My Year in Reading

My stack of completed reads for the year. It’s missing a few.

UPDATED December 31, 2020, 2:45 p.m. PT: The past few years I have set a goal to read more than I did the year before. I love books. I have since I was very young. The feel and scent of the pages, the heft in my hands, the thrill of finding out what happens next. Unfortunately, I am not a constant reader, I am a streaky reader. That is to say I go long periods of hardly reading anything except news and social media posts. I’ve been known to crawl around on the floor in bookstores, and one of my favorite Irish pubs is literary themed. Now, as a published author myself, I have a greater understanding of the process and work that goes into bringing a written story to life.

When I started setting this goal each year a couple of years ago, I managed to increase my consumption by exactly one book per year (7, 8, 9). Thanks to COVID-19 causing a stay-at-home order in California in March and my employer deciding not to be such anymore, I have had many more waking hours to read. For several months I took it upon myself to make a dent in my to-be-read (TBR) pile. I have been known to keep a TBR pile of biblical proportions. Every time someone suggests that I read the books I have before buying more, I have a nice chuckle.

So, what exactly have I been reading? I’m glad you asked. I have read 35 books this year and here is a look at each.

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker (1986)
I have read quite a bit by Barker over the years including Weaveworld, The Scarlet Gospels, Books of Blood, The Great and Secret Show, and I am big fan of the 1987 film Hellraiser. However, I had never read the novella that spawned the movie. There are some key differences from the film and, if you have seen it, the book is a quick read. Graphic and disturbing, this was a defining work for Barker. The Scarlet Gospels is a down the line sequel. This book and the movie spawned a cottage multimedia industry.

Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2010)
My best friend Jean-Paul turned me on to author Laird Barron and I’m glad he did. This collection of weird tales is riveting. Barron doesn’t shy away from controversial characters or subject matter, and he writes some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2013)
Another friend recommended Brown’s five-novel science fiction epic that begins with Red Rising. I must admit, I didn’t like it at first. I put it down for awhile and came back to it. It caught the second time and I rocketed through the book in short order. Another dystopian “chosen one” tale, Brown does bring some new things to the genre and plays with established tropes. However, that friend has since moved away and I have yet to seek out the other four books. As a matter of fact, he still has my copy of The Silent Corner.

The Whispering Room by Dean Koontz (2017)
Dean Koontz is my favorite author but in all honesty I had never finished any of his series – Frankenstein or Odd Thomas. When the Jane Hawk series was announced I made sure to preorder each one, but I waited until they all arrived before reading them. Koontz is living on the edge of prophecy in this series. In the first book, we were introduced to FBI agent Jane Hawk, whose husband committed suicide. Hawk goes rogue to investigate his death and to protect her young son. The Whispering Room is the second book in the series, I read the first, The Silent Corner, at the end of 2019.

The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac (1958)
The King of the Beats. It has been said and written that nobody could write about jazz the way Kerouac did, and that his prose was a form of jazz itself. This book was supposed to based on the New York underground jazz scene but instead it was set in San Francisco, where Kerouac’s many adventures took place. Written around the time On the Road and The Dharma Bums were penned and published, The Subterraneans is a bit of a manic mess. But if you like Kerouac, this book is frantic bebop ride through San Francisco and neighboring Oakland that you’ll enjoy.

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King (2017)
I am also a big fan of Stephen King. His son Joe Hill has started to make a name for himself as an author and in this one, Stephen collaborates with his other son Owen to weave a tale of a global pandemic (talk about prophetic). A mysterious condition is affecting just the women of planet Earth and one mysterious woman appears to be at the center of it all. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. I wouldn’t have sought it out on my own but a friend gave me her hardcover copy. I’m glad I did read it because I can check it off the list of Stephen King works I’ve completed as I try to read all of his books.

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971)
The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles has become one of my favorite places to shop for books. I had heard of Bukowski but I had never read any of his stuff. He is prominently featured in the store’s “LA Authors” section. Post Office is funny, irreverent, and I read it in one sitting. I found myself laughing out loud many times. If you like Beat literature, Bukowski is right there. I need to read more of his stuff.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
A few years ago, I was tempted to try Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge and abandoned it early on. Part of the challenge was to read a banned book. I had Lord of the Flies in mind but purchased Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov instead (which appears later). I picked up Lord of the Flies at a black-owned bookstore in Sacramento. It’s a great store I hope to visit again soon. Golding’s tale of British children who survive a plane crash and commit brutal acts as they turn feral is considered required reading in many schools now.

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (2005)
I was stationed in Keflavik, Iceland, for three years when I was in the United States Navy and I have been watching several TV thrillers set in Iceland. I came across this book at another of my favorite bookstores, Dark Carnival in Berkeley, California. Sigurdardottir weaves a tale of murder and suspense while taking the reader on a tour of the capital city of Reykjavik. I enjoyed reading something set in a place I adored. Apparently this is the first of six novels involving the main character. So much to read, so little time.

