review – Milwaukee in the 1930s: A Federal Writers Project City Guide

Milwaukee in the 1930s:
A Federal Writers Project City Guide
edited by John D. Buenker
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0870207426

In 1935, Roosevelt’s WPA announced The Federal Writers Project, a way to provide jobs to white collar workers (historians, writers, teachers, et al) displaced by the Great Depression. It was successful, employing over 6000 writers, some who would become household names, such as John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, and Studs Terkel.

The most well-known product of the FWP was the “The American Guide Series. Authors subsidized by the federal project but printed by individual states would compile books that were equal parts history and tourism. To a historian, they are a goldmine of contemporary descriptions of cities, attractions, and photographs. The project proved so successful doing the 48 states that the scope was widened to include regions, large cities, and American territories.

Federal funding ended in 1939 with the growing threat of another war, but some states continued to support the project until 1941. One of the casualties of the loss of funding was Guide to Milwaukee, which was completed and ready to publish in 1940. It never saw the light of day. It languished in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives for 75 years, until rediscovered. The Wisconsin Historical Society Press and historian John D. Buenker have published the book, now a time capsule of Milwaukee in the 1930s, revisiting long lost neighborhoods and exploring local perspectives on landmarks and buildings. Beautifully illustrated with maps showing each neighborhood, it’s a remarkable resource for historically minded writers, a valuable resource for historians and genealogists, and a priceless gift for someone who lived there at the time.

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review: Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places

Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places

edited by J. R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec
EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1770530522

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor George Edward Challenger has seen a resurgence in popularity. Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places is the latest addition to the growing body of work based on the belligerent Victorian genius with a big heart and a bigger ego. It’s not a bad anthology, but neither is it raising the bar for new Challenger stories.

The problem is that Challenger is a complicated character, and much as writers focus on Sherlock Holmes haughtily superior intellect, there is a tendency to swell upon the abrasive elements of Challenger. I think all the stories merit inclusion in the anthology, but I disagree with the sequence in which the appear. The abrasiveness of Challenger would be far less in the foreground of readers’ perception if the first two stories were ensconced later in the contents.

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review – Zombies from the Pulps! – Twenty Classic Stories of the Walking Dead

Zombies from the Pulps! – Twenty Classic Stories of the Walking Dead
Edited by Jeffrey Shanks
Skelos Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-1495236044

Folklorist Elsie Parsons notes that as late as 1928 the term ‘zombie’ was virtually unknown outside Haiti. That changed in 1929 when William Seabrook published a popular travel book on Haiti called The Magic Island. Although only one chapter covers the zombie, it was enough to attract the attention of the entertainment industry. Based on the material, Kenneth Webb’s 1932 play Zombie opened on Broadway to no acclaim, closing within the month after 21 performances. By that time, the film White Zombie started filming. Bela Lugosi, still at the height of fame from Dracula, ensured the term entered the mainstream pop culture, and even Webster’s Dictionary added the word in the 1935 edition.

Peter Dendle, a Professor of English at Penn State, makes an unfortunate error in his Zombie Movie Encyclopedia(2000) by declaring that compared to the other monsters that resonated with the public such vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein Monster, “zombies, in fact, made the leap from mythology to cinema with almost no previous literary tradition.” It seems Dr. Dendle didn’t know where to look. Fortunately, Jeffrey Shanks knew exactly where to look.

Shanks went back to the classic pulp magazines and found that zombies were far more plentiful than Dendle would suggest, even if the word zombie wasn’t specifically used. Zombies from the Pulps! It is a collection of 20 classic tales from such pulp magazines as Weird Tales and Thrilling Mysteries, many of which have never been reprinted. There are a couple of stories that might not be unexpected, such as Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” and Henry S. Whitehead’s “Jumbee,” but the full gamut of the masters of the pulp era are here as well – Seabury Quinn, Manly Wade Wellman, Robert Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Of special note is the 1931 story, “Salt is Not for Slaves” by G.W. Hutter, the pen name of Garnett Weston, who would then write the screenplay for White Zombie.

Whether you’re a fan of shamblers, runners or any type of walking dead, this is a must have on your shelf. In addition to a flawless selection of early zombie tales, Shanks, a noted historian and scholar of early 20th century popular culture and speculative fiction, has included an insightful overview of the development of the genre that everyone knows and fears. Just try not to trip when running for your life – it just makes the zombies lazy.

