Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A review of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles

All right, then, what is Chronicles? Is it King Tut out of the tomb when I was three? Norse Eddas when I was six? And Roman/Greek gods that romanced me when I was ten? Pure myth. If it had been practical, technologically efficient science fiction, it would have long since fallen to rust by the road.

--Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

I’ve never been a big reader of science fiction, largely because, rightly or wrongly, my perception is that SF worships at the altar of technology, and is fixated upon cold, clinical subject matter for which I have little interest. But if the SF genre contained more books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, I might view it a lot differently.

The Martian Chronicles tells the story of mankind’s colonization of the red planet. Driven by curiosity and the impending destruction of a worldwide atomic war, men send rocket expeditions to Mars in hopes of settling the planet and finding a place to carry on their civilization. It’s not a traditional novel, but a collection of short stories originally published in Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and a handful of other defunct SF magazines, which Bradbury ties together with a series of vignettes.

The Martian Chronicles was first published in 1950 and Bradbury set the first story, “Rocket Summer,” in a fictional (and then-distant) 1999; this latter printing advances the timeline to 2030. The Martian Chronicles certainly has some SF surface trappings, and the tale “There Will Come Soft Rains” (a haunting story about the aftermath of an atomic war) probably fits that category. But it’s certainly not hard SF. Bradbury doesn’t dwell on the Martian technology nor offer explanations for how it works. He describes what little there is in his inimitable short strokes of brilliant, poetic color: Houses with tables of silver lava for cooking bits of meat, pillars of rain that can be summoned for washing, metal books that sing their stories, like a fine instrument under the stroke of a hand.

In the introduction to the 2009 Blackstone Audio, Inc., production of the book, Bradbury says that the larger themes and deeper meanings of his work were buried in his subconscious as he wrote. It wasn’t until he saw an onstage production of The Martian Chronicles, juxtaposed with a viewing of a traveling Tutankhamun exhibit at the Las Angeles Art Museum, that he made the leap—he had written a myth, not a science fiction story:

“Moving back and forth from Tut to theatre, theatre to Tut, my jaw dropped. ‘My God,’ I said, gazing at Tutankhamun’s golden mask. ‘That’s Mars. My God,’ I said, watching my Martians on stage, ‘That’s Egypt, with Tutankhamun’s ghosts.’ So before my eyes and mixed in my mind, old myths were renewed, new myths were bandaged in papyrus and lidded with bright masks. Without knowing, I had been Tut’s child all the while, writing the red world’s hieroglyphics, thinking I thrived futures even in dust-rinsed pasts… Science and machines can kill each other off or be replaced. Myth, seen in mirrors, incapable of being touched, stays on. If it is not immortal, it almost seems such.”

Rather than explaining the hows and whys of rocket travel, or describe the atmospheric conditions of the red planet, Bradbury uses The Martian Chronicles to explore the age-old problems of colonization/colonialism, our fears of the unknown, our longing for simpler times, and the limitations of science and technology. It’s intensely elegiac, an ode to the quiet towns and neighborhoods of the 1920s and 30s, before the sprawl of cities and suburbs and the opening of the Pandora’s Box of atomic power.

The heart of the book is the short story, “And the Moon be Still as Bright,” which concerns a fourth rocket expedition to the red planet. The first three missions have failed. Mars is empty, its cities ghostly and vacant. The Martians have been hit hard by chicken pox, infected by the crew of one of the previous expeditions. When several crewmembers of the latest expedition get drunk and vandalize a beautiful Martian city of glass spires, one of the crewmen, Jeff Spender, turns on them in a murderous rampage.

Later, atop a hill, Captain Wilder approaches Spender in an effort to get him to surrender. Spender, who initially seems crazy, is revealed as the man with the clearest vision. He knows what modern man is like, a professional cynic who wants to tear down and rebuild in his own image, citing Cortez’s mission to Mexico (which wiped out nearly all traces of the Aztec Empire). Spender has read the Martians’ books and seen the relics of their culture, and discovers that it is a perfect balance of science and religion, nature and man (Martian) in harmony, with neither side dominant. Says Spender:

“[The Martians] quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. It’s all simply a matter of degree. An Earth Man thinks: ‘In that picture, color does not exist, really. A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light. Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.’ A Martian, far cleverer, would say: ‘This is a fine picture. It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired. Its idea and its color are from life. This thing is good.’”
It’s interesting to note that the Martians are not perfect, and in striving for balance they may have lost something. In “Ylla,” the second story/chapter of the book, a Martian woman upsets her husband to the point of murder. As the Martians are telepathic, Ylla is able to “speak” to the astronauts as they draw near in their silver rocket. She learns their burning desires and their strange songs. Despite the harmonious, tranquil, idyllic environment all around her, the brown-skinned, golden-eyed Ylla wants to be swept away to earth, crushed in the embrace of the white-skinned, dark-haired, blue-eyed Nathaniel York. For all its piggishness and destructiveness, the race of men is passionate, burning with the desire to live and explore.

