Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (Part 1 of 2)

Sophie Iles

And here we are presenting another new column! Sophie Iles is going to be regaling us of her adventures into Classic Doctor Who every Saturday with some insight as recent lover of the new 2005 series. Expect to being taken along for the ride as she discovers each fun development of the show from the very start to hopefully, the very finish of its 26 year run… 

It’s a strange sensation watching a TV series from the beginning when its been around for so long. Usually in the days of modern television when you watch a series for the first time, everything is being established for a long run if it can get the go ahead. The audience get to meet the principle cast and the ideas about them are already being set out. Who’s the hero? who’s the villain? who’s the relatable every day character you latch onto? Of course, every series is different, every story is different, but no matter the set up, you’re sure of the roles that these characters play and that there are twists and turns to watch out for.

However, back in 1963 when Doctor Who was created and The Unearthly Child was pitched it had an air of mystery around it as much the Doctor himself. Both actors William Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford, playing the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan even revealed they made up their own back stories because they didn’t know anything about their characters….that was part of the whole point. Doctor Who?

Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) searching the junkyard in Totters Lane

When I was asked to write this series of articles I was thrilled, partly because I’ve not written an article before for anyone except in the odd test situation and because I really wanted to look at the episodes as I discovered them. Though this isn’t my first venture looking at the First Doctor Era, it’s certainly fun to rewatch and relearn.

My aim is to really look at these stories and characters and their historical merit today, how their stories are told, and how I, a rather fresh faced wanderer in the Doctor Who Fandom, reacts as we go back in time to see just what the appeal was for Dr. Who.

Immediately, even without the spooky titles it all feels like it’s grounded in reality somehow. The school feels real, and Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, the two teachers that will soon become companions of the Doctor feel like real teachers, and in turn real friends. Ian Chesterton is clearly used to his friend barging into his room whilst marking to listen to her worries and concerns. Clearly the subject of this particular student has come up before, Susan Foreman, a girl of mystery. We are completely on the teacher’s side due to the way it’s been filmed, from their point of view, as we see Susan’s errors first hand and they just can’t help their concern.

BARBARA: Too many questions and not enough answers.
IAN: Stupid? Or just doesn’t know. So we have a fifteen year old girl who is absolutely brilliant at some things, and excruciatingly bad at others.

So, spurred by their worries and their insatiable curiosity, they drive to her supposed destination and wait for her to arrive before following her inside the junkyard where she’s supposed to live and stumble across not only the truth, that inside this junkyard lies an alien spaceship disguised as a 1950’s police box and that this is where she has been living all this time with her grandfather.

When we do finally truly get to know Susan Foreman in this episode she is a wonderful mystery, perhaps more so than the Doctor in my opinion as we start off on this journey. From what we gather she doesn’t seem to have friends easily as per Ian and Barbara’s flashbacks of her at school. She often gets things wrong about the culture she’s pretending to be in and yet in her short scene in the school she thrives off what she’s learning. She clearly wants to fit in, have a place in the universe. Something that we can see with her interactions later she’s probably not had in a long while in her explorations with her grandfather….

The Doctor’s first incarnation, played by William Hartnell

And speaking of Grandfather, The Doctor is a very different man (or woman thanks to our newest showrunner Chris Chibnall) that the current fandom are used to. When he is introduced to us, catching these two teachers looking for Susan, he’s not only short tempered, but comically amused at their worry about her safety. Already we can see he’s pompous and self serving or at least, in the case of him and his granddaughter most certainly doesn’t care about much else. If not for Susan’s calling out, Ian and Barbara would have never headed inside the TARDIS in the first place and we’d have not had the adventures that followed.

Before I press on, the TARDIS itself is another marvel. Using a police box as a spaceship — not only to save on budget but also as a fantastic idea to claim it as a chameleon and fit in its surroundings — and a broken one at that. It’s clearly it’s all designed in a rush but its gorgeous simplicity and stark white imagery really does make the real world out in the junkyard feel more like Earth. The wonderful humming noise, which is used to suggest the ship is alive does wonders to keep that illusion going even with some of the odd cuts between characters as they discuss the situation they find themselves in.

The Doctor telling his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) that he found her two teachers looking for her in the junkyard.

We discover, as do Ian and Barbara, that Susan and her grandfather the Doctor, are aliens from another world and time, exiled from their own people.

When her grandfather tells Susan that her teachers were following her, she wants them to understand that what she’s saying is true and when she senses her grandfather’s plan she wants to be let go because in her own words ‘they are good and kind people’. However, this is not a Doctor we are used to seeing on screen, it’s this Doctor that decides they are safer taking them away from 1963 akin to the BFG’s reasoning for taking Sophie from the orphanage in Roald Dahl’s classic tale. Fearing that these simple humans won’t be able to keep their mouth shut.  

IAN: You’re treating us like children.
DOCTOR: Am I? The children of my civilisation would be insulted.

With the teachers refusing to believe what we as an audience are now sure to be true, even with Susan’s protests they are swept away into space and time, the now infamous title sequence used to show the passage of time without much other fanfare. Then we cut to the police box on what appears to be an alien world, on a crisp desert landscape, and a foreboding shadow coming forwards stage right.

