Sunday, April 26, 2009

The end of the world as they knew it

I've never been much of a fan of American science fiction, either in books or films - I always found it somewhat uninvolving and distant (and, of course, there's the fact STAR WARS put a stake through the heart of what up-to-then had been the golden age of American cinema). Nothing snobbish about it though. I can recognize when it's well done.  I just don't respond to it on a personal level.

British science fiction, on the other hand, fascinates me, especially the socially conscious apocalyptic fiction that sprang up in the immediate post-WWII era. I've always had a fondness for that subgenre, one I revisited on my recent sojourn to points south, when I found and read an original Fawcett paperback edition of John Christopher's 1962 novel THE LONG WINTER.

Christopher (at right) – in reality Samuel Youd, a prolific British author who produced some 70 books under different names – is probably best known for his "Tripods" series of Young Adult novels, published from the late 1960s on,  about alien oppressors and the youthful resistance movement that springs up to battle them. But beginning in the 1950s, Christopher was responsible for a handful of extraordinary post-apocalyptic adult novels, including THE DEATH OF GRASS (filmed in 1970 as NO BLADE OF GRASS), THE RAGGED EDGE (aka A WRINKLE IN THE SKIN) and THE LONG WINTER (originally published as THE WORLD IN WINTER).

THE WORLD IN WINTER deals with the aftereffects of a new ice age gripping Europe - the "Fratellini Winter," named after the scientist that first predicted it. Some expected results follow - there's a mass exodus from the continent, lawlessness breaks out, and London and environs are taken over by the military. But where Christopher takes the story from there is what makes it compelling. His hero, television news producer Andrew Leedon, flees London to the warmer climes of Nigeria, which is gradually being overrun by European - particularly British - refugees. What follows is a reversal of British colonial history, as whites become the despised underclass, relegated to slums and considered fit only for menial and domestic work - or as prostitutes. Leedon eventually returns to England in an armed Hovercraft expedition with a young Nigerian journalist who's given him an opportunity to better himself. What they find is a ragtag-but-determined band of survivors living in the frozen cities, brutally ruled over by a former Home Office staffer and friend of Leedon's.

Post-apocalyptic novels are nothing new in British literature. Stephen King often cites M.P. Shiel's 1901 novel THE PURPLE CLOUD as an influence on THE STAND, and Mary Shelley's post-FRANKENSTEIN novel THE LAST MAN (1826), might be the very first book in that subgenre.  They certainly aren't relegated to the Brits alone either - American George R. Stewart's 1949 novel EARTH ABIDES is a cornerstone of the genre, as is Pat Frank's 1959 ALAS, BABYLON. But the Brits always seemed to do it better, or at least take it more seriously. That might be the result of the ravages they suffered during World War II, when nightly bombing leveled whole city blocks, and wartime rationing made daily living difficult - not to mention the constant threat of Nazi invasion. Add the burgeoning Cold War and fear of nuclear catastrophe, and the stage was set for some grim and startling - and at the same time deeply-felt - works of imagination.

 Christopher's chief rival in this fertile period was John Wyndham, right, best known for 1951's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS and 1957's THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, which became the classic film VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The influence of  TRIFFIDS and other Brit post-apocalyptic fiction is evident in Danny Boyle's film 28 DAYS LATER ... (top image) which borrows ideas and situations from Wyndham's novels as a sort of homage (not to mention the debt it owes to the films of George A. Romero).  In 2005, BBC Four produced a documentary about Wyndham, which is linked here. One of the interviewees is Christopher/Youd, who talks about his friend and fellow writer.

Christopher and Wyndham's works drift in and out of print, but they remain the best novels of their kind - frightening, thought-provoking and all-too-believable.

UPDATE: Syle Press is now the internet home for all things John Christopher.

Bruce and Adolf

A post with real content to come, but in the meantime, this needed to be shared... (the embedding code didn't work):

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ricky Retro returns

Yes, he's back. Those who followed his weekly pop culture column in The Star-Ledger will be happy to know that Ricky Retro (aka Steve Hedgpeth) has resurfaced, this time via an independent blog.

