Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, August 04, 2012
      ( 8/04/2012 12:41:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“THE UNIFORM OF SATAN” As a teen, I went through a heavy Sax Rohmer period, eagerly plowing through anything I could by the British thriller writer. The mid- to late-sixties was a good time for his fans. Spurred, in part, by the success of Ian Fleming (whose Dr. No itself owed a considerable debt to Rohmer), his books saw a paperback revival in the states. Read every one of the Pyramid reprints that showed up on the paperback racks and was so taken with ‘em that I even wrote a play parodying Rohmer’s most famous creation for a high school English class

His biggest series character was Dr. Fu Manchu, who first appeared in 1912 and reappeared in twelve more novels up to Rohmer’s death in 1959. Back in the sixties, the books made for crackling inventive entertainments, though their racist underpinnings -- Rohmer’s villain embodied Anglo culture’s fears of the Yellow Peril -- prove somewhat of a hindrance today. Rohmer wasn’t the only thriller writer of this early twentieth century to pander to xenophobia, of course, though his foremost creation is arguably one of the best-known personifications of white reader paranoia.

Fortunately for those of us who retain a nostalgic fondness for the writers of our youth, the prolific Rohmer produced a slew of other genre pieces that didn’t key into Fear of a Yellow Planet. The pulp revivalists at Black Dog Books have just released their second collection of the man’s short stories, The Leopard Couch: and Other Stories of the Fantastic and Supernatural that collects some of these lesser-known works, several of which have not seen prior printing in the U.S. Gathering twelve independent tales, plus a self-contained section of Rohmer’s supernatural novel Brood of the Witch Queen, the book provides a pleasurably moody selection of period fantasy along with the occasional traditional old school murder mystery.

The set opens with its title tale, a fantasy of an Egyptian couch that takes its narrator on a Lovecraftian dream trip to witness the punishment of an Egyptian priestess and her lover. Egypt and other exotic locales like Burma figure prominently in many of the stories here, and Rohmer effectively plays his settings for all their atmospheric different-ness. Even those London bound fictions, like the Morris Klaw mystery “The Tragedies in the Greek Room,” typically connect to other lands and earlier times -- in this case, a poisoned harp with ties to Lucretia Borgia. In “The Red Eye of Vishnu,” the ruthless and alluring seductress Madame di Medici (who also appears in the Egypt set “The Haunted Temple”) appears in London to retrieve a ruby eye stolen from a temple statue. Who needs Oriental masterminds when you’ve got sexy femme fatales?

In his intro to the collection, genre writer F. Paul Wilson provides a small warning to those approaching Rohmer for the first time: “if you like lengthy, adjective-strewn sentences, well, you’re in for a treat,” he notes. While not as over-the-top as some of the Weird Tales writers could get, Rohmer was definitely writing in the voice of his era. To this reader, that style definitely adds to their period feel: well-suited to tales that center on curses, mesmerism, sleep-walking damsels, Satanic visitors, criminal geniuses and the stalwart Britishers charged with foiling their dire deeds. If a few tales fall flat during their explanatory denouements, that’s not uncommon in stories of this ilk.

The Leopard Couch also includes one of Rohmer’s most reprinted-short stories, “The Curse of a Thousand Kisses.” The tale of an Egyptian beauty cursed to wander the Earth in the guise of an aged hag until she receives a thousand unsolicited kisses from “a thousand compassionate men,” the flagrantly romantic tale stands out amidst all of the writer’s more ominous fantasies. Rohmer may have been a masterful caster of blood-and-thunder, but he also proved a solid craftsman when it came to lighter fare.

Reading this diverting set of yarns from my onetime boyish addiction, has me also thinking about checking out Black Dog's first collection of Rohmer yarns, The Green Spider: and Other Forgotten Tales of Mystery and Suspense. With Leopard Couch labeled the second volume in “The Sax Rohmer Library,” there’s the promise of further Black Dog Books in the future. For lovers of old-fashioned tales of mystery and imagination, this is good news indeed.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Sunday, July 29, 2012
      ( 7/29/2012 04:37:00 PM ) Bill S.  

DAD: It’s rarely good when you receive a call on your personal phone late at night, and the one we received last night was one we’d been dreading. It was my sister Barb in Wisconsin, calling to tell me that my father Robert Sherman passed away after returning home from the hospital. He’d gone in over a week ago after a choking incident had led to his aspirating food into his lungs, leading to complications. Once in the hospital, he’d lapsed into a coma and when he came out, he wasn’t the same. Per my sister, his system had started failing and it was only a matter of time before it failed altogether. The doctors couldn’t give a time line other than “sooner or later,” and for him it turned out to be sooner.

