Thursday, March 27, 2014

Reading Habits #7: How do you treat your books?

© Prashant C. Trikannad

“My spine is hurting,” the paperback said from the bed. “I think I may have torn something.”

“A page or two, perhaps," said the hardback sandwiched between a Dostoyevsky and a George Eliot on the bookshelf. "What happened?"

“Slept badly, I guess.”

“Wide open and face up, or down?” the hardback inquired politely.

“Wide open and face down. That’s the third night in a row I've been mishandled. This morning I heard the birds singing outside the window and when I opened my eyes I couldn't see a thing. It was pitch black. I panicked. I thought I’d gone blind. And then, suddenly, there was a dazzling light. I saw that the housemaid had lifted the pillow.”

“So you spent the night under a pillow.”

“Yes, I did. To be honest with you, I actually liked it. It was cozy and warm. The pillow was white, clean, and smelled of lilies.

“Lilies?” the hardback raised his eyebrows. “Who did you say you were?”

“I never said who I was. Anyway, since you are asking now, the name’s Scruffy. And you are?

“The Mapmaker. I belong to Frank G. Slaughter,” the hardback said. “Why lilies?”

“Oh, I don't know, I like flowers.”

The hardback straightened up. “I know who you are. You are Paul Gallico’s, aren't you? The same fellow whose Poseidon Adventure short-changed you.”

“He did not short-change me!” the paperback said, indignantly. “I came way before Poseidon. Had it not been for the movie…”

“Are you feeling better?” The Mapmaker, who was also a peacemaker, quickly changed the topic.

“Why, what’s wrong with me?”

“You said your back was hurting.”

“Oh yes, I did, and it’s still hurting and that’s because I was lying open and spreadeagled all night. It’s easy for you stiff-backs. Look at Fyodor next to you, straight as a ramrod.”

The Mapmaker was about to say something nasty but let it pass. Instead, he said quietly, “Who’s reading you, Scruffy?”

“Some college kid who doesn't know how to read me or treat me. You’re fortunate his mother is reading you. She cares for you, doesn't she?”

“She certainly does, like she cares for her plants, her cats, her children, and her husband. So how does this kid treat you?”

“Well, last night and the night before and the night before that I was flopped over his sweaty and smelly face for like an hour, maybe more, and then he picked me up and shoved me under his pillow.”

“The same pillow that smells like lilies?”

“The same pillow. Thank god, the housemaid changes the cover every morning.”

“How much has he read of you?”

“Seventeen pages! Can you believe it? I’m only 288 and I’m very funny and he’s been at me for two weeks. Why doesn't the kid just give up on me?,” Scruffy wailed.

“Scruffy, 288 is a lot for a kid who hasn't read much. I mean, you're not the best or easiest of reads.”

“And I suppose you are, Mr. Mapmaker, with your navigational nose for latitudes and longitudes,” he snarled.

“Scruffy, I’m more than latitudes and…”

“That’s not all,” Scruffy cut in rudely. “Look at me, I’m torn, I’m dog-eared, I've been nibbled at, I’m shapeless, I've been scribbled all over, and I feel like I've been dipped in ketchup. This is NO WAY to treat a book or read a book,” he shouted hysterically. 'Tell me, Mr. Navigator, would you treat your maps like this?

“I'm not just a navigator,” the Mapmaker hissed under his breath. He stared at Scruffy and muttered to himself, “Why am I talking to a monkey?” He folded up his jackets, rested his head against Eliot's shoulder, and closed his eyes.

© Prashant C. Trikannad, 2014

Note: For previous Reading Habits, see under Labels.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Minuscule, 2006

A little known (or so I think) French animation series for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

After a hiatus of a couple of years, I returned to the cartoon channels. For the past few days I've been watching Ultimate Spider-Man, the American animation series on Disney XD, and Minuscule, a French animation series on the private and delightful life of insects, on Nick Jr.

I've only seen three episodes of Minuscule and I loved it, mainly because there are no humans (though they appear on the periphery) and no dialogues. Just a bunch of colourful insects whose insignificant and mundane existence is occasionally roused by situations often beyond their control.

