November 2019

5 AGAINST THE HOUSE. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Mathews, William Conrad. Co-producer & co-screenwriter: Stirling Silliphant, based on the book by Jack Finney. Director: Phil Karlson.

   I’m not sure where it fits in historically, but this is a very early heist film, one that shows, as almost all of them do, how easily “perfect plans” can go wrong. Target: Harold’s Club, one of the most impregnable casinos in Reno of its era. The perpetrators: a small group of Korean War veterans going to college in Arizona on the GI Bill.

   Which explains why at least two of them (Guy Madison and Brian Keith) looks so much older than the other students on campus. The latter is having PTSD problems; the former, who is busy trying to persuade Kim Novak, a glamorous singer at a local student hangout, to marry him, is not in on the plan until too late.

   The first half of the film plays out at a near sophomoric comedy level — campus hi-jinks and so on — and it’s even hard to take the second half seriously when the “perfect plan” is as unworkable as it is. But any movie with Kim Novak in it is worth watching. What a beautiful woman she was. I wish it had been filmed in color. I really do:

VINCENT STARRETT “The Taggart Assignment.” Short story. Jimmy Lavender #6. First published in Short Stories, 10 August 1922. Reprinted in The Detective Megapack: 28 Tales by Modern and Classic Authors (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, January 2016).

   Although a number of his Jimmy Lavender stories were collected in book form during Vincent Starrett’s lifetime, this doesn’t doesn’t seem to have been one of them, and I think there may have been a reason for it. Before getting into that, however, let me say first of all that the resemblance of the Lavender tales to Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes is unmistakable. (Starrett was a noted Sherlockian of his day.)

   Simply move the stories from London in the late 1800s to Chicago in he 1920s, swap Watson for a narrator-assistant named “Gilly” Gilruth, and there you have it. Even the story itself, that of a young woman whose fiancé has gone missing only days before their wedding, is reminiscent of one of Holmes’s own adventures, that being “A Case of Identity.”

   The about-to-be-jilted woman — or has something more serious happened to the missing man? — wishes no publicity, and Lavender agrees. The trail leads, by sheer coincidence (Lavender thinks not) to a another missing man, this one the circulation manager of a local newspaper.

   The story is lively and fun to read, with Gilly more actively involved that Watson was, but (and I hate to have to say thus) it’s seriously marred by a final conclusive clue that unfortunately means nothing to the reader and everything to Jimmy Lavender. I was somewhat mollified by a very striking last line, however.

THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Jack Kelly, Hildy Parks, Vince Edwards, John Cassavetes, David Cross. Screenwriter-director: Andrew L. Stone.

   The moral of this story is simple. Never pick up hitchhikers. That’s the mistake that Gene Courtier (Jack Kelly) makes. Giving a ride to Vince Edwards leads to a gang of three young hoodlums, including a very youthful John Cassevetes, taking over Kelly’s home and terrorizing his wife (Hildy Parks) and two small children.

   The set-up is promising, but the fact is that the gang doesn’t really seem to have a plan in mind — first forcing Kelly to sell his car, then holding him for a ransom to be paid by his rich father. They go through the motions, but none of the three has the hair-trigger level of viciousness vthat would keep the viewer (me, that is, in this case) at the edge of his seat.

   They also commit too many dumb mistakes, making their ultimate downfall all but preordained, in a wrap-up that, once the police are called in, is all too perfunctory. With the cast that this one has, it’s hardly uninteresting, but given a choice, you’d be better off watching The Desperate Hours instead, a film made the same year, but one that’s far better structured.

POUL ANDERSON “Sargasso of Lost Starships.” Novella. Technic History #1. Planet Stories, January 1952. Collected in Rise of the Terran Empire (Baen, trade paperback, 2009). Reprinted as Sargasso of Lost Starships (Armchair Sci-Fi & Horror Double Novels #92, trade paperback, 2013), with The Ice Queen by Don Wilcox.

   The story opens thusly:

   Basil Donovan was drunk again.

   He sat near the open door of the Golden Planet, boots on the table, chair tilted back, one arm resting on the broad shoulder of Wocha, who sprawled on the floor beside him, the other hand clutching a tankard of ale. The tunic was open above his stained gray shirt, the battered cap was askew on his close-cropped blond hair, and his insignia–the stars of a captain and the silver leaves of an earl on Ansa–were tarnished. There was a deepening flush over his pale gaunt cheeks, and his eyes smoldered with an old rage.

