Category: junk thought

True Pulp Tales

Amazing Stories CoverBefore we begin, let me warn you: this post is not for the weak of heart.

Yesterday, while exploring how pop fiction sometimes reinforces stereotypes, I was reminded of how often the world offers up scenarios too pulpy to seem true.

For example:

In 1969, [mob boss Vincent “Chin”] Gigante started feigning mental illness to escape criminal prosecution. He escaped conviction on bribery charges by producing a number of prominent psychiatrists who testified that he was legally insane. […] Almost every day he would return from his residence to his mother’s apartment at 225 Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village and emerge dressed in a bathrobe and pajamas or a windbreaker and shabby trousers. Accompanied by one or two bodyguards, he crossed the street to the Triangle Civic Improvement Association — a dingy storefront club that served as his headquarters — where he played pinochle and held whispered conversations with his associates.


If I were to write a gangster character like that, people would be shouting out the concluding twist before the end of the first act – and yet Gigante got away with it for twenty years.

Black Book Detective cover

It may be the case, however, that I’m simply too jaded.

“Nazi gold?” I might say to myself, “one of the most hackneyed plot devices you’ll ever encounter – there’s certainly nothing more to be said on the topic, and no telling, however true, would amaze me.”

– but I’d be wrong.

George de Hevesy, Scientist & Nazi FighterWhen Germany invaded Denmark in World War II, the Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy dissolved the gold Nobel Prizes of the German physicists Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925) in aqua regia to prevent the Nazis from confiscating them. […] De Hevesy placed the resulting solution on a shelf in his laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute. It was subsequently ignored by the Nazis who thought the jar—one of perhaps hundreds on the shelving—contained common chemicals. After the war, de Hevesy returned to find the solution undisturbed and precipitated the gold out of the acid. The gold was returned to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation who recast the medals and again presented them to Laue and Franck.


As mind-blowing as both of those stories are, however, they don’t quite top the amazement I felt when I heard the true crime tale of Murderous Mary.

On September 11, 1916, a hotel worker named Red Eldridge […] was killed by Mary in Kingsport, Tennessee […] within minutes, a local blacksmith tried to kill Mary, firing more than two dozen rounds with little effect […] Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the [circus] elephant in public.


Bullets having had little effect, and poison/electricity being in too short supply to complete the task, they turned to justice’s ancient friend, the hangman’s rope – frankly, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen the proof:

Murderous Mary, the elephant

Pulp Sensibilities

Movie poster for MadmanOn last night’s FlashCast we spent some time discussing the nature of pulp, and its effect on the real world. It’s easy to think of pop culture as disposable, but we often miss how it can influence our own thinking.

For example, I’m currently reading The Willowbrook Wars, a non-fiction piece regarding the shutdown of a brutal state school for the handicapped, and the fallout that surrounded its closure.

The wars began in 1972 with Geraldo Riveras televised raid on the Willowbrook State School. They continued for three years in a federal courtroom, with civil libertarian lawyers persuading a conservative and conscience-stricken judge to expand the rights of the disabled, and they culminated in a 1975 consent decree, with the state of New York pledging to accomplish the unprecedented assignment in six years. The study takes readers behind the scenes to clarify the role of the judiciary, the fate of the underprivileged, and the potential for social justice.


Which, more specifically, leads me to this point:

Until the middle of the 20th century, people with intellectual disabilities were routinely excluded from public education, or educated away from other typically developing children.


Given that people would rarely interact with the disabled, (or the mentally ill,) in their formative years, how did people come to know what mental illness was like? Through fiction.

Many stories in the Batman series start, end or take place within Arkham [Asylum]’s walls. Externally, it is uniformly depicted as an imposing gothic castle, often replete with driving rain and forked lightning. Internally, the depiction of Arkham varies; typically it is a cross between the eighteenth century Bedlam depicted in the likes of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and the cliché’d environment of The Shawshank Redemption’s prison movie genre.


