Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Writers - Jack Oleck

It's a short, terse name; when said with the right panache, it has the crack of a rifle shot. It's a dramatic name, befitting a man who gunned out dozens and dozens of comic book stories in primarily the Horror and SF genres, working for such publishers as EC, Mainline, and for the last decade or so of his career, DC. Few writers wrote more to bring the EC aesthetic to the company of Superman and Batman, and after his death in 1981, small wonder that DC's Horror line collapsed without him.

Oleck was the brother-in-law of Joe Simon who, among many others, co-created the character of Captain America with his partner, Jack Kirby. Oleck used his familial ties to write for Simon's Timely Comics, but it wasn't until EC came calling that he distinguished himself in the field of Horror. The titles were on their last gasp before the congressional hearings into the effect of violent comics on youth, but Oleck still managed to squeeze out a few stories for Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear before those books folded. Oleck wrote briefly for the company after it self-sanitized its content, but it wasn't long before he left comics entirely for the better part of a decade.

Oleck turned his attention to novels, experiencing a rousing success with his 1959 historic
al pulp novel Messalina. This lurid tale of Roman emperor Claudius' infamous wife ("She used her body uninhibitedly in the game of power politics. Nothing in the realm of passion was beyond her knowledge") never went out of print during the 1960s; later printings carried the cover boast of having sold over a million copies. In addition to turning out other titles that could be referred to as "toga rippers," Oleck also spent most of the 60s writing for and editing a magazine devoted to home decorating.

In 1968, to take advantage of a newly-relaxed Comic Code Authority, DC directed veteran Joe Orlando to rejuvenate a number of flagging titles and create a legitimate Horror line. Orlando had his hands in both EC and the black & white efforts over at Warren
Magazines, but his goal was to recreate the winning formula of the EC fright books - minus the overt gore and sensuality. Assembling such legendary artistic talents as Neal Adams, Alex Toth and Bernie Wrightson, Orlando utilized in-house writers and young turks Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Steve Skeates and Len Wein, but those writers lacked the noirish feel he felt necessary to truly pay homage to those comics of 15 years hence. Orlando coaxed Oleck away from his interior design mag and, together with his old EC compatriot Carl Wessler, set him loose upon the revamped House of Mystery and House of Secrets, among others.

Oleck had a flair for the O. Henry-esque final panel twist that often seemed written from the ending backwards. The denouements were familiar to anyone who had grown up watching The Twilight Zone and, like Serling, he often cribbed from genre writers of the time, including himself. His characters were incapable of thinking and speaking in exclamation points, and the tales flew by. His caption-heavy writing style was easy to identify, even when the books forgot to credit the creators. His omniscient narrator - the tone consistent from story to story - prodded the reader with continuous questions that it was unable to answer ("How did it begin? No one can say." "How long did she lie there in pain? She didn't know." My favorite was always, "Could he have stopped it then? Perhaps. Perhaps not." Almost *every* story contained these queries.) From the letter columns these questions bugged the hell out of readers, and Oleck's style seemed a trifle old-fashioned for sophisticated 70s tastes, but I always found it to be part of the pulpy charm.

Oleck would also repeat the last word a character would speak to start off the narration in the following panel. Let someone triumphantly declare, "We doing this in the name of science!" and the next-panel narrator would goad, "Science? What did anyone care about science? And what did that mean, anyway?" Say it with me, gentle reader; no one could say.

Oleck's output was prodigious. Of the three stories that would appear in an issue, two would often bear his byline. When Orlando's duties expanded to helm four more Horror titles (!), an issue would seldom hit the stands without at least one Oleck tale. In a few letters pages it was rumored that Oleck had inventoried many stories, with at least one file cabinet loaded with them; this may have been the case for a time, but the stories stopped after his death.

When Orlando inherited the editorial reigns of Weird War Tales from Joe Kubert, Oleck traveled with him. These stories evinced a greater sense of verisimilitude; Oleck fought in WWII and attained the rank of sergeant. The banner above the title promised stories of "mystery and madness," and these Oleck tales bore twists that were more cruel than most. For their sense of pulpish fun, they did not shy away from commenting on war's inhumanity; the Weird War battlefields were no place for trumpets of glory.

