Archive for the ‘Favorites’ Category

Elmer Fudd:  Oh Bwunhiwda/You’re so wuvwy.
Bugs Bunny:  Yes I know it/I can’t help it.  –  “What’s Opera, Doc?”

Given that I prefer short stories to novels and have stated categorically that I feel quality is much more important than quantity, you probably could’ve guessed that I also like short films.  For purposes of this column I decided to define “short” as anything under half an hour, and as usual I established a few rules to narrow the field; the most important of those limits was that individual TV series episodes were excluded, because to allow them would produce far too wide a field to even consider.  Furthermore, since the short film genre is essentially dominated by two formats (the music video and the one-reel cinematic cartoon), I bit the bullet and limited myself to one specimen (and one honorable mention) of each.  Even so, there’s more repetition than I would like in two descriptor fields:  three of these (and one HM) were directed by the late, great Chuck Jones, and three were produced by grants from the National Film Board of Canada.  But it had to be; had I limited myself to one Jones selection and one NFBC selection the column would never have been done.  Because the time-scale here is so tight (most of these were made between 1966 and 1976) I’ve decided to list them in alphabetical order.

1)  Blackfly (1991)  This wickedly funny animated video for an infectious song (don’t say you weren’t warned) was, like so many amazing animated shorts, produced by a grant from the NFBC; I first saw it on the Cartoon Network’s anthology series O Canada in the late ‘90s.

2)  Don’t Come Around Here No More (1985)  Of all the hundreds of music videos I saw in the mid-‘80s, this one sticks in my mind more than any other; it was rare for a video to achieve this perfect a synthesis of music and visuals, and the fact that I really like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and love Alice in Wonderland didn’t hurt either.

Honorable MentionUnder Pressure (1981)  A striking video for a great song; it was directed by David Mallet (who was responsible for many memorable videos) and often shows up on “best video” lists.

3)  Feed the Kitty (1951)  Part of the genius of Chuck Jones lay in his realization that short cartoons were primarily a visual medium, and the greater the fraction of the story that could be told purely in images, the better.  The only words in this masterpiece are those spoken by the housewife, Violet; Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot make only animal noises, and Marc Anthony’s facial expressions are among the most evocative ever portrayed in ink and paint.

Honorable MentionWhat’s Opera, Doc? (1957), also directed by Jones, was the first cartoon ever selected for the National Film Registry, and is widely considered among animators, directors and critics to be the single greatest animated short ever made.  It is nothing short of amazing, and only my love for “Feed the Kitty” kept it off of the main list.

4)  Horton Hears a Who! (1970) is the first of two TV specials on this list directed by Chuck Jones; this one was his second with Dr. Seuss.  Even as a child I recognized that the moral and philosophical implications of the story were far beyond those in most kiddie fare, and the spectacular Maurice Noble design is a feast for the eyes.

5)  Icarus (1974)  I first saw this odd, haunting claymation film as a filler short between shows on our local public television station in the late 1970s, and I never forgot it (though until the advent of the internet I despaired of ever seeing it again).  Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get a good copy of it despite the fact that it was included in Fantastic Animation Festival (1977).

6)  Lady Fishbourne’s Complete Guide to Better Table Manners (1976) is one of the funniest things I have ever seen, and it rewards repeated watching with little details that one might not catch the first time around.  Be prepared for “A thousand pardons, I was most revolting” to become a permanent part of your vocabulary.  I apologize for the huge, ugly logo some moronic Philistine encumbered this YouTube copy with.

7)  Number Three Ball (1970)  This short film was produced for Sesame Street by Jim Henson and directed by Frank Oz.  Though it’s extremely short, Oz had to build the complicated props by hand, a process that took months; the result is well worth it, because this is probably the most memorable of the many clever and often beautiful shorts which appeared on the show during the early 1970s.

Honorable MentionE-magination (1969)  Here’s another outstanding Sesame Street short, a lovely and surreal pastel animation with a unique, wistful score.

Honorable MentionThis Lollipop is Following Me (1971)  Sesame Street’s sister show, The Electric Company, also had some incredible animated shorts, of which my favorite was this inexplicable nightmare in miniature.  I still occasionally find myself singing this song out loud.

8)  Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975)  Chuck Jones adapted a number of stories from Kipling’s Jungle Book as TV specials, but this was in my opinion the best.  The first time I saw it I disliked the way Jones depicted the mongoose’s motion, and also a few silly bits of “business” near the beginning, because I felt they detracted from the serious tone of the story (Orson Welles is the  narrator; ‘nuff said).  But eventually the rest of it won me over, and it’s now one of my favorite films of any length.

9)  What On Earth! (1966)  This clever satire from the NFBC was obviously not directed by Jones, but I owe my discovery of it to him because it was featured on his groundbreaking kids’ show Curiosity Shop, which I am still waiting for on DVD.  No YouTube video of it is available, but you can watch it on the NFBC website by clicking on the title.

10)  Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968)  This is IMHO the funniest and most entertaining of the Walt Disney Pooh adaptations; every time I watch it I get the giggles for days over “Well I say now.  Someone has pasted Piglet on my window.”  Unfortunately, Disney being its usual greedy corporate self, the film isn’t available online, but at least I can show you the heffalump song:

Honorable MentionThe Wizard of Speed and Time (1979)  Since “Blustery Day” wasn’t available I figured I would give you one more for the road (so to speak).  Keep in mind this was all done with stop-motion animation, without any help from computers whatsoever.

Please feel free to include your own favorites in the comments!

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An author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children.  –  Benjamin Disraeli

Just over a year ago in “Top Ten” I listed the most popular posts at that time by number of visits and number of comments, and also shared those I thought deserved more attention.  I’ll do an update on the top columns in my annual summary in January, but today I’d like to discuss the ten columns with which I’m most pleased.  As is my custom with these lists, I’m going to restrict it to only one representative per column type; I’m also going to exclude all miscellanea-type columns, list columns and those built around large extracts from others’ writings (such as news stories).  With those rules in place, it was a little easier to whittle 779 posts down to this list, arranged in chronological order.

1)  Painted Devil  (August 23rd, 2010)

It was really difficult to choose a favorite “fictional interlude”, and the two runners-up are mentioned as honorable mentions below.  But this one, the second I wrote, was very special to me because of the way it came into being.  The idea first occurred to me in the late ‘80s, but I was very dissatisfied with the resulting story and it rattled around in my brain for over two decades; though I tried many times to put it together it just never quite jelled.  But once I realized the missing ingredient was that the heroine had to be a courtesan, it came together in just a few hours; the result made me realize that I really could write a story every month, as long as I continued to employ that common factor.

Honorable mentions:  “Concubine” (July 19th, 2011) and “Pearls Before Swine” (October 13th, 2011)

2)  Amazingly Stupid Statements (October 10th, 2010)

What makes this one a favorite is very simple:  it contains the most concise responses I have ever written to a number of common prohibitionist arguments, all of which have been addressed at greater length in other columns.  But for simplicity and convenience, I think this column deserves greater exposure.

3)  Plaçage (November 22nd, 2010)

I’m very happy with most of my historical columns, but since I can only choose one it would have to be this treatment of the system of concubinage which was so prevalent in early New Orleans that it actually gave rise to an entire culture which survived until very recently.  Several of my historical columns cast light on obscure aspects of history, but this one seems to have become an important internet reference on the subject.

