Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sixtystone: A Web of Deceit and Illusion – Arthur Machen, the Black Seal, and the Nesting Story of The Three Imposters

The background of the short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a lot older, a lot weirder, and a lot more fun than I expected.
Arthur Machen is not as well known now as he was originally, but he was a highly influential author of the Weird Fiction genre.  His important short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a portion of an elaborate overstory or nesting novel, The Three Imposters, published in 1895.  I’d like to leave the rest of the book alone and focus on just one story, The Novel of the Black Stone in this blog article.  

My first exposure to the Machen’s book, The Three Imposters was from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of books when it released an affordable reprint in 1972.  The series was a real boost to average fans that wanted above average fantasy books but couldn’t afford or find costly, rare editions.

Arthur Machen’s works have had a powerful influence on many writers and quite strongly on H. P. Lovecraft, who cites Machen in his Notes on Writing Weird Fiction as a great author along with Lord Dunsany, Edgar Allan Poe, Montague R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare.   

As you will note in HPL’s Notes on Weird Fiction, he states:
One cannot, … present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.”

The careful placement of the “single marvel” in this particular story (which is part of a larger story) is a small black stone, which cannot to be taken casually by any means.  One way to do this is to embed your single marvel, in this case a seal stone of great antiquity and evil, into the fabric of reality and history by having it written about by previous authors, preferably real, but they can be fictional as well.  In some cases, the reference book itself is the marvel, such as the Necronomicon.

The Sixtystone or Black Seal in the story is very masterfully borrowed from the 2nd century Roman writer Solinus, who refers to a stone called the Hexecontalithon in his writings.  Machen carefully misquotes the original work, Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi to add depth and to move locality of the story from Libya to England.  This embeds the historical cited Sixtystone with accompanying text and author into Machen’s universe quite deftly.  Machen makes no secrecy about the lifting, giving the original author’s name and the source.  It’s all in good fun anyway.*

Machen’s rework of Solinus is quoted from The Novel of the Black Seal:
 "This folk," I translated to myself, "dwells in remote and secret places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing have they in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak; their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. They boast of a certain stone, which they call Sixtystone; for they say that it displays sixty characters. And this stone has a secret unspeakable name; which is Ixaxar."

Along with the Sixtystone being taken from ancient writings, the title of the main book itself, The Three Imposters, may be a direct reference to another book of great age, the Treatise of the Three Imposters, itself a hoax book, which (in many modified forms) has been circulation for centuries.   Both Solini de Marabilibus Mundi and The Treatise of The Three Imposters had been in circulation for centuries and available in a number of print editions in England.  I have to wonder if anybody sees the possible connection between the two books called The Three Imposters, one published in 1895 and the other circulating in manuscript form since at least the 1200s. 

Did Machen use the title The Three Imposters as a nod to the earlier esoteric book of the same name?  It certainly looks likely, although I have not downloaded or read the medieval version of The Three Imposters.  Like the Necronomicon, The Treatise of the Three Imposters is considered an imaginary or spurious book in this blog post at

While considering all the in jokes, the transparent borrowings, and the scholarship required to spot them, consider that the Sixtystone is referred to as a black stone by Machen, but not Solinus – which may be an oblique reference to another black stone, which is real and located in the Middle East.  But also consider it may be a play on the name of a contemporary writer of weird fiction with Machen (and also cited by HPL in Notes on Weird Fiction) Algernon Blackwood.  It’s hard to say for sure, but it is interesting to note the multiple use of layers in Machen’s The Three Imposters, especially looking at the stories within The Novel of the Black Seal.  It’ll certainly take a some scholarship to unravel the puzzle. 

Consider also that IXAXAR, may be a play on ΙΧΘΥΣ (fish in Greek) which was a secret symbol from early Christianity, dating to the first century, the same period as Solinus wrote.  But I don’t want to jump too deeply into religious waters for concern about offending and a lack of serious scholarship on my part in this matter.  Machen would appear to be both serious and playful at the same time.  Another idea that may just be coincidental is that there are sixty stones at Stonehenge.  Once you start the association game, it’s hard to stop.