Church and the book that inspired his name.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)
I have seen all of the movie adaptations of this book but I had never read the novel. Since adopting a long-haired tabby we named Church, this book became a must-read. Again, a quick read since I was familiar with the story, you realize how much was left out of the movies. This is a chilling tale of loss and grief and interpersonal relationships and how they can dictate our actions – good and bad. Even if you have seen the movies, the book is worth the read.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)
You would have thought that I would have purchased something like Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel while visiting the black-owned bookstore. You’d be wrong. However, Whitehead has been on my radar after seeing a great interview with him on CBS Sunday Morning. All I can really say about this book without giving away too many spoilers is that it is a disturbing tale of racism and abuse finally brought to light. Whitehead’s compelling storytelling with an economy of words is worth the read alone. Step out of your comfort zone and give him a read. This was another I got through in one sitting.

Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker (2001)
This was definitely something different and another I read in one sitting. It’s basically a possessed book with a story told to the reader in first-person by the demon infiltrating the pages. Written and told in a jovial, jocular manner, you don’t know if you should be rooting for or condemning the demon. I enjoyed it because it was just plain different.

Mr. X by Peter Straub (1999)
I have watched interviews with Peter Straub and I have watched interviews with others talking about Peter Straub. He collaborated with Stephen King on The Talisman and Black House. So, while shopping at The Last Bookstore in LA, I picked this up. There was a lot to like, but I was confused by quite a bit of it as well. Conflicting timelines, confused identities, convoluted plot. I’ll never say that I am poorer for finishing a book, but I didn’t care for this very much.

Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond (2019)
I am a fan of the Netflix series Stranger Things. Author Gwenda Bond was commissioned to pen the first official novel of the series and she turned in an interesting backstory that introduces us to a couple of pivotal characters. Seemingly written for a younger audience, I enjoyed it nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy this book.

Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut (2008)
Of the more than 30 books I completed in 2020, there were very few I didn’t like. I didn’t care for this collection of essays, short stories and missives from one of the preeminent writers of the 20th century. I think I enjoy Vonnegut’s style, command of the language, and his reputation better than the content of his stories, if that makes any sense.

The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen (1974)
It even says it on the cover: “fang-in-cheek.” Here is another I didn’t like. The story of Dracula told and recorded on tape by the Count himself as he tries to justify his actions described in Bram Stoker’s novel. I liked the idea for this but the writing and the execution left a lot to be desired. Supposedly, Saberhagen’s effort had some influence on Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which was published two years later. I don’t believe in throwing books away but this one met with an accident and fell apart. It could not be saved.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)
Dick is one of the more influential science fiction writers of the last 100 years, especially the latter half of the 20th century. He is the man responsible for what became Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). This reads as much as a noir detective yarn and/or ghost story as it does science fiction. Exciting at times, cerebral at others, entertaining all the way through, I enjoyed this even more than I did Androids.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
This one is near and dear to my heart for numerous reasons, but I hadn’t read it in quite a long time. I re-read and wrote a piece about Dracula not that long ago so I figured this one was worth another look as well. I firmly believe that Mary Shelley created the science fiction genre with this novel. I love gothic horror and I am a big fan of Universal horror from 1925-1956. The Frankenstein franchise is a very important piece of the Universal Monsterverse. The book is very different than just about every screen adaptation save one. The language and prose is a bit thick at times, but you have to take into consideration when the book was written. This is essential reading for any literature lover.

If it Bleeds by Stephen King (2020)
A collection of four new novellas from the master of horror, If It Bleeds is part of a bit of a renaissance for King. The writing is tight and provocative. Of the four, there was only one I didn’t like. Mainly because it is written in reverse order and I didn’t quite get it. One story focuses on recurring King character Holly Gibney (The Outsider) and another inspired a memoir from yours truly. The fourth is a delightfully claustrophobic tale of isolation and terror. Over the years I have enjoyed King’s novellas and short stories as much, if not more than his novels.

Noir by Olivier Pauvert (2005)
As much as I love horror stories, I have really tried to branch out and read things I normally wouldn’t. I think that is important for so many reasons. This dark, dreary dystopian ghost story of sorts is a perfect example. Authoritarianism and racism are brought to bear in a futuristic thriller. It’s different and makes you think.

