Saturday, December 16, 2017

Lovecraft was right

So, this week I heard about the giant penguins who swam the seas fifty-five million years ago.

Apparently the period after the disappearance of the marine dinosaurs and before the emergence of the whales, sea lions, and seals was an age of giant penguins, at least in areas like New Zealand, Antarctica, and Peru.

The idea of human-sized penguins is all the more amusing, because horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, in his 1936 story AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS,* had his intrepid Miskatonic explorers
encounter giant penguins in the shoggoth-haunted tunnels beneath the Elder Things' cyclopean city.
Who knew that this bit of implausible exotica wd turn out to have a real-world analogue after all?

--John R.
current reading: THE LIST OF 7 (resumed; dreadful stuff)

*the worst but most popular of his novels

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Lesson Learnt

So, I've just finished reading THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS, a history of Progressive Rock by David Weigel. I started it not knowing what 'progressive rock' was, exactly, having heard the term for years without ever getting a satisfactory definition. Well, I still don't have a good definition, other than apparently 'bands like KING CRIMSON and EMERSON, LAKE, AND PALMER, but not PINK FLOYD for some reason'. Drawing on and reworking classical music was one tentpole, marking ELP but not, for some reason, ELO. Experimentation was another, lauding anything Robert Fripp* worked on but not Gilmour and Waters (or Page and Plant). Still, it was good to get some background on groups that peaked and faded before my day, like JETHRO TULL** or early GENESIS, even if it meant finding out more than I wanted to know about YES.

The best passage by far in the whole book is this brief account, which I have slightly paraphrased, of the day Keith Emerson had a very bad idea. He was in Nassau (the Bahamas) finishing up EMERSON, LAKE, AND PALMER's WORKS, VOLUME ONE when, one day,

he looked across the water and decided to swim for England.
'We realized that it was quite a long way', Emerson would say,
'but we had a compass'. The effort failed. Keith Emerson
was pulled wheezing from the water. January 14, 1977:
the last day he would use cocaine.


--John R.

*who's always just been a name to me, not someone whose name conjured up any actual music in my inner ear.
**whose earlier music I knew mainly through my cousin Sam's having played their albums a lot in the long ago.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

'Tis the season

So, anyone care to guess, sans google, what I've been listening to lately? Here are three clues, each being a direct quote:

matches, and candles, and buns

Go Freda!

It'll be the usual rubbish, but it won't cost much

--John R.
current reading: THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS by David Weigel

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

TSR bibliographic ghosts

So, one of the things that used to fascinate me back in the Lake Geneva days were the old TSR catalogues from earlier times. Each was a kind of time-capsule of the company as it was at the time it put out that particular catalogue. Particularly telling were the products that got announced as forthcoming which never saw the light of day.*

A case in point: a page from the 1984 catalogue features new and forthcoming adventures for TSR's second-tier games: TOP SECRET, GANGBUSTERS, BOOT HILL, and GAMMA WORLD. And in the course of a single page they announce no fewer than seven adventures that never came out.

For TOP SECRET, these were the adventures TIN MAN, about fighting off computer hacking (which still sounds timely), and WHITEOUT, set at a base at the South Pole (from which I conclude that somebody had seen ICE STATION ZEBRA, or indeed read the book).

For BOOT HILL, the promised modules were DELTA QUEEN, a riverboat full of high-stakes gambling, which sounds like it cd have been a really good BH adventure, and BARON OF SAN ANDREAS by Zeb Cook, about a local strongman, the self-proclaimed 'baron' of the title, who's set himself up as undisputed ruler of a small town.

For GAMMA WORLD, there was NIGHTWIND RIDER by Bruce Nesmith, which sounds as if it might have been a solo adventure, and RAPTURE OF THE DEEP, set on a mysterious island (aren't they all).

Finally, and to my mind the biggest lost among these might-have-beens, was the GANGBUSTERS adventure BASES LOADED: The Lakefront Mudcats Scandal) by Jeff Grubb, which wd have been GANGBUSTERS' analogue to the once-famous 'Black Sox' scandal in which one team was bribed to throw the World Series (way back in 1919). But then I always did like GANGBUSTERS, and was sorry there were so few adventures for it published (just five)

Here's the page in question, with more information about the individual intended releases.

--John R.
current listening: Leo Sayer, of all people

*most famously, perhaps, Gygax's SHADOWLANDS

P.S.: I forgot to include the scan. Here goes.

UPDATE (Th.Dec.14th)
Jeff Grubb has just posted an interesting account with much more detail of BASES LOADED (and TIN MAN as well) on his blog: highly recommended.


Monday, December 11, 2017

New Director(s) of the Wade

So, there's big news from the Wade Center, the most important of which is that after an interim of several years,* during which their highly skilled and dedicated staff has carried on as usual, the Wade has a new director.

