I think it’s interesting how conceptions on pop-culture phenomena change over a given time; positive and negative connotations switch places, and even the meaning of the name isn’t stable.
Take comic books, for example: for most of the 20th Century they were looked down upon as just-for-kids, childish funnies that grown adults had no reason to touch or come close to.
It took a generation growing up on comics to come up with the artistic visionaries who’d redefine comics as mature, adult, with deep themes and strong content: obvious names like Alan Moore and Frank Miller, for example. Gone were the days of four-color superheroes saving Hostess Pies from third-tier villains; suddenly in the late ’70s and ’80s, they had severe personal problems, battling drug and alcohol addictions, putting drug dealers and child abusers behind bars.
And it took a generation of readers growing up on the work of those luminaries to get to the point today, with many readers, bookstores, critics, etc. making off with the term “graphic novel” and applying it to “comic books” in order to construct a mature image, getting away from the kiddie comics of ages past. There’s a niggling remnant of the old stigma, but society as a whole doesn’t care so much anymore since the content has matured. And while not every one is Persepolis or Watchmen, the actual tone of most comics has moved on to straddle the line between child and adult.
On the other hand, we have pulps, the seedy dime-quarter-dollar magazines that entertained a generation. Back in the days before paperbacks even existed, in the age of war-rationing and the dominance of the fiction magazine, the pulps carried on the fine heritage of dime novels and penny-dreadfuls and other Victorian-age serials. Their name comes from the cheap wood-pulp used to make the paper, but has become latched on to the style and tone of their content: seedy, low-brow entertainment, the kind of “boobies and ‘splosions” media for non-literary-minded young guys.
Not that it was always thus, as many famous literary authors had their start in the oddest pulp places. But since lurid covers began to dominate during the pulps’ heyday—the late ’30s to the mid-’50s—and many involved “adult” themes (violence, sex, etc.), they gained the image of low-brow schlock, and there they remain. Pulps are seeing another resurgence, thanks to the power of the internet, lapsing copyrights and eager reprint houses, but they still have a negative connotation outside their niche interest base.
How about spaghetti westerns? The name itself is a negative connotation: what’s a bowl of spaghetti look like? A mess. An apt definition for Italian directors hiring American actors to film westerns in Spain. A good spaghetti western has a grittier, sometimes bleak outlook, with protagonists surviving massacres or attempted hangings (despite their innocence), dark anti-heroes riding lean horses in pursuit of their prey: gold, vengeance, death. It’s infusing more of the gritty noir anti-hero into a genre that’s already fueled by rough living, bleak landscapes, and casual death.
So the name itself was originally a deliberate criticism, but it was subverted by fans to become an accepted nom-de-plum. And while the genre had a brief life-span, roughly 1964 to the end of the 1970s, it’s had its impact on the western as a whole, breathing life back into the flagging genre. Interestingly, though spaghetti westerns have passed on, they’ve been replaced by another group of foreigners who’ve latched on to reinvent the mythos of the American Old West: see the ramen western subgenre. (Yes, this is really a thing.)
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
Let’s take a trip back to 1994. Alec Baldwin was on the fast-track to action-movie stardom, following his role as Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October. Penelope Ann Miller was a rising starlet, popping up in a growing number of films, the most famous probably being Awakenings and Carlito’s Way, though she was also the titular actor’s daughter in Chaplin. And some movie exec at Universal decided to cast them in leading roles for the expected blockbuster of summer 1994, a revamp of the old pulp hero The Shadow, certain to start an extended franchise of films and toy promotions and tie-in novels and etc.
How about a synopsis?
Like far too many action movies, this one starts with a lightning-fast pre-title-sequence rehash to get the audience up to speed. Alec Baldwin is ornery badass Yin-Ko, Mongolian opium dealer. He’s abducted by the Tulku, stock Tibetan mystic, who’s decided to make Yin-Ko redeem himself and return once more to the light. He apparently succeeds and teaches him psychic powers, because the next thing we know, Baldwin is The Shadow, dishing out vigilante justice to Mugsy and Joey Noodles in the New York City of the Stock Movie ’30s. (And by vigilante justice, I mean he screws with a guy’s head and sends him go confess his crimes.)
