Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful is fantastic serial story telling at its best.

Kbatz: Penny Dreadful Season 1 |

Long before cable and network TV, before affordable paperback books, comic books, and pulp fiction, when Victoria Regina reigned over a worldwide British empire, kids (and adults) found escapist entertainment in the pages of the “penny dreadful.”  The first word—penny—referred to the cover price. Educated and cultured folks used the second word—dreadful—to describe and demean their content—fantastic stories—popular tales of action and adventure, humor and horror. The two most popular genres were American Westerns and tales of the supernatural, largely from European folklore—ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and undead Egyptian mummies.

Penny Dreadful (TV Series 2014–2016) - IMDb

The late lamented TV series PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) encompasses both genres—horrific fantasy and guns-ablaze Western adventure in one sweeping wonderful three-season story. It’s true to its 19th-century roots, its spin on old genres is wonderfully fresh and original, its storylines are familiar but different, its characters and settings bizarre and exotic. The art design and music perfectly complement everything else. Kudos first of all to series creator John Logan.

It’s billed as “drama fantasy horror,” and delivers on all three genres. For drama, it presents an unforgettable protagonist (see more below) on her dramatic journey from selfish orphan through progressive loss and heartbreak to tragic destiny as “Queen of Darkness.” I loved her and wept for her— and tears shed are one of my criteria for effective drama. It provides enough fright, shock, and revulsion to earn its horror tag, but not so much as to overwhelm the dramatic  (and romantic) fantasy at its heart.

Penny Dreadful (2014) [S01E01] - Night Work | Josh Hartnett as Ethan  Chandler, Harry Treadaway as Dr.… | Penny dreadful, Penny dreadful tv  series, Best new tv shows

Like all good drama, Penny Dreadful is character-driven—and it’s cast of characters touch virtually every horror fantasy of the era, including:

  • Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and his Creature
  • An American Werewolf in London (couldn’t resist using that expression)
  • Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, portrait and all
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll (but not alas Mr. Hyde),
  • Several characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the Prince of Darkness himself
  • An assortment of witches (one benign and others diabolical), demons, vampires, and memorable prostitutes (it wouldn’t be true to the dark side of Victorian London without prostitutes).

Their stories (artfully spun in new ways) are interwoven into the series-through-line in unexpected and intriguing ways.

Speaking of prostitutes, and just to give a sense of how these varied tales intersect—one of the downtrodden streetwalkers is Lily—the doomed (by TB) love of our American Werewolf hero. After Lily’s death, Doctor Frankenstein resurrects her as the intended bride of his Creature, only to fall for her himself, and whom she spurns in favor of the dazzlingly decadent Dorian Gray, whom she nearly destroys. Got all that? That’s only one part of just one subplot! If it sounds soap-opera ish, fear not, it isn’t.

Penny Dreadful" Fresh Hell (TV Episode 2015) - IMDb

The dramatic heart of PENNY DREADFUL, the main character—to whom all other major characters and in whom all subplots connect—is Vanessa Ives, unforgettably portrayed by Eva Green. Vanessa is a psychically gifted woman drawn to the dark side despite her essentially spiritual nature. Beset by guilt for betraying a friend of her youth, she suffers greatly—from demonic possession, madness, what passes for psychiatric care in Victorian England, physical and psychic assault by demons and witches, and seduction by a charming cultured Dracula—on the path to her fate. Good writing and great acting transform what could have been a jumbled melodrama into something elevated.

Vanessa has a cadre of loyal friends and supporters:

  • The American sharpshooter, Ethan (our werewolf, played poignantly by Josh Hartnett) whom she recruits from a touring wild west show, who comes to love her and ultimately saves her soul
  • Sir Malcolm Murray (Timoth Dalton) who takes her into his heart and household after his daughter disappears
  • Sembene (Danny Sapani), a formidable warrior, Sir Malcolm’s loyal friend and servant
  • Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)
  • Frankenstein’s Creature, aka John Clare (heartbreakingly portrayed by Rory Kinnear)
  • Dr Seward/Joan Clayton (both played by Patty Lupone), two mentors, witch and psychiatrist, who aid Vanessa at critical junctures on her journey

It would take detailed notation and organization while studying all episodes to do justice to all the characters and interwoven storylines. I’ve only watched the full series twice and was too rapt to make notes. It’s worthy of a book—idea noted.

