Sunday, September 24, 2017

A September Afternoon at the Cinema!

Taking advantage of a lull in our schedules, we meet for brunch on a sultry September Sunday. Why is it so hot when the first day of autumn has just passed? We lament our busy lives, the state of the world, and the fact that Halloween falls on a Tuesday this year.

Then it's up the street to our favorite movie theater! Thankfully the AC is working, the drinks at the counter are cold, and the ticket-taker is showing us a welcoming smile along with his usual biceps and tattoos.

Today's show is a 1936 thriller, The Mandarin Mystery!

Despite the Yellow Peril inferences of the title, this is actually an adaptation of Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery, published just two years earlier. And despite the bait-and-switch, it's actually a good film.

The show over, we bid goodbye to the staff and wander out for a cold drink before going our ways to prepare for the week ahead...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE BISHOP OF HELL by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952, real name: Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long) is someone who has fascinated me for a long time. She was a writer by necessity, supporting her increasingly ungrateful and demanding family (although her children adored her; her youngest son, who wrote the charming introduction, speaks of her was a wonderful, loving mother). She wrote under numerous pen names....historical novels as George Preedy, crime novels as Joseph Shearing (really romans-a-clef, based on notorious real crimes), assorted novels and stories as Margaret Campbell, John Winch, and Robert Paye, but she's best remembered for her supernatural tales written under the Bowen moniker.

But even with all that, which would lead one to assume she was a hack....she was a damned good storyteller, often quite daring, and with undeniable grace as a stylist. She made good money writing, so she was capable of grasping the public imagination. She is slowly being rediscovered by the literati for her style and grace. And she could be transgressive...her first novel, The Viper of Milan, had trouble finding a publisher as it was deemed too violent, especially for something written by a young lady. (She was only in her teens when she wrote it.) But later works could delve into taboo subjects...Black Magic, for instance, deals with a sorcerer who engineers to be elected Pope, and although never explicitly stated, it's pretty clear the character is a woman passing as a man (and is a version of the Pope Joan legend), with homosexuality and trans issues lurking in the wings at every turn.

This collection in particular, one of Wordsworth's excellent series of supernatural reprints, is a superb sampler of Bowen's work. To run down...

Some tales are contemporary. "The Fair Hair of Ambrosine," set in France, is a tale of love, murder, and destiny via a prophetic dream. "The Crown Derby Plate," one of Bowen's more popular works, is a simple ghost story given a twist by the fact that the manifestation of the ghost hints that the original person may have been a cross-dresser or trans.

 A group of tales are set in the Regency, which I think is an overlooked time for supernatural fiction. "The Housekeeper" deals with a dissolute Regency beau who finds himself benevolently haunted by a seemingly forgiving shade of someone he once deeply wronged. "Florence Flannery" is a strange tale, dealing with a possible case of reincarnation, and revenge committed by a watery specter.

"Elsie's Lonely Afternoon" is an interesting tale with some trappings of the supernatural but really a tale of crime. It deals with a young girl who's browbeaten and convinced she's an unwanted nuisance by all around her, and how she falls victim to a crime by dint of her own trusting nature and innocence. The depiction of an innocent who is beaten down and taken advantage of by a grasping family sounds a lot like Bowen's own home life; I wonder if it was deliberate.

"The Bishop of Hell" is another Regency tale, this time a rather straightforward tale of a bad man who dies, but returns to give a warning of sorts....but he seems to relish his punishment. "The Grey Chamber" purports to be an anonymous French tale that Bowen translated, but I think it's an original work. And it's a great sort of penny-dreadful tale of a night spent in a haunted chamber; rather standard in its plot, but well done for what it is. "The Extraordinary Adventure of Mr. John Proudie" is another penny-dreadful sort of story, but again, well done. In it, a good doctor is called on to give aid under mysterious circumstances, but finds himself caught in a web of intrigue. It's not very supernatural but full of thrills and weird atmosphere.

"The Scoured Silk" is a nasty conte cruel of a man's brutal treatment of his wife, and Bowen might have been making a feminist comment with it. In other works, she did express sympathy for women caught in bad marriages and mistreated by the men in their lives, so I can't help but wonder. "The Avenging of Ann Leete," a tale set in Georgian times, is a tale of murder and a unique sort of justice, involving a sort of confession by astral projection!