The Shadow’s alter-ego is Lamont Cranston, millionaire playboy orphan, nephew to the unsuspecting New York City police chief tasked with going after The Shadow. (Yeah, guess who Batman was ripping off? That’s right. The Spider. Er, I mean, The Phantom Detective. Er. Pulps in general.) Anyways, Uncle Policechief grousing about The Shadow gives Cranston a chance to show off his “clouding men’s minds” psychic powers—the lighting dims, shadows creep across Baldwin’s face, and he pulls the old Jedi mind trick on his own uncle. As their conversation continues, Cranston sees our female leading role: Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), eccentric society girl whose beauty stuns him into taking her on a date. Whereupon she stuns him again by revealing she has telepathic powers, responding to questions he never asked.
Margo Lane also happens to be the daughter to Professor Reinhardt Lane, played by Ian McKellen back before he had attained nerddom cult status. He’s the typical absent-minded professor, too engrossed in his devices (he’s an atomic scientist, see) to pay attention to his daughter’s relationship woes. His atomic work for the government is designed to be the peaceful generation of cheap power, but he’s worried it’ll be used it to make weapons. Also, he’s colorblind; that’s an important fact that the film beautifully shows without telling. His assistant is a lecherous Tim Curry, which should say all there is about this assistant character.
This film needs a villain, doesn’t it? Cut to the Museum of Natural History, which has just received a Tibetan mummy sarcophagus. The two head scientists wander off to investigate this strange shipment, leaving behind a bumbling security guard, who happens to be there when… it cracks open! To reveal Shiwan Khan (John Lone), descendant of Genghis Khan and fellow student of the Tulku. Though, he failed at redemption and killed the mystic. Khan sets out to conquer the world, using his own telekinetic powers, and a special metal called “bronzium”… which could act as the explosive core for a theoretical atomic bomb. And guess which absent-minded atomic professor just went missing?
Under the hood
You can start to see why Universal thought this was the perfect film to make. Its main competitors of the time were the Batman movies, and The Shadow has a lot of similarities there with its exaggerated hero and villain, psychic powers, and retro-noir setting. Though, its Big Apple is a lot more stock realism than the over-the-top, retro-noir cartoon zaniness of Gotham City. Instead, Shadow can’t seem to figure out if it’s going for seriousness or comic. All of the people Shiwan Khan uses his mind-control on are dumber than sacks of rocks. Take the security guard, for example: they banter back and forth, with the security guard doing his best “Barney Fife post-lobotomy” impression, before Khan has him blow his brains out. Wait, what? You jumped from cheap kiddie laughs to brutal murder? Well then.
Oh, and speaking of zany: Tim Curry’s character has his own Bond-villain death building, some kind of airtight dome down by the bridge which is, again, airtight, has one exit, can fill to the ceiling with water, and has one of those circular-handled hatch doors (like you see on submarines or vaults) which are easily jammed shut with a simple lead pipe. Why? Who knows. Maybe it’s related to his work with beryllium spheres. (“Honey, I have to run down to my airtight death building to do some science!”)
To be fair, this was the kind of stuff The Shadow had to deal with back in the pulps; for vigilante superheroes the ’30s was full of random doofs just waiting to throw their lasers, murder-machines, and airtight death buildings into play. Heck, this film’s villain is trying to take over the world by blowing up New York; I’ll cut some slack for over-the-top villainy.
As for the acting…
Alec Baldwin does a damn fine job as both action hero and millionaire playboy, but I just can’t shake my preconceptions of him as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. Worse, I never got a real sense that he’d changed from the pre-title sequence; he spends the film “fighting off” his darker nature, but I never got a sense that a.) he’d lost said darkness, or b.) that this version of the character had it in the first place. Penelope Ann Miller, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fit. There are some scenes she really shines in. Most of the time, her performance and characterization is annoying.
John Lone chews plenty of scenery with his erudite villain persona, which he does a good job at. I’m not sure if it’s the makeup or if he’s wearing contacts or something, but he has huge eyes, like anime-huge, which was just weird. Ian McKellan is underused, considering he’s made a bigger name for himself than anyone else (arguably excepting Baldwin) in the following decades. Tim Curry is, much as you’d expect, Tim Curry; I’m convinced the man is made of nothing but ham and cheese. Peter Boyle also shows up as The Shadow’s driver, “Moe” Shrevnitz; again, underused, though he gets a few killer one-liners.