As with all of Bradbury’s tales, The Martian Chronicles contains its share of humor, terror, heartbreak, and hope, and is written in Bradbury's beautiful, one-of-a-kind style. It holds a deserved place as science fiction classic, even as it transcends the genre and defies our attempts to categorize it.
This review also appears on SFF

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Iron Maiden's The Trooper

(Note: Over at The Cimmerian, fellow blogger Deuce Richardson asked if we could supply posts to commemorate October 25th, which has resounded throughout military history as a date for epic, bloody battles. Following is my tribute to a famous charge and the heavy metal song that immortalized it, at least in my eyes).

Not everyone who comes to appreciate history arrives via the same path. Some have their interest piqued in school by reading traditional textbooks. Others learn from wisdom passed down in tales told by grandparents and great-grandparents. Still others get hooked from watching the (occasionally) fine programming of the History and Discovery channels.

Then there are those who learned about great historic battles at the feet of those long-haired, spandex-encased professors of heavy metal, Iron Maiden. I count myself in this crowd. ‘Twas Maiden who got me more interested in learning about the horrific World War I battle of Paschendale. ‘Twas Maiden that helped provide the impetus for my lifelong love of World War II with their take on the Battle of Britain, “Aces High.” And of course, it was Maiden that helped spark my interest in that famous engagement of the Crimean War, the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.

This insane, glorious charge of horsemen into the roaring mouths of Russian guns was of course made famous by British poet Alfred Tennyson in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But for those denim-jacketed outcast teens growing up in the 80’s, the Charge was immortalized by Maiden in their smash-hit, “The Trooper.” I've always thought of Iron Maiden as the heavy metal band that catered to the semi-nerdy crowd. If you were smart, you liked history and of course you liked Iron Maiden.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian web site.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: A Q&A session with the editors of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

Outside of a handful of anthologies and magazines, the market for the genre known as heroic fantasy is as dry as the sands of Stygia. Which is why I’m so excited to see newcomer Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (HFQ) enter the fray, broadsword in hand.

HFQ describes itself as a home for stories with “an emphasis on action. Be it an exchange of blows or insults, the spurring-on of steed, or the application of poultices to wounds, things happen and happen quickly in the pages of HFQ.”

HFQ publishes both short stories and heroic-flavored poetry on its web site. It’s a free publication and also pays its contributors, which will hopefully encourage new young writers to publish in this sadly neglected field.

Below, editors Adrian Simmons and David Farney generously provided the following answers to
The Cimmerian regarding their new venture. HFQ published its first issue in July and recently released its second issue, featuring three short stories and two poems.

Q: What made you launch this venture, given the general trends in publishing that favor multi-volume, epic fantasy?

Adrian Simmons:
Crazy as it sounds, the idea came from all the young adult fiction that grownups are reading. Why are they reading YA fiction? Because something HAPPENS in it. Plus, clearly there is a niche—the universe of short heroic fantasy venues has been shrinking, and although there are several places that pay for and publish the genre, there was a need for someone that paid triple digits.

David Farney: Turning 40! I’ve had real difficulty finding any fantasy I enjoyed as much as the Elric and Conan and Corum stories that blew me away as a teen. Translation: I think in HFQ I’m trying to rediscover or recapture some essence of my childhood. And though it’s been a lot of work, some of the stories coming into HFQ are indeed rekindling that sense of amazement in me. Also, like Adrian, I agree that S&S and Heroic Fantasy are getting pushed aside by the many other fantasy subgenres, both in short fiction and novel-length. That said, there’s PLENTY of solid short fantasy published both online and in print, but a real lack of S&S and Heroic. As writers of Heroic Fantasy, it occurred to us there are doubtless many others just like us who can’t find appropriate markets for their work, or who as fans keep reading older and older material (or YA) because the writing and storytelling is digestible and much faster paced.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ed Cassidy and Don Teschek: The postwar years

Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part article. You can read part 1 here.

Pictured above, Don Teschek and his daughter Karen on Lynn Beach, circa 1948.

Homeward bound
While Don and Ed served overseas, Eleanor sacrificed at home. Shortly after the outbreak of war at the age of 17 she had begun work at the Employer’s Group, which had changed its name to the Commercial Union. It was a time of sacrifice and scarcity: She recalls ration tickets, Victory Gardens, war bonds, brown-outs, and not having any nylons to wear (the armed forces needed the material for parachutes, she recalls). Her boss, 38-year-old Bob Anderson, was drafted into the service despite having two children at home. “It was such a long war and on so many fronts, they literally were running out of manpower,” she says.

