Los Angeles Times

Movie monster maker Milicent Patrick finally gets her due in ‘The Lady From the Black Lagoon’


As a teenager, indie horror filmmaker O’Meara became captivated by Universal Pictures’ 1954 “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Its eponymous amphibian star — a scaled, humanoid figure fondly known to generations of sci-fi geeks as the Gill-man — was the last of Universal’s classic monsters, joining the studio’s pantheon alongside Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and his Bride, and the Wolfman, among others. The Gill-man was also, as O’Meara learned to her delighted amazement, the first — and at the time, only — movie monster to have been designed by a woman.

Yet as she researches her new creative crush, O’Meara’s delight swiftly turns to bewilderment and anger.

Patrick’s design for the creature had for decades been credited to Universal makeup artist Bud Westmore, who fired her rather than have her role in its success become known. “Milicent’s incredible life should have earned her an honored place in film history,” O’Meara fumes, and with good reason. “But few even recognize her name.” “The Lady From the Black Lagoon” sets out to right that wrong, as O’Meara goes in search of this mostly unknown, if perhaps ultimately unknowable, artist.

Born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi in 1915, the woman — who later became Milicent Patrick — was the middle child of three. When she was 6, her father, Camille Charles Rossi, a structural engineer, was hired to work on William Randolph Hearst’s vast California Central Coast retreat, La Cuesta Encantada, better known as Hearst Castle. Rossi soon became the project’s construction superintendent, reporting to Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed woman architect and the castle’s designer.

Like other children whose parents labored there, Mildred frequently visited this dreamland, with its 2,000-acre private zoo and constantly shifting human menagerie of celebrity guests. But her father seems to have navigated Hearst’s kingdom uneasily, fighting nonstop with Morgan, and was dismissed after a decade. In her diary, Morgan called him “unduly revengeful,” and the superintendent of Hearst’s ranch said that Rossi “seemed to glory in human misery.” He was, perhaps, the first monster in his daughter’s life.

A gifted artist, Mildred received three scholarships to Chouinard Art Institute, which served as an artist/animato incubator for nearby Walt Disney Studios. The school later became CalArts. In early 1939, she was tapped to work for Disney’s storied ink and paint department.

Staffed entirely by women, it was housed in a separate building on the Disney studio campus, where the so-called Ink and Paint Girls reproduced tens of thousands of animators’ drawings onto celluloid, a mind-bogglingly laborious process. As Patricia Zohn wrote in a 2010 Vanity Fair article, “their job was to make what the men did look good … at an average of 8 to 10 cels an hour, 100 girls could only, in theory, turn out less than one minute of screen time by the end of the day.” At Disney, Mildred worked as a color animator (then considered a special effects technique) on “Fantasia,” contributing to four sequences, including the legendary “Night on Bald Mountain,” where she created gorgeous color pastel animation for the demonic Chernabog — “the most magical Disney character” for O’Meara and generations of monster lovers.

Mildred left Disney in the wake of the 1941 animators’ walkout, a strike that irrevocably changed the way the studio functioned. But Mildred wasn’t among the strikers. At some point, she had embarked upon an affair with another Disney animator, Paul Fitzpatrick. His pregnant wife found out and killed herself and their unborn child. The tragedy left Mildred and Fitzpatrick free to marry, and also estranged Mildred from her family. When, after a few years, she and Fitzpatrick divorced, she took on the name Mil Patrick. At some point she refined this to Milicent Patrick. She claimed to be Disney’s first female animator — probably not true, but close enough — and further embroidered her background by saying she was an Italian baroness.

She certainly looked the part, as one can see in a promotional film and photos from her time at Disney — strikingly beautiful, with long black hair and a regal air that not even Ink and Paint’s utilitarian smocks could diminish. She continued to create art, including illustrations for a collection of off-color jokes, but mostly seems to have worked as a model.

