Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Suck It, Gravity!" Part 2 - Kiteman versus Chinese Caligula

Not every story has a happy ending.

The Northern Qi province of China, circa 550 A.D. was under the rule of Emperor Wenxuan, the 2nd son of General Gao Huan. As a child, Wenxuan was mild-mannered and slow to speak, and it was generally agreed upon that the boy was developmentally disabled. Then one day, he and his siblings were brought into the royal court and each were handed a tangled ball of twine. They were instructed to pull the balls apart as quickly as they could, and that the winner would receive a prize. As his siblings worked and worried furiously at the knotted balls, Wenxuan withdrew his sword and sliced his ball in half. Dumping the pile of threads at his father's feet, he stated "This is the only possible solution."

When his father passed away in 547, Wenxuan's brother Gao Cheng took over as Regent. However, he was assassinated less than 2 years later, in 549, by spies from the Eastern Wei Province. Wenxuan moved quickly, rounding up the conspirators and putting them to death. Wenxuan then took a phalanx of 200 Imperial Guards into Le Cheng; the capitol of Wei, and basically warned Emperor Xiaojing to never, ever fuck with him.

Wenxuan proved himself a capable ruler for a while. When a former general defected to the Liang and attempted to start an insurrection, Wenxuan dealt with it swiftly, crushing the rebellion and seizing the region between the rivers Huai and Yangtze with ease. He became known not just for his prowess in military strategy, but for his absolute fearlessness. Wenxuan usually physically led most attacks himself, charging in ahead of his own soldiers and fucking shit up with nothing more than his sword and a big-ass horse. Soon after defeating the Liang, Wenxuan rolled back into Emperor Xiaojing's royal court and, well, that was pretty much it for Eastern Wei.

The problem was, once Wenxuan developed a yen (sorry) for human blood, he never could quite shake the craving for it. And, he started getting a little weird. After defeating the former Emperor, he invited the deposed Royal family to a feast, where he poisoned them. He gave them a royal burial, with full honors, only to dig up the Prince's casket afterwards and chuck it into the Zhang river.

It seemed like the only time Wenxuan could keep his head screwed on straight was in times of war. He was one of the earlier leaders to erect walls across China, his efforts to keep out the invading Khitan armies by erecting a great wall predated the more famous one by a couple of hundred years. He followed this up by once more leading the charge into the Khitan territories and kicking the living crap out of them personally.

Again though, his bravery in battle was offset by his increasing signs of utter batshit craziness while at home in the Royal Palace. He would often strip down to his birthday suit and wander the Capitol city naked as a jaybird. Sometimes he painted his face to look like a monster, and sometimes he would dress in women's clothing. When one of his concubines displeased him, he chopped her head off and carried it around for a few days. He dabbled in cannibalism.

As he got worse, one of his favorite pastimes was to tie political prisoners to large kites and drop them from the top of the Ye prison tower. Invariably, these prisoners would plummet hundreds of feet to their death, splattering across a pile of jagged rocks much to the delight of every crow within a 10 mile radius of the Ye Tower.

However, in the year 559, Wenxuan decided to give the old heave-ho to an old acquaintance of his. The man's name was Yuan Huangtou, and he was the last surviving son of Emperor Xiaojing. To this day, nobody knows what was different about this instance - whether the kite had been modified somehow, or if the winds were different or what. But, when Wenxuan chucked the former prince off the roof, something miraculous happened:

Yuan Huangtou flew.

Remember, this was 559. Horse drawn carts were still relatively new in 559. People still worshipped fucking comets in 559. And this man, who had born witness to the murder of his family and then trapped in a filthy prison for the next 7 or 8 years, he friggin' flew.

From the Archives of the Comprehensive Mirror for the Aid of Government, People's Republic of China: The first human to fly was Yuan Huangtou, in 559. Huangtou, son of the erstwhile emperor of the Northern Wei kingdom, launched himself on a kite from a tower in the capital Ye during a succession wrangle. Records mark that he floated across the city walls and survived the landing only to be executed shortly after.

The stories about Yuan Huangtou's flight vary wildly. The PRoC's official version is that rather than being forced to jump by a bloodthirsty madman, Huangtou launched himself. I like the idea, but the facts tend to lean more towards the version I described above.

Depending on which source you cull your information from, Yuan Huangtou either flew several hundred feet, or a couple of thousand. While the latter version is the more appealing of the two, it's not all that likely.

It doesn't matter, though. The fact is that Yuan Huangtou soared above all, for a few moments. He flew - something no human being had done before, ever. Nor would anyone be able to replicate the stunt for over the next 1,300 years, until Otto Lilienthal made his first jump halfway across the world in Steglitz, Germany.

