New year, same challenges

A new year has begun, and over all, the preceding one ended well. The long Christmas weekend afforded me a chance to tackle something I’d been avoiding for months; a revision to a key scene in a pivotal chapter. It took about 2-1/2 to 3 days, but I excised (possibly exorcised) all the painfully bad content from the initial draft, and replaced with infinitely better material. The core actions of the scene remain the same, but the words used to tell it had to change. I was riding high after that, and looking forward to keeping the trend going over the next four day weekend over New Years. I did put in the work, but the payoff wasn’t nearly as satisfying. What I accomplished was small, but essential, things that contribute to the end game. They just aren’t very visible, which can trick you into thinking you didn’t do anything valuable.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances not related to writing, the following week found me utterly useless as far as the book was concerned. Every time I opened the manuscript, no matter what chapter or section I looked at, I loathed and immediately closed the file. It wasn’t until the weekend was nearly over that I got my head back in the right place.

Sometimes, you have to mix up your routine. I’ve alternated between tackling difficult portions, doing simple proofing, and consolidating duplicate notes. This week, I’ve employed the slow but steady approach of condensing notes, with a goal of at least an hour a night, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the work. It all adds up in the end.

Making progress

It’s a fact; when writing, an author always comes up against obstacles. Some of these can be relatively small things, easily resolved. Coming up with the ‘just right’ name of a town, or character, for instance. Other things are more weighty; trying to figure out how to get from point A to point C when point B is eluding you. Some time and thought will eventually solve that issue. Then there are those things that you know are in dire need of revising, reworking. You have the notes, the ideas, you know what changes need to be made, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it, because the early draft of that scene or chapter provokes cringes you didn’t think were humanly possible. What to do?

I’ve been running up against that last situation for a while now. I had a scene, a rather important scene, nay, a very important scene, the first draft of which, in retrospect, was trash. Embarrassingly bad trash. A few months ago, I made changes to the very beginning of the chapter, that was the easy part, but every time I attempted to work on what followed, I managed to find something else to do. Finally, I bit the bullet. I decided no matter how painful, no matter how many times I might wince or roll my eyes in disgust, I had to do the work, distasteful as it would be.

I took advantage of the four-day holiday weekend. After catching up with small edits to preceding chapters, I confronted my nemesis, my personal Goliath. I was determined to get a workable, readable draft of the chapter before the weekend was out. And I did it, finishing up late Christmas afternoon. When I read the early draft, written years ago, I realized it had a crudeness and ugliness to it that may have worked, initially, but the story has evolved into something else. Something far better, and the revisions I made completely change the tone of the scene, so it now aligns with both my overall vision and other existing chapters, not to mention, it dovetails perfectly with the following scene, a pivotal point in the book that ends the chapter.

By the end of the three day endeavor, I was exhausted, but it was worth the undertaking. Slaying that giant, moving that boulder blocking my path, sorting through the clutter of words, keeping what was useful and discarding the rest, was a great way to wrap up the year.

 

KDP Cover template generator

Lately, I’ve noticed more people on forums or message boards talking about print book cover errors or sizing issues on KDP Print. They ask for help and more often than not, the answer they’re given doesn’t solve their problem. I find this strange, since the most straight-forward answer is out there, if you take the time to look. I’m talking about one piece covers, not separate jpgs uploaded to the Cover Creator.

CreateSpace had a book cover template generator, in which you’d input some basic information, and a template for a one piece wrap around cover would be created for download. It would add in for the bleed, and take the guesswork out of spine width, making it an easier process for the author and/or artist. KDP Print has a template generator, too, but it’s a little bit buried on KDP’s website. Below is both a step-by-step with screenshots, and a quick video explaining where to find the template creator.

First, go to kdp.amazon.com. On the upper right hand side, click on ‘help.’ You don’t need to log in to your account. Or, enter kdp.amazon.com/cover-templates then skip to the third paragraph down about the Paperback Cover Template page.

