Thursday, September 11, 2014

September Miscellany

I don't have anything worthy of a post itself, so here goes a few small things...

  • I turned 49. Been coping with the feeling that 50 is just around the corner and all that age stuff. Still, I probably shouldn't lament too much, my grandfather was 102 when he kicked off.
  • On similar lines, a recent doctor's appointment showed that my blood pressure, cholesterol level, blood sugar level, etc. were all doing very well...but my weight has gone crazy. So yeah, definitely joining a gym soon. I need to lose a few dozen pounds.
  • Saturday, I was tending to some business that didn't take as long as I expected (closing out a bank account, I'm shifting my business to a credit union) so on a whim I went to the Baltimore Comic-Con. I'm not much of a comics person, but I thought, what the hell, it may be worth the adventure. I only spent the afternoon, but it was fun. I ran into my friend Denise who's a MAJOR comics person and through her I got quite a few introductions to various artists. I only bought one comic, a one-shot from Rocket Ink Studios called "Portraits of Poe," but I got some other swag, like a t-shirt with an expressionistic portrait of Poe, a pair of horror novels from ChiZine Publications, and (ahem) a collector's market DVD of the first season of PENNY DREADFUL. Not a bad haul.
  • Coming up on the weekend of 10/3-5, the Monster-Mania Con at Hunt Valley, MD (just outside Baltimore), a horror movie convention, and on 10/24-26 is Hallowread in Ellicott City, MD (just south of Baltimore, and a short drive from my digs in Catonsville), a gathering of "authors and fans of paranormal/urban fantasy, steampunk, and horror." In other words, I'll be at both.
  • Reading a couple different things right now; will report & review when I finish.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Phantom Theme....

It's a cool night in the city. You're on your own, walking down a slightly unfamiliar street. You're in a new stylish coat and a snappy hat. You've been reading mystery novels and pulp fiction lately; your appetite for adventure and romance is razor-sharp. You're ready for anything to come your way. And from somewhere, you hear some unfamiliar music that sets the mood...

This fun little piece was written by John Barry for a TV series that aired in the UK but never in the US. I happened to be able to watch an episode long, long ago (I mean 1980s long ago) and the music stuck with me. You can only imagine how happy I was to track it down on YouTube and hear the full thing again.

Hey...that brunette is looking at you from the doorway of the Chinese restaurant there. What's that about a message to carry? What does "the rosette is in the field" mean? I think we have an adventure here...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

This 'n' That - August 2014

  • It's a slow time of the year, except for my work, which is crazy-busy. And we're expanding in unexpected directions, and I may require an assistant in another year or so.
  • I've expanded in unexpected directions as well; in the last two years I've gained far too much weight. I'm to see my doctor in a few weeks and I'll have a chat with him about possibly joining a gym. If I do, I may post photos of my progress, so be warned.
  • I haven't been out to the movies much this summer; the two flicks that stand out the most to me are GODZILLA (fun, but flawed; too much time spent on Lt. Bland) and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (fun, but I'm not over the moon about it as others are). Not many horror flicks that I've noticed; I saw AS ABOVE SO BELOW advertised at the local cineplex but then I found out it's yet another found footage film and I just groaned.
  • I went to a pen show in Northern Virginia earlier this month, which was very interesting, and came home with a vintage fountain pen and a hand-crafted ballpoint. They also have a lot of watches and pocket knives, as well as some women's jewelry. Fountain pen culture is interesting and I'll have to delve into it more. There's also a nostalgia convention in a few weeks locally, and a horror convention (Monster-Mania) here in October, so I should be having some fun.
  • Tomorrow is my 49th birthday. Next year I hope to have a big blow-out with few survivors.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August's Night Out at the Movies!

It's a humid night, the kind where you wish it would just make up its mind and rain already. But the sun is setting earlier, leaves are starting to turn and fall, kids are heading back to school. We're meeting at the usual restaurant, chatting and catching up. We compare used-book finds (A hardcover of Arsene Lupin?), concerts we've attended (Their performance of the Beethoven sonata was...well...a bit of a mess...), antique shows (What? Laura found a Viennese porcelain Muse?), museum trips (There's a wonderful little Daumier in that gallery that's so easy to miss...), and assorted other adventures (There's a seafood restaurant near the beach...nothing fancy but the food is amazing...). After our usual haggling about how to split the bill, we head up the street to that shabby old theater we love so much...

