Monday, January 14, 2019

Tales of Viking Fantasy

A month ago I wrote about Vikings and other medieval subjects on the cover of Weird Tales, and out of that I received a couple of comments from readers about Viking fantasy stories. That got me thinking that there may be a missed sub-sub-genre of fantasy and science fiction dealing with those men and women of the north, with their winged and horned helmets, long, braided hair, conical breastplates, and raiments of hide and fur. So here is a first shot at stories of Vikings and Norsemen, with some also of Saxons, Geats, Goths, and other early northern Europeans thrown into the mix. These are stories with fantastic, supernatural, weird, or science-fictional elements. That leaves out a lot of good Viking stories to be sure, but you've got to draw a line somewhere. I welcome additions to this list. If you send them, I will add them.

  • Beowulf by an unknown author (date of composition unknown)--Beowulf is the granddaddy of Northern fantasy in English, and although it's really the story of Geatish men, I think I have to include it here. To leave it out would be a bumbling kind of oversight. Beowulf has been an inspiration to myriads of writers, including, in the twentieth century, J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Uslan, better known as the executive producer of the Batman movies.
  • Unidentified stories by Ralph Milne Farley (Argosy, 1930s)--A commenter on my earlier article mentioned these stories, but I don't know any titles.
  • The Lost Vikings by Jack Bechdolt (1931)--A lost lands/lost race novel set in Alaska.
  • Prince Valiant by Hal Foster (1937)--A Sunday comic strip in which the title character, a Norseman, goes on adventures, some fantastical or supernatural, all over the globe, as the subtitle reads, "In the Days of King Arthur." Adapted to film in 1954.
  • "King of the World's Edge" by H. Warner Munn (Weird Tales, Sept.-Dec. 1939)--A four-part serial by a correspondent and friend of H.P. Lovecraft, "King of the World's Edge" is a story of Romans and Saxons in pre-Columbian America, authored by an enthusiast of history and archaeology, including the idea that Vikings came to America during the Middle Ages and left behind evidence of their visit.
  • "A Yank at Valhalla" by Edmond Hamilton (Startling Stories, Jan. 1941)--Reprinted as The Monsters of Juntenheim (1950).
  • "Flight into Destiny" by Verne Chute (Weird Tales, Mar. 1943)
  • The Lost Ones by Ian Cameron (1961)--Reprinted as Island at the Top of the World (1974) and adapted to film as The Island at the Top of the World (1974).
  • Journey into Mystery (Aug. 1962)--Marvel Comics' version of Thor as a superhero (and future member of the Avengers) first appeared in Journey into Mystery in August 1962. Since then, he has been in countless comic books and now a series of movies made by Marvel Studios.
  • Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in AD 922 by Michael Crichton (1976)--Reprinted as The 13th Warrior in 1999 and adapted to film that year under the same title.
  • The Norseman (1978)--A movie starring Lee Majors, Cornel Wilde, and Mel Ferrer.

DC's version of Beowulf starred in his own title in the 1970s. The stories were written by Michael Uslan and drawn by Ricardo Villamonte. Here is the cover of the first issue, from May 1975.

Prince Valiant of comic strip fame is a Norseman. Here he is on the cover of Dell Four Color #900, from 1958. The interiors were drawn by Bob Fuji, but I'm not sure that he was the cover artist here.

Startling Stories, January 1941, with a cover story, "A Yank at Valhalla," by Edmond Hamilton and cover art by Earle Bergey. 

"A Yank at Valhalla" was reprinted in 1950 as The Monsters of Juntonheim in a British edition. The identity of the cover artist is unknown.

Weird Tales, March 1943. The cover story is "Flight into Destiny" by Verne Chute. The cover art is by Edgar Franklin Wittmack. 

In 1974, Walt Disney Pictures released an adaptation of The Lost Ones by Ian Cameron. Here is the movie tie-in edition of Cameron's book, retitled to match the movie.

Vikings in America were and still are a popular theme in popular culture. (Prince Valiant came to America, too.) In 1978, American International Pictures released The Norseman, with Lee Majors in the lead role as a Viking in the New World. I think The Norseman made a clunking sound, but I remember that my younger brother saw it at the movie theater with his friends. Note the similarity of the movie poster to one of Frank Frazetta's Conan covers for Lancer. If you have never seen Hal Foster's original Prince Valiant, you know that Frazetta took a great deal from Foster. Who can blame him? And so this Frazetta-like poster closes a circle.

