Tales Too Good To Forget #2

Smoking, more dangerous than you ever knew.

So. Everybody has heard of Howard Philips Lovecraft I presume? Well of course you have, even Xbox playing preteens can tell you that Lovecraft is Cthulhu’s agent. How about Robert E. Howard then? Well of course you have, even Netflix watching preteens can tell you Howard is Conan’s agent. (Though you can confuse them by asking which Conan does he represent?)

So what about E. Hoffman Price? Hah, got you there, you thought I was going to ask about Clarke Ashton Smith next, didn’t you? No, Smith is for another day when I’m feeling a little more eldritch. Not that E. Hoffman Price couldn’t write a pretty effective weird story when he was in the mood. He started selling weird shorts back in the 1920s and didn’t stop until not long before he passed away in the 1980s. I doubt anybody keeps selling that long if they don’t have the knack for it.

E Hoffman Price
E. Hoffman Price Not on any FBI wanted list

Of course Price had the advantage of living a life that sometimes must have felt like it had been ripped from the pages of a pulp magazine. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France during WWI and later on soldiered in the Philippines and on the Mexican border. Even after he settled for the relatively quiet life of an author he pulp world kept intruding. For example take the following extract from an article that appeared in Amra #63 (published by George Scithers in April, 1975). This is cut down somewhat from the Amra version in order to focus on the meat of the story:

7 APRIL, 1934: Wanda and I drove to Independence, Kansas, to get license plates for the second hand Ford Model A which we’d bought a year ago. Having only a bill of sale, which was not duly notarised, we could get no plates. Not to be frustrated entirely, we sought and procured a marriage license, despite the fact that – not mentioning any names – someone’s divorce was still a couple of weeks short of one year in the past. Being at least 97% legally married we hustled back to Pawkuska where we were visiting friends, writing fiction, and wondering when there would be a check permitting us to head for the Pacific Coast. I had promised Wanda that if she carried on, she would finally see the Pacific Ocean.

The bait worked. A couple of days previously my agent had sent me a check for $125, for a story accepted at $100, payable on publication. This happy omen got us moving in a hurry. With 1933 plates. In Texas the cops nailed you and made you buy costly plates. So the bride and I took leave of our friends and headed for Texas by night – destination, Cross Plains, the home of Robert E. Howard.

8 APRIL 1934: All night drive. Progress, lousy. Made Red River, the Oklahoma-Texas line, somewhat after sunrise. “Long way to Cross Plains, darling,” said I, “but somewhere midstream we enter Texas, and we’ll greet Bob. Light me a cigar, Mrs Price…” This was not even technically illegal, since she was over eighteen and thus entitled to tobacco in all its forms. She fired up the smoke. We cleared the bridge…

Up jumped half a dozen lawmen, popping from brush on either side of the road. They leveled sawed-off shotguns and Winchesters. The brakes worked nicely. I held my hands reasonably high, palms facing the gunners.

“I’ll buy 1934 license plates, no squawk at all.”

The chief ignored this. He eyed Wanda. He eyed the car. “You don’t look like Pretty Boy Floyd. The young lady don’t look like Bonnie Parker, but smoking a see-gar kind of made us wonder a bit. It’s 0K, sorry to hold you up.”

We moved on.

Wanda handed me the cigar. “You smoke this God-damn thing, and after this, you light your own.”

Can’t say I blame her…

Especially give that Bonnie Parker and ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd were both gunned down by law enforcement officers later in the year, Parker on 23 May and Floyd on 22 October.

I think it’s fair to say that 1934 was not a good year to go touring if you looked anything like anybody on the FBI’s wanted list.

Jack Vance & Fawlty Towers

The road to hell is paved with good intentions lazily executed.

Fawlty Towers is possibly as close to perfect a TV sitcom as has ever been produced. Even so there are aspects of the show open to debate. For example there is the claim that Manuel, the Spanish waiter, is the most sympathetic of the regular characters. I could not disagree with this claim more. To me there is only one character truly deserving of sympathy on Fawlty Towers and that is Basil Fawlty.

To judge by various comments I’ve encountered sympathy for Manuel seems to be largely based on the idea that because he is at the bottom of the pecking order Manuel is therefore the most vulnerable character and thus most deserving of sympathy. This is very attractive logic because it requires no great mental effort to reach such a conclusion. It certainly requires a blinkered approach but this is part of the appeal, the blinkered approach ensures that the effort of a cross-examination need not be attempted. The Manuel sympathiser need never consider the ease with which hospitality staff, even those with Manuel’s grasp of English, can change jobs (and don’t try to tell me otherwise, after 16 years in hospitality I know how employable even the incompetent are), the Manuel sympathiser need never consider the fact Manuel makes no serious effort to improve and is every bit as hopeless in the last episode as in the first.

Unlike Manuel, hotel owner Basil Fawlty cannot easily escape from the web he is mired in. He cannot simply walk out without leaving behind most, if not all, of everything he has worked years to build. Even if he steeled himself to do just this I doubt his wife would let him entirely escape. Sybil Fawlty comes across to me as a character who needs somebody to bully and mistreat. Even if Basil didn’t return to the hotel I imagine she would insist on torturing him from afar because that’s just who that character is.

So Basil is stuck there, trying to do his best. I don’t claim he’s very good at it but at least he’s trying, which is more than can be said for either Sybil or Manuel, each of whom continually frustrates Basil by their unwillingness to make any real effort.

I like to think of Fawlty Towers as being a reinterpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit. In this version though the three main characters are running a hotel rather than being locked inside of a room. Also in this version the torments of hell are mostly visited upon Basil as the one trapped in the middle. On one side Sybil avoids making any real effort, choosing to nag and bully Basil instead, while on the other side Manuel uses his lack of comprehension as a shield to minimise his own workload. (The harder it is to get a member of staff working the less they will be asked to do. Amazingly on more than one occasion I’ve seen some form of this tactic; pretending incomprehension, excessive slowness, or just plain hiding, work like a charm.)

By this point I imagine you’re wondering to yourself what any of this has to do with the fantastic. Well fair enough, (though if you’re honest with yourself you’ll admit you’re fascinated by this entirely unexpected take on a classic sitcom.) The fact is the sort of scenario I’ve described in Fawlty Towers is common enough in everyday life, where even the most accomplished and highly regarded amongst us are capable of putting others into the unenviable position of Basil Fawlty.