The insects are anthropomorphic. They display human characteristics through behaviour, intelligence, and quick thinking. They have big eyes but no expressions. You can sense their emotions that vary from being happy to being sad and from being brave to being scared, though it all comes out in their actions. That’s how I saw it.

In one episode, a farmer is driving his tractor toward an anthill. The ants are terrified. A ladybug, one of the main characters, comes to the rescue. She does what a human would do: she yanks out the tube from the engine and stops the tractor. The farmer climbs down and goes off to find help. The ladybug then refits the tube, turns on the ignition, puts the tractor into reverse gear, and sends it off backward.

In another episode, a centipede is delighted to find a packet of chips left by a picnicker but is soon disappointed when a couple of wasps dive in like fighter jets, with sound effects and all, and make off with the packet. The ladybug, who is watching from a tree, chases the wasps and in a brief tug of war in the skies succeeds in retrieving it for the arthropod. Together, they sit on a rock and nibble at the chips.

Each colourful episode is very short and usually features no more than one or two insects, most commonly ladybugs, grasshoppers, flies, ants, spiders, and snails. Other not so regular insects include mosquitoes, butterflies, caterpillars, dung beetles, dragonflies, cicadas, bees, and wasps. 

There are friends and foes among the tiny creatures. The setting is rural France and very scenic. A piece on Wikipedia describes the French animation series as giving "a bird's eye view of insects' day to day existence, distorted through a burlesque, yet poetic lens."

If Minuscule has a moral behind it, then it is about mutual dependence; and big or small, size has nothing to do with it. I've only seen three episodes, so obviously there’s a lot more to this series, running since 2006. I believe there is a full-length movie too. If you like anthropomorphic serials like Shaun the Sheep, then you’ll enjoy Minuscule whose tiny characters are creepy but cute…well, sort of.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The science fiction of Evan Hunter

I forgot March 21 was Ed McBain Day at Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Since it was too late to read and review any of the dozen mothballed 87th Precinct mysteries in my office cabinet (where I keep them), I decided to turn the spotlight on the genre that launched the writing career of Evan Hunter, the real face behind McBain.

Man will someday leave the Earth. No one witnessing the marvels of today's science can really seriously doubt this mild premise. As certain as Man learned to cross the seas, as certain as he learned to build wings with which he left the ground, he will leave the Earth for Space.

The question then is not, "Will he?"

It is, "When will he?"
— From the preface to Rocket to Luna, 1953, by Evan Hunter

Eight years later, in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin answered Evan Hunter’s question by becoming the first human to go into outer space.

© Wikimedia Commons
The American author and screenwriter, it'd seem, wrote science fiction well before he wrote crime fiction, most notably his 87th Precinct series. He penned some two dozen sf stories and at least four sf novels. I confess to not having read any.

In 1951, Hunter wrote his first sf story Welcome Martians under his birth name Salvatore Albert Lombino. The following year he published his first sf novel Find the Feathered Serpent. He wrote sf until 1956, under a cavalcade of names like S.A. Lombino, Richard Marsten, D.A. Addams, Ted Taine, and Evan Hunter too.

In 1956, he penned his first 87th Precinct mystery, Cop Hater, where he used the name of Ed McBain. For the next fifty years, he backed it up by nearly sixty books in the series. It was to become one of the most famous pseudonyms ever.

On March 19, I discovered two of his four sf novels online—Find the Feathered Serpent by Evan Hunter and Rocket to Luna by Richard Marsten—at Click here and it’s yours. 

The two novels are published by John C. Winston Company of Philadelphia and Toronto. Find the Feathered Serpent was Hunter’s first novel, sf or otherwise, and he dedicated it to his wife Anita. A year later, he wrote Rocket to Luna, dedicated to all his sons. 

I liked the Winston Company's sf logo. Between 1952 and 1961, Winston published "35 science fiction juvenile novels" by famous authors that included Hunter. The covers were illustrated by artists such as Ed Emshwiller, Virgil Finlay, Mel Hunter, and Alex Schomburg. Of these, I'm only familiar with Finlay having written about him in 2012.