My strong recommendation is to watch this series, the best horror fantasy I have ever seen on any screen, large or small.

October the First Is Too Late

October the First Is Too Late - Wikipedia

A fantastic science fiction tale by Fred Hoyle

This is a novel from my youth, I first read it in college, and a book from my youth also, I still have the Science Fiction Book Club edition from the same era, one of the few books that have survived successive purges of my personal library over the years. On an impulse, while waiting to pick up a new novel on hold at the library, I picked it up to reread. I’m glad I did. It’s a story about people and societies displaced in time, not exactly time travel but in that sci-fi vein. For me, reading it again was also a kind of time travel, as it awakened memories of reading it and my life and times in that distant era, half a century past. The book, unlike some I’d loved in my youth and not so much in my maturity, stand the test of time (that word again). Fred Hoyle was a distinguished astrophysicist, the first to recognize that we (and everything) are made of star stuff, elements forged in stellar nuclear reactions and dispersed in nova and supernova explosions. His parents were both musicians. His scientific background makes his science fiction truly “science” fiction. Science and music both permeate and inform this novel of a work that’s a patchwork of cultures and places from different eras in which the protagonist is a composer and pianist. One scene in particular, a contest between piano and lyre in a temple of Apollo in the golden age of Athens stayed with me over the years and decades and prompted me to read again. Somewhat to my surprise, it’s still available on Amazon. I recommend it if you like subtle nuanced science fiction.

Alien & Aliens

From Horror to Action Adventure

The story told in the Alien films, at least the first two—Alien and Aliens—is a fantastic tale that combines elements of multiple genres—Sci-Fi being the common denominator. I call the tale (and both films) fantastic because the story is imaginative original and outstanding science fiction, with bizarre and exotic elements we’d never seen before in Sci-Fi movies. Both films, one forty years old and the other thirty-five still entertain without feeling dated.

One point I find interesting—which prompted me to write this post—is that, unlike virtually all the other great science fiction sagas, this one begins life as a horror movie. Then, unlike virtually all horror movies, the sequel is something else–an action adventure.

ALIEN (1979)

The original is a great science-fiction film, with artfully designed space ships (human and alien) and believably futuristic high tech (albeit circa 1978)—including an android that passes for human. Did I mention the alien? Its prime antagonist—the creature designed by H.R. Giger—is arguably the most imaginatively and artfully designed and executed—and scary—alien ever brought to the screen, before or since.

That said—Sci-Fi takes a backseat to Horror as the dominant genre. The setting and devices are science fiction, but the story is a tale of progressive unrelenting horror. By thirty minutes in—at the end of Act 1—you know—you can feel—you are watching a horror movie.

It is edge-of-your-seat scary and suspenseful, set in a labyrinthine factory ship full of ducts, pipes, chain hoists, and venting steam valves. Most of it is claustrophobic with short sight lines, myriad openings on every surface, and blind corners from which something terrible might be—and often is—waiting to pounce.

Shocks and surprises abound—from the first eruption of a creature from an alien “seedpod” to clasp the first victim’s face—to its subsequent eruption from that victim’s torso at the dinner table. Between that shock and its final surprise appearance in the hero’s escape pod, the creature stalks its victims through one surprise attack after another.

It begins life as a little thing—scary but not awesomely so. It grows and morphs every time we see it, becoming ever larger (with each victim consumed) and ever more horrifying—with features like acidic blood that burns through steel, a talon-tipped tail, and telescoping fangs that extrude from its maw. As if one monster wasn’t enough, we are treated to the shocking surprise of a second—the ship’s science officer turns out to be an artificial being—with a surprising secret agenda—in which the human crew is expendable.

Every character but one—discounting Jones, the cat—meets a grisly disgusting end that fills the audience with revulsion. Did I mention the monster’s mid-story eruption from inside a living victim’s abdomen? Gross! That scene has become a movie archetype and people still talk about it forty years after the film’s release.

