You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Friday, December 14, 2012

BREAKFAST BOOK (4): WHAT WOULD SOCRATES SAY, edited by Alexander George

At first I thought I was a victim of bait and switch. This is not a book of contemporary questions answered by quotes from classical philosophers. And I would have quickly figured that out if I had taken even a minute or so to thumb through it. But it was cheap on a remainder table and it looked like fun,

Socrates remains silent for the most part, although he and other big guns may be occasionally referenced by one of the twenty-two academics who answer reader inquiries on the website They all teach at respected institutions, with Amherst College, home base of editor Alexander George, well represented. And this contemporary line up of philosophers probably have more to say and can speak more directly to the issues posed by the questioners than quotes pulled from The Critique of Pure Reason or The Nichomachean Ethics. For instance, I cannot image that Socrates would be very enlightening on the Santa Claus issue -- when to tell, how to break the news, and specifically is it morally wrong to let kids believe in St. Nick at all. On the other hand, Mark Crimmins, who teaches at Stanford, and Louise Antony from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, offer lively, contrasting views. I am curious to know how many parents will be convinced to follow Ms. Antony's tough love approach.

The book is divided into chapters with titles like, "What Can I Know," "What is a Man," and, "What Ought I to Do." (On that last one, yes, you should probably visit your mother for Christmas even if you don't particularly want to.) The question of relativity comes up often, in the moral rather than the Einsteinan sense. If lions eat meat why shouldn't I? Why are moral codes opposed to evolutionary codes? 

In some cases the inquirer might get more than he or she bargained for, but the responders are not above telling the questioners not to quibble so on some issues. When asked why philosophers so seldom agree, Nicholas J. Smith of Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, is very to the point, "It is our job to disagree."

Monday, December 3, 2012

SOME MONSTERS (9): GAKI, The Hungry Ghosts

Gaki are a form of undead created when a person, having lived a life of selfishness or dishonor dies and is cursed to an existance in Gaki-do, the realm of the hungry dead. Also called hungry ghosts, they are spirits in agony from a constant need which they seek to satisfy--though they never can. The hunger drives them mad.

Their forms are ephemeral and ghost like. Moonlight makes them glow softly. There are many specific kinds of gaki which had been categorized, though quite often unique gaki are encountered. Exposed to the taint of Jigoku (the Japanese Hell) due to the proximity of the two realms, many gaki suffer horrible mutations often resulting in strange insectoid characteristics. The Gaki have no true forms in their own realm, so they borrow their forms from the closest Spirit Realm, Chikushudo, taking these insectoid aspect. 

The gaki are vampires who prey on the sleeping bodies of the living. They easily move through solid objects, and only are affected by jade and crystal weapons, or Spirit Ward Magic. Dogs, horses, cats, Nezumi, and Sodan-senzo can aIways see the gaki.

(Adapted from the Legend of the Five Rings Wiki. Searching Gaki in Google Books turns up an excellent discussion by Lafcadiio Hearn, which cannot be copied and pasted.

(Follow the monster label to encounter other monsters.)
A typically unpleasant day in Jigoku


Wednesday, November 21, 2012


If your own nightmares have not been up to par of late, I recommend you take a look at this book. Suehiro Maruo (B. 1956) is the master of ero-guro (erotic grotesque) manga. I first read his book-length work Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. It was an outrageous grand guignol of misery, weirdness, and degradation. But compared to Ultra Gash Infrerno, it was Saturday matinee material.

This volume contains nine stories from the 1980's to 1993. Possibly they have been chosen for English translation to give the uninitiated an extreme immersion into Maruo's world. Or they may be typical. Titles like "Putrid Night," "Shit Soup", and "Voyeur in the Attic" let you know what you are getting in for. I doubt that characters like Spiderman and The Hulk need fear being replaced by Sewer Boy or The Great Masturbator in the hearts of the American reading public. 

