Feeding the Story Machine

by Gary Phillips

First, big ups to Taffy Cannon who volunteers for Get on the Bus.  Most excellent.  Secondly, her post and Dusty’s dovetail it seems.  Prison and the people who populate them, and what happens to them once they get out, continue to be among the sources of the stories we write.  On a couple of mystery blogs lately there had been some comments about the cancellation of the Alcatraz TV show.  For those who might have missed this effort, the premise was the last group of prisoners on the “Rock,” 302 men, suddenly disappeared one fateful night 49 years ago.  Now they’ve returned to modern day San Francisco, having not aged a day.  Great premise, uneven in its execution.       Image

Sam Neill was Emerson Hauser, now an FBI agent who has been anticipating the return of the inmates.  He’d been a young guard at Alcatraz back then.  Let me add, for a cat who’s supposed to be in his seventies in the context of the show, Hauser was a bad mother.  Arthritis nor old man’s eyesight didn’t seem to impede him from shootin’ a fool now and then.  Anyway, there was also the young plainclothes cop Rebecca Madsen played by Sarah Jones.  Her homicidal grandfather, Tommy, was one of the inmates, running around doing bad things.  Rounding out the team was Jorge Garcia (the lovable big guy from Lost) as Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto, who wrote the authoritative book about Alcatraz, and owned a comic book shop.

The bigger mystery of what it all meant was hinted at, it seemed to me the episodes became too much procedural—hunting down the latest returnee who was a sniper, a bank robber, etc. —  and not teasing out enough the big story.  While Alcatraz didn’t quite gel, series be they television or prose demand a constant feeding of the story machine.  The ways in which we’re delivering these stories has changed, but for the characters that capture the public’s imagination, the demand remains.  Arthur Conan Doyle was beside himself keeping up with the demand for more Holmes stories.  Looking to expand his canon and tiring of the grind, he killed the great detective off only to bring him back acceding to fan demand.

At the height of the Great Depression, The Shadow magazine and Doc Savage magazine were the number one and two bestselling monthly pulps respectively.  Walter Gibson, a one-time assistant to Houdini, though he didn’t create the character, is the man who fleshed out the the Shadow’s backstory, the characters around him and so on.  Lester Dent had been tasked with creating a rival to the Shadow and did in Clark “Doc” Savage.  Where the former was dark and mysterious, the cops after him as well as the crooks, the latter was the golden warrior, a public hero everyone trusted.  Riffing on this, Dent was one of Doc’s arch enemies, the only villain to appear more than once in a Doc adventure, named John Sunlight.

At one point due to demand, Gibson had to grind out 50-60,000 word stories twice a month — 325 Shadow stories versus 181 Doc Savage stories all told.  There were ghost writers brought in to keep up the pace for both men.  There were also some issues of Doc Savage where Dent had written the Doc novel-length story and the short stories, be they westerns, detective, what have you, under different names in the rest of the book.

Star Trek was going to be canceled after its second season in the ‘60s only to get another year due to a letter writing campaign by its loyal fan base.  Thereafter Trek was kept alive via fan fiction, first realized in what were called fanzines (mimeographed hand stapled magazines that gave way to typeset, offset printed ones) and appearances by the leads at sci-fi conventions.  The show gained cult status leading to big budget films, novels, comic books and TV spinoffs.  Back in the day Paramount knew about the fan fiction but looked at this as benign copyright infringement.  They realized fan fiction kept the Trekkies happy and wanting more in the wilderness years, so they didn’t, in most cases, pursue legal remedies.  Plus it would have just made them look like the big, greedy monster going after a couple of geeky kids.

Another spur in the story machine process has been venerable characters with name recognition entering public domain and being redone in prose and film and TV.  Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein are PD.  Abe Lincoln (as in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), a public figure, fair game.  So too are the earlier works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that is Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.

Currently the ERB estate is suing Dynamite Comics not for copyright infringement over their Warlord of Mars and Lord of the Jungle books, but trademark infringement. Dynamite has responded that these suits are baseless. One of the publications Dynamite cites was a recent prose anthology called, Inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom.  While it’s clearly new stories about John Carter, the collection, published by Simon & Schuster, stated it was not authorized by the ERB estate.

To me the answer to Dusty’s question about putting out two novels a year is more keeping the stream of stories out there in various accessible forms.  From short stories done exclusively online, e-book and hardcopies of novels, mash-ups using public domain characters and public figures, writing new adventures of licensed characters (I’m currently co-editing and contributing to anthology using Operator 5 a super spy character from the pulp era wherein each short story is linked to the overarching plot), it’s all in the mix of germinating the idea, writing the tale,m and getting the work out there.