The sole surviving character emerges—over the course of the story—as one of the great Sci-Fi heroes in cinema and—surprise—that hero is a woman. Today we have heroic female characters all over screens big and small. In 1979—Ripley was an imaginative innovative surprise arguably breaking barriers and paving the way for characters like Jyn Erso (in Rogue One) and Rey (in Star Wars episodes 6-9).

ALIEN was a smash hit that made a ton of money and established Ridley Scott as an A-list director.

It was not surprising that there would be a sequel. It wasn’t even that surprising that Ridley Scott didn’t get to direct it—that happens all the time. What was surprising is that the sequel to a Horror Sci-Fi hit movie was not a Horror Sci-Fi movie.

ALIENS (1986) transformed archetypal Horror Sci-Fi into archetypal Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi.

Arguably, that has two likely explanations—STAR WARS (1977)—and James Cameron— the sequel’s writer and director.

ALIEN was a box office hit but STAR WARS was a box office phenomenon that grossed half a billion dollars in its release year. We are still seeing the effects of that phenomenon in movies and TV, so it would be naïve to think it didn’t figure into the transformation of alien from Horror to Action Adventure. STAR WARS was an Action Adventure Fantasy.

James Cameron had his breakout hit with THE TERMINATOR—an Action Sci-Fi movie.

Connect the dots.

ALIENS (1986)

Like most James Cameron films, this is a high-tech, heavy metal, hardware film—a city in space, a spaceship designed to look like a weapon, armored troop transports—flying and wheeled—a colony built around a fusion-powered plant that creates an atmosphere for a lifeless planet. The marines who accompany Ripley are armored and armed to the teeth with ballistic weapons, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers. 

Images and terrific sound-design conjure a wealth of believable omnipresent technology—so much that, unlike the prequel, Sci-Fi elements almost overwhelm the primary genres—Action and Adventure.

Horror is largely absent. Yes, there are alien monsters—a slew of them—hence the plural title. Yes, there are some scary and suspenseful scenes and characters do meet grisly ends—but without the visceral impact of the first movie.

This is an action adventure tale. Ripley’s story is disbelieved until all communication is lost with the small colony established—during her half-century of castaway hibernation—on the planet where her crew first found the alien (and vice versa). Reluctant Ripley is persuaded to accompany a platoon of space marines on a search and rescue mission. Setting up and launching that adventure takes up the first half of the film.

The second half is one action set piece after another. The comfort taken by the audience from Ripley’s rugged warrior companions quickly dissipates. The platoon is decimated in its first contact with the aliens. Their ground vehicle is disabled and their transport back to space is destroyed. Worse, that initial battle damaged the fusion reactor, which is now on a countdown to detonate and destroy the colony. Surrounded and outnumbered, they must find a way off planet before it blows.

Desperation demands a hero, as does an adventure. Once again, Ripley reluctantly steps into that role. Lacking real leadership, the surviving marines look to her for direction as she devises a plan and puts it into motion.

A hero must do more than lead. Ripley takes up arms and joins the battle for survival. Having bonded with the colony’s sole survivor—“Newt”—a little girl who perfectly personifies Ripley’s “inner child”—Ripley goes to great lengths to keep her promise never to abandon Newt. Keeping that promise—and leading the escape of her steadily dwindling troop—sends Ripley beyond harm’s way—into the nest of a literal “Mother of Dragons”. That sequence is one of the most brilliantly executed action set pieces I’ve seen in science fiction and estalishes Ripley’s place in the movie-hero pantheon.

Like any good sequel, ALIENS includes homage “reprise” elements from ALIEN that also inject new twists—

  • The crew emerging from hibernation—only this time they’re marines not civilian contractors
  • Another android science officer—only this time it’s revealed up front and the surprise comes from his good-guy heroics
  • A “bad apple” in the crew—only this time he’s human (more or less)—a corporate opportunist who nearly incubates Ripley and Newt as a way to smuggle aliens back to the company’s “weapons division”
  • A countdown clock to doom—only this time it’s not a space ship, it’s an entire colony set to blow
  • Ripley’s heroic action sequence—only this time she’s not escaping, she’s risking her life to save a child

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the penultimate reprise comes when the “Mother” alien, stows away on the shuttle and Ripley must blow her out an airlock. This time however, rather than Ripley fearfully pushing some buttons, she “armors up”—augmented in mechanical robot garb—to do battle.

The final reprise is the final scene, as Ripley settles in for another round of hibernation—this time accompanied by her most loyal followers—a wounded marine and a wrecked android, and one little girl, who has come to call her, “Mommy”.

Ripley’s character—and her hero’s journey—is the spine that unites these two very different genre movies into a fantastic tale.

The Fantastic Tale of Frankenstein (1931)

“It’s alive!”

When I first decided to write about this classic, my thought was to call the piece, The Horror of Frankenstein. Then I remembered that title was used in a 1970 retelling of the story. That isn’t why I changed the title. I changed it because my perception of the movie changed as I watched it again—with a writer and filmmaker’s eye.

Growing up with the film and the story, I always thought of it as a horror—or “monster”—movie. Most of the tale’s many film adaptations—like the aforementioned Horror of Frankenstein—were indeed horror movies with all the tropes—scares, shocks, and disgust. Later, after reading Mary Shelly’s novel—I came to regard it as a prototype “mad scientist” Sci-Fi film, with enough horror to qualify as “Sci-Fi Horror.”

When I screened it again for this essay, I was struck by how little horror there is in the original film story. Sure, it features midnight scenes in a cemetery and beneath an occupied gallows, stolen brains, the creation of a fearsome monster, and a murdered child, but none of it that scary, shocking, or disgusting. I turned to IMDb, my go-to reference to see it’s “official” genre designation, and found it tagged as a “Drama, Horror, Romance.” That gave me pause and a new perspective.

It is indeed classic drama—a man explicitly and maniacally plays God and is nearly destroyed by his own hubris. It’s also a tragic drama about his Creature, abandoned by its feckless creator to wander from mishap to mishap until the creator returns with a mob to destroy it.

It’s also a romance—albeit unsatisfying—a man abandons his true love out of insane ambition and returns to her, broken and humbled. Complications ensue—his vengeful Creature assaults his fiancé—before a hopeful ending and a toast, “Here’s to a son to the House of Frankenstein.”

Between the drama and the romance, there is just enough horror to transform a dramatic romance into a dramatic horror romance.

As drama, the film has issues, the first being its protagonist. It sets up Henry Frankenstein, as a brilliant narcissist, a would-be “modern Prometheus”—the very subtitle of Mary Shelley’s novel. “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” His character peaks in the film’s 1st Turn—the archetypal creation scene in the mad scientist’s laboratory— “It’s alive!”

After that, Henry goes limp, degenerating into a meek, passive “daddy’s boy” and simpering romantic. Sure, he seeks revenge when the Creature attacks his fiancé, but only in the company of a mob, and then all he accomplishes is wandering off to fall into the Creature’s clutches. Henry’s no hero.

The Creature is a far better character—a tragic monstrous anti-hero. It is born in a blaze of lightning in the dark of night, then locked in the dark and tormented with blazing torches. It slays its tormentor and escapes to seek revenge on its creator. Most audiences come away feeling more sympathy for the Creature than for its creator—notwithstanding the death of a little girl—the Creature only wanted to see her float like the flowers. Say the name and what image comes immediately to mind? Not Henry! The Creature is the most—the only—empathetic character. We share in its terror at its horrible end. That’s probably why the name—Frankenstein—became attached to the “monster” almost immediately in common usage.

The real problem with the film as drama is that the Hollywood adaptation removed the novel’s tragic core—the death of both Henry’s little brother and his fiancé at the creature’s hand and Henry’s ultimate death in the far North on his epic and unsuccessful pursuit of his Creature. Remove tragedy from a tragic drama and you end with mere melodrama. Remove tragedy from the arc of a tragic hero and you end up with a whining lover boy—Henry, born again homeboy, recuperating in a paradisiacal garden, feted at his wedding—Young Frankenstein indeed.