Text and captions copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Friends of Thanos

While I was away over the holidays, we watched Avengers: Infinity War on Netflix. We had seen it at the movie theater months before, but we wanted to see it again as the release of the sequel approaches. (Avengers: Endgame will be out in April.) Even though we knew what was coming, it was still shocking and sad to witness half of the team crumble into dust and blow away. (Bill and Ted were right after all: All we are is dust in the wind.) I can't wait to see Thanos get his comeuppance in the next movie. We all have our theories about how that will happen, but I think we'll all be proved wrong. (I think Ant-Man will play a strong role, but we'll see.)

A day or two after we watched the movie, my nephew told me that there was some kind of controversy involving Thanos and the description of Avengers: Infinity War on Netflix. I resolved to find out more once things calmed down after the holiday. I have read about the controversy now, but I still don't really understand what the big deal is. It leads back to something that I wrote about months ago, though, in an article called "Summer Movie Miscellany" (here). In that article I made a kind of prediction. As it turns out, I was right, but then it doesn't take a genius to be right about these things.

The recent controversy has to do with this description of Avengers: Infinity War posted on Netflix:
Superheroes amass to stop intergalactic sociopath Thanos from acquiring a full set of Infinity Stones and wiping out half of all life in the universe.
That's not exactly informative. The uninitiated might ask, What the heck is an Infinity Stone? But if you have to ask, you probably shouldn't watch Avengers: Infinity War until you have seen a couple of dozen other Marvel movies first. Anyway, a bunch of people who don't have anything else to do objected to the characterization of Thanos as a sociopath. The objections seem to fall into two categories. First is that the use of the word sociopath is incorrect or inaccurate. Second and more troubling is that Thanos is not a sociopath because what he's trying to do--kill off half of the life in the universe--is actually a good thing. I'll take these objections one at a time.

The first objection is easy enough to deal with. First, the term sociopath is informal and imprecise. It isn't a diagnosis. People use it more or less how they please. It doesn't mean very much to say that Thanos or anybody else is a sociopath. Second, Thanos is not a real person. He exists only as drawings on paper or as a bunch of electrons. How can you get worked up over something so inconsequential as that? As William Shatner (or the evil Captain Kirk from Episode 37) might say: "Get a life! For cryin' out loud, it's just a movie." How can anyone possibly have enough time or interest to start some kind of wacky campaign to get a television blurb changed? I mean, how old are you people? What have you done with yourselves? Move out of your parents' basement and grow the hell up!

The second objection, that Thanos is actually a good guy and is trying to do something good and necessary in the universe, is far more serious and scary. But then we live in a world full of serious and scary things, one of which is the nihilistic, anti-human thinking of countless millions of people--people who hate themselves and because of it hate everyone else, past, present, and future, God included. They are the kind of people who made the twentieth a century of horrors and promise to make the twenty-first a proper sequel of greater, though more subtle, horrible things.

As I wrote before, if you believe that humanity should be reduced or diminished, you are, like Thanos, a monster and a villain. Get that into your head: You are a monster. And I hope--we all should hope--that you never have even the remotest access to power (1, 2)

(1) Although in a democracy, even monsters have power. In fact, democracies are just as likely as any form of government (or even more likely) to give rise to monsters, as a democracy inevitably results in a rapid race to the bottom, and monstrousness resides in every one of us at the basest of levels.
(2) By the way, has anyone noticed the similarities in motivation between Thanos and Kodos the Executioner from the Star Trek episode "The Conscience of the King"? The difference is, I guess, that there is nothing to prick the conscience of Thanos.

Copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Read Weird Tales

After receiving a request from a reader, I have added a page to this blog called "Read Weird Tales." Click on the item on the right or here for a link. This new page includes links to websites on which you can read whole issues of Weird Tales in digital facsimile format. If anyone knows of similar websites, even if they include only one issue, please let me know, and I may add it to the list.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Shadow Over Aquaman

I'm back again after the holidays and eighteen sleep-deprived days at home. Two days into the new year we saw Aquaman at a mostly deserted movie theater. That's what happens in the middle of a holiday week in small-town Indiana. We stayed for the last of the credits and when we walked out of the theater into the darkened hallways of the multiplex we saw only the manager, who was sweeping up.

