Archive for Horror and Fantasy

Homeys on Film: Homeland Security Lessons from Bad Movies

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Synopsis:

Film critics Harry and Michael Medved awarded Plan 9 From Outer Space the trophy for “worst movie ever made” in their 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards (a well-thumbed copy of which sits upon my bookshelf). But anyone with an eye (just one) and a heart can’t honestly classify Plan 9 as a bad film. It belongs to another category entirely — a goobad film, a film so bad it is hilariously good. The primary entertainment value comes from the unintentionally campy performances, the over-the-top script, and the lower-than-low budget production values (watch the cardboard gravestones sway back and forth when the actors scurry by! It’s day! It’s night! No, it’s day again! See the pie tin flying saucer set on fire, then flung across the screen on a string!) And the inclusion of famous-for-never-being-right psychic Criswell as the movie’s host was a grace note which gave the film an otherworldly, surreal gravitas seldom achieved by films at this production level.

Our story begins with an old man (Bela Lugosi, in his posthumous final screen appearance — he’d died three years before, just after shooting some test footage with director Ed Wood, who likely wrote Plan 9 in order to capitalize on his few feet of precious, but soundless, Lugosi footage… see the wonderful film Ed Wood for more details) at his wife’s graveside, mourning her death. There’s a sudden shift to the cockpit of an airplane piloted by the redoubtable Jeff (Gregory Walcott), our hero (the cockpit “set” is little more than a pair of chairs for pilot and copilot and a chintzy curtain which supposedly separates the cockpit from the rest of the plane), which is forced off course by the swift passage of what appears to be a flying saucer. The saucer lands in the graveyard, where its occupants resurrect the old man’s deceased wife (Vampira/Maila Nurmi) as a radio-controlled zombie and sic her on the grave diggers, who die a horrible death (off camera). Back to the old man’s house, we see him wandering out in the road in a befuddled daze, where he is hit by a car (again, off camera). At his funeral, one of the mourners discovers the bodies of the murdered grave diggers (repeat after me… off camera), and the police are called in. The law is represented by Inspector Clay (professional wrestler Tor Johnson) and Lieutenant Harper (Duke Moore). This is the only scene in which Inspector Clay speaks, probably a good choice on Ed Wood’s part, since English dialogue was not Swede Tor Johnson’s strong point as an actor. Clay goes off on his own to investigate the graveyard.

Pilot Jeff is chatting with his wife Paula on their patio about the flying saucer which buzzed his airplane, complaining that the Army has sworn him to secrecy, when another saucer, or perhaps the same one, does a low flyover, knocking the surprised couple out of their chairs. Meanwhile, back in the graveyard, Inspector Clay comes upon the deceased old man (no longer played by Bela Lugosi, but rather by a lightly disguised chiropractor friend of Ed Wood’s) and his equally deceased wife, who menacingly surround him. His gunfire is loud but ineffective, and he collapses within the chiropractor’s black cape, never to be seen in human form again.

Matters come to a head. Three flying saucers are seen flying over (stock footage of) Hollywood, then Washington, DC. The Army decides to make a stand, but their missiles fail to hit the saucers, which appear to be protected by some kind of force field (and the fact that distant smoke puffs are easier and cheaper to simulate than impressive explosions). The commanding general mentions to a subordinate that the saucers have destroyed a small town  and have not responded to attempts at radio communications. We transition to the command room of the lead saucer, where Eros (Dudley Manlove) and his second in command, Tanna (Joanna Lee), confer with their Ruler (John Breckinridge), informing him that they have decided to go with Plan 9, the resurrection of the dead (we never learn what Plans 1-8 were or how they got screwed up). Eros and Tanna, the William Powell and Myrna Loy of extraterrestrial invaders, get the green light from the Ruler (who, to judge from his tone of voice, really couldn’t give a damn). Jeff goes off on another flight, leaving Paula alone in their home.  She is soon menaced by the zombie old man and chased through the cemetery, where zombie Vampira and zombie Clay join the chase. She faints just outside the graveyard and is rescued by a local farmer.

The Army belatedly manages to translate Eros’s earlier transmissions, which began as friendly greetings but later degraded into frustrated, bitchy warnings about Earthlings’ warlike ways. Back on the saucer, the Ruler decides it is time for decisive action, so he commands Eros to send the old man zombie on a kamikaze mission to overawe the Earthlings. The old man zombie attacks a police officer, but before he can kill him, Eros remotely fires a disintegration ray, and the old man zombie crumples into a skeleton before the police officer’s stunned eyes.

The aliens prepare for their upcoming confrontation with the Earthmen. Jeff and an Army officer locate the saucer parked in the graveyard. Eros, feeling the need to soliloquize, opens up the saucer’s hatch and lets the two Earthmen enter. When Jeff tries to get manly with his gun, Eros turns on the viewing screen, which shows zombie Clay carrying an unconscious Paula through the cemetery. Eros has his Lady Macbeth moment, expounding at length on the history of humanity’s weapons development and climaxing in a prediction that, should their progress remain unimpeded, humans will inevitably develop solorbonite, an unstoppable weapon which will destroy the entire universe by exploding all rays from the sun and other stars. Because humans are “stupid, stupid!“, they must be destroyed before they can manage to create and test solorbonite. Out in the graveyard, a police officer manages to brain zombie Clay with a two-by-four, rescuing Paula, which frees Jeff to go into hero mode. He shoots up Eros’s equipment, starting a fire aboard the saucer. Eros and Tanna take off, the saucer becomes an inferno (well, actually a pie tin set on fire with a Bic lighter), it explodes (sort of), Criswell intones a brief eulogy, THE END.

Homeland Security Lesson #1: Guns Aren’t Toys (or Pointers, or Forehead Scratchers)

One might be forgiven for thinking a reminder of this sort wouldn’t be necessary, at least not for homeland security professionals. However, throughout Plan 9 From Outer Space, we are treated to the chuckle-worthy spectacle of Lieutenant Harper gesticulating wildly with his service revolver, using it to point at his coworkers and civilians, and, perhaps most egregiously, using its barrel to scratch his forehead while his finger is on the trigger (one involuntary jerk of his index finger and “hello” drain bamage… err, brain damage).

So is this clownishness just the brash, unrealistic theatrics of an amateurish thespian? Unfortunately, no. This March, 2008 article from the London Daily Mail reported that nearly half of all gun-related injuries involving British police officers were due to an officer’s accidental discharge of a weapon, often during training exercises. The article lists examples including a Thames Valley Police firearms officer accidentally shooting a fellow officer while showing off his Glock pistol, not realizing it was loaded; a London-based diplomatic protection officer shooting himself in the leg while getting into a car; and an airport security officer shooting off the top of his thumb while training with his MP5 sub-machine gun. So, officers, be careful out there on the firing range, okay?

Homeland Security Lesson #2: Future Events Will Affect You in the Future

In the immortal words of The Amazing Criswell (psychic Jeron Criswell King, host of Criswell Predicts and part of Ed Wood’s entourage), “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.” A somewhat pithier commentator, physicist Neils Bohr, was reported to have said, “It is very difficult to predict — especially the future.” Well, just because it’s hard doesn’t excuse us homeland security practitioners from making a good faith effort.

As soon as the Army (or civilian pilots like Jeff) first sighted the flying saucers, military and civilian authorities should have begun a contingency planning process — an assessment of risk. What is risk? The likelihood that a future event will occur, considered in conjunction with the consequence of that event once it has occurred. A common formulation is that Risk = Probability of Threat Event Occurring X Vulnerability of Target X Consequence of Threat Event Occurring. Risk assessments differ depending upon the nature of the threat event: is it unmotivated or motivated? In other words, is your threat vector Mother Nature (or a robot which does not respond to a defender’s inputs but simply carries out preprogrammed instructions — no feedback loop) or an intelligent actor (who may opt to change his attack based on a defender’s actions or barriers encountered)?

