Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The Sinister Shadow Reviewed

Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow
by Will Murray and Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson.
copyright 2015, Altus Press

For the last several weeks, I've been reading the e-book version of Doc SavageThe Sinister Shadow, a new pulp novel by Will Murray, in which The Shadow and Doc Savage each battle a mysterious new villain calling himself The Funeral Director, eventually joining forces to defeat him. An afterword to the book explains that early in his career as a pulp writer, Lester Dent, Doc Savage's creator, was asked by editors at Street and Smith, publishers of The Shadow Magazine, to submit some sample chapters and an outline for a Shadow story. Dent's first effort was rejected, but later, the editors asked him to write the very first Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze, using the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. With the permission of the estate of Lester Dent and of Advance Magazine Publishers, Inc., who now own the copyrights to The Shadow, Murray wrote this new novel using portions of Dent's sample chapters and fleshing out and rewriting the outline.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm delighted to see The Shadow back in print with a new adventure. I've been a fan of The Shadow ever since my first introduction to old-time radio in the 1970s and finding reprints of Walter B. Gibson's Shadow novels at my local library at about the same time. On the other hand, I've never been a particularly big fan of Doc Savage, finding him a bit too much of a stuffed shirt and a goody-goody for my taste, but I'm willing to put up with him if it means I get to see The Shadow back in action.

This new novel opens in the 1930s as wealthy men throughout New York City are mysteriously dying of heart attacks. Both Doc Savage and The Shadow, however, suspect that these heart attacks are not natural occurrences and are being caused by some outside agent. It is revealed that many of these men had criminal connections that they wished to keep secret, and were being blackmailed by someone calling himself The Funeral Director.

One of the men being blackmailed, however, is Lamont Cranston, millionaire and sometime alias of The Shadow. Unlike the radio version of Lamont Cranston, who actually was The Shadow, in this novel and in Walter B. Gibson's original pulps, Lamont Cranston was merely one of many aliases and assumed identities used by The Shadow. The real Lamont Cranston goes to see Theodore Marley "Ham" Brooks, a prominent attorney and one of Doc Savage's closest associates, one of his hand-picked "Fabulous Five" personal assistants. Cranston believes that the mysterious personage calling himself The Shadow and making weekly radio broadcasts may actually be The Funeral Director. Brooks suggests that they go to see Doc Savage and present the problem to him, but before they can reach Doc's headquarters, they are kidnapped by minions of The Funeral Director.

This sends both The Shadow and Doc Savage into action--at first on a collision course. Doc suspects that The Shadow and The Funeral Director are one and the same, but the real Shadow has to clear his name and prove to Doc that he is not the villain. Doc also disapproves of The Shadow because The Shadow is willing to use violence, including gunplay, to get the information he wants, while Doc and his associates prefer to use Doc's special "mercy bullets" that contain a nonlethal anesthetic. The Shadow is not above killing criminals, while Doc prefers to rehabilitate them using surgery and a stint at his special "criminal college," a hidden facility in upstate New York.

The Shadow races to find Lamont Cranston, while Doc and his friends Andrew Blodgett "Monk" Mayfair, a brilliant chemist, and Thomas "Long Tom" Roberts, a genius electrical engineer, likewise scramble to locate Ham Brooks. We are told that Doc's other companions, William Harper "Johnny" Littlejohn and John "Renny" Renwick, are out of the country pursuing their own adventures. There are many twists and turns, red herrings, and dead ends, but eventually we learn that The Funeral Director is an old foe of The Shadow, and his aim is to hold Cranston for ransom, thereby drawing The Shadow into a final confrontation. When Cranston's niece Weltha is unable to raise the funds to pay the ransom, The Funeral Director releases Cranston and kidnaps Weltha instead. Eventually, Doc and The Shadow realize they have a common enemy and join forces to defeat the villain. Doc and The Shadow, despite disagreeing over each other's methods, each recognize that the other is ultimately on the side of justice and declare an uneasy truce, if not an alliance.

Author Will Murray displays a thorough knowledge of the mythology and details surrounding both heroes, and the book is loaded with inside references that will make fans of both characters smile and nod in recognition. Three of The Shadow's most famous agents, Cliff Marsland, Harry Vincent, and Clyde Burke all make guest appearances and contribute to the plot at key moments.The author also introduces the eerie and memorable device of having The Funeral Director communicate with both his underlings and intended victims by means of tiny recording machines shaped like coffins.