You can, if so inclined, project some psychological or mythic tropes onto the drama. You could describe it in terms of Henry investing all his mania in his Creature, leaving him effectively denatured and the Creature free to act out the man’s darkest impulses—a child killer who attacks Henry’s fiancé. That would make the story similar to Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

As romance, the film is as limp as Henry. There’s never a doubt that his fiancé will marry him. It’s boy abandons girl, returns to girl and (after the mob dispatches the Creature) marries girl. Not much suspense emotion or drama (or anything else save a gorgeous wedding gown) in this romance.

Frankenstein (1931) is unsatisfactory as drama and romance and not horrific enough, especially by contemporary standards, to stand out as a horror film.

Why then call it a fantastic tale?

Why keep returning to it as a classic film, worthy of repeated screening, analysis and study?

Sometimes the synergy of less than brilliant parts results in a brilliant whole.

What elements make Frankenstein brilliant and fantastic?

It’s incredibly imaginative and fanciful, especially in its visual elements. It’s monochromatic art design and cinematography range from chiaroscuro nighttime exteriors that look like animated impressionist art, to a now-iconic mad-science laboratory, to softly lit romantic but realistic garden bower and sitting-room interiors. The visual contrasts highlight and heighten dramatic suspense.

The Creature’s rendering—in makeup, lighting, and camera angles—is so imaginative, so striking that it remains iconic after ninety years. It created a horror film archetype—the “walking dead” if you will—that still animates horror movies and TV series.

It’s a bizarre story— something we are not likely to encounter in real life and—in 1931—something most moviegoers had never seen even on the screen.

It’s settings and the Creature itself are exotic and unfamiliar—or were in 1931—nighttime cemeteries, a mad scientist’s laboratory full of sparking arcing electrical devices, even a charming—pre-Third Reich—Bavarian village.

You may argue that it’s hopelessly dated, archaic, primitive—clichéd. You can say that about much classic literature and film. The clichés you may cite are now clichés because they were so successfully first realized in the classic work. As my alter-ego DF Tims argues in a recent post, “Everything is a process,”—including a film—and “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can understand any process in isolation” —“Context is king.” When considering a classic work, regard it in its original cultural context and evaluate it using timeless criteria.

One final criterion of a fantastic tale—it’s extraordinary. It stood out in 1931 and continues to do stand out in both popular culture and in my personal esteem.

The ultimate achievement and effect of this film is indeed fantastic.

 “It’s alive!”

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SHADOWPLAY: a fantastic novel

SHADOWPLAY is a fantastic tale based on real people and historical events.

It satisfies three of my criteria for a fantastic tale—it’s imaginative in its evocation of life and love, outstanding in my reading experience, and exotic in its depiction theatrical life in late 19th-century London—and one additional criterion that I’ll come top presently.

Two of its real people were famous 19th century actors—Henry Irving and Ellen Terry—now largely forgotten by all save students of the theater. Irving was the most celebrated actor of his time and the first actor ever to be knighted (by Queen Victoria). Terry, also famous, was the most beloved and highest paid actor of her day, who became a Dame of the Realm in her latter years. The third—and principal—character was largely unknown in his lifetime and is now quite famous as the creator and author of Dracula—Bram Stoker—who managed Henry Irving’s theater company and career, and died penniless.

The narrative unfolds as the elderly Ellen Terry reviews and relives Stoker’s diaries, journals, and letters as she prepares her own memoir. Stoker is our eyes and ears on the life and times of these three friends, with Terry’s intermittent narrative providing counterpoint and an external perspective on Stokers’ difficult life.

Much of the text traces the slow evolution of Stoker’s Dracula. Readers and viewers of the Dracula tale will recognize many character and place names from Stoker’s famous work in these pages, though without any explicit connections. They are all grist for Stoker’s imagination as he slowly births his masterpiece.

This was London blanketed with industrial “black fog,” living in terror of “the Ripper”. This was theater illuminated in gas lamplight, with elaborate sets and mechanical effects. These were actors and theater folk living perpetually at the edge of their means for love of their crafts, their children, and each other.

Joseph O’Connor immerses readers in that world, in the lives of those people, and especially in the heart and mind of Bram Stoker, tortured by unfulfilled desire for literary success, by love and hate for his difficult tempestuous employer Henry Irving, and by unfulfilled love for Ellen Terry. Time, place, and people come alive in our imagination through elegant and evocative prose.