As I've not read either of the two novels, I cannot comment on them. But, here’s what the publisher has to say about the author and why he wrote them.

“Evan Hunter's varied background probably helped him devise the varied cast of characters—ancient Mayan citizens, bold Vikings and twentieth-century explorers—people who Find the Feathered Serpent. For this author, at one time or another, has been an English teacher, telephone dispatcher, lobster salesman, and now occupies an editor's chair. A graduate of Hunter College, he also served with the military during World War II in Cuba, Hawaii, and Japan. Though Evan Hunter found study of the ancient Maya hieroglyphics the most fascinating bit of research necessary to write Find the Feathered Serpent, he prefers the more usual forms of relaxation of piano-playing and sketching.
Find the Feathered Serpent

“Richard Marsten doesn't call any one part of the country "home." This author's wanderlust has led him to every corner of the United States, and he intends to see Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia and Africa before settling down. After that, he hopes to be among the first to apply for passage to the Moon—a probability beyond dispute, as far as the author is concerned. The three-stage rocket that Mr. Marsten writes about in Rocket to Luna was discussed with his boyhood friends during bygone Fourth of July celebrations. Plans had even been made to equip a tin can with firecrackers to test the theory. But the youngsters never got around to it, and it wasn't until the author started investigating recent scientific advances for background material for Rocket to Luna that he realized how near the truth he had been twenty or so years ago.”
Rocket to Luna

At the start of his writing career, Evan Hunter worked with authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, P.G. Wodehouse, and Richard S. Prather. In his acknowledgements for Rocket to Luna, Hunter, or Richard Marsten, says, “My thanks, too, to Arthur C. Clarke, who graciously answered several tricky questions about the Moon.”

I’m hoping sf veterans like Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom and Bill Crider at Pop Culture Magazine will shed more light on Evan Hunter’s science fiction. In fact, writer Bill Crider has written about Find the Feathered Serpent more than once on his blog (click on the above link).

This illustration appears in both the novels.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Touch the Devil and The White House Connection by Jack Higgins

I've slowed down on blogging so that I can read more and post less. Doesn't that sound like music to the ears? Well, this is in terms of my own posts and not my visits to other blogs. A direct beneficiary of this slack in blogging, at least in recent days, has been Jack Higgins, the British novelist whose real name is Harry Patterson. I read two of his thrillers—Touch the Devil (1982) and The White House Connection (1998)—back to back. Regular visitors to the 3Cs will know that I rate Higgins very highly and he remains one of my favourite writers.

Higgins is the author of sixty-plus thrillers including his most famous The Eagle Has Landed (1975), which is about Himmler's audacious plot to kidnap Churchill on English soil during World War II. However, instead of writing about Higgins and his fiction, which are already well known, I'll talk about three of his many unforgettable heroes in the context of the two novels I read.

The three characters are Liam Devlin, Sean Dillion, and Martin Brosnan. They appear in many novels; Dillon figures in as many as twenty. All of them have several things in common: Irish lineage, legend, idealist, wealthy, romantic, poet, scholar, philosopher, ruthless yet kind, a love for Bushmills, rebel, crack shot, and ex-IRA gunman. They once believed in the cause, a united Ireland, but became disillusioned after the Irish terrorists resorted to savagery and bombing. They are not cold-blooded killers and the one thing that is anathema to them is killing innocent people, particularly women and children.

They wear their hearts on their sleeve. They often leave behind a calling card, a rose, to convey a chilling message that seems to say, “I got this far and I could have killed you, but I didn't because I like peace more.” In Touch the Devil, for instance, Martin Brosnan, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, wants to hold someone accountable for all that he has been through. As he says, “Where does it stop? Somebody has to pay, Liam. I’m tired of being used for other people’s purposes…” He decides to go straight to the top, to the nameless British Prime Minister. Disguised as a waiter at a Christmas party in 10, Downing Street, Brosnan makes his way to her office, with a bottle of champagne and two glasses, but then walks away without firing a bullet or saying a word. He leaves a rose on the tray. The Iron Lady looks up and realises how close to death she really was. Brosnan’s is a desperate cry for redemption.

