Category Archives: favorite books

Harlan Ellison and ‘The Glass Teat’

harlan ellison

Who is Harlan Ellison?

It’s a question that, after a quick search, I discover I’ve never answered on this blog before. And I feel kind of bad about that.

Ellison, now 81 years old, is one of the most influential writers in science fiction. That’s something that would piss Ellison off to hear, because he’s always fought against being limited, against being pigeonholed, in what was once a “ghetto” of science fiction.

Before I get to one of my favorite examples of Ellison’s other writing, let me give you his science fiction credentials:

Ellison is the author of more than 1,700 stories, books, screenplays, comic books and the like. He’s won every award of any importance in the world of speculative fiction.

Although he maintained his work was butchered, Ellison is in some circles best known for “City on the Edge of Forever,” the “Star Trek” episode in which Kirk and Spock go back in time to find McCoy, who has – in a drug-induced haze – gone back in time and changed history.

Ellison wrote great television including episodes of the “Outer Limits” anthology TV series – “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” – that were such an influence on James Cameron’s “Terminator” that, post-theatrical release, an acknowledgement of Ellison’s work was added to the credits of Cameron’s movie.

TheGlassTeat

Ellison wrote some great fiction but I wanted to note one of a few volumes of non-fiction that he wrote, “The Glass Teat.”

Re-reading “The Glass Teat” now is a time machine not unlike those that Ellison wrote about for “Outer Limits.” How much of a place and time is “The Glass Teat,” a collection of columns Ellison wrote for the The Los Angeles Free Press in the late 1960s and 1970?

Well, suffice it to say that the collection ends with a showdown between Ellison and Ohio school administrators while the spirt of Spiro Agnew hangs overhead like a buzzard.

If you also ask, “Who is Spiro Agnew?” then I’m not sure why you’ve read this far.

And yes, Ellison’s three-part column (four really) about the stir caused when Ellison spoke to Ohio (he’s from Ohio, despite decades in California) high school students and not only spoke his mind but uttered a few colorful words and phrases didn’t have a lot to do with TV. I’ll get to that in a minute.

This was late 1969, after all, and the country was a different place: Vietnam was raging, our leaders were either Nixon and Agnew or they had been assassinated, and a young generation was trying to break away from their parents’ world. Before your time? Check out any recent “Mad Men” episode for frame of reference.

Although Ellison wrote what was more than marginally a TV column, he really wrote about whatever intrigued or infuriated him that week. Sometimes that was TV, which was a very different medium back then, and how it squandered its potential. Sometimes it was current events or politics.

Ellison wrote enough columns to fill this book and a sequel, “The Other Glass Teat,” and I highly recommend both of them.

The players might seem of another time – they are – and Ellison’s trademark acerbic wit/outrage might seem foreign to readers who are today accustomed to writers who not only don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves but cover up their hearts for mass consumption.

But Ellison doesn’t care. He has always done his thing and “The Glass Teat” documents just that.

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RIP “Night Stalker” creator Jeff Rice

jeff rice night stalker

I’m kind of heartbroken right now.

Earlier today I saw a random tweet about the passing of Jeff Rice.

If you ask, “Who is Jeff Rice?” you’ll either not give a damn about his death or – hopefully – you will care after I lay a little information on you.

Jeff Rice, who died in Las Vegas on July 1 at age 71, was a talented writer who peaked way before he should have and struggled – and failed – to reach the same height of success again.

You see, Jeff Rice created Carl Kolchak and “The Night Stalker.”

If that rings a bell, and it should, you might remember that “The Night Stalker,” a TV movie from “Dark Shadows” creator Dan Curtis and starring Darren McGavin as Kolchak, aired on ABC on Jan. 11, 1972.

The movie – what might now be called a procedural, as Las Vegas newspaper reporter Kolchak tracks a serial killer in Vegas and ruffles the feathers of cops, politicians and his boss at the paper – was one of the most successful TV movies of all time, with 54 percent of TVs in use and 33 percent of all TV homes tuned in the night it aired.

That’s in part due to the funny, action-filled script by “I Am Legend” and “Twilight Zone” screenwriter Richard Matheson and Kolchak’s way of staying one step ahead of everyone else – and rubbing their noses in it. (I’m betting he influenced almost as many would-be newspaper reporters, like me, as did Woodward and Bernstein.)