"Kecksies," another Regency tale, is also notably famous. It's full of dire, macabre atmosphere, but also gives us spectral revenge in the form of what is clearly indicated to be a ghostly rape and murder. This is sharp stuff for the time! The collection concludes with "Ann Mellor's Lover," a tale of a clairvoyant antique dealer putting together the clues to solve a decades-old murder. It's not a bad tale, and I wonder if it was meant to become a series. Bowen writing a supernatural detective would have been wonderful.

This is a great collection of eerie tales by a neglected master. Look for Bowen's works when you browse the used book racks, or try your local library system. Anything by her is worth checking out, and I hope more of her work is reprinted or at least made available as ebooks.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Phantom Serenade for September

September has arrived, bringing what feels like an early autumn. Temperatures have been cool, sometimes downright chilly, and we go about our rounds bringing along light sweaters and jackets, and pausing for warm drinks in the afternoon.

A pause for a snack brings a rare opportunity for a serenade by an accomplished violinist...

Lovely, eh? This is part of Hope's album "For Seasons," which has the familiar Vivaldi Four Seasons along with 12 pieces, one themed to each month of the year. It's a charming album that I discovered recently and recommend.

Hope everyone's doing as well as can be expected, and that any readers who are dealing with Harvey's aftermath or the onslaught of Irma are hanging in there...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

An August Afternoon at the Cinema!

Summer is slowly sliding into autumn, and August has been gentler and easier than July was. While the sun is bright and warm, the breezes are cool while we sit at a sidewalk table outside our usual restaurant, enjoying an afternoon meal, and trading tales of things we've done since last assembling, and of our hopes for the autumn ahead.

After splitting the bill, we walk up the street to that beloved old movie theater we love so well. The green-haired gal at the counter and the ticket-taker with the biceps and tattoos are glad to see us...

This afternoon's movie is the 1936 adventure Death in the Air!

What makes this interesting is that, along with ah hair-raising plot, there's also antiwar undercurrents here, in its look at the problems of shellshocked veterans. (The old radio show The Shadow did an episode, "The Silent Avenger," that was also strongly antiwar, with an open message about how society expects people to kill in war but then to conveniently forget their training and experiences once the war is over.) While not great, it's an overlooked gem and very enjoyable.

The sun's still in the sky as we leave....let's get a drink and relax before going our separate ways...

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WALK OUT ON DEATH by Charlotte Armstrong

I've been wanting to read some Charlotte Armstrong for a while, after reading some good things about her work. This was the first I picked up....and I wasn't too thrilled by it.

Walk Out on Death (originally titled Catch-As-Catch-Can) isn't much of a mystery, but a thriller in which a series of circumstances lead to a perilous situation. It opens with a fairly silly situation: world traveler Jonas Breen has brought home Laila, his beautiful daughter (or so he claims) from a quickie marriage in the South Seas (or so he claims). Seriously, everyone seems to take this at face value. But anyway, he dies, and innocent and very naive 18-year-old Laila inherits a half million dollars. (For 1952, that was a fortune.) She is surrounded by various cousins: Clive Breen, Dee Allison, and Andrew Talbot. Laila has a crush on Andy, who's been having a turbulent relationship with Dee, and Clive, who always needs money. There's also Pearl Dean, a friend of Jonas, a spiritualist who may or may not have designs on the Breen cash.

After realizing she's made a fool of herself over Andy, Laila leaves the house for a long walk, and while she's gone the people in the house are in a panic as the housekeeper collapsed and died. It turned out she had eaten some improperly-canned beans and got botulism as a result...and Laila had just eaten some of the same beans. Soon Dee and Andy are searching for her to get her to a hospital for treatment. (This was a reality in the day; people could and did die from botulism, and their only hope was to be rushed to a hospital for an injection of an antivenin before 24 hours were through.)

Clive finds out...and decides to keep Laila on ice until she dies from the poison, so he can inherit. But then she takes off on her own, hooking up with her friend Pearl and hiding in Pearl's trailer while she drives off to the beach.

Dee and Andy have a series of misadventures while looking for Laila, and there's a prolonged chase, a dramatic traffic accident, a creepy laundry truck driver, and a conclusion in a house about to be flooded with a powerful insecticide fog before it all ends happily.