Another anchor into history for the story and the Sixtystone is the Sumerian’s and later the Babylonian’s use of a sexagesimal, (base 60) numeral system.  This works well linking the Sixtystone into another culture and body of researchable data.  Interestingly, we still use many of the Babylonian’s base 60 concepts like the 60 minutes in an hour & etc.  Solinus would have been quite familiar with the system himself.  The great thing is that with a well-imbedded artifact is that the more you dig, the more associations or coincidences you find.  The accidental associations weave themselves automatically into the body of works, supporting the whole, even though the author may not have been aware of the association.  Coincidence can be an author’s friend, as long as it doesn’t become a forced literary cliché.+

As a side note, Robert E. Howard did a short story called the Black Stone (pub Nov 1931), which is supposedly set in the Lovecraftian universe.  So everybody has had a shot at the title.   For Howard fans, here’s a nice article about Howard’s debt to Lovecraft.

Certainly Machen’s association with mysticism, theosophy, and neo-romanticism and it’s associated interest in pagan and pre Christian beliefs lends some credence to these theories of literary association.  Eventually, Machen purposeful mistranslantion of Solinus’ work made its way into texts of modern esoteric teachings, bringing the farce full circle.  It’s much like Lovecraft’s imaginary Necronomicon becoming esoteric canon.  See the article by Christopher Josiffe in the links section at the end of this post for more information.

One more quick aside:  If you are still following this, you prop making fans might check into the Cyrus Cylinder, as fodder for thought, although that is clay not stone.  

The power of Machen’s mythmaking power is quite evident in his creation of The Angels of Mons from a 1914 story, The Bowmen, later released as a book of short stories, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War.  Machen explained the story was fictional, but the more he protested, the more people believed it was real.  I have to wonder if there is a link between this WWI story of ghostly protectors and the raised dead protecting Britain from invasion in WWII in the movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks of 1971.  But that’s for someone else to ferret out.  Additionally, see this article on about Machen’s mythmaking and the Angels of Mons:  

What really got this whole thing rolling was a Sixtystone prop posted on Propnomicon’s outstanding Cthulhu Mythos prop making site a good while back.  It got me interested again in Machen and rekindled my old interest in cylinder seals.  I did a little digging and as usual, things got wonderfully out of hand.  The result is this blog article.      

Arthur Machen’s writing prowess continues to influence readers, writers, makers of props, and esoteric authors.  His works influenced writers from Lovecraft to Steven King, as well as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and James Branch Cabell.  By the way, most of these authors had stories and books appear in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  Machen also influenced other authors outside of the genre such as Jorge Luis Borges with his magic realism and even writers of mysticism Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Grant owes a debt of gratitude to the writings of Machen. 

Machen was also an originator in what would be later called psychogeography,^ due to his writing about the interconnectivity between landscape and imagination.  Along that line, you might also check out my previous post on William Hope Hodgson who was another influence on Lovecraft and his Dreamlands.  The problem with imaginary lands is that you introduce the great possibility of unreliable narrators, in which The Three Imposters is rife at multiple levels.  But that's part of the fun.

Hopefully this information dump will make you want to follow the links and enjoy the ride or do some follow-up work in places I have only touched.  Many of these referenced authors were contemporaries and friends so cross pollenization is inevitable.  They certainly influenced each other and molded our ideas about fantasy and horror today.  I hope you will be intrigued to enough read a few of the different cited authors’ works.  The great thing is that many of them are available for download for free.  See the links below.

*More contemporarily, take a page from NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ Rulebook:  Rule 7, "Always be specific when you lie.”  
+(Op Cit) Keep in mind Gibb's Rule 39 and of course, while writing Weird Fiction, remember his Rule 45 also applies.  Good detective work has much the same rules as being a good writer. 
^Psychogeography has strong links to ley lines, earth mysteries, and chaos magic.  It also is linked to magic realism and other techniques used in fiction writing. 

          Additional links of interest
Download these books for free from Project Gutenberg by Arthur Machen
The Three Imposters, (1895) which contains the story The Novel of the Black Seal
The Great God Pan (1894)
The House of Souls (1906)
The Hill of Dreams (1895, pub 1907) 
The White People (1899, pub 1904) by Machen
Also Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921) with Machen stories inside 

An article about Machen in the Spanish language

A link to a good article by Christopher Josiffe is just below, about the Sixtystone and Machien’s use of Solinus’ writings.  Josiffe’s makes use of Arthur Golding’s English translation of Solinus from the late 1500s makes for really good reading, but also note in this article, tracing of the Machen of Solinus mistranslation making its way into modern esoteric writing.   Fun stuff.  or 

A Latin language downloadable copy of the 1847 edition of Solinus’ Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi  The part you want is XXXI for the Sixtystone hexecontalithon reference used by Machen.  Prop makers, this would be a great source for text for your prop books and documents.  Alas I could not find the Arthur Golding late 1500’s English translation quoted so colorfully by Christopher Josiffe in the above article.  

