So my most recent post created a little bit of a stir.
In case you missed it, I joined in on a debate between masculine culture writer Jared Trueheart, pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes, and scholar Jason Ray Carney. I agreed with Jared and Morgan that sword and sorcery is a subset of the venerable Men's Adventure genre, and that it serves much the same purpose: delivering thills and chills to its primarily male audience.
To reiterate and clarify my position a little, I think that--like the post apocalyptic genre—S&S can do more, and can speak to universal human truths. But it absolutely must function as an exciting, thrilling S&S story first. Otherwise, its just an essay masquerading as a S&S tale.
Carney disagrees. He feels the primary purpose of the genre is to do more, and speak to those universal human truths.
One person who agrees with him was respected S&S writer David C. Smith.
On the incredibly off chance you're following this debate but are unfamiliar with him, Smith authored and co-authored several Robert E. Howard pastiches, including the six-volume Red Sonja series. He also created the well-regarded Oron series.
In a lengthy comment on my post, Smith offered insight into the publishing industry of the 1980's, shifting markets, and the work of writers intentionally pushing the genre's boundaries.
Despite Smith coming down against my position, I don't see that many of his observations actually refute it. In fact, Smith's point about "masculine-oriented S&S" gradually giving way to epic fantasy and YA fiction just reinforces the idea of the genre being primarily written for and marketed to men.
But his main argument—one contradicting the point referenced above—is that nobody is trying to get rid of the old-school masculine fiction. In his own words:
"And why be so threatened by an intellectual such as Jason Carney who wishes to discuss the gender boundaries of a genre when such new fiction is included with, but does not replace, the old-school masculine fiction?"
"No one wants to take away the 'visceral' fiction, as Daniel Davis calls it."
"Why are you so hung up on this one specific image of masculinity? Would you prefer to keep all of the bookstore racks as they were in 1981? Can't you just relax and enjoy the wealth of masculine fiction that continues to be available? It's a fair question."
Leaving aside his attempt to frame me as somehow "threatened" by an opinion I simply voiced a disagreement with, Smith's right.
It is a fair question.
I just wonder if before he asked it, he'd heard the news that scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is shaking up the iconic—and inarguably masculine—James Bond franchise by replacing 007 with a new female agent.
Quoting the article:
"Bond, of course, is sexually attracted to the new female 007 and tries his usual seduction tricks, but is baffled when they don't work on a brilliant, young black woman who basically rolls her eyes at him and has no interest in jumping into his bed. Well, certainly not at the beginning."
"This is a Bond for the modern era who will appeal to a younger generation while sticking true to what we all expect in a Bond film,' the source added. 'There are spectacular chase sequences and fights, and Bond is still Bond but he's having to learn to deal with the world of #MeToo."
"Waller-Bridge, who wrote the BBC comedy Fleabag and the female-led thriller Killing Eve, was recruited to ensure the 57-year-old franchise moved with the times. She said: 'There's been a lot of talk about whether or not Bond is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women. I think that's b******s. I think he's absolutely relevant now. [The franchise] has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn't have to. He needs to be true to his character.'"
Reducing the cool, suave, and hyper-competent Bond to a man "baffled" by rejection? Replacing him with a brilliant young woman who simply rolls her eyes at him and displays no interest in jumping into his bed? Forcing him to confront his history of sexual harassment?
With apologies to Mr. Smith, that sounds an awful lot like "replacing the old-school masculine fiction" to me.
Ms. Waller-Bridge's comment is the one I find the most illuminating. In other words, she's saying Bond can be "true to his character," provided the movie takes pains to portray him as backwards and wrong.
Which brings me back to a point I made near the beginning of last week's post. Genre fiction doesn't have to apologize for what it is, or what audience it's trying to court. That's true whether we're talking about a suave secret agent, a savage barbarian, or a certain red haired she devil in a chainmail bikini.
Turning Bond into an apologetic, baffled parody of himself in hopes of pulling in a broader audience isn't going to work.
For starters, we've seen it already. And with respect to Ms. Waller-Bridge, it was funnier when Mike Meyers did it.
