Sunday, January 25, 2015

Report from the Poe Birthday Celebration

This past Sunday was a big day; the Poe Birthday Celebration had been resurrected and was playing to a sellout crowd.

This is actually a big deal; funding had been cut, and there had been questions galore about whether it would continue after a subdued observance two years ago and a sketchy graveside ceremony last year. However, it seems that the University of Maryland School of Law, which owns Westminster Hall, got involved in the midst of public outcry and brought back the popular observance, with online ticketing this year, for a change.

The observance actually very similar to those in the past, which was actually a great comfort. There was an exhibit from the Poe Society, a table selling souvenirs, another with snacks, and Victoria Price selling copies of her biography of her father, Vincent.

The evening's observance was in two parts. The first was a presentation by Victoria Price about her father's life and career. I've always been a huge fan of Vincent Price, not only of his acting but also of how he lived his life, with an enthusiasm for art and cooking and just drinking everything in. I learned a lot during the presentation, including how he fell for his third wife, Coral Brown, and Victoria was at her best here, talking about how crazy her father was for Coral...and how much she and Coral hated each other as well. She also spoke glowingly of Tim Burton for introducing her father to a new generation of fans, both with the short "Vincent" and casting him in "Edward Scissorhands."



The second half was John Astin, doing readings of Poe poetry and discussing them in the context of Poe's life. It was very nicely done...but I have to admit, I've seen him do the same thing before. Still, my friend Cherie was in the audience and was in raptures over it; her mind was opened like never before.

After that was a musical tribute, the annual toast (led by Victoria Price), and a final song, "The Parting Glass," appropriate for Poe and a long favorite of mine.

I still had a good time, despite the fact that I was frequently coughing (I was in the early stages of what developed into a bad cold over the week). I got a signed copy of Victoria Price's book, and in one of those crazy coincidences, the fellow seated directly in front of me was a Facebook friend I had yet to meet face-to-face, which led to some spirited conversation and us being better friends than before. And after the show I joined some friends for dinner at Annabel Lee, a restaurant in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood with a Poe theme. It was a good meal and we spotted quite a few people from the show there, including a teacher and student from Indiana who were there on a whirlwind Poe weekend, visiting both Richmond and Baltimore before heading home. They were charm incarnate.

The next day, which I had off work as it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was a small wreath-laying ceremony at Poe's grave. It was quite a small affair, officiated over by Victoria Price, who placed the wreath while giving a short address about how Price would have overjoyed to have been associated so strongly with one of America's greatest men of letters, as Price was a great promoter of American arts and letters.

That evening, my dear friends at the Yellow Sign Theater had what promises to be the first of an annual event, the "Poedown." This was an evening of four Poe stories performed as radio dramas, which was a lot of fun although I probably wrecked the audio with my frequent coughing. I joked that I had the walking Red Death.

So, it was quite a weekend, and it's unfortunate I was left so ill over the week that I couldn't concentrate enough to post this earlier. But here's me with Victoria Price, at Poe's grave...


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January's Night Out at the Movies!

We shuffle over the snowy sidewalks, careful not to slip, and stomp our feet before sitting down at our usual table at the restaurant. It's a chilly, wet, snowy night in January when we meet, exchanging tales of the holidays and our New Year's parties and heaven knows what else. The meal is warming and we joke over the bill, Then we pick our way up the street to that familiar old movie theater...

Tonight's film is an overlooked 1933 thriller, TOMORROW AT SEVEN!



Isn't that a cracker? It's a shame a delightful flick like this is forgotten these days, but at least we have YouTube and DVDs to preserve little treasures like this.

We step out in the dark January night, with the snow gleaming from the city lights, and growl of snowplows and salt trucks passing by...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Two Collections

Almost simultaneously, I finished two short-story collections, so I'll review them together.

The late Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008) was a master of the short story, having written approximately 950 of them. He created quite a few fictional detectives, like the seemingly immortal Simon Ark and Eastern European Gypsy detective Michael Vlado, but one of his more popular creations was Dr. Sam Hawthorne, an old-school family practice doctor working in small-town New England in the 1920s. The series was published in "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" starting in 1974 and continued for over a quarter-century. His specialty was the impossible crime, a murder that shouldn't have taken place, but did.

The first story, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge", sets the tone. During a snowy winter, a man is seen driving his horse-drawn wagon toward a covered bridge. When friends go by later, they find the tracks going in...but nothing leaving on the other side, and no sign of man or wagon. Where is he? How was it done? It's a devilishly complex story and Dr. Sam's solution is well-done. Hoch plays fair, and most of the time you get almost all the clues and information you need.

Sadly, the next story is below par. "The Problem of the Old Gristmill" has an author renting an old mill dying mysteriously in a fire, although they soon realize he was dead before the fire started. And someone has stolen his notebooks. Why? It plays fair but still the solution seems to come almost out of nowhere.

