Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Ghost Patrol (1936)

Ghost Patrol was one of the countless hour-long Western potboilers filmed by Hollywood in the 1930's and 40's. In the era long before televisions became household impliments, the local theatre's all-day marathons of feature films, newsreels, cartoons and melodramas were the closest thing. In 1936, a dime (or thereabouts) could have gotten one in to see Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Rose Marie, Irene Dunne and Paul Robeson in Show Boat, Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan Escapes or Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, as well as witness Porky Pig's debut, Republic Pictures' first serial entitled Darkest Africa or Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon, a brief colour revival of Felix the Cat, classic Mickey Mouse cartoons like Mickey's Polo Team and Thru the Mirror, and the first appearances of Roy Rogers when he was still just Leonard Slye. They also could have gotten one in to see the Sci-Fi Western Ghost Patrol.

Tim McCoy stars as FBI agent Tim Caverly masquerading as outlaw Tim Toomey, insinuating himself in a gang that is somehow connected to a string of mail plane robberies. While on the case, he meets up with the daughter of a missing radium scientist, played by Claudia Dell. It is this scientist that transforms what would otherwise have been a typical story of mail robbery along the Pony Express. Instead of being set in the Old West, this story is set in the modern day and these ne'erdowells have been using advanced science to fell airplanes.

Ghost Patrol was one of the first in a relatively new genre, as the Westerns of the 1930's and 40's already differed from those that came before. The basic types of Western plots had already been done, and filmmakers were looking for a new gimmick. The year before, they piled it on by introducing the Singing Cowboy type in Gene Autry, then threw him in on gangsters and lost Scientifictional civilizations. Ghost Patrol tried a similar Sci-Fi approach, through without the insanity of The Phantom Empire.

It is a game attempt, but falters primarily on account of Tim McCoy. It is painfully easy to see, using such examples, how someone like Roy Rogers became such a superstar. He has things like talent, screen presence, charisma, and even a certain degree of acting range, however perpetually cheery he may seem. McCoy is an older type of cowboy actor, whose emotions are conveyed with the percentage of white visible in his eyes. He is inserted into the role to make sure there is a warm body under the very large hat, but never owns the movie.

Ghost Patrol is a fun little hour, and what does one have to lose? Still, it is overshadowed, and rightfully so, by stars like Rogers and serials like The Phantom Empire.

The complete Ghost Patrol (1936)

Sunday, 29 May 2011

VEx May Contest - The Buntline Special

Our May giveaway is for a copy of Mike Resnick's Weird Western novel The Buntline Special, about a different sort of version of what happened at the O.K. Corral. To enter, just leave a commet for this post that somehow or other includes your e-mail. A name will drawn out of my cowboy hat on midnight of Sunday, May 29th.

Good luck and thank you all for your support of Voyages Extraordinaires!

And the winner is: Congratulations to Sal Kaye for winning this month's contest! Look for an e-mail in your in-box. And thank you again to everyone for your support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Disney John Carter: A Symposium on Grammar

By now, the informed reader is aware that Disney has altered the title of their 2012 tentpole action film John Carter of Mars to, simply, John Carter. Perhaps you rolled your eyes at the news, or screamed an outrage more shrill than when you found out they weren't calling it A Princess of Mars nor would the characters be naked.

To understand the rationale behind this change requires a dark journey into the minds of head Disney marketeer MT Carney and studio chief Rich Ross. The duo, under still relatively new CEO Bob Iger, inherited an unprecedented problem for the company.

For the lion's share of the Walt Disney Company's existence, it's most successful films operated by a simple formula: they each had a proper name. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Mary Poppins, Davy Crockett. Certainly there were outliers - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is more of a vague description - but consider the case of 1940. If people think that one Disney film a year is spreading the creativity thin, 1940 saw the release of two! They were Fantasia and Dumbo. Guess which was the more popular. If you said "Dumbo" you were correct. Fantasia is merely a noun, which was insufficient.

After the death of the Mousetro, a strange change crept upon the company's films. Proper names started to lose their lustre, and chains of descriptive nouns took over. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. To hedge their bets, they did preface each film with the possessive name "Walt Disney's" or just "Disney's", but the success of these films was unprecedented. It was the second renaissance.

Again there was the odd outlier, like Aladdin, but the animation department got too full of itself and started to think that the renewed popularity of their films had to do with their quality and not their titles. This led to a series of properly named box-office bombs: Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan, Treasure Planet.

A proper name and a subtitle?!

Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner suspected that it was traditional animation itself that was to blame, especially with the variously-titled successes of sister studio Pixar. However, Disney's CGI films fared no better. Alas for Chicken Little. So when it came time to recapture the magic of traditionally-animated fairy tales, the choice in title was obvious: The Frog Princess. Or better yet, throw in a conjunction and an extra definite article, just to be sure. The Princess and the Frog, heir to Beauty and the Beast.

But it failed. Inexplicably, The Princess and the Frog did not live up to expectations. To make matters worse, Rapunzel was coming down the pipe and the future of the animation studio depended on it. They looked once more to Pixar, to indeterminate results. WALL-E and Ratatouille had proper names but were still fairly modest. Cars had a noun but did well in merchandise. However Up was quite successful.

Therein lied the answer: adjectives. Unmodified adjectives. Pixar's upcoming The Bear and the Bow became Brave and Rapunzel became Tangled. I am frankly surprised that Disney is entrusting Winnie the Pooh to a proper name instead of calling it Stuffed. To be extra careful, they even removed the possessive from "Disney", effectively turning it into an adjective as well. And lo, Disney Tangled did fairly well, even outpacing Disney Tron: Legacy (a proper name and a subtitle) and the complicated grammatical mess that was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Sorry Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, lightening only strikes once.

Given all of this, you can appreciate the bind that Carney, Ross and Iger find themselves in with John Carter of Mars. That's two proper names and a preposition. That's almost a subtitle away from being Prince of Persia all over again! At least now they're dropped the preposition and the second proper name. All they need to do is figure out an adjective to replace John Carter and they're ready for a confident release.

Now if only this explanation were any more absurd than the actual reason: Mars Needs Moms blew it at the box office.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Horror from the Mound (1932)

Pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard is probably best-remembered for his prehistoric strongman Conan the Barbarian, but this Sherlock Holmes to Howard's Conan Doyle overshadows the tremendous breadth of his work. A writer needs to make a living, after all, and the Pulps demanded voluminous effort. He is also known for other Swords and Sorcery characters like Solomon Kane, Kull and James Allison, for detective stories and boxing stories, true adventure and horror. He even contributed a few entries into the broader Cthulhu Mythos.

Howard was also famous, in his day, for a series of Westerns. His most well-known character was Breckinridge Elkins, a simple but upright cowpoke. When crossing over as many genres as he did, it would have been inconceivable for Howard to not engage in genre crossovers in themselves. Equipped by experience in writing straight horror stories, and enchanted with the history and lifestyle of his native Texas, he fused the two into some of the best examples of the Weird Western.

The first of these to be published, and arguably the best of them, is The Horror from the Mound. Printed in the hallowed pages of Weird Tales in 1932, this short story tells of a foolhardy cowboy turned failing farmer who notices how his superstitious Mexican neighbour makes a wide circle around an unmarked burial mound every day. Never will this man, nor any other person of Latin blood, risk coming anywhere near it in broad daylight, and none ever come out at all at night. His curiousity piqued, Steve Brill, the cowboy, tries cohercing the reason out of his neighbour to no effect. The secret is an old one, going back to the days of the conquistadors, and only passed down through family lines. Impatient with waiting, the cowboy reckons on finding out for himself and excavates the mound, releasing the nightmare within.

The Horror in the Mound is not only the ostensible best of Howard's Weird Westerns. One might safely say that it is one of the best Weird Westerns, period. Its brevity as a short story keeps the story taut and suspenseful. At such an early point in the genre, Howard also touches on all the characteristics that make for a good supernatural thriller set in the Old West. A number of vivid passages articulate the genre's themes and setpieces nicely:
What if, after all, that grassy heap of brown earth hid riches-virgin ore from forgotten mines, or the minted coinage of old Spain? Was it not possible that the musketeers of de Estrada had themselves reared that pile above a treasure they could not bear away, molding it in the likeness of an Indian mound to fool seekers? Did old Lopez know that? It would not be strange if, knowing of treasure there, the old Mexican refrained from disturbing it. Ridden with grisly superstitious fears, he might well live out a life of barren toil rather than risk the wrath of lurking ghosts or devils-for the Mexicans say that hidden gold is always accursed, and surely there was supposed to be some especial doom resting on this mound. Well, Brill meditated, Latin-Indian devils had no terrors for the Anglo-Saxon, tormented by the demons of drouth and storm and crop failure.


