Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NOT EXACTLY GHOSTS by Sir Andrew Caldecott

"Well, if they're not exactly ghosts, what are they?" I hear you say. To which I reply, "Shut up, smartass, and let me continue with the review."

This is actually a collection of two book, both short story collections, Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue. Andrew Caldecott (1884-1951), the author, was a British colonial administrator who served first in Malaya, then was briefly the governor of Hong Kong, then the governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He retired from service in 1944 and returned to England, living there until his death.

I have to point all this out because his colonial experience comes into play in the stories. About a third of the stories in this book are set in the fictional country of Kongea, which seems to function as an amalgam of Malaya and Ceylon, with dashes of Hong Kong.

His stories are ghost stories, but are rather laid-back in their horrors. They're disquieting rather than terrifying, and sometimes the horrors are mundane in nature. Many have bad people meeting poetic justice by some supernatural agency; a notable one is "Sonata in D Minor," which has an interesting plot device: a recording of a (real) classical piece performed by a duo who hated each other with an insane fury, and which ended in murder. Listening to that particular recording drives men mad....and they do horrible things....

"The Pump in Thorp's Spinney" is one of the more mundane tales, of a curious boy encountering what he thinks is a ghost when he investigates an abandoned pump on an isolated farm. It's only years later that he learns the macabre truth.

His Kongean tales are the most interesting. "Light in the Darkness", the first, has an overzealous missionary going to a sacred cave and trying to discredit local beliefs by showing that a magic glow is merely a luminous mold....only to fall victim to a weird curse. It's got a "respect-the-locals" undercurrent, but also shows a sort of more progressive Kipling element by depicting Westerners in a foreign land, basically occupying it, and running afoul of a culture and traditions that they don't understand. And through them all he seems to be asking...."Do we really belong here?"

It's interesting, seeing someone who came from the colonial, white-man's-burden, to-strive-to-seek-to-find-and-not-to-yield, Victorian/Edwardian mindset seemingly questioning why they're there. Some of his Kongea stories reflect that the "civilization" that Westerners are imposing is merely a veneer that will fall off the minute they relax...and reading between the lines, I got a sense of him feeling, well, maybe we should let it fall off and get the hell out of there. Kongea is seen as a land of weird secrets and mysteries, and Westerners interfere with them at their peril.

Not Exactly Ghosts is not quite Required Reading, and hardly a horror classic, but it does represent an interesting side-road of the macabre, should you come across it in your travels.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An August Night at the Movies!

August is humid and sweltering as we meet at our favorite restaurant, chatting and catching up on tales of work and back-to-school sales and last-moment vacations and our hopes for a break in the heat and can't autumn come early for a change this year?

Dinner is light summertime fare, and afterwards we're up the street at the old movie house, where the old lady with glasses runs the concessions and the guy with the biceps and tattoos takes our tickets...

Tonight's movie is another Monogram chiller from 1934, The Moonstone, based on the classic novel by Wilkie Collins.



Good old David Manners, who you've seen a million times in classic Universal monster movies, is good in this, and it's interesting to note that the producer and screenwriters were specialists in Westerns, tackling a Gothic mystery for the first time.

The show over, we go back out in the August night...was that a raindrop? Do you hear thunder? Let's go get something cold before the skies open up....

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: Rath Krespel/The Cremona Violin

The latest in my Hoffmann series is "Rath Krespel," sometimes known as "Councillor Krespel," and other times as "The Cremona Violin," first published in 1819.

It's an odd tale, even for Hoffmann. It tells the tale of Krespel, an excellent violin-maker, who is also eccentric...almost to the point of insanity. There's a story told in the tale of how he was building a house, and had the mason build blank stone walls until they reached the height he felt appropriate, then walked around the blank walls until he decided where a door should go, and had them cut a hole in the wall right there. Yeah, that level of eccentric.

Krespel spends his time making violins and acquiring violins made by other great makers which he takes apart to learn their secrets. However, there is a Cremona violin, from an unknown maker, that he is unable to disassemble; instead, he keeps it on the shelf.

