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Kage Baker

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Fiction and Excerpts [2]

The Bird of the River (Excerpt)

|| In this new story set in the world of The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, two teenagers join the crew of a huge river barge after their addict mother is drowned. The girl and her half-breed younger brother try to make the barge their new home. As the great boat proceeds up the long river, we see a panorama of cities and cultures, and begin to perceive patterns in the pirate attacks that happen so frequently in the river cities. Eliss, the girl, becomes a sharp-eyed spotter of obstacles in the river for the barge, and more than that, one who perceives deeply. A young boy her age, Krelan, trained as a professional assassin, has come aboard, seeking the head of a dead nobleman, so that there might be a proper burial. But the head proves as elusive as the real explanation behind the looting of cities, so he needs Eliss's help. And then there is the massive Captain of the barge, who can perform supernatural tricks, but prefers to stay in his cabin and drink.

The Green Bird

|| This story from the Jack Vance tribute anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, is about (in author Kage Baker's words) “a liar and thief in a doomed world of liars and thieves."

The Bird of the River (Excerpt)

The sun came up. It warmed Eliss’s back and felt good after the freezing night. From their camp up here on the hilltop she could look down into the river valley, where it was still dark. The river barges lay silent in the blue gloom, and only now a white transparent trail of smoke from a galley cookfire rose up through the shadows into sunlight, flaring into red and gold.

A thundering crash of disappointment followed, however. [Read more]

The Green Bird

To honor the magnificent career of Jack Vance, one unparalleled in acheivement and impact on the fantasy genre, George R.R. Martin and Garner Dozois, with the full cooperation of Jack Vance, his family, and his agents, created the tribute anthology Songs of the Dying Earth. The best of today’s fantasy writers were invited to work in the unique and evocative millieu of the Dying Earth, wfrom which they and so many others have drawn so much inspiration, to create their own brand-new adventures in the world of Jack Vance’s latest creation.

We hope you enjoy this complete story from Songs of the Dying Earth, about, in author Kage Baker’s words, “a liar and thief in a doomed world of liars and thieves.”

* * *

It amused Justice Rhabdion of Kaiin to dispose of malefactors by dropping them down a certain chasm located at the edge of his palace gardens.

[Deep and steep-sided the chasm was…]

Ancient Rockets: A Christmas Past

I don’t know, Muriel, he told me he was Santa Claus and I could trust him with my wallet.

Happy Holidays! In this Christmas stocking you’ll get an assortment of silent films topical and timely, thanks to the careful stewardship of Kino International and Paul Killiam.

A Christmas Past gives us a fascinating look at early American observations of Christmas in the 20th century. It’s amazing to see how much of the standard mythology for Santa Claus was already in place; it’s also interesting to observe that it was already a cheerily secular holiday, despite current claims that holiday inclusiveness is a recent invention of the devil.

The first piece up in this collection dates from 1901. A Holiday Pageant At Home, filmed 108 years ago while Queen Victoria still sat on the throne, presents a mother and her children sewing, reading and chatting in their middle-class home. In comes the father of the family, apparently announcing he wants a pageant prepared for Christmas. In the next scene, the two youngest girls stiffly make some sort of recitation with synchronized gestures; the older girl, in particular, looks as though she’d rather be anywhere else than in front of the camera. Next scene the prologue is past and our play consists of an older brother and sister dressed in adult clothes, relentlessly scolding the youngest girl, who weeps theatrically. But she is avenged! In comes the youngest boy, dressed as either a bandit or a pirate, brandishing a Bowie knife and a pistol. He chases the unpleasant pair until they fall to their knees and beg for mercy, at which the littlest girl cheers and claps. Father kisses Mother for a pageant well directed and that’s all, folks! This is interesting for its look back at the Victorian Christmas custom of amateur theatricals at home, and also for the relative novelty of the camera. Most of the principals stare frankly at the cameraman. It’s much more like a home movie than a studio production.

Next up is A Winter Straw Ride, from 1906. Two sleigh-loads of young ladies go riding through the snow in a small town somewhere in upper New York state.  They whoop, they cavort, they fall off the sleighs, and chase a number of unfortunate young men across the snowy fields. Having knocked them down, they proceed to scrub snow into the men’s faces and clothing. That’s it for plot. These rather alarming hoydens tend to dress like members of the Oyl family—big boots, heavy long skirts, and heavy rolled turtleneck sweaters. One is reminded forcibly that this is the generation that fought for (and won) the right to vote.

[Read more…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Silent Carols

Scroooooge….