Under My Skin by Lisa Unger (2018)
I bought this one because of the unique cover design, started it and put it down 60 pages in. Not that I didn’t like it, I just decided to read something else. I had to start it from the beginning and I enjoyed it. Unger crafts a thriller with a couple of unexpected twists and a protagonist we can relate to and root for. This is one I can’t say too much about lest I give it away.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)
Everyone knows I am a huge James Bond fan. I have seen all of the movies multiple times. But I had never read any of the books. I picked up Casino Royale and Dr. No with the intention of reading all of Fleming’s Bond novels. The filmmakers and Sean Connery did a remarkable job of extrapolating one of the greatest movie characters of all-time from the idiot in this book. Read it and judge for yourself. There are some major differences between the book and the film starring Daniel Craig, including the card game (baccarat in the book, poker in the movie), and Le Chiffre’s motivations.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017)
This is a delightful story written by the award-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Mobsters, U.S. Navy divers, family ties and much more, this tale set in mainly during World War II is full of twists and turns, parallel and intertwining story arcs and memorable characters. This was another I started and set aside and came back to. I had to start over from the beginning but it was well worth it. I loaned this to my friend Chris in exchange for Goon Squad.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov (1955)
Purchased as part of an effort to complete an aforementioned reading challenge, this is one I started and put aside several times. Not because I found it objectionable, but because of Nabakov’s prose. Once I did start it from the beginning (again) and read it all the way through, I found it to be one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. Nabakov’s beautiful writing gives way to a tale of pedophilia. Although the descriptions of what transpires are not graphic or erotic, the reader gets the point. Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert is one of the most reprehensible characters ever created in literature. I’m glad I finally read this book because of it’s reputation, but my goodness.

Broken by Don Winslow (2020)
A collection of six novellas from the author of Savages and a lot of other things, Don Winslow spins a half dozen brutal crime stories. From police raids and chases along the border to gentlemen thieves and a chimpanzee with a gun, Winslow keeps readers engaged with exciting action, suspense, and unexpected humor.

The Crooked Staircase (2018), The Forbidden Door (2018) and The Night Window (2019) by Dean Koontz
I decided to binge the last three novels in the Jane Hawk series and it was a fun ride. Hawk weaves her way through a conspiracy involving high-ranking government and corporate types and mind-control technology. We meet several unlikely allies-turned-heroes as Hawk eludes capture while trying to expose a nefarious fascist plot. The five Jane Hawk books mark the longest series I have ever read. I highly recommend it.

Four Past Midnight by Stephen King (1990)
When I finished the Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz, I decided that a Stephen King binge was in order. I really do want to read everything he has ever written, or come as close as I can. Four Past Midnight contains The Langoliers, Secret Window, Secret Garden, The Library Policeman, and The Sun Dog. The first two of the four have been made into movies of some variety, both widely panned. Secret Window was definitely better than The Langoliers. The written stories were much better than the screen adaptations. The second two were suspenseful and full of dread and terror. All four stories were fantastic.

Needful Things by Stephen King (1992)
I had read this when it first came out and loved it. I was thoroughly disappointed by the movie version. Kindly old Leland Gaunt comes to Castle Rock, Maine, and opens a curio shop called “Needful Things.” The things in the shop are not exactly what they seem (neither is the proprietor), and Gaunt sets about to turning the good people of Castle Rock against each other in devilishly creative ways. This is a very long read but worth every word.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
Not many authors appear on this list more than once but I just had to read Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The story focuses on intertwined, overlapping sets of friends and acquaintances in the music business over the course of a couple of decades. Written in a delightful way, Egan uses new and experimental literary devices to tell this tale.

The Science of Stephen King by Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence (2020)
Back to Stephen King, sort of. Science of … books are not new, I own one about vampires. The title is pretty self-explanatory. There are some great interviews and Q&As with all kinds of folks talking about everything from psychology to aliens from outer space as they pertain to the works of Stephen King. It could have gone a little deeper in some areas, and there was a big swing and a miss when it comes to IT, but overall it was well-done.

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum (1989)
The author behind the pen name Jack Ketchum died roughly two years ago. I had the thought that maybe I had become desensitized considering all of the horror I have read and watched over the years and I desired a shock to the system. This is hands down the most disturbing book I have ever read. I am not even going to give a synopsis. It’s a study in how cruel we can be to our fellow humans and how we can turn a blind eye to it. I needed a shower when I finished this in one sitting.

The Horror Writer compiled and edited by Joe Mynhardt (2020)
Sometimes we writers have to study the craft, no matter how much we think we know. This is a great book for any writer, not just slingers of tales of the macabre. There are plenty of articles, interviews, and Q&As about the genre, publishing, marketing and more. This is just the second book on writing I have read, with the first being Stephen King’s On Writing.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula Starring Bela Lugosi by Robert Napton, original story by Bram Stoker, Artist El Garing, Art Director Kerry Gammill (2020)
Twenty years in the making, this fantastic new graphic novel depicts Bram Stoker’s titular count as if Bela Lugosi starred throughout the story rather than the 1931 movie adaptation that was based on the theatrical production. The artwork is stunning and the narrative is as close to the book as such a thing can be.