Shortly after landing, the palace guards caught up with Yuan Huangtou. Emperor Wenxuan was beside himself. Nearly apoplectic with rage, Wenxuan sentenced the former prince to death for what he believed was an attempt at insurrection on the Royal Throne.

They're both dead, now. Wenxuan only lived for a couple of months after Yuan Huantou's flight, before dying of alcohol-related illnesses. He was quite insane by then, and lived like a prisoner within his own skin, tortured by the demons of his own making.

Everybody who witnessed the event is long dead, too. What everybody alive in the year 559 AD did in between the time of their birth and the moment their hearts stopped was their own business. One of them flew for a few moments, hopefully with both of his middle fingers raised quite high to his would-be captors, laughing his ass off.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Suck It, Gravity!" Part 1 - Alexey Leonov, Decompression Sickness, and the Siberian Wilderness

(Will's notes: A few months ago I co-wrote an article for entitled 6 People Who Defied Gravity and then Kicked It in the Nuts . Our willingness, as a species, to risk turning our fragile corporeal forms into a flyblown grease stain just to overcome our flightless nature is something that fascinates me to no end.

When I wrote my half of the article, I had come up with several other entries that were turned down for one reason or another, one of them being a guy who, at the time, had recently managed to tear some shit up (scientifically speaking) while piloting a jet-propelled wingsuit over the English Channel. His name was Felix Baumgartner. If thst name sounds familiar, it's because last week Baumgartner broke all kinds of records when he skydived from the edge of space, at a height of 39 kilometers, or roughly 27 miles.

So, in honor of his jump I'd like to spend the next few weeks revisiting a couple of like-minded folks whose massive brass balls did not hinder them in any way from doing some pretty amazing things without so much as a grain of terra firma under their shoes.)

Alexey Leonov

While 4 year-old Vika is crying and hiding her face in her hands in sheer terror, her grandfather is storming about their neat, modest living room like a surly bull. He stops and wheels towards the flickering black and white images emanating from the bulky cathode ray television set that's perched precariously on a rickety stand.

"What is he doing?" The big Russian roars."Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft! What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody tell him to get back inside immediately! He must be punished for this!"

Vika's head bobs in agreement, and the tears streaking her chubby little-girl cheeks shine bright bluish-white from the grainy images on the TV screen. "What is he doing," she says, mimicking her grandfather. "Please, tell daddy to get back inside."

Alexey Leonov hears none of this. Nor does he hear the message from President Brezhnev, congratulating his crew on their successful mission. It's March 18th, 1965, and Alexei Leonov is floating a couple of hundred miles above sea level, and watching his boots touch down on nothing at all. He scissors his legs, in a waddling, walking motion, and in doing so, he manages to perambulate from the coast of Northern Africa, up through Asia, and into Eastern Siberia. He travels this distance - approximately 1200 miles or so, as the crow flies - in about 12 minutes. It's the first time in the history of the human race that a man is "walking across space." There's a lump wedged into a compartment of Leonov's spacesuit that he's careful not to nudge or dislodge in any way. It's a suicide pill, just in case he finds himself unable to get back inside the spacecraft.

A voice crackles inside of the large, dome-shaped helmet; part of an egg-shell-thin network of plastic and polymer and fabric that is - for the moment - the only thing keeping Leonov alive.

"It's time to come back inside," says the voice.

Leonov is distracted momentarily, thinking of his childhood in Listvyanka, and the way his mother used to holler "Lyosha," her pet name for him, when it was time for him to come inside. Wait, why's he thinking about that right now? He shakes his head, as if to ward off a buzzing fly.

Pasha, the pilot of the Vokshod 2, is talking to him. He sounds, well - not nervous exactly, but concerned. Leonov was supposed to come back inside after 10 minutes. That was 2 minutes ago. He's late. Pretty soon, the orbit of the Vokshod 2 is going to plummet away from the sun, plunging the tiny spacecraft and its crew into total darkness. It is absolutely imperative that Leonov is inside before that happens.

Leonov snaps back to the present. By gently, gently kicking his legs and "swimming" through the great black void, he manages to propel himself towards the small hatch. As he reaches for the entryway however, he realizes that due to the utter lack of atmosperic pressure that his suit has grown stiff, swollen, and deformed. He cannot make a fist, and his feet are no longer encased in their boots. The original plan was for him to climb into the reentry chamber feet-first, so he could close the hatch behind him and re-pressurize safely. As this option is no longer feasible, Alexey Leonov considers his other choices for a moment or two as he clings to the side of the Vokshod 2.

The average speed for a geosynchronous satellite orbiting the earth is roughly 17,000 miles per hour.