Indeed, new director(plural), since Dr. David C. Downing and Dr. Crystal L. Downing become co-directors --the first time in the Wade's history that a husband-wife team will be representing the Collection.  I hadn't known Dr. Crystal's work; it seems she's a well-regarded Sayers scholar. That's outside my field of expertise, but it'll be interesting to see if that brings more attention to Sayers at Wheaton. And Dr. David is of course well-known in Lewis scholarship (an island I visit but do not dwell therein) for books like PLANETS IN PERIL and THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT.

Other recent big news is that the President of Wheaton College has a new book out on Tolkien:

Aside from Kilby himself, the founding father of the Wade, its directors have tended to focus of C. S. Lewis more than Tolkien (perhaps feeling, with some justification, that JRRT was well represented elsewhere), so this book's focus on Tolkien is welcome to those of us who are more Tolkienists and general Inklings scholars than whatever wd be the CSL fans/scholars equivalent (Lewisists?)

--John R.

*following the departure and then untimely death of director Chris Mitchell

Monday, December 4, 2017

Yesterday I Found . . . (Jim Ward Memo)

So, yesterday while doing a little sorting in the Box Room, I found a memo from towards the end of my TSR days (October 1995), reproduced here:

For those who can't see the image clearly enough, it's from Jim Ward, addressed to Sales & Marketing and Creative Services, dated October 10th [1995], with the Subject line 'Existing Rules'. The full text of the brief memo is as follows:

'Do not change any existing rules of any games or products without my imput. This is causing continuity problems that are hard to impossible to fix after the damage is already done.'

I remember the occasion of this announcement, but the details are gone: I no longer recall what Sales & Marketing had done that upset R&D (the editing and designing department, at the time briefly known as 'Creative Services') so much. They had already botched the release of MYSTARA and bungled that of BIRTHRIGHT, so it's hard to imagine what made the endlessly optimistic everybody-get-along Jim Ward so terse.

In any case,  I do remember that Jim prevailed in this interdepartmental power struggle, making this was one of our rare victories.

--John R.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

This Year's Tolkien Calendar(s)

So, they're getting harder to find, but between luck and persistence I now have both of next year's Tolkien Calendars.

The first is the movie tie-in calendar, though I didn't realize that when I ordered it. I really liked the cover art, which is all I saw from the online image, and had high hopes for the calendar as a whole. Which have now been disappointed. The art, all derived from the LotR movies, makes heavy use of silhouette and collage. I think the intended effect was to evoke some of the desolate landscapes Cor Blok attempted to convey. But I think they all fail, with the notable exception of the cover piece: a striking image of the Nine Walkers* silhouetted against a yellowish background dominated by the Barad-dur and Mt Doom.

What you get in most of these pieces is a silhouette of a character, taken from the film. Within that silhouette is a still of a scene featuring that character. Unfortunately in many cases it's difficult to figure out who the silhouette is supposed to be (luckily they're labelled, but that shdn't have been necessary); in others the image within the frame seem poorly chosen, almost random. Gollum fares best, because the silhouette element is strongest here. They'd have gotten a better result if they'd just used solid-black silhouettes throughout.

The second is Tolkien-themed, and reproduces Alan Lee's art for BEREN AND LUTHIEN. The art is up to Lee's usual high standard, as anyone who got the book these come from (published earlier this year) knows. Sadly, I have to confess that I'm getting tired of Lee's muted pallet. It worked wonderfully for the one-volume edition of THE LORD OF THE RINGS; less well for THE HOBBIT or other works. I do like their including a well-chosen quote in Tolkien's own words at the bottom of each calendar page; these help evoke the scene being depicted.

I guess I feel like someone who wanted soup and got served steak instead. Again. It's a fine steak, but I can't help feeling wistful about the soup I'd rather have had.

There are so many fine artists out there I'd like to see do a Tolkien calendar: Thomas Canty for one, with his beautiful art decco style producing a sort of stained glass effect.  Or Michael Whelan might be interesting: he's a fine artist, but would his style accord with Tolkienian characters and scenes? Alas that we'll never see a Tolkien calendar from Keith Parkinson.

What I think would make an even better, more striking calendar, would be to feature Tolkien's calligraphy --scrawled pages that mark significant passages in the stories; careful fair copy; various examples of his invented scripts. Many of these have been published, so reprinting them in such a format would seem imminent doable.

--John R.

current reading: lots of unfinished books all left hanging, including Scott Berg's LINDBURGH (which I'd been wanting to read for some time but not been able to find our copy; it luckily turned up in some sort out/re-organizing I've been doing) -- one chapter of which covers the events that provided the historical inspiration for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

*well, eight of them anyway; Aragorn their rearguard got cut off