Even Minor PKD Ain’t Bad: VULCAN’S HAMMER

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Surprisingly accurate cover. No, they’re not killer flashlights.

Having read some of his earliest stories recently, I’m a little more open to Philip K. Dick’s journeyman stuff, the stories he expanded into novels so he could feed his family. The pleasant surprise for me has been in watching PKD rapidly develop from a sci-fi writer into the guy who wrote PKD science fiction novels.

VULCAN’S HAMMER is from 1960. It’s a post-war world rejuvenated by giving all power to Vulcan 3, a computer that can build extra levels for itself. A bureaucracy sustains Vulcan 3, led by Dill, the only man who actually “feeds” info to Vulcan 3. There is a barely-defined opposition that’s been killing some of the bureaucracy that sustains the world government, but Vulcan 3 hasn’t been getting this intelligence.

Soon after an agent is killed by a mob (in the opening scene), the predecessor to Vulcan 3, Vulcan 2, is blown up. How? Who…or what…could’ve done that–and why? Why not just blow up the controlling model?

The plot follows Dill and one of his subordinates, a regional director named Barris who is being set up as a traitor. The paranoia stuff is a little cursory–yeah, I don’t trust you, well I don’t trust YOU–but this is kind of a kiddie version of PKD. I could see the young me reading it and wanting to read more of this guy’s stuff. (One of the leaders of the opposition has a child who seems to be a major character at first, then disappears into the re-education wing of the government…)

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The best cover for this book. I like that it proudly pushes the tape reel-level tech.

I’ll level with you: this ain’t great. Other books have dealt with these ideas in much more fluent, informed ways. PKD’s is clearly an expanded SF story, more about plot than the ideas. That’s too bad; I’d have liked the PKD of fifteen years later to take on what is admittedly one of those ‘power chords’ of science fiction ala Rudy Rucker.

Two books that handled the all-powerful computer running everything idea:

(Also, COLOSSUS, but I’ve only seen the movie, not read the book.)

But if you want a PKD fix and you’ve read everything else with 4-5 stars, it’s a fun way to kill a few hours (it’s only @160 pages).

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Not a great cover for this, but a nice generic PKD visual
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My 3 Favorite Philip K. Dick Novels

I’ve been catching up with some PKD novels I’ve never read, mostly minor books that rarely get discussed, like VULCAN’S HAMMER. I enjoy pretty much every one of his novels I’ve read, even the minor ones or obscure ones no one much discusses.

I could work up a top ten list, but now that PKD is becoming a superstar (as opposed to a cult figure), these are the three new fans need to read to get just how good his books can be.

#3 THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

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While this is treated as a great alternative history science fiction tale, what’s most significant for a PKD fan is how it is the maturation of PKD’s paranoia and sense of reality. The Nazi/Japanese material might fit in the FATHERLAND spy genre, but it’s the life under totalitarian rule that is the best part of this. PKD’s paranoia and his hatred for Nazism and how all-powerful government impinges on the individual’s sense of reality. The Nazis and Japanese have divvied up the US, and instead of battle scenes or a focus on Hitler (and his syphillis) OR a ‘regular family’ under Nazism, PKD focuses on someone like himself–an outsider already, reduced to wondering if this novel about a U.S. that helped BEAT the Nazis might, somehow, be the truth.

#2 DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP

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I should’ve reduced the size of this. But I’m still sick, so fuck it.

You could film DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, sticking to it closely, and many people would say, “There are a couple of things that reminded me of BLADE RUNNER. Sorta.” The script process that led to BR is long and tortuous, but to me the key failing is in the perception of the androids. PKD said he saw them as beneath humanity, where Ridley Scott saw them as sad Supermen.

Dick was inspired to write about what makes people human by reading about a Nazi soldier complaining about the cries of starving kids in the Polish ghetto or a concentration camp. How could a human being complain about being kept awake by the cries of kids you were in the process of exterminating?

Scott, on the other hand, saw the replicants as misunderstood, clutzy special needs kids, who just wanna live. It’s a significant difference.

The plot–Rick Dekkard has to retire some runaway androids–is the same in both, but they are treated in wildly different ways. The city of the novel is emptied out, dry, with unoccupied skyscrapers. The religious and ‘mood organ’ elements, so important in the book, are not touched on in the movie; the artificial animals that motivate Dekkard in the book are just details in the movie.

I’d love to see a straight(er) adaptation of this book.

#1 UBIK

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A book about altered perception of reality that just doesn’t show you someone in that state, but puts YOU in that state, questioning the reality you thought you’d been reading about.

A masterpiece.

The Articulate Villain Tell

THE WRONG CASE by James Crumley is pretty good, but it gets a little…gnarled in the last quarter. It gets tiring the way Crumley holds drunks up as paragons of virtue. This is something drunks who write do. Those who don’t drink but who spent a lot of time around drunks don’t often do this.

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Appropriate cover illustration

The book takes one to the knee in the end, though. Our hero, Milo, has finally come up with answers, and confronts the villain. The book could’ve ended in a few pages, but it goes on. Though it takes place in a kind of banged-up ski town, there is Mafia influence. And after two hundred pages of characters who talk like people, we get…a movie Mafia enforcer. Here is a mobster from “back East,” meeting our hero in a bar. Apparently, they don’t have pinball machines Back East. (They do on MY version of planet Earth.)

“Now what does one do? What is the purpose of all those lights? Oh, I see. These are the strike zones, and one should hit the strike zones as the flashing lights cross, and that elicits the highest score. Am I correct?”

Then, as he plays:

“You might begin by giving me some insight into what might have causes Nickie’s coronary this morning… And to what purpose you were carrying a weapon.”

I have no idea what the late, great James Crumley was thinking when he wrote these words, so this is all based on my reading and nothing else.

After 200 pages, the grand climax needed something to boost it a little. It needed to tell the reader that Milo was up against someone Different–someone who wasn’t just some stumblebum hick he could knock around.

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Pretentious cover art, another tell

THE WRONG CASE was written in 1975, so I give a little leeway in terms of the development of dialogue in movies and fiction. But no Mafia goon has ever talked this way, ever. Worse, some violence follows that would not be ALLOWED to happen after we’ve been told what a badass this guy is; Milo would be dead before the next scene.

It gets worse.

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He then goes to meet “his lady,” an embarrassing creation. Her character does what’s required of her for the scene; she’s not a real person, but a drunk’s idea of a Madonna. But she sits and sulks through the climax, while…her mother gives us another visit with someone who talks like a Bond villain instead of a person.

“Then I feel it is my responsibility as Helen’s mother to acquaint you with several matters of some importance. I know that you must be quite fatigued, so I won’t impose on your hospitality any longer than necessary.”

I can’t quote more, it goes on like that.

I like Crumley. I like this book, though not as much as I’d hoped. I like that he wrote about a private detective in an interesting way.

But this is bullshit writing.

BULLSHIT.

On the Morality of Horror

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I’ve been deep-reading horror lately, novels and stories. It’s the genre I write in most often.

There’s a lot of bad writing in this genre, but there’s a lot of bad writing, period. One thing writers of horror try to do–must do–is push boundaries.

There are many genres labelled horror that I don’t consider horror. The top-selling titles in ‘horror’ on Amazon are often the ninth book in a series about a hot vampire killer who’s fucking a werewolf and/or a vampire. That’s not horror to me, it’s fantasy. The biggest hits in horror tend to be about people with sharp tools chopping up other people. That’s not horror to me, it’s an offshoot of the action film.

I’m not going to define horror for anyone but myself. For me, supernatural horror is what I mean when I say ‘horror.’

Reading the horror anthologies I’ve accumulated all at once gives a compressed history of the stories that sold and were given awards.

One thing that comes across in many of these stories is the reveling in bloodshed and murder.

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This isn’t going to be a “Horror USED to be…but now it’s…” post.

I just read a story by a well-regarded writer, not a bestselling novelist but someone who’s critically-acclaimed and who wins awards. The writing is quite good, both clear and evocative. The story compelled me to keep turning the pages.

It also revealed the way so many horror writers, intentionally or not, justify violence IF it’s done by 1. cool people, 2. sexy people, and visited on The People We All REALLY Want To Kill.

