I’ve been binging ‘speculative fiction’ films from the 1920s, selecting favorites just as I did the 1970s–more or less according to the rules for nominations for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The 20s may be the earliest decade where there’s enough SF/F or Horror for me to report a year-by-year favorites list. In fact, it’s hard to do for the 20s too, because–on top of many films being lost–many “classics” are either not my cup of tea (sorry Metropolis) or else too problematic to be fun. I don’t mind mentioning that films like The Golem: How He Came Into the World, L’Atlantide, Nosferatu, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, Peter Pan, The Thief of Baghdad, The Lost World, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and Red Heroine have good scenes and historical significance, but they have issues that make it hard for me to imagine spending further time on them. Anyway, here are the movies I enjoyed most.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a.k.a. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Letterboxd) – When Dr. Caligari rolls into town to put on a show at the local carnival, watch out, because his weird oracle companion guy Cesare might reveal your unhappy destiny and/or make it happen. Are fortune-telling and mesmerism and whatnot really SF/F and/or supernatural horror motifs? Sure, why not–doesn’t even matter if they’re ‘real’ in the film’s world either, because of course the reason I’ve picked Dr. Caligari as my favorite from 1920 is actually the set design. The wild angles and non-Euclidean geometries in all the backdrops present an awesome fantasy view of urban life all by themselves. But the movie also tells a good story with a decent twist to it.
Along the Moonbeam Trail (Letterboxd) – There’s only ~10 minutes of material in this film–all of it silly. Mab, queen of the fairies, appears to some folks out camping and grants their wish for a magical biplane to travel to the moon and beyond. Eventually, they land on another planet populated by dinosaurs that fight each other. And, like, they had me at “magical biplane,” but I’ll watch anything that combines fairies, dinosaurs, and interplanetary travel.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (Letterboxd) – If you don’t know from the start that this short animated film tells a monster story, you might feel tricked by its charming beginning in which a couple takes in a cute little puppy-like creature as a pet. I’m sure the deception was intentional, but it turns so dark I feel like viewers ought to know its actual genre. Anyway, it’s great? I’m completely in favor of the pet monster sub-type of monster stories, and this one ramps up in ways I just never would have predicted for a film from 1921. Really solid way to spend 12 minutes.
The Haunted House (Letterboxd) – A bank teller gets mistaken for a criminal and winds up at a house where actual criminals are hiding out, all very ready to scare people away. It’s a delightful showcase of physical comedy from Buster Keaton, and it’s mostly a parody of the “explained supernatural” kind of story–the ghosts are just people in sheets, etc.–except when it isn’t, because there’s at least one bit that has no explanation and that’s more than enough for my purposes. Anyway, I liked it a lot and wished that it had lasted longer than ~20 minutes. Incidentally, the French film Au Secours! (1924) is similar in theme and inventiveness, but I couldn’t help reading some of the concluding imagery in Au Secours! as a problem.
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, a.k.a. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Letterboxd) – Pulp crime genius Dr. Mabuse is a master of disguise, hypnotism, and maybe telepathy? At least, he seems able to hypnotize people from behind, which is unusual. Anyway, he uses his special skills to manipulate the stock market, cheat at cards, run a counterfeiting ring, confuse the police, kidnap, murder, and generally perform dastardly deeds throughout this 4.5 hour epic of German Expressionism. It’s a lot to take in, but it does save a number of action scenes for the climax, so there’s that to look forward to.
Der Unheimliche, a.k.a. Le Revenant au baiser mortel (Letterboxd) – A man hiding his own secret marriage from his father visits at his father’s request a possible bride at a town haunted by the legend of a ghost whose kiss kills women who are engaged to be married. This light comedy with a ghost story at its center has survived in an untranslated French version, identified just recently in 2016 as being the same film as Der Unheimliche. It offers more smiles than laughs, but honestly something vaguely resembling subtlety is good to see in a film from this era. Also, weddings are nice, and there’s a metric ton of them here.
Black Oxen (Letterboxd) – In this incompletely preserved film about a wealthy woman who has secretly undergone a rejuvenation treatment, Clara Bow is great as her nemesis: the genuinely youthful flapper who says what she likes and does what she likes. The science fiction element is mild, and the story is basically a generation-gapped love triangle–you can see where it’s headed even if it’s not all there–but it’s an easy watch and has fun moments.
Sherlock Jr. (Letterboxd) – Buster Keaton’s masterpiece is mostly a dream sequence in which a man envisions himself solving a petty theft that he’s also been accused of in real life, and it’s brilliant. He’s a movie projectionist who falls asleep at work, so his dream begins with a jokey interaction with the cinema itself–one of the key elements I’m using to call this a sort of fantasy film–and moves on to a number of comedy action scenes that are still terrific today. Compared to other Buster Keaton movies, it tells a coherent story, like The General, but it also keeps up a frenetic pace, like The Haunted House.
Paris qui dort, a.k.a. The Crazy Ray (Letterboxd) – A man (watchman?) with a residential job at the top of the Eiffel Tower awakens to find all of Paris still and silent below him. Upon climbing down from the tower, he finds people standing perfectly motionless–just stopped in the middle of whatever they’d been doing. It’s an eerie beginning to a neat sci-fi movie and an ironic commentary on the “terrible pace of modern life” mentioned in the film. A number of sources list it with a 1924 date, I suppose because it might have been completed then, but the best source I can find says it sat on the shelf with no financing for distribution and premiered in London in Jan. 1925, several days before its official release in France in February.
Maciste in Hell, a.k.a. Maciste all’inferno (Letterboxd) – Maciste is known as one of the oldest recurring characters in film history–a sort of Hercules-like figure in Italian cinema. In this outing, a version of which was first shown at the Milan Fair of 1925, Maciste is alive more or less in modern times, and he’s lured to a Dante-inspired version of Hell and tricked into becoming a demon–to the regret of many other demons whom he takes on in battle. There are some fun scenes, like a ride on the back of a dragon that looks exactly like a taxi ride in World of Warcraft, and a whole lot of demons and demon lords and whatnot.
A Page of Madness, a.k.a. 狂った一頁 (Letterboxd) – This incompletely preserved film about a man working in an asylum where his wife is an inmate was for me the greatest surprise out of all the movies I watched for this project. If you’re into weird experimental films with horror elements like Cuadecuc, Vampir or Tscherkassky’s Cinemascope trilogy, this fits right in. The damaged film gives it a cool aesthetic, but combined with the strange imagery–the delusions, shadows, people in creepy masks, and so on–it’s amazing. The modern soundtrack adds something too. Like other Japanese films from the same era, it lacks intertitles and probably made more sense with benshi narration, but it was also obviously supposed to be a pretty dreamlike experience–and it totally succeeds at that. Incidentally, the plot outline for it was evidently co-written by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.
Now You Tell One (Letterboxd) – At the local Liars Club, a man is brought in off the street to tell a story he claims is true: he developed a formula for growing things instantly, like a Christmas tree from a plow handle or a cat from a catstail, and using it got him into a mess at the house of a local woman. It’s a pleasantly absurd story in the same ballpark as a Buster Keaton movie, but with quirky stop motion special effects rather than complicated stunts.
The Cave of the Silken Web, a.k.a. 盘丝洞 (Letterboxd) – Rediscovered in a Norwegian archive in 2013, this story of the Monkey King defeating a cave full of spider women is a pretty free adaptation of chapters 72 and 73 of Journey to the West. Evidently the first ~25% of the film is missing, but it’s fine. It picks up right at a point where the monk Tripitaka is explaining the goal of his journey to the seven women of Gossamer Cave, and his companions Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are outside and need to rescue him–that’s all you need to know. Some character details, like Pigsy using a rake to fight, are treats for people who know the original material, but I think most of what you see is either self-explanatory and/or made up for the film version. Anyway, there’s plenty of magic, a fancy wedding scene, and a small-scale fantasy battle, including some fighting reminiscent of wushu staff performances or whatnot. The special effects are good for the time and amusing from a current point of view, definitely saving the best for last. Incidentally, Red Heroine (1929) is an actual wuxia film available from around the same time–but it has a very long and dull beginning, not to mention one villain who seems like an awful stereotype.
The Magic Clock, a.k.a. L’Horloge magique ou la petite fille qui voulait être princesse (Letterboxd) – A young girl becomes a little too fascinated by the tiny knight in the moving diorama built into her grandfather’s clock, and she’s pulled into a fantasy world full of great stop motion, featuring a dragon, fairies (stars of the movie who interact with insects, frogs, etc.), ents(!), a giant, and even ambulatory pansies. The story unfolds a little episodically without much overarching plot, but it’s delightfully strange, and the animation is solid.
