Monday, September 28, 2015


Catching up with Christopher Fowler is always a delight. His books never fail to entertain.

Two teenagers go to a London park, ostensibly to stargaze. The park is really a long-disused cemetery, still kept up, and while on a romantic stroll, they encounter what appears to be a case of the living dead: a seeming corpse suddenly standing and moving toward them before collapsing.

Of course, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called on the case. There's more to this than they anticipate; the corpse died recently, a seeming suicide, but there's something about the shady people he was working for that could have led to his desperate act. And now his wife is stalking her husband's former associates, and the teenaged son grows more surly.

It gets more complicated as one of the teenage witnesses is murdered, and more corpses pile up. There's another mystery going on, of how the famous ravens from the Tower of London are suddenly missing. Superstition has it that this is a sign of the collapse of the nation; is it really? And is that Crowleyesque Satanist who showed up in the last book somehow responsible?

This kicks off another investigation through modern London, which is every bit as bizarre and gothick as anything from a Hammer film. The story involves some strange forgotten corners of the city, a group of resurrectionists, and a jolly undertaker, before coming to a rational and satisfying end.

This is fabulous fun, a great old-fashioned tale with enough modernism to keep it from being out-of-date. There's some good exploration of Bryant and May's psyches and we delve into some of the other PCU members as well. The teenage daughter of one member gets pulled into some detective work as well....PCU, The Next Generation?

Any Bryant & May is a great read, and this especially is great reading as autumn gathers around us. As always, it's Required Reading.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Dreary September Night at the Movies!

Autumn chill is finally gathering around us, and it's a dank, drizzly night as we gather at our usual restaurant for a meal and conversation before the show. Many discuss plans for October...after all, it's always a busy month for us! There's always parties and shows and movies and whatnot, and September is a time to gather one's energy for the flurry of October and the frenzy of Halloween, and then the long slide into the winter holiday season...

Our bill paid, and a bit of the flavor of the pear crisp we all had for dessert lingering pleasantly in our memories, we head up the street to that old movie theater we also go to. The guy taking the tickets has a new piercing, it seems, and is always glad to see us. Maybe. But we still have a good time.

Tonight's show is the notorious 1934 trash classic MANIAC!

This is, without a doubt, the sleaziest film I've featured on this blog. Producer/director Dwain Esper was a schlockmeister and huckster, who loved to make sleazy shock films and cloak them in a veil of feigned morality. This flick pretends to have class credentials, pretending to be based on three different Poe stories ("The Black Cat," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and "The Tell-Tale Heart") but really it just does whatever it can to shock. Plot threads are left dangling, bizarre things won't believe your eyes.

The movie over, we stagger out, laughing in disbelief at what we've seen, and make our way up the street to that little cafe to dissect what we've seen and argue over its meaning....if it ever had any to begin with...

Monday, September 14, 2015

DEATH IN THE GARDEN by Elizabeth Ironside

A rawther genteel book cover belies a novel full of vintage suspicions and modern-day drama.

In 1925, beautiful Diana Pollexfen is celebrating her 30th birthday with a group of bohemian friends at the country house owned by her wealthy husband George, who himself is a bit of a stick in the mud who disapproves of her friends and of his wife's attempts at independence. Diana is actually a very talented photographer, and her friends number some writers and artists.

In the midst of all the Bright Young Things having fun, there's tension in the air as George wants Diana to give up photography once and for all and be a good submissive wife. But at the end of the long weekend party, George is found dead in the garden, poisoned by Diana's photography chemicals.

Fast-forward 60 years. Helena Fox is turning 30 with little fanfare. A lawyer in a London firm, she's having an unsatisfying affair with a married MP and desires a break from it all. She's thinking of going to visit her great-aunt Fox, only to learn that her beloved great-aunt, who had practically raised her, has died. Helena goes to her house in Rutland and starts to attend to the formalities...and makes some surprising discoveries. Her great-aunt had once been a famous photographer (under another name) and had been acquitted of murder! Examining her great-aunt's diaries, she gets a sense of guilt but is unable to get any resolution to the problem. So, she starts off trying to piece together the remaining bits to see if she can find out the real story....

