31 October 2019

The Deep Roots of Willow Cove

Next summer will bring The Witches of Willow Cove, a new novel for tweens by Josh Roberts, one of my writing group colleagues.

Here are some extracts from Josh's interview at Writers' Rumpus:

Growing up, I lived in a three-story Victorian funeral home, complete with creaky floors, drafty windows, and a secret room sealed off from the rest of the house, so I spent a lot of my childhood making up stories to spook myself and my friends. . . . When I was younger, some of my friends were afraid to sleep over because the house was so spooky. But I have a lot of great memories from living there, too. And obviously it provided some fuel for my imagination.

I’ve always believed that the best spooky stories are the ones that feel like they could be happening to real people in real places. I knew from the beginning that THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE would be set in a small New England town like the one I grew up in. I knew I wanted it to be upper-middle grade, too, with characters right on the cusp of their teenage years, caught in that moment of their lives when they’re not quite grown up yet, but also not quite kids anymore. And I knew that my take on it would be: What happens when you find out you’re one of the spooky things that everyone’s afraid of? . . .

I think there’s a sort of comforting thrill that comes along with reading a spooky story—the promise that eventually the scary part will be over and things will generally sort themselves out. That release of tension is just as important as the frightening part. Maybe more so.
The Witches of Willow Cove will come from the appropriately named Owl Hollow Press, and the sequel, I happen to know, is already in the works.

23 October 2019

Raymie: “Everybody’s Kind of Movie”?

I’ve been noodling out a story about kids in a seaside town, so I tracked down the 1960 movie Raymie for visual inspiration.

Raymie came from Allied Artists Pictures, which grew out of the Monogram, one of the “Poverty Row” studios of the 1930s. Allied still took pride in keeping budgets low. There’s a small cast, a limited number of settings, only one action scene, and not a little stock footage.

I hoped the picture would be an interesting exploration of the young title character, played by Hollywood scion David Ladd. Raymie is indeed at the center of the story, his quest to catch a legendary barracuda defining the plot. But there’s a lot more footage of adults discussing Raymie than of the boy expressing himself. Some scenes are outside of his point of view. I believe Ladd was twelve when the movie was made, but he’s playing a simple nine-year-old.

Instead of a character study, Raymie really lays out the culture of a fishing pier somewhere along the California coast. A bunch of white men who have nothing better to do spend their days fishing off the pier, trading stories and jibes. Raymie’s widowed mother works at a diner on the pier, so he gets to fish, too, without paying.

One of the men is a grouch who dislikes Raymie’s presence. The rest use him as an object of their opinions and advice. There’s a wealthy older man who suffers a health crisis partway through the movie. There’s an African-American worker who shares wisdom in scenes with Ladd and no other actors, making me think they were shot separately and possibly ready to trim for certain audiences. And there’s John Agar as Ike, an off-season construction worker who’s trying to woo Raymie’s mother, played by Julie Adams.

In a vaguely Freudian way, some of the action turns on a fishing knife that Raymie inherited from his late father. (The father died in the Korean War, when the boy was an infant.) After resisting for two-thirds of that movie, Raymie trades that knife for the bait he needs to catch the barracuda. Then at the climactic moment he picks up Ike’s knife instead. That change presages how Raymie’s mother, seeing Ike standing up for her son, finally accepts him as a suitor.

Raymie’s mother doesn’t know that, much earlier in the movie, Ike dove off the pier to protect her son from a shark. Presumably she would have warmed up to him earlier if she were aware. But all the men on the pier, and Raymie, conspired to deceive her about how he got knocked into the water. In other words, the pier culture stretched out the movie.

The Raymie theme song was recorded by Jerry Lewis, then at the height of his stardom. He was even featured on the posters, as shown above. I’ve seen reports that a legal dispute over that recording has prevented the movie from being rereleased in any new format. Whether or not that’s true, in order to watch Raymie I had to download a bootleg file made from a scratched 16mm print found a few years back in Australia. It’s available for the curious, but I’m not recommending it as a sadly lost classic.

14 October 2019

Casting Aspersions

In The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting (in the voice of Tommy Stubbins, the shoemaker’s boy) described Dr. John Dolittle as “a little round man with a very kind face.”

Lofting’s own sketches for the books show a short, plump man with curly hair receding from his forehead.

As of 2020, according to a trailer released today, this character will have been played in the movies by:
  • Rex Harrison
  • Eddie Murphy
  • Robert Downey, Jr.

03 October 2019

Hard to Read

One reason the Waukegan Public Library may have chosen not to portray native son Ray Bradbury as a little boy (as I discussed yesterday) is that the site is already chock full of metal kids with books.

The library’s Stimson Sculpture Garden contains no fewer than seven bronze sculptures depicting ten little kids reading, along with a few fairy-tale animals.

There used to be two more children reading, but in 2012 they were stolen and melted down as scrap. Since those statues were bronze, other castings survive, such as Jane Rankin’s “Little Scholar” shown here.

Last time I checked, my public library has two such bronze statues of little kids with books. It looks like this is a genre with solid demand, and artists like Gary Lee Price, Randolph Rose, and Rankin are happy to supply the market.

Someday art historians will write monographs on this form and the studios and patrons behind it, like the studies of Civil War statuary.

02 October 2019

Ray Bradbury’s Rocket

I am not taken with the Ray Bradbury sculpture erected in his native town of Waukegan, Illinois, and unveiled this summer.

Zachary Oxman sculpted the figure of a young Bradbury riding the outline of a rocket, steampunk gears inside. The steel figure waves a copy of Fahrenheit 451.

The design is deliberately “retro” to fit with the mid-20th-century library building nearby, where Bradbury bequeathed his book collection. But the result strikes me as cheesy, diminishing the themes he wrote about instead of celebrating them. “I send my rockets forth between my ears,” Bradbury wrote in a poem, and this turns that metaphor into something solid and heavy again.

I also wouldn’t recognize Bradbury from this statue. I picture him from photos and TV appearances in my youth as a somewhat rounded bespectacled middle-aged man, a chatty dean of American science fiction.

It would make sense for a Bradbury statue in Waukegan to depict him as he looked when he was living in Waukegan. That would be a little kid since the family moved to Arizona when he was six. A young boy dreaming of the future could be iconic but not recognizable. Here’s Bradbury at age three, from the Knopf collection of the Harry Ransom Center. Here he is again, said to be in 1923 but probably a couple of years later.

By age 14, Bradbury was a working writer in LA with hints of how he’d appear as an adult. But I haven’t found any photo of Bradbury looking like the young man in that sculpture. He didn’t wear his glasses for photos in the 1940s, and he had a crew cut through the 1950s. The statue’s combination of spectacles, floppy hair, and svelteness seems like a composite. (Or perhaps Oxman worked from family photos I haven’t seen.)

Lastly, I have to admit, when I see someone clinging to a rocket like that, I can’t help but think of Bucky Barnes about to be blown up by Baron Zemo.