I already mentioned imaginative, outstanding, and exotic as fantastic qualities of this story. It has one additional aspect of the fantastic—it’s fanciful— a ghost story—or at least there is a ghost in the story. The storied Lyceum Theatre in London, refurbished by Irving (and Stoker) to house his theater company was haunted—by the spirit of a young girl named Mina—another famous name from Dracula—its courageous heroine. Glimpsed by many over the years, she watches over Stoker as he labors on his novel in a forgotten attic high under the theater’s eaves. I have read many ghost tales and have never read a more imaginative description of subtle manifestation of spirit in the world or the world as experienced by a disembodied spirit. You can feel Bram Stoker unconsciously immersed in that spirit as he writes.

If you love historical fiction, the theater, love stories about complex beautifully written characters and their interwoven lives, the work of Bram Stoker—or the insinuation of a subtle ghost story into a larger work, then you may want to check out SHADOWPLAY.

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How Should Horror Feel?

Image by Catharina77 from Pixabay 

What do you expect from any horror story? Scares for sure—shocks and surprises too, I’d bet. How about at least a touch of the disgusting? A scary shocking, maybe disgusting unnatural monster would probably belong in a horror story.

Let’s note these are all feelings­—primal emotions. Horror is all about your body feeling afraid, shocked, and or disgusted. A horror story may have intellectual or cultural aspirations but …

If you don’t feel it, it’s not horror.

Does a horror story need to make the audience feel all three of these emotions?

Some people use “horror” and “scary” interchangeably—especially to characterize movies.

Is every scary story a horror story? No. Fear is used to some degree in most types of story. Indiana Jones was afraid of the snakes beneath that pyramid but Raiders of the Lost Ark was not a horror story.

Is every horror story a scary story? I would wager that most of them are and maybe need to be—can’t think of any notable exceptions . . . Fear seems to be an obvious necessity for horror.

Some level of shock—unexpected and upsetting twists and turns—is an element in most kinds of story. We feel a pleasant tingle of discomfort mingled with pleasure when something upsetting or surprising happens in a story.

Is every horror story shocking? Yes. We expect the upsets and surprises to be intense in a horror story. That’s part of the suspense designed to keep us hooked.  

So, is two out of three enough? Is any scary and shocking story without anything disgusting about it a horror story? No, it’s probably some kind of thriller.

So, when does a thriller become a horror story?

You might be one who says, “I like horror but not the violent disgusting bits.”

I would argue that disgust—in the sense of revulsion or offense—is necessary for the full sense of horror to emerge in a horror audience. It needn’t be physical violence or mayhem. It might be anything that makes us feel revulsion—physical or even moral. The disgusting element may not even actually occur in the story. A prediction, omen, or premonition of what could happen might evoke anticipatory disgust in our imagination without ever actually happening in the story. Some horror fans would call that “subtle.” Others would call it “unsatisfying.” It may be only prefigured and the disgust provoked may be subliminal.

A psychoanalyst or an MRI might suggest that we aren’t always consciously aware of a feeling—especially an unpleasant one like disgust.

In much popular horror, the disgust is as palpably unmistakable as the blood and entrails portrayed in the story. The audience knows that it feels disgusted and may or may not enjoy the sensation. In other horror stories—think HP Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe—it might be mostly sub-textual— designed to provoke very subtle disgust. We may feel it almost subliminally without much notice—but we do feel it.

It seems to me that all three aspects of horror—fear, shock, and disgust—however subliminal—must be present in a horror tale.

Can a story evoke all of these feelings without being a horror story? Sure. Consider The Silence of the Lambs. It’s scary, full of shock and surprise, and truly disgusting in parts—and it’s genre is “crime drama thriller.”

What’s the missing element? I think it’s a sense of the uncanny or fantastic, something that “gives us the creeps.”A horror story must have at least one of the qualities I’ve described in another post that characterize a fantastic tale. The story must be strange—bizarre—something we are unlikely to experience in real life. The story’s setting and or its antagonist—human or monster—must be exotic—not somewhere or something from the here and now. The audience needs to feel that they are out of their natural element—they’ve crossed over into another reality where scary, shocking, and disgusting things are likely—nay assured—to happen.

