October 12, 2018

This year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of a novel that not only changed the life of its young author but essentially created an entirely new genre of literature.

Mary was just a wee snip of a girl - merely 18 years old - when she first conceived her tale. It was born from a challenge, issued by a friend while she and her husband visited that friend in Switzerland during the rainy summer of 1816.

As the story has it, the group amused themselves one evening by reading German ghost stories that had been translated into French. At one point their host suggested that each member should write a ghost story of their own. It wasn't until several days latter that Mary hit upon the idea for her story, inspired (so she later said) by a terrible dream she'd had - though there is ample evidence to suggest that she also drew inspiration from a number of other sources, ranging from John Milton's Paradise Lost to a scientific textbook entitled Elements of Chemical Philosophy, as well as the first of several personal tragedies (in this case the suicide of a half-sister) that marked her life.

When Mary finally began work on her tale, her original intent was compose a short story. With her husband's encouragement she expanded the concept into a full-fledged novel, but Mary was not credited as its author when the novel first appeared in print on Jan. 1, 1818. That first edition was published anonymously, in three volumes (the standard "triple-decker" format of the day for first editions), with a print run limited to only 500 copies.

By the time Mary’s byline finally appeared on the second edition (published in France in 1823), her story was already well on its way to becoming one of popular culture’s most enduring myths. Though she eventually wrote several other novels, none would have the impact of Mary’s first burst of creative energy.

"Mary," of course, was Mary Shelley - the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the young bride of the famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. And the novel that grew out of that rainy night ghost story session was Frankenstein, the immortal tale of a monster fashioned by a man and the destruction wrought by its creation.

Although generally considered as a horror story, Frankenstein is considered by many critics and genre historians to be the first true science fiction story. This has become a point of debate among those who typically view horror and science fiction as two different and mutually exclusive genres, but it bears noting that the core concept of Shelley's masterpiece is one of the most basic and familiar of all science fiction themes; the only things separating Dr. Frankenstein’s man-made monster from the countless robots and other artificial lifeforms inhabiting so many other tales, really, are the materials from which he was made.

Thanks to the countless motion picture adaptations that have been produced over the years, Frankenstein's monster has become best known creations in all of fiction. Oddly enough, however, the popularity of those films - especially the 1931 classic directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the Monster - has had something of a negative impact upon the novel that inspired them.

Many seem to consider the book a "difficult read.” My father - one of the most voracious readers I’ve ever known - read it only once and always claimed he had a difficult time getting through it. When I devoted a term paper in one of my college literature classes to Shelley's novel and some of the films it inspired, my professor seemed surprised that I had actually read the thing - and even more so when I told him that I had in fact read it more than once over the years, the first time being in the fifth grade when I’d borrowed my father's 1965 Dell Laurel Leaf paperback edition (which he later gave to me as a gift and which is still a part of my personal library today).

More significantly, the film adaptations have - like the movie versions of that other great literary creation, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes - substantially altered the public’s understanding of the original story. The depiction of the monster being animated through the use of electricity, for example, comes not from the novel, but originated with the Karloff film. In Shelley’s original work, Dr. Frankenstein discovers a previously unknown but elemental principle of life which allows him to imbue vitality into inanimate matter (though the exact nature of that process is never fully explained).

Also, the Karloff movie - and pretty much every other film adaptation, both before and after 1931 - also depicts the monster's appearance in a far different manner than in the novel. Shelley described the Monster as about 8 feet (2.4 meters) in height and proportionally large, with watery white eyes and yellow skin that barely conceals the muscles and blood vessels underneath - a far cry from the cobbled-together collection of body parts portrayed by Karloff, though it is Karloff who still comes to mind for most people nearly 90 years after that film's release.

Most importantly, let us not forget that it was the monster's creator, and NOT the monster which he created, whom Mary Shelley christened Frankenstein. And yet it is the Monster most people think of when they hear the name, and you'd be surprised by some of the dirty looks I've gotten from some people when I've dared to correct them on the subject.

While Karloff's cinematic interpretation is the one most firmly fixed upon public consciousness, the life of the original literary character has also extended far beyond Shelley's novel.