My one real criticism of the book has to do with its prose style. It's impossible to tell how much was written by Lester Dent himself so long ago, and how much was written by Will Murray a good bit later, but I found the book rife with stilted dialogue, clumsy awkwardly constructed sentences, sentence fragments, and outright grammatical errors that called attention to themselves, slowed down the pace of the story, and took away from my enjoyment. In a pulp style action adventure story, the action should move at breakneck speed, or at least a brisk clip. I don't read a novel with an editor's blue pencil in hand, but gross mistakes in style, usage, and grammar jarred me as a reader and took me out of the story just as huge potholes in the highway can distract you from enjoying a Sunday drive. Will Murray may be a fine storyteller, but he needs a better editor. He's written several new Doc Savage titles for a series called "The Wild Adventures of Doc Savage," but I'd like to see what he can do with a straight Shadow story. Will he write one? Only The Shadow knows!

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Return of the Writin' Fool!

From Left to Right: Omar, The Escapist, Big Al, and Miss Plum Blossom.
Hooray, Huzzah, and Hallelujah! For the first time in ages, I managed to complete a work of fiction. This weekend I put the finishing touches on "Curse of the Golden Dragon," a piece of fanfiction featuring Michael Chabon's The Escapist. I also used Dragon Naturally Speaking software to dictate it, so the story is significant for another reason: it's my first piece of fiction created almost entirely by dictation. I haven't yet decided if I'll put it up on a blog or a website somewhere so that all and sundry can admire my handiwork. Some time ago, I conceived the idea of creating a separate blog and website for my fanfiction and original fiction that would be somewhat similar to an old time pulp magazine, but this second website suffered from shameful neglect. It hasn't been updated in over a year. Even this blog, as you can see, gentle reader, has languished from inattention. No matter. The blog begins again today.

In many ways, this story was a return to my roots. Over 10 years ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Michael Chabon's remarkable, Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a loving tribute to the Golden Age of comics, pulp fiction, and old-time radio. The novel itself is the story of how two down-and-out Jewish kids in New York City in the late 1930s create the comic book character called The Escapist, who becomes the lost hero of comics' Golden Age. The character combines the strength and virtue of Superman with the escape artist abilities of Harry Houdini. The novel touches on many broader and deeper themes including portraits of Prague and New York City from the 1930s to the 1950s; the beginnings of the comic book industry; the "high art" of literature versus the "low art" of a comic book; and the mysteries of the creative process, especially how events in the "real" lives of the novel's characters get translated into the adventures of their fictional creation. There is also a strong pro-gay rights and gay marriage subtext, as one of the central characters, Sammy Clay, discovers that he is gay and must carefully suppress his sexual identity in an environment that is very hostile to same-sex relationships. As a supporter of traditional marriage, I found this last element to be the most problematic thing about the book, but it's hard not to feel sympathy for Sammy in those circumstances.

I was so moved by this story that I was inspired to write a piece of Escapist fanfic as a get well card for my friend when she became seriously ill. It launched me on a journey of exploration into the world of comic book superheroes that I've been on ever since. Since then, I've had ideas for other Escapist stories, including the one I just finished. I had this story more or less completely mapped out in my mind, but it lay unfinished on my hard drive. I finally decided to complete it when another favorite superhero series I really enjoy, "The Red Panda Adventures" podcast, aired what sounded like its final episode. I felt almost as if someone had to take up the torch and continue telling superhero stories. The world still needs heroes, perhaps now more than ever, and I believe that comic book superhero stories, at their best, inspire us to think that even ordinary people like ourselves, in moments of crisis, can rise to the occasion and become heroes. Comic book superheroes, for all their melodrama and ridiculous costumes, show us images of the people we wish we could be, of the people we want to be. I want to be a hero, but if I can't be a hero, at least I want to be someone who creates heroes for the rest of us.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Latin Mass and Me: Two Years Later

This month marks an anniversary of sorts for me. Approximately two years ago this month, I attended my first Mass in the Extraordinary Form (a.k.a. the Latin Mass, The Traditional Latin Mass). You can find my first reactions to that event in this blog post. As you can probably tell from that post, I was curious and a bit skeptical about whether or not the Traditional Latin Mass was all that much better than the Mass in English (the Ordinary Form) that I had been attending. My, how times and attitudes have changed! I would say that I have gone from being something of a skeptic about the Latin Mass to a wholehearted supporter of it.

What brought about this transformation? Above all, I would say it was an openness to it. Yes, I was somewhat skeptical of the Traditionalist movement, but as I've said before, I loved the sound of Latin, Gregorian chant, and sacred polyphony. The music of the Traditional Mass keeps drawing me back to it, and when I hear Gregorian chant and polyphony sung live, at their most beautiful, and for the glory of God, I cannot imagine why so many in the Church decided to abandon this beautiful music for cheesy and superficial "folk hymns" in the name of "relevance" or "the spirit of Vatican II"--a decision the Vatican II Council Fathers explicitly rejected. The Vatican II documents on the sacred liturgy expressly state that the use of Latin and Gregorian chant should be maintained (Sacrosanctum Concilium 36.1) and that Gregorian chant should have "pride of place" when choosing liturgical music (SC, 116). The idea of reconnecting with an ancient form of worship that Catholics had used for centuries and even millennia before me appeals to me deeply. In attending this Mass, I am recovering my heritage as a Catholic.