Remember that “scary shocking, maybe disgusting unnatural monster” I mentioned at the top? It’s the “unnatural monster”—an element of the fantastic—that assures we’re in a horror story and not “just” a thriller.

What do you think? Have I left out some essential ingredient? Leave a comment and tell me.

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Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

The name of this blog is “Eye on Fantastic Tales. Those are the stories I love most, that I want to write and write about and which I hope you are interested in exploring and celebrating here with me.

What do I mean by fantastic tales? Precise definition is always elusive and these qualifications are personal but . . .

When I say tale, I mean a short story, novel, play, film, or TV series—a fictional story however told.

What do I mean by fantastic? That’s more complicated and needs some unpacking.

The dictionary describes “fantastic” as “the imaginative and fanciful, the extraordinary, bizarre, or exotic.” For me, a fantastic tale must have some of or all these qualities. Let’s explore each, and allow me to put my own spin on their dictionary definitions.

When I say a tale is imaginative, I mean it shows creativity and invention. It tells me a story I’ve not read, seen, or heard before—or it retells a familiar tale in a way that lets me experience it as new. An imaginative tale expands my own imagination. In my schema, fantastic tales must at least be imaginative—I can’t think of one that isn’t. Imaginative is the essential quality of fantastic. However, I’ve known many imaginative tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic. Imaginative is necessary and not enough for me.

When I call a tale “extraordinary” I mean it stands out in my experience and esteem and maybe—but not necessarily in our culture’s esteem. (Some of my favorite tales are not popular.) I wouldn’t call many or even most extraordinary tales “fantastic”—but all my choices for fantastic tale are extraordinary—at least for me. So let’s add extraordinary to imaginative as my essential qualities of a fantastic tale. Are those two sufficient?

Let’s consider the others.

When I say a tale is fanciful, I mean it’s imaginative on steroids—“overly imaginative and unrealistic” or “existing only in the imagination or fancy” says my dictionary . . . A fanciful tale is imaginative and then some—it’s “far out.” There are many fanciful tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are fanciful—but many are.

When I call a tale “bizarre”—“strange or unusual”—I’m saying that the story would be very unlikely to occur in  “real life”. There are many bizarre tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are bizarre—but many are.

When I say a tale is “exotic”—“foreign” “alien”—I’m saying this tale is set somewhere and or some-when other than here and now—or else its about someone or some thing not native to here and now—a stranger in our midst. There are many exotic tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are exotic —but many are.

So, is this a long way of saying I’ll be writing about SF (speculative fiction) genre tales—Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror? Yes, but . . . Virtually all SF tales are bizarre and many—maybe most—are fanciful and exotic. They are certainly not all imaginative and outstanding—ergo, they’re not all fantastic (at least in my schema).

You will find me writing about fantastic tales from other genres—dramas, or comedies, and certainly many that are action adventures. They will all be imaginative, at least personally outstanding, and have at least one other fantastic quality.

So here are my “rules” for this blog—at least until I break them.

First, a fantastic tale must be imaginative and outstanding.

Second, a fantastic tale must be one or a combination of fanciful, bizarre, or exotic.

That’s my concept of what makes a tale fantastic, which I will try to heed and cite as I write about them.

What’s your concept of fantastic? Leave a comment and join the dialog.

Fantastic Tales However Known

This blog is an exploratory celebration of the myths, dreams, and memories inspired by fantastic tales I’ve read or seen on screens over the long and growing span of my years.

What do I mean by fantastic? The dictionary says it describes the imaginative and fanciful, the extraordinary, bizarre, or exotic. That’s what I’m talking about here.

All my life, fantastic tales have been my refuge and delight, shaping my imagination and leaving me always wanting more.

My earliest memory of reading, at about five-years old, is following along as my older brother read a comic book to me. I still remember the cover and the title—ATOMIC MOUSE. It was indeed a fantastic tale of a super-hero —who happened to be a rodent—and I was hooked.