Honorable mentions: “Honolulu Harlots” (July 5th, 2011) and “The Ouled Nail” (September 11th, 2011)

4)  Harm Reduction (January 13th, 2011)

Though the topic of harm reduction often arises with respect to the way society treats prostitution, few of those who talk about it acknowledge that the trade is itself a harm reduction mechanism.  This essay explains what is meant by “harm reduction”, gives a brief history of the concept and explains how whores practice it.

5)  Numerology (January 24th, 2011

This column’s place on this list was a given because it was the one which first “put me on the map” by capturing the attention of many people outside the sex worker rights ghetto.  But even if that had not been the case, it deserves the position as the most important exercise in applied math I’ve done here to date.

6)  Godwin’s Law (March 5th, 2011)

I’ve written a number of essays on why police states are a moral abomination, but I’m so proud of this one I even reposted it on The Agitator during my guest blogging there last month.  In it, I discuss the titular internet principle, point out the danger of the pretense that nothing like Nazi Germany could ever happen again and argue that “sometimes Nazi analogies are entirely appropriate.”

Honorable mentions:  “Creating Criminals” (January 15th, 2011) and its sequel “Universal Criminality” (January 15th, 2012), and the Star Trek-themed “The Fourth of July” (July 4th, 2012)

7)  A False Dichotomy (June 22nd, 2011)

Prohibitionists and sex worker rights advocates alike often subscribe to the fallacious belief that all whores are either free-willed “happy hookers” or “trafficked slaves”; this essay explains why that idea is incorrect and how belief in it is harmful to the cause of human rights and dismissive of the experiences of most of the world’s prostitutes.

Honorable mention:  “Thought Experiment” (December 16th, 2011)

8)  Frightful Films (October 28th, 2011)

At the time it was published this was the farthest off-topic I had ever wandered; it also had more pictures than any other, and some of them are the largest ones I ever uploaded to the blog.  It also took longer to post than any other column before or since (due to formatting issues), but it was worth it as a labor of love on a topic near and dear to my heart.

9)  Objectification Overruled (January 31st, 2012)

Of all the numerous criticisms of feminist theory I’ve written, this is my favorite.  That’s partly because I find “objectification” the most absurd, indefensible, offensive and pie-in-the-sky of all feminist notions, yet it’s achieved widespread acceptance in popular discourse and is almost never questioned despite the fact that its asininity should be obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together.  So as you might imagine, I took particular pleasure in demolishing it with the help of Rene Magritte and Captain Kirk.

Honorable mention:  “My Body, My Choice” (November 19th, 2010)

10)  Imagination Pinned Down (June 12th, 2012)

It’s bad enough that the Great Unwashed accept lurid and unproven anecdotes as valid arguments against demonstrable facts, well-supported statistics and a very large number of anecdotes which contradict the lurid ones.  But when those stories strongly resemble other outrageous “survivor” tales, and violate both common sense and physical laws, somebody needs to stand up and call a trafficking victim a UFO abductee; this essay does exactly that.

New readers will probably find these an excellent introduction to my back-catalog, and even regular readers may find some titles they don’t recognize.  But I hope even those of you who remember all of these appreciated this month’s look into my own aesthetic sensibilities.

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Goblets they carved there for themselves,
And harps of gold where no man delves.
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by Man or Elves.
  –  J.R.R. Tolkien

Show of hands:  how many saw this one coming?  It was inevitable, really.  Though I’m not obsessed with them like some people, I do like a good musical now and again (and I include rock operas and revues in that classification).  However, I tend to be pretty particular; I don’t care for songs that seem shoehorned in, or that throw off the pacing or tone.  Furthermore, I’m far more forgiving of dramatic inadequacies than I am of musical ones; since the very idea of people bursting spontaneously into song and crowds of strangers performing perfectly-choreographed dances together is completely absurd in the first place I’m willing to suspend my disbelief much more than usual, but too many uninteresting numbers kills it for me.  Keep that in mind when looking over this list, which I’ve illustrated (like last month) with embedded videos; in each case I tried to choose what I considered the most representative musical number rather than the best, though in some cases I was constrained by the poor variety and/or quality of available selections.  These are listed alphabetically by title, with a short list of three honorable mentions thereafter.

1)  Aladdin (1992)  The first of the revived Disney studio’s films to employ intentional anachronism, and the only one to do it well.  I chose this song rather than the marvelous “Friend Like Me” because I just love the dancing and the use of counterpoint, especially the three girls on the balcony (starting at 1:45).

2)  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)  I have no idea why so many film critics dislike this wonderful movie, why they praise the Sherman Brothers’ work with Disney but pan it here, and why they insist on obsessing about minutiae like Dick Van Dyke’s lack of an English accent (see comment about absurdity of musicals above).  In fact, this musical number plays with the convention in that Van Dyke’s character, who is not part of the song-and-dance troupe but merely using it to hide from a pursuer, is totally out of sync with the others.

3)  The Hobbit (1977)  When this first appeared on television I strongly disliked the heavily stylized animation, but it grew on me over the years and now barely misses being on the list of my favorite movies.  I’ve actually read some ignoramuses complaining about the lyrics to the songs, not realizing that they’re all straight from Tolkien’s text.  I’m especially fond of John Huston’s recitation of the ballad of the Coming of Smaug, starting at exactly 5:00.  And because it was available, I decided to include the whole movie.

4)  Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)  This has been among my favorites since the first time I heard it in 8th grade; I’ve already mentioned it a number of times in a number of places on this blog, so we’ll just leave it at that.

5)  Man of La Mancha (1972)  The fact that the lead female character is a whore has nothing to do with its place on this list, though I fully admit it helped to get my attention the first time I heard the album in my early teens (which actually predated my seeing the movie by several years).  I picked it out of a budget record bin for “The Impossible Dream”, a song I still love but have chosen not to feature today in favor of the less-overexposed “Dulcinea”.

6)  The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)  What can I say?  The subject matter would’ve predisposed me to like it even if it hadn’t had such an infectious libretto, catchy tunes and fun characters.  This one is a regular at our house every autumn.

7)  1776 (1972)  Another one I’ve loved since high school, and as you can probably guess we watch it every July 4th; though it takes dramatic license with some of the details, it still adheres more closely to the facts than is typical for Hollywood.  I would’ve preferred to feature “But Mr. Adams”, but there was no available movie clip for it so this one will do (sorry for the poor picture).

8)  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)  I know Roald Dahl didn’t like this adaptation of his book, but I do; in fact there’s very little about it I don’t like from the sets to the casting to Wonka’s weird, quotation-heavy dialog.  This is a perfect introductory clip not merely because it’s a great song, but because it presents virtually the whole cast to Wonka’s world and demonstrates a bit of his eccentric style as well.

9)  The Wizard of Oz (1939)  Most Americans of my generation or thereabouts will remember that for many years this movie was played annually on broadcast television, but I’ve never grown tired of it.  One of the true greats.

10) Yellow Submarine (1968)  I first saw this on television as a child and was absolutely blown away; though I knew and liked several Beatles songs already, I can probably trace my real love for the group to that viewing (which also affected my drawing style for months).  I love animation, and I love the Beatles, so naturally this is on the list.  Of the available clips, I thought the theatrical trailer gives the best feel for the show.

Honorable Mentions

Musically, these three are up there with the others, but in each case the rest of the film outside the songs doesn’t quite measure up.