Risk assessments for unmotivated threats follow the Probability X Vulnerability X Consequence model. If you have a large enough sample size of prior occurrences, you can calculate an exceedance probability curve, a graph which shows you how likely it is that a new event of a particular type (an earthquake, say) will be at or beyond a certain magnitude (for earthquakes, magnitude on the Richter Scale). If military or governmental analysts were to make the decision that alien incursions do not have intelligent motivation behind them — the incursions are by preprogrammed saucer-shaped robots, say, or the saucers themselves are malignant animals capable of destruction but not intelligent reasoning — AND we make the assumption that the Plan 9 universe experienced all the alien incursions from prior movies of the 1950s, the analysts could set up a chart like the one below.  Each film represents an alien incursion, with the magnitude/consequence of the incursions ranked from least to greatest; the cumulative probability, or the likelihood that an event of this magnitude or greater will happen, is listed in parentheses for each:

Invaders From Mars — it’s all a dream, so fuggedaboudit (1.000)
It Came From Outer Space — aliens just want to repair their damaged spaceship; temporarily kidnap a handful of people and impersonate them, later releasing them unharmed (.941)
The Beast with a Million Eyes — an alien lands in a rural hamlet, mind controls a group of animals and humans (.882)
The Man From Planet X — a handful of English folk mentally controlled for a day; threatened invasion of Earth (not carried out) (.824)
Invasion of the Saucer Men — aliens inject a handful of teenagers with alcohol from their fingernails, kill one teenager through alcohol poisoning (.765)
The Thing From Another World — two scientists killed by being drained of blood (.706)
The Monolith Monsters — one man killed, other persons partially petrified, several towns smashed by toppling monoliths (.647)
It Conquers the World — alien turns off all the world’s electrical power, mind controls hundreds, kills two  (.588)
The Day the Earth Stood Still — all electric power shut down, all motorized devices stop working, probably results in at least a handful of deaths (not shown)  (.529)
This Island Earth — scientific facility incinerated from the air, killing all occupants (.471)
Target Earth — alien robots invade Chicago, causing the city to be evacuated, killing at least a couple of dozen soldiers and civilians (.412)
The Blob — alien organism absorbs the substance of about a hundred people (.353)
The Mysterians — a few hundred deaths from an alien-caused earthquake  (.294)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers — aliens impersonate and replace all the inhabitants of a small town, killing them in the process, and spread their plot to surrounding communities (.235)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers — Flying saucers with death rays attack Washington, London, Paris, and Moscow, likely killing tens of thousands (.176)
The War of the Worlds — alien warships destroy all of Earth’s major cities, presumably killing tens of millions directly, hundreds of millions through secondary effects (.118)
Robot Monster — Ro-Man kills everyone on Earth except for eight survivors, who are immune to his death ray for some reason (.059)

So, if the above list constituted Earth’s prior experience with alien incursions and these incursions were considered as unmotivated events (Mother Nature or robots which do not respond to feedback), then an analyst asked to state the probability of the Plan 9 saucer incursion causing at least one death (or a worse outcome) would list that likelihood at 76.5%. If the threshold were set at a hundred deaths, the predicted likelihood of that number of deaths or worse would be 35.3%, or the likelihood of the deaths of tens of millions, up to the near-extinction of humanity, would be 11.8%. Given those odds, it would certainly behoove the military to put forth a maximum effort to destroy the saucers (more so than launching a handful of ground-to-air missiles and then shrugging their shoulders). However (and this is a big however), our heroes quickly learned that the deadly saucers were guided by active intelligences (not that I’d place Eros, Tarra, and the Ruler too high on the smarts scale, but still). So, pure Risk = Probability X Vulnerability X Consequence estimates no longer apply. The authorities would need to engage in Attacker-Defender analysis. Which leads us into our next Homeland Security Lesson…

Homeland Security Lesson #3: Try to See Events and Situations Through Your Adversary’s Cultural Lens

A key element of red teaming analysis (of which Attacker-Defender analysis is one type) is making an honest effort to see through your adversary’s eyes. What are his motivations and goals? What constitutes success in his world? What are his cultural prohibitions and cultural aspirations?

Had the military done this with Eros and crew, they might have avoided much fuss had they sent a different interlocutor (say, Neils Bohr instead of Jeff & co.), then invited Eros and the Ruler out for a pleasant evening in San Francisco, perhaps visits to a leather bar and a transvestite show. Eros might have decided that Earthmen aren’t actually “stupid, stupid!” (apart from Jeff, Paula, Inspector Clay, Lieutenant Harper, etc. etc.) Had the Plan 9 planners gotten to know our better specimens, they would have realized we would never do anything so risky and self-destructive as invent solorbonite. After all, our physicists would never be reckless enough to test a weapon which might result in a chain reaction that would destroy the world…

New Story Published: “Youth Will Be Served”

Who knows what lurks beneath those waves, what awaits the swimmers?

Who knows what lurks beneath those waves, what awaits the swimmers?

I had a story published in the February issue of Nightmare Magazine, “Youth Will Be Served.” It is a dark fantasy set in the Miami Beach of the 1990s, when South Beach’s Art Deco District was on the cusp between decay and revitalization. Both text and audio versions are available online. Please have a look or a listen!

Homeys on Film: Homeland Security Lessons from Bad Movies

Copyright 1964 Toho Films

Copyright 1964 Toho Films

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

Synopsis:

In Japan, the head of the Pacific Pharmaceutical Company decides his marketing campaign needs a big boost. Come up with a new advertising jingle? Hire a down-on-her-luck movie star to do personal appearances? Hand out free samples at school playgrounds? No — find a giant monster to put on display! The director hires a pair of explorers to to Faro Island in the Solomon Islands chain, where rumor has it that a gigantic beast traps the natives in a web of fear.

Meanwhile, an American nuclear submarine, on patrol in the Arctic, comes across an iceberg emitting a strange, green glow. While checking it out, the sub’s crew accidentally ram the iceberg… and, wouldn’t you know it, end up freeing Godzilla from his icy prison (where the big lizard had been trapped since the end of Godzilla Raids Again).

On Faro Island, the two explorers and their assistant hook up with the local natives just before a giant octopus(!) emerges from the sea and attacks the village. The natives’ god, King Kong, arrives on the scene and drives away the octopus. Luckily, the villagers have already prepared an offering for Kong, a medicinal berry brew that the big ape happily laps up and which causes him to take a blissful nap. While Kong is snoozing, the explorers build a huge raft, drag him onto the raft, and tow him back toward Japan… because Japan is short on destructive giant monsters, obviously.

Back in Japan, Godzilla has made his big entrance, stomping on a commuter train and several villages, heading for Tokyo. Out at sea, Kong awakens and starts playing tug-of-war with the ship which is towing him, which prompts the crew to blow up the raft. This is but a temporary inconvenience for Kong, a strong swimmer, who does his Mark Spitz thing and begins breast-stroking toward Japan and his eventual meet-up with Godzilla.

A television commentator helpfully opines that Godzilla and Kong are natural enemies (because, as every small school child knows, dinosaurs and giant gorillas clashed every single day during the Jurassic Period). The Japanese army digs a huge pit filled with explosives to trap and hopefully kill Godzilla. Kong arrives and has an inconclusive first battle with the radioactive dinosaur, not appreciating Godzilla’s ability to set his chest hair on fire. Godzilla laughs off the pit filled with explosives but is deterred by the army’s fall-back plan, an electrical barrier which shocks him with a million volts. However, Kong has a very different reaction to the high-tension wires — he chews on them like they’re linguine, delighting in the tasty electricity, which makes him feel like he’s on top of a cool and wintry mountain (no, that’s York’s Peppermint Patties); er, which tickles his innards (no, that’s Mountain Dew); well, which gives him a buzz at least as good as what he got from the berry juice back on Faro Island.

