Monday, December 17, 2018

THE MUMMY, THE WILL, AND THE CRYPT by John Bellairs

The second Johnny Dixon adventure, The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt, establishes the characters a bit more and introduces some continuing characters and elements.

Johnny is on a trip with Professor Childermass (which becomes an ongoing theme in the novels; the two are almost always going off on some jaunt or another), touring the mansion of late cereal magnate H. Bagwell Glomus, when they're shown the man's office and the clues he left to his hidden will left behind in his office....a chess set, a tavern sign, and a Greek newspaper. Johnny puzzles over this as a hobby, especially after learning there's a substantial reward going out to anyone who finds it. And he's given further reason to find it....his grandmother is taken ill, and it turns out she's got a brain tumor that requires surgery.

To get his mind off things, Johnny sent to a Boy Scout camp near Mount Chocorua (a real place, and it looks impressive), only to find that that Glomus' summer house is nearby....and it matches some of the clues left in his office. With his new friend Fergie, aka Byron Q. Ferguson, he slips out at night to investigate, where they meet one of Glomus' nephews, a rather strange and slightly disturbed young man. After threatening them, he then shows them a secret passage, and tells them a spooky story of a strange magical guardian who haunts the house. And then there's a hideous scream...

This is a fun tale, where Johnny gets in over his head when panic and anxiety take over and he's not able to think clearly. He ends up going off on a half-cocked quest to find the will, running afoul of Glomus' scheming family and the eerie guardian that tries to keep him away. There are a few contrived bits but the magic rituals involved in raising and controlling the guardian are interesting reading, with some fun little details that stick in the imagination. And yes, the title is given full relevance in the course of the story.

A good, solid entry in the Bellairs canon, if not as shuddersome and eerie as some of the others, but worth searching out.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A December Night at the Phantom Recital Hall

Tonight's concert is something new and different/ we're able to nab good seats because a few of the more staid types turned up their nose at the program. What we have is an evening of modern accordion music!

OK, I recently fount out about a new cycle of works for accordion dedicated to the works of Hans Christian Andersen, and it's rather nice stuff, a breath of fresh air. Especially if you're like me and love accordion music.

So, here's a musical interpretation of "The Little Match Girl."



OK, maybe it's not for everyone, but I like it. And it's different. Important to push your boundaries every once in a while.

So, let's get something to drink, shall we?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Two Gothic Novels

I've been slow to update, and have a stack of things I've read to review, so let's do some portmanteau blogging...

Rayland Hall, or, The Remarkable Adventures of Orlando Somerville is regarded as someone significant from a scholarly point of view. It's basically a chapbook of about 36 pages that's a plagiarism of a longer work, The Old Manor House by Charlotte Smith, a 1793 work that ran to thirteen hundred pages over four volumes. Some anonymous but enterprising hack chopped it down to novella length, changed some names, and made it a much more streamlined work. Published in 1810, Rayland Hall is technically a Gothic....but only technically so. While academically interesting, Rayland Hall isn't recommended for the casual D&C fan because, honestly, it's lack in Gothic thrills and chills. There are no ghosts or treasures, but instead a cross-class love affair and questions of inheritance. While offering up some critique of the British social order, and offering a glimpse of the country during the American Revolution, it's lacking in other departments. If anything, this can be viewed as a precursor to all those "gothic romance" novels that are long on the romance but short on the Gothic.

The Cavern of Death is more like it. First published as a newspaper serial in 1793/4, it's full of the castles, ghosts, and violence that one normally expects from Gothic fiction. Another anonymous work, it at lest is longer and not a plagiarism, but an original work. Set in a faux-Germanic land similar to the territory shown in Hammer films, it gives us the adventurous Sir Albert hoping to marry his lady-love Constance, and being thwarted by a wicked Baron. But there's also a murder plot, a clutch of assassins, and a trip to the cave of the title, where we encounter a ghost, a skeleton and a bloody sword, that lead to the revelation of dark secrets. While obviously crude and brief, with no room for any real grace in the style, it still manages to be a fast-moving and entertaining read at under 100 pages.