Leonov decides that his best chance for survival is to attempt to manually bleed the pressure from his spacesuit a little bit at a time as he inches himself head first into the reentry chamber. He tells nobody of his plan. It's pointless - there's nobody who can talk him through any of this, no expert he can appeal to. Nobody has ever done what Alexey Leonov is doing right now, at this moment. If he fails, the oxygen starvation will kill him before he ever has a chance to reach his suicide pill.

But it's working, for the moment. Leonov is somehow able to close his thumb and forefinger over the air valve enough to create a slow, stable oxygen leak. The suit deflates, and Leonov is able to inch his way across the threshold.

The Russian Government is now aware that all is not indeed well aboard the Vokshod 2. They respond swiftly and decisively, pulling the live broadcast of the mission from the State Television channel and replacing it with a loop of Mozart's Requiem, which they play over and over, for hours on end. It will be days before Vika Leonov or her Grandfather or anybody else for that matter, hears anything about Alexey at all.

From Dr E.D. Thalmann, DAN Assistant Medical Director: DCI encompasses two diseases, decompression sickness (DCS) and arterial gas embolism (AGE). DCS is thought to result from bubbles growing in tissue and causing local damage, while AGE results from bubbles entering the lung circulation, traveling through the arteries and causing tissue damage at a distance by blocking blood flow at the small vessel level.

As Leonov continued to bleed the oxygen from his suit, the severe increase in air pressure creates a burning sensation in his arms and legs that is almost unbearable. His core temperature rises by approximately 9 degrees Farenheit in a matter of minutes. He's almost completely out of oxygen and yet he still cannot fit into the chamber enough to get a seal on the outer hatch.

More on DCS: Bubbles forming in or near joints are the presumed cause of the joint pain of a classical "bend." When high levels of bubbles occur, complex reactions can take place in the body, usually in the spinal cord or brain. Numbness, paralysis and disorders of higher cerebral function may result. If great amounts of decompression are missed and large numbers of bubbles enter the venous bloodstream, congestive symptoms in the lung and circulatory shock can then occur

Only by contorting himself sideways into a ball can Leonov manage to fit himself into the reentry tank. As he gets the door shut, gallons of his own sweat are sloshing around inside the spacesuit. But Pasha is now able to lock the outer hatch and equalize the cabin pressure enough so to trigger the entryway to the interior chamber. Leonov, exhausted and dehydrated, climbs out of the EVA suit and scrambles into the flight chamber.

The Cosmonauts' mission is a success, and the Vokshod 2 is ready to land. Mozart's Requiem still warbles across Russian television signals.

As the small craft cruises over the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula, a voice chirps up over the communications system. It's Mission Control, and they're wondering where the Vokshod has landed. They ask this in spite of the fact that the craft has not landed, is in fact still hurtling towards Earth. Somewhere between the completion of Leonov's EVA and the beginning of their descent, the Vokshod 2's automatic guidance system has blown itself to pieces in a fit of hysteria. Pasha clicks on his microphone and explains to the ground crew that they are low on fuel, and that as the ship's pilot, he's going to have to manually reposition the spacecraft's trajectory.

"We are asking," Pasha says, "that you go into Emergency Mode." The tone of his voice betrays nothing. If you were to hear the transmission and didn't speak Russia, you'd think he was ordering a pizza or something.

Pasha the pilot, and Leonov as navigator, decide to steer the small craft away from Moscow and towards the Ural Mountains. They do this so as to avoid hurting anyone in the (probable) event that they are unable to slow the craft once it's hit the lower atmospheres.

The good news is that once the Vokshod 2 reaches the lower atmospheres, the landing module is able to start the retro-fire, essentially allowing the small craft to "hit the brakes". Here's the bad news: the orbital module is still attached. Which means that the center of gravity is now directly between the two bodies of mass and they are beginning to orbit each other. At about 10 Gs, both Pasha and Leonov are feeling the blood vessels in their eyeballs begin to burst.

Thankfully this only continues for a few more seconds before the cable burns away, only the force of the snap slingshots them even further off course, halfway to China. There's a great roar followed by the sensation of being hurled backwards into space and then everything is peaceful. The chutes have deployed, and the craft drifts to earth amidst a great blanket of snow. Leonov and Pasha have landed approximately 1,400 miles away from Perm, the nearest thing even resembling a city.

"How soon do you think they'll find us?" Pasha asks.

Leonov considers the question. "In 3 months," he says. "Maybe they'll come with dog sleds."

They wring the moisture out of their spacesuits and wrest the parachute from the trees for extra insulation. The landing craft sends out a beacon signal that, while failing to reach Moscow, is somehow picked up in Germany. More importantly, a cargo plane just happens to fly over the crash site within the 1st 24 hours and sees the two Cosmonauts signaling for help.