I am currently 200 pages or so away from finishing the almost 1,000 pages of Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King. I doubt I’ll complete it by the time the clock strikes midnight on 2020. So, this marks 35 completed reads for the year. I lost momentum for some reason, but I’ll get it back. Out of the 35 books I finished, I can honestly say there were only a few I didn’t enjoy. And there are a few I will read again. Santa Claus brought me some more books that’ll probably go right to the top of the TBR pile. In 2021, I hope to become even more prolific in my reading. I have plenty to read.

Happy reading, everyone.

A Look Back and a Vision for What’s to Come

January 3, 2021, will mark the eighth anniversary of my first post on the blog and I have learned quite about about myself, blogging, fitness, and pop culture since I started it. Some of those things have been obvious and others not so much. I can be a little dense at times. Initially meant to be a way of keeping myself accountable during my weight loss and fitness journey, it has become much more than that. It is now more creative outlet than anything else. This blog helps me hone my writing skills and it certainly has helped me discover my voice as a writer. The main thing I have figured out in the past few weeks is that in order to get more people to read your stuff, you must write and create more. Seems like a “duh” moment I know. I took a look at the last eight years of traffic and I have been inconsistent from year to year. And obviously, the years I have written more, the more views I have gotten. So, I shall endeavor to write more.

This past year was a lousy one for so many people and I am no exception. However, I must admit, I have had it better than millions of folks worldwide. The major event happened in June and I have not made a big deal out of it publicly. But, I was let go from my job of 20 years. However, when one door closes, another opens. I am looking forward to some exciting opportunities in the coming year and I will be more than happy to tell you about them soon.

I didn’t write a substantive blog in 2020 until April. For whatever reason, I felt the need to write something about author Stephen King and the interconnected multiverse he has created over five decades. A novella in Stephen King’s latest collection of such writings, If it Bleeds, inspired a memoir about my childhood next-door-neighbor.

In July, I wrote a Jack Kerouac-inspired piece about my backyard and the benefits of staying home during the global pandemic. I extolled the virtues of finding your own beach as commercials for a popular beer like to remind us.

I was quite productive in September. I decided to write a treatise on the myriad film portrayals of Dracula. I love the book and character and several film adaptations. But I have found that very few are true to the book. Then I decided to bring back my the Countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror movies. The math dictated that I start it in September in order to finish by Halloween. Rebooting the countdown gave me the opportunity fix some broken links and embedded videos.

Throughout October I posted entries in the Countdown of My 100 Favorite Movies. I then had the crazy idea to take a long hard look at the Universal Monsterverse, the first cinematic universe in movie history. This led me to detail the character arcs for Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Kharis the Mummy. The entry regarding the Wolf Man turned out to be the most popular thing I have written in quite some time. This took me into November where I created countdowns for my favorite seasonal and Christmas music and updated my childhood Thanksgiving memories.

In December, I wrote a ghost story of sorts and counted down my favorite Christmas movies/specials/shows, which I hadn’t done in four years. I also wrote about the start of the binge of Star Trek: The Original Series. The next entry in that Captain’s Log is coming soon.

The Knaak Christmas Tree.

Many of my blog posts in 2020 were actually embeds of my podcast, which is now on hiatus. I’m weighing my options with that. If you go searching the blog site for old episodes, some may be disabled. You have my apologies for that.

Christmas went well although it took quite a bit to get into the spirit. It happened eventually, rather last minute actually. Gifts were exchanged, good food and drink were consumed, favorite films were viewed. And now it has all been taken down and put away until next Christmas. Yes, that quickly. This year was so weird. Shopping was done exclusively online. But we did drive around and look at our neighbors’ outdoor lighting displays, so that was fun.

As I mentioned, fitness was the impetus behind this blog and I have been delinquent in writing and posting about it. Some folks didn’t care for it. That’s not why I stopped. I just got to a good place where exercise became part of my lifestyle. But haters gonna hate. I hoped that chronicling my journey others might be inspired to eat right and exercise. I was right in a few cases. And I was resented in others. Some of my most popular missives have been about fitness and exercise so take that.

I can best be described as a yo-yo. My weight goes up and down. My workout regimen is unbreakable and my resolve is unshakeable. I don’t miss workouts. When I had access to a multi-million exercise facility up until the end of February, I was the strongest I have ever been. But as I put on muscle and gained strength, I also put on weight and it wasn’t good weight. When stay-at-home orders were issued, I set about losing weight and dropped 20 pounds in three months or so. Unfortunately, I have gained a bit of that back. I never dismantled my home gym and we purchased a used Bowflex Treadclimber at the start of the pandemic. Heat and wildfire smoke kept me from getting outside over the summer but I have tried to get out as much as possible – walking, playing basketball, and throwing the football. I have run some. I’ve been working on my agility as well.