Here's a quick question for all you younger readers out there. And by "younger," I mean anyone under 40.
Do you remember the Men's Adventure genre?
You know. Stories about tough guys doing tough guy things. Mack Bolan. The Executioner. Phoenix Force. William W. Johnstone's post apocalyptic Ashes series. Or his amazing standalone adventure, The Last of the Dog Team.
They always featured their alpha male heroes in exotic locations, getting into fist fights, knife fights, and gun fights. The women were always fast and dangerous. The bad guys were always powerful and ruthless. The covers usually depicted some hard case with a gun, striking a tough guy pose with a scantily clad woman nearby. Maybe she had a gun of her own, watching his six. Maybe she was just clutched onto the hero, begging his protection.
Politically incorrect? Maybe. But so what?
As anyone who's been following my recent post apocalyptic reviews can attest, I'm a believer that escapist entertainment doesn't have to make any apologies for what it is, or for what audience its trying to court.
One critic who shares that opinion is pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes. In this interview with Legends of Men, he rightly points out that the sword and sorcery genre is a subset of Men's Adventure fiction, and that it's aimed primarily at an audience of young men.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan's opinion ruffled some feathers.
This lengthy response to Morgan's interview by scholar Jason Ray Carney makes the case that sword and sorcery is primarily a gender neutral genre, less concerned with action, adventure, and alpha-male archetypes than with depicting human frailty in the face of natural forces. It also contains this doozy of a quote:
"Gender aside, sword and sorcery dramatizes our gender-neutral, all-too-human fight against (and inevitable defeat by) time."
With all due respect to Mr. Carney, I couldn't come up with a less-exciting description for the sword and sorcery genre if you held a fucking gun to my head.
To give him some credit, Carney isn't entirely wrong. Sword and sorcery has always had a strong element of cosmic horror to it, and man's futile struggle against the universe—and time—is a big part of that.
But let's be real, folks.
Nobody is reading a story like Robert E. Howard's "The Queen of the Black Coast" because it "dramatizes our gender neutral, all-too-human fight against... time." We're reading it to see Conan get hot and heavy with Belit, raid and plunder the Black Coast as her pirate king, and finally take bloody vengeance on the unholy creatures that killed her.
We're reading it for the fantastic settings and the visceral action. We're reading it to vicariously experience thrills we can't in our day-to-day lives.
What's more, the people writing and marketing these stories understood that. Howard deliberately wrote scenes of scantily clad women in peril, knowing it would ensure a lurid cover illustrated by Weird Tales great, Margaret Brundage.
Sex and action are big sells, folks. They always have been. They always will be. And their expression is almost never "gender neutral."
Don't believe me? Check your grandmother's garage. You'll probably find a giant box of paperbacks in there, several of them featuring a shirtless Fabio on the cover as he passionately embraces the heroine.
I suppose if I tried, I could write an essay arguing that those books really aren't aimed at women at all, and in fact dramatize our gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against loneliness. But nobody would buy that argument. Least of all not a bunch of lifelong romance novel fans.
I don't read sword and sorcery for what it has to say about my own crushing and inevitable defeat by the marches of time. I read it to experience the hot-blooded action of Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast," the weird and tantalizing thrills of Fritz Leiber's "While the Sea King's Away," or the lust-and-honor driven vengeance of Michael Moorcock's "The Dreaming City."
In other words, I read it to get the same thrills I get from the Men's Adventure genre, with the added layer of supernatural or cosmic horror on top. And I'd bet good money I'm not alone.
But then, according to Carney, I'm probably missing the point.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
A little over a week ago, I took an in-depth look at a bona fide genre classic. As expected, Mad Max stood up well on The Rad Scale. This week, I'm applying those same standards to 1988's tongue-in-cheek "Rowdy" Roddy Piper vehicle, Hell Comes To Frogtown.
The results? Decidedly mixed.
A decade after a nuclear war, mankind is on the brink of extinction. 68% of the male population is dead. Fallout has rendered most of the survivors sterile. Birth rates are plummeting, even as both sides are struggling to rebuild and rearm.
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper is Sam Hell, a notorious criminal and serial woman-sexer.