More on the way....

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A November Night in the Phantom Concert Hall

Halloween is over, the cold weather is arriving in earnest, and we've bundled up and ventured out for a concert at that lovely old restored hall downtown.

It's that in-between time...orchestras no longer need to do spooky-music programs and won't have to do any Christmas music for a while, so they can actually be a bit adventurous in the repertoire. One of the highlights of tonight's program is this piece by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly...



This 1933 piece is based on actual Hungarian folk music, harvested by Kodaly and his friends as they traveled around the country gathering music that had never been written down. (In addition to being a composer, Kodaly was a notable educator and musicologist.) There's something lively about it that gives a little excitement to a cold night, eh?

After the concert, we slip out for a drink and a discussion of what we've been doing lately...and our plans for the holidays approaching....can they be here again so quickly?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Back to Bellairs: THE CURSE OF THE BLUE FIGURINE

It's the Halloween season, and THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is playing in theaters (I haven't seen it yet, sorry, my budget is tight and I don't get out to the movies much anymore), so it's a good chance to get back to John Bellairs' works.

The Curse of the Blue Figurine introduces his third hero, Johnny Dixon. It's the 1950s, and Johnny is living with his grandparents in Duston Heights, Massachusetts, while his father is in the Air Force in Korea. His mother died a few years before.

In the course of the novel, Johnny makes his first friend in his new town, Prof. Roderick Childermass, a crabby old gent who lives across the street. (Bellairs enjoys these young/old friendships; these days, it would raise eyebrows.) Johnny is also having a problem with bullies at his school, and one day, to avoid them, he ducks into the nearby Catholic church. Feeling mischievous, he sneaks into the basement, and while down in there, stumbles on a hollowed-out book that contains a blue Egyptian-looking figure and a scroll.

The church is supposed to haunted, by the ghost of Fr. Remigius Baart, who supposedly sold his soul to Satan. Johnny is thrilled by his discovery; maybe this proves the legends real? Johnny investigates further, hiding his treasure at home. The figurine, however, turns out to be a replica, and Johnny befriends another older man, a Mr. Beard, who listens to his problems and gives him a ring as part of a joking game.

However, the ring has supernatural powers, and soon Johnny is living in a nightmare.

It's an effective, eerie tale as the ghost of Father Baart seeks some goal through Johnny, and just when you think things are resolved, there's more shocks to be had.

It's a pretty solid tale, although some revelations at the end seem to come out of nowhere. The resolution of the story comes from finding Father Baart's remains in a remote corner of New England, with no explanation as to why they are there.

Still, with its flaws, it's a good solid Bellairs tale, and it kicks off one of his longer-lived series.

Monday, October 8, 2018

October in the Phantom Ballroom!

So, let's gather in that new ballroom/dance hall that's opened, and have a spin around the floor! There's a live orchestra playing, the whiskey is flowing, the cava corks are popping (because who can afford champagne these days?), and everyone is having a blast.

I've been in a 30's mood lately, and remembered this lively novelty tune from famous bandleader Ray Noble and one of his groups, the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. This is just right for the Halloween season....



Fun, isn't it? A jaunty tune with a few comical shivers, just right for the season.

And how is YOUR season? Where I am, it's still unseasonably warm and humid, but there's hopes of cool temperatures to come this weekend...


Monday, September 24, 2018

Some of What I've Read Lately

So...things have calmed down, Mom is back home after hip replacement surgery and a stay in a rehab home (not Amy Winehouse rehab, physical rehab), and I've dealt with the grief of her giving her sweet cat up to the Humane Society...an understandable decision, she can't care for him anymore, but still, it was like a kick in the chest for me. Hopefully the sweet little boy will be adopted soon.

So...here's a sampling of some of the stuff I've read lately...


