Flash Gordon’s Alive!

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Origins Of Swashbuckling In Outer Space

Before I delve into the legacy of Flash Gordon…

Buck Rogers is a fictional space opera character created by Philip Francis Nowlan in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D., subsequently appearing in multiple media.

Without Buck Rogers there would be no Flash Gordon. First appearing in 1928, the character of Anthony “Buck” Rogers was the first to feature space exploration! As it paralleled the latest advances in technology of the early twentieth century, the space hero would take to alien worlds to defend Earth from certain peril.

The strip made its first newspaper appearance on January 7, 1929. 

Later adaptations included radio in 1932, a film seriala television series (in which his first name was changed from “Anthony” to “William”), and other formats.

Buck Rogers was the inspiration for other comic strips:

 Tom Swift (1930-1937), Brick Bradford (Central Press Association, 1933-1987), Don Dixon and the Hidden Empire (Watkins Syndicate, 1935-1941),  Speed Spaulding (John F. Dille Co., 1940-1941),  and  John Carter of Mars (United Feature Syndicate, 1941-1943).

The adventures of Buck Rogers in comic strips, movies, radio and television became an important part of American popular culture. It was on January 22, 1930, that Buck Rogers first ventured into space aboard a rocket ship in his fifth newspaper comic story Tiger Men From Mars.

The Buck Rogers strip was popular enough to inspire other newspaper syndicates to launch their own science fiction strips.  The most famous of these imitators was Flash Gordon (King Features Syndicate, 1934-2003).

I did not discover this about these 2 serials until I created this entry for Evan’s Gate!

In the 1980’s NBC-TV premiered “Buck Rogers In The 25th Century” based upon the feature film of the same name that appeared in theaters. Starring Gil Gerard as Buck and Co-starring in the series were Erin Gray as crack Starfighter pilot Colonel Wilma Deering, and Tim O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer, head of Earth Defense Directorate, and a former starpilot himself.

Buck Rogers will get its own entry in this blog at a future date. You just cannot celebrate a Flash Gordon Anniversary without providing this necessary background.

The Buck Rogers movie served as a pilot for a potential TV show. Released a year before Flash Gordon in 1979, the box office was good enough for NBC to hire creator Glen A. Larson (Battlestar GalacticaBuck Rogers in the 25th CenturyQuincy, M.E.The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew MysteriesB. J. and the BearThe Fall GuyMagnum, P.I. and Knight Rider.)

The television series lasted two seasons. The actors strike of 1980 disrupted production. When it returned the show was revamped with new characters and format. The 1980-81 Season was to be its last.

Fun fact: Larry “Buster” Crabbe” made a cameo appearance on the Buck Rogers TV series!

Serial Start For Flash Gordon

Serial adventures were a staple of the American cinema from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Each week a chapter would appear in theaters. The ending was usually a cliffhanger. Our hero would be caught in some sort of death spiral that left viewers wondering how they would manage their escape.

These serialized adventures were provided as an added attraction at theaters. They did a lot with small budgets.

Based upon various comic strip characters of the day, those serials produced one character in particular that has stayed around for over 70 years—Flash Gordon. A comic strip created by Alex Raymond in the 1930’s influenced the adventures of Batman, Superman, Captain Kirk, and Luke Skywalker.

I saw the original movie serials on Channel Thirteen, a Public Television station here in New York during the 1970’s. The re-runs coincided with the release of Star Wars in 1977.

Later on I discovered that Star Wars creator George Lucas was a fan of Flash Gordon. He inquired about the rights with King Features but found out the expense was beyond his means. Movie fans got a space fantasy filled with characters inspired by Flash Gordon.

I had been enthralled by science fiction and fantasy since the re-runs of Star Trek. Then Flash Gordon appeared and then Star Wars. I could not see the direct lineage of these series until much later.

Summer of 1977 marked movie history being made. George Lucas’ Star Wars changed the popular culture. Becoming at the time the highest grossing movie of all time, its success would lead to the first Star Trek movie in 1979 and Alien in that same year! In fact Alien won the Visual Effects Oscar over Star Trek. And of course launched another franchise.

Then came a big budget European feature film of Flash Gordon announced in the pages of American fan magazine, Starlog. Italian Producer Dino DeLaurentis with Director Mike Hodges created a unique vision of the comic book hero.

The Italian film legend Federico Fellini turned down an offer to direct Flash Gordon.

Putting together an all-star European cast with two unknown Americans as Flash and Dale was an unusual contrast not unlike Star Wars. There were many European stars wearing masks in both pictures.

For example British TV/Film actor and Bodybuilder David Prowse wore the Darth Vader costume for Star Wars; British TV star Peter Wyngarde (Department S, Jason King) wore a mask as General Klytus in Flash Gordon. Mr. Wyngarde’s voice is heard while Mr. Prowse gets dubbed by James Earl Jones.

