Rogue States! The Mexican Secessions

Posted in secessionist states, Southwest history with tags , , on July 25, 2014 by David N. Brown


As a continuation of my return to blogging, I’m writing an installment for what could turn into series on a subject that I have been researching a great deal since the last time I posted: Proposals for partition and secession in North America. For the first trial installment, I will be covering several potential entries in one go, the various attempts by states of present-day Mexico to secede into new and independent nations.

Convention would dictate that an account of attempts to secede from Mexico with an overview of the Mexico itself. I believe two fairly peculiar features are worth noting. First, there is Mexico City, a regional power center going back to the days of the Aztecs, which currently holds almost 8% of Mexico’s population in less than 0.01% of its land area- an arrangement roughly equivalent to putting the population of Texas in the state of Delaware. Second, there are the internal borders of Mexico’s states, for the most part corresponding at least recognizably to Spanish colonies of the 1500s, which by any standard are quite ridiculously convoluted. Among the more egregious examples is the north-central state of Zacatecas, with about four near-enclaves intruding into the neighboring states of Jalisco and Nayarit, protuberances of Durango and San Luis de Potosi pressing against its northern borders, and the miniscule state of Aguas Calientes tucked into the southeast. Such insane contortions in intra-national boundaries can scarcely be regarding as anything short of a direct obstacle to effective local government and mutual self-defense, which, given Mexico’s history, could have been precisely the idea. To state the obvious rather mildly, the conquistadores who carved out future Mexico for God, gold and glory had no intention of laying the foundation of a unified nation-state. What they created was a jumble of feudal territories for convenient and generally short-term exploitation. We should therefore not be surprised that Mexico has experienced more than a fair share of instability. If anything, we should be impressed that it has survived at all. A study of attempts to secede from Mexico just might give us some answers to how Mexico stayed Mexico.

Republic of Texas
Area: 389,166 mi^2
Active: 1835-1845
Status: Annexed by United States of America

In making selections, my inclination was to avoid Mexican territories that joined or tried to join other nations, which meant paring away several good entries. But I decided this essay wouldn’t be complete or coherent without covering the Republic of Texas. The events of will need little introduction: In 1835-1836, settlers from the United States staged a rebellion in the Mexican territory of Tejas and declared an independent Republic of Texas, about half again the size of the present day state (which in turn is about twice the size of the original Tejas). While the revolution and the formation of the Republic were carried out almost entirely by settlers from the United States with extensive further support from the US, Texas did not formally join the United States until mid-1845, in the face of growing tensions with Mexico that would culminate in the Mexican-American War.

Strictly speaking, given the prominent role of the United States, the Texas secession has little place in a list of Mexican revolutionary movements. However, the Republic of Texas remained at least nominally independent for a full decade, enough to establish the partition of Mexican territory into new nations as a viable option. It is also only fair to note that Mexico relied very heavily on aid from European colonial powers, including Spain, with an obvious interest in containing the spread of United States territory and influence. For discontented Mexicans caught in the middle, following the example of Texas and breaking up their own country would have presented, at worst, one of the lesser of multiple evils. As we shall see, it was precisely during the window of Texas’ independent existence that revolutionary movements in Mexico would most actively pursue the goal of secession.

“Republic” of Zacatecas
Area: 31,235 mi^2
Active: 1835
Status: Dissolved into Zacatecas and Aguas Calientes

The second of our rogue states is the above-mentioned state of Zacatecas, historically including Aguas Calientes, a geographically transitional region best known (if at all) for containing literally the most productive silver mines in the world. From the earliest days of independent Mexico, Zacatecas was outspoken for autonomy for individual states and the preservation of of Mexico’s 1824 Federalist constitution. Steady resistance and occasional rebellions peaked when recurring Centralist President Santa Anna revoked the 1824 constitution in 1835, at which point Zacatecas staged a revolt nearly simultaneously with the Texas revolution. Some accounts mentions a declaration of independence from the national government or an actual Republic of Zacatecas, but details of the rebels’ objectives are difficult to find (let alone verify!). If Zacatecas had achieved even moderate success in its drive for autonomy, it could very well have reshaped the political and cultural landscape of Mexico, perhaps acting as a neutral Switzerland between other emergent republics.

The problem with such a scenario is that Mexico’s political factions have not been greatly constrained by geography. In the Reform War of 1857-1861, for example, the neighboring states of Durango and San Luis Potosi both sided with the ruling Conservatives. Even more tellingly, the Zacatecans themselves quite actively aided the Liberal rebels, even though their stated goal of sweeping national reforms was a far cry from the Federalist ideal of local self-government. Thus, whether or not the Zacatecas rebellion is counted as separatist per se, it is very representative of the prospects for secession: In the earlier years of Mexico, the partition of the country into new nations or otherwise autonomous entities could at least have won support from significant segments of the public. By the middle of the century, the politics and culture of Mexico had evolved too far for secession to be either acceptable or viable. If the “what if” of the division of Mexico into new countries were going to happen by the Mexicans’ consent, it would have had to be in a relatively narrow window of time.

Republic of Rio Grande
Area: 115,831 mi^2
Active: 1840
Status: Unrealized

After Texas, this is the most famous of Mexican secession movements, and perhaps even more than the Texas Republic, it is necessary to get through a good deal of uncritical legendry to get to a realistic picture of historical fact. Various appraisals of the “Republic” have been as disparate as an internal Mexican secessionist movement, a barely-veiled expansion scheme by Texas, or even an intended base of operations for a Federalist coup. (A page at Flags of the World gives a good appraisal of controversies, including a little-known dispute over the colors of the frequently-reprinted flag.) Ironically, the one thing almost all serious accounts agree on is that the short-lived “Republic” had little or no chance of long-term success.