Hell has left a string of pregnancies everywhere he's been, and according to the militarized fertility nurses at MedTech, he has the highest sperm count they've ever tested. MedTech's primary mission is, of course, to locate and impregnate fertile women in the blasted atomic wasteland.
And they're prepared to offer Sam Hell a full pardon for his crimes in exchange for his *ahem* services.
Hell, of course, agrees, reasoning that a life sexin' women is better than life in prison. He signs the papers, which include a clause declaring his manly parts "government property."
Before the ink is even dry, he's off on a rescue mission in the company of Nurse Spangle and her stoic, steely-eyed subordinate, Corporal Centinella. Their destination: Frogtown, a stronghold deep in mutant territory. According to intelligence sources, rebel "Greeners" originating in Frogtown have kidnapped a group fertile women and are holding them for ransom.
The Provisional Government wants Spangle to get the women out, and Hell to get the women pregnant.
And HOLY CRAP, I just now spotted the double entendre in the title!
Not even joking. I'm actually kind of embarrassed. I was 13 the first time I saw this movie. But somehow, that joke flew over my head until I was 40.
To prevent Sam Hell from running out on his duty, the Provisional Government has fitted him with a special chastity belt. It monitors his physiosexual condition. It transmits his location at all times. It can deliver electric shocks on command. If he wanders too far from Nurse Spangle, it explodes. And it will also explode if anyone but her tries to remove it.
With their weapons in order and their "equipment" properly secured, our heroes set out into the wasteland, traveling in a pink ambulance with an M-60 machine gun mounted on top. Because damn it if this movie isn't just awesome when it wants to be.
Unfortunately, after this zany and promising set up, the movie meanders a bit. For a movie taking place in a mutant-infested atomic desert, the road to Frogtown is surprisingly uneventful.
Sam Hell tries to escape, which earns him a lesson in how his electronic chastity belt works. At camp the first night, Spangle poses seductively for him to "keep the subject in an excited state." Corporal Centinella tries to sleep with him, but they're interrupted by an obviously jealous Spangle. There's some bickering, an attempt by Hell to renegotiate his contract, and an encounter with an escaped hostage from Frogtown, culminating in Spangle once again posing seductively to excite Hell enough to do his job.
The above scenes serve mainly to pad out the runtime, and to demonstrate the rising attraction between Spangle and Hell. Eventually, though, the trio arrives at Frogtown. They halt the ambulance just outside in the hills, leaving Centinella on guard duty. Spangle and Hell infiltrate the rest of the way on foot, with Spangle posing as Hell's prisoner.
Once inside, they encounter an old friend of Sam's, a prospector named Loonie. As it turns out, Loonie discovered a pocket of uranium beneath Frogtown, which the frogs have been mining for profit. They also encounter the double agent they're supposed to rendezvous with, frog burlesque dancer Arabella.
At first, everything is going according to plan. That changes with the arrival of Bull, chief lieutenant to the rebel Greeners' leader, Commander Toty. Soon both Hell and Spangle are in captivity, with Hell chained up in Bull's private workshop/torture chamber, and Spangle in the palace's Harem.
Bull sets to the task of removing Sam's explosive chastity belt. He manages to get it off without triggering the bomb. It does off in his hand as he's examining it, however. The blast is enough to knock him senseless, and it buys Arabella just enough time to sneak in and free Hell from his chains.
Meanwhile, Spangle is forced to perform a ritual called "The Dance of the Three Snakes" for commander Toty. As she dances to the music in the throne room, the frog commander becomes visibly aroused, declaring that she's successfully awakened the "three snakes."
And yes, it's exactly as weird as it sounds.
Thankfully, before Toty can force himself on her, Hell kicks in the door, wielding a shotgun in each hand. He delivers the proper action movie quip of "Eat lead, froggies," just before mowing down the guards. Toty narrowly escapes by leaping up onto the overhead scaffolding.
Spangle and Hell then make a beeline for the harem, where they free the hostages and make a break for Centinella's waiting ambulance. A brief shootout follows, but the heroes peel out and hit the open road. Toty and his warriors give chase, riding in an armored, camouflaged car that has some kind of recoilless rifle attached.
