Hatcher’s Junk Drawer #1

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See, here’s the thing. Some weeks, you don’t have a whole column’s worth of stuff. Sometimes it’s just little bits and pieces. None of them is really worth a whole column by itself, but nevertheless you hate to skip them.

So I stitched them together into the compilation you’ll find below. I used to do this at the old stand every so often under the title “Cross-Hatchings,” but I didn’t want to use that one here, though it’s essentially the same thing. Since we’re the Junk Shop, I settled on “Junk Drawer.” And here it is.

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The Twilight Zone, Because You Demanded it! One of the comments on the Bond column a couple of weeks ago was this, from “fit2print”:

Given that you seem to be accepting “challenges” from readers — in this case it’s more of a polite suggestion — I’d love to hear… well, read… your thoughts on the enduring influence of The Twilight Zone.

We do try to take requests around here, within reason. Here’s the problem: I don’t think I have anything to say about The Twilight Zone that hasn’t already been said some hundreds of times. I absolutely acknowledge how much ground Serling broke with that show and what a huge step forward it was for SF and fantasy on television.

But here’s my terrible secret… I don’t actually like it very much.

Certainly, the Richard Matheson episodes were genius, and I love the same four or five classic entries everyone does… you know, Shatner with the gremlin on the wing, Burgess Meredith in “Printer’s Devil,” and so on and so on. But overall, there are an awful lot of episodes that are not nearly so stellar. There’s a weird blend of nostalgia for small-town America (that frankly I do not share) and a formulaic need for a shock ending that often for me isn’t a shock so much as a non sequitur. Like the one that has all the characters in a giant round room that is actually a toy bin or a trash can or something.

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For me, that is much more typical of the show, where the big reveal usually has me going “I don’t see the point.”

What I really do love about it is all the other shows it gave birth to. In particular, the original Outer Limits. That show was like the Zone but with real teeth. To this day, “The Mutant” still freaks me out. That was just goddamn scary.

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Or “Demon With A Glass Hand,” or “The Zanti Misfits,” or any of a dozen others. Unlike TZ, Outer Limits had an hour, and more of a hard-edged science-fiction vibe. That’s more my thing.

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(In fairness, when Twilight Zone went to an hour in its fourth season, those episodes tend to be the ones I like the most.)

But honestly if you pinned me to the wall and demanded I choose, I’m with Stephen King on this one. It was his recommendation in Danse Macabre that made me go looking and having seen the show for myself I am enthusiastically in agreement. The one I love enough to actually own as part of the library is Thriller, with Boris Karloff.

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Technically, this was supposed to be more of a crime noir series like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but they found the supernatural horror pretty quickly, and they were seriously badass for a network TV series in the early sixties. I’m amazed that the adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons From Hell” didn’t get the show canceled.

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Best of all, it was mostly suggestion and shadow that made the show work, which means it has aged much better than even The Outer Limits, which often was hurt by having to make galactic-scale SF on a 1963 TV budget.

But the real strength of Thriller was its adult sensibility and its willingness to GO THERE, back when you thought they couldn’t do that stuff on television. They were really hitting a groove by the end of the first season, and the quality remained higher, on average, than any of its companion anthology series back then. The whole thing’s out on DVD but if you just want a sampler, there’s a Fan Favorites best-of collection that’s well worth the investment.

There have been lots of shows since then that tried to capture the magic, including revivals of both Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. But none of those really do much for me either, though Phil DuGuere’s Zone revival in the 1980s did some pretty cool stuff.

I do have a soft spot for Night Gallery, though. Not so much because it was a brilliant show or anything, though I do prefer it to TZ most of the time; I think it was more ambitious, and more inclusive of the larger SF/fantasy/horror community of writers.

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But really, it’s because there was a time in the 1980s when my life just sucked out loud and I was working a shitty job at a shitty restaurant, and when I’d crawl home like a whipped cur every night feeling like I was a failure at everything, I usually arrived right about when the local station would be showing Night Gallery as a follow-up to the eleven o’clock news. And it was a pleasant diversion to watch Rod Serling’s TV horrors instead of thinking about the drab one I was living at the time, and also I liked seeing writers I recognized getting stories adapted for television. To this day I can never see that show without thinking about those nights watching it in my filthy greasy work clothes, trying to summon enough energy to at least shower the vestigial restaurant coating of ick off before bed. (If you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen, you know. If you haven’t, trust me, you don’t want to.)

So. That’s what I think. Since you asked. Feel free to weigh in down below in the comments, but please, folks, don’t try to convert me on the subject of The Twilight Zone. Many have tried. It’s not that I haven’t seen the good ones. I just like the other shows named above better.

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More Hard Cases! I keep getting these sent to me for review…and they keep delighting me. Honest, if I didn’t like one I’d say so, but the imprint might as well be called Hatcher’s Favorite Pulp Noir Things the way it’s going. They always manage to get my inner book-nerd or my inner pulp fanboy, and in this case, it’s both. The two latest entries are both fun books in their own right and also interesting historical curiosities. I don’t know how Hard Case editor Charles Ardai keeps finding these but damn, I’m sure glad he does.

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New stuff from Lawrence Block is always a treat– I’ve been an admirer of his since around 1994, when my friend Mary Perham, a very fine writer herself by the way, sent me three or four of Block’s Matthew Scudder novels and told me, “You NEED to read these. They are so you.” And, well, they were.

In this case, though, Sinner Man is something very different. It’s not a Matt Scudder story, and it’s not even a mystery, really. It’s Block’s first novel, though it didn’t get published right away. Instead, it got put in a drawer for about eight years until he found a home for a vastly rewritten version at a schlocky paperback house under a pen name. (The afterword where Block recounts this history is worth it all by itself, it’s wryly funny and realistic about the challenges faced by a working writer with bills to pay, then and now.) But this is the real thing, newly revised by Block himself. The blurb is this: To escape punishment for a murder he didn’t mean to commit, insurance man Don Barshter has to take on a new identity: Nathaniel Crowley, ferocious up-and-comer in the New York mob. But can he find safety in the skin of another man…a worse man…a sinner man…? But that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a riff on that old adage, “We must be careful who we pretend to be, because that is what we become.” To say more would be to spoil it, but it’s worth it even if you are not a big Block fan. If you are, though, it’s a must-have.

But even more interesting and surprising to me was the Gardner book, The Knife Slipped. Most people know Erle Stanley Gardner for Perry Mason, but the guy was a fiction factory. He had multiple series going for decades, both under his own name and as “A.A. Fair,” as well as dozens of other pseudonyms, starring characters ranging from tough D.A. Doug Selby to masked outlaw The Patent-Leather Kid.

The Knife Slipped
is one of the Cool and Lam stories. Bertha Cool, an avaricious overweight widow in her 60s, runs a detective agency in Los Angeles, and her chief operative is scrawny disbarred lawyer Donald Lam. Lam is almost the anti-hard-boiled P.I.; he is usually the guy taking the beatings, not dispensing them, and he doesn’t carry a gun. This was one of the few series Gardner kept going after Perry Mason hit big; there are around thirty books featuring Cool and Lam (that sounds like a lot until you figure that he did eighty-two books about Perry Mason. Like I said, the guy was a factory.)

I’d never really looked into the Cool and Lam books before, because, while I enjoy a Perry Mason book once in a while, the Masons always are a bit formulaic and undemanding. I rarely can remember much about any individual novel in the series, and though the Raymond Burr TV show is a favorite in our household, those kind of run together for me too. I like them well enough, but strictly as an occasional comfort-food read. They were never something that I had to have more of after finishing one.

But Cool and Lam is a whole other story. Turns out that Mr. Gardner had some serious chops after all. Gardner could always plot a clever mystery, no question, but all the memorable character stuff that’s missing from most of the Masons is here in abundant supply as well. I’d never get The Knife Slipped mixed up with another book in the series, I’m sure. The stories are narrated by Lam in the first person, and the writing crackles with a wit and humor you rarely see in the Mason novels. This ‘lost’ manuscript was originally the second in the series and features Cool and Lam falling afoul of the local political machine after a divorce case blows up into a murder. An afterword explains that the book was rejected and rather than try to retool it Gardner just moved on to the next one. So it sat in the estate files until Hard Case brought it out. I gather that it must have been a bit too racy for the times, but personally, I adored it. I am going to have to dig out some of the others now and see if the rest of the books about Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are as much fun as this one was.

So again, that’s two for two from Hard Case Crime. I keep thinking they’re going to send me a dud one of these times, but so far I’ve enjoyed every one, and these two, especially, ended up being standouts. If you like tough mystery and crime stories, I imagine you would enjoy them as well.

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Back To Skull Island! No, not the movie, though I did see the new trailer and it looks like a lot of fun.

But I’m talking about Will Murray’s Doc Savage novel Skull Island, where a young Doc voyages to Skull Island with his father on the schooner Orion to try and find legendary sailor Stormalong Savage, Doc’s grandfather. Adventure ensues.

The interesting thing about it– for me, anyway– was how defiant Murray was about putting in all the backstory about Doc Savage himself, a great deal of it in direct contradiction to what Philip Jose Farmer posited in his Doc biography that helped birth the whole Wold Newton phenomenon. To put an extra point on it, Murray even has Doc talking about ‘fictional character’ Tarzan of the Apes.

The mild online kerfuffle between Murray and the Wold Newton folks that ensued walks and talks and sheds water like the ridiculous arguments you used to see on comic book message boards all the time about whether or not Batman could beat Thor with enough prep time. I don’t really have a horse in the race, other than to say I enjoy both Farmer’s Wold Newton series of books and also Murray’s Skull Island, which is pretty much everything you’d want in a Doc Savage/King Kong adventure.

But remembering that little online spat when Skull Island came out, I could only shake my head and smile when I saw the advance art for Murray’s new project.

Am I in for the book? Yeah, you bet. Murray’s a fine pulp writer in the old tradition, and he did a couple of Batman prose stories I liked a lot, too. But I am going to have to avoid the Wold Newton boards for a little while when it comes out, I expect. Even money that there’s a bit in the new book where Murray trolls them by having Tarzan snort derisively at the very idea of the fictional “Doc Savage.”

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And that’s all I’ve got, this time out. A quick reminder– if you should happen to click on any of the Amazon links and do a little shopping thereafter, we get a referral fee. Every little bit helps, and it keeps us from having to put up a lot of annoying ads.

Back next week with something cool.

6 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Junk drawer. Love it.
    And man, again rubbing it in about being on the Hard Case review list… I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Gardner (although just a few weeks ago I snapped an old Perry Mason book out of a library gift box), but you’ve definitely got me interested in this one. As for Block, yep, I love his stuff – he crafts such good, gritty noir stories, so I’m definitely interested in Sinner Man.

    As to the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits – yep, that’s one of those eternal questions/dichotomies. It’s a tough one for me, but usually I give TZ a slight, razor-thin edge. As for Night Gallery and Thriller, I’ve never seen any of either, which I really regret.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Hard Case Crime has the best covers in the industry!

    I’m kind of with you on the Twilight Zone. I haven’t seen everything; but, enough to know there are some I really like and a lot that I am indifferent towards. I’ve only watched the Ellison Outer Limits episodes and love them; no Night Gallery or Thriller (cue the music…).

    Skull Island is one I need to hunt down and the new one sounds like a must-have.

  3. I’m probably glad that the url didn’t cut out after the first 2 words of the post title, aren’t I? 😉

    Eventually I should have a lot to say about TZ and NG, as I was born, raised, and still reside in the area where Rod Serling grew up. If I get a decent camera, I should take some pics around town come spring. (Not now, we’re buried in a damn foot of snow!)

    I just snagged that s2 set of NG at a local big box store. I may need to use your Amazon link to get s3, though!

  4. fit2print

    Request granted. Thanks for that, Greg, You’d be my new favorite DJ if you spun records instead of, you know, tales about comics and other, umm, atomic junk.

    Alas, TZ might not have been the formative influence for you that it was for me but it’s good to hear you were a fan of its many TV offshoots (I’d nearly forgotten about “Thriller” — the comic of that name was pretty good too, if memory serves — completely unrelated “Thriller,” I know — and Jacko, no, we are most certainly not talking about your “Thriller”).

    I’m not sure whether “Masters of Horror” would also qualify as TZ-inspired but it’s another title that springs to mind whenever the subject of freakishly fucked-up TV series comes up in conversation… as it does.

    I’ll be the first to admit that TZ could be hit and miss (more often the latter, as you say) but, man, when one of those end-of-episode sucker punches landed, you really felt it. To this day, I shudder a bit at the memory of the removing-the-bandages scene that closes “Eye of the Beholder”. I’m pretty sure it messed with my head for days, no doubt in part because I was in grade school when I first saw it but still…. Even that Dan Ackroyd reveal in the opening segment of the TZ movie sticks in my mind as one of the bigger onscreen shocks I experienced as a (very young) kid. Yep, clearly it didn’t take much to scare the bejeezus out of me in those days. I probably haven;t changed that much…

    Anyway, to be honest when I put in my request for your thoughts on TZ, I was also looking to pick your brain on comics that you see as having been inspired by the show or that at least have a similar “vibe” to them — I mentioned “Abaddon”, “Sandcastle” and “Sin Titulo” and since then it occurred to me that the late, great Darwyn Cooke’s “Twilight’s Children” also fit the bill (there’s also that 80s anthology “Wasteland”, come to think of it). I’d still welcome any suggestions you (or any fellow “commenters” might have). Yes, you’d think the Bizarro World of US politics would be enough to satisfy my thirst for Twilight Zone-esque narratives but oddly enough it’s my aim to escape into even stranger dimensions of sight, sound and (out of his) mind than even Der Fuhrious Don John can come up with. Any pop culture drugs you can supply would be greatly appreciated…

    1. If ever I get around to finding it and reading it and digesting it well, I’ll write about the comic Thriller and about Wasteland (what I have of it), because the latter is an especially freaky book.

      It’s on my (very very) long list of stuff to write about eventually. The Someday List (ooh, when I get stuck sometime, I’ve got a column name and premise. Don’t nobody else take that one!)

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