Skilled in guerilla warfare and secret operations, their services are available to anyone, at times for a price; including, in the case of Liam Devlin, Gestapo chief Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed, and to British Intelligence, often reluctantly. But, they won’t go beyond a point. They have no hopes of a normal existence. Their past is violent, their present uncertain, and their future obscure. Haunted by the IRA and hounded by British Intelligence, Higgins best describes his self-righteous and notoriously famous heroes as “dead man walking.” 

So legendary are Liam Devlin, Sean Dillon, and Martin Brosnan that they evoke awe wherever they go, in England or Ireland, among compatriots and veterans of the IRA. They are often received with exclamations of “Dear God!” or “Christ Jesus!” by old acquaintances. Higgins portrays them as hopeless romantics in their relations with lovely and sensible women whom they address softly as “Girl, dear.” It must be an Irish thing.

Most of their stories are narrated in the backdrop of the IRA and its fight against British rule in Northern Ireland. This is because Jack Higgins was born in England and raised in Belfast amid religious and political upheavals of the time. His formative years may have influenced his writing. He gives the impression of being sympathetic towards the IRA but he doesn't make them look good as much as he makes the rogue elements within the organisation look bad.

One such rogue element is the Sons of Erin, a splinter outfit of the IRA responsible for some of the worst crimes against the British, its army and its special forces. The secret organisation is made up of rich and influential members with Irish connections, including a gangster and a US senator, and is led by IRA renegade Jack Barry in The White House Connection and Frank Barry in Touch the Devil, both one and the same person. Sean Dillon in the first novel and Devlin and Brosnan in the second are “hired” by Brigadier Charles Ferguson, the powerful head of an elite and secret British security service known as Group 4, to track down Barry and eliminate him. Ferguson, whose description reminds me of actor Ernest Borgnine, reports only to the Prime Minister. He is utterly ruthless when it comes to protecting his country, even if it means using blatant lies, coercive tactics, and emotional blackmail to get the three IRA gunmen to “work” for him. For Ferguson, the end justifies the means, but he is not unkind. 

Liam Devlin is by far the most popular of Jack Higgins’ characters, appearing in about half a dozen books. I’ve never understood why Higgins didn’t give him more thrilling adventures. He is like the wise old sage, admired and respected by his protégés like Martin Brosnan and feared by his enemies. At 60, he is still fast with a gun. Post-IRA, he is a professor of English Literature at Trinity College in Dublin. 

Apart from Dillon and Brosnan there is Martin Fallon, another IRA hitman who wants out but can’t get out. They all have their own series, as do Higgins’ many other inimitable characters.

Jack Higgins often tells improbable stories where mercenaries like Sean Dillon have easy access to the American President in The White House Connection and Martin Brosnan enters 10, Downing Street without a hitch in Touch the Devil. His novels lack the brutal reality of a John le Carré, the technical brilliance of a Tom Clancy, or the researched narrative of a Frederick Forsyth. But Higgins more than makes up for the deficit by telling uncomplicated stories through some very memorable characters of espionage fiction. Characters who have "the Devil on their side," as Higgins tells you.

Previous reviews of Jack Higgins novels

October 9, 2013 - Hell Is Too Crowded, 1962
May 20, 2013 - The Iron Tiger, 1966
August 10, 2012 - A Prayer for the Dying, 1973
June 7, 2012 - A Fine Night for Dying, 1969
October 11, 2011 - The Keys of Hell, 1965
May 14, 2011 - Storm Warning, 1976

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sorry: Wrong Dimension by Ross Rocklynne, 1954

Patti Abbott is the generous host of Friday’s Forgotten Books at her wonderful blog Pattinase.

So the baby had a pet monster. And so nobody but baby could see it. And so a couple of men dropped out of thin air to check and see if the monster was licensed or not. So what's strange about that?

Last month, I reviewed two sf stories, The Father-Thing by Philip K. Dick and Rain, Rain, Go Away by Isaac Asimov, which centered on families and exposed their vulnerability. This week, I read another sf story, Sorry: Wrong Dimension by Ross Rocklynne, which had a similar theme.