But “The Night Stalker” also did as well as it did, I believe, because Vegas serial killer Janos Skorzeny was a vampire.

I’ve written in this space before about my love for the movie – and my great fondness for the follow-up movie “The Night Strangler” and the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV series that aired from September 1974 to March 1975.

As writer Mark Dawidziak noted in his book “The Night Stalker Companion” and his online obituary for Rice, the author’s work and the adaptations of it were enormously influential.

Not just on “The X-Files,” which captured the spirit of the movies and TV series and even paid tribute to Kolchak, but also a host of series that, like Rice’s work, brought “creatures of the night” out of the Victorian era and shook off their gothic trappings to introduce them to the modern world, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and pretty much every recent movie or series that used “The Night Stalker”‘s mix of horror, humor, sarcasm, pessimism and, ultimately, bravery.

There had been little like “The Night Stalker” before but there was plenty to come.

As Dawidziak notes, however, Rice’s story was in many ways as dark as his story “The Kolchak Papers,” which eventually saw paperback publication as “The Night Stalker” in December 1973.

night stalker books

(The book cover photos that accompany this post I took today of my copies of Rice’s books. I’ve had them since they were published. They’re terrific.)

Dawidziak notes that Rice – himself a Las Vegas Sun reporter in the 1960s, and nobody’s pushover – based his fantastic yarn on his own experiences in Vegas, running up against corrupt politicians and criminals. Rice didn’t encounter any vampires, as far as we know, but anyone who remembers the movie knows that the most dangerous antagonists in the movie aren’t the age-old vampire but the forces of politics and the law, who lower the boom on Kolchak just as he triumphs.

As Dawidziak tells it, Rice’s downfall came after the “Kolchak” series was approved. It seems like somebody neglected to get the rights to the characters from Rice. The author asked for a piece of the action and, when the studio thumbed its nose at him, threatened to sue.

Rice was barred from the the production of the series and felt like his career was greatly diminished.

Rice never caught the huge break that his talent deserved.

And as Las Vegas Review-Journal writer John L. Smith reported, Rice lived out a “troubled” life until his death a little more than month ago.

I’ve seen “The Night Stalker” countless times and I’ve read Rice’s books several times. From the first page, Rice grips the reader with his portrait of Cheryl Ann Hughes, a casino worker in one of Las Vegas’ darker sidewalks on the wrong night.

A series of bullet points – a style best appreciated by those of us in the newspaper business – sums up Hughes in less than a page. Then this:

“Cheryl Ann Hughes: a girl with less than fifteen minutes to live.”

If you seek out and read Rice’s book – and you should – you’ll realize how much the TV movie owes to Rice not just because of characters and plot but also tone and voice. You can hear McGavin’s voice as you read Rice’s story.

I was 12 and a horror film fanatic when I first saw “The Night Stalker.” I greedily sought out more of this world, snapping up Rice’s novels when I found them and watching the sequel movie and series.

After hearing the news about Jeff Rice today, I’ll be stepping back into Kolchak’s world again soon.

‘The Drop’ a return to form for Dennis Lehane

the drop dennis lehane

It’s pretty easy for me to say that Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers.

I didn’t really know Lehane until a decade or more ago when I saw the paperback version of his 1994 crime novel, “A Drink Before the War,” on the shelf in a bookstore. A gritty private eye story set in Boston, the book was the first of six books that Lehane wrote about Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

Let me wax on about Patrick and Angie for a second if you will.

How to describe Kenzie and Gennaro, partners in a Boston private investigations operation? They’re lifelong friends, very seldom lovers and equals in the tough guy department. Through a series of five incredible books, Lehane leads Patrick and Angie through not only nifty crime stories to rival Robert B. Parker’s Spencer at his best but also through gut-wrenching personal trauma.

That’s because Patrick and Angie are more than lifelong friends and partners. They’re also survivors. During the course of five books, Lehane pits Kenzie and Gennaro Investigations against the worst of the worst: Blackmailers, serial killers and child molesters and exploiters. If you saw the movie of the fourth book in the series, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” you got a taste of the harsh yet rewarding story, characters and atmosphere of the book.

