The Mercury Men

Well, it’s Wednesday again, and I have spent the first half of my week relatively wisely.  As I believe I mentioned the other day, Daughter Sarah Lydia and I spent this weekend getting materials together to make our first Steampunk costumes.  We want to make a good showing at Vandalia-Con at the end of this month (hint hint:  check it out and if you can get there, you really should attend.  It’s gonna be fun, and the money raised goes to the best of causes!).  Anyway, Sarah Lydia and I have spent the week thus far working on those costumes.  I am lucky in this regard:  being good country mamas, my granny and mother first put needle and thread in my hands when I was four years old, and I have been making my own clothes since I was eight or nine.  When my own children came along, I made sure they had the same skills (including the boys; boys need those skills as well, and my eldest, at least, is not too shabby at it!)  So knocking together a costume like this is not anything new.  I feel confident that we can put together something fun.

Sarah Lydia is going the airship pirate route:  flounced skirts, sexy peasant blouse, visible corset, piratey accessories.  She is considering wearing a sword (I still have my fencing epee, though my fighting days are way over) to complete the look, but that hasn’t been absolutely decided yet.  We’re still debating the hat.

Since I’m a good deal older, I originally decided to go with a look more in the Victorian Dowager vein:  long skirt, frilly lacy blouse with big poofy sleeves.  Since I’m hoping to pimp out my wheelchair a little, I may be less “Downton Abbey” and more “Victorian Bond Villain.”  Which would not break my heart at all!  Again, still debating the hat.  First problem: budget.  We only had a little bit of cash to spend on costumes, and we used most of it already;  I’m going to have to wing it on my outfit.  Second problem is that, after being so sick for so long, most of my hair is gone gone gone.  So I wear a headscarf.  But what hat will look good with my headscarf? Maybe skip the hat thing altogether and put together something  gear-i-fied and gadgety to go with the headscarf?  Hmmm… decisions, decisions…..

Anyway, when we’re finished making all those pesky decisions, I’ll let you know what we’ve come up, hopefully with pictures to go with it!  In the meantime, let’s talk about today’s topic:

 

The Mercury Men was a web show done for the SyFy channel’s webpage and released in 2011.  It starred Mark Tierno and Curt Wootton (hey, this guy is from my neck of the woods!  hillbillies represent, y’all!)  Both actors have had minor roles here and there (Tierno was in Day of the Dead, according to IMDB), but they’re mostly unknowns.  Both of them were in Captain Blasto which, if you recall, I wrote up here; the Mercury Men director, Christopher Preksta, was also on the Blasto team.

Anyway, the story is simple enough.  In the mid 1970’s, Edward Borman, corporate drone, is working late at the cubicle farm when trouble arrives in the form of these glow-in-the-dark Mercury Men, aka The First Men, “made of a light so dense it’s become a solid.(and they ain’t kidding; they’re simply silhouettes of light, no features whatsoever, but traceable by the intense light that glows from them all the time).  Since they’re light, no conventional weapons can harm them; our heroes use condensed light bullets that glow the way the Mercury Men do.  They just show up in his building, kill the janitor, kill a construction dude, and try to kill poor Edward the Schlub.

Edward is rescued at the last minute by Jack Yaeger, Hero At Large.  Nah, they don’t call him that, but I would have totally gone with it, if they had done.  Jack is an absolute throwback to the serial heroes of the 1930’s, right down to the jodhpurs and shiny boots. the leather jacket and aviation cap, the goggles and the way retro-cool ray gun he uses to shoot the Mercury Men.  Jack is a member of The League, a decisively vague conglomeration of heroes who defend humanity against these sorts of B-movie threats.

Dude even uses a slide rule!  God bless them, I love it!  (My dad tried to teach me to use a slide rule.  I never did understand it.  They’re wonderfully retro, but my brain rejects math the way my immune system rejects seafood)

Why are the glowy guys here?  Well, they’re using a “gravity engine” and wiring it to the steel framework of Edward place of work (a skyscraper), so they can pull the Moon down from the sky and crash it into Earth.  Wait, what?  Yeah, just roll with it.  The science in this thing is delightfully whack-a-doo, just like the cheesy movies that inspired it.  Why do they want the moon to crash into the Earth and destroy us?  Ummm… well, they have an explanation, but it’s not much more than, “because we’re the bad guys.”  Anyway, our heroes figure out what’s going on, and call for help from The League.  But, naturally the League is not in a position to help, so our guy have to figure out a solution on their own.  And I’ll not give you any more than that; you’re gonna have to watch it yourself.

My thoughts on the production?  This was FUN!  It’s shot in black and white, and the costumes remind me more of the 1930’s than the actual setting of the mid ’70’s.  Even Edward’s glasses look wonderfully retro.  And “wonderfully retro” is exactly the feel of the whole business.  The director pulled out every stop on the B-movie instrument.  Dutch angles, creative lighting, melodramatic music, you name it, they got it in there.  I want to reiterate the lighting (which is not something you often hear from me).  They did a brilliant job of playing with the lighting.  Of course there are the B-movie standards, like the face thrown into shadow except for the convenient rectangle of light across the eyes (I don’t know what that’s called; if you know, tell me in the comments).  And then there was the fact that the baddies were made of light.  As they were chasing our heroes through a darkened skyscraper, the encroaching light, moody at the best of times, was a terrifically visual signal that the bad guys were close.  There were some genuinely frightening moments, and some very sweet, lighthearted moments.  Tierno is a delight in these funny bits; he has wonderful pathos, and even his body language is perfect for the nerdy character he’s portraying.

To be fair, it’s not perfect.  I find some of the dialogue clumsy.  Maybe they did it on purpose, in imitation of the b-movie standard.  I don’t think so; I think it was just hamfisted writing.  But it’s just the occasional stumble, a bad word choice here and there (particularly on the technospeak, which, granted, is not easy at the best of times), a hair too preachy there.  Little things that, while noticeable, do not really take away from the whole.

In short, it was well done.  It has a wonderful drive-in movie feel to it, and it gave me shivers of dread on more than one occasion.  Definitely worth watching.  My biggest disappointment?  The ending sets up for a sequel, but so far, nothing.  Waaah!  Anyway, when I first went searching for this show, it was only available on Hulu.  Luckily, that has changed, and the episodes can be watched for free here, on YouTube.

And that’s it for today!  You know the drill:  share, tweet, comment, write.  My email addy is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net, and I can be found on Twitter and Facebook (links on my About page).  If you have any recommendations for Fun Friday, give me a shout.  I’ll be back on Friday to share fun links with you.  Until then, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

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Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Fun Friday: More Pretty Pictures!

It’s Friday again and Welcome to May!  I can only hope this herald of spring marks the end of the cold mornings and rainy days we’ve been enduring here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  I want it to be warm again!  Heck, I want to spend an afternoon whining about “it’s too hot!” and “why are we spending another year without an air conditioner?” (hint:  I don’t really want an AC; I like the heat too much)

I have big plans for my weekend.  As I’ve mentioned about a kajillion times,  daughter Sarah Lydia and I are going to Vandalia-Con at the end of this month.  Tomorrow, she and I are going to the piece goods shop to buy the materials needed to make our Steampunk costumes (and hopefully to pimp my ride).  After that, it’ll be a flurry of sewing, painting, and debating a thousand details until we’re both satisfied.  It’s going to be a delight; I am finally well enough to do a big project like this, and I can’t wait!

But that’s tomorrow.  For today, it’s Fun Friday and I have just the thing to give the end of the work week a little zing:  pretty pretty pictures!  Normally I’m a musician (when I’m not being a writer), so I don’t often pay that much attention to visual arts; it doesn’t help that my eyesight is so crap I’m practically the female version of Mr. Magoo (ask your parents).  But I was surfing the Internet the other day and stumbled across a couple things that I thought might tickle your fancy.

For you Steampunk fans out there, I offer you the works of Mr. Brian Kesinger (he’s the one I stumbled across).  Kesinger is an animator at Disney Studios, starting there at age 16 (making him the youngest artist ever to work for the company).  He worked on Treasure Planet, naturally, but also on Winnie the Pooh, Tarzan, Tangled, Chicken Little, Home on the Range, Bolt and Meet the Robinsons.  This is all well and good, but I’m not really a big booster of Disney (not political; I’m just uninterested in most of their movies).  So I’m more interested in his non-Disney works.  He has several gallery-focused blogs online (the bottom of his Wikipedia page — linked above — has links), a few brief video discussions of his work on YouTube courtesy of DeviantArt (here, here, and here) and one conglomerate gallery here.

Among the Steampunk community he is probably best known for his Otto and Victoria series, as seen above.  Victoria is a lovely Steampunk girl, a proper Victorian lady, seen at work and at play with her pet cephalopod, Otto.  Each drawing is more creative than the last, and they have been collected into two full color books and one coloring book (!!!), which can be purchased at Amazon.com (here, here and here).

Yes, Otto and Victoria are charming, make no mistake.  But honestly, I prefer his “Tea Girls” series, pictured on the conglomerate gallery.  They are less ballyhooed, and haven’t been collected in book form, which I think is a pity.  Look at this:

Isn’t that gorgeous?  I like how they look like the art is springing forth from a tea stain on the page.  It’s just clever as can be.  The Tea Girls tend to be more Steampunkish than Otto and Victorian (who are more Lovecrafty, IMHO; the octopus says Lovecraft to me), and, while they definitely fit in the Disney style, they’re more adult and less cartoony than Otto and Victoria.  But Steampunk girls isn’t all he has available.  Let me just leave you with this thought and image:  STEAMPUNK MEGATRON!!!!!

Seriously, go check him out.  Good stuff, and merch to boot!

Next up, something for the Dieselpunk. As I said before, I have but a passing interest in visual arts, so it’s not like I spend a lot of time on DeviantArt.  But maybe I should, because there are guys like Alexey Lipatov doing some really impressive work over there.  I can’t find out anything about him except what DeviantArt has on his profile:  he’s a male artist from the Ukraine.  He has all kinds of pictures over there, but one folder, marked “Dieselpunk,” definitely caught my eye.

As you can see, he has a more comic book style than Brian Kesinger, but still, I like.  He does work in both color and monochrome, and there are a lot of half-dressed women in his pictures, plus even more retro-futuristic tech.  None of this is a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.  I would share more, except his collection isn’t as big as the Steampunk one, and the individual pictures are ENORMOUS.  I don’t want to crash my computer (again), so if you want to see, you need to go take a peek for yourself.

Finally, for my beloved Pulp:  I have no new artists to show you pretty pictures, alas.  But I don’t come to you empty handed.  I have found The Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists.  I don’t know if this is a comprehensive collection of classic pulp art — both covers and interior art — but it’s definitely an impressive one.  This webpage was built by somebody named David Saunders; again, my otherwise-impressive Google-Fu skills failed to tell me anything about the guy.  But he has done a masterful job of collecting tons of art from the covers and pages of the classic pulp magazine.