Hell and the others almost make it, but they end up trapped in the rocks with their vehicle destroyed. Sam Hell is forced to fight Toty alone, eventually prevailing and knocking him off the edge of a cliff face.
The threats finally over, Spangle and Hell get into another bickering, heated argument. The argument quickly turns into the passionate kiss that's been building up since the two of them met, but Spangle tells him to hold his horses before he gets too excited.
After all. He still has a job to do.
Violence - Surprisingly little, and most of it confined to the third act. We have a couple of brief fight scenes. We have an even briefer shootout in Toty's throne room. The final chase contains some explosions and gunfire, and we get a climactic fight between Toty and Piper out in the desert. That final fight is almost the kind of knock-down, drag-out brawl you'd expect with a pro wrestler as the lead. But not quite.
Sadly, Hell Comes to Frogtown disappoints on the violence front.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Fairly standard for the genre. That said, it's delivered with confidence and competence. Directors Donald G. Jackson and R. J. Kizer lean heavily on some of the time-tested tricks of the apocalyptic film trade, but they make them work.
Wide desert vistas, a lonely toll both, and a few hastily erected signs marking the edge of the "Hostile Mutant Zone" provide a quick shorthand for the atomic wasteland. The Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana, California stands in for Frogtown itself.
There's also the requisite opening narration describing a great war, played over stock footage of an atomic bomb test. But Jackson and Kizer play with the formula here, adding a welcome bit of deadpan snark to the narration. Not to mention a funny sight gag that sends up the iconic ending of Planet of the Apes.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Look, citizen. The Provisional Government is trying to stave off a population disaster. And if that means forcing a man to sign over control of his own penis and testicles, wiring them with an explosive device so they don't fall into "enemy hands," and driving him into the heart of mutant territory to impregnate a bunch of fertile women against his will, then by God, it's a small price to pay.
Futuristic Bloodsports - None. But they would have been better off including some, considering how long this film takes to finally get to the action.
Barbarian Hordes - Nada. Mankind apparently managed to avoid a complete descent into savagery after World War III. Of course, with the plummeting birth rates threatening to wipe out the war's survivors in a few generations, that descent probably isn't far off.
Badass Warrior Women - Nurse Spangle, played by Conan the Barbarian alum Sandahl Bergman. Trained in both combat and the "arts of seduction," Spangle is the rescue mission's fearless leader. In addition to taking down Commander Toty with a series of kicks to each of his "three snakes," Spangle completely flattens the frog sentries in the hallway without breaking a sweat.
Secondary mention goes to Corporal Centinella, who spends most of the film manning the ambulance's M-60 machine gun.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - And fuckin' how! Hell Comes to Frogtown is hands' down the mutie-est mutant extravaganza ever to grace the apocalyptic screen. Where other movies try to pass off extras with dried oatmeal on their faces as mutants, this one goes whole hog... er, frog.
Thats right, Wastelanders. We've got full-on, giant, anthropomorphic human/frog hybrids.
Jackson and Kizer wisely chose to spend the majority of the film's budget here, and it shows. Sure, most of the background frogs stay covered in stereotypical wasteland garb like trench coats, goggles, and dust scarves. But the "star" frog suits—reserved for major characters like Commander Toty and Bull—have articulated eyes, pulsating necks, and working mouths. They're honestly more impressive than anything in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, which would be made just a few years later for considerably more money.
I've gotta admit, "Roddy Piper Saves Humanity with His Dick," is a bold premise for a movie. The fact that Hell Comes to Frogtown works as well as it does is nothing short of miraculous.
With its central conceit of plunging fertility rates, weaponized sperm counts, and what amounts to forced stud work for central character Sam Hell, this film could have taken the obvious route of relying on gratuitous, graphic sex scenes to pad the run-time. The fact that there's only one scene of actual nudity, and that it's played mostly for laughs, speaks to the integrity of the filmmakers. They clearly wanted to make a post apocalyptic action romp, rather than a softcore sci-fi sex film, and they need to be applauded for sticking to their guns.
