible feat by a large group of stakeholders. Thank you, everyone.
I don’t think Eric Flint had any idea what he’d created when he sent Jim Baen the manuscript for 1632. In the intervening two-plus decades, the book he intended to be a one-shot novel has grown like the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters to encompass books from two publishing houses, a magazine (this one, that you are holding in your metaphorical hands) and allowed over 165 new authors to see their first published story in print. The Ring of Fire Universe, or the 1632 Universe, has more than twelve million words published….
This message was written by a fan in Moscow 48 hours ago. It is unsigned but was relayed by a trustworthy source who confirms the writer is happy for it to be published by File 770. It’s a fan’s perspective, a voice we may not hear much….
Right now, when I’m sitting at my desktop and writing this text, a cannonade nearby doesn’t stop. The previous night was scary in Kyiv. Evidently, Russians are going to start demolishing Ukrainian capital like they are doing with Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Mariupol.
The Ukrainian SFF Community joined the efforts to isolate Russia, the nazi-country of the 21st century, to force them to stop the war. The boycott by American authors we asked for is also doing the job. Many leading writers and artists of the great United States already joined the campaign.
We appealed to SFWA to also join the campaign, and here is what they replied…
Fortunately, comic-carrying newspapers are, of course, all (also or only) online these days, but even then, some require subscriptions (fair enough), and to get all the ones you want. For example, online, the Washington Post, has about 90, while the Boston Globe is just shy of a paltry one-score-and-ten. And (at least in Firefox), they don’t seem to be visible in all-on-one-page mode, much less customize-a-page-of.
So, for several years now, I’ve been going to the source — two “syndicates” that sell/redistribute many popular strips to newspapers….
There’s been a lot of excitement about Squid Game. Everybody’s talking about how clever, original, and utterly skiffy it is. I watched it, too, eagerly and faithfully. But I wasn’t as surprised by it as some. I expected it to be good. I’ve been watching Korean video for ten years, and have only grown more addicted every year. And yet I just can’t convince many people to watch it with me….
Let me tell you about my favorite building in Washington, D.C. It’s the staid old Arts and Industries Building, the second-oldest of all the Smithsonian Institution buildings, which dates back to the very early 1880s and owes its existence to the Smithsonian’s then urgent need for a place where parts of its collection could go on public display….
When we last left the Heinleins (“What the Heinleins Told the 1940 Census”), a woman answering the door at 8777 Lookout Mountain – Leslyn Heinlein, presumably — had just finished telling the 1940 census taker a breathtaking raft of misinformation. Including that her name was Sigred, her husband’s was Richard, that the couple had been born in Germany, and they had a young son named Rolf.
Ten years have passed since then, and the archives of the 1950 U.S. Census were opened to the public on April 1. There’s a new Mrs. Heinlein – Virginia. The 8777 Lookout Mountain house in L.A. has been sold. They’re living in Colorado Springs. What did the Heinleins tell the census taker this time?…
“In the future, there was a nuclear war. And because of all the radiation, cats developed the ability to shoot lasers out of their mouths.”
On this dubious premise, Laser Cats was founded. By its seventh and final episode, the great action stars and directors of the day had contributed their considerable talents to this highly entertaining, yet frankly ridiculous enterprise. From James Cameron to Lindsey Lohan, Josh Brolin to Steve Martin, Laser Cats attracted the best in the business.
Being part of Saturday Night Live undoubtedly helped….
The Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award For Disability In Speculative Fiction aims to award disability in speculative fiction in two ways. One, by awarding a writer of speculative fiction for their representation or portrayal of disability in a world of speculative fiction, whatever their health status; and two, by awarding a disabled writer for a work of speculative fiction in general, whatever the focus of the work may be….
Robert Osband, Florida fan, really loves space. All his life he has been learning about spaceflight. And reading stories about spaceflight, in science fiction.
So after NASA’s Apollo program was over, the company that made Apollo space suits held a garage sale, and Ozzie showed up. He bought a “training liner” from ILC Dover, a coverall-like portion of a pressure suit, with rings at the wrists and neck to attach gloves and helmet.
And another time, in 1976, when one of his favorite authors, Robert A. Heinlein, was going to be Guest of Honor at a World Science Fiction Convention, Mr. Osband journeyed to Kansas City.