Families appear to be a pet topic among many science fiction writers, as evident from these and a few other sf stories I've read, including the very entertaining The Million-Year Picnic by Ray Bradbury. Each of these stories has a twist; some of them are scary, others chilling. No one likes to see, or read about, bad things happening to good people, especially to families, to women and children. It’s only fiction, still what if...

Ross Rocklynne, the assumed name of American sf writer Ross Louis Rocklin (1913- 1988), once again demolishes the notion of the happy family, or so it would seem, in his short story Sorry: Wrong Dimension published in Amazing Stories, March 1954. 

Stella Weaver is a lovely housewife who is having tea with her neighbour, Mabel Aspectia, also a housewife. They are bored but contented with life. They are talking about what housewives often talk about: what to cook for their husbands that evening. When Stella realises that her baby hasn't been crying for a while, she goes into his room to investigate and finds the little tot gurgling with joy, as if playing with someone—or something. She reaches out for the baby in the crib and, instead, touches an invisible furry monster that is, in fact, playing with her child. Stella is stricken with horror and screams out instinctively. That is when she discovers they are in another dimension, possibly not of our planet, our solar system or our galaxy.

Unlike The Father-Thing, this was a funny and delightful story. Stella doesn’t faint or anything like that. When she realises that the pet monster is harmless, she takes things in her stride and decides to call her husband to tell him about it. Except, each time she does, she gets the wrong dimension! The story ends on a happy note with friendly “people” from the other dimension coming to pick up the little wayward monster and Stella and Mabel carrying on where they had left off—what to cook for their husbands.

Sorry: Wrong Dimension is an excellent example of the immense and unimaginable possibilities that lie in sf.

Note: You can read more about Ross Rocklynne and his work here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again, 1990

For Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom, this Tuesday, a very hazy recollection of a film that was best left inside the comic.

I have only the vaguest of memories of Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again, 1990, based on the popular teenage icon Archie and his friends. They return to good old Riverdale High for a grand reunion. Unlike in the comics, Archie and the gang—Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie—are all grown up, their teenage angst replaced by adult troubles. There is much talk among the old friends. But, as in the comics, the freckle-faced Archie must still choose between the dewy-eyed blonde and the spoiled-rich brunette. The weirdest bit in the movie, if I recall correctly, is that woman-hater Jughead has a young son. There is no sign of a wife, or Big Ethel, around. In short, I remember not liking it much.

The film is directed by Dick Lowry, known for television films and serials, and has Christopher Rich as Archie Andrews, Lauren Holly as Betty Cooper, Karen Kopins as Veronica Lodge, Sam Whipple as Jughead Jones, and Gary Kroeger as Reggie Mantle. Fran Ryan plays Miss Grundy, David Doyle impersonates Mr. Weatherbee, and Mike Nussbaum is Pop Tate.

Going only by names, I don’t know who Dick Lowry is or who any of these actors are, though I might have seen them elsewhere.

I have found that there were at least two other films, Archie (1964) and Archie's Weird Mysteries (1999), a television series.

It’s not easy to recreate a comic book hero on screen. For those who demand exactness, like me, it’s also more difficult to accept them. They seldom live up to my expectations. Christopher Rich and Sam Whipple did not seem like Arch and Juggie to me. They could’ve been in any film.

But then, neither did Michael Keaton, George Clooney and Christian Bale as Batman, Brandon Routh as Superman, Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Billy Zane as The Phantom, Macaulay Culkin as Richie Rich, or Christian Clavier as Astérix and Gérard Depardieu as Obélix.

As far as Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk is concerned, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo.

The only actors who have looked the part of the comic book heroes they have played are Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman, Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.

Steven Spielberg did a wise thing by deciding to recapture Belgian cartoonist Georges ‘Hergé’ Remi’s famous hero, Tintin, only in animated form. The first of the series, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) was a big success mainly because the young reporter stayed inside his comic book.