 Maruo's work is elegantly drawn and according to commentators has its roots in everything from 1930's Japanese children's books to atrocity prints of the 19th century. I'll have to take their word for it. He excels in gore, sex, and combinations of the two. Female characters endure sex acts that leave them bloodied and injured, but they are capable of graphic revenge. Typical plot points include eyes gouged out, limbs lopped off, and wounds opened for reasons I will leave to your imagination. For me the scatology and coprophilia were the most disturbing elements. Moments of "Sewer Boy" struck me as merely disgusting. But maybe that is because it is the second story in the book and I hadn't yet been mentally whipped into submission. The essentially plotless "Shit Soup," on the other hand, was a beautifully rendered nightmare of degrading, repulsive images. Often with this sort of material, when I have encountered it in films, anime, or books, I have asked myself, "Is this trip really necessary?" I think to say something like, "Maruo's elegance and economy of style elevates his material to the realm of poetry," risks making one sound ridiculous. But I never felt he was asking me to wallow in filthy junk. I never felt like some teenager getting a thrill from watching Faces of Death.

"Non-Resistance City" (1993) is the longest story in the book. It take place during the Americanoccupation, a time Maruo did not experience first hand but he would have known from the films of Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, and the photography of Daido Moriyama. Maruo's story chronicles rape, social degradation, and ultimately cannibalism. It also contains an evil dwarf, a type of character he used often. 

Maruo's is a dark grotesque that reminds me of when Joel Peter Witkin first seemed like he was going to be a serious artist. Witkin isn't holding up over time. I am curious to see more of Maruo.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


The story of the PayDay, one of America's most underrated  candy bars, is the heartwarming tale of the survival of a unique American confection in a world of corporate takeovers.

A wrapper from when the PayDay went from 3 cents to a

Frank Martoccio, whose main business appears to have been macaroni, created the PayDay in 1932. Martoccio was an entrepreneurial sort who had bought the largely defunct Hollywood Candy Company in 1912. (That's Hollywood, Minnesota, by the way, not the Sodom of the West.) Hollywood had introduced the Zero Bar, like the PayDay a vastly underrated product, in 1920, and they had several other, admittedly less notable brands. Through his additional purchase of the Pendergast Candy Company in 1927, Martoccio obtained the secret recipe that allowed him to make fluffy nougat that did not go stale on the shelf. Apparently this was not a trademarked product, because the Mars Company would soon become famous for the Milky Way that used a similar recipe and technology.

Now comes the progression of sales and industrial accidents that transforms Martoccio's small but successful business into a marginal sideline for a giant American corporation. Frank's family sold the business in 1967 to Consolidated Brands, the company that became Sara Lee. In 1980, the Consolidated plant in Centralia, Illinois, a building that was once painted to resemble a giant Zero bar, burned down. Sara Lee sold what was left of Hollywood Brands to the Leaf Candy Company in 1988. Leaf is a leading European manufacture of pastilles -- yuck -- and chewing gum. In 1996, Leaf's North American operation was purchased by the Hershey Food Company.

Where does that leave the Payday?

Hershey Food Company has successfully passed off their mediocre chocolate products on the American public since 1873. Perhaps when Milton Hershey was mixing his chocolate by hand he was making something worthy of the name, but for the greater part of the last century the brown stuff that comes from the Hershey's plant has been a lackluster, chocolate flavored chemical stew with a gillion dollar advertising budget. With the PayDay they faced a real conundrum. Here was a product that had existed for sixty some years without a drop of chocolate on its tasty, salty and sweet blend of peanuts, caramel, and nougat. In 2007 they tried to muck it up by arbitrarily coating it with what  they insist on referring to as chocolate. Although rarely seen, this abomination, known as the PayDay Chocolatey Avalanche, remains in the marketplace. (I would have liked to have been at the meeting of the Hershey marketing brain trust where that name was approved. "Chocolatey"? )

An abomination

And yet the Payday lives on, essentially unchanged for eighty years. But how to you improve on perfection.  You get a handful of peanuts on every bar with just a hint of caramel anchoring them to the nougat center. And about that nougat. Although Martoccio had the  technology to fluff up his candy bars, he wisely left the center of the PayDay slightly dry. That almost chalky texture perfectly compliments the crunch of the nuts and the trace of sticky caramel sweetness. You no longer get a nickel stuck to the bottom of every bar -- that was a short-lived promotion in 1989 -- but you are guaranteed a unique candy bar experience. Subtle taste, excellent "mouth feel," -- I should stop before this becomes embarrassing.