For those interested in a 1904 English translation of the 1716 French edition of De Tribus Impostoribus, (1230), AKA The Three Imposters, a download is available here:

Robert E. Howard's The Black Stone, available for free download:  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Vampire Hunting Kits Debunked - Props, Fantasies, Hoaxes, and Fakes

Vampire hunting kits get staked and it’s about time.

I’m sick a tired of these absurd “vampyre hunting killing kits” that have now become so prevalent and going for a fortune to the credulous.  They are fake, fake, fake and if you buy one believing they are real, you are a in good company because recently a British museum purchased one for a lot of money.  For fun Google that.  The museum has now backtrack and say they knew what they were doing.  In light of the explanation, I am reminded of the kid who tried a stupid trick on his bicycle and crashed:  his explanation was, “I meant to do that”.  Yeah.

I have been a follower of the excellent prop making site Propnomicon and a consistent commenter on some of the enjoyable works that Propnomicon showcases on his blog every day.  His efforts to tear away the mask of prop making and share helpful how-tos and tutorials is a real help to prop makers everywhere.  Over the years he featured a number of “vampire hunting kits” some of which have a fair amount of work in them and others are examples to avoid.  I heartily suggest if you like props, the works of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, you really need to visit Propnomicon’s web site.  

After a few years of seeing these kits showing up on Propnomicon (and in many, many other places too such as eBay and auction catalogs), I finally decided to quit grousing about the miserable assemblages and do a post on my own about the subject.  Interestingly enough I found that others had already beat me to the punch several years before and had done so quite well.  My hat is off to these conscientious researchers.  So rather than rehash a lot of text, see the below links to get the truth about when, why, where and what vampire hunting kits are truly. 

Most interestingly is the last link, but save it for last, as the first links really set things up quite nicely.  You need only Google CoastConFan to find my comments on vampire kits, mostly on Propnomicon, so I won’t bore you with a rehash.  But frankly, you really only need to follow the below links to get at the truth quickly and easily.

So my research began in earnest and I hit gold in researching the who-what-where-whens and whys on these kits when I ran across a blog called  Diary of an Amateur Varmpirologist and he had a excellent entry about vampire hunting kits.  Click the link:

His blog entry gave me a good overview and leads to these three important blog entries, which appear to lead the source of vampire hunting kits:

Three Spooky Land posts, which are well worth reading on the subject of vampire kits.
Finally the core of the mystery is revealed by a reposting of the explanation of the original prop and mythmaker himself on with the pay dirt blog entry.  The mystery is revealed when you click on the below link.   

The Professor Blomberg Vampire Killing Kit
Author - Michael de Winter
Originally posted to April 2005

So the truth is out and it has been out there since 2005 on the web, just not exactly in the place I would have expected.  So to get to the punch line:  All-these-kits-are-fake.  Can I make it any plainer?   None of these are real and none of these are really very old and few of them are worth much more than the combined value of the components.  If sold as modern prop assemblages of a fantasy vampire kit, then there is no foul.  But if sold as “real” then watch out.

By the way, as long as we are detoxing clichés, the whole silver bullet kills lycanthrope trope proves to be a 1930s creation of the book and movie industry, but that’s another irritating story.  See my blog entry The Werewolf Paradigm – Fun vs. Rationality, March 27, 2011
UPDATE 22 Jun 2014:  in the comments section, Graham1973 gives an excellent link to a discussion about silver in reference to lycanthrophy in folklore.  Clearly there are indeed pre 1930 references to killing werewolves with silver.  The upshot of the article is that silver as an evil magic dissipator as used in these folklore stories that date back some 300 years.  The main theme is that the silver item is a common thing like a silver button or coin most often and it is fired at or above the evil being.

Oddly, there is not a great lot of literature cited about using non-projectile silver weapons such as maces, daggers or swords against such creatures.  The additional interesting link is that generally the silver object in question is a personal object and a sort of ad hoc lightening rod against evil.  The other thing is that the silver projectile is not grounded, in the sense of being connecting a kind of grounding circuit, which would be the case with a wielded silver mace or other silver appliance.
The other reference is about an assassination attempt against a non lycanthrope in the hope that the would given by a silver bullet would not heal.   In this case it would convey a sort of curse of non-healing. 

 I’d like to thank Graham1973 for this excellent listing about the general of silver in dissipating evil.  I was unaware of the link and feel it is important enough to put into the body of the post so it won’t be overlooked. 