Momotarō, Japan’s No. 1, a.k.a. お伽噺 日本一 桃太郎 (Letterboxd) – A classic character from Japanese folklore, Momotarō (“Peach Boy”) is found inside a peach by the couple who become his parents, and he turns out to be a fighter strong enough to fend off a band of ogres who terrorize the area. One of several animated stories from the 1920s available online from Japan’s National Film Archive, this was easily my favorite. It’s only about 14 minutes long, but there’s plenty of weird fantasy stuff going on in it, like Momotarō’s ‘birth,’ his friendships with anthropomorphic animals, the ogres’ magical furnishings, and their semi-magical abilities.
Woman in the Moon, a.k.a. Frau im Mond (Letterboxd) – Six people travel by rocket to the moon, where major conflicts among them are resolved. For one thing, there’s a love triangle going on between two men and a woman, and meanwhile, there’s also a ‘Weyland Corporation’ sort of plot to undermine the mission in favor of a gang of evil businesses back on Earth. While most notable for its prescient depiction of a launch countdown and rocket launch, including a mobile service structure for the rocket and a water deluge system to dissipate heat, the inclusion of a woman crewmember with a role that is at least perceptive and decisive stands out too.
The Mysterious Island (Letterboxd) – A slow start, a contrived plot, and an awkward mix of spoken dialogue and silent intertitles get in the way here at first, but this is really a pretty neat undersea SF adventure: essentially a submarine thriller unfolding in the middle of a weird landscape populated by throngs of Lovecraftian deep ones and multiple giant monsters crawling around the abyssal plain. Theoretically, this is based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name, but only very loosely. What’s remarkable is that it appeared two years prior to Lovecraft’s own deep ones in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and although I’m aware of earlier stories like “Dagon” and several more definite sources, I still wonder if it might have been an inspiration (according to S.T. Joshi, he did see other films like The Golem and The Lost World, so maybe).
Un Chien Andalou (Letterboxd) – I rewatched Un Chien Andalou for this project and also watched for the first time several Surrealist films by Man Ray, Germaine Dulac, and Henri d’Ursel. It’s a stretch to classify Surrealism as speculative fiction: the point of Surrealism typically isn’t to depict an alternate world, but rather–taking direct inspiration from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams–to depict our dream life and the work of the unconscious. Nevertheless, the outcomes are pretty similar to weird fantasy, and Hugo voters did allow an avant-gardist film like Last Year at Marienbad to be nominated, so I will too. Anyway, among early films trying to depict dream logic, Un Chien Andalou is definitely the most successful, shifting rapidly from one viscerally affecting and/or symbolically liminal kind of scene to another. However, there’s also a gendered aspect to the imagery that makes me want to recommend Penelope Rosemont’s anthology Surrealist Women as an accompaniment.
I’ve been binging science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural-themed horror films and/or short TV series from the 70s lately. Among other things, I’ve watched nearly all nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. I don’t really mean to re-evaluate the Hugos per se–they’re just a good starting point for coverage of some things fans in the 70s were aware of and a familiar format for looking at SF/F media year by year. So more or less following Hugo eligibility rules–mixing and matching versions of the rules that have changed over time–I’ve organized my own list of favorites below. For each year, I’ve selected 4-6 ‘nominees’ plus a ‘winner’ or top pick(s) in bold.
Donkey Skin, a.k.a. Peau d’âne (Letterboxd) – Jacques Demy’s campy musical adaptation of the classic fairy tale about a king who decides to marry his daughter is a delight, full of odd whimsical bits and great songs. Yeah, in theory, the theme is super cringeworthy–certainly worth being aware of beforehand–but the movie gets through the premise with some plainly absurd set-up scenes and some mock seriousness from legendary actor Jean Marais and soon moves on to much more charming scenes featuring Catherine Deneuve and Delphine Seyrig. I especially liked “Les Conseils de la fée des lilas” (“Advice from the lilac fairy”) but “Le Cake d’amour” (“The cake of love”) is a classic for good reason.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (Letterboxd; trailer) – An AI-themed thriller with a straightforward premise (the AI gets out of hand), the story nonetheless remains reasonably taut and occasionally surprising. In 1971, it was nominated for the Hugo but lost to “No Award,” which I think is a shame–the ballot that year was weak, but Colossus was decent and might be better remembered had it won. I don’t know that I’d ever heard of it outside of the Hugo nominee list, though it’s based on a novel.
The Owl Service (IMDb) – A languid yet engaging mini-series for children that draws on Welsh mythology and New Wave cinematography, this story about the youngest generation of two intertwined families and the extent to which they’ll re-enact a certain myth as the previous generation might also have done is based on the novel by Alan Garner (also known for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, etc.) and stars Gillian Hills (also known as the singer of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” etc.). The first three of its eight episodes aired in 1969, but according to Hugo rules today, it’s the last episode that establishes the year of eligibility.
The Vampire Doll, a.k.a. 幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A spooky modern day Gothic horror mystery, comparable to an especially compelling Hammer film, the story begins with a young woman worried about her brother, who hasn’t been heard from since he went to visit his fiancée … This is the first of Michio Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty trilogy, and like all three films, it stands alone, it’s pretty good, and it has a vampire theme in common with the others–in this case, not a very typical vampire but close enough.
Blind Woman’s Curse, a.k.a. 怪談昇り竜 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A gang of women with dragon tattoos, following their leader who was cursed by a black cat following an incident in which she accidentally blinded another woman, are hunted by that blind woman in the midst of an ongoing gang war. The supernatural theme is a little tangential yet frequently evoked, and this film is just wild–yeah, it’s as disjointed as it sounds, but it’s still a blast.
A Touch of Zen, a.k.a. 俠女 (Letterboxd) – One of the very best wuxia movies–a great story, beautifully filmed, that combines over-the-top action with a sort of Gothic setting (an abandoned fort rumored to be haunted) and eventually at least one supernatural element that is kind of awesome. Watching this led me to watch several other King Hu films from the 70s, and among them, I did really like The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) and especially Raining in the Mountain (1979), although these aren’t SF/F aside from a few heroic leaps.
The Andromeda Strain (Letterboxd; Trailer) – After a satellite crashes near a small town in New Mexico, everyone nearby seems to be dead. The team sent to recover the satellite seems to be dead too. From the opening scenes exploring the extent and causes of these mysterious events to the methodical research scenes forming the bulk of the movie, this remains a pretty gripping SF medical thriller almost 50 years after its release. It’s based on the novel by Michael Crichton, but Crichton himself wasn’t yet a screenwriter or director.
Brother John (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A magical realist film written and directed by guys who are not themselves African American, this story about an African American man with a mysterious past and inexplicable intuitions may evoke a problematic trope and/or romanticize resilience to racism–I’m not sure. At the same time, I thought it was a compelling story about someone who has seen too much, and it focuses on its many Black characters and offers little redemption and no forgiveness to white people.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster or ゴジラ対ヘドラ (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Wonderfully dark and at times psychedelic, this is definitely my favorite kaiju movie from the 70s. There’s not a lot to say about the plot–you guessed it, Godzilla fights a Smog Monster–but the Smog Monster is an odd opponent, the fights are very moody, and the incidental material focused on humans is more engaging than usual. Kaiju movies aren’t supposed to aim for dark or psychedelic, I guess, but someone forgot to tell Yoshimitsu Banno, who evidently tried to make this one more interesting–more violent, weirder, etc. And yeah he basically got fired for it, but I think he was on the right track.
The Lady Hermit, a.k.a. 鍾馗娘子 (Letterboxd) – Another excellent wuxia film, this one focuses on two women swordfighters and the vow they share to kill a bad guy named Black Demon. The supernatural theme here is light, but it exists, among other things in a clear discussion of focusing your qi to achieve essentially magical power. But the strengths of the film definitely lie in the interpersonal relationships and the colorful and surprising action/violence.
Cuadecuc, Vampir (Letterboxd; Trailer) – An enthralling, hypnotic sequence of black & white film shots–in many cases, lingering to the point where they resemble ‘stills’–capturing eerie moments in the production of an ordinary horror film (in fact, Count Dracula from 1970, which has its moments, though it’s definitely not necessary to watch it first). Cuadecuc is less of a documentary and more of a cinematic SF/horror-themed experiment, in the same ballpark as Tscherkassky’s Cinemascope trilogy. The soundtrack varies from ambient to drone to white noise. At 66 minutes in length, just settle in for something kind of like a dream–an awesome, mysterious dream–about having been involved in making a vampire flick.
* Following current Hugo rules for the maximum number of nominees in a year, I’ve listed my six top favorites from 1971, but the fact that it has never been translated gives me an opportunity to mention a seventh favorite without counting it against the total: La Brigade des maléfices (IMDb) – “The Hex Brigade” is a light occult detective / police procedural show. As its intro says, Inspector Martin Paumier is the “Holmes of fairyland, Maigret of modern witchcraft.” He’s an eccentric who hangs out in a caftan talking to his sidekick Albert and an African gray parrot until a case comes in that the police can’t crack. His cases put a modern spin on fairies, demons, Venusians (!), vampires, and ghosts living in and around Paris, and the stories are all fun. France’s Institut national de l’audiovisuel has put the first two episodes on Youtube, and the other four are available on INA’s subscription-based website.