She also remembers casualty lists: One of her friends, Red Slack, a young man with whom she used to dance, was killed in combat in Germany.

When V-E Day (Victory in Europe) and V-J Day (Victory in Japan) occurred, cities across the U.S. erupted in a wild celebration. The Commercial Union and all the rest of businesses in Boston emptied their workers—mostly females and older men past the age of military service—into the streets.

“It was great—we threw all the adding machine tapes and rolls of toilet paper out the windows like streamers, and went out and danced all around post office square when it was over,” Eleanor says.

After the war, Cassidy, his wife Kay, and Don eventually returned to the Boston area and resumed work at the Commercial Union. When Eleanor first caught sight of Don strolling into the office—tall and dressed sharply in a beige suit, but yellow-skinned from malaria pills and bad diet—she wasn’t so impressed.

“Over the years I had heard about him because he worked in (my) department,” Eleanor says. “I can remember the first thing I said was, ‘I don’t think he was so hot.’”

Nevertheless, the pair began dating and eventually married in 1946. Both families settled down and began raising families in the post-war years: Ed and Kay had four sons, Don and Eleanor three daughters.

Ed and Don didn’t talk about the war much, though they’d occasionally share a memory that stuck with them. Cassidy says it wasn’t the horrors of war or the grand sweep of the world-wide conflict they had participated in that prompted their conversations, but most often the small things. “We’d remember how bad the food was,” says Cassidy, recalling that the ice cream and fresh-baked Australian bread were manna from heaven in comparison.

The Andover connection
In 1953-54 Ed and Don began looking at summer property in New Hampshire. They initially considered a campground on Webster Lake, but that proved too expensive. Cassidy was alone when he first saw the Maple Street property in June 1954. It was a former orchard and a few apple trees remained on the long, sloping hill down to the lakefront, along with a small beach that caught Cassidy’s eye.

“The scoop was the woman that owned it had bought it, and her boys would use it, but because of the war, they had circulated around the country just like all of us did,” he says. “They met gals they ended up marrying and were out of state. So this place was not being utilized like she thought it would be and she decided to sell.”

Cassidy called Teschek and told him about the property, and the latter gave him the okay to tie it up. At the time, the price seemed high and it was a struggle for the two families to make payments.

“A lot of people thought we paid too much because a lot of land was going for cheaper, but not necessarily waterfront,” Cassidy recalls. “Land in general was very reasonable at that time in this area.”

Don and Ed soon set to work building cottages. Between the two of them they had minimal building experience—sheet rocking, plastering, and insulation was about the extent of it, Cassidy says—but that didn’t stop them. They drove up on the weekends and worked hard.

Some of the materials were new and others, including the windows, were second-hand or refurbished. Three windows in the Teschek place were hand-me-downs from Anderson—not the noted window manufacturer, but Eleanor’s boss, who had made it through the war unscathed. They built a pump house by the water’s edge and ran a couple of lines up the hill for a water supply. Cassidy recalls that they tried to drive a point for a well, but the rocky Andover soil wouldn’t oblige.

They started on the Cassidy cottage first. To speed things up the two men took a working vacation, pitching a 9x12 white sidewall tent and cooking their meals on a gasoline camp stove. Teschek slept in his car. Though quite different in their approaches to construction, the two men nevertheless made an efficient tag-team.

“Ed Cassidy is very deliberate in everything he does and [Don] was more apt to go ahead and get it done whether or not it was perfect all the time,” Eleanor recalls. “All of our couple friends knew these traits and we used to have a saying that if Ed built the cottage himself, he would still be building, and if Don built it himself, they would have fallen down years ago.

“Ed would be measuring and measuring and Don would say, ‘It’s only a cottage, Ed, nail it up,’” she adds. “I used to joke and say Don would fix the plumbing with a piece of chewing gum. In spite of these differences, together they got everything done.”

The work was hard but progressed rapidly. They got the Cassidy cottage framed, the windows in, the roof on, and put down felt paper. With a dry roof overhead they moved right in, even though the sides were open.

But late that first summer their work suffered a setback in the form of a raging storm that grew worse as the day progressed. As the wind whipped and the rain sheeted down, Cassidy and Teschek climbed up on the roof to try and keep the felt paper on—a futile and dangerous effort. Only later did the two men find out the raging blow was actually a hurricane.

Eventually the storm was too much and they retreated to Teschek’s brother’s house in Concord and holed up there until the storm blew through. “We came back and resurrected whatever we could. It was wide open so it wasn’t watertight,” Cassidy says.

Don and Ed worked hard to make up for lost ground, coming up every Saturday morning to work and leaving late on Sunday afternoon. By the end of the summer Cassidy says his cottage (pictured at right, Teschek cottage visible at rear, left) was nearly done.