For instance, it turns out everybody’s favorite media uncle, broadcasting giant Walter Cronkite, as detailed in a new bio by Douglas Brinkley, liked him some freebies, had dinner with a go-go dancer (oh my heavens!) and once bugged a GOP meeting.  Maybe taking my cue from the aforementioned and the runaway success of the 50 Shades of Gray trio, my next character will be this kindly, fiftysomethng, pipe smoking slightly paunchy guy circa the late ‘60s.  He’s unassuming and looks like he might own the corner hardware store.  Only of course he’s a contract killer specializing in making his hits look like accidents and a ladies’ man who dabbles in S&M.

A Man Called Cronkite…danger has a new name!

Here’s to our vets past and present on Memorial Day.  Send the troops home.

The Originals

Mystery writers and writers of all types, spend a lot of time at the keyboard pounding out their stories.  We hope we’ve crafted something interesting, engaging and original.  That this is the time for lightening to strike and the book that really takes off, that gets made into that perfect gem of a B hardboiled indie movie or like Elmore Leonard and Justified, a rugged, gritty series on basic cable will be based on your short story.  One idea begats another…the original and the other stories inspired by it.

For example my fellow TPAC blogger J.D. Rhodes mentioned in his last post the Princess of Mars, the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the basis for the recent film John Carter.  Now here’s a film that I went to see, having read that book and a couple of the sequels many years ago in paperback with those great Frank Frazetta covers – an example of which Dusty used in his piece.  I liked the film, produced by Disney, for what it was — a big budget effort that harkened back to the days of Saturday morning serials.  It had cool action scenes and special effects, stalwart heroes and dastardly villains, and the filmmakers made Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars, she of the rockin’ bod, a scientist and a deadly swordswoman, and not just clinging eye candy.  But this $250 million wonder is a flop.

In one weekend the Hunger Games (based on a series of YA novels set in a dystopian near-future) pretty much made domestically what John Carter (and it was a bonehead move by Disney to not use John Carter of Mars as the title)  took in globally.  That even the mighty pop culture machine that is Disney couldn’t withstand the attack of the long knives.  I would call your attention to a piece on forbes.com by Erik Kain who I think does a good job defending the film.  I also note that some of the critics who slammed the film still had to acknowledge it was Burroughs who was one of the originators of this sword-planet-romance adventure that’s been riffed on from George Lucas, Ray Bradbury to James Cameron’s Avatar.  How strange then that a movie based on source material originally serialized in All-Story magazine in 1911, would be criticized for being derivative.

It’s also been discussed by some critics that the Hunger Games riffs in various ways from Battle Royale, a Japanese film that mostly played the festival circuit over here in 2001, though now available on DVD (a fully loaded version has the sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem) and Blu-ray.  Royale in turn is based on a series of manga, Japanese comics where teenagers are deposited on an island, given random weapons, and ordered to hunt and kill one another until there is only one survivor.  But such comparisons haven’t hurt the Hunger Games box office or book sales.  Even John Carter had a precursor; in 1905 Victorian poet Edwin Lester Arnold wrote Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation.  In this story, Confederate Navy officer Gullivar Jones is on shore leave (Carter is an ex-Johnny Reb) and is transported to Mars via a magic carpet.

Presumably Burroughs read Arnold’s story and figured he could do it one better.   Suzanne Collins, the creator of Hunger Games, denies knowledge of Battle Royale.  But isn’t Battle a mix of a video-era version of Lord of the Flies by way of the classic often filmed short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell written in 1924 where a big game hunter hunts a couple on an island. Its many versions include Run for the Sun with Richard Widmark, The Naked Prey with Cornel Wilde to an episode of Get Smart.

“Off there to the right – somewhere — is a large island,” said Whitney.

A Take on the Mosr Dangerous Game

“It’s rather a mystery–”

“What island is it?” Rainsford asked.

“The old charts call it `Ship-Trap Island,”‘ Whitney replied.” A suggestive name, isn’t it? Sailors have a curious dread of the place. I don’t know why. Some superstition–”

“Can’t see it,” remarked Rainsford, trying to peer through the dank tropical night that was palpable as it pressed its thick warm blackness in upon the yacht…

“It will be light enough in Rio,” promised Whitney. “We should make it in a few days. I hope the jaguar guns have come from Purdey’s. We should have some good hunting up the Amazon. Great sport, hunting.”

“The best sport in the world,” agreed Rainsford.