The page is well organized.  The artist are listed in alphabetical order.  Once you click on an artist’s name, a new tab tells you a brief bio of the artist in question and a brief timeline of his work.  On the left are all the samples of his work that the collection has; they work as a slideshow, which I like because my computer doesn’t like bunches of new tabs, and it HATES pop-ups, even when I summon them on purpose.

Pretty!  And the art makes me want to read the magazine!  Which, now I think about it, is kind of the point of these paintings and sketches in the first place.

Anyway, I think that’s about it for me today.  I hope you’ve enjoyed, and I hope you’ll let me know what you think!  Share, tweet, comment, of course; if you want to email me, either for questions/comments, or because you want to share a Fun Friday idea, my addy is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net.  I’ll be back on Monday with the latest installment of April Tyree’s adventures.  Between now and when next we meet, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Classic pulp, Dieselpunk, Fun Friday, Steampunk | Leave a comment

5 Steam-tastic (and Diesel- and Pulp-) YouTube Channels You Must See!

Morning, folks, and welcome to another meeting of the Order of the Reeking Camel, that cabal of despoilers and defiers of everything Hump Day.  Much as I love April (my sister and I had our birthdays last week and never you mind how old we are now!), I am glad to see the end in sight.  May promises warmer weather, an end to the spring rains, and maybe I’ll get my garden planted before it gets too hot.

Did you know that YouTube is the second most frequented search engine in the world?  I heard that and was sure it was bull cookies.  But apparently it’s not.  And I have made more than my fair share of contribution to that statistic.  When I was ill this past winter, I spent a lot of time surfing Teh Interwebz, including YouTube.  It’s not something I am proud of.  It’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re too ill to invest any real energy in sensible occupations, and you don’t watch a lot of TV.

While on YouTube, I found a lot of videos that I wanted to share with y’all.  I tried to bookmark them so I could use them for Fun Friday fodder.  Some of them I have already shared, some I haven’t.  Now is my chance to pass along a few recommendations.  These are mostly video channels that have been dedicated to something Steampunk, Dieselpunk and/or Pulp, either new or classic.  A couple are playlists instead, and I have noted those as I come to them (with one exception).  I chose them because they made me smile, or impressed me somehow.

Remember how I’ve ranted multiple times about my devotion to indie creative producers?  How I love their joie de créer and will seek out their work, even when it’s less than perfect?  Yeah, that still applies; consider yourself warned.

One:  Table Flip

Might as well go ahead and do the exception first.  The first recommendation is neither a channel or a playlist on YouTube.  It’s just three videos, parts one, two and three, of a show called Table Flip, which is a non-Punk game review/demonstration channel; kind of a bargain basement TableTop, without the irritant of Wesley The Wonder Weenie.  The episodes in question (linked above, as if you hadn’t already noticed)  are the demonstration of a game called Betrayal at House on the Hill.  Betrayal at House on the Hill is a horror game about an intrepid party of Scooby Gang wannabes investigating, you guessed it, a haunted house on a hill.  What originally brought these videos to my attention was the guest appearance of YouTube personality, Markiplier (I’m not linking to him; use your Google Fu, grasshopper).  My son, my nieces and I are all big fans of this Let’s Play celebrity; he can be adorkably funny.

What makes this link noteworthy for y’all is the decidedly steampunk sensibility Markiplier and his hosts bring to their demonstration.  They dress the part, which is fun all by itself.  They take on Steampunk personalities for the duration, and, more importantly, they seem to apply a steampunk sensibility to the game.  It doesn’t really affect the game play or the results; it simply changes the flavor in a way that intrigued and pleased me.  It’s a little thing, but I like it; I’d like to see Steampunk flavors added to other board/table top games, see how it might make things more fun.

Two:  The Danger Element

I am sure I have mentioned The Danger Element in one of my Fun Friday posts.  But it bears repeating here.  Apparently this dude John Soares (here’s a Wikipedia entry about him) is quite the Internet auteur, making viral videos.  I am neither qualified nor interested in making comment on that.  But I do like The Danger Element, and its pulpy goodness more than qualifies for ClarksonPunk.  There are twelve installments of this serialized story (plus two teasers and a behind-the-scenes featurette included on the channel).  In the story, there is a secret society of super-powered do-gooders vs. a secret society of super-powered do-badders.  Simple enough.  But our hero (from the good side) has been made a deal with a beautiful woman:  she’ll help him recover a stolen element (the Danger Element, natch!), if he’ll help her find and rescue her father, who has been taken by the aforementioned do-badders (the same ones who snatched the element).

Like too many indie productions, the writing is … less than stellar and the acting is obviously sub-par.  But the visual effects are absolutely stunning for a semi-amateur production company.  The same can be said for the stunts, and the Dieselpunk-friendly guns, vehicles and gadgets?  Yeah, I was drooling, and I’m not even that into the modding side of the field.

Here’s the shorter of the teasers, so you can take a peek:

Three:  Postmodern Jukebox

I know I’ve mentioned these guys before.  This is a music entry, the brainchild of a Long Island pianist called Scott Bradlee.  I’m not gonna get into how he ended up doing this sort of thing (here’s a TED talk given by him that explains it much more entertainingly than I could).  Practical upshot:  this guy takes modern music — Iggy Azalea, Radiohead, Ke$ha, Taylor Swift, you name it — and retools them to sound like classic Motown, Prohibition-era jazz, Wild West saloon style (my personal favorites are the adaptations to ’60’s style Frank Sinatra swing or the turn of the century bluegrass).  A LOT of the music falls very comfortably in the Steam, Diesel and pulp eras, and, on top of that, are shockingly hummable and toe-tappable, even for old geezers like me.  What do they call them, earworms?  Yeah, their version of All About That Bass got stuck in my head for several weeks.  Check them out.

Four:  Serial Squadron

It’s wonderfully gratifying to me to see how many of the old Republic serials are available online.  I can remember sitting up waaaaaay late at night one summer week — with my parents’ permission! — because our local TV channel was having a week-long celebration of all things Buster Crabbe.  Every night at midnight, I’d be on my sofa, big bowl of popcorn at the ready, so I could watch Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, you name it, I was THERE!  I have no idea to this day what prompted my mother to let me sit up so late when I was so young (around nine or ten).  All I know is that summer had a profound impact on my tastes in fiction.  Doc Savage novels, Flash Gordon serials, and Star Trek (the original series, of course!) were what made me the pulp-addicted old broad you see before you today.

I know I’ve mentioned one or two of my favorite serial channels.  This is a relatively new one:  Serial Squadron, it’s called.  It’s relatively new, and not as well organized as the Jaeckel channel, for example.  But it has some serials that I had not seen before, and that’s a good thing.  A couple of the offerings are very old indeed, dating back to the Silent Era.  What brought me to Serial Squadron was their offering, “The Voice From the Sky,” made in 1930, and was the first serial with sound.  It was considered lost until just a few years ago.  You wanna see?  Follow the link.

Five:  Steampunk and Dieselpunk playlist

Remember I said there was gonna be a playlist?  This is it.  Nothing too amazing:  just somebody took it into their head to start compiling various online offerings of single and multi-part videos in our fields.  It’s nothing you couldn’t find on your own.  But isn’t it so much better to have somebody else do the compiling for you?  Here’s the link.

Bonus:  Remember WENN

I stayed away from copyrighted material that’s been illegally copied to YouTube.  Those Republic serials are out of copyright for the most part, and the rest of the stuff I’ve linked to today is indie stuff released by the creators or on a Creative Commons copyright.  For this, however, I’ll make an exception.  Back when my kids were little, American Movie Classics had their first original series, called Remember WENN.  It was about a 1930’s era radio station, the actors and performers that did live broadcasts from that station, and how they dealt with the strange routines of their lives.  It was pretty good, and it’s set firmly in the year or so leading up to World War II.  Somebody has posted the whole thing onto YouTube, here.  I’m pretty sure it’s been posted wihtout the originators permission, and there’s no telling how long it’ll stay up before YouTube figures it out and pitches a fit.  So go check it out now, before they get wise.

Okay, that’s it for me today.  Next up is Fun Friday, and I think it’s safe to say, there won’t be any YouTube videos in the offering!  You know the routine:  tweet, share, comment, write.  if you have any suggestions for Fun Friday, give me a shout at the email addy on my About Page.  In the meantime, don’t forget about Vandalia Con, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Classic pulp, Dieselpunk, Music, Pulp, Steampunk, Video | Leave a comment

Fiction Monday: When the Cat’s Away Part Three

So it’s Monday morning again, and I can’t say I’m thrilled.  My weekend was rather up and down:  good times, bad news, stressful necessities and pleasant surprises all warred for my attention.  Sometimes life can be a roller coaster, even here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.

However, that’s my problem, and nothing you need to worry about.  On the Steampunk, Dieselpunk, and New Pulp front, things are all coming up Clarkson!  I have a sparkling new sub-pile on the To Be Read Mt. Everest that lives inside my Kindle (and Amazon wish list), and that’s always a treat.  More importantly, we’re now officially less than a month out from Vandalia-Con!  I know, I know, it’s a small con in an out-of-the-way town in Appalachia.  But I am really looking forward to it.  Generally speaking, I prefer small events over large ones; small ones mean you can sit down and talk, actually interact with people, places, things, etc.  Large events become too frenetic, overwhelming and less fun, at least for me.  Seriously, if you’re within driving distance of Morgantown/Parkersburg (hi, Pittsburgh readers, I know you’re out there!), make an effort to come on down and join the fun!  It’s going to be the best kind of small event, and all the money raised is going to a terrific cause.  Fun AND altruism, together in the same Steampunk package?  How can you beat that?

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.  I owe you the next installment of April Tyree, Girl Detective.  Will she avoid her fate as sacrifice?  Will she free the girl, save the day and escape from the secret pyramid?  What happens next?  Well, you’re about to find out….


When the Cat’s Away…

by
AJ Clarkson

Part Three

Damn it, where was Charity Rostavitch!?  For that matter, where was the stupid exit?  The inside of this insane wooden pyramid was a maze of intersecting corridors, rooms, open chambers, secret passages.  For all I know, that crazy twit Patricia Blumenthal had smuggled in her own honest-to-goodness minotaur.  All I know was that I’d try a door, tiptoe further down the hall, turn a corner, hide in an alcove when I heard footsteps or voices, (both of which echoed so much there was no way of judging which direction it was coming from), then start the whole ridiculous mess over again.

At one point, I could hear shouts and pounding; I guess Patty and her flunkies had gone back to the chapel and found where I had wedge-jammed the door; it may have been un-openable from the inside, but a few good thumps from out here in the hall and my little jamming trick was toast.  Three loud bangs let me know they’d figured that out; the echoing bang and then voices and scurrying feet told me they’d gotten Mercedes and company out.  Which meant there were now at least seven people looking for me now, and all of them knew the layout here better than me.

Then I turned a corner.  There was only one door down this little cul-de-sac.  It had a symbol smeared on it, in a dark brownish-red substance that looked like dried blood.  The marking looked like this:  y

I recognized it.  I told you already, the weird hangs out on my side of the street; there’s money to be made in knowing how the underground magic scene works.  In this case, that mark was a warding sigil, a powerful one.  Nothing could go in or out of that door unless you either had the countersign or knew how to break the sigil.