I’ll also post this on a previous blog entry, where it actually belongs, The Werewolf Paradigm.

A few other links of mine in the same vein:

The Logical Vampire – A brief overview on removing these pests, Feb 9, 3013

Hourglass Vampire Hunting Kit, Jan 12 2013, a rather clever take by one prop maker on the vampire kit

A Youtube video I made a couple of years ago:  Starless Nosferatu,     King Crimson’s Starless and Nosferatu (1922) the video.  Click the link to view.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Charlie Chan by way of Indiana Jones – the real man, Chang Apana of the Honolulu Police

Charlie Chan was a fictional character created by Earl DerrBigger based on real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana, who was a larger than life person.  His story truly needs to be told and what better time than in May, which is Asian-Pacific Month. 

The Charlie Chan stories were written by author Earl Bigger to offset the terrible Yellow Peril stories denigrating Asians.  Biggers wanted to showcase a non-European detective who was more than a match for criminals.  Although to our modern eyes, the Charlie Chan character seems to be a shuffling stereotype, such is not the case when viewed nearly 90 years ago when the first Charlie Chan story was published.  But let me get back to the inspiration first.

Chang Apana really broke all the expectations of  late Victorians and Edwardians about Chinese immigrants in Hawaii.  First of all he didn’t dress or act like an ethic Chinese transplant from Guangzhou.  Actually, he was born in Hawaii either in 1864 or 1871, (sources disagree) and went to China with his parents soon after his birth.  He later returned to Hawaii when he was 10 years old.  But Chang Apana (Chang Ah Ping) wasn’t going to be like any other Chinese person Victorians would have expected and just placed into a niche. 

He wore his hair short, eschewing the traditional queue and wore a cowboy hat.  In fact he was a Hawaiian cowboy and his first job was with the Hawaiian Humane Society in 1897, working with the maltreatment of horses.  He was actually a Hawaiian cowboy and an expert horseman and carried a bullwhip, but more on that later.  His wiry 5’3” frame was agile and tough.  While with the Humane Society he rescued many horses from maltreatment, primarily in the Honolulu area.

Chang spoke Chinese as well as Hawaiian along with English* (although not perfectly), which made him an outstanding prospect for the Honolulu Police Department.  Hawaii was a crossroads for the Pacific trade and many diverse cultures and people passed through or settled down in Hawaii.  Many visitors however were not of the best character, but his didn’t deter Chang.  According to biographical evidence he was almost acrobatic in physical feats and was never afraid to tackle armed opponent(s) even when grossly outnumbered.    He often went undercover and dressed as a coolie to infiltrate dangerous gangs and gambling dens.  Chang was shot at a number of times as well as being beaten and knifed.  He had a scar over his right eye from a scythe wielding attacker that slashed his face.   His was not a face that could be ignored.

Author Earl Biggers was visiting Honolulu, Hawaii in 1924 when he ran across a newspaper article about Chang of the Honolulu police and immediately was intrigued.  Biggers wrote the story The House Without a Key, which was published in 1925 and the fictional Honolulu police detective Charlie Chan was born.  Several more stories followed with great success (see below for a list).  The first Charlie Chan film was released in 1926 as a serial and many more full-length features followed (see below for list).  Chang took it all in stride. 

Physically, he was not much like the slightly chubby proverb quoting fictional detective, but the thing that most modern readers (or viewers) forget was that he was accepted as on par with European born detectives and was considered absolutely trustworthy.  In Charlie Chan the old stereotype was broken.  We don’t really understand in this day and age, how far up Charlie Chan was from the poor expectations of that previous society he was born into, but both Charlie Chan and Chang were fully equals to westerners. 

The films may be out of step with present modern practices, but at the time, Bigger’s portrayal was very modern, even revolutionary.  The fictional character Charlie Chan was considered a thorough professional equal to everybody he encountered and often showed himself superior in patience, observation, and just plain brain work.  His understated character allowed him to be underestimated by crooks or overlooked by spies and enemy agents.

Moreover, consider Chang never carried a gun, he just had his cowboy bullwhip and with consummate skill, employed it on Hawaii’s bad guys.  He was so personally feared he captured 40 illegal gamblers single-handed – just him and his bullwhip.  So much like the latter day Indiana Jones, he used this whip with authority. 

Chang was injured in an accident in 1932, badly mauling his legs.  Eventually one leg became infected and had to be amputated.  He retired from the Honolulu Police with 34 years of service, long than anybody else.   The Honolulu Police Department has a museum section entirely dedicated to Chang Apana with a number of mementos along with his famous bullwhip.

