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Jan. 16, 2005

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  Everything You Wanted to Know About Fear
 (But Were Afraid to Ask)


For Christmas, I bought my brother a DVD collection of several episodes of the Hulk TV series from the '70s.  Watching that series again, after so many years, I was pleased to find it held up rather well.  You might think painting up bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno from head to toe in green and asking him to snarl might be a tad...off-putting.  But darn it, if they didn't make it work.  A lot of credit goes to Bill Bixby, who brought to the thing a quiet dignity and contained desperation -- "Mr. McGee, don't make me angry.  You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

But watching that series, a question struck me.  Every time Dr. David Bruce Banner underwent his "startling metamorphosis" into the Hulk, his muscles expanded accordingly.  With the necessary result that whatever raiment he was wearing at the time would split along the seams.  By the time he shrank back into his much smaller human identity, those clothes were little more than torn rags.  So, my question is this:  Wouldn't you think, after a while, David would have taken to wearing short sleeved shirts?  For that matter, couldn't he have worn shirts made of some stretchy material, Lycra or Spandex (assuming either of those were available in the late '70s)?  Sure, it might have attracted the odd stare, (and perhaps the occasional embarrassing proposition.  Nudge, Nudge.  Wink Wink. ) but think of the expense of replacing all those shredded shirts!  Surely anything would have been better than that!

Of course, I suppose we should be thankful he didn't have a glass eye.

Anyhoo...

The other night I watched a Hulk episode called "747" (and yes, it was my brother's present, but there's no law against me borrowing it, is there?  Is there?).  David is a passenger on a 747 when the entire flight crew is rendered hors de combat by thieves planning to abscond with the King Tut exhibit carried on board, escaping by parachute and leaving the 747 to crash without a pilot.  David accidentally happens upon their scheme and, when they try to throw him overboard, he naturally loses his temper...and his shirt...with the result that Lou Ferrigno steps in and makes a small unsightly stain of the lead baddie.

But really this is all a prelude to the real drama of the episode.  For, now, without a flight crew, David must take the wheel of the 747 and, guided by a professional on the ground, land that sucker in Denver Airport.  (The best line?  The pilot on the ground tells David not to worry: "It's just like driving a car."  To which David gives a slightly hysterical laugh and says, "I don't own a car.")  Of course, you might have thought the ability to turn into a snarling green bodybuilder would be of little advantage when trying to land a 747, but apparently not.  For you see, the airplane is leaking hydraulic fluid from a stray bullet hole and, as a result, the wheel locks up just as David is coming in for a landing.  Of course, struggling to move the locked wheel, David -- who should really have cut down on his caffeine -- loses his temper but remains in control just enough that he only partially transforms, turning into a sort of David-Hulk hybrid, allowing him to use the Hulk's strength to force the wheel to move even as his David-half carries out the intricacies of landing the plane.

The reason I've brought up that episode is that it occurs to me that that plot must surely have been a common fear of the '70s -- especially among kids my age.  I think we gave an inordinate amount of thought to the question of just what we would do if we found ourselves on a passenger airliner with the flight crew incapacitated for whatever reason.  From whence that fear sprang, I have no idea.  I think it's a safe bet the disaster movie Airport (1970) and its many sequels had something to do with it.  And yet, very few of the Airport movies actually depicted that precise scenario.  In Airport 1975 a collision with a smaller plane leaves the flight crew dead and a big hole in the front of a passenger plane, forcing the head stewardess (Karen Black) to take the wheel -- which is fairly close.  But, strangely, I would have said the standard cliché was to imagine the flight crew laid low by food poisoning.  In fact, the movie Airplane! (1980), a spoof of those disaster flicks, featured food poisoning, which would seem to bear out my impression. But how many of the Airport movies themselves really used it?  Er...none?

But here's an interesting bit of trivia: The first film in that series, Airport, was based on a novel by Arthur Hailey.  But Arthur Hailey was a Canadian and, years before, he had written the teleplay for a Canadian TV movie called "Flight into Danger" (1956), clearly the inspiration for his later novel.  "Flight into Danger" depicted a passenger (played by Canadian James Doohan, later immortalized as Star Trek's engineer Montgomery Scott, aka "Scotty".  And I swear I didn't plan on making another Star Trek reference, it just happened!  I'm getting help, I swear I am!)  Where was I?  Oh yeah... depicted a passenger forced to land a plane when the flight crew was laid low by...you guessed it...food poisoning!  Which still doesn't explain why food poisoning was the accepted cliché when, apart from "Flight into Danger" and the spoof Airplane!, I can't think of any other movies that depicted that.

Which leads to an obvious question.  Has there ever been a real passenger aircraft which had to be landed by a passenger when the flight crew was incapacitated? 

I mean, think about it.  It's such a cliché, we'd all just assume it must have occurred somewhere.  But did it?  The truth is, I don't ever recall hearing of such a thing.  Not in real life.

Watching the Hulk episode about the 747, the above question occurred to me.  And that train of thought got me thinking about other things which I feared in my youth but which had little to no chance of actually happening.  So I decided I might as well share a few with you. 

Ushers, lock the doors.