In his suitcase was his copy of Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel—a novel about a teenager who wins a secondhand space suit in a contest—and his ILC Dover suit.
Because if you wanted to get your copy of Have Space Suit, Will Travel autographed, and you happened to own a secondhand space suit, it would be a shame NOT to wear it, right?…
… I’m sure that our first face-to-face meeting was in 1979, when my job in industry took me from Chattanooga all the way out to Los Angeles for some much-needed training in electrochemistry. I didn’t really know anybody in L.A. fandom back then but I did know the address of the LASFS clubhouse, so on my next-to-last evening in town I dropped in on a meeting. And it was there that I found Bruce mostly surrounded by other fans while they all expounded on fandom as it existed back then and what it might be like a few years down the road. It was like a jazz jam session, but all words and no music. I settled back into the periphery, enjoying all the back-and-forth, and when there eventually came a lull in the conversations I took the opportunity to introduce myself. And then Bruce said something to me that I found very surprising: “Dick Lynch! I’ve heard of you!”…
It was back in 2014 that a student filmmaker at Stephen F. Austin State University, Ricky Kennedy, created an extraordinary short movie titled The History of Time Travel. Exploration of “what ifs” is central to good storytelling in the science fiction genre and this little production is one of the better examples of how to do it the right way.
… It is through Joy and Cassimer’s eyes we experience S.A. Tholin’s Iron Truth, a finalist of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. If there was ever a case of the cream rising to the top this book is one….
In T. A. Bruno’s In the Orbit of Sirens, a Self-Published Science Fiction Competition finalist, the remnants of the human race have fled the solar system ahead of an alien culture that is assimilating everyone in reach. Loaded aboard a vast colony ship they’re headed for a distant refuge, prepared to pioneer a new world, but unprepared to meet new threats there to human survival that are as great as the ones they left behind.
On the morning of Carmen Grey’s sixth birthday an armed team arrives to take her from her parents and remove her to the underground facility where Clairvoyants — like her — are held captive and trained for years to access their abilities. So begins Monster of the Dark by K. T. Belt, a finalist in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition….
G.M. Nair begins Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire by making a surprising choice. His introductory scene explicitly reveals to readers the true nature of the mysterious events that the protagonists themselves uncover only very slowly throughout the first half of the book. The introduction might even be the penultimate scene in the book — which would make sense in a story that is partly about time travel loops. Good idea or bad idea?…
… What sounds like Firefly also describes the SPSFC finalist novel Captain Wu: Starship Nameless #1, a space opera by authors Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster. I love Firefly so it wasn’t a big leap to climb aboard this vessel….
…. It would be exceptionally embarrassing for a Worldcon to have to explain why a finalist would have won the Hugo except for — oops! — this bit of outdated fine print. The best course of action is to eliminate that fine print before such a circumstance arises….
The social media of the 30th century doesn’t seem so different: teenagers anonymously perform acts of civil disobedience and vandalism to score points and raise their ranking in an internet app. That’s where Aster Vale leads a secret life as the Wildflower, a street artist and tagger, in A Star Named Vega by Benjamin J. Roberts, a Self-Published Science Fiction competition finalist…..
R F Kuang’s Babel is an audacious and unrelenting look at colonialism, seen through the lens of an alternate 19th century Britain where translation is the key to magic. Kuang’s novel is as sharp and perceptive as it is well written, deep, and bears reflection upon, after reading, for today’s world….
Paul Weimer went to donate some books at Don Blyly’s new location for Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s bookstores. While he was inside Paul shot these photographs of the bookshelves being stocked and other work in progress.
… Another contributor to the Afrofuturist tradition is Nicole Mitchell, a noted avant-jazz composer and flutist. She chose to take on Octavia Butler’s most challenging works, the Xenogenesis Trilogy, and create the Xenogenesis Suite, a collection of dark and disturbing compositions that reflect the trilogy’s turbulent and complicated spirit….
Anna carefully arranged the necessary objects around her desktop computer into a pentagon: sharpened pencils, a legal pad, a half-empty coffee cup, and a copy of Science Without Sorcery, with the chair at the fifth point. This done, she intoned the spell that would open the channel to her muse for long enough to write the final pages of her work-in-progress. Then she could get ready for the convention….