But I digress. Back to our main focus. The cast of Flash Gordon—

Max Von Sydow (“The Seventh Seal”, “The Exorcist”) was Emperor Ming The Merciless; Timothy Dalton (James bond) was Prince Barin; Brian Blessed (Black Adder) was Vultan; Ornella Muti was Aura; Mariangela Melato was Kala; Peter Wyngarde (Jason King) was Klytus; Richard O’ Brien (Rocky Horror) was Fico; Topol was Dr. Hans Zarkov; Melody Anderson was Dale Arden; Sam J. Jones (“10”) was Flash Gordon.

Coming Of Age

As a gay kid in the 1980’s there were a lot of stimulating images in film. What I mean is that there were lots of films featuring shirtless guys on their posters. “Beastmaster” is a good example.

“Flash Gordon” was a singular phenomena. There are no sequels. At the time it cost $70 million which would probably be over $200 million today.

At the time of release the picture had a PG rating. There are scenes with graphic violence and sexual connotations but nonetheless there was no PG–13 back then in 1980. The blood shown on screen was blue and green.

I loved this film for its tremendous effort to capture the spirit of the original serial. Now seen in rich color of every shade and hue. The skies of Mongo were a awash in red, blue and orange.

It was important for the film to keep to the universe Alex Raymond created in the 1930s. The only update was making Flash a football player for the NY Jets, Dr. Zarkov was a NASA scientist, and Dale is now a travel agent.

On the left is Charles Middleton as Ming in the 1930’s; On the right is Max Von Sydow as Ming in 1980. From B&W to Color Ming remains the same.

As a kid I was ignorant of this paradigm. It’s important to note the exoticism worked both ways in the film. Princess Aura seduces the blonde/ blue-eyed Flash Gordon as her object of exotic desire.

This was strong stuff for a pre-teen gay kid! Then you had Sam J. Jones shirtless in the execution and resurrection scenes, wearing nothing but a pair of PVC briefs!

On the left is Buster Crabbe; On the right Sam J. Jones. Both versions have Flash Gordon bare chested while facing punishment.

A ton of art was created for the film and some of it just for promotional purposes. Unknown to me at the time how many posters exist is incredible. Released globally there were images used in various countries to target specific audiences based on region.

Lobby Poster Art

All I knew then was the poster for American release was brilliant. Then I found a small copy of the art in a full page ad in Playbill magazine. I cut it out and put it on my wall. The name AMSEL was signed on Ming’s cloak.

The film’s Tagline, all in caps, PATHETIC EARTHLINGS…WHO CAN SAVE YOU NOW?

Who was underlined to stress that Flash is the hero.

The lightning bolt logo with planet Mongo at its center was an American market image. The font with its Red/Yellow/Orange coloring was brilliant. In Europe as well as in the opening titles the name is stylized in the mode Alex Raymond had used. You see it in the Italian promo posters we saw earlier in this entry.

Also note how Ming is so large like Darth Vader was for the Star Wars posters with Flash and Dale in a similar pose like Luke and Leia!

Instead of a fleet of X-Wing fighters you get a fleet of Hawkmen swooping down in an almost 3-D effect with Vultan’s cloud kingdom seen in the background on the right side of the frame.

All of his works are signed AMSEL with floating periods on either side of his name.

Richard Amsel was a prolific artist who attended the oldest school of Art in Philadelphia. After graduating he went on to create the poster art for films like “The Sting” and “Chinatown”. Following “Flash Gordon” he designed the art for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”!

He also designed album covers including Bette Midler’s Divine Ms. M.

For full bio of his life and works plus an animated slideshow of his iconic poster art click here: https://www.richardamselmovie.com/

He had an association with TV Guide for 13 years producing over 40 covers. A portrait he did of Lily Tomlin hangs in The Smithsonian. His final movie poster was for “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”.

The collage seen below is just a small sample of Amsel’s TV Guide covers. His first was an image of Lucille Ball upon her retirement from TV and show business.

I put up two of my favourites: All In The Family, Alice, and Richard Chamberlain in Shogun, a mini-series that aired for a week on NBC.

Notice the placement of the cast of Alice and All In The Family is similar to his placement of characters in his film poster work for Flash Gordon.

Richard Amsel died of AIDS in 1985 at the age of 37. I mourn him today. I had no idea he was one of the many awful casualties of that pandemic. His work is amazing.

Critical Reaction To Flash Gordon

The film found appreciation with some film critics, such as The New Yorker ‘s Pauline Kael. Kael described Flash Gordon as having “some of the knowing, pleasurable giddiness of the fast-moving Bonds…The director, Mike Hodges, gets right into comic-strip sensibility and pacing“.

She also stated the movie was “Like a fairy tale set in a discotheque in the clouds.” 

On their syndicated TV program Siskel and Ebert were giving films a Yes or No at that time before their now iconic thumbs up or down.

Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune did not care for it. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it a borderline Yes vote citing the fun comic book nature of the movie.

Visual Effects

In homage to the serial chapters of the 1930’s the film version was produced in strong primary colors and utilized Chroma Key effects.

Chroma key compositing, or chroma keying, is a visual-effects and post-production technique for compositing (layering) two images or video streams together based on colour hues (chroma range). The technique has been used in many fields to remove a background from the subject of a photo or video – particularly the newscasting, motion picture, and video game industries.

