BOOK REVIEW: More Tales from the Twilight Zone

More Tales from the Twilight Zone, Bantam, 1961

by Rod Serling

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—your next stop, the Twilight Zone!

—Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, Introduction

 

Rod Serling began his career in radio broadcasting, but began writing for television during his college years in the early 1950s. He believed that radio drama never reached its full potential, and he wasn’t going to let television suffer the same fate. After a number of successful scripts for network television, Serling, sick of the sponsor censorship depleting his scripts of political commentary and ethnic representation, decided to create his own show.

Serling was known in Hollywood as the “angry young man.” Mid-20th century America appeared to be whole and wholesome, except to a few visionaries who surveyed the social landscape and noticed the cracks. He was dedicated to telling the stories of the people who inhabited these fault lines. Serling and his Twilight Zone television program offered more than just tales of suspense and conjecture. These are adult fairy tales–if the supernatural entities in question are aliens, mutants, atomic power, social inequality, technological advances, and vast government conspiracies. Serling all but mythologizes mid-twentieth century fears and anxieties through serial tales that are often (like their folk tale ancestors) accessible and moralistic. The Twilight Zone made possible many later phenomena that embrace the new 20th century pop culture mythologies, such as the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That said, because I’m reading these well into the second decade of the 21st century, I will put a 21st century spin on these reviews. Continue reading

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Blurb: SHELTER by Jung Yun

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photo by @bookpeople on instagram

“This book is haaaaaaard,” is what I posted on Instagram the day I started this book. Kyung Cho is a college professor who is facing the loss of his home. Then a random act of violence forces his parents, people who he cut out of his life, to move in with him. With his parents comes the painful past he’s been trying to erase–a past that can cost him everything he has, depending on how he chooses to react.

Shelter is the ultimate in fucked up family drama. “Shelter,” in any form, is conspicuously absent from this story. Forgiveness is shallow and impermanent, and though scars have faded over time, the emotional wounds are still very much open. Kyung wants to erase his past, but he faces down the uncertainty of the future. Kyung lives in an in-between, timeless state, but he is at risk of being steamrolled by the forward march of time itself. Jung Yun has written the quintessential Korean-American novel, deftly describing how Korean attitudes of obligation, fairness, and resentment clash and (possibly) overlap American attitudes towards these same ideals. I’m certain that it will become a “discovery” of literature: one of those slow burns that will eventually explode into the landscape of literature over time.

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Wolf blanket recommended, but not included.

Happy reading,

-jan

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Weimar’s Daughters in Hollywood and Berlin

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Inspired in part by the stories of Marlene Dietrich in Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast about the hidden and forgotten histories of 20th century Hollywood, in party by my local indie bookstore’s 2015 catalog, (and in part by Dietrich’s smoldering on-screen chemistry with Anna May Wong–no, I don’t mean Clive Brook–in 1932’s Shanghai Express) Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland marks the second biography I’ve read this year.

“I am, at heart, a gentleman.” -Marlene Dietrich

While the two women essentially begin on equal footing and from similar backgrounds, the directions of their lives are primarily influenced when they meet two powerful, authoritarian men: when Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg “discovered” Marlene Dietrich and cast her as Lola-Lola in the internationally acclaimed The Blue Angel; and when Leni Riefenstahl went to a political rally where she first laid eyes upon Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, Wieland focuses on the roles that these two men played in shaping the careers of both women rather than the decisions that both women–who remained independent of men for all of their lives–made about their own lives.

This may be due to the book’s clunky translation, but Wieland’s portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl is contradictory at times. She was a strong-willed woman who sought only to advance her own art (and thus her own fame), but she was a complicated woman. Wieland does not portray Riefenstahl with the same level of compassion or consideration that she does Marlene Dietrich. (Which begs the question, does Riefenstahl deserve equal compassion or consideration? A question that Wieland neither addresses directly or indirectly). Riefenstahl is definitely a product of her environment: while she was not a Nazi party member and did not commit war crimes, she  certainly benefitted from the racism that National Socialists made the foundation of their philosophy. Her dedication to her art and the resulting images make things complicated when we consider the eye of the artist. (The actor depicting Riefenstahl’s subject, was often herself.)

Wieland gives plenty of page space to Riefenstahl’s work, as though through her work is the best way to understand her life. Not so with Dietrich. Though Wieland wants to depict Dietrich without judgement, more time is given to her personal affairs and family life than to her films and stage work. The goal appears to be to depict these two seemingly opposite women as having nearly identical qualities that led them to pursue their passions so fervently (albeit in opposing directions). But it takes a careful combing through the text to get at that purpose. Bad translations are unfortunate to read because it becomes nearly impossible to tell whether the work is poorly written or if the spirit of the work is just lost in translation.

Regardless, if you really want a blast in the face of old school Hollywood glamor, just Google image search “Marlene Dietrich.” (If you want a kick in the face, Google “Marlene Dietrich’s legs”).

Damn, Marlene.

Better yet, check out her films.

Squirmy! Wormy! Shock!

