Tag Archive for the kids

Nebula Awards Weekend

An unfortunately dim photo (L to R) of Judi Castro, Levi, Judah, Adam-Troy Castro, Scott Edelman, and Asher

What I Saw at the Nebula Awards Weekend; or, the Semi-Bummed Out Observations and Kvetchings of an Underpublished Writer, Who is Ultimately Rescued From Melancholia by the Fruits of His Loins (part XXVIII or thereabouts in an occasional series)

What a difference a year makes… or not. SFWA’s Nebula Awards Weekend was held in the Washington, DC area two years in a row, not far from where I live. Last year my attendance got me all pumped up with enthusiasm and fresh ambition; I kicked off what I thought would be a promising collaboration with Ridan Publications and vowed to restart my website. This year? Not so productive; a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me, with my emoticons shifting from pleasant anticipation to pervasive melancholia to a warm, nourishing appreciation of my kids (and later, as per usual, getting fed up with them and wanting them out of my hair for an hour or two).

Oh, I wasn’t on the same emotional roller coaster, certainly, that I’m sure many of the award nominees were (my friend Adam-Troy Castro was nominated in two categories this year, I believe his sixth and seventh nominations, but, once again, did not walk away with one of the coveted Lucite blocks). I was on the periphery, only putting in my appearances because the awards weekend was being held virtually in my backyard and friends were attending who I wanted to see. My roller coaster was more like one of those miniaturized coasters that occupies the kiddy corner of most carnival midways, the one that you need to be taller than Popeye to ride. It doesn’t go very fast, doesn’t rise very high, and it always brings you back around to wherever you started from, then grinds to a noisy halt.

I’d originally only planned to attend the mass book signing on Friday night, since my father was supposed to be flying in from San Diego Thursday night to spend a long weekend with us. Part of the reason for his visit was so that he could celebrate his 80th birthday with me, Dara, and his three grandsons. Getting my father on an airplane is a tricky business; he doesn’t like to fly, and all of the headaches of flying that have accumulated since September 11, 2001 have only made matters worse. Thursday afternoon, his flight was canceled by mechanical problems, after he’d been waiting in the airport for over three hours. He caught me on my cell phone before I headed to Dulles International Airport, and he said he’d try to reschedule to come in the following night on the same flight. That would still allow me to attend the shared book signing at the Nebs in Crystal City, Virginia, so long as I headed straight for Dulles right after the signing. He called me back to let me know he’d been able to get a seat on the Friday afternoon flight. Since I’d already secured Friday off from work, I made plans to attend a full day of Nebula Awards Weekend events before picking him up.

My Friday got off to a rocky start. Trying to make a 10 AM panel discussion, I battled traffic on I-95 heading towards Washington, DC, got befuddled by my Google Maps directions to the hotel, skipped one parking garage that I considered horrendously overpriced, parked (because I was now running late) at another garage that was even more expensive, and then got completely turned around and walked a mile out of my way toward the wrong hotel before being redirected by a bellhop toward the Hyatt Regency. I arrived at my meeting a bit of a sweaty mess, but Dr. Alice Armstrong’s presentation on artificial intelligence was enlightening and interesting. Then I walked over to the SFWA book vendor, both to browse and to make sure some of my books were sitting on the tables. Big negative on that. The manager very kindly apologized and said that the box from IPG (Independent Publishers Group) had never arrived, so he had no books from either Tachyon Publications or Golden Gryphon Press to offer. Kathy Morrow, who was volunteering at the register, offered to take any books I had with me on consignment. I’d brought along a sample/display copy of each of my books, so I took her up on her considerate gesture.

Lunch at a local deli ended up being one of those happily serendipitous affairs wherein one’s friends and acquaintances pop up every time one turns around. I ended up lunching with Jamie Todd Rubin (frequent contributor to Analog and blogger on Golden Age science fiction), Alethia Kontis (author of AlphaOops! The Day Z Went First, AlphaOops! H is for Halloween, and the recently published YA fantasy Enchanted), and two members of the James River Writers Group. After lunch, Alethia and I hurried back to the “Improving Your Website” workshop, which I’d attended last year (when my old website was long defunct and had been colonized by a porn store, and I hadn’t yet started my new WordPress site). Utilizing me (as they did last year) as a humorous object lesson, the facilitators emphasized the importance of continuing to pay annual fees to domain registry services by demonstrating how allowing one’s domain name registry to lapse allows all sorts of opportunistic businesses to claim jump one’s old web address. Last year, www.andrewfoxbooks.com had been a porn site; this year, we discovered that the site’s registry had lapsed yet again, and the new owners were using the my former web address to sell condominiums in Japan. This represented a social promotion for me, it seemed; maybe come next year, my name will be selling commemorative dinner plates featuring the authorized likenesses of the stars of James Cameron’s Titanic. My new website, by the way, got a clean bill of health from the workshop’s facilitators, whom I thanked for having lit a fire under my tuchis last year.

Judah, Levi, and Asher with the NASA display

My wife left me a message while I was in the workshop. My father wouldn’t be coming, after all; his afternoon of waiting in the airport had drained him, and he’d decided he just wasn’t up for a repeat and for then sitting on an aircraft for five hours. I couldn’t blame him, certainly not at his age, but I was very disappointed. I hadn’t fully realized how much I’d been looking forward to his visit and celebrating his birthday until I learned he wouldn’t be coming. He has been one of the few relatives who has regularly come to visit my kids, and I’ve been anxious to see their ties grow stronger. I’d planned a very full weekend for us and gotten my boys all revved up. I think I ended up at least as disappointed as any of them.

Hoping to cheer myself up, I decided to catch one more panel discussion before the mass signing, the one called “Tragedy is Easy,” discussing the use of humor in science fiction. The panel was loaded with heavy hitters — Connie Willis, James Morrow, James Patrick Kelly, and SFWA President John Scalzi. Illustrating, perhaps, that the mechanics of comedy can be difficult to analyze, even for such a distinguished collection of practitioners, much of the panel consisted of exchanges of bon mots, rather than the program teaching “Comedy Writing for Advanced Writers” that had been advertised. The best exchange of the panel came when the subject of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy arose. James Patrick Kelly compared the impact of that book to the impact of Star Wars. Just as Star Wars in 1977 had precipitated an “extinction event” for the run of post-apocalyptic science fiction films which had preceded it (films like Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, and Zardoz), so did the overwhelming success of Hitchhiker’s Guide wipe out virtually all subsequent editorial interest in any form of humor in science fiction not written in the British music hall tradition. (And perhaps that helps to explain the trajectory of my career in the field.)

Then came the signing. Ask most writers: group signings of almost any size or venue are slightly humiliating at best, mortifying at worst. The first mass signing I participated in was at Comic Con International in 2004, just after Bride of the Fat White Vampire came out. Del Rey had invited me. They had also invited China Mieville, whose The Iron Council came out at the same time. I sat next to China, who could not have been nicer. His line remained two dozen deep throughout the signing. I had no line at all. I think one person wandered over to talk with me. If we had been movies at a multiplex, China would have been Avatar and I would have been Jerry Lewis’ magnum opus The Day the Clown Cried. The best one can do when participating in an event of this sort is to consider it a social venue and squeeze in as much fun conversation with your fellow sufferers as possible.

Friday night, I at least had the good fortune to be sitting with Adam-Troy and Judi Castro. Adam, as I mentioned above, had been nominated for two Nebula Awards and had also just embarked on what promises (we all hope) to be a super-duper successful middle grade horror-fantasy series that is slated to receive big-time support from its publisher. Adam and Judi are dear friends; when Dara, Levi, Asher, and I were stuck down in South Florida after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Adam and Judi collected clothes and books and toys for my two baby sons (Levi was 21 months and Asher was 6 months old), and they even found us a Cozy Coupe play car that the boys adored. I hadn’t seen the Castros in a number of years, so we had lots of catching up to do. Their presence saved me from being a complete grump, between my father’s canceling his visit and my vague sense of being a beggar at a banquet. (One’s sense of being Charlie Brown at Halloween time — “I got a Hershey’s bar!” “I got a bag of candy corn!” “I got a rock…” — is all relative, it turns out; during the signing, a couple of my pals with recent book publications under their belts and better deals on deck, who’d been merrily signing away throughout the evening, conferred with each other regarding who among the assembled writers had attracted the longest autograph lines. Another friend in the biz once told me that he’d heard that Ursula K. Le Guin would never read the People and Publishing column in Locus because she found it too painful to learn about the advances and deals other writers were receiving.) Anyway, after the signing was through, I wandered back out to the book selling area to see whether any of my sample copies had sold. I gathered all three and trudged home with them. And here I’d had the audacity to worry about IPG’s failure to deliver a carton of my books. That’ll learn ya…

The next day I decided to take Levi, Asher, and Judah back to Crystal City with me. The Castros had hoped to see the boys the previous night (I’d been planning to have the whole gang with me prior to my father’s travel plans changing). Also, Gordon Van Gelder and I had been trading fatherly gibes on FaceBook about fixing up his beautiful six-year-old daughter Zoe with one of my boys (who range in age from five to eight), and Zoe had seen our exchange and had been looking forward to meeting my crew. Gordon and Zoe had showed up at my table at the signing, expecting to see Levi, Asher, and Judah, and I’d had no boys to share and had felt like a heel for disappointing such a vivacious young lady. So I shlepped the boys out of the house, tried (unsuccessfully) to burn off some of their excess energy by letting them jump in bounce houses for an hour at the Prince William County Healthy Families Expo, drove them up I-95 to Crystal City, and fed them lunch at Subway before taking them into the Hyatt Regency. We ran into my good friend Mark Sarney, SFWA’s newest member (he’d joined two days earlier), then wandered over to the NASA table where a presenter (who was actually Colonel E. Michael Fincke, a retired astronaut, but I didn’t learn that until after the boys had talked with him, darn it) was handing out fistfuls of cool free stuff, photos of nebulae and galaxies and holographic postcards of parts of the International Space Station. Adam and Judi Castro came down from their room and met the kids, whom they hadn’t seen since 2005 (and they’d never met Judah before). When the boys became restless (as boys will tend to do), Judi suggested that we ride the hotel’s glass elevator, which provided panoramic vistas of Crystal City and parts of Washington, DC. That amused the boys and stanched the complaints of, “I’m bored!

Then Adam mentioned that there was a SFWA hospitality suite up on the 18th floor, and my boys have been to enough science fiction conventions that their eyes instantly light up when they hear the words, “hospitality suite.” So back up we rode. Jackpot! The H.S. had cheese, crackers, grapes, Diet Coke, juice boxes, mini chocolate bars, and a bowl filled with malted milk balls — all the basic food groups necessary to bridge the insufferable stretch between my boys’ lunch and dinner times. Plus, the view out the suite’s windows was even better than the view from the glass elevator.

Judah, Zoe Van Gelder, Asher, and Levi in the SFWA hospitality suite

Gordon Van Gelder gave me a call to let me know that his wife Barbara and daughter Zoe had gotten back from their sightseeing in Washington. They joined us in the hospitality suite. Even though I was supposed to get Levi to a birthday party back in Woodbridge for 5 PM, I decided to stick around for a while and let the kids get to know each other. Zoe was a little shy at first, but after ten minutes or so the four kids formed themselves into a little gang and took over the suite, commandeering the couches closest to the windows so they could lean over the window sills and stare at the big world outside the windows. Judah entertained (at least some of) the adults with his renditions of Japanese kaiju monster roars. Levi worked on one of his street map pictures and asked the Castros if he could consider them his “fake grandparents” (they graciously said yes). Asher, my social butterfly, talked with Zoe and pointed out interesting landmarks eighteen stories below (“Look! There’s the swimming pool, see?”). I talked shop with Gordon, which I enjoyed greatly (Gordon, apart from being one of SF’s most distinguished editors, is very charming), although I gradually grew more and more guilty about making Levi late for his birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Finally, it was time to go. The kids had gotten along so well that I felt my typical pangs of “Darn! I wish they lived closer!” As soon as we got back down to the lobby, Judah, my five-year-old, announced, “I have a girlfriend now!” He repeated this assertion all the way back to the car and until we got back onto I-95 and headed south, at which point his brothers managed to hush him by insisting that if he said it one more time, they would both vomit. I told them this wasn’t a nice thing to say to their younger brother, who was only expressing honest affection (if in an irritatingly repetitive way). Judah decided to get the last word in by insisting that Zoe was HIS girlfriend, not Asher’s. Asher said disdainfully that Zoe was his friend, not his girlfriend. Which seemed to satisfy Judah. Who later reported to his mother, “I am in love now!”

One thing about having three young boys… I find it impossible to stay bummed out for very long. They simply won’t allow it. Exhausted from them? Yes. Pushed to wit’s end with them? Sometimes. But blue and melancholy? My boys, God bless them, are kryptonite to the blues.

Worst Giant Ape Film of All Time? Konga vs. The Mighty Peking Man

Since I started writing this blog back in July, 2011, my youngest son, Judah, has become a giant monster fanatic (a chip off the old block; I adored all the same stuff at his age). My first “favorite movie” was King Kong Vs. Godzilla, which even at the age of six was a guilty pleasure for me, because I had seen the original King Kong and knew in my heart-of-hearts that Toho’s man in a gorilla suit could not compare to Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animated Kong. Still, hokey as that guy in a gorilla suit seemed, I couldn’t resist the sheer fun of seeing Japan’s biggest, baddest radioactive dinosaur rumble with King Kong (who gained kind-of-cool electrical powers in the film, a bit of an equalizer to Godzilla’s radioactive breath).