The adventure certainly doesn’t end there, the beginning of a lifelong adventure has only just begun.

Next time, tune in for part two of this wonderful caper; for the Stone Age, The Doctor’s truer colours, and how important it is to bring your matches with you to meet some hungry cavemen.

Also, as a bonus for these articles, I’ll be doing doodles and such like, so here’s my coloured up doodle I drew of Ian and Barbara, during one of my favourite moments before the teachers are snatched away into time and space.

RR #16 – Sladen’s Preferred Nurse Uniform – Joseph Lidster (Doctor Who & SJA)

Joseph Lidster joins James, M.H., and Will to discuss his The Sarah Jane Adventures serials, his work on the Doctor Who Experience (particuarly writing that speech for Lalla Ward’s Romana), writing the Doctor Who Skype bot and Sherlock‘s web content, and his Big Finish audio stories Master and The Rapture. How did Ace get a brother? Was Master inspired by Charles Williams? Who is Pain’s Champion? All of this will be answered, and more.

All this, and M.H. talks about the writing lessons she learned from his Sarah Jane Adventures scripts.

Just Like in the Movies: The Origins of Cinematic Narrative

Micah S. Harris

Welcome to our latest column, Micah S. Harris’ Just Like in the Movies. While Harris is a PulpArk New Pulp Awards winning author, well-known for his historical fantasy, in his day job he’s a film professor and historian. On the fourth Thursday of every month, Micah will stop by to speak about film history, and lessons authors can learn from it.

The Lumière brothers were not the first movie makers to project a film on a screen for an audience. That historical honor goes to those shadowy figures of cinema history, the Latham family. They created the sports event “pay-per-view” in May of 1895 by charging an audience to watch a filmed boxing match. But the Lumière brothers, who followed in December of that same year, were the first to project a fictional story on a screen for an audience to enjoy.

It only ran for forty-nine seconds and was but one of several other shorts on the itinerary that evening. Most likely, the audience did not realize that they were witnessing the birth of a revolutionary form of storytelling. Just seeing moving images of the traffic at this time was overwhelming! The short was not singled out as anything special by the brothers who, ironically enough, never really got what all the fuss over movies was anyway, and got out of the business after only a decade (though one of them returned to the medium to pioneer 3-D in the 1930s).

But it did tell a fictional story. Not that it was Shakespeare or anything. And it’s extremely doubtful there was a script. But it was staged (read: “made up”), and possesses basic story construction.

Little Miss Muffet’s Basic Elements of Storytelling

Former Marvel Comics editor Jim Shooter pointed out that a familiar nursery rhyme encapsulates the elements of a plot: “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.”

Here are the basic elements of storytelling. First, “the status quo” as Shooter called it. That is, what is the situation as normal, the state of affairs, the way things are going, when the story begins. This is classically called “exposition.” In this case, it’s Miss Muffet, on tuffet, going a bit heavier on the dairy products than is perhaps proportionate in a well-balanced diet.

Then comes “conflict.” Enter the spider who by frightening her upsets the status quo which our character has expected to continue on as is the norm.

And then we have “resolution:” that arachnophobe little Miss Muffet makes the decision to not stay in this suddenly uncomfortable situation and vamooses, surrendering her tuffet to the triumphant spider.

Exposition, conflict, and resolution in a fictional narrative are all present in the forty-nine seconds of “The Gardner” or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”). Take a moment to view this little movie at the link below and see if you can identify all three.

Got it? All right, let’s check your answers.

Exposition: our Gardner (or “Sprinkler” if you will) is watering the lawn. Things are proceeding predictably and then –

Conflict: our “spider” here is the pest of a kid who steps on the hose, ceasing the flow of water our Gardner has come to expect. In the first instance of slapstick projected on a movie screen for an audience, he decides to look down the hose. The predictable occurs.

Resolution: our adorable “imp” leads the Gardner on an abbreviated merry chase, he’s captured, corporal punishment administered, and watering resumed: The End.

Out of all the short films that amazed the Lumière Brothers’ audience that night in late December 1895, this was probably the most popular. At least, it was when the “The Gardner” played in London. Charles H. Webster, a representative of rival film pioneer Thomas Edison’s partner Norman Raff, reported the water-in-the-face bit “caught the house by storm.”  But it’s important to note that the success of this moment of slapstick owed much to being in the context of a narrative which heightened the “banana peel moment.”

Just contrast “The Gardner” with “Horse Trick Riders” which the Lumières subsequently screened that evening, in which a guy repeatedly trying to mount a horse keeps hitting the ground instead. It’s simply there, as though you were observing the embarrassing situation on the spot as you were standing around. There is no set-up, no context, no pacing, no structure: just a 120 year old record of one man’s humiliation.

While “The Gardner” was the first movie to place a fictional narrative on screen for an audience, I can’t say it was especially influential. But it quickly became apparent to those involved that the new medium was well-suited for presenting stories.  The movie storytelling that followed “The Gardner” tended to be along the lines of either a filmed play with stage pageantry and the addition of trick photography, or, as screenwriter Marc Norman has noted in his book What Happens Next, a gag comic strip, particularly a mildly risqué gag comic strip.

