The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Top Ten Movie Devils

Those of you who are familiar with my writing (and my art, for that matter) will know that devils figure pretty prominently therein.Given my reactionary Catholic upbringing, this is only to be expected...but I've also made a serious effort to cultivate this unhealthy prediliction with a serious study of matters demonological, and I've always tried to plug as much of my scholarship as possible into my endeavors.Considering myself a good judge of demonic depictions, I thought I'd damn well better do a list of movie devils, considering them to be distinct from merely mortal cinematic bad guys, who, as you know, I've already bloviated about. Anyway, here goes.

1. Rex Ingram as The Genie from Thief of Baghdad, 1940. Forget Barbara Eden or Robin Williams(actually, now that I think about it, don't forget Barbara Eden); the cruel fact of the matter is that most genies, or Djinn, are very frightening commodities, and are rightly classified as devils. That is, of course, the reason why King Solomon imprisoned a bunch of them in bottles or lamps or whatnot. Iblis, the Muslim Satan, is a Djinn who opposed the creation of human beings, refused to bend the knee to Adam, harbors a profound malice towards humans and has a number of horrible co-religionists. He is, in fact, kinda similar to Tchernobog in my Zorachus books...but enough about my stuff.

There isn't too much Muslim demonology in Alexander Korda's 1940 megabuck Thief of Baghdad, which is kind of a pity, but Rex Ingram makes up for all that with a very powerful characterization; he's got a great deep voice, a striking exotic face surmounted by a truly infernal topknot, and a physical presence so imposing you almost forget that he's wearing titanic didies...the movie had a huge budget, and Rex is backed up by a bunch of the very best special effects you could buy back then, all served up in wonderful technicolor. When Sabu, the titular thief, lets this guy out of his bottle and then tries to try to weasel those wishes out of him, you truly question his judgement...I would've just laid down and died.

Rex, by the way, plays Satan himself in another fantasy, Cabin in the Sky, and very satisfactorily too...but the genie makes a bigger impression, and that's why he's on this list.

2. Tchernobog, Fantasia, 1940

Hey, was 1940 a good year for Devils, or what?

Fantasia is rather a mixed bag, but I've never met anyone who wasn't wowed by the demonic doings at the end...Courtesy of the great Disney animator Vladimir "Bill" Tytla, we get Tchernobog, the Black God,(whose name I proudly cribbed for my own satan figure in the Z-books) presiding over a dynamite Witches Sabbath, set to Night on Bald Mountain by Moussorgky. Tytla was known for powerful, threatening draftsmanship (he also did Stromboli in Pinocchio), and he showed impeccable judgement in using Bela Lugosi as his model for the evil deity...the music, the art, and Lugosi's performance all come together in some of the niftiest diabolic visuals imaginable. When dawn comes, you're actually rather sorry...the Ave Maria thing which follows is sheer silly anti-climax...I like the triumph of Good over Evil as much as anyone, but faced with a choice between little wimpy hooded candle-holding guys, and a giant winged devil orbitted by furies, I'm afraid I'd rather go with the big bad...

3. Walter Huston, Mr. Scratch, All the Money Can Buy, 1941
RKO was a great little studio with a wonderful batting average, and they were particularly good with fantasy and horror stuff. King Kong was RKO, and Hunchback of Notre Dame, and all those Val Lewton movies, and in 1941 they came out with my vote for the single best fantasy ever made, All That Money Can Buy, also known as The Devil and Daniel was based on the story of that name by Stephen Vincent Benet (who also helped out on the screenplay). It was beautifully directed by William Dieterle, who also helmed Hunchback and Portrait of Jennie, and it had great black and white photograpy by Joseph August, and a knockout Bernard Hermann score, for which he got his one (and only!) Oscar.

But the thing that totally makes the movie is Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch. Walter was John Huston's father, and he turned in a number of cool performances, such as his leathery old miner-guy in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but Scratch was the pinnacle of the guy's career, for my money. The movie is a very American take on the sell-your-soul story, and Scratch is a truly American Devil, folksy, down-home, and meaner than a field full of New Hampshire rocks. He's got a pointy beard he could put your eye out with, an amazing squint, great fast delivery, and he sees right the hell through you...he also has the luscious Simon Simone working for him, and you really don't have a chance unless Daniel Webster is pleading your case, as dopey farmer Jabez Stone finds out when he makes a get-rich-quick deal with this horrible supernatural Yankee sharp-trader. The film abounds in amazing stuff, such as the extremely creepy ghost-ball, and the scene where a jury of all-American evildoers rises from Hell to pass judgement on poor Jabez. The final bit, where Scratch notices you out there in the audience, is pretty fabulous too. As far as I'm concerned, Huston's characterization is a prime candidate for best movie devil ever...his only real competition is Al Pacino's John Milton, but more about that later.

Get the Criterion version of this flick, by the way. The theatrical and TV version was badly butchered...I think they cut about fifteen minutes out it, and there was absolutely no reason to...even at the longer length, it's pretty tight, and it's better with the extra stuff.