There will be spoilers; to begin with. That must be perfectly understood, because I don’t want to hear any whining from someone who grew up in a cave without benefit of books, TV or radio, thereby missing any of the countless versions of this holiday classic trotted out every year. Come on! You all know how this story goes. From Roger Zemekis’ latest slapstick outing with dead-eyed CGI characters back to the animated offerings by Richard Williams and Mr. Magoo—from Alistair Sim to George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart—everyone’s had a go at adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

[Read more…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Flying House

Psychoactive cheese!

Well! Just when I thought the last of the relevant goodies had rolled out of the Winsor McCay Xmas stocking, I found a little gem stuck way down in the toe.  The Flying House, from 1921, is one of the Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series and was actually drawn by McCay’s son Robert. Its theme is both SFnal and timely, what with Pixar’s UP coming out on DVD, so let’s have a look.

Flying House opens with a couple retiring to bed. They had a delicious Welsh Rarebit for dinner, but the wife is worried: will she have nightmares? The husband gruffly tells her that rarebit never gives him bad dreams. Both nod off. A moment later, however, the wife wakes with a start, alone in bed. Where has her husband got to? And what are those strange noises coming from upstairs?

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Pet

Stitch? Stitch? Sorry, you have me confused with someone else.

By 1921, Winsor McCay had learned enough about self-promotion to bill himself, and justly, as “the inventor of animated drawing.” Sadly, he shortly lost interest in making any further films, working on other projects until his death in 1936. We’re lucky that he completed his animated Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series first with The Pet, a disturbing little science fictional romp.

The Pet opens, naturally, with a couple retiring to bed. The husband remarks that he ate a delicious rarebit at his club that evening; the wife chides him, because everyone knows that eating the rich cheese dish before bedtime brings on nightmares. Hubby says he can’t help it; he loves rarebits so! And his doom is fixed…

A little animal creeps up the walk in the couple’s garden. Despite calling out MEOW in block capitals, it doesn’t look much like a kitten. Is it a puppy? A bear cub? Who cares? It’s cuuuuute, coos Mrs. Rarebit Fiend, scooping it up and taking it into the house.

[Read more…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Wolf Blood

Fix the health care system? Why?

After Universal Studios failed to copyright their  1925 Phantom of the Opera, they realized that the horror films  were cinematic gold, and they swiftly proceeded to capitalize on Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman and other denizens of the Laemmle ranch. Those images were merchandised as model kits, Halloween costumes, and lunch boxes. And, of course, as  perpetual remakes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the trend was to reference the stories’ literary sources: Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There was an Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mummy, but it was a bit of a weasel job—rather than the immortal Karloff classic we all know and love, it merely referred to a Conan Doyle short story about a mummy that happened to reside in a university dorm room.  When The Mummy was eventually remade, it was full of so much special effects flash and period costuming that most people didn’t notice or mind how little it resembled the original film. Appropriately enough, there is no Ur-text for The Mummy.

No real effort was made to do a full-out werewolf remake. Curt Siodmak, who wrote the screenplay for 1945’s Wolfman, supposedly based it on one of his own short stories, after all. It bore little resemblance to 1939’s Werewolf of London, and even less to the granddaddy of all werewolf films:  1929’s Wolf Blood.

[Read more…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Haunted Castle

I’m bored… let’s do something evil.

It is occasionally nice to be reminded that even geniuses have their off days.

You’ve seen F. W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic Nosferatu, right? Hopefully in the restored edition from Kino? A brilliant creepfest from its opening frames. You would think, wouldn’t you, that his Haunted Castle (aka Schloss Vogeloed) from just a year earlier would be full of signs of budding talent? Especially with the great Fritz Arno Wagner (Nosferatu, Der mude Tod, the Dr. Mabuse films) as cinematographer?

Not so much, actually. In fact, hardly at all. In fact… Haunted Castle will have you shaking your head at the bitter irony that this film survived the ravages of time while Der Januskopf, Murnau’s celebrated Jekyll-and-Hyde knockoff, is lost.

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Phantom of the Opera

Why, yes—this IS a new look for me!

Everyone knows this story. Or thinks so…

You may have first encountered the Phantom in one of his modern incarnations, which have become increasingly swoony and romantic. Claude Rains’ battered old musician sported a mask to hide the acid-burned side of a normal face; the mask shrank even further for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, to enable him to sing all those passionate pleas to Christine Daae. By the time the musical was filmed in 2004, there seemed barely any reason for Gerard Butler’s buff Phantom to wear a mask at all. All of which undermines the logic of the story, because when your facial booboos could be fixed by a couple of trips to a good dermatologist, why bother with the whole hiding-in-the-cellars and pretending-to-be-a- ghost bit?

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Waxworks


Boris! Hang in there, I’m calling a lawyer!