Take, for example, “How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed” which brought this (and I quote an exhibitor’s catalogue description) “old and always popular story” to the screen. I do not deem it necessary to delve into the reasons for its popularity, but, as to its antiquity, for the pun to work, this bygone classic can neither possibly be older than the English word “dress,” which enters the language with the French invasion of 1066 nor before it was employed in the sense of “decorate” or “adorn” in the late fourteenth century, the same period as the ascension of Henry the Fourth to the throne, for whom salad dressing is a documented delectation. So we have at least something of a terminus a quo for Bridget in her unfortunate state of dishabille, a victim of her own inability to comprehend syntax. But I undress. Uh, digress.

According to Norman, the first original screenplays tended toward this type of lowbrow subject matter. They were written for short films, twenty some feet in length, to move toward a punchline of some sort. Some sort of “punch” indeed. As in “The Pretty Stenographer; or Caught In the Act,” when a wife walks in on her elderly husband giving his secretary a kiss and drags him by the ear to his knees. (Just to make sure you’re keeping up with our lesson: the wife, of course, would be the spider in this scenario, upsetting her husband and the pretty stenographer’s curds and whey in a resolution given away by its own spoiler of a subtitle. How weighty this compromise of dramatic tension, let the reader decide).

In contrast to these films based on original material (discounting “How Bridgette Served the Salad Undressed,” adapted, as it was, from that “old and always popular story”), screenplays or scenarios in these early days based on source material seemed to tend more to be ambitious, sophisticated, and even lofty in their desired effect on the audience. The first movie adapted from source material was based on Salmi Morse’s Passion Play. It was filmed in 1897 atop a New York office building, complete with camels and a heavenly ascension.

Salmi Morse, sans office building

Other early examples are Méliès’ turn of the century adaptations of Cinderella in 1899 and the Verne and Wells inspired A Trip to the Moon in 1902.

It probably comes as a surprise for the modern theater goer to learn that movies were not initially and universally seen as a medium of storytelling with revolutionary potential for presenting a narrative. They were a novelty, often just one more item on a vaudeville bill of entertainment alongside requisite dogs walking on their hindlegs, ventriloquist routines, and soft shoeing. A tendency to make those movies that did have a story a moving gag comic strip and/or dirty joke would not have lifted this reputation. And the novelty, initially so shocking to naïve audiences in its virtual reality, was wearing off.

What saved movies was the discovery and realization of their unique storytelling possibilities.

The Great Train Robbery

The application of modern film techniques for the first time in the service of a narrative by Edwin Porter with Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery in 1903 created a new vocabulary for the writers as well as technicians of film. Now there were exciting alternatives in storytelling that created a new narrative technique. When these possibilities were actualized, Porter, as someone has said, changed the movies into The Movies.

Subsequent to Porter, in thinking of a screen story, a writer could consider that scenes might be shot out of sequence, different angles could capture the same moment, and cross-cutting in the editing stage could show more than one event happening at the same time. Any constrictions that might have been lingering from transferring the way a visual story was presented on a stage to how it was told on the screen were now completely cast off.

Cinematic storytelling had moved into territory the Lumière Brothers could not have foreseen a mere eight years earlier. Nor, apparently, did they care that they had originated a new narrative genre. Mainly technicians, not storytellers, perhaps they never realized it.

But the rest of the world, leaning forward on its collective nickelodeon bench, had all eyes trained on the screen where our uncompromised heroine was tied to railroad tracks by a man in a black hat, the cross-editing induced tension mounting as to whether the train or the hero would reach her first. Only the remainder of the new century would reveal how far this new form of narrative with its unprecedented storytelling techniques could possibly go.

If Walls Could Talk: Is a Story Linear or a Ball of Wibbly Wobbly Timey Whimey Stuff?

M.H. Norris

One of the hardest things I’m finding with Rosella’s first full-length book is that, for the first time, I’m struggling to write things in order. Usually, I write a story straight from start to finish but this time, I’m finding it hard to do so.

Because transitions are hard. I know what’s at both point A and point B but I’m struggling to figure out how to connect them. Part of it is that I’m excited: I went back to the basics on this one. I’ve really sat down and worked out the mechanics of writing mysteries, wanting to get this one just right.

I plotted and planned and I’ve got scenes coming up in the story that I want to write now and I’m struggling to write the scenes in order.

And, to an extent, I’ve given up on that fight.

I have a handful of scenes written out that need to be worked in. I’ve already worked in a couple and have a few floating in the research portion of my Scrivner document.

A Popular Argument Amongst Writers

Everyone seems to have their own opinion. Before now, I was very much a fan of writing start to finish. But now, I see the appeal of the other approach.

Because there are a couple of scenes where I see them more clearly than I see what’s next in my story. There’s moments that my fingers are itching to write and I might give in and just do it.

One one hand, I see the value of the start to finish approach. Bouncing around a story can cause you to feel a bit disjointed. But on the other side, I wonder if bouncing around might help you with that dreaded writer’s block.

What are your thoughts on it?

Start to finish?


Bounce around and then tie them all together?