Then, in 1947, she met William Hawks, brother of filmmaker Howard Hawks and also a producer. She began to get uncredited bit parts as an extra — water nymph, flashy woman, tavern wench — in mostly forgettable films. She became involved with actor Frank L. Graham, best known for voicing the lascivious Wolf in Tex Avery’s cartoon short “Red Hot Riding Hood.” A few months into their relationship, in September 1950, Graham committed suicide. His will contained a note that read, “To Mildred, I leave nothing except the pleasure she will have knowing that now she won’t have to decide whether I am good enough for her or not.” Also, a postscript: “Gee, I wish Mildred had called me back yesterday morning.”

By this point — nearly halfway through O’Meara’s book — readers may be thinking, “Gee, I wish we’d get to the Creature.”

This is the heart of O’Meara’s story, and it’s a good, if infuriating, one. O’Meara writes that, in 1952, while working as an extra on the Universal lot, Patrick met the head of the studio’s makeup department, Bud Westmore. (I recently came across a 1948 publicity photo online of Patrick holding the monster’s mask from the film from the same year “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” with a handwritten note saying that she helped make the mask and also did its fine detail painting.) Westmore oversaw makeup for that earlier film, so it’s possible that Patrick met him at that time, and that Westmore was already familiar with her work when, in 1952, she was hired as makeup designer for the B picture that became “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

Unfortunately, none of her preliminary or finished sketches seemed to survive.

But others familiar with the movie (including Chris Mueller, who sculpted the Gill-man’s mask) state unequivocally that Patrick designed the creature, a graceful, elegant and surprisingly sexy monster whose influence extends to Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Oscar-winning homage, “The Shape of Water.” During previews, it became clear that Universal’s new monster flick was going to be a hit, its audience reactions fueled, no doubt, by an underwater pas de deux between the Gill-man and his female, human prey that still retains an erotic charge. The studio decided to capitalize on Patrick’s involvement and send her on a publicity tour with the tagline, “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.”

Westmore, known to be difficult and controlling with underlings, hit the roof.

O’Meara summarizes memos from the publicity team (they can be read in Tom Weaver’s in-depth “The Creature Chronicles,” one of O’Meara’s sources) detailing their battles with the makeup chief. The upshot: Patrick was sent out with masks of several Universal monsters, including the Creature, and was renamed “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts.” Even this wasn’t enough for Westmore. He struck Patrick’s name from the credits, replaced it with his own and, when she returned from her successful, nearly monthlong tour, had her fired.

At one point, O’Meara rages, “Several [people] expressed doubt that [Patrick’s] story could be more than an article, let alone fill an entire book.” The truth is, much of the book is padding, and it often reads as though it were written for a young audience, with long passages and footnotes explaining who Hearst was, what a scream queen is, and so on.

If Patrick left any diaries, journals, letters or the like, they’re not quoted from here, though O’Meara does speak with others intrigued by her history (including Mindy Johnson, whose 2017 “Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation,” delves deeply into the role of women in the studio’s early years).

But many specific details of her life as a working artist remain scarce.

O’Meara even visits the artist’s niece, who talks to her for hours about her aunt, and gives the author access to Tupperware filled with Patrick’s papers and ephemera. “The answers to almost all of my questions about Milicent were in these boxes,” O’Meara states, but she shares nothing of what she learns, except in the vaguest terms.

We learn that Patrick is “a friendly and warm person,” with “a warm personality,” “well-spoken, friendly and charming.” “Socializing was easy for Milicent,” and Graham’s suicide “caused her to lean harder than ever on her friends.” There are no interviews with friends, and no citations for quotes, including comments like “[Milicent] loved looking glamorous. It made her happy” or, “How marvelous that she refused to try to fit into the boy’s club [sic], that she was unapologetically herself,” or, later, that she was “beset by loneliness.”