I often tell people – always tell them, really – that they should read Lehane’s Patrick and Angie books if they’re in the mood for dark crime drama. And I tell them that the books are dark. Dark, I tells ya.

And I add that the books MUST be read in order: “A Drink Before the War,” then “Darkness, Take My Hand,” then “Sacred,” then “Gone, Baby, Gone,” then “Prayers for Rain.”

The books are certainly my favorite crime novel series of all time and they very well might be the best such series ever.

You might have noticed that I said Lehane wrote six books about Patrick and Angie but I mentioned “five incredible books.” That’s because “Moonlight Mile,” Lehane’s 2010 return to the characters after 11 years, was so disappointing. I wanted Patrick and Angie to come back for so many years … and then read “Moonlight Mile” and understood why Lehane had stopped writing the characters before – I’m guessing – being encouraged to come back by demand from fans like me and a big check from his publisher.

dennis lehane

Lehane has certainly written some other terrific thrillers, including “Shutter island” and the very nearly without peer “Mystic River.” If you know those two books – unrelated to the Patrick and Angie books – only from their movie adaptations, do yourself a favor and read the books.

Which brings me to “The Drop,” which is the return to Boston’s mean streets that “Moonlight Mile” just couldn’t be.

“The Drop” – written by Lehane from his own screenplay for a movie that ultimately starred Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini – is the story of Bob, a kind-hearted but lonely Boston bartender working for his distant cousin at his cousin’s bar … which is secretly owned by Chechen mobsters.

After decades of a lonely existence, Bob begins to come out of his shell when he meets Nadia and, with her help, rescues a dog that had been dumped in a trash can. But there’s more to Nadia and the dog than Bob understands at first. Just like there’s more to the the low-life types who circle on the edges of his world, including a menacing stranger who insists that Bob has taken his dog.

“The Drop” isn’t a long book and doesn’t have a complex plot. although there are some twists and turns. It’s a straightforward tale of a likable joe who wants to improve his life – if he doesn’t get killed first.

Best of all, “The Drop” is a great return to the Lehane’s Boston, a world of hustlers and thugs and forces that can come at anyone sideways and change their lives for the better or the worse.

From the stacks: “I, Robot’

i robot

The 2004 Will Smith movie “I, Robot” was on TV tonight. We caught a glimpse of it and my son asked about it. He’d seen most of it before, he said, but wasn’t familiar with the story.

I went to the bookshelves in another room and pulled down my copy of Isaac Asimov’s story collection, first published in 1950, about robots and humans in the near future.

My copy was published by Fawcett Crest in August 1970, when I was almost 11 years old.

My son seemed surprised that I still had books from when I was that young. I’m not quite sure how to take that.

The cover price on the book was $1.25.

 

‘Longmire’ canceled; book series hits new peak

longmire any other name

I’ve got good news and bad news.

Despite its status as A&E’s top-rated drama series, “Longmire” has been canceled by the cable channel.

We heard a variety of explanations given when the news broke a few days ago. A&E didn’t value the older-than-the-most-coveted-demographic age of the audience. A&E didn’t own the series and thus made less money from it.

TV is a totally screwed up industry.

So with the finish of the third season still fresh and the possibility that the series might continue on another channel or even online, we’ll mourn “Longmire” and hope for more adventures of the crusty Wyoming sheriff and his posse.

Longmire Season 2

“Longmire” the TV series had a great cast and average-to-above-average stories that settled into author Craig Johnson’s characters and settings more as the series progressed.

But the series never topped Johnson’s stories. And I don’t think I’ve ready any 10th book in a series that felt as assured as “Any Other Name,” Johnson’s latest Longmire novel.

Sure, Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are dependably, consistently fun. And maybe Johnson just hit a high point with “Any Other Name.” But the book series feels like it’s gotten a second wind, so compelling and accomplished does “Any Other Name” feel.

Johnson can’t go too far wrong when he focuses on Walt Longmire, of course. Select members of his supporting cast bring a lot to the stories, and he includes three of them here: Walt’s longtime best friend, Henry Standing Bear; Vic Moretti, Walt’s chief deputy and sometime paramour, and Lucian Connally, Walt’s predecessor as sheriff.