With Jazz Street I did the first 12K or so (about 50 pages) from start to finish. That’s where I hit the metaphorical wall and started to bounce a little. Then, I plugged a scene or two in, and wondered if this approach might be better…

One thing I tried to do to help was to take my usual approach. I’d write out a calendar with the events of the book. I have the start, the climax, and the resolution all marked out. Then I’d fill in-between with various events.

With Badge City: Notches this approach wouldn’t have worked, as the bulk of the book took place in the same 72-ish hour period. Hence, why I did things differently: I drew lines that represented each day trying to keep it straight. And someone said I got my math wrong.

Maybe I did, but with as much math as I did that day, I would be surprised.

Sometimes in the column, I give you advice and wisdom from my experience. Today, I’m using it more to sort out my own thoughts on what’s currently going on in my writing career.

Maybe, this will help me figure out where to go next.

But before I go, Let me leave you with this hint. The highly anticipated anthology Speakeasies and Spiritualists, curated by the lovely Nicole Petit, is due out this week. There’s a story written by yours truly in it. Check it out, there’s something in that story that you’ll see again sometime soon.

RR #15 – Kraken v Loch Ness – William Meikle, Storyteller

William Meikle joins the gang to talk about his Cryptid Clash!novella, The Mouth of the Ness, which features all the finest Viking vs. Loch Ness Monster vs. Kraken action you could demand. Then his new James Bond novella, Into the Green, which confronts 007 with a quietly Lovecraftian menace (in a story where Bond can barely trust himself). Everyone also discusses the rest of Willie’s work.

All this, and James and Ben discuss the time travel murder mystery Erased. Why is it one of the best TV series in recent memory?

Literary Archaeology: Books within Books – Part 2

Jon Black

This is the second part in a series I began back in March ( examining real books that may be useful for writers of HistFic or other genres.

Not only are books excellent vehicles for exposition and an intriguing element of stories in their own right, they play on the inherent bibliophilia of most readers. We love not just good stories in books but good stories about books.

I contrasted this with classic fictional tomes such as the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or Cultes des Goules. There is nothing wrong with using such devices (I recently submitted a shorty that prominently features the later tome). The purpose of this series is to highlight the existence of actual works which offer backstories, mysteries, and possibilities every bit as rich as their fictional counterparts.

My first article focused on three works largely academic or scholarly in nature: Frazer’s Golden Bough, Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe, and Fry’s Pantographia. This time, we will examine three texts that are more esoteric: Donnelly’s Atlantis, Jung’s Red Book, and the anonymous Voynich Manuscript. As a caveat, these books may be better suited for historical fantasy or weird tales and pulp with a historical setting than conventional HistFic.

Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Author: Ignatius Donnelly. Congressman and Lt. Governor from Minnesota. Author of a variety of unconventional works on topics ranging from Atlantis, to the Great Flood being caused by comet colliding with Earth, to Shakespeare’s plays actually being written by Francis Bacon.

Publication: 1882, Second Printing 1920.

Summary: The book sets forth Donnelly’s theories about the O.G. of lost continents. Much of the “New Age” conception of Atlantis originates in this book with Donnelly’s ideas of Atlantis as a cradle of lost ancient wisdom as well as an imperial power whose subjects (including Mayans, Egyptians, and all the usual suspects) retain “hidden” evidence of their Atlantean colonizers/overlords. He uses archeological evidence that was groundbreaking (pardon the pun) in the late 19th century but now appears highly suspect. Donnelly theorized the catastrophe destroying Atlantis was the same one responsible for the Biblical Flood and that the Irish are decedents of the original Atlanteans.

I probably don’t need to add that nearly every word in Atlantis has since been dismissed as pseudoscience.

TANGENT ALERT: The inside covers of my copy of Atlantis are stamped with “Grace Baptist Church,” making me wonder that particular place of worship was getting up to back in the day (Was there a Grace Baptist Church in Innsmouth, MA?).

Possible Uses in HistFic: The tomb becomes a source of inspiration (or places to insert interesting information) for stories about sunken continents and civilizations, kaiju, Cthulhu, R’yleh, Deep Ones, and underwater weirdness in general. The various works of the British explorer, occultist, and eccentric James Churchward are the usual go-to in this capacity. Donnelly offers writers a fresh alternative.

Text Online:

The Red Book

Carl Jung’s The Red Book

Author: Carl Jung (yes, that one)

Publication: Compiled circa 1915-1930, not published until 2009.

Summary: The Red Book began in the years following Jung’s final split with Freud. During that association, Jung actively suppressed his mystical bent and fascination with myths and mythmaking. Finally free from his domineering Austrian mentor, Jung’s interest in dreams, myths, and mysticism returned with a vengeance.

In addition to carefully recording his dreams, Jung actively plumbed the deepest depths of his psyche through exercises which combined aspects of meditation, guided visualization, and actual auto-hypnosis. Scholars often tamely refer to these exercise as “imaginative journeys” but, based on Jung’s descriptions, it seems appropriate to describe them as mystical journeys or even vision quests.

Frequently, Jung met “beings” on these journeys and would not let them go without asking who they were and what the purpose of their crossing paths was. The results of many such encounters were recorded in the Red Book.