You’ll see a greeting, Hi, can we help you? On the right hand side, under the section Prepare Your Book, click on ‘See all formatting resources.’Screencap1

The next page will have three blocks of information. We’re concerned with the middle one for Paperbacks. The first thing you’ll see is Free Tools and Resources  with a bullet ‘Try our manuscript and cover templates.’ Click on the word ‘cover.’Screencap2

You’re now at the Paperback Cover Template page. On the far left is where you input your information. First, enter your trim size (the finished size of your book) from the pull down menu. Next, enter the page count. This is another area where some people make mistakes. This is for the entire number of pages in your document, including all front and back matter. Your word processing program will have a page count (in LibreOffice it’s in the bottom left of the Writer application). Or, if you’ve already exported to PDF, your previewer or Adobe reader will tell you how many pages. Enter the total page count. Finally, enter the type of paper you want for your book’s interior. This is important, since creme is heavier than white and will affect the width of the spine. Once all your info is entered, click the yellow Download cover template button.Screencap3

The template generates immediately and downloads as a zip file. Open that and you’ll find two files in your folder, a PDF and a PNG file. You can open either one in Photoshop, Illustrator, or other program to create your cover.

When you set-up your title on KDP, make sure your trim, page count, and paper color are the same as you entered for your cover template. KDP Print defaults to 6 X 9 trim size, for instance, and you’ll notice in the above photo, the template creator defaults to white for the paper color. Make sure everything matches, and you shouldn’t have a problem.

Two projects and KDP

I’ve been at something of a stand still with the novel for several months. As a result, I focused on other things as a means to avoid and procrastinate. Recently, however, I started focusing on a second project that, frankly, is a mess. I spent a good amount of time doing some brainstorming and dictating notes, and I’m happy to say the new material and direction is very much to my liking. Of course, with this being another very old story under heavy revision, there’s a lot of old material that needs to be discarded.

I may have mentioned before that when one of my manuscripts gets to be a little long, I order proof copies. Full disclosure: I’m a slow writer and write longer novels so the page and word count gets up there. When figuring the cost of material (reams of paper, inkjet cartridges) and time needed to print, it’s not economical to print a copy from my computer. In fact, for the price of about two reams of paper, or a little less than half of one inkjet cartridge for my printer model, I can get a proof copy in less than a week.

Some have complained lately about lengthy wait times for proofs from KDP, especially since CreateSpace is in its death throes — or perhaps they’re already planning the funeral. Here’s my recent experience.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to order a proof each for my still-working-on-it novel Iniquitous Desires, and another book I’m planning. The second one is an amalgam of the story’s first incarnation, portions of another, abandoned, story, and new notes. I ran into an issue with Iniquitous (which I detail below), but the other book upload went off without a hitch. I requested a proof and waited until the following day, Black Friday, to order (TIP: if you don’t want a paltry $9.00 or $10.00 charge on your credit card, buy an Amazon gift card and use that to purchase your proof.) The order confirmation said I’d receive my book the following Thursday. Fair enough. Imagine my surprise when I had an e-mail Monday morning saying the proof had shipped and would be delivered Tuesday. And, sure enough, it arrived.

On all my previous books, my play and the episode guides, I opted for glossy covers. When I ordered my first proof of Iniquitous from CreateSpace early this year, I chose matte. I went with matte for this new title as well and, although everybody and their cousin insists glossy is gauche, it has its merits. Observe:

Notice what appear to be white smudges? That’s after handling the book for maybe a half hour. Matte is not a dark color’s friend. The red also reads better in a photo for some reason than when holding the physical book. This cover was submitted with a CMYK color profile (something that’s necessary when using Ingram Spark, at 240% TAC no less, which deadens the color even more). KDP is more flexible. You can upload a cover in RGB and they’ll do their best to color match when converting to CMYK, usually with good results (some colors, like vibrant blues or purples turn out terrible). Here’s the cover in RGB (font change pending):

Corvid Cover copy

Snazzy, huh? Next time I order a proof, it will be glossy to compare. Now, about that Iniquitous proof…

As I mentioned, I had ordered a proof for ID through CreateSpace at the beginning of the year, then left it as a draft. Somewhere around March or April, while I was madly updating the episode guides, CreateSpace was in the beginning of its downward spiral. The writing was on the wall for anyone paying attention. Fed up with books being suppressed and requests to prove rights, I began moving my small catalog over to KDP. It was a painless process, but the only thing I couldn’t do was transfer my ID draft. I didn’t view it as a problem since I wasn’t using a free ISBN. I closed my CreateSpace account.