Around the same time, my brother took me to the neighborhood movie theater to see the first movie I can remember—WAR OF THE WORLDS. It fascinated and scared me witless—I watched much of it peeking from the rear of the auditorium–and I loved it.

My sense of the fantastic span the interval twixt ATOMIC MOUSE and TENET.

Growing up in the 1950s, I hated school and lived for books from the library, weekend movie matinees, and the occasional fantastic fare available on B&W TV. I quickly exhausted the science fiction shelves in the kid’s section of the library. I would hit the library on the way home from school, and spend the evening reading instead of doing homework; a pattern that persisted through high school and nearly flunked me out of college. Having exhausted the kid’s shelves, I conducted a running battle of wits with the librarians, trying to surreptitiously slip an “adult” title into the stack of books I was borrowing. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.

I didn’t read much fantasy as a kid, only the Oz books—but all of them—and most of them in high school, when I had the reverse of my childhood experience of wanting to borrow “adult” science fiction. As a teen, I found myself mildly embarrassed wandering back into the children’s lit section to check out oversized illustrated Oz books—but I did love them.

During those juvenile years, I continued to entertain and often terrify myself at the movies. Any Saturday or Sunday afternoon when I could scrounge up the admission—often using money intended for my accordion lesson—I attended a double-feature matinee, usually sci-fi, mostly “creature features”, like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and of course GODZILLA. These being the paranoid red-scare 1950s, there were alien-invasion films galore—like INVADERS FROM MARS and THIS ISLAND EARTH. Most of these matinee shows were “B” movies, made on shoestring budgets on black and white film with “hey kid, you could do this at home quality” flying saucers and aliens. I fondly recall some fantastic-few standout classics that are still watched and discussed today—films like THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. It’s no surprise that several of those classics have been remade over time, some more than once.

On television, I grew up warped and weird watching 50’s shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, ONE STEP BEYOND, and SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE on a B&W TV that broadcast only three stations just eighteen hours per day. There were some fantasy tales scattered among the episodes of these anthology shows, but mostly fantastic science fiction.

The 60s, my teens, was a golden age of fantastic culture. Even mere mentions of the books that shaped my adolescent imagination would be too numerous to list here without transforming a post into an online catalog. Some personally resonant standout writers shaped my imagination. Heinlein (you know what book) helped quicken my boomer cohort’s counter-cultural “awakening.” Herbert (DUNE et al) got me thinking about systems on every level and inspired a career in systems. Vonnegut (CAT’S CRADLE et al) helped cultivate my humors—all four. Le Guin (LATHE OF HEAVEN et al) started me thinking about human culture on every level); Tolkien (LOTR) got me interested in epic tales and linguistics. Finally, maybe surprisingly, I have to cite Shakespeare. I read HAMLET—my first play—as a ghost story; same with MACBETH.  A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM—my all time favorite play—inspired lifelong dreams of fantastic faerie. These fantastic authors and others will inspire future posts.

In high school, movies began to contend with novels for control of my attention. In the 60s some fantastic movies “grew up”—along with their audiences—and became “films” or “cinema.” I’d always enjoyed “monster movies” for the sheer horror and now auteur-filmmakers were making horrors like PSYCHO and THE INNOCENTS, and one was about to create a new and enduring kind of monster in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The same thing happened in sci-fi with films like ALPHAVILLE, SECONDS, FAHRENHEIT 451. Then—the year I graduated from college—2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY set the bar at a new level for the next generation of sci-fi film.

On television, there was a lot of sci-fi and fantasy during my teens, much of it not so good—with a few standouts like the Ur-STAR TREK, THE PRISONER, and THE OUTER LIMITS.

In the half century since college, most of what I’ve read has been fantastic—speculative fiction—sci-fi and fantasy. My film watching history has been more diverse but fantastic tales dominate my list of all time favorites. I largely abandoned TV for decades, only to rediscover it in its new 21st-century golden age and now the amount of truly fantastic fare on the small screen is—fantastic.

In future posts, I’ll explore fantastic tales, past and present, from many angles, always with a view toward entertainment, information, and inspiration. I invite you to follow along and join me on this fantastic journey.

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