Saturday, June 25, 2016

BAUDELAIRE'S REVENGE by Bob van Laerhoven

This was a random find at the library, but I found it enjoyable.

It's 1870. Paris is in turmoil, with the Franco-Prussian War and the populace's attempts to distract themselves from what seems like inevitable doom. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and carnal pleasures, investigates a gruesome murder in a brothel, and finds the killer has left behind a note...which is a quote from Baudelaire, and seemingly in the poet's handwriting. But the poet has been dead for three years! Has he risen from the grave?

More murders ensue, with some gruesome mutilations as well. What is the point? What is the goal of the murderer? There's lots of historical detail here, and we also start seeing things from the killer's point of view, but it's obvious it's an unreliable narrator here, and it's not until the end that we know what their motivation is, and the nature of their secrets.

It's not bad at all, but it has its weaknesses. From the start I knew a certain character was going to be more than they seemed and would be a traitor. Author van Laerhoven seems to push certain ideas and concepts almost too much. The sexual content is somewhat explicit and often quite perverse. (Even from my jaded viewpoint, it was a bit much.) There's occasional blips of racism but they're always in the context of a first-person narrative so they can be forgiven for being the viewpoint of a person of the time...and a bad person at that.

The big problem for me was that it was a bit too reminiscent of another work I'd read years ago, that involved a similar plot device with another famous author. (NEVERMORE, by Harold Schechter, if you must know.) I'm sure it was a coincidence but it was a bit of a letdown.

Still, it's Paris, it's decadent, and it's got an appealing character in Commissioner Lefevre, and I almost wish van Laerhoven would bring him back. We'll see about that.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Sultry June Night at the Movies!

We stumble into the theater, thanking whatever gods are listening for air conditioning. They just had a new system put in, obviously at the expense of a coat of paint, but hey, priorities. It got to over 100 today, and even though the sun's down, it's still oppressive out there.

Cold drinks at the refreshment stand! Hallelujah! And the ticket-taker with the biceps and tattoos is greeting us with a wink and a smile. Pardon me, he and I have something to discuss....

OK, I'm back. Get settled in, take a sip of something cold. We've got a fun program tonight.

We're having a silent short to kick off the show...here's a 1919 short, "The Haunted Curiosity Shop."



And then our feature presentation, the 1935 crime drama "Circumstantial Evidence."



Although not directly based on the Lindbergh case, "Circumstantial Evidence" does take a few cues from it, and reflects the tone of the time, when many were pondering the idea of someone being convicted (like Bruno Hauptmann) solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. It's an interesting little time capsule of a film.

OK, show's over...let's go get another cold drink, shall we?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

More Bellairs: THE LETTER, THE WITCH, AND THE RING

Lewis Barnavelt has gone off to Boy Scout camp for the summer, and his best friend Rose Rita Pottinger is left at home feeling resentful. She's also turning into a teenager, and dealing with enormously ambivalent feelings about growing up.

Her friend, the good witch Mrs. Zimmermann, offers to take Rose Rita with her on a trip to visit a farmhouse she inherited from an eccentric cousin, who claimed in a letter to have found a magic ring while digging in a nearby field. They drive up there, encounter an unfriendly neighbor with a grudge against Mrs. Z, and go to the house to find the ring stolen.

They continue on a long rambling holiday around Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but eerie happenings keep popping up, and at one point Mrs. Z becomes mysteriously ill. They head back to the house...and then Mrs. Z disappears, and Rose Rita must figure things out on her own.

THE LETTER, THE WITCH, AND THE RING (1976) is a bit different for Bellairs; this time he was seriously trying to explore Rose Rita's emotions and feelings about getting older. I'm not sure it always rings true, but it's good he was stretching himself.

The villain, Gert Biggers, is probably Bellairs' most sympathetic villain; she's someone who has led a hard life and wishes for a fresh start. Too bad she's consumed with bitterness and resentment, and a psycho to boot. There's some interesting background to Mrs. Zimmermann, and she also presents a good example of self-acceptance as she adjusts to life without her powers, which were lost in the last book.

There's some good atmosphere here, with the empty farmhouse and the storm-tossed fields, but sometimes the book drags a little with the descriptions of them driving around small-town Michigan. Rose Rita makes a new friend with local farmgirl Aggie Sipes, who's kind of interesting, but she never appears again.

In the "About the Author" bit at the end, it's claimed this is the final volume of the Barnavelt trilogy, but many years later the series was continued. More about that later....

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

June at the Phantom Concert Hall!

We're off to that old concert hall again this month; the city orchestra has a special guest violinist and he's going to show off tonight by performing Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen."



Pablo Martin Meliton de Sarasate y Navascues was born in Pamplona, Spain, in 1844. He was a child prodigy on the violin and had a long, successful career as a violinist and composer. He composed mainly to show off his own amazing technique, and his works aren't for amateurs.

Zigeunerweisen is Sarasate's most popular piece, and is regarded these days as a test of a violinist's ability. Enjoy it!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

THE FIGURE IN THE SHADOWS by John Bellairs

It's 1949, the autumn after the events in THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. Lewis Barnavelt has a new best friend, Rose Rita Pottinger. He also has a bully problem, in the form of tough Woody Mingo, who wants to make Lewis miserable.

Trying to cheer Lewis up after an encounter with Woody, Uncle Jonathan opens up Grandpa Barnavelt's trunk, containing things from his Civil War days, including a "lucky" coin that he won in a poker game, and was wounded over. Lewis hangs on to the coin, hoping in some vague way it will bring him luck. However, in the night he hears a piece of mail being delivered; puzzled, he goes down into the hall and finds a postcard with his name on it, and a single word: "Venio," which Lewis knows means "I come." The card quickly vanishes.

