Sunday, June 21, 2009


A title like that is just so luscious. And it delivers.

GASLIGHT GRIMOIRE, edited by J. R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec, is a very fun anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, largely with a supernatural or fantastic bent, and overall (barring a couple of false notes) well-written. While most of them refer at some point to the Doyle canon, for the most part they appear to inhabit their own little universes, each one a different take on a fantastic adventure of Holmes. And, with one exception, they avoid the radical revisionism of Holmes that I find annoying and distasteful (yes, Laurie King, I'm looking at you).

There are two stories by big-name authors, Barbara Hambly and Kim Newman, and then there are names I recognize from my perambulations here and there in the genre world, like Chico Kidd (whose PRINTERS DEVIL I read long ago and enjoyed), Barbara Roden of the Ash-Tree Press, and Holmes expert David Stuart Davies, who contributed a forward. But that's not to say this is amateur-hour stuff; there's not a single story in here that struck me as first-timer fanfic. Standards are high here, and I appreciated that.

So, to give a rundown...

"The Lost Boy" by Barbara Hambly, which opens the collection, is a beguiling tale that crosses Holmes with J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, only with real menace. It's also unusual for being told from the point of view of Watson's wife (or one of them, I lose track). Despite the potential for cloying whimsy (and if there's one thing I can't stand, it's cloying whimsy), Hambly gives it a good measure of darkness and real emotion.

The next story, "His Last Arrow" by Christopher Sequeira, is the one I liked the least in the collection. It was certainly well-written enough, and certainly had imagination to spare, but his approach to Holmes and Watson was one that I simply did not like. I'm not saying it's a bad story...far from it....but I just found this story's version of the Holmes canon to be not to my taste.

Barbara Roden's "The Things That Shall Come Upon Them," is roaring good fun for someone of my literary tastes. Holmes and Watson team up with occult investigator Flaxman Low (a creation of Kate & Hesketh Prichard) and investigate the former home of Julian Karswell (the villain of M. R. James' classic short story "Casting the Runes"). Roden knows her subject and has fun with it, and the story is a great ride.

"The Finishing Stroke" by M. J. Elliott is a fun bit of mystery/horror as Holmes goes on the track of paintings that appear to come to life, with the expected deadly results. "Sherlock Holmes in the Lost World" isn't supernatural, but a steampunk fantasia in which Holmes meets up with another Doyle creation, Prof. Challenger, in the infamous Lost World in South America.

Chico Kidd and Rick Kennett had fun with "The Grantchester Grimoire," which features another crossover, this time with Holmes teaming up with William Hope Hodgson's occult detective Thomas Carnacki. Kidd & Kennett know their Carnacki and keep him true to Hodgson while keeping Holmes credible. It's another fun romp.

"The Steamship Friesland," by Peter Calamai, didn't grab me as much as some of the others. It's a valiant attempt at building a supernatural tale around one of Holmes' unsolved cases (a ship that passes into a fogbank only to disappear; it's mentioned in one of the stories), but Holmes suddenly developing mediumistic abilities didn't sit well with me. (OK, OK, so I'm a stickler...) J. R. Campbell's "The Entwined" feels oddly incomplete, but tantalizingly so, with members of a secret brotherhood being killed off by an otherworldly being. It's not a bad story at all, but after reading it there was a sense of something just outside my grasp that left me wanting more information.

"Merridew of the Abominable Memory," by Chris Roberson, sticks out a little for having no fantastic content. However, it is memorably gruesome, with a plausible plot, and actually a bit of an emotional whallop at the end.

Bob Madison's "Red Sunset" gives us an elderly Holmes residing in Los Angeles and summoned by a policeman to investigate a strange crime. Not bad in and of itself, but it's basically set up as a final confrontation between Holmes and an old enemy, and getting some background on it would have made it better.

The final story, "The Red Planet League" by Kim Newman, is the best. Holmes doesn't even appear in it. Instead, it's narrated by Col. Sebastian Moran (and sounding rather Flashmanesque), playing a sort of anti-Watson to Prof. Moriarty's anti-Holmes. It's a delicious tale of Moriarty being insulted by an arrogant young upstart astronomer, and the resulting revenge involving...well, I won't say, but you can take a few cues from the title. The plot borrows cues from at least two H. G. Wells works, and even a bit from Heinlein. Again, this is steampunk rather than supernatural, but it's great fun and a wonderful capper to the book.

So was it worth it? Oh yeah, even with the missteps it's still a fun read and worth getting for fans of Holmes and horror fiction. Look for it. And I hear rumors of a sequel collection in the works....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mysterious, Decadent, Spooky or Hidden DC, Part One

An idea I had a while ago was a series of photo essays with a common theme...the strange, mysterious, spooky, decadent, bizarre, hidden parts of DC and the surrounding area. So, I decided to get started in Dumbarton Oaks.

Dumbarton Oaks, for the uninitiated, is a large estate in DC's Georgetown neighborhood. It was first established in 1702 as "Rock of Dumbarton" but was in rundown condition when purchased by Mildred and Robert Bliss in 1920. Robert was a diplomat; Mildred was an heiress to the Fletcher's Castoria fortune. They hired landscape architect Beatrix Farrand (niece of Edith Wharton) to design the stunning gardens, and used the house for their collection of Byzantine art. In 1940, they ended up donating the house and most of the grounds to Harvard, which now maintains the museum and library and research center, and another portion of the grounds to the US Park Service.

