Wednesday, September 20, 2017

My top ten favorite writers of all time

A regular reader of these pages and self-described “Caitlin Star” fan Gene Atkins wrote, “I have been digging your top ten series so far, but was wondering if you could do a list of your top writers of all time?”

Gene has a good point. I have done top ten lists of movies, TV shows, soundtracks, actors, actresses, books, even songs, and have yet to make an official top ten list of writers. And since I am a writer, it is time to correct this oversight. So here it is, a list of my top ten favorite writers of all time. All genres, media, and formats are included.

Robert Silverberg

There is a wonderful article written by Silverberg in the outstanding pulp retrospective book “Sin-O-Rama” where he talks about cranking out a new 50,000 word erotic pulp novel—every two weeks! And you know what? I have read many of them and they are damn good reads.

How good is Silverberg? One of my favorite books ever was this scanner-type science fiction romantic thriller I picked up in the ‘70s. It was a reprint and when he was asked to write a new forward Silverberg confessed it was something he had cranked out just to pay the bills and had forgotten about it. This novel would have been anyone else’s masterpiece, but for him it was just something spit out to pay the heating bill and forgotten about.

Of course, nobody but me even remembers any of these old pulps and today Robert Silverberg is best known for his artful, poetic prose and award-winning, intelligent science fiction and fantasy novels.
"The World Inside" is highly recommended for fans of the recent best-seller "Divergent".

What to check out:

“Lord Valentine’s Castle” and “The World Inside”

Joan Ellis

I am a huge fan of vintage pulp fiction from the early and mid ‘60s known as “the sleazy pulps”, especially those published by a company called Midwood. Most stories were set in Manhattan and have a very “Mad Men” quality to them. Often the characters even worked in advertising.

Joan Ellis was the all-time best at this sub-genre of fiction. Do not let the term sleazy pulps fool you. Her books are rich, expertly crafted, romantic, noir-ish works of wonder. Ellis has a real knack for creating vivid, young female characters dealing with teen angst and blossoming sexuality. Today these books would be called racy “Young Adult”.

What to check out:

Just about anything she wrote at Midwood Publishing. Personal favorites include “In The Shadows” (actually available on Kindle!), “Sooner or Later”, “Gang Girl”, and "Reluctant Nympho".

John Jakes

John Jakes may be the best writer of epic historical fiction ever—certainly of American history. There are many writers—and many of them quite successful—where you can feel the strain of the work the author put into it. As a result these books often do not make for a smooth read. In a John Jakes novel this is never an issue. He is just a gifted storyteller and a natural writer who delivers impeccable craftsmanship and flowing narratives you will get lost in. Most of his historical fiction is truly epic in scope and length—I am talking telephone book thick door stopper novels. Yet, they read fast and smooth.

Like Robert Silverberg, Jakes started out in pulp fiction doing everything from sleazy romance to science fiction to a “Conan” inspired Sword & Sorcery series, “Brak the Barbarian”. All of it is great!

What to check out:

“The Bastard”, “North and South”, and his novelization to “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”.

Robert E. Howard

I recall Harlan Ellison once saying something like, “Howard was better than any of us because he was crazier than a bedbug.”

There is a raw physicality to Howard’s writing style and colorful action sequences that was ingeniously captured by the legendary cover paintings of Frank Frazetta. Although his “Conan” stories are classified as Sword & Sorcery (Howard practically created the genre), Howard creates real, naturalistic worlds and writes stories that feel like they may have actually happened sometime during the mythical lost history “between the years the ocean drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities…”

What to check out:

Almost any “Conan” book (or comic book) but the best collection (because it is contains the fully restored and unedited text of Howard) is “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” (Conan the Cimmerian #1), as well as part 2 and 3 of this collection.

Harlan Ellison

Speaking of Harlan Ellison…

Harlan Ellison is a writer. And I mean that term in the most profound, artistic sense of the word. Very few authors are writers, nor can they ever hope to be. I know I am not. I am a storyteller, a confident (and hopefully competent) one who strives to get better and deeper and more effective with every piece of work. But Harlan Ellison is a writer. His words sing and soar and shake you to the core and along the way he will tell you one hell of a story.

What to check out:

This list would take forever because Ellison is as prolific as he is brilliant, and has written everything imaginable including scores of television scripts, comics, and sleazy sex pulps and hundreds upon hundreds of short stories.

A good place to start world be his short story collection, “Trouble Makers”, which includes two of the greatest, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” and “Deeper Than the Darkness.”
“Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word” is a glorious collection of his early crime/pulp/noir stuff. And his two classic “Outer Limits” episodes “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” are a must see and are available streaming at Hulu and Amazon.