The hard facts are that it 1840, Mexican governor Jesus Cardenas of Tamaulipas governor and other notables met in Laredo, Texas to plan the partition of a second Republic with Texas’ aid. The core territory of the proposed republic were states with territory already disputed between Texas and Mexico: Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and potentially Chihuahua. The inclusion of Zacatecas, Durango and some or all of the territory of New Mexico was also proposed. The rebels were able to muster a mixed force of several hundred Mexicans, Texans and Native Americans for a series of incursions into the projected Republic, including the unopposed capture of Tamaulipas capitol Ciudad Victoria. However, there are no indications of significant progress in setting up a local government, and several recorded engagements with the Mexican army (which staged operations from neighboring San Luis Potosi) all ended in defeat for the rebels. The would-be republic was dissolved after Cardenas and other leaders made terms with the Mexican government. In 1851, former council secretary Jose Maria Jesus Carbajal led another bid for secession, this time dubbed the Republic of Sierra Madre, only to be defeated in part by former commander-in-chief Antonio Canales Rosillo.

Despite the poor showing of the Rebellion, the Republic of Rio Grande presents a tantalizingly viable alternate-history scenario, with implications as profound as averting the Mexican-American War. The states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila form (for once!) a cohesive geographic region with further unifying sociopolitical similarities. For example, during the War of Reform all three states aligned with the Liberals the War of Reform in an otherwise Conservative North. However, these strengths are an equally clear warning that we are dealing with an unusual case, a fact which more ambitious plans for the Republic’s territory clearly did not take into account. But the greatest weakness of the plan is one which must have been clear enough at the time: the perennially loyalist state of San Luis de Potosi directly adjoining Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. Without this obviously strategic state, any nominal Rio Grande nation would have remained effectively under the dominion of Mexico (a potentially advantageous arrangement for the Mexicans!). Almost worse, annexing the state (or for that matter Zacatecas) would necessarily have extended the Republic’s sphere of influence into the same morass of entangled territories and radical politics that kept Mexico in near-anarchy for generations afterward. It thus becomes quite evident that, even under the most ideal conditions, it is quite simply even harder to separate from Mexico than to rule it.

Republic of Yucatan
Area: 53,833 mi^2
Active: 1841-1848
Status: Failed

The final entry in this rogues’ gallery, and by almost any standard the most successful, is the improbable Republic of Yucatan, which has the distinction of applying for membership in the United States. The original state of Yucatan, now subdivided into a northern state of the same name plus Campeche and Quintana Roo, covered almost all of the peninsula of the Yucatan Peninsula, and represented the furthest extremity of Mexico: Bordered mainly by Guatemala and present-day Belize (then a British colony), Yucatan’s only land connections with the rest of Mexico are through the state of Tobasco, which in turn is nearly trisected by the notoriously troubled state of Chiapas. In 1839-1840, Federalists in Yucatan and Tobasco staged a renewed rebellion against the Centralist government, coinciding with an escalation of international border disputes over Texas and Chiapas. In 1841, the state of Yucatan formally seceded from Mexico and quickly established a constitution, a local government based in present-day Yucatan’s capitol of Merida and diplomatic relations with the Republic of Texas. Initial reactions from Mexico were so mild as to border on tacit consent, though it is safe to assume that the government was primarily concerned with dealing with more pressing problems first.

The Mexican campaign to regain Yucatan did not begin until Santa Anna made another of his impressively frequent returns to power in October 1841. Even then, diplomatic overtures prevailed over displays and threats of military force. Mutual negotiation preceded as far as preliminary reunification by 1844, which failed after Mexico belatedly rejected Yucatan’s demands for continuing self-government and freedoms granted under its constitution. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the Republic was plagued by internal dissension, including a rival government in Campeche and brewing discontent among the native Maya peasantry centered in the eastern region of present-day Quintana Roo. Then 1846 brought the crisis of open war between the US and Mexico.

The bizarre finale of the saga of Yucatan came in early 1847, when the US navy blockaded or seized several of its ports despite the Republic’s appeals for recognition as a neutral entity. Shortly after, a revolt broke out among the Maya, who overran large portions of the country. In the ensuing crisis, the nominal government went so far as to offer voluntary annexation as a United States territory. This most intriguing of secession bids resulted in a “Yucatan Bill” that got as far as a vote in the United States Senate. Despite endorsement from James Polk, the bill was defeated, and Yucatan and Mexico (or whatever was left of the respective entities!) formally reunited in 1848. Reunification was followed by crackdowns against the Maya, and the states of the former Republic, like Chiapas, would stay on the Conservative side of the Reform War, probably in large part because the Liberals’ aims of anti-clerical land reforms also adversely affected native communities. In a final twist, Quintana Roo remained under effective Mayan control well into the 20th century, leading some to speak of a de facto entity of Chan Santa Cruz.

The Yucatan Republic clearly demonstrates that the unity of Mexico, while deceptively tight in light of its troubled history, was not unbreakable. It is virtually indisputable that Yucatan could have been lost to Mexico, whether as an independent Republic, a holding of the United States, an ethnic indigenous dominion of the Maya, or even a reconquest of Spain, and Tabasco and Chiapas could easily have followed. It is not hard to imagine ways the rest of the country could have unraveled from there: Renewed separatist activity in the northeast, possibly spreading into the Gulf coast. Further expansion by the U.S. New indigenous insurrections within the famous native communities of Oaxaca and other southern and central states. The loss of trade with ceded ports and the diversion of goods to same. Socially-aggravated famine, plague and/or natural disaster in Mexico City. Simple logic would dictate that, beyond some critical mass of resources, population and territory, Mexico would cease to exist as a viable entity or at least be transformed beyond ready recognition. Then again, a look at Mexico’s actual history will show that it can and has come apart into more pieces than any secession scheme ever envisioned. Yet, like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, the pieces have a way of somehow coming back together into more or less the same shape.

