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...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

GHOSTS, GHOULS, & OTHER HORRORS by Bernhardt J. Hurwood

This charming little volume is from Scholastic, and published in 1971. One can't help but wonder if this was one of those things bought in the book fairs they held in elementary-school cafeterias. It's a charmingly lurid collection of brief tales, all bite-sized and good bedtime reading for those who enjoy a slight shudder.

The stories are quite a jumble. At least one is a written-up version of a common urban legend, of a priest who is summoned by a mysterious woman who directs him to a certain address to administer last rites. He arrives at the address, only to find nobody ill. He identifies a picture on the wall as the woman who summoned him; as it turns out, it's the long-dead mother of the master of the house, a dissolute soul who suddenly converts and confesses his sins....just in time to die the next day.

Others are recountings of famous hauntings, like the screaming skull of Burton Agnes Hall, or a haunting of Berry Pomeroy, and the very, very familiar story of the vampire of Croglin Grange. One, a story of the ghost of a werewolf, seems lifted entirely from the work of Elliott O'Donnell. And quite a few seem invented from whole cloth, like "The Glowing Maggot of Doom" or "The Old Man in Yellow" or "A Georgia House of Horror." All the stories are purportedly true but there's no references and in some cases there's little to no identifying information available, so it's impossible to look it up. My colleague Jim Moon at the Hypnogoria website tried to look up the source of "The Glowing Maggot of Doom" and couldn't find anything. I remember looking into that story myself, as it was reprinted in Marvin Kaye's marvelous anthology Ghosts, and I couldn't locate anything about a maggot haunting, although it does come across as a distant cousin to E. F. Benson's short story "Caterpillars." Mr. Moon reads from the book in his podcast Hypnobobs; go give it a listen. He says a few more things about it that I agree with very much, and find it pointless to repeat.

Interestingly, the editions we have have differences. His is illustrated; mine is not. However, based on his readings in the podcast, his edition seems somewhat bowdlerized; mine does not. In his reading of "Glowing Maggot", there's a mention of someone dying "after being taken ill," but in my copy of the book, it says they died "after being seized with a fit of vomiting."

Bernhardt Hurwood seems to have been a hack writer who did a lot of these books; I now have a small stack of 'em to delve into, found in my explorations of local used book stores. Looking him up online, he also seems to have written quite a few books on sex as well. Quite a split personality there; kid's occultism on one hand, sex and pornography on the other. Probably not all that unusual for jobbing writers.

There are copies available online for next to nothing, and keep your eyes open for used copies. This is enjoyable, if featherweight, entertainment, good for reading in bed on a windy night.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Phantom Tango for July

Feeling raffish and naughty, we're off to that cabaret in town where the music is quirky and the atmosphere conducive to diablerie.

We've been there enough times that we're greeted at the door and shown our favorite table. Bottles of ice-cold cava and an array of light refreshments are brought to the table: moules mariniere, olives, gravlax, cheeses, cups of delicate consomme, chartucerie, and salads, followed by fruits and sherbets. It's a grand evening together, all in our best bohemian finery, Viola in a vintage gown, May and James both in tuxedos, Ramsey opting for a smoking jacket, and Laura in a fetching ensemble she made herself. You're in something classy and fun yourself. We're the envy of the club, with other patrons casting glances our way as if they wished they were at our table.

And then, the band comes on, and the music starts.

Couples take to the floor; tangos ensue. You dance with James, and with May. Cava flows. We make friends with some of the other patrons.

We'll be late for work tomorrow, that's for sure. When it's all over, you're reluctant to even glance at your watch, and are wondering about calling in sick....

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Collected Connoisseur, by Mark Valentine and John Howard

Another set of the adventures of a supernatural sleuth! Only in this case he's quiet modern...and very different from the usual pulpiness. These stories are obviously influenced by visionary authors like Machen and by the Decadents, making quite my cup of tea.

The Connoisseur (his name is never given) is a collector of antiquities and objets d'art. He has an inheritance, actually works ("regular, if uncongenial, administrative work"), and lives modestly in a cathedral town. Every story revolves around some antique or piece of art, and there's a lot of 'em.

