Thursday, December 18, 2014

COUCHING AT THE DOOR by D. K. Broster

Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1878-1950) was best known as a historical novelist, if she was known at all. Her work is largely forgotten today and didn't seem to make much of an impact at the time. However, she published a collection of macabre short stories in 1942, Couching at the Door, which for a very long time was a very expensive and hard-to-find collector's item. Now, thanks to the good people at Wordsworth, it is now back in print.

These stories aren't very antiquarian or Jamesian, but they are interesting and sometimes surprisingly original. They depend a lot on psychology and at times are strongly reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, especially as some of the stories aren't really supernatural, but deal more in a Rendell-like psychological vein when you see a hideous act about to take place.

It's a slim volume, just under 200 pages, and there's only nine stories. The title story is regarded as a minor classic, in which a man who was a long seeker of sensual delights (with hints at participation in black magic), who is haunted by a ghostly feather boa. It seems an almost absurd premise, but there's real menace as the thing keeps showing up, and you can assume it's a spiritual relic of some woman whose death the man was responsible for. He tries to shift the burden to others, and tries to escape, but it always tracks him down. It's a chilling, effective story, all the better for a fresh discovery and not anthologized to death. Familiarity does breed contempt.

"From the Abyss" deals with spiritual doubles and predestined doom, and "Clairvoyance" is a very interesting story of a psychic experiment with a Japanese katana...and how the savage personality of the katana's previous owner takes over the mind of the experimenter.

"The Window" is a fairly standard romantic tale of haunting resolved by modern sensitivity. "The Pestering" starts off slow, with a couple purchasing an old home, making a tea-room of it, and being annoyed by a persistent ghost who shows up, trying to get in...but it takes a very dark and macabre black-magic twist at the end that almost makes up for the slowness of all that came before. It's a tale that's far longer than it needs to be and the payoff at the end is almost too late. "The Taste of Pomegranates" is a rather romantic tale of time-slippage.

There's some nonsupernatural tales included..."The Pavement" is a twisted psychological tale of a woman's obsession with a Roman mosaic located on her property, and her sense of stewardship toward it. "Juggernaut" tells a tale of a pusher of wheelchairs at a seaside resort who is haunted by the guilt of a dreadful act he committed. "The Promised Land" is probably her best, a tale of a woman dominated by an overbearing cousin, who finally takes a dream vacation to Italy, only to be still bossed around. It has a classic theme of a woman's desire for self-determination, but there's the conflict with the reality that she's not equipped to deal with things on her own.

This collection has its ups and downs. Some stories, like "The Pestering" and "Juggernaut," are longer than they need to be and sometimes meander unnecessarily. Some are unremarkable and standard, like "The Window" and "The Taste of Pomegranates." But the title story alone is worth the purchase price, and "The Promised Land" is also quite good.

So, it's up to you. Thankfully, it's back in print after being obscure and lost for too long.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Drizzly December Night at the Movies!

We meet at the usual restaurant, exchanging horror stories of Christmas shopping and our yearly dread of family gatherings, and dear heaven, will it never snow??? The dank, dreary drizzle that has dominated December has destroyed our demeanor.

After dinner is over, and we've shared delicious desserts (really, that new chocolate torte is almost too much, but the certosino was surprisingly light), we head up the street to that old movie theater. In all the dreariness of the weather, it's a welcoming, almost cozy atmosphere.

Tonight's special screening: the 1933 mystery film The Sphinx.



Sure, the film may have its shortcomings, but it's got Lionel Atwill. LIONEL ATWILL, folks. He's always first-rate; one of those great actors who always gave his all, no matter what.

The movie over, we turn our collars to the drizzle and head up the street to that old cafe....

Sunday, December 7, 2014

At the Phantom Ballet

It's December, so of course we're at the ballet! It's a yearly tradition! And it's quite nice this year. We got tickets through a friend, and the production is very straightforward and traditional without being stodgy, not like last year's Nutcracker that was "re-imagined" as taking place in an alley in Montreal, or the one the year before that actually managed to make the story dull. Wasn't that a disaster?

The music is lovely as always. I don't dare put up the whole score, but here's one of my favorite parts of The Nutcracker, that is nice to play when you're watching the snow fall outside.



I know I'm late this month; I've had a very busy week and I was also trying to find a video of Pinkham's "Guardian Owl" from his Nativity Madrigals, but there isn't one to be found. I've also been slightly ill, dealing with some sort of bug that left me with an annoying lingering cough. So I fell back on an old reliable and hope everyone's having a better December than I am!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE OCCULT FILES OF FRANCIS CHARD: SOME GHOST STORIES by A. M. Burrage



This is another delightful volume from Ash-Tree Press; not only does it revive a little-known occult detective, but it's also the second of a four-volume series of Burrage's supernatural fiction. It's actually two volumes in one; one a collection of occult detective stories, and the next a collection of ghost stories that also includes some occult detection.