Speaking of those handy berries, the authorities get their hands on a batch and form it into berry bombs, which they detonate around Kong’s head while he is reprising his old star-turn atop New York’s Empire State Building, this time atop the Tokyo Tower. Kong takes another pleasant nap while the military comes up with yet another brilliant plan, this time hooking Kong up to gigantic helium-filled balloons so they can dump him into the crater atop Mount Fuji. The big ape’s peaceful slumber is interrupted by the roar of Godzilla below. Kong awakens, disentangles himself from the balloons, and drops onto his foe. Their battle resumes, and Kong is once again getting the worst of it, until a thunderstorm brews up. Lightning strikes the weakened Kong, not only restoring his strength, but also giving him the temporary superpower of shooting electrical bolts from his hairy fingertips. He uses this new power to befuddle and shock Godzilla, and the two end up wrestling, then tumbling off a high cliff into the ocean. Only Kong emerges from the depths (and, no, the rumor that the Japanese domestic version of the movie had Godzilla emerging triumphant is false). Having seen enough of Japan for one 91-minute feature, he swims back toward Faro Island, perhaps anticipating a nice repast of berry juice and calamari.

Homeland Security Lesson #1: Be Willing to Increase the Intensity of Your Defensive Measure

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

In the first Godzilla movie, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the Japanese military attempted to halt Godzilla’s advance towards the heart of Tokyo by erecting a set of power lines which carried three hundred thousand volts. This proved insufficient; Godzilla walked right through it. Two movies later, in King Kong vs. Godzilla, they upped the voltage to a million volts, which had the desired effect of making Godzilla steer clear. However, this leads into our next lesson…

Homeland Security Lesson #2: What Has Worked in the Past Will Not Necessarily Work Now

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

Homeland security defenders must accept the painful fact that their antagonists will learn and change, altering tactics and taking on new, more potent capabilities. In the very next film in the series, Godzilla vs. the Thing (aka Godzilla vs. Mothra), the Japanese army tries to repeat its success with defensive power lines, but in the interim, Godzilla has upped his game, and just like in the first film in the series, he wades right through the electrical barrier, trashing the expenditure of millions of yen.

Homeland Security Lesson #3: What Works Against One Antagonist May Not Work as Well Against Another

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

Yes, those million volts of electricity deterred Godzilla. However, when Kong entered the picture, what didn’t destroy him only made him stronger. In fact, the electricity, rather than repelling him, arguably attracted him deeper into Japan looking for more of the same, since he found a million volts so delectable.

Homeland Security Lesson #4: If Your Primary Tool is a Hammer, You Mustn’t Assume That Your Foe Will Necessarily Act Like a Nail

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

Organizations, like individuals, can become prey to habits. Particularly organizations like branches of the military, which are tied into long, costly procurement cycles. If an army is heavy with tanks and self-propelled artillery, it will tend to want to use those tools… again and again. This is not necessarily wise. Tanks and artillery have never, never, NEVER worked against Godzilla. Not in the first movie, not in the second movie, not in the third… not once, not ever. Godzilla laughs at tanks and artillery. He takes great amusement from watching the tanks melt beneath his radioactive breath and the tank crews jump out of the hatches and run around on fire until they crumble into ashes. The Japanese army wasted its money for decades on tanks and artillery, until they finally wised up in the later films and began investing in more reasoned and advanced anti-Godzilla technology, such as Mechagodzilla and Super X versions I-III. None of those expensive procurements worked, either, but at least they weren’t so obviously futile as the tank battalions. The only truly effective anti-Godzilla technology ever fielded, arguably, was Dr. Serizowa’s Oxygen Destroyer from the first film, but the army looked askance at it since they hadn’t invented it (or paid for it), and they never bothered to redevelop it after its inventor committed suicide and destroyed the formula. Better to spend the money on more tanks, I suppose…

Homeland Security Lesson #5: The Enemy of Your Enemy is Not Necessarily Your Friend

King-Kong-vs-Godzilla photo 2

Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan; I imagine every general on the Japanese army staff was clamoring to claim credit for the supposedly inspired strategy of pitting the more pliable King Kong against the more dangerous foe, Godzilla. However, this strategy could just as easily have gone badly awry. Kong, after apparently vanquishing Godzilla, made the decision to call it a day and head back for Faro Island. But he just as plausibly might have headed back to the coast of Japan. After all, Japan had offered him the enticements of (a) abundant electricity and (b) attractive young girls to paw. And Kong’s feet were just as broad as Godzilla’s, just as capable of stomping rural hamlets into the mud or of kicking over Tokyo radio towers and bashing in venerable Shinto shrines. The Japanese military got lucky. They shouldn’t count on that luck.

King Kong vs Godzilla photo 1

See you next week for more Homeys on Film!

Godzilla Review: Godzilla Becomes Gamera, or the Docile Dinosaur

Godzilla-Teaser-Poster-2-Header

I had very high hopes for the new American Godzilla from Legendary Pictures. I loved their last giant monster movie, Pacific Rim, so I was hoping they could put a fresh spin on the saga of one of the most famous giant monsters of them all, Godzilla.

Unfortunately, the spin they decided to put on their Godzilla was to turn him into an earthbound Gamera, specifically the Gamera of Gamera, Guardian of the Universe. In that picture, pollution awakens three Gyaos giant carnivorous flying monsters, determined to wipe out humanity, who then have to be fought and defeated by Gamera, Earth’s and mankind’s protector. In the new Godzilla, radiation from a Japanese nuclear plant and from buried American nuclear waste awakens two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects), one of which flies (and which looks suspiciously like a Gyaos). One MUTO is male (the flying one) and the other is female, and they are determined to wipe out humanity by filling the Earth with their offspring. They must be fought and defeated by Godzilla, Earth’s and mankind’s protector.

Actually, Godzilla is amazingly benevolent towards mankind in this picture, considering that Dr. Serizowa (named after the Dr. Serizowa in the 1954 original version) reveals that all those American atom bomb and hydrogen bombs tests in the Pacific during the 1940s and 1950s were actually attempts to kill Godzilla. Yet we see scene after scene of modern U.S. Navy destroyers escorting Godzilla across the Pacific from Japan to San Francisco, close enough for the monster to swat with his tail or plink with one of his outsized claws, and he doesn’t lay a single reptilian scale on them. Once in San Francisco, he seems to take inordinate care to not knock over any buildings, or at least not any more than necessary while doing the rather ho-hum job of defeating the MUTOs (who look an awful lot like the giant praying mantises that Godzilla faced on Monster Island in Son of Godzilla). Dr. Serizowa (who does not invent an oxygen destroyer in this film, nor any other type of anti-Godzilla weapon) explains that Godzilla is Earth’s special resource to maintain the balance of nature. Cue the garlands of daisies…

The monster battles (what most of the audience showed up for) mostly lack pizzazz, and many of them are set at night, which tends to make the scenes murky and hard to follow (I had the same complaint about some of the jaeger-kaiju fights in Pacific Rim). However, I will give the screenwriters and the special effects technicians their props for figuring out two very satisfying ways for Godzilla to put the kibosh on his foes (not such a big spoiler, since you know there’ll be a sequel).