The unfortunate flip side is that the movie doesn't quite commit to the action aesthetic, either. In fact, there's shockingly little action on display. This was probably for budgetary reasons, and the filmmakers do deserve some credit for trying to turn each action scene into a set piece. But in the end it's just not enough.
So what's left? Aside from the humor, frustratingly little.
Since there wasn't enough budget for more action, and the filmmakers chose to eschew excessive sex, a big chunk of the movie's runtime is dedicated to Sam Hell and Nurse Spangle's budding romance. To their credit, Piper and Bergman do manage to keep these scenes from dragging the film down, thanks to their fun, over-the-top performances. But this shift in focus almost makes the movie feel like a quirky Romantic Comedy. One that just happens to have a tough-talkin,' mutant-killin,' and woman-sexin' subplot tacked on.
Side note: I would definitely watch more RomComs if they included the above elements. Also, if I ever find myself single and in the dating pool again, I plan to use this movie to justify a "yes" answer on the subject of liking RomComs.
Speaking of subplots, there is one about traitor humans selling the frogs guns in exchange for uranium. The traitor even turns out to be the same "bad cop" seen roughing up Hell at the beginning of the movie. But it's not really explored, and when the character pops up at the end just to lengthen the climax, it winds up feeling tacked on.
Likewise with the parts about Sam Hell's old mentor, Loony, and the hints about Hell's deceased wife and daughter. Loony's death during the climactic chase scene doesn't seem to affect Hell enough to warrant his inclusion in the movie at all. And the pendant that belonged to Hell's daughter makes no real appearance in the film until the last fifteen minutes. It seems to have been added solely for the purpose of giving him a tender moment with Centinella.
While the attempt at giving us deeper characterization and a more complex plot is appreciated, it ultimately falls flat. Sometimes the simplest answer is best, and the simplest answer here would have been to include more scenes of Roddy Piper kicking mutant ass.
The Rad Rating:
As much as I hate to admit it, Hell Comes to Frogtown comes painfully close to earning Two and a Half Rads. The slow beginning and the overall lack of violence hamper things badly. Admittedly, that's only two strikes, but they're big ones.
The film's primary redeeming quality—and the one area where it stands above practically all other movies in the genre—is its mutants. Hell Comes to Frogtown pulls out all the stops when it comes to the frogs, enough to bump it up to a full Three Rads.
Bottom line: Hell Comes to Frogtown is a flawed cult classic, frustrating mainly for what it could have been rather than what it is. It's still a fun and entertaining film at the end of the day. Recommended if you've got both an evening and a six-pack of beer to kill.
That does it for now, Wastelanders. Until next time!
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
As I mentioned last week, I have a certain set of criteria that I judge post apocalyptic stories by. Yeah, musing on complex themes is great. Having something to say about human nature is good, too.
But let's be real. Nobody watches a movie like Hell Comes to Frogtown for its insights into the human condition. We watch it to see "Rowdy" Roddy Piper kick amphibian ass from one end of the wasteland to the other.
That same principle holds true for undisputed genre greats like Mad Max: Fury Road and Planet of the Apes. Sure, we might walk away pondering the deeper questions, but that's incidental. We walked in the door looking for car chases and monkey society gone amuck.
In short, the post apocalyptic genre is its own thing. And even the bona fide classics have to be good apocalyptic stories before they can be anything else.
With that in mind, here's my list of vital genre elements, followed by my numerical "Rad Scale."
Violence - Being serious for a moment, violence is where the post apocalyptic genre gains most of its thematic power. After all, nothing says "woe to the the hubris of man" like two guys finding a reason to kill each other in the aftermath of an atomic war.
But even if the cause of the apocalypse is something else, like an alien invasion or a cosmic event, violence is an essential part of the genre. It harkens back to our early days as a species, when fighting and killing for limited resources was a part of everyday life.
Bottom line, even the talkiest, most drawn out bomb-shelter soap opera needs violence—or at least the implied threat of it—to have any kind of tension.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Haunting, lyrical descriptions of the world gone by. Beautiful, panoramic vistas of silent cities. Gratuitous destruction porn.