… In the last five years, the [Hugo Awards Study Committee] [HASC] has changed precisely two words of the Constitution. (Since you asked: adding the words “or Comic” to the title of the “Best Graphic Story” category.) The HASC’s defenders will complain that we had two years of pandemic, and that the committee switched to Discord rather than email only this year, and that there are lots of proposals this year. But the fact remains that so far the practical impact has been slower than I imagined when I first proposed the Committee…..
In Michaele Jordan’s overview, she comments on the novellas by Aliette de Bodard, Becky Chambers, Alix E. Harrow, Seanan McGuire, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Catherynne M. Valente that are up for the 2022 Hugo.
… Once we had a lot of science fiction, little fantasy; lately we’ve had a lot of fantasy; so Powers’ writing fantasy does not seem particularly defiant.
His fantasy has generally been — to use a word which may provoke defiance — rigorous. Supernatural phenomena occur, may be predicted, aroused, avoided, as meticulously — a word whose root means fear — as we in our world start an automobile engine or put up an umbrella. Some say this has made his writing distinctive….
The day of reckoning is here for E Pluribus Hugo. The change in the way Hugo Awards nominations are counted was passed in 2015 and ratified in 2016 to counter how Sad and Rabid Puppies’ slates dictated most of finalists on the Hugo ballots in those years. It came with a 2022 sunset clause attached, and E Pluribus Hugo must be re-ratified this year in order to remain part of the WSFS Constitution….
… His name is Joel Nydahl, and back about the time of that Chicon he was a 14-year-old neofan who lived with his parents on a farm near Marquette, Michigan. He was an avid science fiction reader and at some point in 1952 decided to publish a fanzine. It was a good one….
… Abigail Kamara, younger cousin of police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant, has been left largely unsupervised while he’s off in the sticks on a case. This leaves Abigail making her own decisions when she notices that kids roughly her age are disappearing–but not staying missing long enough for the police to care….
Friends, let me tell you about one of my favorite TV shows. But I must admit to you up front that it’s not SF/F. Extraordinary Attorney Woo is, as I assume you’ve deduced from the title, a lawyer show. But it’s a KOREAN lawyer show, which should indicate that is NOT run of the mill….
… The Phantom Empire, a twelve-chapter Mascot serial, was originally released in February, 1935. A strange concoction for a serial, it is at once science fiction film, a Western, and strangely enough, a musical. It was the first real science fiction sound serial and its popularity soon inspired other serials about fantastic worlds….
… I find myself explaining the changes to membership in the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) and the conditions for attending the World Science Fiction Convention that were ratified this year in Chicago (and thus are now in effect, because this was the second vote on the changes)…
Chicon 8’s Chicago Worldcon Community Fund (CWCF) program offered both memberships and financial stipends. It was established with the goal of helping defray the expenses of attending Chicon 8 for the following groups of people:
Non-white fans or program participants • LGBTQIA+ fans or program participants • Local Chicago area fans of limited means…
As environmental problems caused by industrialisation and post-industrialisation continue to increase, the public is looking for ecological solutions. As pandemics, economic crises, and wars plague our society in different ways, thoughts turn to the good old times. But were they really all that good? People are escaping increasingly into fantastical stories in order to find a quantum of solace. But at what point was there a utopia in our society. If so, at what or whose cost did it exist? Whether or not we ever experience living in a utopia, the idea of finally finding one drives us to continue seeking ideal living conditions….
… Capclave appeared to be equally star-crossed in its next iteration. It was held over the weekend of October 18-20, 2002, and once again the attendees were brought closer together by an event taking place in the outside world. The word had spread quickly through all the Saturday night room parties: “There’s been another shooting.” Another victim of the D.C. Sniper….
… In Fairy Tale, his newest novel, Stephen King delivers a, cough, grimm contemporary story, explicitly incorporating horror in the, cough, spirit of Lovecraft (King also explicitly namedrops, in the text, August Derleth, and Henry Kuttner), in which high-schooler Charlie Reade becomes involved in things — and challenges — that, as the book and plot progress, stray beyond the mundane….