Solaris, a.k.a. Солярис (Letterboxd) – Strange things are happening on the dilapidated space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Well, not too strange. I thought I had heard Tarkovsky’s film based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem was difficult to follow, but it was mostly pensive and enigmatic–what’s going on is eventually explained, even if it’s a bit fantastic. Anyway, I also found the neglected, messy, furnished yet nearly empty space station pretty striking–in some ways like an abandoned 70s office building, which is kind of funny to imagine floating around in space. It felt like a response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and yep, Tarkovsky thought 2001 was “cold and sterile.”
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, a.k.a. 子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – OK, either this film–the second in a series of six based on the manga–is retroactively in a fantasy world because the sixth entry is definitely fantasy or it’s on the border between SF and fantasy thanks to its hero’s advanced weapons gadgeteering, but I have to count it here, because it’s amazing. Ogami Ittō is an itinerant assassin, a dropout from high society where he’d been an official executioner before he was framed for a crime, and he wanders Japan with his son, hunted by the clan that framed him and taking assassination commissions for a price that includes hearing the reasons for the contract. In this episode, his work is repeatedly interrupted by a bunch of other assassins–mostly women–who are likewise amazing. It’s a rich spectacle of bloody and improbable violence mixed with colorful characterization.
A Warning to the Curious (Letterboxd) – A classic ghost story by M.R. James, adapted for television as part of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is a scenic yet occasionally chilling story that–like many stories by M.R. James–combines antiquarian research with supernatural encounters. Worth it even just for the muted coastal vistas.
Slaughterhouse-Five (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A faithful adaptation of the novel by Kurt Vonnegut and also a decent film, I think this rises above simply being an illustrated guide to the story of a man famously ‘unstuck in time’ and conveys its poignancy reasonably well. Hugo voters seem to agree–they gave it the award. On the other hand, the satellite roles that women play in the story–revolving around the hero and defined by their relationships with him–contribute an atmosphere of self-involvement that either undermines its kindness/wisdom or perhaps deflates it with implied but too subtle self-deprecation.
The People (Letterboxd) – An appropriately quiet, low-key adaptation of Zenna Henderson’s People stories, this made-for-TV movie accurately captures the gentleness and deep empathy that the source material is all about. So while the production values may be low and the action unhurried compared to Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), a movie with similar science fiction themes, I think it’s a much more emotionally engaging work, and it exemplifies a pleasant sort of naturalism common in 70s movies: a life-like tempo, not so obviously driven by scene goals and plot beats.
The Exorcist (Letterboxd) – Adapted from a novel, this is an ur-text of horror cinema–well-filmed, scary, and worth watching for all the famous scenes but also for carefully composed incidental material. But I hadn’t seen it since I was probably a teenager, and I was surprised on re-watching by how much it’s also a fairy tale / allegory about families trying to cope with severe mental illness. The daughter is prescribed Ritalin, Thorazine, etc. without success, and her exorcism is neither a direct nor an unambiguous move toward religion for relief.
Westworld (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Written and directed by Michael Crichton, this well-known film about a theme park based on super science accidentally allowing its creations to get out of control has a good bit in common with … The Terminator: there’s a slow but relentless pursuit of humans by an expressionless yet charismatic gun-toting android dressed in black, and some of what happens along the way is similar too. Of course, it’s also similar to Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park. Anyway, as its own thing Westworld is pretty entertaining, even if it isn’t the kind of fast-paced blockbuster it may have influenced.
The Wicker Man (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Is it a mystery? Is it a musical? Is it supernatural-themed folk horror? All of the above, I guess–The Wicker Man is a strange treasure. A policeman visits a tight-knit island community to conduct an investigation in search of a missing girl, and what he finds there is certainly unreal, though inspired by folk traditions across Europe such as those evoked in Charles Fréger’s 2010-2011 “Wilder Mann” project.
Idaho Transfer (Letterboxd) – More low key 70s naturalism, in this case directed by Peter Fonda, this is a very quiet, neat little time travel / survivalist film set near Idaho’s Craters of the Moon lava fields in the Snake River Plain, and the landscapes are to a great extent the stars of the movie, because the acting is mostly untutored and the action is paced realistically. Anyway, at a tiny research facility in Idaho, people in their late teens are employed as time travelers, because anyone older would be injured by the process. Then, the plot of the film is really set in motion when the government comes to shut down the facility.
World on a Wire, a.k.a. Welt am Draht (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fairly long, two-part, made-for-TV film that prefigures both The Matrix in wondering about whether we live in a virtual reality and Inception in showing people moving up and down a ladder of unrealities within unrealities. I suspect the story could have been told more briefly to good effect, and yet I enjoyed seeing the themes I associate with much later films explored at length with 70s design sensibilities and atmosphere.
Céline and Julie Go Boating, a.k.a. Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Letterboxd) – Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Jacques Rivette–his films vaguely resemble LARPs (live-action roleplaying games) in that they involve some improv based on an outline, as well as costumes and FX resembling LARPs too. But they’re like very odd, low key, and thoughtful LARPs, and the outcome in this case was frequently charming. Two women starting a relationship together each visit a house that casts them back in time and/or to an alternate reality to play a role in a set sequence of events that they can’t fully recall upon exiting the house. The mystery unfolds very gradually (it’s a long movie), and it becomes sort of meta-fictional–but also fun, as the main characters laugh together and enjoy what they’re doing.
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, a.k.a. 子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Among the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, Baby Cart at the River Styx (see 1972, above) is undoubtedly my favorite, but this sixth and final installment is the only one to include explicit supernatural elements alongside the somewhat advanced weapon gadgetry, and it’s pretty good too. It’s definitely not the right place to start with the series though. The main clan that’s out to kill Ogami Ittō is running out of family members to send against him, so its leader speaks to his estranged/unacknowledged son–who is himself leader of the Underground Spider clan and by the way also an insane necromancer–and hyperbolic violence ensues.
Morel’s Invention, a.k.a. L’Invenzione di Morel (Letterboxd; Trailer) – In a story based on the novella of the same name, a castaway(?) lands on a desert island and makes several discoveries: a strange building, inexplicable machines, and–eventually–a bunch of well-dressed people who seem unreal. I have to say the first half of the movie was beautifully filmed yet so slow-paced and intentionally obscure that I nearly lost interest. But around the midpoint, what’s going on was given some explanation, and in the end it turned out to be a very neat film, full of allegorical potential, not least to do with movie-making itself. I can’t remember another movie that turned my opinion around so sharply.
Space is the Place (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Sun Ra’s trippy introduction to his own personal mythos, this film has a great Afrofuturist design aesthetic and delivers a strong positive message of Black liberation. Villains of the story are overtly misogynistic, but that too is resolved by the end. There isn’t a whole lot of plot overall, but it’s an engaging fable with plenty of surprising imagery. I wasn’t aware beforehand, but it turns out Sun Ra was pretty serious about his connection to outer space in a way that reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s seriousness about the paranormal–but Sun Ra makes it into something very hopeful.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, a.k.a. No profanar el sueño de los muertos (Letterboxd; Trailer) – By far my favorite zombie movie from the 1970s is The Grapes of Death (1978), but I appreciated several things about this one too: the soundtrack, the eerie countryside, the flash photography scenes, the zombies’ eyes, and a plot that negotiated its many character clichés into something reasonably effective in the end.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Letterboxd) – Well, this held up. To be clear about where I’m coming from, I can’t recall listening to the Monty Python albums, never finished watching the TV show, etc.–I wouldn’t say I’m much more than casually familiar with their work. And I also find it pretty hard to talk about movies that are deeply welded into the history of pop culture–like, what is left to say? But this movie is so rapid-fire witty that I do appreciate its influence, and things like the absurd humor of Lancelot’s ultra-violence still seem very contemporary.
Chac: The Rain God (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Chilean director Rolando Klein’s remarkable Mayan language (Tzeltal) film with Mayan actors portraying a story connected with Mayan folk beliefs about divination is notable too for its brief recitation by campfire of the main story of the Popol Vuh. Compare the movie with the Harvard Chiapas Project (e.g. the ethnography of the Tzotzil community Zinacantán and its critique) if you’re interested in a non-fiction perspective on the area from near the same time, because the movie is highly fictionalized with magical meteors, mythical mountain men, a shape-changing Jesuit(?), kookaburra(!) sounds in the jungle, and so on. Categorizing it as fantasy or even folk horror seems right. On the other hand, it’s mostly low key and well constructed, and it seems committed to locally-informed storytelling.