As he passed into the darkness of the brush along the dry creek, Brill found his tongue strangely dry. He kept swallowing, and he held the lantern high. It made but faint impression in the gloom, but seemed to accentuate the blackness of the crowding shadows. For some strange reason, the thought entered Brill's chaotic mind that though the land was new to the Anglo-Saxon, it was in reality very old. That broken and desecrated tomb was mute evidence that the land was ancient to man, and suddenly the night and the hills and the shadows bore on Brill with a sense of hideous antiquity. Here had long, generations of men lived and died before Brill's ancestors ever heard of the land. In the night, in the shadows of this very creek, men had no doubt given up their ghosts in grisly ways. With these reflections Brill hurried through the shadows of the thick trees.

He prefigures the observations of Desperadoes and Graveslinger writer Jeff Mariotte, who said "The West was a weird place. There are ghost towns and haunted mines and when you bring Native American beliefs into it, then the possibilities are even greater."

The Horror from the Mound was followed in 1933 with the less horrific but no less weird The Man on the Ground and Old Garfield's Heart. Twist endings and well-constructed suprises empower Howard's Weird Westerns, which also makes it difficult to talk about them in any depth. The Man on the Ground delivers a unique perspective on the ubiquitous Western gunfight that would have been worthy of Rod Serling. Old Garfield's Heart tells of a seemingly immortal man waylaid by a series of accidents what reveal the secret of his ageless existence.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

High Plains Drifter (1973)

For the most part, Weird Westerns are a genre that preclude genuine goodness. Usually, it's not so much a quetsion of whether a movie or story is good or bad, but whether or not it is enjoyable. Some are bad but fun, some are just plain bad. But the odd one emerges that is genuinely good. Clint Eastwood's directorial debut demonstrated an acumen that could only be gained by an already extensive career in Westerns under the tutelage of the genre's greatest names. From Sergio Leone and Don Siegel he learned the dramatic cinematography and the necessary restraint to make High Plains Drifter one of the most subtle and eerie of the Weird Westerns.

The film opens with one of Eastwood's signature lone gunmen riding into the town of Lago, filmed against the desolation of California's alkaline Mono Lake. The Stranger enters the saloon for a drink, whereupon he is threatened by the guns hired by the local mining outfit. They trail him to the barber shop, each receiving a lead trepannation. While the town is busy boxing the corpses, he rapes one of the townswomen in a barn and makes himself at home in the hotel. Now without protection from the three hardened outlaws with a vendetta against the town, the folk turn to the Stranger for help at any price. At night the Stranger's dreams are haunted by the image of Lago's former Marshall being whipped to death by the same three outlaws, and nobody lifting a finger to stop them.

The price for the Stranger's help is steep. It is taxed out in booze and dry goods, and in a string of outrages and humiliations. He appoints the town dwarf as the new sheriff and new mayor, dismantles buildings and redistributes property, alternately fights off and beds his rape victim, and literally paints the town red. In preparation for the arrival of the outlaws, he rechristens the town "Hell" and lays out a sumptuous BBQ party for them. The Stranger is being paid to repel the outlaws who killed the Marshall, but he almost seems to be conducting an indiscriminate vengeance against any and all.

High Plains Drifter is, as I said, a study in restrained storytelling. It stands in stark contrast to the lengths that Western movies today feel the need to travel. It may truly be said that many modern Westerns - at least the weirdest and the biggest budgeted - are not so much Westerns as they are action-adventures in a Western setting. The film does not lack for episodes of violence, but they are beautifully framed and choreographed to the point of being art. They are subdued and leave that much greater an impact.

The second exemplary discipline of restraint is in the nature of the Stranger himself. Original drafts explicitly stated that Eastwood's character was the brother of the Marshall, played by Eastwood's stuntman. Rather than condescend to such banality, the actor-director wisely excised this notion. In its place the viewer is left with the obvious but unsettlingly unresolved conclusion.

Devoid of flashy gimmicks, computer effects and stop-motion dinosaurs, High Plains Drifter is one of the most artistic, accomplished and accessible of Weird Western films. It is not something that all Weird Westerns have to aspire to, since there is just as much to be said for entertaining action-adventure flicks that are a fun bad, but it does transcend a ghetto mentality to be one of the best Western movies, period.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies (1868)

Disproportionate to its obscurity, The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward Ellis is one of the true classics of Victorian Scientific Romances. Sci-Fi critic John Clute, after the fact, applied the term "Edisonade" to the type of story which Ellis ushered in: dime novel adventures of technological and territorial conquest on the far frontier, named for the iconic American entrepreneur Thomas Edison. This story and its genre - which went on to include authors like Garrett P. Serviss and series like Frank Reade - is also a largely forgotten tradition of the Western.

