Monday, January 16, 2017

Two from the Library

My holiday reading was pretty shuddersome, as usual. I scrounged in the interlibrary loan database and found Hugh Lamb's first anthology of Victorian reprints, and dived in.

It runs the gamut of Victorian style. M. P. Shiel's "Xelucha" and de Maupassant's "The Mother of Monsters" are both on the Decadent side, while Elizabeth Braddon't "The Mystery at Fernwood" and Mrs. Molesworth's "The Shadow in the Moonlight" are rather sentimental. There's "My Favorite Murder" by Ambrose Bierce, always in a class by himself, and the same goes for Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost."

It's a good anthology, although now a couple of the stories, namely "Madam Crowl's Ghost" and Grant Allen's "Wolverden Tower", are now familiar staples. Some are ghostly, like "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" by Guy Boothby, "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" by an unknown author.

To run them down quickly: "Xelucha," by M. P. Shiel, is a story of Decadent fascination and a femme fatale who may or may not be supernatural in nature. Charles Dickens' "The Black Veil" is a tale of madness and obsession. Braddon's "The Mystery at Fernwood" is a gothic story of madness and family secrets. Boothby's "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" is a ghost story with a tragic twist.

"The Mother of Monsters" by de Maupassant is fairly nasty and cruel, but also amazingly good. "The Murderer's Violin" by Erckmann-Chatrian has a visit by a ghost but is mostly about madness and inspiration. Richard Marsh's "The Mask" has a man stalked by an insane murderer who is a master of disguise. The anonymous "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" is a supernatural tale of ghosts and curses. Bierce's "My Favorite Murder" is a sardonic tale of murder and cruelty.

"The Shadow in the Moonlight" by Mrs. Molesworth is a nice little tale of a haunting. Mrs. Riddell's "The Last of Squire Ennismore" is a tale of hauntings and a visitation by Old Nick. "The Red Warder of the Reef" by J. A. Barry is a conte cruel of an escaped murderer getting his just punishment. "Wolverden Tower" by Grant Allen is a chilling gothic ghost story, as is Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost," which also deserves notice as a dialect tale that's actually readable. (I normally LOATHE dialect tales.) And last comes Dick Donovan's "The Cave of Blood," a tale of supernatural revenge and really quite lurid.

This is a fun collection and worth hunting down, as is any anthology edited by Lamb, in my opinion.

For something of a more recent vintage, I dived into Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club.

In Kim Newman's universe, the Diogenes Club (introduced in the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Greek Interpreter") is actually a super-secret arm of the British Intelligence services, focused on investigating the weird and outre. The stories in this book center on a 70s agent Richard Jeperson, and his assistants, the sexy Vanessa and former cop Fred Regent.

Jeperson is gaudy, flashy dresser and is obviously a nod to the BBC program Jason King, which featured Peter Wyngarde as a novelist turned sleuth who was also quite the 70s dandy. The Diogenes Club employs people with "Talents", e.g. psychic powers, or those able to cope with dealing with the supernatural or abnormal.

The first story, "The End of the Pier Show," introduces Fred Regent as an undercover cop infiltrating a skinhead gang, who gets caught up in supernatural hijinx at a seaside resort. He's called in to join Jeperson and Vanessa as they investigate a weird bit of time slippage, and it turns out to be some people trying to drag Britain back in time to the 1940s...and there's a nice speech about how yeah, it was good in some ways, but very bad in others.

"You Don't Have to Be Mad...." involves a series of bizarre deaths connected to a mental hospital/corporate retreat that turns out to be a recruiting ground for psychotic assassins. This story introduces a character named only "Mrs. Empty," a woman devoid of compassion or feeling, and her identity comes clear in a later story. "Tomorrow Town" is a rather straightforward murder mystery story in an outre setting, a futuristic utopian community that's not quite working out. Both these stories have big weirdness going on but are essentially mundane, lacking any supernatural content.