I can’t begin to say how impressed I am with Chang Apana’s story when I ran across it recently and just wanted to share with you a truly impressive person who lived a remarkable life.  I would really would have liked to see a period 20s movie about Chang.  

I wish that George Taki (known to some of you as Sulu) was young enough to portray Sergeant Apana in a period film set in Hawaii.  It would love to see him swinging a bullwhip and backing down Honolulu criminals in the Roaring 20s.  He would really put a spin on “book ‘em Dano, murder one”.   Charlie Chan was not the last fictional Honolulu detective by a long shot.

Let’s take a look at the varied actors who played Charlie Chan over the decades on the screen: 

First, there was in a 10 part serialization of House Without a Key in 1926 which starred George Kuwa a Japanese.  Oddly, the viewers did not connect with an Asian playing an Asian character and the move toward western Charlie Chans began, but there would a few more attempts to have an Asian Charlie Chan.

Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin (whose career spanned from Thief of Baghdad 1924, to Seven Samurai 1954) in the Chan film, The Chinese Parrot in 1927.  

Edward. L. Park who was Korean, portrayed Chan in Behind that Curtain, in 1929, the first feature length Charlie Chan movie.  Actor Boris Karloff had a small part in this film. 

Warner Oland, one of the best known of Chan actors, who was a Swedish actor who played Chan in 16 movies from 1931 to 1937.  Oland also played Dr. Fu Manchu in film – what a contrast. 

Sidney Toler is another of the better known actors who played Chan in 22 movies from 1938 to 1946. 

Roland Winters, is less known than the previous two actors, but still racked up 6 movies from 1947 to 1949. 

An odd inclusion is Charlie Chan at the Ringside, which was filmed but not released under that name.  Because Warner Oland became ill during the filming, Peter Lorre was sent in to play Charlie Chan.  To avoid viewer confusion as Lorre played Mr. Moto instead, so the film was renamed Mr. Moto’s Gamble and it was no longer a Charlie Chan film in the end.  So I guess that makes Lorre as an almost Chan.   Mr Moto films.  As an aside, there was also a Mr. Moto radio series (see below). 

On television J. Carroll Naish starred in The New AdventuresCharlie Chan on the small screen for 39 episodes in 1957-1958.      

Ross Martin (better known as Artemus Gordon of The Wild Wild West) was Chan in a TV movie in 1971 with The Return of Charlie Chan.  

Keye Luke (finally an actual Chinese, but better know to you TV viewers as Master Po of Kung Fu) voiced Charlie Chan in “Charlie Chan and the Chan Gang” cartoon series of 1972.  The less said of that cartoon series, the better.  Luke played Number One Son in some Chan films, so I guess it was fitting that he had his shot.  

There was also a popular Charlie Chan Radio Show (1932 to 1948).  See down below for some surviving radio episodes. 

I’ve really run on about Chang Apana and Charlie Chan, probably because Chang was so important to the development of Charlie Chan and the slow removal of stereotypes.  Again, understand how far we have all come in the past 90 years and take some understanding about the context in which these films were made.  Chang Apana was an original American hero who served his community well and Charlie Chan fought crooks and stereotypes.  

In role playing games, you see characters played rather to type, so kick it up a bit and consider the history of Chang Apana as a new spin on the detective character for Call of Cthulhu and other RPGs.  I would certainly like to have him at my side while playing Masks of Nyarlathotep or exploring some ruins.

     *A little note:  Pigeon English is often seen as a degenerate sub-language of illiterates, but in fact it was an important bridge language, with economic aims, agreed upon limited, delineated meanings between two complex and often highly nuanced languages.  In essence it is a trade language between two cultures that are so differentiated socially and culturally, that there is initially little common ground in customs or in common use words.  By avoiding confusing abstract and conditional language, simple concrete terms can be mutually communicated with agreed upon meanings understood by both.  We have forgotten how important a bridge these created languages were in communications between strangers.  Languages such as Swahili, Pigeon English, Lingua Franca, and Pidgin Hawaiian would be in this language grouping.    

Other Links:

The Films of Charlie Chan
Or get a book on the subject:  The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia by Howard M. Berlin

Charlie Chan had a big family and that figures into the films.  Find out Who’s Who in the Charlie Chan film family:

Project Gutenberg Australia has some of Bigger’s Charlie Chan stories that are downloadable but not on the US Project Gutenberg:
The Chinese Parrot (1926)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Free Comic Book Day 3 May 2014 – CoastConFan Goes to Free Comic Book Day

Today Three Alarm Comics in Biloxi hosted the annual Free Comic Book Day for the local area.  They opened their doors at 12 and had people setting up before 10 and people waiting an hour early before the doors opened to the general public.  Free Comic Book Day is an annual promotion and effort by the comic book industry to help bring new readers into independent comic book stores nationwide starting back in 2001. 