Few Western authors tried to combine the genre with supernatural or technological themes. Louis L'Amour offered up a modern version in The Haunted Mesa, purporting to explain a connection between the Anasazi and the Bermuda Triangle, though it is hard to do better than Robert E. Howard's The Horror From the Mound. Likewise have relatively few directors. Clint Eastwood tried it out in his directorial debut, High Plains Drifter. It's too bad that this tradition has languished in relative obscurity for so long, save for the occasional foray into the Wild Wild West and whatever obscenities Joe Lansdale writes.

The Steam Man of the Prairies put it off to a grand start. Johnny Brainerd is an inventive child prodigy whose intellect is so active that his mother would make offhand suggests just to keep him busy for a while. One of those offhand remarks was to invent a steam-powered mechanical man. Though he tries to keep his invention under wraps (not easy when it accidentally walks through walls), it eventually comes to the attention of treasure-seeker and trapper Baldy Bicknell. Bickenll, unable to coerce Brainerd into selling the steam man, invites the two to his gold diggings in the American Rocky Mountains. Though Brainerd is hunchbacked and physically handicapped, his spirit of adventure is not and the offer is snatched up.

What follows is a high plains adventure with buffalo hunts, Native Americans, and a b-plot with the titular huge hunter that goes nowhere and seems to have either no place or was duly forgotten by the author, Edward S. Ellis. No stranger to boy's own adventures and tales of frontiersmen, Ellis touches on all the regular points, from tricky "savages" to savage wilderness to odd racial stereotypes. Bicknell's two companions are a Yankee and an Irishman, and everybody but Brainerd speaks in difficult-to-decipher accents.

It is specific to its time, which goes without saying for Edisonades as a whole. They are amongst the least self- or socially-critical Victorian adventures. Their road to success in their day was paved by reinforcing widely held cultural assumptions, be they about technology, society, economy or race. The Steam Man of the Prairies has the dubious distinction of being less offensive than it easily could have been. Nevertheless, some passages beg for a revisionist, Lansdale-like farce of a rewrite. Ellis describes the terrorizing effect that this mysterious, shrieking, puffing, clanking demon has on the superstitious Natives it chases down; it might be entertaining to read how the warriors knew it was just a bunch of crazy white men in a newfangled steam engine.

Its scant number of pages and archetypal character still lend itself to the claim made of it at the outset of this review. Though not as involved as Verne, Wells, or Twain, either narratively or philosophically, it is definitely an enjoyable, brisk read with an original concept and one of Victoriana's greatest fictional inventions.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Monster of Lake LaMetrie (1899)

The Monster of Lake LaMetrie is an early Weird Western tale, and do I mean "weird". Perhaps it is even the earliest extant example of Weird Fiction applied to the Western, rather than just inputting a steam-man or a dinosaur. Published in Pearson's Magazine in 1899, this short story by Wardon Allan Curtis, it is subtitled as Being the narration of James McLennegan, M.D., Ph.D. and is framed as the extracts from a diary sent to Professor Wilhelm G. Breyfogle,University of Taychobera, from McLennegan by way of Captain Arthur W. Fairchild of the US Army. Outlined within is one of the weirdest stories of a weird genre.

McLennegan, being a scientist and having heard of strange occurrences in Lake LaMetrie, takes trip up to these high Wyoming regions with his constitutionally ill friend Edward Framingham. On McLennegan's part, the appeal is a phenomenon of bubbling and broiling at intervals in the lake's middle, after which are found odd specimens of plant and animal washed ashore. The plants are those that might only be found today in coal fossil deposits. The fish populating the lake are bony ganoid types long-extinct. Framingham, an intelligent and astute person with a scientific mind, is admittedly more interested in the fishing. In the rarefied air he hopes to find relief from his dyspepsia.

There is little rest to be had after McLennegan makes his great discovery. A flitting at his elbow causes him to lash out with his machete, nearly severing the head of a massive Elasmosaurus. It rose, he believes, during the particularly violent flooding and broiling of the night before and confirms for him the suspicion that the lake is somehow connected to the primordial interior of the earth. Nevertheless, he now has one dead Elasmosaurus in danger of lashing out in its death throes, so he removes it brain for study.