The book is also remarkable for its physical characteristics. Arguably, nothing like this folio had been created since the popularization of the printing press. The text was hand-written on sheets of parchment by Jung in elaborate calligraphy using German, Latin, Green, and English. It is hand illuminated with multi-colored inks and gouache paints. Jung’s original Red Book was bound in hand-stitched red (obviously) leather accented with actual gold.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Any sort of mystical, occult, or illuminated secret might be concealed within the Red Book. Jung’s elaborate illustrations could include clues to magic spells, the lost temples of the masters, or even something as prosaic as a cache of Swiss gold. Through stories of Jung’s encounters, information about who knows what beings might be available. Finally, parallels between Jung’s journeys preserved in the Red Book and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are self-evident. As such, it may contain practical “how-to” information on entering the Dreamlands or similar parallel realms.

Text Online: (scroll to bottom of page).

The Voynich Manuscript

A page from the Voynich Manuscript with its mysterious language and distinctive illustrations.

Author: Unknown (possibly Wilfrid Voynich)

Publication: Unknown. Materials carbon dated to early 15th century. First mention, early 17th century.  Continuous provenance from 1870. Purchased by Voynich in 1912.

Summary: The Voynich Manuscript may be the most mysterious book in existence … assuming the whole thing isn’t an elaborate forgery or hoax.

The codex is handwritten using an unknown alphabet or cipher. A translation or decryption remains elusive, despite a century of attention from linguists and cryptographers. This leads some to speculate that the characters may be a written form of glossolalia (the technical term for the phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues”) and have no actual meaning. That interpretation is far from universally accepted.

The Voynich Manuscript is equally known for its elaborate, colorful, and diverse illustrations that include plants, astronomical or astrological images, animals, mythological creatures, images suggestive of occult themes, and, of course, a considerable number of nude women.

Many believe the manuscript is a pharmacopeia, medical text, or treatise on natural science. Though why such a text should need to be made so inaccessible remains unexplained. As an interesting twist, a few experts allege the codex depicts New World plants that should have been unknown at the time of its composition. Conversely, plant illustrations combined with astrological imagery might make it a grimoire or book of magic. Certainly, that would better explain the author’s need for secrecy.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Almost anything could be contained within the codex. An actual grimoire is an obvious possibility for historical fantasy. Preserving a record of pre-Colombian contact with the New World is another. It may contain information about forgotten herbs or medicines offering a “miracle cure” for a medical crisis confronting the modern world. The manuscript might be full of information deemed dangerous, damaging, or heretical but the Church a la Dan Brown. Or maybe the whole thing is just an elaborate red herring.

Text Online: or, if you really want it, on .pdf at

Longdog Library: Sherlock Holmes versus The Thinking Machines

John Linwood Grant

Welcome to our newest column on, John Linwood Grant’s Longdog Library. It’s an eclectic collection of history, genre fiction, and nearly forgotten books and genres. Check it out on every second Thursday!

There’s something about a classic detective whose approach – or even mind – is a touch off the beaten track.  Most people know their Holmes, and many have flirted with Poirot, Father Brown or one of those other quirky fellows. So today we’re going to visit three lesser known crime-solvers. I’m conscious that I’ve picked male detectives here, but it wouldn’t be too hard to do the same for female sleuths. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley (from the 1930s onwards) would have done just as well. A peculiar and erudite woman, she was described as “an alligator smiling gently while birds removed animal irritants from its armoured frame”.

However, I’ll stick to the chaps for now. Our tireless trio are Edgar Wallace’s Mr J G Reeder, Roy Vickers’ Detective-Inspector Rason, and Jacques Futrelle’s Professor Augustus S F X Van Dusen.

J G Reeder

Edgar Wallace

We start with my absolute favourite, Mr J G Reeder. It’s strange in a way that the character is so little known nowadays, as he stands out amongst his contemporaries in fiction. His creator Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was already known for his thrillers, and was prolific, being described as being able to write a full novel in three to four days. Prior to Wallace, most British thrillers had featured amateur or private detectives as their main protagonists – Wallace almost single-handedly popularised the use of a police officer as the main investigator.

J G Reeder is a former police investigator with considerable experience in money-related crimes such as forgery, counterfeiting and bank heists. Taking up a position in the Department of Public Prosecutions, he is assigned a number of cases where officials are rather stumped. The character was first introduced in Edgar Wallace’s novel Room 13, but really took off in a series of short stories published in 1925.

This might be seen as a standard set of crime stories for the period, except for the nature of Reeder himself. In appearance and surface behaviour, Reeder is a mild-mannered civil servant of nineteen twenties fiction, polite and unassuming, described at one point as looking more like a rabbit than an officer of the law. He speaks gently and tries not to stand out. His mind, however, is extraordinary. He himself puts it down to being able to think precisely as his opponents do.

“I have that perversion,” he said. “It is a terrible misfortune, but it is true. I see evil in everything… in dying roses, in horseshoes – in poetry even. I have the mind of a criminal. It is deplorable!”

The Poetical Policeman

The end result of his ‘criminal’ mind is that whilst the investigator is orthodox in every visible way, his approach to investigations is often highly unorthodox. The mysteries themselves are novel and quite interesting, but Reeder’s character elevates every tale.