4. Peter Cook as George Spiggot, Bedazzled, 1967
Aside from being extremely funny, Bedazzled is surely the most philosophically literate movie ever made. It's no wonder that Harold Ramis, himself no slouch with philosophical comedy (he did Groundhog Day), decided to take a whack at a remake---and really failed. The folks who put the original together were a very rare breed, terribly knowledgeable and extremely witty. The stars, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, were just coming off Beyond the Fringe; they were showing up in all sorts of stuff, but they weren't always in charge of the writing; in Bedazzled they were, and they're at the the top of their considerable and highly literate form. The flick was directed by Stanley Donen, who made the best musical ever, Singing in the Rain; how exactly he got this particular gig, I don't know, but he sure made a first-rate comedy here, and really let the ideas speak for themselves.

The plot is another deal with the devil thing; Dudley Moore plays Stanley Moon, a little London wimp who works at...well, Wimpy Burgers. His life sucks, and he's in love with one of the waitresses, Margaret Spenser, who he doesn't have the nerve to talk to. When he tries to commit suicide, he's approached by Peter Cook's George Spiggot, a towering mod apparition in a redlined cape and granny glasses, who tells Stanley that suicide is "the last thing you should do." He also declares that he's the Devil, and offers Stanley seven wishes in exchange for his soul...Stanley buys in and off they go, into one alternate Stanley Moon-life after another, with George granting each wish in a way that keeps Stanley from getting what he wants. George is pure sell your soul and you don't even get Simone Simon in the meantime. He's completely shameless and stoops to everything, tearing out the final pages of mystery novels and personally putting great big scratches on LP's. After Stanley pursues Margaret through six disastrous scenarios, Stanley really applies himself, and comes up with what seems to him a foolproof formula---true spiritual love, with no other men involved. George responds by turning him and Margaret into lesbian nuns of the Order of St. Beryl...with Margaret unwilling to act on her impulses!

The film's consistently hilarious throughout, with a lot of comic riffs on Free Will, morality, and nature of God and Satan...when Stanley asks what God is like, George replies " He's adorable...He's just the most adorable thing." Some Kantian ethics creep in right at the end, but just a bit, not enough to sour the overall presentation...George tries to get back into heaven by doing a good deed (freeing Stanley from his contract), but St. Peter doesn't buy it, because George was acting from selfish motives. With God's laughter roaring down from above, Spiggot promises to make the world worse than ever, covering it with Wimpy Burgers and Tastee Freez...but Stanley gets the nerve to ask Margaret out.

All this and Raquel Welch as Lust, too! In a bikini!

5. David Warner as Evil, The Time Bandits, 1981
I must confess, this flick was rather an influence on came out when I was working on the first Samurai Cat book, and there have been a number of SC scenes that have had a Time Banditish tone...the Cat stories, of course, feature a lot of bouncing around between historical periods and alternate worlds, and there's a bunch of that in TB...I'd already established that format for the stories, but I took a close look at what Terry Gilliam was doing.Der Kampfburg was directly inspired by the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, and it would be fair to say that my latest book, Yark, has a pretty Gilliamesque feel, part Time Bandits, part Brazil. Quite apart from the stuff I semi-cribbed, I was really impressed by the low-tech approach that Gilliam took on TB; the film had great FX, primarily achieved with simple camera tricks and practical work.

And then you have the occupant of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, David Warner's Evil. He's physically trapped in his huge crumbling stronghold, but he can extend his influence through many dimensions ("Stand by for Mind control!") and is responsible (like George Spiggott) for the shoddy mechanistic shittiness of modern life. Surrounded by plastic wrap and lots of ducts, he promotes evil and stupidity while fulminating about God's creation: "Thirty-seven species of parrot, nipples for men!" When the Time Bandits steal a map from the Supreme Being that shows where all the holes in time and space are, Evil decides he could use it to escape from his fortress,and lures the bandits, via the aforementioned mind control ("I've got an idea, forming in my head," says Og, the dimmest bandit), to his realm, whereupon he steals the map and hangs the dwarves in cages over a yawning void. They escape, however, (this sequence being one of my favorite things ever) get the map back, and use it to summon good guys from all over history to fight Evil, only to watch in horror as he wipes each and every hero out, some of them in pretty damn gruesome fashion. Of all the devils on this list, Evil is the biggest badass, and I like that. Ultimately, he's only defeated by direct divine intervention. God carbonizes him, then manifests Himself in the form of Sir Ralph Richardson, who looks at what's left of his terrible creation and rubs his hands and says with evident artistic pride, saying, "I think he turned out pretty well," and we find ourselves agreeing...

The script was by Gilliam and his Monty Python bud Michael Palin, and they did a ripping job, by the way.

6.Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983.
To give you an idea of how much I like this characterization, you should know that Something Wicked was produced by Tom Wilhite, the guy who bought the movie rights to Adventures of Samurai Cat. I had been counting on Samurai Cat to provide for me and my family...Mr. Wilhite opted for a horrendous adaptation full of fart jokes, musical numbers a la Michael Jackson, and a kidnapped Japanese Emperor who was protrayed as a fat Buddha guy with his ass hanging out...this in a movie that Wilhite expected Japanese folks to finance. Needless to say, he destroyed the property and is still tying up the rights...when I told my confessor that I'd like to punch Wilhite's lights out, the priest paused, then replied..."Sometimes it's possible to be justifiably angry."

Anyway, I'm still putting Mr. Dark on this list.

