Thursday, July 30, 2009

On a Raven's Wing

One of several anthologies that's out this year in honor of the Poe bicentennial, this is from the Mystery Writers of America, and is edited by Stuart Kaminsky. Obviously, the focus is on mystery, and sometimes it's quite imaginative.

Each story wraps itself around Poe in some way or another...either about Poe in some way, or a variation on one of his stories, or simply borrowing heavily from Poe's content and putting an original spin on it.

So for the usual rundown...

"Israfel" by Doug Allyn gives us a Poe-themed rock group, with a lead guitarist who's quickly burning out, and a narrator who's not about to let things go down the tubes. It has a nifty ending that packs a punch.

Michael A. Black's "The Golden Bug" is an interesting cross-pollination of Poe's "The Gold Bug" with Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, set on a Pacific island during WWII. Maybe not the greatest story, but a well-done concept.

Jon L. Breen's "William Allan Wilson" is interesting; a tale of a Poe bicentennial collection, with a cipher embedded in a story that's a clue to a real murder (that is, real in the context of the story). Rather beguiling, but in the end rather unmemorable.

"The Tell-Tale Purr" by Mary Higgins Clark is more humor than anything else, a tale of an attempted murder that not only goes wrong, but ends up turning situations around in the most bizarre way. I have to say, it functions better as a short story than some other shorts that MHC has written; she's really improved her grasp of the form.

"Nevermore" by Thomas H. Cook gives us a tale of family secrets unburied, as a dying man seeks to communicate a guilty secret to his estranged adult son, with struggles between loyalty and anger, faith and reason, running throughout.

"Emily's Time" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, is at first unsatisfying, but after a second read, it's a few steps short of being brilliant. It's great from a literary standpoint, as well as a mystery standpoint, and (I hate to say it) almost too good for this collection, where the emphasis is on solid genre work. A variation on Poe's "The Black Cat," it deals with loneliness and guilt, but with wonderfully rendered emotions and settings.

Brendan DuBois's "The Cask of Castle Island" isn't bad, basically a retelling of "The Cask of Amontillado" in modern-day Boston, although it could be faulted for being a bit too faithful to its source. "Bells" by James W. Hall expounds on the poem with a tale of a man plotting against his wife with the titular objects, only to have his plan unravel. Not bad, not great.

"In My Ancestor's Image" is part of Jeremiah Healey's Rory Calhoun series. Calhoun, a private eye, is hired to locate a stolen Edgar award by a putative descendant of Poe. Not bad, if a bit self-referential about the Mystery Writers of America.

"The Poe Collector" by the late Edward D. Hoch is great fun, a delicious tale of con and detection. "A Nomad of the Night" by Rupert Holmes (as in Broadway's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and "Curtains," yes, that Rupert Holmes) effectively evokes the atmosphere of low-budget filmmaking in the 60s. And I love that title.

My favorite story of the bunch was editor Stuart Kaminsky's contribution, "Rattle, Rattle, Rattle," a full-blown gothic horror tale that expands on Poe's "Berenice." Very good fun.

Paul Levine's "Development Hell" is something I've seen before, a comedy about Hollywood and deals with the devil. Didn't thrill me much. Peter Lovesey's "The Deadliest Tale of All" isn't much of a mystery, but a decent dissection of Poe's character and a posthumous kick in the teeth to Rufus Griswold.

John Lutz's "Poe, Poe, Poe" was my least favorite; it actually read like a transcribed one-act play by a first-time playwright. It's overpopulated with characters who all have overly cute variations on names of Poe characters, all gathered in a tavern. Not worth it.

"The Tell-Tale Pacemaker" by P. J. Parrish, is another modernized retelling, in this case "The Tell-Tale Heart" transported to a modern retirement community.

"Seeing the Moon" by S. J. Rozan is my second-favorite of the book. It's got appealing and well-etched characters (Asian-American art experts) and a great tale of con and counter-con, as victims of an art scam seek to recoup their losses with a return scam, involving a Poe artifact. It makes me want to seek out more of Rozan's work.

Daniel Stashower's "Challenger" was a nostalgic variation on "Annabel Lee," only with ugly real-world twists. Another bit of nostalgia, "Poe, Jo, and I" by Don Winslow, is well-written enough but simply not a mystery. It's simply a narrator's tribute to a teacher Who Really Cared and Connected With Him and all that.

Finally, Angela Zeman's "Rue Morgue Noir" is an amusing fantasia on what it would be like for Poe if he were trying to make it as a writer today. It's not pretty.

Overall, even though some stories weren't anything great, the stories in this collection are mostly solid genre work, and worth a look. It's a good sampling of some of the talent in the mystery world today. Check it out if you like a good mystery short story.

More coming up...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wrapping up the Fringe Festival

Well, I managed to catch three more shows at the Fringe Fest. I wanted to get more but I was distracted by other events (including a farewell party for my friends Heidi and Marie, who have since moved to Brooklyn, and the Palace of Wonders Third Anniversary show), as well as budgetary restraints, so I did what I could.

