Wednesday, July 08, 2009

This may be scientific, but it's pretty horrible

For of the Spirit of Ed Wood blogathon, literary division.



I know next to nothing about Dr. John Button, but if anyone exemplifies the spirit of Ed Wood, it was Dr. John Button. Who was Dr. John Button? Whatever else he was, he was a ghostwriter for the Stratemeyer syndicate, mass producers of children's literature from the beginning of the 20th century to - well, today, in spirit at least. Now Edward Stratemeyer - that's what people like Ed Wood, enthusiastic purveyors of unabashed pulp fiction, aspired to be - knocking out stories by the score, first whole books, then outlines, that he farmed out to his ghostwriters, all of it written to spec - 25 chapters, 200 or so pages, one after another... all of it immensely popular, and some of it pretty damned good - with a few series that changed the cultural landscape. The Hardy Boys - Nancy Drew - maybe Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins... That's Edward Stratemeyer.

I loved the Hardy Boys when I was a kid - yes I did. I think I read the first one in second grade, and was addicted from the start - I read every one of them I could find. I emptied all the libraries I had access to - and since I had access to some old and shabby libraries, I read the original set of books along with the current set of books. (The Syndicate rewrote the early books starting in 1959: they dumbed down the prose, turned the boys squeaky clean, took out the racism [which was pretty bad for a while], and most of the characterization to boot.] Now I wasn't the most discriminating reader when I was 8, but I had my favorites, and there were some head-scratchers in the series - I was pleased to discover on re-reading them that my faves were actually pretty good, and the dubious ones were actually pretty bad... Okay. The fact is, I suppose, the Stratemeyer's techniques were bound to create a very uneven series - only as good as the outliners and the ghostwriters currently employed. It is no surprise that the first 10-11 are the strongest - they were written by Leslie McFarlane, a more than fair writer; the were probably outlined, at least some of them, by old Edward Stratemeyer himself. He died in 1930, and it's the early 30s when things go south - the stories get dumber; the racism gets more pronounced; the characters get more caricatured... And then, in 1938, with McFarlane gone, the syndicate hired our hero, Dr. John Button, to write the books....

He wrote five: The Secret Warning; The Twisted Claw; The Disappearing Floor; The Mystery of the Flying Express; and The Clue of the Broken Blade. Even when I was a kid, I could tell these were a bit - off. Not that the rest of the series is great lit - the first 11 (say) are pretty damned good for what they are; there's a nice renaissance in the 40s and 50s (the stories tend to be sillier, but there's a nice sense of atmosphere to a lot of them, some cool set pieces, and a couple better than average detective stories); but they grow increasingly perfunctory and formulaic in the late 50s and 60s onward, and are near unreadable by the 70s. (An opinion I held in real time...) But the bad books and bad stretches tend to be boring and drab affairs - flat prose and flat stories and predictable action and....

Not the Dr. John Button books. No. They are bad, but they are bad in the finest tradition of Ed Wood. (Though bad a decade or so before Ed Wood started to be bad.) They are bad for all the normal reasons - lazy plots, built on coincidence and caricatured characters, realized in dull, awkward prose, full of implausible events and - more or less uniquely in a property this closely controlled by its owners - jammed full of continuity errors. Like getting characters' names wrong - like the Hardy Boys mother's name wrong. That sort of thing.... They are bad for those reasons - but they are also bad for - well - let's cut to the chase: the Plan 9 From Outer Space of juvenile fiction, and the source of this humble blog's name, and its blogger's screenname - The Disappearing Floor.

If you were to click on that last link, you'd find a couple summaries of this book - both of which give up after 4-5 chapters. Let me give you a partial itinerary for the boys: they start at a train station - go to a place called Great Notch, somewhere in the hills - they hike into the woods - they fall into a cave (and meet their father) - they leave the cave, find a bag of silver dollars, and head off to return it to some place called Wayne City - after driving a cab into the river, precipitating a riot at the bank, and discovering that the bag contains $82,000 (in silver dollars) - they go back to the woods, where Dad has been KO'd - once more into the cave, more trouble there - they haul Dad to a hospital - they go back to Bayport - then up into the woods with a bunch of girls and their Aunt Gertrude. There - Dad turns up and is mauled by a tiger that the boys kill with pointed sticks (no, really!) and a rock - they take him to the hospital again, send the girls back home - go back looking for the bad guys and are attacked by another tiger, and rescued by the villain - they go to thank him, but are worried he'll recognize him so they drag up. Then it's off to the town of Erie, for another bank robbery - they follow the robbers who bury gold in a cemetery - later a crazy old man digs up the gold during a thunder storm - the boys capture the head robber - then get kidnapped - go to an Old Dark House - are frozen solid and set adrift in a rowboat - go back to the house - where most of the rest of the story takes place... Though they do leave a few times, once to fly from Erie to Columbia to buy a book, then back, tailed by the wolfish gangster Weeping Sam himself - they hide at an amusement park, then back to the house, where Fenton Hardy gets electrocuted and frozen solid....