I hadn’t seen my father much over the past years: I could say that distance was the reason (he and his second wife Bonnie lived outside of Washington DC where he’d worked in his final years until retirement; we live in Arizona), but the reality is I hadn’t seen him all that often when we lived much closer to each other. Father/son relationships can be complicated and contentious at times -- and we went through our share of hard moments.

My dad was of the post-war generation who saw their primary duty as one of working to make a safe and comfortable life for their family. A salesman for Union Carbide’s plastics division in the fifties and early sixties, he had a job that took him on the road for days at a time. I have a lot of memories of my father returning home from a two- or three-day trip, plopping down in his chair with a martini to unwind from the drive. He didn’t have a lot of patience with his bookish, unathletic son -- one of my earliest recollections is of him stomping off in frustration over the slowness with which I learned to ride a bike without training wheels -- though he did make efforts to connect with me, most happily for a year or so when I was a boy scout in Connecticut.

Another favorite memory I have of my father is a silly one, though I know it had an impact on many of the things I still love: him standing in front of the large stereo cabinet on a Sunday afternoon, making like a conductor to the “New World Symphony.” Even now the thought of that can make me smile.

We had a major falling out after I went to Illinois State University. It was the late sixties, and my Eisenhower-style Republican father had no use for the left wing direction I had chosen. Not too surprisingly, my workaholic father’s big concern was whether the choices I was making at the time would render me forever unemployable -- and there were moments, I suspect, when that worry was a legitimate one. (The time I nearly got myself expelled from ISU for some foolish behavior during a school employees’ strike, for instance.) I still recall the angry letter he sent me back then, which threatened, “If school can’t make a man out of you, maybe the army will.”

Over time, as the tempers of the era cooled down, my relationship with my dad improved, though it never grew close. While I still was in college, he divorced my mother, an act that had more impact on my younger brother Tony than it did me. Whenever we saw each other or spoke to each other on the phone, the bulk of the conversation would be about our jobs. Even when he retired from the plastics industry organization where he’d spent his last years of full employment, he continued to work as a consultant for years. Last time I saw him face to face was on a stop by our house in Central Illinois, and what I mainly remember from the visit was his talking about the state of the plastics biz.

The past few years, my father had been struggling with Alzheimer’s, and though it was being somewhat managed with medication, it definitely added another obstacle. I remember more than one long-distance phone conversation with my father where he would begin confusing me with my younger brother. Forced to slow down by age and loss of memory, my dad was more family focused in his conversations. He’d remarried and much of this family was his second wife Bonnie’s, but that fact never bothered me.

At this point, the fact of my father’s passing still hasn’t fully connected with me. That’s typical of our whole lives’ relationship, I think, and perhaps it holds for a lot of other Baby Boomers and their fathers. I have to admit there are still times I can hear and see him coming out in me, though (I’ve definitely carried on his capacity for whip-snap frustration and anger). No matter how apart we were and will continue to be, I know that I’ve still got my father with me. . .


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      ( 7/29/2012 03:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“ALL HE LIKES ARE FACTS.” The first new novel in twenty years by Joseph (Little Odessa, Brides of Blood) Koenig, False Negative (Hard Case Crime) is a period mystery set in the waning days of the true crime pulps. Its hero Adam Jordan, an Atlantic City reporter fired from job at a daily when he’s found out fabricating what he thought was a routine political photo op piece, lands a job working for Real Detective magazine and starts immediately digging into a sexy/vicious murder story that sends him into all sorts of seedy settings. The murder victim, a beauty contestant named Susannah Chase, turns out to be one of a group of young girl strangulation victims. An earlier victim, black “hoofer/songstress” Etta Lee Wyatt, was attached to Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars.

Jordan’s investigation into the serial slayings takes him into the interlocking worlds of beauty pageants, party girls and the jazz club scene. (Our hero proves a snobbish connoisseur of that last, at one point mentally slamming an early r-and-b classic.) Along the way, we get to meet old Satchel Mouth himself, plus a colorfully delineated cast of more seedy types: most memorably, a white agent passing for black, a domestic violence prone ballplayer and a deceptively flitty photog named Pix Pixley. There are also live gorgeous dames in the picture, of course: a former Miss Jersey Shore named Mollie and a black dancer from the Armstrong revue named Cherise. Both hook up with our hero an d both wind up in peril for it.

Koenig takes his time with his mystery -- focusing as much on the working of pulp crime mags and the dynamics of Eisenhower Era race relations as he does his whodunit. Koenig’s writing is as clean and specific as you’d expect a tale written from the perspective of an old-fashioned journalist to be. If at times, the author’s fascination with his milieu seems to take the focus away from his pulp thriller set pieces (a beach-set chase scene, in particular falls flat), False Negative still keeps us reading. There’s a lot of discussion in the early pages of this book between Jordan and his new editor about what the Real ‘Tec audience wants to see in the mags: Koenig cannily both uses and screws around with those expectations.

Twenty years is way too long a wait between novels.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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