   Looking out across the cobbled street, he could see one of the tall, half-timbered houses of Lanstead. It had somehow survived the space bombardment, though its neighbors were rubble, but the tile roof was clumsily patched and there was oiled paper across the broken plastic of the windows. An anachronism, looming over the great bulldozer which was clearing the wreckage next door. The workmen there were mostly Ansans, big men in ragged clothes, but a well-dressed Terran was bossing the job. Donovan cursed wearily and lifted his tankard again.

   Donovan had been a leader of the Ansan forces in their defeat at the hands of the Terran Empire. He is naturally bitter and is surprised to e taken by force to an interview with Commander Helena Jansky from Earth:

   “Sit down, Captain Donovan,” said the woman.

   He lowered himself to a chair, raking her with deliberately insolent eyes. She was young to be wearing a commander’s twin planets–young and trim and nice looking. Tall body, sturdy but graceful, well filled out in the blue uniform and red cloak; raven-black hair falling to her shoulders; strong blunt-fingered hands, one of them resting close to her sidearm. Her face was interesting, broad and cleanly molded, high cheekbones, wide full mouth, stubborn chin, snub nose, storm-gray eyes set far apart under heavy dark brows. A superior peasant type, he decided, and felt more at ease in the armor of his inbred haughtiness. He leaned back and crossed his legs.

   “I am Helena Jansky, in command of this vessel,” she said. Her voice was low and resonant, the note of strength in it. “I need you for a certain purpose. Why did you resist the Imperial summons?”

   It seems that Donovan is only of only a handful of people who have ventured into the Black Nebula and returned. Jansky needs him to guide her forces there on a return visit:

   Space burned and blazed with a million bitter-bright suns, keen cold unwinking flames strewn across the utter dark of space, flashing and flashing over the hollow gulf of the leagues and the years. The Milky Way foamed in curdled silver around that enormous night, a shining girdle jeweled with the constellations. Far and far away wheeled the mysterious green and blue-white of the other galaxies, sparks of a guttering fire with a reeling immensity between. Looking toward the bows, one saw the great star-clusters of Sagittari, the thronging host of suns burning and thundering at the heart of the Galaxy. And what have we done? thought Basil Donovan. What is man and all his proud achievements? Our home star is a dwarf on the lonely fringe of the Galaxy, out where the stars thin away toward the great emptiness. We’ve ranged maybe two hundred light-years from it in all directions and it’s thirty thousand to the Center! Night and mystery and nameless immensities around us, our day of glory the briefest flicker on the edge of nowhere, then oblivion forever–and we won’t be forgotten, because we’ll never have been noticed. The Black Nebula is only the least and outermost of the great clouds which thicken toward the Center and hide its ultimate heart from us, it is nothing even as we, and yet it holds a power older than the human race and a terror that may whelm it.

   He felt again the old quailing funk, fear crawled along his spine and will drained out of his soul. He wanted to run, escape, huddle under the sky of Ansa to hide from the naked blaze of the universe, live out his day and forget that he had seen the scornful face of God. But there was no turning back, not now, the ship was already outpacing light on her secondary drive and he was half a prisoner aboard. He squared his shoulders and walked away from the viewplate, back toward his cabin.

   Wocha was sprawled on a heap of blankets, covering the floor with his bulk. He was turning the brightly colored pages of a child’s picture book. “Boss,” he asked, “when do we kill ’em?”

   Things do not go well on the voyage. Strange voices and apparitions begin appearing to the entire crew, including Donovan:

   Donovan had not watched the Black Nebula grow over the days, swell to a monstrous thing that blotted out half the sky, lightlessness fringed with the cold glory of the stars. Now that the ship was entering its tenuous outer fringes, the heavens on either side were blurring and dimming, and the blackness yawned before. Even the densest nebula is a hard vacuum; but tons upon incredible tons of cosmic dust and gas, reaching planetary and interstellar distances on every hand, will blot out the sky. It was like rushing into an endless, bottomless hole, the ship was falling and falling into the pit of Hell.

   Eventually Donovan comes face to face with Valduma, an old nemesis slash alien lover from his previous voyage:

   Valduma stood beside Morzach for an instant, and Donovan watched her with the old sick wildness rising and clamoring in him.

   You are the fairest thing which ever was between the stars, you are ice and flame and living fury, stronger and weaker than man, cruel and sweet as a child a thousand years old, and I love you. But you are not human, Valduma.

   She was tall, and her grace was a lithe rippling flow, wind and fire and music made flesh, a burning glory of hair rushing past her black-caped shoulders, hands slim and beautiful, the strange clean-molded face white as polished ivory, the mouth red and laughing, the eyes long and oblique and gold-flecked green. When she spoke, it was like singing in Heaven and laughter in Hell. Donovan looked at her, not moving.

   “Basil, you came back to me?”