Judah loves all the Godzilla films, from the classics and near-classics (Godzilla, King of the Monsters and Godzilla Vs. the Thing, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mothra) to the really “awful” ones (Godzilla’s Revenge, thought by many to be the worst Godzilla film of all, but one which Judah and I both appreciate). He also really digs other giant monster films, favorites including The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula, the Gamera movies of the 1960s and 1970s, and South Korea’s only foray into the genre, Yongary, Monster From the Deep. He has even sat through the Mystery Theater 3000 version of The Giant Gila Monster, although the point of the snarking robots at the bottom of the screen escaped him.

Being five, he will happily watch his favorites over and over again (and I’ll generally comply with his pleas to watch with him, since many of those films never get old for me), but I do my best to “broaden his horizons” and introduce him to films he hasn’t seen before. Netflix is a great help with this parental mission. I saw that Konga, a 1961 collaboration between a British studio, Anglo Amalgamated, and an American studio, American International Pictures, was available for instant streaming. I hadn’t seen Konga since I was a kid, and my memories of the film were somewhat hazy. Still, it had a giant ape in it, rampaging through London, so I figured, what’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turned out. Interestingly, the big ape, Konga, was by far the worst thing about the film. The rest of the movie deserved a better monster. Somewhat unusually for a 1960s giant monster flick, the human performances are quite good, making the very lame FX and ape acting seem all the more limp by comparison. Michael Gough is very memorable as the increasingly deranged Professor Charles Decker, the scientist who mutates a friendly little chimpanzee, Konga, into a massive brute by injecting him with several doses of growth serum. Margo Johns is equally as good as Margaret, Decker’s lab assistant, who, in love with her boss, blackmails him into marrying her by agreeing to go along with his dangerous experiments and utilization of Konga to murder his academic and scientific rivals. The scenes between them crackle with dramatic tension, especially after Barbara learns of Decker’s horndog yearnings for Sandra (Claire Gordon), his young, pretty student.

"If you hadn't injected me with this damn growth formula, I could have stayed a lively little chimp, instead of a comatose giant gorilla!"

Where the film completely falls flat on its face is whenever the ape shows up. Oh, Konga is perfectly acceptable so long as he remains a chimp, portrayed by an actual chimpanzee. But once he is mutated into a full-grown gorilla, he is a black hole on the screen, sucking all of the film’s verisimilitude and audience involvement out and depositing them in some nether region on the far side of the galaxy. Simply put, aside (maybe) from some gorilla portrayals in Republic Pictures or Monogram Studios serials of the 1930s and 1940s, uncredited actor Paul Stockman delivers the most lackadaisical, unconvincing portrayal of a gorilla by a man in a gorilla suit on film. (Stockman has thirteen film and TV credits, none of the others being apes; his only named characters are Inspector Dales in two 1967 episodes of the TV series Adventures of the Seaspray and Steve Parker in Dr. Blood’s Coffin, made the same year as Konga, 1961.) George Barrows rented his gorilla suit to the makers of Konga; the suit had previously appeared in such cinema “classics” as Gorilla at Large and Robot Monster. They would have done as well to stuff a mannequin inside the gorilla suit as put Paul Stockman in there. Stockman makes no effort whatsoever to portray a gorilla. He simply walks around inside the suit, with all the verve and dynamism of a man trying to wipe a wad of chewing gum off the bottom of his shoe onto a patch of grass. Before being turned gigantic by Barbara’s final injection of the growth serum, Konga is directed by Decker to murder three of his rivals. None of the strangulation murders are filmed with any suspense, interesting camera angles, or cinematic energy at all. Stockman as Konga goes through the motions, as though Decker had sent him out to the local pharmacy for some antacid tablets.

Perhaps the film’s biggest surprise is that Konga, who grows to more than a hundred feet tall, doesn’t destroy anything, beyond his initial big growth spurt wherein he shoots through the roof of Decker’s house and stumbles through his greenhouse filled with carnivorous plants. He shambles through the outskirts and then the heart of London and somehow manages to avoid wrecking so much as a single building, smooshing a single civilian (apart from Barbara, whom he tosses to the carnivorous plants, and Decker, whom he flings to the soldiers as though he were discarding a candy wrapper), or trampling a single infantryman. I picture a little two-way radio inside the mask of Stockman’s gorilla suit, with the director constantly warning him, “Mind the budget, you! We can’t afford even a single mangled model car!”

The British Army's marksmanship has sadly declined since the glory days of El Alamein

Accordingly, none of the several dozen extras hired to run away from the giant ape appear to be in much of a hurry or evince much in the way of terror. “Big ponce won’t spend the effort to step on me,” seems to be the general attitude. When the British Army arrives on the scene, they don’t bother moving the crowds back, as though they are unconcerned by the possibility that a few dozen folks might get trampled or have their heads removed by a stray bullet. Speaking of stray bullets, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry of WWII couldn’t have done a more effective job of denigrating the deadliness of Britain’s armed forces than the makers of Konga. As Konga – over a hundred feet tall, mind you, not a small target – poses immobile next to London’s Big Ben, the assembled infantrymen fire several hundred rounds of tracer bullets and rockets at the giant gorilla, from a range of perhaps fifty yards. Every single tracer shell sails harmlessly over the ape’s head or shoulders. Finally, once the filmmakers have apparently grown tired of this incredible display of ineffectuality, and with Stockman in the gorilla suit just standing there and waving an improperly scaled doll of Professor Decker limply through the air, the Army men correct their aim and bring the big gorilla down. The closing shot, the big climax? Through the magic of a blur filter being placed in front of the camera lens, the giant gorilla shrinks back to his original form – which turns out to be a stuffed toy chimp bought from the local toy store. They couldn’t have sedated an actual live monkey for the shot, or at least used a miniature that doesn’t look like it belongs in an infant’s nursery? Supposedly the special effects, among the first giant monster effects to be filmed in color (although Ray Harryhausen had done it to immeasurably greater effect three years earlier with his The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), took eighteen months to complete. What did they do in all that time? Obviously not build miniatures capable of fooling even a three-year-old.

FX horror or horrible FX? Willis O'Brien rolls over in his grave

The most cringe-inducing FX shot comes right after Barbara gives Konga his super-sized injection of growth serum. We get that blur filter again, and Konga shoots up to about twelve feet tall, tall enough to fill much of Decker’s laboratory. He picks up Barbara in his expanded paw – and she is obviously a two-foot-tall doll, of the kind little girls get for Christmas so they can practice styling its hair with miniature plastic brushes. This shot doesn’t last a half-second, which might have ameliorated its awfulness, but a full four or five seconds, which can’t help but make the most casual viewer wonder if the filmmakers were even trying. The worst traveling matte effect would have been an improvement over this travesty – Ed Wood-level filmmaking, but without Ed Wood’s unintentional humor.

Beauty and the beast, Hong Kong-style

After Konga (thankfully) came to an inglorious end, Netflix, as it is wont to do, suggested a handful of similar films I might enjoy. One of them was a giant ape-man movie I had never heard of, a 1977 Hong Kong production called The Mighty Peking Man. Oh, what fun! I told my son and my wife. This sounds even worse than Konga! We can have a competition to decide the worst giant ape movie of all time! And so we settled in for the second entry in our inadvertent double feature.

I went into The Mighty Peking Man with no preconceptions whatsoever – aside from an expectation that it would be cheesy and generally awful, judging solely from its awkward title and the year of its filming (1977 was simply not a golden year for pop culture). This turned out to be a delightful way to watch this movie, as virtually every five minutes brought a fresh surprise and gasp of appreciation for the momentous heights of fantabulous cheesiness scaled by this film. A little history is in order. The Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong rushed The Mighty Peking Man into production to capitalize on the worldwide giant gorilla craze sparked by Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of King Kong, which introduced moviegoers to Jessica Lange. The picture, starring Danny Lee as an archeologist/adventurer and blonde bombshell Evelyn Kraft as a female Tarzan named Samantha, wasn’t released in the U.S. market until 1980, under the title Goliathon. However, nineteen years later, in 1999, this obscure film got a second release in the U.S. market, this time under its original name, thanks to the efforts of Quentin Tarantino, who worked with Miramax to rerelease it through his Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution company. At which point it earned a grand total of $17,368.00 in the theaters before being swept away into the Blockbuster bins. I can only assume it has performed somewhat better on home video and cable TV. It certainly deserves to be seen.

Mighty Peking Man, unlike Konga, delivers the goods

From beginning to end, this movie is a hoot to watch, without a dull moment. It displays, in spades, all the cinematic energy which the “horror” scenes of Konga so miserably lack. All the atmospherics work in its favor – its disco-era costuming and soundtrack, as well as its performers’ extroverted acting styles, give it the feel of a Blaxploitation film without Black people (which I’m sure helped to endear it to Quentin Tarantino, that famed fanboy of Blaxploitation). Plus, the filmmakers take the hint of flirtatiousness between Jessica Lange’s Dwan and Rick Baker’s Kong from the hit movie of the prior year and dial it up to eleven, going where no giant ape movie had gone before. Kuang Ni, the scriptwriter, combines the stories of King Kong and Tarzan. Rather than the Great White Hunter/Filmmaker bringing his Blonde Goddess to the Giant Gorilla’s lair, in this instance, a Great Asian Archeologist discovers a Blonde Tarzanna already comfortably ensconced with the giant ape-man in the Himalayan wilderness. Samantha’s parents had perished in a small plane crash near the home of the Mighty Peking Man, and the giant ape-man rescued the tiny child from the wreck and raised her, somehow providing her with a skin-tight animal-skin bikini to wear. Samantha has the ability to communicate with all the large animals in her domain, including leopards and tigers, and she is quite… uh, familiar with the Mighty Peking Man, who she calls Utam. There are a couple of scenes wherein she climbs into Utam’s giant paw and sinuously rubs her pneumatic body up and down his big index finger, as tall as she is, up and down, up and down, those big breasts, barely contained by that animal-skin bikini top, giving Utam a voluptuous manicure… well, I’m sure you get the idea. Sailed right over Judah’s little head, but not my wife’s head. Or my head. Jesus, I need a cold shower after typing that…

Mighty Peking Man's miniatures put those of Konga to shame

Alas, things do not end well for Samantha and her Utam. Archeologist Johnny, doing his best Carl Denham imitation, drags them away from their jungle paradise across the South China Sea so that Utam can be put on public display in Hong Kong. Utam puts up with this in amiable fashion until one of the film’s heavies takes a rude interest in comely Samantha and attempts to rape her – in a hotel room with an open window that just happens to be overlooking the stadium where Utam, in chains, is watching. Utam, to put it mildly, does not take this lying down. Sadamasa Arikawa and Koichi Kawakita, the special effects directors, then put on a hell of a good show. Their miniatures of downtown Hong Kong rival the best 1950s and 1960s work of Toho Studios and are superior to the model work deployed by Daiei Motion Picture Company in their 1960s Gamera movies. The Mighty Peking Man costume is very ugly, reminiscent of the green gargantua costume used in Toho’s 1966 War of the Gargantuas, but the effects men manage to make the mask express a wide range of emotions, and the actor in the suit uses his body language about as effectively and expressively as Haruo Nakajima does as Kong in King Kong Escapes or as Shoichi Hirose does as Kong in King Kong vs. Godzilla — all three giant ape performances being head and shoulders above Paul Stockman’s shameless sleepwalking through Konga. In a revealing parallel with the English-American coproduction, Utam throws his tormentor, Samantha’s would-be rapist, to the ground, just as Konga tosses Decker to the street – only the vastly more energetic Mighty Peking Man then crushes his victim with his giant foot.

Once the closing credits rolled, my supposed contest for the worst giant ape movie of all time ended up as no contest at all. The Hong Kong production is far and away the better movie (Judah and Asher both agreed). Are there any other giant ape movies out there that can rival Konga for wretchedness? I’ve already mentioned the Toho trio of giant ape movies, War of the Gargantuas and the two Kong flicks. I would place them all above Konga due to the quality of their miniature work, the expressive suit performances delivered by their gorilla actors, and their never-boring, endearingly goofy antics and plot turns. I would be tempted to pit Dino De Laurentiss’ King Kong against Konga for the title, since I truly disliked that film, even as a kid, but the high quality of Rick Baker’s performance as Kong uplifts his film and gives it the edge (had De Laurentiss been able to stick with his original plan to solely utilize his life-size King Kong robot for the Kong performance, then we would have a real contest on our hands).

QUEEN KONG, which is also in the running for Least Convincing Portrayal of a Dinosaur on Film

I’ve never seen Queen Kong, a 1976 British comedy which got embroiled in a lawsuit with Dino De Laurentiss and never received a general theatrical release, appearing only in limited release in Germany and Italy. Apparently the film has a cult following in Japan, where it has received entirely new Japanese dialogue, done in the spirit of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?. Sadly, neither version of Queen Kong is available on Netflix. The photos and screen grabs I’ve been able to view online look truly dreadful, so this one might be credible competition for Konga.

A*P*E, South Korea's entry in the Worst Giant Ape Movie of All Time competition

I also hear that a South Korean production, A*P*E (1976), made, like The Mighty Peking Man, to gobble up some of the box office crumbs left over from the De Laurentiss King Kong, is epically bad. Judge for yourself from the pair of “special” FX photos I’ve so kindly provided.