1)  All That Jazz (1979)  Great songs and fantastic choreography by director Bob Fosse make this semi-autobiographical picture watchable, but the story is slow, repetitive and ultimately a bit depressing.  But the musical numbers…well, judge for yourself:

Fun fact:  Paula Abdul’s video for “Cold Hearted” was intentionally patterned after this one; it was obvious to me the first time I saw it and I’m sure it will be to you as well.

2)  Godspell  (1973)  The only thing that keeps this one out of the top 10 is that I have to be in the right frame of mind for it; the fact that all the songs are based on sayings, parables and incidents from the Gospel of Matthew is not so much the issue as the fact that I have to be in a sort of nostalgic mood to watch early ‘70s hippie-flavored stuff.  I really wanted to share “Turn Back, O Man” with you since that was the number I did in our little CYO production when I was 15, but alas that one’s only available in poorly-recorded stage videos.  This was my second choice, though, and you may recognize the setting of the finale.

3)  Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1975)  What I said for Godpell is also true here; it’s a sequence of vignettes which were visually very avant-garde and unusual at the time, but seven years later could easily have been shown as music videos.  Jacques Brel’s music, however, I can listen to almost any time; I linked a couple of examples in “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”.

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…and now for something completely different.  –  John Cleese

Yesterday I shared my favorite TV dramas with you, and today I’d like to do the same with my favorite TV comedies; at the end there’s a bonus list of my two favorite documentary series, which obviously wasn’t long enough for a column of its own.  Just as I did yesterday I’ve embedded videos of each show, with one exception (as you’ll see below).  Like yesterday’s, this list is arranged alphabetically.

1)  The Addams Family  Charles Addams had been doing his macabre cartoons for The New Yorker for over twenty years when a television producer decided they would make a clever television show.  Unlike the characters in the rival show The Munsters, the Addams family (named for the cartoonist) were not comical takeoffs on Universal movie monsters, but rather oddballs who were just plain weird rather than monstrous; that weirdness allowed them to get away with a great deal that other contemporary shows could not.  For example, Mr. and Mrs. Addams were the very first TV couple who were not only sexually interested in one another on-camera, but passionately interested.  It’s been one of my favorites since I first encountered it in afternoon reruns in the mid-1970s.

2)  The Adventures of Pete and Pete  Like the Addams family, the Wrigleys are just a little bent, but unlike the Addams most of their neighbors (many played by unexpected celebrities like Iggy Pop or Patty Hearst) are equally strange.  The show was originally a series of one-minute shorts which aired between shows on children’s cable network Nickelodeon in 1989 (here are the first two, “What Would You Do for a Dollar?” and “Freeze Tag”); they proved so popular the creators were asked to create a series of 30-minute specials and later a whole series.  The stories, especially in the first two regular seasons, achieve a rare mixture of hilarity and poignant sweetness that isn’t quite like anything else.

3)  Bewitched  There were quite a few fantasy situation comedies in the 1960s, but this was the best and most enduring of them; I was five years old when it finally went off the air, and it’s been in nigh-constant syndication ever since.  The lovely Elizabeth Montgomery played a witch married to a mortal, and the friction between the two worlds (most often in the person of her interfering mother) created an endless number of comical situations which rarely fail to amuse and are often hilarious.  One of the show’s greatest strengths was its masterful use of character actors appearing as witches and other magical beings, animals or monsters in human form, or even historical personages summoned into the present by errant spells.

4)  The Bullwinkle Show  This show was originally named Rocky and His Friends, but after Rocky’s sidekick Bullwinkle became the more popular character, the title was changed for the fourth season and used for all the seasons in syndication.  The show aired in the evenings, and like the classic Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons was intended for adults.  But for some reason I’ve never quite understood Americans collectively decided in the mid-1960s that cartoons were “kid stuff”, and that attitude persisted until the advent of The Simpsons in 1989.  Bullwinkle’s producer, Jay Ward, was among the first to prove that by use of crude, limited animation held up by funny scripts and talented voice actors, a quality cartoon could be produced at a very reasonable cost; though it’s doubtful that any television show has ever been animated more crudely, it’s equally doubtful that any has ever been as funny, clever and sly.

5)  Fawlty Towers  John Cleese stars as Basil Fawlty, a rude, incompetent and self-important innkeeper whose schemes to improve his business, keep the riff-raff out and stay out of trouble with his shrewish wife lead to twelve of the funniest half-hours ever committed to videotape.  There aren’t many shows that can make me laugh so hard I literally cry, but this is one.

6)  The Good Life  This British sitcom premiered the same year (1975) as Fawlty Towers, but they’re not very much alike; though this series (which was broadcast in the US as The Good Neighbors) is very funny, its humor is cuter and more gentle than the manic hilarity of Fawlty.  The story follows an engineer who decides to get out of the rat race by quitting his job and taking up farming…in the upscale London suburb of Surbiton, much to the consternation of his good-natured but snobbish neighbors.

7)  Green Acres  No, I’m not obsessed with shows about successful men who quit the rat race to become farmers; honestly I’m not.  Besides, the hero of this show is a lawyer, and instead of farming in the suburbs he moves to a very weird rural town whose inhabitants make the eccentric population of Pete & Pete’s Wellsville look like models of sanity in comparison.  Even the laws of nature here seem to work in a more surreal fashion, and on more than one occasion characters are able to read credits, hear incidental music and otherwise break the fourth wall.

8)  Making Fiends  This is a web cartoon created by the astonishingly talented Amy Winfrey; it’s absolutely one of the funniest  things I’ve ever seen while still being 100% “clean” and incredibly charming.  She did six half-hour shows for Nickelodeon in 2008, but the originals are still online and pack more laughs into a few minutes than most sitcoms can generate in several episodes.

9)  Monty Python’s Flying Circus  As with Star Trek and Twilight Zone yesterday, I honestly don’t think I can say anything useful about this landmark series in the space I have to work with.  The influence of this bizarre, zany, irreverent, erudite and wholly original sketch comedy show on everything that has come after it is incalculable; even our use of the word “spam” to mean junk email derives from a Python sketch depicting a diner in which Spam (the meat) is served with every single dish whether one wants it or not.

10)  Red Dwarf   Imagine a science fiction show that totally succeeds as a comedy, or a hilarious comedy which is better science fiction than the majority of shows in that genre, and you’ve got Red Dwarf.  A perennial loser is placed in stasis for violating ship’s rules and emerges 3,000,000 years later to find the entire crew was killed in a radiation accident soon after he was frozen; his only companions are the ship’s computer, a hologram simulation of the dead bunkmate he couldn’t stand, and a humanoid creature who evolved from the ship’s cat.  Hijinks ensue.

My Favorite TV Documentaries

1)  Connections  Veteran journalist James Burke examines the interdependence of technology by demonstrating how each new discovery leads to wholly unpredictable effects that trigger change in apparently-unrelated areas; in each episode he takes one ancient or medieval development (such as the stirrup or the water wheel) and demonstrates how it set off a series of interlinked events leading to the development of a major technological device of the modern world (such as computers or nuclear weapons).  Sound interesting?  You can watch the first episode, “The Trigger Effect”, in its entirety right here.

2)  Cosmos  Three decades of cable TV networks wholly dedicated to documentaries still haven’t produced a science show as interesting or entertaining as Carl Sagan’s 1980 magnum opus, which is why it’s still highly regarded today despite the fact that a little (though not much) of its science is now dated.  In a way this show and Connections were inspirations for this blog, because both of them showed me it was possible to be informative and entertaining at the same time.  I also have Cosmos to thank for introducing me to the music of Vangelis, one of my favorite musicians.