All of the space craft were done this way. Flash Gordon riding a Hawkman rocket cycle was also accomplished with this method as seen below. War Rocket Ajax, Vultan’s Cloud City and Flash with the Hawkmen approaching Mingo City are all Chroma Key images.

Favourite Scenes

The lavishly produced feature included giant set pieces adapted directly from the pages of Alex Raymond’s work partly as homage and because the formula worked!

I love the film as much as Rocky Horror loyalists. I can quote dialogue from any scene. This section brings us to my favourite parts of the film. A bit tricky because I really do enjoy all of it. Here goes…

In The Court Of Ming The Merciless at the point in which are trio from Earth first encounter all the ‘breeds’ of Mongo. This set is enormous. Ming’s throne looks like the inspiration for the Iron Throne on a certain HBO series.

Each ‘breed’ of Mongo gets introduced. Gathering in Court to present their tributes to the Emperor we see rivalries between Hawkmen and Treemen as the two groups argue over who stole their tribute!

Awaiting Ming’s first appearance in the film are assembled Hawkmen, Arborian Tree Men, and assorted races.

The image seen above is a fish-eye view of the court. Unknown to me as a kid but later appreciated as a film student that Flash Gordon utilized the Todd–AO camera system. At the time of filming in 1979 this was the state of the art widescreen format. Everything about the film is grand scale for a timeless adventure.

The Palace of Prince Vultan and his Hawkmen.

Initiation on Arboria where Prince Barin rules his treemen there is a rite of passage that all youth must experience. Within a warren of hollow tree stumps lives a beast in which the initiate must reach all the way in full arms length. If you choose the wrong path the beast will bite injecting the victim with deadly venom. The result is pain so awful the victim begs for death. Barin forces Flash to take this test in order to live.

Above in this gallery a view of Arboria against the colorful skies of Mongo, at the left bottom a birds eye view of Flash and Barin as they begin their duel, and on the right the beast that resides within the stump.

The Screenplay

Lorenzo Semple Jr.

The dialogue in Flash Gordon was purposefully done in a tone of high corn. Movie fans always call it camp.

Having written King Kong for Dino DeLaurentiis, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was then asked to write the Flash Gordon script.

The Batman TV series of 1966 was also written by him. The camp humour of that show was revived in Flash Gordon.

To this day every fan of this movie can quote dialogue. The language is comic book affectation in my opinion.

Ming The Merciless scolds those pathetic earthlings, Flash, Dale and Zarkov: “….If you had any inkling of who or what is out here you would have shuttered from it in utter terror!”

Ming The Merciless

Lines like, “We only have 14 hours to save the Earth” could only make sense in an over the top fantasy.

“What do you mean Flash Gordon approaching?”
“You’re a hero. Can’t you see that? Are you sure you don’t want a kingdom of your own?”
“Klytus, are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute that traitor?”

Original Soundtrack Music By QUEEN

Flash Gordon is the ninth studio album and first soundtrack album by the British rock band Queen, released on 8 December 1980 by EMI Records in the UK and in February 1981 by Elektra Records in the US. It was one of two film soundtracks that they produced along with Highlander. It is the soundtrack to the science fiction film Flash Gordon and features lyrics on only two tracks. 

Following the success Queen had with Flash Gordon two other notable rock groups contributed to movie soundtrack albums: Toto’s music was featured in “Dune” and AC/DC’s music was heard in “Maximum Overdrive”.

This was unusual at the time. Rock groups were not generally commissioned to score films.

I walked out of the cinema with the Queen music in my head. Following a trip to a furniture store I went to a local record shop to pick up the album. Dropping the needle onto this record was such a joyful moment for me.

Then to find they had included the dialogue from the film throughout the record was such a bonus. And the package for this record was so different from all of Queen’s previous efforts. It included an insert with a full colour image of Ming on one side and the lyrics for Flash and The Hero plus album credits on the other in red and yellow.

Seen above are the inner sleeve of the soundtrack featuring images of Queen on on side and the international cast on the other with a die cut in the center that lines up with the custom label featuring the logo.

For whatever reason the American version of this record did not have the die cut hole. The center was left intact so you lost the custom label peaking out effect.

Years later DJ Vanguard released a special re-mix of the single Flash.

On what turned out to be Queen’s final American Tour with Freddie & John in the Summer of 1982 Flash opened their shows followed by a performance of The Hero at the top of their setlist.

Flash Gordon Memorabilia

From the original 1930’s film serials to the 1980 feature to today the Flash Gordon franchise has produced a large array of collectibles.

In the 1930’s there were tin wind–up toys of spaceships from Flash Gordon and miniature figures in tins.

In the decades that followed numerous Sunday comic strips were published weekly. Comic Books, Toys, Figures, Posters, Trading Cards, Candy, Mugs, T-Shirts, Keychains, Magnets, and on and on and on.

Above are images of collectibles relating to the Flash Gordon franchise. On the Top Left are Flash and Ming figures with fold out Vultan’s Cloud Palace backdrop from Biff!Bang!Pow!

On the Top Right an early Pop-Up Book.

On the bottom Left a Lionman figure from Mattel based upon the Filmation animated series in 1979 on NBC.