Of course, I prefer to think of him as expertly rendered Ray Bradbury. Bradbury adapted his own novel, but he wasn't happy with the finished product; in truth, the rest of the movie is nowhere near as good as Jonathan Pryce, whose performance really fires on all cylinders, and is extremely true to Bradbury's original conception. Pryce. who plays the proprietor of a circus-of-the-damned which comes to your town to scare kiddies and snatch souls in general, would deserve to be on this list if only for the page-tearing scene with Jason Robards, who plays one kid's cardiac-case dad...tempting Robards with promises of renewed health and vigor, Dark rips one page after another out of a book, each representing a year of restored vim...Wilhite and crew added some cartoonish flaming special effects to each rip, but there was never anything wrong with the scene to begin with. Pryce carries it off with the sheer force of his portrayal,which is the very epimome of breathy gloating satanic glee...Pryce's facial expressions are astounding in this scene, and Robards' old tired cardio-agonies complement them nicely.

I can speak to the matter of the flaming pages with some authority, by the way...when Wilhite was still talking to me, he sent me a tape with two versions of the film on it--- director Jack Clayton's original, which was all script, performance, and atmosphere, and the enhanced FX version, which was quite a bad idea, (except for the replacement score by James Horner). Man, I should've broken off the negotiations for Samurai Cat then and there.

Interesting post-script (at least I think it's interesting). When I was out at the Worldcon in Anaheim in 1984, me and the wife went to Disneyland, and they were having Donald's Birthday Parade, which was a procession of all the Disney characters, well, facsimilies had Mickey and Minnie and Donald and Pluto and Dumbo and Pinocchio and Mary Poppins and right there at the end...

Mr. Dark.

7. Gozer, Ghostbusters. 1984
I'm a big fan of Dan Ackroyd's work, particularly his get the impression that you could have a wonderful ranging conversation with him about just about anything. Take all the illegal alien biz in Coneheads, for example...that movie came out quite some time ago, but it seems more relevant than ever. I'm also one of the world's few admirers of Nothing But Trouble, which leaves us with the impression that, other things, Ackroyd knows what Sao Paulo smells like...the movie's skin-crawlingly disturbing, it's absolutely inconceivable to me how it could ever gotten greenlit, and my hat is utterly off to Mr.A.

But we need to get on to Mr. A and demonology.

Most of our western traditions about demonology actually originated in ancient far as we can tell, the Jews weren't particularly interested in devils until the Babylonian Captivity...once they got back, you had a whole lot of references, particularly in the New Testament. William Peter Blatty played on this in The Exorcist; the Devil that possesses Regan, as a matter of fact, is an actual Babylonian demon named Pazuzu; the best stuff in the film, in my opinion, is the sequence with Father Merrin in Iraq. I've buttressed my own devils, both in The Dead, and the Zorachus books, with cribbings from Mesopotamian sources. Well, Mr. Ackroyd, highly informed person that he is, knows all about these matters, and Ghostbusters made that abundantly clear. (My assumption, by the way, is that he was responsible for the basic ideas, with Harold Ramis slapping the material into coherent shape...if I'm doing Ramis an injustice, I beg forgiveness.)

For once we don't have any soul-stealing or pacts with the Devil here. Ghostbusters is more like an H. P. Lovecraft thing (a straight out Cthulhu Mythos Ghostbusters movie would be good) with a Sumerian arch-demon standing for one of the Great Old Ones. A series of paranormal events (a demon appearing in a refrigerator, an onion-headed ghost in a hotel, etc) prefigures the coming of Gozer The Traveller...while the Ghostbusters battle the preliminary manifestatons and the EPA, Gozer gets sprung from wherever by the sexual interactions of the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster, giant horned devil-doggies possessing the bodies of Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis...Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ackroyd, and Ernie Hudson find themselves in an art-deco skyscraper-top temple facing off with a bizarre flat-topped punk chick. "Are you a God?" she asks, and when Ayckroyd very stupidly replies, "No," she says, "then DIE---!" a telling little bit of business that embodies a genuinely mythic sensibility, and sets up the very memorable climax, in which Gozer reappears as the hundred foot-tall Sta-Puft Marshmallow man, one of the best comic images ever, who gets blown up in an excellent explosion, with the blast ripping a hole in the clouds above...Richard Edlund did the special effects on pretty short notice, and some of them turned out surprisingly well.

8. Robert DeNiro as Louis Cyphre, Angel Heart, 1987
How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.

Angel Heart, directed very well by Alan Parker, is one of the few literary adaptations that improves on the novel it's based on (William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel), and boy is it a creepy thing....shifting a bunch of the action from New York to New Orleans was exactly the move to make. Absolutely the most atmospheric film on this list. John Huston thought this was the greatest movie he'd ever seen...until he got to the end and all the supernatural stuff kicked in big time. But he shouldn't have let that bother him. It makes quite enough sense if you buy into the basic assumptions, and anyway, he let his own father play the Devil in a sell-your-soul flick, so he really can't complain...

In Angel Heart, Mickey Rourke is a really seedy NYC private eye named Harry Angel, who's approached by a scary lawyer named Macintosh (played by one of the guys who does those "gold" commercials) who works for a sinister fellow named Louis Cyphre (get it?), played by Robert DeNiro... Mr. Cyphre is owed a debt by a missing ex-crooner named Johnny Favorite, and he wants Angel to track Favorite down. Favorite, it seems, went off to WWII, got his face shot up, had plastic surgery, wound up in a sanatorium, then booked...the trail leads Angel from a weird black church in Harlem to Voodoo jazz dives in Nawlins, and a wild sexual encounter with Lisa Bonet. whose child may or may not have been fathered by the devil...ultimately Angel wises up in a way that, well...brings him no profit. Mr. Cyphre pops up for regular reports, getting steadily more more frightening, and turns out to be the worst employer imaginable. My favorite scene is the thing with DeNiro stuffing the egg (symbolic of the soul, as he tells poor Angel) into his mouth. During the closing credits, Angel's descent in an elevator is intercut with all this stuff involving wheels and spinning fans, shades of the wheel imagery in The Dead...I remember being struck by that the very first time I saw the film...