I meant to post this pre-Halloween and encourage readers to share the PayDay experience with trick or treaters, but I never got around to it. I haven't had a trick or treater come to my door for the last four years, but I still use the occasion to buy a couple of bags of bite-sized PayDays to keep around the house for the day or two they are likely to last me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


She later appeared on Japan's Got Talent
Maybe this had been too exuberantly recommended. It also makes me realize that even when reading manga or graphic novels I am expecting as much in the way of narrative as I am visuals. 

Is there a story here? Sure. Midori is an orphaned child taken up by the owner of a failing freak show. She is sexually and physically abused. When she takes in three abandoned puppies, one of the performers, a woman whose talent appears to involve nothing more than sitting naked in a bucket of snakes, discovers Midori's puppies, stomps them to death and serves them in a stew. Midori's apparent savior is a midget magician whose act involves crawling into and out of a large jar with an impossibly small opening. Although the new act can save the freak show, Mr. Arashi, the owner, runs off with the money and the performers go their separate ways. Midori's midget lover has her wait on the train platform while he goes to get some food. He is stabbed while stealing. Midori is more alone than ever. (According to the book jacket. this is a retelling of a classic Japanese tale. I haven't tried to track it down.)

Maruo overuses the tongue-to-eyeball motif

Sorry, should I have warned of spoilers? Why bother? The story is nothing, much of it a dream or a hypnotically induced hallucination. Fans go to Maruo for the arwowrk, which is outrageous and spectacular. Maruo has a flair for perversity. Midori's rape by the puss-filled mummy man is a visual high point. So as you can imagine this is not likely to be to everyone's taste. And yet glancing through promotions for Maruo's other works, this might be one of his tamer offerings.

Midori and her midget beau have a night on the town

Midori has a moment of clarity

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


This has been my breakfast companion for several weeks. Documenta, the ultimate in international art exhibitions, occurs every five years in Kassel Germany. The extravaganza always produces a doorstopper catalog, usually several volumes of unreadable essays, and this chunky guidebook. The guidebook is what you are supposed to lug around with you at the actual exhibition, where you can spend several days visiting the different venues, taking in too much art in too little time. Forget about the films and lectures.

I have attended a couple of times in the past but decided to let this one slide. Reading reviews and now looking at the guidebook almost makes me wish I had made the trek, but then I remember years and trips to various huge international art expos where I wondered why I hadn't just stayed home , saved several thousand dollars, and bought the catalog. So I guess it all evens out in the end.

This year there are over 200 artists, and each gets a two-page spread in the guidebook. If I was consistent, I could read three artist entries per day at breakfast and make a complete tour in a little over three months. But I am not consistent. After a couple of months I am maybe halfway through. What stands out? Nothing, really. The projects tend to be so conceptual that the catalog entries do them little justice. If something seems interesting I have to google the artist and try to find out more. So far I have done that for the Cambodian photographer Vandy Rattana; Egyptian filmmaker Wael Shawky; Margaret Preston, an Australian painter born in 1875; and, the Slovakian artist Roman Ondak, whose ongoing Observations. a project invovling an archive of found images from Eastern European magazines has always seemed like something I would like.

Maybe in five years I will feel like going to Document 14.