Like I said, I was sleep-deprived. I have to admit that I almost dozed off three times during Aquaman. But even if I hadn't already been sleepy, I might have felt the same way, for Aquaman is too long and, for at least an hour, too slow-moving to hold a person's interest very well. The players are Jason Momoa as Aquabro, Willem Dafoe as Mr. Miyagi, and Nicole Kidman as the Aquamom. They are supported by Dolph Lundgren as a guy whose pink hair flows and swirls like he's in a VO5 commercial and Randall Park as Conspiracy Brother, among others. Every one of them also takes a turn playing the role of Basil Exposition, and every five or ten minutes during the movie someone stops the proceedings to tell you a little story about something you don't really care about or understand. I actually groaned at one point because of it. This is no way to tell a story. In fact, one of the first things you learn in storytelling is to show it, not tell it. Even my thirteen-year-old nephew said that the movie is "cringy" in places. It's not a good sign when a kid calls your superhero movie "cringy," but that's a good word to describe the dialogue in Aquaman, which includes a little gem in which someone or other says that he plans to become "the Ocean Master." If he were in Machu Picchu or San Francisco or some similar place, I suppose he would want to become the Stair Master.

Near the beginning of Aquaman there is a little still life shown in the interior of the lighthouse keeper's home. One of the elements in this tableau is a paperback version of The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft. I'm not the first to comment on the Lovecraftian elements in Aquaman. Others have already gone there, including more than a few who just have to tell you again that Lovecraft was a horrible racist. And did we mention that Lovecraft was a horrible racist? There can be no doubt that H.P. Lovecraft wrote again and again about race and the mixing of races, as well as about the degeneration, decay, and dissolution of individual human beings and their familial or tribal lines. There is just that in "The Dunwich Horror," a tale of a kind of demigod named Wilbur Whateley, first published in Weird Tales in April 1929. The same theme appears again in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," published posthumously in the same magazine in April 1942. It seems to me, though, that Lovecraft could have been writing about himself when he told tales about mixing and degeneration or decay, for his father was a common traveling salesman and eventual syphilitic while his mother was the daughter of a prominent and well-established New England family. (Even she ended up in the bughouse.) I sense that the author himself felt the creeping of tainted blood in his blue veins as he lived out his life in a decaying home among decaying fortunes. In any case, Aquaman is also a tale of the mixing of races. The results here are positive, though, in that the title character is not degenerate but emergent. However, there is a degenerate race of men in Aquaman, and I couldn't help but see them as the Deep Ones from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Finally there is a deep-sea leviathan like Cthulhu, befriended by Aquabro and voiced by Julie Andrews of all people. Mary Poppins returns indeed.

I haven't yet seen a DC movie as good as the least good of the Marvel Studios movies, but then I haven't seen them all yet, from either studio. I can say, though, that the DC movies lack a kind of warmth and humanity that prevails more or less in the Marvel movies. They're also slow, talky, and lacking in humor. (1) I'm not sure why that is. Marvel doesn't have a lock on good screenwriters and directors. DC ought to be able to come up with something comparable. But they don't. As I have said before, DC ought to hire Marvel Studios to make their movies for them. Anyway, we saw previews for M. Night Shyamalan's new movie Glass on Wednesday night last week. If you have to see a new superhero movie this month, see that one instead of Aquaman. You can also look forward to Captain Marvel in March and Avengers: Endgame in April. Both are from Marvel Studios. Sorry, DC.

(1) The DC movies also miss out on the essence of the original comic book characters. For example, in Superman Returns, from 2006, Superman becomes Superstalker, a brooding creep who spies on Lois Lane as only a super-powered guy from Krypton can. In that and other Superman movies, the original and essential love triangle of Clark Kent-Lois Lane-Superman is banished to the Phantom Zone and Superman is made to be in love with Lois Lane. That's not how it works, people, and if you knew better, maybe moviegoers would like your product. Beyond that--and speaking of racism and racial stereotypes--the makers of DC movies are guilty of what I think is a pretty egregious perpetuation of a stereotype of Jewish men as cowards, weaklings, and nebbishes in the character of the Flash, from Justice League (2017). If they had had a black Flash like Stepin Fetchit or an Asian Flash like Long Duk Dong, viewers and critics would have howled, and rightly so. But this is the twenty-first century and one of the few permissible stereotypes left is one or more of the Jewish people. I guess that's to be expected when one of our major political parties is so outwardly and unabashedly antisemitic. And it ain't the Republicans.

H.P. Lovecraft had only one cover story in Weird Tales but in order to get it he had to go to Canada and then only after he had died. The story was "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and it appeared in the May 1942 issue of the Canadian edition of the magazine. The artist was cartoonist and illustrator Edmond Good.

Text and caption copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley