Were he still with us, Philip José Farmer today would be celebrating his 97th birthday. As it was, he had a pretty long run, passing in early 2009 shortly after turning 91. I suspect he’s best remembered by readers of this blog and Blood ‘n’ Thunder as the author of Tarzan Alive (1972) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973), fanciful “biographies” of those enduring pulp-fiction creations and the seminal works establishing what has come to be known as the “Wold Newton Universe.” To others, especially those in the science-fiction community, he’s probably regarded more highly for two multi-novel sagas, one revolving around the World of Tiers (1965-93) and the other around Riverworld (1971-83). The latter, which always appealed to me, posits the existence of a planet over which winds a huge river valley populated by resurrected Earthlings.
Farmer certainly deserves kudos for those works, but he also merits recognition as (in my opinion) the last major science-fiction writer to get his start in pulp magazines. He broke into print with “O’Brien and Obrenov,” a short story in the March 1946 issue of Adventure, but it was “The Lovers,” a novella first published in the August 1952 Startling Stories, that attracted attention and marked him as a comer.
Under the editorship of Samuel Mines Startling had moved beyond the adolescent space opera of its early years and was publishing a better grade of speculative fiction. When he purchased Farmer’s provocative story Mines had to have known it would create a sensation, which is exactly what happened. For those who don’t know, “The Lovers” revolves around the romance and sexual relationship between a male human and a female extraterrestrial (with humanoid characteristics, of course). Previous SF writers had avoided sexual themes and few pulp editors would have countenanced publishing such a story, but the tyro’s mature, thoughtful treatment of this subject matter disarmed Mines. With “The Lovers” Farmer made what arguably was the most audacious debut in the genre’s history. Although it’s now more than 60 years old, the story holds up beautifully and can be enjoyed even by readers unaware of its historical significance.
“The Lovers” won Farmer a richly deserved 1953 Hugo Award for Most Promising New Talent. It was followed by “Moth and Rust” (Startling Stories, June 1953), an equally assured story that didn’t have quite the same impact as its predecessor. But Farmer was on his way, and in subsequent SF works he frequently displayed the same audacity and inventiveness that had distinguished his maiden effort. He wrote for pulps and digests alike, expanding both “The Lovers” and “Moth and Rust” in the early Sixties to market them as paperback originals.
Phil Farmer never made any secret of his affection for the pulp-magazine heroes of his youth, and in 1969 he wrote a still-controversial novel, originally published in wraps by Essex House, that seemed to poke fun at two of them. A Feast Unknown featured thinly disguised simulacrums of Tarzan and Doc Savage, dubbed Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban respectively. Farmer made them half-brothers — their father being Jack the Ripper (!) — initially at odds but eventually allied against a mutual adversary bent on world domination. Farmer larded the novel with extremely graphic scenes of sex and violence, alienating some readers but dazzling others with its — there’s that word again — audacity. Two sequels, Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin, followed in 1970.
The Grandrith/Caliban series led to Farmer’s ersatz biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage, which established a genealogical connection between the two and sparked development of what PJF scholar Win Scott Eckert later dubbed the “Wold Newton Universe,” so named for the small Yorkshire village where a meteorite fell in 1795. According to Farmer, the highly radioactive fragment contaminated the occupants of a passing coach nearby and produced genetic mutations in their progeny. Eventually he incorporated into the Wold Newton extended family such popular pulp characters as The Shadow, G-8, The Spider, Sam Spade, and The Avenger, as well as Doc and Tarzan. He also proposed genetic linkages to other favorites of mystery and adventure fiction, including Sherlock Holmes (and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty), Fu Manchu (and his nemesis, Nayland Smith), Raffles, Allan Quatermain, Solomon Kane, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Nero Wolfe, James Bond, and others too numerous to list in this space. The “Universe” also is home to fictional characters not descended from the coach occupants affected by the 1795 meteor strike.
Another controversial product of Farmer’s inventiveness was Venus on the Half-Shell, a 1974 novel serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction prior to its publication the following year as a paperback bylined to Kilgore Trout, a fictional scrivener created by Kurt Vonnegut for his 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Trout, who made appearances in subsequent Vonnegut yarns, is described as a science-fiction writer who sells primarily to cheesy porn magazines. Farmer had the idea of expanding a story fragment referred to in Mr. Rosewater. He approached Vonnegut for permission, which was granted, but the Slaughterhouse Five author reportedly disliked Venus on the Half-Shell and resented its being assumed to be one of his own stories. Farmer later claimed that Vonnegut angrily chewed him out in a profanity-laced phone call.
During his lengthy career Philip José Farmer won three Hugos, the 2000 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, and the 2001 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. All told he authored nearly 60 novels and over 100 shorter works of fiction. His many essays and articles appeared in pro and fan publications alike.
Today, his output — especially the Wold Newton material — is analyzed and celebrated by a small but dedicated cadre of enthusiasts, some of whom assemble yearly at an event known as Farmercon. In recent years, Farmercon has operated under the auspices of PulpFest, an annual gathering of pulp-fiction enthusiasts that’s familiar to Blood ‘n’ Thunder readers. The contributions of Farmercon attendees to PulpFest are always interesting, and if you plan on joining us in Columbus this August, consider sitting in on their panels and presentations. They do a bang-up job of keeping the PJF flame burning.
I recently updated the site’s Collectibles For Sale section, and among the newly added items were a half dozen or so issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories from the late Forties and early Fifties. It’s been a good many years since I read the copies in my own collection, but after listing these duplicates I flipped through them and was reminded just how much fun they are.
Thrilling Wonder Stories and its sister magazine, Startling Stories, had always been fun, but they made great strides in the immediate aftermath of World War II under the editorship of Sam Merwin. He deemphasized their juvenile aspects — such as the hokey letter columns presided over by “Sergeant Saturn” — and gradually introduced a more mature type of science fiction. Startling continued to run book-length novels and TWS continued to run a mix of novelettes and short stories, but each began to eschew adolescent space opera in favor of more thoughtful and mildly provocative yarns. Humor and irony were found with increasing frequency, as were stories that ended on poignant or downbeat notes.
What’s really striking about the late Forties-early Fifties TWS is the roster of regular contributors. Practically every issue from this period boasts an all-star author lineup. You see the same names over and over on the covers and contents pages: Ray Bradbury, John D. MacDonald, Fredric Brown, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, Murray Leinster, Jack Vance, L. Sprague de Camp, and so on. You have the series of novelettes by Raymond F. Jones that were later adapted to film as This Island Earth. Believe me, there’s plenty of great reading in this period of the magazine’s history. Not every author is represented in every issue by a classic yarn; after all, TWS was far from the best paying market for SF. But the overall average is quite high. And even though they were controversial at the time (readers mostly disliked them), those “Good Girl Art” covers by Earle Bergey certainly make the magazine distinctive.
Anybody who enjoys pulp SF should have a few representative issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories in his or her collection. If you’re of a mind to sample this long-running, generally meritorious magazine, I strongly suggest beginning with the selection for sale elsewhere on this site.
On this day in 1906, in the small Texas town of Peaster, Robert Ervin Howard was born. Growing up in the Lone Star State, deeply attached to his sickly, possessive mother, he took his own life 30 years later as she lay on her deathbed. By that time he had become a modestly successful writer of pulp fiction. Today, nearly eight decades after his passing, Robert E. Howard is considered one of the form’s giants, his works most ardently championed by generations of readers not yet born when the last appeared in a rough-paper magazine.
Like so many of his present-day fans, I first encountered REH (as he is popularly known) in 1966 when Lancer Books, at the urging of fantasy/science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp, began reprinting the adventures of Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian. At the time I was 13, just an eighth-grader, but already a voracious reader and an avid consumer of vintage pulp fiction via the medium of mass-market paperbacks. I’d already devoured the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs reissued by the publishing houses Ace and Ballantine, as well as the former’s reprints of pulp science fiction. I’d also read most of Sax Rohmer’s tales (reprinted by Pyramid), had recently consumed the book-length yarns of “hard-boiled” detective-fiction scribes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and waited with breathless anticipation for each new Bantam reprint of a Doc Savage story.
But that first Lancer paperback, Conan the Adventurer, promised a reading experience unlike any I had enjoyed up to that time. The Frank Frazetta cover — showing Conan post-battle, surrounded by corpses and with a near-naked wench at his feet — promised something new and exciting. My classmates didn’t always share my taste in fiction (many of them didn’t read anything but comic books for enjoyment), but I remember several of them buying Adventurer after getting a glimpse of my copy. Howard’s extraordinarily vivid prose, especially his bone-crunching action sequences, really spoke to us. Especially since we 13-year-old boys were little more than barbarians ourselves, with our own fantasies of blood-thirsty adventures and nascent yearnings for those voluptuous wenches to be found loitering on battlefields after the defeats of evil wizards and power-mad monarchs.
I bought the subsequent Conan paperbacks as fast as they hit local bookstores, staying with the series after Lancer closed up shop and Ace assumed the responsibility of completing it. At the time I didn’t pay much attention to de Camp’s manipulation of the original material, and it didn’t particularly bother me that he and Lin Carter were adding their own entries to the canon. Frankly, by the time I’d finished the 12th and final volume, 1977′s Conan of Aquilonia, I’d had enough of the Cimmerian, the wizards, and the wenches. It was many years before I attempted to read anything else by Howard.
Later, after becoming obsessed with pulp fiction, I sought out much of the remaining REH material — not just his other fantasy and sword & sorcery fiction for Weird Tales, but also his Westerns, spicy yarns, sport stories, and straight adventure fiction. I still haven’t read his entire output, but I’ve put quite a dent in it. Much of his stuff is appealing to me, although some of it is plainly hackwork that I’ll never revisit. But he’s one of the storytellers whose oeuvre is essential to an understanding of the blood-and-thunder tradition in American popular fiction. This evening, on the occasion of his 109th birthday, I plan on rereading one of his yarns. Many of you who follow this blog are doubtless Howard fans to a greater or lesser extent, so I imagine I won’t be alone.
Our 125th birthday tribute to H. P. Lovecraft extends to movies and TV episodes adapted from his classic pulp stories. Amazingly, it took four decades for Hollywood to discover HPL: the first Lovecraft film, 1963′s The Haunted Palace, flashed on the nation’s big screens fully 40 years after publication of his first story in Weird Tales. And relatively few of the Master’s yarns were translated to celluloid until the late Nineties, when the floodgates opened. For this year’s Windy City Film Festival we’ve assembled a representative sampling of HPL movies. Friday’s lineup is devoted to the Lovecraft-themed output of writer-director Stuart Gordon, who brought mainstream attention to the creator of Cthulhu with his 1985 hit Re-Animator, nominally based on “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Saturday’s lineup is a cross-section of other notable adaptations.
It should be noted that most of the films we’re running this year’s show are either R-rated or unrated and contain occasional scenes of gore and nudity, making them potentially unsuitable for attendees with children.
12:00 pm — Dagon (2001) 98 minutes.
Despite the title, this Spanish-made film actually adapts HPL’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” A boating accident off the coast of Spain finds Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Merono) looking for help in the ramshackle fishing village of Imboca. As night falls, people start disappearing and a shroud of unseen menace hangs over the community. Paul and Barbara, pursued by the entire town, learn Imboca’s dark secret: that its residents worship Dagon, a monstrous sea god of ancient origin. The film got mixed reviews, although AllMovie critic Jason Buchanan said, “Lovecraft fans will most likely be willing to forgive Dagon‘s shortcomings in favor of a film that obviously shows great respect and appreciation for its source materials.” And Film Threat‘s K. J. Doughten opined, “While not a perfect movie, Dagon crams its wild, over-the-top concepts down our throats with so much conviction that we can’t help but get swept along for the ride.”
01:45 pm — Castle Freak (1995) 95 minutes.
Stuart Gordon’s version of HPL’s “The Outsider” was produced by the father-son team of Albert and Charles Band, whose Full Moon Entertainment supplied most of the direct-to-video horror movies that flooded rental-store shelves during the Nineties. In a nod to that market, Gordon included some elements of the “splatter” school, including one surprisingly brutal sequence that Lovecraft would have abhorred. But the film is not without merit; in fact, it’s more serious and mature than the lurid VHS packaging would have one believe. After inheriting a 12th-century castle that belonged to a notorious Duchess, John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs), wife Susan (Barbara Crampton), and their blind teenage daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) relocate to Italy. The family is a troubled one: Susan blames John for the death of their son in the drunk-driving incident that also cost their daughter her sight. On the advice of the executor, the Reillys decide to stay at the castle until the estate can be liquidated. Unbeknownst to them, a freakish monster remains locked in the basement. This was the third and last HPL-inspired feature film on which Gordon, Combs, and Crampton collaborated.
03:30 pm — From Beyond (1986) 85 minutes.
Following the surprise success of his first Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon was inspired to make a series of HPL films with the same stars, along the lines of American-International’s Edgar Allan Poe series directed by Roger Corman. From Beyond, loosely based on a short story of the same title, reunited Re-Animator cast members Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. It centered on a pair of scientists attempting to stimulate the pineal gland with a device called “The Resonator.” An unforeseen result of their experiments is the invasion of Earth by creatures from another dimension. They capture the head scientist and whisk him away to their world, returning him as a grotesque shape-changing monster that preys upon others at the laboratory. Shot in Italy to save money, From Beyond boosted the previous film’s the gore quotient and included some S&M content that the MPAA objected to. Gordon was forced to re-cut several sequences and completely eliminate some five minutes of footage. The missing scenes were restored in 2007 and we are running the original director’s cut.
Immediately Following Auction — Dreams in the Witch House (2005) app. 50 minutes.
One of Lovecraft’s most memorable yarns gets fine treatment by HPL aficionado Stuart Gordon. It originally aired on American TV on November 4, 2005 as the second episode of Masters of Horror. University student Walter Gilman (Dagon‘s Ezra Godden) moves to a cheap room in an old boarding house. He hears shrill screaming and rushes to help his neighbor, Frances (Chelah Horsdal), when she is menaced by what appears to be a large rat. Walter becomes close with Frances and even lends her money to keep her in the boarding house. A neighbor warns the student that the house is evil—and that his room houses something unspeakably evil. Gordon’s adaptation streamlines the story somewhat and gives it a contemporary setting, but the essential elements remain intact and overall Dreams in the Witch House is quite effective.
10:00 am — The Haunted Palace (1963) 87 minutes.
We’re running this American-International release starring Vincent Price because it was the first feature film that brought Lovecraft to the screen. Ostensibly another of Roger Corman’s popular and profitable Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, it’s actually derived from HPL’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” In their book Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write: “The Haunted Palace is a seminal film for Lovecraft lovers; it is the first major motion picture to introduce [Lovecraft's] creation[s]—the Necronomicon, and those cosmic abominations Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth—to a general audience. [Lovecraft's] obsession with the past is clearly presented, and in a heartfelt passage at the end of the film, so is his belief that mankind is a minor species adrift in a malevolent universe. The film strikes a good balance between narrative and action, and Vincent Price is, well, priceless as Ward/Curwen. The supporting cast is solid and the art direction by Daniel Haller is really quite good for such a low-budget film. Roger Corman did an admirable job as the first American feature-film director to stake out some cinematic high ground for the cosmos-crushing adaptations of [H. P. Lovecraft] to follow.” We’re also running Dan O’Bannon’s 1992 take on “Charles Dexter Ward,” The Resurrected, but the two movies are strikingly different, though each excellent in its own right.
11:45 am — H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon: To Hell and Back (1993) 96 minutes.
An American-made anthology film, Necronomicon was produced in 1993. It was directed by Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans and Shusuke Kaneko and was written by Gans, Yuzna, Brent V. Friedman, and Kazunori Itō. It stars Bruce Payne , Richard Lynch, Jeffrey Combs (who plays Lovecraft himself in a newly devised framing story), Belinda Bauer, and David Warner. Three segments are based on a trio of Lovecraft classics: “The Drowned” comes from “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Cold” from “Cool Air,” and “Whispers” from “The Whisperer in Darkness.” A film-festival favorite released in home-video formats, Necronomicon did quite well in America but was even more profitable in European and Asian markets. Truth be told, two of the film’s three segments leave a little something to be desired, but we’ve included Necronomicon because it enables us to present three Lovecraft tales for the price of one, so to speak. And “The Drowned” really is quite good.
01:30 pm — The Dunwich Horror (1970) 91 minutes.
This drive-in favorite released by American-International Pictures attained considerable notoriety for a supposed topless scene featuring top-billed Sandra Dee, the screen’s original “Gidget” and a squeaky-clean teen idol. (Actually, a body double was used for the shot.) But Dunwich Horror also familiarized American audiences with key elements of the Cthulhu Mythos and therefore warrants inclusion in our lineup. The film opens at the fictional Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, where Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley) has just finished a lecture on the sinister Necronomicon. He gives the book to his student Nancy Wagner (Dee) to return to the University library. She is followed by a stranger, who later introduces himself as Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell). Using his hypnotic gaze, Whateley persuades Nancy to give him the terrible tome, with which he hopes to unleash ancient and malevolent forces. Clearly an AIP attempt to capitalize on the phenomenal success of 1968′s Rosemary’s Baby, this neatly turned out Lovecraft adaptation takes liberties with the original but replicates the oppressive, unwholesome atmosphere of timeless horror.
03:15 pm — The Resurrected (1992) 108 minutes.
Directed by Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter of Alien and long-time horror/SF filmmaker), this is an adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Claire Ward (Jane Sibbett) hires private investigator John March (John Terry) to look into the increasingly bizarre activities of her husband Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon). Ward has become obsessed with the occult practices of raising the dead once practiced by his ancestor Joseph Curwen (Sarandon in a dual role). As the investigators dig deeper, they discover that Ward is performing a series of grisly experiments in an effort to actually resurrect his long-dead relative Curwen. In their book Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write: “The Resurrected is the best serious Lovecraftian screen adaptation to date, with a solid cast, decent script, inventive direction, and excellent special effects that do justice to one of [Lovecraft's] darker tales.”
Immediately Following Auction — The Call of Cthulhu (2005) 47 minutes.
This lovingly crafted adaptation of the seminal Cthulhu Mythos story was produced, written, and directed by the team of Andrew Leman and Sean Branney for distribution by the HPL Historical Society. In a bold but inspired move, Leman and Branney filmed it as a black-and-white silent movies and employed for its special visual effects only such techniques as would have been available to filmmakers in 1926, when the yarn was published in Weird Tales. Extremely faithful to HPL’s original, The Call of Cthulhu has found almost universal favor with Lovecraft lovers. Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write: “The Call of Cthulhu is a landmark adaptation that calls out to all Lovecraftian film fanatics—from its silent film form, its excellent cast, its direction, and its wonderful musical score … this is Cthulhuian cinema that Howard would have loved.” We ran the film several years ago but feel it’s worth repeating as a superb HPL adaptation.
Thanks to those of you who purchased books during the Overstock Sale that was underway this past week. Technically, the sale is still underway as I write these words on Friday afternoon, but in actuality I’ve just terminated it because all available copies of the five advertised items are gone. In fact, I didn’t have enough on hand to meet all orders, but I decided to honor purchases made through yesterday afternoon by ordering up new copies. So a few of you will receive two shipments: one from me and one from my printer. All orders have now been processed, and any books that haven’t already been shipped will go out early next week.
Today I’m adding another dozen or so items to the Collectibles for Sale page. The better items include high-grape copies of the December 1937 issue of Doc Savage (with the sequel to his very first adventure) and Lost Worlds, the scarce 1944 Arkham House collection of Clark Ashton Smith yarns originally published in Weird Tales and other pulps. I’m also listing a half dozen or so issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories with good author lineups (Bradbury, Hubbard, Vance, etc.), along with some anthologies.
As always, an item’s list price includes postage and handling to domestic buyers. International buyers must contact me for shipping costs before purchasing.
The majority of people who visit this site are already familiar with Blood ‘n’ Thunder, the flagship publication of Murania Press. A good many are subscribers; some have been supporting the magazine since it was launched in 2002. But my little corner of cyberspace also receives a fair number of visitors who, while having a genuine interest in the subjects BnT covers, have never seen an issue. These include, for example, fans of vintage movies, who have purchased such Murania Press books as Cliffhanger Classics, Western Movie Roundup, and Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders. Occasionally, when selling my wares at shows that cater to film buffs, those folks will casually flip through an issue and say, “Well, this looks interesting. I’ll have to try one some time.”
It’s primarily for such people that I’ve just put together The Blood ‘n’ Thunder Sampler, which reprints material from issues 24 through 29 as it originally appeared in the magazine’s pages. I could have produced a third volume of The Best of Blood ‘n’ Thunder, but the first two don’t accurately represent BnT in that they are smaller in size, with reset type and only a tiny sampling of the illustrations that grace each number. Quite frankly, I’m trying to appeal to potential subscribers and believe I’ll have better luck with a compilation replicating the actual pages of popular articles from the recent past.
I’ve deliberately chosen for the Sampler a number of articles whose subjects are such readily familiar characters as Zorro, Tarzan, The Shadow, Hopalong Cassidy, and The Green Hornet. Those pieces — some of BnT’s best, in my opinion — should prove attractive to readers who might be less enthusiastic about, say, my 22,000-word survey of The Popular Magazine, which is also reprinted in the Sampler. And I’m betting some folks who purchase issues sporadically will be delighted to buy for $19.95 (postage included) a jumbo-sized BnT containing the best material from six back issues that cost $11.95 each.
If you’re among those who’ve thought about trying BnT for a long time without ever “pulling the trigger,” take a chance on the Sampler and see what you’ve been missing. I’m pretty sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The countdown begins!
As I write these words it’s exactly 100 days to the beginning of this year’s Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention. ”The Windy,” as it’s popularly known, has become a mecca for fans and collectors of vintage pulp fiction and related material. Now in its 15th year, the confab gets underway on Friday, April 17, at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center in Lombard, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Exhibit space in the massive hucksters room has already sold out, which is always a good sign. Lower gas prices and a slowly but steadily improving economy should translate to attendees with more disposable income, so I’m expecting a big show.
The Windy benefits from being the calendar year’s first big pulp-themed event. As such, it sees the unveiling of collectibles that dealers have obtained during the long hiatus that technically begins in early November, following Rich Harvey’s annual Pulp Adventurecon in New Jersey. And not just pulp magazines, either. You can also find rare, vintage “slicks,” digests, fanzines, paperbacks, first-edition hardcovers, and even old comic books. Some dealers offer original art from pulps, paperbacks, and hardcovers. A few sell movie memorabilia and movies on DVD. Most currently active publishers of pulp-fiction reprints (including Murania Press) show up to exhibit their latest books, as do the writers and publishers of “New Pulp” products.
The Windy’s Friday- and Saturday-night auctions are always exciting. For the last several years they’ve been dominated by items from the estate of uber-collector Jerry Weist. This year continues that sale, with nearly 9000 items scheduled to go on the block: approximately 5300 pulps, 2000 dime novels, and 1700 true-detective and men’s-adventure magazines. (Much of this material will of necessity be sold in large lots of 100 or more pieces.)
In 2015 the Windy celebrates the 125th birthday of legendary writer H. P. Lovecraft, whose classic works in such pulps as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories redefined horror fiction and influenced countless storytellers to follow. So the con’s film program — selected and presented by yours truly — will feature movies and TV episodes adapted from Lovecraft’s most memorable tales. And I’m willing to bet that the annual exhibit of original pulp art will sport HPL-related paintings and illustrations.
Over the last 15 years co-chairmen Doug Ellis and John Gunnison have turned the Windy from a modest one-day show into the hobby’s premier event, and I’m proud to be part of it. I can’t recommend this convention too highly; it’s always the year’s high point for me, pulpishly speaking, and if you haven’t attended one yet you really ought to give it a try. Don’t wait too long, though: There’s a limit to rooms available to Windy attendees at the Westin’s special convention rate, so those who plan on joining us this year should make their reservations ASAP. Clicking on the above link will take you to the show’s web site, which has a link to the hotel’s site. That’ll give you all the information you need.
Please consider making the trek to Chicagoland this April. If you’re a fan of pulp fiction I guarantee you’ll have a great time. Oh, and don’t forget to stop by the Murania Press table!
Who, you ask, was the King of the Motion-Picture Serial? Well, most aficionados would bestow the title on Buster Crabbe. Others would nominate Kane Richmond. A fair number might say the distinction belongs to Tom Tyler, or Ralph Byrd, or maybe even Kirk Alyn. Fifty years ago, old-time fans would have nominated Eddie Polo, William Duncan, William Desmond, or Charles Hutchison. Good choices, all. But the real Serial King — the one man synonymous with this unique film format — has got to be Spencer Gordon Bennet, born on this day in 1893.
As a daring and athletic young man Bennet did stunts for, and helped with the production of, Pathé’s landmark chapter play The Perils of Pauline (1914). He continued to work in the same capacity on numerous Pathé serials for the next several years, sustaining serious burns while performing a fire stunt for The Shielding Shadow (1916). World War I service with the AEF interrupted Bennet’s career, and he stayed in Europe for a year or so after the conflict ended. But when he returned home he found his old job waiting for him. Bennet soon became an assistant director to George B. Seitz, who was entrusted with turning out the serials starring Pearl White, Pathé’s biggest moneymaker and the first Serial Queen to become an international sensation.
Additionally, in 1919 veteran writer-director Seitz began producing chapter plays in which he also starred. Bennet practically co-directed these vehicles, staging many of the scenes in which his boss appeared. He also stunted and played supporting roles in Seitz serials, most notably as a motorcycle cop in The Sky Ranger (1921). This was valuable on-the-job training. Bennet developed the skill of visualizing edited sequences in his head, which enabled him to shoot only such fragments of film as would be needed to realize that vision. By knowing where the editor would normally insert a quick reaction shot, he would shoot just the brief flash required, rather than stage the entire scene in close-up only to have most of the footage discarded in the assembly process. This procedure saved time, money, and film stock.
In 1925, when George B. Seitz accepted former colleague Lucien Hubbard’s offer to direct several big-budget Zane Grey Westerns for Paramount, Spence assumed his position as full director of Pathé’s East Coast serial unit. Working closely with Frank Leon Smith, who doubled as scenario writer and production supervisor, Bennet efficiently turned out the ten chapters of Play Ball, which starred the newly minted team of Allene Ray and Walter Miller. Later that year the same stars, writer, and director collaborated on The Green Archer, one of the most critically and commercially successful serials of the Twenties. Years later Bennet said he considered Archer the best chapter play he ever directed.
The following year Frank Leon Smith took his leave of the serial unit after clashing with Pathé management. To avoid leaving his old friend Bennet in the lurch, Smith first completed the scenarios, selected locations, and approved casting for the serial then in development. This ten-chapter opus was The House Without a Key (1926), based on the Earl Derr Biggers novel that introduced famous detective Charlie Chan.
Having relocated permanently to California, Bennet soldiered on for Pathé until the firm ended serial production in 1929. Without a job for the first time in his life, the 36-year-old director started freelancing, selling his services mostly to independent producers who specialized in low-budget Westerns and action-oriented melodramas. He directed two serials in the Thirties: The Last Frontier (1932) and The Mysterious Pilot (1937).
Bennet contracted with producer Larry Darmour, then producing chapter plays for release by Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures, to helm two serials in 1942. Darmour passed away shortly after the deal was signed but Spence completed the episodic epics for Larry’s second-in-command, production manager Rudy Flothow, who eventually assumed on-screen credit as serial producer.
The next year, Spence became a contract director for Republic Pictures. Between 1943 and 1947 he helmed serials and “B” Westerns for the company; his best chapter plays during this period included Secret Service in Darkest Africa, The Masked Marvel, The Tiger Woman, Haunted Harbor, and Manhunt of Mystery Island.
The 1947-48 movie “season” saw Bennet working for erstwhile Poverty Row producer Sam Katzman, who had replaced Rudy Flothow as Columbia’s autonomous producer of serials. Either Columbia, or Katzman, or both decided to invest heavily in properties that had achieved success in other media — comic books, newspaper strips, radio dramas — and thus had built-in audiences. Production quality therefore took a back seat; money that might have been spent on better sets or special effects was allocated to licensing fees. Bennet’s well-known ability to bring in films on time and under budget was put to the test. His serials for Katzman included Superman, Batman and Robin, Congo Bill, Bruce Gentry, Atom Man vs. Superman, Captain Video, and Blackhawk. And he was at the helm of the last American chapter play produced for theatrical distribution, 1956′s Blazing the Overland Trail. In addition to being the most prolific director of serials — 52 in all, not counting the Seitz serials he worked on — he was involved with the form for its entire lifespan.
Bennet continued worked with Katzman (directing several of Sam’s Jungle Jim “B” films starring Johnny Weissmuller) and other producers of low-budget product. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Spence resisted the temptation to direct episodic TV after completing his last theatrical film, The Bounty Killer (1965). At that point — still a vibrant, healthy man — he chose to retire, enjoying his leisure time and staying in shape by swimming and playing handball regularly. He died in 1987 at the ripe old age of 94, having lived long enough to see his old films avidly collected on video by fans too young to have seen them in theaters.
Happy birthday, Spence!
The extremely rare photos accompanying this post are among those you can see in my recently released history of the silent serial, Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders. It’s available right here at this site; just hop over to the Books page and it can be yours with one click of the mouse.
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