Hugh Burden as J.G. Reeder

It’s difficult to cherry-pick, but for me one of the most enjoyable is ‘The Green Mamba’, originally entitled ‘The Dangerous Reptile’. An “uncrowned emperor of the underworld”, Mo Liski is persuaded that Reeder must be taken down. The story which follows is a wonderful exercise in subtlety as the investigator misleads and misdirects everyone around him, a non-criminal mastermind at his finest.

“The world is full of sin and trouble,” he said, shaking his head sadly; “Both in high and low places vice is triumphant, and virtue thrust, like the daisies, underfoot. You don’t keep chickens, do you, Mr Liski?”

The dangerous reptile is, naturally, J G Reeder. My recommended Sleuth of the Month.

Associated trivia – The stories were turned into a UK TV series between 1969 and 1971, and rather well done. Doing an excellent job as Reeder was the actor Hugh Burden, who conveniently also starred in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, one of my favourite mummy films.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

Wallace links to my own writing, as well. As a young man he enlisted in the Royal West Kent Regiment, transferred to the Medical Staff Corps and ended up South Africa during the second Boer War. In 1898 he left the army to become correspondent for Reuters, then correspondent for ‘The Daily Mail’. He wrote a series published as ‘Unofficial Dispatches’, but due to his viewpoint and criticisms, Lord Kitchener removed Wallace’s credentials.

Wallace was therefore operating at the same time that Henry Dodgson and Redvers Blake, from my novella A Study in Grey, became disenchanted with aspects of the war, especially the concentration camps. And yes, Wallace and one of my characters did meet, but that’s for another time…

Detective Inspector Rason

My next detective, who is given no first name, is not in J G Reeder’s class, but he and his cases are curious enough to deserve a mention. His creator, William Edward Vickers (1889-1965) was an English mystery writer better known under his pen name Roy Vickers, (he had five or six other pseudonyms as well).

The Rubber Trumpet, the first of Vicker’s thirty-seven stories featuring the fictitious Department of Dead Ends, appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in September 1934. Partial collections of the stories were later made in 1947, 1949, and 1978. I have the 1978 Dover Edition, introduced by E F Bleiler (who also edited science fiction and fantasy fiction anthologies).

The “Department of Dead Ends” is Scotland Yard’s dumping ground for unsolved mysteries – some serious, some mundane. It’s a classic cold case set-up, with the expectation that most will never be looked at again or ever solved. The stories are described thus:

“That repository of files which were never completed, of investigations without a clue and clues which led nowhere. From time to time, quite illogically, Inspector Rason finds a connection between happenings in the outside world and the objects in his Scotland Yard museum, a rubber trumpet, maybe, or a bunch of red carnations. Then events move inexorably to their appointed end.”

The central investigator, Detective Inspector Rason, is not a character on whom to dwell for too long, although the stories are themselves interesting. He’s neither as clever nor as ruthless as Mr Reeder. Instead, he acts as a collector of trivia, one who sees tiny links between people and items. Some of his cases are solved entirely by accident, or via an afterthought.

These are not detailed forensic investigations where science and team effort prevail. Rason might hear something in a corridor, and remember an item on a shelf. And that’s it. It’s an unusual way of doing things, and Vickers emphasises the random nature of existence above all else. The most casual action or incident in one town on an unimportant day might easily link to an horrific crime elsewhere a week or a year later. The connections are sometimes ingenious, and might make you worry a little if you’re a career criminal. Did you leave a discarded ticket on a train three years ago?

Although Vickers wrote over 60 crime novels and 80 short stories, it was on the basis of the Department of Dead Ends that he developed a reputation in both the UK and the US as an accomplished writer of “inverted mysteries.”

“One of the half-dozen successful books of detective short stories published since the days of Sherlock Holmes.” Manchester Evening News

The Thinking Machine

Jacques Futrelle

Finally, the earliest and most weird of our three sleuths for the day. If there is a cold, calculating challenger to Holmes, one who shares his irascibility, his disdain for others, and his logical bent, then it is Professor August S F X Van Dusen – also known as The Thinking Machine and in the press, ‘the American Sherlock Holmes’.

Van Dusen was the creation of Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912), an American writer and journalist. Rather tragically, Futrelle died on the Titanic after insisting his wife take her place in one of the lifeboats. Despite having written a number of novels, he is best known for his tales of Van Dusen, who is in some ways a monstrous central character – Holmes with less redeeming features. Our sleuth this time is no Holmes in appearance, either:

“He was slender with the droop of the student in his thin shoulders and the pallor of a close, sedentary life on his clean-shaven face. His eyes wore a perpetual, forbidding squint – the squint of a man who studies little things – and when they could be seen at all through his thick spectacles, were mere slits of watery blue. But above his eyes was his most striking feature. This was a tall, broad brow, almost abnormal in height and width, crowned by a heavy shock of bushy, yellow hair.”

Where Holmes had his Watson, Professor Van Dusen had American journalist Hutchinson Hatch, perhaps drawn from Futrelle’s experience working for the Atlanta Journal.

