Sunday, September 25, 2016

THE SPECTER FROM THE MAGICIAN'S MUSEUM by Brad Strickland

More YA horror from Brad Strickland, using John Bellairs' characters. This time Lewis Barnavelt and Rose Rita Pottinger are facing a horrific situation...they are being forced to perform in the school's talent show. Talking it over with Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann, Lewis has the idea of doing a magic act, and they visit a local museum of stage magic (that's under construction) for assistance and ideas. While perusing the library there, Lewis finds guidance, and Rose Rita stumbles on a strange document, a scroll that was the last will and testament of a female magician/faux-spiritualist named Belle Frisson. Rose Rita gets a paper cut from the scroll...and the drop of blood turns into a spider!

This turns into a fun adventure with Rose Rita falling more and more under the influence of a malevolent spirit, and the two visit a strange magician's cemetery in a nearby town. (The Gorey frontispiece shows a photo of Belle Frisson and an image of the cemetery that I just love.) Belle's marker is a tall column that is capped by a stone sphere...that turns slowly, one revolution in about six weeks. (That gives me a macabre shiver.)

This delves a bit more into Rose Rita's personality, as we see her becoming withdrawn and sullen toward Lewis and the others, and Strickland smartly puts a supernatural spin on normal adolescent behavior. I will criticize it for having a few clumsily-inserted character with some of Lewis' classmates suddenly having speaking parts, but I found out that these were contest winners who had their names used in the story. Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann are fully involved, not kept on the sidelines, which makes a good change.

The final confrontation with Belle Frisson is memorable and spooky, and I wish there had been more about her background and personality; she's a bit of a cipher. But overall, it's still good fun and I enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Autumnal Equinox at the movies!

It may be the autumnal equinox, but the air is still warm and damp with lingering summer heat and humidity. And now word comes that there may be 90 degree days in October! Who says global warming isn't real?

But it's a good night to meet for a movie, isn't it? We gather in our usual restaurant, happy for the new specials, teasing the waiter, and always leaving a good tip. Then it's up to the theater for the show!

Tonight's movie is a 1935 mysteries-of-the-orient opus, "Hong Kong Nights"!



This flick has some slight notoriety for being the subject of some Tong action when there was a kerfuffle over money due a Chinese extra, but it was all resolved peacefully. We hope.

The show's over...let's go grab a drink, shall we?

Monday, September 12, 2016

RESORTING TO MURDER, edited by Martin Edwards

This is another excellent anthology by Edwards, who's turning out to be one of the great powerhouses of traditional British mystery scholarship; he's edited a number of anthologies and written a history of them.

The running theme here is mysteries taking place on vacation, and it's quite a mixture of material. It kicks off with an old warhorse, "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" by Arthur Conan Doyle, which takes place while Sherlock Holmes is on vacation in Cornwall. The next story, "A Schoolmaster Abroad" by E. W. Hornung, is not one of that author's better works, and doesn't linger long in the memory.

Arnold Bennett's "Murder!" is an OK story, kind of a macabre comedy where we witness a murder being committed, then watch a pompous police officer botch the investigation. "The Murder on the Golf Links" by M. McDonnell Bodkin showcases his now-forgotten sleuth Paul Beck, in a murder on a golf course; not great, but a serviceable story of its time. The next tale, "The Stone Finger" by G. K. Chesterton, is subpar; it's not a Father Brown story, and the method used to hide the body is so utterly daft I wanted to hunt down Chesterton's grave to spit on it.

"The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser" by Basil Thomson is a journalistic recycling of the old "so long at the fair" urban legend. R. Austin Freeman gives us his medical sleuth Dr. Thorndike in "A Mystery of the Sand Hills," which has an unsatisfying plot but at the same time is a good (and well-written) look at Thorndike's deductive reasoning.

Then we get to the really good stuff. H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune turns up in "The Hazel Ice", investigating a murder in the Alps. It's a cracking good story, and I'm quickly becoming a fan of Bailey and Fortune. Then we have Anthony Berkeley's rarely-reprinted story "Razor Edge," which has sleuth Roger Sheringham looking into a suspicious drowning by the seaside. Then we have Leo Bruce's Sgt. Beef in the short-short "Holiday Task", looking into a strange death along the cliffs in Normandy (with a very clever twist at the end!).