An adaptation much superior to the original

Konga did not sleepwalk in vain, however. This wretched film spawned a far superior offspring in a different medium – Charlton Comics’ 1960-66 comic book series Konga, illustrated by Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man. In Konga, Ditko found a character perfectly suited to his unique style of illustration (I would argue that Konga is a better fit for Ditko’s style than even Spider-Man). He took a character virtually devoid of expressive qualities (see my comments above concerning Paul Stockman’s “performance” as Konga) and made him, by turns, whimsical, affectionate, lovelorn, lonely, playful, affronted, and vengeful.

Yes, the comics version had 500% more personality than the movie original

The series was popular enough to last twenty-four issues (the final issue was retitled Fantastic Giants), and it spawned a spinoff miniseries and two companion monster series at Charlton, Gorgo and Reptilicus, both also illustrated by Steve Ditko. Highlights of the series have recently been reprinted in the black and white collection, The Lonely One, which offers terrific reproductions of Ditko’s line art without the distraction of the inferior, crude coloring common to comic books of the 1960s. The stories are absolutely charming and are gorgeous to look at. I highly recommend hunting down either the original comics or the reprint collection.

Even though the final issue of Konga (actually Fantastic Giants) came out when I was a year old, I ended up with a copy as a young boy. My dad worked in a cardboard box factory, and the boxes were made from recycled paper. Knowing how much I loved comic books, he gave instructions to the workers on the factory floor that if they ever saw a comic heading for the shredding machine, they should pull it out and bring it to him. That’s how I ended up with a coverless copy of Fantastic Giants #24, which reprinted the origin stories of Konga and Gorgo, plus two new giant monster stories by Steve Ditko. How I loved that big, fat, 64-page comic! I virtually read it to pieces. I loved it so much that I drew my own cover for it to replace the cover it had lost. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, the real cover of Fantastic Giants #24 is reproduced below:

Oodles of fantastic Steve Ditko art for only a quarter!

For those of you who are big fans of Charlton’s monster movie comics of the 1960s, here’s a link to the mother of all reference articles on the subject, a treasure trove of arcane trivia. Enjoy!

The Passover-Easter Discussion in a Jewish Geek Household

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One thing you can pretty much count on as a Jewish parent of young children in America is questions before Christmas along the lines of, “Can we put up lights for Christmas?” Similarly, before Easter you can expect to hear, “Can we decorate eggs for Easter?” Here’s how the discussion went this year.

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Asher (7 years old): Daddy, I want to decorate eggs for Easter. Can I?

Andy (47 years old): Uh, Asher, you know our holiday is Passover, right?

Asher: Sure, I know that! But can I decorate some eggs for Easter?

Andy: Actually, Easter isn’t about the Easter Bunny and decorating eggs. I mean, it is, a little, but it’s mainly a very important religious holiday for Christians.

Asher: Okay. But can I decorate some eggs for Easter?

Andy: I’ll think about it. Maybe one.

Levi (8 years old, interested in religion): Dad, what’s Easter all about?

Andy: Do you know who Jesus was? Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’s birthday. Easter is a celebration of, uh, his death and resurrection.

Levi: Resurrection? What’s that?

Andy: Umm, let’s step back just a little. Jesus was a Jewish man who lived about two thousand years ago in what is now Israel. He was a teacher, a kind of rabbi, and he was very gifted at it and become very popular. In fact, he became so popular that some of his followers thought he was the Messiah.

Levi: What’s a “messiah?”

Andy: In Jewish thinking, the Messiah is a descendant of King David who will bring all the Jews back to the Holy Land, reestablish the State of Israel, and usher in a time when all the peoples of the world will live in peace. Anyway, getting back to the Easter story, what happened to Jesus was the Romans, who controlled the Kingdom of Judea at the time, executed Jesus because they were afraid he would start a revolt among the Jews against their rule. The way they executed him was called crucifixion. They built a cross out of two big wooden planks, and they nailed him to the cross. They pounded spikes through his hands and his feet. Then they didn’t let him eat anything. He died from the nails and from hunger and thirst.

Asher: Did it hurt?

Andy: Yes.

Levi: What happened then?

Andy: Well, this is the part where we get to resurrection. Some of Jesus’s followers said they saw him rise from his grave two days after he was buried, and then he went up to Heaven to join God. Actually, according to Christians, he was a part of God, but that gets really complicated, and I don’t want to go into it now. “Resurrection” means coming back to life after you are dead. That’s what Easter celebrates.

Levi (eyes growing wide): So Jesus was a zombie?

Andy: Uhh, no…

Carnival Time: Dreamland Amusements and Sellner Manufacturing

Anchors Away, the one-of-a-kind amusement ride from Sellner Manufacturing

This past Sunday, I took my three boys to a local carnival, set up in the big parking lot behind the Potomac Mills Mall in Woodbridge, Virginia. The carnival was running a “threatening weather special” on unlimited rides bracelets, and between the special and a set of $5 off coupons, I was able to buy each boy a bracelet for $15 apiece, which seemed reasonable (especially given that buying ride tickets would mean spending $3 or $4 per ride per child, which would very quickly eviscerate my wallet).

When I was a kid, I was a tremendous fan of carnival rides. I begged my parents to take me to any neighborhood or church carnival I heard about, and I’d squeeze in as many rides on the Zipper, the Octopus/Spider, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Rock-N-Roll as I could.

My longest continual carnival ride came in high school, when my theater club, the Pioneer Players, raised funds for our trip to the State Thespian Competition by hiring out all the members of our club as extras on the set of the low-budget horror film, The Funhouse, directed by Tobe Hooper and filmed in North Miami in 1981. Nearly all of the film takes place on a carnival midway, and the filmmakers needed hundreds of extras to ride the rides and play games and walk around eating corndogs and fried dough. (The filming took place on the grounds of the old Ivan Tors Studio on 125th Street in North Miami, where Flipper and other TV shows had been produced.) My job turned out to be riding the Sizzler, which twists and twirls you around and around and around. Turned out I had to ride the Sizzler for more than five hours straight, from about 9 PM to 2 AM. On a very chilly night (for North Miami, that is… it was probably in the 50s). Good thing I had a strong stomach back then. I doubt I could handle the Sizzler for five minutes straight at my age now, much less for five hours. The producers called things to a halt a little before 2 AM and invited all us extras into a chow tent for some hot chocolate and hamburgers. By that time I was very hungry and VERY cold (not to mention very tired), so I appreciated their largess.

Anyway, my kids are about as nuts for carnival rides as I once was. So I felt really good about being able to buy them unlimited rides bracelets, which meant I wouldn’t have to carefully ration their rides, like I had during every other trip to a carnival we’ve made as a family. My surprise of the afternoon was how good I ended up feeling about the workers on the midway. There is a widespread stereotype of carnival workers (“carnies”) being, well, skeevy, greasy, ill-mannered, and generally unpleasant. I won’t say that I’ve never had the displeasure of interacting with carnival workers who lived down to the stereotype. However, that didn’t occur at this carnival, operated by Dreamland Amusements. The workers I had the pleasure to interact with were friendly, helpful, and attentive to my anxiety that my kids should be properly strapped and buckled into rides (I almost had a panic attack when I saw that Judah, my five-year-old, had wrapped the bumper car seat belt around his neck after climbing in next to his older brother Levi, but the operator assured me he would sort Judah out, and he did).

One employee was especially friendly, talkative, and helpful. He operated a ride called Anchors Away, a pair of pirate ships that swung on half-moon-shaped tracks, giving the riders a cascading back-and-forth swinging ride (there’s a photo of the ride at the top of this post). All three boys initially rode Anchors Away together. The operator, a man in his sixties, surprised me by showing genuine enthusiasm for children, a quality I don’t typically see in this sort of setting – he laughed with them and encouraged them to raise their arms into the air while the ride swung them back and forth. At first, I wasn’t sure that Judah was enjoying himself. He had a very disconcerted expression the first couple of swings. But then he raised his arms like his brothers were doing, and by the end of the ride he was smiling and laughing. They all asked to ride it again, and since they had ride bracelets, I said, “Sure! Why not?” But when his two older brothers said they wanted to go next door to ride the Sky Hawk, a ride too advanced for Judah, Judah said he wanted to stay and ride Anchors Away some more.

He ended up riding it eight times in a row, and he would’ve kept right on riding it if I had let him. Once, when there were no other children or adults in line with him, the operator even let him ride it all by himself. The operator told me that recently, at a State Fair in Tampa, Florida, a mother had let her little girl, about Judah’s age, ride Anchors Away all day long. I noticed a sign hanging from the guard railing surrounding the ride. It gave a brief history of this particular Anchors Away ride, one-of-a-kind. The ride had been designed by Bruce Sellner, president of Sellner Manufacturing of Faribault, Minnesota, in the mid-1990s. Mr. Sellner had intended for Anchors Away to become a new mainstay of Sellner Manufacturing. However, he passed away shortly after designing the ride and seeing the first one built, and the company decided that it would build and sell only that initial unit. (Did they do this as a memorial for Bruce Sellner? It seems like a better memorial would’ve been to keep building more units of the last ride design he had championed. But maybe his family members who took over the business after his death decided the business model for making more of them no longer stood.) The one and only Anchors Away was sold to a West Coast carnival company, which owned it until last year, when Dreamland Amusements bought it. The sign announced that Dreamland Amusements was proud to bring the only Anchors Away to carnival-goers on the East Coast for the first time.

I wish more carnivals would do this sort of thing – publicize what is unique about their rides and attractions. I’m sure individual rides must take on lives and histories of their own, considering that many of them travel around the country for decades. The rides at Dreamland Amusements range in age from at least my age (I was born in 1964) to less than a year old (they purchased their one-truck Himalaya ride, manufactured by Wisdom Rides, in 2011, and their Dizzy Dragons kiddy ride is also pretty new). The oldest ride I saw probably dates to the mid-1960s; it was a kiddy automobile racing ride, with miniature cars mounted on a turntable. I can pretty much date it to around 1965 or 1966 because all of the cars were either first generation Ford Mustangs (first built in 1964) or early 1960s Corvette Mako Shark concept cars (the concept car precursors to the second generation Stingray Corvettes that came out in 1968). That modest little ride has seen quite a lot of use; how many thousands of kids have sat inside those miniature Mustangs and Corvettes and twirled their steering wheels over the past forty-five years? It is a little staggering to think how many times the ride has been put together and taken apart during its career, considering that it gets disassembled at the end of each show, mounted in pieces on a truck, then reassembled at the next show a week or two later. I’ll bet the long-time carnival workers get pretty attached to and sentimental about the rides they work with, considering that they take them apart and put them together probably between twenty and thirty times each year, then spend long hours operating them in-between.

The Water Toboggan, Sellner Manufacturing's first amusement ride

A happy landing on Sellner's Water Tobaggan

The day after taking the kids to the carnival, I looked up the history of Sellner Manufacturing, the makers of the one and only Anchors Away. The company got started way back in 1923 by Herbert W. Sellner (grandfather of Bruce Sellner, who invented Anchors Away). The first ride Herbert manufactured was the Water-Toboggan Slide, designed for swimming parks on lakes. Boy, does that look like it was fun! Check out these photos. Can you imagine riding a toboggan down that long, tall, steep slide, then skimming a hundred feet across the surface of a lake? What a thrill that must’ve been!

But Sellner Manufacturing’s biggest success and greatest claim to fame rolled out a few years later, in 1926, when Herbert Sellmer invented the Tilt-A-Whirl. They manufactured hundreds of the original design, and they continue to build updated models today (Sellner Manufacturing, a family-owned company for most of its existence, was purchased by Larson International in 2011).

Sellner's Tilt-A-Whirl ride in the 1940s

Take a look at this photo of a Tilt-A-Whirl from the 1940s. I’ll bet lots of readers my age or even a little younger will recognize the design. I rode Tilt-A-Whirls exactly like the one in the photo throughout the 1970s, and I’ll bet if I were to rent a copy of The Funhouse from Netflicks, I’d see one of the old-style Tilt-A-Whirls spinning on that haunted midway where I rode a Sizzler for five hours straight.

Just for comparison’s sake, here’s a photo of a modern-day Tilt-A-Whirl, a custom designed Mardi Gras version Sellner Manufacturing built for New Orleans’ City Park Story Land after Hurricane Katrina destroyed all of the park’s original amusement rides.

Great Kids’ Books from MystiCon

Danny Birt, doing his heroic thing

My family and I really enjoyed attending MystiCon in Roanoke, Virginia this past weekend. It’s very gratifying to me to be able to say this, considering that the volunteer who was scheduled to run most of the children’s activities track got sick prior to the con, and those activities had to be canceled. Even so, my kids were very welcome in the dealers’ room, the con hospitality suite, and (most important to them) the video gaming room, which featured various games and gaming consoles going all the way back to the 1980s.

In fact, my best memory of the con, apart from two terrific (but sparsely attended) panels on Sunday, is of the Saturday night children’s story hour in front of the hotel’s fireplace in the lobby. Alethea Kontis and Deborah Smith Ford read from their picture books to a very appreciative audience of about eight children (three of whom were my boys), who sat on pillows in front of the fire and were quite vocal with their reactions and questions. After the story telling was over, a kind (and incredibly patient) con organizer wandered over with a beginners’ level fantasy board game and taught the kids how to play. Even my five-year-old, Judah, caught on and was very engaged in playing. Asher, my seven-year-old, got a little too overly enthusiastic on a couple of occasions and knocked over the playing pieces, but the man organizing the game took this in his stride (which is more than I could’ve accomplished – after the second mishap, I would’ve exiled Asher to the far side of the lobby).