O’Meara, unsurprisingly, identifies with her subject. Like Patrick and many other women, O’Meara has her own experiences of being harassed, abused and treated contemptuously by men in the film industry. Still, her book could use less of the author’s own rage and occasional fangirl gushing, however well deserved, and more about its subject, a woman whose father was said to “glory in human misery,” who knew firsthand the devastating effect of suicide, and who submitted a memo totting up the damage to her wardrobe for the Universal tour (amounting to nearly $4,000 in today’s money).

“One cocktail dress—completely ruined.

One cocktail dress—beading broken and lost.

One gabardine suit—shrunk and can’t be repaired.

One lace coat—burned, torn, and shrunk—ruined beyond repair.

One afternoon dress—torn but repairable.

One pair of earrings—cut in half by pub. man and stones lost.

One velvet blouse—torn, can be repaired.”

All of which makes one wonder if Patrick was accompanied on tour not just by masks but by the monsters themselves.

“Women are the most important part of horror because, by and large, women are the ones the horror happens to,” O’Meara writes.

“Women have to endure it, fight it, survive it — in the movies and in real life. Horror films help explore these fears and imagine what it would be like to conquer them. Women need to see themselves fighting monsters. That’s part of how we figure out our stories. But we also need to see ourselves behind-the-scenes, creating and writing and directing. We need to tell our stories, too.”

Patrick died in 1998, at age 82, largely forgotten except for a coterie of devoted fans. O’Meara has seen to it that she won’t be forgotten again. Her book is a fierce and often very funny guide to the distaff side of geekdom and reproduces photos and examples of Patrick’s work, many previously unpublished. That alone would be worth the price of admission to the world of this complex, brilliant artist.

The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

Mallory O’Meara

Hanover Square Press, 351 pp, $26.99

Originally published at the Los Angeles Times.

Was glam any different from pop? Simon Reynolds has the answer in 'Shock and Awe'

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

Myriad books have been written about the birth of punk, its cultural godparents in the Warhol Factory and Detroit, and distaff cousins in the United Kingdom, where Margaret Thatcher was punk’s evil stepmother. 

Yet with a few exceptions, punk’s gold-sequined older sibling, glam rock, has mostly been ignored by the critical establishment. Simon Reynolds’ “Shock and Awe” goes a long way to fill that void. If David Bowie’s death inspired more writers to tackle the subject, they’ll be hard-pressed to surpass Reynolds’ work. 

The best music criticism comes from equal parts love and obsession, often cut with a modicum of grief — the dissolution or slow decline of a once-great artist can break your heart as much as a great love song. Reynolds' behemoth (the book is 700 pages) grew from his exposure to Marc Bolan on "Top of the Pops" when Reynolds was 8.

Still—700 pages devoted to a self-consciously superficial musical phenomenon that blazed at the dawn of the '70s, then fizzled out in just five years? Reynolds states that his book has been cooking since 1985, which is a long time to contemplate what seems like a simple question: "What is it that makes the glamorousness of glam different from the standard-issue razzle-dazzle of pop music?" The answer can be summed up in two words: David Bowie, whose career runs through "Shock and Awe" like real gold thread among all the rhinestones and Lurex.

Glam was music for kids (mostly white) weaned on the Beatles, whose 1970 breakup opened a chasm between 1960s rock and whatever would come next. This rising generation of young teenagers formed a huge audience eager for a music to call their own. In the U.S., we called it glitter rock, and our exposure was mostly limited to scattershot AM/FM airplay and the occasional, much-anticipated appearance of a band like Slade or T. Rex or Mott the Hoople on the biweekly TV series "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert." The Brits, on the other hand, had weekly shows like "Top of the Pops" and "The Old Grey Whistle Test" that regularly introduced new acts to a mass audience.

Enter Bolan, whose platform shoes stomped all over the last remnants of the '60s. Formerly a member of the gonzo-styled band John's Children, Bolan went on to form the winsome folk-rock duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. After penning twee, occult-tinged songs ("She Was Born to Be My Unicorn"), Bolan ditched his acoustic guitar and picked up a white Fender Stratocaster, whereupon Tyrannosaurus Rex morphed into the hard-rocking T. Rex.