9. Christopher Walken as Gabriel, The Prophecy, 1995

Long time ago, I was watching Biloxi Blues on cable, and I remember thinking that Christopher Walken, who plays the drill sergeant, would be ideal casting for Legion, the demonically possessed State Trooper who makes everyone so miserable in The Dead...Walken's delivery would've been perfect. Next time you read the book, think of Legion sounding like him, particularly that scene with the gasoline. Boy, that would've been cool in a movie.

Well damn, that Walken-as-demon idea must've been hanging out there in the aether somewhere, because The Prophecy trades on it like crazy, more power to it. Brilliantly written flick, filled with lines I wish I'd come up with myself...script is by Gregory Widen, who also does a very good job on the ideas, even though the ending is a bit weak, due to budget constraints, I understand. Story posits a second war in heaven...sorta like Iblis, Gabriel, the Angel of Death, decided human beings sucked a while back (he calls us the "talking monkeys") and has been working to our detriment in a three-way battle with God and Satan. Satan, by the way, is a very effective Viggo Mortensen, who almost made this list, but just doesn't get enough screen-time. After a gruesome murder in NYC (wierd eyeless hermaphoriditic earthly angel-body has turned up in an alley) Gabriel, Satan, an unfallen angel named Simon (Eric Stoltz)and befuddled doubting priest-turned-cop Elias Koteas all converge on an Arizona town where there's a very nasty human soul that the devils want to collect. There's some cool subtle stuff, such as a little girl telling Simon that her name is Mary, and he says, "that's a nice name," and you realize he's personally familiar with the Blessed Virgin...there are also some really funny scenes, like when Gabriel is questioning some kids, and he's letting them blow things up with his trumpet, and he leaves them with the advice, "study your math, it's the key to the universe." But Walken is also pretty stone scary (as is Mortensen), and when he tells a waitress at a cafe that "I don't think I'll be through here again," and she replies, "Suits me," we really sympathize...

Fun fact for all you Dead fans: the guy who did the prosthetic makeup work on this movie is named Scott Patton, and he went to work for KNB-EFX, and he read The Dead and showed it to Greb Nicotero, telling him it would make the best zombie movie ever, and that's why that whole KNB thing happened.

10. Al Pacino as John Milton, The Devil's Advocate, 1997

I think All that Money Can Buy is a better movie than The Devil's Advocate, but I think Devil's Advocate has a slightly better devil. If push came absolutely to shove, and I had to chose between Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch and Al Pacino's John Milton, I'd give the latter a teeny-tiny edge. Might just be because All That Money Can Buy has these "American" preoccupations and is kinda anti-capitalist, pro-lawyer and left-wing, while Devil's Advocate is quite anti-humanistic and bashes the hell out of lawyers, and all that goes a long way with me. Certainly, if you don't like potshots at shysters, this won't be the devil movie for you...

Keanu Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a handsome young up-and-coming southern attorney who attracts the attention of a big New York law firm after springing a really horrible child molester, who we find out is a child murderer later on... Keanu's potential employer is John Milton, whose office is a concrete bunker (great production design), and who has a disturbing big-nosed, big-thumbed pinocchio-puppet clown statue on his desk...Milton quizzes Lomax, sees that he's well along the road to perdition, and signs him up. Lomax cuts quite a swathe in the big apple, rescuing lots of bad guys and destroying his marriage (to the adorable Charlize Theron) in the every turn, Milton, with a truly satanic gleam in his eye, sizes him up (and trains him) by offering him alternatives to doing the wrong thing, but Lomax always comes up with some sort of shitty-if-clever justification for sliding farther down the slippery slope. Ultimately, though, he has second thoughts when his wife commits suicide, he discovers he's working for the Devil Himself, and that Satan is his dad...

You hear the expression tour de force way too much, I'm afraid, but in this movie, Pacino really delivers one. He should just come off as this funny little middle-aged Italian actor (check out the thickness of those elevator heels on his shoes), but you just can't regard him that way. Yeah, he looks kinda wasted, but his eyes just burn all that more in those dark sockets. He's working with great material and really throws himself into it (the screenplay is by Jonathan Lenkin and Tony Gilroy, from a novel by Andre Neiderman); once again, I wish I'd written some of this stuff. He gets a lot of screen time, and has several knockout monologues, the final one going on at some's truly clever, well-informed, and above all, climactic...he systematically punctures all of junior's rationalizations, then reveals his master plan...if Keanu will just play ball, he'll get to ride the crest of a worldwide tsunami of lawyers. There's some action at the end, and a few special effects, but the finale leans almost entirely on the words and the acting. Great, great hilarious devil-stuff...

If that's your cup of tea.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back From Cali 2

Okay, taking a break from my Lilitu revision to report on the rest of our trip...