In 1957, French author and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriére wrote the first of six sequels - entitled The Tower of Frankenstein - in which it revealed that the Monster survived the events of Shelley's original novel. In the book the Monster finally is given a name - "Gouroull," one of the first words he utters upon being returned to life, but the meaning of which remains a mystery throughout the series.

Carriére novels (originally published under the pen name "Benoit Becker") emphasizes the inhumanity of the creature to a greater degree than even Shelley. The first novel in the series opens in 1875; the sixth volume, The Cellar of Frankenstein, takes place just before the start of World War II and ends with the Monster vanishing once more.

More recently, other authors - two of whom, Frank Schilidner and Matthew Baugh, happen to be friends of Yours Truly - have renewed Carriére's series with new sequels of their own. Schildiner's contributions to the mythos include two novels - The Quest of Frankenstein and The Triumph of Frankenstein - as well as a short story, "The Blood of Frankenstein," which appeared in Volume 10 of the anthology series Tales of the Shadowmen.

Baugh - whose other literary projects have included serving as co-editor of the 2012 anthology for Moonstone Books in which my Green Hornet story "Bad Man's Blunder" appeared - authored "Mask of the Monster" for the first Tales of the Shadowmen collection. A third short story, entitled "Patricide," was written by Christofer Nigro for Tales of the Shadowmen Volume 8.

The tales by Schildiner, Baugh and Nigro were each published by Black Coats Press and are available on Amazon. I'll confess that I've not yet read Nigro's story, but I can testify that those by Schildiner and Baugh are worthy additions to Shelley's mythos and are well worth seeking out. (And no, I am NOT just saying that because Frank and Matthew are my friends.)

In the introduction to an 1831 edition of her first and most famous work, Mary Shelley wrote the following: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” Whether in print or on screen, that monster first dreamed up by an 18-year-old girl two centuries ago continues to loom large in the dark shadows of our collective consciousness - and no doubt will continue to do so for many a Halloween season to come.



September 28, 2018

Once upon a time there was an enchanted land where heroes still walked the earth performing wondrous deeds, and where strange and magical things took place on a fairly regular basis. 

It was a place where children could take refuge from the humdrum realities of day-to-day life and be happy. I should know; I visited there a few times myself.

But there came to this happy land a Wicked Witch, who had forgotten what it was like to be young and did not believe in joy and happiness and fun. She looke...

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My Top 20 Favorite Batman Comic Book Stories Of All Time

September 13, 2018

Just another pointless list 

by John Allen Small

So this is how this list came to be…

On Sept. 12, 2018, I posted a picture of the cover of Batman Comics No. 251 and explained how the story - “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge!” - was one of my two favorite Batman stories of all time and shared how I remember getting this issue when it originally came out. I was 10 years old and Mom bought it for me at the old newsstand on Court Street in Kankakee. 

It was my first encounter with the ...

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The Left-Handed Rebellion: Childhood Act Defines Lifetime Of Heroic Character

August 25, 2018

I began my previous entry with the following comment: “My father was, is, and forever shall be my hero.” In trying to prepare my remarks for the memorial service we held for Dad last Friday (August 17), I wanted to find that one particular story that might best illustrate why I have always and will always feel this way. 

It proved to be something of a struggle. The problem was, there are just so many such stories to choose from - and each one would, in its own way, have served the purpose...

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A Tribute To The Best Father A Son Never Deserved

August 17, 2018

My father was, is and shall forever be my hero.

When I was a little boy, I truly believed there was nothing that he could not do. Even with the passage of time, and the adult realization that he was only human after all, Dad was still the person I most wanted to be like. The person I least wanted to disappoint. The person whose opinion always meant the most to me.

It was only when I became old enough to understand such things that I realized just how much of a hero Dad truly was. He overcame...

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A Propaganda Victory Of Historic Proportions... for Russia

July 18, 2018

“What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we’ve been fighting to destroy?”
(Senator Padme Amidala, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)

The above snippet of dialogue was one of the most thought-provoking to be found in this series of science fantasy films that, for all its success, people all too often tend to dismiss as (in the words of a friend of mine who never has warmed up to the Star Wars movies) “mindless...