Among the strange objects involved in these stories...

  • Pottery made with clay from a sacred well
  • A rare book of poetry dedicated to a ghost
  • A strange silver sphere
  • A rocking horse
  • A surreal charcoal sketch
  • Iron finials on old buildings
  • Rare stamps
  • A weathervane
  • An ebony cane
Some stories also involve unusual architecture, performance art, music, and even a trip on an old ferry. The stories range from mere hauntings and possessions to spectral loves and revivifications of ancient gods to an attempt to bring on a Biblical holocaust. There's also a manuscript of a polar expedition that has weird encounters. And in a couple of the stories the Connoisseur is called on to investigate a weird happening.

There's some great writing here, too. The prose is artistic, sometimes surreal and dreamlike, and while there's a moment or two when it overwhelms the story, it doesn't take over and the plots are still allowed to shine through when it matters. The time period is vague, and sometimes the characters seem like they're from the 30s or 40s, but there's also references that make it clear these stories are set in the modern world, only without much (if any) mention of things like cell phones and computers.

And the menaces aren't always cut-and-dried examples of the supernatural menagerie. Some are ambiguous, like a ghost that might also be a bit of time slippage. There's also some cults and witchcraft and sorcery. Sometimes it's quite mystical, and there's hints of a hidden world just out of site that may not be quite evil or good, but with an agenda of its own that we may be swept up in...or trampled under. It's like the realization we sometimes have that we're not the center of the universe, and that our gods may not be good or evil, but have their own purposes and may even be indifferent to us.

The Collected Connoisseur is available in physical format, at some pretty outrageous prices, but Tartarus Press has made available a very reasonably-priced electronic edition. I highly recommend this!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Sultry June Night at the Movies!

The weather has been steamy and uncomfortable, and we're wishing it would just simply rain and relieve the humidity, although that's also just likely to make it even worse.

We enjoy a light dinner at the old restaurant, winding up with some sherbet that keeps us cool as we head up the street to the old cinema were we go to enjoy tonight's special showing. We give our tickets to the usher with the strange tattoos, get cold drinks from the goth girl at the refreshment counter, and then relax in the air-conditioned auditorium for the show...

First up is a frothy bit of fun from Segundo de Chomon, 1909's "A Trip to Jupiter".

And the feature is the 1932 weird Western, "Tombstone Canyon".

After the show, we slowly walk in the sultry air, up to the cafe for a libation, wishing for rain all the way...

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Seabury Grandin Quinn (1889-1969) was a Washington DC-based lawyer, journalist, and pulp magazine author, who for many years was THE most popular author of the venerable magazine "Weird Tales." He was best known for his series centered on occult detective Jules de Grandin (yes, taken from his own middle name), a French doctor and former soldier who's very obviously based on Hercule Poirot.

The ironic thing is that the de Grandin stories, while STILL being what he's best known for, are actually considered by modern critics of the weird to be his weakest work. Every so often an anthology comes out of his nonseries work, an a "complete" de Grandin collection is available from a small press for quite a high sum. (Someday...) But while some of his other work is held in quite high esteem for pulp work, the de Grandin stories are occasionally plagued with poor characterization (sometimes resorting to stereotypes) and weak plot resolution. I have to admit...these accusations are justified. But even with their flaws, I find them enjoyable.

A few years ago I managed to nab a five-volume set of the de Grandin works that was published by Popular Library in 1976-77, and I'll be reviewing what's in those particular volumes. The stories in this volume were published from 1925 to 1927, and have occasional references to Prohibition and other issues of the day, but also frequently reflect the class snobbery and casual racism common then.

"Terror on the Links" was the introduction to de Grandin and his Watson, Dr. Trowbridge, a family doctor in Harrisonburg, NJ, which serves as Quinn's Sunnydale, a focus of so much supernatural malfeasance that you wonder why anyone lives there. At any rate, there's a murder and an attack on a golf course of the local country club, right after a gala dance. It all ends up as a tale of revenge, mad science, and a gorilla, and while not very logical, and weakly resolved, it is amusingly exotic in a forgotten-old-horror movie way, back in the days when gorillas were a staple of mad-scientist movies.