Not much is told to us about Francis Chard, except his tales are told in the usual Holmesian fashion with them being narrated by a Boswellian companion; in this case, a fellow named Torrance. Chard investigates the paranormal and writes articles on it, and is called in several times by those who have read his articles.

Of the adventures, "The Bungalow at Shammerton" was the most memorable for me, a particularly repulsive haunting of a riverside house by a squishy, drowned ghost. They mostly consist of haunted-house affairs, but there's also an ancestral curse, a benign haunting at a school, and a woman tormented by a supernatural visitant. Of note was "The Girl in Blue," which has Chard telling a story of an early encounter with the supernatural, and it's rather nice as it give some depth to his character and adds a dash of romance.

Chard's adventures are fairly standard occult-detective fare, without much to truly make them stand out. That being said, they're also fun reads and worth the price of the ebook for fans of the genre.

"Some Ghost Stories" takes up the second half, and it's a nice selection of eerie tales. It was pleasant to find that I hadn't read all of them in anthologies before...although, to be fair, while they're solid examples of the genre, and they're all good, none are exceptional enough to stand out in any significant way.

The longest are the melancholy "Playmates," and the novella "The House by the Crossroads." The rest are mostly of standard short-story length. Most are of the standard haunted house, retributive phantoms, or "Was it a dream?" scenarios, although there's one of how phantom gamblers corrupt a mortal man with a gambling addiction that's rather interesting despite the rather obvious moralizing. A final section, "The Man Who Made Haunted Houses His Hobby," has some adventures of another occult investigator, Derek Scarpe, which seems to have been intended to kick off a series but it seems to have been abortive. There's only two stories with Scarpe but they are good fun and it's a shame Burrage abandoned them.

It's out of print in hardcover, and one version of this is available from Amazon. Oddly, the Ash-Tree ebook can be obtained directly from them; go the Ash-Tree eBook page to learn more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Chilly November Night at the Movies

After a day of rain, the wind has started blowing cold. We clutch our hats and huddle in our coats as we wander into our favorite restaurant, sitting at our usual table, looking over the specials, and gently teasing the new waiter who isn't sure what to make of our crowd.

Dinner is eaten while we tell tales of our October adventures and compare plans for Thanksgiving and express our horror at Black Friday shopping. Not to mention the complaints of encroaching Christmas songs, decorations, and commercials!

After dinner, it's up the street to that old movie house we love. Tonight's show is 1933's "The Phantom Broadcast"!



This overlooked little gem is full of real-life Hollywood landmarks, many of which I'm told are still standing. Not to mention great music that somehow never caught on, which is a crying shame.

After the movie, we brace ourselves against the cold and head up the street to that little cafe...tonight we'll need something hot!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Looking Back on October

Whew. October was a busy month.

Aside from my work going wild (which I'm not going to talk about, really can't talk about, except our operations are expanding and we'll be changing our name in a few months as we've outgrown the old), I was getting into a lot more than usual. One of the good things about living in the Baltimore suburbs as opposed to the DC suburbs is that my money goes much farther.

My friends at the Yellow Sign Theatre in Baltimore's trendy artsy Station North neighborhood (where I once considered moving) ran an innovatively-staged film series. For three weeks, a different film was featured each week, and each film was hosted by a different "horror host". What made it even better was that the theater was done up as a basement rec room, with a "slacker teen" host who had to deal with interruptions from his mother ("Oh, I just thought your friends might want a snack,") and a grouchy, overbearing father who appeared only as a silhouette. It was a blast going to that and I hope they do it again. The films were Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, The Ape Man (with Bela Lugosi), and the sleazoid classic Bloody Pit of Horror. There were also commercial breaks (usually vintage) and a great sensation of being over at a friend's place, watching TV.

One evening I impulsively went to Bennett's Curse, a huge and elaborate haunted house in Jessup, MD. I was deeply impressed; it was the biggest and most technically professional haunted attraction I'd ever seen. There were large animatronic figures that must have been expensive, as well as a section of the attraction done in 3-D paints (patrons were given glasses). It took quite a while to go through, and sometimes was pitch dark and you had to feel your way. It was a real adventure and next year I want to get a group together and go. It's expensive as these things go ($30 basic admission) but was worth every penny.