On reviewing these most prominent of Mexican separatist movements, one thing which is absolutely clear that the time for partitioning Mexico, if viable at all, passed relatively quickly. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846, secessionist and separatist movements disappear, except for quite blatant (and consistently disastrous) intrusions by “fillibustero” adventurers mainly from the United States (which will be quite sufficient for another installment). An obvious factor is the disastrous territorial losses imposed after war with the US (literally larger than present-day Mexico), which could easily have destroyed any lingering appeal of secession to the Mexican people. Another clearly important issue is that, as already discussed, the dominant political factions of the mid-19th century onward were not separatist in their objectives and in any case would not have been able to divide their support bases into well-defined states.

One more intriguing lesson to be learned from history is that our game of “what if” was played just as freely in the mid-1800s, and more than one guess was quite spectacularly wrong. Well into the 1850’s, US observers such as James Gadsden (of “Purchase” fame) were predicting secessions from Mexico, particularly by the northern states, which in 20-20 hindsight was an almost direct reversal of the developing state of affairs. The most obvious factor in these miscalculations was that, as other contemporaries readily recognized, those making and circulating such “predictions” were mostly the same people who not only advocated claiming more Mexican territory for the United States but were equally openly contemplating secession from the US. Yet, it would not have taken thinly rationalized ambitions for these errant prophecies to make at least a measure of sense. There had been separatist rebellions within Mexico, there would be a Mexican civil war by the end of the decade, and ultimately, whether any of these developments ever could have led to one or more viable secessionist states is hard enough to judge long after the fact. The “what if” game will always be played against the odds, no matter which end of history one is on, but that never stops people from playing.


Vivovdan! The Men Who Did or Didn’t Start a World War

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June 28, 2014 by David N. Brown

I’m back, and I know it’s been a long time! Fortunately, it’s time for the post I’ve been wanting to do since I started this blog: the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophia, by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, officially commencing the festivities of World War One.

Many people I know have wondered about the root of my interest in the Balkans. If I were to try to give an answer, or at least pin down when it started, it would be my quite early awareness of the Archduke’s assassination, back when I was about 13, which was also when the war in Bosnia was making headlines. I wouldn’t say I had an immediate fascination with the event, but it stuck in my mind enough for me to look things up intermittently over the following decades. In the process, I became more aware of the complexities of the Balkans, the World Wars, and a deeper sense of the timeless questions of fate, chance and human nature. On a certain level, the Archduke’s demise is a perfect philosophical and metaphysical dilemma: Did a virtually chance encounter between a Balkan peasant and a hapless aristocrat decide the fate of the world? Or did they merely provide a pretense for the fight everyone had been waiting for? Was there, ultimately, ever a chance to avoid a world at war?

In the course of my reading, I found out quite a few things that didn’t entirely fit the tellings I first encountered (though much of this has been coming out in the current wave of press releases about the assassination). Despite the common characterization of the assassination as a terrorist attack, it can in fact just as well be described as an act of guerilla warfare: The Archduke was a military officer of high standing in his nation’s army, which was effectively occupying Bosnia, while his murder was orchestrated by Serb military officers. Also, despite his family’s willingness to go to war on behalf of his corpse, the Archduke was actually very unpopular in the Austrian court, due to his scandalous habits of advocating reform, having children with a wife he married for love and shooting pretty much every non-human creature in sight. Likewise, while Princip became a hero to the Serb nationalists with whom we are all too familiar, he was himself a proponent of a multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, and his comrades in the band that set out to kill the Archduke included Bosniak Muhamed Mehmedbasic.

At the same time, the details of the assassination readily align with the paradox of inevitable disaster or pure randomness. We can start by noting that Princip was one of only three out of nine children in his family to live to adulthood. Moving forward, the Serbian government ordered Princip’s arrest while he was in Serbia in the final stages of preparation for the assassination, and sent the Austrians a reasonably explicit warning that the Archduke would be in danger if he visited Bosnia (which the Austrians evidently neglected to forward to the Archduke). On the day of the assassination, the band of assassins made preparations to first shoot up the Archduke’s car and then blow it up with a had grenade for good measure. When their would-be ambush ended with only a single hand grenade lobbed, resulting in injuries to two officers in a second car, the Archduke and Duchess were quickly sequestered (though various parties still found time for speeches), until the Archduke decided to go back out onto the streets to visit the injured officers. His driver then got lost, and stopped directly in front of a cafe where Princip had retreated to plan his next move, in a position where an officer riding on the left side of the car failed to shield the couple. (One detail which, based on my research, is not at all clear is whether the Archduke was between Princip and the Duchess, as consistently shown in drawings, or vice versa!) Most bizarrely, accounts have come to light of a scuffle between a plainclothes detective who tried to stop Princip and an evidently otherwise uninvolved bystander who got in his way. This final detail, especially, reveals the nearly equal merits of two opposite conclusions: Either the demise of the Archduke was the wildest fluke, or he was dead as soon as he set foot in Sarajevo.