The idea of an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about the Beatles seems like a natural. I’ve been told the two editors, each unbeknownst to the other, both presented the idea to the publisher around the same time…
The Science Museum (that’s the world famous one in Kensington, London) has just launched a new exhibit on what Carl Sagan once mused (though not mentioned in the exhibit itself) science fiction and science’s ‘dance’. SF2 Concatenation reprographic supremo Tony Bailey and I were invited by the Museum to have a look on the exhibition’s first day. (The exhibition runs to Star Wars day 2023, May the Fourth.) Having braved Dalek extermination at the Museum’s entrance, we made our way to the exhibition’s foyer – decorated with adverts to travel to Gallifrey – to board our shuttle….
I was at the 2022 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival in Rockville, MD today. If you’re wondering why the festival is there, that’s where Fitzgerald and his wife are buried. Now, I’d never read any of Fitzgerald`s writing, so I spent the evening before reading the first three chapters of The Great Gatsby (copyright having expired last year, it’s online). So far, I’ve yet to find anyone in it that I want to spend any time with, including the narrator.
However, the reason I attended was to see Kim Stanley Robinson, who was the special guest at the Festival. The end of the morning’s big event was a conversation between Stan and Richard Powers. Then there was lunch, and a keynote speaker, then Stan introducing Powers to receive an award from the society that throws the annual Festival….
…As a child, I kept a notebook filled with my favorite quotes. (How did I not know I was going to be an author?) The first quote? “Not all who wander are lost.” There was everything from 90s rom com lines to Wordsworth poems in that notebook, but Tolkien filled the most pages….
There is a fundamental implausibility to easy manned interstellar (or even interplanetary) space travel that nonetheless remains a seductive idea even in our wiser and more cynical and weary 21st century. …
Alif is a young man, a “gray hat” hacker, selling his skills to provide cybersecurity to anyone who needs that protection from the government. He lives in an unnamed city-state in the Middle East, referred to throughout simply as the City. He’s nonideological; he’ll sell his services to Islamists, communists, anyone….
Journalist, author, genre historian (and fan, certainly, from the 1940s and on!) Bertil Falk is acclaimed for performing the “impossible” task of translating Finnegans Wake to Swedish, the modernist classic by James Joyce, under the title Finnegans likvaka….
The protagonist of the first short novel in this omnibus — which is in fact Eye of Cat — is William Blackhorse Singer, a Navajo born in the 20th century, and still alive, and fit and healthy, almost two centuries later….
One fine Monday morning, Peter Grant is summoned to Baker Street Station on the London Underground, to assess whether there was anything “odd,” i.e., involving magic, about the death of a young man on the tracks….
…If you’re not a fan, then there’s a real chance you have no idea how much range animé encompasses. And I’m not even talking about the entire range of kid shows, sit-coms and drama. (I’m aware there may be limits to your tolerance. I’m talking about the range within SF/F. Let’s consider just three examples….
While I subscribe to the practice that, as a rule, reviews and review-like write-ups, if not intended as a piece of critical/criticism, should stick to books the reviewer feels are worth the readers reading, sometimes (I) want to, like Jerry Pournelle’s “We makes these mistakes and do this stuff so you dont have to” techno-wrangling Chaos Manor columns, give a maybe-not-your-cup-of-paint-remover head’s-up. This is one of those….
It’s been 30 years since the passing of my friend Roger Weddall. I doubt very many of you reading this had ever met him and I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if most of you haven’t even heard of him. Thirty years is a long time and the demographics of fandom has changed a lot. So let me tell you a little bit about him….
I expect a lot of File 770’s readers watched, as we did, as the Orion capsule returned to Terra. I’m older than some of you, and it’s been decades since I watched a capsule re-entry and landing in the ocean. What had me in tears is that finally, after fifty years, we’re planning to go back… and stay….
Poul Anderson began writing his own “future history” in the 1950s, with its starting point being that there would be a limited nuclear war at some point in the 1950s. From that point would develop a secret effort to build a new social structure that could permanently prevent war….
…As with Avatar, Avatar: The Way of Water is a visual feast. Unlike the first film, there aren’t long sweeping pans lingering over beautiful, otherworldly vistas. The “beautiful” and the “otherworldly” are still there, but we’re seeing them incorporated into the action and storytelling….