"The Tenants of Broussac" has Dr. Trowbridge on vacation in France, and surprise! He runs into de Grandin at random. And then they're off to an old castle where the tenants are suffering from an odd malaise. A supernatural beast, the result of a medieval curse, is the culprit, and the resolution is somewhat hasty and verging on deus ex machina, which de Grandin just happening to know exactly what to do and where to get the tools he needs.

"The Isle of Missing Ships" is different for being more of a weird-adventure story rather than horror. Trowbridge and de Grandin are crossing the Pacific on a liner which is seized by pirates in the south seas, and taken to an island ruled by a deranged cannibal pirate chief. This story has its annoyances; Trowbridge is sometimes jaw-droppingly stupid, and Quinn has him being oblivious in situations reeking of danger. But what's fascinating is reading this when you've read Ian Fleming's "Dr. No." Both have a villain who's a half-breed; Quinn's is the son of an upper-crust British missionary and a native girl, and Fleming's is the son of a German missionary and a Chinese girl, and both are motivated by hatred of their fathers. And both have underground dining rooms with vast glass walls that give an undersea vista. Both villains have a pet giant squid. It gives me a strong, strong suspicion that Fleming read this story and included it (and Sax Rohmer's "Island of Fu Manchu") in his inspirations for "Dr. No."

"The Dead Hand" is a short tale about a series of robberies committed by a disembodied phantom hand. While a second act of it seems to be missing, it's got a better resolution than some others. It's flawed by de Grandin just happening to KNOW where to look for the clue he needs, and with a rewrite featuring more detective work it would have been a superior story. (It makes one wonder if such a section existed but was chopped to make the story fit the magazine....) This is also notable for establishing that de Grandin has moved in with Trowbridge and is living full-time in Harrisonburg. No reason is given. Are he and Trowbridge lovers? Did he suddenly decide that New Jersey was better than France? Is he part of a new occult police force in the U.S.? It's up to the reader's imagination.

"The Man Who Cast No Shadow" is a vampire tale, obviously, and a somewhat weak and unfocused one. De Grandin and Trowbridge encounter a mysterious Count Czerny at a party, who has an eerie power over young women. Trowbridge later sees Czerny in Manhattan but looking older. A young man is obviously a victim of a vampire attack, and it seems clear there's another vampire at work. That vampire is taken care of, then the Count's true story is revealed. It's a muddled story, with a secondary vampire at work, seemingly haven been freed by the primary vampire with no other purpose in mind than to cause trouble. The count's final revelation is actually a bit interesting. It's almost as if two separate stories were jammed into one, and it would have been better had they been separated and developed into independent stories.

"The Blood-Flower" is an improvement and Quinn seemed to be developing as a writer. This tale of lycanthropy with hints of incest has decent structure and pacing, and ends with de Grandin resorting to ritual magic to dispel the curse, as well as regular bullets. Yes, the hero mocks the use of silver bullets. "Parbleu, had the good St. George possessed a military rifle of today, he might have slain the dragon without approaching nearer a mile! When I did shoot that wolfman, my friend, I had something more powerful than superstition in my hand. Morbleu, but I did shoot a hole in him large enough for him to have walked through!"

"The Curse of Everard Maundy" is the best-structured story of the collection. A rash of inexplicable suicides strikes Harrisonville and the surrounding area. After actually doing some detective work, it turns out that all victims have attended the revival meetings of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher named Everard Maundy. They attend a meeting, deal with the resulting experiences, and then are on the track of the cause. It's well-done, with the structure and pace all well put together, and with only one dangling plot thread when it's over...what becomes of Rev. Maundy?

Even with its flaws, I enjoyed this a lot, both on its own and as part of the weird-detective genre. It's out of print but can be found here and there; I bought the set on Ebay.

I'll be reviewing the rest in between other works. Gotta pace myself, y'know.