Archie lives
Coming back to John L. Goldwater’s creation, Archie comics are still around, though the drawings and storyboards have gone through significant changes. The Riverdale gang is almost unrecognisable. They’re more snazzy and colourful. Some years ago, Archie Comics released a six-part series about Archie’s marriage (to either Betty or Veronica) that wasn’t entirely convincing. Today, the Archies look as if they are caught in a time warp, somewhere between Little Archie and Teenage Archie. Obviously, Archie Comics is catering to a new and young readership.

A couple of days ago, the family picked up some old Archie double digests (classified as magazines) and it felt nice to read the original adventures of freckle face and his friends. When was the last time you read an Archie comic?

Friday, March 07, 2014

AN.AL—The Origins by Athul DeMarco, 2013

Insanity, like misery, never walks alone.

I was more than a little sceptical when Bharti Taneja of Fingerprint Publishing, New Delhi, wrote to me saying that she was sending a review copy of their latest release based on splatterpunk genre. The reason was that splatterpunk, a term attributed to American author of horror fiction David J. Schow, is horror without limits. It refers to graphic depiction of violence, sex, cannibalism, bloodshed and the kind. Examples are Jack Ketchum's Off Season and Edward Lee's The Bighead. However, Bharti assured me that the book was very interesting and not as violent as I thought.

And so I read Indian writer Athul DeMarco’s debut novel AN.AL—The Origins and got acquainted with horror within horror for the first time. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. In fact, I quite liked the story. It was weird and unconventional and like nothing I’d read before.

The main character is a man with two heads, Andy (AN) and Alfie (AL), who investigate the bizarre and macabre deaths of a backpacking wayward tourist, the young son of a wealthy and influential couple, and a stray dog stuffed inside a gunnysack and found in their home. All three bodies are mutilated. The killer is Anita, a young and attractive girl, whose staple diet is human flesh and bones. She has sworn to destroy the two-headed monster but the twins don’t know it.

Andy and Alfie are conjoined, their heads attached to a single body, but they are as different as night and day. Andy is the silent one who likes to read and think before he does anything while Alfie is the spirited type who likes to sleep, drink, and smoke. Both have a keen intelligence and a rare understanding. They argue and quarrel like normal siblings but they are clear about their work as amateur detectives. The adventurous twins are hired as consultants by The Department with No Name (The Department of Weird) to investigate peculiar cases that defy explanation. They report to Eugene Francois, a good-natured cop who works under Superintendent Roth, a wife-beating ambitious and crooked police officer.

Anita owes her cannibalistic nature to her circumstances–she was alone and bullied in school, sexually abused by a doting father, ran away from her dysfunctional family, and was adopted by a clown couple, Peter and Rita, the only survivors of the Human Cannibal Project of the Third Reich. The Pollacks, who have been preying on humans for more than thirty years, train their “daughter” to become a predator, just like them.

“It’s okay, love… But you know what we really want. We want the man with two heads. Kill him and you get back everything you loved.”

The characters
There are very few characters in the story apart from the twins, Anita, and the two cops. There is Dominic McManus, the owner of the McManus Pub and the only friend Andy and Alfie have, and Mr. Robbins, their landlord, both of whom, in return for favours, offer the boys a lifetime of free food and accommodation. There is also Manny, the superintendent’s resourceful assistant.

The story centres on Andy and Alfie and their seemingly difficult life. They manage quite well in spite of their abnormality. The twins are enterprising, sharp, enthusiastic, and witty. You can’t help warming towards them. At the same time you can’t help wondering about the more personal aspects of their life, their inner desires and feelings. After all, they are two heads, two minds, and two personalities. The author skims over this issue. A case in point is when Andy has an intense dream that Alfie is hugging and kissing him on his lips or when Alfie feels romantically inclined towards a hospital nurse. Of course, these mean nothing in the story.

Anita, on the other hand, is a closed book. Just as you feel sorry for her abused and unwanted character, she transforms into a man-eater without heart and soul. Unlike the twins, I thought she lacked depth and goes through the motions of hunting down her prey.