For example in Skyhook #16, published by Redd Boggs in the winter of 1952/53, there is a letter by Jack Vance in which he responds to part of a William Atheling Jr article which appeared in the preceding issue. Unfortunately because I don’t have a copy of Skyhook #15 to hand so I can’t quote the offending comments but I assume Vance didn’t misrepresent what was written about his work since neither Atheling or Boggs remonstrated with Vance in response to the following:

‘A few remarks on Mr Atheling’s article, which was read with wry amusement: (1) Big Planet was suggested, not by Beowulf, not by the Odyssey, but by a short story by the author of Beau Geste, whose name temporarily escapes me – Percival Wren, something like that. A dozen men desert the Foreign Legion; only one survives to reach Tangier. Big Planet naturally evolved considerably from this human-depletion idea; and in its original form – 82,000 – it had an entirely different slant from the one it ended up with. Written originally two or three years ago, it is not, as Mr Atheling assumes, a sample of my latest work. In fact, many of Mr Atheling’s assumptions and inductions do not completely hit the mark. For instance: (2) A person who, reading a collection of short stories while firmly convinced he is reading a novel, cannot fail to put the book down with a trace of dissatisfaction. This is evidently what occurred when Mr Atheling read Dying Earth. I completely concur with his view that, as a novel, this collection of vaguely related short stories makes a “chaotic…shapeless” whole. I believe the notation on the cover, “A Novel by Jack Vance” misled Mr Atheling. (3) Mr Kuttner I esteem highly as a man, a gentleman, a fellow citizen of the U.S., a prolific and talented author, but I must minimise the degree to which his works have influenced my own. There have been, I must assert categorically, absolutely none.’

For the purpose of my argument the matter of what inspired the plot of Big Planet is a secondary matter though we can see that Atheling was already on shaky ground if he was attempting to second-guess an authors inspirations. Tempting as it is to make such pronouncements I suspect correctly tracing literary inspiration is about as easy as discovering the source of the Nile was for 19th century explorers.

The Dying EarthIt’s with Vance’s next point however that we encounter what surely his Basil Fawlty moment. I’m willing to bet the restrained sarcasm Vance employed in order to agree with Atheling that the short stories contained in The Dying Earth collection made for a terrible novel is as nothing to how he felt when he first read Atheling’s complaint. As somebody who has read The Dying Earth collection, albeit many years ago, the thought that anybody could miss the assorted changes in plot, location, and characters is an astounding one. As the author of these assorted stories and thus more intimately involved with then than any reader could be the Atheling complaint was surely a source of intense frustration for Jack Vance. How do you deal with being told you have failed when the basis of the claim is as demonstrably wrong as this? There are things that should not need explanation, that are a chore, an undeserved burden to set right. If it had been me in Vance’s place the sheer frustration of Atheling’s comments would have had me curling up Basil Fawlty style.

And then, not content with the above Atheling apparently then went on to rub salt in the would by claiming Vance’s style was influenced by the work of Henry Kuttner. Given Vance had for years been plagued by a persistent rumour that he was nothing but pseudonym of Kuttner I imagine any claim that Kuttner was a major influence would annoy Vance. That such a claim came from the same person who had just mistaken a collection of short stories for a novel should be grounds for unbridled fury.

Under the circumstances I think Jack Vance handled the situation with impressive restraint. I know if it had been me the temptation to unleash an Ellison-like diatribe would be hard to resist.

For the record in Skyhook #16 is another William Atheling article in which he responds to Anthony Boucher pointing out that The Dying Earth was a collection with the following:

‘Mr Boucher is right about the Vance “novel,” technically….’

There is no reaction from William Atheling in regards to Vance’s own letter but perhaps it arrive too late for Redd Boggs to make Atheling aware of its contents before Skyhook #16 was published (it should be remembered that communication was just that little bit more cumbersome back before easy access to the sort of technology we employ today). If Atheling did respond to Jack Vance’s comments it was probably in the form of a private letter.

If there is a conclusion to be had from this situation I think it’s best summed up by quoting Sergeant Phil Esterhaus from Hill Street Blues, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

P.S. It should be noted that William Atheling Jr was a pseudonym of the late James Blish. I didn’t mention this earlier because when Skyhook #16 was published this was still a well kept secret. I would also assume Blish either expunged or rewrote the Jack Vance section when preparing the Atheling material for book publication but as I don’t own either The Issue At Hand or More Issues At Hand I can’t confirm this.

P.P.S. Percival Christopher Wren was the author of Beau Geste.

Psycho Birds Bloch Hitchcock!

Robert Bloch & Alfred Hitchcock were plotting against us.

Typist Inside

Horror Bloch & Mystery Bloch Tag Teaming On Psycho

Last year a cinema local to me devoted Sunday afternoons to showing classic films. Among these hits of yesteryear were the Alfred Hitchcock films Psycho and The Birds. I made sure to attend both those showings because I’d never seen Psycho on the big screen and The Birds not at all. Much as I enjoyed re-watching Psycho and picking up on details not obvious on the small screen it was Hitchcock’s version of The Birds which most piqued my interest most. While I’d read the Daphne du Maurier novelette the film is based upon several times the only part of the film I was familiar with was the scene in which Tippi Hedren is trapped in a phone booth by attacking seagulls. Despite how dramatic this scene is it helped convince me that Hitchcock’s film would be lacking the brooding menace of the story was based upon and thus a bit of a let-down.

Having at last seen the film version of The Birds I find I was right to assume that a 1963 Hollywood production, even with Hitchcock at the helm, could not match the power of du Maurier’s original. Overall I thought The Birds was okay, certainly better than I had assumed it would be, but still not great. I can see why Hitchcock made so many changes as I doubt that in 1963 a more faithful translation of the story would sell tickets, but I can also see why Daphne du Maurier hated what he did to her story. I didn’t hate it myself but I did think it was the least impressive Hitchcock film I’ve ever seen.

None the less I was fascinated the way Hitchcock started off the film with a light romance that had nothing to do with du Maurier’s story and didn’t begin to introduce anything by du Maurier until the romance plot was well advanced. Why did he take such an unexpected approach I wondered as I watched this story unfold? Afterwards however it occurred to me that Hitchcock began The Birds the way he did in order to replicate the success of Psycho.