The Stepford Wives (Letterboxd; Trailer) – An adaptation of the novel about a community where women’s conformity to stereotypes seems to be enforced by super science (or something), I think this film is often taken as an instance of second wave feminism, which certainly influenced it, and it stands up pretty well as light entertainment. At the same time, it was created by men (e.g. screenwriter William Goldman, more well-known as the author of The Princess Bride), and it was received poorly by feminists such as Betty Friedan, who among other things saw it as co-opting the movement. So while I liked Stepford more, I think it’s worth comparing it to 1974’s The Cloning of Clifford Swimmer, directed by Lela Swift: both stories have a similar science fictional premise, but in Clifford Swimmer the lens remains focused on a critical representation of the title character’s sexism, abusiveness, etc. in contrast to his simply kind and reasonable clone, where The Stepford Wives manages to spend a lot of time representing stereotype/male-fantasy versions of the women it ostensibly supports.
Infra-Man, a.k.a. 中國超人 or essentially “Chinese Ultraman” (Letterboxd; Trailer) – I’m not usually a fan of so-bad-they’re-good movies, but I’ll make an exception here, not just out of nostalgia. When Princess Dragon Mom awakens from 10 million years of slumber and sends out her army of monsters to dominate humanity, a local scientist turns a volunteer into a superhero to take them all on. Infra-Man was by chance the first PG movie I saw in theaters–I remember the newspaper ad and begging my parents to let me see it–but I had basically zero recollection of the film itself. On re-watching it, I found it to be very silly: a completely ludicrous mishmash of Ultraman, Kamen Rider, kung fu films, and 50s science fiction films. But it’s also so campy and inventive that it’s pretty fun to watch.
The Changes (Letterboxd) – In this BBC children’s mini-series based on a trilogy of books by Peter Dickinson, an eerie magical apocalypse causes white and/or Christian people in the UK to be repulsed by technology. A white schoolgirl is separated from her family and takes up residence with a small Sikh community, still able to work with technology, and this is by far the best part of the series: the ‘moral’ to it is very basic and minimally tolerant, but the characters seem portrayed with genuine sympathy, and the plot unfolds with a thoughtful naturalism to it. The rest of the series is more cliché–particularly the ending–but a lengthy section to do with a witchcraft trial develops with a mix of clichés and some additional, more engaging naturalism.
The Little Mermaid, a.k.a. Malá morská víla (Letterboxd) – This beautiful, dreamy, Czech version of “The Little Mermaid” is one of several great Czech fairy tale films from the 70s, including Three Wishes for Cinderella (a delightful girl-power version of the story, repeatedly shown at Christmas), Beauty and the Beast (which makes the beast into a wonderfully creepy crow-person), and How to Wake a Princess (which is sweet and light). But what makes The Little Mermaid notable are its long undersea segments–like a strange ballet in soft focus–and the fact that it pulls no punches in its depictions of longing, frailty, disappointment, and tragedy.
The Signalman (Letterboxd) – A classic ghost story by Charles Dickens, adapted for television as part of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is a creepy, foggy enigma–very effective. Only 38 minutes long, it would compete for the short form Hugo today, but in the 70s, it would have competed right along with feature films–and maybe should have, given that all the actual nominees on the 1977 ballot lost to “No Award.”
The Magic Blade, a.k.a. 天涯明月刀 (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Delightfully silly wuxia movie in which the complicated set-up mostly resolves to a series of mini-boss fights followed by a final boss fight, but swordplay combines with comedic Holmes-like deduction scenes and Bond-like gadgets (sometimes magical? close enough) to keep changing things up in interesting ways. Aimed at adults for sure, yet colorful and absurd.
Freaky Friday (Letterboxd) – The classic story of a young woman who mysteriously changes bodies with her mother is a cultural touchstone, and I suspect it has a hard time living up to the awareness viewers bring to it. But compared specifically to live action fantasy films from the 70s–and especially other Disney films from the time–I found it very enjoyable. There’s surprising depth in some interactions that feel intentionally deflated, where another film might have committed too straightforwardly to the joke, and I think a key moment occurs when the mom inhabited by the daughter rejects the school principal’s attempt to psychoanalyze her Freudian slip–a transposed reference to her husband/father–as if the film itself (incidentally, written by a woman, based on a novel by a woman) wants to reject obvious readings. The second wave feminism criticizing the husband and demonstrating the wife’s under-appreciated knowledge of history seems straightforward though. Anyway, like any good Disney movie from the 70s, it ends with a wacky car chase, and it’s fun.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Letterboxd; Trailer) – It’s easy to see why Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the novel by Walter Tevis was nominated for a Hugo: David Bowie is a perfect fit as the main character–an alien stuck on Earth is a close match for his own Ziggy Stardust persona–and the film’s depictions of loneliness are frequently poignant. Dry landscapes traversed by a strange figure … A man watching a dozen banal TV shows on different TVs at the same time … Weird, clinical close-ups of Bowie … Frustratingly, the alien’s resentment toward his situation also manifests as misogynistic contempt–an attitude also found elsewhere in the film–and several scenes are pretty tense. But Candy Clark’s performance is good too, and her character’s arc is easy to sympathize with. At some level the film is an allegory about self-absorption and self-pity as obstacles to human connection, and she’s definitely not the problem.
Star Wars (Letterboxd) – What could I possibly have to say about Star Wars? I did re-watch it for this project, but nothing non-obvious came to mind. Yeah, it’s not like most 70s SF/F. It’s very fast, like a comic book trying to press as much world and story as possible into every panel. It’s unconcerned with coincidences like whether it ‘makes sense’ for the Death Star to be at Alderaan, for the heroes to pop in right after Alderaan’s destruction, or for the Death Star to travel onward to Yavin so quickly yet find the rebels ready for a fight. That all just needs to happen for the story to work, and the story is compelling enough that we rationalize it automatically. Its special effects are tremendous. And in general, its visual language synopsizes fifty years of pulp fiction space operas in two hours.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Letterboxd) – As a kid, I didn’t appreciate Close Encounters all that much–Star Trek and Star Wars had fixed in my mind much of what I wanted from science fiction media, so Close Encounters seemed too human, too focused on Earth, and not adventurous enough. As an adult, I find it astonishing: thanks in part to Spielberg’s later success but also thanks to its own achievements, Close Encounters feels like an 80s blockbuster, dropped squarely into the 70s. Its enigmatic moments of fear, wonder, and exaltation all still work just great.
Suspiria (Letterboxd; Trailer) – A young woman arrives at a mysterious ballet academy on a dark and stormy night and finds herself embroiled in something very strange … Known for its remarkable use of color and a number of unusual death scenes, Dario Argento’s classic of supernatural horror is loosely inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s essays / prose poems / opium visions gathered in Suspiria de Profundis, and it’s a masterpiece of Gothic and/or Decadent film-making. I think I agree with folks who distinguish it from giallo movies of the 70s, which may have supernatural elements but even then tend to have more pulp crime tropes. I mean, Argento was a leading figure in giallo films too, but compared to the other supernatural gialli I watched for this project, Suspiria does stand out for the influences it draws on and what it makes out of them.
Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea, a.k.a. Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem (Letterboxd) – This is a silly but delightfully complicated Czech time travel comedy–the kind of time travel movie that heaps paradox on top of paradox for fun to arrive at some ingenious outcome. In this case, the story starts a bit worryingly with a plot to help Hitler win WWII, but it quickly turns into a different set of problems while mocking Nazis in a familiar, satirical way. Anyhow, if there’s an earlier film that has as many interlocking time loops, I’m not aware of it, but I guess there are a lot of time travel films from prior decades that I haven’t yet seen.
House, a.k.a. ハウス (Letterboxd; Trailer) – As I mentioned above, I’m not really into so-bad-they’re-good movies, but there’s a case to be made that House is just plain good, because it’s substantially aiming at a representation of the childhood fears of the director’s pre-teen daughter. From that perspective, the fact that it looks like a goofy G-rated movie gone deeply, horrifyingly wrong in a surreal, hilarious, gross-out kind of way is perfect. Imagine a low budget Japanese ‘idol’ show innocently wandering into the plot of Evil Dead II–that’s not exactly House, but perhaps it conveys what an odd blend of styles it is.
Mind-Slaughter (Worldcat) – A short film about terraforming Venus, made by Kentucky Educational Television as part of a series called “The Universe & I,” I have to include this both out of nostalgia and because it’s solid, old school, thoroughly didactic “hard” SF teaching kids about the greenhouse effect, the effects of sulfuric acid, and that kind of stuff. For 20 minutes, the narrator reflects on his growth as a scientist, the project he led to seed Venus’s upper atmosphere with algae, and the twist that made him regret it all. I remember watching it in middle school, and the impact on me as a young SF fan was huge.
Future Boy Conan, a.k.a. 未来少年コナン (Letterboxd) – This ~12 hour anime series based on a post-apocalyptic novel for young adults is often called Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut, because it’s the first long work he was responsible for from the start, and it has a lot in common with his later work: children full of innocence, roaming beautiful green countryside or adventuring underwater; a ruined world, destroyed by superweapons; insect swarms; odd flying machines; food scenes; blank-faced masks; and many moments of compassion and bravery. It’s not just for Miyazaki completists though–it compares very favorably with anime being made today.