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review – Letters to Robert Bloch and Others

The seventh collection of the Letters to H.P. Lovecraft may be one of the more important in the series. The other volumes span years of correspondents with an individual; The August Derleth letters alone are a two-volume
e set spanning 1926 to 1937. It has been suggested that had Lovecraft not been a writer of weird fiction, he would still be known for the scope, range, and quantity of his correspondence.

This volume is different. These are letters from the end of Lovecraft’s life, responding to notes from fans who have read his work in Weird Tales who wanted to become writers. And of all the correspondents that Lovecraft tutored, none achieved the success of Robert Bloch, who would later pen the 1959 novel Psycho of Hitchcock film fame. From his first letter to Lovecraft 1933, the 16-year old Bloch takes the advice of his mentor to heart and soon, Lovecraft is impressed with his commercial success in the pulps.

Included after Bloch letter are correspondence to other, lesser known figures including Kenneth Sterling (who collaborated with Lovecraft on “In the Walls of Eryx”), Donald A. Wollheim (co-founder of Arkham House ), Willis Conover (jazz producer), and Natalie Wooley (poet and amateur journalism figure). In these letters we see the mature Lovecraft, carefully pointing potential authors to the appropriate markets, making suggestions whose work to read, and sharing the same tattered manuscripts that had been passed among friends for a decade. And as the letters creep toward his March 1937 death, the discussions remain as eclectic and intellectual, but references to his ill-health begin to creep in.  It is only in his brief, poignant reply to Willis Conover, six days before cancer claimed him, that Lovecraft admits he is very ill.

The book is priced consistently with the other single volumes in the series but there’s close to 100 pages of material such appendices of works by the correspondents and bibliographies. Considering the total page count is 550, I can’t help but wonder if there really is a need for things such as a glossary of frequently mentioned names. It’s the seventh book in the series (eighth if you include the OOP Robert Howard 2-volume set). Factor in the various biographies and frankly, if you don’t know all the names by now, you’re probably not the target audience to start with. And if you are the Lovecraftian aficionado who needs to see the inner workings of the Old Gent’s mind, this books should be on your shopping list. Especially since you’ll want to digest this one before the next one is released next year.




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Dave’s 15 film picks for Halloween.

Dave’s 15 film picks for Halloween.

Everyone makes a list of movies to watch at Halloween. Well, this year, here’s a list of films to watch at Halloween with a twist – they all take place on/around Halloween. So, comedies, animation, scary – whatever the format or genre, they are – they’re Halloween movies.

Hocus Pocus (1993)
Halloween (1978)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Satan’s Little Helper (2004)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Idle Hands (1999)
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Jack-O (1995)
Night of the Demons (1988)
American Nightmare (2002)
Stan Helsing (2009)
Halloweentown (1998 TV Movie)
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966 TV Movie)
The Halloween Tree (1993 TV Movie)
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976 TV Special)

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Review – Forsaken

J.D. Barker
Hampton Creek Press (2014)

The premise of Forsaken is that horror writer Thad McAlister’s success has been brought about by the malevolent influence of the 17th century notebook his wife bought him as a gift. Although the bestselling books Thad has written are assumed to be fictional, they were based on actual events, implanted in the author’s mind by the gift, using it as a journal where he jots down his notes. The book is a series of mercifully short chapters (all 103 of them), leaping from the author’s realization that the witch in his latest book is both real and manipulating him to freeing her from her prison, to his family in North Carolina who are under siege by the witch’s minion, to the original witch trial in 1692 Shadow Cove, Massachusetts. The jumps to the past are where the story falls apart.

Barker’s grasp of colonial Massachusetts is particularly weak, starting with the first chapter set in 1692 with the witch trial being held in a church and where Clayton Stone, the witness to the trial, pauses to make the sign of the cross with Holy Water from the font at the entry. Later references include the witch being led into the trial by two congregants bearing wooden crosses doused with holy water, the magistrate making the sign of the cross, and the townsfolk forming a mob carrying crosses and holy water. This suggests a Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran denomination, none of which would be in Puritan Massachusetts. Such a church could not exist and certainly wouldn’t have been the location of a witch trial. That would been held in the local courthouse or at least the meeting house which admittedly also served as the church.

A pet peeve of mine in particular is that Magistrate Tauber is referred to as having burned witches before. If he did, it was not in New England. All the convicted witches, starting in 1647 Connecticut and including the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, were tried under English law, which was in effect in New England. English law dictated witchcraft was a felony, punishable by death by hanging. The Magistrate Tauber’s name is German, so it could be argued he have burned witches for heresy in continental Europe, but a German would never be allowed to be a magistrate.