This theory of mine starts with not with Hitchcock but Robert Bloch for it was he who wrote the 1959 novel Hitchcock turned into his famous film. One of the interesting things about Bloch as an author is that while he wrote a large number of short stories he produced relatively few novels. Part of this is probably because while the majority of his pulp contemporaries shifted to writing novels during the 50’s as the fiction magazines were steadily replaced by paperbacks Bloch moved into script-writing instead. Possibly Bloch never felt as comfortable with the novel length and had no great need to overcome this due to his script-writing income.

Perhaps this is why Psycho is not a lengthy novel. The copy I have here is a mere 98 pages long which was short for a paperback even in 1959 (though to be fair comparable in length with many of the ‘novels’ that appeared in the fiction magazines back then). Moreover Psycho reads to me like two short stories linked together by that famous shower scene. Why the novel should have this rather unusual structure I can’t say for certain. Perhaps Bloch was using this as a deliberate ploy to ease himself into an story length he wasn’t entirely confident in. Perhaps Bloch decided to link two story fragments together because he couldn’t make a satisfactory stand-alone story out of either. Whatever the reason the fact is Psycho is greater than the sum of its parts because of the way those parts are fused together.

The first part of the novel is classic example of what I like to call the morality tale of horror. Such morality horror tales begin with the the protagonist transgressing in some manner. Sometimes the protagonist commits a crime, sometimes they knowingly or inadvertently cause some offence. However they have transgressed the protagonist then attempts to escape punishment by taking a series of actions. However in the morality tale of horror every attempt to avoid retribution leads the protagonist a step closer to their ultimate, ironic, fate. Classically these stories end by making it clear that the only reason the protagonist met their gruesome end was due to their efforts to avoid punishment for the initial transgression.

In Psycho, Robert Bloch’s morality tale, after a little scene setting and misdirection at the Bates Motel we are introduced to the person we assume is to be the main protagonist, Mary Crane, secretary for the real estate agent Mr Lowery. The plot proper begins when she is tempted into committing the crime of theft when Tom Cassidy presents Mr Lowery with a large sum of money and Mr Lowery asks her to bank it for him. Instead she packs her bags and flees town with the money, heading to Fairvale where her boyfriend lives. With the stolen money she then begins to sell and buy cars as she travels in the hopes of covering her tracks. However Fairvale is a long way away, eighteen hours on unfamiliar roads and not surprisingly she takes a wrong turn. After having realised her mistake Mary Crane decides to stay the night in a hotel somewhere and find the right road in the morning so she can arrive at her boyfriend’s hardware store in a more composed state.

That’s when she spots the secluded Bates Motel and sets off the sequence of events that leads to the shower scene.

Now if this had been a typical Bloch morality horror short story appearing in Weird Tales I imagine that the final scene (not necessarily in the shower) would reveal the hotel was a base for cultists willing to use Mary Crane as a sacrifice, a home for werewolves willing to have her as a meal, or some other horrible fate that she could only suffer by arriving at such an unlikely location.

However such an immediate conclusion was clearly not possible given Bloch was writing a novel, albeit a rather slender one. So instead Bloch simply leaves the abrupt end of his horror story up in the air. Who murdered the secretary and why? We have no idea though perhaps some suspicions. Anyway, upon the death of Mary Crane, the original protagonist, Bloch the horror writer retires to his corner and Bloch the writer of mystery stories takes control and brings her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, and her younger sister Lila to the fore. From this point on the story becomes a fairly straight forward problem solving plot as Sam and Lila attempt to discover the whereabouts of Mary Crane. Even the final reveal isn’t an especially uncommon plot twist. It does have some added impact when the killer’s thoughts are revealed to the reader but even that isn’t much of a surprise to the average reader of Weird Tales.

Now clearly Alfred Hitchcock grasped that it was the abrupt twist in the middle of the story which made this book so worth turning into a movie. Consider how much he built up the initial misdirection by having Marion Crane (no, I’ve no idea why her first name was changed) briefly encounter Tom Cassidy as she flees town and then by having her arouse the suspicions of sheriff Al Chambers. By the time Marion Crane arrived at the hotel anybody not familiar with the book would be primed to assume the rest of the film would revolve around a cat and mouse game between Crane and sheriff Al Chambers. For anybody not familiar with the book and who didn’t recall the hints dropped in the trailer (in other words the majority of the initial film audience) the shower scene must of been a devastating revelation.

This leads me to my theory that Hitchcock liked this misdirection so much that he decided to reuse the idea in The Birds. I would recommend that anybody who hasn’t read the Daphne du Maurier novelette should go and do so because it’s an excellent story. Just be warned though, it’s every bit as bleak a story as I suggested earlier. Indeed, so dark is it that Hitchcock had to change a lot of the detail to make the story palatable to the average film goer (that is apart from the traditional shifting the story to the US as would of happened regardless). He decreased the feeling of isolation by including a cast of bit-players, he reduced the threat level by having the avian aggression intermittent rather than constant, he removed the sense of hopelessness by having it made clear that the bird attacks were only localised.

Of course the danger with all this downplaying of the danger is that the threat might not feel big enough to properly scare the audience. So why not repeat the success of Psycho by starting the plot in one direction and then twisting it in another. In the case of The Birds the change in direction from the sunny uplands of a light romance to the darker and considerable more fraught survival story was less abrupt (well most things are less abrupt than Psycho’s shower scene) but effective none-the-less. By, hopefully, getting the audience invested in the light romance plot and resulting domestic drama I suspect Hitchcock hoped to make the introduction of the bird attacks feel like more of a tonal shift and thus more alarming. It also had the advantage of helping to stretch out the plot. For all the power of Daphne du Maurier’s novelette there isn’t a lot of plot to it so Hitchcock was was rather neatly killing two birds with a single stone.

Killing two birds with a single stone. That’s certainly one way to describe such plotting.

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

A parody of the poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore.

Yngvi
Probably not Yngvi…

It was in the May 1940 issue of Unknown that a novelette written by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt was first published. The novelette was called The Roaring Trumpet, and marked the first appearance of their hero, Harold Shea, who went on to feature in a series of other stories by de Camp and Pratt It also marked the non-appearance of an equally famous character. At one point Harold Shea and the Norse god Heimdall are imprisoned by Frost Giants after losing a fight with them. While there they encountered a fellow prisoner who comes to the front of his cell every hour on the hour to yell, “Yngvi is a LOUSE!”