Below: random images from Documenta 13

The selection of unreadable essays
mentioned above

Lara Favaretto's "Momentary Monument IV (Kassel)," 2012
A Spanish greyhound called Human with his front leg painted pink, by artist Pierre Huyghe. “Live things and inanimate things, made and not made,” reads Huyghe’s description of his materials
Marionette by filmmaker Wael Shawky

Sunday, October 7, 2012


Scylla, Paestan red-figure krater
C4th B.C., J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu
It's true her voice sounds like a new-born pup,
but she's a vicious monster.  Nobody
would feel good seeing her, nor would a god
who crossed her path.  She has a dozen feet,
all deformed, six enormously long necks,
with a horrific head on each of them,
and three rows of teeth packed close together,
full of murky death.  Her lower body
she keeps out of sight in her hollow cave,
but sticks her heads outside the fearful hole,
and fishes there, scouring around the rock
for dolphins, sword fish, or some bigger prey,
whatever she can seize of all those beasts
moaning Amphitrite keeps nourishing
in numbers past all counting.  No sailors  
can yet boast they and their ship sailed past her
without getting hurt.  Each of Scylla's heads
carries off a man, snatching him away  
right off the dark-prowed ship.


Scylla's tail. Fragment of a marble group (mid 1st BCE) from the cave of Tiberius showing the ship of Ulysses attacked by Scylla.
She's not human,
but a destroyer who will never die

fearful, difficult, and fierce—not someone 
you can fight.  There's no defence against her.
The bravest thing to do is run away. 

If you linger by the cliff to arm yourself,
I fear she'll jump out once more, attack you
with all her heads and snatch away six men,
just as before.  Row on quickly past her,
as hard as you can go.  Send out a call
to Crataiis, her mother, who bore her
to menace human beings. 

From Homer's Odyssey Book xii
Translated by Ian Johnston

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

MANGA MANIA: Lullabies from Hell by Hideshi HIno

More icky fun from the most visceral of all manga artists.  

A child raised by demented parents goes from torturing animals and self mutilation to murdering his enemies by depicting their deaths in his drawings. (Hino's protagonists are often artists.) A woman gives birth to a lizard in a story that could all be a fantasy devised by her manga artist husband. This story has an environmental message that never quite rises to the sophistication of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. In the third story, three children visit the countryside alone. They travel by train and return to find their world has become a nightmare complete with abandoned amusement parks and homicidal parents.

The final story, "Zoruko's Strange Disease," has that combination of physical repulsiveness and eerie grace that makes HIno more than just a master of gross-out horror. A socially outcast child, loved only by his mother, develops a degenerative disease that reduces hims to a pustule-infected monstrosity. Abandoned in a house deep in the forest, he uses the blood and ichor of his boils to paint strangely beautiful pictures. When the villagers decide to kill him before the spring thaw causes his putrid odor to once again fill the village, they discover a mystery that is simultaneously melancholy and lovely.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The Topps Company is best known for their annual sports trading cards which they have produced since 1938. But they have always maintained other lines ranging from current events to historical themes to novelties. They had dabbled in science fiction before when in the early 1960's they decided it was time to do a series loosely based on H.G. Well's War of the Worlds. Their initial title for the series was Attack from Space, but they wisely scrapped that for the more headline worthy Mars Attacks. They went into production with the highly regarded pulp illustrator Wally Wood as artist, but they felt his designs were too restrained for what they wanted. They brought in Bob Powell who had illustrated their Civil War series. He gave them what they wanted, lurid scenes of mass destruction balanced against more intimate human/alien encounters. He modeled his Martians on the giant-brained creature from the Joseph Newman film This Island Earth, and he set them about alternately bombarding the great centers of human population and hunting down survivors in devastated suburbs and the blasted countryside.

Management at Topps became concerned as soon as they saw early samples of the final artwork. Too violent and too sexy was their judgment. Hemlines came down and necklines rose. Aliens and the giant insects they created could die as horribly as the artists wanted, but humans transformed into flaming skeletons were a problem. The breaking point came in a scene where an alien -- the heartless, inhuman bastard -- blasted a boy's dog with his heat ray. The dog absolutely could not be shown as a flaming skeleton. For some reason repainting Rover with a full coat of fur, albeit flaming fur, passed muster.

Management was right to be worried. As soon as the first pack of five cards hit the news stands, complaints began coming in. The whole thing was too violent for kids and too suggestive for the general public. The artists began painting out some of the blood in the not yet released packs, but a call from a district attorney in Connecticut brought production to a halt. The series would be prosecuted as unfit for children. Artists experimented with toning the whole thing down, a process that largely involved replacing female victims with men. This made for inadvertently bizarre images, since the new drawings did not receive new titles. " A Prize Captive" depicted an alien abducting what looks to be a teenage boy. The man stolen from his bed in "The Beast and the Beauty" could be that same boy's father. What does this say about Martian sexual proclivities? But these cards never went into production, nor did the series ever see national distribution.