Today’s puzzle:  One of today’s series and three of yesterday’s feature main characters who appear in every episode (or nearly so), despite the fact that they’re already dead by the end of the first episode.  How many more can you think of?

One Year Ago Today

In “A Decent Boldness” we make the acquaintance of Aella, an Amazon of the mythic past who finds herself stranded on the far side of the world, broke and unable to speak the language, and has to figure out how she’s going to survive.

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You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.  –  Rod Serling

Since this feature has proven much more popular than I expected, this month I’d like to share my favorite TV shows with you; today we’ll look at my favorite dramas, and tomorrow my favorite comedies.  And when I say “look at” I mean that literally; instead of using still pictures I’ve embedded a YouTube video of the introduction to each show.  Since it’s not unusual for shows to change the graphics or even the theme music in successive seasons, I’ve selected my favorite ones (when available).  Since the entertainment industry has become obsessed with recycling of late, most of these series have been remade or turned into movies, but in each case the one I like is the original.  The list is arranged alphabetically, and one thing that may strike you is that there’s a lot of British TV here (4 of 10 in each list) and a preponderance of 1960s shows (half of each list).  The reason for that is, I was already becoming annoyed with the stupidity of American network television by the time I was 11 or 12, and stopped watching it entirely in 1980.  After that it was nothing but public TV and cable through the entire ‘80s, which meant I saw a lot of British shows; I first saw the two post-1980 American shows on this list in the late ‘90s on cable.

1)  The Avengers  Though this series premiered in the UK years before the mid-‘60s spy craze, it was syndicated to American television from its fourth season on because of it; the video I’ve showcased here was a short introduction for American viewers which came just before the opening credits in that first syndicated season, so it may be new to my UK and Commonwealth readers.  In its first three seasons (never seen in the US until the ‘90s) the show was a straight drama, but later seasons incorporated the unique style and comedic elements for which the show became known.  I first discovered it in early ‘70s reruns, and Diana Rigg was the first woman I can remember being attracted to.

2)  Batman (The Animated Series)  Not the Adam West TV show, y’all; this was the first production from the revived Warner Brothers animation department in the early ‘90s, and it is widely considered the finest animated TV show ever made.  The stories were scripted with adults in mind; they were complex, emotionally realistic and beautifully animated, and each episode was separately scored with a full orchestra.  Perhaps best of all, the voices were provided by regular actors, not “cartoon voices”, and it shows.

3)  Dr. Who  This classic British science fantasy serial had been around for almost two decades before debuting on American public television in 1981, starting from the first story with the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.  By the second week I was hooked, and by the third I no longer cared about the community-theater special effects because the stories, acting and everything else were so good.  Our local PBS station eventually aired all the ‘60s episodes and new episodes as well until its cancellation in 1989, and if the BBC ever gets off its collective arse and packages the serials properly by season, I intend to buy all the first five Doctors.  Since fans will want to know:  my Doctor order of preference is 4, 3, 5, 2, 1, 7, 6.

4)  Kolchak:  The Night Stalker  Because my mother never allowed me to watch “scary shows” I first heard of this from other kids, and saw it in syndication in the early ‘80s.  Carl Kolchak is a hard-boiled reporter who investigates all sorts of supernatural occurrences, though much to his chagrin the stories are usually discarded by his long-suffering editor.  The series has a strong current of black humor and has been named as an inspiration for a number of other shows, including The X Files.

5)  Kung Fu  Since we only had one television set and my parents weren’t interested, I had to wait until this acclaimed and groundbreaking series was syndicated in the mid-1980s to see it.  It is impossible to overstate the influence of this “Eastern Western”, not only because it spurred a martial arts craze and awakened American interest in Asian philosophy, but more generally in pioneering techniques such as extensive use of flashback and presenting combat in slow motion.

6)  The Outer Limits  Though I had read about this series and even owned an episode guide, I never actually saw it until an independent TV station picked it up in 1984; even then I only saw a few until cable network TNT broadcast them as part of its Monstervision series in the early ‘90s.  While not as consistently outstanding as The Twilight Zone, this series is still a lot of fun and there were a number of excellent and thought-provoking episodes.

7)  The Prisoner  By the end of his extremely popular Danger Man series  (syndicated to the US as Secret Agent), Patrick McGoohan was the most highly-paid television actor in the world, and one of the most respected; he then used his clout to get this 17-episode series produced.  It’s doubtful anyone else could’ve; the series is a strange, enigmatic and compelling dramatization of the right of the individual to be individual in the face of a totalitarian surveillance state.  If you’ve never seen it, the three-minute introduction below will give you a good idea of the premise.

8)  Sherlock Holmes  England’s Granada television produced what I and many other Sherlockians consider the finest of all Holmes series.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ran for two seasons and was later followed by The Return of Sherlock HolmesThe Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, though they are here considered all one series.  Jeremy Brett was to me the perfect Holmes, and the series’ production values were impeccable; only a few of the adaptations strayed very far from the spirit and substance of Doyle’s stories.

9)  Star Trek  I’m sure everyone knew this would be here; is it really necessary for me to introduce this series?  Anything I might say is probably already familiar to 95% of my readers.  So let me just tell you that I was a really, really major Trekkie, and had every book and model (though I must confess I wasn’t all that good at putting them together and had to ask Jeff for help).  Of the sequels I like the animated series best, followed by Enterprise; Next Generation and Deep Space Nine are good but not in my opinion up to the same level as the original, and Voyager was to me completely unwatchable.  Of the movies, I only consider The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country truly worthy of the legacy; the former is in the second tier of my favorite movies.

10)  The Twilight Zone  Another obvious choice; I have loved this show since first seeing it in reruns as a child, and can remember excitedly repeating the plots to friends in second grade.  When the local PBS station started rerunning them on Sunday nights in the early ‘80s, I actually wired up a kill switch on the ancient Motorola I had inherited from my great-grandmother so I could watch them from bed and instantly kill the picture if my mother came in.  As with Star Trek, I doubt this show needs an introduction even to most international readers, so I’ll just say that I decided to showcase the first-season opening with the haunting Bernard Herrmann theme rather than the more familiar Marius Constant one.

Two Honorable Mentions

I decided to list these two separately due to issues of scale; the first is an incomplete series which was not renewed and therefore ends in a cliffhanger, while the second was a soap opera with 1225 episodes.

1)  American Gothic  This horror series was stylish, sexy and very daring, but upset and confused TV executives so much they did their best to kill it and eventually succeeded.  It was moved around the schedule without warning and episodes were aired out of sequence or skipped entirely, making the intricate storyline literally impossible to follow.  Fortunately I didn’t see it until it was broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel, complete and in order, in the late ‘90s.  The show didn’t really have a traditional intro, but that’s OK because this trailer will give you an idea of the premise and plot.

2)  Dark Shadows  This soap opera premiered in 1966 as a gothic, but began to introduce supernatural elements about six months later and eventually featured witchcraft, werewolves, time travel, astral projection, Dorian Grey portraits and many other such ideas, often drawn from famous horror novels (including a confusing and not-very-good Lovecraft sequence).  The tortured, all-too-human vampire Barnabas Collins eventually became the star of the show and paved the way for every humanized vampire that came after him, thus making this series the ancestor of everything from Anne Rice to Twilight, though IMHO better than any of them and deserving of a true homage instead of the mess Tim Burton recently served up.