Middle Right is a Viewmaster pack with 21 stereoscopic images also from the cartoon. And the bottom Right is a volume collecting Sunday comic strips of Flash Gordon now published by Titan books. There are 4 volumes in this series.

Flash Gordon books and magazines have been published over the past 70 years. In this gallery seen above notice the Mad Magazine clone Crazy with its parody of the movie!

The 1980 movie spawned several comic book adaptations, a novelization, poster books, and recently a graphic novel from Dynamite press called Zeitgeist.

Both DC & Marvel have published Flash Gordon comics at some point.

Archie Meets Flash Gordon in New Crossover One-Shot. Archie Comics has announced a new crossover one-shot with Flash Gordon, that was to hit comic shops back in June of this year.

The selection of pins seen here have been licensed by Vice in the United Kingdom.

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a term used to describe a huge amount of creative writing available to the American public in the early nineteen-hundreds. Termed “pulp magazines” because of the low quality paper used between the covers, these publications proliferated in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties and beyond.

Flash Gordon was the subject of several pulp series sold in drugstores and book shops. The gallery seen below features some of the covers published. There were even Flash Gordon Flip-books! There the small sized books that you flipped pages fast to create the illusion of motion! Checker books’ collections of Alex Raymond strips in full color featured The Ice Worlds of Mongo.

Toys + More Collectibles above and below

A pinball machine showed up in game arcades which I got to play several times. It had Queen’s music! The Atari Game Cartridge was less exciting somehow, Mattel sold a toy rocket ship for kids.

Titan Books published a 4 volume set collecting Flash Gordon comics from Alex Raymond to the present day.

There was even a Flash Gordon Colorforms Set! Along with Silly Putty and Yo-Yos Colorforms were a 1970s staple kids toy.

The 1979 NBC Saturday morning series was licensed to comics, figures, and lunchbox/thermos sets.

A comic book adaptation of Flash Gordon was published by Golden. The price was $1.95

There was also a program sold at select theaters for the film. I found it years later at a Horror/SciFi Convention.

40th Anniversary of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon Movie featuring the music of QUEEN

STUDIOCANAL is excited to announce the new 4k, Ultra High Definition restoration of Mike Hodge’s cult classic FLASH GORDON (1980), in honour of the film’s 40th anniversary.

 Flash Gordon was scanned from the original 35mm negative to produce 4K files. Over 500 hours of manual restoration repaired serious damage that included image instability, scratches, and intermittent flicker.

The sound was scanned from the original track negative and underwent restoration to improve issues ranging from audio drop-outs throughout the feature and during reel changes, digital clicks and optical distortion.

The film was colour graded for theatrical, home entertainment and 4K HDR release, using previous digital releases and 35mm prints as a reference. In line with the Director’s vision and the original 35mm cinema release, VFX work was applied to remove the strings in all scenes where visible. This restoration was approved by Director Mike Hodges in May 2020 and will include the first 4K HDR Dolby Vision master of Flash Gordon.

This Fall a new coffee table book will be published called Flash Gordon The Official Story by John Walsh.

Click here for Pre-Order information: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/667683/flash-gordon-the-official-story-of-the-film-by-john-walsh/

The End?

Originally there were to be 3 Flash Gordon movies to form a trilogy. Sam J. Jones had a falling out with the movie’s producers. The box office in North America was disappointing. At a cost of $70 million (a huge amount in 1979/80) and a paltry $20 million take in America no sequels were made.

While the irony is not lost on me that Flash Gordon up until this movie had multiple chapters including the short lived NBC cartoon, I think the movie is even more appealing because it is the only one of its kind.

A short-lived live action series appeared on the SyFy Channel. Dispensing with the former image of Ming as a caricature of Asian villainy he appeared as a bland modern CEO in an alternate dimension.

Another animated series also appeared on Cable television with less than encouraging results. Flash Gordon went into dormancy again.

The chroma key special effects. The model space ships. The glitzy costume design. Queen’s trademark sense of corn/camp are all part of the 1980 film’s lasting appeal.

This movie has become a true cult classic. Appealing to sci-fi/ fantasy geeks around the globe many of whom dress up as their favourite characters for ComicCon and Halloween.

I have seen the film at least 100 times. It’s my favourite cult film.

Seth Macfarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy is a fan. His comedies, Ted & Ted2 featured Sam J. Jones and Flash Gordon. Comic book artist Alex Ross loves the movie and also proclaims Queen as a favourite band.

Family Guy episode with the Hawkmen. The Ted movies were packaged with Flash Gordon.

Alex Ross art above for the Blu-Ray of Flash Gordon; The Ming Wants You art came with the disc.

There is talk in recent years of a Flash Gordon reboot with CGI effects but time will tell if this becomes reality.

All I know is that this work combined two of my favourite things: Flash Gordon and QUEEN.

This Fall boss Fight Studio is releasing figures of Flash and Ming to celebrate the 40th Anniversary; Movie posters for the 40th Anniversary Edition.

There is a new documentary called Life After Flash now streaming on Amazon Prime. It tells the story of actor Sam J. Jones’ sudden stardom followed by years outside show business. It will be one of the many extras on the upcoming blu-ray sets.

