Saturday, August 30, 2014

This 'n' That - August 2014

  • It's a slow time of the year, except for my work, which is crazy-busy. And we're expanding in unexpected directions, and I may require an assistant in another year or so.
  • I've expanded in unexpected directions as well; in the last two years I've gained far too much weight. I'm to see my doctor in a few weeks and I'll have a chat with him about possibly joining a gym. If I do, I may post photos of my progress, so be warned.
  • I haven't been out to the movies much this summer; the two flicks that stand out the most to me are GODZILLA (fun, but flawed; too much time spent on Lt. Bland) and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (fun, but I'm not over the moon about it as others are). Not many horror flicks that I've noticed; I saw AS ABOVE SO BELOW advertised at the local cineplex but then I found out it's yet another found footage film and I just groaned.
  • I went to a pen show in Northern Virginia earlier this month, which was very interesting, and came home with a vintage fountain pen and a hand-crafted ballpoint. They also have a lot of watches and pocket knives, as well as some women's jewelry. Fountain pen culture is interesting and I'll have to delve into it more. There's also a nostalgia convention in a few weeks locally, and a horror convention (Monster-Mania) here in October, so I should be having some fun.
  • Tomorrow is my 49th birthday. Next year I hope to have a big blow-out with few survivors.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August's Night Out at the Movies!

It's a humid night, the kind where you wish it would just make up its mind and rain already. But the sun is setting earlier, leaves are starting to turn and fall, kids are heading back to school. We're meeting at the usual restaurant, chatting and catching up. We compare used-book finds (A hardcover of Arsene Lupin?), concerts we've attended (Their performance of the Beethoven sonata was...well...a bit of a mess...), antique shows (What? Laura found a Viennese porcelain Muse?), museum trips (There's a wonderful little Daumier in that gallery that's so easy to miss...), and assorted other adventures (There's a seafood restaurant near the beach...nothing fancy but the food is amazing...). After our usual haggling about how to split the bill, we head up the street to that shabby old theater we love so much...

First up is a 1907 George Melies short, "The Eclipse."

And the feature presentation is 1933's "Sucker Money."

"Sucker Money" is an unusual beast. It was produced by Dorothy Reid, a marginally talented woman who husband, silent-film star Wallace Reid, had died from morphine addiction. She then dedicated her life and career to "message" films, including several antidrug flicks like the now-lost "Human Wreckage", or tackling prostitution in "The Red Kimona" (which was remarkable for its sympathetic treatment of sex workers). "Sucker Money" was her attempt to warn people about fake psychics and mediums.

That being said, she wasn't much of an actress, and even less a screenwriter, director, and producer. Sorry, folks.

The show over (at last!), we wander up the street for a final drink for the night...

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Creative Spirit Seance

Last night, I went with some friends to Baltimore's trendy Hampden neighborhood to attend a seance.

Of course, it was really a theatrical presentation. A hard-nosed skeptic like me wouldn't pay money to attend a "real" spiritualist seance. Long, long ago, I attended a performance at Wheaton, MD's late, great Psychic Ghost Theater for my birthday; that was great fun. It started off with a normal magic show, then a demonstration of a Victorian "spirit cabinet," and then a harrowing "real" seance that used a lot of the tricks that fraudulent mediums use. It's a wonderful memory that I carry with me.

This was, well, different. It's held in the upper floor of an old church (which turns out to be a private home rented out to productions), and it's a cool space. We were handed wires with which to sculpt into anything we wanted, and then gathered in a small area where host David London gave a talk on creativity, and then talked to us about the sculptures we created. Eventually he collected the sculptures and melted them in an "alchemical furnace" and dumped the molten result in a bowl of cold water. We were given pieces and told to look at them and think of what we saw.

It was like that, full of little creative exercises. We drew on triangles and they were assembled into a larger puzzle, after a trick in which an audience member identified the blank triangles from the drawn-on ones. There was a guided meditation followed by a ritual washing of hands (with the water turning black, supposedly our negative energy being washed away). We sat at an elaborate seance table where we did some summoning of spirits, an experiment in automatic writing, and finally a full-on seance where he gave a long, rambling speech on the nature of "the creative spirit" that I admit went in one ear and out the other.

It was odd, a mixture of magic show and Wiccan ritual. (Yes, I have a legit frame of reference; in my checkered past I was actually the high priest of a Wiccan coven for a while.) London later admitted there were some illusions that were supposed to go off during the full seance that didn't, and there were some parts of the show that didn't seem to quite connect. London joked about how it was a late show and some things weren't going right, so I suppose that would explain that.

I'm not entirely sorry I went, but at the same time it wasn't what I was expecting; I had thought it would be more illusions and less psychodrama. I found some of the New Agey-ness about it off-putting, but that's just me. There was a time in my life when I was very, very into that sort of thing, but those days are long behind me now. Along with a lot of depression and instability. Those were dark days.