A now-forgotten author, Helen Simpson had two works filmed by Hitchcock (MURDER! and UNDER CAPRICORN), and died young. She is represented in this collection by her rare story "A Posteriori," a comic tale of a tourist in France who becomes reluctantly embroiled in espionage, and has a hilariously ribald twist at the end that I don't dare spoil. "Where is Mr. Manetot?" by Phyllis Bentley is another rarity, written for an anthology of missing-persons stories. This one's about an academic who goes on an unexpected holiday and wanders into the midst of a heinous plot.

The next author, Gerald Findler, is an enigma; nothing is known of him, and there's only a couple of brief stories and a pamphlet credited to him. But "The House of Screams" packs a whallop, a haunted-house story which conceals an ingenious murder. And the anthology wraps up with Michael Gilbert's "Cousin Once Removed," a tale of murder with an ironic twist.

Despite a sluggish start, and some stuff you've seen before, this is still a superior anthology and a great way to sample some of the golden age's best mystery writers. Check it out!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A September Evening at the Phantom Cabaret!

September so far is warm and stuffy, and while the days are still like we're in the depths of summer, at least the nights are longer and more relaxed.

Tonight, we're indulging in an evening out at that cabaret in town. We haven't been in for a while; they haven't booked any acts that appeal to us, and that one band we saw there was a disaster. But we're assured by the manager that they're getting things back on track. After a light supper, we gather around a comfortable table, and the manager sends out a complimentary bottle of cava, so we're all in a good mood.

And the act is great! Just the thing for a meditative September night....



We have a great time, and promise to return soon....

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

THE DOOM OF THE HAUNTED OPERA by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

Another Bellairs/Strickland "posthumous collaboration", although I'm strongly of the opinion that this is all Strickland. After this one, the covers would site, "John Bellairs' Lewis Barnavelt in (book title) by Brad Strickland."

Lewis and Rose Rita are doing a project on local history and remember stories of an abandoned opera house over some downtown shops. (Apparently Bellairs based this on a real abandoned theater in his childhood home town.) They ask nicely and are let in to look around, when Lewis stumbles on the score of an opera, hidden in a decayed piano, and is warned away by a ghost. Still, they take the opera away to show their teachers, who are suitably impressed. Meanwhile, Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann go off to Florida to attend a friend's funeral and wrap up his affairs...not coincidentally, their old friend was a wizard.

When a tune from the opera is played at a PTA meeting, a man claiming to be the composer's son shows up, and gets everyone worked up into a frenzy to get the opera produced. Lewis and Rose Rita, who distrust the man, go on a fact-finding mission and realize the town is surrounded by an impenetrable fog cloud, and no communications can go in or out. They attempt to find members of the county magician's society (who are real wizards and witches), only to find their houses gone and the neighbors having no memory of them. And Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Z are away in Florida. All alone, the two have to face a man who wants to become the King of the Dead.

This is good fun. The requisite thrills and chills are all there, as well as some good light humor. There's a great scene in the town cemetery where Lewis and Rose Rita are menaced by a sort of demonic guardian statue that can only move when nobody's looking at it, and which becomes more and more grotesque every time they see it. And this book introduces two fun supporting characters: Rose Rita's Grandpa Galway, a repository of local history and tinkerer, and Mildred Jaeger, a sensible, grounded would-be witch who simply lacks magical talent, but has a lot of knowledge.

Again, the kids are on their own, but this time there's a good reason as they're physically cut off. None of the old "Oh, we can't tell them because they'll hate us!" stuff.

This is a good YA horror programmer, not groundbreaking, but a fun read.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Cool August Night at the Movies!

A front moved through, and the constant heat and humidity that has hung over us for the past month has finally dissipated. There's a cool nip in the air as we assemble at our favorite restaurant and share a meal as we talk about our adventures.

After we're done....and Viola and Rose, thanks for picking up my tab....and we head up the street to that old theater. The young lady at the refreshment stand actually gives us a smile, and the fellow with the biceps and tattoos greets us warmly as he takes our tickets.

Tonight's movie is the 1935 semi-classic CONDEMNED TO LIVE.