The Grapes of Death, a.k.a. Les Raisins de la mort (Letterboxd; Trailer) – The title sounds silly–at least in English–but The Grapes of Death is no joke. A pesticide used in the vineyards around a small town in France turns local residents into zombies who terrorize a young woman trying to visit her fiancé at the winery, and it’s pretty intense. The zombies are fairly disturbing–in fact, if I have a criticism of this film, it’s that it relies on disfigurement for too much of its horror–but many scenes are low-key creepy and atmospheric in a way I really appreciate: the scenes out in the countryside are even beautiful. Director Jean Rollin is better known for admirably weird vampire movies that tend to emphasize nudity imagery over storytelling, but this film was well-constructed and just terrific overall.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Letterboxd; Trailer) – The well-known story of a silent alien invasion, based on both the novel and the first film version, I remember being terrified by some portions of this as a kid, probably via the ABC Sunday Night Movie broadcast. As an adult, I think it has some creepy moments, but what’s most striking is its atmospheric approach to the eeriness of modernity: the pervasive sound of garbage trucks, paranoid phone conversations, dangerous traffic, the health department as a hegemonizing bureacracy, and crowds in general–all looking very 70s. I like how they wrapped it up too–unforgettable.
The Medusa Touch (Letterboxd; Trailer) – Both a psychological thriller and also an SF/F story about psychic powers, this film has a lot to do with the extravagant and towering anger of the main character, and it’s a good role for Richard Burton–not many actors could make an allegory about narcissism as watchable. Apparently the novel the film is based on is part of a series featuring the same police inspector, and he’s certainly the more likable character.
Alien (Letterboxd) – Alien feels so familiar that I don’t even know what to say about it. On re-watching it, I guess I was struck by how many elements of it would show up again in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: the nature of one crew member; his sudden violence; the grimy industrial feel of the set; the interplay between strobing colors and shadow; the main character being hunted in a final showdown; etc. Incidentally, when watching Dark Star (co-written by Dan O’Bannon), I was struck by how many elements of it would show up in Alien, though in vastly more serious and polished forms (e.g. a starship on a long-range mission; its sort of blue collar, matter of fact, and even morose crew; an alien getting loose on the ship and becoming a problem for a crew member to hunt down …).
Stalker, a.k.a. Сталкер (Letterboxd) – Andrei Tarkovsky’s sublime reinterpretation of one of my favorite science fiction novels, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, hints at some of the more animated and violent dangers of the book but focuses on developing its sense of dread and creating an industrial/nuclear waste aesthetic, years before Chernobyl would give the world a Zone in real life. It’s a long, mysterious, and pensive movie in which relatively little happens, but to my mind, the time passes quickly: in the Zone, every step you take is supposed to be made very carefully, and it’s as if Tarkovsky made every shot count with similarly precise care.
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, a.k.a. 哪吒闹海 (Letterboxd) – Based on chapters 12-14 of the 100-chapter 16th Century novel Investiture of the Gods, this Chinese animated film is beautiful throughout and often surprising. It’s the story of a young hero who angers the dragon king who lives under the sea, and it’s full of fantasy imagery and colorful layouts. A scene in which the young hero kills himself (albeit temporarily) could be traumatizing to children, if not adults, but good fairy tales are sometimes harsh and strange.
The Brood (Letterboxd; Trailer) – David Cronenberg’s psionic-powered divorce story eventually makes a hard swerve into body horror, because of course it does. That’s not my usual cup of tea, but in this case, it works like a fairly conventional horror movie: something strange is going on, some people get attacked, maybe there’s some connection to a mad scientist guy–the very 70s smooth-talking pseudo-psychiatrist type wearing a turtleneck–etc., etc. It’s well-filmed and mostly not too disturbing, and along the way, any number of psychoanalytically-relevant topics arise, making the movie interesting to consider–though it may also be some sort of personal jab at Cronenberg’s ex-wife.
The Very Same Munchhausen, a.k.a. Тот самый Мюнхгаузен (Letterboxd) – There have been quite a few film adaptations of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel of tall tales (illustrated version), including two in 1979: the fairly straightforward and untranslated French animated film, Les fabuleuses aventures du légendaire Baron de Munchausen, and the more interesting Russian live-action film, The Very Same Munchhausen (sic). The Russian version is not very literal. It’s low key, low budget, as silly and verbal as you’d expect from a Munchausen story, and also reliant on the charm of the principal actors. Furthermore, in the second half it takes a fairly serious satirical turn, encouraging people to hold on to what they know is true regardless of state pressure–a message that seems surprising in a Soviet-era TV movie.
A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (Letterboxd) – This short film by Peter Greenaway is a cerebrally funny, tongue-in-cheek commentary on a series of “maps” (essentially, close-ups of abstract art) that the narrator used on an imaginary trip through mostly made-up places. It’s very inventive and vaguely reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, so I’ll call it fantasy. The best lines from it would have fit in something much shorter than its 41 minute runtime, but sprinkling them around in something rambling and hypnotic works here too because the art is nice.
For a while now, I’ve been catching up on science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror movies released from 2011-2015. Counting short films, I recently logged my 300th title, meaning I would have seen well over one per week if I’d been watching them as they came out. It’s easy to imagine serious fans seeing many more, but to me, it feels like a milestone worth summarizing. So here are very brief notes on the ~17-18% that I still recall with particular interest (categorized and alphabetized but not ranked).
Edit (10/22/2018): Liza the Fox-Fairy was unavailable in English at the time I posted this, but having watched it since, I think it belongs here too.
Edit (01/16/2022): Savageland probably belongs here too.
Just for fun, I’ve been reading through works of prose fiction from the 1600s until I feel able to declare a favorite for each decade, out of multiple good options. My favorites are given in bold below, along with comments about the other texts I definitely appreciated along the way. How much I had to say isn’t really an indicator of how much I liked the book. In a few cases, I’ve commented at length on things I learned from with modest enjoyment, and my comments overall got longer as I read more books in no particular order. But I’ve omitted anything I didn’t care for or didn’t finish. Incidentally, the texts that really floored me were The Plum in the Golden Vase and The Tale of Tales.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, part 1 (1605; translated by Tobias Smollett; info). I’m sure I’d heard the essential plot of Don Quixote many times before reading it, but I don’t think I ever realized what a large role that reading and world literature actually play in the story. There are so many references in it to medieval and Renaissance literature (especially Amadis of Gaul) that it’s virtually a lesson in comparative lit itself. Anyway, I understand now why it’s such a landmark text: it’s a readable and engaging adventure; it includes plenty of good stories within the story; it’s funny enough to at least be worth a smile here or there; it’s rich in allusions both to other works of literature and to historical circumstances of interest; and, most importantly, it’s aware of its status as fiction and its own relationship to the world of fiction, playing with those kinds of things in a number of ways (interrupting itself, mentioning Cervantes himself in the text, hinting that it’s a dubious picture of what really happened, etc.). I chose to read Smollett’s translation based on this comparison of many translations, this review that compared Smollett and Grossman [PDF] in particular, and my nominal preference to read the work of two well-known writers at once. Even if Smollett’s hand in his translation has at times been doubted, I was happy with the choice.
Honoré d’Urfé, L’Astrée, part 1 (1607; translated by Steven Rendall; info). This may be the original soap opera: extremely complicated/interrelated stories and stories within stories, all torrid romances and tied together by more than the frame story. Probably the most interesting was “Diana’s Story,” a tragic six-way love hexagon involving three different people hiding their true gender that ended abruptly when a foreign warrior wandered in and brutally murdered several of the principle characters. But for the most part, the book reminded me of Baroque paintings: anachronistic tableaux of quasi-mythologized people standing around emoting at each other, listening to each other tell stories with classical roots, overhearing each other, and confessing feelings to each other. Apparently the setting really is picturesque: Wikipedia has a nice photo of the Chemins de l’Astrée along the Lignon du Forez, where the book takes place. Anyway, while the emotional core of each story was often plausible and moving, the story framework was pretty contrived. Incidentally, after I read this, I watched Éric Rohmer’s last film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), which turned out to be a very thin adaptation of just the frame story, and it managed to share all the non-modern features of the book while simultaneously being very much an Éric Rohmer film: talky, posed, and awkward, but embedded in a beautiful landscape full of natural light.
Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng [“The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”], The Plum in the Golden Vase, a.k.a. The Golden Lotus (1618 [manuscript in 1596?]; translated by David Tod Roy; info). For centuries, this gigantic novel has been most well-known for being pornographic, and it sure is: there are many gratuitously detailed scenes that, if filmed, could not be shown on HBO. But it’s also stuffed full of songs and poetry. And it’s also a reasonably compelling dynastic family saga about a corrupt public official and his many wives. It reminds me of several good TV shows that I think of as “bad decision theater,” and the narrator often drives home just what bad decisions the characters are making by literally saying, “though they never ever should have done it …” In short, this book is a lot of things. But what I really enjoyed most is that it’s a truly beautiful portrait of the life of the wealthy in pre-modern China. Trying not to spoil too much, I’ll list some especially good or noteworthy moments:
Lantern-viewing from the belvedere (ch. 15).