I was very, very impressed by ANNABEL LEE, by Old Lore Theater. I praised them to the rafters last year for THE FIDDLER GHOST, and this year was no different. Naturally, it's the Poe poem, interpreted through Old Lore's signature mix of dance, spoken word, and song, and they rise above the restraints of the poem (I loved a girl, she died, I'm sad) by using it as a springboard to explore issues of separation, loss, and grief. Lots of inventive interpretation through movement (such as human bodies becoming waves on the sea). Loads of fun, very moving and impressive.

And for nostalgia's sake, here's some highlights from last year's THE FIDDLER GHOST:

And then I saw a rerun of Molotov Theatre Group's recent play CLOSET LAND, which is even better the second time around. They'd actually ratcheted up the grue and made it even more intense and nasty, but never losing the play's core ideas about totalitarian governments, torture, and public passivity.

Finally, I managed to catch a non-D&C oriented play, VINCENT, staged by Theatre Du Jour at the DC Arts Center. A one-man play written by Leonard Nimoy (!), it was grandly performed by B. Stanley as Theo Van Gogh, mourning his brother's death and casting insight on Vincent Van Gogh's character. At first it seemed a bit, well, normal for a group like TDJ to be doing, but as they explain, it combines DCAC's commitment to both visual and performing arts. Plus, it was just a damn good play.

So that was it for the Fringe Festival this year. I always have a good time with it but it's getting more expensive, alas. Maybe next year I need to save up for one of the see-anything-for-free passes.

More coming up soon...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Catching up: Monster Bash, Fringe Festival, and music

OK, it's been too long. But I had a wild few weeks, what with the Monster Bash convention in the Pittsburgh 'burbs, and then the Independence Day holiday, and my job going wild in between. And then the start of the Capital Fringe Festival.

Monster Bash was, as always, a good time, hanging with all my horror-fan friends and making a few new ones along the way...including my first face-to-face conversation with Max Chaney of The Drunken Severed Head (link to the right); actually, he and I could be related. Kinda frightening, that. Spent way too much money on DVDs and some souvenirs (including yet another Poe t-shirt). I covered MB at length this time last year, so I won't go into it too much here, except that I never regret going.

I spent Independence Day with my parents, and got to behold my hometown fireworks for the first time. They only started doing this a few years ago and our little town (Clear Spring, MD, pop. 461 as of the last census) probably quadrupled its population that night...if not more. And we also got an impromptu tour of a new hotel that opened by the highway there, actually a charming place.

Work was wild....and we also had that horrible Metro accident here in DC. It was scary as hell, but at the very least it's calling attention to the sad state of repair that DC's Metro system is in, especially the much-used Red Line. A downside for me is that I use the Red Line when I go downtown, and slowdowns...and shutdowns...are making trips difficult.

Which is why I took a MetroBus downtown when I hit the Fringe Festival this past Saturday. I saw two plays that looked like fun.

FREAKSHOW, from local company Pinky Swear, is quite good. Written by Caron Kreitzer, it's a chronicle of the lives and loves of the inhabitants of a traveling freak show, circa 1900, narrated by the saucy Human Torso (Allyson Harkey, in a very strong and assured performance). It's a good play, with the seedy atmosphere well communicated, but never becoming overwhelming. And there's interesting feminist subtext that I honestly didn't expect. And the ringmaster, Mr. Flip, is played by the jaw-droppingly handsome Andrew Mitakides, who filled out his historic garb well. (Maybe I should start another blog, maybe dedicated to Steampunk beefcake?)

And then...I was looking forward to THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER: THE MUSICAL. I was honestly expecting a parody, but it's actually a serious attempt at a musicalization of the Poe story. Which was the problem. In order to make it a workable musical, they transformed Roderick Usher; no more was he Poe's doomed neurasthenic, but now was a jolly, freewheeling bohemian. Madeline, almost a nonentity in the story, is now made into a mad scientist obsessed with rats. And they also cross-bred the story with the poem "Annabel Lee," giving Usher a fiancee. The second act brings on the doom and dissipation, but it all rings hollow. I can't fault the actors, who did their best, but the material was fatally flawed, with a bit too much thrown in toward the end. I have to give it credit, though, in that the music is often quite nice, especially a song based on Robert Burns' "O My Luve's Like a Red Red Rose," and the singing was good, esp. Carolyn Myers as Annabel Lee. (There's some samples at the show's website.)

So I'm at one for two so far. We'll see what else I get into.

In the meantime, because there's always the meantime...

I've long thought of finding a good theme tune for this blog, and I think I've come close with this delightful tune by Fritz Kreisler, his "Miniature Viennese March."

And another group I'm in love with, Vagabond Opera, has this delightful video:

And then random bouncing around on YouTube resulted in this fun video about the organ music in Disney's "Haunted Mansion" ride:

So, that's all for right now. I'll try to catch more at the Fringe Festival, and I'll be filling y'all in if I do.