T. Rex's self-titled debut contained a few hippie holdovers, but glam finally made its entrance when Bolan sashayed onto the set of "Top of the Pops"  in 1971, bedecked in satin and his wife's glitter makeup, and warbled "Hot Love." The album "Electric Warrior" appeared soon after, riding on the success of monster hit singles "Get It On" (in the U.S., "Bang a Gong") and "Jeepster."

Meanwhile, Bowie, Bolan's brilliant frenemy, was struggling through a series of hitless albums, despite (or because of) his knack for relentless self-invention, leapfrogging from Anthony Newley-styled cabaret songs to the horrors of "The Laughing Gnome," finally penning the melancholy "Space Oddity," which became his first hit.

In 1970, he released "The Man Who Sold the World." Its sleeve flaunted a photo of a languid Bowie sporting pre-Raphaelite locks and a long blue-and-white satin gown. Later, an equally androgynous image adorned "Hunky Dory," though more Garbo than fin de siecle damsel.

Then came Bowie's historic April 14, 1972 "Top of the Pops" performance of "Starman." Bowie stood beside guitarist Mick Ronson, both gorgeously attired in outrageous outfits by designer Freddie Burretti. In a gesture that looks tame now, Bowie drew close to Ronson and suggestively snaked an arm over the guitarist's lamé-clad shoulder and then sang the line, "I had to phone someone so I picked on you," and with a sly, knowing smile, stared and pointed directly at the camera, beaming his message across the country.

For a generation awaiting their watershed moment—Elvis shaking his televised pelvis in 1956, the Beatles storming "Ed Sullivan" in 1964—this was it.

Americans missed that broadcast, one reason glam never caught on here the way it did in the U.K. But there were other factors as well, which Reynolds nimbly examines. U.K. glam's camp hearkened to the rollicking, tongue-in-cheek excesses of English music hall and panto dames, rather than the brittle irony of the Warhol Factory. Britain also retained remnants of a once-vibrant dance-hall culture, and unlike that other musical stalwart of the '70s, prog, you could actually dance to glam's 1950s-inflected rhythms.

American glam trended darker, inspired in part by the divine decadence of Bob Fosse’s film “Cabaret,” with Joel Grey as the sexually ambiguous, demonic MC whose Pierrot whiteface looked like a death mask. Lou Reed’s detached, almost funereal litany of Factory drag queens in “Walk on the Wild Side,” its chorus fading into Bowie’s ghostly saxophone solo. And America’s obsession with violence provided fertile, blood-soaked ground for Alice Cooper’s Grand Guignol antics featuring dead babies and boa constrictors, as well as the (literally) self-lacerating performances by the ferocious Iggy Pop, frontman for the Stooges. 

British glam had its high-toned side, represented by Bowie, of course, as well as Roxy Music, with a legendary lineup that included Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Bryan Ferry. 

Still, much U.K. glam was self-mocking and seemingly impervious to embarrassment. "Shock and Awe" encourages YouTube viewing of performances by nearly forgotten bands like the Sweet and Mud, whose deliriously silly "Dyna-Mite" and "Tiger Feet" spawned a dance known as the shoulder jive. A beefy Gary Glitter rolled eyes and hips, lip-syncing "Rock and Roll Part 2," though amusement at his ludicrous prancing is undercut by knowledge of pedophilic crimes that he was sentenced for in 2015.

Indeed, the history of glam is haunted by the faces of the young female groupies, some barely pubescent, who came to be as much a part of a musician's wardrobe as feather boas and teased hair. On the Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco drew all the name bands of the day, along with an army of camp followers like Sable Starr and Pamela Des Barres.