First up is a 1907 George Melies short, "The Eclipse."

And the feature presentation is 1933's "Sucker Money."

"Sucker Money" is an unusual beast. It was produced by Dorothy Reid, a marginally talented woman who husband, silent-film star Wallace Reid, had died from morphine addiction. She then dedicated her life and career to "message" films, including several antidrug flicks like the now-lost "Human Wreckage", or tackling prostitution in "The Red Kimona" (which was remarkable for its sympathetic treatment of sex workers). "Sucker Money" was her attempt to warn people about fake psychics and mediums.

That being said, she wasn't much of an actress, and even less a screenwriter, director, and producer. Sorry, folks.

The show over (at last!), we wander up the street for a final drink for the night...

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Creative Spirit Seance

Last night, I went with some friends to Baltimore's trendy Hampden neighborhood to attend a seance.

Of course, it was really a theatrical presentation. A hard-nosed skeptic like me wouldn't pay money to attend a "real" spiritualist seance. Long, long ago, I attended a performance at Wheaton, MD's late, great Psychic Ghost Theater for my birthday; that was great fun. It started off with a normal magic show, then a demonstration of a Victorian "spirit cabinet," and then a harrowing "real" seance that used a lot of the tricks that fraudulent mediums use. It's a wonderful memory that I carry with me.

This was, well, different. It's held in the upper floor of an old church (which turns out to be a private home rented out to productions), and it's a cool space. We were handed wires with which to sculpt into anything we wanted, and then gathered in a small area where host David London gave a talk on creativity, and then talked to us about the sculptures we created. Eventually he collected the sculptures and melted them in an "alchemical furnace" and dumped the molten result in a bowl of cold water. We were given pieces and told to look at them and think of what we saw.

It was like that, full of little creative exercises. We drew on triangles and they were assembled into a larger puzzle, after a trick in which an audience member identified the blank triangles from the drawn-on ones. There was a guided meditation followed by a ritual washing of hands (with the water turning black, supposedly our negative energy being washed away). We sat at an elaborate seance table where we did some summoning of spirits, an experiment in automatic writing, and finally a full-on seance where he gave a long, rambling speech on the nature of "the creative spirit" that I admit went in one ear and out the other.

It was odd, a mixture of magic show and Wiccan ritual. (Yes, I have a legit frame of reference; in my checkered past I was actually the high priest of a Wiccan coven for a while.) London later admitted there were some illusions that were supposed to go off during the full seance that didn't, and there were some parts of the show that didn't seem to quite connect. London joked about how it was a late show and some things weren't going right, so I suppose that would explain that.

I'm not entirely sorry I went, but at the same time it wasn't what I was expecting; I had thought it would be more illusions and less psychodrama. I found some of the New Agey-ness about it off-putting, but that's just me. There was a time in my life when I was very, very into that sort of thing, but those days are long behind me now. Along with a lot of depression and instability. Those were dark days.

Maybe it's your thing, or someone else's thing, but it really wasn't mine. And that's not a dismissal of David London's talents or his work into this show. It's just that I'm really not the kind of audience he should have had.

The Creative Spirit Seance plays to audiences of 12, and runs until August 30th. Tickets are $40.

Monday, August 4, 2014

August at the Phantom Opera House!

Tonight we're off to the opera! We got bargain tickets through a friend, had a festive dinner at a fun and inexpensive restaurant, and are now snugly ensconced in the opera house. The show is Weber's Der Freisch├╝tz, a German Romantic opera from 1821 based on a folktale about a marksman who uses cursed bullets.

In the second act, there's a famous scene where the hero and the villain descend to the Wolves' Den, an area in the forest noted for the ghosts and demons that inhabit it. There they meet with the Black Huntsman, Samiel, and make a bargain to forge the seven magic bullets with which the flawed hero, Max, will win a marksmanship contest and a prize that will enable him to marry his beloved Agathe. Villainous Casper (not a friendly ghost), however, has other plans, including not telling Max that the seventh bullet, once fired, will have Max carried off by Samiel, and buying Casper more time on earth. (He made a dark bargain with Samiel himself years ago...)

The music is fact, here we go...