The next year the two men scraped together enough money for materials and got started on Teschek’s cottage. They worked on it into the late fall and had the roof shingled, the siding nailed down, and the windows in when it started snowing on a Sunday afternoon. The early snow was a bad sign of a wicked winter to come.

“That winter we had very severe winter, lot of snow, rain, freezing, and the roof was loaded with snow and ice,” Cassidy recalls. “A lot of places collapsed, including commercial buildings, and that place collapsed too.” Under the weight of snow the roof fell in, pushed the back wall of the cottage flat, and knocked it off the platform. The end walls got damaged, too. More rework ensued.

“We had to dismantle everything,” Cassidy says. “We took off all the shingles very carefully and piled them up. Some of the boards were broken, some of the roof rafters were cracked in half, and we had to eventually replace those.”

Fortunately they were able to salvage half of the roof rafters and most of the siding. “Money-wise, it didn’t cost us that much to rebuild,” Cassidy says. “Time-wise, we lost a year.”

Eleanor, who remained home alone with her three children, says it was a period of struggle for her and for Kay. But the finished cottages and the expanded beach eventually turned out beautifully.

For a time the two families rented out the cottages to pay off the mortgage they needed to finance the Teschek cottage—a mortgage that all four (Don, Ed, Eleanor, and Kay) signed together. In the years after the cottages were completed, renters got more use out of them than the Cassidy and Teschek families.

Later, Teschek daughters Karen, Janet, and Joyce, and Cassidy sons Jeff, Bruce, Gary, and Allen began coming up for summer vacations with their parents, and renting the cottages soon was no longer necessary. In the photo at right, Eleanor, Joyce (holding her son Greg), Ed, Don, and Ed's grandson Patrick are pictured enjoying a summer day in the driveway between the cottages.

The two cottages have been reworked and added to over the years, including an extensive overhaul and addition on the Teschek cottage in 1989 by local contractor Patrick Frost. But although the cottages have been expanded upon and updated, their sturdy frames are still very much Cassidy and Teschek.

These days, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the two families continue to use them, and to enjoy the fruits of the labor and sacrifice of Ed Cassidy and Don Teschek. Their unique friendship, hard work, and lasting legacy as members of The Greatest Generation are not forgotten.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Farewell to an old friend

A couple months back I posted about an article I was working on regarding my grandfather and his good friend, Ed Cassidy. The two were longtime friends, served in World War 2, and later purchased a piece of lakefront property together in Andover, NH. In the mid-1950s they helped each other build a pair of summer cottages on the land that still stand today. I've been going there every summer since I was a kid, just like my mother before me, and now my two daughters are enjoying the quiet peace of the lake, too.

There they are at right--Don Teschek, my grandfather (left), and Cassidy, right, standing on a beach in Leyte during World War 2.

Well, two things have transpired since then:

1). I finished the story and it was accepted for publication at The Andover (NH) Beacon. Part 1 ran last month and part 2 is due out soon.

2). Ed Cassidy, my primary source for the article, passed away today at age 93. He was living in La Mirada, CA, at the time. He will be cremated and his ashes flown out for internment in a cemetery in Andover, NH, alongside his wife, Kay. The Greatest Generation has lost another.

It's a sad day for me, though I'm glad I had the opportunity to sit down with Ed for a couple interviews and get the piece written. As a kid I thought of Ed as the nice old guy who lived in the cottage next door. As I grew older and learned what the War was all about, my respect and admiration for him grew steadily deeper. While he wasn't an infantryman in the thick of combat, his story and the sights he saw were pretty darned amazing. He also taught me more about my grandfather than I ever knew, for which I am eternally grateful.

Anyhow, a couple people expressed interest in reading the article, so I'm including the text of Part 1, below. Part 2 to follow.

I'll miss you, Ed.


ANDOVER — From the firestorm of the Pacific Theater to the quiet shores of Highland Lake, Ed Cassidy and Donald Teschek lived a life of hardship and sacrifice, good friendship, and shared memories. Although Teschek passed away 25 years ago, their unique relationship lives on in a piece of lakefront property that three generations of family continue to cherish as a treasured summer retreat.

A single, tree-shaded driveway serves as the lone access to a pair of cottages that the two men built in 1954-55. Beyond the paired structures, a sloping, grassy hillside leads to a shared beach below.

Somewhere in between is an invisible property line that neither side seems to care too much about. The fact that no one can say exactly where the land is divided is proof of an enduring bond between the two World War 2 veterans, and a unique, good-natured relationship between their families.

“We used to say, if we got mad at each other, they [Cassidys] weren’t going to let us down the driveway, and I said that they weren’t going to use the water,” jokes Eleanor Teschek, 84, Don’s widow. “We have a saying, ‘If you get the Cassidys, you get the Tescheks—we come together.’ It’s just kind of always been that way.”