The shock comes when he finds the beast still alive days later. It is lying on the beach where he dissected it, but it is still breathing and, furthermore, the wound in its head is healing. So durable and primitive is this marine reptile's physiology that it may very well survive the removal of its brain! Another happenstance pulls this experiment into Frankenstein territories: Framingham, overcome with his worst bout of fever yet, attempts to kill himself with a slash across the neck. He only partially succeeds, for his body will die but his brain lives yet. Given a living Elasmosaur body without a brain and a man's brain with a dying body, McLennegan does the only logical thing.

What follows is a brief but surreal exploration of Victorian anxieties about evolution and the distance between the human intellect and bestial instinct. The critic at work on a term paper might also get some mileage out of taking The Monster of Lake LaMetrie as a metaphor for the uncivilized character of Western expansionism. Though the Wild West was not so wild as legend makes out - the most deaths any one town saw during the whole settlement era was five, and the year of the Gunfight at the OK Corral was Tombstone's bloodiest ever with a deathtoll of three - it was still a rough and unforgiving existence. It could take the brightest minds and, as though transplanting them into a prehistoric monster, preoccupy them with the basest needs of survival. That is until the civilizing powers of the government and the military pacify the landscape.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (2010)

The original Red Dead Redemptionby Rockstar is considered by many to be a high-water mark in video gaming. Following the "open world" format of Rockstar's infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the mean streets of major modern metropoli were replaced with the Old West of Italian cinema. Furthermore, the chain of events was given the compelling story of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to hunt down his old gang members after the government takes his family hostage. The game became a perfect example of the growing propensity for video games to transcend film as the art form of the 21st century. Beautifully rendered environments coupled with engaging storylines and characters that literally involve the player for hours upon hours of entertainment value.

Leave it to Rockstar, then, to work this same magic on Weird Westerns. In a genre regarded more frequently as "fun" rather than necessarily "good", Undead Nightmare is heralded as one of the best examples of Downloadable Content (or DLC) for one of the best video games ever produced. Picking up before Red Dead Redemption's epilogue, Undead Nightmare throws a supernatural curve into Marston's settled life. Just when he thought his family was safe, both his wife and son succumb to a zombie plague breaking out across the frontier. Naturally, it is up to the former outlaw to find a cure hearkening back to ancient Aztec worship of the Sun.

Undead Nightmare was criticized from some quarters upon its release, as a number of fans of the original game felt that it undermined Red Dead Redemption's realism to jump on the zombie bandwagon. On the one hand, this realism is overstated: the West was not nearly as wild and bloodthirsty as cinema has made it out to be. Red Dead is an interactive Western movie, pulling tropes and archetypes from Hollywood's gunslingers. A truly realistic Western game would involve an unrelenting tedium of plowing land, driving cattle and months-long bounty hunts. Violent and gritty does not automatically equate to realistic, and it's surprising to learn that anyone has thought that way since the 1990's. Rockstar already sacrificed realism for an entertaining product.

A point could be made for jumping on the Zombie Walk. I have little doubt that the genesis of Undead Nightmare lies between the popularity of this type of undead monster and its infinite suitability to shooter games. While something like vampires, for example, would have been interesting, the biggest problem facing every Dracula-related game ever made is the fact that there is only one Dracula. Even the likes of Castlevania have had to fill out his netherworld armies with brainless goombas. Werewolves might have been a good choice and added a teasing element of paranoia over who is or isn't one of the enemy. There is no reason why they couldn't have pulled in missions from a number of sources, from staking vampires to thwarting mad scientists. Of course, the odd Steam Man would have been nice to throw in for the sake of it.

The game still does enjoy some fun references. As the world is ripped asunder by a zombie apocalypse, the Four Horsemen's steeds roam the Earth. Marston has the option of taming War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, each with their own unique effects on the brain-eating hordes. Somewhere out there in the wilds is also a unicorn. Joining him are jackalope and chupacabra, and a bizarrely pathos-inspiring episode with Sasquatch. A new mythology for the zombies does not exactly utilize the creature's largely forgotten origins in Voodoo shamanism, but does draw the modern metaphor of cosmic nihilism and urban distress further back in that direction.

Both Undead Nightmare and its predecessor have the benefit of being sufficiently involved to maintain interest but recreational enough to encourage the average player of video games. The open world format and variety of mission-based episodes allow for a few minutes of popping off bounties or zombies as time permits up to a whole day off spent plowing through the main storyline. The only real problem with Undead Nightmare is the frequent frustrating lack of ammunition.

