Sunday, May 31, 2009

Adventures & Excursions

It's been a busy couple of weeks, partly with work and partly trying to fit in all the fun stuff I've wanted to do.

I've promised music reviews, and so far I haven't done any, but let me put in a plug for a podcast, The Clockwork Cabaret. It's an aethernet version of a weekly radio show from North Carolina dedicated to steampunk music. Steampunk music? Yeah, I was suspicious at first, but the first episode I listened to had three artists that I already liked, so I figured I'd hang out and listen to more. And, well, I totally like it. I've always been intrigued by the Steampunk aesthetic, and the more I find out about it, the more intrigued I am. Of course, my vision of D&C has a similar aesthetic, although I'd want a more spooky slant to it. Screampunk, maybe? Worth looking into and thinking about.

There's been a remark made about a Dust & Corruption t-shirt, but I wouldn't have a clue about a design. Anyone have input or ideas?

So, let's see, what have I been up to lately? One night, I went to the last regular performance of the Weirdo Show at the Palace of Wonders, a great variety/vaudeville show. I won a beer-chugging contest and later got to mash a gal's face into a pile of broken glass. In other words, it was a typical night out for me. Anyway, here's a few memories...

Belladonna entrances the crowd with her bellydancing prowess.

Magician Erich Henning has some fun with bubbles.

Professor Sprocket tightens a loose screw.

Fire dancers Malibu and Surprise open their act.

Mab Just Mab goes walkin' on broken glass.

Belladonna balances.

Malibu retakes the stage for a scorchin' hot number.

And then I spent a day tooling around southern Maryland, a region that's always full of surprises and interesting byways.

An osprey lands on its nest at Piney Point.

The lighthouse at Piney Point. You can almost imagine the stormclouds building and the menacing music playing...

Empty, decrepit house on St. George's Island. An obvious setting for whatever hauntings you wish.

Moll Dyer's rock, on the grounds of the Leonardtown Historical Society. Moll Dyer was a purported witch who lived in a shack near Leonardtown in the late 1600s; according to the story, she was driven from her home on a frigid winter night by locals who wanted her gone from the town. They burned her home and she was found the next morning, frozen and dead, one hand raised as in prayer and the other firmly on the rock that now bears her name. Supposedly, though, many calamities befell the community after that, and it was widely believed that she cursed the town with her dying breath. In the 1970s, the rock was taken from the local woods and positioned on the grounds of the historical society. These days, there are tales of ghostly figures in the woods and odd sensations experienced around the rock.

My hand, in what's supposed to be the imprint of Moll Dyer's hand. I'm not sure if that's a real imprint of some sort, a fluke of nature, or the result of people over the years trying to find Moll Dyer's imprints and leaving an imprint of their own. Reportedly cameras regularly malfunction at the site, and people experience odd sensations. But nothing of the sort happened for me.

Ruined chimney, Purse State Park.

Afternoon light over the Potomac, Purse State Park.

It was a great afternoon's ramble, as you can tell. Lots of great sights and good weather. I grabbed a pine cone and some shells from the beach at Piney Point in addition to all my photos. I'll be going down that way again, maybe to investigate the supposedly haunted Point Lookout State Park, or hit St. Clement's Island, the first landing of European colonists in Maryland. Lots of old churches, plantation houses, and historic towns to nose about in. In other words, great territory for those of the Dust & Corruption persuasion. I'm sure there's places my readers like to ramble that get their imaginations going....anyone care to share?

Till next time...I'm gearing up for another sinister summer...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

FATAL KISSES by Elliott O'Donnell

Hmph. Elliott O'Donnell can be a fun read, but this book, first published in 1929, left a sour taste in my mouth.

O'Donnell (1872-1965) was an Irish-born author who published a huge number of stories purporting to be true tales of ghosts that he personally investigated. I've read a number of his stories, and while I find them preposterous and utterly unbelievable, they're still great fun from a sheer-entertainment viewpoint. Even his contemporaries believed that O'Donnell embroidered his stories with fictitious elements, if not made them up entirely.

He also wrote several novels, including FOR SATAN'S SAKE (1904), THE SORCERY CLUB (1912), and THE DEAD RIDERS (1953), all of which I'll be reviewing at some point in the future (really). This odd book, a collection of historical essays with some ghostly elements, was interesting at first, but a growing mood of sheer misogyny began to taint the books' enjoyment.