I’ll close with a little game for y’all; though I find a number of the male stars of these shows attractive, there’s only one I will consistently name if asked to give examples of celebrities I find attractive.  Let’s see how well y’all know me; I’ll give you the answer Friday.

One Year Ago Today

Delicious Poison” reports on the abuse of a cattle steroid named Oradexon in the brothels of Bangladesh, and the predictable Western response to it.

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She cried, “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”
  –  Christina Rossetti

Yesterday I told you about the first six of my favorite poems, listed in alphabetical order by poet; today we’re going to look at seven more, for a total of thirteen.  As I pointed out yesterday, I have a particular fondness for literature of the Romantic Period, which ran from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries; only three of today’s selections were written later, and one of them (#12) shows a strong Romantic influence.  As y’all have noticed by now my taste in poetry is for traditional (if sometimes unconventional) rhyme and meter; it’s probably the main reason I don’t care for modern poetry, which generally eschews both except in song lyrics.  That brings up an important point:  a song is really just a poem set to music, and one of these poems (#10) is nearly always performed as a song.  So one of these days I’ll probably do a column on my favorite songs…but that’s going to take a lot of thought, so it’ll probably be much later this year.

7)  “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819) by John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
“I love thee true.”

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

This haunting poem about a knight who makes the terrible mistake of dallying with a Faerie woman displays a common theme in Faerie lore; everything about the Fair Folk, from their persons to their music to their food, is so woven with enchantment (or to use the old word, glamour) that a mortal who partakes of it pines forever after, sometimes unto death.  The motif appears again in “Goblin Market” below, in my own story “Faerie Tale”, and in the Electric Light Orchestra song “I Can’t Get It Out of My Head”.

8)  The Female of the Species (1911) by Rudyard Kipling

Long-time readers may remember that I’ve not only quoted this one, but actually based part of a column on it.  And since that’s already available, I’ll otherwise allow the poem to speak for itself.

9)  Disobedience (1924) by A.A. Milne (HM “Buckingham Palace” and “The King’s Breakfast”)

In my considered opinion, Milne’s nonsense is second only to that of Carroll; both cloaked incredible wit and brilliant wordplay in literature ostensibly intended for children, but which (like the old Warner Brothers cartoons) can only really be appreciated by adults.  This is true in the Pooh books, but much more so in his poetry, which marries a Victorian flair for whimsy with a 20th-century willingness to play with form and meter (as displayed perfectly in all these selections).  And though Milne didn’t intend it that way, try reading “Disobedience” with the topic of the nanny state in mind.

10) The Minstrel Boy (1806) by Thomas Moore

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

This is actually a song, which you can hear performed by the famous Irish tenor John McCormack in the provided link.  However, it’s often included in collections of poetry and the tune is a traditional Irish one called “The Moreen”.  My Irish and British readers and those who live in traditionally-Irish communities in the US are probably quite familiar with this one, which is probably the simplest and most conventional of all my favorites.

11) The Raven (1845) by Edgar Allen Poe (HM “Eldorado” and “The Bells”)

Poe was one of the rare writers who excelled equally at prose and poetry, and “The Raven” is his masterpiece; it’s also the longest poem I ever committed wholly to memory (one stanza at a time over several weeks in high school).  People are still arguing about its exact meaning, and its repeated refrain of “Nevermore” is so linked with the poem I daresay most English-speaking adults can scarcely hear the word without thinking of it.  Poe’s language is incredibly musical, and he had a gift for working polysyllabic words into his meter with enviable ease; nowhere is this more perfectly showcased than in “The Bells”, which is best appreciated when read aloud.  Bonus:  “The Raven” inspired one of my favorite movies, and here’s a hilarious parody of the poem as recited by Bullwinkle.

12)Goblin Market (1859) by Christina Rossetti

This incredibly sensual, overtly sexual fairy tale poem draws on the pining motif (see #7 above) to present a disguised protest against Victorian repression of female sexuality (including, as will be obvious, lesbian sexuality); more specifically, it rebukes the doctrine that a “fallen” woman could not be redeemed.  What Rossetti seems to be saying here is that it’s abstaining from sex which harms a woman, not embracing it in the context of a loving relationship; and for a woman of her time, that was positively radical.  It’s the longest of my favorites, but please don’t let that length deter you; it’s really a quick read and worth your time.  NB:  This illustration was done by the poet’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

13) “Ozymandias” (1818) by Percy Byssche Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias” is the Greek name for Ramses II, but that really isn’t important to the meaning of this meditation on the fleeting nature of power and fame, and the futility of the excesses men commit to obtain them.  The cruel irony of the inscription, which now means exactly the opposite of what Ozymandias intended it to mean, is one of the most striking in English poetry.

One Year Ago Today

Projection” discusses the people who use whores as scapegoats by projecting their own twisted needs and self-loathing onto us.

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I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
  –  Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Since last month’s column on my favorite books proved so popular, I figured an encore was in order; today and tomorrow I’ll present my favorite poems, arranged alphabetically by poet.  As is my custom, I’ve limited the selections to one per poet and listed others as honorable mentions.  I’ll share short selections within the column, but longer ones as PDFs, and in cases where I was fortunate enough to locate an illustrated version of an honorable mention I used it as the illustration; just click on it to enlarge.  Those blessed with good memories or burdened with English degrees have probably noticed my preference for 19th century literature, especially of the Romantic period (roughly the first half of the century and the end of the 18th); even most of my 20th century selections cluster in the first half.  I’d say 75% of all the fiction and poetry I’ve ever read was written between 1766 and 1966, with the remaining quarter divided evenly between the pre-1766 and post-1966 periods.  Why?  I have no clue; maybe it’s related to the fact that I always get a profound frisson when writing or reading about Catherine Eddowes.

1)  “The Tyger” (1794) by William Blake (HM “A Poison Tree” & “The Sick Rose”)

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Blake was a poet, engraver and visionary; he had visions from the time he was a small child and they often inspired his work.  He developed an entire personal mythology as complex as that later created by H.P. Lovecraft, and used it throughout his oeuvre…which often, as these selections demonstrate, contained an undercurrent of horror (consider the theological implications in the penultimate stanza of “The Tyger”).  He’s my favorite poet and I’ve quoted him (usually from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”) and used his illustrations in a number of columns.  I also have the honor of being distantly related to him.

2)  The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842) by Robert Browning (HM “Porphyria’s Lover”)

Yes, it’s doggerel; some of the rhymes are almost painful!  But Browning did it on purpose to maintain a light tone in what would otherwise have been a mighty grim fairy tale about the consequences of not paying what one owes for a service (apparently Agent Huntington didn’t learn the lesson).  The Piper is of course one of the Fair Folk, and dealings with such beings are always fraught with danger (as demonstrated in two more of my selections tomorrow).  The legend dates to shortly after the original incident in 1284 (and as Browning tells us was commemorated in a stained-glass window a few years later), but his version (re-dated to 1376) is the most memorable.

3)  “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815) by George Gordon, Lord Byron

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

The topic is of course Biblical, a retelling of 2 Kings 19; I like it for the beauty of its language and the power of its imagery.  I’ve always suspected that the climactic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark was inspired by this poem.  Bonus:  A very funny parody of it by Ogden Nash.