The release of Undead Nightmare as its own standalone disk months after the release of its DLC version allow Weird Western keeners to skip right ahead to the good stuff. However, I echo the reviews which advise that the full richness of the game can only be felt after playing Red Dead Redemption. For one, it breeds familiarity with the characters and locations encountered through the game. It's amusing to see what happened to them after the first game (read: they're zombies now).

Furthermore, the process of playing the one before the other acknowledges a truism of the genre: to fully appreciate a Weird Western, one needs familiarity with the normal kind. Western stories of otherworldly ghouls and crazed inventors have their charm unto themselves and that cannot be denied. They do, nevertheless, take on greater nuance when taken in context. They're best when you can really see what's so weird about them. One might even argue that a failure to recognize this has been one of the root causes of the genre's box office bombs in the past decade. A film like Jonah Hex, for example, tried to hard to promote itself as a comic book action movie rather than a competent Western. Some pundits suggested that Weird Westerns might be the next big way to breathe life into the flagging genre of the Western. However, as Western films are now themselves a fairly niche market through which only the best survive, a Weird Western must work doubly hard and not take anything for granted. Instead of lending the coolness of big budget blockbuster effects extravaganzas to the Western, they must overcome the stigma of both types of film.

Therefore, playing Red Dead Redemption first grounds Undead Nightmare in what would actually make cowboys and zombies a cool scenario. Not to mention that it is a stellar game anyways, and Undead Nightmare builds strength upon strength.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal (2010)

Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal, recently published by Tachyon Press, anthologizes the two of Weird Western author Joe R. Lansdale's best known novellas: Zeppelins West (2001) and Flaming London (2006). Native to East Texas, Lansdale is highly regarded for his weird imagination and even weirder sense of humour. It was one his stories adapted into the Bruce Campbell film Bubba Ho-Tep, about a geriatric Elvis and a black man with the consciousness of JFK doing battle in an old-folks home against a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy. The stories in Flaming Zeppelins are no exception to the rule.

Zepplins West begins with a mission to Japan by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In this reality, the United States and Japan are dividing North America in half. The Battle of Little Big Horn was fought in tandem by the US Calvary and a legion of samurai. Still, the Sioux won the battle and lost the war, leaving Sitting Bull in the company of Wild Bill Hickok and his lover Annie Oakley. Buffalo Bill is not quite the man he used to be, though. He literally lost his head in a moment of infidelity and is now kept in a jar of pig urine. The doctors in possession of his body require the knowledge of Dr. Frankenstein to reattach him, which is what brings the Wild West Show to the Land of the Rising Sun. It seems that the Shogun is keeping the Monster captive, systematically grinding up parts of his body as an aphrodisiac. The show makes a break with the Monster, only to crash in the ocean. Thankfully they are retrieved by the mysterious Captain Bemo and his submersible craft, the Naughty Lass, who takes them to the Island of Doctor Momo. This sadistic vivisectionist promises to construct a new body for Buffalo Bill through what are, for all intents and purposes, stem cells. However, he has malevolent designs on the rest of Wild West Show and, unbenownst to anybody, a certain Vlad Tepes is on his way to the island. While in the company of Doctor Momo, the group makes the acquaintance of the hyper-intelligent Ned the Seal and the Monster falls in love with the Tin Man of the Land of XYZ.

Lansdale's work is most easily described as gonzo toilet humour. His affection for the era is obvious from the bizarre variety of ways he mixed and matches characters from literature and history. This is even more evident in the second novella, Flaming London, when he packs in countless subtle references, layering Planet of the Apes on top of King Kong on top of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whilst in the company of Jules Verne, Mark Twain, the Flying Dutchman and a giant steam robot, working their way to London to stop the Martian invaders of War of the Worlds inadvertently unleashed by the Time Traveller. This second story does, it must be said, get bogged down a bit in having to maintain a continuity. The fevered intellect is still evident, but it is more constrained within the epic scale of a novella that tries to maintain continuity not only with Zeppelins West, but a previous Lansdale short story, The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel.

What really makes the content of Flaming Zeppelins a Lansdale book rather than a retread of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen trope is the vulgar humour. At one point in Flaming London, Twain observes that there is a particular art to cussing that accentuates its effects, and Lansdale would be the maestro of the form. Lansdale's use of swears lampshades the traditions of the dime novel: when the Wild West Show is, for example, surrounded by sharks and Wild Bill remarks that he'd rather be surrounded by a thousand angry Sioux warriors, Sitting Bull replies with a brusque "Fuck you Hickok." Less overtly funny but amusing in its own juvenile way is Lansdale's conspicuous adoration for sex, the more perverse the better. He seems to take relish in investigating the sexual lives of his characters, whether the Monster diddling one of the Tin Man's loose screws or Doctor Momo having grafted a horse penis onto himself.