Writer/actress/teacher Deborah Smith Ford

I remarked to another parent (who, like me, enjoyed being able to lean back and watch other adults entertain and educate our kids), “There’s the future of fandom, right there, sitting on those pillows. If we can do a good enough job of showing the kids a good time at conventions, making cons events the kids want to go back to again and again, then we can be reasonably assured that we’ll still have conventions to go to thirty years from now.”

A number of conventions that I’ve attended in the past few years have catered to the needs and interests of young children. I think this is a marvelous and healthy development. As a parent, I really enjoy being able to take my kids with me to conventions and knowing they won’t be bored out of their minds (and constantly bugging me to entertain them). As a writer for multiple age groups, I appreciate that so many folks are making a concentrated effort to make reading a fun activity and offer science fiction and fantasy books as desirable acquisitions for young people (who, we all hope, will grow from young readers to teen readers to adult readers). As a fan, I’m gratified (and relieved) that fandom appears to be making a good effort to avoid becoming extinct (by pushing back against what has been called “the graying of fandom” – not that there’s anything at all wrong with senior citizen fans, many of whom I love to death and who provide much of the best audience participation at panel discussions, but conventions need to have a good mix of ages involved if they are to survive).

For those of you who may be looking for great new (or old) books for your kids, or who just like children’s books, here are some of the wonderful books my boys and I were exposed to at MystiCon.

Alethea Kontis is an absolute natural when it comes to interacting with children. Kids just gravitate toward her (adults, too, for that matter; warmth and genuineness count for a lot). She sold out of her first picture book, Alphabet Oops! prior to the story hour. So she read from her second picture book, Alphabet Oops! H is for Halloween, which, given my boys’ enjoyment of monster movies and all things monster-related, I think would’ve been a good choice in any case. Her book is chock-full of charming illustrations (including hidden characters on each page which young readers are encouraged to find), and her story of the various letters of the alphabet all competing to stand for various symbols of Halloween certainly kept my kids’ attention. Any parent looking for a picture book for a young child who likes monsters can’t go wrong with this one.

MystiCon was the first time I had the pleasure of meeting Deborah Smith Ford, an actress, teacher, and writer from Florida. Things got a bit chaotic in the hotel lobby midway through the children’s story hour (not due to the kids, but to a bunch of adults who congregated there and were oblivious to the authors trying to read to little ears). But Levi, my oldest, wanted very much to hear Deborah’s book, so she very obligingly gave him a one-on-one reading of her picture book, The Little Apple, which is about her own upbringing on a farm. Levi and Deborah hit it off so well that she made him a present of her book, which came with an audio CD that features songs by sound-alikes of Johnny and June Cash. We haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the audio CD, but I’m looking forward to it (especially given that I’m a fan of the Cashes’ music).

Danny Birt is a fellow Loyola University of New Orleans grad and an all-around good guy. His book, Between a Roc and a Hard Place, is a chapter book aimed at middle school readers. I’ve heard him read excerpts from his tale of a baby dragon and enjoyed what I heard very much. Very charming and sweet. So I had my oldest son, Levi, aged 8, look at the book to see if it is something he can read and would be interested in. Affirmative on both questions! Danny very kindly inscribed a copy for him.

The proprietor of Oreilis Books, a used books shop that operates online and at conventions, is very interested in catering to the reading needs of young readers. I discovered to my delight that she had a copy of Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s 1955 classic children’s chapter book, The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek. Another parent was considering buying it for his seven-year-old son, but that kid ended up picking out another couple of books, so I snatched up the Lampman as soon as he put it down.

I’ve never read The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, but when I was about Levi’s age, my mom bought me a copy of the sequel, The Shy Stegosaurus of Indian Springs, which I remember simply loving and reading over and over again. (The shy stegosaurus of the title, George, was always apologizing to his young human friends for the very small size of his brain and his limited intellect; he was an endearing character.) I thought I’d kept my old hardback copy, and not too long ago I went looking for it, hoping to give it to Levi. However, in one of my many moves over the years, I either gave it away or lost it (although I managed to hang onto some of my other favorite books from childhood, including J. B. Priestley’s Snoggle a precursor of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., and my collection of Alfred Hitchcock’s oversized anthologies for young people). So I was thrilled to find a copy of the first book to give to Levi and his younger brothers (I’ll bet Judah, the dinosaur and Japanese monster fan, will be the book’s biggest enthusiast in our household). The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek has been reprinted fairly recently by Purple House Press, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find, if you know a little dinosaur-lover who needs a wonderful chapter book to read.

More Scarifying Than Rollerball or Death Race 2000

I'll bet James Caan never chaperoned a bowling party for 23 little kids...

Now that I’m a middle-aged guy with a professional job and family responsibilities, I very rarely willing enter a situation involving physical peril (my rollerblading days, for example, are far, far behind me). But this past Saturday, I found my pulse racing, my adrenaline pumping, my internal alarm Klaxon screaming like a banshee with a burning tail, and my trusty robot companion blaring “DAN-GER! DAN-GER! DAN-GER!”

What’s more terrifying than a Friday the Thirteenth marathon, more hair-raising than participating in a Mexican cliff-diving competition? How about… hosting a bowling party for twenty-three kids under the age of nine?

Since we’ve been up in Northern Virginia, Dara and I have been throwing the boys their birthday parties at one of a couple of local Burger Kings with indoor playlands. The parties have been reasonably pleasant affairs for involved; the kids get to get their ya-yas out by crawling through the tunnels and pitching themselves down the slides, and the parents can hang out with their BK ice coffees and chat, keeping only half an eye on the kids. I like those parties. I look forward to them.

The car-nage of Death Race 2000 can't compare with the catastrophic mayhem in my mind's eye at Bowl America

But this year, Asher, my middle son, decided a Burger King party was no longer satisfactory. He wanted Something Different. Now, mind you, Something Different doesn’t come cheap. Back in New Orleans, Februarys are fairly mild, so parents can make do with renting a bounce house for the backyard and inviting over twenty kids. In Virginia, however, the February climate isn’t so accommodating. Renting an indoor House-of-Bounce bounce house palace for a party runs over five hundred bucks when you include the food and drinks. Doing a party at Chuck-E-Cheese isn’t much less expensive.

So I came up with the idea of doing a bowling party. The boys have been nagging me to take them bowling for months. A big change in bowling for kids since I was a youngster is that nowadays, managers of bowling alleys are willing to block gutters for young bowlers. This lets the kids have way more fun. When I was a kid, being taken to the bowling alley by my summer camp counselors was an occasion for withering humiliation, as I launched ball after ball into the gutters. In today’s culture of Self-Esteem, however, such an outcome is simply not allowable. But the allowances made nowadays bode well for bowling’s future as a recreational pastime. Kids that can do it and feel good about themselves will probably grow up to become adult bowlers (unlike me, for instance).

Bowl America advertised bowling parties that included ninety minutes of bowling, followed by pizza, soda, ice cream, and tokens for video games. Their prices were reasonable, so I had Dara sign us up. Bowl America even provided invitations for Asher to pass out to his friends. We brought our own birthday cake.

I don’t know what I pictured; I guess I figured that the bowling alley staff would set all the kids up and supervise their games. We were assigned just one staff member to work with us, however. A very nice, accommodating young lady who was quickly Overtaken By Events.

Things didn’t start out too badly, when it was just a few guests and my three kids. We got bowling shoes for everyone, and Judah, my youngest, thought the red and blue shoes were the cat’s meow. My liaison set the five or six boys up on a pair of adjacent alleys and blocked the gutters on both. We had a total of four lanes set aside for our party. I was able to get the kids to take turns, with some difficulty, I’ll admit, but they listened. At first. Of course, some of the bowling was painful to watch. I’m talking balls that Dara and I made bets on as to whether or not they would finally reach the pins. I suspect that the lanes were very slightly angled downward, because only gravity could have caused those balls to keep meandering toward the pins after their momentum was entirely spent. But hey! Every ball a kid tossed knocked down at least one pin. So what if a kid sometimes tossed himself down the lane along with the ball?

The birthday boy, looking suspiciously innocent... is that pizza sauce or BLOOD around his mouth?

Then things began getting Out Of Control. One of the lanes consistently refused to reset on its own, so I was constantly having to run to the front desk to grab some help, leaving the kids temporarily on their own. More kids started arriving in a big rush. I had to direct parents where to go to get their kids into bowling shoes. Plus, I had to corral staff to sign the new kids onto the scoring machines and divide them between our four lanes.

In the meantime, the kids were Devising Their Own Games. That sort of thing is just fine at a Burger King playland, where the opportunities for mayhem are minimal. It’s another matter entirely when each child is wielding a spherical hunk of plastic weighing between eight and twelve pounds. I have to give kudos to the parents. They spontaneously organized themselves into supervisory squads that kept the most dangerous behaviors at bay. If just a few more parents had decided to drop their kids off at the party and head for a local bar for a couple of hours, I would have been S-C-R-E-W-E-D.

Even with the help of numerous parents, however, the bowling party rapidly devolved into Barely Safe Chaos. Balls were dropped. Many balls, which miraculously missed landing on many, many little toes. Kids launched themselves head-first down the lanes. Taking turns was quickly abandoned. When kids saw a freestanding set of pins, they ran to chuck their ball, even if the pins stood at the end of another set of kids’ lane. A neat thing the bowling alley had for the littlest kids to use was a wire ramp which allowed a small child to set his or her ball into its top, then push the ball down the ramp so it got up a good head of steam. My youngest, Judah, all of five years old, actually bowled a strike using one of those ramps. Unfortunately, we only had one ramp to service all four lanes. Most of the kids adored the ramp, so of course the ramp became the object of much competitive attention. My heart almost flew out my mouth several times as I saw various small children toting a bowling ball in one hand and dragging that ramp across the alleys with the other.

The little brother, about to bash someone's brains in...

Balls clanged into the reset sweepers as kids flung their balls before pins could be reset. This necessitated staff braving the hazardous spaces between the children and the pins to retrieve the balls. The birthday boy, either out of an overabundance of zeal or mischievousness, tossed his ball onto a lane as an unwary staff person trooped up the lane to grab a stranded ball, narrowly missing the man’s feet.

Amazingly, incredibly, almost unbelievably, no bones were broken, and no blood was shed (although I may have surrendered several birthdays of my own in years lost to fright). The children all had a marvelous time and said it was one of the best parties ever. However, rarely in my life have I been so relieved as when the pizza and ice cream arrived, and the kids put their bowling balls down.

More Handmade Monsters!

Here to save the planet... it's Mothra!

My youngest son, Judah, continues to request handmade monster toys, so I continue to make them. My first efforts were Gorgo and Tarantula (seen here in this earlier post). Gorgo was a simple paper puppet, two layers of construction paper glued together over a straw. Tarantula, however, was a more elaborate project, involving two plastic token cups from Chuck E. Cheese’s, a ball of black yarn, and several dozen black pipe cleaners. I made sure to over-build that sucker, reinforcing his legs six ways to Sunday (or eight ways to Sunday, given the number of legs).

Now I just need those two tiny Japanese twin gals...

Next up, per Judah’s instructions, was Mothra. Making a Mothra isn’t too hard; making a Mothra that won’t get destroyed after one or two sessions of play is a taller order. Mothra’s body is a cardboard toilet paper roll, coated in yellow construction paper, with pipe cleaner legs inserted through holes. Her wings are two layers of construction paper, reinforced on top with “veins” of variously colored pipe cleaners (which also give the wings some stiffness). Her head is construction paper with fuzzy ball eyes and antennae made of Bendaroos (wax-coated string). So far, she has avoided mortal damage, and she has been in Judah’s hands for over a month. So I guess I must’ve built her right.

Ghidorah vs. Godzilla!

Having seen the “Ghidorah Trilogy” (Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster; Monster Zero; and Destroy All Monsters), of course Judah would want a Ghidorah for his collection (and professionally made Ghidorah toys aren’t too common, at least not here in the States). I’d originally intended to make a simple two-dimensional Ghidorah puppet, along the lines of what I’d done with Gorgo, but then I got a bit more ambitious. I couldn’t figure out a workable way for me to make him fully three-dimensional, but by making his heads, wings, torso, and legs separately and then slotting them together, I was able to make him at least partially three-dimensional, plus able to stand on his own (a definite plus in a household inhabited by a kitten who loves to chew paper).

Another view of the wintry grudge match

I printed out a nice, cartoony drawing of Ghidorah from the deviantart.com site and cut out portions to use for the fronts of Ghidorah’s heads and legs, the most difficult parts to draw, then drew the wings and torso freehand. I did my best to draw the reverse sides of his legs and feet and of his heads and necks on another sheet of construction paper, plus reverse sides of his wings and torso. I then traced the parts onto a sheet of corrugated cardboard, which would give all the parts the necessary stiffness. I cut everything out, glued the construction paper “skins” over the cardboard “skeleton,” and then, after it had all dried, cut slots into the various parts and slotted and glued them together, sort of like how you would put together a cardboard model of an airplane. My finished product didn’t come out exactly proportional (the torso and wings are too big for the heads and legs), but he turned out exactly the right scale to battle Judah’s plastic Godzilla, which is more important. And from certain angles, he is rather impressive, if I do say so myself. Besides, Ghidorah was always sort of a lumpy, ungainly monster, anyway, at least in the original 1960s Toho films.

The best thing about Yongary, Monster From the Deep--the hero's 1964 Corvair convertible

This past week was a bad one, health-wise, for my family. One by one, we all came down with bouts of stomach flu. Judah and Asher caught it nearly simultaneously, and while they were on the mend, I stayed home with them to give Dara a bit of a break. The three of us watched Yongary, Monster From the Deep (1967). This was one giant monster picture I had somehow not managed to see as a kid. Yongary is essentially a South Korean Godzilla, with the monster-loving little kid from Gamera, the Invincible tossed in for good measure. The model cities weren’t bad, at least on par with those seen in the early Gamera movies, but the monster costume was a step down from those featured in the Gamera creature-fests, about as silly looking as the average kaiju in an episode of Ultraman.

The worst thing about Yongary, Monster From the Deep--the heroine's absurdly obnoxious little brother, Icho

What made the film stand out in my eyes were two things — the hero drove a splendid 1964 Chevy Corvair convertible, and Icho, the six or seven-year-old kid whom the filmmakers unwisely (and sadistically) foisted on us for much of the film, was simply the most detestable and obnoxious child character I have ever witnessed in any monster movie, ever. Worse than any of the kids in the Gamera movies (even that horrid, virtually unwatchable little Caucasian girl who wore a Scottish tam in War of the Planets). Worse than the kid in Godzilla’s Revenge. Worse, quite possibly, than any of the kids in The Lemon Drop Kids Meet a Brooklyn Gorilla (although I’ll admit I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t say for certain). One gizmo that plays a role in the movie’s plot is an itching ray (yes, an itching ray) developed by the hero (for God knows what reason; he’s already invented it when the film begins, before Yongary ever appears). The first time we meet Icho, he is hiding in the bushes, having stolen his new brother-in-law’s invention, and he zaps his sister and her new husband with the itching ray as they drive past (in that splendid Corvair convertible), forcing them to pull over and jump out of their clothes while they are on their way to their honeymoon. Icho gets even more obnoxious as the film rolls on. At one point, the hero scientist and the military have found a way to render Yongary unconscious, after he has knocked down most of those parts of Seoul that weren’t already knocked down during the Korean War. What does cute little Icho do? He steals the itching ray again, runs to the giant monster’s side, and wakes him up. Just as a goof, you know. Yongary then proceeds to knock down those parts of Seoul he missed the first time around. At that point, I was rooting for the big lizard to squash the kid already. Doesn’t happen. Evil triumphs; Yongary dies.

View from my back deck, January 21, 2012

But enough about itch-inducing child actors. We got a bit of wet snow last night, enough to lightly coat our back yard and replenish our stream. Knowing I’d be posting about giant monster movies, I began wondering whether any of them had taken place in the wintertime, during a heavy snowfall. Dozens of them took place in the desert, in the American Southwest, near where the atomic tests were carried out. All of the Japanese kaiju movies that I can recall took place in the summertime, with the exception of the early parts of Gigantis the Fire Monster / Godzilla Raids Again, the second Godzilla movie, in which Godzilla (or a second Godzilla-like creature, the original having been thoroughly disintegrated by the oxygen destroyer at the close of Godzilla, King of the Monsters) and Anguilus are discovered fighting each other on a northerly, ice-covered island, before they both invade Japan. The Deadly Mantis begins in Antarctica, where the titular giant bug makes his first attack on humanity, but when he gets up to the cities of North America, it is summertime. Much of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which features numerous giant creatures, takes place in a mysterious region of the Arctic, but that’s more a fantasy-adventure film than a traditional “giant monsters attack” movie. I haven’t seen The Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathoms in a long time, and I seem to recall that its climax takes place in Coney Island during a storm. Was it a snowstorm? If anyone has a good memory for this kind of thing, help me out here. I just think it would be neat to see New York City or Washington, DC or Tokyo (or even Seoul) get attacked by a gigantic lizard during a beautiful snowstorm.

(Ah, memory just kicked in; Peter Jackson’s New York City scenes in his recent remake of King Kong took place in the wintertime, one of the nicer touches in that film. Digital effects make much possible that perhaps weren’t so practicable during the era of miniature models.)

MarsCon 2012 Report

The family and I enjoyed a wonderful weekend at MarsCon… which came with an unfortunate postscript. But more on that later. This was a very well-run convention which has grown popular enough that it will be moving to a larger venue next year. This year’s theme was The End of the World, and the organizers certainly went all out to properly “theme” the hotel. Zombies and their ilk were everywhere — in the lobby, in the halls, popping out of trash cans and bio-hazard barrels, or caged like moldering zoo exhibits. Zombies also made up by far the most popular category of hall costumes, with about ten percent of the con-goers arriving “zombified” and looking like they’d stepped straight out of one of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels or TV shows. There are many, many ways to end the world, of course; costumers could have dressed up as radioactive mutants, rogue asteroids, giant insects, free-floating Ebola germs, flesh-eating bacteria, or clouds of carbon dioxide (if they’re of an Al Gore turn of mind). But zombies are “in” this year, and so Zombie Apocalypse was the disaster du jour.

Didn't have my camera with me (darn it), but this is a close approximation of the Zatanna I saw at the con

My one disappointment was that I forgot my camera at home. Dara tried using her cell phone in its stead, but none of the phone pics came out very good. Aside from all the zombies and zombie paraphernalia, I spotted several other terrific hall costumes I wouldn’t have minded shooting photos of. One young(? – can’t be absolutely sure, since the outfit completely covered him) man dressed as a splendid-looking Wesley Dodd Sandman from Sandman Mystery Theater, one of my favorite comic book series from the last twenty years. My partially empty two hours spent in the Autograph Armageddon group signing session (which were somewhat enlivened by ten-minute readings performed by some of the signers) got a bit of a lift from an alluringly chubby Zatanna who paraded herself (with boyfriend in tow) at the opposite end of the hall for a few moments. No fishnet stockings, though. Perhaps she had a hard time finding them in her size. Wish I’d had my camera… [Update: I took a look at a couple of other con-goers’ photos on Facebook, and the attractive young lady in question was, in fact, wearing fishnets. My bad. I guess my eyes aren’t what they used to be, and, after all, she was parading herself on the far side of a very large room…]

My biggest tip of the hat goes out to those MarsCon folks who organized the children’s activities. My boys simply had no time to get bored. From the time we arrived on Saturday morning to the time we left on Sunday afternoon, they had things to do (which made me feel a whole lot less guilty about asking Dara to look after them while I attended to programming). As soon as we got to the con, Levi began building a Soda Can Robot (with the very welcome assistance of a local school teacher who had just put another one together and so who knew what she was doing, unlike yours truly), while his brothers built Star Wars spaceships out of Lego blocks. Then it was time for a pair of shows. Craig Adams and Debra Burrell are the husband-and-wife team behind the Fuzz and Stuffing Puppets. They put on a delightful half-hour show called “Attack of the Giant Carrot” which my three boys simply adored; the puppeteers included a reference to the 1951 classic SF film, The Thing from Another World, to give a laugh to old Dad, too. I had to miss the next show, “The Hysterically Correct Pirate Show,” which the boys also thought was the bees’ knees (how’s that for an anachronistic use of slang?).

For nearly as long as I’ve been attending SF conventions, certainly during the past decade (when I’ve been going as a professional), I’ve been hearing doomsayers foretell the end of the con circuit due to “the graying of fandom.” It’s a truism, of course, that any culture which fails to reproduce itself will eventually die out. So I was extremely encouraged to see so many little kids and their parents at MarsCon, this year and last (this year even more than last, happily). This infusion helps the con scene in multiple ways. Parents are a lot more likely to attend (and to enjoy themselves) if their children’s interests are catered to. And if kids attend conventions when they are small (and have a wonderful time), they are a lot more likely to continue attending at teenagers, then as adults. It’s very possible that we’ve witnessed the future organizers of MarsCon — say, of MarsCon 2035 — running around in their Batman or Wonder Woman Underoos here at MarsCon 2012.

All of the panels I participated in ran smoothly and were well attended (not something I can report about every con I go to). “Undead Overload?” with Keith DeCandido and Adam Seats was one of the more entertaining vampires/zombies panels I’ve been involved in during the last couple of years. As moderator, I separated out the undead into four quadrants: vampires, zombies, mummies, and reanimated corpses (Frankenstein monsters). I suggested that maybe the notion of “undead overload” was due to too many vampires and zombies and a comparative dearth in the last ten years of mummies and reanimated corpses. We also talked about how the intense competition to create ever-new and appealing variations of the hot “monster du jour” often leads to that creature “jumping the shark,” or at least being transformed into something quite unlike its original self. I opined that Stephenie Myers’ vampires are really creatures of Fairie, and George Romero’s zombies (and those of his imitators) are actually ghouls.

My favorite panel of the weekend, as I knew it would be, was “Masterworks of Apocalyptic Fiction” with the inimitable Bud Webster and Baen editor Laura Haywood Cory. Bud is tremendously fun to panel with because, like our mutual friend Barry Malzberg, he is a walking encyclopedia of the science fiction genre. The three of us had a grand old time talking over such disaster classics as J. G. Ballard’s cataclysm cycle, Nevile Shute’s On the Beach (a “cozy apocalypse” I called it), Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer, and Thomas Disch’s inventively grim The Genocides. Classic end-of-the-world films got some love, too, including The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, The Omega Man, the Planet of the Apes cycle, and Roger Corman’s Teenaged Caveman (okay, not a classic, but I threw it in, anyway). My coup of the weekend, though, may have been getting Laura seriously thinking about having Baen republish Ward Moore’s neglected “comic apocalypse” classic novel, Greener Than You Think.

According to the program book, S. M. Stirling, Danny Birt, Leona Wisoker and I were supposed to be creative on a Sunday morning with “Starting at the End: MarsCon Authors Build an Apocalyptic Story Live.” However, even after a few cups of coffee, I think none of us were very much up to the challenge, so Steve Stirling, our fearless moderator, instead led us through a second round of “Masterworks of Apocalyptic Fiction,” which suited me just fine, as I got to talk Ballard and Shute again (and one can never talk enough Ballard and Shute).

Having the family along, I didn’t get as much of a chance to chat with fellow attendees as I usually do, but I still squeezed in opportunities to show off my gang to as many of my friends as I could. Levi had a chance to talk science fiction books with Bud Webster, as I’d hoped he would. It was neat to talk with Danny Birt and Leona Wisoker, no matter how briefly. And I had my first opportunity to talk with Steve and Jan Stirling since the “Hurricane Katrina” Bubonicon of 2005, and I was able to share with them the thank-you I posted to them for all their post-storm support as the postscript to my book The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501. They didn’t get a chance to see Levi and Asher, though, which was a shame, since the last time they’d seen them, Levi had been just under two and Asher had been six months old.

I mentioned an unfortunate postscript to the con. Apparently, my kids and I did not pay enough attention to the many warning signs at the con which told us to beware of the zombie virus, because we inadvertently brought it home with us. Levi came down with the stomach flu late Sunday night. He vomited all over his bed and all over his brothers, then spent the rest of the evening shooting foul substances out both ends. I prayed, as did Dara, that he had swallowed an amoeba or something bacterial, rather than having picked up a virus, since the former would be less contagious. Unfortunately, a virus it was, since less than forty-eight hours later, earlier today, first Judah and then Asher began the same vile cycle.

So Dara and I are staying up tonight, keeping a vigil over the boys. Poor Dara has already had to do eight loads of laundry in just the past thirty-six hours. We’re taking shifts staying in the boys’ room, trash pail at the ready. My shift comes next… It may be years before poor, traumatized Dara lets me take the boys to a con again.

Visit to the National Navy Museum (part 2)

Levi with quad 40mm anti-aircraft mount

The National Museum of the U.S. Navy is a treasure house, both inside and out. My recent post described the artifacts, some of them gargantuan, that occupy the lawn between the museum’s building and the Anacostia River, where the USS Barry is docked. Today’s post will cover some of the equally stunning (although less large) exhibits found inside the museum hall.

Any fan of the model maker’s art simply must visit the National Navy Museum. When I was a kid, my father, also a military and naval buff, put together plastic model kits for me as birthday and Hanukkah gifts. He built me a Bismarck, a HMS Rodney, and a USS Olympia, as well as a set of Hampton Roads opponents, USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. He regularly took me to hobby shops and to the Dade County Youth Fair, where we could see other model makers’ work on display, some of it very elaborate. However, nothing – absolutely nothing – I have ever seen in the way of scale models compares with the models which awaited me when the boys and I walked inside the Navy Museum.

Armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania

Both Levi and Judah have a funny little habit they engage in whenever something really, really excites them. They jump up and down and flap their arms. Well, I very nearly jumped up and down and flapped like a Canada goose when I saw the first model that awaited us, the USS Pennsylvania, an armored cruiser which served as part of the backbone of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, making up part of the “Big Eight” group of armored cruisers. The Pennsylvania is best known, however, as the US Navy’s first “aircraft carrier.” A little more than a hundred years ago, in 1911, she was outfitted with a temporary wooden take-off ramp on her stern and launched seaplanes, which landed in the water and were recovered by ship-mounted cranes. The model on display shows the Pennsylvania in her 1911 state with the temporary ramp installed. This is a big model, easily six feet long, built to a scale, if I remember correctly, of about 1 foot per 100 feet, a scale standard to nearly all the museum’s models.