4)  “Jabberwocky” (1872) by Lewis Carroll (HM “The Walrus and the Carpenter”)

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jujub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two!! One, two!! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The most amazing feature of Carroll’s finest short piece is that despite the sheer number of nonsense words, one still has absolutely no problem understanding what is going on here.  The poem is from Through the Looking-Glass; if you haven’t reread it lately you really ought to.

5)  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge     (HM “Kubla Khan”)

Almost everyone knows that the title character brings doom upon his ship by shooting an albatross, but if you’ve never actually read the poem (or if it’s been a long time) you owe it to yourself to get the full story, which would make a fantastic horror movie exactly as written (it even has monsters and zombies, no joke).  Of course, that’s not unusual for Coleridge, who also wrote a poem about a lesbian vampire (“Christabel”). Oh, and Rush fans:  if you haven’t before, you really, really want to read “Kubla Khan”.  Trust me.

6)  “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” (1922) by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

My second-grade teacher probably would not have had me memorize this had she realized what it was actually about.  If you don’t understand, contemplate the eighth line and ask yourself why the last one is repeated.  I usually sing this one rather than reciting it; a friend of mine at UNO wrote a lovely tune for it.  Incidentally, this isn’t the only one of these I know by heart; I can also recite #1 (and its HMs), #4, #9 (and HMs), #10 and #11 (plus the first of two HMs).  However, you’ll have to read tomorrow’s column to discover what those are.

One Year Ago Today

Nell Gwyn” was born in a brothel, became an actress and courtesan, and was eventually the mistress of King Charles II.

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As from the smoke is freed the blaze,
So let our faith burn bright!
And if they crush our olden ways,
Who e’er can crush Thy light?
  –  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The First Walpurgis-Night”

In the Middle Ages, May Eve became known in Europe as St. Walpurga’s Eve for the 9th-century saint whose feast day was on Beltane.  As I explained last year, that pagan holiday was simply too sexual to Christianize, so its tamer elements were transferred to the relatively-nearby Easter and the wilder traditions were either suppressed or simply tolerated as features of a secular spring festival (though Protestant clergymen certainly thundered about them in later centuries).  The most famous of these is of course the Maypole dance, but in ancient times the fertility of the growing crops was ensured in some parts of Europe by burnt offerings, as illustrated to chilling effect in The Wicker Man  (consider this my third recommendation of the film, in the sense of “I tell you three times”).  And though we no longer include living creatures in them, the bonfires have remained the center of May Eve celebrations in Germanic portions of Europe, especially Scandinavia and Finland; celebrants dance and carouse around the fires, sometimes all night long and on into May Day!

As so often happens, modern merrymaking has evolved from a serious root; Beltane is exactly halfway ‘round the year from Samhain, and just as the veil between the worlds was believed to be thinnest on Halloween, it was believed to be almost as much so on May Eve.  In Germanic mythology this was the day on which Odin, who had crucified himself on the world-tree Yggdrasil in search of wisdom, died; being a god he was reborn the following morning, and looking at the fallen twigs on the ground below he invented the runic alphabet.  The night was thus believed to be one on which spirits walked abroad, and the bonfires were intended to keep them at bay.  Furthermore, once Christians began to associate witchcraft with Satanism, the secret May Eve celebrations of witch covens and other pagan holdouts began to take on a sinister cast.  This was especially true in Germanic areas (most of all Scandinavia) because they had converted to Christianity only quite recently (9th-11th centuries) and still remembered the stories of Odin, the ghosts and the ancient sacrifices that the witches were believed to have continued.  The great witch’s sabbats were therefore regarded with terror, and Christian Walpurgisnacht celebrations gave a new meaning to the old vigils.  Thus did two groups celebrating in the same way – dancing and feasting around a fire – ascribe different meanings to the same celebrations descending from the same ancient tradition.

The German idea of May Eve as a sort of second Halloween persisted and entered the literature of terror; though it’s become less common in the past few decades, 19th and early 20th century horror stories often depicted dark doings taking place on April 30th.  In observation of that motif, I’d like to present this list of what I consider the ten scariest short stories in English, arranged in chronological order.  Connoisseurs of horror will note that my preference is toward the more atmospheric and subtle type of tale; indeed, some people of blunted sensibilities don’t even consider the second one horror at all (read it and judge for yourself).  In several of them the horror may take time to build, so that you may not be disturbed upon finishing the last line…only to find yourself thinking about the implications in the quiet dark, and haunted by certain images for a long time thereafter.  Because there are so many fine tales to choose from I limited myself to one per author (which in some cases wasn’t at all easy), and because they’re all short enough to read at one sitting (as horror tales must be for proper appreciation) I will say nothing further about them.

1) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) by Edgar Allen Poe (HM: “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat“)
2) “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
3) “The White People” (1899) by Arthur Machen (HM: “The Novel of the White Powder“)
4) “The Willows” (1907) by Algernon Blackwood (HM: “The Wendigo“)
5) “Caterpillars” (1913) by E.F. Benson (HM: “The Face“)
6) “The People of the Pit” (1918) by A. Merritt
7) “The Rats in the Walls” (1924) by H.P. Lovecraft (HM: “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Whisperer in Darkness“)
8) “The Small Assassin” (1947) by Ray Bradbury
9) “The Unspeakable Betrothal” (1949) by Robert Bloch
10) “Sticks” (1974) by Karl Edward Wagner

I’ve provided PDFs for the first seven and the honorable mentions.  There was no available PDF for “The Face” and the only one I could find for “The Yellow Wallpaper” was horribly formatted, so I prepared these myself; enjoy them with my compliments and spread them across the internet as you please.  The Lovecraft stories are provided in The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, compiled by Cthulhu Chick; the title is a tad overstated because it only includes the prose fiction published under Lovecraft’s own name and therefore excludes his poetry, letters and revision work.  The last three stories in my list are still under copyright; Wagner and Bloch died in 1994 (oddly, only twenty days apart) and Bradbury is still alive.  To my knowledge, “The Small Assassin” appears only in his first book, the rare Dark Carnival, and its truncated (and far less expensive) reprint, The October Country.  “The Unspeakable Betrothal” is woefully underanthologized; I own it in Mysteries of the Worm and To Sleep, Perchance to Dream…Nightmare.  “Sticks” is highly regarded by fans and is probably not difficult to find; I own it in Great Tales of Horror and the Supernatural and Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990).

So if you aren’t going to a bonfire tonight choose one or more of these stories, print them out, curl up in a comfy chair (preferably in front of a fireplace if you’ve got one and it isn’t too warm where you live), and soak in the fear…but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One Year Ago Today

In “April Q & A” I answer questions on the “right” way to hire a hooker, my opinion of referral systems and whether I mind editing your comments for you.

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No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.  She will not want new fashions nor regret the loss of expensive diversions or variety of company if she can be amused with an author in her closet.  –  Lady Mary Montagu

Yesterday I told you about my favorite books, and today I’d like to tell you about my favorite authors.  There’s less overlap than you might think; of these ten authors, only half have a book among my favorites (which also means eight of my favorites were written by people who aren’t on my top authors list).  The reason for this is that five of the writers below have a consistently high average quality in my opinion, but just didn’t produce any one book I can truly claim as a favorite; conversely, eight of the favorite books were produced by writers whose other output doesn’t interest me remotely as much (you’ll see a similar dichotomy of artists and albums in “My Favorite Things (Part Two)”).  After the top ten, I’m also going to share a “second string” whose work I enjoy very much but just don’t quite make it all the way up for one reason or another.  Each list is arranged alphabetically.

