Wednesday, June 24, 2009


At its best, science fiction holds up a mirror to society and even the most workmanlike speculative fiction can often be reflective of the times in which it was written.

Norman Spinrad’s 1967 novel, The Men In The Jungle, is anything but workmanlike, but as a reflection of the time in which it was written it is arguably one of the most accomplished novels of the late 1960’s.

In many ways, The Men In The Jungle, is a reflection of the horrors of the Vietnam War, concerned as it is with a brutal guerrilla conflict that takes place – mostly – in the titular jungle.

The jungle in question is on Sangre (Spanish for Blood, rather significantly) an earth-like planet dominated by the sadistic, narcissistic and perverse Brotherhood of Pain who have created a system whereby any member of the population who isn’t a Brother (or one of their sinister ubermen soldiers, the Killers) is dubbed and treated as an Animal.

For the Brotherhood of Pain life is simple – give pain, receive pleasure, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten – and this simplicity finds its best expression in the routine torture, death and cannibalism that is a fact of everyday life on Sangre. Since meat is scarce and the local population of semi-intelligent insects, or Bugs, are inedible, the Brotherhood’s solution to the protein crisis is almost Swiftian in its concept. Children – or meatanimals – are bred for docility and plumpness, women bred for desirability, while the Killers are bred for viciousness, loyalty and a love of blood and death. Eugenics taken to its most extreme form – Josef Mengele would have been a fully paid up member of the Brotherhood.

Into this nightmare world comes earthman Bart Fraden, formerly President of the Asteroid Belt Free State and a fugitive from terrestrial (in)justice. Along with his mistress Sophia and long-time fellow-traveller and military genius, Wilhelm Vanderling, Fraden sees a high revolutionary potential in Sangre and, since he is a President without a world, sets in motion a plan to overthrow the Brotherhood and set himself up as ruler.

However, he has reckoned without the centuries of slavery, obedience and rigid adherence to The Natural Order which governs not only the actions but the very soul of Sangre and finds that the revolution simply will not come, televised or not.

What follows is a study of a man desperate for power at any price but equally desperate to hold onto his humanity in the face of mounting atrocity and barbarism. In many ways Spinrad’s central theme in The Men In The Jungle is ‘does the end justify the means?’ and with its unflinching portrayal of violence explores this theme in a graphic and often unsettling way:

“Foam flecked the Killer’s lips, turned scarlet as they gnawed their own lips in a howling rage. They tore into the guerrillas like living buzz saws, bashed heads like so many watermelons with their morningstars. They kicked, stomped with their heavily booted feet, shrieked like fiends gone mad. And there, incredibly, a Killer sunk his razor-sharp teeth into a human throat, bright blood gurgling over his face and shoulders as he hands tore gobbets of flesh from arms and torsos. Another Killer clutched at a man’s face with both hands, ripped features away like a bloody Halloween mask. Here a guerrilla was down, and a Killer stomped his neck while another sunk his teeth in a leg and a third smashed the man’s rib cage with his Morningstar.”

As an exercise in straightforward pulp extremes, The Men In The Jungle is a supremely entertaining novel but – like his later masterpiece The Iron Dream – the pulp sensibility is merely a mask to cover deeper and more significant issues. The politics of power and corruption, the Stalinist notions that ‘one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic’ and the central core of the novel, can one act in an inhuman manner and yet still retain one’s humanity?

As the novel becomes more and more extreme, climaxing in the horrific Pain Day celebrations which ultimately destroy not only the Brotherhood but the soul of Sangre itself, Fraden’s inner journey becomes equally extreme as do the philosophical questions which the novel raises.

Although in many ways a resolutely 60’s novel, The Men In The Jungle is one of those few SF works that manages to remain relevant, perhaps more so than ever. The Vietnam parallels of the 1960’s echo equally as powerfully when placed in the context of Cambodia, Yugoslavia and the current war and occupation in Iraq.

