S. written by Doug Dorst and concept by J.J. Abrams
"One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace, and desire.
A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.
THE BOOK: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V. M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.
THE WRITER: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumours that swirl around him.
THE READERS: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears.”
Confession: I read S. for the concept. I mean the idea behind the design and the intertwining stories of Eric, Jessica, S, and Straka is genius and I applaud J.J. Abrams for it. The postcards, newspapers, letters, maps drawn on napkins, just wow. But there’s so much more to this novel.
Doug Dorst is the real talent behind S. and I found myself getting lost in his words. Certain quotes hit me like a ton of bricks, making me dissect each page with the intensity of a copy editor. The plot in general didn’t make much sense to me and…
hover for spoilers.
Also, Eric and Jennifer’s assumptions were a little unbelievable and I was convinced that they were just guessing. But I do have a nagging feeling that there is so much I missed and that I haven’t even scratched the surface of the mystery. I think S. is the kind of novel you have to read three times to fully understand: once for the experience, twice for the story, and a third for the details (kind of like Lost - damn you JJ Abrams).
Overall, you have to read it. You have no choice. Read it for the experience, for all the little odds and ends tucked away in the pages, for the writing in the margins, for the amazing design (there were legitimate ink stains on the pages, also it smells like a library book and I don’t know how). But watch out: aesthetic isn’t everything and the writing will blow your mind.
"You can’t ever know in advance. Big decisions require faith."
"The feeling, for those seconds, is glorious-it reminds him that he is human, that he is so insignificant as to be utterly free, and he is being guided along gracefully, lovingly, by the hand of Nature-and it frees him,however transiently, from all worry and fear and fury and grief. ‘I enjoyed that,’ he says aloud, as much to the stars as to the rower."
"You’re born a certain way. Later you get to decide how much you want to fight/change that."
"The creation of art requires a descent into the dark."
In his explosive new novel, Greg Rucka reveals that the plot against America is far from over. Jad Bell saving the day in Alpha? A minor setback. Read the first chapter of Bravo below and watch the wheels set back in motion.
“You look tired,” she says, moving out of the doorway to let him inside. “Do you want to talk about it?”
The soldier enters, moves his cover to his hands, holding the hat in a way that makes him feel half her age, though he’s most of the way through fifty and she’s not seen the edges of thirty yet. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t move as she shuts and locks the door behind him, comes back to put a gentle touch on his elbow. She looks at him curiously, concerned, then shakes her head in such a way that her hair shifts and gently sways, exposes bare neck from collar to jawline. He sees her skin, feels an almost magnetic tug, an immediate urge to wrap his arms around her and inhale her scent. He’s too old to believe that doing so will make it all better, but it’s what he feels. He thinks about the fact that he should’ve waited before coming here, before talking to her. He thinks that he doesn’t have a choice.
“Jamieson’s dead,” the soldier says.
She nods slightly, a touch of sympathy in her expression, in the movement, and he thinks it’s for his sake, and not for the dead man she has never met, hardly even knew.
“I’ll make you a drink,” she says. “I’ve got some of that rye you like.”
He nods, moves into the large front room. Floor-to-ceiling windows that would show the gleam of the capital at night, but the curtains are drawn, the way they always are when he arrives. He’s never seen them open, never seen the view out of her condo here in the West End. This town, he knows, keeps a secret like a four-year-old at a birthday party. When he visits, he visits at night, drives straight into the underground lot, takes the spot that’s always open. Normally, he changes out of uniform before coming here.
Tonight is not normal.
The soldier takes a seat, sets his hat beside him, loosens his tie and his collar. When she comes back with the drink, he takes it from her hand, sets it aside. She raises an eyebrow.
“You don’t want a drink you should’ve said so.”
The soldier pulls her to him, meets her mouth with his own. She kisses him back with full hunger, uncaged; it’s what she’s been waiting for.
When they reach her bedroom, he keeps much of his uniform on, at least for a while.