Instead it became legendary. The cards have always been on the collector's market, but Tim Burton's not very good film from 1996 gave rise to a new level of interest. A copy of card number one, "The Invasion Begins," sold in auction for $80,000. Topp's had sold off the original artwork in the 1970's for what I am sure at the time seemed like a good amount of money. Currently on E-Bay, a prototype of the unused Attack from Space packaging has been marked down to a mere $188,000. A set of cards -- missing 39 cards! -- is $11,000.

This book presents a brief history of the cards, facsimiles of the original 55 along with the storyline, some original drawings, and more current artwork created for recent spinoffs. It is a worthy 50th anniversary celebration. I especially like Card 13, "Watching from Mars." Martians kick back with red martinis and watch the destruction of the U.S. capitol on a large-screen TV. Pitchers of that red martini mixture show up later in a 1990's image of a Martian/human wet t-shirt contest. Where is that Connecticut D.A. when you need him?

Oh my God! Those aren't red martinis! It's human blood!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

MANGA MANIA: Museum of Terrors Volume 1: Tomie

On a beautiful spring day in Japan, Mr. Tanagi  takes his high school class on a mountainside hike. Tomie, the teenage hottie he's having an affair with, threatens to tell his wife about their relationship if he doesn't marry her. Fortunately, just minutes later she angers a male classmate who is also in love with her and he pushes her off a cliff. She dies. 

What to do? Mr. Tanagi tells the female students to go on ahead, turns to his males students, and tells them to take off their clothes. Here the story does not take the direction one would expect. He wants the boys stripped to their underwear so they can cut Tomie into little pieces without getting blood on their school uniforms. Problem solved. Only the next day, Tomie shows up for class, a little late but in one piece. And evil.

Junji Ito's other horror tales have cosmic themes. A small fishing village falls under the spell of spirals. The entire world is overrun with dead fish walking out of the ocean on tiny mechanical legs. Tomie seems like a regression to more mundane, traditional horror -- I noticed one reader review calls it a Japanese version of Heathers. But Ito spins the theme of the beautiful girl who won't stay dead into a series of related tales that are creepy as all get out and wildly entertaining. 

Tomie shows her practical side

Men cannot resist Tomie, yet they are driven to kill her. Stabbing her will seldom do. More often they behead her or chop her up. Beheading her makes a certain amount of sense when she is growing a second hideous face alongside her beautiful everyday visage. But the blood that gushes into the carpet takes on a life of its own and she's back. Tossing the carpet into the rubbish heap only causes an entire crop to Tomies to sprout like so many murderous daisies. Toss her bits into a deep pool below a waterfall and her spirit lures suicidal young men to the cliffs so she can feed on their bodies. It goes on and one.

There is another volume of these stores and a batch of Japanese film versions. Judging from the packaging, some of the films slip into the softcore pinkie film category. Ito's stories, so far, are a clever blend of black comedy and grotesque horror. Men just can't resist the girl. Although they know she has regenerated herself from a severed head kept in an aquarium, two doctors have this exchange.

"What an ungodly monster!"
"You're telling me. And extremely alluring one."

In the next panel the doctor is showing Tomie into his condo. Big mistake.

Tomie shows her true nature

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Since January, I have read a novel a month by one of the winners of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America. I thought I was about time to read a novel by the man himself. (Knight won the award in 1994. He was a founder of the SFWA and the award was named for him after his death in 2002.) Although several of the Grand Masters I have read I have been reading for the first time this year, Knight is perhaps the one I knew the least about. I would be hard pressed to name any of his books. Even though I worked around used books for thirty years, I cannot picture any of his covers or remember that he ever merited a his own shelf. Somewhere along the way I picked up the fact that he wrote the short story "To Serve Man," which became a classic Twilight Zone episode. (Don't get on that ship! The book...the's a cookbook!) And so I picked up A for Anything with no expectations.