1905 drawing of Van Dusen

Acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Harlan Ellison says of Van Dusen, in his introduction to the 2003 collection of Thinking Machine stories:

“This irascible genius, this diminutive egghead scientist, known to the world as “The Thinking Machine,” is no less than the newly rediscovered literary link between Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe: Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, who—with only the power of ratiocination—unravels problems of outrageous criminous activity in dazzlingly impossible settings.”

It’s tempting to think that Ellison, who is sometimes described as an irascible genius himself, felt a certain bond with Van Dusen.

A number of the short stories were originally published in The Saturday Evening Post and the Boston American. They’re a mixed bunch, and some are exercises in the most unlikely uses of logic, to the point of being rather unbelievable. If you ever questioned Holmes’ ability to make logical deductions from limited evidence, then you can have a field day here. The most widely anthologised tale, ‘The Problem of Cell 13’ (1905), relies on a chain of arrangements and events which stretch credibility about as far as you can go.

They’re still rather enjoyable, though. Because of their age, the full text of many of the stories can be found on-line.

Incidentally, Van Dusen is odd enough to have cropped up in other media a few times. The professor appeared in two episodes of the 1970s Thames Television series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Douglas Wilmer portrayed Van Dusen in “Cell 13” and “The Superfluous Finger.” This is rather appropriate, as Wilmer played Sherlock Holmes himself in the first series of the UK sixties production of Holmes’ exploits. Peter Cushing was to take the role for the second series. Despite much criticism of production problems by both actors, Wilmer is actually a rather good Sherlock.

Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes

In addition, the character appeared in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel Nemo: Heart of Ice (2013). Van Dusen aids explorer Janni Nemo when she encounters H. P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods in Antarctica.

There you have our three lesser known detectives, and if there is one who might have genuinely rivalled Holmes, it would have to be the annoying Professor Van Dusen. Although they’re all worth a look, Mr Reeder is the true delight. Do explore…

If Walls Could Talk: Setting Your Work Free

M.H. Norris

I remember the first time I let a group of people read my work. This was just at the beginning of the period of time where younger me considered that, hey, maybe this hobby of mine could be something more.

Two Roads in a Wood

One thing I still clearly remember is the fact that I was completely and utterly terrified. This was my work, something I’d spent ages on, and now I was just going to read it for these people–and throw myself at the mercy of their critiques?

I’ve done it quite a bit since then. But every time I take my work to a writing group to have it critiqued, I get that feeling. Granted, it’s smaller than it was that first time, but it’s there all the same.

But from what I’ve witnessed over the years, it’s better than the alternative.

And just what is that alternative?

The alternative is letting it sit there, letting yourself make edit after edit after edit trying to make it “perfect” and hope that one day you’ll share it with the world. That alternative is having half-started project after half-started project.

I’ve seen both versions of that alternative play out, and I can tell you neither is good for a writer.

But Mary Helen, you don’t understand. You’re just saying it’s hard for you to release your work.

I’m really not. I even admitted it in this week’s Raconteur Roundtable.

So what are ways you can set your work free?

1) Start a Blog

Or write a column for an existing blog (like yours truly does). Either way, it has two benefits. The first is that you are getting in the habit of writing regularly. The second is that you are putting your work out there for the world to see on a semi-regular basis.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction. It can be articles, thoughts on what’s going on in your life or in the world, or reviews of your favorite books series or TV show (if it’s this option and it has time travel, shoot me a message and maybe we’ll talk about getting you to write for the Time Travel Nexus). It doesn’t really matter what it is, it matters that you do it.

2) Find a Writing Group

I’ll admit, it’s been awhile since I’ve been to one. Life does get in the way. But I did find this beneficial. You can find these in three places.

In the Community

There is a local group here in my hometown. I went for years, before life just got in the way and my schedule became a bit hectic. But for a while, week to week, I took a bit of my work to this group and let them help me find ways to make it better.

They pushed me. I needed to write every week so I would have something to show them. It also got my work out to a small audience and allowed me immediate feedback.

And sometimes, you really just need that.

At Your School

Yes, this one really only applies to students. But considering James and I met at our alma mater’s creative writing club I can’t help but point out that that is one place you should look.

If nothing else, you might find a friend for life. I did (two, counting the always fabulous Nicole Petit).


I was actually a part of an online writing site for a while. It was fun because it pushed me in a different way, and also gave me a place to go on a daily basis that allowed me to not only get feedback but build friendships with fellow writers.

I sometimes miss those days. It was like Cheers.

That being said, it isn’t necessarily hard to find somewhere to go to share you work and by doing it with a small group of people, it makes the big releases easier.

Here’s Another Confession

The week Badge City: Notches was released I think I was checking Amazon every hour on the hour while I was awake to see how it was doing.

I needed that validation to tell me that people were actually reading something I wrote. I had written a book and it was out there–and people liked it and read it.

But if you don’t let your work go then you don’t get to experience that feeling of relief and joy.

And what’s almost worse is that this idea, the one you’ve dedicated a lot of your time to, that you are probably really passionate about, won’t ever have the chance to shine.

So let it go.

Let it go out in the world for all to see.