About two thirds of the film is taken up with a rather paint-by-the-numbers domestic plot involving a U.S. Army bomb demolitions expert, his nurse wife, and their young son. The actors are all appealing and earnest, but no new territory was paved here – just the standard family-in-peril scenario. Near the end of the film comes a moment so unbelievable that it stretches even the low level of verisimilitude to be found in a giant monster movie. The nuclear missile which the hero had been attempting to dismantle instead plods out of San Francisco Harbor on a fishing boat set on auto pilot. It couldn’t have made it more than a couple of miles outside the harbor when the one-megaton warhead explodes. No one dies. No massive wave engulfs what is left of San Francisco. Our hero, entirely exposed to the blast wave and radiation, suffers no ill effects.

Yes, I wanted very much to like it. Parts of it I did. And my sons thoroughly enjoyed it; my oldest said it was the best monster movie he had ever seen. I’ll have to show him the original King Kong again, or the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters. But I’m afraid the “old school” special effects pale in the eyes of the young generation in comparison with the latest computer-generated effects.

Fat White Vampire Otaku Now Out for Kindle!

Fat White - High Resolution - 100 Percent JPEG

It’s here — the long awaited third installment in the Fat White Vampire series of humorous horror novels! Jules Duchon and his vampiric family suffer through the ravages of Hurricane Antonia and struggle to survive in a New Orleans which is almost entirely depopulated. Where will they get their blood? Salvation comes from the most unlikely source possible — a trio of Japanese superheroes called Bonsai Master, Anime Girl, and Cutie-Scary Man. Yet that salvation comes with a terrifying but laugh-inducing price… the blood which the three superheroes donate has unpredictable effects on Jules and his family. Chaos ensues as Jules is transformed into a seven-foot-tall white rabbit, his wife Maureen puts on three hundred pounds, and his mother Edna becomes a vicious human/vampire vacuum cleaner!

Buy it for the Kindle on Amazon for $5.99!

Coming soon in trade paperback!

Comparing Kaiju Reboots: Godzilla vs. Gamera

Note: This is an article I originally published in July, 2013. I haven’t yet seen the new American Godzilla, so this isn’t a review of that. Rather, this is a look back at the most recent reboot of Godzilla, Japanese-style, and a comparison with the most recent reboot of one of Godzilla’s screen rivals, Gamera.

___________________________________________________________________________

With little-known director Gareth Edwards currently working on an American reboot of Godzilla, scheduled for release during the Big G’s sixtieth anniversary in 2014, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at the last time movie-makers gave rebooting classic kaiju characters a shot. The most recent two efforts were Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and Gamera the Brave (2006). I recently had an opportunity to view the two films almost back to back, in order to best compare and contrast their differing approaches to renewing the appeal of long-lived kaiju stars.

Godzilla: Final Wars represented Toho Studio’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of their most famous creation. It was their 28th Godzilla film and the sixth in the Millennium series (the character’s earlier two series are known as the Showa series and the Heisei series). They clearly meant to “pull out all the stops” with this film, stuffing it full of monsters from earlier movies (many of which had not been seen on the big screen in twenty-five or thirty years), cameo appearances from veteran Godzilla actors, and many hat tips to plot elements from earlier films (the alien Xilians have a good bit in common with the aliens from Planet X in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero). In many ways, it can be seen as a remake of Toho’s fondly remembered Destroy All Monsters (1968), which featured eleven of Toho’s kaiju stable.

One of the oddest elements of the film is how little of it is dedicated to its supposed star, Godzilla. In common with nearly all the films of the Heisei and Millennium series, Godzilla is portrayed with minimal personality, little more than a very bad-ass radioactive dinosaur with a great big chip on its shoulder. Thus, the screenwriters felt compelled to fill up the majority of the movie with plot elements centering on the human (or mutant) characters. The first half of the movie comes off as a Japanese version of the X-Men film series. It focuses almost entirely on two rival mutant soldiers in the Earth Defense Force’s M-Unit. The two mutants, Shinichi and Katsunori, are both friends and rivals, and they vie for the affections of a molecular biologist, Miyuki, who is recruited by the United Nations to study a mummified space monster (which turns out to be Gigan). Another standout character is Douglas Gordon (portrayed by American mixed martial artist and professional wrestler Don Frye), the captain of the EDF’s attack submarine, the Gotengo (itself a retread of the submarine from 1963’s Atragon). The Gotengo, with Gordon aboard as a young cadet, had trapped Godzilla in Antarctic ice forty years prior to the future in which Final Wars is set. In a weird costuming choice (which somehow works for me), Gordon, who is presumably an American working for the United Nations, dresses like a World War Two-era Russian commissar.

No one can complain that they skimped on the monsters!

The biggest draw of the film is the huge number of giant monsters from earlier Godzilla movies which it drew out of retirement. Final Wars tops Destroy All Monsters’ tally by featuring fourteen kaiju (or twenty-one, if you include seven kaiju who make brief appearances via stock footage). The all-star line-up includes Godzilla (last seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Manda (most recently seen in Destroy All Monsters back in 1968), Minilla (this version of the Son of Godzilla hadn’t been on screen since 1969’s Godzilla’s Revenge), Rodan (as Radon, he’d last appeared in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2), Anguirus (most recently seen in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), King Caesar (his only prior appearance was in the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), Mothra (most recently seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Monster X/Keizer Ghidorah (Ghidorah, a Toho staple, had last appeared in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack in 2001), Gigan (not seen since 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan), Hedorah (his only star turn had come in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), Ebirah (last seen, in stock footage taken from 1967’s Gozilla vs. the Sea Monster, in Godzilla’s Revenge in 1969), Zilla (the American Godzilla, whose only appearance came in 1998’s Godzilla), Kumonga and Kamacuras (both previously seen in Godzilla’s Revenge). Other classic kaiju also make brief appearances via stock footage, including Varan (last seen in Destroy All Monsters after starring in Varan the Unbelievable in 1958), Baragon (most recently seen in 2001 in Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), Gezora (Space Amoeba, 1970), Gaira (The War of the Gargantuas, 1966), Mechagodzilla (most recently seen in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. in 2003), Megaguirus (Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, 2000), and Titanosaurus (Terror of Mechagodzilla, 1975).

What do you get when you cross a kaiju with a Swiss Army Knife?

Unfortunately, having to divide screen time between so many monsters leaves precious little time for any individual monster to shine, especially given that much of the first half of the movie is given over to interactions between the human, mutant, and space alien characters. For example, I would’ve loved to see more of a rematch between Hedorah, the Smog Monster, and Godzilla, but their battle takes up less than ten seconds on screen, Godzilla batting him aside as though he were a tomato can. (By way of contrast, in their first encounter, back in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, retroactively written out of existence in the Millennium series, the Big G took an entire movie to figure out how to put Hedorah down for the count; the Smog Monster was one of those horrors who got “killed” multiple times but kept rising from apparent defeat.)

Part of the conceit of the films of the Millennium series is that none of them follow the earlier movies in the series; the only precursor each film has is the original 1954 Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Thus, each Millennium movie represents a reboot of almost everything that came before it. However, over his then fifty-year history in films, Godzilla had enjoyed long, even complex relationships with a number of other kaiju. Ghidorah was the George Foreman to Godzilla’s Mohammed Ali, having fought Godzilla nearly ten times before. Godzilla also boasted some allies of long-standing. Rodan had assisted him in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters before battling him (as Radon or Fire Rodan) in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2. Anguiras started out as a foe in the very first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, and then became one of Godzilla’s most indefatigable allies in Destroy All Monsters and the original Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Godzilla’s most interesting long-term relationship could be said to be the one he shared with Mothra. They had started off as antagonists (in 1964’s Godzilla vs. Mothra), gone on to be allies in multiple adventures (in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and Destroy All Monsters), become enemies again (in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), and finally allies once more (in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla: Final Wars. Yet because of the set-up of Final Wars and all the earlier films in the Millennium series, the screenwriters had to pretend that the clashes in Final Wars (all the other monsters, with the exceptions of Manda and Mothra, were under the mental control of the Xilians) represented the very first time that Godzilla was encountering his fellow kaiju.