Afterward, embracing every cliché, she lights a cigarette and shares it with him, resting on her elbow, the ashtray balanced on his sternum. He stares at the ceiling. It’s the lost hours, between three and five in the morning, and the only sounds are the hum of the air-conditioning and, just beyond, the muted tick of the clock on the bedside table. He can feel her gaze, studying him. Her patience is unnerving, and he cannot stop his mind from spinning into questions. He knows what she’s waiting for.
“He can name his price.”
She sucks on the cigarette, exhales toward the ceiling, places the filter back between his lips. He swears he can taste her on it.
“I’ll tell him that,” she says.
“I want to talk to him this time. No middleman, not like it was with Jamieson. I want to deal with him directly.”
She shakes her head slightly. He knew she would.
“We bought a service,” the soldier says, recalling her own phrasing. “It didn’t execute.”
“You knew there was an element of risk. You embraced that when you told me what Jamieson and the others wanted to buy.”
“It didn’t execute.” He puts the cigarette out in the ashtray, feels the sharp point of heat of the cinder dying on the glass against his skin. He moves the ashtray to the nightstand, and when he rolls back, she is exactly as she was before. “We’re no better off than when we started.”
“I’ve seen the news, baby. We both know that’s not true.”
“It’s not enough. It’s not what we wanted.”
She shrugs, and it’s as elegant as every other movement she makes. He wonders, not for the first time, what she was before she was this. He used to think she was as American as he, but over time he has revised that theory. There’s an Eastern European touch to her beauty, to the dark hair and dark eyes and almost too-fair skin. When he’s tried to look into who she really is—carefully, very, very carefully—all the answers come back entirely plausible, the banal lies of espionage that he has come to recognize from thirty years of service. When he’s asked her, her response has always been the same.
“I am what you need me to be.”
She’s been a lot of things for him. She’s been an ardent and eager and skilled lover. She’s been a woman who has made him feel adored and strong and potent. She’s been a comfort, laughing at the right time at the right jokes, asking the right questions when he needed to talk about himself. She’s been a confessor, listening to secrets he has no right to tell anyone else. She’s been the gateway. When the soldier and Jamieson and the others concluded what they needed to do to save their country, she heard the edge of conspiracy in his voice, and she offered the way to the means. It was she who told the soldier she knew a man who knew a man who could provide the terror they wanted. It was she who put Jamieson and the Uzbek in the same place at the same time.
She’s been all these things, but right now, he needs her to be something else. Right now, he needs her to be a rope, he needs her to keep him from drowning. Right now, the soldier needs her to tell him that what he’s done, what they’ve done, cannot come back to harm them, and that there is still a way forward.
She moves against him, lays her head against his chest. One hand finds his, laces fingers.
“Tell me what you want,” she says. “Tell me what you’re offering. I’ll speak to him, and I’ll tell you what he says.”
A sudden, sharp anger bursts in him. He resents her patience, resents what feels like condescension from this woman so much
younger than he, who makes him hard despite himself, who has secrets he cannot uncover. He grips her wrists and rolls atop her, pins her arms over her head, and the way she yields only makes him that much more frustrated and aroused. She’s looking up at him unafraid, that same expression, as if anything he might do to her now is what she wants him to do, or, worse, what she expects from him, that he is entirely predictable to her. She pushes against his grip, but only just. She opens her legs.
“We want what we paid for,” the soldier says.
She arches, receiving him, makes a sound that thrills him.
“Yes,” she says.
“You tell him that. You tell him that.”
“You tell him…oh…goddamn it…”
“…damn you, goddamn you, woman…”
“…we want the war we paid for!”
After a time, his hands leave her wrists, and she wraps her arms around him, and the silence returns, the air conditioner, the ticking of the clock, the racing of his pulse. Her lips brush his ear.
“He’ll want something in return.”