Exercise is not my problem. Nutrition is. I am horribly inconsistent. I’ll eat right and get my protein and water and supplements in for awhile and then I’ll fall off the wagon and eat and drink whatever I like.

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I think they’re dumb and too easily broken. I set goals. It just so happens that I find the end of the holiday season the perfect time to reset and start trying to achieve those goals. I used to wait until the end of football season for basically the same reason.

My home gym.

Every year I pledge to read more books than the year before and I’ve managed to do that. This year that exploded. I read more than 30 books in 2020 after finishing nine in 2019. I hope to exceed that in 2021. Santa brought some new books.

My fitness goal is to get back down to my fighting weight. I have gotten to 180 pounds twice during this journey and I know I can do it again. It won’t be easy. It seems like the older I get, the harder it becomes. But I’m determined to get my eating habits under control and keeping working out hard. I plan on getting back into running as well. I haven’t done any serious distance running in three years and I miss it. The walking I’ve been doing the past few months has me thinking about running quite a bit. My best friend is fond of telling me that I feel like I’m late to the dance because I’m worried about what time the dance started. I’ll be 52 in June. It’s not too late for me to achieve my desired fitness level.

I have some new opportunities ahead of me so stay tuned for details. Let’s just say for now that I’ll be writing quite a bit more. There’s a personal rebrand coming as well. One chapter of my professional life may have ended in 2020, but it’s hardly the last one in the book. I’m not finished yet. I’m just getting started.

On the 1st Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A White Christmas

I hate musicals. I really do. I don’t know why. They are just not my thing. I don’t like them in person and I don’t like movie musicals. Perhaps the only one I enjoyed growing up was The Wizard of Oz, if you want to call it a musical.

I do love Christmas music. I counted down my favorites. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is on the list. The song first appeared in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. And yes, the hotel chain is named after the movie. I own the movie. I’ve watched it once. I like it well enough, just not enough to put it on this countdown.

  1. White Christmas – 1954

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star along with Rosemary Clooney, (yes, George’s aunt), and Vera-Ellen. Crosby and Kaye are in the Army together and Kaye saves Crosby’s life during a World War II battle in the European theater. Crosby is an established entertainer and Kaye is an up and comer. Kaye uses the “lifesaving bit” throughout the film to get Crosby to do pretty much whatever he fancies, except hit the dating circuit.

Enter the Haynes sisters. Siblings of an old Army buddy, they get Wallace and Davis (Crosby and Kaye) to come check out their song and dance act on false pretenses. Both Davis and Judy (Vera-Ellen) cook up a scheme within minutes/hours of meeting each other to get Bob (Crosby) and Betty (Clooney) together.

A train trip to eventually leads the quartet to Vermont (where it hasn’t snowed since Thanksgiving) and a chance reunion with their former commanding officer, who now runs a ski lodge. No snow means no customers which equals a destitute former general.

The boys cook up yet another scheme, a misunderstanding between Bob and Betty threatens to undo what is now a budding romance. Eventually all is forgiven, the general is surprised with a Christmas Eve reunion of his old outfit, and Wallace and Davis fall for the Haynes sisters. It all ends with a rendition of White Christmas as snow finally blankets the area.

My father was in the Army and I grew up in western New York where white Christmases were the norm not the exception. So this movie speaks to me on many levels. I only discovered it a few years back during an AMC Christmas marathon. I thought, “What the hell, why not?” I was hooked, I watched it three times and cried every time. There is a lot of random is this movie and there is a lot “why don’t they just…?” But then we wouldn’t have much of a film and it’s fun to swing over the plot holes.

My folks passed away almost 13 and 14 years ago respectively and I miss them dearly. Christmas was a big deal for me growing up. My father would have been 85 the day after Christmas. This movie has come to mean quite a bit.

This has truly become my favorite Christmas movie/special and it is required viewing snow or no snow.

Merry Christmas everyone. I hope you enjoyed the countdown.

12 Days of Knaak Christmas
On the 12th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Twilight Zone Episode
On the 11th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me An Animated Classic
On the 10th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me An Incandescent Nose
On the 9th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Sweet Backstory
On the 8th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Dose of Christmas Spirit
On the 7th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Modern Interpretation of A Classic Tale
On the 6th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Special Entertainer
On the 5th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Dr. Seuss Classic
On the 4th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Vacation
On the 3rd Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Holiday Memoir
On the 2nd Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Victorian Classic

Star Trekkin’

The U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701)

I am a devout Star Wars fan. I stood in line to see Star Wars when I was just shy of seven years old in 1977. I read the comic series that told the story of what is now knows as Star Wars: A New Hope before the movie hit theaters. I had action figures, and X-Wing fighter and TIE fighter toys. I’ve read a Star Wars novel. I dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween. Almost 30 years after the release of the original film, I had the opportunity to work with Lucasfilm on a project for work. I had my picture taken with Darth Vader and a pair of stormtroopers.