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Latest Tragedy Strikes Close To Home

July 3, 2018

NOTE: The following is the text of my newspaper column for July 5, 2018, written in response to last week’s mass shooting in Annapolis.)

Another week, another mass shooting.

That’s America in the 21st century.

“The new normal,” some people are calling it. But there’s nothing normal about it. 

Not one blessed thing.

There’s nothing “normal” about the average American leaving home to go to work, or to school, or church, or a movie or concert or the shopping mall, and wondering as the...

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Fandom, Disney Is Killing "Star Wars"

June 12, 2018

In one of the better-known installments of the Peanuts comic strip, Linus makes the following observation during a conversation with Charlie Brown: “I love mankind—it’s people I can’t stand!!”

I'm starting to feel much the same way with regards to Star Wars. I still love George Lucas' creation - it's the fans and the new distributor I'm learning to hate.

I just read an article stating that Solo: A Star Wars Story may end up being the first Star Wars movie to lose money, and that R...

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May 30, 2018

Hadn't had the time to do this before today, due to deadline pressures at my day job and other obligations, so I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts regarding  Solo: A Star Wars Story.

WHAT I LIKED: Pretty much everything, despite my initial misgivings about the project. Alden Ehrenreich actually did a pretty fair job of channeling Harrison Ford as the title character (Ford has made similar comments himself in a couple of interviews I’ve read), and Donald Glover made a better Land...

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May The FIRST Be With You...

May 2, 2018

Something occurred to me the other day, as I was trying to wash the bad residue of the day’s national news cycle from my psyche by going back to the stuff I loved as a kid…

George Lucas (or maybe it was Alan Dean Foster) predicted the rise of Donald Trump.

Way back in December of 1976, roughly six months before the movie actually debuted in theaters, Ballantine/Del Rey Books released the novelization of the film Star Wars. The book carried the byline of the film’s writer-director, Geo...

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About Me

John Allen Small John A. Small is an award-winning newspaper journalist, columnist and broadcaster whose work has been honored by the Oklahoma Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, the National Newspaper Association, and the Oklahoma Education Association. He and his wife Melissa were married in 1986; they have two sons, Joshua Orrin (born 1991) and William Ian (born 1996). Mr. Small is the News Editor and columnist for the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, a weekly newspaper headquartered in Tishomingo, OK. He obtained his nickname, "Bard of the Lesser Boulevards," from a journalism colleague - the late Phil Byrum - in recognition of the success of his popular newspaper column, "Small Talk." (In addition to the many awards the column itself has received over the years, a radio version of "Small Talk" earned an award for "Best Small Market Commentary" from the Society of Professional Journalists in 1998.) John was born in Oklahoma City in 1963; lived in the Bradley-Bourbonnais-Kankakee area of Illinois for most of the next 28 years (with brief sojourns in Texas and Athens, Greece, thrown in to break up the monotony); then returned to his native state in 1991, where he currently resides in the Tishomingo/Ravia area. He graduated from Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in 1981, and received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais in 1991. The years between high school and college were a period frought with numerous exploits and misadventures, some of which have become the stuff of legend; nobody was hurt along the way, however, which should count for something. In addition to his professional career as a journalist he has published two short story collections: "Days Gone By: Legends And Tales Of Sipokni West" (2007), a collection of western stories; and "Something In The Air" (2011), a more eclectic collection. He was also a contributor to the 2005 Locus Award-nominated science fiction anthology "Myths For The Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe," edited by Win Scott Eckert. In additon he has written a stage play and a self-published cookbook; served as project editor for a book about the JFK assassination entitled "The Men On The Sixth Floor"; and has either published or posted on the Internet a number of essays, stories and poems. He has also won writing awards from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National Library of Poetry. He is a past president of the Johnston County Chamber of Commerce in Tishomingo; was a charter member and past president of the Johnston County Reading Council, the local literacy advocacy and "friends of the library" organization; served as Johnston County's first-ever Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator in 1994-95; served two terms as chairman of the Johnston County (OK) Democratic Party; and has taught journalism classes for local Boy Scout Merit Badge Fairs. He is a member of the New Wold Newton Meteorics Society.
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