   The Terran forces lose control of their ship:

   The engines cut off and the ship snapped into normal matter state. Helena Jansky saw blood-red sunlight through the viewport. There was no time to sound the alarm before the ship crashed.

   “A hundred men. No more than a hundred men alive.”

   She [Helena] wrapped her cloak tight about her against the wind and stood looking across the camp. The streaming firelight touched her face with red, limning it against the utter dark of the night heavens, sheening faintly in the hair that blew wildly around her strong bitter countenance. Beyond, other fires danced and flickered in the gloom, men huddled around them while the cold seeped slowly to their bones. Here and there an injured human moaned.

   Across the ragged spine of bare black hills they could still see the molten glow of the wreck. When it hit, the atomic converters had run wild and begun devouring the hull. There had barely been time for the survivors to drag themselves and some of the cripples free, and to put the rocky barrier between them and the mounting radioactivity. During the slow red sunset, they had gathered wood, hewing with knives at the distorted scrub trees reaching above the shale and snow of the valley. Now they sat waiting out the night.

   Takahashi shuddered. “God, it’s cold!”

   A battle begins, one of groundshaking ferocity:

   The others were there with her, men of Drogobych standing on the heights and howling their fury. They had chains in their hands, and suddenly the air was thick with flying links.

   One of them smashed against Donovan and curled itself snake-like around his waist. He dropped his sword and tugged at the cold iron, feeling the breath strained out of him, cursing with the pain of it. Wocha reached down a hand and peeled the chain off, snapping it in two and hurling it back at the Arzunians. It whipped in the air, lashing itself across his face, and he bellowed.

   The men of Sol were weltering in a fight with the flying chains, beating them off, stamping the writhing lengths underfoot, yelling as the things cracked against their heads. “Forward!” cried Helena. “Charge–get out of here–forward, Empire!”

   The stronghold of the dying alien race is entered:

   The Terrans slogged on down the street, filthy with dust and grease and blood, uncouth shamblers, apes in the somber ruin of the gods. Donovan thought he had a glimpse of Valduma standing on a rooftop, the clean lithe fire of her, silken flame of her hair and the green unhuman eyes which had lighted in the dark at his side. She had been a living blaze, an unending trumpet and challenge, and when she broke with him it had been quick and dean, no soddenness of age and custom and–and, damn it, all the little things which made humanness.

   All right, Valduma. We’re monkeys. We’re noisy and self-important, compromisers and trimmers and petty cheats, we huddle away from the greatness we could have, our edifices are laid brick by brick with endless futile squabbling over each one–and yet, Valduma, there is something in man which you don’t have. There’s something by which these men have fought their way through everything you could loose on them, helping each other, going forward under a ridiculous rag of colored cloth and singing as they went.

   This is a prime example of a subcategory of science fiction that might be called “swords and spaceships.” The pages of Planet Stories were filled with this kind of tale, and no one did it better than Poul Anderson.

   PS. The cover illustration is perfectly correct. It must have helped hundreds of copies of the magazine on the newsstands, if not more.


THE FORBIDDEN ROOM. Buffalo Gal Pictures, 2015. Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, and Charlotte Rampling. Written & directed by Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson.

   Well we’ve all known a forbidden room, haven’t we? Maybe it was in your own house, maybe a grandparent’s, or the musty abode of some aged and indeterminate relative, but we’ve all been given the solemn warning, “This door must be kept locked at all times.” and heard the strange noises from within — haven’t we?

   Well this movie isn’t about that. If The Forbidden Room is about anything at all, it’s about our inability to master our dreams. Indeed, Room drifts and lurches from one vision to another, from the bowels of a trapped submarine to a wintry forest primeval, to a sleazy nightclub, a tropical island….

   You may assume from this non-synopsis that Forbidden Room doesn’t make much sense, and it doesn’t, in the usual sense. But filmmaker Maddin moves it along from tangent to tangent with perfect dream-logic, backed up by visual images where you never quite see what it is that you’re looking at.

   If you’ve never seen a Maddin film, I should explain that he deliberately makes them look like an old movie, maybe something you saw as a child nodding off late at night, on an old TV with bad reception, then half-remembered years later. They look a little like that, bathed in faded, runny, pulsating colors. It’s a unique experience, and one I recommend highly.

   Forbidden Room was originally supposed to be a series of short films but got squeezed together for reasons of economics. As a result, it runs a bit too long and loses momentum. But that only bothered me; it didn’t keep me from watching in wide-eyed fascination.

   And maybe you will, too.

   Here below is the current data for author R. E. HARRINGTON in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin. Both he and fellow researcher John Herrington are trying to pin down his correct dates of birth and death.