With its unique twist on the vampire theme (a character being born a vampire due to a prenatal influence), its mannered dialogue and stately pace, and its Mittel-European setting, CONDEMNED TO LIVE is considered by many to be a forerunner to Hammer Films' horror output. It's certainly different from other Poverty-Row shockers of the period.

Show's over...let's all have a drink, shall we? You guys go ahead....the ticket-taker and I will be along in a minute or two.....

Sunday, August 14, 2016

THE SKELETON CLOSET OF JULES DE GRANDIN by Seabury Quinn


The next in the Jules de Grandin series, and the cover is amusing as it's classified as "science fiction" and the picture has a monster in a spacesuit...and of course, there's no space aliens in it.

This is more fun from Grandin, and this was actually the first Grandin volume I ever picked up, I bought it on a family vacation as a teen and devoured it, and went bonkers trying to find the rest. As an adult, I finally finished the set with the help of Ebay.

This is more mature Quinn, and the themes could be quite more mature as well. I was surprised reading this as a teen, and even in comparison with the other books, it's a bit eyebrow-raising. There are some blatant sexual horrors here, a bit unusual for this genre. Something so sexual was usually reserved for the Spicy pulps (which dealt with a lot of suggestion, and girls running around naked) and the weird-menace subgenre (which featured sadomasochistic themes and male characters being drugged, hypnotized, or otherwise coerced into bizarre and violent BDSM situations).

So, to go down the stories...

"The Drums of Damballah" is a tale of a voodoo cult practicing in the midst of their small New Jersey town. It's pretty straightforward; they find out a local girl is part of a cult, she gets killed, then a baby is kidnapped, and they follow clues to the cult's ceremony. It's all pretty mundane, with no supernatural content. There is a nice bit at the end when Grandin compassionately allows a woman to grieve her dead son, even though they were both parts of the cult, as he feels a mother's grief is universal and should be honored.

"The Doom of the House of Phipps" involves a family curse, in which the men of an old New England family die with blood on their lips when their first born is delivered, and no Phipps man ever beholds his firstborn child. The source of the curse is a French Catholic girl whom a Phipps ancestor took as a bond-maid, and on whom the ancestor, a stern Puritan, fathered a child. Really, the cause of the curse is good old-fashioned Puritan hypocrisy! Thankfully, the last Phipps man finds a woman who is able to dismiss the curse. (This will occur later in the book...a man is saved from a dire supernatural fate by the courage of a woman who loves him.)

"Dust of Egypt" is intriguing. A brother and sister move into the house of a departed uncle, who was a collector of Egyptian antiquities. A series of strange manifestations occur, and the brother is in bad shape...and while it's not a revived mummy, it's just as bad. In this case, the real root of the problem is the late uncle's thought patterns and belief in the curses of the old tombs...which, really, can be a valid source of concern. Half the time, it's the demons of our minds that are the biggest menace.

"The Brain-Thief" really reflects small-town morality of the day. A man abandons his wife, and a woman abandons her husband, to marry. After a year of facing small-town scorn, suddenly the man returns to his ex-wife's house as if he's coming home from work, and seems to have forgotten the past year. He's horrified to find a new woman in his bed and a baby he doesn't recognize. The wife is hurt and confused, and then seems to "come to" and seek her former husband. The menace? A Hindu victim of racism, who's using his psychic mind-control gifts to disrupt the lives of wealthy Westerners. Again, a sexual note, the revelation that one has been forced and manipulated into infidelity.

"The Bride of Dewer" is the pinnacle of the sexual horrors here. A newlywed couple's honeymoon is disrupted by a strange, supernatural visitor, and husband reveals that his family's men are always told they can't marry. The menace here is Quinn's best, a pagan demon demanding droit du seigneur with any woman the men of the house marry. It's a harrowing concept, that simply marrying someone opens you up to rape by a supernatural monster...but finally, with some help, the wife's courage saves the day.

"Daughter of the Moonlight" is a lesser tale, and a bit disjointed, almost as if it were two tales merged into one. A young woman of Harrisonville society brings disaster to all around her, and she seems to be a witch of some sort, a born witch. It winds up with a scene reminiscent of Byron's fragment of a vampire tale; Quinn seems to have been very well-read.

It's a fun collection, and the sexual horrors contained within will give you a very different perspective on pulp fiction horrors. Like all the de Grandin stories, this is highly recommended.