Perhaps I should not have read his first novel, although I am inclined to start at the first with an author. But I have to say this is the most peculiar book I have read in some time, and not in a particularly good way. Here's what happens in the first three chapters.

1) In a scene that could come from a 1950's sitcom, a retired bank president checks the morning mail and finds a package on the front porch. Inside is a Gismo, a machine that can, according to the accompany brochure, reproduce anything with no expenditure of energy. The man' wife and brother- and sister-in-law are all on hand. His son says, "Hey Dad, l know all about that electronics jazz." A simple experiment proves that machine works.

2) A undercover FBI agent comes to after a fight with the inventor of the gismo. He checks in with law enforcement officials and finds that the world as we know it is coming quickly to an end. One hundred gismos have been distributed at random. Since they can replicate themselves, that all it takes.

3) The inventor of the gismo, living on the lam in Southern California, meets up with a physicist friend who is excited about the invention. But within days, the first of the new warlords appears, his enslaved drivers shackled into a line up of cars. Things are looking bad.

For the next chapter we jump ahead a century or so and meet Dick Jones of Buckhill, an estate in the Poconos. Society is now composed of masters and slobs. People are squeamish about the term "slave." Buckhill functions as a well-furnished medieval duchy, only with lots of modern conveniences. Young Dick has reached his seniority and will soon be leaving for Eagles, a mountain stronghold in Colorado that is part military academy but exists, from what I gleaned from the book, as a finishing school where the scions of wealthy families learn to be truly horrible human beings. Once he arrives there he is immersed in intrigues and brutal initiation rites. We get glimpses of how savage life has become for those not lucky enough to be among the master class. There is some lightweight discussion of politics and sociology and an inevitable slave -- make that, slob -- rebellion.

But none of this is envisioned in a way that makes it particularly interesting, let alone coherent. Dick Jones is the most lackluster, idiotic protagonist I have encountered in some time, but I don't get the impression that Knight is purposively playing him for a fool. The book moves in such spurts that I never had a clear image of what mattered to any of these people. Knight's worldview is profoundly pessimistic, but the novel is not well-written enough to embody such darkness in a compelling fashion.

I assume that Knight developed into a much better writer. It also seems that he was known mostly for his short stories. A for Anything is not a gateway novel for anyone who anticipates getting deeply involved with this author.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Justinian, Emperor of East Roman Empire
527 - 265 CE
His nephew, Justinian, though still quite young, used to manage all the affairs of state, and he brought on the Romans disasters that surely surpassed both in gravity and in number all that had ever been heard of at any period of history. For without the slightest hesitation he used to embark on the inexcusable murdering of his fellow men and the plundering of other people's property; and it did not matter to him how many thousands lost their lives, though they had given him no provocation whatsoever... this an not a single person in the whole Roman empire could escape; like any other visitation from heaven falling on the entire human race, he left no one completely untouched. Some he killed without any justification; others he reduced to penury, making them even more wretched than those who had died. In fact they begged him to put an end to their misery, by any death, however painful... The people have long been divided into two factions...Justinian attached himself to one of them, The Blues, to whom he had already given enthusiastic support... Needless to say, the Green factionalists did not stay quiet either: they too pursued an uninterrupted career of crime... everywhere there was utter chaos, and nothing was the same ever again; in the confusion that followed, the laws and the orderly structure of the state were turned upside down.

To begin with, the factionalists changed the style of their hair to a quite novel fashion, having it cut very differently from the other Romans. They did not touch the moustache or beard at all but were always anxious to let them grow as long as possible, like the Persians. But the hair on the front of the head they cut right back to the temples, allowing the growth behind to hand down in a disorderly mass like the Massagetae do. This is why they sometimes called this the Hunnish look.