By 1975, glam's target demographic was aging out of red satin hot pants and into the monochrome palette favored by the Ramones and Patti Smith. As the decades passed, it seemed little more than the brief interregnum between the 1960s and the long shadow cast by punk. But Reynolds makes a good argument for glam representing an "individualized, privatized form of revolution" and "glamour as a spooky insistence of self."

Its most enduring cultural legacy is glam's open engagement with the fluidity of gender: with gay, bisexual and trans identities. Reynolds cites the mass popularity of Queen's Freddie Mercury, whose Beardsleyesque flamboyance somehow managed to elude the attention of the band's audience, enabling him to enrapture them in "an embrace that hovered somewhere between acceptance and ignorance." As Bowie wrote in 2001, "We were giving ourselves permission to reinvent culture the way we wanted it. With great big shoes."

"Shock and Awe" ends with a chapter noting glam's influences over the last 40 years. Unsurprisingly, it's a Bowie-centric list. Ultimately, "Shock and Awe's" examination of the glam era doesn't solve the mystery of who David Bowie was, or begin to fill the cultural black hole left by his death. "What if there is an afterlife, after all?" Reynolds ponders as he listens to the last track of Bowie's final album, "Blackstar." "Perhaps that's another definition of glamour: lustrous images generated by organic, perishable beings that live on in personal and collective memory, long after their source has withered."

Hand's most recent novel is "Hard Light."

"Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century"

By Simon Reynolds

Dey St. Books: 704 pp., $18.99 paper

Originally published on LATimes.com.

'Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction' yields writing of strangeness and beauty


In the 11th century, the German historian Adam of Bremen wrote that the Finns “are to this day so superior in the magic arts or incantations that they profess to know what everyone is doing the world over…. All this is easy for them through practice.” Their command of words and sorcery is so legendary that modern Swedes who consult a fortuneteller say that they are “paying a visit to the Finns.”

Yet why is it that only a few Finnish writers — among them Tove Jansson, Elias Lönnrot (compiler of the “Kalevala”), Johanna Sinissalo and the Estonian Finnish Sofi Oksanen — are known to American readers?

The challenge of translation is one reason — Finnish is a notoriously difficult language for nonnative speakers to learn, with gender-neutral pronouns and grammar. The Finns’ often unconventional way of looking at the world may be another — think of Sibelius’ yearning symphonies, the quirky films of Aki Kaurismäki, Alvar Aalto’s undulating buildings, Jansson’s endearingly amorphous Moomins.

Cheeky Frawg, a small press specializing in the literature of the fantastic, often in translation, is publishing an omnibus volume of the brilliant, visionary modernist Leena Krohn — think Jorge Luis Borges intersecting with Isak Dinesen, Flann O’Brien, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino.

The comparisons help put Krohn’s body of work into context but do nothing to capture the ineffable, melancholy strangeness and beauty of her writing. This is great literature: Shame on us for only now discovering it.

Krohn has written more than 30 books for adults and young readers. A variety of works published between 1976 and 2009 are collected here, including six short novels and novellas, short stories, critical essays and novel excerpts, some of which have been difficult to find in the U.S.

The volume opens with “Dona Quixote and Other Citizens. Portrait (Tales of the Citizens of an Unusual City).” The book consists of a series of chapters, most only a page or two in length, which can also be read as individual stories — a technique similar to that of Lydia Davis and a hallmark of nearly all of Krohn’s fiction here. The “unusual city,” never named, is recognizable as modern Helsinki but a Helsinki at once as commonplace and marvelous as Gabriel García-Marquez’s Macondo. Here is the narrator’s first meeting with the eponymous protagonist:

“I was sitting on the pedestal of a statue when something passed me by. It was as long and thin as a piece of straw, and it moved so lightly that it seemed to slip along above the dust of the road. It had a pair of binoculars at its neck and it stopped by the railing and began to look out at the sea.”