Maybe it's your thing, or someone else's thing, but it really wasn't mine. And that's not a dismissal of David London's talents or his work into this show. It's just that I'm really not the kind of audience he should have had.

The Creative Spirit Seance plays to audiences of 12, and runs until August 30th. Tickets are $40.

Monday, August 4, 2014

August at the Phantom Opera House!

Tonight we're off to the opera! We got bargain tickets through a friend, had a festive dinner at a fun and inexpensive restaurant, and are now snugly ensconced in the opera house. The show is Weber's Der Freisch├╝tz, a German Romantic opera from 1821 based on a folktale about a marksman who uses cursed bullets.

In the second act, there's a famous scene where the hero and the villain descend to the Wolves' Den, an area in the forest noted for the ghosts and demons that inhabit it. There they meet with the Black Huntsman, Samiel, and make a bargain to forge the seven magic bullets with which the flawed hero, Max, will win a marksmanship contest and a prize that will enable him to marry his beloved Agathe. Villainous Casper (not a friendly ghost), however, has other plans, including not telling Max that the seventh bullet, once fired, will have Max carried off by Samiel, and buying Casper more time on earth. (He made a dark bargain with Samiel himself years ago...)

The music is fact, here we go...

This scene is often described as the greatest Romantic depiction of supernatural horror, and it's a corker. I chose a video without action, leaving the listener to imagine for themselves how the action goes. After you listen, go read a synopsis or find a video of the scene, and see how close your mental image was.

The scene ends, the intermission arrives, and we rush to the bar for a glass of Rhine wine while calming our shudders. And vowing to investigate Romantic opera and music more. Bring back Romanticism!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

IN GHOSTLY COMPANY by Amyas Northcote

Amyas Northcote (1864-1923) is an author about whom little is known despite the usual biographical details. Born in England, emigrated to the US in 20s where he was a businessman in Chicago, then returned to England in 1900, eventually becoming a justice of the peace in Buckinghamshire. This, his sole volume of stories and the only writing he seems to have ever done, came out in 1921, and he died 18 months later. No other writings seem to have been found after his death. Not much is really known of his life, or what he did for a living, or what his thoughts and passions were, or why he decided to write ghost stories. But that being said, his stories are pretty darned good.

First in this edition is the oft-anthologized "Brickett Bottom," a famously unsettling tale of a house that isn't there and disappearances. You'll find it in a lot of "best-ever" or "haunted-house" anthologies, and I've heard it dramatized for radio. It's a remarkably dark, bleak story, and relentlessly macabre. In other words, you HAVE to read it.

Others follow some more of the standard fare. "Mr. Kershaw and Mr. Wilcox" is of a psychic dream. "The Late Earl of D." follows a ghostly re-enactment of a murder. "Mr. Mortimer's Diary" tells of a man hounded by the spirit of someone he deeply wronged. "The House in the Wood" is a very, very standard tale of a child's ghost warning a parent of danger. "The Young Lady in Black" is also very, very standard, of a ghost that returns to fulfill a promise. "The Governess' Story" recounts an auditory haunting that replays a despondent teen's suicide.

However, there are some others that stand out, at least for me.

"In the Woods" is a dark, unsettling tale of a lonely teenage girl who explores the forests on her own, only to find herself under the spell of the resident nature spirits. It's rather Machenesque, and blends Victorian whimsy with dark menace. There's no real plot; it's almost a lengthy vignette, with no real resolution. But it's darn good and worthy of more attention.

"The Steps" concerns itself with a wealthy society girl who turns down a soldier's marriage proposal, twice. He swears to have her, and then is called into action and dies. His steps haunt her and hound her. It's standard stuff, except for its nastiness. The soldier is never depicted as being all that evil or forceful; he's a lonely man, deeply infatuated, and thwarted in love. The girl is never depicted as terribly nasty either, just a normal girl of her class. So her ghostly persecution is not that of a deserved revenge on a heartless person, or even of a psychotic stalker and innocent victim. It has more the feel of a random bit of spectral evil that just happens to happen...and thus is very chilling.

Two stories, "The Downs" and "The Late Mrs. Fowke," are very folkloric. "The Downs" has a man walking across a stretch of land on a night when the spirits of those who died there walk...and it's strange and hallucinatory. "The Late Mrs. Fowke" concerns a clergyman who discovers his wife has dealings with Old Nick. Both have a strong rural atmosphere and are quite fun.

Northcote's stories are generally set in England or America, but "The Picture" is set in Hungary. It's not a great tale, but it is full of menace, where a girl does one of those silly rituals to see the face of her future husband, and later finds that face on a decades-old portrait hanging in a local castle. It has a macabre end, to be sure, but it's never clearly explained WHY it happens, which makes it all the more unsettling.