… When I was growing up, children like myself were taught, no, more like indoctrinated, to think the United States was the BEST place to grow up, that our country was ALWAYS in the right and that our institutions were, for the most part, unassailable and impervious to criticism from anyone, especially foreigners.
I grew up in Ohio in the 1960’s and despite what I was being taught in a parochial Catholic grade school (at great expense, I might add, by my hard-working parents), certain things I was experiencing did not add up. News of the violence and casualties during the Vietnam War was inescapable. I remember watching the evening network news broadcasts and being horrified by the number of people (on all sides of the conflict) being wounded or killed on a daily basis.
As the years went on, it became harder to reconcile all of the violence, terrorism, public assassinations and the racism I was experiencing with the education I was receiving. The Pentagon Papers and the Watergate break-ins coincided with my high school years and the beginnings of my political awakening.
When I look back on those formative days of my life, I see myself as a small child, set out upon a sea of prejudice and whiteness, in a boat of hetero-normaltity, destination unknown….
… After I introduced myself to Mr. Weir and Mr. Bell, I said, “You and I have something in common.”
“Oh really? What’s that?”
“You and I are the only 2022 Hugo Award nominees within a hundred-mile radius of this bookstore.” (I stated that because I know that our fellow nominee, Jason Sanford, lives in Columbus, Ohio, hence the reference to the mileage.)…
Despite some very harsh comments from Dmitry Rogozin, the director general of Roscosmos, threatening that “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?” spacefarers seem to have a different perspective and understanding of the importance of international cooperation, respect and solidarity. This appears to have been demonstrated today when three cosmonauts arrived at the International Space Station….
Forty-five years ago or thereabouts, on February 26, 1977, the first ‘prog’ of 2000AD was released by IPC magazines. The second issue dated March 5 a week later saw the debut of Judge Dredd. Since then, Rogue Trooper, Nemesis the Warlock, Halo Jones, Sláine, Judge Anderson, Strontium Dog, Roxy and Skizz, The ABC Warriors, Bad Company and Proteus Vex are just some of the characters and stories that have emanated from the comic that was started by Pat Mills and John Wagner. Some have gone on to be in computer games, especially as the comic was purchased by Rebellion developments in 2000, and Judge Dredd has been brought to the silver screen twice.
Addictive and enjoyable stories of the fantastic, written and drawn by some of the greatest comic creators of the latter part of the 20th century, they often related to the current, utilizing Science Fiction to obscure issues about violence or subversiveness, but reflecting metaphorically about the now of the time….
Traditionally, the start of a new year is a time when film critics begin assembling their lists of the best films, actors, writers, composers, and directors of the past year. What follows, then, while honoring that long-held tradition, is a comprehensive compilation and deeply personal look at the finest film scores of the past nearly one hundred years….
The frenzy of joyous controversy swirling over director Adam McKay’s new film Don’t Look Up has stirred a healthy, if frenetic debate over the meaning and symbology of this bonkers dramedy. On its surface a cautionary satire about the impending destruction of the planet, Don’t Look Up is a deceptively simplistic tale of moronic leadership refusing to accept a grim, unpleasant reality smacking it in its face.
What follows is truly one of the most personally heartfelt, poignant, and heartbreaking remembrances that I’ve ever felt compelled to write.
Veronica Carlson was a dear, close, cherished friend for over thirty years. I learned just now that this dear sweet soul passed away today. I am shocked and saddened beyond words. May God rest her beautiful soul.
After interviewing William Shatner for the British magazine L’Incroyable Cinema during the torrid Summer of 1969 at “The Playhouse In The Park,” just outside of Philadelphia, while Star Trek was still in the final days of its original network run on NBC, my old friend Allan Asherman, who joined my brother Erwin and I for this once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Captain James Tiberius Kirk, astutely commented that I had now met and befriended all three of our legendary boyhood “Captains,” which included Jim Kirk (William Shatner), Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers (Larry “Buster” Crabbe), and Buzz Corry (Edward Kemmer), Commander of the Space Patrol….