Picture above is Spaghetti Western Stuff, and High Plains Drifter was kind of imitation Spaghetti western stuff, and Clint Eastwood made it at Mono Lake, and was the Mayor of Carmel, and Mono Lake and Carmel figured in our trip, so there...

As I recall, when last I wrote, I got as far as the KOA in Coarsegold...huge campground, not too many people there. Nice swimming pool. Big locker-room clubhouse thing with a pool table. Old Western motifs...batwing doors in the shower-room. As I said, all full of Frenchies. Lot of Gallic teenagers, kind of raucous, but what the Hell...they were singing Old Macdonald and Bingo in French. Wierd experience. of the things you notice out west is the shortage of Americans in the big's like we don't even care about all these magnificent spaces, whereas Europeans, French and Germans mainly, come all the way across the Atlantic and then some to see stuff like Yosemite. The Chinese call this country Meiguo, which means Beautiful they know something we don't?

Drove up to the park the Next day. Before you hit the main valley, there's a turn off for the Glacier Point and Washburn overlooks, which are pretty close to each other, both of them giving you great views of the little Yosemite valley where it empties into the big one...ton of waterfall action, and you see the rivers coming down and spilling over the edges. Half-Dome dominates both overlooks...very strange looking thing. I understand they still don't really know how it was formed, that is to say, how it was sliced away sheer like that. In any case, I preferred the Washburn just seemed, I dunno, more composed.

Turned out there was kind of a rim trail, and Jason suggested we try this big loop between Taft Point and the Sentinel Dome, which is a couple of miles down the road from Glacier. Had some lunch and headed along through a forest full of some kind of big evergreens and lots of ferns. Among other things, there was this stretch where one of these big trees, which are all red on the inside, had fallen directly onto and along the path, so that everyone had been walking in the trunk, and grinding up the interior...very vividly colored way to go.

Trees cleared out below Taft Point, which sloped upwards beside a huge notch with a waterfall in it...there were fissures running sideways from the notch which you couldn't see till you were right on top of had a great big boulder stuck in it halfway down, and was reminiscent of the Slotbeast illo I did for Flaming Sword. Taft Point itself is this big platform of rock looking out over the main valley, towards Yosemite Falls...decided we'd do that hike the next day.

The rim trail took us back east, in the direction of the Sentinel Dome, through a bunch more great forest, and out onto some other wonderful overlooks, almost as good as Taft, generally with waterfalls on either side of them. Surrendered some altitude, which I always hate, but finally got to the long climb up to the Dome...The dome itself is actually a very nice relaxing ascent, although it looks pretty steep. The top offers maybe the most spectacular view that I've ever seen...Sentinel's very centrally located, and gives you a completely unobstructed 360 degree vista of the entire Yosemite basin and the surrounding mountains and glaciers. Highly recommended.

Drive back to the KOA wasn't as bad that afternoon, since I wasn't as tired, and the oil seemed to be keeping the dust down better on the road construction. Kate and the kids made an excellent dinner, and we went for a swim in the pool...good night's sleep.

The following day, we went to Bridalveil falls, and climbed up the wet boulders beside the stream that comes right to the pool where the waterfall lands. Sun hadn't quite cleared the clifftop, but it was blazing in the mist...quite an effect.

Had lunch in the meadow below El Capitan, then went down by the river...Jason had to leave after that, and he took his Jeep and skeedaddled, back to El Segundo. As I said, we'd decided to do the Yosemite Falls hike, but I'd miscalculated...the trip to the top and back is actually an eight-hour slog trip, according to the literature, but I'd thought it was only five, since i was looking at the lower Yosemite falls hike. Thing turned out to be the longest toughest hike we'd ever done on one these western trips (though not much compared to the stuff my son Pat was doing in the Himalayas). There were a whole lot of very steep switchbacks, and the trail was paved with these tilting rocks all covered slippery sand, treacherous to walk on. I found it all downright unpleasant, although the views were grand.

Got to the first overlook, which was sensational, but we decided to push on.Didn't look that far to the rim, but distances on these things nearly always fake you out. Once it became clear it was going to be a real beast, I let Pat, Nick and Soph advance at their own pace, to see if they could make it to the top before we lost our light...Me and the other pokier members of our party followed in disgrace, dropping out one by one. I got to within three hundred feet of the rim before I hit my turnback time, then started down. Those slanting rocks were all tilting downhill now, and that sand was very slippery, and I fell several times...wished I'd had birkenstocks. Got almost all the way down before Pat, Nick and Soph caught up with me...we caught up with everybody else right at the bottom of the trail. Actually, we hadn't done that bad...the whole thing lasted five hours, and three of us had actually made it to the top...they reported it wasn't that great, however, and that the best view really had been the lower falls overlook. Oh well. We really earned our dinner.

Last day at Yosemite we went back up to Toulumne. It's bear're supposed to take all your food out of your car and put it in special lockers, but we couldn't fit our cooler in those, and didn't bother...the bear-ravaged cars they show you pictures of are all convertibles, by the way, and we were driving that big Expedition, as I said, and just didn't feel too compelled.