This is at least half of what brings the audience to the table. In movies, it's everything from scenes of wholesale nuclear annihilation to old junk cars on the side of the road. In books, it can be in the physical setting descriptions, a blocky info dump, or even just implied in the dialogue.
However it appears, it needs to adequately convey the fall of the old world. And it needs to be good.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Some groups survive the end times by tenaciously clinging to the last shreds of civilization and decency. This is the other kind of group, the one that becomes a savage mini-dictatorship or a totalitarian hell hole. If human rights exist, they're probably on the menu right alongside the human lefts and the charred horse flanks. Pretty much always the bad guys.
Futuristic Bloodsports - Maybe they're a stand-in for war. Maybe they're bread and circuses for the post apocalyptic masses. Maybe they're even a commentary on our contemporary addiction to violent entertainment.
Let's just call this one what it is: a thinly-veiled pretext for our hero to take part in a deadly game of skill and ruthlessness. Don't overthink it. Story elements this awesome don't need any justification.
Barbarian Hordes - Sometimes they're biker gangs. Sometimes they're feral subway dwellers. Other times they're horseback riding neo-Mongols, armed with compound bows and assault rifles. Whatever form they take, these are the people who dealt with the collapse by rejecting civilization and embracing their inner pack hunter. Often—but not always—the bad guys.
Badass Warrior Women - Imperator Furiosa. Kushanna from Hayayo Miyazaki's Nausicaä. Nurse Spangle from Hell Comes to Frogtown. A good apocalypse is an equal opportunity hell hole. Nothing conveys this faster than some women kicking cannibal ass alongside the men.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - Human beings survived the end. But that doesn't mean they survived alone. Or unchanged. Anything from monstrously mutated plants and animals to humans with extra limbs and psychic powers.
The Rad Scale:
One Rad - Those Lost During the Fall. These are the apocalyptic stories that commit the genre's cardinal sin: they actually bore reader or viewer. Many of them contain no action or plot. Expect most of the genre's "deconstructions" and "fresh meditations" to fall right here.
Two Rads - The Chattel of the Aftermath. Usually plagued by muddy execution, dragging plots, and too much filler. That said, these stories will sometimes contain moments or concepts that bring them just shy of cult classic status. Mediocre to solidly entertaining. Most of the genre's missed opportunities fall here.
Three Rads - The Wasteland Wanderers. These stories form the backbone of the genre. Most will have moments of genuine brilliance, but fall just short of greatness. Cult classics and genre stalwarts usually land here.
Four Rads - Warlords of the End Times. Most of these films and books are genre-defining classics. Any others are forgotten masterpieces that deserve to be classics. The best of the best.
Five Rads - A Legend of the Wastes. These stories represent post apocalyptic perfection. Practically flawless. Also as rare as unmutated livestock.
So there you have it, Wastelanders. My personal criteria for judging apocalyptic books and films. My next post will jump right into it.
COMING UP NEXT:
George Miller's original 1979 classic, Mad Max.
I have a long history with The Thing.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 1951 Howard Hawks version with my mom and dad. I was about three or four years old, curled up on the couch in between them, with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I can still vividly remember my horror as I watched the shadow of Will Arness' Thing out in the blizzard, casually slaughtering the team's sled dogs. To this day, that scene of the arctic scientists trying to determine the shape of the magnetic anomaly in the ice—cheesy music sting and all—holds an eerie power for me.
Catching the 1982 John Carpenter version on cable was one of my formative pre-teen experiences. I was already a horror film junkie by that point, well versed in everything from Hellraiser, to Evil Dead, to Alien. I considered myself quite the jaded little gore connoisseur. And if you had told me I was about to watch a movie that would blow me out of the water, one that would genuinely scare me, I would have laughed right in your face.
The Thing, though, was some straight up next-level shit. Everything about it, from the Ennio Morricone score, to the perfect cinematography, to the still-unequaled practical creature effects, was a bar-raising landmark. Combine that with the tight pacing, the claustrophobic sets, the paranoid direction, and the virtuoso acting performances, and you have one of the most perfect horror films ever made.