A unnamed narrator observes how Krespel disappears for a while, then shows up with a young woman in tow. She turns out to be Antonia, who has a magnificent singing voice. Krespel shelters her and tries to prevent visitors. The narrator takes an interest, because Antonia is so gorgeous, and worms his way into Krespel's house. It goes well until he tries to get Antonia to sing, at which point he is hustled out of the house and told he is no longer welcome.

The narrator leaves town for a few years, and returns to find a funeral going on. Yup, Antonia is dead, and the narrator suspects foul play and confronts Krespel. It turns out Krespel had been married to an opera singer whom he was separated from, although they were fond of another, and who had borne him a daughter, Antonia. Antonia was blessed with her mother's voice, but also had an "organic defect" in her chest that meant that singing could bring about her death. He prevented her marrying a young composer, and kept her at home. Their greatest pleasure was the Cremona violin, which had a sound resembling Antonia's voice, so he played it often. Then one day, after a strange, surreal dream in which he sees and hears Antonia singing and embracing her former fiance, he wakes and rushes to her room, to find her dead.

That's it. No apparitions, no surreal demons, precious little supernatural content except the dream and the sense of a sort of curse hanging over poor Antonia. But this was one of Hoffmann's more popular stories, and there is something rather memorable about it.

There is a sort of air of abusiveness about Krespel's treatment of Antonia; he will not allow her self-determination. She truly desires to sing, and has an amazing talent and ability, but he fears that it will take her from him. The story of many overprotective parents, eh? I suppose that's the key to the story's enduring popularity: the old recurring story of the overbearing parent who can't let go, taken to an extreme.

It also has some interesting psychological insight. Krespel acts oddly, especially in the wake of Antonia's death, but when the narrator wonders about having him put in an asylum or similar, he is told by a friend that Krespel is no crazier than anyone else, but simply acts on the insane thoughts and impulses that people normally do not act on, and is thus more honest about his inmost thoughts than most people. That's food for thought right there: are so-called "crazy" people simple acting on thoughts and impulses that the rest of us repress?

Also, this is notable for being the basis of one of the acts of the opera, "Tales of Hoffmann," and depending on the version you saw, it could be the second or third act. For many years it was performed as the third act, as it was felt to be the most accomplished musically, but in later reconstructions of Offenbach's original plans for the opera (he died before it was complete), it's played as the second act, which actually makes more sense in the character arc that's played out for the Hoffmann character.

Here's her death scene from the opera; the music is actually quite remarkable...



More Hoffmann on the way!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

August in the Phantom Concert Hall

August has arrived, and there's a new program at that old concert hall we've been visiting...and thank heaven, they have a new air conditioning system installed!

The program is fairly standard stuff, but then they pull out a work by modern composer Charles Ives, "The Unanswered Question."



A very nice piece it is, capturing some of the wistfulness of the passing season, with flare-ups of mystery and intrigue.

We go for a late dinner after the concert, wondering what the upcoming month holds for us....

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Another Steamy Night at the Movies!

We just can't seem to catch a break; the heat just keeps going and going. At least we have air conditioning in our favorite restaurant, where over a light meal we gripe about the summer heat, trying to dress appropriately when you're sweltering, and who thought it was a good idea to have that outdoor arts festival in the hottest time of the year anyway?

But after our meal and conversation, we make our way (slowly) up the street to that old movie house we love so much...where the AC has just been done over and is working like a charm.

Tonight's movie is a 1934 classic, Jane Eyre!



This is the first sound version of the classic story, and is regarded as the finest hour for venerable Poverty Row studio Monogram, a specialist in cheaply made but exciting films in the 30s through the early 50s. Often dismissed in their day, Monogram films were later recognized and honored as cult items, and Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram to acknowledge his own debt to them. Monogram has long lain dormant as a subsidiary of Allied Artists International, although now word comes that they're about to be resurrected....

After the movie ends, we stroll up the street....good lord, did the heat get worse after the sun went down? Let's get something cold....

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

THE SUPERNATURAL TALES OF FITZ-JAMES O'BRIEN, VOL 1

In the wild days of 1988, the honorable Jessica Amanda Salmonson edited a two-volume set of the supernatural works of Fitz-James O'Brien, one of the great overlooked American authors of the weird. And she did an amazing job, digging stories that hadn't seen the light of day in nearly a century. Volume 1 is dedicated to "Macabre Tales."