Star Trek was something I watched on Saturday or Sunday after cartoons were over. I was more into Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999. When you were kid in the 1970s and many 1960s television series were in syndication, you had no concept of episode order or continuing story arcs. Most TV episodes of any series were encapsulated in that one-hour time slot. Once in awhile you’d get the dreaded “To be continued …” two-part episode. It wasn’t like today’s cinematic approach to serial television where it takes several episodes or seasons to tell one complete story. Back then each episode was the story.

In today’s day and age, many classic television series are being introduced to new audiences via streaming services. You can find any number of them from the Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits to … well … Star Trek. I didn’t really become a fan of Star Trek or its recurring cast of characters until the movies were made. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of the greatest science fiction films ever produced. I have been enjoying the recent reboot as well.

Since I had never watched Star Trek from the beginning and the fact that it is now available on Netflix, my wife and decided to watch the whole thing from the very first episode. After a Facebook exchange with some friends about the origins of the series, I decided a blog series was in order.

I had often heard that Captain James T. Kirk was not the original captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701), that it was Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter). I recently learned that Star Trek was filmed at Desilu Studios and saved by Lucille Ball before it could leave space dock. Those friends on Facebook pointed me in the right direction and from reading and watching, I confirmed these things to be true.

The pilot, titled “The Cage,” of Star Trek never aired on television (eventually it did air in 1988). I watched it and wondered how the hell Gene Roddenberry’s iconic creation actually got picked up. “The Cage” was terrible. The dialogue was not what you’d recognize and the acting was awful. Leonard Nimoy as Spock is the only holdover to the original series you’d recognize, except for Majel Barrett, née Leigh Hudec, as Number One, who eventually became the voice of the Enterprise’s onboard computer and appeared as Nurse Chapel. Pike runs afoul of some malevolent big-brained zoo keepers in a story that would be recycled for a later two-episode tale called “The Menagerie,” which is next for me to watch. From this pilot, you can see where the filmmakers for the reboot got quite a few of their ideas.

After “The Cage,” Star Trek was retooled and revamped. The entire cast except for Nimoy was replaced with Shatner as Kirk and DeForest Kelly as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. George Takei appears as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, and James Doohan as Montgomery Scott (Scotty). Much of the crew’s structure, rank system and communication is based on United States Navy chain of command and vernacular, although the only “enlisted” ranks ever mentioned are “chief” and “yeoman.” Yeoman is a job/rate, and not a rank. In “The Cage,” dialogue suggested the United Federation of Planets but it was called something else. I’ve never understood the designation of the Enterprise as “U.S.S.,” which stands for “United States Ship,” whereas Kirk refers to the Enterprise as a “United Earth Ship.” The reason I mention these things here is that there is a polish, a smoothness, to the actual premiere of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” that was missing from the original pilot. The retool worked. Production value was much better, communication and dialogue was standardized, and much of what we know and recognize from the series is present from that very first episode.

A second season image of the Enterprise crew.

Early on, Sulu, Scotty, and Uhura are not present in every episode. Walter Koenig’s Chekov doesn’t appear until much later in the series. Numerous minor characters man the posts Uhura and Chekov become known for. There’s an early episode where the Enterprise has a different ship’s doctor and Bones is nowhere to be seen. I guess I’ll find out at what point the core group of characters we associate with Star Trek becomes the actual core group. A character called Yeoman Janice Rand, played by Grace Lee Whitney, is more prevalent in the early episodes than Sulu, Uhura, and Scotty.

The running joke about Star Trek for the past five decades is the red shirt. Uniform color has come to designate what part of the crew someone belongs to but this wasn’t 100 percent standardized early on. And the red shirts could either be security or engineering, gold was command, blue was for science/medical. I’m sure there’s a web site or book out there that could explain it. I’m not going that deep. The joke is that if a red shirt is on the landing party or away team, that person will more than likely get killed. Sacrificial lambs as it were. It’s actually worse than that. These guys are pretty worthless and serve little purpose except to have crew members for Kirk to order around. They don’t do anything except die horrible deaths or fail to contain prisoners/detainees.

The first nine episodes deal with human beings and all kinds of things that can go wrong with the human mind and condition while whipping around outer space, or being deconstructed and reconstituted by a transporter beam, or spending way too much time isolated on an alien world. In the 10th episode, the crew of the Enterprise is finally confronted by what might be a malevolent alien intelligence armed with superior technology/weaponry that could destroy the ship and all aboard. This becomes a recurring theme throughout Star Trek canon.

There are instances where you can see influences on Roddenberry from literature and how some of these episodes could have influenced writers of today. The eighth episode, “Miri,” has a Lord of the Flies vibe to it and that episode may have influenced Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. Only King would know the answer to that.