A book review of The Troop: A Novel of Terror by Nick Cutter

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I’m inadvertently developing a tradition: I tend to straddle the old and new years with a horror story. Last year around this time, I dove into Nick Cutter’s atmospheric horror novel The Deep–a chilling tale of mysterious forces that operate at extreme pressures in the world’s uncharted depths. This year I camped out with The Troop. While The Deep is a penetrating, almost Lovecraftian tale of the unknown (specifically the machinations of the unknown) that asks, “what’s out there?,” The Troop has a different flavor of horror: it utilises conventions established by the likes of Stephen King and William Golding cut with Cronenberg-esque body horror–all while asking, “what do we do to each other?”

One of the conventions well-established by King (and a slew of 1980s horror films) is the group of pre-adolescent boys in various stages of social and emotional maturity–the “coming of age” story gone horribly, horribly off-trail. Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads his troop of 14-year-old boys to isolated Falstaff Island for their annual weekend overnight camping trip. When an obviously ill stranger stumbles into camp, Tim, the small town’s only doctor, sends the boys on a walkabout while he assesses the new unknown element. The boys wander aimlessly, playing “would you rather” and taking digs at one another, while the adult nearby faces off against an unstoppable force. (When King calls this, “old school horror at it’s best,” we can guess whose stories he’s referencing.) Before long, the boys have no choice but to lock their Scoutmaster in a closet, leaving the boys to their own scouting survival skills, but also to their own imaginations and fears.

Cutter gives the reader much more information than the boys get. We know the nature of the infection (mutated hydatid worms) and the source (an escaped human test subject) and the outcome (a sole survivor leaves the island). This information is delivered to the reader in after-the-fact documents: newspaper articles, courtroom examination transcripts, lab notes, and academic conference papers–all things that children (especially these children) don’t read. The outbreak story itself happens in real-time. Cutter’s omniscient narrator gives equal attention to each troop member–to the point where it is possible that any one of them (with a couple of exceptions) can become that sole survivor. Another convention that Cutter plays with is the horror-story-as-morality-tale. An author will direct a reader’s moral compass by the order and manner in which characters die (or survive). But when one character says, “bad things happen to good people, and bad people die happy in their beds,” the reader believes that the worst of them may survive. When another uses his survival skills to help his fellow scouts even though they don’t treat him kindly, the reader believes that the best of them may survive. Ultimately, the identity of the sole survivor is credible, but it takes a skilled writer to make us postulate that if situations skewed a different way only slightly, the entire outcome could have been different.

In the midst of all that death, there are moments of life that solidify the boys’ innocence and humanity. I found the most touching of which to involve a sea turtle. Two of the boys, hungry and frightened (a formula for desperation), catch and attempt to eat a sea turtle. They see just how fervently life clings to life. While devastating to the characters themselves, the reader is offered hope that children can be bearers of a wise innocence–especially when this scene follows that of a third boy as he remembers torturing a kitten for pleasure.

Yes, the humanity is poignant, but it is so because the horror is so unrelentingly brutal. It is probably not a good idea to read The Troop while eating (definitely not while eating a pasta dinner). The descriptions are so vivid the reader sees–and sometimes smells (thanks, Nick Cutter, for that addition for your readers who have acute olfactory sensitivity or disorders of olfaction) what is in front of the characters. Considering that the infected are described as having a “sickly sweet” smell, you would do as well to keep these covers closed until after dessert.

Recommended if you like Stephen King’s The Stand, or the serious parts of David Wong’s John Dies At The End.

Self derision taken to extremes…in a children’s song. Kids are weird.

Deep in the Infinite Image: The New & Noteworthy Book Club Discusses Bats of the Republic

My thoughts on the New & Noteworthy November pick BATS OF THE REPUBLIC by Zachary Thomas Dodson.

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Deep in the Infinite Image:
The New & Noteworthy Book Club Discusses Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic

Bats! Texas! Overlapping genres! Parallel timelines! Archival records! Full disclosure: I am an archivist who is a former graphic designer–who also has a weak spot for misunderstood animals. If there is any book that is written with me as a reader in mind, it is Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic.

It’s hard for me to sell this book here in text without just handing you a copy of this gorgeous tome. The care taken into crafting each page in this book (including the dust jacket and endpages) is stunning. Everything is printed in browns and greens–not one word in black and white! I have read through the entire book, and I still pick it up and flip the pages, knowing that I’m not going to read a single…

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Wicked Wit: The New & Noteworthy Book Club Discusses Margaret Atwood’s The Stone Mattress

October’s book club pick. Demi and I are getting really good at our selections.

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Margaret Atwood writes, “Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.” Tales, as we are familiar with them, also evoke the idea of youth, innocence, and darkness–rites of passage into adulthood. Atwood turns this on its head by writing about adults who are facing endings rather than beginnings.

This collection begins with three linked stories about a love triangle among bohemian artists in the 1960s, told from the present day. Each member of the triangle has gone on to pass the decades separately. In “Alphinland,” Constance (C.W.) Starr, a widowed author of an enormously famous fantasy series, navigates the mundane task of preparing her home for a snow storm, all the while listening to the disembodied voice of her…

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