Final Word

Author Athul DeMarco has come up with an original story idea. AN.AL—The Origins is well-written, absorbing, and quite fast paced. There is a dark quality to the storytelling. It has suspense but it is not scary. The setting is interesting but ambiguous with names of places (or titles of chapters) like 201 Swann Street, McManus Pub, Costa Le Roux, Bellingham County Hospital, Vansdoor, and Summerfields. Likewise, the characters could be from anywhere.

On the flipside, the discovery of rotting and mutilated corpses and carcasses, while disturbing, does not evoke horrifying imagery. I also felt that the novel was long at 251 pages; there were parts that could have been left out. But then, length is a writer’s prerogative.

Bottom line: I was happy with my initiation into splatterpunk fiction with DeMarco’s debut novel. I would read his second book.

One thing I realised about splatterpunk is that it touches many genres like crime, horror, sf, and fantasy, and it would appeal to anyone who likes to read in one or more of these categories.


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Jim Kelly, and Enter the Dragon, 1973

A forgotten actor and his cameo in a cult movie is this week’s focus for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

"I broke down the colour barrier. I was the first black martial artist to become a movie star."

One of the segments I look forward to watching at the Oscars and Golden Globe awards is ‘In Memoriam’ where pictorial tribute is paid to artists who have died over the past year. At the Academy Awards this year, many luminaries like Shirley Temple and Philip Seymour Hoffman were honoured. And, as so often happens, some were left out, notably writer Tom Clancy, which was odd since his senior contemporaries Elmore Leonard and Richard Matheson were part of the celebrity montage. However, there are bound to be hits and misses in an event of the scale of the Oscars.

Among the many entertainers who made it to the posthumous list was Jim Kelly, the American actor and martial arts exponent who died on June 29, 2013. He was 67. Not many would remember him.

Born James Milton Kelly, the actor brought his 6' 2" frame and beehive hairdo to bear upon one of the most popular martial arts movies of all time—Enter the Dragon. In doing so, Jim Kelly left a permanent imprint on the cult film whose most famous star was Bruce Lee. Kelly had his task cut out for him, for not only did he have to work in the shadow of the legendary martial artist but he also had to contend with the suave actor John Saxon. While both Lee and Saxon had already established themselves, this was only Kelly's second film and probably his most notable cinematic work.

In Enter the Dragon, director Robert Clouse brings Lee, Saxon, and Kelly together on an island off Hong Kong considered as the hotbed of vice, mainly opium and blood trade, run by Han, a master criminal with a claw hand. It is Bruce Lee's task, as an informal undercover agent, to investigate the suspicious happenings on the island and report to his agency. But Lee has an agenda of his own: avenging the death of his sister. The man responsible for it, O’harra (Robert Wall), is on the island and in Han's payroll. Old friends Roper (Saxon) and Williams (Kelly) accompany Lee to the island to escape from their own problems.

John Saxon and Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon.

On the island the three men find the ideal cover in a do-or-die martial arts tournament organised by Han and refereed by his beefy henchman Bolo (Bolo Yeung) who requires no introduction. Men must fight men, sometimes until death. Lee, Saxon, and Kelly prove their worth as martial artists though Han never pits them against each other (in fact, I think he tries but they refuse). In one memorable scene, Lee faces O’harra. Before the start of the fight, O’harra picks up a board and smashes it to convey a point to Lee who retorts in his trademark clipped voice, “Boards don't hit back.” Lee has his revenge.

The film ends on a predictable note: Bruce Lee and John Saxon take on Han and his inexperienced men and liberate hundreds of innocent civilians held captive.

This was Jim Kelly's only well-known film and he was eliminated in the first half. Fans of martial arts films continue to ask why. He deserved to remain until the end.

There are many Bruce Lee takeaways from this film, like his "taming" of a venomous snake, his high-pitched shrieks during fights, his skill with nunchucks, his flying kick, and his final battle with Han inside the deceptive room of mirrors. The one thing Lee doesn't bring to this film, not that he was expected to, is humour. Director Robert Clouse leaves that to Jim Kelly who is the funny face of Enter the Dragon.