Last week, as I merrily set up the title on KDP, I hit a snag. KDP kept throwing up an error message that the ISBN I was entering was a CreateSpace owned number. It most certainly was not. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts and some muttered profanity, I couldn’t continue setting up my book. KDP politely kept asking me to fix the errors so it could process my title. I sent them a message, explaining about the previous draft and my inability to transfer it at the time I closed the account, and that the ISBN was from my imprint. I received a prompt reply, sympathetic to my plight, and assurances the web and tech team would be put on it and I’d hear back in two to three days. Since it was a long holiday weekend, I allowed for extra time.

Surprisingly, I received an e-mail on Monday from the same customer support person informing me the situation had been resolved, and it had been. My most up-to-date proof of ID should arrive early next week. At the last second, before submitting the request for a proof, I backtracked and changed the cover to glossy. We’ll see how it looks.

The most interesting thing is that now that I have a tangible, albeit chaotic, version of Scarlet Corvid to look through, I’m now more interested in working on Iniquitous. I suppose it’s a mind-game, a little psychological trick I play with myself to get motivated. Iniquitous is actually in fairly good shape compared to the shambles of Corvid. Sorting out the disarray in SC can give my mind a break from ID, and ID will be, for the most part, an orderly respite from the insanity of SC.

 

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Carradine, Price, Cushing, and Lee share the screen in a Gothic inspired horror-comedy.

American author Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) heads to London to meet with his English publisher, Sam Allyson (Richard Todd),  prior to a book signing tour for his new novel. Over lunch, Sam laments the lack of character driven literature, like Tolstoy or Dickens. Magee scoffs that anyone can churn out that stuff and boasts he could write a Wuthering Heights style novel in twenty-four hours, even going so far as to wager $20,000.00 he can. Magee requests a place he can work undisturbed. Sam knows of a place in the Welsh Countryside, an abandoned mansion for sale. He’ll arrange with his friend for Magee to stay there.

Magee arrives at the mansion on an appropriately dark and stormy night. Naturally, the Gothic mansion has no electricity so he must work by candlelight. Ken soon discovers he’s not alone, meeting the elderly Elijah Quimby (John Carradine) and his daughter Victoria (Sheila Keith), who introduce themselves as the caretakers. Magee doesn’t mind their presence, as long as they leave him alone. Not long afterward, a woman shows up urging Magee to leave, he’s in danger. It turns out to be Mary Norton (Julie Peasgood), Sam’s secretary, sent to disrupt Magee’s work. Her ruse is quickly discovered. Another visitor arrives, a man named Sebastian (Peter Cushing) who claims his car broke down in the storm. A short while later, yet another visitor, Lionel Grisbane (Vincent Price) appears, having returned to his ancestral home. It turns out, Elijah is actually Lord Grisbane, with Victoria, Sebastian, and Lionel his children, reunited after forty years. Needles to say, the family harbors a dark secret.

Adding to the mix is another arrival, a Mr. Corrigan (Christopher Lee), in the process of buying the property. Passing by, he saw lights and stopped to investigate who was trespassing. The seven sit down to an awkward dinner and the family secret is finally revealed. Danger and mayhem ensues.

House of the Long Shadows is based on the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Bald Pate by Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers. It was adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan, who altered the ending. A number of film adaptations were made, some using the novel’s ending, others the play. Although the set-up is basically the same, those versions (and novel) were mystery-comedies set in America involving an off-season mountain lodge and search for hidden money. This movie took a Gothic horror and old dark house approach, an acknowledgment of the collective work of its four stars.

Filmed on location, the mansion is appropriately grand. The score is quite good, reminiscent of a bygone era. Vincent Price, who had appeared in a number of campy horror films in the seventies, eschews the camp in favor of a restrained performance, more in line with earlier works from the sixties (think the Corman Poe projects). It’s a nice change. Peter Cushing, whose heroes and villains in the past always appeared confident and pro-active, plays completely against type here, another surprise. John Carradine plays the patriarchal role as you’d expect, not a bad thing, and Christopher Lee is solid as Corrigan. Sheila Keith handles the role of Victoria ably. Julie Peasgood is a bit weak at times, and Arnaz, who often gets hammered in online reviews, does have a few bad line readings, but other than that he’s fine. Not spectacular, mind you, but adequate, with a few funny line deliveries. The movie was directed by Pete Walker, an exploitation film maker who came out of earlier retirement to do this picture, from a script by Michael Armstrong.