Thus began a debate which fascinated science fiction fandom for decades. Was this Yngvi indeed a louse or had his good name been falsely besmirched? At the Denvention, the 1941 worldcon, Milton Rothman (who went on to become a nuclear physicist and science fiction author) put forward a motion at the business meeting to the effect that Yngvi was not a louse only for it to be defeated. A subsequent motion was then passed stating that Rothman himself was a louse.

What the truth of this matter is I suppose we’ll never know for certain. Certainly, at least to the best of my knowledge, neither L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt ever broke down and revealed the truth about their throw-away non-appearing character.

If Yngvi was indeed a louse then I like to think that he was probably a trickster figure, a junior Loki if you will. Yes, just let that idea sink in before you read any further. It’s to that proposition that the following poem is dedicated…

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, the end of year slump
And nobody’s posting, not even to grump

That they’re sitting at home, so bored with their day
That to pixel-stained technopeasants they’re liable to stray

My monitor bathed me in a soft festive glow
As I sprawled in my chair, too lazy to go

And tuck myself snug into bed for the night
To dream of the past and putting it right

When from out from the chimney arose a loud clatter
Of scratching and curses and similar matter

I was up in a flash and gasped in surprise
As a chimney indeed met my wondering eyes

What madness was this I thought to myself
Seconds before there was not even a shelf

The wall had been blank, nothing but bricks
To add such a feature was the wildest of tricks

So when his black boots first slid into view
I took it most calmly because that I knew

That whoever made chimneys down them to drop
Would not in my power be easy to stop

So I sat back in my chair to wait for my guest
To reveal himself fully and the why of his quest

It took a few moments of squirming and kicking
Before he appeared rather than sticking

It was Yngvi of course, I could tell by his dress
An amazingly scrofulous, glorious mess

He spoke a few words with a wink and a leer
Making it plain why he’d travelled to here

According to Yngvi come each Solstice Eve
It was his regular duty, a gift he must leave

To one random member of the science fiction crew
A wish they could have, for the new year come true

I raised up my eyebrows and exclaimed in surprise
To trust someone like me was a mad enterprise

Yngvi laughed at my claim and explained in a trice
This was never a contest between naughty and nice

The decision was random and made to bring life
For Yngvi’s a louse and quite fond of such strife

Having decided the why I then started to think
About what sort of change might tickle me pink

I shuffled my thoughts, from noble to lowly
Before announcing success by nodding most slowly

To Yngvi I smiled and announced my grand plan
Most outrageous it was, a perverse little scam

He nodded quite gravely but picked not a bone
Yes, he accepted my choice, it was written in stone

The change that I’d ask for soon would become clear
With the arrival too soon of another New Year

Then with a bow of farewell and a tap of his nose
He departed at once, up the chimney he rose

My wall reappeared right after his leap
So then I did wonder if I’d just been asleep

But I thought my dear reader as I blundered to bed
That I’d be able to tell if you soon asked for my head

So to one and to all my good wishes I send
And the hope my choice doesn’t mean chaos my friends

The Young Arthur Clarke

Who was that Soviet composer I saw you with last night?

Arthur Clarke
Clarke of the RAF

Believe it or not but there was a time when Arthur C. Clarke was not yet a famous science fiction author. Way back in the late thirties he was merely known as an aspiring author and genius who had been nicknamed ‘Ego Clarke’ by his good friend William F. Temple. Why ‘Ego’? Something to do with Arthur C. Clarke being very sure of himself I believe. I’m reminded of a an exchange between Bill Temple and Arthur’s brother that occurred during Clarke’s first visit to the USA. While out on a late evening stroll Arthur’s brother exclaimed in horror that Arthur had forgotten to take the Moon with him. Bill Temple assured him that everything was fine, that Arthur had a US edition over there. You simply don’t make that sort of joke about an unassuming friend. (For more about the Temple/Clarke relationship please read Temple of the Sphinx.)

However ‘Ego Clarke’ wasn’t always the victim. He clearly had a whimsical side to him that at times manifested itself in rather unexpected ways. For instance when Alexandr Mosolov’s infamous orchestral piece, Iron Foundry: Music of Machines, was released in the UK as a ten-inch 78rpm record Clarke enthusiastically added it to his collection. Did he actually enjoy Mosolov’s unique approach to music? Hard to say because he did seem to use that record more as an instrument of war than as entertainment. Consider the following description of an evenings entertainment put on for the London Branch of the Science Fiction Association. According to a report in the March 1938 issue of Novae Terrae the February meeting started off with Walter Gillings reading out aloud Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Space. This then was followed by a musical interlude arrange by Ego:

‘His audience sat enthralled, then interested, then passive, then replete, then a little fidgety. After 1½ hours heroic reading without a stop Mr Gillings drew his story to a finish. Grunts and deep sighs sounded from about the table, of ecstasy or relief. The big moment then arrived – a programme of sf music offered by Arthur Clarke. Several faces became stonily resigned as the handle was wound, and as the first notes of Things To Come thundered out, eyes wandered to papers and magazines. And then as the maddening rhythm of Mosolov’s Steel Foundry slammed and roared across the frosty air eyes became expressive once more, but alas, only with amusement and disgust…’

Ninety minutes of Lovecraft followed by a blast of Mosolov? Never has the headline NOT MANY DEAD ever been more appropriate. (Personally I love Iron Foundry but I believe mine is a minority opinion.)

Anyway, according to one of his contemporaries, science fiction fan and artist Harry Turner, Clarke was a repeat offender:

‘Arthur took great delight in playing the Mosolov piece at full volume to impress unsuspecting visitors (I was one!) to the 88 Grays Inn Road flat that he shared with Maurice Hanson and Bill Temple.

A few years later I spent some time in Arthur’s company at RAF Yatesbury, to find myself roped in to help at several wartime record recitals that Arthur busily organised as part of the camp entertainment. While Mosolov didn’t feature in these programmes, I found that Arthur still liked to operate at maximum volume, blithely ignoring all protests from wilting listeners in the front rows…’

This I submit proves that restraint was not an idea the youthful Clarke was especially familiar with. And now I’ve put that put that thought into your head try to remain calm as you read this poem which appeared in the April 1938 issue of Novae Terrae:

‘PRELUDE TO THE CONQUEST OF SPACE

by Arthur C. (Ego) Clarke

I shot a rocket into the air,
It fell to earth I know not where,
But 50 grammes of TNT,
Exploded in the Rectory.