This was the theatrical movie poster for the documentary, Life After Flash.

Thank You Dear Readers! And Thanks Flash!

The multi-hued skies of Mongo.

“Keep your feet on the ground, put your hand on your heart, lift your head to the skies, and the world’s for your taking. Yes, you’re a Hero!”

“My life is not for any Earthling to tinker or take…”

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Published by Doubleday/ 415pp/ September 10, 2019

A trinity of a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The framing device applied here is the drafting of a record. One of the Aunts is writing about the Republic of Gilead at her present. She hopes it will be discovered by a future generation. Supposedly after the fall of this decaying state.

You will not be following OfGlen anymore. Fifteen years have passed since the events of the previous book.

There are two transcripts simply labeled Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A and 369B. ‘A’ is the memory of a woman who lived in Gilead; ‘B’ is the memory of a woman who lived outside in Toronto, Canada. These are their “Testaments”.

The organization known as Mayday has been aiding women who have escaped the theocratic Republic of Gilead via the Underground Femaleroad.

The Pearl Girls are the missionaries of Gilead. Traveling in pairs they hand out brochures to would be subjects. They visit the Clothes Hound, a used clothing shop in Canada. The business is a suspected Mayday front.

The novel does a great job of balancing the witness testimony. The Aunts are the holder of Gilead’s secrets. The keys to the kingdom are guarded by their ability to vet new candidates to their order.

The latest political upheaval concerning the Republic is the removal of Baby Nicole. Her escape is considered the ultimate act of resistance to the new order.

Protest marches in Canada against Gilead are happening. The rituals of the Republic continue to trap more women. There are mass executions. The state of the republic is seen in the early goings to be solid.

Old tech is employed to smuggle out the awful happenings of Gilead to Canada. It is called Microdot. The following explains how it works:

“Documents are photographed with a miniature camera that reduces them to microscopic size. Then they are printed on minute plastic dots, which can be applied to almost any surface and read by the recipient with a custom viewer small enough to be concealed in, for instance, a pen…not for nothing we at Ardua Hall say ‘Pen Is Envy.'”

The theocratic regime’s obsession with this escaped female baby becomes their achilles heel. Fanatics become blind to the contradiction of their deep held beliefs; murder is a tool to cement their foundation.

After the escape, Gilead closed down routes in Upstate New York. Mayday intends to send the now grown-up baby Nicole into the Republic; make public the secrets underpinning their system.

Founder Aunt Lydia is the vessel holding the regime’s best kept secrets. Her testament will undo their slave-like society. How she became indoctrinated is part of her testimony.

The Republic of Gilead was founded by four women selected by male commanders—Lydia, Elizabeth, Vidala, and Helena. In their former lives they were lawyers, judges, and real estate agents.

The geo politics are explained to Baby Nicole. The Republic of Texas went to war with Gilead resulting in a draw. The neutrality meant there would be no hostilities expressed in the future.

Their ability to keep order, secrets, and deliver punishment made them ideal candidates. They chose Aunthood to escape the certainty of death by firing squad.

Aunt Lydia’s statue sits in front of Ardua Hall, the residency of their order. Their status allows them to read and write. They have full access to the ‘Genealogical Bloodline Archives’.

Aunt Lydia spares Nicole’s life; the order of the Aunts becomes her calling. We learn of their indoctrination. There is a rulebook; chores; prayers.

To be matchmakers for the Republic they must know by blood the best possible outcomes. Unknown to the outside, suicide was becoming a crisis for Gilead. A young girl called Becka attempts to end her life rather than marry Commander Kyle.

Another would be bride, Agnes opposes Commander Judd, a Son of Jacob. Aunt Lydia becomes their lifeline. However, the other Aunt founders are not happy with this situation. The challenge to Lydia’s authority is part of the decay within Gilead.

Aunt Lydia’s admiration for Nicole is best summed up by her opinion—“The ability to concoct plausible lies is a talent not to be underestimated.”

While this happens on the inside, Baby Nicole will be escorted back inside; now to be known as Jade. She has undergone training by Mayday to become accepted by the Pearl Girls. The final touch of sin is a tattoo.

Once inside she insinuates herself into the order. The training will take years to complete. Both Jade and Becka become ‘supplicants’; newly named: Victoria and Immortelle.

The rituals of Gilead grind slowly forth. The wheels of righteousness sometimes roll over the foot of a true believer. There are chess like moves being made all the time.

Within the walls of Ardua Hall Aunts in training will share the secrets of their former lives. This adds another layer to the story. New knowledge; a crack in the edifice of faith.

Once I had passed my six-month exam and had been accepted as a Supplicant, I was allowed into the Hildegard Library. It’s hard to describe the feeling this gave me. The first time I passed through its doors, I felt as if a golden key had been given to me—a key that would unlock one secret door after another, revealing to me the riches that lay within.”

The devil is in the details. Gilead is based upon lies; untruths. There have been betrayals in the ranks. Commanders have violated the rules time and again. What would Jade, now Aunt Victoria, do with this new information?

Throughout the book the perverse culture of Gilead is spoken about for readers who may have skipped “The Handmaid’s Tale”. A smart writer pens a sequel that can stand on its own. This story does just that without being too simple.