Now, let’s pull back to the wider angle. To my recollection, the junior-high textbook where I first read about the Archduke and Princip held very much with the conventional view of the assassination as essentially incidental to the real causes of the war. I very distinctly remember a quote with the iconic “powder keg” analogy. Such appraisals are, certainly, eminently justified by the evidence, especially an infamous and eerie remark by Otto Von Bismarck in 1888: “One day, the Great Euopean War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” It would seem almost inarguable that, if the circumstances of World War One could be described with such precision decades before the fact, then it is as close to inevitable as an event could get. (This has also long struck me as a fitting rejoinder to critical religious scholars who insist that any “prophetic” text must necessarily be dated after the event it predicts!) This presents a bleak and cynical picture of the leaders of the world as at best unable to stop a long-predicted crisis and at worst eagerly bringing it about, with all the further and still darker implications for human nature and free will that it entails.

Yet, there are definitely cracks in this view. The actions of Serbia, in particular, belie any eagerness for the demise of the Archduke on their part: On top of their efforts to arrest Princip and war off the Archduke, the Serbs readily made concessions in the face of increasingly vindictive Austrian demands, until even Kaiser Wilhelm, in some times and circles an even more favored scapegoat for the war than Princip, went on record as saying that Serbia had “eliminate(d) any cause for war”. If anyone pushed for war, it was the Austrian royalty, who strikingly found ways to snub the Archduke at his own funeral. Considering the disparity between the royal family’s demands and strikingly un-profound displays of grief, it is not outlandish to speculate that, on some level, the Archduke was allowed to go to Sarajevo in the hope that he wouldn’t come back. Yet, even the Austrians’ crazed diplomacy belies any grand plan, giving every appearance less of a calculated push for war than a succession of almost whimsical impositions on a party presumed too weak to put up real resistance.

Meanwhile, the Archduke himself certainly deserves more than a fair share of blame. One of the more mind-boggling detail of the assassination is that June 28th, 1914 was the Serbian Orthodox holy day of Vivovdan, and also considered the 525th anniversary of the epic last stand of the Southern Slavs against the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo Polje. (Due to complications in various church and secular calendars, the actual date of the battle was June 15, 1389.) This made the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo (at the invitation of Bosnia’s governor!) as manifestly ill-advised as George W. Bush going on a scenic tour of occupied Baghdad on the last day of Ramadan! If going at all was astonishingly reckless, his decision to go back onto the streets of Sarajevo can only be considered insanity.

This brings us to an especially neglected aspect of the Archduke’s background: Within Franz Ferdinand’s family tree, there is a quite impressive list of men who found interesting and colorful ways to get themselves killed. His father, Karl Ludwig, met his end in a moderately charming fashion, by catching typhoid when he piously drank from the Jordan River on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, reportedly against the strong urgings of several traveling companions. His cousin Crown Prince Rudolf died with his mistress in an apparent murder-suicide. His own brother Otto died of syphilis, presumably contracted in pursuit of his scandalous lifestyle. Perhaps most notably, his uncle Maximilian accepted the post as French-installed Emperor of Mexico, and then refused to leave when the French withdrew the Foreign Legion. In this light, the `notorious’ Archduke appears to be, if anything, one of the more stable members of the royal family. The grim history of his line gives further testimony to the nearly certain impact of mental illness, exacerbated by a society which by all appearances considered it preferable to let its ruling class endanger themselves and the state rather than breach protocol by restraining them.

Once the full extent of the “human element” is brought in, the dilemma of the assassination becomes even more intractable. The events of a century past are inseparable from the actions of the participants, especially the deceased Archduke himself. It is pure arrogance (not to mention no small measure of “blame-shifting”!) to suppose that no course of events could have turned the world from war. Yet, at the same time, the actions of the individuals are (per a favorite theme in my own work) constrained by their underlying personalities and perhaps even more by their times and cultures. One might as well reframe the usual questions by asking, was there any way to prevent the gallantly foolhardy Archduke and the determined assassin from colliding with each other?

I’ll close with another personal story. Back in February 2008, my novel Walking Dead was in print as my second and last book with an an official publisher, and I was well on my way to fleshing out the “assumed mythology” that became the “Exotroopers” series. Then, in February, news came that Kosovo had declared itself independent from Serbia. I had long concluded that an independent Kosovar state was going to happen, eventually, and worked it into my books, but it still came as more than a surprise to me. My immediate response in conversation with people who knew of my Balkans research was, verbatim, “Worst case scenario, there could be a war in a week.” Needless to say, I watched the news with great interest, waiting to see if the war I had envisioned in fiction decades in the future was going to happen in front of me. Needless to say, it didn’t… at least, not yet.

To me, this experience is as good an answer as any to the riddle of the “Archduke and the Assassin”. Sometimes, surely, expecting a disaster is what keeps it from happening, and that should be hope in that. At the same time, there can be little doubt that some expected disasters happen because nobody thinks they can stop it, and there should be a kind of hope in that, too. In the end, all we can do is plan for the worst, and try for the best. And did anyone really need a history lesson to know that?

RVs of the Apocalypse! 1976 Travco Motorhome

Posted in Cars with tags , on September 25, 2013 by David N. Brown

Because, judging from traffic, I might as well change the name of this site to “Weird RVs” (if that wasn’t already taken), it’s time for the 10th installment of “RVs of the Apocalypse!” This time, the featured RV comes courtesy of, and reportedly belongs to one Jolene Sloniker. This specimen is a Class C motorhome and appears to be based on a Dodge B300 van, the successor to the previously-featured A100. As noted by the “Dodge Travco” writer, the Class C configuration is unusual for a Travco, though it is worth keeping in mind that, without the readily recognizeable “Family Wagon” legend, this van and any other like it would be hard to distinguish from many other professional and “homebuilt” versions. But surely the most noteworthy feature of the post is closeups of the bathroom!

