Archive for Vampira

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

The Sunday Intertitle: Crunch Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2012 by dcairns

First, a Vampira limerick. Next ~


Last we saw, Houdini’s neck was in a noose and he was bound hand and foot by thugs dressed as monks. Foolish monks! Love laughs at locksmiths and Houdini honks at headsmen. More seriously, his significant other, Marguerite Marsh, was about to have her face seared off by the laser beam eyes of a graven idol. And that can’t be good.

Now read on…

As a trap door opens ‘neath Houdini’s feet, he frees his hands by expert wriggling and lifts himself up onto the chandelier from which he is hung. Zita, recovering from a recent concussion, rushes forward and brains one monk with a vase, sending him toppling through the trap and into the fiery furnace below. HH now engages in an impressive bout of inverted fisticuffs, hanging upside-down from the light fitting and punching another monk into the flaming pit. Dropping to the floor he incinerates another opponent, and settles for punching the last one into a state of idleness.

Rushing next door, he saves MM from almost certain disintegration, going so far as to shove one of her assailants under the laser just so we can see what that’s like. Zita, HH and MM flee through the big doors before the Automaton, lumbering at top speed, can catch up with them. Then they all go home for a chat.

Zita has finally decided which side she’s on, with the aid of an intertitle showing a bleak landscape whose boulders are engraved with the names of the supporting cast. I wish I had something like that to help me reach decisions.

The goodies decide to use Zita as a double agent, but vamp Deluxe Dora soon rumbles her and sets a trap. The question of whether Zita is in fact MM’s half-sister remains unsettled, even after Harry produces what purports to be a birth certificate. Oh, and the evil Dacoit turns up again in a wicker basket, and Harry belts him one. I think that’s him out of the picture.

By the way, co-scenarist Arthur B Reeve (THE CLUTCHING HAND) also penned THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE, which I am anxious to see, since an enticing image from it appears in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. Let me know if you have a copy.

Balcom disposes of incriminating documents. Yeah, you can get rid of Mitt Romney’s tax returns while you’re at it.

Mr Brent, MM’s dad, the one with the laughing madness, is abducted from his own home via secret passage. HH rigs up a trick camera to locate the entrance, and snaps the weaselly Balcom in the act of egress. At last, he gains access to the secret underground lair, where he embarks on a tussle with his corporate foe.

BOOM! Balcom had rigged the cave to explode, and Harry falls on the detonator with him. Meanwhile, Zita and Marguerite are menaced by thugs outside.

Can Harry escape from under a big heap of boulders? (I know, it seems inconceivable.) Tune in next week!

Dracula Schmacula

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2012 by dcairns

SON OF DRACULA, “starring” Harry Nilsson, “directed” by Freddie Francis and “produced” by Ringo Starr, seems to have been brought into being solely to disabuse me, decades after its creation, of several of my most long-cherished beliefs. These are ~

(1) The 1970s were cool (THE GODFATHER and PULP can be seen advertised in the background of a couple of shots, but they can’t compete with the awful guff going on in the foreground).

(2) The presence of Dennis Price in a vampire film is always a good sign (VAMPYROS LESBOS).

(3) Ringo Starr is a fundamentally well-meaning man who wants me to have a good time (HELP!, CANDY).

(4) Rock musicals with Frankenstein elements are the key to human happiness  (ROCKY HORROR, LISZTOMANIA)

(5) Keith Moon was exclusively in very great films (TOMMY, SEXTETTE)

(6) T Rex had alchemical powers which transmuted everything they touched into gold.

(7) Jenny Runacre can make anything cool (THE FINAL PROGRAMME).

(8) Dracula films with motorbikes are cool (THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA).

(9) Freddie Jones is the kind of guy you can depend on to learn his lines.

(10)  Shakira Caine was only ever in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and never made any films where she turned into a housecat.

All of these self-evident truths, previously held to be inviolate, are thrown into question by this shambling travesty — how shall I go on in a world where NOTHING is certain?

Harry Nilsson is a new kind of Dracula — quiet, authoritative, ginger. He plays the whole thing straight, which might have worked if everybody had gone along with it. After all, the script, by actress Jennifer Jayne working under a pseudonym (wisely), doesn’t actually provide any gags — apart from Dracula Jnr being called Count Down, for no reason. Ringo, as Merlin (what’s Merlin doing in this???), is Ringo. The rest of the rock stars just play music, which is a bit of a waste. The way to redeem this farrago would have been to play it absolutely straight, cutting all the “comedy” which would have taken about three minutes of script revision, and casting inappropriate musicians in all roles. THEN it might have been funny. Freddie Jones as Baron Frankenstein tries, apart from the aforementioned difficulty with the lines (which are often unspeakable sci-fi gibberish, to be fair), but think what Keith Moon could have done! Seized the role by the throat and worried it to death, I should think. And Dennis Price as Van Helsing? Sure, he seems to have sobered up for the day’s work, and Francis shoots him as if he was actually there, in the scene with the other players, which must have been a bewildering change for Price, who was usually filmed to  look as much like stock footage as possible (see HORROR HOSPITAL if you don’t believe me), but this has the effect of depriving Peter Frampton of the opportunity to wear a goatee and operate lab equipment. It’s a terrible injustice.

I was slightly surprised that this seriously obscure film, lost in the mists of time and hard drugs, features songs I recognized — that echoing yelling number (Jump into the Fire) that plays during Ray Liotta’s last day as a goodfella in GOODFELLAS, and this

Extra points for recognizing the space footage swiped from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. At least Freddie Francis worked on AMOLAD. Did David Niven feel raped? Probably not — he was too busy making VAMPIRA.

Francis apparently had a horrible time on this film — not the world’s greatest director (but one of the greatest cinematographers, as THE INNOCENTS and THE ELEPHANT MAN testify), he found himself employed on a rock folly tax dodge, where the professionalism which was his main attribute as director was not respected or required. He says it led him to give up directing, although one notes that he had not hit bottom yet — he made CRAZE the same year, with Satanist Jack Palance trolling for sacrificial victims in the Raymond Revuebar. The following year’s THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF are shoddy, but mark a slight step up.

The Revuebar is glimpsed here too, in a Swinging London travelogue which actually contains the film’s only moments of visual felicity — a girl walks past and a neon light flicks on offscreen just as she catches the vampire’s eye, causing her to flare red — and the Coke sign’s red wave lights up from top to bottom EXACTLY like a pool of blood flowing downhill.

One odd thing among many — SON OF DRACULA is actually set in the future. An opening title gives the date of Dracula’s staking as “the 1880s” — which is strangely vague, as if the writer is unsure of her facts — and Count Down’s coronation, which takes up most of the plot, is set “a hundred years later” — also, he gets from Transylvania to London via the Channel Tunnel, which did not yet exist in 1974 (it’s represented by an underground car park — this is, after all, a film which boasts of being made “entirely on location”). Yet despite all this, Piccadilly Circus still boasts ads for THE GODFATHER.

Francis would show this blithe disregard for setting again in THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, Dylan Thomas’ Burke and Hare script, belatedly filmed in 1985. Relocating the story to London would have been a perfectly reasonable action, since the characters are all re-named anyway, but Francis inexplicably keeps the Edinburgh locale (with a single location shot of Arthur’s Seat) but has everybody talk in cockney accents. I can understand him not wanting to give himself a migraine by reading the SON OF DRACULA script too closely, but when Dylan Thomas is involved, I think a little more care would be welcome.

I am indebted to Shadowplay informant Danny Carr for reminding me that S.O.D. (“an Apple Production”) existed, thus prompting me to obtain a copy. Remind me to stab him in the forehead next time I see him.