And for the pulp fan?
For the most part, the film follows The Shadow’s history and attire well; he’s got his trademark trenchcoat, slouch hat, red scarf, fake nose, and chromed .45′s. And he’s got his trademark driver, and an army of minions working away to keep him informed. The big changes are slight; Margo is telepathic, for one. And “Lamont Cranston” was a real millionaire playboy that The Shadow, really Kent Allard, was using the name of; this complexity was smoothed over. On the downside: the movie kept the old pulps’ “yellow peril” vibes in the form of bad, almost racist Asian stereotypes. Gah.
What about the SFX?
The effects are all over the place. Expect bad early-’90s green-screens butting shoulders with some great matte-paintings, decent backdrops, and other physical effects. And there’s some okay to pretty good early-’90s SFX, namely fight scenes between Yin-Ko/Cranston and a psychic flying knife. (I have to keep reminding myself that Jurassic Park came out the year before.)
The sets can feel noticeably fake—namely the cardboard building backdrops—but in the same way movie sets in the ’30s feel fake. (To try again: things look like ’30s film sets, not ultra-realistic film studio sets of recent years.) To add to the noir feel, the film uses a lot of cheap lighting effects, putting Baldwin in shadow or darkening the area he’s in, to signify the use of his psychic powers. Which I think works pretty well, though it’s admittedly cheap.
The Bottom Line:
That’s the rub of the film: it’s admittedly cheap, it’s corny, it’s got a dated “yellow peril” vibe, it doesn’t know whether to take itself as a serious action film or a Saturday morning matinée. It tries to straddle both lines, and become the action-packed summer blockbuster to launch a franchise to boot. And it failed, bad enough to (reportedly) wrack the careers of its leading stars. It only made $48 million, making it a flop with its $40 million budget.
The Shadow isn’t that bad; it’s good, if you’re willing to let some things slide and take others into account later. It’s a flawed fun movie, a kind of gem of lost action franchises that could have been, plagued with problems and too under-defined to make it any more complex than “mindless entertainment.” Certainly underrated, though it falls short of “great;” there’s a reason its expected franchise didn’t take. But if you’re in the mood for a fun action movie, give it a spin; it won’t disappoint on that front.
Also, take note, Sam Raimi is rumored to head a new Shadow film sometime in the near future.
The latest in Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories pulp reprint line is a trilogy of early Robert Silverberg tales, written for the digest Science Fiction Adventures, which was in turn looking back to the old Planet Stories pulp for inspiration. The first book, Hunt the Space Witch! (hereafter referred to as HtSW!), contains seven of his earliest stories; the next two each contain three novellas. These stories have been out of print since they were in Ace and Dell paperbacks in the 60s-70s (one of the Ace Doubles I own includes “Slaves of the Star Giants”).
Hunt the Space Witch! is pure pulpy science fiction goodness. Look at the names of the stories it holds: “Slaves of the Star Giants,” “Spawn of the Deadly Sea,” “Valley Beyond Time,” “Hunt the Space Witch!” If those don’t catch your attention, you’re barking up the wrong tree. These are fast-paced tales of adventure and intrigue, of horrific monsters and beautiful star damsels; don’t expect a lot of complex development and you’ll get a lot of pulpy fun. There’s post-apocalyptic vikings and star-spanning empires, interstellar spy games, and a pair of time-travel tales. Like most pulp tales, imagination often outranks complexity, but Silverberg is a solid writer capable of great imagery and tension, two things pulp fiction needs most.
The stories in HtSW! are all medium-short, around 30-40 pages each. This makes them short enough to read in one sitting, without overdosing on the pulp, like popping popcorn. Their short length also constrains them to the basic “introduction, development, ending” formula, so they’re a rushed and choppy at points. It’s also an exercise in watching an author mature: the later stories are better than the earlier ones, in terms of pacing and development.