Here we see a closeup of one of Travco’s most notorious innovations, the folding toilet! The compact commode drops down from under a sink, and the bathroom also features a shower head. I have seen this radical space-saving feature mentioned a number of times, but this is the only photo to come to my attention. Based on my research, I believe that these toilets were not used in Travco’s Class A motorhomes.

While I’m at it, I am going to make a correction to a previous post. I previously presented it as a matter of uncertainty where Travco built hardtop “Family Wagons” based on the A108. I am now entirely satisfied that this was not only done, but that the A108 was the STANDARD chassis for this version of the Family Wagon. I won’t say I shouldn’t have caught this before, but in my defense, the differences between the A100 and A108 are less obvious with the side doors fully open, as they often are to show off features of the camper interior. I am also satisfied that Travco did build Family Wagons with retractable roofs based on the original A100 as well as A108. On further review of vintage literature, I think it is likely that Travco phased out the A100 in favor of the A108 by around 1967. In the meantime, there were certainly A100/A108 camper vans built of less certain provenance, including Class C variations. Two examples are featured at this page. Especially interesting is one with a cabover streamlined shell that appears to be made of fiberglass. This suggests either an especially skilled homebuild or truly professional work; unfortunately, the source site offers no useful information.

Revenant Review, Part 4: Shanks

Posted in films, zombies on September 16, 2013 by David N. Brown

“Old Walker could not make it to Celia’s birthday party, because Malcolm (out of mercy) had buried him several days before.”

Back from the dead in more ways than one, it’s time for the fourth installment in this feature, and I’m pleased to present the Great White Whale of unfindable zombie films. Back in the 1970s, the infamous B-movie master William Castle, whose long history of gimmicks included wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks, thought it would be a good idea to make a horror movie starring the world-famous mime Marcel Marceau as the protagonist Malcolm Shanks. The result was a 1974 film titled Shanks, and it achieved a legendary status, with partisan reviewers either praising it as an avant garde work of psychedelic genius or panning it as, well, an avant garde work of psychedelic genius. Peter Dendle’s masochistically comprehensive Zombie Movie Encyclopedia calls it “a dark vision… of how perverse innocence, left to its devices, really is.” A frequently-quoted review by Hal Erickson describes it as “not so much a movie as a hallucinatory experience.” The film’s reputation was probably helped more than hindered by the fact that THIRTY-NINE YEARS went by before its FIRST authorized video release. Armed with a copy of the authorized release that I received and viewed this weekend, I am prepared to wade into the fray.

The first thing I will say is that the authorized edition from Olive Films, is of excellent quality. Every scene is of very sharp quality. I mention this because more than one prior review made prominent mention of problems with image quality, particularly in the final scenes, due either to poor-quality bootlegs or poor lighting and camera work in the making of the films itself. The quality is, indeed, high enough almost to bely the film’s reputation. Apart from a few cuts to silent-film-style sepia, the film is marked by sharply-focused, even camera work, which offers a striking contrast both to the atmospheric blurs and shadows of established horror-film tradition and the jerky, choppy techniques that came into full flower in the 1970s. Even the finale is well-lit and shot almost to a fault (which I must regard as evidence of truly atrocious quality in prior bootleg copies). The workman-like photography serves to reinforce a decidedly un-psychedelic backdrop, where ’60s-’70s artifacts abound without a lava lamp or tie-dyed shirt in sight.

Then there is the story. Um. What is there to say about a story that centers on using human corpses as puppets? Shanks, a “deaf-mute” puppeteer picked on by his stepsister and her drunken husband, learns the secret from the scientist Walker (also played by Marceau), who demonstrates with dead animals in his castle/ lab. When Walker dies of natural causes, Shanks tries out his invention on his corpse. When the in-law and stepsister start asking questions, Shanks gets rid of them with an undead chicken and a GTO “Judge”, then uses their bodies for a show to entertain a teenish admirerer named Celia. His jailbait interest is alarmed on discovering Shanks’ secret, but soon accepts an invitation to the old castle. Shanks and Celia celebrate her birthday in Victorian dress, served and entertained by the in-laws, until a biker gang crashes the party. Stylized savagery ensues, culminating in a notorious scene in sepia of Shanks dancing with Celia before a jarring cut to a cop-out ending.

Shanks astonishes and apalls on amny levels. The horror/ zombie elements are usually passed over in commentary, yet the grue factor is fairly impressive: Walker looks none too fresh, especially after Shanks summons him back for revenge, and a sequence in which a pickled frog is reanimated is genuinely ghastly. The infamous chicken attack, on the other hand, is in my opinion a dud. The intended highlight, Shanks’ “shows” (carried our by two accomplished colleagues of Marceau), are about as problematic as they are unsettling. It is hard to watch without wondering first and foremost if we are actually expected to laugh. (I will admit to being amused by the deceased drunk pulling bottle after bottle off the shelf of a store, which presents a possible subtext of the “puppets” retaining its former personality.)

Finally, we are left with the matter of subtext. The corpse-puppets clearly represent one of the most overtly materialistic representations of the corporeal revenant, and can easily be regarded as further social commentary, but the film offers little to hang such an allegory on. Efforts to inject imagery of good and evil through recurring play cards (source of the opening quote) are, if not strictly ironic, then entirely unconvincing. Shanks is entirely too cunning to make a convincing “innocent”, and it is even more striking that the “evil” bikers come far closer to showing normal human emotional responses than he or Celia ever do. Ultimately, it is all too easy to regard the dynamic of Shanks and the puppets as a statement about the audience: That we, like too-wide-eyed Celia, are entirely at the mercy of the film’s weird and amoral vision.