I think this represented a major lost opportunity for the makers of Final Wars. For me, at least, a good bit of the attraction and charm of the later films in the original Showa series, from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster through Terror of Mechagodzilla, comes from the interactions between Godzilla and his fellow monsters. In the Showa series, the last film in which Godzilla is a pure heavy is Godzilla vs. Mothra; beyond that film, Godzilla generally serves as a protector of Japan or at least a somewhat benevolent force, allied to an extent with the human heroes. Although his antics could sometimes be silly (such as his flying stunts in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Godzilla vs. Gigan), they could just as often be wry and charming. Ever since Godzilla 1985, though, the first film in the Heisei series, filmmakers have been loathe to incorporate any of those elements of Godzilla’s earlier personality. In each of the subsequent movies (with the notable exception of Godzilla’s “origin story,” Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, when the proto-Godzilla shows empathy for a group of trapped Japanese soldiers in World War Two), the Big G is portrayed as an angry dinosaur of very little brain, a virtually mindless engine of destruction (and thus a reflection of his persona in his very first appearance on the big screen).

Ten years after Toho relaunched their Godzilla character with Godzilla 1985, the first film of the Heisei series, rival studio Daiei relaunched their own popular kaiju star, Gamera, in his own Heisei series with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). (Gamera, of course, had been a late response to Godzilla’s success of the 1950s and 1960s, first appearing in 1965, after Godzilla had already starred in five films.) Two more Gamera films followed. Then, in 2006, filmmakers decided to reboot Gamera’s continuity yet again in Gamera the Brave. This film begins with the original Gamera sacrificing himself in 1973 to destroy several Gyaos monsters to save Earth. Thirty-three years later, a young boy discovers a glowing egg on an island, which hatches into a seemingly normal tortoise, but one which is actually the son of Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 1

The little tortoise soon alerts his owner, young Toru, that he is no ordinary turtle by levitating in the air. Soon thereafter, he begins a tremendous growth spurt, and the two friends are separated after the flying turtle, named Toto, outgrows Toru’s bedroom and Toru tries to find an outdoor home for his unusual pet. Later, Toru and Toto are reunited when a new, aggressive kaiju, Zedus, attacks Toru’s city. Toto’s initial effort to battle Zedus is unsuccessful, but Toru and the newly gigantic Toto team up to ultimately defeat the rampaging Zedus, and Toto takes up the full power set and mantle of his parent, Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 2

I’ll admit that Gamera the Brave ended up being a much more impressive and satisfying movie than I’d expected it to be. In large part, this is due to the strong performances given by the movie’s child actors (in stark contrast to the insufferable, grating, oftentimes almost unwatchable performances of child actors in the movies of the original Showa series; maybe it was the poor quality dubbing that made those performances seem so awful, but I can’t imagine the performances come off much better in the original Japanese). In comparing Gamera the Brave to Godzilla: Final Wars, I think the former film does a better job of encapsulating, modernizing, and strengthening the key element that gave the Showa films their appeal. The Gamera reboot tells the story of a powerful friendship between a child and a giant monster; beyond the original Gamera the Invincible (1965), all of the Showa series movies centered around Gamera’s efforts to befriend and protect the children of Japan. In contrast, Godzilla: Final Wars, while reintroducing a small army of Godzilla’s former allies and foes, ignores the relationships between the kaiju that provided so much of the appeal of the latter Showa series Godzilla films.

Unfortunately, Frank Darabont, screenwriter for the upcoming American Godzilla reboot, sounds determined to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor screenwriters of the Heisei and Millennium series Godzilla films, explaining in an interview that he wants his Godzilla to be perceived as a terrifying force of nature. He dismisses the later films of the Showa series:

“And then he became Clifford the Big Red Dog in the subsequent films. He became the mascot of Japan, he became the protector of Japan. Another big ugly monster would show up and he would fight that monster to protect Japan. Which I never really quite understood, the shift. What we’re trying to do with the new movie is not have it camp, not have it be campy. We’re kind of taking a cool new look at it.”

So Darabont seems to believe that the most recent Godzilla movie that Toho released was 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. He acts as though the Heisei and Millennium films never existed, because what he describes is exactly how the makers of those films reconceptualized Godzilla, returning him to his original persona.

I don’t think this bodes well for an ongoing series of American Godzilla pictures. The last several Millennium series movies were disappointments at the box office (which is why Toho has taken a ten-year break from making any new Godzilla movies and has now licensed that responsibility to Legendary Pictures). It’s hard to sustain a series focused on a brainless “terrifying force of nature.”

At long last, the Big G gets his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

But even if the newest Godzilla does a colossal belly flop in the theaters in 2014, at least the Big G can rest easy that he has his official star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, a gift from Hollywood on his fiftieth birthday…

Cover for Hellfire and Damnation

Hellfire and Damnation - High Resolution

This is the cover for my upcoming book, Hellfire and Damnation: the August Micholson Chronicles, Book 2, coming out from MonstraCity Press in August, 2014. And here is the “teaser” for that book:

The second book in the thrilling Civil War steampunk supernatural suspense series begun with Fire on Iron. In this installment in the series, August Micholson must clear his name — he is accused of being a traitor to the Union and a sabateur and faces a court martial. He escapes his prison in an observation balloon, but then he is faced with monumental twin challenges — restoring the mental health of his “madness plague”-striken wife Elizabeth, and figuring out a way to halt General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania!
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Here’s a gallery of the work that James of the Humble Nations: the Book Covers, Musings, & Fiction of ‘Cheap Literature’ Smith’ has done for me thus far:

James has hundreds and hundreds of pre-made covers available for writers to purchase for $35 apiece, and he often offers specials on them. If none of his pre-made covers work for you, he also does what he calls “Commission Rapide,” which is where you pick out a few images from ShutterStock and give him your title and instructions, and “Full Commission,” where you let him do all the work and he presents you with three different alternatives. He is very easy to work with and very friendly, and his prices are some of the best out there. As you can see from the gallery above, the quality of his work is quite high (the book covers are all “Commissions Rapide,” and the logo was a complete original that he put together for Dara and me for MonstraCity Press). He does ebook covers and for a small additional charge turns an ebook cover into a full, wrap-around cover for a CreateSpace or Lightning Source/IngramSpark trade paperback. I highly recommend him!

My High Hopes for the New Godzilla Movie: Fat Green Dinosaur Blues

Godzilla-Teaser-Poster-2-Header

It’s now May, 2014, which (in my household, at least) is officially “Godzilla Month,” due to the upcoming release of the Legendary Pictures reboot of the venerable Toho Studio franchise.

As a longtime Godzilla fan (I saw my first Godzilla movie, Destroy All Monsters, at the age of three in the back of my parent’s convertible at a drive-in movie in Miami), here are my hopes for the new movie:

• I’d like Godzilla to look like GODZILLA, not some mutated iguana or monitor lizard (like in the 1998 American version, which was a sort-of-decent giant monster movie, but a lousy Godzilla movie). From the pics I’ve seen, I think this one is covered.

• I don’t want Godzilla to move/run/fight at the speed of a scalded cockroach (like he did in the 1998 version). He is much more impressive as a somewhat slow but unstoppable force of nature (as he was in the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters).

