It's Halloween season again, which means I've been revisiting some of my favorite vampire films. I kicked things off the way I usually do, with a viewing of F. W. Murnau's silent 1922 nightmare, Nosferatu.
A plagiarized version of Stoker's Dracula, it's amazing just how much of the novel Murnau's film manages to get right. The sense of creeping menace. The oppressive atmosphere. The looming evil of the Count himself.
For my money, no other adaptation has come close.
If you've never seen it, I highly recommend treating yourself. The 100th anniversary of the premiere was just a few months ago, so there's never been a better time.
Just do yourself a favor, and see one of the restored versions.
Or at least watch this cheap cash-in version, featuring a random introduction by David Carradine, and a soundtrack consisting entirely of Type O Negative songs.
No matter which version you watch, there's just something pure and refreshing about the portrayal of a Count that's an unrepentant monster. Maybe it's because that's the first story element so many modern interpretations discard.
One of the biggest offenders, ironically, is Bram Stoker's Dracula, the 1992 version directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder.
Don't get me wrong. There's plenty to love about Coppola's movie.
The practical effects are amazing. The cinematography and costumes are top notch, and the actors all turn out stellar performances. It's a lavish, big-budget adaptation that includes scenes, plot elements, and characters normally cut for brevity's sake.
My main complaint is the "reincarnated love" subplot. It's not just a nit-pick, either. Especially not in a film that works so hard to be true to the source material otherwise.
Making Dracula a simp for Mina was a massive misunderstanding of the character, and of the Old World evil he represented.
Stoker wrote a story about an ancient and powerful monster that creeps into modern society from the dark corners of the world. It was about men of science and faith standing strong in the face of a supernatural threat.
But Coppola's version discards this timeless theme, and dares to ask: “What if Count Dracula was just heartbroken and misunderstood?”
Make no mistake, Dracula is a novel open to all kinds of interpretation. It’s been said elsewhere that Dracula was the first techno-thriller. Van Helsing and company chase the Count with every modern tool at their disposal, including telegram, railroad, and phonograph.
There’s a strong subtext of the rational, new world versus the old, of civilization versus superstition.
But one thing the novel is not is the tale of forbidden, timeless romance.
Dracula’s attempt to turn Mina into one of his brides was a calculated act of psychological warfare, not love.
The heroes were onto him. They'd found him out. He tried to break their will, not just by killing a woman they all loved, but by damning her as well.
The impact of this scene is lost on modernists.
In the novel, Dracula forcing Mina to “drink from him” wasn't a taboo moment between star-crossed lovers. It was an unspeakable perversion of both a bride’s physical love for her husband, and of Holy Communion.
Dracula also timed it so all the men in her life—all of whom had a social and moral duty to protect her—witnessed it.
It honestly puzzles me how modern adaptations reinterpret this as an act of romance and passion. Dracula is spiritually and physically raping Mina, and he’s making her loved ones watch him do it. Then he taunts them over their powerlessness.
It is, without exaggeration, the most horrific scene in the book.
But in order to truly grasp the horror, you'd have to believe in Damnation, fidelity, and honor.
In the modernist worldview, immortality isn’t a curse. It’s a blessing. After all, why would being denied a place in Heaven matter, if Heaven were nothing but a fairy tale for adults.
Marriage isn’t sacred. It’s a tool of the patriarchy, and exists only to oppress women.
And on that subject, how dare you suggest a woman needs men to protect her?
For my money, this is the scene where Dracula’s true Evil is made plain.
One could argue everything up to that point was the behavior of an apex predator, looking for more fertile hunting grounds. But the pure malice of his attack on Mina can’t be explained in naturalistic terms.
It’s also worth noting that his malice is directed not at Mina, but at the (male) heroes.
He wants them to see how weak and powerless they are. He wants them to know they've failed. He wants them disheartened, demoralized, and broken. So he attacks their greatest weakness: Mina.
But again, this interpretation is unacceptable to modernists.
How DARE you suggest a man’s weak spot is a woman? After all, women are strong, and invincible, and fierce, and passionate, and self-actualized, and powerful, and confident, and beautiful, and free-spirited, and smart, and brave and--
Fact is, in order for this scene to work—for this to be the scene the real horror of the book turns on—you have to accept that Mina is an innocent and largely passive victim. Which is one reason modern interpretations do away with it.
In modernist ideology, women cannot be either of those things.
Dracula doesn’t "attack" her. She wants him.
And this, in turn, reduces Dracula.
He is not an ancient evil, stooping to depraved lows solely to attack his enemies. He’s a heartsick orbiter who’s creeping on his neighbor’s wife.