Visionary rather than prophetic, The Men in the Jungle shows Spinrad’s early mastery of the tropes of SF, and equally his ability to subvert those tropes for his own ends.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Business of Rejection

At some point in their careers most writers will face rejection. It’s an inevitable fact of life.

The reasons for rejection are many and varied – sometimes (in fact quite often) it boils down to poor market research on behalf of the writer, sometimes it’s to do with the nature of publishing, sometimes it’s simply that the editor wasn’t in simpatico with the story and sometimes (just sometimes) it’s because the story just wasn’t very good.

Leaving the last point to one side (after all, no one want to admit that they have written something less than sparkling) how does one avoid the pain of rejection?

First and foremost, of course, it’s important to be certain that your story is right for the market: there is little or no point in sending a horror story to a science fiction magazine, for instance, or submitting a sex ‘n’ violence piece to a market which is aimed at a younger audience. Similarly there are certain markets which just won’t entertain certain overused tropes (vampires, serial-killers, stories where the whole thing turned out to be a dream) so it always pays to be familiar with the guidelines and, better yet, to read the magazine. This kind of market research is much easier these days since the majority of publications have some kind of online presence and becomes simplicity itself when submitting to ezines.

A more difficult one to pin down is the lack of simpatico between editor and story. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is a bad one just that, for whatever reason, it didn’t appeal to the editor. This rather falls under the heading of Human Nature.

Of course it can also fall under the heading of Market Research as well. If a market is looking for a particular type of story with a certain type of protagonist then the story simply has to conform to this or be rejected. The Sword and Sorceress anthology, for instance, has a very clear cut set of guidelines which conform to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s basic analysis of commercial fiction: “A likable character overcomes almost insuperable odds and by his or her own efforts achieves a worthwhile goal.”

Now as an analysis or basic plot formula this is extremely elastic and covers a multitude of plots and characters, but at the same time also excludes a multitude of plots and characters (not that MZB was dismissive of other types of fiction and her essay “What Is A Short Story?” is a particularly fine one. Which you can find here:

But then there is that indefinable something, that gap between editor and story that no amount of good writing, well crafted plot and characters or good market research can overcome.

It might just be that, despite the story’s qualities, that another similar tale has just been accepted. It might be that the story is in some way at odds with the editor’s personal viewpoints and beliefs (I’ve had a fantasy story rejected because the principal character was a slaveholder), it could even be something as simple as one too many typos in the manuscript.

It’s hard not to take rejection personally. Most writing guides will advise you to try and develop a thick skin – this is very good advice. On the other hand, if your skin becomes too thick you feel nothing. And if you can’t feel you can’t write (leastways, that’s my opinion).

Of course, there’s no magic formula for avoiding rejection. Even a story as brilliant as Harry Harrison’s ‘An Alien Agony’ took a while to find a US publisher (and since has gone on to be reprinted many, many times) simply because it’s central idea was considered too shocking or too controversial for the times (the early 1960’s if memory serves).

Ultimately, if the standard ‘thanks, but no thanks’ reply comes winging its way back to you, the only thing to do is swear a little then send the story out again, and again, and again. If it’s a good ‘un it’ll find a home eventually.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


JACK BROOKS – MONSTER SLAYER (2007). Starring Robert Englund. Trevor Matthews. Directed by Jon Knautz.

A film that wears its influences on its sleeve, Jack Brooks – Monster Slayer is a rather unashamed piece of exploitation film making that aspires to the same cult status as, say, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead or Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead.

And fine aspirations they are, too, best revealed in the welter of gore, unstoppable undead and heroic doings that form the climax of the film.

Jack Brooks (Trevor Matthews) is a plumber who suffers from anger management problems, linked to a childhood trauma when he saw his entire family slaughtered by monsters. Added to this is a pushy girlfriend, a night class he hates and a general inability to get on with people.

When Jack’s professor, Gordon Crowley, (Robert Englund, in fine form) needs Jack’s help to fix a busted water pump it sets in motion a chain of events that culminate in Englund being possessed by a very nasty, very hungry (and none too hygienic) demonic force.