It's basically tales of seduction and murder, and every tale features an evil, destructive woman whose kiss presages some violent end. Now, to be fair, some of these harridans are well-documented murderesses....

This charming scene, for instance, is the lovely Marie de Brinvilliers poisoning her father in 1666. Married to an inconstant husband (although O'Donnell makes him out to be an innocent dupe), she became infatuated with a young officer named Ste. Croix...but Marie's father had him thrown in the Bastille. There, however, he learned the fine arts of poisoning from the noted Exili and Marie proceeded to experiment on her servants, then killing her father, then her brothers, then finally trying to kill her husband. Ste. Croix, according to one source, had no desire to marry and slipped de Brinvilliers an antidote, shortly before Ste. Croix himself died (some sources say natural causes, others say he was also poisoned). Marie was eventually arrested, tried, and executed in 1676. O'Donnell makes her out to be ruthless and cunning, which was probably pretty much the truth.

This lovely is Bianca Capello, Duchess of Tuscany and second wife of Francesco I de' Medici. Venetian by birth, she eloped with a Florentine clerk, only to find life with his poor family oppressive. She eventually caught Francesco's eye...and historical sources say he seduced her, but O'Donnell holds that she seduced him. Francesco was already married, to Joanna of Austria, but she eventually died (O'Donnell holds Bianca responsible, and she may have been). Francesco had also given Bianca's husband a job in court, to keep her near, and hubby began to dally with other women until he was killed himself. (O'Donnell holds Bianca responsible, and she may have been, but it's all speculation.) Francesco married Bianca in 1578, and while she had better relations with her family, she had no end of troubles with the other Medicis, including her brother-in-law, Cardinal Ferdinand. Now...history says that both Bianca and Francesco died on the same day; the usual story is malarial fever, but O'Donnell's story (probably fictitious) holds that she and Francesco attempted to poison Ferdinand but ended up taking the poison themselves. Interestingly, in 2006 an investigation of their bones found the presence of arsenic.

Mary Blandy, shown here, is still an object of debate. She was a wealthy young woman, but her miserly father controlled her money, and would never approve of any man who came calling. An unwilling spinster, in 1746 she fell under the spell of the charming Hon. William Cranstoun, who supplied her with "love powders" to give her father, with the idea that they would ease his opposition to her marrying Cranstoun (who was already married, and may or may not have been trying to annul his own unhappy marriage). Of course, the love potion was really arsenic, and Papa Blandy died (some sources say it was a lingering death). She was arrested after writing a letter to Cranstoun begging him to burn her letters, and was found guilty of murder and hanged in 1752. Her final words were a request to not be strung up too high, for modesty's sake.

At the time, she was made out to be a bawdy, unrepentant murderess, and O'Donnell takes a similar view. However, modern scholars (when they look back on the case at all; it's largely forgotten today) tend to view Mary as an innocent lovestruck girl who made a series of foolish mistakes and trusted the wrong man.

The inclusion of Maria Tarnowska makes sense; for many of O'Donnell's readers, she would be remembered as a cause celebe. The daughter of a prominent Irishman who had emigrated to Russia and become a count (thus establishing the rather absurd idea of the Ukrainian O'Rourkes), she had married a minor count but had a number of affairs on the side. In Venice in 1907, one of her lovers, Nicholas Naumov, killed another of her lovers, Count Pavel Kamarovsky, supposedly at her instigation. (O'Donnell holds that she was responsible for a number of deaths, manipulating men to satisfy her vanity.) She was arrested in Vienna and tried in 1910 in Venice, and became the subject of a media circus on both sides of the Atlantic. "The Russian Affair" had people stuck to their newspapers for months. Both she and Naumov were found guilty, but she was sentenced to a mere eight years in prison and was released after only five. (O'Donnell claims that she died in prison, but that is untrue; she moved to South America and died there in 1949.)