It might not be perfect, it might have spots you regret down the road (yes, I’m eyeing my first ever short story).

But it’s your journey as a writer.

And unless you make that first step, your journey won’t go nearly as far as it could.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

A lot of people write in their spare time as nothing more than a hobby. Shoot, until about five years ago, I was one of them. But then, with the encouragement of some friends, I took the road less travelled and let my work out into the world.

You can too.

Because I will be the first to tell you, it makes all the difference.

The Raconteur Roundtable #14 – The Dos and Don’ts of Indie Film – Fraser Coull (Cops and Monsters)

Fraser Coull, award-winning indie filmmaker, joins M.H. and James to discuss his series Cops and Monsters. They cover everything from indie filmmaking in general to Cops and Monsters‘ conception, to on-set anecdotes, to the trials and tribulations of crowdfunding, to their shared experiences in the 48 Hour Film Festival. He gives a great overview of what you should know, and should do, when it comes to indie filmmaking

After that, M.H. takes a look back on the indie film projects she’s worked on, telling you what you must notcould not, and should not do.

Literary Archaeology: Slang Shots

By Jon Black

So, I have a new crush. A new book crush, I should specify. At a second-hand bookstore in San Antonio, I discovered copy the Dictionary of American Slang: With Supplement, edited by Dr. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner (Crowell, c.1967). Since then, I have been utterly enchanted by this look into American slang of precisely half a century ago.

My New Crush.

So, rather than starting with some overarching theme, as most of my Literary Archeology posts do, I’m going share some of the thoughts and reflections this book has prompted and see where we go from there.

Revolving around slang, this post explores some of the same themes as my Words, Words, Words post from April. While that post dealt with mainstream language, this focuses on slang. It should be recognized, of course, that there is a revolving door between the two. Many words come into mainstream usage from the slang of some demographic or subculture. Less commonly, a specific population will retain a word (possibly with its original meaning, possibly not) long after it has fallen out of common use.

Slang offers all the advantages and pitfalls for HistFic that period language does in general. It also allows for the representation of specific subcultures or regional or ethnic demographics. A short listing of sources for the words appearing Dictionary of American Slang include “hobos and tramps,” immigrants, jazz musicians, the military, “narcotics addicts,” “show-business workers,” students, and “the underworld.” Interesting how even the names of those categories show the passage of time and evolution of language.

For all slang’s ability to bring sub-groups to life, it can be a double-edged sword. Even more than most period language, overuse of slang can slide into stereotype and caricature (How many books/movies/TV shows have we seen featuring one-dimensional portrayals of characters speaking Cockney, Jive, Valley-Girl, etc. that are a subtle as an iron maul to the brainpan?).

In fairness, the Dictionary of American Slang is not the beginning of my love affair with period slang. It’s something I’ve dabbled with in writing HistFic before.

In my novel Gabriel’s Trumpet (scheduled for release later this year from 18thWall), an entire chapter revolves around a group of Hep-Cat musicians teaching the protagonist the elaborate slang of jazz-age Harlem. It is more than just a colorful interlude or fish out of water moment, the lesson is essential if the protagonist to be able to communicate and make sense of the alien (to him) environment in which he now finds himself.

In another recent project, I found myself dealing with the slang of two different (if often interconnected) subcultures in 1910s Paris: the bohemian set and the criminal underworld.

reefer, gage, Indian hop, pot, tea, etc.

Most of us know the anecdote about the Inuit/Eskimos have X number of words for snow. Depending on who’s telling the anecdote, the number of words varies. The real point is that each of those words has a slightly different meaning. And that those (to us) relatively trivial differences are worth communicating indicates how important snow, and being able to describe very specific properties of snow, are to the Inuit.

A similar process is at work with slang. Early jazz culture had a seemingly endless number of terms for marijuana and its aficionados. Likewise, I lost count of Montmartre’s euphemisms for prostitutes and places where alcohol was served. And these weren’t synonyms; each term had very specific connotations setting it apart from the others. Likewise, the underworld argot of the ladies and gentlemen of the Parisian milieu used terms that were often frighteningly specific for thieves, murders, etc. (The word for a thief who stole watches was entirely different from one who stole goods from unattended wagons, etc.)

And, because I’ve got a little space left over, I thought I would share some of my favorite discoveries from Dictionary of American Slang.

Some Ham-And-Eggers in their Meat Grinder.

Beard: an intellectual or egghead; conversely a beat, bohemian, or other “far out” person.

Bug Man: A circus or carnival concessionaire who sells lizards, turtles, or insects.

Ham-And-Egger: an average or dull person, a worker competent only at routine tasks

Know one’s beans/Know the beans: to be well-informed on a subject or skilled in one’s chose field.

Meat Grinder: an automobile (1940s, student slang).

Red-light or Redlight: To push a person out of a moving locomotive, specifically to intentionally kill someone by doing so.

Suffering Cats! A socially acceptable expletive (allegedly in place of Suffering Christ!).

Sunday Thinker: A self-proclaimed genius, an impractical person, or an eccentric.

Yesterday, Today, and Forever: lunch-counter slang for the house hash (implying that the daily leftovers had been added to the same hash pot since the establishment’s opening).