It still takes 3 days before anyone can reach the crash site. 3 days of temperatures that start out at 22 degrees below zero and get worse from there. 3 days of fending off bears and wolves with a single pistol and a couple of boxes of ammo. After 3 days, an advance party is finally able to reach the Vokshod 2. They bring food and supplies and 2 sets of skis. The nearest place a helicopter can safely land is roughly 6 miles away from the crash site.

Rested and nourished, the 2 Cosmonauts return to safety the following day. There are representatives from the State Government in Leninsk, and they want a full report, before Leonov and Pasha can return to their homes and families.

So Leonov writes them a report. This is Alexey Leonov's official statement on the events of the Vokshod 2 mission, word for word:

"Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space. Thank you for your attention."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Infernal Machines - The Sneak Preview

(Will's note: For those of you stopping by for the first time, hi. Last year I finished work on a book called Infernal Machines that is coming soon from Immortal Ink Publishing . Today I've decided to take a big flying leap and preview the prologue for all of you. I hope you like it. Without any further ado, here it is.)

Prologue: Summer

Markheim found the darkest corner of the woods and spent the night digging. The box lay close, shrouded in yellow lantern light. Every now and then, he would mop the sweat from his brow and when he did, he would watch the box. Markheim didn’t think it was going to move, not really.

He watched it anyway.

The bastard was stuffed away in there. Stabbed, strangled and shot before he finally went down, grinning, like an alligator with a mouthful of spoiled meat, or like fucking Rasputin. Even the damn death-rattle had sounded like laughter.

Markheim dug and dug, and flung the shovels of dirt as far as he could. Top soil gave way to packed earth, then mud, and finally, heavy black clay. The digging felt good. The groaning muscles in his back drowned out the whispering in his head. The sour sweat that drenched his skin was a baptism.

When he stood up, he noticed that he might have dug a little too deep. The box was no longer in his line of sight. A taste like dirty copper filled his mouth and little pins and needles pricked his heart. Out loud, Markheim cursed himself for a fool and tried to laugh it off. Like whistling when passing a graveyard. The bastard wasn’t going anywhere.

Still, Markheim listened.

The forest listened back, intently. No night-birds trilling,; the bullfrogs and crickets had paused in their infinite song. Markheim threw his shovel up and out, in the direction of the box. It smacked into something solid before landing on soft ground. He heard that - —clatter-thud! –and he wondered what he hit.

“The box, idiot, and nothing more.” He told himself this, as he gripped handfuls of dirt and grass and tried to hop out. His feet kicked and skidded against crumbling earth. He scrabbled, clambered and fell back into the hole.

Markheim jumped higher, pushing his belly into the ground, and slithering out like a worm. He clutched at empty space for purchase and pinpoints of haze stippled his vision from the effort. He was out, gasping for air, blood thundering in his skull. He rolled onto his side and saw what his shovel had hit.

He cursed again and scrambled to his feet, tearing off his jacket. The small lantern was broken. Its contents spilled across the box and into the ground. Yellow flames licked across the cheap wood and tall grass. Markheim stomped at the tiny, scurrying blazes until he’d doused them completely, leaving him alone in utter darkness with the bastard.

“This was your plan all along, no?” Markheim resisted the urge to kick the plywood box. Instead he sat down next to it, laid his head on the charred wood, and listened, hearing nothing but his own heart, ticking away.

Markheim wrestled the box to the edge of the hole and after a moment’s consideration, hooked his fingers into the bottom and lifted, allowing gravity to take hold. The box tumbled on its side and crashed into the pit. Markheim lowered himself, looking for breaks in the box. It looked solid enough, although without the lantern it was too dark to be sure. He groped for the shovel and began hauling dirt into the grave.

When he finished, gray streaks of dawn were beginning to banish the darkness in the east. White tendrils of mist curled around trees like hungry cats. Markheim had strung a length of fishing line festooned with tiny silver bells around the grave. The idea that anyone would stumble across this place was ludicrous.

He gathered his things quietly amidst the whispering trees, and the sibilant hiss of nearby waves breaking against jagged rock. The bells tinkled soft music.

He’s dead and buried, they sang. You could stop here, if you wanted.

Markheim felt a pang of regret as the bell-music receded. He wanted to return to the grave, and just lie down. God! He never knew a man could feel this tired. He wondered if it really was going to end once he rid himself of the last piece. It thumped against the side of his leg and he grimaced in revulsion.

Amongst the lantern and tools, Markheim clutched a colorless burlap sack, the bottom of which was beginning to stain.

___ ___ ___

Soft rain ticked across the deck. Markheim kept the bay windows open, allowing what meager light the morning had to offer to filter into his kitchen. He sat at a scarred oak table. A mug of coffee steamed just out of his reach, untouched. Markheim spun a police badge with the tips of his fingers. It had been his for almost 10 years. Now this.