What?  Yeah, you heard me right.  Magic is real. Well, some of it is real.  Some of it is pure hokum.  There are such things as wizards, people who do nothing but practice magic, and I’m ambivalent about those sorts.  On the one hand, wizards embrace a level of nerdiness that makes that annoying kid in your high school math class look as suave as the Dos Equis guy.  On the other hand, that much power is a whole new world of scary.  Patty — or whatever’s sub-letting her brain pan — is a practitioner.  A good one, too, if this sigil was any indication.

Most people aren’t at the wizard level of magic-slinging.  Most of us don’t bother with any of it, because magic is generally difficult, dangerous and expensive, even for the wizard nerd types.  Most spells require blood.  Or rare and/or precious minerals, objects, what have you.  Or all of the above.  And that’s in addition to you needing to know how to read and write a couple of dead languges, and to follow the recipe for a particular spell.  If you don’t get it letter perfect, well, the backlash is a world class bitch.

Yeah, I can cast a few spells.  Nothing on the level of Patty’s work, though. Or Herek-al-Hootchie, or whatever her name is, whoever is sub-letting space in Patty’ brain pan.  Luckily for me, breaking this sigil didn’t require that much magic.  I wasn’t casting a spell, technically.  I was just ruining somebody else’s work.  It’s always easier to destroy than to build.

Normally I would have used the kris knife to cut my hand.  But I already had a steady supply of blood, thanks to Patty and her crazy altar of doom.  I pressed my fingertips to the gouge Patty had cut in my forearm.  Okay, that hurt.  Bad.  I had to steady myself against the wall; my knees wanted to buckle from the pain.  I found myself panting hard, waiting for the lightheadedness to pass.  Wow.  I must be hurt worse than I thought.

Anyway, when I could stand up without falling over in a heap, I began muttering, not too loud, so Patty and her minions couldn’t hear me.  I would tell you the words to the incantation I used, but there are rules about that sort of thing.  Besides, I can barely pronounce them, much less spell them.  You think speaking German is hard on the throat, try reciting the thirteen forbidden names of the Sleeper at the Edge of Darkness.  Not fun.

I hate the feeling of magical power building up.  You ever touched an electric fence, or stuck your finger into a light bulb socket when the power’s turned on?  it doesn’t precisely hurt, not the way a cut or a burn feels.  But it’s so not nice, either.  To me, it feels like a fistful of gravel, just under your skin, rolling up your arm.  That’s sort of like what magic feels like as it builds up in your system, waiting to be released.  Only the gravel is hot (sometimes icy cold, but usually hot), and instead of following the nerve paths from your fingertip to your brain, it’s just moving in tight circles, bracelets of not-pain swirling around and around at lightning speed until you want to scream.

Those bracelets of not-pain were spinning around my hand and arm as I finished the incantation; the last syllables (I hesitate to call them words) came out in a harsh whispering rasp as I actively fought to keep from screaming.  Instead of that, however, I slammed my hand down on the sigil, daubing my blood onto the wood and smearing the blood of the sigil.  The magic crawling under my skin zinged out;  there was a whiff of scorched wood and a pop! that I felt more than I heard; that almost-sound was the wards, whatever they were, dissipating.  When I reached for the doorknob a second later, it was almost too hot to handle, a side effect of the broken ward.  I was lucky; if it had zigged intstead of zagged, it would have grounded out through my hand, and I’d be a crispy critter.

Magic is dangerous, boys and girls.  Don’t let anybody tell you different.

But whoever had laid the sigil hadn’t bothered to lock the door — idiot! — so the knob turned easily in my hand.  The room beyond was lit by a single bare light bulb dangling from a wire in the ceiling.  A single, stained mattress lay against the far wall.   On that mattress was a thin, narrow-hipped girl with blonde hair, wearing only a camisole and flower-print panties.  She was lying on her side, her back to me; I could see where the handcuffs that held her hands behind her had dug ugly, bloody gouges into the flesh of her wrists.

She was still alive; I could see her breathing.  But beyond that, nothing.  The girl didn’t move, not even a flinch, at the sound of the door opening.  “Charity?” I hissed.  No reaction.  I glanced back over my shoulder; so far nobody had noticed me.  I closed the door behind me and spoke a little louder.  “Charity?  Hey, girl, wake up!”  Still no reaction.

I didn’t have long before Patty or one of her kooky followers got the bright idea to check in here.  I knelt beside the mattress and felt her neck for a pulse; it was there, but slow, like a sleeper.  I undid the handcuffs (yeah, I carry a handcuff key with me all the time; it comes in handy at times.  Don’t judge me!) and rolled the girl over onto her back.

It was Charity Rostovitch all right; the face matched her photos.  But her eyes were wide open, staring, the pupils narrowed to the tiniest pinpricks. They were keeping her drugged.  Great.  Just great.  I shrugged out of my jacket and started forcing Charity’s arms into the sleeves.  “Charity, honey, come on, up and moving!” I said, as loud as I dared.  “Come on, girl, pull it together!”

Those bizarre pinprick eyes rolled over slowly in my direction, tried to focus, then gave up the effort.  “Mom?” she sighed.

“Nope.  I’m April.  Your mom sent me to bring you home.  You wanna go home, then you’re gonna have to make an effort and help me!”

“Sleepy,” Charity moaned, and tried to roll back over.

“No no no!  Now’s not the time for another nap, Charity,” I said.  I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up to a sitting position. I jumped up, got behind her, wedged my forearms under her arms and levered her up onto her feet.  Not easy, because A) she was taller than me, and B) her legs were as bendy as Laffy Taffy.  AND she complained the entire time, giving me half-sleeping moans of “I don’t wanna go to school!” and “five more minutes, Mom, please?”

The reason I plan to never reproduce is those cute little babies eventually turn into whiny teenagers.  Blech.

Anyway, I finally got her to stand on her own, more or less, and I braced her against me, her arm around my neck, my own tight around her waist, half holding her up.  We got a whole three steps before the doorknob rattled.  The door swung open and Patty walked in.  I stepped back in reflex; unprepared for the sudden change in momentum, Charity stumbled and reeled backward, sitting down hard on the mattress.  She nearly pulled me down with her; the backs of my heels hit the edge of the mattress and I windmilled wildly, barely managing not to sit down on top of Charity.

Patty watched this graceful drama play out without a word.  When I had finally regained my balance and turned to face her, she smiled and gave me a slow clap.  “Very entertaining, Miss Tyree,” she said.  “But now that playtime is over, shall we get on with business?”

I slid my hand behind me, where my pistol was tucked into the back waistband of my jeans.  But there was no pistol snug against the small of my back; I felt only the wrinkled cotton of my shirt. Idiot!  They must have taken my gun when they tied me to that stupid altar!

Patty must have understood my gesture, and the expression on my face. “Looking for this?” she said.  She reached into the sinus of her robe and came out with my 9mm Springfield X.D, still in its holster; it dangled from her forefinger, thrust through the trigger guard.  Clumsy.  Dangerous. And useless to me, because I still had to get past Patty, whatever was sub-letting her skull (if there really was anybody in there besides a buttload of crazy), and her kook-buddies before I could get this stoned teen home to her mom and collect my pay.  And I had no tools to do any of it; I was well and truly stuck.

I sighed heavily. “Well, shit.”

To Part Two

 


 

Well, that’s it for me for now.  What happens next?  Will they escape the pyramid?  Will Patty turn out to be even nastier than she already appears?  Will April end up a sacrifice to some dark god?  Tune in next Monday, same Pulp time, same Pulp channel!

In the meantime, you know the routine:  tweet, comment, share, write.  My email is ajwriter@ajclarkson.net if you want to ask questions, share goodies for Fun Friday, or just shoot the breeze.  I’ll be back on Wednesday to share my love for all things Punk and Pulp.  Until we see each other again, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: conventions, Pulp, short fiction, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fiction Monday: “While the Cat’s Away” Part Two

When I first started this blog, a blog-savvy friend told me, try not to write any blog over two thousand words, because people won’t read it.  I’ve tried to stick to that maxim.  But this installment of April Tyree’s adventure is running longer than that and has resisted all attempts to trim it back.  So I’m skipping the niceties and pushing right on to the reason you’re here.  Without further ado…..


When the Cat’s Away

An April Tyree Story
by
AJ Clarkson
Part Two

I fought against the ropes holding me down as Patty, her eyes glittering that bizarre black with seemingly no whites at all, raised the knife over her head, ready to plunge it into my chest. She began to chant words that didn’t make any sense to me, but obviously meant something, because the air vibrated with energy.

This wasn’t just about the crazy. There was real power being summoned. Great. Just great. Crazy is easier than the spooky stuff.

“Wait! Wait!” I shouted.

“Too late!” hissed Patty. Her eyes flickered from black to gray to black again. Her posture and facial expression changed in time to the color changes in her eyes. That was a clue, I know it was. But I was too freaked out by the sharp death above me to put it all together.  I couldn’t breathe; fear was a weight on my chest, killing me as quickly as that kris knife would do when it struck home. I jerked hard on my left arm, where the ropes were starting to loosen. That was my only chance, to get that arm free and maybe stop that knife from driving into my chest.  It didn’t work, mostly because of the robed creep holding tight to my arm.

“Hemet Nesu Weret, look!” said one the fellow holding my other arm.. Patty flinched, her eyes narrowing to a scowl at the interruption.  That was when I finally started to notice that the Patty’s devoted followers weren’t focusing on the task at hand.  Their attention wasn’t on me or on Patty; it was on the altar table.  I followed their gaze and when I saw what had distracted them, I couldn’t keep a grin from crossing my face.

“Well, look at that!” I said.  “Not exactly the cavalry riding to my rescue, but points for being adorable.”

“What are you babbling about?” said Patty.

I nodded toward the altar table.  “You’ve got company.”

Finally Patty seemed to register that something was disturbing her ritual and that her own people weren’t focusing on the task at hand.  With a sigh she lowered the knife — Hallelujah! — and turned to see what the fuss was about.

A red squirrel had found its way onto the altar. I’m not that surprised; these woods are alive with wildlife, squirrels being one of the most prolific, what with all the trees surrounding this pyramid. Heck, I’m surprised it took them this long. This particular squirrel was holding what looked like half a hazelnut shell in its mouth as it used its paws to scamper through the various bowls, candles and other artifacts currently laid out on the red-clothed table.

As we all watched, mesmerized, the squirrel threaded its way to the center of the table.  It sat up on its haunches, took a second to shake and fluff its ginger tail to maximum puffiness, and then pulled the hazelnut shell from its mouth.  Its shiny black eyes darted here and there, but seemed to feel no fear as it started to nibble at the fragment of shell.

In case you don’t know, squirrels are like a lot of the smaller animals: they like shiny things. In this case, all the gold and silver amulets and tokens lying on the red cloth.  The little visitor dropped the shell and, with the darting quickness typical of its kind, the squirrel picked up one of the amulets and began to examine it, rolling it over in its paws, sniffing it, even tasting it once.