I hadn’t seen this movie in over thirty years and was looking forward to it, thinking I might not have appreciated or not understood everything going on. Unfortunately, my reaction was the same as thirty-plus years ago. Turns out, I understood it perfectly back then. I did, however, appreciate more of the Gothic elements that I didn’t catch all those years ago. Despite the pedigree of the four horror icons, this movie is not greater than the sum of its parts. The fault lies in the script and the pacing. It starts fine, but once Magee gets to Bald Pate Manor, things seem to slow to a glacial pace. Although they hit nearly all the Gothic tropes, there’s a nagging feeling that something is lacking. I was hoping for more humor of the dry and droll variety, but it’s not really there. Neither does there seem to be a sense of urgency or immediacy. Of course, it’s a treat to see the four all interacting in scenes, but it’s not enough to make up for the flatness that overlays everything.

House of the Long Shadows isn’t horrible, but it isn’t as good as it could have been. A tightening up of the script and brisker pace would have helped lift it out of the blandness that bogs it down. I’d still recommend it for die-hards of the four horror legends, just don’t expect too much. Disappointing. My rating, 5 out of 10 (5/10).

*NOTE: This review is based on the widescreen Blu-ray presentation by Kino Lorber. A DVD-r burn on demand version is available from MGM in 4:3 pan-and-scan aspect ratio. By all accounts, the latter is muddy, made from an inferior source print.

What’s coming up

A very brief update to say that a more substantial post will be coming soon. I’m awaiting the arrival of a DVD I’d like to review of a movie I haven’t seen in over thirty years. It will be interesting to revisit it. There’s also an interesting history attached to the title, which I’ll include in the review. With luck, I may have the review up by this weekend. If not, the holiday weekend for sure.

I’ve finally transcribed the notes I had for a second novel and have ironed out many of the kinks I had in the early planning. There are still plenty of things to be sorted out, but the hurdles I’ve overcome have put me in a positive frame of mind. I think this second novel is going to be more challenging since I’m falling into my habit of non-linear story telling. Thankfully, there are only two sections that deviate, and they’ll be easily identifiable as flashback sequences. I’m also pleased with the evolution of a particular character; they’ve become more layered and nuanced, hence, more interesting. In addition, I’ve settled on a cover image that I believe captures the essence of the story. At least I have that cleared from my mind.

I’m in desperate need of a new proof copy of the first novel. The one I have from ten months ago is basically useless now. At least the first half is, since I’ve made so many changes to, and beefed up, the early chapters. There’s still so much to do, but I never feel like I have enough time, and I haven’t gotten into the right frame of mind to continue. The lack of substantive writing nags at me, I feel like I’m being neglectful.

I surprised myself by finding an audio note file for a third novel that I accidentally stored with the notes for the second. Some good stuff in that. The mistake was understandable; the three novels are connected. My goal is to publish three novels, not a trilogy, but a trio of books that can be read as stand alones. However, reading all three would provide a much richer reading experience and, depending on the order in which the books are read, a different reading experience. Each novel has a self-contained story, but there are people, places, and events that feed into the other two. It’s an exciting idea, but ambitious. I could really use a burst of unstoppable creativity and inspiration for about two years to finish the project. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, so I’ll muddle through inch by inch.

Calling Dr. Death (1943)

A doctor’s cheating wife is found dead. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what he was doing at the time due to a black-out. Will hypnosis prove him guilty or innocent of the crime?

Dr. Mark Steele, a neurologist who employs hypnosis in certain cases, has a problem; an adulterous wife. He’s also attracted to his nurse, Stella Madden, and he suspects the attraction is mutual. Returning home from work one evening, he learns from the butler that his wife, Maria, is out. He dines alone, with only his thoughts for company. Then he waits, and waits, long into the night, even phoning his nurse at three a.m., unaware of the time. Maria finally comes home an hour later. Watching from the balcony, Mark sees her impart a kiss to her lover before heading inside.

Entering the bedroom antechamber, Maria starts in on her husband for waiting up. They argue, with the brazen hussy admitting her infidelity but unwilling to divorce; she likes the status and nice things her marriage to him provides. She taunts that he doesn’t have the guts to kill her.

The next evening, when Mark returns home, the butler reluctantly informs him Maria has gone away for the weekend. The enraged doctor heads out in search of her.

Mark wakes Monday morning sitting at his office desk, with no idea how he got there or what he did the last two days. Stella comes in and, concerned, suggests he cancel his appointments for the day. He declines. As he’s finishing his ablutions, two detectives arrive with bad news; Mrs. Steele is dead, murdered. Mark accompanies them to his country house. Not only was Maria bludgeoned to death, her beautiful face was disfigured by acid. It’s clear that the lead detective, Inspector Gregg, suspects Mark.