Free Comic Book Day 2014 here in Biloxi was like a min-comic convention with costumes, comic artists and of course, fans.  There were surprisingly lots of fans for this small area coastal area.  Fans of all ages showed up in a multi generational affair with attendees who ranged from gray haired fans to small children just getting started.   Last year this event was estimated at 3,000 attendees and they probably had that many today, if not more by the close of the day.  Attendance was free and a number of comic books were given out free to attendees.  There was genuine enthusiasm in the community and the weather was just perfect for the event which spread out into the parking lot.
Outside the store itself, vendors sold comic and fannish related items and inside the artists themselves were available.  It’s amazing to think that all over the country that this was happening in cities, towns, and villages.  It’s the fans coming out to support their favorite comic books, graphic novels and memorabilia galore.  In attendance this year were artists K. Michael Russell, Jason Graig, T.D. Roebuck, Mike McKone, Brian K. Vaughan, Andy Childress, Brian LeBlanc, Steven Butler, and Mitch Byrd. 
Andy B Childress
Brian LeBlanc
Jason Graig
Mike McKone
T. D. Roebuck
K. Michael Russel

Brian K. Vaughan
Mitch Byrd
Steven Butler

The great thing about events of this type is that it gets young people interested in reading and supports ongoing literacy efforts.  We all know that people who read well do better in school, at work and in the community.   I'd like to thank all persons who put together Free Comic Book Day 2014 as well as the attending artists.
3 Alarm Comics, Free Comic Book Day 2014

For those interested, the sponsor locally was Three Alarm Comics and it is located on 15210 Lemoyne Blv., in Biloxi MS 39532.  


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sim Sim Salabim – An Incantation from Jonny Quest of the 1960s Back to a Medieval Play

My mind wanders some strange and esoteric places:  I was thinking about a 60s cartoon of my youth, Jonny Quest and wondering if “sim sim salabim” actually meant anything or was just Hollywood gibberish.  This created a narrative line as absurd and bizarre as any Dan Brown book, so I began to unravel the Hadji Code: 

Classic Jonny Quest was designed by comic book artist and writer Doug Widley for Hanna-Barbera Productions, who originally wanted a TV animation cartoon based on the radio series, Jack Armstrong All AmericanBoy.  When Hanna-Barbera couldn’t get the license, they went ahead with the project and called it Jonny Quest, which was a much more evolved concept, taking place in the near future.  Freed of any license constraints, Widley reworked the concept and made it his own. 

Generally a plausible science fiction show of the near future, there were a few glaring errors.  One was the name of the character Hadji Singh, Jonny’s sidekick who was a Hindu and not a Muslim, yet he has an Islamic honorific as part of his name.  It may be a little petty on my point, but I always saw it as a glaring error.  But such are the ways of Hollywood and children’s television of the mid 1960s.  

You have got to love 60s spy drones
Be sure to go to some of the Jonny Quest links and especially the one on Doug Widley to get a real feel of the show and 60s animated TV shows.  For those of you who don’t recall, Jonny Quest was a mid 60s action adventure cartoon that was later criticized for its portrayed violence and representation of cultures in an insensitive way.   In later years, reruns of Jonny Quest had to conform to broadcast guidance on children’s shows and chop out the violence and it also came under attack for perceived stereotypes.  The show was in reruns for many years, but the content had been vastly reduced.  But I digress.

The Jonny Quest character, Hadji used “sim sim salabim” as his incantation while performing “magic” or at least some pretty good stagecraft.  The character Hadji Singh’s backstory is that he is the adopted son of Dr. Benton Quest and appears in a flashback in Episode 7, Calcutta Adventure (30 Oct 1964).  Hadji grew up on the streets of Calcutta, apparently becoming streetwise along with learning some mystic culture along with yoga, and saved Dr. Quest from an assassin.  Hadji was always more level headed of Dr Quest’s sons and a good problem solver.  His streetwise upbringing, practical commonsense, and multicultural background gave Hadji an excellent skill set over the more impulsive and reckless Jonny.   The less said about the dog, Bandit, the better.  This leads us to the next step in the Hadji Code.
Sim Salabim was magician Harry August Jansen’s (1883 to 1955) trademark tagline, while appearing as Dante the Magician.  He was a protégé of Howard Thurston, another famous stage magician himself.  Jansen needed a magic phrase for his act and he chose “sim salabim” as his mystic incantation.  Jansen was born in Denmark and he remembered a popular children’s song that had been the origin of his version of incantation.  So the children’s bit of gibberish in a song became the trademark of a 20th century well-known magician, but there is more to come. 