This brought a collective gasp from the robed followers.  “The Cartouche of Anubis,” said the fellow by my left arm.  “We can’t complete the ritual without that!”

The words seemed to shake Patty back to reality.  “Quit whining, Brian, and get rid of that nasty creature,” she snapped.  “We can’t afford another interruption.”

The fellow positioned at my feet turned approached the altar table.  The squirrel watched, unfazed, until he was almost within arm’s reach.  Then it bolted.

Did I mention it took the amulet with it when it ran?  Brian didn’t even get to begin the move to grab for the cartouche but the little squirrel was on the move, the shiny golden amulet clutched in its teeth.  The amulet’s braided gold chain bounced and jangled, sparkling in the light of hundreds of candles.

Patty used language that I can’t repeat in mixed company.  “Brian, go!  Catch it before it gets out of the temple.  Georgia, go with him.  Retrieve the cartouche,” she said.  Brian scurried out the door, followed by another, smaller robed figure who stood by my right knee.  That only left four here with Patty and me.

I turned my head to look at Patty.  “With Brian and Georgia gone, you don’t have a quorum.  I guess we’ll have to leave this sacrifice business ’til the next meeting.  Sorry about your luck.”

“There won’t be a next meeting.  Not for you, at least,” said Patty.  “So we’ll just wait until my faithful followers return, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Crap,” I sighed.  “I was afraid you were going to say that.”  I looked up at the robed figure standing at my right elbow.  Though the hood cast the face into shadow, I could see the glittering eyes and narrow bone structure of a young woman hiding in there.  I say “woman” loosely; she was barely more than a girl, actually, probably a college freshman at best.  Certainly younger than me.

“So tell me, hon — wait, what’s your name?” I said to her.

“Silence,” said Patty.

“What?” I said, exasperated.  “You said yourself we’re on recess until your flunkies — oops, I mean followers — come back after waging war on the squirrel.  My union doesn’t like me playing the sacrificial victim while I’m on official break time.  So you just cool your jets.”  I turned back to the robed girl.  “Where were we?  Oh, yeah, your name.”

The girl looked to Patty, who scoffed in exasperation and waved her hand.  “Go ahead.”

The girl hesitated a second longer, then pushed back her hood to reveal a startling pretty woman, around nineteen, with light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and light blue eyes. “My name is Mercedes.”

Mercedes?  She’s named after a car? Her parents must have been hippies or whatever the early 90’s equivalent was for hippies.  New Age loonies.  Then again, my parents named me after a month (btw, I was born in September, so how I ended up named April is a mystery even I can’t figure out.  Parents can be weird.)

Maybe I thought all that, but I’m not fool enough to say it out loud.  “Hi, Mercedes, I’m April.  Too bad we couldn’t meet under less, well intense, circumstances.  I mean, what with you being an accessory to kidnapping, torture and murder.”

“What?  I mean — what do you mean torture?  We haven’t tortured anybody,” said Mercedes.

“You mean this big bleeding slice in my arm was foreplay?  ‘Cuz I don’t play those kinds of funtime games, especially not with an audience,” I said, rolling my eyes around to indicate the other three figures and Patty, still standing at my left.  “Tell me Mercedes, why are you doing this?”

“Because Hemet Nesu Weret wills it,” said Mercedes, as though that were obvious.

“Really?  I don’t see any ancient Egyptian princesses lurking around upstate New York.  Even if you did build her her own pyramid,” I said.

“Hemet Nesu Weret speaks with the voice of Patricia Blumenthal.”

“How can you tell?” I said.

“Patricia channels Hemet Nesu Weret.  She invites the spirit into her body.  Then Hemet Nesu Weret speaks with Patricia’s voice, moves with her body,” Mercedes said.

“So? I know all the words to Blue Hawaii and I can do a mean pelvic thrust.  That doesn’t make me Elvis.”

“Huh?” Mercedes’ cocked her head like a puzzled puppy.  It might have been adorable under other circumstances.

“What.  If.  She’s.  Faking,” I said, biting off each word.  Sometimes you have to slow down and spell it out.

“Why would she do that?” said Mercedes.

Was this chick serious?  I started to answer, but I made the mistake of glancing at Patty.  Her eyes had gone from gray to black again, only this was scarier than the last time.  Her whole eye had gone black, including the white part.  They looked dead, flat and shiny, like doll’s eyes.  Her face was contorted into a rictus of rage.  The skin on her cheeks and forehead started bulging in places, pulsing slowly in and out, as though something were underneath the skin, trying to get out.

“What the hell?” I breathed.

But just then a muffled BOOM! exploded shockingly nearby.  I jumped and looked toward the doorway.  Mercedes and her fellow cult members all did the same.  When I looked back, Patty’s eyes had gone back to normal and her face had stopped that freaky bulging thing. But her face was still twisted in rage.  She sheathed her kris knife, laid it on the table beside my head, and walked to the door.

“Brian!” she shouted into the corridor.  “What in the name of everything holy are you doing?”  She disappeared out the door, and I could hear her footsteps echoing on the wooden floor.  A few seconds later came the sound of people talking.  I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but Patty was definitely pissed off.  I did catch a few words, like “amulet” and “shotgun.”  Best I can figure out, Brian had gotten a shotgun from his car or someplace, and was trying to bring down the squirrel in classic redneck fashion.  There was some more shouting, a few swear words, and then multiple footsteps echoed through the halls again, this time growing softer as the walkers moved further into the pyramid.

Not that I care one way or the other.  Patty the Freak was out of the room, and Mercedes and her buddies were distracted.  Now was my chance.  I jerked on the loosening loops of rope on my left arm.  It hurt the deep cut Patty had carved in my forearm, and the blood started flowing more openly.  The warm blood seeped into the ropes, making them slippery.

One more tug, and my left hand was free!  I instantly grabbed the kris blade Patty had abandoned by my right ear, and started sawing on the rope holding my right arm.

This didn’t go unnoticed.  I had not yet freed my right hand when the robed cultist standing to my right shouted, “Hey!” and tried to grab the blade from my hand.  I slashed blindly at him with the knife, just swinging it in a long, sloppy arc.  The tip caught him across the chest, slicing through his robes and the t-shirt underneath; a stripe of blood appeared on the pale skin peeking through the slashes.  The man looked down at the blood and then looked back up at me.  Under his hood, his shadowed face looked stunned.

I didn’t have time to explain the facts of life to him.  I went back to slicing the ropes holding my right arm.  Now Mercedes other companion noticed.  It didn’t take long until I fell into a rhythm:  slice at the ropes, slash wildly at robed idiots, go back to slicing rope.  Why the four of them didn’t attack en masse is beyond me.  Scared of  losing the luck lottery and being the one who ended up on the wrong side of that kris knife.  In my opinion, they’ve been indoctrinated by too many chop socky movies.  Sensible bad guys don’t wait their turn to attack the hero; sensible baddies realize they’re going to get cut eventually, suck it up, and dog pile the hero.

Kids today, right?

Finally I sliced my way free, and, still using the kris knife to hold Mercedes and her buddies at bay, I slid off the sacrificial table.  “Look at the time, my word, it’s been a really sucky party and I must be getting home,” I said.  My hosts looked at me, blankly; nobody gets my sense of humor.  One of the robed figures sat on the floor, holding his hands to a hole in his side that was oozing blood at an alarming rate; I may have cut him a little too deeply, sorry about that.  The other three had various shallow slashes on arms and chests.  They didn’t advance on me as I eased toward the door.  “Any of you care to tell me where Charity is being kept?”

No answer.

“Oh, well, it was worth a try,” I said.  “You just sit tight, look after your friend.  Somebody will be along directly to take you to get stitches.”  I sidled out the door, keeping that blade between me and Mercedes the entire time.  As soon as I was out in the hallway, I closed the door.  The door opened in, so I couldn’t barricade it, and I didn’t have a key to lock it from the outside.  So I used the blade to slice a fairly large splinter of wood off the corner of the door.  This I wedged between the door and the door frame, jamming the door.  It would take all four of them to force that door open from the inside; they were stuck, unable to get out and backstab me, or to carry news to Patty.

Now I was free for the moment.  I looked up the dark hallway, seeing doors and chambers opening off both sides.  I looked the other way and saw the same thing.  I had been unconscious when they brought me in here, so I had no idea which way was the exit, much less where Charity might be.  But I had to make a decision, because Patty would be back any minute.

“When all else fails, use the scientific method. Eeney meenie miney mo, out goes Y-O-U,” I muttered, pointing back and forth down the hallway with each syllable.  The last syllable ended with me pointing to my right.  So I turned to my left, squared my shoulders and said, “Here goes nothing.”

And away I went, hoping I’d find Charity before I ran into trouble.

To Part One

To Part Three


Whoo!  That ran a little long!  But it was fun, no?  Part Three will be up next Monday, no playing hookey this time, I promise.  in the meantime, tweet, share, comment, and/or write, let me know what you think of things thus far.  Also do contact me if you have any suggestions for the next Fun Friday.  I’ll be back Wednesday, bright eyed and bushy tailed.  In the meantime, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Pulp, short fiction | 1 Comment

Fun Friday: Saints, Sinners, and Artificial Men

Wow, I’m cutting this one close to the wire!  Shame on me for getting caught up reading.  Oh, who am I kidding?  I’m never ashamed of getting caught up in reading!  Hi, guys, it’s Friday again, and time to have a little fun! Here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, there is much talk (from my husband) of firing up his smoker and doing a little cookout.  Problem is, it’s April and that means the weather, while beautiful now, cannot be counted on to stay pretty for more than ten minutes running. I do hope it stays pretty; Hubby has been waiting so patiently to do a cookout, and I’m hoping Daughter will bring Grandsons out to join the fun.

Okay, on to business.  What I got caught up in reading, and made me nearly miss  my deadline, were my possibilities for today’s Fun Friday installment.  I actually have an embarrassment of riches this week, and I can’t really decide which ones to share and which ones to save to another day.

Let’s start small.  You’ve heard of the Raimi Brothers, right?  Sam Raimi is a Hollywood wunderkind, directing the Spiderman movies, and being a co-creator of one of my favorites, the Evil Dead Franchise.  Well, his brother Ted (a character actor and quite charming, in my humble opinion) has started a pulpy little series on Youtube called “Deathly Spirits.”  Each video is very short, just about five minutes.  Ted Raimi is the host, playing… well, a creepy dude who lives in a creepy Edwardian house.  Raimi gets the show started, then tells a (very) brief horror story, and then wraps up by describing how to make a cocktail that (sort of) matches up with the story.   When asked, Raimi said he was inspired by the old horror anthology radio shows of yesteryear, how wonderfully moody and atmospheric they could be, and how wonderfully chilling their hosts were.  He is consciously trying to reproduce that.

