Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray

This was another library find, picked up at random. But when I got home, I found it on a list of recommended books that I'd jotted down long ago and almost forgotten. This is an entertaining tale of murder and the occult set in 1920s New York.

Evie O'Neill is a wealthy flapper from the town of Zenith, OH (nice tip of the hat to Sinclair Lewis there) who has a psychic power: she can hold a person's possession and get psychic impressions of them and see their secrets. Blurting out a local's dirty secret at a party, she's shipped off to New York to stay with her Uncle William, who runs a museum of the occult with his assistant, Jericho.

Evie makes friends with the downtrodden Mabel, the child of social-reformer parents, Theta Knight, a Ziefeld showgirl, and her best friend, gay pianist Henry, pickpocket Sam (who's more than he appears to be) and Harlem numbers runner Memphis Campbell. Everyone has their secrets, people sometimes clash, but everyone's lives converge.

A series of murders is striking New York, with serious occult overtones, and Will is called in by the police to assist. Evie uses her psychic powers to get information, and investigates. Evie is madcap and goofy, but inside is haunted by the death of her older brother in WWI and her parents' rejection of her. She has repeated dreams of him and it becomes clear that he's trying to communicate something to her, but she can't tell what. Memphis, who plays a large role in this, is haunted by his memory of having healing powers as a child, but is also protective of his younger brother Isaiah, who has psychic powers of his own, and is dealing with the death of his mother and his family's seeming abandonment by his father.

Their paths converge as more murders occur, and clues point to a racist church in the suburbs, then to a former cultist's compound upstate (actually a fairly accurate depiction of such cults back in the day). There's fake (and real) spiritualists, weird revelations, and hints of government conspiracies and shady operations.

It's interesting that there's a lot of world-building going on here, and lots of wheels are set in motion that are still turning by the end of the book. In fact, after the main threat of the novel is resolved, there's still a lot going on that will presumably be continued in a sequel, Lair of Dreams, and one presumes there's an entire series in the works.

It's long, nearly 600 pages, but it moves quickly and I was able to complete it in a few days. It's certainly fun, if sometimes uneven, and so much left hanging at the end. (I tend to prefer books that are self-contained.) Still, it's new and different, and the Roaring 20s setting is well-researched. Worth checking out.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February at the Phantom Concert Hall

It's been a while since we've been to the symphony, so this month we've scored tickets and are dolling up in our best bohemian finery. (One of these days, we'll get to the opera. Really.)

We hurry to our seats, which are actually good ones for a change. (Remember that Beethoven concert where we were so far back we heard the traffic more than the music?) All around us people are thronged, some looking at us enviously with our easy laughter and unconventional-yet-dressy attire.

Tonight's program is an epic....Mahler's 7th Symphony, also called "The Song of the Night."

Whew...that was a marathon! Well, friends, shall we go back to my place and enjoy a late dinner? I have something in the slow cooker that will be done by the time we get there...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


The next volume of the Barnvelt adventures, by Brad Strickland, The House Where Nobody Lived is a fun little chiller based on some reality, and is also fairly different from the others. Besides that hideous cover painting.

It's sometime vaguely in the 1950s. (By now, Strickland had been pressured by the publisher to "freeze" his characters age-wise and the timeline being just the '50s.) Lewis and Rose Rita, out rambling around town, come across Hawaii House, an isolated building in an odd architectural style that had been built by a sea captain who had first taken American diplomats to Hawaii in the 1800s; the house was in the style of wealthy Hawaiian landowners. (Back then, they had been called the Sandwich Islands, though.) However, there's a gruesome tale of how once people moved in, everyone in the house died in the space of one night, all being found frozen to death. The two hear drumbeats from inside, and see phantom figures, and flee the scene. Time passes.

Later, a family buys the house, and Lewis and Rose Rita befriend the son, David Keller, who has a speech impediment. (Which is handled nicely, and Lewis and Rose are actually realistically sympathetic.) But the family has problems; they never get a decent night's sleep, and dream of drums and phantom figures. David has a haunted aspect about him, and when Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann manage to visit the house, they find weird emanations abounding.