If he made the phone call, the item in the burlap sack would be gone forever. Perhaps he would be done with the whole nasty business, then. He didn’t think so, but perhaps.

He spun the badge again, too hard. It skittered off the table and clattered to the floor. He left it there. Markheim pushed away from the table, retrieving his mug. He took short, careful sips as he dialed the number. He heard a click as the other end of the line picked up, then silence.

Markheim cleared his throat. “It’s done,” he said.

The voice that came back practically purred. “You’re a good man, Mr. Markheim.” He relayed the instructions. Markheim listened.

___ ___ ___

It took almost three days of leapfrogging ferries to get from Chapel Harbor to San Juan, across Anacortes and then almost due west towards the Aleutians, to an island roughly the size of a supermarket parking lot, where the meeting was to take place. Markheim slept fitfully when he could, imagining an interception at every new dock. State Police with German Shepherds. Everyone he made eye contact with glared at him. Parents clutched their children a little closer.

It rained constantly, and yet the sun only disappeared for a few hours a day. The sun-showers made everything glisten like cheap toys. When it wasn’t raining, the sky took on a raw pink hue, like abraded skin. Plus, the night this far north, true nighttime, lasted about as long as a song. It hurt Markheim’s head, looking at a sun that was always either rising or setting. More than once Markheim considered pitching the works right over the edge of the ferry and figuring out a way back, but every time he took a walk top side there were the other passengers. Watching him. Sizing him up.

He saw a group of women conversing and periodically one would look his way. They were talking about him.

By the time the final passenger ferry docked, the cooler was beginning to stink. Markheim hurried off with it tucked under his arm like a football. He elbowed somebody and they cursed at him and he muttered an apology. He felt the eyes of the crew on him all the way down the ramp. He rounded a corner and banged his knee into a wire trash basket and almost fell.

A hand seized him by the upper arm and pulled him upright.

“Easy, big fella. The deck gets a little slick when it rains.” Markheim’s rescuer was a broad-shouldered young man in a black watchcap and peacoat. A pair of absurd looking gold aviators hid much of his face. He grinned, and three of his front teeth were broken off at the root. The gap made the boy look like a wolf.

“Thanks,” said Markheim, “but I really must be-“

“Going somewhere? Yeah, I got it, pops. Everybody’s got to be somewhere, right? Only you already are. Somewhere I mean. You’re right here, talking to me.” The boy stuck out his hand. “Billy Newell’s the name. You have something that belongs to my boss.”

The young man stood there grinning with his hand outstretched. Markheim hugged the cooler into his chest. His heart knocked on the hard plastic.

“C’mon man,” the boy said. “I ain’t gonna bite.” Behind the ridiculous Elvis glasses, Billy’s skin was stretched against his skull like cellophane shrink wrap. His remaining incisor looked like it had been sharpened with a file.

Markheim shook the boy’s hand with reluctance. “You work for-“—”

Billy shushed him, a little too loud. Passengers and crew alike were beginning to stare at the unlikely pair. A crew member whispered into a walkie talkie. An invisible net tightened around Markheim’s shoulders.

“Not here,” said Billy. “We’ll go somewhere with a little privacy.”

___ ___ ___

Not far from the docks they found a bar, a ramshackle clapboard structure with flames of barn red paint curling from the wood. It leaned over the water’s edge like a suicidal bridge jumper. Billy pushed through the doors, and Markheim followed. Three flannel lumps were at the bar. They didn’t bother to turn around. A thick Russian woman, peasant stock, wiped down counters with a filthy rag. She paused long enough to glower at the interlopers.

Billy tipped a finger wave at her and smiled from under his shades. “Don’t worry sugar pie, we’ll seat ourselves.” To Markheim he said, “Grab us a booth. I’ll buy the first round.”

Markheim sat the cooler between himself and the wall. The stink was getting worse. Seconds later, Billy slid in across from him with two pilsner glasses full of dark ale. “Good times,” he said.

Markheim took the glass, and Billy drained the contents of his in a single pull. “Your boss,” said Markheim.

Billy burped loud enough to rattle the table. Nobody in the bar so much as stirred. “He doesn’t usually meet folks face to face the first time. He’s got me and Georgie, that’d be George Hull, we’re the whatdyacallits... . . . ” Billy thumped the side of his head as struggled to think, and then snapped his fingers. “Proxies, he calls us. Anyway, I’m supposed to see if what you have is on the up and up, and then maybe he’ll arrange for a sit down.”