The finished flower garden (ch. 19).
Viewing the snow while drinking wine beside burning braziers (ch. 21).
Enjoying a two-person swing (ch. 25).
Kinds of people who do and don’t appreciate the heat (ch. 27).
Chin’s vase’s plum? (ch. 27).
Physiognomic prognostications (ch. 29).
Amazing (intentionally overdone?) chapter on Taoist ritual and Buddhist teachings (ch. 39).
Watching fireworks (ch. 42).
The tortoise oracle (ch. 46).
Seven administrative proposals (ch. 48).
Description of a bordello, plus grief and its reminders (ch. 59).
The Taoist priest who summons a spirit marshal (ch. 62).
An elaborate funeral (ch. 65).
Details of post-funerary rituals (ch. 66).
A ghost appears (ch. 67).
Another ghostly visitation, an Imperial audience, a well-described windstorm, and a dilapidated monastery (ch. 71).
The Temple of the Goddess of Iridescent Clouds and the outlaws’ stronghold (ch. 84).
A violent end (ch. 87).
Visiting the Temple of Eternal Felicity during the Ch’ing-Ming festival to pay respects to the dead (ch. 89).
The hilariously self-deprecating speech of the martial arts instructor (ch. 90).
The dilapidated garden (ch. 96).
And finally, the major shift in things, the atmosphere around it, and the unexpected appearance of several characters (ch. 100).
I can’t say this book is for everyone, but it’s certainly for a lot more people than those who are aware of it.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, part 2 (1615; translated by Tobias Smollett; info). I had heard somewhere that part 2 of Don Quixote was better than part 1, so perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed, in part because the stories within the story were basically eliminated. The narrator mentions at one point how they’d been unpopular elements of part 1, so he expected to keep the story focused on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Unfortunately, that makes part 2 more straightforward—essentially a series of episodic encounters. It’s sometimes funny enough to be worth a smile; Sancho Panza’s ‘wise fool’ aspect gets fleshed out quite a bit; and I certainly felt for Don Quixote by the end. But all in all, I thought part 1 was a richer text.
Miguel de Cervantes, Exemplary Stories (1613; info; translated by Lesley Lipton). This is a collection of mostly straightforward stories similar to the novellas of Boccaccio, Salernitano, Marguerite de Navarre, da Porto, and so on, but I did appreciate “The Glass Graduate” for its portrayal of the glassdelusion and “The Dialogue of the Dogs” for being a picaresque story with a hero akin to Marryat’s Snarleyyow or London’s White Fang—but appearing much earlier and told in dialogue form.
Robert Anton, Moriomachia (1613; edited by Charles C. Mish; info). Really more of a short story, but one originally published by itself, this is a mildly humorous piece about a joust/melee between the Knight of the Sun and the Knight of the Moon. First, we get the backstory for the Knight of the Sun: he’s a bull the Fairy Queen turned into a knight-errant for being so patient with her when she tried to milk him, and he’s pretty confused about the lives of ordinary humans, often in a manner reminiscent of Don Quixote, which is referenced directly at the end of the story. Next, we hear about the Knight of the Moon, who took possession of the Knight of the Sun’s armor when he saved its courier from a “pygmy giant.” They fight over the armor, and the battle is so monumental it triggers an eclipse—an exaggerated effect, stretched out for laughs.
Yang Erzeng, The Story of Han Xiangzi: The Alchemical Adventures of a Daoist Immortal (1623; translated by Philip Clart; info). This didactic novel teaches some principles of Taoism within a mythological frame: the story of Han Xiangzi, one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend. Having disturbed the divine Immortality Peach Assembly in a previous existence, Han Xiangzi is sent to be reborn into a mortal family until he can re-learn the path to immortality. As a young man, he acquires two Taoist masters as teachers, and one discussion they have with his uncle Tuizhi is interesting (p. 54):
“Can humans have a constant mind that holds fast to the Dao?” Tuizhi asked.
“Gold dust may be precious, but still it is harmful when caught in the eyes,” Master Lü returned.
“How can I have a constant mind by being mindless?” Tuizhi asked.
“One who once suffered from snow and frost will be startled by willow blossoms falling to the ground,” was Master Zhong’s reply.
Tuizhi said, “How can I be mindless by having a constant mind?”
“Don’t bother hanging up the old mirror. When the sky brightens, the rooster will crow by itself,” Master Zhong said.
“Is the conscious mind completely false?” Tuizhi then asked.
Master Lü said, “Without the spring wind the blossoms do not open, but once opened they are blown down by the same wind.”
“Is being without a conscious mind alone to be sought after?” was Tuizhi’s next question.
“When the light of the sun has not yet risen above the horizon, everyone awaits it with expectation, but once broad daylight is here, it is taken for granted,” Master Zhong answered.
Most of the book isn’t like that, but Han Xiangzi is inspired by his masters to cultivate himself and pursue immortality in the wilderness where they live. On his journey, his masters put him through several trials, during one of which there’s another nice mystical moment (p. 106):
When Xiangzi looked carefully around the room, he saw that it was now completely empty. Thus he realized that everyone has this most precious treasure, and it is not necessary to withdraw to the stillness and solitude of the deep mountains to gain it. Those who regard it as far away have no grasp of it. Those who want to employ it recklessly reveal their attachment to the world of forms. Thereupon he closed his mouth, lowered his eyelids, and sat down cross-legged.
Anyway, Han Xiangzi becomes an immortal and ascends to heaven, where he is appointed Immortal of Universal Deliverance Who Opens the Primordium and Performs Magical Techniques, Greatly Initiating Transformation by His Teachings (p. 116). And that’s exactly what he does for the bulk of the novel. The Jade Emperor sends Han Xiangzi back to help his kin reattain lost immortality as well. In particular, Han Xiangzi spends a great deal of time trying to convince his uncle to detach himself from ordinary life and aspire to immortality, but his uncle doesn’t believe a word of it, even when Han Xiangzi performs magic like using his own vomit as food for a dog to turn the dog into an immortal crane or like conjuring a painting and stepping into it with his uncle. So Han Xiangzi goes to the underworld to rewrite his uncle’s destiny and seriously messes with his life to get him on the righteous path. Allegorically, all the stuff he puts him through makes this a Job-like story that explains why misfortune might befall even someone full of spiritual merit. Although it’s repetitive at times, it’s generally a pretty neat book.
Francisco de Quevedo, El Buscón (1626; translated by Michael Alpert; info). Picaresque novel that moves along quickly from the first-person narrator’s morally deficient childhood to his life in Madrid where he’s imprisoned with a gang of gentlemen thieves to his time in Seville where he joins a group of actors and eventually falls in love (more or less). I especially enjoyed bits about how the gentlemen thieves mask their poverty and about how actors compose plays.
Feng Menglong, Stories Old and New (1620; translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang; info). The forty stories in this collection are thematically paired, and each typically begins with a poem and a sort of prologue story before launching into the main narrative. It’s a languid formula and an odd one in that the prologue story often ends abruptly, leaving the reader wanting more (e.g. the prologue to story 28, “Li Xiuqing Marries the Virgin Huang” is actually the story of Mulan, told in a single paragraph), where the main narrative is sometimes a bit overwritten and too full of incidents that stretch out the action without adding much perspective. Still, they’re sophisticated stories, easily comparable to Italian novellas (Salernitano, da Porto, Bandello) or to several of Cervantes’s Exemplary Stories in complexity, and in each one I could usually see either interesting cultural context or a thoughtful moral or fun supernatural content. I just suspect that as a casual reader I’d have been about as well served by the abridged selection, Stories from a Ming Collection, translated by Cyril Birch.
Anonymous, The Life of Long Meg of Westminster (1620; edited by Charles C. Mish). A few tall tales about a tall woman who works in a tavern (but also goes to war), interesting because they present her as a strong Robin Hood-like character. Typically, she has some good reason to beat someone up, and they’re ashamed and either make amends or leave.
Giambattista Basile, The Tale of Tales, a.k.a. Il Pentamerone (1634-1636; translated by Nancy L. Canepa; info). This is the fairy tale collection that probably gave rise to many better-known Mother Goose stories like Cinderella (“The Cinderella Cat”), The Fairies (“The Two Little Pizzas”), Puss in Boots (“Cagliuso”), and Sleeping Beauty (“Sun, Moon, and Talia”). And it is amazing, particularly in this unexpurgated translation. It’s full of crude language, fun literally-translated idioms, bizarre metaphors, strange imagery, amusing lists, and so on. It’s so wild that the only European text I’d really compare it to is Rabelais, because subsequent European fairy tale collections just don’t play with language/rhetoric to the same degree. The stories are also much pithier than, for example, The Fairy Tales of Madame d’Aulnoy (1697-1698; info).