Right. It's like that - constant motion, until they reach the house, and even there they go in and out, up and down, as does the house (the title coming from a room with an elevator in the floor) - contending with a mad scientist who grows plants with electricity, has a device for quick freezing people, immobilizes people with magnetic fields, has a system of electric ghosts to scare off intruders, as well as more prosaic electric traps and locks, has the whole place bugged ("the listening ear"), has a machine that can force you to tell the truth - etc.... What happens in all these places - never mind the science fiction - is wildly absurd: randomly finding bags of money, people turning up and disappearing at will, the boys dressing up as old women to fool Duke Beeson, and later pretending to be Duke Beeson to fool Weeping Sam - and full of extremely strange things. Two Tigers loose in the woods? a group of -sun-worshippers? "Ozonites" - led by Chief Shining Light - an Indian Prince (native of India, that is) - who's really Duke Beeson? I don't know how much of this is the fault of the syndicate's outliners (Edna Stratemeyer Squire, in fact, daughter of old Edward) and how much is Button's, but whoever it is - it's a pretty amazing performance....

It's bad - but it sneaks up on you. It's like those Ed Wood films - however silly the story is, however badly acted, shot, written it is - it has a kind of total, warped commitment. It's ridiculous - but you can't parody it, you can't make fun of it. The Hardy Boys books, over all, are pretty easy to make fun of - the coincidences, the convenient disappearances and reappearances of Fenton Hardy, the frequent blows to the head, Chet and his hobbies, his appetite, his cowardice - everything rolled out like cloclwork... But this one plays like a parody of all that - Button never met a cliche he didn't like, and could execute them with all the obviousness and lack of grace that Ed Wood would have later - so if Fenton Hardy turns up unexpectedly in a cave, Button isn't going to waste any time looking for a way to make it seem plausible - no: he's just there! if the outliner lost track of where the bag of coins was, Button doesn't care - Oh! it fell in a hole! it looks like a rock! And far be it from him to change the dollar amounts - if the outline says it's a bag of coins in the first chapter, he's not going to quibble too much about what 82,000 silver dollars would weigh in the next chapter, nor let carrying that amount of money slow the Hardy boys from swimming out of a sinking taxi cab... And if you are going to set most of the story in an old dark house, you can bet that you get to the old dark house by way of a thunderstorm in a cemetery at midnight with a cackling madman digging up buried loot...

And that - along with the pace and the sheer weirdness of it - makes it a surprisingly fun read. It's a hoot. It doesn't hurt that, compared to most of the series, it contains some really memorable villains. That's something of a Dr. John Button specialty, in all his books. The bad guys in most Hardy Boys books are a pretty bland lot - snarling swarthy brutes, plus the occasional con man or cold eyed pretty boy assassin, who never really do much beyond whack the boys on the head and explain their evil schemes after they've been captured.... Not Button's villains - they sneer and menace and get lines - lots of lines - and names - Dick Tracy type names: Kuntz the deep sea diver (in The Secret Warning); Pierre the French Canadian Pirate (in the Twisted Claw); and in this book - Duke Beeson, alias Chief Shining Light; wolfish Weeping Sam his main henchman; Louis Butts; three stooges named (as they should be) Pudge, Runt and Spike. They carry on, they get in fights, they scheme against one another and the boys - and when Eben Adar (the mad sceintist) points his truth tellign machine at them, they tell their life stories. At least Duke Beeson does: "The first thing I ever stole was my teacher's pocketbook," he said in a drawl.... HIs books as a group do this - make the villains much more prominent, treating them like, well - Dick Tracy, and other comic strips - or the better Hollywood adventure tales, giving the bad guys scenery to chew... it goes a long way toward making these books enjoyable.