Steve's column ran in The Star-Ledger for six years, until he and I (and about 149 of our colleagues) left the paper in December, as part of a voluntary staff reduction. Steve - who was also an uncredited contributor to the Ledger's Ultimate Post-Internet Movie Trivia Contest, which I wrote for many years - promises to keep the retro fun coming with essays, quizzes, videos and music.

And those wondering what the real Ricky looks like can watch this YouTube video of his tearful final moments in the office, during which he drunkenly calls out to me to make sure he has a ride to the train station afterward (video by the Munchmobile's own Pete Genovese).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jack D. Hunter: 1921-2009

Jack Hunter was the first novelist I ever met.

I was a directionless 21-year-old in my sophomore year at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. I'd briefly attended college in Long Island three years before, then quit school altogether and worked a variety of crappy jobs, from movie theater usher to valet parker to overnight security guard at a condominium complex (the most brain-numbing six months I've ever spent). Going nowhere fast, I decided it was time to return to school, hopefully as far from New Jersey as possible. My grades, however, were awful. I was an indifferent student in both high school and my first attempt at college - straight Cs mostly. I applied to Flagler because a.) it was in Florida; b.) it was (at that time) a small, mostly unknown liberal arts college that just might accept me (total student population was about 700) and c.) it was cheap and offered enough financial aid for me to finance the balance.

As it turned out, going to Flagler was the smartest thing I ever did. I flourished there, met friends I see regularly to this day, and found a pair of teachers who set me on the right path - for awhile at least. (After a year and a half at Flagler, I transferred to Rutgers, but then continued to quit school periodically, eventually getting a degree years later).

One of those teachers was Jack D. Hunter. He taught only one class - a creative writing seminar limited to 12 students. I knew little about him, except that he'd written THE BLUE MAX, the World War I aviation novel that was filmed in 1966 with George Peppard, and half a dozen other books as well. But what I learned from him in that sun-drenched classroom in the spring of 1982 would change my life (and other lives too. Also in the seminar was my friend and classmate John Fusco, who went on to become a successful screenwriter and producer).

I learned a lot about Hunter that semester as well. Though he'd been an aviation buff since childhood, colorblindness had thwarted his ambitions of being a pilot. He'd taught himself German in order to read vintage flying texts (including the memoirs of Manfred Von Richthofen, the Red Baron) in their original language. By the time World War II came around, he was fluent enough to be recruited by U.S. Army Intelligence, who used him as an undercover operative in Germany after the war, helping to round up Nazis attempting to launch a resistance movement against the Allied occupation. He was a self-taught pianist and painter (he did the jacket art for the first edition of THE BLUE MAX, as well as the painting above) and, in addition to his career as a novelist, had done PR work for DuPont and served as special counsel and speechwriter to a U.S. Senator. While teaching at Flagler, he was also a writing coach at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

Hunter gave us an assignment a week, more or less, and I still have all of the corrected mss. he handed back. The first assignment was to write a biographical sketch in narrative form. When I got mine back, he'd written at the top "This is an excellent piece of work. You show great promise indeed. But don't forget to polish. Then polish some more ..."

Hunter was quick to praise, but just as quick to criticize if he thought it would help. Some of the attendees - including another faculty member - were there for the novelty of it. Others were, as Hunter put it, "dilettantes" who had no serious aspirations to be writers. He was a gentleman to all, but if you showed interest and a willingness to listen, he would go out of his way to provide attention and advice. His written comments on my pages would range from "This is the berries" to "Fine work, my lad" to "Where was your polishing rag on this one?," all signed with his characteristic "H." On one mss., a short suspense piece about a woman being stalked on the New York subway, he wrote "You use too many words. You say everything the long way. You must learn to write more tightly, to polish, polish. See my suggestions." He'd marked up the pages that followed, including entire passages he'd ruthlessly X'ed out for trimming.

When the seminar was over, I had a body of work - amateurish as it may have been - and advice to last a lifetime. More importantly, I had a confidence in my writing that hadn't been there before. And in getting to know Hunter, I'd had my first glimpse into the writing life. For all the constant struggles and rare triumphs, Hunter told us, for him, at least, it was still the only life worth living.