So what we have is a story taking place in two timelines, with varying points of view involved. It's a good story overall, although I was a bit disappointed in the ending. However, it's got some ponderings about women's roles in society in the different eras, and how they can be shockingly similar. The 20's milieu is beautifully described and laid out before us, frankly presented although not entirely glamorized. (I mean, come on, any representation of the wealthy Bright Young Things of the Roaring 20s is going to be somewhat glamorous.) The language is lovely and the plot moves along from one Rashomon-style story to another, until the Truth is revealed.

A very pleasant read, and worth checking out.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Kicking off September in the Phantom Cabaret

It's Labor Day weekend, and we're spending some of it at a nice little cabaret in town. We're having some drinks, talking, and enjoying an evening of Kurt Weill tunes. And then one very appropriate song is played...

OK, so Lou Reed isn't quite Lotte Lenya, but his version is quite fun, and a nice change from the usual renditions of the old familiar tune.

Autumn is coming, folks...lots of fun stuff on the way....

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NOT EXACTLY GHOSTS by Sir Andrew Caldecott

"Well, if they're not exactly ghosts, what are they?" I hear you say. To which I reply, "Shut up, smartass, and let me continue with the review."

This is actually a collection of two book, both short story collections, Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue. Andrew Caldecott (1884-1951), the author, was a British colonial administrator who served first in Malaya, then was briefly the governor of Hong Kong, then the governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He retired from service in 1944 and returned to England, living there until his death.

I have to point all this out because his colonial experience comes into play in the stories. About a third of the stories in this book are set in the fictional country of Kongea, which seems to function as an amalgam of Malaya and Ceylon, with dashes of Hong Kong.

His stories are ghost stories, but are rather laid-back in their horrors. They're disquieting rather than terrifying, and sometimes the horrors are mundane in nature. Many have bad people meeting poetic justice by some supernatural agency; a notable one is "Sonata in D Minor," which has an interesting plot device: a recording of a (real) classical piece performed by a duo who hated each other with an insane fury, and which ended in murder. Listening to that particular recording drives men mad....and they do horrible things....

"The Pump in Thorp's Spinney" is one of the more mundane tales, of a curious boy encountering what he thinks is a ghost when he investigates an abandoned pump on an isolated farm. It's only years later that he learns the macabre truth.

His Kongean tales are the most interesting. "Light in the Darkness", the first, has an overzealous missionary going to a sacred cave and trying to discredit local beliefs by showing that a magic glow is merely a luminous mold....only to fall victim to a weird curse. It's got a "respect-the-locals" undercurrent, but also shows a sort of more progressive Kipling element by depicting Westerners in a foreign land, basically occupying it, and running afoul of a culture and traditions that they don't understand. And through them all he seems to be asking...."Do we really belong here?"

It's interesting, seeing someone who came from the colonial, white-man's-burden, to-strive-to-seek-to-find-and-not-to-yield, Victorian/Edwardian mindset seemingly questioning why they're there. Some of his Kongea stories reflect that the "civilization" that Westerners are imposing is merely a veneer that will fall off the minute they relax...and reading between the lines, I got a sense of him feeling, well, maybe we should let it fall off and get the hell out of there. Kongea is seen as a land of weird secrets and mysteries, and Westerners interfere with them at their peril.

Not Exactly Ghosts is not quite Required Reading, and hardly a horror classic, but it does represent an interesting side-road of the macabre, should you come across it in your travels.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An August Night at the Movies!

August is humid and sweltering as we meet at our favorite restaurant, chatting and catching up on tales of work and back-to-school sales and last-moment vacations and our hopes for a break in the heat and can't autumn come early for a change this year?