The real villains in this new interpretation? The boring, stick-in-the-mud husband, and the other men trying to come between Mina and Dracula's forbidden relationship.
Dracula's death in book is the triumph of faith, science, and courage against an unspeakable evil. Dracula's death in the Coppola film it the tragic and final sundering of a timeless love.
Like Mina, viewers are meant to question whether or not she made the right choice.
Doubtless, the filmmakers were trying to make Mina a "stronger" character. The changes were meant to give her a more active role in the story, and to give her more personal agency over the final outcome.
Ironically, if they wanted to see how it's done, they should have just looked at Nosferatu. In Murnau's film, Ellen—the copyright-friendly version of Mina—is the only character strong enough to stop the Count.
Murnau's film doesn't sacrifice the novel's central theme to make Mina/Ellen a stronger character. Nor does it sacrifice the Count's evil.
Of all filmmakers to tackle Dracula, F. W. Murnau got the point.
With Christmas behind us and the New Year just around the corner, it's a pretty safe assumption that most of my readers have watched Die Hard sometime in the last few weeks.
Based loosely on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard almost single-handedly redefined what an action movie could be. While stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone dominated the 80's box office as invincible super commandos, Die Hard broke the mold in giving us Bruce Willis as Regular Guy John McClane. It also confined the action to a single, claustrophobic locale, creating a high-octane game of cat and mouse between McClane and the heavily armed villains.
"Unique Location + Everyman Hero + Over-the-Top Action" proved to be a winning formula. It changed the genre forever, spawned countless imitators, and created a film so memorable that it was successfully memed into a bonafide holiday tradition decades later.
It's hardly surprising people still find so much to say when discussing the film.
What I find odd is that people hardly ever talk about the novel that inspired the movie. Well, this year I decided to read it for myself. And while I enjoyed the book immensely, I can see why it rarely gets talked about.
Folks, Nothing Lasts Forever is dark.
Tonally, it's almost the polar opposite of the movie it inspired, focusing on themes like isolation, extreme violence, and how exposure to both can dehumanize you.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Nothing Lasts Forever is the story of Joe Leland, ex-WWII aviator, retired detective, and semi-retired PI and security consultant.
Joining his estranged daughter Stephanie at her company Christmas party, Joe is looking forward to a chance to reconnect. He's also looking forward to spending some time with his two grandchildren, who are at the party with their mother.
His plans are quickly shot down when a group of German terrorists led by Anton Gruber take over the building. Outnumbered, barefoot, and armed with nothing but a 9mm Browning Hi-Power, Joe manages to evade the terrorists and hide.
And while that set-up might be identical to the film's, Joe Leland's inner narration reveals him to be a starkly different character than John McClane.
The gang. He'd seen four. Even with their radios, they needed two people downstairs, in the lobby and in the control room. The one in the lobby was probably sending the police away at this moment. It would take Leland ten to fifteen minutes to get down on foot to the street level from here. He would have the element of surprise in his favor, and would probably be able to get out to the street. Then what?
In other words, Joe Leland isn't a cop trying to end the situation peacefully and bring the terrorists to justice.
From the outset, it's clear he's an armed professional forced into a one-man war. He gives no quarter to his enemies, shooting from ambush, setting booby traps, and relying on the same kind of hit-and-run tactics the terrorists themselves use against governments.
He fights dirty because the stakes are high. He knows if he doesn't win, the LAPD's heavy-handed tactics—which he helped develop—will put the hostages at risk. It's a race to kill the terrorist before the LAPD comes in, guns blazing.
As I mentioned above, Nothing Lasts Forever uses the action to explore themes like isolation, extreme violence, and how rapidly both can change a man. After his first kill in the novel—a woman—Leland experiences shock and second thoughts. This war, he realizes, may have too high a price. By the end, he's so desensitized to the act that he'll mow down both male and female terrorists without a second thought.
The book takes this idea several steps further. In his broken, beaten, and bloody state, Joe resembles a primitive savage. When his own granddaughter spots him near the climax, she mistakes him for one of the terrorists he's been shooting into hamburger for 200 pages.
It's an important scene, and one that dramatically illustrates the novel's central theme.
After playing both hunted and hunter, the only thing separating Joe from the likes of Gruber and his butchers is his single-minded goal of saving the hostages. But to an innocent bystander, that crucial difference is impossible to see.
Indeed, it's interesting to see how such a familiar story plays out, when the action is serving a radically different purpose than the one we've grown used to.