Later, Lewis and Rose Rita, poking around in Uncle Jonathan's library, finds Mrs. Zimmermann's doctoral dissertation, on magical amulets. She includes a prayer/spell that will sense a powerful amulet, and Lewis uses it to test the lucky coin...and it jumps in his hand. And things get stranger from there....

THE FIGURE IN THE SHADOWS (1975) is a decent sequel to HOUSE, and goes more into Lewis' personal problems than before. Rose Rita is an entertaining character and is well drawn; she will stick around for the rest of the series and take center stage a few times. It's a decent story, the sort of thing that would become fairly cliched in various media (bullied kid turns to magic to defend self, with horrific results), and Bellairs would recycle the concept later in another series.

It has some problems, though. There's a lot of back story around the amulet and the mysterious ghost that stalks Lewis that comes out at the end, and it's mostly conjecture on the part of the other characters. It would have been better if there had been clearer clues to what was going on and identity of the spirit. The situation with Woody Mingo is never resolved, which reflects real life, but he also never shows up again in the series. Mrs. Zimmermann loses her powers after a magical duel with the spirit....how? How did it become so powerful when she could battle Selenna Izzard and come out on top? Bellairs doesn't always seem to have a clear idea of how his universe's magic works. And I really disliked how someone JUST HAPPENS to have a magic item in their pocket that is just the right thing to use against the spirit. And although it's given to one of the characters, they never use it again and it's forgotten about. (That is a weakness with Bellairs...in some of his other books, characters end up with powerful items by the end that seem to vanish between books and never show up again.)

Still, it's a fun read, with some chilly atmosphere, as it mostly takes place in winter. Good for when the summer heat gets to you.

Monday, May 23, 2016

May's Night Out at the Cinema!

It's been a rainy, dreary spring; the clear days are lovely but they're few and far between. For weeks at a time it's been chilly and drizzly. We shut ourselves away from the dank evening in that familiar old restaurant, bemoaning this disappointing season and how mold and mildew are everywhere.

Eventually, we make our way up the street to that old movie theater. That guy with the biceps and tattoos is taking tickets again, and the girl at the refreshment counter has a nice new dye job; that metallic green suits her, actually.

Tonight's show is a Canadian film from 1935, Secrets of Chinatown!



When the show's over, we slowly file out, chuckling among ourselves. It's not the best film ever, but it is fun to sit back with an oldie like this and just relax and immerse ourselves.

You all go ahead to the cafe for a drink....I need to have a word with the ticket-taker....I'll catch up....

Sunday, May 15, 2016

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS by John Bellairs

This is an old favorite from my childhood, and one of the works that set me on the path I am on today.

It's the summer of 1948. Newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his uncle Jonathan in the town of New Zebedee, MI (based on the author's childhood memories of Marshall, MI, and some touches of his then-home of Haverhill, MA). Lewis notices some strange behavior from his uncle and his neighbor, the elderly Mrs. Zimmermann. Finally, the truth comes out: Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, although not a very powerful one. Mrs. Zimmermann is a powerful witch, although a good one, and they've been trying to find the source of a strange ticking in the walls of the house, suspecting it's something left behind by the house's former owner, an evil sorcerer named Isaac Izard.

Lewis has problems of his own at school; he's fat and bookish, and not very athletic, but he tries. He's also not very popular, but ends up befriending Tarby Corrigan, a popular athletic kid who can't participate in any games because of a broken arm. They start to drift apart, though, as Tarby's arm heals. Lewis, attempting to impress Tarby, claims he can raise the dead, and the two meet on Halloween night to raise a spirit in the town cemetery.

The experiment doesn't go as planned, and Lewis finds himself sitting on a painful secret, afraid to tell anyone. Meanwhile, the ticking in the walls grows louder, a mysterious woman moves in across the street, eerie happenings occur, and Lewis stumbles on clues indicating that Isaac Izard had plotted to destroy the world....

It's horror for younger readers, sure, but it's a fun and atmospheric read. The town is described lovingly, and the characters are appealingly human. Lewis' problems with bullies and a friend who grows increasingly distant and dismissive rang true for me as a kid. It's also got great illustrations by Edward Gorey (see the cover above). Gorey would end up supplying covers and frontispieces for most of Bellairs' works over the years, to the point that the two are almost inextricably linked in my mind. Lewis and his family and friends would appear in a full dozen works, and Bellairs also had two other series running along the same lines, one starring Anthony Monday and set in small-town Minnesota, and another starring Johnny Dixon and set in small-town Massachusetts.

It's not all dark and grim; there's quite a bit of humor on display, and Bellairs was obviously an educated man. Uncle Johnathan's name, Jonathan Van Olden Barnavelt, is lifted from an Elizabethan tragedy. Mrs. Zimmermann is based on Wisconsin poet Mary Zimmermann, whom Bellairs had befriended many years before. There are many literary in-jokes you'll come across here and there in Bellairs' books.

Reading it as an adult, there were a few things that jumped to my attention. There's a few supernatural occurrences that don't seem to make a lot of sense, but could be sendings from the villain to demoralize Lewis. (Mainly, the Aunt Mattie scene.) Bellairs describes a chestnut tree in Uncle Johnathan's front yard, an oddity considering the chestnut blight wiped out the chestnut in most of the country starting in 1904. And at the end, the solution to the mystery is found in a secret passage....which, to the best of my recall, is never mentioned again in the series.

Still, despite a few flaws, it's a quick, entertaining read. Bellairs had intended Uncle Jonathan to be the main character and for it to be an adult work, but there wasn't a market for it, and Bellairs was talked into rewriting it as a book for young readers, and it was an unqualified success and won multiple awards when it was first published in 1973. Seek it out...although later verions have a new cover, they at least preserved the Gorey illustrations inside, even for the Kindle version. Highly recommended.