… The first of the most important music modernists, however, in the post war era and “Silver Age” of film composers was Elmer Bernstein who would, had he lived, be turning one hundred years old on April 4th, 2022. Although he would subsequently prove himself as able as classic “Golden Age” composers of writing traditional big screen symphonic scores, with his gloriously triumphant music for Cecil B De Mille’s 1956 extravaganza, The Ten Commandments….
… She was just four days into her maiden voyage from Southhampton to New York City when this “Unsinkable” vessel met disaster and finality, sailing into history, unspeakable tragedy, and maritime immortality. May God Rest Her Eternal Soul … the souls of the men, women, and children who sailed and perished during those nightmarish hours, and to all those who go courageously “Down to The Sea in Ships.” This horrifying remembrance remains among the most profoundly significant of my own seventy-six years….
… It is true that Seth MacFarlane, the veteran satirist who both created and stars in the science fiction series, originally envisioned [The Orville] as a semi-comedic tribute to Gene Roddenberry’s venerable Star Trek. However, the show grew more dramatic in its second season on Fox, while it became obvious that MacFarlane wished to grow outside the satirical box and expand his dimensional horizons and ambitions….
… I was born in the closing weeks of 1945, and grasped at my tentative surroundings with uncertain hands. It wasn’t until 1950 when I was four years old that my father purchased a strange magical box that would transform and define my life. The box sat in our living room and waited to come alive. Three letters seemed to identify its persona and bring definition to its existence. Its name appeared to be RCA, and its identity was known as television….
He was a kindly, gentle soul who lived among us for a seeming eternity. But even eternity is finite. He was justifiably numbered among the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Among the limitless vistas of science fiction and fantasy he was, perhaps, second only in literary significance to H.G. Wells who briefly shared the last century with him. Ray Bradbury was, above all else, the poet laureate of speculative fiction….
On June 11, 1982, America and the world received the joyous gift of one of the screen’s most beloved fantasy film classics and, during that memorable Summer, a young aspiring television film critic reviewed a new film from director Steven Spielberg called E.T….
…Before I realized it, tables and chairs were being moved and I felt the hands of paramedics lifting me to the floor of the restaurant. Les was attempting to perform CPR on me, and I was drifting off into unconciousness. I awoke to find myself in an ambulance with assorted paramedics pounding my chest, while attempting to verbally communicate with me. I was aware of their presence, but found myself unable to speak….
After nearly dying a little more than a decade ago during and just after major open heart surgery, I fulfilled one of the major dreams of my life…meeting the man who would become my last living life long hero. I’d adored him as far back as 1959 when first hearing the dramatic strains of the theme from Checkmate on CBS Television. That feeling solidified a year later in 1960 with the rich, sweet strains of ABC Television’s Alcoa Premiere, hosted by Fred Astaire, followed by Wide Country on NBC….
…When Jack Warner was casting the film version of the smash hit, he considered performers such as Cary Grant, James Cagney, or Frank Sinatra for the lead. Meredith Willson, the show’s composer, however, demanded that Robert Preston star in the movie version of his play, or he’d withdraw the contracts and licensing. The film version of The Music Man, produced for Warner Brothers, and starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, opened to rave reviews on movie screens across the country in 1962. Robert Preston, like Rex Harrison in Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, had proven that older, seasoned film stars could propel both Broadway and big screen musicals to enormous artistic success….
On the evening of May 14, 1998, following the airing over NBC Television of the series finale of Seinfeld, the world and I received the terrible news of the passing of the most beloved entertainer of the twentieth century. It has been twenty-four years since he left this mortal realm, but the joy, the music, and the memories are as fresh and as vital today as when they were born….
Very exciting news. The long awaited CD soundtrack release of 12 O’Clock High is now available for purchase through La-La Land Records and is a major restoration of precious original tracks from Quinn Martin’s beloved television series….
That terrible day in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 remains one of the most significantly traumatic days of my life. I was just seventeen years old. I was nearing the end of my high school classes at Northeast High School in Philadelphia when word started spreading through the hallways and corridors that JFK had been shot. I listened in disbelief, praying that it wasn’t true … but it was….