Dinner is light summertime fare, and afterwards we're up the street at the old movie house, where the old lady with glasses runs the concessions and the guy with the biceps and tattoos takes our tickets...

Tonight's movie is another Monogram chiller from 1934, The Moonstone, based on the classic novel by Wilkie Collins.

Good old David Manners, who you've seen a million times in classic Universal monster movies, is good in this, and it's interesting to note that the producer and screenwriters were specialists in Westerns, tackling a Gothic mystery for the first time.

The show over, we go back out in the August night...was that a raindrop? Do you hear thunder? Let's go get something cold before the skies open up....

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: Rath Krespel/The Cremona Violin

The latest in my Hoffmann series is "Rath Krespel," sometimes known as "Councillor Krespel," and other times as "The Cremona Violin," first published in 1819.

It's an odd tale, even for Hoffmann. It tells the tale of Krespel, an excellent violin-maker, who is also eccentric...almost to the point of insanity. There's a story told in the tale of how he was building a house, and had the mason build blank stone walls until they reached the height he felt appropriate, then walked around the blank walls until he decided where a door should go, and had them cut a hole in the wall right there. Yeah, that level of eccentric.

Krespel spends his time making violins and acquiring violins made by other great makers which he takes apart to learn their secrets. However, there is a Cremona violin, from an unknown maker, that he is unable to disassemble; instead, he keeps it on the shelf.

A unnamed narrator observes how Krespel disappears for a while, then shows up with a young woman in tow. She turns out to be Antonia, who has a magnificent singing voice. Krespel shelters her and tries to prevent visitors. The narrator takes an interest, because Antonia is so gorgeous, and worms his way into Krespel's house. It goes well until he tries to get Antonia to sing, at which point he is hustled out of the house and told he is no longer welcome.

The narrator leaves town for a few years, and returns to find a funeral going on. Yup, Antonia is dead, and the narrator suspects foul play and confronts Krespel. It turns out Krespel had been married to an opera singer whom he was separated from, although they were fond of another, and who had borne him a daughter, Antonia. Antonia was blessed with her mother's voice, but also had an "organic defect" in her chest that meant that singing could bring about her death. He prevented her marrying a young composer, and kept her at home. Their greatest pleasure was the Cremona violin, which had a sound resembling Antonia's voice, so he played it often. Then one day, after a strange, surreal dream in which he sees and hears Antonia singing and embracing her former fiance, he wakes and rushes to her room, to find her dead.

That's it. No apparitions, no surreal demons, precious little supernatural content except the dream and the sense of a sort of curse hanging over poor Antonia. But this was one of Hoffmann's more popular stories, and there is something rather memorable about it.

There is a sort of air of abusiveness about Krespel's treatment of Antonia; he will not allow her self-determination. She truly desires to sing, and has an amazing talent and ability, but he fears that it will take her from him. The story of many overprotective parents, eh? I suppose that's the key to the story's enduring popularity: the old recurring story of the overbearing parent who can't let go, taken to an extreme.

It also has some interesting psychological insight. Krespel acts oddly, especially in the wake of Antonia's death, but when the narrator wonders about having him put in an asylum or similar, he is told by a friend that Krespel is no crazier than anyone else, but simply acts on the insane thoughts and impulses that people normally do not act on, and is thus more honest about his inmost thoughts than most people. That's food for thought right there: are so-called "crazy" people simple acting on thoughts and impulses that the rest of us repress?

Also, this is notable for being the basis of one of the acts of the opera, "Tales of Hoffmann," and depending on the version you saw, it could be the second or third act. For many years it was performed as the third act, as it was felt to be the most accomplished musically, but in later reconstructions of Offenbach's original plans for the opera (he died before it was complete), it's played as the second act, which actually makes more sense in the character arc that's played out for the Hoffmann character.

Here's her death scene from the opera; the music is actually quite remarkable...

More Hoffmann on the way!