Work and the call of war
The friendship of Ed and Don began in 1938. Cassidy, a reconciler in the accounts department at Employers' Group Insurance Company in Boston, had been on the job for a year and was asked to provide training for Teschek, a new recruit. The two also became quite friendly with Bob Williams, another Employer’s Group colleague who worked in the same department.

The three hard-working young men poured their energy into their careers and set their sights on making a good living. They took classes three nights in week at Bentley College after work, often getting home after 10 p.m. They paid their tuition and expenses out of their own pocket. But they also managed to find time to hang out and enjoy each other’s company.

“The three of us spent a lot of time together, camping, going to Canada,” says Cassidy. “We were all single then.” Cassidy got married in June 1941, and he and Williams later transferred to another office, but the trio remained good friends.

But their personal and professional lives would soon be interrupted by the drum roll of war. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Eleanor, then a high school senior, was stunned along with the rest of the country.

“We had no TV and I can still remember President Roosevelt and his words over the radio, ‘Today the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor,’ she says. “We were all shocked.”

Not long after in early 1942 Cassidy and Don Teschek were alerted by the draft. The three men knew that it was only a matter of time before they’d be drafted, so in order to avoid a poor assignment they enlisted. On a Saturday morning Cassidy and Williams took the air force pilot written examination and passed. But when they got called in for the physical, Cassidy flunked the eye test (he had 20/30 vision in one eye).

“I told them I worked at night, so they told me to rest up, try again in a couple weeks. I even went to a specialist, but it didn’t help,” Cassidy says.

Cassidy later tried to enlist in civilian pilot training under jurisdiction of the army but was again denied entrance. Shortly thereafter he was drafted into service as an air force quartermaster in the fifth air force, reporting to Fort Dix in New Jersey. His 100-man unit was responsible for feeding and supplying 10,000 troops, so there was no downtime. In fact, in three years in the service Cassidy says he had only 10 days off on a short furlough back to the states.

In April of 1942 Teschek reported to Fort Devens with the 14th Anti-Aircraft Command. Williams meanwhile became a pilot of a B-25 bomber.

In the thick of conflict
In 1943 Cassidy left from San Francisco on a ship to Australia. Teschek’s unit was assigned to New Zealand and he saw action there and on Guadalcanal. After Australia Cassidy went on to New Guinea, following the ladder as U.S. forces fought and regained Japanese-held territory in the Philippines. Though he was serving as a quartermaster behind the lines, combat was swirling all around him.

“We were lucky, in the type of outfit we were in, we were sort of in back of what was going on,” Cassidy recalls.

But sometimes the action drew close. The Japanese frequently attempted to get at the U.S. supply lines and ships in the harbors of the Philippine islands. On New Guinea, Cassidy says that the Japanese bombers would come in every night at 11:30 p.m. for a bombing run. “You could almost set your clock by it,” he says. “That’s what they were after, the harbor and all the ships there.”

During the day, Japanese fighter planes flew in low and fast on strafing runs. “They had a lot of Zeroes, very fast and maneuverable,” Cassidy says. “You might shoot at them, but they were going so fast and so low, the chances of hitting them were rather remote.”

Teschek kept a copy of The Guadalcanal Herald and Examiner that showed that the U.S. was winning the battle in the air. The June 21, 1943 issue recaps a battle for air supremacy over the island in which the Japanese suffered 94 planes destroyed, 17 of which were knocked down by anti-aircraft guns. In comparison only six U.S. planes were lost.

Cassidy recalls seeing a number of heavily damaged U.S. planes limping back to the runway during these hard-fought days in the Pacific. “I’d see fighter planes half shot-up, you wondered how they could fly,” Cassidy recalls. “The planes that we made were not as manueverable as the Japanese planes, but our planes were made to protect the pilot, the Japanese planes were not. So those planes would take a hell of a lot of punishment.”

An unlikely reunion
Cassidy’s next stop was the East Indies where the U.S. forces staged for the invasion of Leyte. When he got to Leyte Cassidy wrote home and asked his wife, Kay, and his family to see if they could find out where Teschek was stationed. “I had an idea he was in the Pacific, but I didn’t know where,” he recalls.

With their aid Cassidy tracked down Teschek’s APO number (a number used by the army for mailing purposes). It was 72, the same as Cassidy’s. “I figured there was a good chance he was in the area somewhere,” Cassidy says.

As it turns, out, Teschek was very close—barely a mile away, in fact. One sunny day Cassidy strode up to Teschek’s tent and tapped him on the shoulder. It was a highly improbable reunion of two friends, who—thousands of miles from home and in the midst of the largest war the world had ever seen—were now standing face-to-face on an island in the midst of the war-torn Pacific ocean.

“It was just a case of walking over to his tent,” Cassidy says. “We went in such diverse directions, and ended up in the Phillipines side by side, how did that happen?”