But it comes back in "Egyptian Avenue," when some hauntings in a picturesque cemetery turn out to be a warning of present danger. In "Soho Golem" a series of murders in London's red-light district seem to be connected to the activities of an anti-smut crusader. "The Serial Murder" has the sleuths moving forward into 1980 and investigating a weird set of deaths that happen simultaneously with depictions of similar deaths on a TV soap opera. Jeperson, Regent, and Vanessa all turn the tables on the killer, who is using supernatural forces and setting up an occult murder-for-hire racket.

"The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train" is a flashback to Jeperson's first real adventure in the 1950s, as he sets off with some fellow agents to investigate a supposedly haunted express train to Scotland. Not only does he battle an unearthly menace, but it also chronicles his first encounter with Vanessa, and give a humorous glimpse into early Cold War politics.

The last story (and longest) is "Swellhead", set in roughly the early days of the 21st century, as a retired Jeperson is called on to join a team investigating some odd goings-on connected to a remote island near the Faeroes. Joining them is a mysterious man who has weird mental powers, and the island hides a bizarre retro-hi-tech installation that resembles something from one of the more flamboyant James Bond movies. The story is actually quite thought-provoking and hearkens back to some of my adolescent imaginings...and ends with the promise of Jeperson returning for more in the modern world.

So this is a definite go-and-read. It's tons of fun. Sadly, it's out of print, but used copies and library copies are out there, and one can only hope that an ebook edition will come along sometime...

Sunday, January 8, 2017

January in the Phantom Recital Hall!

Bundle up! It's a cold night out, and we're going out to hear some music. Over at the university the music school is doing a series, and this month they're honoring Poe's birthday with a special performance.

We huddle into the recital hall, thankful for the free tickets a friend got us, and soon the music starts...

It's different, and also not often heard. Andre Caplet's works are sadly overlooked today, and he's remembered more for his orchestrations of Debussy than for anything he did himself. It's always fun to discover some good stuff by a lesser-known composer.

Bundling up, we go out for some coffee and conversation after the show. It's almost a relief to have the holidays behind us and to move forward in the new year....

Monday, December 19, 2016

A December Night at the Cinema!

So it's just before the Christmas break, and we're having our monthly night out. We need a night away from the usual holiday rush and bustle, and our usual restaurant saves us a nice secluded table so we don't have to hear the office Christmas party crowd. We do get some extra holiday treats, which is nice, but the holiday grind has us exhausted and having a night away from it is a blessing.

After dinner, and dithering over the check, we saunter up the street, through the cold wind, to that shabby old movie theater that welcomes us in warm comfort.

Tonight's flick is the 1936 thriller The Dark Hour.

This is a solid piece of work from a long-gone Poverty Row studio named Chesterfield, and full of old-dark-house atmosphere and a weird killer for the time. One of the unusual things is the presence of future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as a romantic interest!

The show over, we hurry up the street, through the cold wind, for a final drink at that little cafe up the way...

Sunday, December 18, 2016


More fun with the Barnavelts!

Teenage Lewis Barnavelt is on a Boy Scout trip in the woods near New Zebedee, MI, when he stumbles on a boulder with the inscription HIC IACET LAMIA. Nearby, he finds an tubular object under a stone he's picking up for the camp fireplace. That night, his tent is shredded by an unseen force. Lewis is having troubles with bullies again, as well as an unfriendly priest at the local Catholic church he attends.

The whistle has the words SIBILA ET VENIAM inscribed on it; Lewis cleans it off and hopes to learn the history of the strange object. He opens up to Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann (thankfully, the days of pointless secret-keeping are over) and they investigate. However, Lewis is chased by the bullies one night and blows on the whistle in a panic...and a strange being shows up...

It's clearly an extrapolation of the classic M. R. James story "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad," and this time the spirit is explicitly vampiric and forms a body from whatever is handy...bedsheets, dead leaves, whatever. There's discussions of "deep magic," stuff from outside our dimension that is so rare that the magicians in the story won't sense it or know how to combat it. (Of course, it ends up being part of the story!) And the grumpy priest turns out to have his own secret as well.