Oleck was at his most successful when his stories aspired to poetry or poignancy. Among his finest:

"Nightmare" (House of Mystery #186) - Boasting exquisite art by Neal Adams, this tells of a lonesome little girl befr
iended by a satyr statue come to life. It's widely considered to be one of DC's best achievements during this period, and the ending is a heartbreaker ("...and if she'd looked back she would have seen...something wonderful.").

"Bat Out of Hell" (House of Mystery #195) - Inspired by an unpublished EC picto-fiction tale entitled "The Mother," a violent thief in search of treasure in a ruined abbey does battle with a fearsome bat merely protecting her babies. The Bernie Wrightson cover for this issue is a stunner.

"The Monster" (House of Secrets #96) - It's Oleck's reworking of Twilight Zone's "Eye of the Beholder," albeit with a turned-on-its-head premise involving a little boy, and with a much unhappier ending. Orlando was able to get a rare appearance here from EC giant Wally Wood.

"Spawns of Satan" (House of Secrets #113) - Ruthless child vampires are the title characters. Due to an accident they wind up spending months at the bottom of a
cold, murky lake. Eventually they arise, but only to discover their coffins paved over with concrete; they are turned to ashes by the sun, clawing at the cement of a playground the townspeople built in loving tribute to their memory.

Oleck did not entirely forsake his novelistic skills. In conjunction with Warner Paperbacks, DC published two House of Mystery volumes where Oleck converted a handful of his tales to prose format. And in a nod to his EC roots, Oleck was commissioned to novelize Amicus' cinematic adaptations of classic chillers, Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973).

DC's Horror line were among the best-selling comics of their time, routinely outperforming Batman, Superman and most superhero titles by other publishers; at one point the company had as many as nine titles competing for rack space. And where there was Horror, there was the ubiquitous Jack Oleck. How much did his writing contribute to their success? How much is attributable to his efforts?

Who can say?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Anthologies and a Defense of Roger Elwood

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and that was an incredibly fertile time for genre anthologies in all media; short stories could readily be found on supermarket bookshelves, at the movies or on TV, even between the covers of comic books (I've blogged about it previously here). Perusing the spinner rack of paperbacks resulted in volume after volume of collected stories, both previously-published and original. It was easy to find anthologies edited by such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Terry Carr, Peter Haining, Hugh Lamb, August Derleth. But one name roused controversy, both for the sheer volume of books that bore his name and for the purported quality of said books - or lack thereof. That man was Roger Elwood, and for the better part of a decade, if you were a genre fan, it was all but impossible to escape his name.

Elwood was a New Jersey native who started off the 70s writing for wrestling magazines before turning his attention to compilations of SF and Horror, often working in conjunction with fellow editor Vic Ghidalia (when the latter didn't ghost-edit the volumes outright). During 1964-72 Elwood produced a relatively-few 13 titles, but 1973 & '74 saw a remarkable 39 books bearing his name, for a wide variety of publishers. The titles rapidly dropped off after that, and after 12 more volumes spread out over the next three years, books with the Elwood imprimatur disappeared. After about a decade of silence, Elwood, an avowed Christian, began producing novels with an evangelical focus. His writing ceased with the turn of the century, and he died in 2007.

Now I'll be blunt: I write the following to clear up some misconceptions about Elwood's work that have been allowed to foster on the internet, with several assertions having gone unchecked for the better part of a decade. I did not know Mr. Elwood nor any of his detractors, but a few claims need to be corrected (and, with a handful of exceptions, I own almost every title from the period in question bearing Elwood's name);

1) Elwood published no-name writers of questionable worth - A cursory glance of the contents of Elwood's titles does not bear this out. Considering his titles which were aimed at an adult audience, each book boasts 65-75% or more material from authors who well either well-established at the time or were readily creating names for themselves within the field. We may quibble over whether this material represented the authors at their best, but it is entirely disingenuous to insinuate that Elwood purchased stories from hacks.

2) Elwood flooded the market - It's difficult to explain away 39 books in only two calendar years, but here goes -

- The books were not all speculative fiction. At least six or seven of the titles are best described as appealing to a Horror audience; again, most of these are edited in conjunction with Vic Ghidalia.