Procopius, The Secret History
Penguin Edition translated by G.A. Williamson and Peter Sarris, with notes by Peter Sarris

Sarris adds the following footnote to the above passage:

The factionalists wore what in modern slang would be called "mullets." The long hair of the tribes of the Eurasian steppes was something of a preoccupation among Roman authors of a conservative mindset; Procopius' contemporary, the poet Corippus, describes an embassy of Avars that arrived at the court of Justin II as "shabby with their snake-like hair."

The Mullet. As fashionable today as it was 1500 years ago.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Not Justinian and
Theodora me and to most of us these two persons never seemed to be human beings, but rather as a pair of blood-thirsty demons... For they plotted together to find the easiest means of destroying all races of men and all their works, and, assuming human form, became man-demons, and in this way convulsed the whole world.

It is said that Justinian's own mother told some of her close friends that he was not the son of her husband Sabbatius or any man at all. For when she was about to conceive him she was visited by a demon, who was invisible but who gave her the distinct impression that he was really there as a man giving a woman her fill. Then he vanished as in a dream. And some of those who were with the Emperor late at night... men of the highest character--thought that they saw a strange demonic form in his place. One of them declared that he more than once rose suddenly from the imperial throne and walked round and round the room, for he was not in the habit of remaining seated long. And Justinian's head would momentarily disappear while the rest of his body seemed to continue making these long circuits... Later the head returned to the body... Another man said that he stood by the Emperor's side as he sat and saw his face suddenly transformed to a shapeless lump of flesh: neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their normal position, and it showed no other distinguishing shape. I did not myself witness the events I am describing, but I heard about them from men who insist that they saw them at the time.

Procopius, The Secret History
Penguin edition translated by G.A. Williamson and Peter Sarris

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


My Junior high school library had a copy of Starship Troopers on the shelf. I never read it. I had read some of the Heinlein juveniles, and I think I assumedTroopers was another. I had also read a paperback copy of The Puppet Masters, which was one of my first forays into genuinely adult SF and of course I loved it. But I loved monsters more than military, and so Troopersnever caught my attention although I loved that first quote, "Come one, you apes. You want to live forever?"

Soon I quit reading science fiction in general and I got the word that Heinlein was the bully pulpit for the military establishment. Boo. Hiss. So I was was surprised that the novel was not nearly so jingoistic as I expected. I think it would have defeated me, however, in seventh grade. Despite the good action and cool bugs, that middle section of officer training school would have done me in.

A couple of reviews I read emphasized that the novel should not be confused with what the reviewers obviously considered the vastly inferior Paul Verhoeven 1997 film version. These reviewers must be the true believers. I loved the movie when I first saw it and thoroughly enjoyed it watching it again after reading the novel the other day. Verhoeven passes Heinlein's text through the deconstructionsit mill. (Did Michel Foucault get a consulting credit?) I've already said the novel did not strike me as the jingoistic broadside I anticipated, but what fun to see these minor celebrities giving their severely limited all to this high-gloss parody of everything Heinlein must have held dear. There is a rumor that the actors, few of whom were the sharpest pencils in the studio box, had no idea they were being made fun of. I think that like most young actors with few credits to their names they were more interested in their paychecks than in the socio-political implications of their characters. 

Book and film should absolutely be absorbed as a single experience. Probably the book should be read first, just so you do not have to picture Casper Van Diehm in the leading role until the last possible moment.

Friday, August 17, 2012


For an author of zombie novels, Joe McKinney has an unbeatable backstory. For the past twenty years or so, he has been a policeman in San Antonio, Texas, serving as a homicide detective, then in the office of emergency preparedness, and now overseeing the 911 division. It's not that San Antonio has been especially prone to zombie attacks during that time, but cops have seen a lot of the worst parts of human nature. McKinney's protagonists, who tend to be cops themselves, cannot possibly be prepared for the horrific situations they encounter, but they handle themselves cooly and professionally -- at least for as long as such a response is possible. If I found myself in a zombie-infested quagmire, I would want to stay close to one of McKinney's main characters, unless he proved to be one of the immoral bastards the author also throws into the mix.