Decided to take the Muir Trail for a while and go up to Elizabeth Lake. Turned out to be pretty confusing...the trails in Yosemite aren't very clearly marked. We'd had a bit of a problem with that the previous day, finding the bottom of the Yosemite falls Trail. Up in Tuolumne, the Muir Trail goes into a camp ground and just kinda dissipates, and even if you ask the pakrs people, they can't give you a very clear idea and apologize. The maps they hand out are just plain inaccurate too...big problems with scale. After some upset, we did manage to find the foot of the Elizabeth lake spur...pretty steep going, but nowhere near as bad the big hike the day before. Went right up to the treeline, almost. The trees started getting stunted and wierd, particularly these pines that come up all cork-screwy and sparse, looking like something from Doctor Seuss. I was exepcting to have some issues with the altitude, since we were about at 10,5000, but didn't. My Daughter Jeannie saw a bear, far as other wildlife was concerned, mucho mosquitoes, particularly at the lake. They went right for Jeannie...bugs really like her. She's also good on point when you're going through cactus...attracts all the spines. Anyway, the lake was just as blue as you could possibly ask for, and towered over by the rim of the east wall of Sierras. Lot of little glaciers on the slopes. Rather reminded me of the scene in Flaming Sword where we're introduced to Brother Forty.

Headed back down. Nice quick descent. More trail trouble at the bottom...wound up taking a rather long route back to the car, although we did get to go across the river by two bridges on either side of a big island with a granite dome down the middle of it, and that was pretty cool.

Drove back out of the heights, down into the valley, just caught a sunset at the tunnel overlook. Following day, we headed off on the last leg of our trip, out to Monterrey. Went through the Central Valley, which is not very attractive...if you've ever seen North By Northwest, that scene with Cary Grant getting strafed, which was ostensibly Indiana (Indian doesn't look like that at all) was filmed there. Amazingly, even though you have the Sierras off on your right, and the Diablo Range on the left, you can't see either for most of the ride. However, the road heads off Diablo-wards towards the end, and the landscape gets vastly most interesting, with preposterously round, surreal, lion-colored California hills, dotted with round dark green trees. Road goes through a vast reservoir-recreation area that looked like a lot of fun...then we came down into the Gilmore area, where they grow such much garlic that the whole place smells like an Italian restaurant. Crossed the coastal range after that, and rolled down into the Monterrey area...big change in climate. At least in mid-July, there's this permanent bar of long-hanging cloud about halfway down the western slopes of the mountain, extending well out to sea...doesn't quite obscure the sunlight, but it gives it this odd (at least to me) filtered blue-grey quality. Everything gets bleary and starts to look like Vertigo or The Birds.

Had reservations at a huge swanky KOA in Santa Cruz, which was absolutely packed and full of kids riding various sorts of colorful little kid vehicles...Campground even had its own theater, which was playing Lilo and Stitch, the last good 2D Disney cartoon. Got ourselves installed in in our camping cabins, then hopped back in the car and spent the rest of the day at Point Lobos.

PL, in case you haven't heard of it, is a fabulous state park located south of Carmel, across the bay, right at the top of the big Sur area...the Coastal Highway, which I highly recommend, goes right by it. Anyway, the park is about five or six square miles of the best stuff ever....groves of achingly beautiful coastal cypresses, wonderful rock formations, tidal pools teeming with urchins, anenomes, colorful huge starfish, nifty crabs...there are seals on the rocks, and whales out in the bay...we saw a couple of cetaceans (maybe blue whales, since it was the wrong season for greys) just lolling at the surface and blowing. The spouts were so big that it looked as though someone were shooting artillery at the big guys, although we knew better.

Shopped at a Ralph's north of Monterrey...the evening was cold and very damp. Woke up with stuff clicking in my lungs...much as I love the area, I think the climate doesn't agree with me...worried as I was about the lack of air in Yosemite, it was the Big Sur stuff that actually made me uncomfortable. Wasn't just son Pat, Himalaya boy (also know to his Indian buds as Jungle Ka Raja), also came away with a cold.

I wasn't too incapacitated, though. Recovered sufficiently to enjoy an excellent day heading south on the Coastal Highway. Got to the Bixby bridge (you see it lots of car commercials), and hung a left onto a dirt road up into the Los Padres National Forest...if you ever find yourself at the Bixby Bridge, take that damn road. Gigantic mossy coastal redwoods rising up out of the lushest ferns imaginable, sunlight shafts slanting down through the trees...the hills look like regular tawny california stuff from the west, but once you get in behind them, it's a Tolkienesque hallucination. Makes you realize how inadequate most of the NZ forest locations in the LOTR movies were.

Got back on the highway, headed for the state campground at San Simeon. Stopped at the Elephant seal beach north of there...those seals are very bizarre creatures. Enormous, bloby, boneless-looking...rather remind one of sights at a Science-Fiction convention. Anyway, the seals are always emitting these wierd honking noises and flipping sand over themselves, for no reason that anyone can fathom, apparently...when they crawl about, their movements are indescribable, so I won't describe them. They look horribly out of shape and extremely lazy, although...turns out they're these really bad-ass deep-sea hunters. Once they're in the water, they descend to five thousand feet looking for big ole squids...they go deeper than any mammals except Sperm Whales, I guess.