Unlike some Catholics who say they were attracted to the Traditional Mass from the very first time they attended, it took me quite a while to become familiar with the parts of the Mass and its structures and rhythms. At first I found it baffling, quite frankly. However, something about this Mass kept drawing me back to it. Like Rubik's Cube, it was a puzzle that needed to be solved, at once frustrating yet intriguing. I kept attending. I talked to people. I read things, both online and in print, that helped me understand the Traditional Mass. Among the most helpful of these resources was Msgr. George Moorman's book The Latin Mass Explained, a concise yet thorough explanation of the actions and prayers of the Mass and their significance.

Another helpful resource was my own missal. After some deliberation I chose the Roman Catholic Daily Missal, published by Angelus Press and available from the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago. Although I still consider the St. Edmund Campion Missal and Hymnal from Corpus Christi Watershed to be an excellent resource, after using it for only a few Sundays I found it too big and too heavy to use conveniently as a hand missal. The Roman Catholic Daily Missal is much more portable and compact. Someday, if my funds permit, I'd like to purchase a copy of the 1962 Daily Missal published by Baronius Press for comparison.

After using all of these resources and regularly attending the Mass for a while I became familiar enough with its actions and prayers and structures and rhythms that I could relax a bit, stop worrying about trying to follow every single word in the missal, and simply prayerfully watch the actions on the altar. I began to recognize the similarities and the differences between the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form, and eventually the Extraordinary Form didn't seem as alien and bizarre as it first appeared. I would like to continue attending this form of the Mass as long as it is available in my parish, and I would like to see it made more widely available throughout the Catholic Church as a whole. Indeed, I've actually come to prefer it to the Ordinary Form of the Mass in English.

I've come to believe that if more Catholics were regularly exposed to this form of the Mass, they would ask for it from their priests and bishops. However, sadly and somewhat inexplicably to me, there seems to be a great resistance to this form of the Mass among many priests, bishops, and laypeople. I think in some cases it stems from ignorance or from outright hostility to the older traditions of the Church out of the same misguided sense of "relevance"that I mentioned earlier. The Ordinary Form is somehow seen as more "contemporary" while the Extraordinary Form is somehow seen as antiquated or old-fashioned. Truth is not and can never be old-fashioned. The beautiful and more elaborate ceremonies of the Extraordinary Form are often dismissed as ostentatious displays; the simpler, more stripped-down ceremonies of the Ordinary Form are said to be preferable. However, what exactly is wrong with as much beauty, dignity, and reverence as possible in the worship of Almighty God?

On a few occasions I've gone to the Ordinary Form Masses in my parish, and even though they are celebrated by the same priest who celebrates our Masses in the Extraordinary Form, and even though they are celebrated correctly according to the rubrics with as much dignity and reverence as possible, the Masses themselves just don't seem the same. Somehow they are oddly flat and truncated, as if some important parts are missing, and the parts that remain don't fit together very well. I would like to see the traditional Latin form of the Mass preserved, perpetuated, and made available for future generations. Please God, may it be so!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Here There Be Dragons!

I'm dictating this blog post using Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software. As promised, my brother Bill came to Charlotte this weekend and installed the software and I've started playing around with it. It's really quite remarkable. The bundle he bought also includes the Dragon Naturally Speaking For Dummies book. According to the book, right out of the box the software is about 99% accurate. I found this to be largely true. I can update my Facebook status, and I'm learning how to use Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate text, and eventually, I hope, to resume work on my fiction writing without even touching the keyboard and mouse; or at least touching them as little as possible. The ultimate goal is to be able to dictate stuff while I'm tilted back in my wheelchair. I'm getting there! It's exciting. I still can't order the computer to produce a cup of Earl Grey tea (Ha! The software even automatically capitalized Earl Grey! Captain Picard would be delighted); but with the next generation of Dragon software, who knows?

Friday, May 15, 2015

More Adventures in Dictation

A few days ago I tried an interesting little experiment. Just for fun I tried dictating a snippet of a fiction project I'm working on using the ListNote dictation app and my Android smartphone which uses Google's voice recognition technology. It's surprisingly accurate, but there are some limitations. You do have to speak slowly and carefully and pause frequently to see if the software correctly interpreted what you said. As you speak, the words you say (or more accurately, the words Google thinks you said) slowly appear in a tiny text window in the app. The app *DID* distinguish between "Wales" and "whales" (the word I wanted was "Wales"), but not between "wore" and "war." (The word I wanted was "wore"). The app and Google working together do recognize many proper names (such as for characters and specific places) and and will automatically capitalize them. Google also has a certain ability to learn specific, unusual words you use frequently and learns to reproduce them correctly. You also have the ability to type in corrections manually using the phone's virtual keyboard. All that said, however, dictating a lengthy document such as an entire short story or chapter of a novel might be a lengthy and perhaps tedious process, but with time and practice it might become easier.