There have only been two installments so far on this little series, but it has promise.  The stories he tells aren’t all that scary, but then again, he’s basically giving an audio version of a drabble.  I’m not a drinker, so I’m not qualified to comment on the cocktail recipe’s quality.  But I think the idea of pairing these two concepts is cute and clever, though not really unique.  Here’s a link so you can check it out.

Speaking of radio, that brings me to our next installment.  Maybe you’ve heard of The Saint; Val Kilmer made a pretty crappy movie of it back in 1997 (it made good money, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck).  This crappy movie was loosely based (very loosely) on a series of novels by British-American author Leslie Charteris (you can find a comprehensive list here).  The novels, unlike the movie, were pretty good.  The movie depicted The Saint as more of a freelance spy.  In the novels, he was more a thief with enlightened self-interest.  Every description I have seen compares him to Robin Hood, and not without merit.

The Saint, who is actually named Simon Templar is a thief who, with the help of certain friends and cohorts, uses his thieving and con artist skills to take down mobsters, corrupt politicians and others who prey upon the less fortunate.  He gets his nickname from his calling card, which he leaves at crime scenes:  a stick figure with a halo.

There were lots of incarnations of these novels.  There was that Kilmer movie (which I am not going to say anything more about.  I hope.). There were magazine short stories and comic books.  I remember watching the TV series incarnation, starring Roger Moore; it wasn’t bad for sixties television (no, I’m not that old; it was reruns.  Besides, the TV show was British; we didn’t get first run here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia).  But what I’m here to share with you today is my personal favorite incarnation:  the radio show.

Yes, I know, I am more than a little biased about radio.  What can I say?  I have found my niche, and I love it there.  But anyway, there were several iterations of the Saint on radio, with runs in the late forties, and early fifties.  The one I’m looking at was from 1950, and starred, of all people, Vincent Price, the King of Golden Age Horror. And he does a cracking good job playing the part; he sounds like he’s having a grand old time, which is what a character like the Saint needs.

Anyway, the Internet Archive has a collection of the recordings available to download or to stream for free, so I totally recommend you give it a listen.

My final installment is another oldie.  Would you believe my first encounter with Tintin comics was when I was a little girl?  And in German?!  True story.  My mother and father both taught at the same high school, so I spent a lot of time in that building.  One day I wandered into the library and found a copy of a Tintin comic in a hardcover library binding.  Now this is a high school library, and I was seven or eight years old; finding a comic book, something with colorful pictures in it, yeah, that was like finding the mother lode.  The fact that the whole thing was in German didn’t faze me at all; I wouldn’t stop whinging until Mom checked them out for me (there were like four volumes).

Luckily for me, I spoke enough German as a child to read the books fairly well.  Okay, fairly is overstating it, but I understood what the stories were about, and Dad was glad to fill in the blanks (all my sisters spoke at least a little German, out of self-defense; Mom and Dad spoke German when they wanted to discuss things they didn’t want small ears to hear)

ANYWAY (man I can wander off topic sometimes), I fell in love with those Tintin comics.  Now I’ve grown up, I see the flaws in the comic, but I can’t give up my affection for this series.

Who exactly is Tintin?  He’s a cub reporter, an investigative journalist who travels around the world with his little fox terrier companion, Snowy, looking for stories and finding adventure and danger.  Okay, they say he’s a reporter.  But you never actually see him reporting on anything, or even just writing anything down, so take that “reporter” thing with a big grain of salt.  What he does do is get into trouble, all kinds of trouble, from tangling with spies to science fiction to deathtraps that 60’s era Batman would respect.

Tintin is another one they made a movie of not too long ago, this time an animated venture that was visually very striking and not a bad story, too.  But the original Tintin adventures were a series of comic strips by Hergé, a Belgian artist.  They were in French, and first appeared in 1929 in a youth supplement to the Belgian paper, Le Vingtième Siècle.  At one time, it was considered one of the most popular comic strips in all of Europe.  It has been collected in comic books, and appeared in radio, theater and the movies as well as continuing as a comic strip all the way up into the 1980’s!

Fair warning:  these comic strips are not even close to being politically correct.  Especially in the earlier comics, they are brazenly racist, depicting black people as almost subhuman (Tintin in the Congo), Russians as unrepentant villains (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets), and we’re not even going to discuss how orientals are depicted.  There’s also a lot of paternalism in the books, as well as a casualness to violence against animals and people.  I’m not going to argue about this; if you can’t stand that sort of thing, don’t read it.  But if you can get past it, understand that this series is from a different time and a different world, then you might very well enjoy this series.  Rather than try to link to all of the books (there are 20-something volumes, in half a dozen languages), I’ll just give you the Goodreads listing; from there you can click your way to Amazon or the book outlet of your choice.  Give them a try:  good pulpy fun!

Okay, I should have had this posting out almost an hour ago.  Feel free to blame my daughter.  She called me just as I was getting ready to write my closing paragraph and sign off.  But I don’t feel too guilty; being almost an hour late was worth it to talk to my daughter and sing the ABC song with my grandson!  Anyway, forgive my tardiness and, well, you know the rest:  tweet, comment, share, write.  My addy is ajwiter-@-ajclarkson-dot-net.  If you have something to share for Fun Friday, give me a shout.  And until we meet again, be good.  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

P.S.  Don’t forget:  Vandalia Con is in less than six weeks!  http://www.vandalia-con.org  BE THERE!!!

Categories: Classic pulp, Comic/Graphic Novels, Dieselpunk, Fun Friday, Horror, Pulp, Radio, Uncategorized, Video | 2 Comments

“Imitation Game” and Enigma

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Confused yet?  Heh heh heh, I’ll explain in a minute.  In the meantime, HI!  Guess what I’m doing tomorrow?  Getting my picture taken!  Seems that a friend of mine needed a model for a project for her photography class, and, silly creature that I am, I volunteered.  What’s interesting is the project itself:  do a photo study that imitates the Victorian look entirely, in setting, costume, pose and photographic techniques.  Pretty cool, huh?  I get to get all Victorian and have my portrait done!  The artist picked out the costumes, which is just as well, since I’ve never really done the cosplay thing before this year.  I’m not accepting any pay for being her model; my price was that she had to give me copies of the photos, and permission to post one or two of them on my blog.  Which she was delighted to do, because Jan rocks! So yeah, be watching for those pictures to make their appearance.

Okay, so on to business….

The Imitation Game (2014) with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly. I don’t really get all the fuss and frenzy over the man, but I do have to admit, he’s a handsome man, and interesting to watch.

 

So I saw this movie, The Imitation Game, the other day.  It had Benedict Cumberbatch playing computer pioneer Alan Turing, and focused on the cryptography work he did at Bletchley Park during World War II.  It was a pretty good movie, focusing a lot on the character of Alan Turing (depicting him as extremely eccentric, which may or may not be accurate), his homosexuality — about which he was surprisingly open for the 1940’s — and his relationship with fellow cryptologist/mathematician Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightly in the film).  The movie is based on the nonfiction book, “Alan Turing:  The Enigma.”

The movie was fine for what it was, I give it two thumbs up, and recommend the movie to all computer geeks and WWII history buffs (like me).  But the movie is not what I really want to talk about.  The part that interested me was the actual cryptology work they were doing at Bletchley Park.  During WWII, the Germans used a coding machine called “Enigma,” to encrypt their military communications.  Enigma looked like the picture to the left:  a complicated typewriter.  But the insides held a truly ingenious system of rotors and circuits (as you can see) to create an almost unbreakable code.  Interestingly enough, it was based on a civilian model, easy to purchase in Germany before the war, that industries used to protect their own internal communications from industrial espionage and the like.  The military simply  added a single layer more of encryption (the pegboard at the front), and adopted it.

And for a long time, it kicked the Allied cryptographers’ butts.  It simply could not be broken.  Okay, I take that back.  According to my research, a given day’s code (they changed every day, on a thirty day cycle) could be beaten by a man with a notepad, a pencil and a lot of patience.  But it could conceivably take days and days to solve a single day’s code, and that simply wasn’t fast enough.  But then along comes Alan Turing, with his ideas, and his Turing Machine, which is the father of our own modern day computers.

And this is where I let the experts take over.  My elder son is an unashamed computer geek, currently working for a computer computer company whose name you’d recognize instantly.  When Elder Son was in college, he turned me on to this YouTube channel called “Numberphile.”  In it, mathematicians talk about numbers and complex maths in a way that even math-challenged idiots like me can understand.  And one time (okay, four times)  they talked about Enigma and the work of Alan Turing.  The videos together are long, over an hour cumulatively.  But I strongly recommend you give them a listen; they take something painfully complex and break it down to the point where even I can understand it (and I’m challenged by balancing my checkbook!)  Go on, I’ll wait.

Here’s step one:

Here’s step two:

Here’s step three:

And here’s Step Four

Did you make it through all four videos?  Fascinating stuff, huh?  This whole business caught my attention from a gadget-happy Punk perspective.  The layout of this device is so elegant, almost simplistic.  Yet it can give complexities in numbers that I can’t begin to wrap my head around.  I can totally see this popping up in a Steampunk or Dieselpunk setting; it just fits.

Now, guess what a little Google-Fu turned up:  two, count ’em two, Enigma Simulators.   Both of them are online, which makes them fun and easy to play with.  The code at the top of this blog was fun through the first emulator.  It says, “Welcome to Clarksonpunk, the home of all things Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New and Classic Pulp!

There’s even an app for your Android! 

Be very careful:  time suck danger!  I meant only to code that one sentence, and ended up wasting an hour just playing around with the settings.

And for those of you who enjoy building gadgets for your Steam and Diesel fun, here’s another cool page.  It gives you a print out and instructions on how to build your own Enigma machine from paper.  Not real sure how that works, but it looks intriguing.

Okay, I think that’s it for me.  You know the drill:  share, tweet, comment, write.  If you have any recommendations for Fun Friday, contact me through the email address on my About page.  I’ll see you all on Friday, and between now and then, be good.  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught

 

Categories: books, Dieselpunk, History, Video | Leave a comment

Fun Friday: “Giant Sea Monster Attacks Tokyo Seven Years Before Godzilla Movie” ….Wait, what?

Looks like another Friday, and it’s been a quiet week here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  In fact, it’s been dull as heck.  Did a little sewing here, did a little audio mixing there, little writing in between, lots and lots of reading, of course.  Truth is, I don’t have a lot to report to you.  Just passing the time, waiting for the rain to ease off and summer to officially arrive.

So about the title of today’s blog.  On May 29, 1947, WVTR, the official Armed Forces radio station in Tokyo, interrupted their programming to report that a 20-foot sea monster had climbed up out of Tokyo Bay and was laying waste to everything in its path inland.  Over the next hour, there were news bulletins, eyewitness reports; reports of troop movements as the U.S. Army moved in with tanks, flamethrowers and grenades (apparently bullets only pissed the thing off) to try and contain the threat.  residents were advised to stay inside their homes.

Finally, after an hour of breathless reports, the monster reached the center of Tokyo, and a young corporal-journalist screwed his courage to the sticking place and approached the monster, live on the microphone.  It was at this point that the monster gave its one and only sound bite.  In a woman’s voice, the monster congratulated WVTR on its fifth anniversary in existence.