As Professor Englund falls further and further under the spell of the demon – eating raw meat, buckets of fried chicken and finally his own dog – Jack uncovers a sinister secret linked to the Professor and the mysterious goings on.

Things come to a messy and bloody head when Professor Englund morphs into a rather endearingly disgusting demon with slimy tentacles, a taste for human flesh and the propensity for creating zombies out of his pupils, unleashing said zombies into the schools corridors in search of… well, whatever such creatures search for.

Only one man can stop them, only one man can grasp the mantle of destiny and become Jack Brooks – Monster Slayer.

Although it’s not really the cult classic that either the promotional material or its makers would have you believe, Jack Brooks – Monster Slayer isn’t without its charms. There’s a goofy, old-fashioned approach to make up and monsters – no CGI here – with men in monster suits, loads of bloody, puss filled makeup and, most wonderful of all, the huge and monstrous puppet that Robert Englund transforms into near the end. Trevor Matthews strikes the right note as Jack, a man who carries his rage as openly as the film carries its influences, and the supporting cast (particularly an hilarious old-man turn from David Fox as the sage and slightly dolally Howard) acquit themselves rather well bringing just the right amount of cinematic life to fairly stereotypical characters.

At a tight eighty odd minutes, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome, but tends to be a little uninvolving for the first hour or so. The pace is livened up by Robert Englund’s scenes which are often disgustingly funny, but there is a sense that the film itself is marking time until the mayhem can properly start.

Of course the relatively short running time means that by the time you find yourself saying ‘right, I get the point, now get on with it’, the film has begun to get on with it.

And as bloodsoaked plumber vs zombies and big monster climaxes go, this is one of the best.

It’s here that the obvious references to both The Evil Dead and Brain Dead shine through. Jack takes on the mantle previously worn so proudly by Bruce Campbell’s Ash as the everyday Joe who suddenly finds himself battling unimaginable evil. Okay, so Jack is no Ash and Trevor Matthews is no Bruce Campbell, but there’s some nice mayhem on display here and if the outcome is never in doubt then at least it’s a fun ride.

An unashamed beer ‘n’ popcorn movie, best enjoyed with beer, popcorn and an open mind.

Dead & Buried

DEAD & BURIED (1981) Starring James Farentino, Melody Anderson, Jack Albertson. Directed by Gary Sherman.

A rather effective, atmospheric and gory slice of early 80’s horror, Dead and Buried might be quickly described as Night of the Living Dead meets The Stepford Wives (with a little bit of Carpenter’s The Fog thrown in for good measure).

Of course, such comparisons are always odious, but even such a crude piece of shorthand sums up Dead and Buried rather nicely.

Something strange is going on in the small coastal town of Potter’s Bluff. Strangers are being murdered in a rather grisly fashion – a photographer is burned alive, a fisherman is mutilated and has his throat cut, a young hitchhiker has her skull crushed and a vacationing family are brutally slaughtered. Terrible things to be happening in such a peaceful place. But – and here’s the kicker – the supposedly dead folk are walking around, happy as you please, but with no memory of their former lives. (Photographer George LeMoir, for instance, turns up as gas station attendant Freddie, all friendly grins and bonhomie).

Worse than that, no one seems to care. No one, that is, except Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) the local law enforcement office and all round square-jawed hero.

If you’re familiar with director Gary Sherman’s other cult classic, Death Line, then you’ll have some idea of what to expect here. Taking a rather ludicrous premise, Sherman and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien) weave a hugely enjoyable 90 minutes of intelligent horror, underscored with believable characters, good (sometimes great) acting and some really rather shocking moments (the death the town’s doctor via an acid nasal wash being a particular favourite of mine. And for good measure, check out the needle in the eye sequence in the hospital).