1)   Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

If you think I’m a prolific writer for having typed out almost 700 essays for this blog, consider that Asimov wrote over 500 full-length books and tens of thousands of letters.  Though many of those were science fiction and a few fantasy, mystery and humor, a large fraction of his oeuvre was nonfiction; he wrote books on nearly every branch of science and even some on literature, mythology, art and other subjects, and on top of it all edited collections of others’ work…and most of it was pretty damned good.

2)   Ray Bradbury (born 1920)

Bradbury’s earliest work was a unique blend of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and though over time the horror elements began to fade his style retained the uniquely poetic, lyrical quality that brands it as his.  I love his earliest work best, but there’s very little he wrote before 1980 that I don’t like.  His second book, The Illustrated Man, is one of my 13 favorites; “The Small Assassin” from his first book (Dark Carnival) is on my list of the ten scariest short stories (see this coming Monday’s column), and my own story “Penelope” is a tribute to The Martian Chronicles.

3)   Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)

Burroughs wrote over 70 books between 1912 and his death, and I’ve read every one (except for a recent collection of previously-unpublished short tales I haven’t bought yet).  Most of his work is adventure fantasy, often taking place on other worlds or exotic parts of our own; though his plots vary very little, one reads him for the descriptions of strange places, stranger creatures and the triumph of good over evil.  In Burroughs, it has been said, all good men are strong and brave and all good women beautiful and wise, and though that’s a slight exaggeration it isn’t far off the mark.  His Martian tales (taken together) appear on yesterday’s list of favorite books, my essay “The Girls from Tarzana” is about prostitutes in his works, and his ideas subtly suffuse my own conceptions of what a fantasy setting should be like.

4)   Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

The pen name of Charles Dodgson, who in ordinary life was a mathematician; his boundless imagination and passion for nonsense combined with his skill at logic and mathematics to produce what many including myself consider to be the finest literature of the absurd ever written.  I’ve loved the Alice books since I was seven; as I said yesterday, taken together they constitute my favorite book of all time, and I’m also fond of most of his other work such as “The Hunting of the Snark”.

5)   Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)

Along with Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein is considered one of the founders of the science fiction genre as we know it.  Jeff introduced me to his juvenile novels when I was about 9 or 10, and they’re still my favorites of all his works except for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which may be the greatest political novel of all time.  Once he was established he dared to embed libertarian philosophy, free love, discussions of humanist ethics and other such material in his work, and though some feminists have moronically insisted that he is a “sexist” for denying “social construction of gender”, he in fact repeatedly stated throughout his body of work that women were superior to men in nearly every important way.  The same critics often call his female characters “unrealistic”, which I find hilarious because I’ve been compared to them on many occasions.

6)   H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

In his life he was largely unknown outside of the readership of what in those days was called “weird fiction”, but he influenced so many horror writers who became famous in their own right (including Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley and Stephen King) that his fame began to grow in the late ‘60s and he’s now practically a household word.  Lovecraft was the first important writer to use science fictional motifs rather than fantasy ones (i.e. his horrors are aliens rather than demons or spirits), which makes him the founder of practically the entire modern horror genre (including, by descent, vampire stories in which the condition is biological rather than the result of a curse).  I’ve read his entire body of published work, which I can only say of two other writers on this list.

7)   Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

Because he was one of Lovecraft’s influences, many people come to Machen via Lovecraft, but for me the two were unrelated discoveries:  I read “The Novel of the White Powder” in a horror collection when I was about 11, and was hooked.  If you are one of those people who need everything explained and tied up neatly in a horror story, do not read Machen because he is the absolute master of things left unsaid; he realized (as so few do nowadays) that the terrors a reader’s mind can conjure up with expert prodding are far worse than anything he could put on the page.

8)   Larry Niven (born 1938)

Niven is a science fiction writer who slowly grew on me; like Heinlein and Burroughs he’s usually considered a “man’s author” and since Jeff never “assigned” me any of his books to read I discovered him via short stories in collections, then picked up Ringworld and The Mote in God’s Eye during that awful year of 1995 when I was trying to fill every waking moment with something other than my troubles.  There’s still a lot of his work I haven’t read, but his name on a story is a sure sign I’ll enjoy it.

9)   Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) 

I can’t tell you how old I was when I first read Poe, nor which was the first story I read, except to say that by the time I memorized “Eldorado” in second grade I already knew his name.  All through the ‘70s I read every story of his I could find, and encountered adaptations of others on film, in horror comics and even read aloud on record albums.  The only two “complete works” on yesterday’s favorite books list are his and Lovecraft’s, and he bears the distinction of being the only author in today’s column whose work (“The Fall of the House of Usher”) I actually taught in a class.

10)  J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) 

Tolkien is one of the rare authors whose works do not daunt me with their length; the poetry of his language sucks me right back in as soon as I pick up the book again.  I was introduced to him when I was 12, and like Burroughs he shaped my own concepts of fantasy forever after.  The Silmarillion  is the only one of his posthumous publications I’ve read, but his place on this list is secure even without it.

Honorable Mentions

1)   Ambrose Bierce (1942-1913?)  While not generally known as a horror writer, Bierce penned a number of very fine examples of the genre, often laced with sardonic humor.

2)   Fredric Brown (1906-1972)  Absolute master of the short-short story, a form which includes most of my own work.  Here’s his shortest one:  “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…

3)   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)  Though I don’t care for the historical novels which he considered his more important work, I absolutely love Sherlock Holmes and am fond of the first two Professor Challenger novels.

4)   Gardner Fox (1911-1986)  One of the most prolific, inventive and imaginative comic-book writers of all time, especially in the superhero and sci-fi genres.  Here’s a lovely example of his work, “Earth Victory – By a Hair!” from the January 1961 issue of Strange Adventures.

5)   Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)  Though best known for his historical novels of New England, he also wrote many dark fantasies such as “Rappaccini’s Daughter”.

6)   Tanith Lee (born 1947)  She has written fantasy, horror and science fiction, much of it highly erotic, poetic, unconventional and dark.  The first of her work I read was “The Secret Books of Paradys”, and they’re still my favorites.

7)   Richard Matheson (born 1926)  Though he’s written many novels and short stories I love Matheson best for his movie scripts and teleplays, including many of the best Twilight Zone episodes and a number of Roger Corman’s “Poe” movies starring Vincent Price.

8)   A.A. Milne (1882-1956)  I do love the Pooh books, but it’s really his poetry I like best; I know a number of them (including “Disobedience”, “Buckingham Palace” and “The King’s Breakfast”) by heart.

9)   Carl Sagan (1934-1996)  My favorite science writer of all time; I’m especially fond of Cosmos (both the book and the TV series), but find all his articles and books both informative and entertaining to a degree unmatched by anyone other than Asimov.

10)  H.G. Wells (1866-1946)  Though as you might expect I prefer his short stories to his novels, the sheer brilliance of longer works like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds earn him a place on this list.

One Year Ago Today

…And Don’t Forget To Wash Behind Your Ears” is a discussion of one of the most egregious examples of nanny-state overreach imaginable:  government-issued dating advice.