I won't tell much more, but I was happy to see that there's no unnecessary secret-keeping, and the book's menaces are based on Hawaiian mythology, and it's all very nicely handled. In fact, I'd say that while the writing in this isn't brilliant, at the same time it's one of the best structured stories that Strickland had done for the Barnavelt series. I came away without any issues regarding continuity or plot lapses. It may not be art, but it's damned good craft.

So, a solid late entry for the Barnavelt saga, worth reading.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Chilly January Night at the Cinema!

Tonight, the weather is blustery and cold, but at least the rain stopped. We dine comfortably in our favorite restaurant while chatting about our latest adventures, not the least of which is surviving the holiday season, while looking ahead with dread to Valentine's Day.

After we finish dinner, and conclude our good-natured teasing with the waiter over the bill, we head up the street to that old theater we like so much...

Tonight's film is the 1936 mystery chiller A Face in the Fog.

Despite some cheap production values and subpar sound, this has got a good cast and a nicely macabre murder plot. It was based on a story by Peter Kyne, and is one of several adaptations of that author's work by the long-gone Victory company.

The show over, we huddle into our coats and head up the street for a last libation at that small cafe...please join us....

Monday, January 16, 2017

Two from the Library

My holiday reading was pretty shuddersome, as usual. I scrounged in the interlibrary loan database and found Hugh Lamb's first anthology of Victorian reprints, and dived in.

It runs the gamut of Victorian style. M. P. Shiel's "Xelucha" and de Maupassant's "The Mother of Monsters" are both on the Decadent side, while Elizabeth Braddon't "The Mystery at Fernwood" and Mrs. Molesworth's "The Shadow in the Moonlight" are rather sentimental. There's "My Favorite Murder" by Ambrose Bierce, always in a class by himself, and the same goes for Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost."

It's a good anthology, although now a couple of the stories, namely "Madam Crowl's Ghost" and Grant Allen's "Wolverden Tower", are now familiar staples. Some are ghostly, like "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" by Guy Boothby, "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" by an unknown author.

To run them down quickly: "Xelucha," by M. P. Shiel, is a story of Decadent fascination and a femme fatale who may or may not be supernatural in nature. Charles Dickens' "The Black Veil" is a tale of madness and obsession. Braddon's "The Mystery at Fernwood" is a gothic story of madness and family secrets. Boothby's "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" is a ghost story with a tragic twist.

"The Mother of Monsters" by de Maupassant is fairly nasty and cruel, but also amazingly good. "The Murderer's Violin" by Erckmann-Chatrian has a visit by a ghost but is mostly about madness and inspiration. Richard Marsh's "The Mask" has a man stalked by an insane murderer who is a master of disguise. The anonymous "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" is a supernatural tale of ghosts and curses. Bierce's "My Favorite Murder" is a sardonic tale of murder and cruelty.

"The Shadow in the Moonlight" by Mrs. Molesworth is a nice little tale of a haunting. Mrs. Riddell's "The Last of Squire Ennismore" is a tale of hauntings and a visitation by Old Nick. "The Red Warder of the Reef" by J. A. Barry is a conte cruel of an escaped murderer getting his just punishment. "Wolverden Tower" by Grant Allen is a chilling gothic ghost story, as is Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost," which also deserves notice as a dialect tale that's actually readable. (I normally LOATHE dialect tales.) And last comes Dick Donovan's "The Cave of Blood," a tale of supernatural revenge and really quite lurid.

This is a fun collection and worth hunting down, as is any anthology edited by Lamb, in my opinion.

For something of a more recent vintage, I dived into Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club.

In Kim Newman's universe, the Diogenes Club (introduced in the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Greek Interpreter") is actually a super-secret arm of the British Intelligence services, focused on investigating the weird and outre. The stories in this book center on a 70s agent Richard Jeperson, and his assistants, the sexy Vanessa and former cop Fred Regent.