Many of the other tales are hard to pin down, and some are obviously reworked versions of folktales, ghost stories, and fairy tales. The first story of the book, "Nuzzly the Beautiful," appears to use a real character, the daughter of Muhammad Ali, the Wali of Egypt from 1805 to 1848. However, it's unknown if Hatice, or "Nazli," was truly the drop-dead-gorgeous homicidal maniac that O'Donnell makes her out to be. However, the tale is very reminiscent of Sax Rohmer's Egyptian stories and I wonder if there wasn't an influence there. "Queen Elizabeth and the O'Rourke" is perhaps the mildest of the bunch, with a probably apocryphal tale of an Irish noble who briefly was the lover of Elizabeth I (and who died mysteriously not long after). "A Fiendish Mother" has a woman who's willing to kill her own daughter out of jealousy, and whose ghost haunts Oulton House in London (although I have no idea if it's still standing). "The Dark Angels of Jeypore" is several tales of women who were behind the court intrigues in India (although in this one, the evil women are balanced by several upstanding, virtuous women characters). "The Kiss in the Crystal" tells of a curse put on a Scottish family (thanks to a cruel matriarch) by a seer; the curse was actually part of popular folklore and written about by Sir Walter Scott. "Gerlinde" is simply a German fairy tale about a man who promises his heart to a girl who turns out to be a ghost. "The Kiss on the Scaffold" appears to be merely a write-up of a tabloid tale from the early 1800s, in which a West Country wife murders her inconvenient older husband, is executed, then her spirit comes to get her lover after seven months. "A Kiss and a Curse" is a retold legend of the Valley of the Rocks in Devon. "The Marble Head" is a purportedly true story of an Italian family under a hideous curse, all thanks to a woman's greed. Finally, "The Kiss in the Theatre" is based on newspaper reports from the 1880s of a heartless woman and a jealous husband.

Really, I have to say...the writing itself isn't so bad. O'Donnell had a straightforward, almost journalistic style, which made his embroidered tales all the more shuddersome. But, when it becomes clear that every fatal kiss is going to involve some evil and destructive woman, it becomes a little hard to deal with, and toward the end, when O'Donnell launches into an anti-feminist rant, going on about how they all hate men, you just have to put it aside for a while. I know I did.

I got this through interlibrary loan; I browsed the 'net and found copies for sale for well over $100, so unless you're a diehard collector, I wouldn't recommend going after this. As I said, O'Donnell can be fun, but this is a glimpse into a darker side. I'm not sure if he was ever married, but the misogyny that radiates from this book makes me wonder. I've caught whiffs of snobbery from his works before, but this is the most out-and-out prejudiced that I've ever seen him be. I may put other O'Donnell works on the Required Reading list, but not this one.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Montague Summers' THE SUPERNATURAL OMNIBUS, Part 2

Well, I finally, finally finished Summers' monumental anthology. And a problem I noted in the first part, how Rosa Mulholland's "Not to be Taken at Bed-Time" was out of place in the ghost stories section, has now been explained. It seems there's been some sort of editorial error, although I'm not sure if it's Summers' fault or some later hack's work. Because in the second part, "Diabolism, Witchcraft, and Evil Lore," there's a story that's supposed to demonstrate "Witchcraft," but the story is Amelia Edwards' "My Brother's Ghost Story," a nice enough tale, but it has nothing to do with witchcraft. It looks like, somehow, the two stories were switched. It's actually a rather glaring error, and I'd like to know at whose feet I should be laying the blame.

Anyway, like the first part, I skipped a few stories. Here's the list of the ones I skipped:

"Singular Passage in the Life of the Late Henry Harris, Doctor in Divinity," by Richard Barham, is being saved for later, when I review some sections from THE INGOLDSBY LEGENDS.
"Carmilla," by J. Sheridan le Fanu, is also being saved for later; I want to review this landmark work on its own, and take my time with it.
"The Story of Konnor Old House" by Kate and Hesketh Prichard is being saved for when I review all their Flaxman Low stories at once.

So, for the ones I did read...

"The Spirit of Stonehenge" by Jasper John. I expected something lurid and horrific, and was a little let down. It's basically a tale of an archaeologist who falls under the spell of the "elementals" of Stonehenge, and eventually dies there. There's more hinted at than actually happening, which is fairly frustrating.