- General Sir John Mandrake (played by C. Aubrey Smith), of ordering his wife's lover, a lieutenant, to his death
- Emily Brent (Judith Anderson), of the death of her young nephew
- Dr. Edward G. Armstrong (Walter Huston), of drunkenness which resulted in a patient dying
- Prince Nikita Starloff (Mischa Auer), of killing a couple
- Vera Claythorne (June Duprez), of murdering her sister's fiance
- Judge Francis J. Quinncannon (Barry Fitzgerald), of being responsible for the hanging of an innocent man (Edward Seton, guilty, in the novel)
- Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward), of killing 21 East African tribesmen
- William H. Blore (Roland Young), of perjury, resulting in an innocent man's death
- Thomas (Richard Haydn) and Ethel Rogers (Queenie Leonard), of the demise of their previous employer, an invalid.
Like most writers who’ve had any sort of success – and this seems to apply particularly to mystery writers – I get questioned frequently about influences. If you’ve followed these updates or seen me on a convention panel or maybe just chatted with me, you know the list: Hammett, Cain, Chandler, Spillane, and a bunch of others. Writers all.
And I sometimes mention – as do such contemporaries of mine as Bob Randisi, Ed Gorman and Loren Estleman – the impact that series television had on me as a writer. Not every writer is secure enough to admit being influenced by what we used to call the boob tube (I always hear Edith Prickley saying that). But those of us who grew up in that wave of TV private eyes in late fifties were probably as influenced by such shows as Peter Gunn, 77 Sunset Strip, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Perry Mason and Johnny Staccato (among others) as we were Hammett, Chandler and Spillane.
More often (though still relatively seldom) you’ll hear a mystery writer admit to having been influenced by filmmakers. I frequently mention directors Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph H. Lewis, and such movies as Kiss Me Deadly andChinatown. Add Vertigo to those last two and I would challenge you to find many novels that stack up, even by the masters.
But it’s rare that any writers think to mention the influence actors have had on their fiction. I know that Italian western-era Lee Van Cleef influenced my Nolan series, for example, and Bogart is someone that writers sometimes aren’t embarrassed to cite as influential on their work. Not often, but it happens.
For me, the passing of James Garner – a man I never met and never had contact with – reminded me how big an influence this actor was on my life and my work. Before the TV private eye fad, there was the western craze, and discovering Maverick at a very young age shaped me in a way that rivals any parent or mentor. Now of course Roy Huggins had a lot to do with that, as the creator and frequent writer on the series, but it was Garner who brought life to the character, whose like we’d never seen.
Bret Maverick was a big, good-looking guy, able to handle himself with his fists and passably well with a gun (despite his claims at being slow on the draw). But he would rather charm or con his way out of a jam than fight or shoot. He was quick with a quip but never seemed smug. He was often put upon, and didn’t always win. Though he was clearly better-looking and more physically fit than your average mortal, he conveyed a mild dismay at the vagaries of human existence. And he did all of this – despite (or in addition to) Roy Huggins – because he was James Garner.
Garner’s comic touch was present in much of his work, and of course Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were essentially the same character. And no matter what literary influences they may cite, my generation of private-eye writers and the next one, too, were as influenced by The Rockford Files as by Hammett, Chandler or Spillane. The off-kilter private eye writing of Huggins and Stephen Cannell made a perfect fit for Garner’s exasperated everyman approach, but it was just notes on a page without the actor’s musicianship.
Not that Garner couldn’t play it straight – he was, in my opinion, the screen’s best Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun, and as early asThe Children’s Hour and as late as The Notebook he did a fine job minus his humorous touch. But it’s Maverick and Rockford – and the scrounger in The Great Escape, the less-than-brave hero of Americanization of Emily, and his underrated Marlowe – that we will think of when Garner’s name is mentioned or his face appears like a friendly ghost in our popular culture.
Garner’s attempts to resurrect Maverick were never very successful – Young Maverick a disaster, Bret Maverick merely passable, though his participation in the Mel Gibson Maverick film was on target. I was fortunate to get to write the movie tie-in novel of that and – despite an atypically mediocre William Goldman script – had great fun paying tribute to my favorite childhood TV show and to the actor I so admired. (If you read my novel and pictured Gibson as Bret Maverick, you weren’t paying attention.)