I recently watched a somber new three part documentary by film maker Ken Burns that is among the most sobering, heartbreaking, and horrifying indictments of humanity that I have ever encountered. It was extremely difficult to watch but, as an American Jew, I remain struck by the similarities between the rise in Fascism in the early nineteen thirties, leading to the beginnings of Nazism in Germany, and the attempted decimation of the Jewish people in Europe and throughout the world, with the repellant echoes of both racial and religious intolerance, and the mounting hatred and suspicion of the Jewish communities and population residing presently in my own country of birth, these United States….
I’ve read with interest some of the recent discussions concerning the measure of Hugo Friedhofer’s importance as a composer, and it set my memory sailing back to another time in a musical galaxy long ago and far away. I have always considered Maestro Friedhofer among the most important, if underrated, composers of Hollywood’s golden era….
…Steven Spielberg’s reverent semi-autobiographical story of youthful dreams and aspirations is, for me, the finest, most emotionally enriching film of the year, filled with photographic memories, and indelible recollections shared both by myself and by the film maker….
My friend Adam Spector tells me that when Ernest Lehman was asked to write the script for North by Northwest, he tried to turn out the most “Hotchcocky” script he could, with all of Hitchcock’s obsessions in one great motion picture.
Moonfall is the most “Emmerichian” film Roland Emmerich is made. Like his earlier films, it has flatulent melodrama interlaced with completely daft science. But everything here is much more intense than his earlier work. But the only sense of wonder you’ll get from this film is wondering why the script got greenlit….
… Having a long career in Hollywood is a lot harder than in other forms of publishing; you’ve got to have the relentless drive to pursue your vision and keep making sales. To an outsider, what is astonishing about J. Michael Straczynski’s career is that it has had a third act and may well be in the middle of a fourth. His career could have faded after Babylon 5. The roars that greeted him at the 1996 Los Angeles Worldcon (where, it seemed, every conversation had to include the words, “Where’s JMS?”) would have faded and he could have scratched out a living signing autographs at media conventions….
When I read in the Financial Times about how Britain’s National Theatre was adapting Sir Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of his Book of Dust trilogy, I told myself, “That’s a play for me! I’ll just fly over to London and see it! OGH is made of money, and he’ll happily pay my expenses!”
Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to London, because the theatre came to me, with a screening of the National Theatre Live production playing at the American Film Institute. So, I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon seeing it….
… Stories matter more in the theatre than in film because far more of a play is in our imagination than in a film. Stripped of CGI and rewrites by multiple people, what plays offer at their best is one person’s offering us something where, if it works, we tell ourselves, “Yes, that was a good evening in the theatre,” and if it doesn’t, we gnash our teeth and feel miserable until we get home…
As Anton Ego told us in Ratatouille, the goal of a critic today is to be the first person to offer praise to a rising artist. It’s not the tenth novel that deserves our attention but the first or second. In the theatre, the people who need the most attention are the ones who are being established, not the ones that build on earlier successes.
So I’m happy to report that Matthew Aldwin McGee, author, star, and chief puppeteer of Under the Sea with Dredgie McGee is a talented guy who has a great deal of potential. You should be watching him….
I once read an article about a guy who was determined to live life in 1912. He lived in a shack in the woods, bought a lot of old clothes, a Victrola, and a slew of old books and magazines. I don’t remember how he made a living, but the article made clear that he was happy….
Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles (2019), Edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Randee Dawn (FantasticBooks). 280 pages. Hardcover $25.99, Trade paperback $15.99, E-book $7.99.
By Lee Weinstein: The idea of an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about the Beatles seems like a natural. I’ve been told the two editors, each unbeknownst to the other, both presented the idea to the publisher around the same time.
Although the stories vary quite a bit there are common themes running through the anthology. There are variant timelines, alterations of the past, and many tales containing in-jokes in the form of well-known lines from Beatles songs. Some of the stories include their manager Brian Epstein and two early Beatles who didn’t quite make it into the group we now know, drummer Peter Best, and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe.
There is an informative introduction by best-selling author Nancy Holder for those not up on their Beatles history and an alphabetical list of mini-biographies of the represented authors.
There are 25 stories here, most by well known authors. With the exception of the first story and the last, they are all original to the anthology. These two stand out though.
“Rubber Soul,” by Spider Robinson, (1982) opens the collection. It is a wistful, somewhat oblique tale of a John Lennon, resurrected by advanced medical science by an elderly Paul, to enable him to jam with his former bandmates for old times sake.