The piece of straw is an old woman known as Dona Quixote, and so odd yet acute are Krohn’s descriptions of the city and its denizens that a reader is at first not quite certain whether the story is set on Earth or indeed if the narrator (or Dona Quixote) is human. It’s as though the story was told by a member of another species, amazed by even the most mundane things.

This sense of mingled strangeness and recognition reverberates through all of Krohn’s work, most clearly in “Tainaron: Mail From Another City.” The narrative is framed as a series of letters, never answered, written by an unnamed woman to her distant lover, describing the city where she now lives — where the residents are insects.

Many of them are human-sized and possessed of human speech, their behavior a distorted mirror held up to that of Homo sapiens. In a vast, teeming beehive, the narrator has an audience with the immense queen, who, ceaselessly giving birth to her offspring, shrieks, “But what is a mother? … She from whom everything flows is not a someone …”

Later, at a funeral parlor, the narrator is shown the exquisite coffins that hold only “a single organ, often an eye or antenna [or] part of a wing, a part with a beautiful pattern.” Told that there is no crematorium in Tainaron, she insists on knowing what happens to the rest of the bodies. The funeral director takes her to an underground chamber, where she is at first sickened and then exalted by the sight of dung beetles devouring the dead. “And here, then, was their work: to distill pure nectar from such filth, to extract from the slimy liquid of death health, strength and new life.”

This singular vision of a transcendent connection between species also shines in “Datura,” where ingesting the seeds of the titular poisonous plant subtly changes the way a woman perceives the world, and “The Pelican’s New Clothes,” in which a pelican befriends a lonely boy named Emil. Only children recognize him as a pelican: dressed in human clothing, the pelican calls himself Mr. Henderson. He gets a job taking tickets at the opera and is enthralled by “The Magic Flute.” (He especially likes the birdcatcher, Papageno.) Reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s work, it’s a book that deserves to be called a classic.

As do nearly all of the extraordinary tales collected here. “Beauty is the universe’s most enduring quality,” Krohn, now 68, states in her afterword, “it is repeated in atoms and galaxies, numbers and relations and the way a tree grows.” This is a writer whose work can rewire your brain, leaving you with an enhanced, near-hallucinatory apprehension of our fragile planet, and of all the beings that inhabit it.

Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction
Leena Krohn
Cheeky Frawg Books: 850 pp, $36.99

Originally posted on LATimes.com.

New books on Salem's trials and modern pagans offer bewitching reading this Halloween season


In “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” a masterful account of the epidemic of paranoia and religious fervor that overcame residents of Essex County in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff takes on “America’s tiny reign of terror,” the Salem witch trials. Most Americans know of the trials only through fictional accounts like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables” or Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” which conflated Salem’s vicious persecutions with those of the McCarthy era. Schiff painstakingly reconstructs not just the events of 1692 but the world that birthed them: Puritan New England, where Wabanaki raids and massacres were common, food scarce, and the winter darkness inescapable for months on end.

Her accomplishment is all the more remarkable because there are no records of the court sessions — Schiff sifted through archival material as well as historical accounts written by witnesses years after the epidemic.

All mention of the hangings were omitted or expunged from Salem’s official records; the court transcripts were supposedly destroyed in a 1765 fire. An exception is the evidence of witches, which included accounts of luminous jellyfish coming down the chimney, talking cats, satanic visitors, magic apples, and nocturnal flights over the Essex countryside.

The crisis began in the household of the Salem village minister, 30-year-old Samuel Parris. Salem village (the site of present-day Danvers) consisted of 90 isolated families, at a time when Boston had only 8,000 residents and the entire population of New England “would fit into Yankee Stadium.”

Salem’s villagers were a disputatious bunch, and Parris, their fourth minister, seems to have been unpopular — in 1691, his congregation voted not to collect his salary. Parris had grown up in an affluent merchant family in Barbados; he had no prior pastoral experience when he took the pulpit in 1689, for reasons that remain murky. Providing the incubator for an epidemic of witches was probably not among them.