I shot a rocket into space,
Toward the full moon’s beckoning face,
And was rewarded for my pains,
By blowing up the Sea of Rains.

I shot a rocket into the air,
But notwithstanding all my care,
Five hundred tons of dynamite,
blew San Francisco out of sight.’

Such cheerful exuberance and utter disregard for consequences. I can’t help but imagine this as an early draft by Tom Lehrer. Perhaps it’s for the best that nobody put Clarke in charge of Britain’s rocket defences. I do feel that rockets and unbridled enthusiasm are best not combined…

Virgil Finlay & Fungi! In Colour!

Fungi and toadstools and shrooms, oh my!

Murray Leinster’s novella, The Mad Planet, has been reprinted quite a few times after if first appeared in the 12 June, 1920 issue of Argosy, most recently in 2015. This longevity surprises me not at all because even today The Mad Planet remains a fascinating look at a suitably alien future Earth.

The single best reprint appeared in the November 1948 issue of Fantastic Novels Magazine. No so much for the Virgil Finlay action cover (which I personally don’t care for) but rather the magnificent full-page black and white illustration with which Finlay attempted to give the reader some idea of what Leinster’s future world looked like.

Finlay’s art style is well suited to illustrating this sort of lush future world, so much so that I felt it was a pity that the drawing was in black and white and decided to do something about it. Adding colour does somewhat reduce the amount of texture the black and white version has but I think the added richness more than compensates for that. Not perfect perhaps but I’m still quite pleased with the result.

Virgil Finlay 1

The Mad Planet was the first in a series of stories Leinster wrote about life on Earth 30,000 years in the future. In this first story story it’s revealed that dramatically changed climatic conditions had been caused by a massive increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Leinster explained that this increase was party due to human activity which lo these many years later seems particularly prophetic. Apparently though he wasn’t able to believe that humanity alone would be capable of causing the degree of change his plot required so he also had holes opening up in the Earth’s crust to release even more carbon dioxide. (I’ve been told that something similar to Leinster’s holes is scientifically plausible in that it has been speculated that the melting of the permafrost might release considerable quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.) Leinster then postulated that this change in the atmosphere resulted in fungal and insect life flourishing and growing to enormous size while nearly every other form of life other than man and fish died out. The story is well worth a read for anybody who doesn’t suffer from arachnophobia.

Straight Talking With Philip K. Dick

On the Tonight Show this evening, Philip K. Dick!

Philip K. DickOnce upon a time, not all that long ago in fact, if I had been asked to name those science fiction authors I thought would be the least interesting in an interview Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard would be near the top of my list. This more than anything was based on what I knew of their public personas, both of which seemed excessively cryptic to me in their expressed opinions. Dick in particular seemed like somebody who might start off fine but at some point would start channelling his Horselover Fat persona, at which point the signal between Dick and Earth would break down.

I was forced to change my mind however after reading several issues of Terry Carr’s major fanzine of the sixties, Lighthouse. (To be fair Terry shared the editorial duties with Pete Graham early on but the later issues were his alone.) Terry Carr worked as an editor for Ace Books back in the sixties and early seventies. During that time he was best known for the Ace Science Fiction Specials, a series of novels that were intended to appeal to the discerning SF reader. The issues of Lighthouse Terry Carr published while working at Ace read to me like a non-fiction version of the Ace Science Fiction Specials. In those issues appeared authors and artists such as Thomas M. Disch, Greg Benford, Jack Gaughan, Richard Lupoff, Alexei Panshin, Samuel R, Delany, Gahan Wilson, Fritz Leiber, Damon Knight, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, and of course Philip K. Dick.

It’s in Lighthouse #14 (October 1966) that Carr published a Philip K. Dick article called Will the Atomic Bomb Ever Be Perfected, and If So, What Becomes of Robert Heinlein? This piece doesn’t read like a fully formed article in my opinion. It’s a series of unconnected paragraphs that feels more like a transcript of Dick’s responses to a series of questions that had been posed by a talk show host (Conan O’Brien most probably, I can’t imagine who else would enjoy interviewing Phil Dick). Take this line:

‘I have written and sold twenty-three novels, and all are terrible except one. But I am not sure which one.’

That so feels like the sort of thing a talk show guest might say to set the tone of the interview. Watch out audience, I’m quirky and don’t take anything too seriously.

Mostly though Dick expresses the sort of blunt and sweeping opinions I never thought he was likely to come out with. Consider the emphatic nature of the following three claims. (And yes, taken together these three opinions do contradict each other which leads me to wonder if Dick was more interested in trying to startle the reader into reconsidering accepted wisdom than being honest about his opinions. Still, even if he was encouraging the reader to reconsider some of their assumptions, he was doing so in a far more direct manner than I expected him to.)

‘No one makes any real money off good – I repeat, good – SF. This probably indicates that it has artistic worth. If Lorenzo de Medici were alive he would pick up the tab for A.E. Van Vogt, not for John Updike.’

‘The best SF novel I have read is Vonnegut’s Player Piano. Because it actually deals with men-women relationships (Paul Proteus and his bitch of a wife). In this matter the book is unique in the field. Brave New World only seems to do this, 1984 in this regard is awful.’

‘Out of all the SF which I have read, one story still means more to me than any others, it is Harry Bate’s Alas, All Thinking. It is the beginning and the end of literate science fiction. Alas.’

Then there is his brief but savage assessment of two different Robert Heinlein stories. Dave Langford once wrote that it’s always interesting to see one SF Encyclopedia subject writing about another. I would contend that in this particular case ‘interesting’ doesn’t begin to describe my curiosity. Not because Dick is negative but because he gave so little context to this negativity. Neither of these are recent stories, Gulf appeared in 1949 and Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961, so I can’t see these as immediate, shooting from the hip, type reactions. Neither am I aware of Dick and Heinlein being bitter enemies back in 1966. Yes, I’ve no doubt they had very different worldviews and moved in very different social circles but these comments read like shots being fired in an ongoing war between the two men that I’m sure was not being fought. Most curious.

‘If I were to dredge up one SF novel which, more than any other, would cause me to abandon SF entirely, it is Robert Heinlein’s Gulf. It strike me as fascism pure and simple, and – what is worse – put forth unattractively. Bleh.’

Heinlein has done more to harm SF than has any other writer, I think – with the possible exception of George O. Smith. The dialogue in Stranger in a Strange Land has to be read to be believed. “Give the little lady a box of cigars!” a character cries, meaning that the girl has said something which is correct. One wonders what the rejoinder would be if a truly inspired remark had to be answered rather than a routine statement, it would probably burst the book’s gizzard.’