DRIVING OFF A CLIFF

That's right.  As a child, I was dreadfully frightened that I might someday find myself trapped in a car, either because of a stuck door or a stuck seatbelt, when the brakes failed and it drove off a cliff.  Now, obviously, for some people this isn't an entirely unlikely mode of demise.  If you live in Southern California, for example.  But where I live, you'd have a tough time finding a cliff worthy of the name.  Hills we got.  Embankments, no problem.  And along the waterfront there are probably plenty of places where faulty brakes would land you in the water.  But I wasn't scared of piddly little twenty foot drops.  I was a child of the Cathode Ray and, on TV, when cars went off a cliff they didn't fall...they "plunged".  And they took a long time doing it.  Often as not, exploding on the way down.  (Even as a kid, I knew there was something dodgy about a car that explodes before it hits the ground.)  Nonetheless, it was partly because of that irrational fear that I refused to wear my seatbelt and kept the car door unlocked.  If I ever found myself headed for a cliff, I planned to throw open the door and jump out at the very last moment...which, when you considered my woefully malnourished physique, was just about the saddest example of self-delusion you could imagine.

SINKING IN QUICKSAND

I was terrified I might one day find myself sinking in... quicksand!  As with the cliff question, you would be hard pressed to find any quicksand worthy of the name in my neck of the woods.  In fact, I'm not sure you could find quicksand anywhere in Canada.  We've got muskeg, in which I probably could have perished in a fairly quicksandish manner.  But, somehow, to a kid, muskeg just didn't have the same fearful resonance as quicksand.  And, anyway, I'm a long way from any muskeg too.

Nonetheless, I -- along with probably every other kid of my generation -- couldn't grow up on a diet of Ron Ely's Tarzan without developing an irrational dread of quicksand.  (Then there was the Batman episode, remember?  With the giant cake?  Okay, that wasn't really quicksand, but they called it quicksand in the episode, so who am I to quibble?  Adam West and Burt Ward find themselve slowly sinking into the top of said quicksand cake, victims of the Riddler, if memory serves, their fate to be decided next episode -- "Same Bat time, Same Bat channel!")  And every kid knew that the only way to survive in quicksand was to, first, stop struggling!  Struggling just made it worse, dontchaknow?  Then, supposedly, if you "swam" very slowly, you could reach the edge and climb out.  Looking back now as an adult, I frankly doubt that that would have worked, but it comforted me as a kid.

BEING CHASED BY A TARANTULA

Understand, I'm not just saying I was frightened of tarantulas.  Of course, I was.  Still am.  There's nothing interesting about that.  As a kid, though, I was scared I might someday be chased by one.  I kid youse not!  Somewhere I had heard tarantulas were very fast.  I interpreted that to mean "fast runners".  And I spent many a sleepless night wondering just how fast was "fast".  Was it, oh... faster than me?  Was it even possible to run away from one?  Or would he chase you down and leap on you from behind?  Yikes!  (The most memorable TV tarantula I remember was the one Don Adams, as Agent 86, in the series Get Smart, killed with a jar full of horseradish.  Adams was doing double duty as the bumbling Maxwell Smart and as a visiting prince who sounded uncannily like Ronald Coleman.  The prince entered the room just after the tarantula had perished, suffocated by the horseradish, and commented airily: "What is that smell?  I would swear it was tarantula in horseradish.")

And last but not least...

CHLOROFORM

I wonder whether the average kid growing up today even knows what chloroform is.  Back in the '70s and early '80s, every kid knew.  Chloroform was the chemical you used to knock someone out if you wanted to kidnap them.  It was the knock-out drug of choice, cropping up in countless P.I. series, apparently as common as wide lapels.  But with the demise of the P.I. genre, so too went chloroform.  (It was never explained where all those bad guys were getting the stuff -- I doubt you could buy it at your local Loblaw's -- but somebody must have been selling it by the truckload!) 

And we knew how it was used, didn't we?  Pour a little into a cloth, hold it over the kidnappee's nose  and wait for the kidnappee to inhale the fumes.  Knowing this, I spent a lot of time fretting about how long I could hold my breath.  For, if someone ever tried to chloroform me, I planned to be ready.  I would quickly inhale just before they got the cloth in place, then hold my breath a suitably long time -- but not too long! -- then I would go limp.  They would think the chloroform had knocked me out and drop their guard, allowing me to escape when the time was right.  Perhaps, I thought, I might even capture them, earning the praise of family and friends, the local constabulary, headlines in the national newspapers.

Of course, when you considered my woefully malnourished physique, that had to be the second saddest example of self-delusion you could imagine.

You may be wondering what my point was in recounting this list of childhood phobias.  Partly, I just think it's fun to look back on those fears, which had almost no chance of actually happening, recognizing how they were born and nourished by the TV programs I watched and the movies I saw, having little to do with reality.  But I noticed something else, as well.  Why those particular fears?  There are countless other menaces which I might have worried about.  What about piranha, for example?  What about sharks or army ants?  What you notice about the five fears I listed is that, all, to my young imagination, were survivable.  They were "safe" fears because I could imagine ways I might escape them (however improbable).  Whether through leaping from a speeding car, or holding my breath, being talked through landing a 747, outrunning a tarantula, or "swimming" through quicksand, dreaming about them carried a special thrill.  Make no mistake, I was scared of piranhas and sharks and army ants too -- but those I tried not to think about for precisely the reason that they were too scary.  I couldn't imagine surviving them.

And surely that gets to the heart of pulp fiction.  Those "safe" fears are the stock in trade of the pulp fiction writer.  His or her job is to figure out what it is that thrills us, and to capture it on the printed page (or PC screen).  Pulp fiction visits and revisits those childhood phobias, thriving on the fear they evoked, even as it remains "safe" because we know the hero will find a way to survive.  And even if my child's mind couldn't imagine a way to survive sharks or piranhas or army ants, the job of the adult pulpster is to find that solution that eluded his childhood self.  To make us believe that the impossible escape is really possible -- for the right sort of hero.  In essence, to convince us that metamorphosizing into a snarling green bodybuilder really would help you to land a pilotless 747.

Even if you didn't own a car.


Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com


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