- The books were not all meant to appeal to adults. In 1974 eight titles appeared from Lerner as part of a young adult "intro to SF" series that sported four stories apiece. Interestingly these are the books most often cited by his critics that Elwood published work from unknowns; yes, but for a very different audience.

- The books were published by a variety of publishing houses in both hard- and softcover formats. In 1973 three publishers released two Elwood books apiece (Avon, Macmillan, Rand McNally), Berkley/Putnam published three in 1974 (the experimental Continuum series; stories that continued from volume to volume like a pulp magazine), but apart from those exceptions, no publisher released more than one a year. It is also worth recalling that the markets for hard and softcover books could be quite separate; SF has always been a genre of cheap paperbacks stuffed into back pockets. Trade paperbacks that bridged the gap had yet to come into existence. Purchasers of the cheaper books were often completely unaware of what was being printed between hard covers.

To cite as merely one example, Robert Silverberg was editing yearly installments of two anthologies (Alpha and the original New Dimensions) and standalone titles as well, in addition to maintaining a yearly pace of one or two novels and dozens of short stories, many to Elwood's anthologies. It was not uncommon to find as many as 6-8 Silverberg titles on the shelf at once, yet one would never accuse the Grand Master of "flooding the market."

So while 22 books in 1974 seems like an intimidating number, readers would have only encountered about half of those, assuming they perused both the hard- and softcover departments of both the SF and Dark Fantasy sections - that is, if they didn't buy most of their books from either the new agency, drugstore or supermarket.

3) The books were of poor quality - Leaving aside the issues of "eye of the beholder" and the ability of the contributors, several of Elwood's titles were spotlighted by the Science Fiction Book Club, including paperback books that were granted a Book Club version. Since the SFBC would only highlight 4-6 books per month, quality was the determining factor. Their editors would review a number of titles from a variety of publishers (not merely Doubleday, SFBC's parent company), and so I'll defer to them. And stories from the books were nominated for awards and cited in various "best of" collections. Elwood's track record for exceptional stories was about on par with the monthly magazines.

4) Elwood sold all his anthologies to publishers during a spate in the early 70s - Quite likely. Keep in mind that the industry was on the lookout for original collections following the success of Harlan Ellison's groundbreaking Dangerous Visions in 1967, as well as he subsequent series it inspired (the aforementioned New Dimensions, Terry Carr's Universe, Damon Knight's Orbit, Harry Harrison's Nova, Samuel Delany's Quark, to name a few). The publishing industry was identifying a need, and Elwood was servicing it. Elwood would have been very unsuccessful had not the demand from almost every publisher been there.

5) Elwood's "theme" anthologies were too restrictive to produce material of worth. - Theme anthologies are a staple of SF, with volumes dedicated to robots, time travel, mutants, other dimensions, etc. Elwood's volumes were no more or less circumscribed than titles that came before or after. In fact, anthologies of "shared worlds" or ultra-specific themes are now normative; SF collections were far more inclusive of theme in decades hence.

6) Elwood's books collapsed the anthology market. - Not hardly; as an obsessive collector, a simple glance at post-1975 titles on my bookshelf confirms that. Original anthos could still be had. Knight's Orbit series lasted until 1977, but the final volumes were met with less than enthusiastic reviews. Silverberg kept New Dimensions going until 1981, while Carr edited Universe titles until his death in 1987. New series such as Stellar and Continuum were launched, but they were concurrent with a general contraction of the entire SF field for shorter fiction, including the magazines. Post-Star Wars inspired readers sought out galaxy-spanning novels, not the experimental and avant garde short stories that examined social and psychological conditions. And with the advent of Stephen King in the late 70s, Horror was becoming the hot genre. Even at the venerable SFBC, Fantasy titles were outnumbering SF. It seems absurd to blame the downturn of the early 80s on books that were published in 1973; the publishing industry, even in those pre-internet days, moved more quickly than that.

And SF readers are a discriminating but fair lot; if they felt burned by an editor, they certainly would not punish all anthologies and more than they would spurn all novels after encountering bad ones - and there have been, and will always be, bad novels of SF.