The speculative nature of this fiction is reinforced with an imagined ‘Thirteenth Symposium’ following the conclusion. An academic gathering 70 plus years later; history is only as accurate as it is recorded.

Just speculating, but this may not be the final word on Gilead or The Handmaids.

The Institute by Stephen King

557 pp/Scribner/Published September 10, 2019

Tim Jamieson , a Southern cop who was forced to resign is on a plane to New York when his plans change. A twelve year old boy is taken in the middle of the night by a mysterious team of armed figures.

Their stories will run parallel until the point of convergence when the secret institute is exposed to the light of justice in a small Southern backwater called DuPray.

The story displays Mr. King’s take on our current situation regarding police work, detaining kids, and separating families.

Taken to its extreme outer limits this narrative creates tension; a system detached from morality claims new victims daily.

The statement that precedes the title page reads:

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, roughly 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. Most are found. Thousands are not.

Luke Ellis is like any other American kid. He skateboards, listens to rock music, and dreams about his first kiss.

Like all the other kids in the King universe he has powers yet to be realized. Luke is a prodigy. He attends the Broderick School For Gifted Children.

The monsters in this novel are human. King’s ‘constant readers’ (what he calls his devoted readers) will enjoy the connections to past novels like Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, and IT.

Let’s be clear. This particular novel is somewhere in the King Universe. We are never quite sure where but we do know why.

How we treat children is the focus of this story. Mr. King has dedicated it to his grandsons.

Luke’s parents are working class people who wonder how they could have raised a kid with such an advanced aptitude.

In fact their focus is directed solely upon their son’s need for academic advancement. His ability to move objects with his mind goes unnoticed.

An unknown organization monitors gifted children. When they decide the time is right they kidnap the children.

For Luke it is when he is accepted by both M.I.T. and Emerson College in Boston that he is ripe for the taking.

Although Luke’s gifts are mostly in his intellect, the mild telekinetic talent he displays are what the bad guys want to extract.

In the Ellis home in Minneapolis, Minnesota the mysterious ‘Ruby’ Team conducts a black ops mission. The home’s alarm is silenced. The parents are murdered. Luke wakes to see a blonde woman. He is put out by a non descript spray. He wakes in the state of Maine in a place called ‘The Institute’.

The room is a replica of his bedroom except now there is no window. The outside has vanished. He is a subject of a study that is unknown to the American people.

I enjoyed reading this story. Always difficult to place a new book by Mr. King among the many now classic stories in his canon. It’s situated in a twilight zone of the state’s design. Perhaps the best story involving a group of kids since Pennywise terrorized the kids of Derry.

This book takes a lot of time building but the climax is worthwhile. It’s filled with suspense and varying degrees of horror. The children are subjected to torture and violent punishments if they fail to comply with institute protocol.

Luke’s first encounter with staff, Gladys and Tony, results in him being slapped hard in the face. He must comply. Being raised to comply with adult authority makes it difficult to fight back.

King has always been adept at bringing to life the psychology of his characters. Here we get a masterful stroke of character study in Luke, Kalisha, Nick, George, and Avery.

This can be read as allegorical. A tale that heeds strong caution regarding our country’s morally crippled bureaucracy—the facility that houses the children is described as poorly maintained.

The cameras are dusty, the playground is adequate, and walls are cinderblock. There are propaganda posters on the walls that read like Orwell in the 1950s— “Just Another Day In Paradise” and “Choose To Be Happy”.

Despite a crumbling infrastructure advanced tech is used against citizens. All of the personnel carry ‘zap-sticks’ to keep the children in line. The guards routinely beat them too.

There are systemic markers of class. Luke’s intake paperwork is marked pink. Despite his mild telekinetic power the institute places him at the low end of their scale of importance. Yet they took him and killed his parents anyway.

The other kids are either telepathic (they read minds) or telekinetic (they move objects). Luke meets Kalisha, a girl who has spent a month as a test subject. She gives the newbie a tour.

She explains to Luke that when extracted from home the chicken pox virus hit. This has kept her in this first stage of detention longer than other kids. Out of quarantine she meets Luke.

Vending machines contain cigarettes and small bottles of wine coolers. Tokens are the only accepted form of payment. Candy is available too.

Observing this strange environment Luke comments how stupid it is that kids who rebel fall victim to the addiction of drinking and/or smoking. He see through this potential trap.

The coins have inverted triangles on both sides. They receive different amounts of tokens earned by good behaviour. Like test animals they are poked and prodded. In good time we find out to what end they serve.

Luke is introduced to other kids. George, Iris, and Nick were taken from other states like Texas, Montana and Utah. They play together; take meals in a large cafeteria with good food; learn about each other’s abilities. And the brutal treatments they undergo including an immersion tank.

In time he will learn that his parents, like all the others taken in the middle of the night have been murdered. And this secret place is just that, unknown to the outside.

They inform him about the head director, Mrs. Sigsby, described as “Queen Bitch”, a steely gray figure in the mold of Nurse Ratchett in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. She is cold. Purely an instrument of the state.