With any good horror movie it’s the little things that add up. Although inventive in its gore and bloodshed, Dead and Buried isn’t simply a slash ‘em, rack ‘em, stack ‘em movie: it has a genuinely creepy atmosphere, and the claustrophobia of the small town is beautifully realised. The fog bound sequence where the luckless vacationers find themselves under attack is tense and well-judged and the death of the pretty hitchhiker, Chance, is gruesome in a Hershell Gordon Lewis sort of way. In fact, the film bears some comparison with HGL’s 2000 Maniacs, although better made, better directed, better acted and with much better special effects (although this is not to detract from HGL's gleeful approach to exploitation movies, which have a special place in my heart).

The jewel in the crown, though, is Jack Albertson as William G. Dobbs, the local mortician, a man who regards the preparation of the dead for burial as an art form. Perhaps better known as Grandpa Joe in the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Albertson (in his final performance) brings both a folksy charm and a genuinely sinister edge to Dobbs, managing to be both likeable and repellent at the same time.

Now, fair enough, any well-versed genre fan will probably see the twist ending coming a mile away but this doesn’t detract from an otherwise fine piece of horror cinema from the days when the protagonists of horror movies were adults rather than simpering teens and a decent script was a requirement rather than a bonus.

Check it out, why not.

Monday, June 1, 2009

That Which We Call A Rose

What’s in a name? Or, more accurately, what’s in a title?

What is there about certain words or combination of words that makes you want to see a certain movie, read a certain story or pick up a certain book? (Leaving out the notions of author/actor/ director identification).

A few years ago, an author that I am passingly familiar with once told me that his agent had suggested that the words ‘stone’ and ‘sword’ had a particular resonance with readers – as such, for all that time, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a story called ‘The Stone Sword’ just to find out if it’s true (the main problem with that, of course, is that the very notion of a stone sword is rather silly) and, by the same logic, the greatest title of any book or film ever is The Sword In The Stone.

But what exactly draws a potential reader or viewer (or listener for that matter – as a much younger man I used to buy albums by bands I’d never heard of solely on the basis of whether or not I liked the name, believing – often correctly – that if they had enough imagination to give themselves a decent, imagination catching moniker then this might translate into the music as well).

One of finest titles of all time has to be ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the very positioning of the words strikes like a flip horrorshow boot, but in many ways it’s such a random seeming sequence of sounds that it really shouldn’t work. Of course, once you get into the novel you being to understand that the title works on many, many different levels and is very far from being random.

They say that with any meal the first bite is with the eye, and so it goes with fiction. Even the cover of a book isn’t really as important as the title, particularly given the way that books are displayed in both bookshops and libraries, and the title is very often the first thing that a potential reader sees.

So how do you capture their attention? Well, if I knew the answer to that I’d be churning out catchy-titled books by the score. Personal favourites of mine both in cinema and literature include:

Night of the Living Dead
Crabs on the Rampage
Eat Them Alive
Django the Bastard
Frankenstein, prisoner of Dracula
Night of the Bloody Apes
Varney the Vampire
Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (see also, Go Kill and Come Back)
2000 Maniacs

Or, to be a little bit more subtle about it…

Earth Abides
To The Lighthouse
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich
Time Out of Joint
Vermillion Sands
The Bell Jar
The Less Deceived
Deadhouse Gates

With some of the more obvious titles you should know exactly what to expect – a novel entitled Eat Them Alive, for instance, is unlikely to be a romantic comedy set amongst the bright young things of 1930’s London (or maybe not). But with such oblique titles as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich (Philip K. Dick) or Vermillion Sands (JG Ballard) or Neuromancer (Willilam Gibson) the attraction is in the very oblique nature of the titles, titles that promise something different, something special.

William Shakespeare once wrote (in Romeo and Juliet) ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ but would a novel such as Gibson’s ground-breaking Neuromancer have the same resonance if it had been called ‘The Tale of the Silicon Cowboy’? Or, indeed, would George Romero’s world-shattering horror been the same if it had gone with the original title of Night of Anubis?

Probably not, which is why titles are so important. They are a gateway for the reader, albeit a small one, one which captures them from the beginning and makes them want to explore this new fictional world.

Now, where did I put that first draft of The Stone Sword?