Being an Air Force quartermaster, if there was any good food around, Cassidy had it. He recalls that his unit used to give the pilots ice cream powder and get the finished product in return. “They [pilots] had the machines to make it, and they’d give us ice cream,” he says.

Cassidy helped set up Teschek with some decent food, which the latter never forgot in the years after the war. “He used to walk over to our area and eat in our mess hall at night,” Cassidy says. “If there was anything good we got it, one way or another, either legitimately or by swapping.”

Cassidy also found out that Bob Williams (pictured, above) was on the nearby island of Luzon. Excited by the news, he wrote his friend a letter urging him to fly on over. “I wrote to him and told him, ‘Don and I are on Leyte, right on an airstrip, so fly down and we’ll get together.’”

But Cassidy’s letter came back with a bitter message: Williams had been killed in action. He had crashed on takeoff with a load of bombs.

Teschek and Cassidy were too busy to dwell on their grief, however. Japanese planes were buzzing the harbor and attacking ships. Cassidy remembers one attack that struck a nearby ammunition dump and hearing the huge roar of an explosion. On another night, just as dusk fell, some Japanese cargo planes came in low over his outfit and paratroopers began to bail out overhead. It was an elite outfit, armed and equipped with the best supplies the Japanese army had, and they were intent on taking a nearby airstrip.

Armed with a carbine, Cassidy spent the night hunched in a foxhole with a friend from New York. The man wore glasses which were knocked off in the scramble, leaving him near blind and helpless.

“I had to nursemaid him through the night,” Cassidy recalls. “He always said I saved his life, but all I did was be a seeing eye dog for him.”

Later that night U.S. infantry moved in and worked for several days to roust out and kill the attacking troops.

The war reaches its conclusion
During Teschek’s tour in Leyte he eventually found time to engage in one of his favorite pastimes—gardening. An article in the Employer’s Group newspaper picked up the story and reported it back home. “He moved them in cans from island to island so they had fresh vegetables,” says Eleanor. “He loved gardening.” It was an activity he would continue in the years after war.

Meanwhile Cassidy went on to Luzon, Okinawa, and then finally to Japan. En route to mainland Japan he stopped on the island of Fukuoka and it was there that got a first-hand look at the zealotry of the Japanese defenders.

In a bombed out aircraft factory where his unit was staged, Cassidy recalled seeing a long pool of water used to test Kamikaze boats. The boats were made out of very thin wood and were intended to be driven by a single soldier or civilian. The noses of the boats were loaded with explosives.

“They were really getting for invasion and they would do anything they could to stop our boats from coming in,” Cassidy says. “That was going to be the name of that game.”

Okinawa was another memorable experience for Cassidy. The invasion of the island was in full swing, and as his ship approached the island he awoke to the sound of attacking Japanese planes and antiaircraft guns pounding away at them. U.S. planes were dropping bombs on the island and ships fired their big deck guns on the dug-in Japanese soldiers ceaselessly.

“The Japanese had orders not to surrender and they didn’t. That was one of our worst invasions—we lost a lot of men,” Cassidy recalls. “That’s why the veterans look at dropping the atom bomb as saving thousands and thousands of Americans that would have been killed in an invasion of Japan.”

After the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan finally called for an end to the war, surrendering Japanese officials passed through Okinawa where Cassidy was still stationed on August 20, 1945. “That was a special night I won’t forget,” he says.

Cassidy also served briefly on mainland Japan. On the way to Tokyo he passed through the wreckage of Hiroshima, site of the first atomic bomb blast. “If you looked out, everything was flat, there was no recognizable structure,” he recalls.

In December of 1945 Cassidy left Japan to come back home, arriving home in early January. Teschek had beaten him home by a few months. Of his 40 months of service time, Teschek spent 33 in the southwest pacific. For his service in New Caledonia, New Zealand, Guadalcanal, the Northern Solomons, and the Philippines, he earned four bronze combat stars, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Philippine Liberation ribbon.

Part two includes life back on the homefront and building the cottages.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Karl Edward Wagner's contributions to the horror genre

Horror fiction has held a universal appeal throughout the ages. Every culture has had its myths of demons and ghosts and were-beasts. If Stephen King is read by millions today, so did Victorian readers line up in the streets to buy the latest chapters of the penny-dreadfuls, and eighteenth century readers shivered beside their candles over the pages of the newest Gothic novel. People like to be frightened, whether by a movie or a book or just a good spooky story told by firelight.

—Karl Edward Wagner, Introduction to
The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series X

There are many reasons to admire the horror anthology, among them the strong argument that horror fiction works best in the short form. There’s something to be said for the slowly simmering terror of novels like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, but the nasty, bloodletting jabs and hard, short, terrifying hooks of Stephen King’s “The Boogeyman” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Crowd” are just plain icy fun.