Further to the above in 1972 Phil Dick dedicated his novel, We Can Build You, to Robert & Ginny Heinlein after they loaned him money to pay his IRS bill. So whatever Dick thought of Heinlein’s work it doesn’t appear that there was bad blood between the two.

Then we have the self-reflective Philip K. Dick who doesn’t seem particularly eager to blow his own horn. Of course given some of what he had to say about other authors perhaps he felt the need to downplay his own work in order to not totally look like the bad guy. Or perhaps this is him really trying to mess with the reader’s head by disagreeing with the general consensus. What? Everybody thinks The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a really great novel? (Yes they do according to Goodreads.) Well let me, the author himself, tell you that it was just a bad acid trip that should never have seen the light of day. Oh, and you liked We Can Remember It for You Wholesale in the latest F&SF? Well guess what! It’s no better than my first published story Roog, so more fool you! (Actually I could go along with this as I happen to think Roog is as good a short story as Dick ever wrote.)

By the way ‘Agnus Dei qud tellis peccata mundi’ is from the liturgical prayer known as the Agnus Dei and translates as; ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ Make of that what you will.

‘In fifteen years of professional writing I haven’t got or a tittle better. My first story, Roog. Is as good as – if not better than – the five I did last month. This seems very strange to me because certainly through all those years I’ve learned a good deal about writing… and in addition my general store of worldly wisdom has increased. Maybe there are only a given number of original ideas in each person, he uses them up and that is that. Like an old baseball player he no longer has anything to offer. I will say one thing in favour of my writing, however, which I hope is true. I am original (except where I copy my own previous work). I no longer write “like Cyril Kornbluth” or “like A.E. Van Vogt”. But in that case I can no longer blame them for my faults’

‘Religion ought never to show up in SF except from a sociological standpoint, as in Gather, Darkness. God per se, as a character, ruins a good SF story, and this is as true of my own stuff as anyone else’s. Therefore I deplore my Palmer Eldrich book in that regard. But people who are a bit mystically inclined like it. I don’t. I wish I had never written it, there are too many horrid forces loose in it. When I wrote it I had been taking certain chemicals and I could see the awful landscape which I depicted. But not now, Thank God. Agnus Dei qud tellis peccata mundi.’

So there I stand corrected, Philip K. Dick could and did express opinions in a most forthright manner. As to whether these blunt opinions were what Dick really thought. Well, this is Philip K. Dick, your guess is as good as mine.

Tales Too Good To Forget #1

James Blish, not that much a beast master.

Tumbrils 7, May 1946
The cover of Tumbrils #7 (May 1946) was presumably the work of James Blish himself.

I have to admit, it’s pretty easy to assume that the author of stories such as A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis, and Surface Tension might be a bit on the serious side. Indeed, having read the criticism of James Blish collected in The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand (as by his William Atheling, Jr. pseudonym) I can see how such works might convince somebody that Blish was a rather earnest and po-faced individual.

However, it’s always dangerous to assume that the professional writings of an author encompass the whole of that author’s personality. Luckily for us the young James Blish published quite a few fanzines and thus inadvertently provided for anybody fortunate enough to read these evidence that he was far more than a cold and forbidding intellect.

Well okay, to be perfectly honest a lot of his early fanzine writings are indeed as earnest and po-faced as William Atheling, Jr. might lead you believe the real Blish was. But while some of this material might come across as every bit as pompous as the pronunciations of a high art maven (if you don’t believe me then go look for an issue of Renascence, but don’t say I didn’t warn you) in between the bouts of earnestness is another Blish, a wittier, lighter Blish who knew how to not take himself too seriously. The best place to look for this James Blish is in the material which he published for the Vanguard Amateur Press Association. It was here, in Tumbrils #4, that he wrote one of my favourite cat stories. Read this and you will never think of James Blish as po-faced ever again:

‘I don’t want anyone to get the notion that I dislike cats, or harbor any sort of grudge. My friends all have heard me say I refuse to marry until I can find a woman who will bear me kittens, and this is only partly due to my dislike for children. No, my whole intention in setting down these events is to correct the misinformed people who always answer, “Well, I like kittens, until they grow up.”

A mature cat, usually, has lost the salacious curiosity which makes living with a kitten a somewhat dangerous process. This nosiness takes peculiar forms, especially when linked with the feline interest in fishing and running water generally. I once owned a small black Tom who was perpetually climbing up my trouser-leg to peer in and see what that noise was. There was a time when I thought this trick charming, if somewhat morbid, but that was before he was replaced by Curfew whose curiosities led her up the inside of the trouser-leg.

This latter climb took place one evening while I was sitting in the front room listening to some records. The kitten was quite small, and once seated on my thigh in the darkness could not figure out how she had gotten there, why she had wanted to be there in the first place, or how to get out. Attempts to ease her back down the way she had come resulted merely in scars on my leg. I was forced finally to let the beast out via my fly.

Had this been the end of the matter all would have been well, however, as Curfew blinked forth into the light, I looked up and discovered that I had forgotten to pull down the window-shade, and that the woman in the next apartment was watching the whole proceedings from across the airshaft. The expression on her face could not have been wilder had she been confronted with a shuggoth, and for months afterwards I could not meet her on the stairs without her muttering to herself, “My God! Ears!”’

I like to think this story is the chest-bursting scene from the film, Alien, but made cute.

A Most Unexpected Affair

The visual art of Harry Harrison.

Harry Harrison 1
Art by Harry Harrison from Cry #178, published in December 1968 by Elinor Busby, Vera Heminger, Wally Weber.

Harry Harrison is one of my all-time favourite science fiction authors, not so much for his later work which became rather too epic in style for my tastes, but for those books my teenage self found in the local library back in the seventies. It was then that novels such as The Technicolor Time Machine, Deathworld (but not so much the sequels), Bill, the Galactic Hero (but not so much those sequels either), Make Room! Make Room!, and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers became firm favourites.

Given how much and how well Harry Harrison wrote I was surprised to discover he didn’t start his professional career as an author. It was while reading the collection of autobiographical essays he edited with Brian Aldiss, Hell’s Cartographers, that I discovered in Harry’s own memoir, The Beginning of the Affair, how he began selling as an artist long before he attempted to write professionally. According to this essay he only came to write Rock Diver (his first published science fiction short) because a dose of influenza had rendered him unable to draw but still capable of using a typewriter.