On the last day of class, he signed my copy of his current book, THE TIN CRAVAT, a sequel to THE BLUE MAX. Twenty-one years later, I got to return the favor by sending him my first novel, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, with an inscription thanking him for his guidance at a crucial point in my life. He'd continued to write and publish novels in the intervening decades, even into his 80s. Most were spy novels and thrillers, including FLORIDA IS CLOSED TODAY (set in St. Augustine), THE CURE and THE POTSDAM BLUFF. Last fall, at age 86, he published his 17th novel, THE ACE, bookending his career with another WWI aviation tale (the cover featured a portrait of Hunter himself, taken in 1939 while he was attending Parks Air College in East St. Louis). He'd also embraced the internet, launching a website and regular blog.

I'd kept in touch with Hunter intermittently though the years, and I often heard reports about him from friends who still lived in town. I knew his health had been declining, especially since the death of his wife, Shirley, in 2006 after a long illness. The stress took its toll on Hunter as well, and though he still wrote regularly, he was soon dealing with major health issues of his own. He took on a caregiver/webmaster/bookkeeper named Jonni Anderson and continued to live at his tiny Spanish Colonial house in the center of St. Augustine's historic district. Last October, Jonni messaged me at my site to say she'd found THE BARBED-WIRE KISS on Jack's bookshelf, and that he'd wanted to thank me again for sending it along. I promised I'd visit the next time I was in St. Augustine, but that never came to pass.

On March 27, Hunter wrote what would be his final blog entry. "It's been a real trip, folks, but I'm hanging up my spurs," he wrote. "I've enjoyed writing my blog ... but, due to my increasing physical weakness, it has become more of a burden than a pleasure, and it's time, as the old cliché says, to exit stage right." He'd done his last booksigning only a month before, at a local Barnes & Noble, autographing copies of THE ACE. He passed away April 13, at home.

His Associated Press obituary, as it ran in The New York Times, is here. The Florida Times-Union and St. Augustine Record also weighed in with lengthy tributes.

ABOVE RIGHT: Jack and Shirley Hunter with George Peppard on the set of THE BLUE MAX. Photo courtesy of Jack D. Hunter.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The return of Billy the Kid

Took a day off from revisions last week to see Kris Kristofferson - singer, songwriter, actor, Rhodes Scholar and all-around American badass - at the Society for Ethical Culture's Concert Hall in New York. At 72, Kristofferson's an icon. He's written songs for Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson, starred in films for Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese and John Sayles, and continues to act, tour and record (his most recent album, "This Old Road," came out last year). Not to mention he dated - or married - Janis, Barbra Streisand, Rita Coolidge (for awhile in the '70s, he and Coolidge were the country music power couple) and other women probably too numerous to mention.

Within the intimate confines and superb acoustics of the Concert Hall, Kristofferson was mesmerizing. Accompanying himself on just guitar and harmonica for more than two hours, he played most of his extensive catalog, including "Me and Bobby McGee," "For the Good Times," "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" (maybe the best country song of the last fifty years).

The voice is ragged - though it was never sweet - and the face craggier than ever, but Kristofferson is still an imposing figure (actor Ethan Hawke wrote a pretty good profile of him in the most recent Rolling Stone, that generated a little controversy of its own ). He didn't talk that much between songs and was plagued by a cold ("Bet you folks are sorry you paid good money to watch an old fart blow his nose"), but he seemed genuinely energized and moved by the enthusiastic reception he got. And 72 or not, he's still got that rakish charm that made him an unlikely sex symbol - and a poster boy for hard and fast living - in the 1970s. Hard to believe he's survived everything he's done. Hopefully he'll get around to writing that memoir some day.  

Below is a vintage clip from "The Johnny Cash Show," and a trailer for one of Peckinpah's finest films.

Back to work.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Gone writing, Pt. 2

More fun and frivolity gathered from the Web, while I struggle painfully on with revisions ...

(I'll update this post at random throughout the week)

+ With a tip of the hat to free-form N.Y. station WFMU, a little pre-presidential time capsule from 1991.

+ Some swinging Bondage, courtesy of The Skatalites. One of the many great tracks being compiled over at the Permission to Kill blog.

+ The Violent World of Parker revisits my 2007 appraisal of PAYBACK: STRAIGHT-UP, THE DIRECTOR'S CUT.

+ And speaking of Parker films, what a cast!