The next story is also by Jasper John, "The Seeker of Souls." This is an oddly abbreviated tale that feels as if it could have been much longer, had J.J. put some effort into it. As it is, it's a not-bad tale of a castle in Ireland under a curse, and of a couple of bloody deaths. The most interesting thing is that it starts off almost mid-story, with the narrator awaiting the hour when some evil thing will walk the halls of the castle. Sounds a lot more shuddersome than it is; it could have been better.

Next up was a tale by Roger Pater, who had a story in the first half. "The Astrologer's Legacy" is told all in flashback, with little actually happening in the "present" of the story, but it's still interesting. Part of Pater's cycle of tales in which a Catholic priest encounters supernatural doings, it has the hero at a lavish dinner party and inspecting an odd piece of silver. It turns out to have an unhealthy fascination for one of the party, and turns out to have a past associated with a secret cult of Satanists. Despite the rather distant nature of the tale, it's still halfway interesting.

Next was J. Sheridan le Fanu's "Sir Dominick's Bargain," a sardonic tale of an impoverished Irish noble who strikes a deal with the devil for limitless riches. This is a popular tale that's been anthologized often, and dramatized a few times for radio, but it's jolly good fun, with a satisfying final twist and enough gruesomeness to keep it from seeming too proper and twee. Of course, it's le Fanu, how can you go wrong?

Another story of an evil bargain, "The Bargain of Rupert Orange" by Vincent O'Sullivan, is adequate, I'd have to say. (Nothing I've read of O'Sullivan measures up to "When I was Dead," which makes me wonder.) This is another tale of an impoverished young man who makes a deal...but is it the devil? Is it really a deal? It's all so can see the thematic treatment of the deal-with-the-devil, but there's precious little brimstone to be sniffed here. In fact, from my reading of it, what goes on could be explained by mere chance, the fleeting nature of fame, and self-destructive personalities. All well and good in their place, but this ain't the place.

"The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains" by Frederick Marryat (an excerpt from his novel THE PHANTOM SHIP) does duty as the collection's example of lycanthropy. It's actually quite enjoyable. A nobleman, on the run with three children, ends up falling in love with a mysterious woman and marrying her. Of course, she frightens the children so, and finally they figure out that she's a werewolf. But there's blood to be shed before it's all over, and (surprisingly) a curse that needs to be played out before it's all over. Actually, not a bad story at all, and dripping with gothic atmosphere.

And next up is more Roger Pater! "A Porta Inferi" is a tale of possession. It pretty much drops the ball when dealing with how the possession occurred or why, BUT...its depiction of a man possessed is compelling. I don't believe in such things, but if they did happen, Pater's story would be a great diagnostic tool. (Makes me wonder if that wasn't the intent.) There's a collection of Pater's Catholic-themed stories out there; I may have to find one, because he's turning out to be an interesting voice in the field of supernatural fiction.

Richard Barham's "Jerry Jarvis' Wig" tells how a cloddish working-class man commits a horrible crime under the influence of a castoff wig. Yes, a wig. Ghost stories are inherently absurd, but this pushes the envelope, and it may have been intended that way. Still, it's overloaded with antiquated language, and is hard going. Not recommended.

Another problem was John Guinan's "The Watcher O' the Dead," which is full of Irish dialect and vague plotting. It has something to do with someone taking the place of a soul doomed to wander a cemetery until doomsday...but the story, published in the 20s, hasn't aged well.

Finally, "Toussel's Pale Bride" by W. B. Seabrook ends the collection. Taken from a book called THE MAGIC ISLAND, it's a straightforward tale of a mixed-race girl who marries an Afro-Carib planter, and who is driven mad on the night of her first anniversary by a quite gruesome experience. Meant to represent "Voodoo," there actual zilch in the way of voodoo practices, but the final gruesome scene seems more like something from a serial-killer story than horror. The story has a journalistic flair to it, and I wonder if it's not meant to depict real events, or masquerade as true events. Hard to say. I may have to hunt down that book.

So, that's it for Summers. He had odd tastes, that's for sure, but some of the stories were loads of fun, and at least it brought Roger Pater to my notice.

I've got a few books to read next, but soon, if not right up next, I'll be doing another anthology, GASLIGHT GRIMOIRE, subtitled "Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes," and co-edited by Dust & Corruption fan Charles Prepolec. Yeah, I owe him that much, at least.

Till next time, my darlings....enjoy your springtime.