“Spacerogue” is definitely my favorite, an interesting tale of revenge for the titular mercenary. “The Silent Invaders” is also pretty good, about two warring species of aliens seeding spies into Earth culture. On the other hand, the two time-travel stories, “Slaves of the Star Giants” and “Valley Beyond Time,” are roughly identical. Well, not exactly, but they have a lot of similarities in their basic premise and execution, and it was like reading the same story again. The former is more interesting for its creativity, while the latter is more developed, but far less interesting, culminating in a somewhat random encounter before an abrupt ending.
As with all pulp-era fiction, everyone’s tolerance level varies, but if you’ve picked up other Planet Stories books or have read a lot of ’40s/’50s-era fantastic fiction, you should be right at home. Personally, I’m glad to see Planet Stories branching out into more of the “ray guns and rocket ships” stuff; I’m a fan of their brand of planetary romance and swords-and-sorcery, but variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It’s also worth noting that this is a huge book; the last Planet Stories I found, the Before They Were Giants comp, was relatively huge compared to the rest of the line, and HtSW! dwarfs that by some 30 pages. Also, the price: the Planet Stories pricetag has fluctuated around $15.99 since the change in formatting, which is pretty decent, considering some pulp reprint collections of the same general page count (200-350) have MSRPs of twice that.
I have to say, that’s one of my favorite Planet Stories covers yet, done by the amazing Kieran Yanner; the girl-in-the-nebula is hella-slick, and the old-school primary colors rocket ships are a nice touch. Paizo also has a wallpaper version up. Sadly, the next two books in Paizo’s Silverberg trilogy look a bit different; they’re good, too, with heavy James Bond vibes, but for my money HtSW! is the best of the three.
(spoilers, if you haven’t read the two previous Skaith books)
Reavers of Skaith is the conclusion of Brackett’s Skaith trilogy. When we last saw our intrepid heroes, things were looking up: Eric John Stark managed to contact one of the last ships out of Skaith as the starport was closing. While Stark decided to stay behind, his foster-father Simon left on the ship with a small party, hoping to plead their case to the United Planets agency.
Things immediately take a drastic turn: the starship’s captain turns on his passengers, capturing Stark and Simon, and with two other starships embarks on some merry brigandry as they loot the dying planet. Stark has to reform his shattered band of allies… heck, he first has to escape from the traitorous starship captain and meet up with his friends. With the starships banished, and the planet’s sun quickly dying, things quickly break down. The Wandsmen still want to keep control, and are doing the best they can (in their narrow-minded, “how it’s always been” way), but find themselves hard-pressed with all the refugees abandoning their fields and heading to the Wandsmen for handouts.
The Skaith trilogy comes to its explosive, sweeping conclusion. As Stark heads south along the Sea of Skaith, we get to see a lot more of the planet’s civilizations, cannibalistic tribes worshiping the dying sun. Stark faces off against various mutants and pirates, and the titular starship reavers, intent on plundering the planet before it freezes over. Stark has to topple the Wandsmen, or at least have them to realize their errors, in order to evacuate the planet in time. And there’s a nice return to prophecy at the end, an interesting surprise.
Much like the last two books, Brackett has a strong pen and a lot of flair for this kind of thing. Reavers has less of the epic battles and action compared to the previous book, focused more on Stark traveling the world, but the final few showdowns are pretty slick. And seeing more of Skaith’s weird “dying earth gone medieval” culture is a plus. Despite being the longest in the trilogy, it feels short, rushed at points, and several plot points are hand-waved, have too-contrived explanations, or are oddly random. The opening twist, after the high-note ending of the last book, is one of them; it’s an interesting setup and great mechanic, but it could have used some more foreshadowing.
Even with those complaints, Reavers of Skaith is a good read. I’m torn between it and Hounds as my favorite in the trilogy, but I lean towards Reavers because it introduces a smidgen of science fiction tech into Skaith’s otherwise primitive world. And the idea behind it is awesome. It’s a worthy conclusion to a solid trilogy; the ending is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.
It’s even more bittersweet in that Reavers was the last thing Leigh Brackett published; two years later, shortly before dying of cancer, she submitted the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back. And while the movie was built around two other drafts, you can see a lot of Brackett in the film.