It closes with “Doing Lennon” by Greg Benford (1975), which was a Hugo and Nebula nominee. It is about a would-be John Lennon imposter who is wakened from cryogenic sleep in the future.
In between are 23 stories of varying quality
Standouts include “The Truth Within” by Sally Grotta, a frightening look at an alternate world in which George Harrison teaches Richard Nixon Transcendental Meditation with unanticipated results.
Another is Gregory Frost’s “A Hard Day’s Night at the Opera,” which is a quite funny recasting of the Beatles as the four Marx Brothers, although the characters have more of Marx than Beatles about them.
Naturally, there are many more alternate versions of the Beatles in other tales, some more successful than others. “The Heretic” is a short-short in which the Beatles are revered saints in a future church based on John Lennon.
David Gerrold’s “The Fabtastic Four” features them as the quartet of Marvel superheroes. In “Come Together” by Allen Steele, they are depicted as four AI’s in a space probe, and in “Foursomes” by Schneyer they are portrayed as the Four Musketeers. In “The Walrus Returns” by Gail Z. Martin they are friends who failed as a band years earlier, have mundane jobs, and together solve a mystery involving a river monster and a ghost. “Game Seven” by Bev Vincent portrays the four as ice hockey teammates. In Keith DeCandido’s story “Used to Be” and in “A New Beginning” by Jodi Lynn Nye they are cast as wizards in alternate timelines. In Gordon Linzner’s “The Hey, Team” they are four agents who sprung from prison for a mission to rescue “Maybelline.”
There are twists and turns and lots of puns on lyrics. Cat Rambo’s “All You Need” is set in a dystopian future Seattle in which four robots built in the images of the Four turn up. “Cayenne” by Beth Patterson, is about four Cajun musicians, Jean, Paul, George and Ringaux who are sent on a mission to put down a werewolf. Along similar lines is “Undead in the Material World: The British Zombie Invasion Revisited” by Alan Goldsher, a comical takeoff on Frankenstein, in which the Beatles are literally zombies
A common theme throughout is one of parallel universes and alteration of the past. In Lawrence Watt-Evans’s “Paul is Dead” a man reaches into the past to convince a failed foursome to travel with him to a timeline where they will meet greater success, while in “A Perfect Bridge” by Charles Barouch, a software engineer reaches back to 1967 to convince the foursome to change the name of their new label to “Apple.”
In Eric Avedissian’s “Liverpool Band Battle, 1982” a destitute John Lennon desperately attempts to get the Beatles back together years after the group had failed and the members have gone on to other jobs. He needs to win a music competition to pay the prize money to a loan shark. “Deal with the Devil” by Carol Gyzander is an amusing tale about teens contacting the Beatles via a TV set using black magic.
Some of the stories don’t fit into neat categories. Matthew Amati’s “Apocalyse Rock” is set after a 1962 atomic war. It’s a rather off-the-wall post-holocaust romp with American trio “The Beetles,” Jorje, Wrongo, and Jean-Paul who impress the British member of the band Fresh Cream.
One of the more imaginative, if sometimes abstruse, pieces, is Brenda Clough’s “My Sweet Lord of Light” which somehow mixes together George Harrison, Hindu mythology, Roger Zelazny, and parallel universes. In “When I’m # 64” by Patrick Barb, Paul McCarney, for unexplained reasons, dies periodically over the decades, but his deaths are always temporary and he keeps returning.
Pat Cadigan’s “Meet the Beatles” is kind of a wish dream in which a dying woman and the ghost of a departed friend in the present transport to a 1966 Beatles concert in Cleveland and they literally become John and George for a short time. Christian H. Smith’s “Through a Glass Onion” is set in an alternate timeline in which a working class John Lennon in 1988 is able to glimpse our timeline’s Beatles through the titular glass onion given to him by a mysterious stranger.
From the perspective of someone who always liked the Beatles and their music, but was never a “Beatlemaniac,” I found that these stories are best read a few at a time. Individually they were enjoyable, but collectively, I think one could become Beatled out after a while. Nonetheless, this book would make an interesting addition to the libraries of alternate history fans and is a must read for the true Beatles fan.
Read more articles by Lee Weinstein at his website.