“For the hunter,” amended Whitney. “Not for the jaguar.”

Here’s to the hunters and the jaguars, originality and the inspired forever chasing one another.

Hardboiled Like a Mutha

Hardboiled just don’t get old.  When I find myself sweating over a story or characters, pretty much all I have to do is turn on cable news for inspiration.  In these days of 24/7 of the number of soap bubbles in a soap dish, granted you have to filter out the latest insignificant brouhaha about one of them Kardasians – not to be confused with the scaly alien Cardassians on Star Trek: Next Generation, kind of junior league Klingons —  but once you do that, there’s some awfully juicy stuff floating around out there.

Submitted for your approval; the story of one Patrick J. Sullivan.  For twenty years Mr. Sullivan served as the high sheriff of Arapahoe County, Colorado.  Fact this law-and-order was named sheriff of the year in 2001.  Recently he was busted for offering a man meth in exchange for sex.  He was cuffed, booked and jailed in the Patrick J. Sullivan Detention Facility.

Or take Mister Please, Please, Please, Black Walnut, Herman “Big Daddy” Cain.  Here’s a cat when the first of several sexual harassment allegations surfaced about him, initially stated as if reading from the Watergate textbook of Stonewalling, he had no recollection of any sort of settlement in this regard.  Then as evidence mounted to the contrary, he countered as if it were semantics, “you say settlement, I say agreement.”  But the best was on Halloween at a National Press Club press conference he was conducting in D.C.  Hermdog got the show started by singing a few bars from a gospel number called “He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs.”

You can’t make this stuff up.  In the old days if you re-worked this for your book, an editor would say such a passage was too over-the-top.  But damned if you can’t riff on a character like Cain who, at least as far as his public personas goes, is almost a parody of himself.

But is there any topping Jon Corzine in his testimony before Congress regarding his investment firm Man Financial Global “misplacing”  $1.2 billion?  Here’s a former governor of New Jersey, a former U.S. senator and Goldman Sachs honcho too, doing the equivalent of the yokel bit Cain did when he quipped, “Uz Becky, Becky, Stan, Stan,” proud of his ignorance about foreign countries and foreign intricacies.

“I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date,” Corzine said under oath. He further stated, “I know only know what I read,” said Corzine, who added later that he first learned that “there were un-reconciled accounts” on the night before the bankruptcy filing.

Astounding.  Wasn;t there a clue that somethig was up if the initials for the investment house was ‘MF?’  I recently completed a four issue comic book mini-series about a high end money launderer called The Rinse.  My anti-hero Jeff Sinclair gets involved in a scheme wherein 25 mil  is ripped off from a mobbed-up individual – a gent who’s made that money skimming for the take he’s supposed to pay out to his silent partners — who runs a casino in Las Vegas.  The couple who’ve ripped off the gangster are on the run from his goons and need Sinclair to wash, to do the rinse of their money, and obscure its illicit roots.  In my original pitch, I had Sinslair getting sucked into doing the rinse for a crooked general who helped himself to a few million of those pallets of money we sent over to Iraq.

Almost $12 billion in $100 bills was airlifted into Baghdad on shrink-wrapped pallets by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority. The cash was distributed with no proper control over who was receiving it, and how it was being spent.   This was the biggest transfer of cash in the history of the Federal Reserve has been graphically laid bare by a US congressional committee.

I had to crank it down from the initial idea as it was deemed too out there, too controversial.

Heh.  Like I said, hardboiled never gets old.

I Want Room Service, Dammit!

by Gary Phillips

I suspect the reason strongmen and dictators don’t ask mystery writers to their parties is they’re worried these writers might not only read something from one of their books bumming out the gathered with passages about desperate characters taking desperate measures – and thus a not-so-subtle rallying cry to the downtrodden in their land – but one of these writers might make some extemporaneous comment about those hungry kids with their noses pressed to the windows of the castle.

Because generally speaking, writers of various political persuasion and stripes, Ayn Rand being an exception, tend to stand up for the put upon, and have a sense of fair play and justice that comes through in their work.  Some of them are compelled by what they write to other walks of life.  Clare Booth Luce wrote the insightful The Woman among other Broadway plays and became a congresswoman, and another playwright and novel writer, Václav Havel, was part of the dissident movement to free his country from the Soviet Bloc and became the last president of Czechoslovakia.  While as a teenager Chris Abani was jailed and tortured in his native Nigeria for publishing a near future novel and went on to edit the anthology Lagos Noir in this country. Continue reading “I Want Room Service, Dammit!”