I think constant readers have to decide for themselves how they will react to this tale. There are many scenes of kids being themselves. Adult cruelty is on full display as well. There are a lot of grays too. Unlike previous novels, the so called good guys do not always win.

The strength of this book is the way in which it gets underneath the skin of what we think of as real to expose what may actually be going on in plain sight. This is the power of a master storyteller with 60 novels under his belt.

Mrs. Sigsby briefs Luke on his reality. He is a conscript. A soldier of sorts who serves his country. The begin their stay in the “Front Half” where they are tested. Their abilities are documented.

Then after a time are sent to “Back Half”. After about an average time of six weeks they are returned home. Their memories of the institute will be erased. Despite this promise of return, Luke does not trust them.

The other kids in Front Half, along with Kalisha are the tough, good-looking Nicky Wilholm, athletic George Illes, with new arrivals Helen and Avery Dixon who is all but ten years of age, must figure out what to do before it’s too late.

Kalisha explained on his first day that when kids are sent to Back Half they never return. What happens there is a mystery. All they do know is that this place is not in a town; only coordinates on a map. There are several underground levels accessible only by electronic key cards.

The kids wonder if this place was set up by the government. It is a compound surrounded by forest. There is another building visible in the outer corridors. That is the Back Half.

Maureen Alverson becomes a confidante to Luke and his new friends. She is one of the caretakers who wants out of the institute too. Secrets are revealed.

Shots for dots. The kids are injected to stimulate their powers. They are expected to see colored dots and hear a humming sound when this occurs. If they resist in any way punishment is administered.

As more kids arrive, Luke becomes surrogate parent to them. Some of the newbies are too sensitive for the shots. There are seizures; death. There is an attempt to hunger strike. Mrs. Sigsby is always watching.

Putting down the attempt at a revolt she states children are not killed here. In time they are returned; memories expunged. She directs her gaze at Luke.

The Stephen King canon forms a multi-verse of narratives that intersect with each other. For example, Pennywise, Annie Wilkes, and Jack Torrance are connected in “The Dark Tower” series through dimensional travel.

This book does connect to this multi-verse decades in the making. When Luke Ellis leaves the institute he crosses through the town of Jerusalem Lot. This is where King’s second novel, “Salem’s Lot”, took place. The black cars that took Luke in the middle of the night are sourced to this town.

Luke’s predicament is dire. The adults are at work they consider so important the disappearance of these kids does not register with them. The slow pace of DuPray in South Carolina is similar to the slow pace of the institute.

Tim Jamieson takes the job of Door Knocker. He literally knocks on doors in town during the small hours to make sure all is well. The caretakers of the institute do not even take this small measure of security. Their lassez-faire approach will be there undoing.

If you enjoy a satisfying mystery with good suspense sprinkled with doses of psychological terror this is for you. Not a bad place to start if you are new to Stephen King.

The Handmaid’s Tale/ Opinion

This week Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited novel, “The Testaments”, arrives in print. A continuation of her 1985 speculative fiction, “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

The new book takes place fifteen years after and serves as a conclusion to this story. The Handmaid’s Tale struck a nerve with millions of readers.

Ms. Atwood has published several novels, children’s books, and poetry. The narrative poses a reality that has happened in other social orders around this world.

This discussion is only my opinion; interested in the political science of this story; it can happen here.

The title is meant to evoke Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”. The total invisibility of women from the medieval record allowed us to reach this dangerous time.

A strong affirmation that men willingly blind themselves from the idea of women as human. Although America did not exist in Chaucer’s day, nobody even imagined a place like our USA.

In this tale women are solely vessels for reproduction. Nothing more. The terms used are fruitful or barren. A return to simpler days. Deceptively simple. A literal interpretation of The Bible.

The United States government is violently overthrown by a sect calling themselves the “Sons Of Jacob”. A new order based upon the books of Genesis in the Old Testament is imposed.

The University was a place of learning. Now the campus is confinement. The former Library is now the Headquarters of “The Eyes”—a secret police force. The dorms are still housing.

Strict caste groupings place women as servants to man. They are no longer able to vote, hold position, read nor write, and must procreate. Accept for brothels, drinking and smoking are off limits too.

The new Republic of Gilead is inspired by American Puritanism of the 19th century. Divorce has been outlawed. All women are considered adulteresses whom now must repent with their assigned “Commanders”.

All men no matter their rank wear some type of paramilitary uniform. They must serve in wars to expand Gilead as well as defend her from all enemies.

The women are Handmaids who take the names of their men. The central narrative follows Offred, “Of fred”, a pun on the word offered.

Their uniform is a red gown with white habit that restricts their peripheral view. They wear black boots and carry baskets.

Women can only travel in pairs. They are expected to police each other. Speaking of anything but the proscribed edicts may result in exile to the ‘colonies’ or death.

The outside colonies are toxic due to environmental disaster. Once in exile the life expectancy is three years.

The Aunts are akin to a religious order. They do not marry. Their position is considered a calling. They have limited reading privileges—the rules of Gilead; Handmaid etiquette.

The sequel novel pivots from the Handmaids to the Aunts’ power. We see Gilead from the outside.