In addition, I’ve always admired the utility of the anthology, which serves to gather the best material from a daunting range of publications and publish it in one place, saving readers an enormous amount of time and effort (and money) from having to track it all down.

Though my collection of The Year’s Best Horror Stories is incomplete, I have enough volumes on my bookshelf to state that the late Karl Edward Wagner did some fine work during his time at the helm. KEW took over editorship of The Year’s Best Horror Stories in 1979, starting with series VIII. He remained as its editor for 15 issues until his death in 1994, when the anthology ceased its run with series XXII. Though he loved swords and sorcery, KEW had an obvious passion and erudite eye for horror as well.

KEW’s great enthusiasm for the genre was apparent from his introductions to The Year’s Best Horror Stories. In a pre-internet age, KEW provided a comprehensive overview of the year in horror publishing, from large magazines like Amazing and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to small but evocatively-named small press outfits like Nyctalops, Cryptoc, Skullduggery, and Ogre. Horror was exploding in the late 70’s and early 80’s and KEW served as a shrewd and tireless surveyor of a broad, diverse field of anthologies, large circulation magazines, semi-pro publications, and the amateur press. Like the late Steve Tompkins, KEW was exceedingly well-read, almost disturbingly so.

KEW was quite outspoken and wasn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers—or even extend a few middle fingers—in his introductions to The Year’s Best Horror Stories. In the introduction to 1993’s Series XXI—KEW’s and the series’ second-to-last entry—he fired a wicked shot across the bow of splatterpunk, a movement in the horror field that began in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Splatterpunk works were noted for their graphic violence and sex, which was initially shocking but soon grew repetitive, tiring, and empty. Said KEW:

Sexual themes are now being used intelligently and are crucial to the story, as opposed to the teenage wish-fulfillment jerk-off exercises too often seen before. I have often wondered how many of the exuberant sex-and-gore writers are actually virgins and are incapable of cutting up a chicken or cleaning a fish. Or peeling a potato.

Ouch, that drew a little blood.

Like all anthologies, The Year’s Best Horror Stories was not perfect. More than once after finishing a story my reaction was, “Surely there must have been something more worthy of inclusion from 1982 than that.” But it’s a matter of taste, I suppose, and I’ve yet to read an anthology of short stories in which I enjoyed every entry. And the majority of entries in The Year’s Best Horror Stories were good.

In addition to his work as editor, KEW could pen a fine horror tale of his own. Although fellow blogger Al Harron very eloquently stole my thunder, I too would like to take a moment to recognize his fine tale “Sticks,” as well as mention a few of his other tales.

“Sticks” won an August Derleth Award from The British Fantasy Society as the best short fiction of 1974. It’s a deeply disquieting story, rendered even more so as it is based on a true account.

KEW obviously drew inspiration for “Sticks” from Lovecraft, whose works he deeply admired. “Sticks” contains an old but still active cult, cyclopean structures from an ancient age, and an evocation to awake the “Great Old Ones” from the earth. It even takes place in the heart of Lovecraft’s Arkham country, with references throughout to upstate New York, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts. This is my neck of the woods and I always experience a thrill knowing that I’ve wandered some of the same streets and hills from Lovecraft’s and KEW’s tales. While this area is certainly far more developed than it was in the 1920s and 30’s (or the 1940s-1970s period described in “Sticks”), there’s enough wooded and desolate patches around to get you thinking that, yes, perhaps, something old and unspeakably evil may still lurk in these ‘here woods.

“Sticks” was inexplicably passed over for inclusion in The Year’s Best Horror Stories (it would have qualified for Series III, back when Richard Davis was editing the anthology), but has been widely published elsewhere. It first saw publication in the March 1974 issue of Whispers magazine. Since then it’s made appearances in the revised edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and The Mammoth Book of Zombies (its inclusion in the latter is a bit of a head-scratcher—a lich, though undead, ain’t a zombie), as well as the first Whispers anthology, which I own.

The landmark horror collection Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, contains another fine KEW horror story, “Where The Summer Ends.” It bears some resemblance to “Sticks,” but instead of arcane bundles of tree branches, the disquieting motif is a heavy growth of kudzu, a climbing, coiling, pestilential vine that’s become a nuisance in the southern United States. Wagner set this story in a run-down section of his native Knoxville, Tennessee, where in between shabby, run-down Victorian houses and an abandoned ghetto a lurking fear threatens to overwhelm the cracked and broken sidewalks, “a green pall over the dismal ruin, the relentless tide of kudzu.” Beneath the vines, something even more evil waits, watching.

I own two additional books containing works by KEW, including Whispers III, edited by Stuart David Schiff, which includes “The River of Night’s Dreaming.” In this tale of madness and dark eroticism, KEW draws inspiration from Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a book which also impressed Lovecraft. It’s a beautifully written and powerfully evocative story of dreamlike, hallucinating horror.