Parris and his wife lived with their three children in a crowded household that included Parris’ 11-year-old niece, Abigail, and two Indian slaves, Tituba and her husband, John Indian. Sometime near the end of January 1692, first Abigail and then Parris’ 9-year-old daughter Betty began to act out: twitching, babbling, leaping into the air and pretending to fly. Salem’s Puritans had few amusements besides cultivating spite and nursing a grievance — no festivals or holidays enlivened the bitterly cold winters. Within weeks, the antics of the children fulfilled the role of reality TV, with as many as 50 visitors crowding the Parris house to gape at the girls.

A month after the onset of Abigail’s frenzy, Mary Sibley, a neighbor, watched the children while the Parrises were away. In their absence, Sibley decided to employ kitchen witchery to discern who or what had possessed the girls. She ordered John Indian to make a cake, mixing the girls’ urine with rye flour, and fed the resulting mess to the family dog. Parris was understandably enraged when he found out, but the damage was done.

A few days later, Abigail and Betty made the first false accusations of witchcraft. The devil began his rampage through Essex County.

More adolescent girls and two adult women joined ranks with Abigail and Betty, writhing as they jabbed accusatory fingers at those assembled in the courtroom. Neighbors accused neighbors, family members each other. Under questioning by a bench whose members presumed guilt, 55 people admitted that they were witches. The youngest confessor was 5 years old and spent nine months shackled in jail before her release. Her mother, a bellicose beggar imprisoned with her daughter and a newborn infant, was among the first to be executed.

By the time the epidemic ran its course late that year, 20 innocent people were dead. Among those executed were a highly respected, devout mother of seven, and an engaging minister accused of being a wizard. He recited the Lord’s Prayer before he was hanged, moving onlookers to tears.

Schiff dispels some common misconjectures about the trials, and ferrets out intriguing facts. Those thought to be witches were usually not people of color. Half of the Salem girls who were possessed were refugees or had been orphaned by the French-Indian wars. The median age of the accusers was 19, and well-educated girls were more likely to be major players — they would have read the gruesome captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, a bestseller of its time, as well as what Schiff calls “martyrdom porn,” literary sources awash in blood, torment and demons.

Longtime border disputes between neighbors seem to be another instigation for the mass hysteria, along with the brutal weather and steady diet of hellfire preaching that provided jolts of lurid energy in an unbearably bleak environment. But ultimately, as Schiff puts it, “Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.”

And only one person taking the stand points out what the exasperated parent of any modern teenager would know: “We must not believe all that these distracted children say.”

Compared with Salem’s punitive, backbiting Puritans, the real-life pagans and Wiccans who populate Alex Mar’s entertaining “Witches of America” are a cheerful bunch, even if they indulge in the occasional blood offering. Mar’s 2010 documentary “American Mystic” followed three devotees of alternative religions. In “Witches of America,” she continues and enlarges upon that quest: “I want to understand the strange confidence necessary to climb onto the roof and sing to the moon, or to write out commands in your own blood … I want to grasp the moment when that confidence becomes conviction …”

Her journey takes her back to one of the documentary’s subjects, a young woman named Morpheus whose practice is centered on a Celtic battle goddess who often takes corvid form. Mar also travels to New Orleans in search of “the heavier stuff” practiced by adherents of Aleister Crowley’s darker strain of “magick,” and to PantheaCon, an annual convention attended by thousands of pagans. There Mar encounters BNPs (Big Name Pagans) with rock star charisma and entourages.

“Do you ever get people you think want to be your new friend,” one BNP wonders, “and then instead you realize they’re just hanging around waiting to ask for an initiation?”

Mar is an often amusing guide to the household altars and henges of 21st century paganism, in which Wiccans conduct classes via Skype and online distance learning. But what will resonate most with readers is her genuine and touching search for transcendence, which leads to a conviction that all of these strands of belief are “strategies for staying alive. Some are simply more elaborate and inexplicable than others.”