"But...but I know who Fitz-James O'Brien is!" I hear you cry. Sure, he's famous for "The Diamond Lens," a deservedly famous weird tale. Or maybe you know "What Was It?", another notable tale which was also probably the first to deal with invisibility. But really...what beyond that do you know?

Fitz-James O'Brien (1826? - 1862) was born in Ireland to a well-off family, but had a taste for high living that proved ruinous to his inheritance. Little is known of his life before he emigrated to American shores, but it is believed he was well-educated and fairly well-traveled. He came to New York in 1852 nearly broke, and set out to be a writer. He had some success, and was a noted dandy and man-about-town. He was also gay, which many don't talk about, and was a fixture in New York's gay bohemian circles, along with Walt Whitman. He was a scrapper, getting into a number of fights, and was a noted wit. He joined the Union army in the Civil War, was wounded, and died of tetanus in Cumberland, MD, on April 6th, 1862, and is buried in New York.

Now...for the stories!

"The Lost Room" is a great, nightmarish tale of a man who finds his boardinghouse quarters bizarrely altered; Salmonson wonders if it wasn't founded on O'Brien's experiences of moving here and there when he was broke and desperate. "The Child That Loved a Grave" is a short-short about a morbid child that reminds me of Lovecraft in his early poetic attempts.

"The Diamond Lens" is an inarguable classic, and becomes even more interesting in the context of O'Brien's life and his yearning for unattainable perfection. "The Pot of Tulips" is very nicely written, but lacks some of the unique bizzarerie of some of the other tales, in that it's a rather standard ghost story. "The Bohemian" tells a tale of treasure-hunting and mesmerism, still little understood at the time.

"Seeing the World" is a parable of the downsides of the artistic temperament which sees the world a bit TOO clearly. "What Was It?" is a landmark tale of a house haunted by a very tangible, yet invisible presence. "The Wondersmith" is probably the longest story in the collection, a tale in the style of E. T. A. Hoffmann, about a toymaker who plots with a witch to bring his toy soldiers to life with the aid of evil spirits and wreak havoc on New Year's morning. It's got some problematic racial views; the villain is a Gypsy who is motivated by a hatred of Caucasians, blaming whites for the death of his son, who perished of alcoholism.

"A Dead Secret" is reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce, in which a desperately poor young man trades identities with a wealthy man who dies in his presence, only to be pursued by a bizarre conspiracy that will not let him rest. "A Legend of Barlagh Cave" is a sort of faux folktale involving violence and fate in a cave in Ireland. The final tale, "Jubal the Ringer," is a nicely gruesome tale in which a hunchbacked bell-ringer (Victor Hugo, anyone?) takes revenge on a beautiful, heartless woman who spurned him.

This collection is a good read. O'Brien could be a bit of a recycler, borrowing elements from Hoffmann and Hugo, but even then he'll put interesting twists on the material. But when he's original, he's ORIGINAL. And in the best of his tales you get a glimpse of what it was like to be a Bohemian in mid-1800s New York, living in boardinghouses and hanging out in raffish bars and restaurants.

Salmonson's collection is a bit hard to find these days, but it can be bought for fairly reasonable prices. A new collection of 14 tales, published by the University of Delaware Press, is available, with some never-before-published tales, but it costs $95 in hardcover and $65 for the Kindle edition. No thank you. Search out Salmonson's instead. Her commentary on the stories, and her biographical sketch of O'Brien, are excellent.

I'll be reviewing the second volume in the near future, so stay tuned.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Musical Interlude for July

We're at a friend's house by the water, enjoying a potluck cookout, drinks, and a ton of illegal fireworks that are being skillfully handled by some knowledgeable folk. It's the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and it's a great time to relax and get your feet wet.

And guess what! If you want an impromptu concert as the sun sets, they have a piano in the living room and someone's going to play for us...



This is a great piece of musical illustration (it's meant to be a musical evocation of fireworks), from one of my favorite composers. Also, not frequently heard, and it deserves to be.

I hope my American readers had a good Independence Day; I had a celebration with family and then one with friends, each with impressive fireworks.

And the fireworks we have tonight are glorious, aren't they? And look! You can see people on the other side of the bay setting off fireworks too....