As much as Star Trek has been applauded for championing diversity at a time when such things weren’t done and becoming proficient at telling one-hour morality plays, the early episodes have a real problem with misogyny and sexism. It’s rampant. It’s disturbing. And it doesn’t seem to be portrayed in a way where the storytellers are addressing these things as issues or lessons to be learned but rather part of the fabric of shipboard culture. Maybe they were trying and they just weren’t very good at it. I spent 10 years in the Navy and exactly one year of my life at sea. I know what it’s like to go without the company of the opposite sex for extended periods of time during military service. There are female crew members aboard the Enterprise, but when the men get a look at women from outside their vessel, it’s like a school of sharks with blood in the water. And the treatment of Yeoman Rand is downright criminal at times. She is often the object of twisted affection in more than one episode. This is brought home in The Enemy Within where Kirk’s hostile animal instincts get split off as an actual physical evil twin during a transporter malfunction. I’m not going to get into detail regarding the evil twin Kirk’s behavior here. Suffice to say, he attacks Rand. I was stunned at how it was glossed over. After that episode, I don’t know how Rand could ever look at Kirk the same way again.

I’m hoping this part of the narrative makes a course correction as the series goes on because the episodes where these issues are prevalent were uncomfortable to watch.

I can’t tell you how many episodes I’ve watched over the years. I have recognized bits and pieces, and a few famous guest stars, so far. It’ll be interesting to see how the series evolves. What I’ve seen is intriguing and entertaining. It only ran from 1966 – 1969, but it spawned numerous feature-length films, spin-off series, conventions, a cottage industry, and a loyal, devoted fanbase.

What is fascinating to me is the picture quality. Netflix has been streaming what can only be digitally remastered video. By the seventh episode, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” the picture quality is stunning. I’m not going to encapsulate each episode or review them. I’ll post blog along the way to discuss trends, stories, performances, etc., that I find interesting.

I’m looking forward to my continuing voyage with the crew of the starship Enterprise.

On the 10th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me an Incandescent Nose

The countdown of my favorite Christmas movies/specials/TV shows continues with a story filmed in a style that would become synonymous with holiday specials. Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass (Rankin and Bass) brought a song to life and created one of the most beloved shows to ever hit the airwaves. An annual staple, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is usually one of the first Christmas specials to air each year.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Filmed in what I affectionately call super marionation (think Stingray and Thunderbirds, or um, Team America: World Police), although I think it’s more stop-motion than anything else, Rudolph is one of the most endearing holiday specials ever made because of the animation style, the music, the voice performances, and the characters. We just won’t discuss that the reindeer actually look like white-tailed deer. The show aired for the first time on December 6, 1964.

Johnny Marks originally wrote the song and Gene Autry turned it into a No. 1 hit in 1949. Mark’s brother-in-law Robert L. May wrote the original story in 1939. Burl Ives lent his voice to the TV special as Sam the Snowman and he also sings Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Silver and Gold, and A Holly Jolly Christmas.

10. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – 1964

We all know the story. Rudolph is born with a birth defect and rather than cherish his son, Donner decides to hide the affliction. Eventually, Rudolph’s honker is discovered and the other reindeer proceed to discriminate against him. They bully and exclude him because he is different. Even Santa Claus is guilty here.

One doe, Clarice, accepts Rudolph for who he is but it’s not enough to keep Rudolph from striking out with Hermie, an elf who’d rather be a dentist. They end up on the Island of Misfit Toys. Eventually, they make their way back to Christmastown and Rudolph’s affliction turns out to be just what everyone needs as the storm of the century threatens to cause the cancellation of Christmas. Santa asks Rudolph to guide his sleigh through the storm.

So, the lesson here is we have no use for you if you’re different – make yourself useful and we have a place for you?!? The older I get, the more of a humanist I become. You know what? We are really all the same. We should all be treated equally. I think that’s the overarching message here, it’s just a little ham-handed. It makes the right point, it just takes a roundabout way to get there.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the show. I watch it every year. It wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t. The characters are endearing – Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, Hermie, Clarice, and even the Abominable Snowman. The music is wonderful and many of the songs have become beloved Christmas classics that stand on their own apart from the show.

On the 12th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Twilight Zone Episode
On the 11th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me An Animated Classic

The Haunted Duck

This toy from my childhood may or may not be haunted by my late father.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the tradition of telling ghost stories this time of year may predate Christmas itself. The most obvious Christmas ghost story, of course, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Well, I have my own and I thought it was time to finally tell it.

Some months after my mother died in 2006, my father mentioned that while he was going through her possessions and belongings that he had found “the duck,” and that my newly hatched son should have “the duck.” I didn’t think much of it except to tell my dad to ship it to me, knowing that he probably wouldn’t.