Bishop Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone (1638; edited by Charles C. Mish; info). While recuperating on the island of Saint Helena, a man from Spain trains a flock of birds to carry him aloft, and he uses this as his means of escape from a tricky situation en route back to Spain. Unfortunately, because it’s autumn, the birds undertake their annual migration—straight up to the Moon. During his eleven-day transit to the Moon, he experiences weightlessness but no hunger, meets with spirits, and observationally verifies that the Earth rotates, but won’t go quite so far as to agree with Copernicus that it revolves around the Sun (though he hints that it probably does). Once on the Moon he finds that the Earth is larger in the sky than the Moon is from a terrestrial point of view, so the Moon is definitely smaller than the Earth. He discovers that the Moon’s darker areas are oceans, and everything on the Moon is larger than it is on Earth—the trees are taller and thicker, as are the creatures he sees and the people he meets. The people actually come in three heights: “dwarf Lunars” are about as tall as Earthlings; another group averages around 10-12 feet; and another group averages around 20 feet. They wear clothes of a glorious and resplendent color not found on Earth. They live up to thirty times longer than Earthlings and reside in gigantic buildings. The gravity on the Moon being less than that of Earth, everyone travels by jumping and waving fans made of feathers to boost them fifty or sixty feet into the air. Sunlight and Earthlight cause people on the Moon to fall asleep for days at a time, depending on their height, e.g. dwarf Lunars and Earthlings will sleep for around 14 days per month, but taller folks can stay awake for some of that time. The Lunars all speak the same language, which the narrator records using musical notation because it is a tonal language with some words that vary by their musical tune and some words expressed as tunes only. The narrator gives the Lunar leaders jewels as gifts, and he is rewarded with three kinds of stones: poleastis (which when heated remains very hot indefinitely unless it is cooled with a liquid); machrus (which shines with the light of a hundred lamps); and ebelus (which functions as an antigravity device when it is attached to something on one side or a gravity-enhancing device when attached from the other side). The Moon is a paradise too, where there’s plenty of food, the women are beautiful and permanently fulfilling as partners, no one commits crime, etc. (though if by chance a child is born among the Lunars with an imperfect disposition, they’re sent to the Earth—typically though not always to North America). And after their deaths of old age, which they greet happily with a feast, their bodies never decay. Anyway, the narrator leaves the Moon before his birds die off, and he lands in China, where he manages to conceal his jewels before being captured as a magician and imprisoned long enough to learn another tonal language. He gives his narrative to a Jesuit priest to take back to Spain and hopes to return there someday himself. Overall, it’s an amazingly inventive story, presented in a matter of fact way with only a little religion and almost no natural philosophy mixed in.
Johannes Kepler, Somnium (1634; translated by Reverend Normand Raymond Falardeau; info). Kepler’s frame story about having a dream about reading about the life of someone else who goes to the moon is the only thing that makes this short science-fictional treatise into a narrative. The bulk of it is really just imaginative astronomy / planetary science with a tiny bit of xenobiology at the end. The frame story is interesting though. The principal subject of the story studies with Tycho Brahe before returning home and learning more about his mother’s witchcraft, both of which apparently mirrored issues in Kepler’s life. I mean, he’s famously an associate of Tycho Brahe, but I didn’t know his mother was accused of being a witch. Apparently, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov called this the first work of science fiction, and (barring Lucian’s A True History for a number of reasons) I might agree—but I’d call Godwin’s The Man in the Moone the first satisfying work of science fiction.
Madeleine de Scudéry, The Story of Sapho, an excerpt from Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649; translated by Karen Newman; info). Scudéry’s roman à clef supposedly runs to almost two million words, making it one of the longest novels ever written. This selection focuses on the character of Sapho (i.e. the poet Sappho), who probably represents Scudéry herself. Like the author, Sapho eschews marriage and leads a social circle concerned with the proper behavior of minor elites (they literally spend time debating the “je ne sais quois” that accompanies social refinement). The story is interesting as an instance of protofeminism: Sapho equates marriage with slavery and argues that women ought to be well-educated, even if they ought also to be modest in their self-presentation. The rivalries and dilemmas animating the story itself are reasonably engaging but not far removed from the stiff portraiture of a pastoral romance.
Cawwood the Rook (1640; edited by Charles C. Mish). Brief collection of fables most akin to stories about Reynard the Fox but all tied to a gathering of different kinds of birds to determine who will be king in the Eagle’s absence. The morals are sometimes dubious (e.g. something like “As the least of birds, the Wren should know her place”), and I don’t think there’s anything but a vague thematic similarity to Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules or Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds.
Paul Scarron, The Comic Romance (1651/1657; translated by Jacques Houis; info). At one point in this very readable comic novel, an as-yet unnamed highwayman shoots one of his henchmen in the head for very little reason and then shoots a horse who “in all likelihood had no quarrel with that strange man,” and I thought, ha, that’s not the only thing here that reminds me of a Tarantino film: an ensemble cast of roguish characters; backstories all revealed in flashback; chapter headings conspicuously ornamenting the story with meta-jokes about the book itself; random ugly/cruel events intended to be funny; stories within stories; and a very convoluted main story that ties things together. It’s not actually as violent as all that, though, in spite of the cruel bits, and many of the stories within the story are nice, virtuous novellas. Also, the main characters are actors, generally portrayed sympathetically, and Scarron was a dramatist, so it’s easy to imagine some affection there. It’s too bad that Scarron died without finishing part three, but the book as it stands doesn’t leave a lot of questions unanswered. There are obvious unresolved conflicts, but in principle, it’s fine that it ends where it does.
Cyrano de Bergerac, Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657; translated by A. Lovell, A.M.; info). This is one among several early science fiction stories from the 17th Century. The narrator’s two take-offs from Earth were interesting. First, starting from France, he attaches bottles of dew to a chair, and when they’re warmed by the sun, he rises so high he becomes frightened, breaks a bottle, and lands in Quebec (presumably because the author thought the vehicle would not retain its motion relative to the Earth turning). But next, assisted by some fireworks, he makes it all the way to the moon and correctly observes that the moon’s smaller mass yields less gravitational attraction. Anyway, on the moon a lot of things happen: the narrator discovers the garden of Eden; he meets a spirit that has inhabited many human bodies on Earth; he becomes the captive of a species of giants among whom the nobles speak in music and the common people speak in body movements; believed for a time to be female, he’s paired up with a man from Spain (in fact, the main character from Bishop Francis Godwin’s earlier The Man in the Moone!), ostensibly as a mate but more definitely as a companion; he learns the musical language, so he’s able to write the names of his captors in a musical notation; etc., etc. There’s also plenty of natural philosophy, including a discussion of whether the stars show us that there are infinite worlds, but most of that stuff is pretty dull. More engaging are the many observations of odd facts about life on the moon, like people sleeping (or getting tickled by servants) in little closets on beds of flowers, towns that move around on wheels, people walking around at night with a bunch of crystal globes full of glowworms around their legs, and music boxes that take the place of books in the musical language.
Li Yu, A Tower for the Summer Heat, a.k.a. Twelve Lou (1658?; stories 4-7, 9 and 11 translated by Patrick Hanan and the rest translated by Nathan Mao and Weiting R. Mao; info). Compositionally speaking, these are extremely refined short stories: each features a poem, a word of introduction, a story in several chapters that includes as a motif some tower/house/lodge/upper room, and a critique explaining the moral of the story. They’re pretty down to earth—in fact, they frequently show astrologers and people claiming to be immortals to be charlatans, and in the Hanan translation, one story concludes, “The worship of gods and buddhas means worshipping our own minds; it does not mean that gods and bodhisattvas exist” (p. 38). Generally, they focus on trickery/deceit, arranged marriages, or trickery/deceit in the service of arranging a marriage. And quite a few offer puzzles for the reader to figure out before going forward in the story—one is explictly didactic in that it explains several kinds of lenses/mirrors lately available in China at the time and reveals as the solution to what happened in the story that a character had used a telescope to trick his bride-to-be into thinking he was a semi-omniscient immortal. Anyway, I enjoyed the stories well enough to seek out all twelve, even if, in the end, I would point someone toward The Plum in the Golden Vase if they were looking for similar material (17th C. realist domestic fiction from China).
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, Simplicissimus (1669; translated by Mike Mitchell; info). A picaresque novel set during the Thirty Years War, Simplicissimus is entertaining for its roguish episodes and occasional wit, but what’s especially engaging is its portrayal of the war itself as a confusing and ugly mess someone can wind up fighting from both sides. In one notable episode where he’s disguised as a housemaid, Simplicissimus experiences harassment and misogyny, matters made even more visible in the sequel novella, The Life of Courage. In another episode omitted from several translations, because it’s generally not this kind of book, lake spirits give Simplicissimus a stone that allows him to breathe underwater so that he can dive down deep into the earth and get a natural history lesson from their ruler.