• Would it be too much trouble to ask for Godzilla to have a smidgeon of a personality, apart from perpetually-pissed-off dinosaur? I’m not saying he needs to get all cuddly, like he was in Son of Godzilla or any of the monster team-up movies like Godzilla vs. Gigan. But maybe some facial expressions? Maybe some distinctive moves? Legendary Pictures did a good job of giving their giant Jaiger robots in Pacific Rim some personality, but all their monsters have had the personality of a salamander, thus far.

• I was pretty impressed with the script for Pacific Rim. Will the new Godzilla have some genuine human interest, or will it just be a trio of monsters bashing each other in San Francisco? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

Oh, and here’s a somewhat hilarious article from the International Digital Times, entitled “Is Godzilla Too Fat? Japanese Fans Outraged Over ‘Godzilla’ 2014 Portrayal As A Chubby Kaiju.”

“OK, so it’s a little hard to miss the fact that Godzilla is a little chubbier than usual in the latest Godzilla 2014 trailer, but we would never fat shame the tubby behemoth. Fat shaming Godzilla is exactly what fans are doing… Japanese fans are calling the new Godzilla ‘out of shape Godzilla,’ ‘Metabozilla’ and ‘pudgy and cute.’ Some of the more hilarious insults being hurled at the new monster are that ‘his neck looks like an American football athlete’s,’ ‘he got beefed up from the radiation at Fukushima’ and ‘that’s what happened when all your do is eat and lay around.’”

Hey, maybe Legendary Pictures will ask me to do the novelization of their latest film. I’ve got the perfect title – Fat Green Dinosaur Blues

Fiends Without Form: Toho Goes Shapeless with The H-Man, Matango, and Dagora, the Space Monster

Original Japanese poster for Matango

Toho Studios and the dynamic duo of director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya are best known in the U.S. for their kaiju films starring Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and other giant inhabitants of Monster Island. But their kaiju films were far from their only excursions into the science fiction and horror realms. At least three such Toho flicks are notable for featuring amorphous aliens, shapeless specters, random radioactive rascals, or fiends without form (there – I think I’ve exhausted my alliterative abilities, at least for the moment).

A nightclub beauty being dissolved into green goo by the H-Man

Although the best known monstrous mass of moldy goo from 1958 is undoubtedly The Blob, the first film to feature Steve McQueen in a starring role (and also memorable for its tongue-in-cheek hit theme song), Toho actually beat Paramount Pictures to the punch with their not-too-dissimilar horror flick, The H-Man (the former was released in September, 1958, whereas the latter was released in Japan in June, 1958, first appearing in the U.S. in May of the following year). The original title of this sprightly horror film was Beauty and Liquid Men, which suffers when translated into English, as do many Japanese film titles.

As with so many Japanese films of the period, the monsters are created by nuclear radiation out at sea (this is also the scientific explanation behind the mutagenic mushrooms found on the deserted island in Matango). Special effects technician Eiji Tsubaraya, the man behind the effects in all of the Godzilla pictures from the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters to Godzilla’s Revenge, designed the “liquid men” as blue effluence that could move of its own volition and take on roughly human shape.

With much of the film’s action set in or near a nightclub, Masaru Sato composed a jazzy score that adds much liveliness to the film. The nightclub acts give the film a kitschy, vintage charm. The monsters themselves aren’t very scary, until you see one dissolve a beautiful singer. The film’s climax, set in the sewers beneath Tokyo, reminds me of the subterranean climax of Them! (where the giant ants are cornered by the army in the storm sewers beneath Los Angeles. It also adds a good bit of genuine horror to this science fiction pic.

On account of the gangsters and their molls, the nightclub singers, and that suspenseful climax, I give The H-Man three stars out of five.

My favorite of this amorphous “trilogy” is definitely Matango (alternatively titled Attack of the Mushroom People or Matango, Fungus of Terror — the latter one of the all-time great monster film titles). In part, this is because I watched it at least half a dozen times as a kid on late-night or Saturday afternoon TV, so it made a big impression on me. Also, it is an unusual film for Toho and director Ishiro Honda in that it mainly focuses on psychological horror, rather than physical monsters. This is mainly due to its origins in the William Hope Hodgson story, “The Voice in the Night,” a 1907 tale of psychological horror (which I have not yet read, but which is on my list).

I wouldn’t eat that if I were you…

A group of young Japanese men and women on a pleasure yacht are forced to beach their craft on a seemingly deserted island after a fierce storm at sea damages their boat. Much of the island is covered by a rapidly growing fungus, as is another beached yacht, this one abandoned, which they come across. They quickly run out of canned foods and are forced to forage on the island. The yacht’s captain warns them not to eat the mushrooms, as they may be poisonous. They subsist for a while on bird’s eggs (although most birds avoid the island), potatoes, and seaweed, but one of their number succumbs to the call of the mushrooms and eats some. Their influence drives him mad, and he attacks his fellow castaways. One by one, the members of the yachting party eat the mushrooms, and they begin to see shambling, walking mushrooms, some of which appear vaguely human…

I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t yet seen it, but it’s a doozy. I give Matango four out of five stars for its atmospheric horror, unusual for a Toho film.

Before the script for Giant Space Monster Dogora (retitled Dagora, the Space Monster for American television) was written, I picture Ishiro Honda having the following conversation with monster master Eiji Tusburaya:

“Okay, we’ve done a combination Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus (Godzilla, King of the Monsters),” says Honda.
“Check,” says Tusburaya.
“We’ve done a pair of love-sick pterodactyls (Rodan).”
“Check.”
“We’ve done a giant moth (Mothra).”
“Check.”
“We’ve done a giant flying squirrel (no, not Rocky of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, but Varan the Unbelievable).”
“Check.”
“We’ve done a three-headed dragon that spits lightning bolts (Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster).”
“Check.”
“So what kind of monster haven’t we done?”
“How about a giant space jellyfish that eats coal and dies when exposed to plentiful doses of wasp venom?”
“Fabulous! Get me a script writer!”

Yes, the creature does end up being vulnerable to wasps’ venom, which turns its jelly-like substance crystalline. One of the funniest scenes in the movie (perhaps inadvertent; I couldn’t tell) comes when a trio of hard-luck diamond thieves (Dagora eats carbon; that’s the connection with the jewel thieves) are suddenly crushed by a falling chunk of the crystallized monster while hiding behind a big rock on a beach. Violent slapstick worthy of the Keystone Cops.

If only more of this movie could've looked this mysterious and magical...

This is one of the only Toho science fiction or kaiju films in which the giant monster is not played by a man in a rubber suit. Also, Dogora/Dagora was one of the only Toho giant creatures to not appear in the all-star kaiju cast of Destroy All Monsters in 1968 (c’mon, even Varan the giant flying squirrel puts in a brief appearance in that film).

Despite the beauty of some of the scenes of Dagora in the night sky over Japan, I can only give Dagora, the Space Monster two point five stars out of five, due to the incredibly convoluted nature of its story, involving diamond thieves, coal deposits, wasps, etc. etc. etc. A little too baroque for its own good, I’d say. If only more of the film could have had that fabulous sense of wonder inspired by those few scenes of the creature floating over Tokyo in the night sky…

Two Dozen Outstanding Independent Bookstores – the Death of the Physical Bookstore is Greatly Exaggerated

Octavia Books in New Orleans

Octavia Books in New Orleans

Whereas many blogs on the publishing field mourn the coming death of the physical bookstore, the membership of the American Booksellers Association (the trade group for independent bookstores) has been gradually growing each year since 2010. And the website Flavorwire.com has published two lists of outstanding independent bookstores, one listing 45 stores, the other listing 25 stores. These articles are a real treat for lovers of independent bookstores.