And finally - there's the dialogue. This has more than its share of Ed Wood worthy lines. The boys find the bad guys frozen solid - "This may be scientific," concluded Joe, "but it's pretty horrible." Or in re the tiger they have downed, and possibly killed - "Give me your stick. I'll poke him." Or perhaps this exchange: the old madman, Eben Adar, is giving Aunt Gertrude a tour, showing her his electric flowers...
"-and this species here, Getrude, this is a rare variety of Ch'lienglien, a Chinese flower of exquisite beauty. Ah, but the Orientals have never seen this."
"Gracious, it is huge, Eben..."

Which I suppose brings us to a final point. You have to start to wonder - all this absurdity - the obvious, unapologetic coincidences and cliches, the heavy handed foreshadowing, and - well - lines like that one? or the inclusion of those sun-worshippers? Given that "sun-worshippers" usually turns up in old books and movies and comics as a reference to nudists... and the boys, dressing up as old women? and - well - maybe - I can't help suspecting that maybe Dr. John Button was in on a bit more of the unintentional comedy than he lets on. But in the end, I suppose it doesn't matter - the book is - utterly ridiculous, but funny as hell anyway, packed full of stuff, completely shameless - and a joy to read. As much fun as an Ed Wood movie, and it would be just as funny if it were all meant as a parody, as it is, thinking it's just ineptitude. There's a fine line between clever and stupid - and sometimes, the line doesn't matter in the least.

4 comments:

Ed Howard said...

Wow, that sounds amazing. I read (fairly uncritically) a lot of Hardy Boys books when I was a kid, but apparently I never got around to any of the Button ones -- this definitely would've stuck out from the generic Hardy formula.

It actually sounds quite a bit like the Dick Tracy comics, beyond the similarities in the naming and treatment of the villains. I've been reading some of the 40s strips lately, and come to the conclusion that Chester Gould was very much an Ed Woodesque kind of genius. His writing is often packed with cliches and clunky phrasing, his continuity is rough and jumbled because he was plotting weeks ahead and had to contend with including standalone Sunday strips that he knew not everyone would read. Even his art, while visually stunning and striking in a design sense, could also be awkward, certainly by conventional standards of draftsmanship: he had little sense of anatomy, little sense of perspective, and his figures often seemed to be contorted into impossible positions. And yet this stuff just has so much energy and enthusiasm, so much raw vitality. The plots just breeze along, bang bang bang, event event event, much like you describe above, one implausible thing leading to the next. It's great fun. I wonder how many people who are familiar with Tracy from various pop culture manifestations have really sat down and read the classic newspaper strips: everyone definitely should, that's for sure.

Greg said...

I once killed a tiger with a sharpened wheel spoke. They're a menace.

I have a Hardy Boys book at home from the thirties or so (I collect old books from second hand stores but I can't remember right now who wrote it and when and I'm not currently home) that has a bizarre scene of the father helping one of the boys get dressed and great moans and groans are heard from outside the bedroom and when I read it I thought, "What in the hell is going on here? This is effed up. Seriously effed up." Now I'm anxious to get back home and see if it's a Buttons book.

Thanks for this unique literary perspective on the blogathon. I appreciate it.

weepingsam said...

Greg: that book sounds like one of the Button ones, though all the 30s Hardy Boys are pretty bad. His tend to have a bit more of that kind of innuendo - I don't know if it means the other ghostwriters were smart enough to notice things that might be read wrong, or if he was trying to see what he could get away with...

As for fighting tigers - The Secret Warning is about deep sea diving - see if you can guess what sort of undersea monster the boys get to fight... Ed Wood would be proud...

Ed: the Hardy Boys in the 30s were a lot more "cartoony" than before or after - they pull in a lot of the stuff comic strips and comic books and serial films and pulp fiction did... Old dark houses and mad scientists and lunatics and amnesiacs and bank robbers with funny names and creeping around in rainy cemeteries and so on. (And some nastier stuff - those books play on the worst kind of racial stereotypes as well - not Dr. John Button so much, though...) The books Button wrote probably take it the farthest -he seems to have really liked writing pulpy hard-bitten crooks. He'd have made a pretty good comic book writer, I imagine. Ed Wood too, for that matter....

MovieMan0283 said...

Your choices have been incorporated in a master list for "Reading the Movies" - the movie book meme. Here's the post:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2009/07/movie-bookshelf.html