An arrest is made, not of Mark, but Maria’s lover, Robert Duval. Mark goes to talk to him at the police station. Duval confesses to the affair, but swears he’s no killer. Mark believes him, and says he’ll do what he can to help. A trial via montage and newspaper headlines show Duval convicted and sentenced to death. Insp. Gregg, however, doggedly pursues Dr. Steele, convinced he’s the real culprit. Eventually, Mark resorts to self-hypnosis to discover the truth.

CDD5

This is the first of six Inner Sanctum films by Universal starring Lon Chaney Jr. It’s a fairly tidy little murder-mystery, directed by Reginald Le Borg, with an original screenplay by Edward Dein. Chaney plays Mark Steele and seems to display a little more range in this role than usual. Patricia Morison, as Stella, is Mark’s nurse and dependable right-hand. J. Carrol Naish puts in a good turn as Insp. Gregg, although I wanted to punch the character from time to time for his smugness as he continually harangues, pesters, and needles Mark about being the guilty party, sending an innocent man to death for his crime. As Maria, the beautiful but bitchy wife from hell, Ramsay Ames makes an impression in her very brief appearance. There’s an Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce quality to the character and portrayal, which adds to the fun. I wish she’d had more scenes. David Bruce and Fay Helm round out the cast as the Duvals, with Helm’s role being nearly inconsequential.

There’s a lot of voice-over by Mark in this one, not unlike a radio drama. Incidental music is used sparingly, often only an organ for emphasis. There’s effective use of chiaroscuro in several scenes, lending a noir vibe, as well as the use of a Dutch angle in a key scene. When Mark arrives at his country house to identify his wife’s body, the movie uses his P.O.V. as he walks the gauntlet of photographers and reporters to the front door, momentarily putting the audience in his place. The dénouement raises a couple of questions that aren’t really explained, but a viewer can fill in the blanks. The movie drags a little around the half or two-thirds mark, but overall, it’s an enjoyable hour. My rating, 6 out of 10 (6/10)

Night Monster (1942)

There’re strange goings-on in and around Ingston Towers. When the frogs stop croaking in the slough, best watch out, something’s out stalking. Something deadly.

Milly Carson has had enough. Working as a maid in wealthy Kurt Ingston’s home, she’s seen too many weird things, like blood spots on the floor, and thinks it best to tell the cops, especially since her employer’s doctor was recently found dead in the nearby slough. She abruptly quits, accepting a ride into town with chauffeur Laurie. After he makes an unwanted pass, she catches a ride with a passing townsman. At the house, Kurt’s sister, Margaret, anxiously awaits the arrival of a doctor she’s summoned, psychiatrist Dr. Harper.

Laurie heads into town to pick up three guests; Drs. King, Phipps, and Timmons. The medicos know each other, all having treated their host, Ingston. Milly meanwhile, tells her story to Constable Beggs, who doesn’t think much of her vague claims. She heads back to the house to collect her things. Through a plot contrivance, her ride leaves without her and she starts walking through the slough, rattled when the frogs and crickets fall silent; it’s a sign all is not well.

On the road, a woman with a broken-down car begins walking towards the house, but turns back upon hearing a woman scream. She flags down an approaching car and asks for a lift to Ingston Towers. She’s Dr. Lynn Harper, psychiatrist, and her good Samaritan is Dick Baldwin, mystery writer and acquaintance of Ingston. Harper fails to mention the blood-curdling shriek of terror she just heard.NM5

The trio of doctors arrive at the house and wonder why they were summoned, with Timmons feeling remorseful at their having turned Ingston into the paralyzed shell he’s become. Harper and Baldwin arrive soon after and all sit for dinner, joined by their host, the wheelchair-bound Ingston, who has had a prosthetic arm made so he can at least feed himself. When Margaret Ingston asks to speak with Dr. Harper, her brother orders her to wait, there’re more important things to attend to.

All retire to another room, where Indian mystic Agor Singh gives a demonstration of manipulating “cosmic matter” by making a skeleton materialize through focused concentration and sheer will. Ingston tells the physicians it could be used to create new limbs or organs, like a lizard regrowing a tail. Dr. King blusters it’s all poppycock. Not long after everyone’s retired, he ends up dead.