McKinney's Dead World series consists of Dead City, Apocalypse of the Damned, and Flesh Eaters. In September, 2012, this trilogy will be joined by Mutated. McKinney's titles let you know what you are getting. His initial trilogy has an interesting chronology. Dead City (2006) takes place in San Antonio during the night that the infection plaguing a storm-ravaged Houston first makes its way north. There are those inevitable early police reports: "We got a part getting out of hand down on the east side."Apocalypse (2010) returns to Houston, a month or so after the city has been quarantined. Only if you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that quarantine is going to hold. The novel follows a band of escapees heading north to a settlement that promises protection for the zombie hordes. Again, unless you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that is going to work out.

The problem endemic to zombie fiction, on which the floodgates have now officially been opened, is that we have, after all, seen all this before. George Romero created Night of the Living Dead in 1968. To some extent, all zombie films and fiction are a gloss on the Romero original. (I am not countingiearlier zombie works that based themselves on Haitian and voodoo motifs.) Something brings the dead back to life. The deadly, extraterrestrial rays of forty years ago have been for the most part updated to hemorrhagic viruses. The infection spreads by bites or bodily fluids, victims crave human flesh, and there is no cure. The only real question that each author and filmmaker must decide is whether to create fast or slow zombies. I am in the slow zombie camp myself, but I admire McKinney's solution. He allows for relative mobility based on the age and health of the victim.

McKinney' prose has the no-nonsense, laconic rhythm that fits well with his police officer protagonists. The stories are predictable, but the secret here is to make each moment believable and to pace the gross outs with realistic depictions of what it is going to take for each character to live through the next hour. McKinney's novels were getting noticed by those who give horror writing awards early on, and in 2011 he won a Bram Stocker Award for Flesh Eaters. And that third outing is definitely where he came into his own as a writer. Dead City was just like a zombie movie, except it too five hours to read instead of ninety minutes to watch. Apocalypse succeeded in opening up the story, but the climax came directly from accounts of the Jonestown Massacre, only with zombies instead of federal agents on hand for the tragic conclusion.

Flesh Eaters goes back to Houston and the series of storms that not only destroy the city but through chemical spills and god knows what else sets in motion the infections that will change life on earth forever. Again, this is a zombie story, and so we know basically what is going to happen. But for the first time, McKinney creates morally complex characters capable of both courage and betrayal in the face of the unthinkable horrors they confront.

I am not going to become a fan of zombie fiction. The only other example I have read was the well-received novel Feed by Mira Grant and I absolutely hated it. But come September, I feel certain that will be searching out McKinney's latest, even though with the title Mutated I am pretty damn sure I now at least three fourths of what is going to happen. "Good God, they're organizing!"

Read my reviews of McKinney's novels on Worlds Without End

Dead City
Apocalypse of the Damned
Flesh Eaters

Feed by Mira Grant

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

MANGA MANIA: GYO VOL 2 by Junjji Ito

At the end of volume 1, the hordes of dead fish marching onto land with their tiny mechanical legs had spread from Okinawa to the coast of Japan. Tadashi's girlfriend Kaori had become infected by the gaseous excretions from the mobile dead fish, his uncle Koyanagi was doing what he could to help, and Tadishi himself passed out in a vat of what appeared to be minnows mixed with the occasional squid. Just the typical goings on for an Ito manga. 

Tadashi comes to in a hospital and discovers that Japan along with the rest of the world is now overrun by the fish. A nurse tells him most people are becoming accustomed to the smell, but I find that hard to believe. Tadashi makes it across a Tokyo now under marshall law to his uncle's house. Uncle Kovanagi turns out not be so trustworthy after all, but what do you expect from a character drawn to look like Charles Manson. For the next hundred pages, Ito keeps upping the ante on weirdness and repulsiveness, OK, maybe none of it makes much sense, and scenes become somewhat repetitive and arbitrary, but Ito paints a convincingly nightmarish picture of what happens when fish with mechanical legs take over the land. He even creates a circus where infected humans are forced to perform for an audience of one.

Gyo has been made into an animated film. I missed the screening when it played a festival here in Dallas. Reports from those who both stayed up past midnight to watch it and made it all the way through were most enthusiastic.