This week we’re looking at Waxworks, from 1924. We’re back with the German Expressionists and look who’s here! Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Emil Jannings and William Dieterle, to name but a few. Waxworks is an anthology film like Der mude Tod, three stories set within a framing device, and while less profound is spooky, playful, and fun to watch, especially if you’ve grown to appreciate the acting ranges of the principal players. If it misfires in the end, it’s pretty plain it only did so because the filmmakers ran out of money. This is one of those occasions when a time machine would be useful: I’d love to go back, write out a check for however many marks they needed, and see what the director, Paul Leni, might have done with it.

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Usher Falls, Twice

Am I feeling strange? Now, why would you ask that?

In honor of the season and as a tip of the hat to S. J. Chambers’ ongoing articles about the first American master of horror and suspense, we’re looking at a pair of silent films based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

It was filmed twice in 1928, once by French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Epstein and once by American experimental filmmakers James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. The American version is short, clocking in at just over 13 minutes, without any title cards to let you know what’s going on. Unless you’ve read the original Poe story upon which it is based, you’ll find it a bewildering series of dreamlike images. If you have read Poe’s original, though, you’ll find that Watson and Melville’s film nicely pantomimes the essence of the story. Never read The Fall of the House of Usher? It’s short and available online. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 5

George hear twig snap…

“NEYAAAAAAHHH! NYAH! NYAH!”

That sound, my friends, is a man’s acting career in its death throes. The culprit was Tarzan the Tiger, the year was 1929, and Frank Merrill was the unfortunate who happened to be playing the Lord of the Apes at the moment cinema sound technology was making its first experimental squeaks and gurgles.

Tarzan the Tiger is one of those late silent films marketed as a sound picture, something like the “Simulated Stereo” recordings of the early ’60s: the film was shot in silence, but a recorded musical score with some sound effects at appropriate moments was supposed to create the illusion of  a talkie. You hear cocoanut shells impersonating hoofbeats, primitive noisemakers impersonating lions and gorillas, and—oh, dear—Frank Merrill’s actual human voice, in his best effort at the Victory Cry of the Bull Ape.

Nyaaaaahhhhhh.

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 4

You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.

1927’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion ought to have been one of the more notable Ape Man epics. Loosely adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel of the same name, it had Burroughs’ own enthusiastic support, largely because James Pierce, the actor cast as Tarzan, was hand-selected by Burroughs as most closely resembling his creation.  Alas, Golden Lion failed to wow the critics, and we’ll let Mr. Pierce himself explain why:  “Because of poor direction, terrible story treatment and putrid acting, the opus was a stinkeroo.” His rancor was no doubt sharpened by the fact that, at Burroughs’ request, Pierce dropped out of another film to play Tarzan. The film was Wings and Pierce’s part was filled by a young unknown named Gary Cooper. Cooper’s career went straight up, and Pierce never starred in another vehicle in his life. He did, however, marry Burroughs’ daughter Joan. One hopes the alcohol did not flow freely at family dinners.

[Read on …]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 3

Whaddya mean – “No shirt, no shoes, no service?

Next up on our list of Strong and Silent Survivors is 1921’s The Adventures of Tarzan. Even so, what we have here is a fragmentary work. It was originally a 15-part serial and has come down to us as a neatly re-edited 10-parter.  It opens with a replay of many of the events in  1918’s Tarzan of the Apes and most of the first chapter is spent bringing the audience up to speed, just in case there was still anyone out there who wasn’t familiar with the Origins of Tarzan. Since this serial also features the return of Elmo Lincoln as a spectacularly beefy Ape Man, this makes for a nice sense of continuity. The plot is primarily derived from two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.

[Read On …]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 2

I better go get the school nurse! Oh… that’s right, we’re in the jungle…

The Son of Tarzan, from 1920, is a pleasant surprise—even if it is a fifteen-part serial with the necessary cliffhanger ending every half hour or so, and endless artificial crises and padded-out scenes. There is a lot to mock in this film, coming as it did from a Poverty Row studio and being shot on the cheap. How cheap? Check out the Arab Sheikhs with painted-on beards and mustaches, wearing obvious bathrobes. At the same time, though, there is a lot to praise.

If you’ve read all the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, you’ll be pleased to know that this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel on which it is based. If you’ve only ever seen the Weissmuller movies, you may be thinking that Son of Tarzan refers to Boy, the kid Tarzan and Jane found and adopted—because of course they never married in the Weissmuller continuum, and therefore (since it was the 1930s) Never Had Sex. Surprise! In the Burroughs books they did marry and produce a real live baby of their own.

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 1

And I’ll buy you a silk dress, Mama, and all the bananas you can eat…

When a Grand Master like Fritz Leiber writes an authorized adventure featuring Tarzan (AKA Lord Greystoke), and no less an authority than Philip Jose Farmer connects everyone’s favorite Ape Man with the Wold Newton universe, we can justifiably consider his films in this space. The original 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs reads at times like a silent film plot; it’s no wonder that the Lord of the Apes leaped onto the silver screen early and often.