For realz. I’m not making this up!

No kidding.  All that fuss for a lighthearted joke (for a certain, decidedly bizarre, definition of a joke) to celebrate the station’s anniversary.  But, as Orson Welles claimed to discover, the public didn’t appreciate the humor of the situation.  The fake broadcasts had caused a very not-fake panic; thousands of calls poured into the radio station, the military police mobilized, and the Japanese civilian authorities mustered themselves to face what they thought was a very real threat.  Suffice it to say, once the smoke had cleared, so to speak, the authorities were not impressed with the station’s sense of humor.  People were demoted, relieved of duty, reprimanded, all the other things the military does to express its displeasure with a boneheaded move on the part of one of their own.

No, there was probably no direct connection between this little stunt and the movie Godzilla, which was released in 1954.  Instead, Godzilla was said to be indirectly inspired by a 1951 Ray Bradbury short story and a 1953 movie based on that story.  But still, there were amazing coincidences between the plot of Godzilla and the events of May 1947.

Not impressed?  Okay, so how about this more Steampunk-flavored article…..

A Man Eating Tree Grows in Madagascar

In 1874, the New York World newspaper carried an article describing a fantastic new discovery that had recently been made on the island of Madagascar, to wit, an enormous tree that looked like an eight-foot-tall pineapple, had tentacles to defend itself, and ate people.  According to the report, a local native tribe, the Mkodos, sacrificed a young woman to the tree (part of a religious rite?  Unclear) and the reporter, “eminent botanist Carl Leche,” was witness to the death in all its gory detail.

The article was reprinted all over the country, appearing in publications like The Garden and The Farmers’ Magazine even two years later.  It was the source of ongoing speculation even up into the early days of the 20th century.  It spawned several expeditions into Madagascar to find the tree, one as late as 1932.  Obviously it was a hoax, one of several supposedly perpetrated by Mr.  Edmund Spencer, who had written a number of articles (of dubious accuracy) for the New York World.

Where am I finding these stories of frauds?  On a webpage called The Museum of Hoaxes.  It talks about hundreds of frauds, hoaxes, jokes and “misunderstandings,” divided by decade and type.  They have whole sections devoted to photo fakery, April Fools jokes, military frauds, etc.  Some of the stories are funny; some re mind-boggling, some are just sad.  It’s not typical fare for ClarksonPunk, not being overtly Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or Pulp.  But it covers decades, topics and people from all three eras, so I feel confident in recommending it to your attention.

But be warned:  there is a distinct danger of being trapped in Archive Binge Land.  I don’t think there are giant sea monsters or man-eating trees in Archive Binge Land.  But I can confirm that there are Dreaded Time-Eaters there.

Now, see the pretty red in the picture here to the left?  In America, these are called suspenders.  In Britain they’re called braces.  Here in Appalachia, we call them “gallows” (pronounced “gallusses.”  Don’t ask, I don’t know why, I just go with it).  I’m not really digging the bright red color of this set (nor do I like the metal adjustment buckle thingie), but I do like the fact that they button to the trousers.  But I can’t afford to buy these guys; what’s a fashion conscious novice cosplayer to do?

Duh!  Make your own!  And apparently the rumor is true:  if you can think of it, there’s a page about it on the Internet.  A while back I bookmarked this article that describes how to make your own, custom fitted gallows, complete with a shopping list and diagrams.  An absolute must-see for the well-dressed Steampunk gentleman.

And don’t think I’ve forgotten the ladies!   Here and here are pages that describe how to make your own garter belt (I’m eschewing the picture for this one; decorum and all that).    While in Steampunk the lady is more likely to wear a simple garter band (like you see in weddings), the belt is perfect for Dieselpunk cosplay.

Okay, our last installment is at hand.  Now, anybody who’s talked to me for more than ten minutes knows I have a wild obsession with the indie arts.  Independent music, indie publishing, indie movie-making, indie game design, you name it, I’m willing to give it a go.  No, no, no, I’m not a hipster, I’m too old for that pretentious crap.  But you have to admit that a lot of what’s coming out of the mainstream “creative” industries ain’t all that creative; they’re telling the same old stories, over and over again.  And I understand that, they’re in business to make money, and those old stories are guaranteed moneymakers.  I’m not opposed to them making money, more power to them.

But I don’t always want to see the same old stories.  Honestly, after seven Fast and Furious movies, how much more is there to be said about driving fast and chasing pretty girls?  Sometimes I just want something new and fresh.  So I surf Smashwords for indie books, I surf YouTube for indie music and movies, I subscribe to Lets Play channels for news of indie games.

Now a lot of indie works have a bad reputation.  Supposedly, since these products not going through the gatekeepers of the mainstream industries, there’s a lot of under-edited, under-developed, under-tested crapola getting out into the world.  And I have to say, there’s a lot of merit to that argument; those mainstream industries spend a lot of money to hire the best editors, musicians, and film crews so that their products are the absolute best they can be.  Many of the books on Smashwords — I’d even argue that the majority of the books on Smashwords — are so not ready for prime time; storytelling, editing, and proofreading are skills that the budding writer must constantly hone.

The same can be said of independent videos posted on YouTube.  Sometimes the writing is a little clumsy.  Most of these guys are getting their buddies to be the stars, so the acting is uneven, amateurish, or downright painful.  Indie games can be buggy, crashy, or worst of all, just not interesting enough to be worth their price on Steam.  To their credit, most of the indie musicians I hear on YouTube aren’t actively bad (you have to go to American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent audition episodes to find truly hideous singing).  No, the sin of bad indie musicians is to just be uninspired, unimpressive, or just plain boring.

BUT!  If you keep digging through the virtual stacks, you WILL find gems.  Last year the Slenderman game on Steam was absolutely huge and spawned an avalanche of sequels, imitators, etc. Heck, those games were based on Marble Hornets and EverymanHYBRID, a pair of independent vlog-structured video series on YouTube, which were themselves based on some photograph manipulations and horror short stories (okay, “stories” is a loose description) that appeared in the Creepypasta forums.  Nowadays, the big indie breakthrough game is Five Nights at Freddy’s, which I’ve seen played and I can see why it’s big, though it’s not really my cup of tea.

Indie author Michael Coorlim is my own personal discovery; I’ve mentioned him before, particularly his Galvanic Century stories about Bartleby and James (follow the link, follow the link, follow the link! The first book is free!!!).  I adore his light touch with the Steampunk genre and I strongly recommend him. I found him on Smashwords, while doing another, now-defunct indie book review blog with a fellow writer.

However, Coorlim is not why I bring you here today.  Today is for this:

I only stumbled across this last week, and I’ve not yet seen the whole thing; have to wait until I have a spare bit of money to buy the DVD (remember I have  hospital bills).  But this caught my eye because of the subject matter.  Frankenstein is already proto-Steampunk in its own right.  To carry it those final few steps over the line?  Yeah, quit talking and take my money.  Granted, the acting in the trailer is right on par with what I expect from amateurs, though not without some merit.  It’s hard to tell on the script writing; there’s just not enough of a sample to judge.  However!!! The costumes and sets?  Oh, my goodness, that’s some terrific production values for a film that cost the same as a used motorcycle.

It’s not like me to discuss a Fun Friday focus when I haven’t seen it myself.  But this one intrigues me.  Here’s their webpage, if you want some more information.  And here is the movie’s listing on Amazon, if you want to check it out. And if you do check it out, please do contact me and tell me how you liked it.  If you write a proper review, I’ll post it here on another Fun Friday (you get a byline, but, other than my unadulterated gratitude, there’s no pay).  When I finally see it, I’ll be sure and report back.

And with that said, I’m outta here.  Y’all know the routine:  write, tweet, comment, share.  My email addy is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net.  Enjoy your weekend, but don’t enjoy it too much, if you take my meaning.  And if you do, don’t get caught!

Categories: Dieselpunk, Fun Friday, History, Pulp, Steampunk | Leave a comment

The Laundry Series by Charles Stross

Morning!  It’s pretty cold this morning here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, and I have spent most of the morning thus far cooking.  See, it gets hot here in my little valley; 90 degree heat with 70% to 80% humidity in mid-July to early August is not only not unheard of, at times it’s practically de rigeur.  The last thing I want in that kind of weather is to stand over a hot stove and heat up the house.  So I prep as much food as I can well ahead of time (like now, when the mornings are cold) so that, when that hot weather hits, all I have to do is pop something pre-prepped into the oven for thirty minutes.  NO running the stove all afternoon, no standing in the heat minding a grill, no fuss, very little muss, and I can go back to my preferred pastime of lounging on the front porch with my Kindle and a glass of lemonade.

But enough of my ongoing food fetish.  Onward, to the Punk!

So here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, it’s hard to find an expert on the pulp genre.  The only one I knew personally was my father, who was an absolute junkie of the genre.  But he’s gone, God rest his soul, so who am I to ask these strange questions.

Hey!  I’ll ask the Interwebz:  do spy novels belong in the pulp genre?  Is there a cut-off, this one belongs in the pulps, that one doesn’t?  Why?

I think some of them do.  The original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming were written in the early fifties, and were firmly pulp.  Just check this book cover and tell me that doesn’t scream “pulp!!!!”  The books were high on action, light on characterization (though I have to say that Bond is a much darker, less slick character in the books than in the movies), and not afraid to titillate.  Ian Fleming’s writing style was minimalist, clipped, terse, not at all uncommon in the pulps; to me at least, the feeling was a cross between a spy story and a Sam Spade type hardboiled detective.

All that says “pulp” to me.

What confused me for a while is the fact that, while Bond is anchored in the pulps, the series has gone WAY mainstream, and has done almost since its inception.  It was a breakout hit when the series first appeared.  Then the movies, spin off novels (oh yes, there are Bond books by other authors, mostly John Gardner or Raymond Benson, though occasionally other guys contribute).  Then came the book spoofs, the send ups (Our Man Flint (1966) and its sequel, In Like Flint (1967), affectionate send-ups of the Bond style, predated the hyperactive Austin Powers movies by nearly half a century;  by the way, James Coburn ROCKS in the lead role in these movies.  I’d watch him for days before I’d bother with Mike Myers.  (I don’t have a problem with the Austin Powers movies; I’ve seen them all and they’re cute as heck.  But ultimately, I’m underwhelmed)

But you see my confusion:  how can something so mainstream, a character so embraced by the general public, still be “one of us,” still be a pulp.  I have this thing in my mind that says that pulp is not mainstream, and shouldn’t be mainstream.  No, I’m too old to be a hipster.  I’ve just been in the pulp ghetto for so long that I’ve come to like the place.

Anyway, the point is, spy novels, some of them at least, belong to us.  And this allows me to include the works of Charles Stross on this page (the lengths I go to to justify what I wanted to do anyway!  I should be ashamed).  In fact, Stross’s Laundry Files series belongs here anyway, thanks to its Lovecraftian connection.  And boy, does it deliver.  Stross creeps me out in ways that…..