The rest, however, are all equally good. Some are locked-room mysteries, with Dr. Sam figuring out how a murder was committed in a locked lobster shack, or a locked caboose, or a church steeple, or a voting booth. One is of a clever escape from a jail cell, with a nod to Jacques Futrelle's famous "Thinking Machine" stories. Or there's a man apparently murdered by a ghost, in full view of the town, or a child that seems to bilocate, or a wild-west burglar in a New England inn, or a corpse turning up in a buried time capsule, or a man seemingly strangled by an oak tree. 

They're all good fun and worth reading. They take place in a time period from 1922 to 1927, and capture the flavor of the times, with references to Prohibition and other aspects of life back then. They're well-researched and have a lot of period flavor. The collection, from Crippen & Landru, is available in paperback.


The lovely folks at Ash-Tree Press have a great series of "Ash-Tree Press Macabre" volumes available as ebooks. Each is a selection of macabre tales, many by noted authors, but the stories themselves will be lesser-known works. Volume One has stories from Patricia Wentworth, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome, Ford Madox Ford, E. C. Bentley, Hilaire Belloc, and John Buchan. The stories themselves range from regular Victorian-style ghost tales or haunted-house stories, to more experimental and visionary works. W. J. Makin's "Newsreel" is a good example of the latter, with a man watching a theater newsreel that eventually has dark meanings for his life. 

I have to admit...the stories were decent reads overall, but they didn't stick with me. A lot of them represent experimental or youthful works by authors noted in other genres, or overlooked works by minor authors. You're not going to find a classic weird work by a master of the macabre at the top of their game here! However, it's still worth seeking out for those who want to delve deeply into weird fiction. It's easily available from multiple online sources.

Monday, January 5, 2015

January at the Phantom Opera House!

It's the weekend after New Year's, and we're dolled up in our best as we scored tickets to the opera! We're all clustered on the balcony, with a great view of the stage, and all excited. And it's appropriate; the opera is E. T. A. Hoffmann's "Undine."



OK, OK, I know, it's Hoffmann again. I promise, this blog isn't going to be all Hoffmann all the time, I just had to get up an example of Hoffmann's music, especially something from his best-known work. I promise, next post won't be Hoffmann-related.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tales of Hoffmann: The Golden Flower Pot

"The Golden Flower Pot" is one of Hoffmann's longer, and more critically acclaimed, stories, and a good starting point. It came out in 1814 and is his first major published work, as well. I read it in E. F. Bleiler's anthology "The Best Tales of Hoffmann," published in 1967 and still in print, and this particular tale was translated by Richard Carlyle. (My semester of college German does not leave me up to reading Hoffmann in the original language...)

Anselmus, a student from Dresden, is rushing to a local park on Ascension Day (May 14th, long a public holiday in German-speaking countries), when he accidentally knocks over a basket of apples and cookies that were held by an old peddler lady. She curses him volubly, he gives her what money he has to calm her, and then is left penniless for the celebrations. So, making the best of it, he ends up sitting alone under a tree...and ends up hearing magical bell-like voices coming from beautiful green-and-gold snakes. Enchanted, his vision opens up and he sees more than just the mundane realities of life.

He eventually finds employment and finds himself torn between the mundane, worldly Conrector Paulmann and his beautiful daughter Veronica (who love Anselmus but also wants him to become a great official and keep her in the manner to which she'd like to be accustomed) and his employer, Archivarius Linhorst, who seems to be a salamander (or fire elemental) from Atlantis, and his daughter, Serpentina, who is one of the snakes he saw on Ascension Day. Meanwhile, the old apple-lady seeks to destroy him; she is a witch and a sworn enemy of Lindhorst.

The story is really of Anselmus' choice between a mundane life as an official and government functionary, and the dreamy life of a poet. He has father-figures to guide him in either way, and all seem to appreciate his gifts in his own way. Two women desire him, but although Veronica loves him, she also has a strong desire for what he can do for her, while Serpentina sees his potential as a poet and wants him to develop that. Neither seems to want him Just As He Is but at least Serpentina's love is unselfish and she just wants to be at his side as he grows. Not to say Veronica is a bad person, but she is easily misguided and for a while falls under the influence of the old witch.

And the golden flower pot of the title? It's an Atlantean relic in the Lindorf home that's desired by the witch!

There's lots to enjoy in this story, and it's a great candy-box of Hoffmann's style. There's some light and funny parts, like the party where various people get drunk and dance about, throwing their wigs and the punchbowl hither and thither. But there's also scenes of menace and horror, like Veronica's attendance at a dark ceremony performed by the witch.

Of course, interpretations of this vary. Some say it's positive and optimistic, reflecting a embrace of art and creativity. Other say it's negative and pessimistic, the story meant as a snide satire of a pretentious artist's foibles and fantasies. Being a romantic, I like to think of it as positive, and also a reflection on Hoffmann's own rejection of an official career for one of art and writing. There's just a bit too much joyousness to the story that I saw to take it so negatively.

It's debated among critics and readers if the magical happenings in the story are really taking place in the "real" world or are part of some parallel fairyland. Personally, I think they're in the real world; it's a classic case of how being touched by the spirit of...well...Atlantis, or creativity, or whatever, can open your eyes to things you never noticed before, and how those with minds focused only on worldly, mundane things like money or just getting by don't seem to stop and smell the roses. It's just in this case the roses are enchanted and may get up and follow you around.