Naturally, when I got around to reading the original novella that inspired both films—1938's Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell—I was already predisposed to liking it. And I did. No, it's not quite the timeless masterpiece of horror storytelling that Carpenter's film is. The ending isn't nearly as exciting. The sense of menace doesn't quite build the same way that it does in Lovecraft's better-written tales. Aside from McReady, the characterizations are thin to non-existent.
But as a pulp SF tale of the "men-with screwdrivers" school, it more than delivers. Campbell sets the claustrophobic tone in the story's first lines, describing the queer, mingled smells that choke the Antarctic camp's tunnels. When McReady comes on the scene—here as a meteorologist rather than a pilot—he is described in appropriately pulpy terms, a red-haired giant, a bronze demigod come to life. When the creature is at last revealed in the block of ice, Campbell gives us the almost superstitious reactions of the otherwise coldly rational scientists. The discord produces a fantastic effect.
All in all, the opening scene is a master class in establishing mood, setting, and tone while simultaneously kicking off the story with a bang. I'd even go as far as to say this opening is the one thing that Who Goes There? legitimately does better than either of the film versions, both of which take a little time to orient the viewer before introducing the horror.
Which is why despite my excitement, I have a few reservations about the upcoming release of Frozen Hell, from Wildside Press.
In case you haven't heard yet, writer Alec Nevala-Lee recently rediscovered the lost manuscript for the original, novel-length version of Who Goes There?. A Kickstarter campaign to cover publishing costs met its goal in less than twelve hours, meaning we'll all get to read it early next year.
Admittedly, my first reaction to this news was sheer, unbridled joy. And for part of me it still is. So why the reservations?
According to the project's Kickstarter page, Frozen Hell is apparently 45 pages longer than Who Goes There?, with most of the new material taking place before the novella's opening. In other words, that fantastic, moody first chapter will take place somewhere around page 30-35 or so.
Which brings me to an interesting thought about the novella, and half the reason for today's post.
One of the most common bits of advice trotted out to new writers is not to open a story with the dreaded "info-dump." You should hook your reader into the story first, giving them relatable characters and conflict, before giving them blocks of expository text or dialogue. Otherwise, the reader won't care.
There's plenty of truth to that advice, enough where it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But what always struck me about Who Goes There? is how much of that opening scene really is just info-dump. For several pages, we have McReady and the other scientists just standing around in a room, talking about this frozen creature.
What's more, in this same scene Campbell violates another piece of writing advice that's become akin to gospel over the years: having characters talk about things most of them already know, purely as an excuse to fill in the reader. Or "As you know, Bob," dialogue.
Campbell partially sidesteps it here, by having Commander Garry address the assembled men first:
You know the outline of the story back of that find of the Secondary Pole Expedition. I have been conferring with second-in-Command McReady, and Norris, as well as Blair and Dr. Copper. There is a difference of opinion, and because it involves the entire group, it is only just that the entire Expedition personnel act on it.
The rest of the opening consists largely of McReady and Blair explaining the events leading until now, events many of the assembled men were already present for. But because it's presented as a briefing intended to get the station's personnel all on the same page, it works.
Even so, it was a genuinely audacious storytelling choice, particularly in a format as dependent on fast-paced thrills as the pulps. The whole thing is carried by Campbell's moody description and the gradual reveal of the situation through dialogue, both of which give the scene its necessary suspense. More proof that you can break any writing convention, provided you do it with style.
Of course, the discovery of the Frozen Hell manuscript reveals that scene's original placement, which was roughly a quarter of the way into the story. That's much more in line with the standard "hook your reader, explain things later" advice. While I'm genuinely curious to see what hook Campbell uses, something tells me it won't be quite as innovative or memorable as an in-media-res, "as you know, Bob," info dump.
There's no question that I'm going to buy Frozen Hell the second it's available for general release. Maybe it's better than the novella. Maybe the scenes leading up to that tense, wonderful cold open will somehow make it more powerful. Maybe not.
In some ways, I feel like a kid who snuck a peek behind the curtain at a magic show. Now that I've seen all the mirrors and the hidden trap doors, I'm just sitting in the audience, hoping the Astounding Campbell can still wow me.
Here's hoping. Either way, I'll be the first in line.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.