Monitor USS Miantonomoh

One of the most unusual attractions of the Navy Museum is its outstanding collection of models and artifacts documenting the US Steel Navy, the ships which served from the period stretching from 1890 to the world cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1907-09. One ship which straddled naval epochs, bridging the gap between the US Navy’s ironclad period during the Civil War and its Steel Navy period leading into the Spanish-American War, was the monitor USS Miantonomoh. The history of the Miantonomoh‘s building, and that of her sister ships, is actually more interesting than nearly any of their operational histories. These vessels took longer to construct than any other ships built for the US Navy, reflecting the lowest period in the Navy’s long history. Their construction was begun in 1873 under a cloud of subterfuge. An incident on the high seas nearly led to war between Spain and the United States. The Secretary of the Navy was mortified to learn that the US Navy, had it been called upon to fight the Spanish fleet, had no modern, oceangoing armored ships ready to steam. Congress approved funds for five of the most recent double-turreted monitors to be repaired and modernized; these ironclads had been commissioned in the final year of the Civil War or shortly thereafter. The original Miantonomoh, one of this group, had been the first monitor to cross the Atlantic Ocean, back in 1867. However, by 1873, the five monitors, all with wooden hulls, had deteriorated so badly that they were not worth repairing.

USS Monadnock in heavy Pacific swells

So the Secretary of the Navy used the funds appropriated for repairs to begin building five entirely new monitors, each of which would be given the same name of one of the old monitors, so as to maintain the fiction that those old ironclads were being repaired and refitted. Running out of funds, the Secretary of the Navy gave the private shipyards dozens of Civil War-era monitors and sloops to scrap for additional building money. The scheme eventually came to light, and Congress directed that work on the five monitors be halted. Several years later, however, during another diplomatic crisis, Congress changed its mind and directed that the vessels be completed in various Navy Yards. The incomplete Miantonomoh was transferred to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. However, laggard appropriations and frequent changes in design dragged out construction times for another decade. The Miantonomoh did not enter service until 1891, seventeen years after her construction had been initiated. Her sisters and partial sister, the Puritan, did not enter Navy service until 1895-96, more than twenty years after their construction had begun. Contemporaries and rough equivalents of the British ironclad HMS Devastation, which had been commissioned in the early 1870s, the Miantonomoh and her sisters were thoroughly obsolete as frontline warships by the time they entered service. The major problem with the class can be seen in this photograph of the Miantonomoh‘s sister, USS Monadnock, crossing the Pacific to join Commodore Dewey’s squadron during the Spanish-American War. She made it, but the crossing was so treacherous that she spent the rest of her career on the western side of the Pacific with the US Asiatic Fleet, never daring to cross an ocean again.

Protected cruiser USS Baltimore

The protected cruiser USS Baltimore played a role in every major US conflict from the Spanish-American War to WWII. Commissioned in 1890 as Cruiser #3 of the New Navy, her first major duty was to transport the body of famous engineer John Ericsson, inventor of the US Monitor, to be buried in his native Sweden. She was one of Commodore Dewey’s ships at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War and participated in the Philippines operations which followed that war. Prior to the US involvement in WWI, she was converted to a minelayer, and in 1918 she helped lay anti-submarine minefields between Scotland and Ireland and in the North Sea, an effective deterrent against German U-boats. Between 1922 and 1942 she was laid up as a storage hulk at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and was present during the Japanese air raid on December 7, 1941.

Broadside 8" gun turret, armored cruiser USS Brooklyn

The USS Brooklyn was the most powerful of the first group of New Navy cruisers, mounting eight 8” guns, four of them mounted in French-style en echelon broadside turrets (one of which can be seen in my photograph of the model of the Brooklyn). Commissioned in 1896, she played a key role in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba in July of 1898, where the main Spanish battle fleet was destroyed. The Brooklyn was hit twenty times by Spanish shells but suffered only one sailor killed. In 1905, she retrieved the remains of naval hero John Paul Jones from Cherbourg, France and delivered them to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where the body was reinterred. During WWI she served as the flagship of the US Asiatic Fleet and finished her lengthy career with the Pacific Fleet in 1921. The Brooklyn was the only US armored cruiser named for a city, rather than a state.

Battleship USS Kearsarge

Similarly, the USS Kearsarge was the only US battleship not named for a state; rather, she was named after the famous steam sloop of the Civil War, the vanquisher of the Confederate raider CSS Alabama (the museum also features models of the original Kearsarge and the Alabama). Commissioned in 1900, too late for service in the Spanish-American War, the Kearsarge nevertheless enjoyed a very lengthy and varied career in the US Navy. Never firing any of her guns in anger, she participated in the cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1907-09 and served as a training vessel during WW1. In 1920, she was converted to a heavy-lift crane ship. During WWII, she lifted and enabled the installation of guns, turrets, and armor plating for the battleships Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Alabama, as well as the cruisers Savanna and Chicago. She continued to serve as a heavy-lift vessel until decommissioned in 1955, five and a half decades after her first commissioning. The most notable feature of the Kearsarge’s design was her double-decker main turrets, with the turrets for her four 13” guns serving as the bases for turrets for her secondary armament of 8” guns. This arrangement caused blast interference between the 13” and 8” guns, however, and the arrangement was repeated in only one other class of US battleships (the Virginia class).

Ironclad CSS Virginia

Other outstanding models at the museum include a diorama of the CSS Virginia in drydock, completing her fitting out after her conversion from the steam frigate USS Merrimac; the USS South Carolina, the US Navy’s first all-big-gun battleship (designed before the famous HMS Dreadnought but completed several years after that history-making warship); and a tremendous model of one of the navy’s last dreadnought battleships, the USS Missouri. The model of the Missouri was built by the same technicians and craftsmen who built the actual ship; they spent an incredible 70,000 man hours working on the model, which is likely one of the finest ship models existent, anywhere.

Battle flag of USS Balao

The museum contains more than just scale models. There are numerous preserved cannons on display, the largest inside the museum being a twin 5″ gun mount from a WWII anti-aircraft cruiser. My boys enormously enjoyed sitting in the gunners’ seats of a quad 40mm anti-aircraft mount, which they were able to swivel and elevate. A display on American submarines contained fascinating models of some of the earliest US Navy submersibles, as well as two working periscopes, both of which poked out the museum’s roof and looked out onto the USS Barry. Another wonderfully appealing artifact is the battle flag of the submarine USS Balao, credited with sinking seven Japanese vessels in WWII. This memorable flag, with its cartoon mascot of a pistol-packing bumblebee riding a torpedo, was designed by a Walt Disney Studios artist in 1945 at the request of Motor Machinist’s Mate 3rd class William G. Hartley.

We’ll most definitely go back. Many times!

Visit to the National Navy Museum (part 1)

1850s experimental 15" gun

This past week, while my boys were on their winter break from school, I finally found the time to visit one of the Washington, DC-area museums I’ve been anxious to see since moving up here – the National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Located next to the Anacostia River, inside the Washington Navy Yard, the Navy Museum is a good bit smaller than its sister facility, the National Museum of the U.S. Marine Corps, located in Quantico, Virginia. However, it is densely packed with artifacts and displays, many of them one-of-a-kind, and a naval buff can easily spend an entire afternoon strolling among the outside artifacts and exploring the various exhibits inside the museum hall. Additionally, the 1950s-era destroyer USS Barry is docked adjacent to the hall as a museum ship (the boys and I ran out of time and energy before setting foot aboard the Barry, so we’ll have to save that exploration for another visit to the Navy Yard).

We visited on a cold, blustery day, but the outside artifacts were so fascinating that we spent nearly an hour braving the winds off the river. Some of the most fascinating things we saw included:

Cannons from ironclad CSS Tennessee

Four cannons removed from the ironclad USS Tennessee (formerly CSS Tennessee) prior to that ship’s scrapping in 1867: two 7” Brook rifles and two 6.4” Brook rifles (the latter seen in the photograph of the Navy Museum’s entrance); as the CSS Tennessee, the ironclad had fought valiantly against Union Admiral David Farrugut’s entire fleet, which included four ironclad monitors, before being overwhelmed by the combined gunfire of the monitors USS Manhattan, USS Chickasaw, and USS Winnebago;

6" gun from USS Maine

A 6” gun salvaged from the wreckage of the second class battleship USS Maine after she was sunk by a magazine explosion in Havana Harbor in 1898, the incident that precipitated the Spanish American War;

Post WWI 16" gun

Several very large cannons which were never used in combat, including an experimental model of a 15” muzzle-loading cannon built in the 1850s, and a 16” gun built prior to the Washington Naval Conference arms limitations talks of 1921-22, which resulted in the scrapping, cancellation, or (in the cases of the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga) conversion of big gun capital ships into aircraft carriers; battleship size was limited by the treaty to 35,000 tons, which ruled out two classes of U.S. battleships and battlecruisers than being built, most of which would have been armed with the model of 16” gun on display here;

26" thick Japanese battleship armor

Sections of battleship armor plating, including large strakes of 16″ thick waterline armor and 9″ thick upper side armor from the USS South Dakota, plus a massive 26″ thick plate intended for the battleship Yamato, recovered by the American Navy at the Japanese naval base of Kure after the war and later tested against 16″ gun armor-piercing shells (as you can see, the American battleship gunfire pierced the Japanese plate clear through, so perhaps the American Iowa class battleships would not have been so terribly outgunned by the Yamato and Musashi had the ships ever met in a gun duel, particularly given the former ships’ five knots greater speed).

Judah between two 16" shells

The most mesmerizing artifact we saw outside the museum was also the largest — a 14″ battleship gun mounted on a railcar carriage. This particular gun (identical to those being mounted on battle wagons of the Pennsylvania class) was shipped to France in the spring of 1918 in time to fire several hundred giant shells at German positions up to twenty-four miles distant. The gun was manned by U.S. Navy sailors who fired it in over a dozen campaigns on the Western Front.

14" railway gun sent to France

14" railway gun (background); Civil War cannons (foreground)

Next in Part 2: the scale model treasures found inside the museum hall

Wishing My Friends and Readers a Wonderful 2012

Consider this my “bloggy” version of the end-of-the-year summing-it-all-up letter (known most commonly, I think, as “the Christmas letter”) that lots of families write, then make dozens of copies of to send off to their relatives and friends along with a Christmas card and/or a family snapshot.

Topping my “to do” list is wishing all of you a coming year of good health, profitable ventures, enjoyable times with family and friends, a deepening sense of community, and many hours of wonderful, entertaining, and enlightening reading. May 2012 be a year in which many longstanding bright aspirations are fulfilled, and one in which all of life’s surprises are positive ones.

2011 has been an odd year, a rather bifurcated year for me. Whereas many events in the wider world have prompted ill ease and a sense of waiting for the next shoe to drop, my immediate family’s life has been one of blessings over the past twelve months (your host spits between his fingers and mutters in Yiddish, “Kein ayin hora.”) The economy has remained on wobbly legs, with the official unemployment rate declining only because more and more people are opting to give up and leave the workforce entirely. Events overseas, from unrest in Arab lands to Iranian belligerence to the European sovereign debt crisis, combine to keep one on edge. In this time of uncertainty, I feel incredibly fortunate that I continue to be gainfully employed, that my family and I live comfortably and cozily in our small house in the woods, that we have enjoyed mostly good health this past year, that I’ve been able to start and finish a book I am very proud of, and that my sons have continued their growth and development into admirable young men.

Levi’s love of reading grows stronger and stronger, and he is taking to playing the piano, if not quite like a duck to water, then like a golden retriever to water (slowly and steadily, he’ll get to the far side). He and his younger brother Asher have both received glowing reports from their teachers at school. Both of them have made me proud by hanging in there with their Tae Kwan Do lessons, despite Master Nam’s exacting standards and Marine-like insistence on discipline, which places far greater demands on them than those they encountered at their former Tae Kwan Do academy (at the old school, the boys advanced to a new belt every other month, whereas under Master Nam, Levi has remained a white belt for more than six months, and Asher only recently received his first promotion). Judah has discovered an enthusiasm for monster movies, especially Japanese kaiju monster movies, which has prompted me to make him handmade monster toys and brought us even closer.

Dara and I have been able to do some traveling, reuniting with old friends in New York and in New Orleans; I had the honor of being a writer guest at CONtraflow, the first fan-run science fiction convention to be held in the New Orleans area since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We welcomed a new companion into our family this year, a kitten, rescued from the streets, named Priscilla. She has quickly made herself the queen of the household, demanding only the best (and most expensive) cat food, continuously pouncing on our four older cats, putting her small nose everywhere it does not belong, but happy to purr on Dara’s chest all night and offer affection to the rest of the members of the family (with the possible exception of Judah, who plays as roughly with her as she does with the other cats).

Growing independence on the boys’ part (mainly their being able to fall asleep without having me in their room with them) has returned to me a part of my life I had greatly missed – the opportunity to read for pleasure before going to bed. I’ve read some wonderful books this past year. The best of the bunch were Barney’s Version by Mordechai Richler and Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow. Not quite as pleasurable and enriching but still very rewarding were A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Kampus by James Gunn, and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Borders’ going-out-of-business sale tempted me into adding a lot of recently published books to my library, so I have a very full shelf of to-be-read books waiting for me in 2012.