It's good fun, solidly written, if not especially artistic. There is a late-story revelation that kind of comes out of nowhere, but it works well enough, and the creature is eerie and memorable. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

December at the Phantom Concert Hall!

So, it's early in December, and we're already sick of Christmas music blaring at us EVERYWHERE. Really, it can get disgusting after a while. There are some who love that sort of thing year 'round, and more power to them, you do you, but for me, a little goes a long way, and really, sometimes they spew out the worst dreck and it gets played because it's about Christmas.

So for a change, we're doing the symphony tonight (with the possibility of a holiday concert later in the season, if our sanity can handle it) and here's something different....Benjamin Britten's "Sea Interludes." These were originally part of his opera Peter Grimes, but are frequently performed on their own and work well that way. Here's the "Storm" interlude...

Quite a show, eh? All four are worth listening to. I was never much for Britten before hearing this, now I'm intrigued.

So, where do we go for dinner after the concert?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE IRON ANGEL by Edward D. Hoch

The late Edward D. Hoch wrote close to a thousand short stories with over a dozen series characters, and this is one of the more intriguing. The detective in this one is Michael Vlado, a Romany (or gypsy) living in then-contemporary Romania, and halfway through the series he gets to deal with the realities of the collapse of Romania's Communist regime, something I'm sure Hoch didn't expect but probably relished.

Michael Vlado was born (as a literary character) in 1985 for an anthology entitled The Ethnic Detective, and later stories were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine sporadically until 2002. He's not quite the romantic vagabond mystical pulp-fiction gypsy we're so used to in B-movies, but part of a permanent village of Romany in modern-day Romania, and the series is firmly grounded in everyday life under the Ceausescu regime, which was no picnic.

That being said, Hoch does manage to fit in some genuine Gypsy lore and sometimes the stories do take a bend for the bizarre. The title story, "The Iron Angel," has Vlado called to Bucharest when an acquaintance (an American drifter introduced in an earlier story, a tragic character in search of something, anything to make her life whole) was the witness to the death of a gypsy, whose last words were "the three eyes of the iron angel." While it sounds supernatural and occult in nature, the ultimate solution is mundane, if a bit exotic.

And that's something that turns up a lot in this series. While the setting and some of the trappings may be exotic, human passions and evil are the same all over, and murder is still murder. "The Gypsy Treasure" does involve a treasure, of course, but also human greed. "The Murder of a Gypsy King" involves some esoterica of Romany tradition, but also the tragedy of a robbery for profit. "The Gypsy Delegate" involves the realities of post-communist Romania, when it seemed possible that the exiled King Michael might return to rule. "The Puzzle Garden" has a crumbling mansion with a weird garden and a possible treasure, but the old emotions of rage and greed still apply. And the last two stories in the collection, "The Starkworth Atrocity" and "A Wall Too High," directly address anti-Romany prejudice that still exists in Europe.

Hoch also shows his strength as a technician of plot, although not always the most gracious stylist. And given these stories were written over almost a quarter-century, you do see a certain evolution in his style as it goes along. The one thing that bugged me is that this is not a complete collection. There's a list of all the published Vlado stories in the back, and I supposed this is a best-of collection. I'd have appreciated a complete collection.

The Iron Angel is a great collection in two ways. It entertains with well-written mysteries with good plots, but also educates about a nation and a way of life that is alien to most of us. And let's be honest, I was a sucker for anything about a gypsy sleuth, and you likely will be too. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

November's Night Out at the Movies!

Just before Thanksgiving, we need a break from the ratrace. We gather in our favorite restaurant, discussing all that's gone on in our lives, and avoiding discussion of the elections by mutual consent. We eat lightly, much to the distress of the waiter, but we're all anticipating the pig-out later in the week.

And after splitting the bill (Rose, really, I can't let you keep springing for me...but thank you...), we head up the street to that old movie theater we love so much.

Tonight's show is the 1935 mystery drama Midnight Phantom!

Yes, it's pulpy, and displays its Poverty Row origins on its sleeve, but it's still good fun, right?

The movie over, we wander down the street for one last drink at that small cafe...hoping we all survive Thanksgiving....