I got “the duck” when I was a baby. That makes it more than 50 years old now. It’s not the cuddliest thing in the world. It qualifies as a music box. When you wind it up, it plays a tune and the arms move slowly up and down. It has a hard plastic face that could injure a child, or an adult for that matter. I had a lot of stuffed animals a little boy and they could all be described as plush. Not this thing. I don’t remember having an affinity for it. I had a stuffed rabbit that I adored. That one I remember fondly.

Eleven months after my mom died, dad succumbed to a heart attack. I was hurt, I was angry. It was bad enough mom passed away from a stroke at age 64, but, as an only child, dad dying was devastating. I made sure he didn’t spend my mom’s first birthday after her death by himself. As a Christmas present, we bought him a plane ticket to fly from Rochester, New York, to California a few weeks later in January. He died three weeks after his visit. Apparently, he had developed a cough he refused to see a doctor about. Apparently, this was a precursor to his fatal “cardiac event” as the paramedic described it. He died of a broken heart, you can’t tell me otherwise.

So, in late February 2007, my wife, infant son and I flew to Rochester to attend to things. “The duck” was the last thing on my mind. When we arrived at my parents’ house, we placed my son’s small suitcase on a red vinyl easy chair that lived in my old bedroom. The only thing I really wanted from my folks’ house was an old Cadaco basketball board game called “Basket.” Sure, there were other keepsakes that I treasure today, but that basketball game has it’s own story, and I wanted it. Even when I dug it out of my mother’s bedroom closet, I didn’t think about “the duck.”

We went through an entire week of making arrangements and phone calls. Cousins loaned us some toys and what not to make things easier for an infant in a house that hadn’t seen one in quite awhile. I had learned quite a bit about the funerary process when my mother died, so things went rather smoothly. My father had gone to high school with the owner of the funeral parlor, and the family attorney was also an old high school pal of my dad’s. My father had the foresight to purchase burial plots for him and my mother when he was in his 50s. Everything was taken care of. All I had to do is pick out a casket, write the obituary, request a military burial (dad was ex-Army), do a few things with the bank and various insurance companies (the lawyer mapped it all out for me, including the estate account). Final bills were getting paid and the funeral was arranged. We didn’t think about “the duck.”

We had the viewing, which served as the actual funeral. I eulogized my father and sent him off with It Was a Very Good Year by his favorite singer, Frank Sinatra. I didn’t want a graveside service. The weather was awful that February and I didn’t want to put people through that. So, we had a small, private burial with a military detail. The rest is a blur really. I don’t remember it all. I do recall thinking about all the things I would have to do to sell the house. My folks had lived in that home for just 22 years together, but there was more than 70 years of life in it. Dad was a city records manager by trade and was very well organized by nature, but he was a pack rat and kept a lot – bills, records, photographs, collectibles, you name it.

We spent a week at my parents’ house doing all we could in seven days’ time and laid my father to rest. The night before we were to fly back to California, my wife was in my old bedroom packing up. She put our little boy’s clothes and whatnot in his suitcase, which had spent a week sitting in that red vinyl chair, and flipped the lid down so she could zip it up.

And there was “the duck.”

Right there on top of the suitcase. “The duck.” She called to me, I was downstairs, and said she had the duck. I was incredulous. I don’t know how it got there, but it certainly gave us the chills. We eventually laughed about it and came to the conclusion that my father definitely wanted my boy to have this damn thing. Over the course of a week, we didn’t talk about the duck, we didn’t think about the duck – not once. And there it was.

It now lives on the top shelf in my son’s closet and that’s where it will stay for the foreseeable future.

I read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore to my son every Christmas Eve without fail. Until recently I had used a printout from the Internet. I used this well-worn piece of paper for years until the one year I couldn’t find it. One Christmas Eve it had vanished and we searched the house from top to bottom. We looked everywhere. No joy. Just as I was about to give up and print a fresh copy, my son called out from his bedroom, “It’s right here!” I flew up the stairs to his room to find the printout of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas sitting on top of a pile books on the top shelf of his bookcase.

It had not been there before. I swear. There’s no way it could have been. There’s no way that piece of paper had been sitting in that spot for 12 months.   

I wholeheartedly believe that my father haunts this duck, or my house; I’m not sure which. We have experienced other phenomena, and the duck has been involved on at least one other occasion. 

I just binge watched the latest season of a show on Netflix called The Repair Shop. Set in England, talented artisans and conservators restore broken and battered heirlooms and family treasures. Each of the items these folks are entrusted with has a story. Well, this toy from my childhood certainly has a story, and as far as I can tell the damn thing is haunted.

So, when you are going through or passing down your childhood or family treasures to your kids or grandchildren, or an older relative wants to pass something down to you, be careful with these things. Treat them with care and reverence. Because, you just never know.