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who is Charles Stross and what is this Laundry series I’m talking about?  Charles Stross is a British author of hard science fiction.  He has a Wikipedia page here.  He has written a crap-ton of hard science fiction, most of which I’m not even gonna fool with here; there’s a bibliography on his Wikipedia page, go check them out.

What I’m singling out here on the blog is Stross’s Laundry series. How can I describe Bob Howard’s life in the Laundry?  Hmmm…. Imagine Dilbert and James Bond had a baby, and that baby grew up to use an iPhone to fight Cthulhu.

Yeah, it’s like that.  For realz.

There are five books in the Laundry series…

  • The Atrocity Archive
  • The Jennifer Morgue
  • The Fuller Memorandum
  • The Apocalypse Codex
  • The Rhesus Chart

and half a dozen or so short stories, most of which are available online for free (again, check the bibliography on the Wikipedia page linked above; they’re well worth the effort)

Here’s the thing:  in the Laundry series, all the stuff Lovecraft wrote about, the monsters from other dimensions, strange and dangerous races living under the sea and mating with the occasional fisherman, the magic that destroys the mind and consumes the soul?  Yeah, all that stuff is for real.  Except it ain’t magic.  It’s mathematics.  Seems that certain very high level  non-Euclidean, Fermat’s Theorem-level mathematics can open gateways between worlds. Combine that math with various material components (some wire, a few lasers, an iPhone, a severed hand, just stuff you have lying around the house).

So when Bob Howard (our hero) was in university in England, he was playing around on his computers when he (and I’m quasi-quoting the Laundry Files Wiki), “nearly landscaped Wolverhampton by accident when creating a realtime rendering algorithm that used a logical shortcut which turned out to be an open and ungrounded summoning grid. ”  The British government frowns on that sort of thing, and came for him.  He had two choices:  forcible re-education and prison, or join The Laundry.  He chose the Laundry.

The Laundry (called that because it was housed behind a laundry shop during WWII) is a very secret branch of MI5 focused specifically on occult threats.  Their job is to find the mad Bond villains who are trying to destroy the world by summoning something incredibly nasty.  They’re also tasked with finding the schlubs (like Bob) who stumble onto dangerous knowledge while dicking around on the Internet or in their math classes.

So what’s life like in the Laundry?  Well, Bob’s day-to-day really does read like a Dilbert comic strip:  cubicles, post-it notes, boring team meetings, mandatory teamwork (or whatever) classes, dealing with clueless supervisors, computer illiterate types who can’t figure out how to turn on the printer without the computer guy’s help, crap-tons of paperwork, plus executive level types who are scary as hell.  Only in this case “scary as hell” is much more than just a metaphor.

At the beginning of the first novel, The Atrocity Archives, Bob had been another cubicle slave, just marking time and hating his immediate supervisor.  But, since he had volunteered for active service, one of his supervisors tapped him for a little errand.  An “Active Service Errand” in this case means breaking into an office park, stealing somebody’s files and getting out without being spotted.  Entry level spy stuff.

From there the whole thing escalates.  In the first book, the Atrocity Archives, Bob is asked to repatriate a young, beautiful scientist who accidentally stumbled across a very dangerous mathematical formula; this seemingly coincidental encounter leads to an alternate dimension that was populated by Nazis from WWII and is now about to destroy our own dimension.  (an image you won’t forget:  the face of the moon carved to look like Der Fuhrer).  The cool thing is that Bob hooks up with the girl scientist he rescued at the beginning; she is his girlfriend and later his wife for the rest of the series.  I like this, it’s a nice change of pace from the womanizing of most other spy thrillers (yes, Bond, I’m looking at you).

The second book, the Jennifer Morgue, Bob is teamed with a young woman from the underwater realms, to help supervise a megalomaniac’s attempt to find a sunken prize.  This book is very deliberately plotted to reflect a James Bond novel.  It gets kind of meta:  the characters realize they are being forced to follow a Bond novel plot and there is a science fiction-y justification for why it’s happening.  There’s even some interesting confusion as to which player is the Bond expy.  I have to confess, this is my least favorite of the series, so I have only read it the one time.

The third book, The Fuller Memorandum, concerns a mad scramble by factions inside and outside the Laundry to find a document that will give the holders control of a Nyarlathotep-type nightmare that still walks the earth.  Nobody knows who the nightmare currently is, which becomes very important.

The fourth book, The Apocalypse Codex, sees Bob helping an “outside asset” (a very scary woman called Persephone) to infiltrate an American religious movement, one whose leader has gotten rather too close to the British Prime Minister, and seems to have the sort of powers that The Laundry routinely looks for.

The fifth book, The Rhesus Chart, involves vampires as captains of industry.  This one is tough for Bob because the toxic girlfriend he had at the beginning of book one is one of the vampires and, as a member of the Laundry herself, knows way too much about how the Laundry does its work.   According to Wikipedia, at least two more books are scheduled to follow Rhesus, which is good news as far as I’m concerned.

What I like about The Laundry Files is the tone.  Yes, Bob fights tentacled freaks from the 8th Dimension, using only an iPhone and a pigeon foot on a string around his neck (long story, just trust me), all very derring do stuff.  But when he talks about it, he sounds like just one of the guys.  He’s not got a cape or a big S across his chest; he’s just a guy doing a job.  A deeply weird and terrifying job, but still just another wage slave.  He worries about spending too much money on a gadget and what is his live-in girlfriend, Mo, going to say about it.  He hates his supervisor and enjoys goading her.  He’s full of snark and the sort of random mischief that I see my computer geek sons get up to all the time.

For all the Dilbert-level office hell, there’s still plenty of action (my favorite part).  It’s cool to see just an ordinary guy go up against the forces of darkness armed only with a pigeon foot and an iPhone (no, I’m not kidding about the pigeon foot).  Stross is very good at making me believe that the danger is very very real; I have been genuinely frightened a couple times by the stories, in a Cold War paranoia kind of way.  But “Duck and Cover” isn’t going to work against Hastur any more than it would against Kruschev’s little toys.  And this is where Stross impresses me again:  he’s got me freaked out, that’s good.  But then he pits Captain Ordinary against the Forces of Darkness, and he makes me believe it when Captain Ordinary wins.

It’s one thing to throw an ordinary guy up against something terrible and writing him out of it.  Any chapped ass monkey with a keyboard can do that.  But to make me believe it, to convince me that Captain Ordinary has the wherewithal to pull it off and walk away from a battle with the Forces of Darkness?  Yeah, I am impressed.

While I was doing the brushing up for this blog, I found something interesting, something I didn’t know before.  Each book in the series thus far have been pastiches of other, more famous installments in the spy thriller genre.  The Atrocity Archive was a conscious imitation of Len Deighton‘s “Ipcress File.”  As I said before, The Jennifer Morgue imitates Ian Fleming’s Bond series.  The Fuller Memorandum is a pastiche of Anthony Price‘s books about Dr. David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler.  The Apocalypse Codex imitates the Modesty Blaise stories by Peter O’Donnell.

What’s cool is that I didn’t know this.  I don’t often read spy thrillers, and almost never wander out of the science fiction/fantasy/horror ghetto, so I never was exposed to most of these writers (though I recall my father reading them voraciously).  But — and here’s the important thing — I still enjoyed the books.  I didn’t need to recognize the pastiche to have fun with the books.  That’s what annoys me about a lot of pastiches:  you have to know the source material to get the joke and thus to appreciate the story.  Here, you didn’t.  I could read the books, enjoy the hell out of them, and be blissfully innocent of the inside joke.  Now that I know, I can go back and read Ipcress, then read Atrocity Archive again and enjoy the book on an entirely new level.

That’s cool.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long about this.  Go to your favorite source of books right now and pick up The Atrocity Archive.  You’ll enjoy it.  Delicious modern day pulpy goodness.

And that’s it for me.  We just had a thunderstorm start; I hope I can get this out before the lightning ganks out internet connection.  So I gotta make this fast:  share, tweet, write, comment.  My email is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net if you wanna talk or if you wanna share some Fun Friday goodness with me.  Fun Friday is up next and I’ve got some fun stuff for you (Hence the name “Fun Friday.”)

Be good!  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught.

 

Don’t forget about Vandalia Con on May 22-24 in Parkersburg WV. Come and have some Steampunk fun and support women’s health in Appalachia!

Categories: books, Dieselpunk, Pulp, Review, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fiction Monday is Back! Introducing April Tyree, Girl Detective

I’m here to say that Mondays are gonna shine again!  My health is much improved since January, I’ve been (more or less) keeping up with my writing and my various deadlines.  I think it’s time to get back on the horse and get back to my fiction writing for this blog.

Go ahead and do your Dance of Joyous Celebration.  I’ll wait here.   You’re finished already?  Jeez, that didn’t take long; I think I’m insulted…..

Where was I?  Oh, right, fiction.  So when last we left our intrepid fictioneer, I was doing a space opera short story based around my space opera radio show, Fortuna.  Yeah, I kinda lost the thread on that one, sorry about that.  It was a struggle anyway, trying to convert to a new medium; in my head, Helen and the gang just work better in audio rather than print.  So I think I’m going to lay that one aside for the moment.  It’ll definitely get written eventually.  I did too much research on the science-y bits, and the story really is fun.  But more likely it’ll be a radio show, rather than a short story.  Don’t worry; when it becomes a radio show, I’ll link to it here so you can hear it.

However!  I did not turn up empty handed, as you can tell by the blog title.  May I have the pleasure of introducing you to April Tyree, detective of the weird and wonderful.  This is my first attempt at writing a hard-boiled detective story in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and friends.  Okay, more smart-mouthed and snarky that properly hard-boiled, and she probably owes more to Robert E. Howard and Jim Butcher than to Dashiell.  I’ve long been obsessed with the “occult detective” sub genre of pulp, specifically the detective whose focus is on the weird, spooky and supernatural (not necessarily that he practices magic, a la Dresden Files, but he’s definitely in the know).  It’s pretty much my favorite pulp genre, and I’ve read deeply in it; I’ll be saying much more about the genre in the near future.

I’ve tried writing an occult detective before, with little success.  But this story worked much better.  I like the character voice, I liked the opening line (always important, it sets the tone), I just like it.  So I’m sharing with you.  Part one today, part two next Monday.  That’s fair, right?

Okay, onward to the story!


When the Cat’s Away

An April Tyree short story
by
A.J. Clarkson

Part One

If I ever get out of this mess, I need to write a letter to my high school guidance counselor.

“Dear Mr. Hennessy,  

“As I lie here in a forbidden temple under a secret pyramid, tied to a table and waiting for a deranged priestess to come and cut my heart out, I realize that you were right:  I am not living up to my full potential.

“Yours, April Tyree, class of ’07”

Not much of a plan for the future, I have to admit.  But at least it was a goal.  First, though, I had to get free of this mess.  I tried the ropes holding my limbs out in a spread eagle across the rough stone table.  The ropes looked ragged as hell, gray and frayed with age.  But they were strong enough to defeat me; everything was tight enough to cut off circulation.  I couldn’t feel the fingers on my right hand.  Moreover, the rough jute was digging into my flesh like a rasp, peeling back another layer of flesh every time I moved.  Ouch.