More recently however I have discovered a far older Harrison essay called The Author’s Lot II (so titled because it was written as a sequel to an already published Brian Aldisss article) which recounts a more detailed, if less poetic, version of this conversion. The article in question appeared in Vector #22, October 1963, which was and is the journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

Harrison starts off with some detail about his development as a visual artist:

‘At the same time I was building a career in art. My interests were Classical and my training was done on the antique and I leaned towards portrait painting. However I watched my maestro, the incomparable painter John Blomshield, starve himself to death and had second thoughts. Easel painting is only for those with private incomes. Recognising the handwriting on the canvas I went to a series of commercial art academies and emerged able to do a competent job of magazine illustration, book jackets, advertising layouts and comic books, all of which I drew with varying degrees of commercial success. I eventually found my niche in the comic books which paid the most money for the least work and gave golden premiums for speed. (I once inked a standard nine panel 15” by 20” comic page in 25 minutes and became known in our professional circle – not without a certain amount of jealousy – as Harry the Hack.) I would probably still be there, buying India ink by the gallon instead of the quart and inking with a bigger and bigger brush, if it hadn’t been for the enduring SF interest.’

Of course this was only possible because Harry had natural artistic talent to work with. To prove this I’m going to share with you the earliest example of Harry Harrison art I’m aware of. (Feel free to think of me as a terrible person for letting you see a beloved author’s earliest, and crudest, work.) “ROBOT” appeared in Sun Spots V5 #2, which was published by by Gerry de la Ree in May/June 1941. I think it’s obvious that even as a teenager (my guess being that Harry was about 16 when this was published) he was already a decent draftsman.

Harry Harrison 2

On the other hand you can see the influence all those years of commercial work had in the piece of art at the top of this column. I wouldn’t try to sell you the idea that if Harry had stayed working on comics he would be up there with the greats like Jim Steranko or Steve Ditko but I do think he had enough talent to become a well known industry professional. If you want further proof then I suggest you ferret out some of Harry’s professional work listed below and judge them:

‘At the same time I was an art pro and did as much SF work as I could find. (If collectors want a new excuse to grub through their files, they’ll find a book jacket of mine from Gnome Press, and illustrations in the revived Marvel, Galaxy and the original Science Fiction Adventures.) I also enjoyed the fannish transports of delight of rubbing shoulders with all the pros, ninety-five percent of whom were living in and around New York City at that time.’

Now comes the more detailed but less poetic story of his conversion:

‘This heady atmosphere was inspiring and the writing bug hit hard. I had had experience editing various kinds of magazines and had written goodly numbers of comic scripts – so why not SF? I wrote and discarded a few stories until I finally had one that seemed adequate. At this time I was illustrating Worlds Beyond and I took it along when I turned in a batch of drawings and asked the editor, Damon Knight, to do me a favour and read the story. Instead of giving me an opinion he gave me a cheque for $100 and since then I have never looked back. (The story was titled I Walk Through Rocks, a terrible title that Damon instantly changed to Rock Diver.)’

Well I guess $100 was enough to turn heads in 1951 but according to Harry there more to it than that:

‘That’s the physical history and I have neatly sidestepped away from my emotional reasons for writing…

…A writer’s job is to turn the dross of his daydreams into gold. SF is the most exacting form of fiction, making all the demands of ordinary fiction plus the science-fictional rationale. Therefore when it is successful its rewards to the author are that much greater. (Not in money of course – that is expecting too much.) I really cannot see what pleasure can be exacted from the writing of yet another bed-sitter novel. Without giving away any secrets I can reveal that writing SF is just as much fun as reading it – and even more therapeutic. Remember; those guns go off louder for me, the blood is redder, the machines shinier – and the phallic spaceships reach up to the clouds.’

This I have no trouble believing having read the novels named above. This was something my teenage self loved about reading a Harry Harrison story, the way it felt as though the author had stood inside the story before me and written it from there rather than from some god-like authorial perspective. I loved all the little random details not essential to the plot but which added so much to the world as it unfolded insdie my head. Forty years on and I can still remember clear as day how in The Technicolor Time Machine the danger of not being entirely inside the field generated by the time machine was ever so casually demonstrated by the discovery of a severed section of exhaust pipe. This is the sort of detail presented in such a way that made me feel as though the author had been there first and had really seen how an exhaust pipe might be accidentally severed and drop unnoticed to the ground.

I don’t suppose an author has to have the talent of a visual artist to make such stories full colour but it Harry’s case it certainly didn’t hurt.

Far Beneath, the Abysmal Sea

The reality of unnatural phenomena.

Forlorn we wait the lashing of the waves,
As they hunt with empty formless hate,
Striking our wooden walls until the boat it staves,
And draws us down to our dreadful roiling fate.

Flying Dutchman.jpg

The principle of mass conservation is one of the fundamental laws used in physics to explain the way the universe works. It states that the mass of a system must remain constant over time, thus mass can neither be created nor destroyed, although it may be rearranged in space or changed in form. The law implies that during any chemical reaction, nuclear reaction, or radioactive decay in an isolated system, the total mass of the reactants or starting materials must be equal to the mass of the products.

It’s a law that I have decided can be equally applied to fiction.

Consider this plot then. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Drama occurs. That’s reality and it’s all around us so the creation of fictional drama is really a process not unlike photosynthesis. In other words the creativity is in rearranging in space or changing in form that which already exists.

Okay, so lets consider another example. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Girl is werewolf. Drama occurs. So does this violate the principle of mass conservation? Werewolves don’t actually exist so does this count as actual creation, an addition to reality rather than photosynthesis? At first glance something like this does seem to be violating the principle due to it’s fantastical nature. But no, like all fantasy the idea of a werewolf is simply a misinterpretation of reality. Werewolves do not exist in real life but every part of their legend is based on some aspect of reality not properly understood by the creators of said legend.