The song that Jansen’s “sim salabim” was taken from was the Danish song, Højt på en gren en krage, but interestingly enough that song took its “sim salabin” from a much, much earlier work.  It was perhaps from the medieval play called Robyn Hode:  A Mummers Play where a Turkish alchemist uses the incantation.  Now that’s pretty interesting that a bit of 20th century stagecraft is taken from a 19th century Danish children’s song, which in turn took it from a medieval play involving alchemy. 

Now the writer of Jonny Quest probably knew about Dante the Magician and his “sim salabim” and using the memory, transformed it as Hadji’s incantation of “sim sim salabim”, which was taken from a young Harry Jansen’s piece of stagecraft, which itself was taken from his childhood memory of a Danish children’s song.  Jansen emigrated to the US when he was six, mind you.  I remember watching Jonny Quest in the mid 60s when I was a kid, so that links me to this chain of youthful memory.  That’s a lot childhood memories linking up over the decades and it really goes to show you how important our childhood is in our formation. 

Jonny Quest’s influence is still out there in American popular culture.  The cartoon satire, The Venture Brothers takes a large amount of background from Jonny Quest.  Also Jonny Quest is referenced in the Blood Hound Gang song, Mope as well as in Less Than Jake’s song Jonny Quest Thinks We Are Sellouts.

Another Jonny used it -- Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, humorously performing the Carnac the Magnificent skit beginning in 1964.  The routine starts as sidekick Ed McMahon says “O seer, sage, all knowing all seeing Carnac the Magnificent!  Sim sala bim”.   Carson was an amateur magician himself by the way, and no doubt was familiar with Dante.  Hopefully some of this was entertaining or informative because I would not like to think that any photon may have died in vain.  

        Some Links of Interest
Jonny Quest sound bites:

Three versions of Højt på en gren en krage - Dansk Børnesang  on YouTube:  

A translation of the Danish song can be found on this thread:


Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Wind Rises for Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli’s Latest Work

I have been a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginative and evocative films for years.  This is a movie about aviation history, dreams, and perseverance.   This film won’t please most western viewers as the love story is subservient and underscoring to the love of aircraft.  It’s a message more about sacrifice for a dream and not about personal wishes or comfort.  Also the film does not hold your hand through Japanese history and explains little about the nuance of the times.  You the viewer are expected to have at least a modicum of background in Japanese history and culture or have some difficulty following the significance of events.  This film cuts the viewer no slack with helpful voiceovers or titles.

In a world of historical horror films like 300 and Pompeii, The Wind Rises is a fresh, although partly fictional look at the life of one of Japan’s top aircraft designers as seen through the lens of a short story.  The Wind Has Risen written by Tatsuo Hori (who wrote the original story in 1936-1937) about the Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, then it was re-imagined by Miyazaki by way of his manga, and finally in an animated film by Miyazaki as a Studio Ghibli animated film.  Interestingly this is the third film adaptation of the Tatsuo Hori story, but sadly I can find no information about the two earlier films.  I would appreciate a read to help me out with the names and information.  Hopefully they still exist.
Miyazaki tries to dispel some of the moral ambiguity or mute the rising ambivalence of the time, but truly it’s not his place to redeem or explain the past, just to tell the story at hand:  Japan’s attempt to push into the modern world from the tottering bridge of the Taisho pro-western period to the militant and expansive Showa.  In the film, Japan’s role in aggression and the rise of the fascist state with the secret police is only touched upon, but again it is about a few individuals and not the larger slate of happenings.  

I have not yet located an English translation of the original story, The Wind Has Risen, nor any information of the two previous film versions, so I can only look at this version as a stand-alone in the shadow of history.   I do remember seeing a silent film about early Japanese aviation and the bombing of Tsingtao, (now only remembered in the US as a place that beer is made)  but I saw it decades ago and I have not been able to find the name of that dimly remembered film.  Any help out there would be appreciated.