The Witches: Salem, 1692
Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown: 512 pp, $32

Witches of America
Alex Mar
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 274 pp, $26

Originally posted on LATimes.com.

Close encounters with feminist science fiction in 'Sisters of the Revolution'


Mary Shelley usually gets mad props as the progenitor of feminist science fiction for her 1818 "Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus." But pride of place arguably goes to Mary Cavendish, who in 1668 penned a feminist utopian novel, "The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World," in response to Robert Hooke's "Micrographia," which in 1665 put microscopes on the map and coined the biological term "cell." Cavendish delved into speculation as to what might exist beneath and within the world we know, or think we know (alien life forms played a role). She was given the sobriquet "Mad Madge" for her pains.

FOR THE RECORD: Margaret Cavendish: An Aug. 9 review of "Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology" incorrectly said 17th century author Margaret Cavendish's first name was Mary.

Nearly 300 years later, things had improved … barely. "Women are writing SCIENCE FICTION!" trumpeted the flap copy for Margaret St. Clair's 1963 novel "Sign of the Labrys." Women, it went on to say, "are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel."

Those who don't possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past are condemned to repeat it. So thank the Goddess for "Sisters of the Revolution," a superlative new anthology of previously published feminist science fiction by female writers, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Noted editors of numerous anthologies of speculative fiction, the VanderMeers have compiled one of the best volumes of feminist — or any other — science fiction in years. "Sisters of the Revolution" reaches back to the late 1960s and extends to 2012, with the lioness' share of tales originally published between 1980 and 2000.

There are classic, much-anthologized stories by well-known writers here. "The Screwfly Solution," a brilliant, terrifying tale of global femicide by James M. Tiptree Jr. [pseudonym for Alice Sheldon], carries even more impact in our own age of rampant violence against women than when it first appeared in 1977. An off-world feminist utopia confronts its own destruction in "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ, whose "How to Suppress Women's Writing" was a touchstone for second-wave feminists. Ursula Le Guin is represented by "Sur," in which a group of bluestockings mount an early 20th century expedition to Antarctica. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" by Octavia Butler explores the global effect of a fictional neurovirus, and "how much of what we do is encouraged, discouraged, or otherwise guarded by what we are genetically," as she states in her short afterword to this poignant tale. Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders" follows Lizzie Borden on the sultry August morning of the day that her "Sargasso calm" notoriously erupts, suggesting motives that were ignored at the time.

But much of the pleasure in "Sisters of the Revolution" derives from encountering work by writers who aren't household names. The stories are arranged as to how they "speak to one another rather than chronological order". So Anne Richter's "The Sleep of Plants," deftly translated from the Belgian by Edward Gauvin, segues into Kelly Barnhill's dreamy and dark magical realist tale, "The Men Who Live in Trees," which slides into Hiromi Goto's "Tales From the Breast" ("You want to yell down the hall that you have a name and it isn't Breast Milk").

Readers can also compare depictions of maternal love in Kit Reed's viciously funny "The Mothers of Shark Island" and Nnedi Okorafor's "The Palm Tree Bandit," whose narrator tells her young daughter of her namesake great-grandmother's daring nocturnal exploits, and delight in riffs on such oft-told tales as Kelley Eskridge's gender-bending "And Salome Danced" and Nalo Hopkinson's creepy Bluebeard story, "The Glass Bottle Trick." And these are just a handful of the stories contained in this distaff treasure chest: Every single one is a gem.

Forty years ago, in her essay "American SF and the Other," Le Guin wryly observed: "The women's movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that SF has either totally ignored women, or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters — or old-maid scientists desexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs — or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes."

There are no squeaking dolls or loyal little wives here, no old maid scientists — and if there were, woe betide anyone who took them at face value.

Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology
Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
PM Press: 341 pp., $15.95 paper

Originally published on LATimes.com.