The film has John McClane running through broken glass, crawling through the ducts like a rat, and rappelling off an exploding tower on a firehose to show us what he's willing to do to save his wife. The novel uses those same set-pieces to show us just how small the dividing line is between a man like Leland and the militant terrorists.
The other thing the novel explores—and that is almost entirely absent from the movie—is the relationship between news media and big disasters like terror attacks. Like international terrorism itself, this was new territory in 1979. "If it bleeds, it leads" might be an old saying, but by 1979 Americans were learning just how ghoulish the camera's fixation on sensational violence could be.
Leland eventually figures out how to use the live news coverage to his advantage, manipulating events on-camera so the terrorists watching see exactly what he wants them to.
It's makes for yet another interesting contrast between Leland and the terrorists, and another illustration of how similar they really are. Once again, Leland isn't using the methods of a Law Enforcement Officer. He's using the tactics of international terrorism against the terrorists.
All in all, Nothing Lasts Forever is a memorable read, a solid entry into the action thriller genre that tackles heavier issues than the film it inspired. It's an exploration of the "Wolves vs Sheepdogs" dichotomy, written long before the phrase gained popularity. It also refuses to give the reader easy answers.
It's very good, but it's about as far from the bombastic, feel-good action of Die Hard as you can possibly get.
Just don't go in expecting the same experience you get from the movie.
If you're looking for a book that does offer bombastic, feel-good action, Elf Hard is available on Kindle.
For about a year now, I've been studying Kali/Arnis, the Filipino art of stick and blade fighting. I had some brief exposure to it a bunch of years ago, thanks to my travels in the Marine Corps and some guest instructors in my hometown dojo, but this is the first time I've ever been able to really study the art in depth. It's been a wonderful experience, and I am more than grateful for my instructors and their dedication.
I've also been slowly rehabbing my injured knees, both of which were abused hard in the military. Success is coming by inches, but it's coming. Whereas nine months ago I couldn't even do one squat with no additional weight, through long hours of careful rehab, I've worked my way up to doing two sets of 20 squats with a light resistance band on the weight bar.
It's a slow improvement, but a dramatic one.
The bottom line is I'm at the age where I have to start taking my my own fitness a lot more seriously. I can't rely on youth and good genetics to keep me healthy anymore. That means working out much more regularly—and with much more careful focus—than I ever used to.
To that end, I recently read Sun and Steel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
Something of an infamous figure, Mishima was a hard-right Japanese nationalist who orchestrated an unarmed takeover of a Japanese Self Defense Forces facility back in the 1970s. His stated goal was to inspire the soldiers to rise up and overthrow the Prime Minister, and install the Emperor as the new and rightful ruler of Japan. Failing in his ultimate goal, Mishima committed ritual Seppuku the old fashioned way, with a knife straight to the guts.
Sun and Steel is Mishima's meditation on weightlifting, martial arts, and physical culture. Fans of the book describe it as Mishima's odyssey in search of new and more extreme experiences. And while while the book is justifiably famous in certain weightlifting and bodybuilding circles for its inside look into an iron-willed mindset, it's Mishima's thoughts on the martial arts—the sword arts in particular—that have stayed with me.
Some of the book's most striking passages talk about seeking the deeper, truer reality beyond the flash of the fist, or beyond the the tip of the sword. But he's not just rehashing the idea of the Void or the Nothingness from Miyomoto Musashi.
Quoting Mishima: "There, above all, lay the essence of action and of power. That reality, in popular parlance, was referred to quite simply as the opponent."
The empty space beyond the sword isn't a Void. According to Mishima, it's alive, vital, and powerful.
I've been thinking an awful lot about that quote since I first read it. I've been pondering what Mishima really means here, and how it links to the rest of the book as a whole. And after a few hard sparring sessions—including one with training knives that left me sore for about four days—I think I've finally got it.
Human beings have deeply buried instincts, survivals of older memories from our ancestors. How do you know to be afraid of a bear or a lion the first time you ever seen one? How do you know what it's after—what it's even capable of—as it's stalking towards you? How do you know to fight of flee rather than offer it a hug?
Answer: you automatically know the big predator is going to eat you because in the distant past, big predators tried to eat your ancestors. Fear of them became an ingrained survival trait.
Taking the idea a step further:
Every single person alive today is only here because some ancestor of theirs won a fight over a watering hole or a piece of food. I don't care how peaceful you are personally. Someone in your family tree caved in the skull of another human being with a rock and took their stuff. Or ripped open their guts with a flint knife and squatted on their territory.
More likely, it was several someones.