The last story is also a bit different. "Mr. Oliver Carmichael" is not really a ghost story, but a tale of occultism. A man has a chance meeting with a woman who seems to recognize him, and who takes a malicious interest in him. It turns out she's the reincarnation of a soul that was knit to his, and while his rose to light and goodness, hers sank to evil and darkness. It's actually not a very good story; very little happens. It's quite a bit of buildup and no payoff. But it's interesting because it's got that didactic tone that you normally find in stories written by True Believers, and it makes me wonder if perhaps Northcote had been fascinated by that sort of thing, and if that had something to do with his decision to write ghost stories. Unfortunately I can only conjecture.

This is a handsome, slim paperback from Wordsworth, and with a nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. It's worth picking up if you come across it.

A facsimile of the original dust jacket.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, and an interesting parallel

After many years, I finally reread The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson's deservedly famous horror novel. I hadn't been too impressed with it when I first read it back in the 80s, but upon rereading it I was rather surprised at parts I didn't remember, things I somehow missed back then. At the time I'd seen the film on video quite a few times (I rented it regularly at my favorite video store) and perhaps I was too wowed by the film to really appreciate the novel. Maybe.

The Haunting of Hill House is one of the all-time classics, both of the horror genre and of literature in general. Horror is a genre that frequently works best in the short-story format, and many horror novels end up being drawn-out and tedious. But Haunting works spectacularly well at its novel length; it NEEDS to be novel-length.

The novel concerns itself with Prof. Montague, who gathers a group of people to spend a summer at Hill House, a notoriously haunted New England mansion. His small group is Luke, a wastrel member of the family who owns the house, and hopes to inherit it one day; Theodora, a bohemian artist (and possible esbian, which is played up in the movie) who has ESP, and Eleanor Vance, who experienced poltergeist phenomena as a child. Eleanor is the central character of the novel; at 32, she has spent the last 11 years of her life caring for her invalid mother and never really living her own life. Her mother has recently died, Eleanor (Nell) is venturing out of her neurotic repression, but isn't up to the menace of Hill House.

You may remember some of its terrors from the 1963 movie...the pounding on the walls, the writing, Nell's final madness...although the movie plays up the ambiguity that the haunting may exist partially in Nell's mind, and it may be the result of latent telekinetic powers going berserk as her sanity crumbles. But it leaves out some memorable eerie events from the book, although one would have been difficult to film, and some occur outside, while the film keeps the action firmly within the house's walls until the end, keeping up the atmosphere of claustrophobia.

But one thing that really stood out for me was the way in which it's a psychological novel, delving into Eleanor's troubled mind, her desire to belong, her bitterness at her family, her dream of finding love, all that...and it called to mind another movie I'd seen recently and loved, the 1941 Bette Davis classic, Now, Voyager.

Based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is the tale of Charlotte Vale, a plain, neurotic spinster who has been kept on a short leash by an overbearing and brutally controlling mother. She has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for a few months, then goes on a cruise where she finds the love of her life. It's actually a lot more modern than it seems (I'm leaving out a number of story developments, so go watch it for yourself if you don't know it).

There's a lot that's pretty obvious: both concern neurotic, repressed, mother-dominated women who are never allowed to grow up and be their own person. Both go on a voyage that changes their respective lives. But while Prouty's heroine has a breakdown, therapy, then goes on her journey, Jackson's Nell has her journey, then her breakdown. But Nell obviously hopes for some romance, for something to change her life and make it whole. All through the book she keeps using the phrase "Journeys end in lovers meeting," and there are flirtations with Luke (and some subtle overtures from Theodora), but ultimately it seems her lover is destined to be Hill House itself.

In fact, Nell's expectations seem to be a result of reading Prouty's work and other "women's novels" and "women's films" of the period, that usually depicted women suffering glamorously and then rewarded with True Love. (Prouty is a bit different; she dared to show the mother/daughter relationship as a destructive one, and her heroine eventually comes to value autonomy over conventional marriage.) It makes sense; Now, Voyager was published in 1941, and The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. I can't help but have the feeling that Jackson was at least in part commenting on a generation of women entering the Space Age but raised on the women-directed media of the 40s and 50s.

So, read 'em both and see what you think. Jackson's novel has never been out of print; Prouty's is available in print and as an ebook, currently being rediscovered as a minor landmark in feminist literature. Or watch the movies; both are quite close to their source material and both are bona fide cinematic classics.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

July's Night Out at the Movies!

The evenings are still sun-drenched, but at least the heat and humidity have eased. Our regular dinner has sparkling conversation and cool drinks. Tales of vacations, family trips, and Independence Day mishaps (fireworks going off twenty feet over the ground?), or else gentle tales of laying in a hammock with a book for a whole summer afternoon.

After lovely icy desserts, we stroll up the street to our usual theater...

Tonight's program starts off with a short by George Melies from 1903...

Then the feature presentation, 1933's "The Vampire Bat," with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray!

The show over, we wander, as always, up the street to that little cafe for a final drink, not noticing the bats flying overhead...