7) Elwood made a fast buck and got out of the field. - Not immediately. Sensing the genre was turning to novels - and it was - he launched Laser Books, an effort from Harlequin to apply their monthly format of releases to the SF market. Starting in 1975 and ongoing for 16 months, three new titles were released every 30 days, all from fledgling authors. Ultimately the experiment was a failure, with some authors complaining that Elwood edited out sex and violence to conform to Harlequin's restrictions and his own sense of Christian rectitude. Elwood would embrace idiosyncrasy - his anthologies were a regular home for quirky cult author R.A. Lafferty - he did not push the content envelope like an Ellison.

Elwood releas
ed the mammoth collection Epoch (with Silverberg as co-editor) in 1975, perhaps viewing the title as a capstone to his anthologies before turning his attention to longer fiction. He also briefly attached his name to the short-lived SF magazine Odyssey, but it was gone after only two issues. And with it Elwood was as well. He was no fixture of the conventions, he did not travel in SF circles; indeed, it is difficult to come by a simple photo of this man of mystery. For one decade he was with the genre but not of it, a man who came and went to the surprise of many in the field. There are stories of authors who claim he stiffed them for a story, or displayed a heavy hand when editing their work. And there are those who claim he was merely a figurehead, with collaborators such as Ghidalia, Silverberg or Virginia Kidd doing all the heavy lifting. But for better or worse, in many ways Roger Elwood sat astride the genre in the 1970s, and while the collections remain, the man whose name was emblazoned on so many books is all but a forgotten memory.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hello again

Well. It's been a long time since we've talked. You've had very good reason to wonder if I vanished off the face of the planet, and in a certain way I did. The fault, gentle reader, was entirely my own, and for that I do apologize. Making the Jar a priority when one is essentially holding down two jobs is a difficult thing at best. I've tried to resuscitate this little excursion into the eerie and existential a few times in the past, and you would be forgiven for thinking this is another halfhearted (heh) attempt.

But you would be wrong. This time is truly different, and let me number why...

1) Ten days before Christmas 2011 I suffered a hemorrhagic brain stem stroke; as such events go, it was comparatively mild, but it rendered my right arm and leg virtually useless. More important, it led to a stream of physicians, nurses and therapists who informed me with no small amount of solemnity that I was a very lucky bastard, as such events frequently affect such involuntary reactions like breathing and heartbeat. When enough people intone "You almost died," it does sink in after Expert #11 or so.

I am told that my recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. Yes, I would recover from said stroke, but it would require months of housebound convalescence. I was given a catalog and told to refit my apartment with accoutrements for the disabled. When I went out in public, I was to use a walker. And driving? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Fuck that shit. I was driving myself in five days after coming home from the hospital. I returned to work after a month. There are miniscule daily improvements that clearly indicate I continue to be on the mend. Most days I feel as though recovering from a bad traffic accident. I walk without a cane; catch me on a good day, and people will tell you they don't even notice a limp. And my handwriting, once nonexistent, is legible. I'm coming back, baby.

Doctors tell me my brain is rewiring itself, because...I read. A lot. And constantly. If I sat around and sucked on the glass teat for hours a day, such wiring would be questionable. But I owe that practice, engrained at an early age, to my parents, which leads me to Point the Second...

2) My father passed away about ten days ago; he was preceded in death by my mother back in 2008. Together they instilled in me an almost ridiculous love for the printed word; the thousands and thousands of books that still reside in my parents' house are mute testimony to that fact. They will be mute no longer, as...

3)...this blog is now reborn with an emphasis on old books, genre literature and comics, and, true to my icons such as Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and (of course) Robert Bloch, it will expand in scope to cover Dark Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. These gentlemen were not easily pigeonholed, and neither shall I be. Over the past few months I've been enjoying the hell out of exposing a dear friend to classic novels of SF, and I realize that, damn, there once was a time when I was awfully conversant in that genre too. Besides, the world scarcely needs another blog reviewing new films or covering recent developments. But looking backward from a perspective of years - especially when you're unexpectedly reminded those years are finite - that I can do. I promise to be pithy, personal and entertaining...and I will look at the occasional wild and wooly old movie, but on my terms. Oh, and there will be a podcast. It's about time I draw upon decades of acting and radio work, dontcha think?

Two of those four gentlemen I referenced are still very much alive, and damnit, so am I.

There's work to be done. So let's get to it. And welcome back to the Jar.