Suffice it to say that Flaming Zeppelins is not for the easily offended. The comparison to Alan Moore's great comic series is probably the most apt, both in the form of a collection of historic and literary characters and in the tone of Moore's delight in the obscene. Lansdale ramps both up to hilarious excess.

Flaming Zeppelins is currently available from Tachyon. Unfortunately, by some oversight, The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel is not included in this collection, but can be found in Tachyon's Steampunk anthology.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Tombstone (1993)

One of the worst trailers in cinema...

... And possibly one of the most entertaining scenes.

A flashy entry into the 1990's wave of Western films, Tombstone's retelling of the Gunfight at the OK Corral was fraught with production problems. The original motive power behind it was furnished by Kevin Costner and director Kevin Jarre, but a disagreement over the tone led Costner off to make his own version, released as Wyatt Earp.

Perhaps fuelled on ideas from Dances with Wolves (1990), Costner wanted a ponderous Western epic, which is most definitely what Tombstone is not. Ironically, it bears a great deal of similarity to Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). Both are adventurous and romantic films that gorgeously sanitized, looking spotless and fantastic. They play loosely with history to provide sumptuous costume melodramas.

Nevertheless, Costner departed and Kurt Russell was brought in to play Wyatt Earp, followed by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, both with some reservations. Jarre was eventually disposed of when Buena Vista (Disney) got skittish about the production schedule, knowing that Costner's film was coming down the road. George P. Cosmatos replaced Jarre, co-directing with Russell and Tombstone made it into theatres six months before Wyatt Earp.

Unfortunately, one of Russell's misgivings about the script bears out for all to see. He felt that the film was about 20 pages too long, and his estimation is correct. The real climax of a film about the Earps, Clantons and McLaurys is always the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Subsequent reprisals against the Earps, Wyatt Earp's Vendetta Ride, and the passing of Doc Holliday from tuberculosis a mere six years later could be subjects of an interesting film on their own, if that film began with the Gunfight. In Tombstone, they become an extended denouement so radically different from the scenes before that it drags the movie down.

Following the Gunfight are the attempted assassination of Virgil Earp and the successful assassination attempt on Morgan. Wyatt becomes unhinged and begins his famous Vendetta Ride, indicated by a montage of riding and guns shooting and more riding and more guns shooting. The montage pauses long enough for Kurt Russell to utter the best-worst "noooooooooooooo!" in cinema history and for Doc Holliday to wrap up an unnecessary subplot with Johnny Ringo. Once that is dispensed with, we get a concluding montage of riding and shooting and riding and shooting ending at Holliday's bedside.

A director's cut of the film exists which grafts cut scenes back in, which is all find and dandy. What it needs is a deft editor to take the unnecessary fluff out. Johnny Ringo and his subplot with Doc Holliday can be dispensed with almost entirely, as the mythic schoolyard antics between the only two college educated gunslingers in the Wild West is never developed enough to be anything more than a vehicle for Val Kilmer's delivery (as evidenced in the scene above). The entire Vendetta Ride could be handled in a single montage, so that it does not dull the theme of loss, revenge, death and rebirth that carries from the Cowboys' reprisals to the demise of Doc Holliday. With a newfound dividend of time, the budding relationship between Wyatt and Josephine and the love triangles it caused could be more thoroughly explored. In a perfect world, that is.

Nevertheless, the film that exists is still enjoyable to watch. It's not exactly an A-list cast, but they have fantastic moustaches. Kilmer was nominated for two MTV movie awards and is generally considered to have been robbed of the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, let alone Oscar (which went to Martin Landau for Ed Wood).

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale (2010)

The common wisdom is that you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover. That tune changes a bit when one is confronted with a stack of novels to review amidst the regular goings-on and voluntary readings of one's life. Said reviewer's comeuppance occurs when the covers of these novels end up being practically indistinguishable.

Last October, our friends at Pyr/Prometheus Books were been kind enough to send us copies of their full "Steampunk Autumn" lineup. In addition to the previously reviewed, and quite good, Burton and Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, we also received...

And the focus of this review...