In the story I read and which I will not name, the writing really comes alive when the victim’s bad points are revealed. He’s a white man and of course that means he hates anyone who isn’t a white man. The story almost seems to stop, to linger over his badness, and then it starts cooking again when he’s being killed. As a contrast to the awfulness, the writer describes the beauty of the moment, the location, the feelings of the murderers.

Now, this isn’t how you’d write about, say, some KKK member killing a black man. It’s not how you’d write about a rapist raping a woman.

It’s how you write about killing someone you would like to kill.

What if the same character were written in the same way EXCEPT he was married to a black woman? Still hates Jews and liberals. Would it be racist to get off writing about killing him?

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I don’t have a grand summing-up about these thoughts. It’s just that so much horror fiction is defended as being moral, as some sideways manner of coming at moral issues, and so much of it is about cool people killing people who it’s cool to hate. Which is as easy, as safe, as not-pushing-the-envelope as any kind of writing I can think of.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Ten Horror Stories You Should Read, 1 of 2

There is no real order here. Whenever someone asks me, “What’s your favorite horror story?” it’s one of these ten.

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“The Ash Tree” by M. R. James

Horror, like comedy, ages rapidly–what was scary not long ago is silly now.

This oldie about a witch’s curse is still creepy.

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“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read this as an adult, ready to appreciate it as a nice little quaint ‘spooky’ story. It’s actually a deft analysis of innocence plunged into a horror he could not have suspected when he saw his nice neighbors walking the streets of town.

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“In the Hills, the Cities” by Clive Barker

Many of Barker’s ‘transgressive’ stories are about various forms of bodily mutilation and bent sexuality. He feints in this direction with this story of two gay men on vacation, then takes ‘body horror’ in a startling direction. The concept of the cities is cool enough, but he’s able to describe it so you actually FEEL what it must be like to be part of one of these horrible creations.

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“The Distributor” by Richard Matheson

A man comes to a peaceful neighborhood, and the neighborhood changes.

I have to go with F. Paul Wilson, who said he loved many stories as a young writer, but this one made him think he could never write something this good. It’s a great introduction to Matheson, because it shows how his careful writing pays off by getting some crazy ideas into your head.

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“The Rats in the Walls” by H.P. Lovecraft

I came to Lovecraft late, long after my teen horror-reading years. It had a lot to live up to; it did. Lovecraft gets a touch of awe into a story of what’s underneath an ancestral home.

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BONUS:
“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner, because he was awesome

“The Dead Line” by Dennis Etchison, because it has the single most horrifying first line I’ve ever read

“The Events at Poroth Farm” by T.E.D. Klein

Part 2, Saturday

 

THE THIN MAN: Book to Movie

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THE THIN MAN is one of my go-to movies when I’m in a bad mood, which means I’ve watched it about 187 times. Reading the book is a nice little lesson in how to translate a novel into a screenplay, and how to re-frame scenes and actions for an audio-visual medium for maximum punch.

Nick and Nora Charles–our hero and his rich wife–are not introduced until ten minutes into the movie. Those first ten minutes are like a short subject on Dr. Wynant, an inventor with an improbably active love life for such a cadaverous-looking scientist. It sets up the murder victims and suspects. THEN we meet Nick and Nora.

The book opens with that first scene of Nick in the bar. We learn about the disappearance of Wynant and the murder of his girlfriend as Nick learns–the book is told from Nick’s P.O.V. The movie jumps outside of Nick’s story, efficiently filling us in on things like Wynant’s ex-wife’s discovery of a key piece of evidence. The book seems stuck in Nick and Nora’s hotel room for a good chunk of the book. I suspect if Hammett could, he’d have incorporated some of the shuffling and cutting done by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.

Hackett and Goodrich were husband and wife, and their screenwriting career had some major credits: The Thing Man, After the Thin Man, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Father of the Bride, Easter Parade, The Long Long Trailer, Another Thin Man. They won a Pulitzer for their play The Diary of Anne Frank. Those credits would make a director famous, but no one ever talks about this hugely successful couple today.

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The crime story follows more or less the same plot in book and movie. THE THIN MAN was pre-Code, but even so the high living and slang were toned down a bit for the movie. The use of The Lord’s Name and the N word had me running to the fainting couch.