Then there’s the whole bougainvillea theme, prevalent in both the modern and colonial story lines. Apparently ancient evils from Europe use South American plants in their spell casting both as a component and as a tool, sealing Thad’s wife and daughter in their house by an impenetrable thicket of thorny bougainvillea. How Clayton Stone knew they were bougainvillea in 1692 Shadow Cove is a mystery as the plant was not recorded by Europeans until 1789. Additionally author Barker goes on about the sickly smell and the pink, red, and purple flowers. This is a bit of a problem, since the only bougainvillea with a scent is the Arborea variety, which has no thorns to turn into a thicket, and blooms a light lavender color.

You know a book is in trouble when the prologue destroys the willing suspension of disbelief required for any story to work, regardless of genre. Forsaken opens and closes with chapters featuring Thad’s wife purchasing the cursed journal from Leland Gaunt at the Needful Things shop in Castle Rock, Maine. A passing nod to Stephen King is tucked into the acknowledgement. Assuming the wording also infers permission, the reader is left scratching his head as to the point of trying to connect this work to Stephen King’s universe. The premise, as hackneyed as it is, works on its own without forcing it into a better writer’s universe.

Intrigued by the sheer audacity of the prologue and epilogue, I went looking for more information. The Publisher is a build-your-own website without its own domain name. The website is partially finished, and only has this book listed, in spite claims to have been in operation since 1971. The publisher’s address in Shadow Cove, the fictional town used in the book (located between Kingston and Plymouth, Massachusetts based on context in the book). Thad McAlister, the fictional author-protagonist in the book also has a website, touting his imaginary works (i.e. future sequels) and fake book reviews. Barker, the book’s author lives in the same fictional Shadow Cove, and his college degree is from Beaumont University, which was invented to help market King’s Red Rose mini-series in 2002. Even the cover from a book-cover design company includes testimonials from happy customers, including a glowing endorsement from the fictional Thad McAlister. As a reviewer, I don’t care if a book is from a major publisher or self-published. But don’t insult my intelligence with obfuscation and sock puppets. It makes me wonder if the author is unsuccessfully trying to be clever or lacks faith in the book to the point of obscuring details about the publisher and author.

The ending telegraphs the opening of book two (the cover carefully notes this debut is only book one). Let’s hope that the author devotes little less time to feckless marketing ploys and more time to story development.

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review – Undead Obsessed: Finding Meaning in Zombies

undead-obsessedUndead Obsessed: Finding Meaning in Zombies
Jessica Robinson
Booktrope Editions, 2014

Jessica Robinson was in junior high when she was justifiably creeped out by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead(1968). Thus began her lifelong obsession with the walking dead. While other horror fans would be content with watching and collecting the cinematic exploits of the anthropophagic undead, Robinson ascends that limitation in search of enlightenment. She wishes to understand the meaning behind zombie films, pondering the koan of the living dead and the sudden popularity of the genre. She wants to know why zombies strike such fear in the hearts of the living.

The book alternates between a being history of zombiism and a journal of self-discovery. Robinson wisely starts her history outside of the Caribbean, noting the European and Asian types of living dead. Creatures such as the revenant, nachzehrer, draugr, vetala, and jiangshi are not zombies per se, but manifest traits that would be incorporated into an archetypic zombie. Although the book tends to focus on films a little too heavily in spots, it is appropriate in discussing the social aspects of zombies as a metaphor for modern fear of science playing god one too many times. This, of course, includes Frankenstein and Re-Animator. She then segues in to some of the ways science could trigger the zombie apocalypse, such as her personal favorite, wastewater processing plants. After all, as Robinson notes, zombies are basically walking pathogens with the sole purpose to infect and destroy the world. Conversely, she also notes science may be the only thing that can save us from the onslaught of the walking dead.

Printed source material is really Robinson’s weakest point. Fiction is lightly covered at best, and short form is completely neglected. For all the discussion on the film Re-Animator (1985), she never mentions the source: the short story Herbert West—Re-Animator by H.P. Lovecraft. Nor does she mention the voodoo tales of Henry S. Whitehead. These are egregious oversights, but easily remedied in an expanded second edition.

This weakness aside, Robinson covers an extraordinarily broad array of topics. It’s a fun book, assuming panspermia, sewerage, and epidemics are your idea of a good time. Of course, if you’re reading a review of a book on zombies, that’s already a given.


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