Some of these stores are fairly new, founded since the most recent economic downturn. But many of them are long-standing central gathering places for their neighborhoods, their storied existences stretching back over decades.

I’ve gone through the list of 70 independent bookstores and note below the 15 stores I have a personal familiarity with.

Politics & Prose, Washington, DC
This is my current “hometown” bookstore, being only six miles away from my workplace in downtown Washington, DC. I’ll admit to not yet having made the 45 minute subway trip there, but this store has a reputation as one of the most outstanding booksellers in America, so I will get there eventually. Presidents, ex-presidents, and presidents’ wives have given readings here (and maybe I will too, someday).

BookPeople, Austin, TX
I visited this store several times when I lived in New Orleans and used to make fairly regular trips to Austin for ArmadilloCon. Wonderful ambiance, and very friendly to readers of science fiction and fantasy (they have a huge selection of such books).

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA
This is one of the most famous bookstores in America, founded by one of the original Beats, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When I visited San Francisco on business a couple of years back, it was at City Lights that I discovered I needed reading glasses – I spent so long browsing there that I had a splitting headache later that night, and my eyes felt like they were about to fall out of my head. When I got home, I immediately bought a pair of reading glasses, and that fixed the problem. City Lights is also a publisher of poetry, non-fiction, and Beat-related fiction.

Atomic Books, Baltimore, MD
This is a store which I’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t gotten to yet. But I am very familiar with their terrific website, from which I’ve ordered lots of fun and eclectic stuff. Their specialties are graphic novels, pop culture, and alternative/weird lifestyles and fandoms; right up my alley! Baltimore isn’t that far from my home, so I will get there, eventually.

Books & Books, Miami, FL
This is actually an indie-mini-chain of bookstores and coffee spots/booksellers in the Greater Miami area, with the largest and oldest store located in downtown Coral Gables. I did a signing there in 2005, when I was staying in Miami Beach with my family following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (my home city was off-limits for nearly two months). The owner, Mitchell Kaplan, who founded the flagship Coral Gables store in 1982, was a big supporter of Hurricane Katrina relief, running at least one benefit reading during the crisis; for that, I will be forever grateful. Books & Books’ various locations sponsor approximately 60 author readings each month.

Square Books, Oxford, MS
This is one of my favorite stores in the whole world, in one of my favorite small towns (home to William Faulkner, whose house is now a fascinating museum). Two levels of literary goodness; and if you desire literature or non-fiction at a bargain price, Off-Square Books is right around the corner, specializing in quality close-outs. I signed stock there several times in the mid-2000s.

Maple Street Books, New Orleans, LA
For many years, one of my favorite “home town” bookstores. Maple Street Books is the grand-daddy of the Uptown New Orleans independent booksellers, having been founded in 1962 (here’s a terrific article on the store’s history, written by local mystery author Kris Wiltz, who is pretty terrific herself). Many, many were the times I stopped in to browse or to sign stock of the Fat White Vampire books.

Housing Works Bookstore Café, New York, NY
This is a very fun used books store and café in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, where all the books are donated, and all funds raised above operating expenses are donated to various housing-related charities.

D. J. Wills Books, La Jolla, CA
Founded in 1979, this very well-stocked store is also the home of the La Jolla Cultural Society.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA
Wow, do I wish the Elliott Bay Book Company was a little closer! I’ve only gotten to visit there twice, once on my honeymoon with Dara in 2003, and the other time on a recent work-related trip. One of the largest bookstores in Seattle, which is one of America’s great cities of readers, and located in historic Pioneer Square, not too far from Underground Seattle (where the TV movie The Night Strangler was filmed). Back in 2003, I bought an issue of Locus Magazine which had one of the first reviews of Fat White Vampire Blues, a review so wonderful it brought tears to my eyes. For that reason alone, I’ll never forget the Elliott Bay Book Company.

Strand Bookstore, New York, NY
Eighteen miles of books! New, used, and close-outs! Three stories big! In the heart of Manhattan! Back when I lived in Long Island, I used to take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan nearly every weekend, and more weekends than not, the Strand was on my agenda. It is a not-to-be-missed destination for any book lover who visits NYC.

Octavia Books, New Orleans, LA
I simply cannot over-praise Octavia Books and its owners Tom and Judith Lowenberg. Tom and Judith hosted the “opening night” readings and signings for both Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of the Fat White Vampires. They also hosted three annual George Alec Effinger Memorial Readings, each timed to coincide with the release of a new retrospective hardback edition of George’s fabulous short fiction from Golden Gryphon Press (now, sadly, defunct). Octavia Books is far from defunct, however. Tom and Judith were two of the very first merchants to re-open in New Orleans following the re-opening of the city to its inhabitants, and they provided a vital community gathering center and source of “normality” during those stress-filled first several months after the storm. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength, hosting several author events each week (with free refreshments).

Book Revue, Huntington, New York
During the three years I lived on Long Island, this was my home-away-from-home. Along with Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, this is the center of Long Island’s literary culture.

St. Mark’s Bookshop, New York, NY
A fixture of the East Village bohemian scene ever since its founding in 1977, this was also one of my “not-to-be-missed” stops on my long walks from Chelsea to Alphabet City. Open seven days a week until midnight!

Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café, Washington, DC
A fun place to both browse and eat, Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café features late hours, a big menu, and plenty of books to eyeball. I plan to have my fiftieth birthday lunch there.

The Flavorwire.com lists missed some terrific independent bookstores with which I’m personally familiar. I list 9 additional stores below.

The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN (formerly known as Davis-Kidd Books)
This huge store in Memphis was a centerpiece of my 2004 tour for Bride of the Fat White Vampire. They treated me with exquisite courtesy and are just as welcoming to their customers.

University Books, Seattle, WA
Another of Seattle’s tremendous independent bookstores, this one is close to the University of Washington and features a huge, and very well-curated, science fiction and fantasy section. A highlight of Dara’s and my honeymoon in Seattle, along with the Elliott Bay Book Company.

Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Seattle, WA
For mystery lovers who are visiting Seattle or who live there, this gem of a store, hidden on a side street in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, nestled between several cafés, is not to be missed. A huge selection of new and close-out mysteries from all the major (and minor) names in the field.

Left Bank Books, Seattle, WA
You revolutionaries and anarchists out there will not want to miss this tiny store nestled within the Pike Place Market, not far from the fresh fish vendors.

Arundel Bookstore, Seattle, WA
A very well-stocked store located just blocks from both the historic Pike Place Market and the Pioneer Square neighborhood; very close to the bay and all its attractions.

Borderlands Books, San Francisco, CA
I am very fortunate that I can call the owner of this wonderful science fiction, fantasy, and horror bookstore, Alan Beatts, my friend. He invited me to do a signing of The Good Humor Man and the Fat White Vampire books at Borderlands on my one and only trip to San Francisco (also home of one of my publishers, Tachyon Publications). I could’ve spent three times the couple of hours I’d allotted for browsing. Borderlands also features a terrific coffeehouse and bakery on the premises.

Mysterious Galaxy Books, San Diego, CA
This carefully curated science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror bookstore is a San Diego mainstay. They’ve always been big supporters of my Fat White Vampire books. The staff there are extraordinarily knowledgeable about their stock; it’s worth your time to just go spend an hour chatting with them.

Garden District Book Shop, New Orleans, LA
Owner Britton Trice knows his books. He located his store in the historic Rink property in the Garden District of New Orleans, along fabled Magazine Street, upstairs of a popular coffeehouse. Garden District Books specializes in signed books by local authors, so if you want your signed Anne Rice tome, this is the place to get it!