I've heard so many people praise Edmund Crispin to the rafters, and I heard a review of this that made it sound intriguing, so I finally picked up a copy. I have to say it....I wasn't impressed. This isn't quite the puzzle mystery I was hoping for, more of a thriller, and it's full of self-referential humor and meta-zaniness that I find offputting. A man, wandering lost in town one night, enters a toy store that's mysteriously open, and finds a dead body. When he tries to go back with the police the next day...the body is not only gone, but the building is now a grocery store. What's going on? Well, it's a fairly complex story, and not very plausible, but at least it keeps moving. There's a lot of comical goings-on, a car chase, and other crazy stuff, but after a while I was almost screaming for the book to get to the point. (I had a similar problem with Charlotte McLeod as her series ran on, and devoted more time to comical zaniness than to things like story, plot, and character, to the point I walked away from her works, gave away the ones I owned, and wasn't even aware when she died from Alzheimer's.)

Edmund Crispin was really Robert Bruce Montgomery, a noted composer of film music. He died in 1978, but all his mystery novels were written in the 40s and 50s. He apparently had some serious drinking problems that got in the way of his writing, which is too bad. But while his style certainly wasn't for me, he still has fans galore, so don't let that stop you if you want to check it out. It's not a bad book, per se, just not for me.


Elizabeth Peters (real name: Elizabeth Mertz, and she also wrote as Barbara Michaels) was a friend of mine. I would hang out with her at Malice Domestic and occasionally when she did book signings near me, and I was stricken when I got news that she had passed away some years ago. Although her works are technically "romantic suspense", I enjoy them, because let's be honest....sometimes the difference between being classed as "romantic suspense" and a regular "mystery" or "thriller" or "spy novel" is the sex of the author. Really...read some Helen MacInnes and Robert Ludlum back-to-back. They're in the same style with similar content, but MacInnes' work was always classed as "romantic suspense" because she was a woman. Like how Mary Renault's historical novels of ancient Greece would be stocked as "romance" because...well....the obvious reason. OK, I'll stop ranting...

Published in 1968, The Jackal's Head is her first novel as Elizabeth Peters, and while it's rough, it's got a lot of her strengths in place. I love books with a sense of place, and Peters was great in giving life to her settings, which range from Egypt to Mexico to Scandinavia. Her books also generally involved archaeology and/or art history, topics I enjoy. And she's one of the more feminist of romantic authors as well, at least for the time. (Again, we're not in an eternal present.)

Althea Tomlinson, in need of a job, gets one accompanying a spoiled girl on a trip to Egypt. She holds back that she grew up there, the daughter of a controversial archaeologist. And as the plot proceeds, she runs into old friends and her father's colleagues, and slowly discovers that the treasure her father had claimed to have discovered is actually real, although he was forced to say it was fake. But the forces of evil are gathering....

It's nonsense, but it's slick, fun, nonsense, although it lacks polish. (Then again, I think it was only her third work of fiction. She was still developing her skills.) The denouement is a bit abrupt and I sat there for a while questioning why the villains did X when it got them nothing....but I just shrugged it off. The description of the final treasure (Spoiler: the tomb of Akhenaton and Nefertiti) is gorgeous and rings of expertise; Peter/Mertz was Egyptologist, and wrote two standard works on the subject, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, and Red Land, Black Land.

All in all, an enjoyable entertainment. You learn a little bit from it and have a fun, exciting story. My kind of thing.


Here's another comedy-thriller, from someone who normally wrote very serious thrillers. Published in 1944, Fire will Freeze is a classic tale of an ill-assorted group of travelers stranded by a snowstorm in a ramshackle old house...I mean, really, this sort of thing had been a staple of thriller novels and films since the 20s. But Millar seems to be having fun poking fun at the genre conventions, and it works better for me than Crispin's zaniness. Millar had remarkable ability with character, and this book's humor comes mostly from character rather than zany situations. The murders are treated with tragic seriousness, and the menace is always real. When murders start to happen, the reactions are plausible...for the most part, and the rationale behind it all is realistic. The characters are all drawn well, and the chilly confines of the house are truly menacing as the travelers, all driven by a distrust of each other, try to make sense of the bizarre situation they're in.

It's a fun read, and would be good for a cold snowy afternoon this winter, I'd guess. You can pretend to be an in an old-dark-house mystery of your own...

So, pick your favorite of the three...one wasn't for me, but I enjoyed the others.