The HallowRead conference was an interesting experience. It's currently a one-day event, a sort of micro-con, in a community center in Ellicott City, MD, just down the road from me. The focus is on "steampunk, horror, paranormal and urban fantasy" although I was bemused to notice that the romance end of these genres was heavily represented. There was a steampunk tea that I managed to miss (it required separate admission) but I will be sure to attend next time. There were panel discussions and some socializing, and a small dealer's room that was primarily a chance for the authors to sell their own works. I bought a Baltimore-set paranormal novel, and had a zesty conversation with the author about finding a moral compass when you're a nonbeliever, and a couple of gay romance novels which I found out is actually a thriving genre for female readers. I also met and connected with a charming lady who turned out to be the wife of a Facebook friend, whom I'd never met, so that was a charming coincidence. So in the end, it wasn't a literary Monster-Mania but it was enjoyable, and with potential to expand into a full-weekend convention, and I hope it does.

My HallowRead ticket included admission to two events that evening that I decided to attend, which I think nobody else did. One was the "Haunted Ruins" of the Patapsco Female Institute. Check the link for the story behind the site; it's a ruined girl's school on a hill overlooking the town. It was a typical amateur haunted house in some aspects, but was given a punch of eerieness by taking place in actual ruins and using the actual folklore.

The other event...oy. It was an opportunity to sit in on an actual "ghost hunt" at the Ellicott City Historical Society by serious "paranormal investigators." Now, I'm a skeptic about such things, but I thought, what the hey, it would good to see this sort of thing in person and firsthand. I wondered if they would be cynical charlatans but no, they were sincere believers, although perhaps a bit off in the wooniverse. The most down-to-earth member of the group was their resident Wiccan, who was very sensible about a lot of things, dismissing "orb" photos as mostly being dust, moisture, or insects. One spot for investigation was a place in the basement, where several people claimed to have felt nauseated near some broken tombstones. Several said they felt queasy, but I honestly said I felt nothing. (I wondered how much of the queasiness was their own built-up expectations.) They would sit down and try to communicate with the spirits using a smartphone app called "Echovox." That's right, a $20 smartphone app that lets you talk to the dead somehow. I found the notion fairly ridiculous myself.

Anyway, a long period of questioning the spirits and getting fragmentary answers followed (Echovox seems to record ambient sounds and play them back in fragmentary bits so it will sound otherworldly and you can interpret them according to your own expectations), and I went off my shift and to the upstairs. One lady and I wandered into the main museum and while there did seem to be a real cold spot in there, I realized quickly it was because the door was open. Their "EMF readers" were getting all sorts of readings there (I suspect those things function randomly, based on my own observations) and then people clustered in to investigate this new "haunting," they wondered why it was warming up so much. I stood back thinking, "Hellooo, body heat," but said nothing. Eventually, I had enough, and was horribly tired, so I excused myself and went home. still a nonbeliever.

I also attended my friend Phil's annual Cemetery Potluck, held every October in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC. That is turning into the goth/steampunk/dandy event of the season, and I'm always flattered to be included and welcomed in that diverse group, although I need to step up my game with the outfits.

Halloween itself I spent in DC, thrifting and visiting a favorite tea shop and ambling about downtown, and attending a burlesque show in the evening. However, I think next year I will stay in the Baltimore area...I didn't get home until 3 am and was a wreck the next day.

This weekend I have nothing planned, and am content to limit my travels to the gym, library, and grocery store. There are times I lament my ongoing singlehood but tonight I'm actually grateful to be alone. A weekend home alone with the TV and my books is welcome after all the running around I did in October.

To close, here's a favorite tune for this time of year...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Cold November Day at the Phantom Recital Hall


The Halloween festivities are behind us, and we're all grateful for an extra hour of sleep last night. (I know I am!) It's an uncharacteristically cold and windy day today, and searching for something to do, we find there's a student recital at the music school. Tickets are cheap and available; why not go?

We quickly get ourselves together; nothing fancy, just make sure your hair is combed and your clothes clean. Warm coats make their season debut, and we arrive at the venue just in time.



Dimitri Shostakovitch was a 20th-century composer who often had difficulties with the Soviet censors for his use of "decadent" modern styles but who eventually was recognized as one of the greatest of all time. This particular work, complete in 1970, was one of the first Russian works that called for the players to tap the bodies of their instruments with their bows...which has struck some listener's ears as sounding like rattling bones. There is something undeniably remote and eerie about this work, one of the more interesting in the canon of classical quartets.

We return to the cold and wind outside; it's still slightly early, so we'll go home to a light, home-cooked dinner, a refreshing comfort after too many meals out and too much party fare. But something about the rattling bones and remoteness of the violins sticks with us...