What makes the idea that the principle of reality conservation in fiction so interesting is the game it allows in regards to myth and legend. If such stories are based upon the misinterpretation of reality then the fun is in narrowing down the possible sources of said misinterpretation and disproving the red herrings. One of the best (and most readable) examples of this process is a book called The Legend of Sawney Bean by old-time British Science Fiction Association member Ronald Holmes. In the book Holmes dissects the legend of Sawney Bean, a cannibal who along with his family supposedly lived in a cave and preyed upon travelers in the Galloway region of Scotland. Usually there is not nearly as much useful detail as Ron Holmes had to work with so legend doesn’t always lend itself to easy interpretation. Sometimes though you can be sitting there quietly, just minding your own business, when a fact comes along to pierce the murky depths of legend. Take the story of the Flying Dutchman for example.

The first reference in print to the ship appeared in 1795, when George Barrington mentioned the matter in his book, Voyage to Botany Bay. According to Barrington sailors had told him of a story about a Dutch ship that was lost at sea during a horrendous storm. This it was claimed was due to Captain Bernard Fokke for he was known for the speed on his trips from Holland to Java. The story went that Fokke was aided by the Devil and that he and his crew eventually paid the price for dealing with Old Nick and so were consequently doomed to sail the seas forever more despite their demise. Sighting the Flying Dutchman was said to be very bad luck.

Now what strikes me most about all this is how late in the piece this legend comes. The general agreement seems to be that the Flying Dutchman legend originated in the eighteenth century and that my friends is passing strange. If the Flying Dutchman obeys the principle of reality conservation in fiction then what changed to make such a story suddenly possible? Clearly some new phenomena was needed because mysteriously abandoned boats drifting with the currents is a scene as old as sailing itself. If it was simply a matter of sailors wanting to explain boats apparently travelling by themselves then I can’t imagine they would wait till the eighteenth century to invent the Flying Dutchman story.

It’s for this reason I’m not convinced by the popularity of the fata morgana as an explanation. The fata morgana is a mirage that occurs when warm air rests right above the cold air near the surface of the ocean. The air between the two masses acts as a refracting lens, which will produce an upside-down, distorted image of an object. Even though a ship may be beyond the horizon observers may see an inverted, blurry image of a ghostly ship that will suddenly vanish as the relative position of the observers to the real ship changes.

However given that the Strait of Messina, the body of water between Sicily and mainland Italy, is a famous location for sailors to encounter the fata morgana it seems a tad unlikely this is the inspiration. If it was, then again, why wait till the eighteenth century to concoct a legend of explanation for something known about by the Greeks and Romans? No, what we need to satisfy the principle of reality conservation in fiction is the appearance of some new phenomena that sailors did not encounter, and thus were not moved to explain, until the eighteenth century.

It was while listening to the radio one day that such a possibility presented itself to me. The presenter was interviewing a couple of professional treasure hunters who had been working off the coast of New Zealand. The conversation turned to certain sailing ships laden with valuable cargo that had sunk in those waters and how hard it was to find the remains of these ships.

Now you would think this was simply a case of there being no reliable information as to where the ships in question had gone down. This is fact was rarely the case due to survivors and sometimes even sailors from other ships being able to identify when and where a particular vessel had foundered and under what conditions. And of course once you know details like that the area a treasure hunter needs to search is narrowed considerably. So no, a lack of reportage was not the main problem, instead the major difficulty in locating many of these older wrecks has to do with sheep.

I have to admit that it seems reasonable to assume that once a ship has taken on so much water that the tipping point is reached there isn’t any direction for it to travel but straight down. At best logic dictates a sinking ship might head towards the sea floor at a steep angle due to losing buoyancy unevenly. Even so it should come to rest in a location easy enough to find so long as the location of the tipping point in known. All that reasonable assuming however is based upon steel hulled ships which are too heavy to behave in any other way.

To be fair that’s usually the case with wooden ships too. The average wooden ship might be a whole lot lighter than anything made of steel but the timber it’s constructed of doesn’t have unlimited buoyancy so once the tipping point has been reached that ship is going down. At best the buoyancy of the wood might slow the rate of descent but even that’s a moot point if the ship is laden with cargo, the dead weight of which is going to minimise drift. That, however, is where the sheep come in you see.

The fact was that much of the cargo being exported from New Zealand was relatively buoyant. Bales of wool were not only light in relation to their mass but also contained considerable quantities of trapped air. So while it’s true that a wooden ship carrying a cargo of wool wasn’t unsinkable, such ships would go to the bottom eventually, it’s equally true that depending on how many bales the ship was carrying the descent might take days or even weeks to be completed. So in effect a wooden ship that had been driven onto a rocky outcrop and taken on so much water that its decks were awash and the crew forced to abandon might still be riding high enough for the brave or the foolhardy to stand on the submerged deck once the storm has passed.

What really captured my imagine however was one of the treasure hunters pointing out that even a submerged ship is subject to tides and currents. Which means that after a ship has reached the point of being all or mostly below the waves it’s still being carried along by whichever current has a hold of it. Not only that but according to this treasure hunter such wool laden wooden ships often sank slowly enough to allow currents at different depths to push the ship in different directions. Not surprisingly this process introduces so many variables into calculating the final resting place that a sufficiently small search area can’t be defined. In other words there are sunken wrecks off the coast of New Zealand which are simply unfindable because it’s impossible to know how far they traveled during the process of sinking.

Now, it’s not impossible that something like this happened before the eighteenth century or thereabouts but it does seem unlikely. Early ships mostly carried their cargo unenclosed so I assume they went straight down as they sank because any buoyant cargo could break free and drift away. Even after ships became large enough to store cargo beneath deck the storage space was probably too small for even the most buoyant cargo to overcome the dead weight of the ship itself.

At some point however shipbuilders crossed a line in their quest for cargo capacity that would match the ever increasing demands of international trade. Most sinking ships still went down in the traditional manner but at last a small percentage with the right sort of cargo began taking the scenic route to the sea floor.

Imagine that your ship has just survived a storm and as you sweep the deck what do you see coming towards you but the tip of a mast. Eventually an entirely submerged schooner hoves into view, trailing ropes and scraps of sail silently undulating like the primitive fins of some prehistoric sea-creature. Slowly, but with seeming purpose, it continues on to who knows where. You don’t know what ship this is or why it’s doing something that to the best of your knowledge is totally unnatural. It needs an explanation though because something, anything, is better than the unknown, especially when you sail so far from man and all his works.

How easy would it be to imagine the mystery ship still crewed. Could those wavering shapes be more than a trick of the light in unsettled water? Who could that be but a forlorn figure of a captain standing in silent command beneath the shimmering waves?

And thus, perhaps, the legend of the Flying Dutchman and his search for release from Earth bound limbo is born.