It's a bit of a mess, but at least it's an energetic mess. It moves quickly although sometimes the plot contrivances are just too damn contrived and convenient, including Laila nursing a broken heart in the morning and finding true love in the afternoon. I did like how a witness to the aforementioned accident, an elderly mute woman, is regularly dismissed and ignored by everyone around her until finally someone stops and thinks to ask if she happened to see anything. Maybe a bit overly obvious that she's standing in for how so many women and their contributions are overlooked and ignored, and also for society's dismissive attitude toward the elderly, but it was still nicely done.

But all in all, the story is too muddled and too contrived to hit bullseye, but it is energetic and fast-moving enough to make an acceptable time-killer for a lazy afternoon. It's a fairly brief read, about 184 pages, and out of print, but you may come across an old copy in your local friendly used book emporium.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

An August Evening at the Phantom Tavern...

It's an unexpectedly cool night in early August; normally we should feel like we're imprisoned in a celestial Crock Pot, but it's actually breezy and autumnal. No big concerts or anything, so tonight we wander out for a drink at a place we haven't been to before; it's an old, slightly ramshackle place, but the drinks are good, the prices reasonable, and they feature some good music.

Tonight, we're stepping outside the usual comfort zone and listening to some country/'s a classic murder ballad....

Kind of chilling, eh? Surprisingly how many gruesome old ballads are out there like this. This is a 19th century ballad that got some play during the 20th century folk revival, and still pops up every now and then.

We have a good time and definitely will be back.....

Monday, July 24, 2017

PROMISE NOT TO TELL by Jennifer McMahon

Promise Not To Tell was a something I'd had recommended to me somewhere (I forget where), and on a recent library run I checked it out. I'm pretty glad I did.

Kate Cypher, divorced, a 41-year-old school nurse, has flown from her job in Seattle to her mother's home in Vermont. Mom has Alzheimer's, and is steadily getting worse; Kate has to arrange a new living situation for her. But the day she arrives in town, a teenaged girl is an identical fashion to how a friend of Kate's was murdered 30 years before. Undoubtedly there's a connection...but what?

What makes this different is there's a definite supernatural element. Del Griswold (derisively called "the Potato Girl" due to a constant smell that hung about her) was from a white-trash family, definitely troubled, held back in school, and her murder seems sadly a release from a horrible life with no prospects. But she was desperate for a friend, and young Kate Cypher was willing to play along. Kate, however, was also keenly aware that Del was extremely unpopular, and hanging out with her was social death, so she tried to shrug it off as "we waited at the bus stop, I barely knew her" kind of thing. But when an adult Kate returns, Del shows up in the edges of Kate's vision, and while you might at first think that it's symptomatic of Kate's guilt over her betrayal of Del's trust as a child and her lifelong denial of knowing anything about her after her murder, it turns out that Del really IS coming back, and soon possesses Kate's mother to communicate. It's clear that the ghostly visitations are indeed real.

What did I like? The atmosphere (Kate's mom lived in a failed utopian commune/settlement), the way the supernatural is handled, and how McMahon presents Del as having become a figure of local folklore, somewhere in between Bloody Mary and the Blair Witch. And the ins and outs of Kate's friendship with Del, and her attempts to play the situation to her advantage with the other kids at school, ring true. Childhood can be horribly cruel.

What didn't I like? The solution to the murders is a bit hasty and unsatisfactory. Some plot elements are never explored, like how one of Del's tormentors died, supposedly choking to death on a slice of raw potato; it's mentioned in passing but never developed further. Kate angered me as she persists in hiding things and keeping secrets when she doesn't need to, and there's no sense at the end that's she's learned anything from her experience.

Still, it wasn't overly long; I hate overly padded books. I started it on a Sunday afternoon and finished by bedtime. It moved along briskly and was never drawn-out or dull, and that's pretty damn remarkable.

It was McMahon's first book, and there's a bunch more out there, so I may start looking into them. It's supernatural without real horror; the ghosts are the remains of tragic happenings and circumstances, and the mystery plot is what takes center stage. (There's almost a strain of magical realism here....) So I'm willing to forgive some imperfections for a first novel, especially such a well-paced and atmospheric one. Not bad in the least and worth an afternoon in your reading nook.