How long were our perceptions of the mentally ill, and the handicapped, reinforced by the slobbering mad-villains of pulp?
Final panel of A Rake's Progress, by William Hogarth
Even later – lower-key – representations can be disturbing.

Interestingly, another EC Comics series, M.D., also touches on mental distress. In M.D. #3 a suicidal man is diagnosed with manic depression, taken to hospital, sedated and given electroshock therapy. Supposedly, this makes him ‘forget’ his depression which is blamed on his argumentative parents.


You may argue that things only got better from Of Mice and Men through Flowers For Algernon and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but I’ll note that I’ve never seen an actually disabled actor play any of those roles – and there’s also Sloth Fratelli, of The Goonies, to be considered.

Sloth Fratelli from The Goonies

Pulp constantly deals in the unbelievable and the little understood; the most unbelievable amongst us are the insane, and, for many years, the least understood were the mentally disabled, so it’s no coincidence that the pair should so often overlap – but it also means that it’s doubly worth questioning what assumptions we come away with in such sharply drawn, black and white universes.

Alien Yardwork

Eden Project at night

While caught up in science fiction landscapes and fantasy continents, it can be easy to forget that Sol III holds quite a number of exotic delights of its own.

The picture above is of the Eden Project, a garden and eco-attraction built over a reclaimed mining pit in Cornwall. It seems to me that the only element it requires to become a cover for something like Amazing Tales is a long-fingered alien sullenly standing in the foreground. If any of our British listeners have had an opportunity to visit, I’d be very interested in hearing about the experience.

Amazing Stories Cover

Inky Jets

Gutenberg pressMy cranium has found itself trapped in Scripts-ville, so I apologize for the sporadic posting that is sure to follow in my wake.

I did want to check in, however, to share this short video, which may change how you approach Father’s Day in ten or twenty years.

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(It’s in Japanese, but the on-screen text is English, and the process is pretty self-explanatory.)

The whole thing reminds me of the early days of the Gutenberg printing press – while it may start out as something owned only by rich elites, or corporations, the addition of another box beside my inkjet printer is inevitable.

Ghoulish Behaviour

The Ghoul, 1933I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but, please allow me to remind you of my concern that that we’re placing many of our eggs in one electronic basket, wrapped together tightly with fiber optic cable. I understand that we haven’t digitized all of our cultural output in its entirety, but we’re getting close.

My anxiety is for the delicacy of the medium – one misstep, and suddenly we’re back in 1933.


The Ghoul is a 1933 British Horror film […] was released in the US in January 1934 and reissued in 1938.


The movie is a historical landmark, as it was the first British horror “talkie“. It’s not a bad bit of film, although it has some comedic moments that seem strangely out of place.

What’s truly odd, however, is that I’ve seen it at all.

Subsequently it disappeared and was considered to be a lost film over the next 31 years.


Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein (Click for full image, it's worth it)

Consider that The Ghoul was made after both Frankenstein and The Mummy – that Karloff was already famous, and was brought onto the project specifically for his notoriety. It may not stand against the quality of some of his other work, but, to my mind, this is as if we were to suddenly misplace every known copy of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

In 1969, collector William K. Everson located a murky, virtually inaudible subtitled copy, Běs, behind the iron curtain in then-communist Czechoslovakia. Though missing eight minutes of footage including two violent murder scenes, it was thought to be the only copy left. Everson had a 16mm copy made and for years he showed it exclusively at film societies in England and the United States, memorably at The New School in New York City in 1975 on a Halloween triple bill of Lon Chaney in The Monster, Bela Lugosi in The Gorilla and Boris Karloff in The Ghoul. Subsequently, The Museum of Modern Art and Janus Film made an archival negative of that scruffy Prague print and it went into very limited commercial distribution.


Don’t get me wrong, I love volatile technologies – instability is often the sign of a burgeoning field of knowledge. My worry is only to ensure that not all of our cultural backup systems require a USB port.