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A room without books is like a body without a soul.  –  Marcus Tullius Cicero

Back in December I published “My Favorite Things”; Part One listed my favorite movies, and Part Two my favorite albums and musicians.  In the comment thread for the first part, regular reader N/A requested a sequel listing my favorite books; I promised to provide one, but told him it would require a lot more thought.  Well, here it is at last!  As I think I’ve mentioned before, I have a lifelong preference for short fiction; as a lass I often read short novels (especially in the summer), but I tended to eschew longer ones unless they came highly recommended or I was already fond of the author from reading shorter selections.  This is because for me, a large part of the pleasure of a book is the mood it sets, and if that mood is disturbed I can’t enjoy it nearly as much.  Short stories are quickly consumed, and even novellas or short novels can be read in one extended sitting.  But with the exception of episodic novels (which are almost like series of connected stories), I have always tended to avoid very long books except at those junctures in my life when I knew I would be uninterrupted for long enough to finish them, even if it took a couple of days.  When I started whoring the long-established preference for short fiction grew even stronger, because I knew that at any moment I might be interrupted by a phone call from a client and have to run off.

The main reason it took me so long to get around to doing this list is that I had to define the word “book”.  For example, the volume in which I first read H.G. Wells was named Seven Science Fiction Novels; however, in 1967 there was a boxed paperback set of the same seven novels with the same group title.  Is that one book or seven?  Finally I decided that if I liked many or most of the books in a series, I would list them as one book even if I had never in fact seen such an omnibus edition; that broke my mental logjam and the rest was easy.  I simply listed all the books I’ve read more than twice and would read again if I had the time, with a couple of exceptions I’ll explain.  I excluded nonfiction because to me it would be comparing apples and oranges.  The books are listed alphabetically by author; I have provided PDF copies of #1, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 13, but the others are not yet in the public domain (see notes on #6 and 9).

1)  Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Though this slim little book is indeed a fiction, it was written to explain the 4th dimension (not time, but rather the 4th physical dimension), and it does so brilliantly and entertainingly in only 54 pages.  If you are interested in science fiction, physics or math to the slightest degree you owe it to yourself to read this book, which has the distinction of being the single title I have given as a small gift most often.

2)  The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is among my favorite authors and this my favorite of his titles, just edging out Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dark CarnivalThe Illustrated Man is a collection of 18 short stories of dark fantasy, horror and science fiction woven together by a frame story in which the narrator meets a tattooed stranger and discovers to his shock and fascination that during the night the “skin illustrations” move and tell the stories that comprise the collection.  It’s been in print continuously since 1951, so you won’t have any problem finding a copy in any bookstore.

3)  The Complete Mars Series of Edgar Rice Burroughs

I’ve written before of my love for Burroughs’ work, and the Mars series is my favorite.  None of these novels is very long by modern standards; the first three, telling one story, would certainly appear as a single volume if first published today.  And though those first three are the best of the series, the fifth, seventh and eight approach them in quality and sheer reading pleasure.  They were among the first books I purchased with my own money, despite having read them before, and I’ve read the entire series at least three times since that purchase.  They were my husband’s first introduction to Burroughs as well (I loaned him my set while we were dating), and well-known writers including Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Carl Sagan have praised them as inspirational.  Don’t bother with the failed blockbuster which distorts the story nearly into unrecognizability; just read the books.  I wish this omnibus edition really existed, but I’m afraid the best you can do is a boxed set of all 11 or the 4-volume omnibus set I’ve linked here.

4)  One Thousand and One Arabian Nights translated by Sir Richard Burton

I’m sure everyone knows at least a few of these tales, and most of you have read some retellings; that was certainly my only experience with them until the day early in 1997 when I discovered that the Jefferson Parish Library owned the entire Burton translation…all 16 volumes.  I’ve only read the entire thing through once, but my husband bought me the Forgotten Books edition for Christmas of 2010 so I plan to read it again before too much longer.  It’s an amazing work, full of magic, spectacle and wonder, and though the famous ones like Sinbad and Ali Baba are all there, there are many other adventures, fables, comedies, philosophical discourses, romance and even smut, and Burton translated every word plainly and literally, caring not if he offended the English sensibilities of his time.

5)  Magic in the Alley by Mary Calhoun

I discovered this enchanting  book, in which a young girl discovers a box full of magic that leads her and her best friend into a strange adventure every time they enter a new alley, when I was about 9; I remembered it so fondly that years later I borrowed it again as an adult librarian, then a few years ago bought a copy for myself.  I cannot explain why I love it so, except perhaps that it reminds me of a time when summers were for exploring and I could still believe in magic if I tried hard enough.

6)  The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll

This is a combined edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, with annotations by Martin Gardner.  Observant readers knew the Alice books would be on this list; I have used more quotes, pictures and references from them than from any other source except the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare.  I first read Wonderland in second grade and Looking-Glass about two years later; if I had to pick a number one favorite on this list, this would be it.  I’ve included PDFs of the original books, without the annotations which are still under copyright.

7)  The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
by Will Cuppy

Probably the funniest thing I have ever read; it’s a series of comedic takes on historical figures from ancient Egypt to the 18th century.  I keep it right next to 1066 and All That, another hilarious take on history.

8)  The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is another book observant readers knew would be here; I have loved the tales of the great detective since discovering an illustrated edition of all the short stories when I was 17.  If you only know of Holmes from movies and television shows, you don’t know him at all; brew yourself a pot of tea, find a comfortable seat and dive into this collection of his adventures, as inimitably chronicled by his friend Dr. Watson.  The game is afoot!

9)  Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Another book I discovered in fourth grade, the year I began exploring libraries on my own.  I’m supplying an online copy rather than a PDF because I could not find one which included the illustrations, and as Alice asked, “what is the use of a book without pictures?” – especially when those pictures, drawn by Kipling himself, are almost half the story.  If you buy this one, mind you get an older (pre-1960s) edition; modern editions shamefully bowdlerize a few politically-incorrect words without any notification.

10)  Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

I discovered this book by accident because the edition in which I first read it was published during the ’60s gothic romance craze, and the cover made it look like one, thus attracting my attention when I was on my own gothic kick a decade later.  To fully appreciate it you must remember it was written for a male audience in 1943, a time when women’s lives were largely a mystery to men:  Leiber expertly builds on the paranoid premise that all women use witchcraft, but hide it from men.  And here he thought he was writing fiction…

11)  Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

The grand master of cosmic horror was known to a very limited audience in his lifetime, but most modern writers of true horror list him as an inspiration.  Some modern readers find his complex sentences and baroque adjectives off-putting, but there is no other writer who can evoke the terror of cyclopean vistas of space and strange aeons of time haunted by alien gods of unspeakable loathsomeness as the Old Gentleman from Providence could.

12)  The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe

Before Lovecraft there was of course Poe, the creator of the horror genre as we know it.  I honestly don’t feel I need to say much about him, as I can’t imagine anyone who grew up in any Western country not having read him.  But if you are from a land in which he isn’t known as well, or just missed out on him due to the unforgiveable negligence of teachers who should be walled up in a dank cellar for the omission, open up this PDF and start with “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Black Cat”.

13)  The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This book was given to me by a nun when I was twelve; it’s a sort of fairy tale that can be read by children but is really for adults, and concerns a little boy who lives alone on an asteroid and sets out on a quest to discover the meaning of the strange feelings inspired in him by the arrival of a rose.  You can read a religious or spiritual meaning into it if you like, or just take it as a parable of where we place and misplace our priorities, but if you’re unwilling to accept for the sake of a story that birds can migrate through space, it isn’t for you.

Tomorrow:  My favorite authors.

One Year Ago Today

Dr. Schrödinger and his Amazing Pussycat” will either be the strangest column of mine you’ve ever read, or it won’t.  Or both simultaneously.

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