The “Aunts” wear brown uniforms. They train the handmaids. Instilling in their charges how they can redeem their sinful ways. If a Handmaid breaks a rule an Aunt may beat them.

The new society is walled in by brick and barbed wire. Every Handmaid lives in utalitarian quarters. The image of the all seeing eye is inscribed in the ceiling of every room.

The “Eyes” are the secret police. Anyone who breaks the fundamental codes of Gilead are punished. The “Salvaging” is a communal ritual that features mass executions of law breakers.

Handmaid’s main function is to bear children for their Commander’s infertile “Wives”.

The “Marthas” are old infertile women of lower rank. They are domestic servants and wear green.

“Econowives” are non-elite maidens expected to be companions, child bearers and domestic servants. They wear all three colors to represent this status: green, blue, and red.

If women cannot bear children, are gay, dissident, nuns, and anything else deemed unworthy of the power structure of Gilead they are cast away into the polluted colonies. Forever known as “Unwomen”. Any child born unhealthy is an unbaby.

The chosen few, especially Wives of Commanders, can become “Jezebels” in the government sanctioned brothels.

Men who are not commanders are “Angels”, mostly young and old; mentally disabled. When they come of age they can become “Soldiers” to fight and die in battle.

The Jewish people are permitted to leave. Many board ships bound for Israel. Although the Mayday resistance reports many are thrown overboard.

People of color are sent away to their ‘homelands’.

In this new order everyone is a victim. Men die if they are unable to perform their roles, despite being in positions of power. The novel’s main focus, however, is on the loss of power women inherit.

Before the coup, women had been gaining power. This is no longer the case. The modern city state has been dissolved. Men describe the women as having a ‘witch odor’. Misogyny has enabled this fall.

Offred slowly becomes a dissident in the making. Serena Joy, a former television Evangelist cannot have children. She offers her driver, Nick, to Offred.

Her former husband is Luke, whereabouts unknown. Her best friend from college, Moira, is a lesbian who winds up serving in a brothel.

I felt like an outsider since the novel uses unreliable narrators to tell its tale. This reinforced for me how impenetrable Gilead was to those on the outside.

Walls are not just built to keep others out; it’s to keep its subjects in as defacto prisoners of a new order.

Oppressive regimes are real. All over the world we see the rise of Authoritarian leaders. The current U.S. is in the grips of a grinding crisis in its politics.

Speculating on the methods in which power preserves itself the book illustrates what can happen to those who deviate from their expected roles.

Offred on one of her walks with her required company sees bodies hanging from hooks on the wall. An example. You may not run.

The resistance is known as Mayday. Offred cannot be sure who is on the right side. Will she be found out? Scholars have placed this book next to Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ for its depiction of a dystopian social order.

The ‘Eyes’ certainly evoke Big Brother and the castes are similar to “Brave New World’s” vision. However, this is a woman’s unique point of view. I think centuries of ignorance has allowed us to lose a much needed female perspective.

The book concentrates on how this society operates. There are public gatherings. “The Ceremony” is a ritual in which Handmaidens and Wives copulate with their Commanders.

The two non-human female bodies act as one to redeem their Commander. This is one of the passages in the book that many groups in the U.S. object to reading.

For myself, this is a much warranted idea. Expressed in graphic terms, this ritual provides a terrible window into this awful new world. A caution to us all.

On her journey we see the allowance of shopping. Offred is taken to the Brothel. Dressed in clothes thought to have been burned.

The clothes of ‘showbiz’ with feathers and sparkle. Some of the women are dressed in the iconic Playboy Bunny uniform.

This objectification of the female form is now a function of government. A relief from her new reality only because vice is permitted. She knows only that escape must be possible; she hordes hope.

At the later portion of the story, Offred has been able to communicate furthur with resistance figures. Following this we get a glimpse into the systemic penalties inflicted upon men who fail to meet the new edicts of Gilead.

The ritual called ‘Particicution’ takes place inside of a yard at recess. The Handmaids are like school kids, waiting for the Aunt’s whistle.

The accused is a former Commander who has raped his maid. At the blow of the whistle the women are expected to tear him limb from limb. Offred does her part. Reluctant, she knows to not take part would lead to punishment.

T0 act or not to act; To Be or Not To Be. This becomes Offred’s existential dilemma. At the end of the story we do not know her future. It is left up to the reader.

The questions raised by this book I think are great political science topics. Groups that attempt to censor are missing the point.

We need ideas to be presented in the public square. If not the public square may disappear. And then we may find ourselves all living as victims inside the walls of our own Gilead.

  • “The Handmaid’s Tale”, originally published in 1985.
  • “The Testaments”, published September 10, 2019.
  • Author of both novels, Margaret Atwood.
  • A graphic novel treatment, adapted by Renee Nault, is also available.

In 2016, streaming service Hulu premiered a serial based upon the now classic novel. Starring Elisabeth Moss as June Osbourne (L); Samira Wiley as Moira Strand (Middle). (R) A scene from the series.

June 2019 the third season appeared on Hulu.

 In July 2019, the television series was renewed for a fourth season.

 In September 2019, it was announced that Hulu and MGM were developing a sequel series, to be based on Atwood’s 2019 novel The Testaments.