“I’m not getting paid enough for this!” I muttered.

Two weeks ago, I was hired to find a girl – Charity Rostovitch, fourteen years old, blonde and blue – who had gone missing.  A regular detective had traced her to upstate New York, but couldn’t get any further than that the girl had somehow gotten mixed up with a weird New Age cult.  That’s where I come in.  I get paid very well to deal with the weird.  I do not — repeat, do not — get paid enough to play the sacrificial victim in somebody’s H. Ryder Haggard roleplay.

Mental note:  add a hazard pay clause to my standard contract.

The room was only dimly lit by torches ranged along the walls.  Most of it was stone, probably a naturally occurring cave that had been re-purposed to make home base for the local loonies.  Wooden partitions and doorways had been built to finish out the space.  The décor was Early American Horror Movie:  pentagrams, arcane writing spray-painted onto the floor and walls, cast iron candelabras, and a collection of artifacts and creepy little props were arranged carefully on a heavy wooden altar just beyond the foot of my table.  I was starring as the damsel in distress in these nutters’ personal B-movie.  Time to get out of here before I was promoted from Damsel in Distress to Victim Number One.

Wait!  The loops of rope around my left wrist felt a little looser than the one on the right.  Maybe….  I twisted my left arm, trying to get a little leverage. Did I feel the ropes shift?  Maybe?  I kept twisting, trying to work my hand free.  It wasn’t much, but I was running out of options.  More skin peeled away, burning like fire.  Blood rose to the surface and stained the loops of rope.

Honestly, who the hell builds a pyramid in rural New York state?  It’s not like we have an overstock of ancient Egyptian pharaohs in Poughkeepsie or Yonkers.  Granted, this pyramid didn’t hold a candle to the Great Pyramid of Giza.  This one was made of wood, and nowhere near the four hundred eighty-something feet that the Giza pyramid is (yes, I do my research, thank you; it almost never helps keep me out of trouble, but it seems the prudent thing to do most of the time).  Most of it is underground, to boot, which makes sense; even the most clueless hick out here in the boonies would notice, and gossip about, a DIY pyramid in the woods.  Not helpful if you’re trying to keep a low profile.

I wasn’t imagining it!  The ropes on my left wrist were getting looser!  Moisture soaked my wrist and dribbled down across my palm.  I didn’t know if it was sweat or blood, but it was acting like a lubricant on the rope, so I wasn’t knocking it.  I redoubled my efforts, gritting my teeth against the pain of the rough rope rubbing against the increasingly raw flesh of my arm.

But back to what I was saying:  you wanna know who builds a pyramid in rural New York?  Crazy-ass cultists, that’s who.  Scientologists and Moonies got nothing on these dudes.  Think David Koresh, okay?  These guys called themselves “Setepen Ra,”  The Chosen of Ra.  Details on how they got started are hard to come by, but I was able to find out that the founder was a woman named Patricia Blumenthal.  She was big in the New Age movement, out of that town, Lily Dale, out in Chautauqua County.  Patsy was a channeler, somebody who allows their body to be possessed by the spirits of long dead men and women, who come forth to share their wisdom with the masses.  If you believe in that sort of thing, of course.

Do I believe in that sort of thing?  No comment.  In this case, though, “masses” referred to masses of the gullible.  When she was feeling the spirit – yeah, I had to go there, don’t judge me! – Patricia called herself “Hemet Nesu Weret,” an ancient Egyptian phrase that (very) roughly translates to “queen.”  Word was, her performances were impressive, and Patsy herself was charismatic as hell.  It wasn’t long before she’d gathered a coterie of true believers around her.  How they went from groupies to religion is kinda fuzzy on details, but I do know that by the time I got this gig, they’d pulled out of Lily Dale for pegging too high on the Weird-Shit-O-Meter.  How weird do you have to be, to give those guys the wiggins?  Flakier than Kellogg’s apparently.  Anyway, getting the boot gave them the motivation to troop out here into the sticks en masse and built a pyramid and temple.

Mostly I’m a live-and-let-live kinda girl.  You wanna trot out into the boonies and dance naked, have sex with goats and worship Kermit the Frog?  Whatever pumps your ‘nads, as long as you’re all consenting adults and you don’t insist I join in.  But these guys had graduated from casual looniness to kidnapping.  The above mentioned Charity Rostovitch.

A grinding of wood against stone, and the soft sound of bare feet marching told me I was running out of time.  I stopped pulling against the ropes, and tried to look casual as a columns of red robed, hooded figures trooped in and ranged themselves around the room.  Six of them placed themselves around my current perch:  two on my left, two on my right, one at my head, and one at my feet.

I couldn’t see faces because of the heavy cowls and hoods; occasionally I could occasionally spot a jaw or a bit of nose, enough to tell me that everybody was human and mostly young.  But the woman at the foot of the altar, her I recognized.

“Patricia Blumenthal, I presume,” I said.  “You look just like your pictures.”

She hesitated only a moment, before pushing back her hood, revealing a middle-aged woman.  Her dark hair was streaked liberally with gray, cut short and finger-combed straight back from her high forehead.  Her face was not as heavily aged as I expected a woman of nearly fifty to be; her features were strong, but not particularly handsome.  “Striking” was the best way to describe her; she would stand out in a crowd.  Her eyes were the most noticeable.  They were large, well opened, and the color went back and forth between gray and black.  Weird.

“We are Patricia,” she said, her voice a confident contralto.  Her eyes went instantly from gray to black.  “And we are not.”

Great.  “Is that the royal we, or do you have a tapeworm?” I said.  Crickets.  Nobody gets my jokes.  Sigh.  “Look, I don’t know if they offer a group rate at the looney bin,” I said.  “But you cut me loose, and I’ll call and ask.  I know a guy.”

Patricia’s eyes went back to gray again.  Man, that was creepy.  But you know what was even more creepy?  The big knife she pulled from the sleeve of her robe.  It was not one of those cheap kris-knives you can pick up on Cultists-R-Us.com, with sparkly gems on the hilt and Pakistani pot metal for the blade.  No, this thing had a wooden handle, a narrow lip for a guard, and a mottled gray blade.  This was not a toy or a show piece; this bad boy meant business.  The edge itself was shiny, freshly sharpened, and looked very dangerous indeed.

“Whoa, hold it, let’s take a minute here!” I said, as she stepped to my right side.  “Come on, Patty, I mean, I know I crashed your little orgy, but let’s not get crazy!  I’d like my insides to stay inside, if it’s all the same to you!”

Patricia grabbed my right wrist and pressed it firmly to the table.  I tried to pull free, to get her off me before she cut me, but I had no leverage.  She pressed the tip of the blade to my flesh and slid it under the cuff of my shirt sleeve.

“Don’t do it,” I gasped.

With a fluid flip of her wrist, the blade cut through my cuff, and sliced my sleeve open to the elbow.

I breathed a sigh of relief.  It morphed into a scream of pain and surprise as Patricia sliced into the flesh of my forearm.  Blood welled from my arm.  A hooded figure handed Patricia a bejeweled golden goblet, and she pressed it to the wound.  The blood – my blood! – flowed into the goblet.

“What the hell, Patty!” I shouted, trying to jerk free of her grip.

“Be still!”  Her voice sounded wrong, deeper, not natural.  I looked up at her face and her eyes had gone black again.  Now that she was this close to me, I could see something moving in that blackness, something writhing and wrong.

I shivered, suddenly cold.  Whatever I was talking to, it wasn’t Patricia.  I held still until Patricia had gotten enough blood from my arm to satisfy her.  She handed the goblet to her acolyte, and then slid the blade back into her sleeve.  She walked back to her position at the foot of the altar.  The acolyte placed the goblet on the altar behind Patricia.  Three of the acolytes left their positions to cluster around the table.  I couldn’t see what they were doing, but I could hear the tinkle of metal objects being moved around.

“So, Patty, now you’re done carving on me–”  ‘for the moment’ passed through my mind, but I didn’t say it out loud; I didn’t want to give her any encouragement. “– maybe you’d be willing to tell me what flavor of crazy are you playing with tonight?”

“You should feel honored,” said Patricia.  “Not only are you witness to the return of our  Hemet Nesu Weret, but, with your sacrifice, you will help her transition back into this world.”

“I thought you were  Hemet Nesu Weret, Patty.”

Patricia smiled at me, her black eyes sparkling.  “Only part time, my dear.  This vessel is too old to maintain my presence for more than a few hours at a time.  I need somebody younger, somebody upon whom the soul has not yet left a permanent mark.  An innocent.”

Light dawned.  “Charity Rostovitch.  The girl I came here looking for.”

“Precisely.”

“You know, normally if you’re going to sub-let like that, you need a contract.  And I think it’s probably illegal to cut a contract with a minor in New York State,” I said.  “Besides, this is the twenty-first century.  Between the Internet and Rule 34, innocence dies at puberty.”

“We’ll take our chances,” said Patricia.  She started to turn away.

“Hey, wait!” I shouted.  She stopped, turned back to me.

“What?”

“What about me?” I said.  I tugged at the ropes holding me.  “I mean, what am I supposed to do while you’re possessing a young girl?  I’m not a centerpiece, you know.”

“Silly fool,” Patricia said, smiling down at me.  That smile was not one to build confidence.  “Blood sacrifice is required for the transfer of  Hemet Nesu Weret into our new home.”

I sighed.  “Thought so.  You know you lack creativity.”

Patricia shrugged.  “An oldie but a goodie.”  She turned away and raised her arms above her had.

Soo esta Set!” she cried out.

All the robed figures around the room dropped to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the floor in obeisance.

Khont a vrongtee!” they called out in answer.

Crap!  Double crap!  I pulled on the ropes harder, even though more blood poured out of my arm every time I flexed my muscles.  I can spare a little blood, but if I didn’t get off this table, and I mean now, I was going to lose a lot more than that.  My left wrist was almost free; all I had to do was twist a little harder, just a few seconds more.

But I wasn’t going to get a few seconds more.  Just then, Patricia turned back to me, knife raised high, her face twisted with gloating, sanctimonious glee….

to Part Two


Yeah, I’m leaving off there.  I’m such a stinker!

I want to hear back from you.  Tell me in the comments whether you like this new addition to the ClarksonPunk stable.  In the meantime, I’ll be back on Wednesday with some nonfiction.  I think I might talk about the history of the occult detective and his/her place in the larger pulp scene.  Then again, maybe not.  We’ll see how fast I can organize my research.  Until then, you know the drill:  write, comment, share, tweet.  My email addy is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net (take out the dashes, you know this drill right?  I’m just trying to ditch the ‘bots).

Be good until we meet again, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

 

Just a quick reminder: don’t forget about Vandalia! http://www.vandalia-con.org . May 22-24!

 

Categories: Pulp, short fiction | 3 Comments

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