Night Visions: Dead Image, edited by Charles L. Grant, features works by David Morrell, Joseph Payne Brennan, and KEW. It contains three tales by Wagner: “Shrapnel,” “Old Loves,” and “Blue Lady, Come Back.” Dead Image also includes a wonderful introduction by Grant which casts a good deal of illumination on KEW the writer and The Man:

By now, it’s a tired comparison—“he looks like a Viking having a holiday in Carolina.” Maybe he does. But he’s not as big as he looks—he gives the illusion of size, carried the illusion of intimidation, but to hear him speak is to hear a quiet man who tends to consider his words before they’re out, who knows the field, and who cares about it and the writers who are trying to make their marks before they’re smothered by the competition.

He is the creator of Kane, my favorite barbarian because he is a barbarian and not a Lancelot (or worse, Gawain) in furs; and he is the author of not enough short fiction for any of his fans’ tastes. He does not write fast. He does not, on the other hand, write slowly either. He writes deliberately. There are few who care about the language as much as Wagner does, fewer still who care, or even realize, that dark fantasy must deal first with people, and only then with whatever fantastic element is to be included in the piece … there is thunder, to be sure, and there is also a delicacy of touch and genuine emotion that is particularly, and specially, his.

Like Al, I highly recommend that readers of The Cimmerian and The Silver Key track down a copy of “Sticks,” “The River of Night’s Dreaming,” and KEWs other work in the horror field. And while you’re at it, hunt up some back issues of The Year’s Best Horror Stories, too. Hours of chilling reading await, courtesy of the late, great KEW.

May he rest in peace in a quiet grave.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The scariest movie you've ever seen? Cast your vote

I'm one of those people who compulsively votes on polls when I find them on the internet so I've been throwing a few up here on The Silver Key. The latest is over to the left and is pretty self-explanatory. It's October and Halloween is creeping up, so I'm starting to get the horror film itch again.

If you selected "other," please post the name of your scariest film here in the comments section, and explain the reason why the film scared you or left you unsettled. If I haven't seen it, I'll add it to my Netflix queue.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Reveling in the slaughter of Agincourt

Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt (2009, HarperCollins Publishers) does not tell the story of a battle, but rather of a terrible red butchery. Englishmen poleaxing French men-at-arms like cattle. Nobles, men of dignity and fine lineage and status, lying kicking in the mud, screaming, as low-born archers pried open their visors and thrust daggers through their eyes and into their brain. Gruesome stuff.

True, Agincourt was a great victory for the English in the Hundred Years’ War, one that has resounded through the ages. The events of October 25, 1415 are an incredible tale of a few (6,000 English soldiers) prevailing against many (an estimated 30,000 French knights and men-at-arms). The battle has gained additional resonance by Shakespeare’s magnificent play Henry V. But its actual events were not glorious.

In other words, it’s a tale that historical fiction writer extraordinaire Bernard Cornwell was born to tell. And tell the story he does, quite faithfully and well, although it does come off as a bit formulaic.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site .

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wherein I win swag, and get to ask Steven Pressfield a question

Now this is cool. Author and overall cool guy Scott Oden of Echoes of a Forgotten Age recently held a contest that involved readers posting a writing-related question for historical fiction novelist Steven Pressfield. Oden selected the three best questions to forward to Pressfield and plans to post his answers on his blog.

How awesome is that? This is Steven-freaking Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire, one of the best pieces of historical fiction I've ever read (if you haven't read this tale of the legendary stand of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, what the hell are you waiting for?) I'm thrilled to say that my question was one of the three selected!

As if the opportunity to ask Pressfield a question wasn't award enough, I'll also be getting a "bag o' swag" containing a copy of Pressfield's non-fiction treatise on writing, The War of Art, as well as another unnamed goodie. I have been meaning to buy The War of Art for quite some time and I'll certainly be reviewing it here.

Thanks Scott, I tip my horsehair-crested Spartan helmet to you.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A trifecta of links

Cross-posted fromThe Cimmerian, here's some interesting links from around the web.

The second issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is out. The guys over at HFQ put out a very enjoyable first issue, and they're back with three more short stories and two poems (love that!) for issue no. 2. It's free, so what are you waiting for? Go on over and do some reading.

A review of the Tantor Media audiobook, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian . Hey, the author really seems to really know his REH :). Seriously though,, a cool Web site that you should be checking out, allowed me to post a review on their web site. I'll be very happy if it brings a few more REH readers into the fold.

How to Arm a 14th Century Knight. Great video and very instructive, if you like this sort of thing. I'm in the midst of reading Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell and had my interest in armor piqued. It's a good read so far, but I'm not sure whether I buy Cornwell's assertion that a longbow--even firing a bodkin-tipped arrow--could penetrate that type of protection with ease.