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, The Blazing World (1666; info). I appreciated this for its imagination—another world of bear people, worm people, lice people, etc., not to mention the appearance of the author in the work and her several arguments in favor of building imaginary worlds—but it’s mostly pretty dry natural philosophy, utopian allegory, or quirky argumentation.
Madame de La Fayette, The Princess of Clèves (1678; translated by John D. Lyons; info). Ostensibly the “first modern French novel,” this is basically a love triangle story—more specifically, an emotional affair—at the court of Henri II, more than a century prior to the novel’s composition. It’s a twisty, Shakespearean story, full of coincidences and mistaken interpretations, that maps out all the highs and lows of people crushing on each other.
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, The Life of Courage (1670; translated by Mike Mitchell; info). This was readable and interesting for how the main character proves to be so relatable even in the negative light she’s sometimes put in; as a picaresque novel focused on a character sometimes engaged in sex work, it’s sort of a precursor to Moll Flanders, but it’s set in the Thirty Years War, and it’s fairly dependent on Simplicissimus for some background.
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, Tearaway (1670; translated by Mike Mitchell; info). This is a relatively slight addition to the Simplicissimus saga. Tearaway is the son of an acrobat and a young noblewoman. He gets caught up in the Dutch War of Independence, the Thirty Years War, and the wars against the Ottomans, sometimes as a soldier and always as a rogue. His story overlaps with that of both Simplicissimus and Courage, but it’s predominantly a picaresque account of an ordinary soldier’s life. There are occasional episodes involving “magic” that is revealed to be trickery, but near the end, the book takes a sharp turn toward SF/F when Tearaway’s wife takes a magical bird’s nest that turns her invisible and uses it to rob people, make them think she’s a ghost, etc.
Marie-Catherine Desjardins, Madame de Villedieu, Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière (1672-1674; translated by Donna Kuizenga; info). At the beginning of this short, epistolary, semi-autobiographical picaresque novel, the main character’s adoptive father takes her hunting but tries to rape her in the woods, so she shoots him, setting off the first in a long series of social/legal problems that will plague her throughout the book. By the mid-point (p. 127), she can very reasonably say, “Madame, it was not men themselves I hated, but rather their mania for attaching themselves to me and then unfailingly entangling me in some troublesome adventure.” I think it’d be fair to call this a proto-feminist novel, and it’s also notable for its many connections to historical figures and events.
Ihara Saikaku, Five Women Who Loved Love (1685; translated by Wm. Theodore de Bary; info). Though sometimes described as “erotic” fiction, this story collection (or at least this translation) is considerably more tame than an average romance novel published today. The characters do pursue their romance with the aim of pleasure, and both prostitution and the practice of shudō are mentioned briefly. But in reality the stories are just tragic love stories, elegantly written and full of beautiful imagery. The prose style is wonderful and feels very modern—so much so that I thought the translation might have something to do with it, but if so, the same thing happened to another Ihara book translated by a different person (see below).
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688; info). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that an early novel aiming to generate sympathy toward its enslaved hero would pile despair on top of violence on top of tragedy, but wow, things do get remarkably bad. I’m glad I read this though—it’s definitely worth knowing that it exists.
Kim Manjung, Kuunmong, a.k.a. The Cloud Dream of the Nine (ca. 1690; translated by James S. Gale; info). I’m not sure whether to describe this wonderful Korean novel first and foremost as an enchanting fairytale, political satire, or harem fanfic. Its fairytale imagery includes things like fairies riding on white deer and cranes, the hero meeting a mermaid deep in a poisoned lake, and time passing mysteriously while the hero learns to play music. And as a fairytale, it’s really nice: full of romantic scenes and ornate set pieces. Its satire is not as obvious, I guess, but Wikipedia mentions that it is intended as commentary on King Sukjong‘s affairs, and read that way, it’s pretty arch stuff. The hero of the story is portrayed variously as great, really great, or super great, so people just line up to marry him and fall all over themselves to praise him and find ways to sort out and justify his numerous marriage arrangements. And that leads us to the harem fanfic aspect of it: this is a Korean novel set in Tang Dynasty China, and the basic plot involves one guy meeting, falling in love with, and eventually marrying eight women on his path to enlightenment, but the little bit of tension in the book arises in that “eventually,” because he’s in love with all of them and yet repeatedly blocked from marrying any of them for a good chunk of the story. So it’s both a fannishly romanticized picture of China and a polygamous romance novel with a lot of deferred resolution to it. Incidentally, one review that I read mentioned minor issues with the translation and implied this was related to the translator being a Christian missionary, and I can definitely see that. The translation sometimes uses phrases like “let no man put asunder” that are presumably wrong for the context, even if they get the gist of things across, and I can well imagine there being other ways that the religious and/or earthly content of the story has been assimilated. Another translation exists, but it’s out of print, and this one was still a fun read.
François-Timoléon de Choisy, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, and Charles Perrault, The Story of the Marquise-Marquis de Banneville (1695; translated by Steven Rendall). This short love story seems plainly intended as a positive illustration of how gender encompasses more than just biology. In that light, the book’s premise that a mother might simply choose to raise any child as a daughter and have that work out as it does at least makes sense allegorically as a lesson that someone who seems to be male can actually be someone’s daughter and that it can be OK. We could also suppose the mom was lucky enough to make her decision and by coincidence have a trans daughter too. At any rate, this was a delightful book: the AFAB character was also great, and the story was well-written, deeply accepting of human differences, and happy about it.
Ihara Saikaku, This Scheming World (1690; translated by Masanori Takatsuka and David C. Stubbs). Themed short story collections must have been kind of a thing in the 1600s—at least for Li Yu and Ihara Saikaku, though I guess fairy tale and morality tale collections count too. Anyway, these twenty vignettes about debt collection at New Year’s take it to an extreme in terms of realism. They’re full of interesting sociological details, and they’re also extremely well composed. Unfortunately, they’re also a bit dry.
François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus (1699; translated by John Hawkesworth; info). Fénelon’s didactic novel about best practices of leadership and government is always eloquent and occasionally beautiful but also very frequently dull. It re-imagines Telemachus’s search for his father as having been much longer and more full of incident than it is in the Odyssey, and that’s a great premise. Accompanied by Mentor, Telemachus winds up going all around the eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, Phoenicia, Crete, Calypso’s island, and Hesperia (i.e. Italy). At each stop, he endures some peril or another and learns lessons about virtuous leadership. Unfortunately, I really cannot count how often Mentor’s lectures literally put me to sleep—they’re not bad lessons, but they are obvious from an adult post-Enlightenment point of view, and they go on and on. But if they’d each been half the length, then their elegant composition would have been more enjoyable to read. The story does pick up some around the mid-point, when Telemachus becomes involved in a war in Hesperia, and overall it does have the flavor of the books it’s based on: the fighting scenes and many characterizations are reminiscent of the Iliad, and the travel and the descent to the underworld are reminiscent of the Odyssey. I also thought the descriptions of individuals and of the landscape were sometimes pretty great. I suspect, though, that the main reason to read the book is to observe how much it informed the French Enlightenment. Fénelon’s admiration for “savages [that] set you a noble example” shows in several places, explicitly, and in combination with the book’s general emphasis on educating someone to be wise, that feels very much like Rousseau. It’s also not too surprising that, even though Fénelon was reputedly an effective tutor for the young Duke of Burgundy, Louis XIV resented the book for questioning the divine right of kings to be absolute monarchs.
Charles Perrault, Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals, a.k.a. Mother Goose Tales (1697; translated by Christopher Betts; info). Many of these have obvious forebears in stories from Basile’s The Tale of Tales (q.v.). Perrault’s are nonetheless interesting, in part because they are recognizably the ones many modern re-tellings are based on. The stories not found in Basile (e.g. “Little Red Riding-Hood,” “Bluebeard,” and “Hop o’ my Thumb”) are important too. But really, I’d recommend Basile to adult readers as the richer, more interesting collection.
Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, A Trip to the Country (1699; edited and translated by Perry Gethner and Allison Stedman; info). A group of French nobles stay for a while at an idyllic country estate, where there are fountains and an orangery, terraces and gardens, and musicians who come and play for them outside. The nobles flirt with each other and tell stories—in particular, ghost stories, though in most cases there turns out to be no ghost. There’s one fairy tale too about how four specially-talented brothers rescue a princess from a dragon but find the princess wasn’t in any real danger and actually wanted to stay on the dragon’s island because she was in love with a fisherman (who turns out to be a prince and comes to marry her, post-rescue, so all’s well). They also share a few stories about their past romances and whatnot, and they cruelly tease the nouveau riche neighbors. All in all, it’s an interesting picture of what people found entertaining at the time, and it’s well written too, though I’m not sure I recall a favorite scene.