The Borders bankruptcy was just one symptom of the massive churn and “creative destruction” that seemed to accelerate in 2011 in the publishing and bookselling industries. All the uncertainty is enough to give any writer heartburn. Uncertainty has been the hallmark of my writing career since 2004. I presently have five unsold novel manuscripts sitting on my hard drive. But my attendance at the 2011 Nebula Awards Weekend helped me decide to take a more proactive stance toward my career, rather than simply churning out the books and hoping/praying that something good happens in the brain of some editor somewhere. Although the connection I made with Robin Sullivan of Ridan Publications didn’t end up working out the way I’d originally hoped, that experience did lead me to setting up this website after having been absent from the web for six years. I convinced my most recent publishers, Tachyon Publications, to make my third book, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, available in all the popular ebook formats. Also, Dara and I have been laying the groundwork for our own small e-press, so that when I judge that any of those five unpublished manuscripts have sat on enough editors’ desks for enough time, the books won’t be trapped in limbo. I will make them available myself, and Dara and I will combine our efforts to market them directly to readers.

Blogging has been a source of fun and pleasure so far. Since July 1 of this year, I’ve been fortunate enough to attract about 60,000 page views; not a rocket ship take-off, but not too shabby. Of the approximately 120 posts and articles I’ve placed on the website in its first six months, the following twelve are the ones I’m happiest with, the posts I think of as my creme de la creme to date. If you’ve missed any of them, you may want to take a look:

The Death of Science Fiction, 1960 and Today
“Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Obsessive Collector” (series begins here)
Thoughts Prompted by the English Riots
It’s J. G. Ballard’s World, We Just Live in It
The Absence of 9-11 from Science Fiction
Science Fiction Movements and Manifestos
The Thrill of the New
A Tale of Two Bildungsromans
An Unpredictable (But Golden) Reward of Publishing
In Praise of Anne McCaffrey
Training the Next Generation of SF Geeks: an Intergenerational Study
Farewell to Joe Simon, American

To close out the year, here is my favorite quote I’ve stumbled across in 2011 (thanks to Mona Charen for bringing it to my attention), from the lips of Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful businessman . . . or farmer, or a successful lawyer, or doctor, or a writer, or a president, or a ranchman . . . or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”

I couldn’t agree more, Teddy. Have a wonderful and successful 2012, everybody!

Training the Next Generation of SF Geeks: Update #1

I’ll occasionally be posting on my success (or lack thereof) in promoting the growth of science fictional geekhood in my offspring. I’ll probably never be a Little League parent, unless Asher surprises me and decides he wants to play baseball (my two nephews in Florida play baseball, but my brother Ric has always been an avid fan of the game, unlike me). However, I am most definitely a Geek Dad, and proud of it.

It is fascinating to watch each of my three boys gradually develop their own interests. I’ve learned that the most I can do as Geek Dad is expose them to the things I love, in case that love is catching; but I can’t make them enjoy anything they don’t have an innate interest in. My dear stepdad learned that with me when he tried and tried again to get me interested in boxing. No matter how many Golden Gloves bouts he took me to, I insisted on staring at the ceiling rather than watch what was happening in the ring. I was very anti-violence as a kid, apart from illustrated punch ’em outs in comic books. (Ironically, as an adult, I’ve developed an interest in boxing, and now I wish I could go back in time and force my younger self to pay attention to the sport.)

Levi with his pair of Heinlein juveniles

Levi, my eight year old, has blossomed into an enthusiastic reader. He loves humorous books (like the Captain Underpants series and the Wimpy Kid books) and also immerses himself in beginning readers YA fantasy series (especially the Magic Treehouse books). He is curious about science fiction, too. So this past weekend I bought him a pair of the Heinlein juveniles, The Rolling Stones and Rocket Ship Galileo. He looked them over in the store and said they seemed pretty interesting. I’m crossing my fingers, hoping Heinlein will be his entry drug. If the Heinlein doesn’t float his boat, I’ll probably try some Anne McCaffrey or Andre Norton next. One of his classmates has started reading the Harry Potter books, and he’s expressed an interest in those. I don’t have anything against Harry Potter, but I’m a little afraid that, given the books’ enormous length, if he gets sucked into that series, he won’t be reading anything else for the next year or so. Plus, I really, really want to expose him to some science fiction, not just fantasy. I’ll keep you all posted on what he thinks of the Heinlein books.

Judah, my five year old, is, as I have previously mentioned, a fanatic for monster movies, particularly Japanese giant monster movies, and their associated toys. He frequently asks for toys from movies which have never been especially toyetic, such as Gorgo and Tarantula. But where there is a will, there is a way. My mother has always been a very artsy-craftsy person, and she passed along some of that love to me. It is a fun challenge to create toys which Judah and Asher will not destroy within their first five minutes of playing with them. My first effort was a Gorgo stick puppet. I folded over a piece of green construction paper, drew a picture of Gorgo (essentially a Tyrannosaurus with long arms and big, square ears), cut it out, drew all the details on the opposite side, and glued the two sides together with a plastic straw in the middle. It has proven to be surprisingly durable. Judah and Asher have used it for puppet shows.

Judah with homemade Tarantula; Asher with homemade Gorgo

Next Judah begged me for a Tarantula toy. I planned to take him to a reptile expo and exotic pet show at the Prince William Fairgrounds, where I figured I’d find a rubber tarantula or two on sale, but I got the dates wrong, and we missed it. So it was Michael’s Crafts to the rescue — black pipe cleaners, a bundle of black yarn, and a package of googly eyes. For the body, I recycled a pair of plastic tokens cups we’d brought home from Chuck E. Cheese’s. I poked holes in the cups for the eight pipe cleaner legs, glued and taped the cups together, then wrapped the body in black yarn. I finished off Judah’s Tarantula with a pair of pipe cleaner pinchers and six googly eyes. My wife Dara said it was one of the creepiest toys she’s ever seen.

Judah adores it and plays with it daily. I am one happy dad.

Next up? Mothra. That’ll be this coming weekend’s project.

Training the Next Generation of SF Geeks: an Intergenerational Case Study

My gateway to the heroes of comics' Golden Age, courtesy of my stepdad and Jules Feiffer

Any culture that fails to train its young in its traditions is doomed to extinction. The culture of science fiction geekdom is no exception. Many SF geeks have come into their geekhood entirely on their own, sometimes in clear opposition to their parents’ preferences (most of the Futurians, for example, needed to get away from their families in order to come into their full geekhood). Yet many others (myself included) have benefitted from the support and encouragement of a geek (or partial geek, or proto-geek) parent. SF geek culture has now been with us long enough that grandparents can share it with their grandchildren (especially if it is Flash Gordon serials or Astounding Science Fiction pulps or EC horror comics that are the artifacts being passed on).

My stepdad was my initial mentor in geekdom, although I’m sure he didn’t think about in those terms (my training in geekhood began in the late 1960s, but the term “geek” did not begin taking on anything approaching a positive connotation until fairly recently, sometime during Bill Clinton’s term in office). He is a movie lover and for many years was an amateur movie maker (in the old days of Super-8 equipment; he never made the transition to digital media). During his twenties, he had nursed an ambition to go to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers as an animator. He ended up a salesman instead, a very successful one, first of shoes and later of folding cardboard boxes. He and my mother both enjoyed science fiction and horror movies, so my earliest movie-going experiences were outings to the drive-in to see pictures including Destroy All Monsters (1968), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971). (Come to think of it, we saw an awful lot of movies at the drive-in in 1971.) He was a huge fan of old-time film actors, so the bookshelf in our living room was stocked with oversized volumes on the history of movies serials, classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age (including the Universal monster movie cycle), and silent film comedy stars such as Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields. He also amassed a pretty big collection of Super-8 film shorts to show on his collapsible movie screen, including shorts by Chaplin, the Our Gang kids, and Laurel and Hardy, as well as compilations of coming attractions from Japanese kaiju giant monster films and 1950s Hollywood giant insect movies.

The book on his shelf that probably had the biggest impact on me, though, was Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965). I still have numerous passages virtually memorized (most especially Feiffer’s remembered glee as a young man when he read that psychologist Fredric Wertham had written in Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin, in their civilian identities as Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, could be said to be experiencing “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together;” Feiffer always hated Robin, so anyone who muddied Robin’s rep was okay by him). I passed hundreds of hours on my living room sofa with that book open on my lap. Feiffer presented a very personal memoir of what each of the classic characters of the Golden Age of Comic Books had meant to him during his childhood and teen years. His book generously provided me with origin stories or very early adventures of such figures as Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Spectre, Plastic Man, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and the Spirit, in nearly all cases (with the exceptions of Superman and Batman) my very first exposure to the characters. My stepdad, noting my enthusiasm, followed up by taking me to my very first comic book and nostalgia convention, held in the Coconut Grove library, where I got to see a couple of chapters from Monogram’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial and page through a mimeographed reproduction of the famous Human Torch-Sub-Mariner epic battle from Marvel Mystery Comics.

The fact that my stepdad loved old monster movies and old comic book heroes made me want to love them, too; not that I needed too much encouragement in that direction, since I had discovered my love of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, and Greek and Norse mythology all on my own. One thing led to another. Novelizations of the Planet of the Apes films and TV shows proved to be my “entry drugs” to original science fiction novels and story collections by H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Silverberg. A fondness for atomic apocalypse movies led to my picking up books on worldwide catastrophe by J. G. Ballard and John Christopher. The movie versions of The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend made me hunt down the original books by Richard Matheson. The same kid at summer camp who let me look at his dog-earred Iron Man comics also lent me a truly magical novel, The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney.

And thus was my career as a science fiction geek well and truly launched by the time I turned eight. That year I wrote my first short story, “Tyrann!”, a tale about a lonely little boy, his scientist father, the mechanical Tyrannosaurus the father builds as a companion for his son, and the gangsters who have evil plans for the scientist and his robot creation. The boys at school loved it, and I got the idea that writing stories and entertaining my peers was kind of fun.

One thing my stepdad didn’t do was pass on any relics of his own proto-geek childhood. Hardly anybody from his generation saved their comic books and pulp magazines (unless they were extremely obsessed with them). This, of course, is what makes those artifacts of the 1930s and 1940s so valuable – scarcity. Oh, the daydreams I had, though, as a child – “If only Dad had saved his Captain America comics!” I resolved at a very young age that I would save everything: all my comics, all my issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, all my copies of Eerie and Creepy, and all of my science fiction paperbacks. No future son (or daughter) of mine would ever have to pine for the childhood stuff I had thrown away. I also considered the potential monetary value of the collectibles I would be passing on, figuring I would be doing my future children a great fiduciary favor.

Judah "Iron Man" Fox, celebrating his fifth birthday

Unfortunately, I proved to have an odd talent for buying comics which would never go up in value and for passing up those comics which would someday be worth real money. I distinctly recall seeing all the early issues of The All-New, All-Different X-Men on the carousel wire racks at my local convenience stores (Little General and 7-11) and turning up my nose at them, because the characters on the covers looked “too weird” (why I felt that way about the New X-Men I cannot currently fathom; after all, I eagerly purchased other comics with stranger heroes, such as Jack Kirby’s The Demon and Marv Wolfman’s The Tomb of Dracula, but I remember having a powerful aversion to the costumes worn by the New X-Men in their early adventures). Instead, I bought reprint comics like Marvel Triple Action, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Monsters on the Prowl, and Creatures on the Loose; the adventures of short-run, failed characters like It! the Living Colossus, the Living Mummy, Man-Thing, Brother Voodoo, the Defenders (a bit more successful than the others on this list), the Invaders, the Golem, and Werewolf by Night; and a fairly full set of The Invincible Iron Man during the character’s worst run ever (excepting, perhaps, the much later Teen Tony issues), from about issue 35 to issue 90 or so. So I ended up with an accumulation of essentially worthless comics, boxes and boxes of them, from the 1970s to the 1990s. Worthless, that is, except for the reading pleasure they might provide a young person.

Over the past eight years, I’ve been blessed with three sons. How should I divide my childhood collection among the three of them, I’ve often wondered? Have them draw lots? Let them sort out the materials among themselves, according to their preferences, with me serving as referee? As things have turned out, this will not be an issue, surprisingly; two of the three appear to have very little interest in my old stuff.

Levi, my oldest, is a voracious reader, but he generally avoids comic books. He showed a mild interest in Silver Age Superman stories for a time, but that didn’t last. After I took him and his brothers to see Captain America: the First Avenger, we went to the comic book store next to the theater, and I offered to buy him any Captain America or Avengers comic he wanted. He wouldn’t bite; instead, he insisted I buy him the latest Wimpy Kid chapter book. The only comics or graphic novels he seems to be interested in are the Bone books. He is very interested in science, but blasé about dinosaurs. He shows very little interest in my collection of old horror movie videos. However, he is fascinated by astronomy and outer space, and most of the chapter books he likes to read (such as the Magic Treehouse and the Captain Underpants books) are essentially fantasy. So I have hopes that I’ll be able to steer him toward science fiction. Within the next year (he is currently in second grade) I plan to introduce him to the Heinlein juveniles, the Rick Riordan books, and eventually Ender’s Game. We’ll see how he takes to those. He is very opinionated and particular regarding what books he chooses to read, so I know I will only be able to suggest (and gently suggest, at that). The potential for an SF geek resides within him (“The Force is strong in this one…”). We shall see.