Lucian asks Walt’s help in finding out why his old friend, a cop in another county, killed himself. Before long, they determine that the cop’s death was caught up in a scheme involving missing women and human trafficking.

Johnson’s writing is so heartfelt but so wry, so funny but so hard-nosed, that it didn’t seem likely that he could top his previous books.

But I really think he did with “Any Other Name.” The story has the quirky charm of all of the author’s previous modern-day westerns with a clear and concise mystery.

And it feels like Johnson had a hell of a time writing “Any Other Name.” I just hope he had as good a time writing it as I had reading it.

The Essential Geek Library: Stephen King’s ‘Danse Macabre’

stephen king's danse macabre

Here’s another in my series of reviews of books that every geek needs to read. Check tags below for earlier entries.

And, as usual, these reviews are framed in the reality that most of them came out before the Internet, when fans bought books if they wanted to find out who played the second male lead behind Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” (It was King Donovan.)

Stephen King was my favorite writer when his non-fiction book “Danse Macabre” came out in 1981.

King classics like “The Stand,” “The Shining” and “Salem’s Lot” had helped King surpass even favorites like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein in my estimation. So I was so ready for what King thought about horror and science fiction in books, movies and TV.

And I was not disappointed.

“Danse Macabre” mixed a little bit of autobiography and a whole lot of intelligent, thoughtful criticism between its covers. In densely-packed chapters, King skipped from a TV favorite like “Thriller” to a memorable short story with a few stops in between, but it all made sense.

“Danse Macabre” is like sitting down over a few beers with the most clever and amiable geek you could imagine and letting him entertain you with his opinions.

Like any book, “Danse Macabre” is a moment in time, a slice of history. It’s strange, after all these years, to read King talking seriously about now-nearly-forgotten horror flicks like “The Prophecy.” It shows that the genre wasn’t all made up of the milestones like “Bride of Frankenstein” that have withstood the test of time.

The Internets tell me that the book was reprinted in 2010 with an addendum. I haven’t read it, but it’s not surprising that more than 30 years later – via occasional columns in Entertainment Weekly and his Twitter account – King is still sharing his insight and love of the horror genre with us.

 

Latest in Parker series is … fine, really

damned if you do robert b parker michael brandman

One of my favorite writers was Robert B. Parker, who wrote scores of crime novels before his death in 2010. Best among them was the series that followed the exploits of Spenser, the Boston private investigator. But Parker also wrote a nifty, if short-lived, series with a believable female protagonist, Sunny Randall, as well as a series of westerns.

Maybe Parker’s most successful “other” series was that featuring Jesse Stone, a alcoholic former cop who is hired as police chief in the New England town of Paradise. Stone is troubled – for a male Parker hero – and struggles with his addiction and his relationships.

After Parker’s death, his wife, Joan (who has since passed) and his estate authorized writers to continue both the Stone and Spenser series. Ace Atkins, a mystery writer in his own right, does a very good job with new Spenser novels. Michael Brandman, who produced a series of Jesse Stone TV movies starring Tom Selleck, was tapped to continue the Stone books.

He’s done three now, with the latest being “Damned if You Do,” and it might be the weakest of the renewed series so far.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot to like about “Damned if You Do.” Brandman has captured the spirit of Stone, the small-town cop who won’t let anything stand in the way of bringing justice to the unjust. The supporting characters are perfect recreations of Parker’s.

But the latest is kind of thin and feels like something Brandman tossed off without a lot of effort.

Parker’s later books, while wildly satisfying, felt pretty slight compared to his meatier earlier stories, so the feeling that Brandman is coasting a bit here isn’t without precedent. But I’m ready to read a book that feels like Jesse Stone – and the writer behind his modern-day adventures – is breaking a sweat.

This story finds Stone investigating the death of a young woman in a seedy Paradise motel. Her death threatens to – but never quite – spark a dust-up between warring pimps.

More satisfying, in a way, is Stone’s crusade to shut down a town nursing home where patients are being abused. But even here, the resolution seems really easy.

Parker’s stories rarely had a lot of twists and turns, as his heroes found a path toward a resolution and bulled their way through to their desired outcome. It feels like, in some of the latter-day books, that the path is just a little too straight and hurdle-free.