With that lengthy preamble over with, I’d like to address the film itself.  The Wind Rises shows a highly polished sensibility between photo-realism and 2d animation techniques so popular in Miyazaki’s works.  It has cinematography that is polarized between a cartoon style and photo-perfect, along with classic multi-plane effects, yet the two meld as a visual narration beyond words. 
Also let me say that the sound of this film is very important too.  The sound effects were crisp and the incidental sounds gave you a feeling of being there.  Interestingly most of the machine sounds (primarily aircraft) are made by human voices.  The attention to detail is amazing both in images and in sound and creates something that allows you to forget this is an animation.  Like traditional Japanese koto music, the silences speak quite eloquently and the almost unnoticed incidental sounds really give you a feeling of spontaneity and reality.  The sound track is classically based and somewhat surprising with the expected anime sound track or a traditional Japanese historical sound track.  

Being historically based there is foreboding, prefiguring, and sense of doom, but with the strength to go on despite all adversity.  The film has substantial dream segments, which literally get inside the protagonist’s head so you can see his influences, primary of which is Giovanni Battista Caproni, the Italian aircraft designer.    He also later meets Hugo Junkers when his team was sent to Germany to study aircraft design there.  Much of this film takes place in Jiro’s head and in an unconscious state of dreaming.

Keep in mind, despite his idealism, Jiro Horikoshi designed military aircraft for the Japanese, ultimately creating the famous A6M Zero of WWII fame.  After all, this is not a western film, but a Japanese film so the standard formula of Greek tragedy just doesn’t fit.  What we westerners might see as a character flaw of sacrificing everything to a dream, is an ideal at least in midcentury Japan.  Sacrifice is a big deal in this movie as well as self-denial.  Most of the action is internal and often within a dream. 
American attending this movie might have missed a lot of historical nuance such as the Great Earthquake of 1923, which scarred the Japanese psyche and eventually led to the drawing away from the West by Japan as well as the recession of 1926, both of which empowered the militarists and ultranationalists drive to power in Japan.  Darker forces are at work with the unnamed and feared (and unnamed) Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai and Miyazaki avoids the strong nationalist feelings that would be more typically found in a period work of the 1920s and 1930s. 
I wondered why this story was chosen by Miyazaki and a little digging yielded some interesting parallels between Miyazaki’s life experience and that of the protagonist.  Miyazaki’s mother died of tuberculosis and his father owned a aircraft subcontractor that eventually made rudder assemblies for the Zero.  Miyazaki’s works have always had a deep investment in flying, freedom, and idealism and this new work has it all.  This film was highly personal, traumatic, and rather insular for the average American viewer, but I am glad Miyazaki shared it with us.
A few interesting facts about early Japanese aviation: 
 Caproni lived to 1950 and Horikoshi lived to 1982 and HugoJunkers died back in 1935, never seeing the effects of WWII.  All three were pioneers of flight, but only Horikoshi was actually born IN the age of flight, but only just barely, because Horikoshi was born on 22 June 1903 and on the Wright Brothers’ first controlled powered flight was on 14 December 1903.  Note I used the term “controlled” because previously other folks managed to achieve a number of previous powered crashes, but little in the way of actual flight.  The Wright Brothers were the first to fully consider controllability over worries about a big enough engine to get a plane off the ground and actually use scientific method and experimentation in addressing sustained controllable flight in heavier-than-air flight.  Imagine living in a time when people ran out of doors when a plane flew by or flocked to an open field because a plane set down there!

Japanese aviation history begins in December 1910, just seven years after Kittyhawk, with the first flight of an aircraft in Japan by army Capt Yoshitoshi Tokugawa in a Henri Farman biplane

Japan, as an ally of the UK in WWI  against Germany, gained a number of important Pacific islands owned by Germany as well as a foothold in China.  They also had a carrier and aircraft.

Despite the late start Japan did have some aviation firsts: During the siege of Tsingtao, Japan had an aircraft that successfully attack land as sea targets as well a night-time bombing from the seaplane carrier Wakamiya.

Other information of interest:  

Jiro Horikoshi co-wrote a couple of  books about the A6M Zero:
    Zero! The Air War in the Pacific in World War II, from the Japanese Viewpoint by Masatake      
               Okurniva and Jiro Horikoshi 1979
   Zero! by Martin Caidin, Masatake Okumiya and Jiro Horikoshi, 1956

Epilogue:   I’m sorry I never got to meet Jiro Horikoshi nor Saburo Saki although it would have been possible.  We are losing historical persons every day, not just WWII vets.  You might be surprised to find who is still alive and living near you.  Make an effort to talk to living history some time, they need not have been mentioned in the history books and they may even believe they are forgotten.  Make their day.