There’s something to be said for redundancy.

Inadvertently in the early 1980s, a disused and forgotten film vault at Shepperton Studios, its door blocked by stacked lumber, was cleared and yielded [The Ghoul’s] dormant nitrate camera negative in perfect condition.


Stubborn Progress

WWII Pack MuleMy love of Boston Dynamics’ robotic cargo-carrier, Big Dog, is well documented, but it’s quite obvious that, while impressive, the four-legged hauler is more prototype than finished product.

Technology has made massive strides in the last century, but there are some areas in which we simply haven’t bettered the methodologies of our ancestors – despite the advances of industrial mechanization, fifteenth-century farmers could still teach us a thing or two.

The goal, as National Defense magazine reports, is to take some of the weight off soldiers’ backs during long war-zone foot patrols. In Afghanistan, it’s not uncommon for soldiers to carry 100 pounds of gear, even when they’re scaling mountains.

If everything works out, the future Army could look a lot like the Army of the 19th century, with trains of braying, kicking mules trailing behind the foot soldiers as they stomp through fields, slog through streams and wheeze up steep hillsides. As in the Army of the 1800s, teams of specially trained veterinarians and animal handlers would ensure the combat mules stayed battle-ready.


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Think of mules as one of our early forays into genetic experimentation – or, at least, as the result of a slow Saturday night on some ancient rancher’s spread.

They require less food and water than a horse of the same size. The mules hooves are harder than horses hooves, and both the mule and the mules hooves show a natural resistance to disease and insects.

A-Z Animals

Foolish Tendencies

Oddly, watching Teen Wolf the other night brought to mind a topic I’ve long intended on touching on – related, in a way, to the film’s “goofy best friend”, Stiles.

Still of Stiles from Teen Wolf

As most high school English classes will tell you – especially those teaching King Lear – the fool has a long standing place of importance in popular (and not so popular) culture.

Take, for example, The Wise Men of Gotham.

The story is that King John intended to live in the neighbourhood, but that the villagers, foreseeing ruin as the cost of supporting the court, feigned imbecility when the royal messengers arrived.


According to the 1874 edition of Blount’s Tenures of Land, King John’s messengers “found some of the inhabitants engaged in endeavouring to drown an eel in a pool of water[“]


The function of the fictional (apparent) idiot has always been to speak truth to power – or, at least, truth to the readers/watchers/listeners. The archetype was so deeply ingrained in Shakespeare’s work that actors playing the fool, whatever the play, had a fairly standardized costume.

The actor had props. Usually he carried a short stick decorated with the doll head of a fool or puppet on the end. This was an official bauble or scepter, which had a pouch filled with air, sand, or peas attached as well. He wore a long petticoat of different colors, made of expensive materials such as velvet trimmed with yellow.


the FoolMany historians claim the character died out with the decline of royal courts, but, it’s my contention that, despite his modernization, the buffoon survives. In fact, I’ll go a step further and argue that any political structure, even if the politics are personal, will breed a place for the role.

Consider, if you will, the class clown – was not Screech the fool to Zack Morris’ Lear?
Screech, from Saved By The Bell
Before him, however, came Beetle Bailey; or the jester of the corporate court, Dagwood Bumstead.

What of the (now uncomfortable) characterization of the minority house-servant who speaks wisdom beyond their position?

What of Horshack? Joey Tribbiani? Or even Hurley?

From The Gutter To The Stars

Used with permission from the guys at BothersomeThings.comA while ago, I snatched this photo from the hands of the fellows over at

It has become quite the seed of inspiration while I’m incubating Will Coffin stories. There are so many possibilities in this one image: is the kneeling man in the middle of a ritualistic acid trip? Is he there for some sort of genuine spiritual experience? Has he been given reason to hope that some artifact necessary to his existence lies in the duct, just beyond his grasp?

What ragged voice is speaking to him from within?