Perhaps the first filmed version of Tarzan’s story was the best; it’s certainly the most faithful to Burroughs’ original book. Tarzan of the Apes, from 1918, and where it diverges it only makes the plot more plausible than Burroughs’ original, with an interesting racial subtext.

[Read more…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Paris Qui Dort

One and two and con-ga!

While 1925’s Paris Qui Dort is not, as some exceptionally forgetful film historians have claimed, the first French science fiction film (Hello—Georges Méliès?), it’s certainly a seminal work. Its descendants include a couple of classic Twilight Zone episodes and its imagery is echoed in later end-of-the-world films like On the Beach. Yet Paris Qui Dort is short and sweet, a surreal little confection, slapstick frosting over a disturbing center. It’s a remarkable maiden effort for a young filmmaker, even one as talented as René Clair.

As the film opens it’s dawn in the City of Light, and a young night watchman emerges, yawning, from his shelter up on the third level of the Eiffel Tower. A vast silence greets him; this is a silent film anyway, of course, but Clair still manages to convey the immense unnatural absence of the sounds of a living city. Albert, the watchman, rubs his eyes and stares down in disbelief. The streets and parks are all deserted; there isn’t a soul moving anywhere below him in the brilliant morning light. Bewildered, he descends through the labyrinth of the tower and emerges at last at ground level.  

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Bells

Why, no need to get upthet, thir… jutht take two athpirinth and call me in the morning.

The Bells (1926) is an early example of films-claiming-to-be-based-on-a-work-by-Edgar-Allan-Poe-but-not-actually. Universal cranked out a few in the 1930s, generally pairing up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; Hammer turned out several in the 1950s, with Vincent Price as various tortured protagonists or villains. Of all of these, The Bells has possibly the most tenuous connection with Poe, since it’s really a film treatment of a fairly famous turn-of-the-century play, Le Juif Polonaise, and Poe’s titular poem is simply a rhythmic tour de force about bells ringing. There’s a properly Poe-like theme of agonizing remorse following gruesome murder, though, complete with spectral accusers, so it rates a decent four out of five ravens on the Poe-o-meter.

It’s still one strange kettle of fish…

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Der müde Tod

Another one where any caption would be wasted…

It was Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite film. It inspired Luis Buñuel to become a filmmaker. And, unless you’re a dedicated silent film buff, I’ll bet you’ve never even heard of it.

I refer to Fritz Lang’s 1921 masterpiece, Der müde Tod, known where English is spoken as Destiny. “Weary Death” is a much better title, but if you’re planning to buy or rent this one, look under the English name. And, thank all the cinematic gods, you can buy or rent it, because Destiny has survived the ravages of time intact and reasonably pristine. Since its story is told with the utter simplicity of a folktale, it has survived changes in taste as well.

If supernatural romance is your thing—and I’m not just talking to you little gothgirls or Twilight fans, but also to anyone of my generation who used to stay up late to catch the 1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or Portrait of Jennie—then Destiny is for you.

And, gentlemen, before you run for the exits, consider my opening lines. Hitchcock’s favorite film. Buñuel’s inspiration. Sure you don’t want to stick around and find out why? And were you at all impressed by Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, by the way? You were? I thought so. Sit down.

[Read on…]

Series: Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Murnau’s Faust

Forget the gag caption this week. Look at the composition! The lighting!

For those of you who thought F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was his greatest film, I have news for you: his Faust blows it out of the water.

A little background: the Faust legend dates back as far as the 16th century, and may have its roots in even earlier tales about the dangers of doing business with devils. Once codified as the Faust legend, though, its subject matter proved to be immensely popular. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Faust was a new archetype, a story that could be told and re-told with endless variations to make different points. Depending on the version, Faust might be an old fool, a fearless seeker after truth, a heretic, or a romantic hero. Faust has inspired a number of operas, one of which, Gounod’s Faust, was once the most-performed opera anywhere. Time has dimmed its charms a bit, but Mephistopheles’ serenade Vous qui faites l’endormie is still one of the most creepily romantic things I’ve ever heard. Like Jekyll and Hyde too, Faust was a favorite subject for early filmmakers. Several versions were made prior to Murnau’s 1926 film, but the only one I have been able to locate is a very brief trick film from 1911, viewable on YouTube if you’re interested. It will not impress you.

So Murnau was not selecting a particularly original subject for his last German film when he decided to adapt Goethe’s version of the Faust legend. What he did with it, however, broke new ground in filmmaking.

[Read more…]

Series: Ancient Rockets