The next morning, Milly’s body is found. Harper manages a conversation with Margaret in which nothing useful is learned. That night, more dead doctors, with Breggs and Baldwin investigating the house to figure out whodunnit.

To say this effort by Universal is a disappointment is an understatement. Night Monster suffers on multiple levels. The story is overpopulated, for one,  and despite a promising first few minutes, soon devolves into the uninteresting. The direction by Ford Beebe plods along, but the real culprit is writer Clarence Upson Young. It’s bad when I start rewriting the script in my head, cutting characters and changing events to make things more engaging.

Another major problem is not knowing why Kurt Ingston consulted doctors in the first place; accident, disease? How did his doctors fail him, botched surgery, medication, or dangerous and unorthodox treatments? A more revealing conversation between them, perhaps with Singh, would have helped the audience to become more engaged. There’s not enough time or space for characters to develop or backstories to be told. As for sister Margaret, are the butler and housekeeper gaslighting her? Probably/possibly. We’re never shown or told why she chooses to stay in the house if she fears she’s being driven mad by the hired help.

As for the acting, Don Porter as Dick Baldwin is as affable as Leif Erickson’s lecherous Laurie is churlish. Robert Homans annoys as hick constable Beggs. As Lynn Harper, Irene Hervey seems flat, remote, and disengaged in most of her scenes. It would have been more interesting if maid Milly (Janet Shaw) stuck around, she had some moxie. In fact, dump Harper and Beggs, and have Baldwin and Milly as friends/lovers doing the investigating in the old, dark house. Bela Lugosi, as butler Rolf, and Lionel Atwill as Dr. King are wasted in small, supporting roles. Ralph Morgan as Ingston and Fay Helms as maybe crazy sister Margaret are decent enough. Nils Asther, as Singh, isn’t around enough to make a fair judgment.

There are a few effective scenes. Singh conjuring a skeleton was nicely done, and there’s some interesting shadow work in a later scene, with what’s presumably the design of the fire grate visible on the people in the room. The frogs and crickets falling silent lends a nice eeriness, but none of it is enough to lift this movie out of the morass it’s stuck in. I rate it 3 out of 10. (3/10)

The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944)

Explosions, bare-fisted brawls, shoot-outs, poison gas, avalanches, and icebergs are just a few of the hazards faced by a just-returned-home marine when he heads to the wilds of Alaska with a scientist in search of a special quartz to power a unique new device.

Seattle scientist Dr. Miller (Ralph Morgan) has created a new contraption, the Peratron, a machine meant to project particles from one location to another. Unfortunately, it’s only a partial success, since he and his associate, Dr. Hauss (Martin Kosleck), haven’t found the proper element to fully power the device. Dr. Miller’s daughter, Ruth (Marjorie Weaver), and her recently discharged marine boyfriend, Jim Hudson (Milburn Stone), witness another failed attempt in Miller’s lab. If only they could find the right element! It just so happens that Jim’s father owns a mine up in Alaska, and one of the workers recently discovered something that had incredible energy, knocked him clear across the mine. Care to check it out? Don’t worry, Pop’s got a lab, too.

Conveniently, a steamer is headed up to the Last Frontier the very next day, and Hauss happens to know the captain. In fact, the two know each other very well and are in cahoots to steal the Peratron. The following day, Hauss, Miller, and Jim set sail, with two mysterious bearded trappers, Dunn and Grey, coming aboard at the last minute. Who the trappers are is anybody’s guess (per IMDB, they’re supposed to be undercover agents), but it doesn’t much matter, because they’re cannon fodder. After Dunn spies Capt. Greeder sending a message via carrier pigeon, Hauss tips off Greeder, who, in turn, pitches Dunn overboard. The captain is prepared to shoot the others, but smartest man standing Hauss gives him a colorless, odorless, water activated poison to use instead. The captain calls Miller, Jim, and Grey into a cabin, then sneakily dumps the poison in a carafe of water and locks them in the room. Right about that time, the ship hits an iceberg. Hauss grabs the Peratron, and he and Greeder take off in the only usable lifeboat.