RVs of the Apocalypse! Class C Flatbed Mystery Motorhome

Posted in Cars with tags , , , , on September 11, 2013 by David N. Brown

I’m back from a summer hiatus, and I decided it was time to do a piece I’ve been wanting to do for a while. There’s a personal story behind this: One night last December, I was meeting up with a friend at a local fast food restaurant (I got there on public transportation because I don’t drive, which makes my interest in this subject highly ironic) when I noticed a motorhome I thought was quite strange in the parking lot. From the brief sighting, I decided it was probably a 1970s Dodge van chassis, and the rest was evidently home-built. Some time later, I decided to see if there was any documentation of this or similar RVs. A few searches led me to this at the website Weird RVs:
Source Weird RVs: “Something is missing here”

As can be seen, this van follows the lines of a cab-over Class C RV, with the drastic difference that the camper body is too short to cover most of the exposed van bed. The end result converges on the design of a “sleeper” semi truck. The camper hull clearly provides a bed over the cab, and it would be feasible to fit a kitchen, lavatory or even a shower in the remaining space with no more than moderate ingenuity (though all of the above would be tricky indeed!) The remainder of the bed is open to a variety of uses. such as motor bikes, light watercraft, or a hitch for a fifth-wheel trailer home. The last application, while redundant at face value, would clearly be of some convenience if two people were in the van. In particular, it would allow the occupants to take turns driving and using the facilities without stopping or violating laws against having occupants in a moving trailer. The specimen I sighted was loaded with a mix of loose goods, and to my recollection there was some lining around the sides of the bed, which I suspect may have been a later modification. All in all, this type of RV is one of the more impressive examples of home-builder ingenuity, and an especially convenient way to flee civilization with as much of one’s worldly goods as possible!

Demo Day! The Man of Macedonia

Posted in one-shot with tags on July 18, 2013 by David N. Brown

Here’s another excerpt from “XX Exotroopers” in progress.  I have tried to use more self-contained vignettes that don’t tie directly into the main storyline, but I decided this chapter was worth making an exception.  I did write this in the spirit of a “demo”, to introduce the villain of the story.  The character is based in part on a Marvel comics character, the Purple Man.

It was a mixed and motley force, even by the standards of the Balkans.  There were two dozen men, most of whom would under any other circumstances be shooting at each other: Six were in the uniforms of Serbia, six in the uniforms of Albania, and the rest were Kosovar irregulars.  The men in Albanian uniforms looked almost as uncomfortable to be in the company of their kin as they did in the company of the Serbs; they stood well apart, speaking in the Tosk dialect that dominated Albania.  The Kosovars were more amiable, joking in the northern Geg dialect, but a number of them were eying clan crests sewn on each others’ uniforms, and remembering blood feuds that had claimed more Shqiptar lives than all of Albania’s wars combined.  All looked up at the approach of clopping hooves.

It was no ordinary horse that descended down the mountain trail.  Its build was unusual, more like a mule than a horse, and its head was covered by a gas mask.  Its hide, where it was not covered by a fabric skirt, was a pale and unwholesomely mottled gray.  The rider was clearly even less ordinary, dressed in a biohazard suit.  A clear visor in the hood revealed white skin but features that were subtly African, especially a large nose.  “I am Dr. Nibeaux,” said the rider.  “I am chief of bioweapons development for the Republic of Serbia.  By the order of General Rausch, I am commander of this operation.”

He drew a five-barreled miniature rocket launcher.  “At this moment, the most battle-hardened squad of Serbia’s exotrooper corps is closing in on a location a short distance from here where the individual known only as the Man of Macedonia is in hiding.  As you are all too aware, the Macedonian has crossed the line from opposing Serbia’s occupation of Kosovo to setting himself up as warlord of the municipality of Prizren. His reign of terror has claimed hundreds of lives, most of them fellow Shqiptars.  He has made himself a threat to all sides of the current conflict, and his activities threaten to destabilize Macedonia as well.  That is why our respective superiors approved a joint operation to neutralize the Macedonian.

General Rausch’s express orders are for the Macedonian to be taken alive. That responsibility is in the finbacks’ more than capable hands. Your assignment is to clear a safe passage through the warlord’s territory, and neutralize any attempt to rescue the warlord. However, you must be prepared for the eventuality of an encounter with the Macedonian.  No one has seen the Macedonian’s face, but his appearance is well-known: An improvised mask, usually a scarf, a traditional plis cap and fustanella, all purple.  If contact is made, your express orders are as follows:  Insert the earplugs you are provided with, and fire concussion and gas grenades, in that order. Do not approach the Macedonian.  Do not attempt communication with the Macedonian, or respond to any attempt at communication.  If you see any individual speaking with the Macedonian, terminate that individual on sight.  If you fail to follow these orders, I am authorized to terminate you immediately.  Are these orders clear?”


The building had obviously been built as an Ottoman mosque, complete with minaret and dome.  It had not been built for easy access.  The dome almost directly abutted a mountain crag, and the rear of the mosque looked almost directly over a one-hundred meter drop.  A front couryard extended around the left side to the base of the minaret, ending at a somewhat less sheer drop. The only connection to the outside world was a stone bridge across a chasm to a narrow mountain road, currently covered liberally with snow and ice.

There was a faint jingle as Dreadlocks leaned out from beneath the arch of the bridge.  He himself did not hear it.  The only sound he heard was a hint of a hum.  The finbacks’ safety systems included cut-outs in their inner helmets, which normally engaged in the event of an explosion or other sound sufficient to damage the human ear.  The cut-outs not only disengaged audio sensors, but created white noise that theoretically could dampen the effects of a concussive blast. Dreadlocks was sure it was giving him a headache.  He looked up, drew back, and tapped a message on a texting pad added to his left forearm grenade launcher: UIJN POSIKTRION.  “Piece of kaka,” he muttered to nobody but himself.