Just like every human has a deeply-buried instinct telling him to fear a predator, every human has a deeply-buried instinct urging them to fight, conquer, and kill for survival.
Blade and stick arts—perhaps more than any other martial arts—drive us back into contact with that primal mindset. Practicing overhand blows to the head with a stick, or practicing straight thrusts to the stomach with a knife while your opponent tries his damndest to stop you... There's something about it that drops you into a mentality stretching back to the dawn of time.
That extreme reality beyond the tip of the sword, that level of vital experience Mishima kept chasing with his hours of dedicated practice? What he was chasing was a connection with the primal reality of our distant past.
What Mishima was looking for wasn't a new experience. He was looking for an old experience. One of the very oldest possible.
It's a shame he didn't find it until the very end.
Sun and Steel is published by Medina University Press. Copies are available from Rogue Scholar Books.
"Some day, there will be a legend like this. Some day from steamy Venus or arid Mars, the shaking, awe-struck words will come whispering back to us, building the picture of a glory so great that our throats will choke with pride—the pride in the men of Terra!"
That's the introduction Leigh Brackett wrote for Keith Bennett's "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears," a short she personally selected for inclusion in The Best of Planet Stories #1. The latter was a reprint paperback anthology she edited in 1975 for Random House, paying tribute to the all-stars of the magazine that earned her the nickname, "The Queen of Space Opera." Under Brackett's editorial eye, Bennett's tale joined stories by such Golden Age heavy hitters as Poul Anderson, Frederick Brown and a young Ray Bradbury, not to mention Brackett herself.
I'd first heard of Bennett's story thanks to a glowing review from Morgan Holmes over at the Castalia House blog, when he did a write up on the Planet Stories anthology. So glowing, in fact, that I shelled out $25 for a used copy just so I could read it myself.
As usual, Morgan didn't steer me wrong.
Folks, this novella is one of the very best MilSF tales ever written, and thanks to the fine folks over at Project Gutenberg, it's finally available in a free e-book edition. If you're even a casual fan of the genre, you owe it to yourselves to experience this wonderful, mostly forgotten classic.
I'm not the only one who thinks highly of this story. No less an authority than David Drake has expressed his admiration for this obscure tale, as outlined in this brilliant essay at Tor.com. Fair warning, Drake's essay does have a few spoilers. I'd recommend reading the story first, both so you can experience it "cold," and so you'll have a greater appreciation for Drake's insights. And make no mistake, Drake's observations about Bennett and what he successfully manages to convey in his classic short are well worth a read. Among other things, Drake makes some razor sharp points about the gallows humor of the combat soldier.
As for the story itself, it's an amazingly simple one, about a platoon of marooned Rocketeers who must fight their way back to a friendly base through hostile territory on a savage Venus. It's basically an SF-nal take on Xenophon's Anabasis, right down to the main action being relayed through the eyes of a junior officer.
For that reason, fans of Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Legionnaire--the first book in the wonderful Galaxy's Edge series—will arguably find the most to enjoy here. It's a Golden Age SF take on the same themes they explored, with surprisingly little ground lost in the 67 years between each story's publication. "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" is the olive drab fatigues and steel pot to Legionnaire's Marpat and Kevlar. Sure, there's some differences in terminology and tech. But it's still recognizably a grunt's eye view of war in the future, told by someone who knows what that hell looks like right now.
And like Legionnaire, it isn't sugar-coated.
You can read and download "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" from project Gutenberg.
In case you missed it, I was invited to write a guest blog over at DMR Books earlier this week. The subject was A. Merritt's incomparable proto-Sword & Sorcery novel The Ship of Ishtar, but the larger topic was the idea of "adult" fantasy, and how it's far bigger and more meaningful than just violence, sex, and swearing.
You can read the whole thing here.
DMR has actually honored me by asking me to participate in their annual Guest Bloggeramma event for three years running now. It's always both humbling and exciting to be included among the talent Dave Ritzlin and Deuce Richardson gather up each January. The writers they invite are some of the very best essayists and fictioneers in the pulp and Sword & Sorcery fields, and getting to throw my $.02 in alongside them is just as big a thrill as seeing what they have to offer every year.
For completeness' sake, (and on the off chance any readers here missed them the first time around) here are links to my other two articles.
The first is 2020's, which was a deep dive into the hidden history of John Bloodstone's novel Thundar: Man of Two Worlds. Read it here.
The second is from 2019, which was a comparison and retrospective of Robert E. Howard's two stories about the 1014 battle that ended Viking rule in Ireland, "The Grey God Passes" and "Spears of Clontarf." Read it here.
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.