“I see,” said Markheim. “Well, the deal was ten thousand. Did your boss manage to-“—”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Billy. From his coat he slid a manila envelope rubber banded around the middle. He snapped off the rubber band and pulled out a wad of cash the size of a brick. “There. I showed you mine, now you show me yours.”


“Come on, grampa, don’t be a chicken. Nobody’s going to notice, believe me.” Billy licked his lips. “Just pop the lid, and you can walk on out, cash in hand.”

Markheim leaned back. The butt of his service revolver jabbed his back. It reassured him. He was in control. He watched the lumps at the bar as his fingers worked the lid.

The air instantly grew rancid as the cooler popped open. Billy Newell cackled as he fanned the air. “That motherfucker’s ripe!”

Markheim wanted to close the lid again right away but couldn’t. The severed hand had turned a mottled grey, and the skin was beginning to slough away from the black fingernails. It mesmerized him. The barflies and their frog-like benefactor could have jumped on top of the bar and danced the Charleston, and Markheim wouldn’t have noticed. He almost reached into the box.

Billy stopped him, placing his own hand over the lid. “Easy, pops. You want to wrap this up or what?”

Markheim pulled away from his reverie with an effort. “I do,” he said.

Billy took the cooler and slid the envelope across the table. “We’re finished, then. You did real good, Mr. Markheim. My boss is gonna be pleased. He’ll probably want to tell you himself.”

“Thank you young man, but you can tell him not to bother. This is it for me.”

“Sure it is.” Billy laughed and pushed his shades up the bridge of his nose a fraction of an inch. For a moment Markheim thought he was going to take the sunglasses off and the idea terrified him for some reason. He turned his back and hurried out as Billy Newell’s laughter echoed through the bar.

Monday, October 8, 2012

William Castle - Part III

In the above photo, it’s 1975 in Southern California, and William Castle is working on his last film; a somewhat gritty Sci-Fi horror number called Bug. He’s handing the directorial reigns over to Jeannot Szwarc, who’s going to go on in the next couple of years to direct Jaws 2 as well as the superb (and criminally underrated) Somewhere in Time.

Bug stars Bradford Dillman, and a young actor who goes by the moniker “Hercules”. He’s the handsome fellow on the right. No, not your right – Castle’s right. Yeah, the six-legged guy. According to legend, the document that William Castle is signing in the photo is a life insurance policy for Hercules the Cockroach worth $1,000,000.00

I never figured out who the 3rd guy in the photo was. He might have been the underwriter from Lloyd’s of London who brokered the insurance deal, or he might have just been the one to bring Castle his coffee every morning. Whoever he is, both he and William Castle look remarkably relaxed to be seated next to a cockroach the size of a honey-glazed ham. The photograph is purported to be completely undoctored.

You can call bullshit all you want, but when you’re talking about anything Castle has been a part of there’s always been a little bit of magic at work. Loads and loads of bullshit, sure – but a little bit of magic, too. Hell, when William Castle was a teenager he was teaching stage magic to Dracula. In the bridge that links every generation of cinematic horror together, from the Golden Age of Universal Studios to the dawn of the Modern Era, William Castle is the keystone of it all. And he saved his greatest trick of all for the very end, more than 30 years after his death.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The mid-sixties brought along with it a new way of looking at the horror film. Whereas for years it had languished as the stuff of zero-budget production, laughable scripts and rubbery, fake-looking monsters, once films like Target and Night of the Living Dead started coming out, folks realized that you could say things within a horror film that you just quite couldn’t elsewhere. They started paying attention.

At the time, Robert Evans was working over at Paramount Pictures, and pretty much everything the guy touched was turning into gold. It was William Castle who came to Evans with an advance copy of the manuscript, even before Random House had published the book. Castle knew the potential the story had, and wasted no time buying up the film rights.

Robert Evans realized that the story would make for a blockbuster movie as well. The thing was, he didn’t think that William Castle was the right guy to direct the film. So, he bought the script anyway, under the condition that Castle was to produce the thing, but that Paramount would get to choose a different director. Castle agreed, and Paramount (under the guidance of Robert Evans) went with Roman Polanski instead.

To his credit, Polanski made an almost perfect film with Rosemary’s Baby. It is one of the most faithful adaptations to a book ever. Rosemary’s Baby is also one of the most highly acclaimed movies to come out in the history of film – not just horror movies, but films overall. Perhaps more importantly, it marked a shift in the overall American paradigm of horror, away from the drive-ins and dingy grindhouse theatres towards one of universal acceptance, and even a little bit of respect.

But I always kind of wonder what Castle would have done with the thing, had he been given free reign. No doubt Vincent Price would have been involved, and maybe he’d have brought back a variation of his “Emergo” trick, and dropped bright red plastic devil puppets down from nowhere on his audience.