Asher, my middle child, on the other hand, appears to have little or no geek potential. His interests are decidedly mainstream American boy – he likes sports, race cars, and monster trucks. He enjoys superhero and science fiction movies and TV shows, but he mainly appreciates them for their action. He likes watching things explode and seeing giant robots beat on each other. He thought the last twenty minutes of X-Men: First Class were “awesome,” and he simply loved Real Steel. His favorite toys are his large collection of Hot Wheels cars. He is a pretty strong reader, but he won’t go out of his way to pick up a book. He gets bored when I try to read him Silver Age Superman stories (which Levi enjoys to an extent). His preferred books to look at are illustrated editions of The Guinness Book of World Records and any books on monster trucks.

So, I was at two strikes and one ball to go, so far as passing along my old comics and monster magazines to one of my offspring. Perhaps Judah, my youngest, sensed an opportunity, an unclaimed niche, a chance to beat out his brothers at snuggling up close to Daddy. Or maybe it’s all in the genes (could there be a specific geek chromosome)? In any case, with my final opportunity to reproduce myself as a young geek, I finally struck geek gold in Judah. Several years back, I bought a whole collection of plush Godzilla figures for Levi and Asher as Hanukkah gifts; on eBay, I found Godzilla, Minya, Rodan, Anguillis, Gigan, young Godzilla, Hedorah, King Kong, and Destroyah. These were gorgeous toys. Had they been available when I was a young boy, I would have wet my pants with excitement. But neither Levi nor Asher took to them. They sat on the edge of the boys’ bed for years, unplayed with, gathering dust and cat hair.

Judah with "The Deadly Mantis"

Then Judah decided he liked Godzilla movies. In fact, he loved Godzilla movies. Better still was to watch a Godzilla movie with toys that matched the monsters on screen. He expanded his palate to include a fondness for Gamera movies, too (and I happened to have a few Gamera toys lying around). He will watch any monster movie with his daddy, and he has a particular liking for giant insect movies. Like me, he can watch Tarantula over and over again. When I took him and his brothers to Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, one of the statues there was of a ten-foot-tall praying mantis. I took a picture of the boys standing beneath its claws, and I posted the picture on my website, next to a photo from the 1957 monster movie The Deadly Mantis. Judah took a look at that photo and declared he simply had to have a Deadly Mantis toy. After looking far and wide, I managed to find a really nice praying mantis figurine at Le Jouet Toys down in New Orleans, and I bought it as a birthday gift for Judah. One event marking his fifth birthday celebration was a family viewing of The Deadly Mantis (a clean DVD print obtained from Netflix). Judah sat in bed between me and his brothers with his brand-new mantis toy in his fist, watching Craig Stevens, William Hopper, and Alix Talton deal with their bug problem. He is very disappointed that there has never been a Tarantula vs. the Deadly Mantis movie, or, even better, a Tarantula vs. Godzilla film. He has asked multiple times for me to buy him a Deadly Mantis costume to wear, and I’ve endeavored to explain that no one is likely to make a costume based on a giant bug movie from 1957 that hardly anyone remembers.

It’s not just monsters. He loves dinosaurs and superheroes, too. His favorite dinosaur (for the past few weeks, anyway) is Ankylosaurus, an armored dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period. When I told him that Anguillus from the Godzilla movies is an Ankylosaurus, he went and got his plastic figurine of the monster and asked why Anguillus doesn’t have a knob of bone at the end of his tail like a real Ankylosaurus would. The only reply I could come up with was “artistic license.” So he went and found a small, hollow rubber ball that he was able to insert on the end of Anguillus’ tail. Thus far, he doesn’t seem to have a favorite superhero. Between his dad’s old toys and action figures he has gotten as gifts or collected from McDonald’s or Burger King, he has amassed a pretty impressive set of Justice Society, Justice League, X-Men, and Avengers figures. His affection and loyalty shifts between characters and figures, depending on his mood and which toy happens to catch his eye. One day his favorite will be Banshee from the X-Men, and the next day it might be Captain America or Iron Man, and the day after that either Batman or the Golden Age Flash will have captured his fancy.

Scene from "The Deadly Mantis 2: Mantis in Manassas"

He’s still too young to pass along to him my old comics and issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland (I shudder to think what shape he would leave them in after tearing through them). I’ll probably wait until he turns eight. But that kid has a tremendous bequest coming his way. I can hardly wait to see his face on the day I pull out box after box after box of my old stuff from the basement.

For the time being, I’m as delighted as any proud Little League parent to have him sitting next to me and watching Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster or Tarantula, a rapt look of enjoyment on his face. I glance down at him, squirming with excitement while nestled in the nook of my arm, and think to myself with a glow of satisfaction, “That’s my boy!”

Trunk or Treat at the Family Drive-In

Jack o' lanterns, a Coke, and a minivan: recipe for an American Halloween

If there’s one thing Americans are pretty darned good at, it’s coming up with new and imaginative ways to celebrate old holidays. Halloween is a completely different animal today than it was when I was a kid (we’re talking the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s). When I was young, it was all about the kids. Now, Halloween competes with New Year’s Eve as an excuse for adult bacchanalia. However, in one little rural corner of northwest Virginia — Stephens City, to be exact — Halloween has stayed all about the kids. Not to say that parents can’t have a blast, too.

the Grim Reaper invites sundown to come so the movies can begin

I’ve gotten into the pleasant habit of taking my kids to the Family Drive-In , about an eighty-minute drive from our house. The vibe at the drive-in is pure late 1960s, early 1970s. It’s always chock full of families. Every time I drive through the gate, I half expect the lot to be filled with the same Chevy Bel Airs and Plymouth Belvederes Ford Fairlanes that would’ve been parked in front of the screens back in 1956, when the theater first opened. The current owners do a fantastic job of keeping the old place relevant with solid choices in family movies and lots of special programming. Last year, they put on a Halloween event called Trunk or Treat. The boys and I enjoyed ourselves so much that I swore on my stack of classic Universal Studios monster movies that we’d go again this year the Saturday before Halloween.

a typical Trunk or Treat family

For a bit there, it looked like I’d have to disappoint the boys (and myself). The entire Northeast got socked with a rare late-October snow storm. The area around Stephens City was predicted to be buried under six to eight inches on Saturday. However, rather than cancel their biggest event of the year, the Family Drive-In folks pushed it off one day, to Sunday. Trunk or Treat ended up being a bit soggier and chillier than last year (there was still a good bit of snow on the ground, surrounding the bounce house the theater set up for the kids), but this in no way ruined the fun.

Judah about to enter the bounce house

Patrons are asked to bring three bags of candy and to come in costume. The gates open at 3 PM. Admission prices are the same as they are every other weekend — a very reasonable $7.50 (adults) or $3.50 (kids under 12), which is a great honking deal for a double feature (or you can pay a little less if you only want to come in for the party). For that modest admission fee, the kids get a bounce house to play in while they are waiting for twilight and the start of Trunk or Treating, plus fire engines from the local volunteer fire department that they are invited to climb around in, a costume contest, and music from one of the area’s FM radio stations.

ghouls on the Family Drive-In playground

Plus, the kids have Ye Olde Playground of Death, a well-preserved example of early 1970s hard steel playground architecture straight out of my elementary school’s recess yard. Ah, the memories… monkey bars that look like exercise equipment you’d find in an old-time prison yard; a tall, steep slide that dumps kids into a mud puddle; and Wild West horsey swings with grasping steel hinges and chains that threaten to amputate little fingers. The leaflets you get with your tickets say no ball playing or frisbee throwing, but plenty of kids do it, anyway.

This family went all out!

Then comes the Trunk or Treating. I love how so many attendees have already started a tradition of decorating the backs of their SUVs, pickups, or minivans just like they might decorate their front yards and porches. Instead of walking from house to house and down driveway after driveway with the little goblins and their candy buckets, you comb the aisles of the drive-in, weave past the speaker stands, and go from trunk to hatch to pickup bed. No need to worry about keeping the kids out of traffic and off the road, because all the cars here are parked.

waiting for Trunk or Treating time

What movie did we see? It almost didn’t matter after all the fun we’d had. We saw Dreamworks’ newest animated comedy, Puss in Boots. Not as good as the Shrek movies, in my humble opinion, but not bad at all. At least it wasn’t The Zookeeper, still my choice for Worst Family Film of 2011. Puss didn’t work as well as last year’s reprise of Monster House as a Halloween film, though. Maybe one of these years the Family Drive-In will make their Trunk or Treating event an evening of classic, family friendly monster movies (a few choices from this list would make for a terrific spooky evening under the stars).

my three little goblins

I can hardly wait for next year!

And neither can my boys…

Happy Halloween!

As you might well imagine, here at Fantastical Andrew Fox.com, Halloween is one of our favorite holidays. As a little Halloween treat, allow me to suggest a list of my Top Thirteen Creature Feature Oldies (spooky movies more than thirty years old), all guaranteed to add to your Halloween enjoyment. Some are classic, some are quirky, some are so-bad-they’re-good. So surf to your Netflix queue or dash over to Blockbuster Video (if there’s still one of those by your house) and download or rent one of these oldies-but-goodies:

1) Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922): The granddaddy of all vampire movies, and still one of the best. You won’t find a creepier, more repulsive vampire than Max Shreck as Count Orlok, who portrays the vampire as half-man, half-rat.

2) The Black Cat (1934): Probably the best film Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi ever made together. Fabulous Expressionist sets and an intriguing back-story of World War One horror and betrayal add to the star power in this tale of devil worship and sadism.

3) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935): The best of the early Universal Studios horror films, director James Whale’s masterpiece of whimsical terror, and certainly Boris Karloff’s finest acting as the Monster. Plus, you get Elsa Lanchester in two roles!

4) House of Frankenstein (1944): I included this one for its major fun value. All of the Universal Studios monsters are here (save the Mummy, who was too wrapped up, I suppose, and the Creature, only because he hadn’t been invented yet) — Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the wolf man, the mad doctor, and the mad doctor’s demented assistant. You can’t beat the cast: Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, George Zucco, and Lionel Atwill. This would be spoofed twenty-three years later by the puppet animation film Mad Monster Party (1967).

5) Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954): This rates both for the outstanding, iconic design of the starring amphibian and for the fabulous underwater photography, shot on location at the Florida Panhandle’s Wakulla Springs. Watch Ricou Browning as the Creature swimming furtively beneath Julie Adams, contemplating her with curiosity and perhaps desire, and you’ll be watching a monster you’ll never forget.

6) Them! (1954): This gi-ants movie is the direct ancestor of both Aliens and every “swarm-of-creatures-is-out-to-get-me-or-eat-me” movie released since the mid-fifties. Great scenes in the sewer tunnels beneath Los Angeles.

7) Invisible Invaders (1959): This one is mainly on the list for its historical value and high camp and fun quotient. The inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and thus virtually every zombie movie made in the last forty years. John Carradine is great as the leader of the aliens. The scenes of the aliens inhabiting the bodies of the dead and creeping across the desert are still pretty effective. And for a truly goofy special effect, you’d have to revisit Plan Nine from Outer Space to see something as ridiculous as the invaders’ invisible feet, shuffling slowly through the sand, leaving beach shovel-like trails behind.

8 ) The Haunting (1963): This adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is the real deal, a truly spooky haunted house movie. Much, much more effective and frightening than the 1999 remake, which over-relied on CGI effects that weren’t nearly as hair-raising as the subtle, off-screen suggestions of supernatural menace so well used in the original.

9) Attack of the Mushroom People (aka: Matango, Fungus of Terror) (1963): Yes, it is mainly here for its two alternate titles, either of which place it high on the list of campy horror films. However, this Japanese flick does have its moments of genuinely unsettling atmosphere and mounting unease, as the castaways, trapped on a weird island, begin running out of food and must resort to consuming the local fungi… definitely not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (nor its Japanese equivalent). This one creeped me out when I was a kid; I was always susceptible to the effects of the “heroes-into-monsters” trope (also featured in the climax of The Return of Count Yorga and in most zombie movies).

10) Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971): Low-budget psychological horror film about a woman recently released from a mental institution who seeks rest and rehabilitation on a bucolic farm, only to be faced by the dreadful fact that either she is sliding back into madness again, or that one or more of her house guests is a vampire. Lots of visual and thematic references here to the then-recent Manson Family murders. This one really weirded me out when I saw it on late-night TV as a kid.

11) Blacula (1972): Far more than your run-of-the-mill Blaxploitation pic, as I’ve written elsewhere. William Marshall’s performance is first rate, and this movie really started the whole trope of vampire-as-tragic-romantic-hero in American popular culture. Plus, it serves as a virtual museum piece of early 1970s urban styles.

12) Horror Express (1972): Who can pass up a Victorian era horror movie set entirely on a train, starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Telly Savalas? Plus, the missing link monster is not your run-of-the-mill ghoul; watch what it does to poor Telly. Uuuch.

13) The Legend of Hell House (1973): I’ve always been a big Roddy McDowall fan, as well as a great admirer of Richard Matheson’s stories, novels, teleplays, and film scripts. An interesting book end to The Haunting, and another on the short list of truly spooky haunted house films.

Sergeant Rock and Captain America salute you on Halloween!

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