So naturally, there's lots of history here. In 1944, it was the host to the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, that laid the groundwork of the United Nations. And in 1938, Robert Bliss commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write a piece for the couple's 30th anniversary; the resulting work, Stravinsky's Concerto in E-flat, is widely known as the "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto."

So with all that, and all the guests that one can imagine visiting in its heyday, it's easy to imagine all sorts of intrigue, both personal and political. It's the sort of place that SHOULD be haunted, but off the cuff I have no idea if there are any ghost stories associated with the place. Still, for those in the District, it's a great place to go visit and imagine as the setting for some sort of tale, either one of those manor-house-style mysteries, or an M. R. Jamesian ghost story.

So, without further ado...

The main house, built in 1800. Annoyingly, admission to the gardens does not get you into the house and museum. Still, the gardens will take up a few hours anyway...

Inside the house's orangery, with the immense creeping fig that crawls over everything and dates from the 1860s. You don't want to stand still too long, as it may grab you.

The Star Garden, which was basically intended to be an outdoor dining room for the family. Lose the table and chairs and you can almost imagine black magic ceremonies going on here. In the paving there's a Chaucer quote: "Oh thou maker of the whele that bereth the sterres and tornest the hevene with a ravisshing sweigh."

There's a ton of astronomical/astrological symbolism embedded in the paving...

And in the garden's fountain...

The Urn Terrace, a few steps down, has this lovely monstrosity that looks like it was designed by Edward Gorey.

Down a flight of steps from the Urn Terrace is the jaw-dropping Rose Garden. When I was snapping photos, there was so much in bloom...

At one end, there's this bench with the Bliss family motto, Quod Severis Metes, meaning You Shall Reap What You Sow.

This bizarre fountain cools the Arbor Terrace area.

Dubbed the "Lover's Lane Pool," this is actually the estate's Garden of Histrion...that is, a private outdoor theatre. How decadent can you get? Pretty decadent...

This area is called "Mélisande's Allée" after the Debussy opera, based on the Maeterlinck play.

And this arbor walk seems like a great place for a whispered conversation.

An area known as "The Ellipse" has this lovely fountain, imported from Provence.

The strangest garden was the Pebble Court, a dry garden featuring what is basically a mosaic on a grand scale.

It also has a lovely fountain:

...and a wall of these carved wavelets...

My favorite part is this gorgeous fountain, located in a quiet corner of the garden, near the swimming pool.

But there's tons of random things to stumble on as you wander around...

And all sorts of intriguing paths...

And if you're not inclined toward mystery or ghosts or anything like that...there's corners of the garden, and nearby Dumbarton Oaks Park, that are like something out of a fairy tale...

Dumbarton Oaks, and Dumbarton Park, are gorgeous places to wander in, and definitely off the beaten DC tourist track. If you're in town this summer, set aside an afternoon to go visit. Dumbarton Oaks charges $8 admission and is open 2 pm to 6 pm from 3/15 to 10/31; other times of the year it's open 2-5 and admission is free. They're closed Mondays, federal holidays, and in bad weather. Dumbarton Park is open dawn to dusk, with no admission. They're great places to wander and let your imagination go wild. And since they're in the middle of Georgetown, it's easy to find a place for a drink or a snack afterwards.

There'll be more on the way in future stay tuned.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

WHITE CORRIDOR by Christopher Fowler

The fifth novel in Fowler's Bryant & May series is still part of the D&C Required Reading list...but only because it's part of the series. On its own, it's a decent mystery novel, but lacking in the gothic grotesquerie that makes the previous books so much fun.

WHITE CORRIDOR begins with the employees of the Peculiar Crimes Unit on a forced vacation while their computer systems are updated. Bryant and May head off to Devon for a spiritualists' convention. However, a freak blizzard arises that traps them in a string of traffic on a snowbound road.

Now we have two mysteries arise. In London, a coroner is found dead in an autopsy room that's locked from the inside. And in Devon, Madeline, a fellow motorist trapped by the snow turns out to be a woman who fled England to escape an abusive husband, only to get entangled with a shady man who's also after her now that she's returned.

And also, a higher-up in the Home Office quickly arranges a visit from a cranky minor royal, in hopes of having the unit shut down once and for all.

So the pressure is on to solve the mystery of the dead coroner quickly. Bryant & May consult with their colleagues via cell phone, while assisting the panicked Madeline.

So really, not a bad set-up at all, but Fowler's obsessions with London's crumbling landscape and bizarre history, one of the fun parts of the series that set it apart, are largely absent from this book. There's a lot of great characterization, though, which keeps things moving. In fact, most of what gothicism there is in WHITE CORRIDOR is in the characters and their personalities, rather than their surroundings.

It's a good book, but it's just not up to the standards of the rest. I was led to suspect it's basically a place-holder between TEN SECOND STAIRCASE and the next book, THE VICTORIA VANISHES. When I get around to reading TVV, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New Logo!

D&C is into its second year, so I felt it was time for a real banner up there, rather than just text. In addition to expanding my horizons as a writer, I've also been expanding my horizons as a photographer (obviously!), so I've got a lot of photos stockpiled on my hard drive. Experimenting with Picasa, I saw I could put some text in, and thought....hey! I can do a logo for the blog! So I found a photo I took of the cemetery at the Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, PA, this past Christmas, and dragged up one of the jillion fonts I've downloaded off the aethernet, and here's the end result.

I may fine-tune this or change it as time passes, and maybe add some more photos here and there in permanent places (I have one that would be great for just above the links), so stay tuned.

And if you like it, hate it, or have suggestions, please chime in!