   Of the dates below, Al says: “[He] was born NY in December 1931, but I have now found a reference that says the author was born in Oklahoma 8 May 1931. And another saying 8 March 1931 which intimates he is still about.!!

   “But to be honest, wonder if either is correct. And curiously several with those names born 1931, though the obituaries I have found for some indicate they are not the author.

   One possibility, says Al is “… a Robert Edward Harrington was born in Oklahoma on 3/6/1924 and died there on 12/8/2018.”

   John’s response:

   “Another site (probably one that you found) says the author was born in Oklahoma, educated at the University of Utah, worked as a systems engineer with IBM, and manager of corporate data processing with Chrysler, later president of a computer R&D company; then living with wife and children in Southern California.”

   If anyone has any other information, it would be welcome!

HARRINGTON, R(obert) E(dward) (1931-1996?) (chron.)
    *Aswan High (with James A. Young) (U.S. & London: Secker, 1983, hc) [Egypt; 1984]
    *Death of a Patriot (Putnam, 1979, hc) [Washington, D.C.] Secker, 1979.
    *-The Doomsday Game (Secker, 1981, hc)
    *Quintain (Putnam, 1977, hc) [Los Angeles, CA] Secker, 1977.
    *The Seven of Swords (Putnam, 1976, hc) [California] Secker, 1976.

MICHAEL Z. LEWIN – Outside In. Willie Werth/Hank Midwinter #1. Alfred A.Knopf, hardcover, 1980. Berkley, paperback, 1981.

   Most of the work that Lewin has previously produced in the field of detective fiction has been steady if not spectacular private eye fare, Albert Samson, the hero he has used most often, is known as the cheapest detective in Indianapolis, which means that he invariably gets stuck with the cases o one else will touch.

   None of this, however, adequately paves the way for the tables that Lewin turns upon himself in this, his latest effort. With a nod to the credo always given to the beginning writer, “Write what you know.” Lewin’s newest protagonist is a middle-aged writer named Willie Werth, whose life has grown soft and comfortable from the proceeds gained over the years fro a long series of mystery adventures starring that premier private eye, Hank Midwinter.

   Now, Hank Midwinter is the kind of guy who outhammers Mickey Spillane’s hero, for example, but his author, who finds himself compelled to try to help the police investigate the murder of a friend, quickly discovers that the real cops are not like, and do not like, fiction.

   Werth is also going through a minor crisis with his wifem who tolerates but who does not always understand the artistic muse. Nor is Werth (nor the reader, for that matter) entirely sure that part of what attracts him so greatly to the case us not the presence at home of his friend’s daughter, whose newly found fame is for having made one of “those movies” back in New York.

   The combination os Werth’s case and the eventual wrapping up of Midwnter’s own latest caper is a synergistic entanglement that finds each feeding off the other in alternating chapters. The result is a highly amusing and yet an intensely retrospective view of the world as it exists within its own shell of reality.

   Or perhaps, as Lewin strongly suggests, with the right perspective, why couldn’t that be taken the other way around?

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 4, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1980. Previously published in the Hartford Courant.


THE ORVILLE. TV series. Season 1. (Fox; 2017; 12 episodes, 43-45 minutes); Season 2 (Fox; 2018-19; 14 episodes, 48 minutes); Season 3 (Fox and Hulu; announced for late 2020). Regular Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage (Seasons 1 and 2), J. Lee, Mark Jackson, and Jessica Szohr (Season 2). Creator: Seth MacFarlane. Theme music: Bruce Broughton. Executive producers: Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark, Jon Favreau, (pilot), Liz Heldens (Season 1), and Jon Cassar (Season 2). Production companies: Fuzzy Door Productions and Fox.

   Imagine that you’re a trained spaceship captain with a promising career ahead of you. Imagine that one night you date a cute space navy officer but make a mess of it; the next day you sheepishly beg her forgiveness, she gives it, and agrees to another date. (Neither of you realize it at the time, but that second date will prove to be all-important, and not just on a personal level.)

   Eventually the two of you get married, but one afternoon you come home and find her in bed with another man, leading to Divorceville and your career taking a year-long nosedive. Things are looking grim when unexpectedly the higher-ups pick you to captain a new exploratory vessel. You eagerly take command, only to discover that your new executive officer is your ex-wife …

   Not only is having to deal with his ex a challenge for Captain Ed Mercer of The Orville, but there’s also the oddball crew he’s given, among them a member of an all-male race (“It is much easier with an egg”), a five-foot-nothing security officer who can knock down reinforced steel doors with her bare hands (“I’m actually just sort of working on myself right now”), a couple of conceited bridge crewmen (“One time I almost died because I humped a statue”), a giant blob of gelatin (“I gotta say, watching your corpse drift away to this music would be so peaceful”), and an artificial life form who thinks an amputation would make a good practical joke (“The penchant for biological lifeforms to anthropomorphize inanimate objects is irrational”).