Jeperson is gaudy, flashy dresser and is obviously a nod to the BBC program Jason King, which featured Peter Wyngarde as a novelist turned sleuth who was also quite the 70s dandy. The Diogenes Club employs people with "Talents", e.g. psychic powers, or those able to cope with dealing with the supernatural or abnormal.

The first story, "The End of the Pier Show," introduces Fred Regent as an undercover cop infiltrating a skinhead gang, who gets caught up in supernatural hijinx at a seaside resort. He's called in to join Jeperson and Vanessa as they investigate a weird bit of time slippage, and it turns out to be some people trying to drag Britain back in time to the 1940s...and there's a nice speech about how yeah, it was good in some ways, but very bad in others.

"You Don't Have to Be Mad...." involves a series of bizarre deaths connected to a mental hospital/corporate retreat that turns out to be a recruiting ground for psychotic assassins. This story introduces a character named only "Mrs. Empty," a woman devoid of compassion or feeling, and her identity comes clear in a later story. "Tomorrow Town" is a rather straightforward murder mystery story in an outre setting, a futuristic utopian community that's not quite working out. Both these stories have big weirdness going on but are essentially mundane, lacking any supernatural content.

But it comes back in "Egyptian Avenue," when some hauntings in a picturesque cemetery turn out to be a warning of present danger. In "Soho Golem" a series of murders in London's red-light district seem to be connected to the activities of an anti-smut crusader. "The Serial Murder" has the sleuths moving forward into 1980 and investigating a weird set of deaths that happen simultaneously with depictions of similar deaths on a TV soap opera. Jeperson, Regent, and Vanessa all turn the tables on the killer, who is using supernatural forces and setting up an occult murder-for-hire racket.

"The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train" is a flashback to Jeperson's first real adventure in the 1950s, as he sets off with some fellow agents to investigate a supposedly haunted express train to Scotland. Not only does he battle an unearthly menace, but it also chronicles his first encounter with Vanessa, and give a humorous glimpse into early Cold War politics.

The last story (and longest) is "Swellhead", set in roughly the early days of the 21st century, as a retired Jeperson is called on to join a team investigating some odd goings-on connected to a remote island near the Faeroes. Joining them is a mysterious man who has weird mental powers, and the island hides a bizarre retro-hi-tech installation that resembles something from one of the more flamboyant James Bond movies. The story is actually quite thought-provoking and hearkens back to some of my adolescent imaginings...and ends with the promise of Jeperson returning for more in the modern world.

So this is a definite go-and-read. It's tons of fun. Sadly, it's out of print, but used copies and library copies are out there, and one can only hope that an ebook edition will come along sometime...

Sunday, January 8, 2017

January in the Phantom Recital Hall!

Bundle up! It's a cold night out, and we're going out to hear some music. Over at the university the music school is doing a series, and this month they're honoring Poe's birthday with a special performance.

We huddle into the recital hall, thankful for the free tickets a friend got us, and soon the music starts...

It's different, and also not often heard. Andre Caplet's works are sadly overlooked today, and he's remembered more for his orchestrations of Debussy than for anything he did himself. It's always fun to discover some good stuff by a lesser-known composer.

Bundling up, we go out for some coffee and conversation after the show. It's almost a relief to have the holidays behind us and to move forward in the new year....

Monday, December 19, 2016

A December Night at the Cinema!

So it's just before the Christmas break, and we're having our monthly night out. We need a night away from the usual holiday rush and bustle, and our usual restaurant saves us a nice secluded table so we don't have to hear the office Christmas party crowd. We do get some extra holiday treats, which is nice, but the holiday grind has us exhausted and having a night away from it is a blessing.

After dinner, and dithering over the check, we saunter up the street, through the cold wind, to that shabby old movie theater that welcomes us in warm comfort.

Tonight's flick is the 1936 thriller The Dark Hour.

This is a solid piece of work from a long-gone Poverty Row studio named Chesterfield, and full of old-dark-house atmosphere and a weird killer for the time. One of the unusual things is the presence of future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as a romantic interest!

The show over, we hurry up the street, through the cold wind, for a final drink at that little cafe up the way...