This scene is often described as the greatest Romantic depiction of supernatural horror, and it's a corker. I chose a video without action, leaving the listener to imagine for themselves how the action goes. After you listen, go read a synopsis or find a video of the scene, and see how close your mental image was.

The scene ends, the intermission arrives, and we rush to the bar for a glass of Rhine wine while calming our shudders. And vowing to investigate Romantic opera and music more. Bring back Romanticism!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

IN GHOSTLY COMPANY by Amyas Northcote

Amyas Northcote (1864-1923) is an author about whom little is known despite the usual biographical details. Born in England, emigrated to the US in 20s where he was a businessman in Chicago, then returned to England in 1900, eventually becoming a justice of the peace in Buckinghamshire. This, his sole volume of stories and the only writing he seems to have ever done, came out in 1921, and he died 18 months later. No other writings seem to have been found after his death. Not much is really known of his life, or what he did for a living, or what his thoughts and passions were, or why he decided to write ghost stories. But that being said, his stories are pretty darned good.

First in this edition is the oft-anthologized "Brickett Bottom," a famously unsettling tale of a house that isn't there and disappearances. You'll find it in a lot of "best-ever" or "haunted-house" anthologies, and I've heard it dramatized for radio. It's a remarkably dark, bleak story, and relentlessly macabre. In other words, you HAVE to read it.

Others follow some more of the standard fare. "Mr. Kershaw and Mr. Wilcox" is of a psychic dream. "The Late Earl of D." follows a ghostly re-enactment of a murder. "Mr. Mortimer's Diary" tells of a man hounded by the spirit of someone he deeply wronged. "The House in the Wood" is a very, very standard tale of a child's ghost warning a parent of danger. "The Young Lady in Black" is also very, very standard, of a ghost that returns to fulfill a promise. "The Governess' Story" recounts an auditory haunting that replays a despondent teen's suicide.

However, there are some others that stand out, at least for me.

"In the Woods" is a dark, unsettling tale of a lonely teenage girl who explores the forests on her own, only to find herself under the spell of the resident nature spirits. It's rather Machenesque, and blends Victorian whimsy with dark menace. There's no real plot; it's almost a lengthy vignette, with no real resolution. But it's darn good and worthy of more attention.

"The Steps" concerns itself with a wealthy society girl who turns down a soldier's marriage proposal, twice. He swears to have her, and then is called into action and dies. His steps haunt her and hound her. It's standard stuff, except for its nastiness. The soldier is never depicted as being all that evil or forceful; he's a lonely man, deeply infatuated, and thwarted in love. The girl is never depicted as terribly nasty either, just a normal girl of her class. So her ghostly persecution is not that of a deserved revenge on a heartless person, or even of a psychotic stalker and innocent victim. It has more the feel of a random bit of spectral evil that just happens to happen...and thus is very chilling.

Two stories, "The Downs" and "The Late Mrs. Fowke," are very folkloric. "The Downs" has a man walking across a stretch of land on a night when the spirits of those who died there walk...and it's strange and hallucinatory. "The Late Mrs. Fowke" concerns a clergyman who discovers his wife has dealings with Old Nick. Both have a strong rural atmosphere and are quite fun.

Northcote's stories are generally set in England or America, but "The Picture" is set in Hungary. It's not a great tale, but it is full of menace, where a girl does one of those silly rituals to see the face of her future husband, and later finds that face on a decades-old portrait hanging in a local castle. It has a macabre end, to be sure, but it's never clearly explained WHY it happens, which makes it all the more unsettling.

The last story is also a bit different. "Mr. Oliver Carmichael" is not really a ghost story, but a tale of occultism. A man has a chance meeting with a woman who seems to recognize him, and who takes a malicious interest in him. It turns out she's the reincarnation of a soul that was knit to his, and while his rose to light and goodness, hers sank to evil and darkness. It's actually not a very good story; very little happens. It's quite a bit of buildup and no payoff. But it's interesting because it's got that didactic tone that you normally find in stories written by True Believers, and it makes me wonder if perhaps Northcote had been fascinated by that sort of thing, and if that had something to do with his decision to write ghost stories. Unfortunately I can only conjecture.

This is a handsome, slim paperback from Wordsworth, and with a nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. It's worth picking up if you come across it.

A facsimile of the original dust jacket.