   And that’s basically the set-up in Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, a TV series that, as the saying goes, has garnered a cult following, starting first as a network product and then migrating to a subscription video on demand service, with its cult following . . . following. (How many people constitute a cult, anyhow? Never mind.)

   If you go to the movies much, you’ve innocently become enmeshed in the latest Hollywood “trend” (more like a nostalgia goldrush) in churning out sequels, prequels, “reimaginings,” and reboots. (Not all remakes, by the way, are a bad thing; John Huston’s excellent 1941 reboot of The Maltese Falcon was the third attempt at filming it, one which succeeded very nicely.)

   We view this trend as an admission that they’ve run out of steam and aren’t even trying to be creative, never mind original. Complicating an already bad situation is the unmistakable messianic zeal with which the Tinsel Town elites are willing to cram their brand of political pontificating down unsuspecting audiences’ throats, even if their projects lose them money. (Someone somewhere once observed that in Hollywood influence and ego gratification — embodied in their lay sermons, movies — are the orgasm and money the aphrodisiac, the stimulus by which they achieve satisfaction.) Indeed, until a month ago we had never heard the term “woke” applied to motion picture and television productions, but to a greater or lesser degree just about everything emerging from Tinsel Town seems to have some component of “wokeness” to it.

   But we digress. In just about all aspects of art training (and, whatever you may think of them, we can include movie and TV production as art), beginners are encouraged to emulate previous masters in their field, to copy them with an eye to developing their own unique styles later on.

   … which brings us back to The Orville. Seth MacFarlane, the executive producer, writer, director, star, and who knows what else on this TV series has taken the normal art training paradigm and junked it. Every single aspect of this show is derived from somewhere else, intentionally so. If you are familiar with S*** T*** (because the latest series producers are a prickly lot, we feel it safer to employ the asterisks), viewing any given episode of The Orville should provoke a feeling of deja vu. Situations, characters, whole plotlines, musical cues, even individual shots are lifted primarily from S*** T***, with S*** W*** and a random collection of components from a bunch of other sci-fi sources, as well.

   Everyone has a unique gift; MacFarlane’s gift is in NOT being original (his tiresome cartoon shows demonstrate that) but in being a copycat, the best copycat on the Hollywood scene at the moment. In The Orville, he has done a remarkable thing by blurring the formerly clear-cut distinction between parody and pastiche, the result being a thing unto itself, funny, serious, derivative all at once. For that alone, MacFarlane deserves some sort of Major Award.

   Is the series “woke”? Oh yeah. According to what we’ve read, MacFarlane has already received a Major Award, this one from a group of like-minded people who probably wouldn’t object if authorities prosecuted parents as child abusers for providing religious instruction to their children; since very few artists ever alter their deeply felt attitudes (indeed, they constantly draw on them for inspiration), we can expect to see the consequences of that particular frame of mind to continually play out in the series, especially with respect to The Orville‘s continuing “bad guys,” a bone-headed race of aliens whose sole motivation is to murder anyone who doesn’t conform to their religion. (Bone heads. Get it?) Like its S*** T*** predecessors, in this show any person or random cactus that entertains the faintest glimmering of spirituality is automatically a moron in desperate need of rationalist enlightenment. (A case can be made that the science fiction subgenre of literature is the primary conveyance of atheist thought today, but while that might make for a thrilling Ph.D. thesis, we just don’t have the time.)

   In spite of what you’ve just read, is it possible to like The Orville? The special effects are excellent; the plots, while totally derivative, mesh nicely with the characters; and the acting is uniformly very good (Scott Grimes’s performance in his story with a simulated woman being Major Award-worthy).

   Perhaps the best way for someone who still clings to Middle American values (any of you still left out there?) to fully enjoy The Orville would involve assuming a posture in which index finger and thumb are firmly placed against the proboscis. Everybody else will cheerfully overlook the subtexts and uncritically swallow MacFarlane’s spoonful of sugar. (You remember Mary Poppins, don’t you? “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, The medicine go down-wown …”)


   Not to be confused with the much more recent heavy metal rock band from Sweden of the same name, this earlier version who also called themselves The Haunted was a garage band from Montréal, Québec, Canada. The LP below (re-released on CD) played in its entirety, was their only studio album, but there were three compilation albums released later on, in 1983 (2) and 1995.

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