Like all of us, Garner was a flawed guy, though I would say mildly flawed. Provoked, his easygoing ways flared into a temper and he even punched people out (not frequently) in a way Bret Maverick wouldn’t. He never quite came to terms with how important Roy Huggins had been to the creation of his persona, and essentially fired him off Rockford after one season. The lack of Huggins and/or Cannell on Bret Maverick was probably why it somehow didn’t feel like real Maverick.
Garner had great loyalty to his friends, however, and as a Depression-era blue collar guy who kind of stumbled into acting, he never lost a sense of his luck or seemed to get too big a head. He resented being taken advantage of and took on the Hollywood bigwigs over money numerous times, with no appreciable negative impact on his career. He was that good, and that popular.
When he gave a rare interview, Garner displayed intelligence but no particular wit, and it could be disconcerting to see that famed wry delivery wrapped around bland words. Yet no one could convey humor – from a script – with more wry ease than Jim Garner. Perhaps he was funny at home and on the golf course and so on. Or maybe he was just a great musician who couldn’t write a note of music to save his life.
It doesn’t matter. Not to me. He influenced my work – particularly Nate Heller – as much as any writer or any film director. He was a strong, handsome hero with a twist of humor and a mildly exasperated take on life’s absurdities. I can’t imagine navigating my way through those absurdities, either in life or on the page, without having encountered Bret Maverick at an impressionable age.
Watch something of his this week, would you? I recommend the Maverick episode “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres,” which happens to be the best single episode of series television of all time.
J. Kingston Pierce has a wonderful post on Garner at the Rap Sheet, with links to his definitive (and rare) two-part interview with Bret Maverick himself.
HAPPY PUBLICATION DAY!
Greg Rucka’s new novel, Bravo, follows two women: one, an American agent emerging from deep cover, is still coming to grips with what her “real” life really is. The other is an avid instrument of death, who will stop at nothing to execute her lover’s plans. Jad Bell, who saved the country once in Alpha, is going to have his hands full with these two.
HORIZONS WEST. Universal International, 1952. Robert Ryan, Julie Adams, Rock Hudson, Judith Braun, John McIntire, Raymond Burr, James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Frances Bavier, Tom Powers. Director: Budd Boetticher.
Horizons West is a very good, albeit uneven, 1952 Universal Studios production directed by Budd Boetticher. Set in and around Austin, Texas, after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, this Western tragedy stars Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson as the brothers, Dan and Neil Hammond.
As the film progresses, Dan (Ryan) and Neil (Hudson) find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with the latter tasked with bringing in his criminal older brother back to town for trial, culminating in a final interfamilial showdown in a small Mexican town. Dan starts off as a seemingly good guy, but by the end, the man’s done gone bad, irredeemably so.
The movie benefits from its strong coterie of extremely talented actors. Aside from Ryan and Hudson, the film also stars Raymond Burr, who brilliantly portrays Cole Hardin, a sleazily villainous gambler. There’s something about Burr’s character that’s so devious that one wishes that he weren’t killed off so abruptly.
And then there’s the lovely Julia Adams (Creature of the Black Lagoon), who portrays Hardin’s wife. She inevitably falls in love with the increasingly arrogant and power-mad Dan Hammond, causing friction between Dan and Cole. Veteran character actor John McIntire portrays the stoic Ira Hammond, owner of the family ranch who watches with alarm as his son, Dan (Ryan) returns home from the war a defeated, but proud Confederate officer, only to morph into to a ruthless and corrupt Texas power player.
Aside from the skillful acting, Horizons West makes excellent use of vivid and symbolic use of colors (Technicolor works extraordinarily well here) and numerous well-constructed lush interiors. Look for the scene in front of an Austin hotel when Dan Hammond is wearing a red tie and Mrs. Hardin is wearing also wearing red in her attire. It just works perfectly.
In many ways, the plot is standard, almost cliché Western fare, replete with a soldiers returning home from the Civil War, a good guy gone bad, brothers in conflict, a corrupt and flamboyant Mexican general, cattle rustling, and a lynch mob.
One can, however, view Horizons West less as a standard Western, and more as a quasi-Greek tragedy set in the American West, similar to Saddle The Wind, which I reviewed here.