When using the ListNote app and Google's voice recognition capabilities, you do have to pronounce commonly used punctuation marks: period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, and colon, for example. In most cases, you simply say the word and you get the punctuation mark you want. The spoken commands "new line" or "new paragraph" will insert the equivalent of a line break or paragraph break into your document. However, for some unknown reason, the command "quotation mark" works less than 50% of the time. Sometimes, particularly near the beginning of a document, when you say "quotation mark," you will get the desired punctuation, but more often you will get the words "quotation mark" fully spelled out. I have no idea why this might be. Obviously, this poses a problem if you are writing fiction and using dialogue between characters. It's possible that the developers of this app imagined that it would be used mostly for nonfiction expository writing, such as business and professional purposes, so indicating, creating, or reproducing dialogue would not be an issue. I can only hope that future versions of the software will correct the problem. Another thing that puzzles me about the app is the seeming inability to automatically capitalize the first word after a period. Sometimes, if you pause for several seconds between the end of one sentence and the beginning of another, the software will capitalize the first word of the new sentence, but not always. Capitalization for the first word of a sentence is a basic rule of English grammar, and I don't understand why that rule isn't written into the software somewhere. Back to the drawing board, software developers!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Great Dictator

I'm continuing to experiment with Blogger's dictation feature. I've been advised to sit with my wheelchair seat tilted up and back as much as possible in order to relieve pain in my back, legs, and feet. Unfortunately, however, when I do this, it becomes difficult or impossible to use the computer keyboard and mouse. Therefore, I'm using my smartphone, Blogger's android app, and the app's dictation feature as a way to continue to blog even without using the keyboard or the mouse. It takes a bit of getting used to, I must say. Sometimes the voice recognition software will mistake one word for another or will fail to capitalize a word when I would like it to. If I keep at it, however, I suppose I'll get used to it after a while. My brother Bill has promised to install Dragon Dictation software on my desktop computer so that I can blog, write, or operate the computer as much as possible by using voice commands. I don't know if I'll be able to simply speak into the air and order the computer to produce a cup of Earl Grey tea the way Captain Picard did on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it's fun to imagine and to realize that idea may be closer to reality than we thought.

I'm also trying to recover my old habit of reading for pleasure. This is also something I can do while the chair is tilted back. It's an embarrassing thing for an English major and former librarian to say, but somewhere along the line I lost the habit of reading for pleasure. I think it was the result of years of work as a cataloging librarian, a job I eventually came to despise. After being surrounded by books all day long, the last thing I wanted to do was to read more books when I got home. Also, I think I couldn't face the silence when I came home to my otherwise empty apartment in the evenings. This feeling was especially acute when I knew my parents were dying of cancer. I didn't want to be alone with my thoughts and my grief, so I turned on the television or surfed the Internet to create the illusion that I had company or activity in the apartment. Now, however, I'm becoming much more comfortable with the idea of silence, and I'm rediscovering the joys of reading.

Recently I reread Gregg Taylor's first Red Panda novel, The Crime Cabal, and really enjoyed it. Then I decided to read Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, a series of children's fantasy novels loosely based on Welsh mythology. I read one of these books years ago when I was in grade school but never got to read the entire series. I'm making up for lost time. I'm now about halfway through the second book in the series and I plan to complete the series in short order. Then for a change of pace, I think I'll read Wayfaring Strangers, Fiona Ritchie's account of Scottish and Irish immigrants to the United States and their enormous influence on the development of American Old-Time, bluegrass, and country music. I have many varied interests, and I'm trying to learn to move between them without thinking about whether or not they're consistent. Ralph Waldo Emerson was in many ways a pompous, blithering gasbag, but I do recall one useful thing he said: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

One benefit of getting older is the realization that you can read what you want, watch what you want, or listen to what you want without worrying about whether or not it's "cool" or consistent or fashionable. When we are young, we often think about what other people think of us and if we are reading the right sort of books, watching the right kind of movies and TV shows, or listening to the right kind of music so that the cool kids, whoever they are, will approve of us and think that we're also cool. Eventually, however, we realize we can stop worrying about what's cool and simply like what we like and enjoy what we enjoy. Ideas of what's cool are constantly changing, but the things in life that give us true joy and pleasure seldom do and are much more important.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Test post

This is another test post of Blogger's  dictation feature. The first post seems to have frozen up on me and I can't delete it or publish it. It seems to be stuck in some sort of electronic limbo. Let's see if this post is more successful.