As this is a serial, the heroes escape what appeared to be their doom with the assistance of Bosun Higgins (Edgar Kennedy), and after checking what’s left of their cabin, Miller and Jim believe the Peratron was destroyed and Hauss is dead. After more thrills and spills (including Grey going crazy, then being eaten by a polar bear), the heroes make it to land with the assistance of newly licensed pilot Ruth, who’s been buzzing the north Pacific in a seaplane looking for them, and a village of helpful Eskimos. The villains have made it to land, too. Facing a potential run-in, Greeder hides Hauss’ identity by wrapping his head in bandages, à la The Invisible Man, saying he was a crewman burned in the shipwreck. Suspicious Jim and Bosun beat up Greeder and the disguised Hauss and retrieve the Peratron, instructing the Eskimo chief to hold the men until US marshals arrive.

The plot becomes more intricate at this point. Once they make it to a town, Jim puts in a call to a family friend in Saskatch who owns a transportation company, a man named Brock (Samuel Hinds), and arranges for the group to catch a ride on a transport plane up to his father’s mine. Brock, however, is on the bad guy’s side, and radios a henchman in Saskatch. He also sends men masquerading as law enforcement to free Hauss and Greeder (after which, the captain is out of the picture).

Everybody, good guys and bad, eventually make it to Saskatch (but not without hazards and danger for our heroes). At the Gunsite mine, the mystery power source is a highly energized quartz, nestled in the deep tunnel. A sample proves it to be just what the doctor needed, but upon further experimentation, Dr. Miller realizes he’s created an atomic death ray. Brock’s team of kerchief wearing desperado hijackers make numerous attempts to kill Jim Hudson and put the Peratron in the hands of Dr. Hauss. Will they succeed? Will good triumph over evil? Will true-blue Americans thwart the efforts of the Nazi who’s never called a Nazi and the fifth column?

Although this 1944 serial by Universal can at times be absurd (mostly due to the impossible escapes from certain death), it’s a lot of fun. Stone, Kennedy, Kosleck, and Joseph Crehan, as Jim’s father, Bill, are the most solid on the acting front. Marjorie Weaver doesn’t have all that much to do, frankly, so it’s hard to judge her performance. Surprisingly, as Brock, Samuel Hinds (Dr. Kildare) doesn’t seem fully committed most of the time.

There’s plenty of action, stock footage, and outdoor shooting locations, not to mention, fist fights, gun fights, and explosions from dynamite, hand grenades, and the Peratron itself. The Saskatch band of hijackers are incredibly inept, led by an incompetent named Brandon, who keeps radioing Brock and telling him Jim Hudson is dead. I’m convinced that’s an intentional running gag. The smartest person in all of this is Dr. Hauss, a quick, clever thinker and a cool liar (as an interesting aside, Martin Kosleck didn’t mind playing Nazi bastards because he loathed them; he’d been listed as an undesirable and fled Germany before a death squad could catch up with him).

This is the first serial I’ve watched in full and I enjoyed it. I’ve been watching more B-movies from the 1940’s of late, many from Universal, and I’m developing an appreciation for what the studio accomplished. The on-screen talent ranged from decent to exceptional, the latter helping to lift middling pictures, and the writing, if not always straight forward, didn’t sink in unnecessary and confusing convolutions. This title is an example of that, especially when considering the cast. Clocking in at just over 3-1/2 hours, The Great Alaskan Mystery is fun entertainment over several evenings or a binge watch on a dreary weekend afternoon. I rate it 6.5 out of 10.

Coming to a close

For the past week or so, I’ve been watching the 1944 Universal Studios serial The Great Alaskan Mystery, and tonight I’ll screen the final two chapters. As preposterous as it all is, it’s been entertaining. The story revolves around a ray gun, initially meant to work as a sort of particle/matter transporter beam, but when a special type of energized quartz is used to power it, it becomes a catastrophic atomic death ray. Bad guys want it. Who they’re affiliated with has never really been disclosed, but since one of them speaks with a German accent, must be Nazis, although I have to admit, that’s one hell of a fifth column in No Man’s Land, Alaska.

The dangers and near-death close-calls experienced by the heroes are patently absurd and the bad guys, save two, are laughably witless and inept. The only two with any brains is the man who wants to sell the weapon to the highest bidder, and the scientist-spy who was working on the ray gun project in the first place. In fact, the spy is, without question, the smartest of the bunch.

There’s a plucky heroine thrown into the mix, of course, but after the first two chapters, she’s basically reduced to rendering first aid and shouting “Jim!” to either warn her hero boyfriend of approaching baddies or when searching for him when, by all accounts, he should be dead on the side of the road or blown into a million pieces.

I can understand why kids would enjoy these serials back in the day, they’re pure escapism and unashamedly so.