Judging from the covers, what are they about? I would guess that they're each the thrilling tale of a group of Steampunks off to a convention. Marvel at the excitement as they dance at an Abney Park gig! Endure the gauntlet of a thousand photoshoots! Will the guy from The Vampire Empire really risk wearing an off-the-shelf Sgt. Pepper jacket from Hot Topic? And what of his girlfriend, who isn't really into the whole Steampunk thing but goes with him to the conventions anyways?

As it turns out, The Buntline Special is the first Steampunk/Weird Western novel by ridiculously multi-time award-winner Mike Resnick. The man holding a Dr. Grordbort raygun is supposed to be a ye olde pimped outte Doc Holliday. The woman is not dressed-up for a Steampunk fashion show, but rather, is an actual prostitute. The town is Tombstone, Arizona, and the lanky gunslinger is an undead Johnny Ringo.

The set-up is that Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson (who actually turns into a bat at sundown) have been charged by the US government to protect engineer Ned Buntline and inventor Thomas Edison (who has a prosthetic arm) and their shoppe in Tombstone. They are in need of protection because Edison has been working on a technological method for dispelling the Native American magic that has been keeping the United States on the eastern side of the Mississippi well into the 19th century. The plot winds its way through Geronimo and Hook Nose and the Clanton gang, leading inevitably to the OK Corral.

The Buntline Special is an odd entry into the annals of Steampunk literature because it's difficult to determine what exactly he's doing with it. In this alternate history, Ned Buntline is an engineer rather than a dime novel writer and his greatest claim to fame is a type of bulletproof, super-hard brass. The result is that every building in Tombstone is, literally, coated in brass. So are Buntline's horseless stagecoaches, and the armour worn by Holliday and the Earps. Even the mechanical whores are made out of it. Everything is brass. Did Resnick simply study the fetish well enough to get down the "right" components, or is he making sport of it? However, with Edison being involved, everything is powered by electricity. Is Resnick just tweaking the formula or is he consciously flipping the idea that absolutely everything in Steampunk has to be powered by steam, even if it's something that doesn't require power anyways? (Behold my Steampunk bookshelf!)

The question stands on account of Resnick's credentials. Five Hugo wins after a record 34 nominations, 10 Homer awards after 24 nominations, a Nebula Award, and national awards from Spain, France, Poland and Japan, and a Skylark Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction. So why is he condescending to the Sci-Fi equivalent of glittery vampires? Is The Buntline Special A-Tale-That-Must-Be-Told? Or is he just having a bit of fun with it?

So far as I can tell, there isn't really any deep, meaningful Tale-That-Must-Be-Told happening in the pages of The Buntline Special. Resnick was quite deft in casting Buntline as the great engineer, as this book really is a straight-up dime novel in the tradition of the historical writer. He did copious research, as evidenced by the bibliography at the novel's close, but his characters are not far removed from Hollywood. Furthermore, the core events of the most famous gunfight in the Old West are fundamentally unchanged.

If anywhere, this is where Resnick fails to write a novel to the genre, whether or not he does so intentionally. The sorcery of the Native chiefs, Masterson literally becoming a bat, Ringo as a zombie, Edison in the Arizona territories, and all are window dressing to overlay a Steampunk aesthetic on an otherwise straight retelling of the OK Corral. Certainly the Earps and Doc Holliday are bedecked in brass armour, but they all get hit in exactly the same places history records. The spiral of events leading to that vacant lot beside Fly's photo parlour are the same, and so is the aftermath. It is the diametric opposite of Hodder's Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, in which a major change to history creates the Steampunk'd world. In The Buntline Special, the world is already Steampunk'd and nothing is different.

Where Resnick does not play to the genre, he does pique the interest of the history buff. A second appendix reproduces the original report of the gunfight from The Tombstone Epitaph of October 27, 1881, and a third provides biographies of the characters. Like any good alternate or fantasy history it compels the reader to investigate and see how closely he does or doesn't hew to fact. Strip away the brass (the 1993 filmed version Tombstone provides a much more attractive aesthetic than anything Steampunk'd could offer) and he hews quite closely.

So The Buntline Special is not about the past Steamcon nor does it really matter that this is supposedly a Steampunk novel. Therein lies the question of why Resnick made it so. Was he simply commissioned to produce one unit of Steampunk novel? Is he making a comment on how fundamental real history should be to the genre? Or that history is ultimately more interesting than the brass-encrusted self-parody? Or is it just supposed to be a fun little dime novel? Who knows? Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable and easy read.