Project X (1968)

After Rosemary’s Baby, Castle went on direct Project X, an underrated Sci-Fi number that predated a lot of themes perfected in later films like Total Recall, The Matrix and Inception. It starred Christopher George as Hagen; an American Spy in the year 2118 who is critically injured in a plane crash after a mission in China. Scientists place Hagen into cryogenic suspension and attempt to extract critical information from his mind by creating a holographic dream state and then implanting agent personalities into his dream state.

Riot (1969)

Riot was a film that Castle produced, handing the directorial duties over to Buzz Kulik. Starring Gene Hackman and Jim Brown, the film is based on the true story of a Minnesota prison riot. While Castle did not direct, the movie is not without evident traces of his signature weirdness. For example, large portions of the flick are filmed in an actual prison (eschewing to shoot in Minnesota, they chose the Yuma Territorial Prison instead). The warden in the film was portrayed by Frank Eyman, who was an actual warden in real life, and they actually used real convicts from the real freakin’ prison as extras in the film.

It was little touches like this that made Riot one of the harder, more harrowing examples of the Prison-Exploitation genre, and not to be missed if you’re a fan of the whole true-crime type stuff.

Shanks (1974)

Almost 5 full years were to pass before William Castle finished work on Shanks, his penultimate film and the last one he would ever direct. The truth is, I don’t even know where to begin with this fucking thing. You’re either going to love it or hate it, depending on your particular sensibilities. The first time I ever saw it, I’m pretty sure I was still in high school, and I never made the connection that this was even a Castle film until I began researching his filmography for this blog. But now that I’ve watched it a 2nd time, it kind of clicked.

In a way, Shanks is a definitive statement on what Castle was trying to do all along as a filmmaker, which was to push the envelope as far as he dared. William Castle may not have had the technical proficiency of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, but he more than made up for that with the chances that he took as an artist.

While there is some dialogue sprinkled throughout the movie, Shanks is shot almost as a silent film – stage cards and all. It starred Marcel Marceau, the world famous mime (it kinda disturbs me that there is such a thing, but whatever) as both the titular character Malcolm Shanks, and his benefactor; an old mad scientist type known as “Old Man Walker”.

I won’t try to give away too many of the plot details, but it involves reanimating dead people as puppets, an evil biker gang, an uncomfortably inappropriate relationship between a 50 year old man and a 16 year old girl, and a chicken that eats half of some guy’s face before shoving him down a flight of stairs. There’s also some of the most hilarious fight scene choreography this side of a Bollywood action film.

On the plus side, the scenes involving Marceau as Old Man Walker, particularly in the latter half of the film, are some of the creepiest shots I’ve ever seen.

Bug (1975)

Here we are again, back to the very end (sort of). Castle produced Bug but whether he knew it or not, his directing days were done. Jeannot Szwarc did an admirable job of making this story about enormous fire breathing cockroaches into something with a few memorable scares.

You saw Castle’s promo shot earlier, the one with Hercules the Cockroach, and a lot has been made of the fact that Castle’s last gonzo movie promotion is similar in a lot of ways to his very first. With Macabre, the insurance policies went out to the audience members, while in the case of Bug, Castle insured a gigantic roach.

But what a lot of people don’t know is that originally, William Castle had another plan to scare the living shit out of his audiences, and had he been allowed to do it, it would have been one for the ages.

As you can guess by the title, the premise of Bug has to do with an invasion of, well, bugs. It promises bugs, and it delivers them, hand over fist. You see shots of giant cockroaches, flying periplaneta roaches, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, a myriad of the foul things, legions of them throughout the whole goddamn movie, getting into people’s hair and crawling into their ears, you see them incinerate a cat in one scene (really) and it’s pretty hard not to walk away from the flick without feeling sort of a creepy-crawly sensation, even if you’re watching it at home, with all of the lights on.

Well, Castle’s idea for this one was to take what he had done with The Tingler and ramp it up by a thousand percent or so. He had an idea for building small devices, rigged from windshield wiper motors, to be placed under the theater seats so that during key scenes in the movie, thin little filaments would brush against the lower legs of unsuspecting audience members.

The thing was, it wasn’t 1959 anymore. It was 1975, and America was a different place, more cynical perhaps, and a hell of a lot more litigious. Castle could get a single theatre to sign off on the idea, and so he tanked it and insured a cockroach instead.

Maybe that was the joke – maybe insuring a cockroach was about as outrageous as a guy like William Castle could get anymore without unwanted pressure from the guys running the business side of the show.

William Castle passed away of heart failure in 1977. Bug was the last film he ever worked on, but like I said earlier, he still had one more trick up his sleeve. It started a few years ago, as the “social media” craze began, first with Facebook, and then with Twitter. William Castle’s ghost began to write again. He has his own blog now, despite being dead, and while he’s pretty much finished with the movie business, the ghost of William Castle has written several books, most recently From the Grave: The Prayer.