Although Clouse lays out the red carpet for Bruce Lee, and John Saxon to a lesser degree, Jim Kelly brings his own charm and style to the film, be it with his fists and arms, his wisecracks, betting on fights and making a neat pile, a toss of his head, or his ridiculing of Han.

“Man, you come right out of a comic book.”

After Enter the Dragon, I never saw Jim Kelly again, in spite of being a gifted actor. But, after hearing his name and seeing his face at the Oscars, I looked up his filmography and found that, in 1974, Robert Clouse directed him in Black Belt Jones, described as an "American Blaxploitation action film," and in Golden Needles.

More than these two films, I hope to see Kelly in action film Three the Hard Way (1974) alongside Jim Brown and Fred Williamson; the western Take A Hard Ride (1975) with Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, and Fred Williamson; and another action movie called One Down, Two to go (1976), again opposite Brown and Williamson, and Richard Roundtree.

Jim Kelly has left behind a bigger legacy than I thought he'd.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Reading Habits #6: Reading on the railway

8.20 am: I miss the 8.15 local by a few minutes. I am on platform No.2 at Andheri station waiting to board the 8.23 local to Churchgate in the south. I remove my earphones and my tablet from my bag—do I listen to music or do I read? As I make up my mind the loudspeaker crackles to life and I hear a familiar but depressing voice: “The slow train arriving on platform No.2 at 23 minutes past eight has been cancelled. Inconvenience caused to passengers is highly regretted.”

The lifeline of Mumbai.
© Prashant C. Trikannad
8.25 am: The next local is at 8.36 am. Will it be on time? Is it even scheduled today? My fingers are crossed. I put away the earphones and open the tablet and tap on the book reader, to page 42 of A Noose for the Desperado by Clifton Adams. I read about 19-year old rebel gunman Talbert ‘Tall’ Cameron's daring takeover of a band of outlaws in Ocotillo, a shady town in Arizona, and his plan to ambush a train smuggling silver across the Mexican border. The loudspeaker crackles again, this time with a repetitive public warning—“Overhead wires are charged at 25,000 volts. Travelling on rooftop is highly dangerous. Passengers are requested not to travel on rooftop.”

8.41 am: The 8.36 enters the platform. Even as it comes to a halt, commuters rush into the train and occupy all the seats. When the dust settles the arriving passengers get off the local and rush to the staircase. I enter the coach and stand in the aisle with my back to the stainless steel partition. As the train pulls out at 8.45, nine minutes late but early for once, I hear the loudspeaker intone, "The slow train arriving on platform No.2 at 57 minutes past eight has been cancelled. Inconvenience caused to passengers is highly regretted."

8.48: I look around the compartment. I spot a couple of known faces and we nod at each other. A few commuters are dozing off. Some are reading newspapers. Still others are fiddling with their mobile phones. Two people are reading books, one Dan Brown's Inferno and the other the Indian epic Ramayana. I put away my tab and listen to music; I plug into Elvis Presley. It will be some other singer on the return journey in the evening.

Inside the first-class coach of the 9 am Bandra-Churchgate local.
© Prashant C. Trikannad 

8.57 am: Three stations later, the train pulls into Bandra. I alight and walk across to the other side of the same platform and hop into the 9 am Bandra local. It is almost empty. I find a window seat. I open a book, AN.AL – The Origins, by Indian writer Athul Demarco and read the last chapter so I can review it. Some people get in and I look up and acknowledge their greetings. Only two men are reading anything at all; the rest are doing nothing, looking nowhere, in particular.

9.09 am: At Dadar, a major station, scores of transit commuters with haversacks and shoulder bags crash into the first-class coach and stand in the aisle so they can get off at the next two stations, the city's new business districts. After just two pages of Demarco’s novel, I lose interest, not in the book but in reading further. I reopen the tab and play a game of chess with alien software; I lose badly. 

The local leaves Marines Lines.
© Prashant C. Trikannad
9.35 am: Marine Lines, the last station before Churchgate. Before I alight I put away my book and my tab safely. I step on to the platform, walk out of the station, and proceed to my office a few blocks away, with Losing My Religion by REM playing in my ears.

And I wonder why I don’t read enough books every month.