A new message appeared: 70 M FLEA NOT MUCH HIGHER.  It was from the Tick.

CLOS 2 TOP W8TNG 4 LRDRS.  That was the Flea.

Jebanje kaka,” Dreadlocks hissed.  He tapped keys using a pin: END TXT FIN APRCH LASR SIGS.  As soon as the message was sent, he smashed his text pad against the bridge.  Then he anchored a cable in the stone and let the line drop down into the chasm.  Two squires climbed up from below.  On the other side of the bridge, two more squires came into view on a ledge 10 meters lower and set up a power winch.

A masked, angular visage peered furtively around the corner of the minaret.  A toilet seat collar identified him as the Tick.  He hefted a 3cm automatic grenade launcher and pointed into the air.  A laser beam shimmered in the falling snow, giving the signal that he was in position.  A second beam flashed from halfway up the other side of the minaret, and the Flea leaned out to give a thumbs up.

A sentry on the entrance portico looked up at an odd whiffing sound.  He saw his counterpart on the other side of the entrance, slouched against the wall as usual, but starting to slump.  He was reaching for his weapon when he took two darts in the chest.  Dreadlocks waved a compressed-air dart gun, flashing a signal with the laser sight on the far side of the chasm.  Then he and one of the squires started climbing up the portico columns to the roof.

The squires on the ledge put more power into the winch.  At last the load came into view: Sunflower, in full armor with some especially large burden on his back.  The squires hauled him onto the ledge, then pulled him after as they retreated from the crumbling edges.  Sunflower handed off parts of his load, including two wheels and halves of a gunshield, and then they ventured up a marginal path to the road.

The Flea pulled himself up over the stone railing of a balcony that marked the second tier of the minaret.  He had stripped down his armor more than usual, leaving even the outer helmet behind.  A footbridge ran from the balcony to the roof ot the main building, but his goal was the spire, just seven meters above the balcony. After a moment’s thought, he stood up on the rail, and leaped.  In the highest chamber of the minaret, a gauntled hand barely caught hold of the sill.  Metal claws dug in, and the Flea  hauled himself up and in.  He was halfway in when he looked up and froze.

A beautiful woman stood before him, smiling. Her eyes were a piercing green, her dark hair was tied up in a kind of topknot,  and she wore what looked like a pleated purble skirt under her coat.  She smiled and spoke.  The Flea shook his head and pointed to the cymbal-like shock absorber in the side of his helmet.  She gave a sweet, pleading smile, and the Flea disengaged the cutouts.

Please, sir,” the woman said, “can you help me?”

I’m here to catch a warlord,” the Flea said.  “He’s really, seriously bad news.  Say, are you a prisoner?”

The woman nodded. “Yes, I am his prisoner,” she said.  “He has complete dominion over me.”

Is he here?” the Flea asked.  “You should probably get out of here, if you can.”

Yes, he is very close,” said the woman.  “But I can go soon.  I just need a little help.  You want to help, don’t you?”  The Flea nodded
enthusiatically.  “Good.  Now hold this, give me that, that’s right, now just wait here while I get myself out of the way.”

The woman disappeared.  After a moment, the Flea looked down at the object in his hand.  It was a hand grenade, minus pin.  “Aw, man…”

The Tick was vigilantly watching the footbridge when he heard a blast from the top of the minaret.  He immediately raced around the base, in time to see a rain of debris that included his partner.  He cast his weapon aside and leaned over the rail, just in time to catch the Flea with both arms.  Then he guesstimated the momentum of a 180-kilogram exotrooper dropped from a height of more than 10 meters. “Oh, jeban!

Dreadlocks circled around the right side of the dome, leaving his squire to take the left under the cover of the Tick.  He dropped to a crouch as he reached the other side, dart gun at ready.  He started to say to sound off, but caught himself.  When his companion did not appear, and he saw the damage to the minaret, he became alarmed.  His headache was getting worse.  After a moment’s hesitation, he deactivated the cut-outs, just for a moment.

He heard the voice almost in his ear, androgynously soft but transfixingly authoritative.  “Dreadlocks.  Go to the edge of the roof.  Look for your men.”

It will be a good view,” Dreadlocks said.  He walked to the very edge, where the rear wall jutted out to form a semicircular alcove.  The view was spectacular.  He could see mountains and valleys and poljes for tens of kilometers.  He could also see the Flea and the Tick lying crumpled on a ledge 20 meters below the base of the minaret.

You must help them,” the voice said.

How do I reach them?” he asked.  His headache was back.


Get-” He whirled around, dart pitol drawn, just in time to catch a 4 cm grenade in the breastplate. His curse echoed through the mountains as he hurtled over the edge and straight down.

Dreadlocks looked down. Sunflower advanced to the bridge, pushing a newly-assembled motorized gun carriage like a lawn mower.  Gunfire from the portico was met by machine gun fire from the trailing squires and a burst of 20 mm tracer shells from the coaxial gun on the carriage.  Then Sunflower stepped to one side and fired the main weapon, a 107 mm recoilless gun.  A backblast flash-boiled the snow, and a huge shell crashed through the front door.  A cloud of gas flooded the main chamber of the mosque, rising from the top of the dome in milky puffs.  But a heavy machine gun opened up from the spire of the minaret, cutting down a squire, and a missile launcher fired from a door in the base.  The carriage was smashed, and Sunflower and his remaining squire went sprawling.