Saw the Hearst castle up on a hill, didn't get up set up at the State park. Excellent place. Has its own beach access, and a river full of frogs (actual frogs, no Frenchies) to provide a soundtrack during the night. Largely Hispanic crowd there...whole clans arranged around big firepits. They get loads and loads of firewood and start burning it midway through the afternoon, with the old folks bundled up in blankets around the concrete-sleeve firepits. Big cowboy-hatted Mex dude named Ed told us where to do our shopping, at a weird resort down called's located in a valley just off the highway, and it's pretty twee and gingerbready and full of Grandmas' kitchens and antique stores. Supermarket was called the Cookie Crock, and we'd never have known it was a supermarket and not a cookie store if Ed hadn't told us. Anyway, we loaded up on food, then went down to the beach to watch the sunset. Lotta washed up kelp, including the big root-bulbs with the long tubey tentacley stems attached. Very good for swinging around your head at your offspring, or splattering against rocks, as the bulbs are full of fluid. Sunset was most spectacular, although we didn't see the sun plunge right down into the pacific...that bar of cloud had crept down from the mountains and was hanging offshore, so we had to settle for the sun going down blazing into that. It still lit the sea up considerable, however...the waves were burnished real bright, and it was eminently diggable.

Got back, ate dinner, and had our last campfire of the trip, bundled up in blankets like Mexican grannies. Lots of good conversation. Went through a big damn load of firewood, didn't go to bed till after two, listening to those froggies, who were really whooping it up.

Hopped in the car for the last leg...really enjoyed the ocean, although I wasn't sad to get away from that dank sea air. Things got warmer farther south, although Southern Cali remained pretty overcast. Got to Jason's, which, being in El Segundo, is right near LAX...we went down to the water to kill some time, went from El down to Manhattan, which has a lot of fabulous houses down by the boardwalk, all of them very different, in all sorts of motifs, some of them wacky (Felix the Cat statues), some very nice. Soph and Jason saw us off at the airport. Our flight was late...we had weird pizza at Wolfgang Pucks...I took some melatonin and crashed at the gate, then got on the plane later and took some more. Had just about the nicest airline-sleep I've ever had...woke up in Baltimore, and it was already the next day....drove home and slept some more, feeling most entertained but quite trashed by my adventures...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Back from Cali

I'm back from California. Saw some amazing landscapes...the state's crammed with 'em. The guys in tinseltown used to make very good use of them, but amazingly, they don't anymore. Right down the road from Hollywood, you have these fabulous backdrops, particularly along the astounding rt. 395. If I were a filmmaker, I'd be writing scripts just to take advantage of the locations. But that's just me.

Here's what I did and saw on my trip.

Me and my family did a Joshua Tree-Yosemite-Monterrey thing. We flew out of BWI, got into LAX, met my animator daughter Soph there (some of you might know her as Moroturkey), picked up a big honkin Ford Expedition (true mastodon)and went to El Segundo to rendez-vous with Soph's boyfriend Jason. Drove out to Joshua Tree National park via San Berdoo and the 10, past Forest Lawn and the Morongo Indian Casino, and through that gap in the San Bernardino mountains where they've got that forest of giant windmills that looks like an alien invasion. To get to Joshua Tree, you take the turn-off for Twenty-Nine Palms,but you hit Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree before then. Pretty big towns, actually, with lots of nifty houses nestled in among all these big granite plutons, which, in layman's terms, are great big piles of boulders. Joshua trees all over the place, of course, looking right surreal, kinda like triffids, only in the desert, not England. You've seen the area in a bunch of's stood in for the entire American west at one time or another, including lotsa places where they don't have Joshua Trees...represented New Mexico (which it looks nothing like) in Them, for example.

Anyway, when we got to the park, it was late in the afternoon, but still about a hundred and six...we did some shopping to kill some time and let things cool off, then drove to our campsite. It was a much longer drive than I anticipated, mea culpa...couldn't go at a reasaonable speed in the park, and the campsite was all the way at the far end, down three thousand feet from the Joshua trees, in a completely different sort of desert, Coloradan, I believe. Still, it was a nifty drive at sunset, and the campsite was nice enough, at the Cottonwood Springs site, named after a very wierd place that struck me as one of the scariest and most magical locations I'd ever been to...but we didn't get down there till the end of the second day, so I won't go into that now.

Next day we figured it was going to get way to hot to stick around the desert, so we decided to go up into the San Bernadino mountains, to a (literally) cool resort town called Big Bear...there's a long lake, artificial I guess, which has all sorts of people boating and jet skiing on it, with a ridge to the north, from which you can look down on the lake...we hiked up the Cougar Ridge trail, got an eyeful of the lake, then headed back down, having used up a bunch of the afternoon...drove back to Joshua tree, did some more shopping, and then drove to the campsite, stopping off this time to do some rock climbing now that the heat had lessened. The sun was going down, and all those granite boulders and outcroppings had gone nice orange shade...we clambered all over the Hall of Horrors, then a another outcropping called Skull Rock, very justly named. A bit farther down the road, the land just dropped off, and we went right over the rim, down into that Coloradan stuff again, passing a huge forest of chollas in the process...these weren't the really badass kind of chollas, chain-fruit chollas, the sort that figure in my new book Flaming Sword...but they still looked pretty mean.

Did rather more than the speed limit, since I wanted to get to Cottonwood Springs when there was still some sunlight. Arrived right after sundown, could still see. The springs were right at the end of a road, below a railing...stairs led down into a canyon, and the springs were at the bottom. Not sure why they're called Cottonwood, because the trees most in evidence are untended rat-palms, you know, the kind of palm trees that get all shaggy all down their trunks if you don't hack the dead fronds away. Anyway, a ring of rat-palms had grown up around the spring, real close together...there's an entrance where a couple of palms seemed to have been chopped down, but it looked like a giant gaping mouth, leading to a cavern with a few openings, like the eye and nose-sockets that open on the cave inside Skull mountain in King Kong. But when you looked up into the canopy of completely untended rat-palm fronds, the chief effect was like standing under a crowd of giant tarantulas, with big hairy mandibles hanging down. Absolutely unbelievable.