It’s a brisk novel. You can see what a stylish shock it was, a kind of post-Fitzgerald idea of crime. For someone who gets deserved credit for bringing crime into the streets, Hammett’s fun married couple of lushes make for cozy mystery reading. You like spending time with these two, and don’t think they are in much danger. Nick eases into becoming involved in the murder mystery much more gradually than he does in the movie, which is understandable. Nora is much more assertive in the movie, too, doing little more than fetch drinks and tell Nick what an awesome person he is. Her calling him a Greek is charmingly non-P.C.

 

The Thin Man

The biggest shock in reading the book is how clearly padded it is. There’s too much hanging around with Nick and his Runyonesque friends for me. There’s also a section on cannibalism that shouldn’t have been used–it goes on for four pages, and could be reduced to “I gave Gilbert something to read about cannibals” without impacting the book. Gilbert is as important a character in the book as his sister is in the movie, where he’s a minor character handy for being goofy to show what a goofy family he’s part of. The book devotes a lot of time to red herrings, and Gilbert exists to distract.

It’s a very talky novel compared to the crime fiction Hammett, Chandler, Cain and company inspired. So much of it consists of Nick and someone else sitting around talking out the back story and relating conversations. In comparison, the movie jumps along, dropping in scenes like Nunheim’s shooting and Nick’s exploration of Wynant’s closed lab to add excitement and, most importantly, viewer involvement. The second half of the book really starts to drag.

The quibbles are important, but the book survives them. It’s a stylish, fun read. Reading it and then watching the movie would make a fine lesson in adaptation. And The Hacketts are more efficient plotters than Hammett, I’m surprised to say.

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DANCING BEAR by James Crumley

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Milo Dragovitch is a burned out private security officer living in Montana, doing blow, screwing, and getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself. Ex-wives, dead parents with money, and romanticizing his drunken lifestyle fill his days. He gets a call from a rich old lady from his past. She’s been spying on the neighborhood and has noticed a man and a woman who meet in their parked cars. Who are they? What are they doing? That she pays a large fee for such an apparently pointless gig tips off our hero that Things Are Not What They Seem…

DANCING BEAR is one of the too-few novels left by the late James Crumley. I’d say I’m surprised he isn’t better known, but Crumley’s are the kinds of sterling heroes or silly anti-heroes who’re in much demand these days. Milo isn’t someone to admire, not even in the “so bad he’s good” way. He’s the kind of half-competent slob you could see in a bar, a man who has some experience with guns and violence and who knows how to use those skills he learned in the military. Milo has an outdoors man’s gruff attitude toward the rich despoilers of nature and an independent’s attitude toward his guns, his drugs and the women who all want to hop in the sack with his aging carcass.

The appeal in Crumley’s work isn’t in the plots, but the attitude. His burned-out heroes are beautiful losers, romanticized druggies, and not everyone’s cup of tea. The criminal stories are laid out slowly–his novels amble for the first third or so. In DANCING BEAR, Milo is involved in a store robbery, and some hijinks with a comedy-relief old dude. But then things get serious. When one of the people Milo follows comes to a bad end, Milo is suddenly in danger. I was surprised at just how deeply involved I was in Milo’s predicament–“Now what the hell is he gonna do?” It’s very cleverly done, getting us on Milo’s side so we’re just as panicky as he is when things turn deadly serious.

Crumley’s are cozy mysteries for nasty people, taking place in the world Crumley knew and lived (he was a notorious cokehead). He wrote about loving Montana, but it’s not very convincing when his part of it consisted of sad bars and not a lot to do besides snort coke and think about failure. Taking on P.I. jobs to make spending money is just a way to pass the time, but if Milo is trying to be a Hammett character he’s still got a Chandler streak, despite himself. He wants his old lady client to be okay, and he regrets it when someone does something that requires him to respond with violence. He’s the perfect alcoholic hero, a passive-aggressive soldier.

He didn’t write enough for my taste, but Crumley left a handful of enjoyable books. DANCING BEAR isn’t my favorite of his–that’d be THE LAST GOOD KISS–but it’s a good place to start if you’re tired of the same old P.I. fiction.

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