The squire on the portico returned fire, but was overwhelmed when gunmen in gas masks came rushing out of the front.  The lone squire was surrounded, and guns were emptied point-blank.  The machine gun in the minaret opened fire again, riddling a squire with bullets as he twitched, then turned belatedly on Sunflower as he lunged for the recoilless gun. Armor-piercing rounds pounded his helmet, smashing a monocle-like radar scope in his visor, too late.  With one heave, the tank destroyer wrenched the gun from the wreckage of the carriage and fired.  An explosive shell all but obliterated the spire of the minaret, sending tons of rubble down on the heads of the gunmen below.  Then Sunflower rolled himself off the road, to drop to the ledge below.

Only twenty troops reached the bridge, with Nibeaux in their midst.  He took one glance at the devastation and said, “Insert earplugs!”  Most moved to comply, but gunfire erupted from the portico, and all but the few who had their earplugs in already grabbed for their guns or dived for cover instead.  Fire was met with fire, and Nibaux himself took out a machine gun entrenched on a balcony above the portico with a volley of rockets before his horse bucked and tried to run the other way. Eighteen fairweather allies survived to secure the portico.  Four Serbs, five Albanians and nine Kosovars surveyed the bodies, and then gazed into the haze beyond the doorway.  All of them loaded grenades in under-barrel launchers and reached for their earplugs, when a voice called down from above in Serbo-Croatian:  “Serbs.  Kill Shqiptars.”

For a moment, all stood and stared as if incredulous.  Then three of the men in Serb uniforms moved as if hypnotized, so bizarrely that even their ancient enemies hesitated to do more than call out in vain for explanation as they raised their guns.  Three Kosovars and an Albanian fell in a single volley, and one more of each became collateral damage in the storm of fire that cut the Serbs down.

Footsteps descended a narrow staircase on one end of the portico.  Eight men looked up to see a figure swathed in purple, from a conical plis cap to the swathed face, to a fustanella, the traditional Albanian version of the kilt.  “Tosks,” the figure said in perfect southern Albanian dialect, “kill Gegs.”  The men in Albanian uniforms raised their guns robotically, and the Kosovars had the presence of mind to return fire.  Two Kosovars survived, one badly wounded.  The Man of Macedonia paused to examine their clan patches.

Haradinaj,” the Macedonian said as the upright Shqiptar drew a handgun, “kill the Dusan.”  The wounded man sat up and drew his own sidearm, and the two men emptied their guns at each other before both collapsing. The Macedonian looked into the recess of the portico where one man in Serb uniform had had the presence of mind to dive for cover.

The lone survivor stared into piercing green eyes.  “What are you?” came the imperious query.

Romani,” he answered.

Well, kill yourself.”  He drew his gun and obliged.

The Man of Macedonia rode down the steps of the mosque.  Then a voice called out, “Macedonian, you will come with me.”  The warlord looked back to see Nibeaux, dismounted on a ledge overlooking the road.

The scarf could not hide the smile on the Macedonian’s face:  “You, and what army?” Then the motorcycle accelerated away, just ahead of a concussion rocket, and Nibeaux watched the Maceonian ride away.

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 8: The Ultra Van!

Posted in Cars with tags , on July 17, 2013 by David N. Brown

Ultra Van
While the annals of motorhome history are full of minor or short-lived brands that achieved some measure of fame and/or notoriety (as in the Daystar saga), very few can be said to have inspired the enthusiastic loyalty of a true “cult following”. One vehicle that surely meets this description is the Ultra Van. The story of this odd motorhome reportedly began with an aircraft designer named Dave Peterson being frustrated by having to choose between towing a Spartan trailer or a boat on his outdoor excursions. In 1960, he hit upon the solution of a custom-built creation on the then-new Chevrolet Corvair chassis. The design saw production of fifteen units through 1963, and then was licensed out to the Prescolite Corporation, a manufacturer of fiberglass. Rechristened the Ultra Van, the vehicle was manufactured in modest numbers from 1964 to 1970. Peterson tried to revive the brand in 1972-1973. While often characterized as a camper van, the Ultra Van’s entirely original body fully warrants the description of a true, purpose-built motorhome. The ovoid hull and aluminum and fiberglass construction converged strikingly with the Dodge Travco, and even its 22-foot length was competitive with contemporary motorhomes. The vehicle’s most unique features were a heating system that reused thermal energy from the rear engine and a mindboggling gas mileage of 15 to 17 mpg, a still-impressive figure that for its time was 50% better than competitors and comparable to a standard car.

Ultra Van’s estimated production run was 370 units, of which more than 200 survive. The impressive number of extant specimens is surely a testimony to the loyalty of owners, a number of whom have reportedly collected multiple units. Unsurprisingly, the legendry of the vehicle includes efforts to assign blame for its demise, mainly to some combination of the discontinuation of the Corvair and the energy crisis of the 1970s. In my opinion, the controversies surrounding the Corvair (itself surrounded by energetic loyalists) can be discounted as a red herring: The use of the Corvair in the first place was by all accounts dictated by what was available at the time, and several alternatives were tested. Dave Peterson himself reportedly held variants using the engine of an Oldsmobile Toronado to be far superior to the original Corvair-based design. The role of the energy crisis, which certainly devastated the RV industry as a whole, also appears to be a red herring: While oil supplies were undoubtedly strained throughout the early ’70s, the outright shortages that defined the “crisis” did not occur until late 1973. The truly obvious culprit in the demise of the Ultra Van is its price tag, which consistently approached $10,000 at a time when Winnebagos were being offered for $5,000. The culminating irony of the Ultra Van story is that the energy crisis was, if anything, the one thing that could have turned the vehicle’s fortunes around if it had survived. Instead, the brand was decisively defunct at precisely the time when consumers might have considered its unique fuel economy as enough to make up for its price tag.

Image (rear interior) and information courtesy of The Ultra Van Page.