Anyway, we were losing our light, and decided to come back after dinner, because we'd heard that animals came to drink at the spring...we ate our food, broke out our flashlights, and returned to the grove. There wasn't too much was leaking out of rocks behind the palms, and it wasn't much more than an inch deep in places...we didn't see any big critters, but the water was all full of mating toads, who were blowing up their dewlaps and making toad mating noises...there was also a rattlesnake, obviously there for a nice toad dinner. We'd spotted rattlers on earlier western trips, but I'd never done the spotting, and I was so delighted with myself. Interestingly, the rattler didn't rattle...I understand they've stopped doing that, as it increases the chance that someone's going to grease them. At any rate, I went to bed feeling a tremendous sense of achievement.

Packed up and headed for Yosemite the next morning...thought we were going to run into a big traffic jam around San Berdoo, but we didn' over the mountains through a nifty pass where the plants were all short and scrubby and looked like beach vegetation. It stopped looking like California on the other side... high very flat desert. There was a big flat town with a name I can't remember, and we picked up rt. 395 there, passing some sort of huge shrine to Kwan Yin, the buddhist goddess of mercy, colossal statue...have no idea what she was doing there.

Headed north through some very high-quality flatness...stopped to get gas in a depressing little semi-ghost town called Johannesburg, under the shoulder of an interesting thing called Red Mountain.

Ride got way more scenic after that. Ground began to roll, and we went between some big hills and sighted the Sierras. Route 395 goes right up the Owens Valley between them and the much lower Inyos...on either side of the road, there are big lava floes, basalt cliffs with columns, and cinder cones. On the left, the Sierras come straight up behind a single line of foothills. Very different from the Rockies. The effect is very severe...the Sierras are white granite, very steep and spiky and jagged, sparsely wooded until a very stark treeline. Lot of talus. There aren't a lot of good pictures of the east wall online, in spite of the fact that the Sierras are the tallest mountains in the lower forty-eight...Mount Whitney, which you can get to from Lone Pine, is the very tallest. The Lone Pine area shows up in a lot of old movies though...among other things, it doubled for the Himalayas in Gunga Din, and the big wagon-train-Indian chase thing in How the West was Won was filmed there.

Anyway, until I clapped eyes on the Sierras, I thought The Shuddering Mountains (see picture above) in my new Zorachus book, Flaming Sword, were kinda geologically improbable, although I decided to go ahead with the concept anyway...I'd never seen mountains that were so jagged, came up so starkly, and had such a relatively narrow front wall...the Sierras are nowhere near as wide at the Rockies. Moreover, Yosemite, which is right over the fence, is in some respects rather more like the canyon of the Khuda Darya in my book than the Grand Canyon, which originally inspired it...Yosemite is this great big semi-bowl surrounded by a spiky rim that slopes down to these alpine lakes amid all this debris and through small I said, I thought that such stuff existed only in my imagination.

You get up to Yosemite through the Tioga's quite a long spectacular ascent, with Mono Lake (from High Plains Drifter) on your left...the Pass is stupefying stuff. You go along the northern wall of this huge canyon with a tremendous drop-off right on your left...pretty steep...pray you don't find yourself behind an RV. I think the pass is about ten thousand feet up. Thought the lack of air was going to bother me more than it did. There was road work going on right at the top, so everyone stopped before we got into the park, and we got out and went over to the side of the road and looked down into this yawning gulf with all these wonderful white feathery waterfalls tumbling into it.

Wait wasn't too long, and we piled back into the Expedition and entered the park. Went down into the Tuolumne stuff, which is all blue lakes, and zillions of wild flowers in broad green meadows with huge granite domes sticking up out of them...the grass is just naturally short and clipped-looking, and though I'm not a big fan of lawns and golf courses and that kind of stuff, it works much better when it's all natural. The trees aren't too dense or tall, because they're up near the tree-line...the air's very sharp and clear, and everything is bright, bright, bright.

Drove down along a bunch of switchbacks, the trees getting taller and thicker on very steep slopes...rather nerve-wracking negotiating the hairpins, etc. while trying not to look at the cool stuff. Everyone behind me wanted to go much faster than I did, and there was always a steep fall on the right. We'd lost Jason and Sophi earlier, but they were waiting for us at a pull-off,and we followed them on down into the big some great but all-too brief glimpses at half-dome and the El Capitain, etc, just as the light was getting good. We stopped briefly at the tunnel overlook, whetted our appetite gawking at the great stuff down the valley, then hopped back in the mastodon. By then I was real tired, and there was a bunch of road construction, and the air was full of dust, which wasn't at all held down by the oil they'd been spraying, so you just wound up with a bunch of dust that tasted like oil...the dust was all full of late afternoon sunlight too, and you'd go in and out of the shafts of light between the trees, and your eyes couldn't adjust, and most of the time you really didn't feel like you were able to see the time we got out of the park and reached the KOA down in Coarsegold, I was profoundly fashed and trashed. The KOA was full of loud funny Frenchies...I was too zombified to help with the tent much...actually, I don't think I helped at all..