Finally, here’s a story from the 9/23/13 issue of New Orleans Gambit on the state of New Orleans’ indie bookstores, which, considering the small size of the New Orleans market and the large number of independent booksellers, is far more positive than the doomsayers would have you believe. The Uptown Borders Books died a year after it opened (in the shell of the old Bultman Funeral Home, ironically enough), but this cluster of Uptown independent bookstores has been going strong for years.

Hail the independent bookstore! Long may you survive and thrive!

Update on 4/24/2014: Jay Ouzts at the Passive Voice blog reminds me that I missed Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. How could I possibly forget them???? I actually did a signing there on a couple of occassions for the Fat White Vampire books. One of the nicest independent bookstores in the South, in an absolutely beautifully designed location. Plus, downtown Jackson sports some classic diner-style restaurants, which are a short drive away from Lemuria.

Precursor to the USS James B. Eads of Fire on Iron: USS Cairo

Famous photo of the USS Cairo, taken before her sinking by submerged "torpedo"

Famous photo of the USS Cairo, taken before her sinking by submerged “torpedo”

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Readers of my steampunk supernatural suspense novel Fire on Iron know that most of the novel is set aboard a fictional City-class ironclad river gunboat, the USS James B. Eads. What some readers may not be aware of is that one of the James B. Eads‘ “sister ships,” the USS Cairo, is on display at the Vicksburg National Historical Park, located in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Cairo was sunk on December 12, 1862 by a submerged Confederate “torpedo,” or what we would call today a mine. Almost a hundred years later, in 1956, historian Edwin C. Bearss, employed by the Vicksburg National Historical Park, located the wreck, buried in the mud of the Mississippi River.

In 1960, Bearss succeeded in raising various pieces of the wreck, including the Cairo’s armor-plated pilothouse. Four years later, he had succeeded in securing additional funding from the State of Mississippi, and an attempt was made to raise the entire wreck in one piece. However, the three-inch thick cables which were being used to raise the wreck sliced through the ironclad’s wooden hull (Cairo was built of wood and partially plated with 2.5″ thick railroad iron and sections of boiler plate). So the decision was made to allow the cables to slice the gunboat into three sections, each of which was raised separately.

In 1965, the various sections and chunks of the wreck were placed on barges and first towed to Vicksburg, then towed again to a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where the engines were disassembled, cleaned of rust and mud, and reassembled, and the various other parts of the ironclad were put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The wooden parts were continuously sprayed with water to keep them from cracking. It took many years for Congress to raise the necessary funds, but in 1977 the wreck, now partially restored, was towed back to the Vicksburg National Historical Park and put on display on a concrete base, next to a small museum, which displayed small artifacts recovered from the wreck (personal belongings of the ironclad’s sailors), and a gift ship which sold Cairo-related books and models. Since then, the old ironclad has been more fully restored and now rests under a protective awning.

I first visited the Cairo back in 1994, when I was writing my first draft of Fire on Iron. While I still lived in New Orleans, I made several pilgrimages to the Vicksburg National Historical Park to visit the only surviving US Navy river gunboat of the Civil War period.

I hope you enjoy the slideshow below of the Cairo in her original glory, being salvaged from the bottom of the Yazoo River, and how she looks today on display.

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New MonstraCity Press Website Debuts!

Monstracity Press Logo

I’m very proud to announce the debut of the new MonstraCity Press website! The website includes all of MonstraCity Press’ publishing plans through August of 2016, including the continuations of the Fat White Vampire series and the August Micholson Chronicles (the series that begins with Fire on Iron).

Here are the upcoming Fat White Vampire titles:
Fat White Vampire Otaku, (Jules Duchon #3), May, 2014
Hunt the Fat White Vampire, (Jules Duchon #4), February, 2015
Ghost of the Fat White Vampire, (Jules Duchon #5), November, 2015
Fat White Vampire Rehab, (Jules Duchon #6), May, 2016

Here’s a tie-in book that takes place in Jules Duchon’s New Orleans contemporaneously with the catastrophic events of Fat White Vampire Otaku and which explains the origin of Hurricane Antonia (the fictional counterpart of Hurricane Katrina):
The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club, November, 2014

Here are the upcoming August Micholson Chronicles titles:
Hellfire and Damnation, (August Micholson #2), August, 2014
Fire on the Waters, (August Micholson #3), May, 2015
Home Fires, (August Micholson #4), February, 2016

Here are a pair of stand-alone novels:
No Direction Home, (near-future science fiction), August, 2015
The End of Daze, (satirical eschatological fantasy), August, 2016

Dara Fox, my lovely wife, is serving as Managing Editor and Co-Publisher, and I have granted myself the title of Co-Publisher, too.

Please visit the website of MonstraCity Press often!

Japanese Fan Site for Fat White Vampire Blues

Fat White Vampire Blues, Japanese cover

Way, waaaaaaaaaay back in those olden days of 2003, Fat White Vampire Blues was published in a very smart-looking edition (trade paperback with slip cover and built-in bookmark) in Japan, in Japanese. I exchanged several emails with my Japanese translator, who was incredibly sweet and polite and wanted me to explain some New Orleans local lingo so he could properly translate it. I received in the mail a small advance payment (which I greatly appreciated) and a copy of the incredibly neat-o edition of my book (which I think I appreciated even more). Then I never heard another word from that Japanese publisher. They opted not to translate and print Bride of the Fat White Vampire, so I assumed the first Jules Duchon/Fat White Vampire book had dropped like a stone into the pond of the Japanese market and hardly created so much as a ripple.

Well, it must’ve created at least something of a ripple, because I just stumbled across a Japanese fan site dedicated to Fat White Vampire Blues. If you are a fan of Jules Duchon and the series, you should go to this link, even if you don’t read Japanese, because the accompanying photos are so perfectly selected. This Japanese fan has assembled a small portfolio of fat New Orleans culture. Below is a sample: an obese cab driver waiting for his next fare.

Fat cab driver from Japanese FWVB website

Now, if I could just get that Japanese publisher interested in the next Jules Duchon book, which features a trio of Japanese super-heroes (Fat White Vampire Otaku, due out next month, May, 2014), maybe I could be big in Japan!

Update to Upcoming Projects Page

My update to my Upcoming Projects page can be found here. You may be surprised to see how many books I have in the pipeline, including several that will be published later this year by MonstraCity Press. See my Upcoming Projects page for brief descriptions of books 4-6 of the Fat White Vampire series and books 2-4 of the August Micholson Chronicles series, along with descriptions of several stand-alone science fiction novels which I have written and the first three books of the Mount MonstraCity series for middle grade readers (each of which has been written). I hope you’re as excited as I am!

Fat White Vampire Otaku Next Up

Fat White - High Resolution - 100 Percent JPEG

Coming next from MonstraCity Press is the third in the Fat White Vampire/Jules Duchon series, Fat White Vampire Otaku. Just what is an otaku, you might ask? Otaku is Japanese for “fan boy” or “fan girl.” Jules and his vampire friends get to sample the blood of a trio of Japanese superheroes after the devastating Hurricane Antonia rolls through New Orleans. The effects of that blood (at least some of it) on Jules and his friends cause them to become big-time otaku of their visiting pals, the Japanese superheroes… before chaos erupts! And you know chaos HAS to erupt, because this is a Fat White Vampire book!

My wife Dara, my partner in MonstraCity Press, has been working hard on proofing and formatting this third book in the Fat White Vampire series. We are aiming for a late April to mid-May roll out of the book. The ebook versions will arrive first, to be followed by a trade paperback version. Watch this space, as I’ll keep you all informed as of our progress!

(Reality check: Dara and I have had our hands full with Levi’s health problems recently, so it is possible that the publication date of Fat White Vampire Otaku may be pushed back a month or two. I’ll continue to keep you all updated.)

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