Similarly, one can interpret it as contemporaneous social criticism about how big money can corrupt otherwise good men. Indeed, by the time that the movie ends, the two overtly greedy lead characters, Dan Hammond (Ryan) and Cole Hardin (Burr), have both been killed by gunfire.
In contrast, in the final moments, the film’s most humble and hardworking characters are prospering in the bounty of the westward movement of people and cattle, hence the seemingly optimistic title of the film. But to the extent that Horizons West is about the rise and tragic fall of Dan Hammond, the film’s French title, Le Traitre du Texas (The Texas Traitor), is more accurate in conveying the film’s classically tragic overtones.
The film’s greatest flaw is in the fact that we never really get a full sense of what drives Dan Hammond to self-destruction, why he goes power mad. There’s almost no indication that something terrible happened during the war that explains his descent into villainy.
There are, however, a couple of brief moments that may shed at least some light on the matter. Soon after Dan returns home from the war with his adopted brother, Neil (Hudson) and their family’s ranch hand, Tiny McGilligan (James Arness), he tells his parents that he finds Texas to be too quiet and refers to all the noise he heard during the Civil War.
But that’s about the last he mentions of this. We never see Dan struggle with his wartime experiences, nor do we ever hear him explain to another character what drives him to cheat and to steal. The other instance is when Dan discusses finances with Ira, his father who still hasn’t paid off the debt on the ranch, something that Dan Hammond seems to find embarrassing. But again, it’s a brief exchange and one that isn’t much referred to later on.
Still, Horizons West remains a better than average Western. Ryan, Hudson, and Burr are all great actors and it shows. The film’s strongest point is its extraordinary use of color. There are many scenes in which color, rather than dialogue, is the focal point. It’s a movie that explores one man’s descent into greed and violence, but nonetheless remains truly beautiful to behold.
Here's the trailer for Mercenaries, The Asylum's distaff take on the uber-manly Expendables franchise. The trailer looks pretty good - promising, even - but as it's an Asylum picture, I'm not letting my expectations get too high. The studio hasn't had a great track record for quality in any genre, really, and has fared especially poorly with action fare (stunts are expensive).
Cool to see Brigette Nielsen as the Big Bad, though it is disappointing to see that Cynthia Rothrock appears to have a non-fighting role. I'm hoping that Zoe Bell and Kristina Loken can raise the bar here. It can't hurt that Zoe can do her own stunts.
In a letter published in “The Readers’ Viewpoint” column in its June 1948 issue, Robert Boyer labeled Famous Fantastic Mysteries as “. . . the Aristocrat of the Pulps, the acme of stf perfection,” a title that can likewise be conferred upon the magazine’s later companions, Fantastic Novels and A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine.
Started by the Frank A. Munsey Company in the fall of 1939 and edited by Mary Gnaedinger, Famous Fantastic Mysteries was created to reprint the scientific romances originally published in The All-Story, Argosy, and The Cavalier. Welcomed by readers anxious to experience the classics found in the Munsey files, Famous Fantastic Mysteries was joined by a companion title, Fantastic Novels, in the early summer of 1940. For most of the next year, the two magazines were published in alternating months.
In late 1942, Munsey sold many of its pulps—including their two classic reprint magazines—to Popular Publications. Reluctant to take on a pair of fantasy titles, the new publisher opted to continue Famous Fantastic Mysteries, but not Fantastic Novels. Popular would wait until 1948 to return Fantastic Novels to the stands, once again relying on the Munsey archives for its content. A third title, A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine, was added in late 1949.
On Thursday, August 7th, beginning at 8:30 PM, Ed Hulse, author and editor of Blood ‘n’ Thunder and Nathan Madison, popular culture historian and author of Anti-Foreign Imagery in American Pulps and Comic Books, 1920-1960, discuss Famous Fantastic Mysteries, one of the major science-fiction titles started in 1939, as well as its two brethren, Fantastic Novels and A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine. Highly regarded during the pulp era, all three remain highly collectible pulp magazines, given their exceptional fiction and beautiful illustrations.
Click on the illustrations to learn more about the images.