Richard Matheson

Like Harlan Ellison, this guy is the real deal. Richard Matheson is a writer! And one hell of a storyteller too. Also like Ellison, he was wildly prolific, but on an even bigger scale in a sense since his focus was primarily novels (as well as countless feature film screenplays and television scripts).

His influence and imprint are perhaps unequaled among the grand masters of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He literally created both the modern zombie and vampire apocalypse genres with his 1954 classic novel “I am Legend”. His 1975 time travel fantasy masterpiece “Bid Time Return” was adapted into the beloved 1980 cult film “Somewhere in Time”, one of the most heartfelt and romantic movies of all time.

He penned multiple classic “Twilight Zone” episodes, many classic 70s horror telefilms including “Kolchak the Night Stalker” and “Trilogy of Terror”, and wrote “Duel”, the 1971 television movie that propelled a very young Steven Spielberg onto big screen stardom.  Among his many masterpieces are the action-packed nightmare adventure “The Shrinking Man”, the creepy “Stir of Echoes” (made into a 1999 film starring Kevin Bacon), and the deep and moving “What Dreams May Come” (made into a gorgeous looking 1998 movie starring Robin Williams).

Where to start:

“The Shrinking Man” and “Bid Time Return” showcase the action suspense, and the romantic imagination of this master writer.

D.C. Fontana

Okay, I know this one will be unfamiliar to most people. D.C. Fontana (a.k.a Dorothy Fontana) is a television writer who started out as Gene Roddenberry’s secretary then went on to write several of the greatest episodes of classic “Star Trek”. 

She served as story editor for “Star Trek” and several other shows including the Emmy Award winning animated “Star Trek”, “The Sixth Sense”, “The Fantastic Journey” and “Logan’s Run”. The list of outstanding episodes she penned over the last five decades are too numerous to list here but include scripts for “Circle of Fear”, “Land of the Lost”, “The Six Million Dollar Man”, “Kung Fu”, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”, “Star Trek: The Nest Generation”, “Babylon 5”, “Deep Space Nine”, and “Earth: The Final Conflict”.

What to check out:

“This Side of Paradise” and “The Enterprise Incident” from classic “Star Trek”.
“Eslewhen” from “Land of the Lost”.

Glen Morgan and James Wong

It is staggering how many outstanding television scripts this writing team delivered in the ‘90s, including the majority of the best stuff from Chis Carter’s brooding tandem of “The X-Files” and “Millennium”.

Everything these guys write is exciting, witty, imaginative, and more often than not, groundbreaking.  In addition to their work for Carter, the duo created, produced, and wrote their own series—a barely seen gem of a show “Space Above and Beyond”.  “Space Above and Beyond” was an addictive, beautifully produced, intelligently written and acted show that should have become the “Battlestar Galactica” of the ‘90’s, but was poorly handled by FOX who kept pre-empting it and barely bothered with any promotion.

What to checkout:

“Space Above and Beyond” and the “X-Files” episodes “Home”, “Ice”, “E.B.E.”, “Squeeze”, “Little Green Men”, “The Field Where I Died” and “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”. Also just about the entire second season of “Millenium”.

James Cameron
He is primarily known as a visionary director who creates revolutionary new technology to bring his vision to the screen. But all of those movies begin with a blank page. James Cameron writes all his own material and he is one hell of writer.

When I was studying screenwriting I read his scripts for “Rambo: First Blood part II”, “Aliens”, and “The Abyss” non-stop. His story-telling instincts are razor sharp, his expertly paced screenplays rich with vivid writing and memorable characters.

What to check out:

Anything with his name on it of course, but from a reading the screenplay point of view, “Aliens” and “The Abyss” read like great science fiction action-adventure novels.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

When your work is still being read, adapted, and inspiring other artists over a century later, that about says it all. The works of ERB had a profound influence on so many, from anthropologist Jane Goodall to filmmaker James Cameron (the director has said “Avatar” was inspired by “Princess of Mars”).

When read today, sometimes the language can be problematic, as can the “God’s eye” omniscient writing style in vogue at the time. But still, Burrough’s rich, imaginative storytelling skills are unparalleled in the world of pulp fiction and his works are full of bold action, riveting action set pieces, and wondrous lost cities.

Where to start:

Book 3 in the Tarzan series “The Beasts of Tarzan” is the best in the entire series and one my all-time favorite books. “Princess of Mars” is an outstanding entry into ERB universe and the sub-genre of “planetary romance”.

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