(slight spoilers, for those who didn’t finish The Ginger Star)
The Hounds of Skaith picks up after the conclusion of The Ginger Star. Eric John Stark has ventured across the dying planet of Skaith in search of his foster-father Simon, destroying the citadel of the ruling Wandsmen in the process. Now, he has to venture back across Skaith, to the planet’s single starport, before the Wandsmen close the planet off for good. For you see, Skaith is dying, and many of its citizens want to leave before its sun dies and the planet freezes, while the Wandsmen want to retain power and keep the status quo.
This volume is filled with action, and all the epic battles the previous book was a short on. Skaith is devolving into civil war, as more and more groups realize that Old Sun is indeed dying, and that they must escape before the long freeze. Stark continues his role as a pawn of prophecy neck-deep in Skaith’s politics, as he unifies these rebellious groups to fight the Wandsmen. And to make things more difficult, he knows he can’t trust some of them.
It only took a few chapters to remember why Leigh Brackett’s Ginger Star is one of my favorite Planet Stories books: it’s got a lot of the Barsoomian/swords-and-planets fare, yes, but when Brackett grabs the reins it transcends into something more. Most of the early Planet Stories line was filled with pure Barsoomian novels—Almuric, the Kane of Old Mars trilogy, and Otis Aldelbert Kline, the man who would be Burroughs. For my money, Brackett is on the top of the heap: she writes damn fine swords-and-planets without devolving into the same-old, same-old pastiche/homage to Barsoom. (Nothing wrong with riffing on Barsoom, that’s why I buy Planet Stories after all, but Brackett manages to add so much to the genre that I consider her writing the genre’s high-water mark.)
Brackett’s prose is top-notch, arguably some of the strongest writing in the early Planet Stories books. Her characters are flat compared to Ginger Star or The Sword of Rhiannon—Stark’s love interest, Gerrith the prophetess, barely shows up—but Brackett makes up for it with plenty of action and adventure. And Skaith is filled with all manner of wondrous alien life: telepathic northhouds, various humanoids created by induced mutations, the deadly carnivorous Runners who run within sandstorms and attack in the ensuing chaos, a xenophobic government struggling to keep order, cannibalistic doomsday cults, and farers, hippies who wander from city to city, living off the generosity of the government. Quite a lot of inspiration to be drawn from all that.
I’ve been falling down on the job in terms of Hard Case Crime reviews—it’s not that I’m not reading them, it’s that I’m not reviewing them. It’s even more important considering the company’s recent publication woes; the company’s original publisher, Dorchester Publishing, was getting out of mass-market paperbacks.
Luckily, Charles Ardai was swamped with offers from publishers. The good news: Titan Books, based in the UK, is partnering with Hard Case to continue publishing. Titan has an interesting catalog so far, featuring a lot of graphic novel properties, also publishing novelizations for the BBC dinosaur show Primeval.
The better news: Hard Case returns firing both barrels. Those first two books next fall are brand new, one being Quarry’s Ex, a new installment in Max Allan Collins’ series about Quarry the hitman, the other being Choke Hold, Christa Faust’s sequel to her Edgar-nominated Money Shot. The covers are already out there, and they look great.
The worse news: Hard Case is moving towards a quarterly schedule instead of monthly, so Ardai can focus on his other projects… like Haven, the TV show on Syfy he writes and produces.
Also worth note is that Hard Case is coming out with its first hardcover: Getting Off: A Novel of Sex and Violence, by Lawrence Block. Definitely an attention-grabbing title, and Block has a great reputation in the genre… something to keep an eye on.
So, a lot of mixed news this last fall for Hard Case: they’re surviving, but cutting down the number of books. They’re also moving towards trades and hardcovers instead of just mass-market paperbacks. While I personally prefer trades, mass-market paperbacks are a staple of the genre; besides, switching formats constantly means my Hard Case library won’t match up on my shelves.
In any case, the current library of Hard Case work includes a lot of solid novels and the occasional true gem. I’m still chewing through them. For the most part, I have little complaint about the individual books and no complaints about the product line.
Read more for reviews: Hard Case revisits some of lost novels of the 1950s and 1960s with gusto and abandon. Truth be told, I got into Hard Case because of their classic reprints, though their new books have been great.