To this day, William Castle manages to stay the 2nd busiest dead guy in show business, right behind Tupac Shakur. The kid who once upon a time talked his way into a job with Bela Lugosi; America’s 1st great horror icon, went on in life to produce Rosemary’s Baby, the 1st truly modern horror film. And in between and for long after, William Castle created a vision of horror that is inimitable, and uncanny, and 100% all his own.

As for closing statements, I’ll leave it to the man himself:

“We all have a common interest, bigger and more horrible monsters - and I'm just the monster to bring them to you.” - William Castle

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sometimes I Write Back To The Stuff I Find In My Junk Mail Folder


Let me start by introducing myself. I am Mr Cheung Pui director of operations Hang Seng Bank Ltd. I have an obscured business suggestion for you. Before the U.S and Iraqi war our client Major Fadi Bassem who was with the Iraqi forces and also a business man made a numbered fixed deposit for 18 calendar months, with a value of twenty four million five hundred thousand United State Dollars in my branch. Upon maturity several notices was sent to him, even during the war. Again after the war another notification was sent and still no response came from him. We later found out that the Major and his family had been killed during the war in a bomb blast that hit their home.

After further investigations it was also discovered that Major Fadi Basem did not declare any next of kin in his official papers including the paper work of his bank deposit. And he also confided in me the last time he was at my office that no one except me knew of his deposit in my bank.

As you can see, twenty four million five hundred thousand United States Dollars is still lying in my bank and no one will ever come forward to claim it. What bothers me most is that according to the by-laws of my country at the expiration of 9 years the funds will revert to the ownership of the Hong Kong Government if nobody applies to claim the funds. Against this backdrop, my suggestion to you is that I will like you as a foreigner to stand as the next of kin to Major Fadi Bassem so that you will be able to receive his funds.


I want you to know that I have had everything planned out so that we will come out successful. I have contacted an attorney that will prepare the necessary document that will back you up as the next of kin to Major Fadi Basem, all that is required from you at this stage is for you to provide me with your full name and address so that the attorney can commence his job, after you have been made the next of kin, the attorney will also file in for claims on your behalf and secure the necessary documentation for
the movement of the funds to an account that will be provided by you.

There is no risk involved at all in the matter as we are going to adopt a legalized method and the attorney will prepare all the necessary documents. Please endeavor to observe utmost discretion in all matters concerning this issue. Once the funds have been transferred, we shall share in the ratio of 70% for me, 25% for you and 5% for any expenses incurred during the course of this operation. Should you be interested please send me your private phone and fax numbers for easy communication,
you can write me via my private box ( ) and finally after that I shall provide you with more details of this operation.

Your earliest response to this letter will be appreciated.

Kind Regards,

Mr. Cheung Pui.

Dear Mr Pui,

I cannot express to you how grateful I am that you, a complete stranger would entrust me with your millions of dollars. I consider it a great honor that you think of me first, as opposed to the hundreds, if not thousands of people that a reputable financier such as yourself must have at your beck and call. I feel kind of like Hal Jordan must have when he learned that he was selected for the Green Lantern Corps, only without either the inconvenience of space travel or those green tights that no doubt bunch in the crotch like it’s nobody’s business.

I’m also sorry to hear about the bomb blast that killed your client’s entire family, in the middle of dinner, no less. You seem terribly broken up about that bit of news. I’m sure that after years of handling this client’s complicated and important financial matter, you must have felt a bit like family yourself - well, maybe not family per se, but a favorite pet. Or a favored pet, or maybe just a pet.

Maybe more like one of those mangy one-eyed cats that hang out at the dumpster, waiting on scraps of food, or the occasional used tampon to chew on (Oh come on, you’ve never seen a feral cat chewing a used tampon? They love that shit - it’s like, well, catnip.)
Anyway I’m sorry that your client and his whole family exploded. As for me being listed as the next of kin for an Iraqi Major that I’ve never heard of, and have no possible relation to, the idea sounds absolutely foolproof. You sir, are a genius and a credit to the entire Hong Kong banking system.

However, as much as I would like to assist you in this matter, and collect my (no doubt) millions and millions of dollars, unfortunately all of my money is currently tied up in beanie babies and Haitian Penny stocks. I do, however, know of several Nigerian Princes - go-getters like yourself - that would no doubt jump all over the opportunity to collect some mad cash from dead or disposed war criminals, or whoever it is you represent. I took the liberty of forwarding all of your information to their Outlook Express accounts and you should be hearing from them quite soon, no doubt.

Kindest Regards,

Will Millar