At any rate, this is a grand story, and worth reading. It's in a lot of Hoffmann collections and can be found free online. Good reading for those seeking inspiration.


Monday, December 29, 2014

E. T. A. Hoffmann: A Portrait

I'm going to be doing an occasional series of reviews called "Tales of Hoffmann," each a review of an individual story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, one of the founding fathers of modern weird fiction. I think he's unjustly overlooked these days, even though at least one of his works has seriously permeated popular culture.

His works are usually classed as Romanticism, but he often wrote in the fantasy and horror genres, and he started to synthesize the elements of the detective genre, but Poe came along and did it better. Hoffmann has also had a major impact on the music world, in multiple ways: in his lifetime he was a music critic and a composer, and some of his works, like the opera Undine, are still performed today. His literary output inspired musical works by others, most notably one opera, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, and two ballets, Coppelia by Leo Delibes, and The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.

Yes, THAT Nutcracker. The one you went to see as a kid, or took the kids to see, or just saw this season. Think of the omnipresent music from that work, played everywhere! And even of the nutcracker ornaments on the tree, or the nutcracker-ish toy soldiers used as decorations in Christmas tableaux. All of that because of this guy. It's staggering to think of the impact he had.

He was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann on January 24th, 1776, in Konigsberg, a city that was first Prussian, then Russian, then Prussian again, then German, and is currently Russian again. The boy showed promise as a writer, musician, and visual artist, but Konigsberg was something of a backwater and he never was exposed to classical forms. That probably helped him develop his own individual style, even though he read voraciously, including authors like Goethe, Schiller, Swift, and Sterne.

He eventually became a minor government official, but occasionally got in trouble for drawing slightly scandalous caricatures of military and government officials...usually being sent on to another post. His professional life was never in one spot; as a jurist, he went from one area to another, mostly in Silesia and present-day Poland. In Warsaw, he read Tieck and hung out with Friedrich de la Motte Fouque and other early practitioners of the weird. He married in 1802 and had a single daughter, who died young. His official career was sidelined by the Napoleonic Wars, and he eventually found work as a theater manager and then as the musical director of an opera company (which was short lived). He was also noted as a music critic for German newspapers, and often wrote humorously of the fictitious musician Johannes Kreisler...who later inspired a piano suite by Schumann, "Kreisleriana."

One big triumph for him was his opera Undine being performed in 1814, and ran for 25 performances until a fire broke out in the theater during a performance. He started publishing collections of his stories in 1814; a four-volume set came out that year, with further collections (and novels) continuing until his death. The most widespread story was "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" which was translated into several languages and eventually inspired the iconic ballet. His last years were very productive, with many stories, works of criticism, and musical compositions coming out, but ill health (including syphilis) caused paralysis and his last works were dictated to a secretary or his wife. He also had crises of conscience with his ideological opposition to new anti-liberal reforms in the Prussian government, and his tendency to satirize public figures in his writings often caused political difficulties for him. He passed away on June 25, 1822, at the age of 46, and his grave still stands in Berlin. (Pilgrimage? Maybe.)

His writings are regarded as the perfect examples of German Romanticism, mingling realism with fantasy that pre-dates modern "magical realism" of authors like Isabel Allende and Jonathan Carroll. His influence on later authors is immense...folks like Poe, Dickens, Dostoevski, Gogol, Baudelaire, and Kafka all credited him directly. Freud famously cited his story "The Sandman" in his work on the uncanny. His works were also marked by a wry sense of humor and satire; as much as he was part of the Romantic movement, he also poked fun at it and its followers, especially in his masterpiece novel, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, which rubbed some of his contemporaries the wrong way with its satire of artistic pretension. He also shaped the music world of his time with his writings, and set new standards for the quality of music criticism. (His musical writings were finally translated into English and collected in a single volume back in 2004. I may have to track that down.)

One thing that set Hoffmann apart, and made him a trailblazer, was how he grounded his fantasies and horrors in the everyday world. Fantasy and weird writing before that time was normally set in the distant past or in some magical otherworld, but Hoffmann's characters encountered the supernatural in the midst of everyday life of Europe of the early 19th century. And as such, they also give a nice glimpse of life in that time period. He also dealt a lot with doppelgangers and dualities. But also, he never seemed to take himself or his work completely seriously, and in the midst of an otherwise chilling tale you'll find comedic passages or episodes that may seem incongruous. But that's Hoffmann, and that's life; sometimes in the midst of dire situations and dramas, you'll find something to laugh at, even if it's rueful, reluctant laughter.

And what's with the name, you ask? He was officially E. T. W. Hoffmann, and used that on official papers, but used E. T. A. Hoffmann on his musical and literary works. According to him, the A was for Amadeus, a nod to Mozart, whom he admired.

So, keep your eyes open for the "Tales of Hoffmann" series; hopefully I'll have the first one up before January 1.

I think this is a self-portrait.



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.